I’m coming to you this week directly from the trenches of my hotel room in Albuquerque, New Mexico, braving the treacherous terrain of sketchy WiFi and the perennially-uncooperative Magic Online to bring you the hottest reporting on the metagame leading up to this weekend’s Pro Tour. I’m here to play the tournament, of course, so you won’t get much editorial content in this column, but rather my observations on the events leading up to this weekend. Without further ado, here’s my viewer’s guide to Pro Tour Ixalan in surprisingly freezing Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Spoiler alert: Beatdown is good. Very good. Perhaps too good. Christian Calcano-style aggressive decks, where you try to play a host of one and two-drops, suit them up with powerful auras, and protect them in combat with efficient tricks, are the bread and butter of this format. Sometimes they’re U/G Merfolk, sometimes they’re some kind of U/B or R/B Pirate-centric mess, sometimes they’re a Dinosaurs deck, but they’re all tied together by their desire to punish anyone who doesn’t slam a 2-drop on curve.
The format is defined by these aggressive decks, the more passive Vampires decks, and the fact that every other pack has no playables in it. Many of the most powerful cards in the format are strictly archetypal, and so while you might be in R/G Dinosaurs, the River Herald’s Boon that’s the only green card in the pack you just got passed isn’t looking so hot. This leads to a massive increase in not only mediocre decks, but fully train-wrecked drafts where only a few seats actually managed to position themselves in the right archetype.
Games are fast. Lightning fast. When you miss a 2-drop on the draw, you’re likely in a boatload of trouble, put under pressure and swiftly dispatched by the likes of Skulduggery doing a Plague Wind impression. I hope the coverage team has a lot of content planned for the downtime in between rounds of Limited, because I don’t see all that many matches going to time. Certainly not at the winning tables.
The framework I laid out a few weeks ago in my Worlds preview article still stands strong, but with some notable changes, the first of which being the addition of a major new archetype. Standard as of this week on Magic Online can, for the most part, be broken down into five strategies: Energy-based midrange decks, Hazoret-based aggro decks, Search for Azcanta control decks, God-Pharaoh’s Gift decks, and Anointed Procession tokens decks. Within each of these categories, there are a few different things going on.
Let’s start with what is by and large the biggest of these groups, dominating the metagame on Magic Online for the most part, Energy decks. You’ve all seen Sultai and Temur decks, some with a light splash, but the big new addition to the scrum is the hard 4-colour energy deck that’s been going around. Hot off the presses is this new Logan Nettles build:
4-colour Energy by Jaberwocki
Incase this list isn’t clear enough, there’s a bit of an arms race going on right now in the midrange world. Longtusk Cub? That doesn’t draw cards, let’s play Glint-Sleeve Siphoner. Bristling Hydra? How about we beat their Hydra by playing Gonti and drawing a card from their deck. Glorybringer? We got Vraska! This version of the deck chooses to splash the two most critical red cards from the Temur lists — Harnessed Lightning, the best removal spell in the format, and Whirler Virtuoso. Without these the Sultai Energy midrange decks simply can’t beat the Hazoret decks going around. In their current Cub and Hydra-free state, these decks are significantly less potent against aggressive decks, but have way more tools to combat more diverse matchups. We’ll have to wait and see what Energy variants are king at the Pro Tour.
Speaking of which, Hazoret the Fervent is no longer simply the darling of Ramunap Ruins red decks. Ever since Pedro Carvalho, better known as Megafone on Magic Online, starting messing around with a black Hazoret deck, various black aggressive decks have become just as, if not more, popular than mono-red online. There are Mardu and B/R Vehicles decks with Hazoret, there are hybrid B/R decks, and there are mono-black decks, some splashing for Hazoret. Let’s take a look at a fairly stock Megafone-style deck from yesterday:
BR Hazoret by wewter
This particular Hazoret deck was born out of the absence of powerful one-drops in the mono-red deck since the departure of Falkenrath Gorger and Village Messenger. Black has access to a gluttonous number of one-drops that attack for two, and can choose to not even play Vicious Conquistador over the more powerful Bomat Courier. The unique strength of this deck, aside from its access to the efficient Fatal Push, is its odd synergy between Bontu’s Last Reckoning and both Yahenni and Hazoret. This is an amazing trump to any midrange strategy that lets you attack through for massive amounts of damage. Red can’t do that, but is also much better at dealing with Whirler Virtuoso than B/R. Once again, we’ll have to see which decks turns out to be better in the PT metagame, but expect to see plenty of both on camera all weekend.
Most grinders would probably consider the Hazoret and Energy strategies to be at the top tier of the format, but the remaining three archetypes cannot be overlooked. They’re powerful and can easily take advantage of the top decks becoming inbred to beat each other this late into the format. U/B control from Worlds has made its return as of late on Magic Online, joining U/W Approach decks in an effort to go one level above the midrange arms race. New variations of U/B God Pharaoh’s Gift decks have joined the Esper lists, and have a solid secondary midrange plan alongside their combo finish. These decks could easily prey on an absence of Abrades in the 4-colour Energy decks to take their place in the metagame. Lastly we have the still-unanswered question of if Tokens decks are actually good, or if they just refuse to go away. They’re certainly able to go very wide in the face of unprepared opponents, but if the mono-red decks continue to maindeck a pile of Rampaging Ferocidon to beat up on Whirler Virtuosos and Bristling Hydras, then they’re likely to struggle this weekend.
Pro Tour Team Series Power Ranking
I’ve always wanted to do one of these, so here goes nothing. I’ll note in advance that I have a few biases that might affect this ranking: I think the Japanese pros are absurdly good, and I don’t care for cheaters. I’ll go further into depth on these points another time. Preferably when I’m not recovering from a week of foolishly reading comments on my last article.
Honourable Mentions: Final Last Samurai has by far the best name on this iteration of the Team Series, but they’re a group of players prone to frankly obscene deckbuilding. I played half this team in Nashville, and they were all on New Perspectives combo. Massdrop East is a solid team that barely misses the cut for me – the West squad has more Canadians and is therefore better. Metagame Gurus Sun could prove to be very solid, with a lot of excellent creative players on the team.
10 – Connected Company – Christian Calcano, Jeremy Dezani, Javier Dominguez, Raphael Levy, Andrea Mengucci, Tomoharu Saito
A solid collection of some of the hardest-working people in the game. I expect them to do quite well.
9 – Massdrop West – Pascal Maynard, Shaun McLaren, Rob Pisano, Eric Severson, Jon Stern, Ben Weitz
The addition of Pro Tour Born of the Gods Champion Shaun McLaren to the Massdrop roster is very exciting. He’s definitely one of the most creative deckbuilders out there, but has historically preferred to work without a team. Between his ingenuity and the hard work and organization of Jon Stern, this team has a lot of fundamental advantages.
8 – MTG Mint Card – Kelvin Chew, Jason Chung, Huang Hao-Shan, Lee Shi Tian, Eduardo Sajgalik, Yam Wing Chun
These players tend to be overlooked by the American scene, but they’ve not-so-quietly accumulated a pile of finishes over the past few years. Any team with Lee Shi Tian is one to be feared. That guy is locked to be in the top 8 of Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan. Modern, baby!
7 – Revelation – Martin Dang, Paul Dean, Thomas Hendriks, Christoffer Larsen, Joel Larsson, and Petr Sochůrek
If this Genesis b-team’s gameplay is one-tenth as tight as their haircuts, they’re locked to do well.
6 – Face to Face Games – Corey Burkhart, Eric Froehlich, Rich Hoaen, Gabriel Nassif, Ben Rubin, David Williams
These are all exceptional players, but there are a few questions that stop them from being higher up in my rankings. They’re untested as a team, and with a bunch of big and at-times controversial personalities working together, there’s always room for strife. This team’s success will also likely scale with some of its members’ dedication to the game over the season, which can wax and wane.
5 – Ultimate Guard – Andrew Cuneo, Reid Duke, Jon Finkel, William Jensen, Paul Rietzl, Owen Turtenwald
While Peach Garden Oath would top this list no matter what, the rest of the team just isn’t nearly as dedicated to Magic as the likes of Owen Turtenwald, and will have to rely on them to succeed this year. That said, if anyone can carry, it’s the #1 trio in Magic.
4 – Ultra Pro – Samuel Black, Ivan Floch, Alexander Hayne, Matthew Nass, Samuel Pardee, Steve Rubin
Six members of the Channel Fireball/Face to Face Games super-team form this Ultra Pro squad. These guys are constantly making the Sunday rounds of every few Pro Tours, and while their careers aren’t as flashy as some Hall of Famers’ or Peach Garden Oath, they’re definitely as hungry as ever.
3 – Genesis – Corey Baumeister, Lukas Blohon, Brian Braun-Duin, Seth Manfield, Martin Müller, Brad Nelson
Last year’s runner-ups return with the addition of Brian Braun-Duin and Corey Baumeister. This squad has been absolutely dominating Standard Grand Prix in the past few months, and while Brad Nelson and co didn’t quite break the format for Worlds, I expect them to nail it for PT Ixalan.
2 – Channel Fireball – Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Luis Scott Vargas, Martin Juza, Michael Sigrist, Ben Stark, Josh Utter-Leyton
As if this team wasn’t strong enough, Luis Scott Vargas returns from his year on the sidelines doing commentary to try to keep his streak of Pro Tour top 8s alive. This team is a collection of the best minds in the game, and with no weak points on the roster, they’re a favourite to take down the competition. They have one major strike against them, however. They’re not Japanese.
1 – Musashi – Yuuki Ichikawa, Teruya Kakumae, Yuuya Watanabe, Kentaro Yamamoto, Shota Yasooka, Ken Yukuhiro
This isn’t even fair. The fact that these six are allowed to be on a roster together undermines the competitive integrity of the Team Series competition. Normally I’d say that the fact that half these players seem to draft by picking cards at random would undermine their chances, but based on results, it’s clear that we just don’t understand their genius.