Pro Tour Dark Ascension concluded yesterday (from your temporally advantaged perspective) and without question Honolulu gave birth to a variety of new technology. Every deck save one had a key card from Dark Ascension (with the one holdout being the token "Stock Delver" list playing the bad guy role).
Preparing for this event was a special challenge because of how soon after the set's release it was held. Having formats for the Pro Tour before they get on Magic Online is nothing unusual but a mixed-format event less than a week after release weekend meant that preparation was going to be taking place in real time. Finding eight people to draft was going to be a task that needed to be done. There are so many angles to explore in Dark Ascension; how to spend the time preparing was going to be a major question. What would everyone else do? What level would they be on?
I knew I wanted to come to Hawaii over a week early and rent a beach house with a good crew. After a runaway roster at Worlds that led to one of the biggest and clumsiest mailing lists of all time a few of us put together a more tightly knit crew. This time around we abandoned the mailing list format in favor of a team forum. This greatly improved preparation allowing us to better organize our thoughts perspectives and ideas. Additionally the group was selected with balance in mind with everyone bringing something to the table.
Jon Finkel Sam Black and Rich Hoaen are three of the absolute best drafters in the world and we had decided to make sure that good Limited preparation was emphasized throughout. Getting to do so many drafts with these three titans of the game was absolutely huge. Additionally they have very different draft styles so we got a great range of perspectives.
For instance Finkel is extremely blue-biased and leans towards tight card choices efficiency optimal picks and good fundamentals. Black on the other hand is a huge "every card has a purpose" guy. He experiments with everything and gains a lot of corner-case wisdom; he has insight on literally every single conceivable archetype. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the applications of every card in Dark Ascension despite not having drafted with all of them yet. Amazingly before we had even gotten into the house Sam had already drafted a ton (thanks in great part to the amazing Madison drafts). With Sam's understanding of all of the synergies and with Jon's understanding of tight Limited play we had an incredible opportunity to improve at a rapid rate.
Hoaen provided an amazing middle ground leaning more Jon than Sam in draft but his ability to instantly incorporate changes to the complex system of Limited evaluations facilitated the two extremes meeting. Factor in Hall of Famer Jelger Wiegersma former Pro Tour Champion Paul Rietzl and Limited Grand Prix specialist Alex West and you are talking about a pretty impressive set of drafts. While I only went .500 in the house our drafts were surely significantly more difficult than any you'd encounter at even a Pro Tour. This helped contribute to my 3-0ing my draft (which was admittedly a weaker table as a result of a poor personal showing in Standard).
Gerry Thompson is the best deck tuner in the world proving it once again with this event. His innovative manabase (porting an Esper-Blade manabase of mine over to Spirits) input on card choices—providing a dose of reality (Lingering Souls had somehow found its way to the cutting room floor)—and numbers tweaks made our good deck great.
Sam Black who has been doing more deckbuilding in recent months had been primarily working on green white and black aggro decks. Eventually he had to abandon an ill-fated token-esque strategy a few days before the event that was nowhere near where it needed to be against Delver. I pointed out that his time was being poorly spent on wildly speculative brews without at least some sort of theory behind them. He asked what I'd recommend he work on. I pointed out his greatest success and understanding in Standard had been with tuning Faeries so if I were him I'd start with the Faeries deck of the format and start tuning that.
At that point Sam started working with Delver and made a number of major breakthroughs that are going to have a huge impact on Standard. Abandoning Sword of War and Peace was a huge advantage against opponents who were stranded with dead artifact removal but it also allowed our guys to hit from angles that opponents were not prepared for.
Moving Dungeon Geists to the maindeck as well as upping the total number to the maximum was an important move for defeating Human decks that are not exactly overflowing with removal. Besides Drogskol Captains to protect the Dungeon Geists and Images to copy them made them much more powerful than they appeared on the surface. Finally Sam pushed to have the deck move in a much heavier Phantasmal Image direction. This allowed for amazing plays like turn 4 Phantasmal Image on a Drogskol Captain with Mana Leak backup not to mention turn 3 Lingering Souls turn 4 flash it back with Mana Leak up turn 5 Captain and Image it! For reference here was their list:
As you can see a number of key Dark Ascension cards were needed to make this archetype possible. We will definitely be hearing more from Sam Black Gerry Thompson and others who worked on the list in the days to come.
Michael Jacob (5-Color Control and Red Aggro) Reid Duke (Ramp) Andrew Cuneo (Control of all varieties) Paul Rietzl (White Weenie variants) Matt Sperling (R/G/x variants) and Ben Seck (Crazy Combo Decks) among others meant we had a nice variety of Constructed perspectives. We had beatdown players combo players control players and players in between. We even had Tom Martell as a "Wild Card" who ended up being a big voice of reason and a huge team player bringing together different groups internally. He got to the bottom of things while making important advances in control and R/G Aggro.
Rather than just having 14 people work on their own deck we focused on gaining the greatest understanding about the format possible. In fact before we even met up in the house we surveyed everyone to find out what they'd be looking at initially to make sure we had all the bases covered. If no one is invested in a deck it can be very easy to miss some relatively basic advances. Having a mix of brewers tuners and strong "enemy" pilots was a major factor for success. Finally add in our conversations with Gabriel Nassif Mark Herberholz and Zvi Mowshowitz online and we definitely had some heavy hitters in our corner.
The 13/14 of us were able to get together early in a beach house on the west side of Oahu (with Gerry tied up with work but running our forums and being involved on a daily basis). Half of us arrived a week and a half early with more people flowing in every day after that.
You don't have to be on a pro team testing for a Pro Tour to learn something from these experiences. If you want to prepare for an event creating a plan of attack is crucial. However much time you have is however much time you have and you can work from that. Obviously having more time is going to increase your chances if it is well-spent but that isn't always an option. Regardless of how much time you do have you have to be realistic with that time and figure out how to make the most of it.
Knowing what your goal is is important both for you as an individual and for whomever you are testing with. Testing with like-minded individuals is generally going to lead to increased success. If playtest partners are on different pages they will have different priorities and work against each other on some level rather than in harmony. For instance if one person wants to maximize their chances of winning a tournament another player wants to maximize the overall finishes of the group members another person just wants to socialize and another person still wants to convince people to play "their deck" (angling to "get credit") then you aren't going to work together as well as you could.
Assuming you are relatively on the same page as the people you will be testing with an honest assessment of how much time you really have and the best way to spend it comes next. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (and the same is true of a gram of prevention and a kilogram of cure for readers from countries that use a system of measurement that makes any sense at all...). Planning on how to spend the time does you better than flailing around in the metaphorical dark trying to correct the mistakes later.
If we have only a couple hours a couple times before the event we want to ask "What is the best way to spend that time?" Which decks is everyone considering? Which matchups would be most helpful to test? How much time do we have outside of actual playtest time? For instance if we have half an hour to read and think about Magic that changes how we decide to spend the time we actually have to play in person. Being honest with ourselves seems like it would be obvious but the vast majority of tournament players spend a huge amount of time trying to convince themselves that they are already "great" or "good enough." This isn't just in regards to in-game decisions but also with how they prepare.
Would it be nice to have enough time develop a deck from the ground up? Sure but we don't always have that luxury. Sometimes (surprisingly often) we have to playtest "in real time." To make best use of this time we should ask ourselves what the options are. If you I and a couple other friends of ours all want to test for a PTQ and give ourselves the greatest chance of one winning then we should remember that a 1st and three dead-lasts are better than 2nd 3rd 4th and 5th. What deck or decks will give us the greatest chance of accomplishing our real objective?
Sometimes the answer is going to be different for different people. Some players lean control; others lean beatdown and so on. It is useful to incorporate that into a plan of action improving one's game in areas where it is weak; however we must also balance this with our desire to maximize our chances of accomplishing our primary objective. Remember though even if you think you are definitely going to play an aggro deck playing the control or combo side of each matchup can be illuminating.
If we have no idea what deck to play we want to use a little logic to narrow the options down. What other tournaments have taken place recently? What has won recently? What has been performing the best in general? What decks (if any) do we think are on the decline? Do we have time to explore "a brew" or is the best use of our time to pick a deck and learn it? Do we have time to play a number of key matchups first and figure out which we like the feel of?
Remember personal play-style is a very real thing. It isn't always about a "right way." It is very common for "how you want to play it" to be a bigger factor than the small change in relative power level between two decks. Besides our certainty about the difference in power between two decks isn't always going to be well-placed to say nothing of the metagame changing week to week.
Once we determine which matchups to test and what it is we are really looking for honest and rational games are needed. If everyone involved wants one side to win it isn't hard to subconsciously make that be the case. It is vital to come from a place of honesty and fearlessness. If your brew can't be Delver lying to yourself isn't going to help long term. Also we must remember that it isn't about win/loss records in testing. It is more about the "feel" of the matchup. Do you like the feel of one side or the other? Which would you want to play and do you feel advantaged?
Keeping written records of playtest results is very valuable since people have a tendency to remember playtest sessions to fit their internal narrative. Still this must be balanced with a strong desire to fight against the temptation to make it personal. Attacking people for losing with a deck is not helpful. If someone is trying to work on a brew cutting down old drafts' failures is not the best way to find the greatest understanding. That said we must also be diligent to warn our test partners of the classic trap of making a brew that beats deck A then testing against B and changing cards until you beat that (without returning to deck A) and so on.
Looking back on Pro Tour Dark Ascension our team was quite pleased with our results as a team. Of our 14 members we put 2 in the top 8 5 in the top 25 7 in the top 50 and 10/14 made day 2. This success was not just a function of having talented players or even having a great deck. Testing groups work best when everyone is in sync with one another. Letting silly drama get in the way of preparation can be catastrophic and if everyone in the group is on a different deck that suggests there has been a breakdown in communication.
Forty-eight hours before the Pro Tour our group was split between Spirits Stock Delver R/G Aggro Tempered Steel Heartless-Lich Combo 5-Color Solar Flare and Grixis. Finkel Sperling Martell Rietzl and others realized that improved communication was needed. Two or three decks is one thing since different people have different styles but this was ridiculous. Fortunately rational discourse won out (rather than ego-filled desires to "win an argument" or "be right").
While Grixis was a very reasonable choice (and Reid did well with it) in retrospect I probably should have played the Spirits deck. We underestimated the quantity of Humans a little and Wolf Run a fair bit. I am of course absolutely thrilled with the weekend as a whole (not even counting getting to spend so much time at my favorite place on Earth). For reference here is the list Reid Duke (who intentionally drew into 38th) and I played this weekend:
More discussion will come on this deck and how to build control decks in the near future but the most important change was the move towards Grave Titan. In this build he is a sort of "catch-all." How do you deal with X? Play a Grave Titan! How do you deal with Y? Play a Grave Titan! His ability to fight removal and hexproof creatures race big threats and totally take over games on his own makes him especially well positioned at the moment. I bombed in Standard but as a guy who doesn't say this lightly I definitely ran comically below expectation in matches (of which I will spare you the sob stories).
Despite the short lead-in time Pro Tour Dark Ascension ended up greatly rewarding the open-minded and creative people who were able to take advantage of new tools. From Huntmaster of the Fells serving as a centerpiece to the CFB Wolf Run deck and Blohan's Naya Pod list to Lingering Souls Drogskol Captain and Dungeon Geists making Spirit tribal a real deck here are the top 10 new cards that cracked the top 8:
Top 10 New Cards from Pro Tour Dark Ascension's Top 8:
10. Faith's Shield
It is funny to call Huntmaster a sleeper given that so many people thought it was overrated but as we have all seen he is the real deal.
Where is B/W Tokens? Well obviously this top 8 was mixed format and many of the best players in the world played Delver or Wolf Run. We won't know for sure how B/W Tokens did as a whole until we get more data but from the looks of everyone's lists it seemed pretty clear that the metagame was very aware of B/W Tokens and was built to combat it and other similar strategies. Between CFB playing a ton of sweepers to Ratchet Bombs everywhere the format was definitely quite hostile. Now that the format is going to adjust for Spirits Naya Pod and new breeds of Wolf Run we are sure to see some changes in the status quo. Besides as discussed in the Dark Ascension set review it is not that B/W Tokens has to dominate; it is that Lingering Souls has to dominate and B/W Tokens is the starting point. It may be that Spirits is just a better token deck (for now) though Sorin is a hard guy to underestimate (especially once Hero of Bladehold rotates).
The other notable absence thus far was Mono-Black Aggro. Black Aggro is a deck that I predict will steadily rise at least for the next month as people start to learn how to use the new cards. Here is the list Sam Black Michael Jacob and I developed:
- 3 Porcelain Legionnaire
- 2 Bloodline Keeper
- 4 Diregraf Ghoul
- 3 Fume Spitter
- 4 Geralf's Messenger
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 4 Skirsdag High Priest
- 23 Swamp
Skirsdag High Priest is a major breakthrough and this archetype is on its way to securing a new niche in the metagame.
There is still so much untapped potential in Dark Ascension with cards that don't yet have the right support cards as well as cards that no one has figured out how to use properly. Here are the top 10 new cards to watch:
Top 10 New Cards to Watch:
6. Tragic Slip
All right I gotta get back to the site to cheer Finkel Jelger Kibler Paulo and Lukas on (such a sick top 8 and such sweet coverage!). Join me back here next week when we get into a deeper examination of the format as a whole under the influence of Dark Ascension (and my 300th article...).