There's a new planeswalker in town.
This past weekend's Grand Prix Vegas really drove home just how big of a success Modern Masters has been. Now, M14 is just around the corner, and a new planeswalker has been revealed. Before we look at him, though, a few observations about GP Vegas. If you want to cut straight to spoiler, ctrl-F Garruk, but I would come back when you have time.
Grand Prix Las Vegas was a big event.
A really big event.
All Grand Prix secretly have a cap, but none have ever actually reached it. After all, there are a lot of things you need to have per player in order to run one of these events. Even if you have enough space, enough product, and enough chairs, you still need judges, scorekeepers—even software can be a bottleneck. DCI Reporter is not exactly designed for 10,000 participants.
Judges in particular are a tricky one because there are only so many Magic judges on Earth. Becoming a DCI sanctioned judge is not trivial, and it takes a special player to be willing to go to the trouble so that others may enjoy the game more.
Grand Prix Las Vegas' staff ended up including:
- Half of all Level 5 judges on Earth.
- Over a third of all Level 3 and Level 4 judges.
- Forty percent of all Level 2 judges in the United States, including every single Level 2 or higher judge from the Southwest.
How is this possible? No question more judges were going to go to this event than any other. It was Magic Woodstock. However, the only way these kinds of numbers were reached was some pretty incredible organizational work by the staff flying more and more people in from all over. Are there enough judges in the world for a 10,000-player tournament? No question, but are you going to fly hundreds of judges in from Europe and Asia?
Magic is exploding and could really use more judges anyway. Not everyone is prepared to do all it takes to become a judge, but something we can all do is support judges and the judging program as much as possible. Just think of how many people get to play in a Magic tournament for every person willing to spend some hours judging. That is freaking awesome, and everyone that plays in tournaments would do well to look out for those people and send positive energy their way.
Grand Prix Las Vegas was capped at 4,500 players, and it is looking like it was a pretty wise decision. My guess is that the event would have hit 6,000 players; to get an idea of just how big of a jump that is, remember that most Grand Prix have fewer than 1,500 players total. The old record was 2,693 players at Grand Prix Charlotte, obliterating the old record by 466. That GP beat the record by more players than competed in the largest Pro Tour ever. GP Vegas beat GP Charlotte's record by quadruple that! To add another 1500 players would require an entire Grand Prix's worth of judges on top of an event three times larger than large Grand Prix.
It was excellent foresight by Cascade Games to have prepared such a large venue and to have such a deep staff on call. The excellent preparation paid off when day 1 ended before midnight (unlike some GPs) despite the logistical nightmare of a tournament split into four "smaller" tournaments (each larger than most GPs have been).
Why was Grand Prix Las Vegas so big? The perfect storm of:
- Being the only Modern Masters Grand Prix. The set is awesome, the format is awesome, everyone wants to play it, and this was the best chance. Modern Masters is in such demand that the booster packs you got for entering sell for more the entry fee to the tournament.
- A major tournament in Vegas. Las Vegas is an incredible city for gaming and a fantastic destination for people that want a vacation. Magic tried distancing itself from poker a decade ago, but fortunately that has been toned down quite a bit. This was the first GP Vegas in a decade, and I'm guessing there are going to be more of them from now on.
- The timing was perfect. It's the beginning of summer, and people are looking to get away—it's the perfect time for an adventure.
- Cascade Games promoted the event at an unparalleled level, and with good reason. Certainly, other TOs will study Cascade Games' approach and improve their events. Jason Ness and Steve Port invented the sleep-in special, and now it is industry standard (improving a lot of people's experience). There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Vegas that will improve the tournament experience for everyone.
- The World Series of Poker and Electric Daisy Carnival provided added draw for people that were interested in coming and possibly on the fence.
- A tipping point was reached where GP Vegas transcended mere Magic tournament and became a cultural phenomenon. Once it was clear that GP Vegas was going to be the biggest Magic event of all-time, many more people wanted to go and be a part of it and a part of history.
- Magic is at an all-time high. This gets said so much these days that sometimes it's easy to forget just how true it is—how big Magic has gotten and how much it continues to grow. GP Vegas's record will not stand forever. Magic is not done growing.
As for Modern Masters? Getting to play with Cryptic Command and Mulldrifter was like being a kid again. Speaking of which, I really enjoyed Time Spiral block and Lorwyn block's Limited formats despite them not really being ideal for new players. Modern Masters really is kind of the best of those five sets with some hits from the other blocks. What's interesting is that this adds up to a fantastic Limited format despite Time Spiral and Lorwyn block not being ideal Limited formats for new players. Hopefully in the years to come, we will see more periodic Magic products for the very experienced crowd.
Anyway Grand Prix Las Vegas was a total blast. There were so many more people there than I have ever seen at a GP; the closest experience I can relate to it are the main halls at Gen Con. My biggest complaint? I tried to sign up for a Modern Masters side event, only to discover that Modern Masters is in such short supply that you had to win an eight-man draft to earn the right to play in a Modern Masters draft. Really? I guess we just have to run our own drafts and not participate in sanctioned drafts with other random tournament goers. What a wasted opportunity.
As for Garruk, he is back in M14 and bigger than ever. This marks the second planeswalker (after Jace) to have a fourth version. I wonder how far this goes. Is it weird at all when there are fourteen different Garruks?
Garruk, Caller of Beasts hits a note that has not been touched on frequently. As a result, the response has been very divided, with many people dismissing him already. After all, if a card isn't good in the exact same way as an earlier card, how could it be good?
A six-cost planeswalker?
Ok, I see what the problem is here. How many good six-cost planeswalkers have there been?
Sorin Markov was solid.
Chandra Ablaze was the worst of all time.
That is not a lot of data points. While it is true that costing less is a major advantage for planeswalkers (every mana less is getting to use an ability one more time), it isn't like costing a lot rules them out. After all, both Karn and Nicol Bolas have seen a fair bit of play, and they cost even more.
In trying to gauge new Garruk's power level, let's start with his most enticing ability: his +1. Getting to draw all of the creatures in the top five of your deck is a very powerful ability indeed. A card that generates this same text costs 2G (Lead the Stampede), but here you get it every turn and loyalty at the same time.
How good is this ability? Well, it's certainly significantly better than drawing a card, but how much better? Some simple math reveals you need 24 creatures to average a Divination worth of card draw. Of course, that is not the end of the story since 100% of the cards you draw are creatures (instead of things like lands), which is generally a pretty good thing when you already have six or more mana.
Of course, we don't need to stop there. What if we played 30 creatures? Many, many decks already do. Play half creatures and now we draw 2.5 cards per turn. How many times do you need to activate Garruk to be ahead? Well, going straight up to five loyalty is pretty close to two cards right there. Even if your opponent can straight up attack it immediately, that is a lot of damage that was just soaked up. Five life and the best 2.5 of your top five cards and we are already talking better than Opportunity (assuming you want to play that many creatures). If your opponent can't kill it immediately, you can keep the flow of creatures coming. How long is the game going to go if you are drawing 3.5 cards per turn and they are mostly creatures? That is a lot of blockers and a lot of threats to end it with.
How do I know Garruk, Caller of Beasts is going to show up in tournaments? His +1 ability alone is so good that a home will materialize.
Remember when Garruk, Primal Hunter debuted? There was a bit of a lukewarm reception since many people were very hung up on him costing more than the old one. Surprise, surprise, the big complaint about Garruk, Caller of Beasts is his cost being higher than Garruk, Primal Hunter's. Remember the Titans? A six casting cost is not a death knell.
What about Garruk's -3 ability? Like Jace, the Mind Sculptor's -1 ability, this ability is the one that so very many people dismiss at first. Why did Jace's -1 ability look bad to people? Because it cost more loyalty than Brainstorming did yet wasn't good all the time the same way Brainstorm was. As a situationally powerful effect, it required context to fully appreciate.
In general, however, a good rule of thumb is that planeswalkers with one very powerful ability (Brainstorm on Jace, Lead the Stampede on Garruk) the rest of the abilities are better off being situationally powerful (but a less good rate in terms of loyalty). This is because you are naturally going to default to the primary ability. If there is another ability that tries to be general utility all of the time, using that ability isn't just about the loyalty; it is about the opportunity cost of not using the primary ability. The loss of loyalty is not always that big a part of the equation. When you use Jace's -1 ability, you aren't just losing a loyalty; you are losing a Brainstorm. However, when you actually want Unsummon, a loyalty is a small price to pay to turn your Brainstorm into one. Anyone that has played with or against Jace with a turn 3 Knight of the Reliquary can relate.
People know they like to draw cards, though they are generally less keen on drawing creatures (despite creatures being better than a random card in many decks). For instance, Domri Rade has proven himself to be true tier 1, yet people were reluctant at first to embrace him. The new Garruk's +1 ability draws cards, so people will at least somewhat be in to it. His -3 ability, however, is Dramatic Entrance, a card that has not exactly garnered a lot of support in the tournament scene.
It's just that those 2.5 cards are all Dark Rituals!
It isn't even fair to only give Garruk credit for the Dramatic Entrance when you use the -3 ability. After all, once you use it, you now have a gigantic monster to help protect your Garruk, which is threatening to draw 2.5 cards a turn. That is a pretty filthy backside for our mana cheat.
No, we are not always going to have a giant green fatty to put into play, but if we are effectively looking at six cards a turn, there is a pretty good chance we find one in a hurry even if we only play a couple. Who wants to play a giant green fatty? What if it gets stuck in our hand?
Stuck in our hand? It's not like you actually have to set up Garruk. As soon as you draw one, you can play it and immediately cheat your monster into play if you like.
No question not everyone is going to be as dedicated to the giant green fatty plan. Some people may go all out and plan on Garruk being a mana cheat first and foremost. This plan becomes even more appealing if you have a secondary way to fuel these expensive bombs, such as Elvish Archdruid, Gaea's Cradle, or Natural Order. You can also just have something useful to do with extra creature cards in hand, such as Lotleth Troll, Faithless Looting, or Blast of Genius.
Other players will use only a couple giant fatties. Here, you still have the possibility of exploding with a fast game-ending threat, and if you don't draw it naturally, you have decent chances of finding it eventually. If three turns go by and none of those eighteen cards contains the monster you are looking for, you can switch modes and go ultimate. As if the 7.5 creatures you just drew weren't enough, now you get to Tooth and Nail over and over.
Once you are ultimate, you aren't even restricted to green creatures anymore, not that it much matters. Three turns of +1 will surely leave your hand completely full of creatures to cast even if you have been casting some every turn. Now you enter an incredible stage 3 that may kill your opponent immediately (by assembling enough haste, direct damage, or a combination of creatures that forms a combo).
While I will definitely be looking to add combos of creatures that will kill opponents outright in my Caller of Beast decks, there are certainly going to be builds that don't want to play many (if any) situational cards. Garruk's +1 ability already gives you all the cards you could want, so getting to no longer have to worry about mana and getting Demonic Tutors is the perfect step up. Garruk's ultimate isn't completely unbeatable, but it's close.
As for the -3 ability, there are definitely going to be some decks that use Garruk but don't have any creatures that cost seven or more. What good is the ability then? It still has a lot of functionality, actually. It's not like the only way to play the -3 ability is the turn Garruk enters the battlefield. What if you activate him and draw four cards on the first +1? It's very possible you can't cast your Centaur Healer, Fiend Hunter, Restoration Angel, and your Thragtusk all in the same turn. Sometimes you will just play what you can and keep filling your hand. There will, however, be a lot of times where you'd be willing to give up 2.5 cards and four loyalty (-3 vs. +1) to gain almost two Black Lotuses' worth of mana to use on Thragtusk. It's not just about staying alive; it's also about taking over the game completely (possibly even just defending Garruk).
I think an awful lot of people are underestimating how good two Black Lotuses can be and how much they might be in the market for them after Braingeysering themselves. I mean, just imagine you draw two cards off Garruk and they happen to be Thragtusk and Prime Speaker Zegana. Cheating the Prime Speaker into play for free next turn is looking like a much better deal than drawing 2.5 cards.
There are so many ways to use Garruk and he is such a different kind of card than has traditionally been strong that it is hard to know for certain what shapes and sizes of Garruk decks we should expect to see. One obvious place to start is looking at Standard decks that could incorporate him. Domri Rade is a great starting point, as he also wants you to play a lot of creatures. Here is a sketch that tries to pair Domri Rade and Garruk with a ton of awesome creatures and heavy on the fast mana:
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 2 Fiend Hunter
- 3 Gyre Sage
- 2 Huntmaster of the Fells
- 3 Loxodon Smiter
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 2 Thragtusk
- 2 Thundermaw Hellkite
- 4 Voice of Resurgence
- 1 Aurelia, the Warleader
Of course, you don't have to play literal nothing but planeswalkers and creatures. In decks like this with so few slots for spells, you want high-impact spells that offer new dimensions. Bonfire of the Damned is a classic, but Selesnya Charm, Mizzium Mortars, Boros Charm, and Blasphemous Act are all reasonable options. Even Searing Spear and Pillar of Flame are worth considering.
Using at least one Aurelia, the Warleader seems like a pretty big game in this build since it basically ensures that your ultimate is lethal (particularly when you can also find Thundermaw Hellkites when you cast Avacyn's Pilgrims). This list doesn't take full advantage of the -3 ability, but you will want to cheat Thragtusk or Huntmaster of the Fells into play after drawing a full grip at times.
Why only two Garruks? This list is certainly not dedicated, and every six-drop carries with it a steep price. There will certainly be a lot of lists that do want the full playset, however. Here is an example on the other end of the spectrum:
Somberwald Sage is particularly interesting with new Garruk. While he doesn't actually cast Garruk himself, he goes a long way towards ensuring you can actually cast everything you draw.
Craterhoof Behemoth is a fantastic creature for Garruk decks because it is already one of the most powerful eight cost creatures in the game's history, not to mention being the type of creature that may just end the game on the spot if you cheat it into play. Even lists that are nowhere near as dedicated should strongly consider playing at least one Garruk, as it is the ultimate creature to search out once you -7.
Overall, Caller of Beasts is more of a Primal Hunter than a Wildspeaker, being perhaps even more niche but even more powerful in decks where it is good. A good six-cost planeswalker? The only thing that could get in the way is the printing of an even better six-cost threat. No question there will still be Jund decks that use the old Garruk over the new one (while they can). Those decks often only have fourteen creatures! New Garruk requires a new design. It will require some experimenting, and he is much more of a Tezzeret (build around me) than a Jace (put me anywhere), but he will be a powerful tool in the right decks.
While I would imagine the majority of Garruk, Caller of Beasts decks will look more like normal decks that happen to have a couple of Garruks in them than the above lists, pushing the boundaries can teach us a lot about what is possible in a format. Will a card get printed that lets us rig the top of our deck so that we are 100% to draw five creatures? Will Garruk become such a powerful threat that counterspells regain popularity? What is the best way to defend yourself so that you have time to play all the creatures you just drew? Will control decks develop some kind of full lock to ensure that no amount of creatures drawn can save someone? Will new Garruk find a home in Modern?
There are so many questions to be answered, but one thing's for sure:
Garruk, Caller of Beasts will appear in the Top 8 of Standard tournament decks.