It's a whole new ballgame, folks. The World Series is over, and basketball season is gearing up. The ball is bigger, the game is faster, and there are no bats. Football is still a thing and the name still makes no sense. I mean, it's not even a ball by any realistic definition of the word.
But I digress. What I really should say is that it's a whole new card game. You see, this weekend is Pro Tour Ixalan, but can we really say it actually features a set that has been out for six weeks?
Since Pro Tour Dark Ascension in 2012, the Pro Tours have been named for the most recently released set, which they are meant to feature. For five and a half years the Pro Tour has been a tournament that tested what the best players in the world could come up with on short time and with little to work with as a base. It was them who set the pace for the rest of the Standard season.
But this Pro Tour is different. We've seen weeks of data for Standard on Magic Online, and several major tournaments in both the Standard format and Ixalan Limited. That is mountains of information and format development that the participants have to work with for the first time, and that's going to drastically change the texture of this tournament, both for the players and the viewers.
Here's what you need to know before tuning in on Friday.
Tuning Supersedes Building
Under the old system, players would be going off of a week or two of Magic Online data and an SCG Open as far as competitive results. For a Pro Tour following a rotation like this one, that is only a baseline. The successful decks from those events would be the default for those who don't find anything they like and set the metagame that the rest of the players are trying to attack.
But that initial metagame was often far from how the format would shake out after the Pro Tour. Going into Pro Tour Kaladesh, R/W Vehicles was the deck to beat and the Aetherworks Marvel decks were entirely combo-oriented. U/W Midrange decks were the best performing of the tournament and eventually a metagame of U/W and B/G decks would come to be dominated by a refined R/G Marvel archetype that took months to come together.
Due to their early placement, Pro Tours were about identifying powerful shells for the format and adapting them to the early metagame. Most of the time there would be shells that hadn't been unveiled before the tournament and you could take much of the tournament by surprise, an advantage that would stay relevant even if your list was off by a few cards.
That margin for error is no longer there. Countless decks have been considered, explored, and dismissed over the last six weeks and teams are much less likely to give up on potentially promising ideas due to lack of time.
So we have a tournament where the floor for decks that players play is going to be higher than normal, with few to none of the swings and misses that we see before. That means players are going to have to look for an edge elsewhere, and that edge is from tuning. Getting those last few cards right is a bigger deal now, as is having a precise plan in the key matchups.
The Risk/Reward Calculus Changes
This is another offshoot of there being more time to work through brews, iron out the kinks, and learn the important matchups.
Here's the thing about preparing for the Pro Tour: When you're working with a relatively new set and you only have two weeks and draft to worry about, two weeks just isn't enough. So many players are spending Wednesday and Thursday struggling to make a decision on what deck to play--I once switched decks after registration when word spread of a significant metagame change that made me rethink my initial choice.
When forced into these spots, it's my experience that most players are risk averse. They don't like the idea of sinking their entire tournament on a bad deck (which I've also done at the Pro Tour level...several times) and that makes them gravitate toward the default decks.
We've seen this play out at the World Championship several times in recent years, where the fields have been homogenized, much to the disappointment of viewers. Unfortunately, I'm expecting more of the same this weekend.
However, if you consider the last two SCG Players' Championships, both tournaments were won by players who made a bold deck choice that paid off: Jim Davis with Eldrazi Ramp and Joe Lossett with Temur Pummeler.
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 2 Den Protector
- 4 Jaddi Offshoot
- 2 Oblivion Sower
- 2 Dragonlord Atarka
- 4 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
The homogenized metagames brought about by risk aversion often have holes as players tune their lists toward beating the other most popular decks, and any player who successfully identifies a hole has a lot to gain.
So while the metagame overall may be repetitive, I expect a handful of players who go out on a limb to make a serious run, which should give all of us at home an easy rooting interest. Down with Temur! Up with...anything else!
Fringe Archetypes Will Loom Large in Draft
If you're looking for a break from the supposed monotony of Standard, then Limited may be the answer. With sets being released on Magic Online earlier than ever, even under the old system most players have been getting upwards of 100 practice drafts in before the Pro Tour. For this Pro Tour, that number is going to be on the low end for the most dedicated competitors.
With a smaller number of drafts, players tend to gravitate toward archetypes they have more experience with, which can lead some top tier archetypes highly underdrafted. That's not likely to happen this time, as players have a much broader understanding of the format and will more readily recognize and move into the open colors.
So the edge to be gained is in being able to put together fringe archetypes when the opportunity arises. Every format has archetypes that aren't going to come together in every draft. They may need specific uncommons or a large number of a given common to work, so they require a keen eye to see when the cards are there and a calculated risk to go for it.
Early on, Christian Calcano was the talk of Pro Tour Amonkhet with his Slither Blade deck, which led him to a quick start and his first top 8. Calcano kept innovating at the World Championship with a hyper-aggressive deck with lots of auras. Finding more decks like these and taking advantage of them when possible is going to be very important to succeeding in such a well-understood format. Personally, I'm hoping for a sweet G/B Explore deck with Wildgrowth Walker and Lurking Chupacabra.
This is essentially the Limited analog of the previous point. If you're unwilling to take a risk, you're missing out on a critical advantage over your competitors.
Sideboards, Sideboards, Sideboards
Another secret of the Pro Tour is that with a new set, sideboards are often neglected. Everyone is working with untuned lists and the metagame is often unclear or the subject of some disagreement among teammates. As a result, hammering out a good sideboard is very difficult to do and easy to put off until you're scrambling on Thursday night trying to figure out if the plan you have to beat control is actually good.
This is yet another issue that is alleviated, if not eliminated, by the late timing of this Pro Tour. The format is stable, and the vast majority of players understand the matchups and how the opposing decks typically sideboard.
And thus we have another opportunity for savvy players to get creative and level the field with unexpected sideboard plans that put a wrinkle into the matchup. The previous Pro Tours were more like a regular season game. You play a million of them and don't have much practice time so you just stay in your lane and make minor tweaks where you can.
This Pro Tour is like a playoff series, where you're spending all your time and energy with a laser focus trying to beat a single opponent. You see what they do in the first game or two and make adjustments, then your opponent adjusts to your adjustments so you have to re-adjust and in doing so push the boundaries of what your team is capable of.
So even if players aren't making many bold deck choices initially, look for them to flex their muscles when it comes to creating new sideboard plans and approaching matchups very differently than we've grown accustomed to.
The Super Team Advantage Will Continue To Decrease
Super Teams have been the paradigm at Pro Tours since at least Pro Tour Paris in 2011, and existed in a less widespread and less organized way years before that. The players who are completely dedicated to the game will gang together, hole up in a house near the event, and practice non-stop for one or two weeks to maximize each other's chances for success.
I can say unequivocally that my preparation was significantly better when working this way, as were my results. It may not be the healthiest practice, but it sure is effective. And it has typically left players without the ability to commit so much time to preparing at a significant disadvantage. They don't have the person-power to grind games and try out a lot of decks so they are often forced to lock in early and hope their first instinct is good.
Without time pressure, smaller teams and individual players can divide their time more effectively and come in more prepared relative to the top teams. The first one to two hundred games are a lot more important than the next couple hundred, so there's only so much edge to be gained from experience in this field. Also, lower level players who are wary of going toe to toe with the best in the world with a known deck are more willing to take the risks I wrote about above, looking for any edge they can get.
So I'm looking for new faces to break through, or dedicated local grinders to take advantage of a unique opportunity and break through in a big way. This is also the first Pro Tour of the season, giving added incentive to the lower level pros who may need to requalify or just want a jump start on a run to gold.
Let's Watch Together
With how little impact Ixalan has had on Standard to this point, I can't imagine this was the environment Wizards wanted for this Pro Tour. And I'm not expecting the pros to reinvent the wheel here and revolutionize the format so late in the season. So if you're hoping to see a Dinosaurs versus Merfolk finals on Sunday, I have some bad news. But if you look deeper and appreciate the little things in how they build their Temur Energy and Ramunap Red decks, and watch out for the people that strike gold with something unexpected, this is going to be an exciting Pro Tour to watch.