With Pro Tour Paris just days away I find myself deep in the south of France twenty minutes from Spain and ten minutes from the ocean. The Darkest Mage himself Michael Jacob accompanied me across the Atlantic to rendezvous with the Frenchie DIs including Guillaume Wafo-Tapa Antoine Ruel Raphael Levy Gabriel Nassif and our host Guillaume Matignon (aka The Champ).
Generally every time I travel to Europe I get severely jetlagged (though somewhat strangely I always seem to end up on Japan time). All of my Top 8 finishes have taken place on American soil – New York LA New York again as well as the junior division in Dallas (ahh Dallas...) and Grand Prix Milwaukee.
Resolved to overcome the jetlag-related issues that have hurt some of my European finishes I flew straight from Jacksonville Arkansas to Paris from the Prerelease. Michael Jacob and I had a plan to meet at the airport then make our way to Nassif's where we would take a train to the Matignon complex. MJ who was arriving earlier had aspirations of meeting me at the gate but given how sketchy this plan sounded we agreed to meet at the Sheraton at the airport should this fail. I arrived and was as surprised to see MJ not at my gate as I was to see MJ not at Calosso's birthday party in Atlanta.
I quickly made my way to the Sheraton thanks to not checking bags (I was on almost 100 legs of flights last year and never once checked a bag beyond planeside valet on tiny planes)...
Aside On Checking Bags When Traveling to Magic Events
Expert travelers will likely already be up on this element of air transportation but checking bags is such a punt. First of all what percentage of the time does one's luggage get lost even temporarily? Those percentage points add up and it's brutal every time you fail your saving throw. The airline lost my luggage on my flight to Pro Tour LA in 1997 (I was a young dumb 16-year-old that did not yet know better). When you're competing at a Pro Tour the last thing you need on your mind is wondering where your clothes and personals are let alone the hassles you have to go through until you get your stuff back.
Outside of how much it sucks to lose your luggage think about just how much time it takes to go to the baggage carousel and wait for your luggage to come. Half an hour on the average seems more than fair as an estimate (not to mention the time you lose waiting to see if somehow your bag is coming much later than everyone else's and not just lost as it surely is). This half-hour is added to the fifteen minutes or so you had to wait to check your bag in the first place. All of this time adds up.
Not every Mage is going to travel the same amount no question but we do travel a lot. If you just stretch all of these hidden costs over forty events however long that takes you we're talking about something like:
(40 x 30 min) baggage claim + (40 x 15 min) check bag + 4 hours (let's pretend they only lose your luggage once)
That is 34 hours and I gotta tell ya these are very friendly estimates when it comes to how much of your time you're throwing out the window. Now obviously if you want to bring a ton of stuff checking a bag might be necessary but in my experience most people just check bags because they always just sort of assumed that's how it's done. If you're traveling to a Grand Prix for a weekend even a long weekend what could you possibly need to bring that you need to check? Besides the wasted time sucks and all but your luggage not making it is a real downer and can actually greatly interfere with your weekend plans and the event itself.
So I stroll into the Sheraton eyes darting back and forth MJ radar activated. After a couple of laps around the lobby and WMD level of MJ found I make my way to the front desk and confirm that there are no messages for a Mr. Chapin from a Mr. Jacob (Note: There is no "S" in MJ's name! The more you know...). At this point I notice there are random computers in the lobby available to guests. I successfully hack into the mainframe and download a copy of the internet. Put another way I log into Gmail and find a message from MJ ranting about never flying Air Canada again on account of gross incompetence on their part making him miss his flight.
Air Canada eh? I did the only reasonable thing to do in this scenario; I subway-ed over to the Nassif estate and smashed a giant bowl of pasta while MJ suffered at the hands of Canadians.
Fast-Forward Twenty-Four Hours
MJ had eventually landed boarded a taxi real quick like and raced across town to meet us just moments before our scheduled train south. The train ride was relatively uneventful beyond randomly stumbling upon a Wafo-Tapa (fancy seeing you here...). Now that we were here it was time to get down to business.
Matignon's family owns three apartments here in the south of France making for very comfortable sleeping and testing arrangements. This setup held many advantages: lots of rooms and tables for gaming plenty of beds and bathrooms for everyone and room for all of us at once and room for all of us separately at other times. The arrangement made it very productive and fun. Additionally one of the apartments had internet but it was not the apartment where we gamed allowing us to avoid the perpetual danger of losing testers to Magic Online.
This is a constant danger with testing groups as it's so easy to do a draft on Magic Online and rationalize it as "testing" but then destroy the productivity of the group. It's not just that the one player isn't pushing the testing group; it's that there's a massive temptation for other testers to railbird the draft and then eventually other people start drafting themselves. Next thing you know you have a room of Mages in 8-man drafts on Magic Online checking their Facebook between rounds.
That is not how you break formats.
Thankfully neither the draft nor new Standard is available on Magic Online yet so that makes it far easier to avoid this particular trap. We had the benefit of always having at least eight qualified players to fill our IRL drafts a luxury I'm sure not every competitor will have.
My experience with this draft format has been one of much discovery. First of all I didn't draft Scars of Mirrodin all that much compared to other draft formats on account of not being able to make it to Worlds last year. As a result a lot of the "jokes" that aren't funny to experienced drafters are just cracking me up for the first time.
Next Mirrodin Besieged changes the landscape quite a bit. It's a very new experience drafting the second set first. Not to mention that that the packs being split by faction adds a very strategic element that has never been present. The commons in packs are being split half and half and there are no foils at the Pro Tour so you can generally tell what faction and rarity the player to your right took pack one. This continues throughout the draft at lower levels of relevance but is still a factor. With all of the infect cards in the Phyrexian faction this is very good info to know considering it is way better to draft infect next to some Mirrans.
I happen to really enjoy this format and I feel like I learn quite a bit every draft I do. I can't be sure this will still be the case after 30 drafts or whatever but in my experience every draft format gets old if you play it to death. That's the death to which you are playing it. The combination of fun play interesting situations and decisions and the unusual environment as a result of factors like infect and metalcraft keeps my mind stimulated. Some players complain about getting poisoned out but it just feels exactly like double strike to me. If you don't block a creature with double strike how are you going to cry if they pump it and kill you with a Giant Growth? If this doesn't seem fair what did you think they were paying two mana for a 1/1 for?
When it comes to Constructed I absolutely love how big of an impact Mirrodin Besieged is having and will have on Standard. There are loads of role-playing cards but there are also a number of revolutionary cards that will warp the landscape. Green Sun's Zenith Signal Pest Tezzeret Agent of Bolas Slagstorm Go for the Throat Black Sun's Zenith White Sun's Zenith and a variety of infect cards all look really important.
Infect is a very real strategy and this configuration is set up to attack blue decks and Valakut game one boarding into a strange sort of Mono-Black Control deck post-sideboard against creature decks that we can't race. The interaction between infect and enhancements such as Adventuring Gear and Piston Sledge is quite potent letting you put people on very short clocks. An early discard spell can clear the path and ensure that you won't be beaten by a single removal spell.
This deck plays out a little bit like a strange cross between Mono-Black Control and Landfall Boros of all decks. It's not just the Gears either but the general strategy of setting up a kill in a couple big hits rather than incremental damage over time. There's slightly less removal and guys but Sign in Blood and discard offer additional elements.
Plague Stinger is the two-drop of choice on account of having the most reliable evasion. It's kind of cute that it can block a Signal Pest but game one will be rough against those decks anyway. Plague Myr is the next best two-drop giving you more ways to accelerate into your big poison while still carrying Gear or a Sledge if there's an opening. If one wanted to add more two-drops Necropede is good on defense and Ichorclaw Myr is a fine attacker. Flensermite is a trap I think...
The big poison guys all have roles to play and each has weaknesses. The Crusader sometimes doesn't hit as hard as you'd like and against someone that isn't red or white he can feel a little underwhelming but his protection from Pyroclasm and Slagstorm is quite hot. The Vatmother is weak to Jace Journey and Go for the Throat but beats the hell out of burn and other creatures. Skithiryx is super-powerful and versatile and haste is a deadly element to add to a deck like this. His big drawback is of course his high cost. Sign in Blood helps you actually get enough mana to drop Skithiryx and hit in one turn but that's not always going to be an option.
I tried Vampire's Bite as it lets you close out the game by surprise quickly but Sledge works better with the discard spells. You open with a discard on one then an infect creature on two followed by a Sledge or Gear on three and you have the opponent on a very short clock especially if you also have an Inkmoth Nexus. Vampire's Bite is only good for six (three poison counters) whereas the Sledge is worth six a turn.
This is just one question coming to the forefront as a result of Mirrodin Besieged. How many Green Sun's Zeniths will Valakut play and will they still play Summoning Trap? The more Green Sun's Zenith action you have the faster and more consistent your build especially if you go the Lotus Cobra route. The cost however comes when playing against blue decks where the Traps shine. Also will players maindeck Slagstorm to combat Kuldotha Red while still being able to kill Jace (or Greedy players with Jace anyway) in a way Pyroclasm only aspires to? With five Valakut in the top 16 of StarCityGames.com Open: Indianapolis it looks like step one of the metagame is being able to beat Primeval Titan decks as they will be very popular. Here's an example of the new face of Valakut complete with Green Sun's Zenith Slagstorm and Thrun the Last Troll.
How will decks evolve to deal with ultra-fast aggro decks like Kuldotha Red and are red decks too fast for cards like Koth of the Hammer and Hero of Oxid Ridge? Kuldotha Red didn't just gain Signal Pest. They also reached a critical mass of cheap artifacts; they're ruthlessly fast and will surely warp the format around them. When a deck's worst keepable hands are generally turn 1 Goblin Guide you know it is fast. Kuldotha Rebirth is better than Wild Nacatl in this deck and Signal Pest is often at least as strong as a Nacatl itself. Add to this Mox Opal letting the deck produces some truly degenerate openings and Goblin Bushwhacker and Contested War Zone making attacking for five to eight damage on turn 2 commonplace and you have a stone killer. We have even had a couple turn 2 kills.
Kuldotha Red is the real deal and will utterly annihilate anyone unprepared for it. The big question here is what does this do to the rest of the format? Pro Tour Berlin saw Elves destroy a somewhat unprepared field and then fall into Tier 1.5 once everyone adapted. Will the same be true of Kuldotha Red or will players adapt more quickly perhaps at least partially as a result of the SCG Open in Indy this past weekend giving people a taste of things to come?
Chris (with an "f") Top 8ed Indy with a version employing Goblin Wardriver to hit especially hard and Forked Bolts to win the mirror. Some players go even more all-in than this using cards like Flayer Husk to be even more turbo. Like the Elf decks around the time of Berlin many players are just assuming a few sweepers will be enough to win the matchup but when you die turn 3 that Day of Judgment isn't going to save you...
Are Counterspells on the rise? Take Christopher Hurley's Top 8 list for instance:
A whopping eleven Counterspells maindeck with three more in the board not to mention seven discard spells make this list ultra-disruptive. Six sweepers after board gives him play versus Kuldotha Red and as always Jace and Grave Titan can take over a game themselves.
How much does it matter than Quest and Stoneforge Mystic decks have access to Bonehoard and Sword of Feast and Famine? What does Go for the Throat do to the format? Is White Sun's Zenith a good kill card for U/W? Is Grave Titan still the kill of choice for U/B? Is there a Tezzeret deck and if so what does it look like? Is it time for U/R to make a comeback? Is Shape Anew-Blightsteel Colossus a fad or does it have staying power? Will Mono-Green adopt Lead the Stampede or Green Sun's Zenith? Will the next generation of Vampire decks have even more burn like Arc Trail and Forked Bolt? Will proliferate finally make waves in tournament play? What's the new paper-rock-scissors? How has the balance of power changed?
There are a lot of questions to be answered this week in Paris and I'm super excited to see it all play out. To add to the drama Brad Nelson and Guillaume Matignon are duking it out for Player of the Year and Grand Prix Paris will likely be the biggest Magic tournament of all-time. The first "Magic Weekend" is going to be a crazy one no doubt about it. See you on the other side!