elcome back! I hope everyone's had a healthy and happy holiday season and is looking for forward to a great 2009 of Magic. Since we last spoke the PTQ season for Kyoto wrapped up, the Honolulu season got underway, and we are rapidly approaching our first premiere event of the 2009 season. We have a little bit of everything to kick off the new year touching on each of those subjects.
Five Questions with the PTQ Warriors
At the end of last year we checked in throughout the PTQ season with four players hoping to qualify for Pro Tour–Kyoto: Gavin Verhey, Gabe Carlton-Barnes, Samuel Stoddard, and Nathan Waxer. Each of them had won PTQs in the past and could be reasonably expected to show up in multiple qualifiers each season. Between Worlds, year-end columns, and reruns, it has been a while since I last checked on them. They were all kind enough to find time for Five Questions about their season.
1 – The PTQ season is over and we are moving on to Constructed PTQs for Honolulu. Did you end up qualifying for Kyoto and if so, how?
Nathan: I did not end up qualifying for Kyoto. But my friend Cassius Weathersby III did and my friend Yubin Tao got close, Top 8ing three times.
Gabe: I did not. I didn't have so much as a Top 8 this season...
2 – How many PTQs and Grand Prix did you participate in trying to Q?
Samuel: I attended five PTQs and no Grand Prix.
Nathan: I think I played in five PTQs.
Gabe: I didn't make it to any GPs and was held to three PTQs. The great Northeast PTQ network failed me miserably, as I had a couple conflicts and, well... there you go.
Gavin: I played in six PTQs and zero Grand Prix.
3 – What was the closest you came in a PTQ this season?
Gavin: At the Worlds PTQ, I was 4-0 and my deck was pretty good. Then I lost my last four matches. Going 4-0 then 0-4 was pretty frustrating. There was also an incredibly small six-round PTQ in Boise where I was passed a very strong deck and felt like I could make Top 8, but ended up a disappointing 2-2 after losing rounds 3 and 4.
Samuel: I went 4-2 once .... This season was real bad for me.
Nathan: The closest being 6-2. So actually, I didn't even come close.
Gabe: I had two PTQs where I was X-0 with four rounds remaining, putting me on needing to go 2-1 to draw into Top 8. In the first, I think I made a tactical error in round 6 (of 9)—it was pretty subtle, but it was against Osyp [Lebedowicz] so it was the difference. In the second, I made a call in round 6 (of 8) that was a winner unless my opponent had Skeletal Kathari (he had Sarkhan Vol in play). He had Skeletal Kathari.
I don't think I needed to catch too many breaks to get there in either of these tournaments... but I didn't catch them!
4 – Across the arc of the season do you feel like you learned anything or improved as a Magic player through the PTQs?
Nathan: I learned how good Algae Gharial and Vithian Stinger really are in this format. I think I can singlehandedly attribute to Algae Gharial what feels like half of my losses overall. I'm exaggerating a little, but not really.
At the beginning of the season you asked what the best common is; let me revisit that subject. Everyone said either Oblivion Ring, with maybe a few Branching Bolts, and I was the lone Resounding Thunder. Let me address each now. I feel like Branching Bolt, is nuts in Sealed, so annoying to play against, because it seems like all the good decks have two and let you single handedly blow out Esper, but not that special in Draft.
Oblivion Ring lets you hit anything but is at best one-for-one sorcery speed removal (that) sometimes endangers you to getting blown out if they destroy it at instant speed, returning whatever bomb you had removed back to play. Hopefully you remembered to remove the token and not the Dragon itself. Lastly, we have Resounding Thunder—the color everyone likes to draft, best if you can cycle, and sometimes uncounterable. And of these three here, I still like Resounding Thunder the best. Because it's always good, and the instant speed lets you do so many things, and late game, it just gets better, sometimes letting you win games out of nowhere.
But actually, my new number one common now wasn't even talked about at the beginning of the season. That common is Vithian Stinger. This guy is SOOOOOoooo good. He punishes a lot of aggressive starts, by getting it all back in card advantage. He complicates the board throughout the game and match, making for unfavorable attacks and or blocks for your opponent. And he ticks down the life of your opponent every turn in the meantime. Oh, and he ALWAYS gets his. Fine, you had that Blister Beetle to kill him, well he's going to come back, folks, to haunt you, just forcing you to hold all your X/1s in your hand while I proceed to beat down. He forces you to sideboard aggressively, making you remove some of your efficient X/1s just to keep your deck from getting blown out by one card. And he does all that from the graveyard. So first pack first pick, I most want Vithian Stinger, then Resounding Thunder, then probably Oblivion Ring. Branching Bolt is up there, but I think it's usually worse than Agony Warp most of the time, at least in Draft, so it depends.
Gabe: I sure hope so. I think I learned how to play a great Sealed pool without relying on it doing the work for you. I also relearned a few lessons on what to focus on when looking at a game, and why.
Samuel: This season taught me something about perseverance, though I wish it had taught me a bit more. It's real easy to get up and go to the next week's PTQ when you Top 8ed the last one. It's much harder when you open what you feel is a good deck and go 1-2. It's even harder when you feel like you are playing well and you just can't win a game. I went to every PTQ I could during the season, but I ended up skipping the Worlds PTQ. I won't say I feel terrible about it—I enjoyed the other events I played in—but I should have given it one more shot.
Gavin: I think this format did a pretty good job of teaching you how to make use of your resources in Sealed. If your pool wasn't good, the right play usually wasn't to get greedy with five colors but instead to build a two-color or two-color splash deck that could try and hit its curve and beat all of the people who got greedy on their mana. Almost everybody has access to ridiculous bombs and a hoard of 5/5s in this format because there are simply so many, so instead of fighting the war on a bomb-based field of battle, you play on different terms than your opponent and can steal some games by simply being quicker than they are. The more I played this format, the more I became a fan of cards like Cylian Elf which simply let you hit your curve and deal a lot of damage.
And as always in Sealed, especially with multicolor formats, deck-building is key. More of your matches are decided in deck-building than anywhere else.
5 – Have you started thinking about the Honolulu season and what decks occupy the top spots in your playtest gauntlet?
Gavin: Yes. I've already played in two Honolulu PTQs. I'd say right now the deck that carries the mantle of "top deck" in most people's minds is Mono-Blue Faeries. I think Death Cloud is really well positioned to do well in this format and if I hadn't run into Mono-Red Burn twice last weekend I'm confident I would have had a very good chance of winning the PTQ. Tons of other decks pepper the top of the format. Swans is probably one of the most consistently underrated decks I've ever seen, Elves is still as dangerous as ever, and Mono-Red Burn is a deck that is powerful simply because nobody gives it the respect it deserves.
Zoo is the one deck I would say is the most overrated right now. Almost every deck has incorporated answers to beat Zoo and, while it does have particular cards and draws that allow you to steal games, it's not a favorite against the strongest decks in the format which makes it very hard to win a PTQ with. While you will still play against it in PTQs, I would not recommend playing it.
Gabe: I like the blue decks. I haven't tested a whole lot, but that much I know. I'm with Gavin that Zoo doesn't impress me, and the mono-red decks are dangerous. It looks like Affinity is going to make a resurgence, too, so I'll have to get a good list together of that.
Nathan: Honolulu season? I really have no idea. I think Faeries and Elves are probably the strongest, and you have to watch out for Zoo, because it's going to be there. I personally really like the Death Cloud deck. And I think Blood Moon is a really good card in this format. Other than that, I have done little testing. I'll let you know when I invent that new combo deck that no one will be prepared for and everyone will be talking about. ;)
Samuel: A little bit. I 4-2ed the Worlds PTQ with Faeries, but work and other life concerns are going to eat up a lot of time this upcoming season, so I'm not sure how much I'll be available. My guess is I'll only be able to hit up two or three PTQs. In terms of what I'm playing, I'm looking at Elves—which I think people have written off to hate too early—and Zoo.
Get a Life
Another deck Gavin has to be taking a look at is the following concoction that recently made the Top 8 of a Portland PTQ for Honolulu (you can find the Honolulu PTQ schedule here) in the hands of Jonathan Loucks. If Jonathan's name sounds familiar to you it is likely due to his involvement in the creation of the Mannequin deck that dominated States in 2007.
Jonathan Loucks's Get a Life
Top 8, Pro Tour-Honolulu Qualifier, Portland
Jonathan worked on the deck with Zaiem Beg, Dan Hansen, and Gavin Verhey in preparation for the Portland PTQ, which they were expecting to be an eight-round affair but which came in as seven-round affair with 97 players. He ended up going 5-0-2 through the Swiss rounds before running afoul of a Death Cloud-fueled Rock deck in the Top 8.
"I thought the top three decks going into the event would be Zoo, Mono-Blue Wizards, and Elves—more with Mirror Entity than not," explained Jonathan when asked about his metagame predictions coming into the tournament. "Then I expected a smattering of Swans, Blue-Black Faeries, All-In Red, and Affinity—especially if people listened to the 'this is the tournament to play Affinity because there will be no hate for it' belief that was floating around."
Early on in the tournament Jonathan found himself surrounded by Spark Elementals at the top tables, which boded well for his choice of deck. By his eyeball tally of the metagame there were scarcely any Elves decks in the room, with the one Elves player he did see falling out of the contention early in the event. Other decks that he saw nearby as he maintained his top table position throughout the event included Zoo, Affinity, and Mono-Blue Wizards.
As for what he saw directly across the table each round: "I played against, in order: Doran 1-0-1, Zoo 2-0, Mono-Red Aggro 2-0, Five-Color Homebrew Swans 1-0-1, and Five-Color Homebrew Tezzerator 1-0-1. I didn't lose a game in the Swiss. People weren't scooping when I went off and gained ridiculous amounts of life, so the draws happen. I drew two Mono-Red Aggro players into the Top 8 in round six and seven, so I felt pretty good about my upcoming matchups."
"Then the Top 8 got paired and I was against Death Cloud in the Quarterfinals," Jonathan continued. "We knew going into the tournament that Death Cloud was an auto loss, so I was pretty unhappy, especially since there were three Mono-Red Aggro and a Zoo in the Top 8. Better luck next time!"
Jonathan was stuck in Montana in December and found himself musing with deck co-creator Zaiem Beg about the Extended format.
"I think [Zaiem] suggested Proclamation of Rebirth and Martyr of Sands, so we built a version of it," recalled Jonathan of the deck's origin. "We started with Reveillarks, lots of Eternal Dragons, and even four Safewright Quest. A few cards stood out early; Phyrexian Arena was just amazing—it's really, really good—and so is Ranger of Eos. Hide // Seek quickly became a four-of. That card changed so many matchups, and I owe it all to Zaiem. I have a tendency to ignore split cards."
From there they put the deck through the wringer, and nothing was out of bounds when it came to trying stuff out. The Phyrexian Arenas briefly became Night's Whisper, and Ad Nauseum made a cameo appearance. They tried making a version that was a Grapeshot combo deck with Enduring Renewal and Wild Cantor.
"We became so frustrated with our inability to beat a Vedalken Shackles effectively that we were even playing Sleeper Agent for a while. It may surprise you to hear, but Sleeper Agent just wasn't good enough," said Jonathan with a virtual wink. "The list just kept evolving, and started to solidify about a week before the tournament."
"Early on in the process I started sending e-mails to Zaiem Beg (co-creator, deserves as much credit as anybody) Gavin Verhey (very helpful idea man and knows the format) and Dan Hanson (constant criticism). Nothing was off the table, and with nothing to do in Montana but sift through Gatherer, Zaiem and I tried a lot of things. Mistveil Plains was by far my favorite, and perhaps the most important, innovation."
Jonathan ended up being very happy with the final product and thinks it remains a solid choice if you expect a field that is swarming with Spark Elementals, Wild Nacatls, Nettle Sentinels, Arcbound Ravagers, and Swans of Bryn Argoll. If you expect to see a lot of Riptide Laboratory and Death Cloud then he suggests looking elsewhere.
"The problem we ran into was not being able to beat Mono-Blue Wizards. Between Umezawa's Jitte, Riptide Labratory, Venser, Vedalken Shackles, and Academy Ruins, it's really hard to pierce their shell. They can't hope to beat you once you start getting Proclamation and Martyr going, and have an especially hard time against Phyrexian Arena. The problem is, you can't win either. If they realize they can't possibly win, they accept the draw and you can't deck them fast enough one at a time."
"This is a terrible deck choice if you expect Death Cloud, because you can't beat it," said Jonathan flatly of the deck's worst match-up. "We tried siding in Cranial Extraction, but they bring in their own Extractions, so you can't fight everything. We just accepted the loss and opened up the sideboard slots. I also don't think the deck fares well against Tron, but that's not a matchup we tested very much. I think Tezzerator is a good matchup, if that still exists. Fracturing Gust is the best sideboard card and does so much more than beat Affinity."
Changes to 2009 Invite Policy
With Grand Prix–Los Angeles looming on the horizon, there were a few burning questions related to the Invitation policy for 2009. What ratings would be needed in DCI Total rating in order to reach level of byes, how would rating based invites to Pro Tours work, and how many points would winning a Grand Prix be worth? Let's tackle that last one first, since winning a Grand Prix will be worth more in 2009 than it was for most of 2008.
"We are going to use the 2008 Summer Series points for GPs this year," said Content Designer Scott Larabee. "This point structure was received favorably by the players last year. Extended the point payout to 64th place as well as a slight increase of points was one of the factors that led to a great series of GPs last summer."
The deeper Pro Point payout during last year's Summer Series was very favorably received by players and Scott anticpates that this will have a positive impact on Grand Prix attendance—not that it has needed a boost in the past few seasons.
"Players that travel the international GP circuit should enjoy the point structure as it is more likely to reward their investment for attending," he noted.
Scott also explained that when DCI Total was originally announced there was an expectation that some team matches would count toward that rating (although Two-Headed Giant has been excluded), but that is no longer true.
"We have decided not to include matches from 2- and 3-person team in the DCI total rating," said Scott. "Adding team matches in was confusing for many people. Keeping team ratings separate is simpler. We will continue to evaluate the DCI Total rating and may alter this decision in the future."
As for how DCI Total rating will be incorporated, Scott continued:
"For 2009, each Pro Tour will have invitations based on two different ratings—either Limited or Constructed (based on the PTQ format for that Pro Tour) and DCI-Total. The top 100 ranked players from each will receive invitations to the Pro Tour. The addition of DCI-Total rating invites will generate approximately 30 additional player invitations."
For 2009, the ratings levels for byes at Grand Prix will use the following distribution:
"Every Grand Prix will use two ratings to determine byes this year," Scott concluded. "Limited GPs will use Limited and Total, Constructed GPs will use Constructed and Total. Players will get the higher number of byes based on these two ratings."
You can see the 2009 Invitation Policy here as a Microsoft Word document.
$50,000 Standard Stimulus Package
Tournament Organizers stepped up their efforts in 2008 to create their own tournament brands to augment existing programs and replace some events that had rotated out. We saw Steve Port launch the Game in the Gulf cruise, Glenn Goddard champion the return of State Championships, and multiple organizers host big money tournament weekends. Star City Games ran four $5,000 Standard Open tournaments last year in three different cities—Charlotte, Philadelphia and twice in Richmond—that saw hundreds of players turn out each time.
"I am proud to announce that the expanded StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Open Tournament Series will be making stops in Indianapolis, Charlotte, Minneapolis, Richmond, Boston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Nashville, St. Louis, and Dallas. The series will award a combined prize payout of $50,000.00," said Star City Games president Pete Hoefling.
Pete explained that the reasons for choosing those specific locations are too complicated to list but did say, "We certainly tried to make these events accessible to as many players as possible. This expansion goes a long way towards accomplishing that, but we still have a long way to go."
The format for all ten of these events will be Standard.
"Because calling the events Standard Opens, then running them as Extended, would probably just confuse people," Pete jokingly explained the reasoning for the format choice before adding: "But in all seriousness, we always use the Standard format because it is most popular Constructed format. Most FNMs are run using the same format so most players already have access to a Standard deck, eliminating one obstacle a player wanting to compete in our bigger event may otherwise face. StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Opens also generate fresh Standard deck lists and help keep players excited about the Standard format. I believe such things then help energize the player bases back at those same FNM stores, which I believe helps to grow the game as a result."
While all ten dates have not been finalized Pete did share the existing schedule, which kicks off in February.
Richmond, VA – Saturday, February 21st (followed by a Pro Tour–Honolulu Qualifier in the same facility on Sunday, February 22nd)
Indianapolis, IN – Saturday, March 28th (followed by a Pro Tour–Honolulu Qualifier in the same facility on Sunday, March 29th. This PTQ is being run by Alan Hochman and our friends at Pastimes.)
Atlanta, GA – Saturday, May 16th
Boston, MA – Saturday, June 20th
Minneapolis, MN – Date TBA
Dallas, TX – Date TBA
Charlotte, NC – Date TBA
Philadelphia, PA – Date TBA
Nashville, TN – Date TBA
St. Louis, MO – Date TBA
"As you can see, both StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Opens taking place during the Pro Tour–Honolulu Qualifier Season are followed by Pro Tour–Honolulu Qualifiers the next day. This is intentional, and something we will continue trying to offer whenever such opportunities present themselves," said Pete who also assured readers that there would be tons of side events and other activities at each stop in 2009. "We're currently exploring other possibilities such as guest artists, etc., but the main thing they can expect to find are other people, and lots of them. The Magic community is hungry for large events where they can come together to collectively immerse themselves in this game, and the StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Open Tournament Series is going to cater directly to that community."
Your Friday Night Foil: Scrying for Spark Elementals
There is no bluer Magic player in the history of the game than Jon Finkel. It was shocking for me to see him lead off the Extended portion of the World Championships with a Mountain and Spark Elemental. Jon was playing a Mono-Red Burn deck that featured such card-disadvantageous plays as Spark Elemental and Lava Spike. The closest the deck could come to Jon's typical style of play was the card selection effect of Magma Jet, which he could use to dig to more Spark Elementals and Lava Spikes.
Jon Finkel's Mono-Red Burn ("The Lightning Bolt Deck")
Extended - 2008 World Championships
If you want to build a tricked-out version of this deck for the PTQ season you may already have the Shrapnel Blasts from last month’s FNM and can take the foiling process further with January’s Magma Jet. Check it out:
Click here to find a Friday Night Magic store near you.
Firestarter: 2009 Resolutions
For 2009, I have resolved to only see movies featuring snakes and/or ninjas but am in a quandary about what to do if any really good ape or shark films are released sans snake and ninja. As far as Magic goes, I have resolved to have more fun playing Magic and to open myself up to more formats than drafts and...you know...more drafts. I have started playing a little Pauper and want to try my hand at more formats that are not tied to other premier events. That is not to say I will not be playing those formats as well, but just trying to be open to as many fun and interesting ways to enjoy Magic as possible.
What are your 2009 resolutions, Magical or otherwise? Head to the forums and share them there.