ith Pro Tour Dragon's Maze just a week away I huddled up with a handful of the members on our vast coverage team to talk about the players, cards, and strategies we will be writing and telling stories about this weekend. Joining the conversation was my Sunday boothmate and Pro Tour Statistician Rich Hagon; Sunday Newsdesk anchor Marshall Sutcliffe; Walking the Planes... ummm... Planeswalker Nathan Holt; video commentator and retired sheriff of Richmond Sheldon Menery; text coverage beat reporter Blake Rasmussen; and the newest member of our team, Adam Styborski.
BDM: There are a handful of players who always have exciting takes on a Constructed format. There seem to be plenty of tools for a control deck in Block and I cannot wait to see what Patrick Chapin and Shouta Yasooka have brewed up. Who is the player you make a beeline to see during Player Registration and why?
Marshall: Gerry Thompson. Sure, Sam Black will break it wide open, but I really appreciate the level of refinement that Gerry reaches with his decks, and also that he isn't afraid to take a shot at a format.
Rich: The logical choice is probably Sam Black, since his deck is likely to be a reflection of his position in world Magic: talented, powerful, efficient, thoughtful, and with a bonkers set of teammates cheering him on. For the dreamers, though, surely it has to be Conley Woods. If Conley has travelled down a path that wasn't "off the beaten," I can't recall it, and if the "dreamer deck" is there to be found, Conley will find it.
Sheldon: Sam Black, because you can always count on him for something interesting. Michael Jacob because he likes to think outside the box.
Adam: It'll be either Conley Woods or Sam Black, whoever I see first. I want to see what creative minds with plenty of testing come up with, and I can imagine either bringing something few others would expect.
Blake: Alexander Hayne, and it has everything to do with his win last year. Team ManaDeprived has shown they're very good with Block formats and uncovering technology to help put an otherwise known strategy over the top, like they did with Feeling of Dread. I would normally say Conley Woods—I think you always have a little more room to brew in underpowered formats where some crazier cards have a little more room to shine—but I expect he and the whole ChannelFireball team will probably come with one or two decks.
Nate: Sam Black. You can't ignore the success of his Pro Tour innovations. His Aristocrats won Pro Tour Gatecrash. Last year, two of the five who played his Block deck made Top 8 (Jon Finkel and Gaudenis Vidugiris). He is trusted by many of the world's best pilots. I can't wait to see his list.
BDM: I have drafted full block a bunch this past week and it feels completely different to me than either triple Return to Ravnica or triple Gatecrash draft. I am holding my own but I am looking forward to watching Jon Finkel let loose in a format with powerful cards and abundant mana fixing. When it comes time to hand out clipboards for draft recording, who will you be hoping to watch draft?
Adam: I have a soft spot for Patrick Sullivan. I watched him throughout Grand Prix Charlotte, where he qualified playing Boros all weekend long. If there's an aggressive deck in this Limited format I'd trust him to show us how it's done. I'd also "settle" for Paul Rietzl.
Sheldon: Shouta Yasooka. He's a great success story—Constructed master who knew he had to become a better drafter, and did.
Nate: Ben Stark. He will have assuredly spent many more hours drafting this format than the average Pro Tour competitor. He makes his picks confidently, even if his initial plan goes awry. Watching him jump out of Orzhov and into Simic at Pro Tour Gatecrash was a lesson in how to take control of your draft deck, even when the "luck factor" isn't going your way.
Rich: Answer A—Ben Stark. I watched him do a 3v3 draft among his ChannelFireball teammates in San Jose last year, and the way he explained every pick to Martin Juza was incredible to behold. I'll let others judge whether he's The Best at Limited—Rich Hoaen and Neil Reeves are two who have held that unofficial title in the past—but either way it's a privilege to watch him go to work.
Answer B—Anyone who opens Mirko Vosk, Mind Drinker, and knows that the UB Mill deck is completely bonkers.
Marshall: Ben Stark. While he may not go as deep as LSV sometimes does, his solid, analytical approach to Limited is something I appreciate and love to watch.
Blake: Ben Stark, and I'm pretty sure that's the right answer in 100% of the Limited formats ever. I never fail to learn about twenty-seven different things when I watch a Ben Stark draft, no matter how well I think I know the format.
BDM: We saw a handful of players—Gerry Thompson, Owen Turtenwald, Melissa DeTora—have their breakout performances at Pro Tour Gatecrash. There were a number of interesting players in the Top 16 as well. He has been a machine and I am just waiting for Tomek Pedrakowski to break into Sunday. Who would you suggest keeping an eye on in San Diego?
Blake: Is it fair to say Gerry Thompson again? He broke out in the last Pro Tour by achieving his first ever Top 8, but I think we've only just begun to see what Gerry is capable of with a team at his back and a skip in his step. I think we're going to start seeing Gerry in contention for a lot more Top 8s from here on out, and I wouldn't be surprised if he ran the rare back-to-back PT Top 8s in San Diego.
Adam: Hands down: Ari Lax. He's had plenty of close calls recently, specifically a heartbreaking 9th at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, and it wouldn't surprise me to see him break through here. It feels like it's finally time.
Nate: Keep that eye squarely on Gerry Thompson. Unless he Top 8s GP Portland this weekend, his chase for Platinum status in the Pro Players' Club will come down to his performance at Pro Tour Dragon's Maze. He's got a lot on the line and the Magic community is rooting for him.
Marshall: Lukas Jaklovsky. Lukas had a blockbuster season and has shown no signs of slowing down.
Rich: Here's a selection from across the qualification routes:
Platinum: Shahar Shenhar. It's only his eighth Pro Tour, but it's still a surprise that he doesn't yet have a Top 8. That's going to change very soon.
Gold: Christian Calcano needs Top 16 for Platinum. That's a lot of incentive.
Hall of Famer: Frank Karsten. I've no idea if he's playing, but if he is, the chance of seeing a Maze's End deck just got a lot higher.
MOCS: Jan van der Vegt. I really admire people who forge a path, and Jan has made a real name for himself among the streaming community.
Magic Online PTQ: Matej Zatlkaj. Okay, so I'm obliged to pick my lead European Grand Prix commentator, but he's been to a Pro Tour final and that's more than most of the field will ever be able to say.
GTC Top 25: Felipe Tapia Beccera. He's currently in the lead for Rookie of the Year, and him holding onto that lead would be such a thrill for the Chilean Magic community.
GP Top 4/8: Ben Isgur made the Top 8 of the largest GP to date in Charlotte. He's a genuine TCG monster and is a world class at any game he decides to focus on. A genuine "dark horse" threat.
PTQ: Not close, the single player I'm most excited to see playing in San Diego—it's 2007 World Champion Uri Peleg of Israel. Such an unassuming guy, barely seen since his global triumph, and now a PTQ winner. Awesome.
BDM: I don't know if this Block Constructed format will be conducive to a beatdown strategy or not but I really like Viashino Firstblade and Spike Jester for keeping the pressure on in decks built around their respective guilds. What Dragon's Maze card is going to have the biggest impact on the Constructed portion of the Pro Tour?
Marshall: Advent of the Wurm. I'm honestly not sure how the format will shake down yet, but if there is a deck in these colors, it will run Advent of the Wurm. Getting around Supreme Verdict for a turn and affecting combat in a nasty way are just two of things this card does well.
Adam: Blood Baron of Vizkopa has protection from two removal-laden colors, reasonable size for his price, and even comes with lifelink and other abilities tacked on top of it all. He's durable and able to win races alone, two things that should make him problematic to deal with.
BDM: Are there any unsung cards from the first two sets that will get their due in Block Constructed?
Marshall: Assemble the Legion. If there is a multicolored control deck in the format, Assemble the Legion is an excellent long-game plan. It helps keep you alive, and it gives you inevitability through an ever-growing swarm of soldiers at the ready. It's also quite resilient, making it an ideal top-end for a control deck.
Sheldon: Is Blind Obedience unsung? I expect to see some extort stuff to get its day.
Adam: Given all the removal in black-green, I'd love to see a Jund deck with four copies of Dreg Mangler do some work. I don't think it's had its chance to shine just yet.
Blake: Jace, Architect of Thought has always been on the fringe of playable to very good but has really fallen out of favor in Standard. Block is going to be a little bit slower than Standard and everyone is going to have at least an eye on Sphinx's Revelation, so the newest iteration of Jace might just have an opportunity to break some control mirrors.
BDM: I have been drafting with the new set a fair amount and it seems like you have more time than you did in triple Gatecrash. What is your early take on the Return to Ravnica Block draft format?
Marshall: I think people will separate into a few groups. The biggest will be the three-color decks and the five-color decks. Finding that balance between power and consistency is going to be tricky in the early stages. Knowing when to prioritize mana fixing will be the most useful skill at Pro Tour Dragon's Maze.
Rich: It's super complex, super interesting, and it utterly rewards practice. Players who concentrate on Block Constructed and don't put in the drafting hours are going to get buried, as there are a ton of mistakes to make and not a lot of pathways to get you out of a train wreck. Dragon's Maze can give you anywhere from five to twelve playables, but if they're the right five, your deck can still easily 3–0.
Blake: Best draft format ever or bestest draft format ever? Not only am I a huge fan of three-color formats, but the synergies built across all three sets make for a rich, deep drafting experience. You can combine Goblin Rally and Maw of the Obzedat or Pontiff of Blight and populate or Maze Abomination and Izzet Staticaster. There are so many different ways to draft synergistic, fun decks that are also very good that I'm pretty sure the coverage team is going to spend every free minute possible drafting. Granted, that's pretty much every Pro Tour, but still.
Nate: White seems to be the best color. I expect Orzhov, Boros, Azorius, and Selesnya to be drafted quite a bit, and sometimes blended together in some combination.
BDM: Bane Alley Broker is a card that has always been objectively good but I never found the time to play with it in Gatecrash—I would just get run over before it really had a chance to dig me to any "answers." In the full block format the card has been an early MVP for me. What cards from the first two sets have shifted in draft pick value for you with the full block?
Adam: Two cards stand out to me: Teleportal and Gridlock. With plenty of high-toughness creatures to go around, tricks to break stalemates that are bound to happen feel like a necessity.
Nate: Ogre Jailbreaker. He was always good. Now he seems great. There are more Gates to set him free, and with only one colored mana symbol in his casting cost, he can fit in a lot of different guild combinations.
Marshall: The cycle of Primordials from Gatecrash. These are powerful seven-drops with legitimate spells attached to them. Gatecrash was a little too fast to reliably cast these giants, but the new format looks to be just slow enough on average to run them.
Blake: Prophetic Prism goes way up in my estimation. It was always fine to help splash in Gatecrash, but when you're almost always playing three+ colors, it becomes the best fixer in the block. I also think Gate-related cards, specifically Gatecreeper Vine and Greenside Watcher, go up a bit now that more Gates will be going around and will be higher picks in and of themselves.
BDM: There are lots of little races going on besides the one to be the PT champion. I wrote an article last week talking about some of the position changes that can happen over these two weekends. At some point, it seemed impossible for Yuuya Watanabe to lose the Player of the Year lead, but it is a very real possibility now. What specific races have caught your attention?
Rich: Why choose? Simply pay attention to the best eight to ten US players in San Diego, and you could very well be watching the Pro Tour Champion race, the Player of the Year Race, the race for Platinum, the race for the at-large slots for the World Championship, and the World Magic Cup US Captain race... all in one!!!
Blake: Although it's a little like cheering for the Yankees, I'd love to see Yuuya Watanabe run it back this year. I actually like seeing players in their prime dominate the game and really show they're the best. But, thanks to some stellar performances by a few other players and Watanabe coming back to Earth a little bit as the year went on, we actually have a really interesting race that could come down to the wire.
Adam: It's easy to see Yuuya Watanabe winning the Player of the Year crown this year, but I'll be watching Josh Utter-Leyton, among a handful of others, who have a chance if San Diego goes their way. Even just making Top 25 can shift the balance considerably.
Sheldon: The WMC has created the best human-interest stories in a long time. I'm always watching to see who's qualifying and who's taking the top spots all around the globe.
Nate: Berths for the sixteen-player World Championship. Covering that tournament last year was a remarkable experience. I can't wait to see who gets to compete this year.
BDM: Bold prediction time... pick a winner!
Sheldon: A Hall-of-Famer will Top 8, but I'm picking Tom Martell to become the first back-to-back PT winner. The guy's on a complete heater.
Nate: Josh Utter-Leyton. He's remarkably consistent. He's in the thick of the hunt to become captain of Team USA at the World Magic Cup. I expect him to bring his A game.
Marshall: Brock Parker. Brock has been knocking at the door for a long time, tests with the right team, and had a strong finish at the last Pro Tour.
Blake: Willy Edel. The guy is playing not only some of the best Magic of his life, but some of the best of anyone's life. Plus, it's a format where Jund is legal, so you know he'll have at least a puncher's chance. He came back to the game rededicated and reinvigorated and is showing just how good he has always been.
Adam: Josh Utter-Leyton has been on a consistent path of doing well this year, and after his Philadelphia Top 8 appearance a couple years ago it's time for him to reappear and close the deal. It'd certainly change who's playing catch up for Player of the Year!
Rich: The viewers and the readers—it's the best weekend of the season, with thirty hours of live video coverage plus all the analysis, features, and decklists any sane person could reasonably want!
Oh all right, then, if you're forcing me—I'll go with someone who's bound to give me a good run. Since Worlds 2007, he's played in twenty-one Pro Tours, and had a negative record twice. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you... Raphael Levy.
And that's a wrap on our roundtable. As you can see, we'll be chasing a ton of storylines throughout the weekend. With six rounds of full Return to Ravnica block Booster Draft and ten rounds plus the Top 8 with Return to Ravnica Block Constructed, it's a fitting conclusion to such an epic block. Throw in the twelve open seats for the World Championship, seventy-one national champions for the World Magic Cup, and Silver, Gold, and Platinum levels hanging in the balance and I'm sure you're already clearing your schedule to join us for live coverage starting at Friday, May 17, at 9 a.m. San Diego time.
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Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on DailyMTG.com, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.