The new Advanced Format kicked off last weekend with three notable events in North America: there were Regional Qualifiers in Illinois and Oklahoma, plus ARGCS Orlando in Florida! These events sit in a weird, sort of liminal space right now, because while these tournaments generate the first big deck lists for the new format, the Secrets of Eternity Sneak Peek weekend is right around the corner, and the new set goes tournament legal just days from now, on Tuesday the 13th.

Secrets of Eternity brings powerful new cards for all of the biggest decks right now, plus two new competitive themes – Nekroz and Infernoids – and a ton of single card legacy support. Every deck sitting at the top of the competitive heap will change once the new cards are released. That begs the question: do the deck lists from last weekend's event really matter?

I think so. While you can't look at the deck lists that topped those tournaments and carbon copy them for topnotch play past next Tuesday, there's a ton of great information there that works on a lot of levels. For instance, just knowing that the ARGCS Orlando Top 16 featured six Qliphorts, five Burning Abyss, four Shaddolls, and a Satellarknight deck suggests the relative popularity of those strategies… at least in the American South East. Since most players are more likely to explore new support for their existing deck than to switch strategies entirely, you can get an idea of how popular each option might be going into the SECE release, and how that could influence the composition of metagames moving forward.

On a more micro level, we can also look at new innovations or backwards-glancing trends that re-emerged in the big decks; examine how they functioned; and then apply that information once the new cards come out. While the most popular strategies will definitely change in the wake of Secrets of Eternity, the bulk of the cards being played will likely remain the same, and anything new or interesting in these current builds will probably still be valid. They won't be eliminated when new stuff drops, but they'll be weighed against those new factors and adjusted accordingly. The better you understand those existing variables the better you'll be at making decisions when SECE goes legal.

While only about half of the Regional deck lists from Illinois and Oklahoma are available, the ARGCS Top 16 lists are complete. And even just a cursory glance reveals some highlights and really interesting decisions, especially amongst the Burning Abyss builds. Gusteph Patigo's winning Burning Abyss deck is an obvious standout, but I'd like to begin this discussion with a look at the build played by a more well-known competitor: Dalton Bousman. These two decks are very different, so examining the different decisions these players made could be really valuable moving forward.

DECKID=101614Comparing Bousman's list to other recently successful builds, both at ARGCS Orlando and events in the previous format, a few cards are noticeably missing. He didn't run Black Luster Soldier - Envoy of the Beginning, which hasn't been a must-run, but has been a popular pick. More than that, his trap lineup's way smaller than we're used to. While Burning Abyss has largely been defined as a trap-heavy strategy the past three months, Bousman opted not to run Karma Cut, Phoenix Wing Wind Blast, or any other traps beyond Vanity's Emptiness and Fire Lake of the Burning Abyss.

Jake Phinney also ran a vastly reduced trap lineup, but the rest of the Top 16 Burning Abyss finishers played more conventional traps in higher numbers: Jackie Bernal ran nine; Patigo played eleven; and Travis Smith played thirteen. This kind of six-trap arrangement that Bousman played is really uncommon.

So, what did he do with the extra space? The first standouts aren't tremendously exciting: Bousman mained double Maxx "C" and slipped in an Effect Veiler. The logic there should be clear, since both cards are great in some of the biggest match-ups. Bousman's decision to shift some of his trap card slots into hand traps seems really smart when you consider that he probably expected triple Mystical Space Typhoon in everything, plus lots of alternative removal like Night Beam and Dust Tornado.

But then it gets more interesting. I can't remember the last time we saw a high-ranking Burning Abyss duelist run triple Rank-Up-Magic Astral Force: while the deck started off playing Astral Force when it first debuted in Duelist Alliance, that card fell from favor as time wore on, and the introduction of Calcab, Malebranche of the Burning Abyss; Alich, Malebranche of the Burning Abyss; and Virgil, Rock Star of the Burning Abyss in The New Challengers knocked Astral Force out of competition almost entirely. We rarely saw it, and when we did it was usually just a one-of copy to surprise opponents. It was nowhere near a strategic focus like it was here, played in triplicate and effectively taking up four Extra Deck slots.

What did Bousman use it for? The traditional play is to trade Dante, Traveler of the Burning Abyss for Constellar Pleiades. It's a celebrated move because Pleiades' ability works on both offense and defense; it bounces cards off the field to stop attacks and disrupt combos on your opponent's turn, while acting as temporary spot removal and problem-solving on your own turn. More than that, in this era where speed and tempo are starting to become the chief competitive focus, Constellar Pleiades equals damage.

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When you're faced with a big blocking monster or a single problematic backrow card and you don't have proper spell or trap based removal, Pleiades is a solve-it-all that keeps you aggressive and fights through any number of threats. I was actually writing about the aggression this card creates and how that speeds up your win condition beyond your opponent's expectations this weekend, before Bousman made the Top 16. Seeing that play out in real life while I was writing about it was pretty cool.

Beyond that, Bousman ran a single Chronomaly Crystal Chrononaut to get into Number C69: Heraldry Crest of Horror. Clocking in at 4000 ATK it's freaking enormous, and gives Bousman more outs to bothersome brick walls like Leo, the Keeper of the Sacred Tree. Its effect makes it a defensive powerhouse too, protecting all your monsters from attacks by threatening to wipe your opponent's field. While Pleiades solves problems, Heraldry Crest of Horror makes them for your opponent when you feel comfortable pressing your advantage.

On top of the versatility and acceleration of Rank-Up-Magic Astral Force, Bousman also played to the concept of inevitably by committing card slots to a plan we've seen a couple times in recent Regional Qualifiers. Billy Brake's 60-Card Control deck from YCS Austin made The Beginning of the End famous, leveraging its unique combination of Burning Abyss and Shaddolls plus Kuribandit to load those requisite seven Dark monsters to the graveyard. Do that, resolve The Beginning, and it generally puts you so far ahead your opponent can't catch up.

That card worked really well in Brake's mash-up, but it's also seen some success in smaller numbers in pure Burning Abyss decks, just over the past six weeks or so. By playing to a faster pace with Rank-Up-Magic Astral Force, but also creating that element of inevitability in longer games with The Beginning of the End, Bousman created a powerful pincer attack that his opponents wouldn't see coming. His build was unique: by comparison, Phinney's low-trap build passed on Astral Force and The Beginning entirely. The philosophy of expanding Burning Abyss' reach through both tempo manipulation and inevitability is huge, and could prove tremendously useful moving forward.

Moving along, Gusteph Patigo won the event with an entirely different build that innovated in equally notable ways. Just like Bousman, he challenged a lot of norms and went against the grain to find advantages his opponents wouldn't anticipate. Check it out.

DECKID=101602Again, the first thing that struck me about this deck were the cards that weren't here. I zeroed in on the two copies of Rubic, Malebranche of the Burning Abyss immediately; a noteworthy choice when triple Rubic is so standard. For a brief moment I was missing the forest for the trees: Patigo passed on Calcab, Malebranche of the Burning Abyss and Alich, Malebranche of the Burning Abyss entirely as well, playing what we could probably call the bare minimum number of Burning Abyss monsters imaginable.

What did those free card slots get him? In a word, Mathematician. While the Dragons of Legend all-star had largely fallen from favor even before Alich and Calcab hit the scene, it used to be fairly common in earlier builds of Burning Abyss. Playing it to yard Scarm, Malebranche of the Burning Abyss triggers its search effect in the End Phase, grabbing you Tour Guide From the Underworld or – in this day and age – Rubic. While Gusteph didn't opt to play Supply Squad, it's worth noting that Mathematician was once run to send Cir or Graff to the Graveyard too, in order to Special Summon a doomed Scarm and trigger Supply Squad's draw. (Remember, Burning Abyss monsters can't share the field with Mathematician due to their effects.)

The added consistency in searching both Tour Guide and Rubic comes at very little cost: Mathematician replaces itself with a draw if it's run over in battle, and whatever aggression you sacrifice can be compensated for with an Xyz or Virgil play next turn. Your opponent drops a monster to run over Mathematician? You lose nothing. But next turn they'll very likely lose their monster and more, thanks to plays involving Dante or Virgil, and the Malebranche effects they'll likely trigger.

Since Mathematician is such a secure chump Blocker and leads into so many of your biggest plays, it's a strong opening move that draws your opponent into action while presenting little risk. With three Mathematician and three Tour Guide From the Underworld Patigo had six great single-card openings. The biggest sacrifice was likely his lower chance to make big double Dante plays first turn due to his lower overall count of Burning Abyss monsters. He might also restrict his own plays if his Mathematician stuck on the field and thus blocked Malebranche Summons.

But at the same time, giving up those explosive, arguably risky maneuvers made the deck more consistent – both on the surface levels I've described, and in certain worst case scenarios. Fewer Burning Abyss monsters means fewer chances to draw mismatched pairs or triplets of them that clog your hand. Perhaps more than that, and something Pasquale reminded me of when we discussed the current state of Mathematician: a failed Tour Guide From the Underworld that got whacked by something like Breakthrough Skill, if left on the field, can overlay with Mathematician the turn following. That's a powerful recovery play.

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So Mathematician trades a bit of range and explosiveness for more consistency, plus some resiliency in bad situations and the chance to guide your opponent's plays. It influences tempo in ways they might not see coming. With most Burning Abyss Duelists playing to a greater range of options and play sequences, it's interesting to see this deck take a step back and focus more on the basics; I think that might be in part a function of the slightly faster speed of this format since it places more pressure on awkward hands.

Moving forward Mathematician will get even better: it'll let you yard Good & Evil in the Burning Abyss with Cagna, Malebranche of the Burning Abyss, to get at the Ritual Spell's search effect; you can overlay Mathematician with another Burning Abyss in your hand, by negating the in-hand Burning Abyss monster's effects and Special Summoning it with Libic, Malebranche of the Burning Abyss. You can even just peck your opponent for a fast 1500 damage by clearing away a monster momentarily with Farfa, Malebranche of the Burning Abyss. Those are all more complicating cards that play against what I believe Patigo achieved here – it's a distinctly different set of possibilities. But regardless, I think we could easily see more Mathematician whether it's played the way we saw it this past weekend, or for its combo potential with new cards.

These two decks offer two completely different lessons and perspectives on Burning Abyss: Bousman's build says interesting things about tempo and inevitability, while Patigo's version speaks to the importance of consistency in a quickened format. Both raise interesting thoughts moving forward into the release of Secrets of Eternity. What do you think? Does Burning Abyss emerge as the number one pick after SECE? Do these lessons carry forward, or will the deck be so different that everything we know will go out the window? Let me know your thoughts.

-Jason Grabher-Meyer