What a Pro Tour! I just landed back home after a whirlwind trip to Madrid, and am still trying to absorb what happened this past weekend. Making it to the Top 8 of a Pro Tour is extremely difficult, and is something I am very proud of. It still hasn't sunk in.
For this tournament, I decided to team with East West Bowl. Many of the players live closeby, which makes preparation much easier. My old teammates, Steve Rubin and Brad Nelson, also made Top 8, so it seems like switching testing teams for this Pro Tour worked out for pretty much everyone involved.
Having an edge in Limited is one of the biggest ways to get a leg up at a Pro Tour. For East West Bowl, this means keeping spreadsheets ranking all the cards in Shadows over Innistrad, in pick order. Going into my drafts at the Pro Tour I had a firm understanding of the various strategies of the format, and the power level behind some cards, which might not be apparent at first. While this process is time-consuming and extremely difficult it was worth the extra effort. The results speak for themselves.
The first deck I drafted was Blue/Red Spells. When I saw a Rise from the Tides third pick pack one, it was time to move in. After having watched this deck in action and hearing other teammates talk about Blue/Red, I knew what had to be done. For the rest of the draft I prioritized taking non-creature spells, and ended up playing 15 of them to fuel the Rise from the Tides. The deck was one of the best decks I have ever drafted at a Pro Tour and gave me the 3-0 start I was hoping for. Having started out winning the first draft a handful of times, it really does add some pressure. Going into Constructed there is the added feeling of hoping your choice of Constructed deck is good, as otherwise the 3-0 start in draft is a waste.
Luckily for me the Constructed deck fired on all cylinders. While I got severely mana screwed and out-drawn in round five against the best player of all time, Jon Finkel, my record was otherwise unblemished day one. This is the Esper Planeswalkers deck I played, was designed by Andrew Brown and Neal Oliver:
The two biggest decks our team anticipated showing up at the Pro Tour were Bant Company and White Humans. While those were the most played archetypes, there were also a ton of other decks that came out of left field. This control list is tuned to be able to beat creature-based strategies game one and then has a very versatile sideboard for games two and three. I didn't drop any matches to Bant Company or Humans, and in fact only lost three matches with the deck, including the one in top four to Steve Rubin. Languish was well-positioned for this Pro Tour, and I do believe that this is the best Languish deck.
The first question is why go heavy on Planeswalkers when you can just simply play Esper Dragons? To be honest, Esper Dragons and Dragonlord Ojutai were very unimpressive in testing. With so many decks playing spot removal, getting in multiple hits with a Dragonlord Ojutai was difficult. Instead we decided to play Sphinx of the Final Word. Few players had it on their radar going into the Pro Tour, but there are many midrange decks that lose to the card single-handedly. The slower the matchup, the more time you have to land Sphinx of the Final Word.
While Sphinx of the Final Word is the creature win-condition of choice in the maindeck, the Planeswalkers are also perfectly capable of winning games. The deck is built to be able to abuse Narset Transcendent. Over half the deck is non-creature spells which means it is very likely to hit when ticking up Narset Transcendent. When looking at a land on top, oftentimes it is correct to play an Evolving Wilds or cast Anticipate in order to have another shot at drawing a spell next turn. Narset Transcendent coming into play with six loyalty on turn four is huge. Opponents will spend the entire game trying to get her off the board and fail while you continue putting Planeswalkers on the table.
Narset Transcendent's rebound ability works with the variety of removal spells here, but even rebounding an Anticipate can be effective. However, the card that works the best with Narset, Transcendent is Dark Petition. Dark Petition had a breakout weekend, and for good reason. Being able to tutor for any card in your deck is a powerful effect, and here you are essentially only down two mana for the effort once spell mastery is turned on. However, if you rebound a Dark Petition this means in many ways you are netting one mana total, as six mana is produced total between the two Dark Petitions which wind up being cast.
When rebounding Dark Petition though in order to make use of the three mana it is necessary to use it during your upkeep. We considered adding a big card-draw spell like Epiphany of the Drownyard, but in the end that card was unimpressive. Sometimes though it is correct to just search for spot removal or Silumgar's Command in order to make use of the mana generated in the upkeep. I have to say that every game I rebounded Dark Petition ended up in a win. That is how powerful the effect is. There is such a wide variety of Planeswalkers that the ability to search for a specific one makes it possible to completely take over the game.
Once this deck gets going it is nearly impossible for the opponent to recover. In order to be able to combat this control deck you need early pressure and the ability to fight through mass removal. Steve Rubin's W/G Tokens deck is a classic example of a deck that is capable of fighting through Esper Planeswalkers.
While I ended up going .500 against W/G Tokens, including beating it in the swiss rounds, this was the best-performing deck of the tournament overall, and expect it to be one of the most popular strategies moving forward. It is always nice to see a Top 8 of all different archetypes. Having a good sideboard is extremely important in this format, and is one of the reasons I won nine constructed matches over the course of the weekend. Having transformational sideboard plans is something that has been proven to take opponents by surprise.
Since there are no maindeck creature removal targets outside of Shambling Vents, most players are going to board out as much removal as possible against Esper Planeswalkers. This means that postboard, opponents might not be able to remove a Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet from play. We are boarding in creatures that can take over the game single-handedly, so once the opponent knows about the creatures in our board, a bit of a mind game begins. If our opponent keeps removal but we don't board creatures in, then they will still have dead cards in their deck after sideboard.
The other cards in the sideboard are versatile ways of combating other more controlling and midrange strategies. The singleton Infinite Obliteration is there as a Dark Petition target, and moving forward I recommend adding a Virulent Plague to the sideboard as well, in order to combat token strategies. Overall while I was very happy with the sideboard of the deck for the Pro Tour, there is definitely room for adjustment. Building a completely new and successful control deck is no easy task, and can be a big risk for a Pro Tour, but the Esper Planeswalkers deck is in my opinion the best control option in Standard.
Overall Standard is healthier than ever before. While on paper W/G Tokens is the best deck right now there are plenty of tools around to combat that deck. In fact the B/G Company deck, which Esper Planeswalkers has a great matchup against, may be the worst enemy for W/G Tokens. Here is the list LSV played:
Here we have a combo deck that isn't reactive whatsoever. The only spells in the deck are Collected Company and Cryptolith Rite, which makes it quite likely that Collected Company will hit two creatures. The reason why this sort of strategy is effective against W/G Tokens is that the plan A of B/G Company is more effective than plan A of W/G Tokens. For instance the deck LSV played can make Ormendahl much faster than W/G Tokens can.
There were actually a few different takes on Cryptolith Rites strategies Team East West Bowl was looking into for the Pro Tour, and knowing the power behind the card, I expect that while the B/G Company deck will continue to succeed, other variants of this deck will also begin to pop up. Perhaps adding another color does add more power to the combo elements, as a card like Eldrazi Displacer certainly seems powerful here. With that said though I'm sure that in the end LSV decided that going straight two-colors provided the most consistency, which is what's most important.
My recommendation going into the coming weekend is not to try and play with every single archetype coming out of the Pro Tour, as there are so many. The deck that won the Pro Tour should be the deck to beat, though any deck that has black in it, with access to Virulent Plague, could prove extremely important right now. Clearly there are multiple directions you can go with Pyromancer's Goggles, and seeing the various brews at the Pro Tour leads me to believe there is still room for further Exploration in Standard.
Thanks for reading,