Rhino, Company and Colourless Chaos: What Happened in Competitive Magic: the Gathering in the 2015-16 Season?
Last weekend saw the culmination of the 2015-2016 Magic season; a year that saw four exciting new Standard-legal sets focused on defeating the Eldrazi Titans, exciting changes to organised Constructed play, both format-specific and across the board, a social media revolution against Wizards with #paythepros, an overhaul of the Judge Program and, incredibly, the final broadcast of Hall of Famer Randy Buehler, who retired from the coverage team at Pro Tour Eldritch Moon after commentating 72 Pro Tours and 101 Premier events over his 17-year long history working with Wizards.
A season that began with Seth Manfield winning the World Championship last September became one with many headlines from Wizards of the Coast about the game, affecting judges, pros and casual players alike. Let’s take a look at the top 5 major events to occur in Magic: The Gathering this Season:
5. Two-Block Paradigm
The first major change was the introduction of the Two-Block Paradigm, in which blocks would only have two sets, one large one and one small one rather than the traditional three-set blocks that had come before them. This would result in a Standard that rotated more quickly, and was generally regarded as a good thing, although it did mean more of a money sink for those who wished to constantly keep competitive decks in the format.
4. The Vancouver Mulligan
Additionally, we saw the introduction of the “Vancouver mulligan”, a rule whereby when a player starts the game on less than seven cards, they can Scry the top card of their deck. This was intended to reduce the amount of matches that are won or lost due to bad mulligans or mana screw, and has been a very positive change to the game.
3. The Judge Program Reshuffle
It’s not only the players that have been affected by the new policies, either. In April, a massive overhaul of the Judge Program was announced, removing Level 4 and 5 judges altogether and introducing instead sideways promotion for level 3s, which allowed many more Level 3 judges the opportunity to be selected at higher level events and advance their judge status without having to wait for a chance to do so. This has been a long-awaited and much needed change. In addition, with the new redefinition of levels, an Organised Play announcement saw GPTs be reduced to Regular REL, allowing Level 1 judges to Head Judge them alone and meaning that there are more judges available to take care of these lower-level tournaments. Overall, these changes have been met with a positive response.
2. Platinum Appearance Fees
Of course, there have also been some less-than-positive changes. A few months back, the announcement mid-season from Wizards of the Coast that they would be reducing Platinum Pros’ appearance fees by a huge percentage next season had many people raising their eyebrows. The extra money was due to be included in the pot for the World Championship winner – however, only 24 players are invited to take part in that tournament, and many of the invites are down to the amount of Pro Points a player has earned in the season. By reducing the appearance fees, Wizards were effectively creating a catch-22 where the prize for the winner of the biggest competition was higher, but it was very difficult financially to get there because a player would no longer be able to support themselves from being Platinum. This announcement also came mid-season after many players had strived to reach 50 Pro Points on the basis that they would be receiving the money and be secure for the next season. The public backlash in the form of a trending hashtag #paythepros, not only from the affected pro players but from the playerbase as a whole, forced Wizards to take a step back, and within two days the decision had been reversed, at least for the forthcoming season 2016-17.
1. No More Modern Pro Tour!
The other big announcement of the year ties in with an incident that occurred in the spring, which will forever leave some Modern players scarred by the memory. Before the Modern Pro Tour, it was announced that a long-time staple of the format, Splinter Twin, had been banned, which made a lot of players angry and a lot of other players relieved. Regardless, it shook up the format completely as Twin was one of the premier control-combo decks, and in the lead-up to Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, everyone was speculative as to which decks the pros would be playing. Nobody expected what came next. They were everywhere.
As it turns out, fast mana in Modern isn’t a good thing. It was clear that Wizards had made a blunder by introducing colourless-only Eldrazi creatures at low CMC, as the old card from Worldwake, Eye of Ugin, suddenly spiked from $2 to $40 overnight. The Eldrazi decks could, with the right hand, have strong 4 or 5-CMC creatures out on turn 2, and simply rampage through and take over a game. In addition to this, Simian Spirit Guide allowed for nut draw hands that would begin with a Chalice of the Void for 1 on Turn 1, meaning that all the usual go-to removal in Modern (Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile) was immediately rendered useless. The inclusion of Eldrazi Mimic which was completely free with Eye of Ugin also meant that it was very difficult to get ahead early. The entire ChannelFireball team apart from one or two players were on this new colourless build that ripped through everything else at the Pro Tour, leaving only Eldrazi and two lonely Affinity decks in the Top 8. JC Tao ended up winning with his own take, a blue-red build that used literal draft commons like Eldrazi Skyspawner, boosted by the power of the fast mana.
Despite Wizards’ constant assurance that they were keeping an eye on the situation, nothing improved and the new Eldrazi builds only became stronger as people found blue/white and red/green builds utilising already powerful Modern mechanics to further power their Eldrazi decks. Soon, the phenomenon had leaked into Legacy and Vintage as well, and Eldrazi was at the top of the dailies and top of the tournaments in every single Constructed format – except, ironically, for Standard. This culminated in a GP weekend leading up to Shadows over Innistrad spoilers where there were GPs in Bologna, Melbourne and Detroit. Of the 24 players who reached Top 8 in each GP, 14 of the decks were Eldrazi lists, and the others made up a combination of aggro-combo decks which were able to play noninteractive games slightly faster than the Eldrazi decks could, now that control had become effectively irrelevant.
Aaron Forsythe agreed to an interview which was more like a manhunt at the end of GP Detroit explaining that indeed, they hadn’t actually tested out the cards and they didn’t mean for this to happen, and that there would be cards banned with the release of Shadows to attempt to fix the mess.
Thankfully, the Eye of Ugin ban that came shortly afterwards in addition to the unbanning of Ancestral Vision allowed for some new control brews to form and since then, Modern has once again become relatively stable in the wake of the Eldrazi menace. Since then, and in the interest of preserving Modern, Wizards announced that there will be no more Modern Pro Tours, focusing instead on Standard which is their premier format and meaning that there will be less format-warping bans imposed in order to make Pro Tour metas new and interesting. Nothing was changed in Legacy and Vintage, and Eldrazi still continues to do well in both formats, although it has really only taken the place of the MUD decks with slightly more efficient creatures rather than carving out the entire format around it, and other archetypes are still doing as well as ever, so it would seem that somehow, the eternal formats have reached a tenuous balance.
So amid all these changes, what happened to Standard this year?
What began with the release of Magic Origins last season quickly picked up into an exciting and turbulent time for Standard. Coming from a summer in which the new flip planeswalkers had been released, everyone was excited to see the strategies which they could fit them into. The release of Battle for Zendikar included five new “Battle” or “Tango” lands which, combined with the powerful Khans of Tarkir fetch lands, made mana fixing better than it had been in Standard since the days of shock and buddy lands in Return to Ravnica/Innistrad block. This made way for powerful four-colour decks, but sadly aside from the mana base very few cards from the new set actually saw much play – only in the Green/Red Ramp Eldrazi decks that began to appear from the woodwork. Through the beginning of 2016, the format had become mainly a mix of Abzan Blue, Mardu Green, and the most expensive deck, Jeskai Black, which cost a staggering $1000 at its peak. Though the premier red deck in the format – Atarka Red – was still very strong, there wasn’t much else that stood up to the power of four-colour decks with the kind of fixing available.
However, by the time Oath of the Gatewatch rolled around, there was a new deck that had appeared, centred around a card that at first seemed very unplayable – Rally the Ancestors. This deck took even further advantage of the four-color manabases to include Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, quickly filled up its graveyard with fetch lands and expendable creatures with sacrifice outlets and enter-the-battlefield triggers, and used the major card advantage engine of Collected Company (flashed back with Jace) before unleashing a Rally kill that would effectively combo the opponent out.
This deck became very strong and difficult to beat, mainly because of its creatures which were largely ineffective on their own and generally better off in the graveyard, thus resilient to single-target removal, but deadly when allowed to build up over time – and there were not many ways to effectively interact with an opponent’s graveyard and prevent the eventual Rally from occurring. Siege Rhino had finally been dethroned just months before his long-awaited departure.
The format shifted wildly with the introduction of Shadows over Innistrad. The fetch lands were gone, along with Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Siege Rhino, Rally the Ancestors – all the cards that had been key parts of influential decks. The departure of Khans and Fate from the format left only five sets due to the switch to the Two-Block Paradigm, and Dragons of Tarkir was left to pick up the slack of its fallen cousins. Thankfully, Wizards helpfully thought to print a card that up until now had not fulfilled its true potential.
After the release of Shadows, the first deck to burst out of the gate was, predictably, mono-white Humans, making use of the lack of efficient removal and many strong tribal cards to beat down the opponent before they could stabilise. However, soon enough, people began to put the pieces together, and the new boogeyman of the format reared its ugly head. Jace and Nissa, Vastwood Seer from Magic Origins. Sylvan Advocate and Reflector Mage, from Oath of the Gatewatch. Tireless Tracker, from Shadows over Innistrad. And Collected Company, from Dragons of Tarkir. Bant Company was here to stay. Though there were a few decks that managed to come close – Green/White Tokens was a good counter, and the Humans deck continued to do well – Bant Company was clearly the deck to beat.
What’s Next? Should I be Building Bant?
This brings us to last weekend, and the Eldritch Moon Pro Tour. With the introduction of Spell Queller and Thalia, Heretic Cathar to the format, Bant Company had only gotten stronger and was the key question in everyone’s minds approaching the tournament. Could they play it anyway, in the face of all the inevitable sideboard and mainboard hate – or could they find something else strong enough to beat it?
I happen to be staying in Sydney at the moment and thought that, after a great weekend following the Limited GP, it would be fun to go down and take a look. Quite apart from seeing all the famous professional Magic players (and cheering on our friend George Channing of Team Axion in his first ever PT), it would be interesting to see what deck archetypes people came up with. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I had never been to a Pro Tour before and there isn’t very much information available online about spectating one.
As it turned out, it was a fantastic experience. There were card and merchandise vendors available, selling all sorts of MTG accessories, Pro Tour exclusives and even draft packs. There was a comfortable spectator area set up with plush leather sofas and two big television screens displaying the Twitch stream of the feature matches, and spectators were allowed to wander freely on the floor, watching matches at whichever table they chose. Surprisingly, there were not many people there just to watch, and there was always enough room to sit anywhere, or watch any game we liked. In addition, there were tables set up at the back which players were using to deck tech or play casual Commander games.
Later on on the Saturday, I was playing Legacy there with my friends and was actually joined by Joe Lossett, who played some for-fun games with us and was incredibly patient with us even though we played like total scrubs. (Well, mainly me.)
I spent most of the weekend watching the feature match, either by standing by the feature match area and watching in person, or by sitting on the comfortable leather couches and watching the screens. Between rounds, I chatted to George and the other two members of Team Axion that had qualified, lamenting or celebrating their previous round’s result (George finished 8-8 in the end), and had a shirt that I was slowly collecting signatures on. All the Pros were incredibly friendly – nobody declined my request for a signature, most people asked my name and introduced themselves, and told me how their day was going. It was a great experience getting to meet and talk to so many experienced Magic professionals, as well as the coverage team and community figures such as Walking the Planes’ Nate Holt. For anyone who has an interest in professional Magic or the wider community, it is certainly a fantastic experience to go to the Pro Tour and see it all happening for yourself. Spectators are welcomed and well catered for.
As far as the decks went, Bant Company was still a large percentage of the metagame. Despite the hate, and though most of them didn’t do well on Day 1, two decks made it to the Top 8, and in the wider meta where there isn’t so much deliberate gunning for it, it seems as though it will still be a very good deck until the rotation of Collected Company. The rest of the Top 8 was very interesting, as unlike Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch, Eldritch Moon actually had a profound effect on the new Standard decks, and we got to see a lot of the new cards showcased in the Pro Tour meta.
The Top 8 decks were:
Lukas Blohon: Black-White Control
Owen Turtenwald: Temur Emerge
Luis Scott-Vargas: Bant Company
Sam Pardee: Black-Green Delirium
Reid Duke: Red-Green Ramp
Yuta Takahashi: Bant Company
Andrew Brown: Temur Emerge
Ken Yukuhiro: Red-Green Ramp
First and foremost was Emrakul, the Promised End, with some of the Pantheon members on variations of exciting green/red ramp lists featuring the new mechanic, Emerge, and an ability to fill up the graveyard with cards like Vessel of Nascency and Grapple with the Past to slam a quick Emrakul. In fact, many people decided their decks based on how weak it was to an opponent taking your turn, and this is where the Bant Company decks fell – it’s very easy to completely wipe out their hand by deliberately missing on Company and running their smaller creatures into giant Eldrazi. It was very exciting, though, to see that the “big bad” of the set was having a real impact on decks, and people were having to come up with new anti-Emrakul strategies or simply try to win quickly before it could land.
Adding to the flavour of the Pro Tour was the second highlight card; Liliana, the Last Hope. A second three-mana Liliana was always going to raise eyebrows and she hasn’t disappointed. She fit neatly into the Green/Black Delirium strategies which Sam Pardee featured in the Top 8, and her ultimate, it appears, very flavourfully defeats Emrakul – the final match between Lukas Blohon and Owen Turtenwald featured many, many hordes of zombies from Blohon’s black/white control build.
This is an interesting take, as many people were fixated on the Merge mechanic when Eldritch Moon first hit the shelves, trying out “Angel Control” featuring Brisela, Voice of Nightmares which was the main basis for running black/white – but Blohon took a different strategy, running Liliana, Ob Nixilis Reignited, Sorin, Grim Nemesis and value creatures like Archangel Avacyn and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet to protect and complement his planeswalkers. Traditionally, decks like his should have been bad against Emrakul, as the removal can so easily be turned on your own permanents; but Blohon either avoided the Emrakuls or played around them so well that he managed to take the entire tournament in a very flavourful win.
So what does next season look like? Who’s into the World Championship?
Of course, this being the end of the season meant that it was a high-stakes Pro Tour for many players, as the races for World Championship slots and the captaincy of some of the World Magic Cup teams were far from over – and it was the last opportunity for Pro Points to get that next level before the new season. At the GP the previous weekend, the GP Master race was narrowly won by Brain Braun-Duin, who missed out on Top 8 by one loss and saw his rival Seth Manfield go down in the semi finals. Coming into the Pro Tour, the Draft Master, Constructed Master and Player of the Year slots were all on the line – as well as a few At Large slots which had been handed down from players who qualified twice, so it was all to play for and every win mattered.
Marcio Carvalho won the Draft Master slot over Christian Calcano early on in Day 2, taking down the draft section with a spectacular 6-0 record. Oliver Tiu placed well enough to overtake the Constructed Master slot in addition to his Rookie of the Year place, and that meant that there was another At Large place available for those players who were only going for Pro Points. Though it looked like Seth Manfield was almost certainly locked in for Player of the Year, he didn’t place very well and it was actually Owen Turtenwald who took the title after a spectacular run, adding it to his extensive list of World Championship invitations.
When the dust settled, the list of World Championship players looks to be a pretty exciting line-up. Congratulations to all those who qualified, and it looks to be a very exciting World Championship. With Turtenwald’s outstanding year, and LSV’s run of three Pro Tour Top 8s in a row (charmingly dubbed LS3 on Reddit), it looks like Manfield is going to have to try very hard to maintain his title as World Champion.
In addition, congratulations go to those players named as National Champions (players with the most pro points in their country) who will captain their teams at the World Magic Cup. Good luck and congratulations to Eduardo Sajgalik, who after a rough start managed to pull back his Pro Tour performance and clinch the English captaincy at the end of Day 2!
The final honours that were given out at this Pro Tour were two new Hall of Fame slots, to Owen Turtenwald who has had a simply fantastic season culminating in his impressive second-place finish at PT EMN, and Yuuya Watanabe, a long-time player and incredibly talented Magic professional. Congratulations to the new Hall of Famers!
Finally – and last, but not least – the coverage team did a fantastic job, with new permanent additions Marshall Sutcliffe, Gaby Spartz and Tim Willoughby doing brilliantly supporting Rich Hagon, Brian David-Marshall and Randy Buehler during the three-day coverage. (Let’s also not forget LSV’s cameo for the final – bittersweet as it was). Being at the event you can really see how hard the team has to work, running about constantly, moving from booth to booth with very little rest in between and yet they were always smiling, happy to engage in conversation and in a cheery mood in general throughout the tournament. With this in mind, it will be sad to say goodbye to long-time veteran Randy, who has decided to retire to a behind-the-scenes role after this Pro Tour. His presence will certainly be missed.
And so this wraps up the Magic Season 2015-16. It has been incredibly turbulent and exciting, with many long-term changes to the game and the way people play it. It will be interesting to see how those changes affect us in the next season and beyond, as well as which Standard decks will come out on top following this exciting new meta at the Pro Tour. For now, it’s time to look forward to the World Championship starting September 1st and see if any one of our 23 challengers can dethrone Seth Manfield from the top spot.
Oh, and if you can, go and watch a Pro Tour in person. It’s great.
Thanks for reading,