In the lead-up to this weekend’s Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, the vast majority of Magic’s professional community converged in London. Not only were they seeking fame, fortune, and a pocketful of cash—they were also using the event as a last-minute crucible for their ideas and perspectives on this new Limited format. Any GP before a Pro Tour is always an opportunity to get a sneak peek at the strategies that the best players in the world have been working on, as these players know that Day 2 of a GP is the best place for last-minute, high-level stress-testing of their ideas. There was a lot to take away from what we saw across the weekend!
As you might expect, the Top 8 was stacked, with some hugely notable names running the Swiss gauntlet and securing themselves a place in the finals. Seth Manfield continues to crush every tournament he enters (there was much speculation in Twitch chat as to whether he isn’t in fact a highly-advanced robot of some kind), Steve Rubin further improved his incredible CV with another GP Top 8, and Brad Nelson showed us that his pledge to improve his Limited game wasn’t just all talk.
A diverse array of Draft archetypes were on display during the Top 8, with some marked departures from the rather stale triple-Ixalan draft format. The finals between Steve Rubin and Marcelino Freeman showed off two wildly different approaches to Rivals draft—Rubin’s green-based Dinosaur Ramp deck went big, with Forerunner of the Empire finding everything from Raging Swordtooth to Polyraptor. Freeman, on the other hand, took down the whole tournament with an obscenely aggressive blue-black Pirates deck that featured 4 copies of Grasping Scoundrel and only 15 lands!
— Magic Esports (@MagicEsports) January 28, 2018
By now the whole Magic world is witnessing the ascension of Pauper, fueled in no small part by the efforts of the Professor from Tolarian Community College. The GP in London saw the largest ever Pauper tournament take place, with over 300 people assembling to do battle with the best commons ever printed. Of course, the Professor took part, after having received a standing ovation!
— ChannelFireball (@ChannelFireball) January 28, 2018
But when it comes to tournament highlights, it’s difficult to overlook the way in which this tournament was won, with Freeman topdecking like a madman to punish Rubin as he tapped out to stabilize the ground. Rubin had been desperately attempting to lock up the ground with a Raging Swordtooth, bounced three times by Freeman’s various tempo cards.
Finally, Rubin drew a Jungleborn Pioneer to flood the board with blockers. But as this play cost him 8 mana, he could no longer keep up the Plummet he’d been sandbagging for the entire game. Naturally, Freeman chose this exact moment to rip a One With the Wind off the top of his deck, slap it into play, and push through the final points!
There were a few decks that turned heads throughout the tournament. Earlier in the day, the Danish strongman Christopher Larsen truly went off the deep end in the first Draft. He had Form of the Dinosaur, Nezahal, Primal Tide, Polyraptor, and Zacama, Primal Calamity all in the same deck—just the casual mono-rare 6-7-8-9 curveout, no worries. Surprisingly, he didn’t do too well with it.
(Frank) Both Gerry Thompson and Christoffer Larsen drafted a deck with multiple Dinosaur bombs and an ambitious mana base. One went 1-2; the other 3-0. Who do you think had the better record? #GPLondon pic.twitter.com/PZoMguy1bB
— Magic Esports (@MagicEsports) January 28, 2018
The most worthy of further exploration, however, is the one that took down the tournament. Last week, I touched on Grasping-Scoundrel-based aggro decks, and here is another example of an all-out aggressive strategy performing well. The days of three packs of Swashbuckling are behind us, but this innocuous black 1-drop is here to take names and crack skulls.
Marcelino Freeman, 1st place at GP London 2018
Prioritising cheap, aggressive creatures and tempo-based removal is key to putting a deck like this together. Grasping Aggro isn’t looking for cards like Impale or Contract Killing. Instead, Expel from Orazca, Crashing Tide, and perhaps a top-end of Deadeye Rig-Hauler is much more important. This deck isn’t trying to win the long game—it’s looking to get in early damage, bounce big blockers, trade up on mana, and push through for lethal on the back of evasion.
A strategy like this lines up well against many of the “go big” green decks, as their expensive idiots can be bounced for long enough to get through enough damage. We saw this exact scenario in the finals, where Steve Rubin was simply unable to stabilize the board. This left Freeman in a position to keep chipping away until it was too late. Keep an eye on the Grasping Scoundrels as they go around the table, or snag them yourself!
While we will have a much more developed picture of how the pros navigate Rivals of Ixalan Limited this time next week, GP London nonetheless offered us some important, and in some cases, quite surprising data. Notably, new archetypes have arisen with the introduction of Rivals of Ixalan. Both black-green and white-blue didn’t get much love in the previous Limited format, but this time around it’s a very different story. Supported with gold uncommons and a more cohesive identity, both these decks are now viable and competitive strategies.
More specifically, in London we saw white-blue ascend make its mark as a real contender. The ascend mechanic seems to have been a little underrated. Many suspected it was unreasonable to expect to get to ten permanents in a regular game. But plenty of cards make it easy to get there—white-blue ascend relies on enchantment-based removal (Waterknot, Luminous Bonds) as well as cards that generate multiple permanents (Sailor of Means, Squire’s Devotion) to get the city’s blessing very swiftly. From there, cards like Spire Winder, Secrets of the Golden City, and even the lowly Snubhorn Sentry are all juiced up and can start going to work.
The evaluation of all the new cards is still in a state of flux as we find out more and more about how they all actually play, rather than how they look on paper, but a group of cards that has been truly impressive so far is the Forerunner “cycle.” These four cards have overperformed, searching up what is often the best card in your deck, but even if that isn’t the case, simply ensuring you’re drawing live next turn (or perhaps even chaining multiple Forerunners) is usually more than enough to justify picking these cards early. Don’t sleep on the Forerunners—they’re higher picks than you imagine!
Next week I’m off to Bilbao to watch Magic played on the biggest stage. It’s time for the Pro Tour! As the format is Modern, I absolutely cannot wait to see how things shake out in Spain. I’ll see you there!