A few renowned players from the 2000s qualified for Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad, and I wanted to talk to a few of them for this issue of the Pro Tour Special. As my interview partners I chose Aeo Paquette, the last player to finish in the Top 8 of his first and second Pro Tour, and Rich Hoaen, one of the most acclaimed drafters of all time. I’d like to thank both of them for the detail in which they answered my questions, and wish them good luck for Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad!
Team: ChannelFireball/Ultra PRO
Qualified via Grand Prix Washington D.C. Top 4
Pro Points: 254 lifetime (14 in 2015–16)
Pro Tour Debut: Pro Tour Los Angeles 2001
Pro Tours Played: 39
Best Pro Tour Result: 8th
Top 8: 1 Pro Tour, 9 Grand Prix (4 wins), and 1 Invitational
Planeswalker Level: 48 (Archmage)
Q: You are mostly known as a Limited expert, and in fact, most of your prominent tournament finishes involved a draft at some point. Allegedly, you even taught Kenji Tsumura how to play Limited. In your opinion, what is the most important skill that a player has to master to become an outstanding drafter?
I’m impressed by the questions. You’ve done your homework! First off, I should clear up that the story about me teaching Kenji how to draft is just nonsense. I think it stems from a joke he made at one point, and coverage liked to play up that story for the international cooperation angle.
The real skill of drafting is what I’d describe as “contextual card evaluation.” That means starting off with a basic ranking of cards, like Frank Karsten creates. Yours or mine may be slightly different, but we’ll generally have cards on the same tiers.
The real skill is in knowing when to vary from that list: when you need to prioritize different spots on the mana curve, or when it’s time to ditch a color or move into another one. To do this, it is very useful to know what idealized versions of each powerful archetype in a format look like. In the past, I would get to that knowledge by drafting a format hundreds of times, but that is no longer realistic given how close the Pro Tours are to the release of the set. Now the archetypes are more theoretical since I get to do maybe 10 drafts before a Pro Tour.
The strategy is the same—trying to position myself in the draft for one of the better archetypes and getting as close as I can to an ideal version of that. Nowadays, the process is difficult as my perception of both the archetypes and the card rankings can be flawed since I don’t have anywhere near the same level of familiarity with a format to generate those opinions. These days I’m very reliant on my Ultra PRO and ChannelFireball teammates to develop these opinions, and they do a good job but, as they say, “there’s no substitute for experience.”
Q: Conversely, what properties in a draft format reward the most skilled players?
There are two things in the way that sets are designed now that I find detract from the advantages skilled players had in my heyday. The first is in the draft portion: the power level of the commons is much flatter than in years past. The crazy powerful ones at the top like Sparksmith or Sanctum Custodian don’t get printed anymore (rightfully so), but the problem is that there aren’t as many garbage unplayable cards. This means that even if you screw up your draft and end up in the same colors as both of your neighbors that you’ll still have the required 22 playables. It used to be that if you positioned yourself poorly you would end up with 20 playables over 3 colors and end up almost hopeless before you even start playing games. Overall, this is likely a good design decision on the part of Wizards since it makes the draft experience more enjoyable for everyone in the aggregate—it takes a lot of equity out of the pocket of superior drafters.
The second part is that creatures are generally more powerful now, which leads to shorter and often less interactive games. Obviously a 10-turn game will include fewer decisions than a 20-turn game, and therefore fewer opportunities for the better player to exert their superiority. Again, this design decision is likely the right one for Wizards, since the fact that the better players lose more often keeps more players playing longer.
Q: What is your first impression of Shadows over Innistrad?
At this point, I’ve played 4 rounds of Sealed at the prerelease, so I don’t have much of an impression. All formats look interesting at first, and I like that there aren’t as many obviously dominant rares in the set as I’ve seen in the recent past. I’m not a fan of the Werewolf mechanic in general since it introduces a high level of variance into the game—punishing slow draws and mulligans, while at the same time forcing people to mulligan more so that they will have early action and don’t lose to an early Werewolf.
Synergistic snowballing mechanics like madness and creature-types matter incentivize you to focus on a certain avenue while drafting because the best decks, the ones likely to 3-0 a pod, will be the ones that go all-in on something and “get there.” While at the same time, someone else could have a very similar start to a draft and not “get there” in packs 2 and 3 and end up with an 0-3 level deck. To do well in high-level Magic tournaments you need to optimize your equity while also embracing variance: it’s often better to have a 20% shot at a 3-0 deck than a 60% shot at a 2-1 deck to maximize your tournament equity because of the top-heavy payout distribution (not to mention the all-or-nothing glory distribution of the Top 8 cutoff).
Q: When you made Top 8 of Pro Tour Yokohama 2003, you forced white/black Clerics in 3 of the 4 Onslaught-Legions drafts. You went 9-0-1 in those, and 1-3 in the draft where you didn’t play Clerics. At Pro Tour Amsterdam 2004, you finished 10th drafting Affinity decks all the time. Is forcing archetypes a strategy that you often employ in tournaments? Do you consider it a legitimate strategy in the long run, or is it more of a crutch for tournaments early in the season because it is impossible to know the format perfectly well at that point?
Those two tournaments were actually fairly late in the “season.” The sets in question had been out for months and I was able to get hundreds of drafts in on Magic Online. For PT Yokohama, I discovered that the Clerics in the second set (which in those days you drafted one set of last) were extremely powerful, but rarely actually got used to full effect because the dynamics of the first set so rarely set people into a white/black Cleric deck. The best commons in Onslaught were red repeated damage effects (Sparksmith and Lavamancer’s Skill), big green creatures, and a removal spell that cares about Zombies (Cruel Revival).
Additionally, in triple-Onslaught, Clerics were very weak to the repeated damage effects that defined the format. Through what amounted to brute force, drafting the format so many times, I discovered that if I ignored the consensus best commons and just forced a Cleric deck, the payoff was always there in pack 3 because there were so many good common Clerics that nobody else wanted.
Amsterdam was somewhat different in that the Pro Tour was much closer to the set release and I had much less time to find the optimal strategy. Fortunately, for that one we had an excellent group of players doing live drafts in Toronto. Two of those players: Mike Turian and Eugene Harvey (the members of that group who did better than I did at the Pro Tour) were consistently doing well drafting Affinity decks that “cheated” on land—playing far fewer than seemed reasonable. This strategy could be applied to basically any color combination other than green, so while I was forcing Affinity, it was pretty flexible, especially in a Rochester draft environment.
These days, it is much more difficult to find an innovative or contrarian draft strategy since there is so little time for draft preparation before the Pro Tours. I thought that we at Ultra PRO had an effective strategy for Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch (drafting slow, controlling multi-colored decks if WB Allies wasn’t available), but we actually did quite poorly there (including an 0-3 from me), and by the time I next drafted the format at GP DC, I had a very different approach.
Q: You were invited to the last Magic Invitational in 2007. What kind of an experience was that for you, playing all those weird formats? In the end you came close to winning, but lost the finals to Tiago Chan. That could have either been the most painful loss of your career, or a loss that you didn’t mind too much—which one was it?
The Invitational was a fantastic experience and it saddened me when they decided to eliminate it. Obviously it was a disappointment coming so close and losing (especially in the manner that I did) in the finals of a winner-take-all tournament. I take solace in the fact that I didn’t lose hours of my life to scribbling on cards. The tournament itself was cool, and it felt great to do so well against the best of the best.
I was proud of the fact that I had easily the best deck for the Build Your Own Standard format—a Recur/Survival combo deck taking advantage of the removal of errata on Priest of Gix and Palinchron. Foolishly, I declined to play what was obviously the best type 1 deck of the time: Flash-Hulk. I played a “Stax” deck similar to the ones that currently dominate. It was not a good choice to play a deck without Force of Will since a deck that killed an unreasonable amount on turn 1 was so prevalent.
Q: For the occasion, you designed the following card:
Inebriation Enchantment UU
Whenever you play a spell, return that card to your hand and put a random card from your hand onto the stack.
This looks a lot more broken, but otherwise close to Possibility Storm, a typical red Johnny card. Do you have a Johnny side to you, that craves to break those kinds of cards?
I’m assuming “Johnny” means casual and fun-loving. I definitely do not have a side like that to me at all. I never play “fun” formats like Commander, and hated it when Two-Headed Giant was pushed as a competitive format. I play Magic for the competitive environment and I think one of the things that allows me to succeed is my avoidance of “cool stuff” in order to prioritize consistency.
I was going through a phase in my life where I was drinking regularly and heavily (I had just reached an age where that was a legal activity), so I submitted that card as a joke, knowing that in reality whomever won the tournament would have to work with R&D to create a card that could realistically be printed. As you can see, Snapcaster Mage looks nothing like the land that Tiago submitted. If I recall correctly, that was a land that tapped for colorless and had channel 2UU, discard this land: counter target spell.
Q: For most Magic players, the Hall of Fame is purely dream material—their self-image and the Hall of Fame don’t occupy the same realm, so to say. What do you think about the Hall of Fame? Imagine, for example, that you make Top 8 at Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad. You would be closing in on 300 Pro Points, have 2 Pro Tour Top 8s, 4 GP wins, and a lot of respect among your peers. Would you consider committing yourself to the quest at that point?
I can’t honestly say that I’ve never considered the possibility, but I do try to avoid it. It leads me down a rabbit hole of self-pity and dwelling on my many near-misses. Magic has been a big part of my life for the majority of years I’ve been on this planet so I do take pride in even being considered for the Hall of Fame. The best part in my eyes wouldn’t be the recognition or respect from my peers, although that would of course be nice. The best part to me would be the practical utility of the invitations to all Pro Tours. I still very much enjoy playing Magic but I have a full-time job that I also enjoy, which unfortunately often requires me to work on weekends. This makes it difficult to maintain an invitation to Pro Tours since I only have time to play a few Grand Prix each year. This also makes recommitting myself to Magic unrealistic. I aim to play 1 Pro Tour each year, although lately I’ve been on a pretty good run at Team Grand Prix, which is likely to lead me to the Silver level this season. That’s about as close to a “Hall of Fame Quest” as it’s going to get for me.
Pictures courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.