The Pro Tour is changing.
No, I’m not saying this because Felidar Guardian was banned—at least, not entirely. I’m saying this because of how drastically the early release of a new set on Magic Online affects Pro Tour testing. As far as I can tell, it was extremely successful, and we should anticipate that it becomes the norm.
I won’t lie—it’s still 2 weeks before the Pro Tour as I’m writing this, but I feel behind. I spent the first week focusing on Limited preparation, and then attended the Washington D.C. Draft camp put together by Alex Majlaton and some of the other members of team Massdrop.
We had the SCG tournament on the big screen, and all of us noticed how dominant Mardu Vehicles was in that event, but those competitors only had a couple of days to put together decks after the emergency banning of Felidar Guardian. If I were attending that event, I also would have played Mardu Vehicles because I knew it, and obviously wouldn’t have had time to explore the format prior to that. I wouldn’t hit the panic button quite yet.
So why do I feel behind? Well, I’ve always believed Magic Online to be a superior method to prepare. There’s no shuffling, no sleeving, no physically building decks or making proxies. Cards are cheap, accessible, and it's easy to sell and reinvest the tickets into a new deck at a low cost. That said, it’s not so much that I feel behind—it’s that I don’t feel that far ahead.
The entire time at Draft camp, I kept thinking about how many more Drafts I could be getting in if I were just playing Magic Online, a luxury I don't typically have that far in advance of a Pro Tour. The Draft camp was incredible, and likely better than Limited testing we’ve done in the past. Using brute force and grinding through Draft after Draft with no breaks leads to a lot more discussion and evaluation of cards, and I was thankful for the opportunity to be there. But with drafting at my fingertips on Magic Online, I could have gotten more reps in, and where I usually feel ahead of the curve at that point in time—now, not so much.
What does this change mean for the Pro Tour?
Super Teams Will Have Less of an Edge
As you may know, I’m a member of ChannelFireball Ice and we test with Face to Face. Initially, as professional Magic players, we have an advantage in Pro Tour testing because we spend time and money traveling to a location, barricading ourselves into a house or hotel, and play testing until our hands are numb. This is not exaggeration—I have had testing related injuries to the point that I had to have someone shuffle for me because my arm and hand were so sore. Yeah, I know, I’m weak.
Before the early release of Amonkhet on Magic Online, players with jobs and other obligations had limited time to test on Magic Online. They aren’t afforded the luxury to take time away from their real life commitments to test Magic day in and day out in person, so these players had to make due with much less preparation than a Pro Tour super team. They simply had to wait until the week of the Pro Tour to get Magic Online testing in, or put together a team of other players in similar situations and can devote as much time to preparation as they could.
Magic Online Beta was available to some, but it was much harder to find opponents on Beta, and there were no deck lists posted to sift through and extrapolate data from.
With Magic Online’s early release, these players can now play the Pro Tour format immediately after the prerelease. This diminishes some of the advantages of a super team, as players will now have many more opportunities to put in work when they want to. Obviously, there’s only so much time in a day, but the average player will be much better prepared.
This will really ring true in Limited. Two weeks of added Drafts at any competitor’s leisure will ensure that all players are able to get in enough Drafts to learn a format, whereas it may have been difficult to get Drafts together in person before. Prior to this, the big super teams, and other teams willing to hide away for a couple of weeks just to draft, had a bigger edge because they had a more than adequate amount of time and players to evaluate the format.
When I think back to Pro Tours in the past and watch old Drafts, I can see tons of mistakes myself and other players have made simply because we didn’t have the time to fully understand the format even if we had spent more time on it than others. At Pro Tour Amonkhet and in Pro Tours to come, expect the players to have a much better understanding of the power level of cards, which levels the playing field between the best Pro Tour teams and everyone else qualified for the Pro Tour.
Deck Lists Will Be Less Hidden
With so many more games of Magic being played online, the less we will see of new decks at the Pro Tour.
Super teams aren’t going to give you their deck lists before a Pro Tour, as they’ve spent time and money to prepare. To just give away all of their secrets would greatly reduce their chances of succeeding at the Pro Tour.
With the early release of a set on Magic Online however, the Magic hive mind will quickly develop formats and find the best decks before the Pro Tour through thousands and thousands of Magic Online matches at a much higher frequency. In some regards, Magic Online competitors as a whole are are a kind of super team, working together to solve a format as fast as possible.
I remember Paul Rietzl discussing testing for Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. He said that team Ultra PRO really didn’t bother even trying an Eldrazi deck, not because they didn’t think it could be good, but because the set came out only days before the Pro Tour on Magic Online and there just simply wasn’t time to test or tune it.
Situations like this will no longer be the case. Speaking as someone who helped build the Colorless Eldrazi deck, if the set were released a couple of weeks earlier on Magic Online, every team would have had that deck in their sights and the tournament would have looked completely different.
Not only will specific archetypes be revealed, but tuned versions will be available. In house testing, my team will generally build our own deck lists of a specific archetype. We see some new cards for a deck and say something like, “maybe mono-red aggro is good?” We’ll build our own version of this deck and test it, and come to certain conclusions based on the results against our own in-house deck list.
With Magic Online’s early release, multiple testing teams will see the same version of a deck being played over and over on Magic Online as one list will eventually converge on the best version of a particular deck. Everyone will be testing against this better version of the deck, not only giving players outside of super teams better versions of decks to play at the Pro Tour, but these players will have tested against better versions of other decks.
With more readily available information, the playing field again is likely to be evened out between all Pro Tour competitors.
Data Can Be Used for Emergency Bannings
It was a shock when Wizards of the Coast announced they’d be banning Felidar Guardian after giving the Cat a pass a few days earlier. Aaron Forsythe cited Magic Online data in their determination that the combo was just too dominant in the metagame. This may or may not set a precedent that, if a metagame is becoming obviously infested with some archetype, we could see surprise emergency bannings before Pro Tours. I don’t think this is likely to happen again any time in the near future, but we know now that Wizards will be watching this Magic Online data early, and won’t let anything get too far out of hand leading up to its premier event.
Personally I think it was a good decision, even if late, to ban Felidar Guardian. I know how much of a cost it was to those who waited patiently to see what kind of deck they should invest in, and then when it looked like it was all clear, purchased cards for a Copycat combo deck and were punished for it. It’s really hard to argue that this is a positive outcome of having an early release, as it left everyone with an uneasy feeling afterwards. I'd say this is a cost associated with faster flowing information.
Is All of this Good or Bad for Magic?
Overall, this is a huge net positive for Magic. We get to play with the cards early, and everyone is excited right after the prerelease to dive into a new set, right? There is a downside, though.
It’s not that I’m biased because it may advantage my testing team to keep things the same. I’m in favor of leveling the playing field, in fact.
I just worry about whether the Pro Tour is going to be as fun if there are no new decks to get excited about. Imagine you’re watching a TV show or movie you’re really into and someone spoils the ending for you. Suddenly you’re much less interested in watching it, and may stop watching it altogether. If you found out before Pro Tour Aether Revolt that the Top 6 decks were all Mardu before the Pro Tour happened, you probably wouldn’t be too excited about watching it.
I know there will still be innovation and storylines to follow, but I just hope it doesn’t take away from the excitement of the Pro Tour. I can remember Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch and how excited I was when it became obvious to everyone how great Eldrazi was. Obviously, the deck was bad for the format moving forward, but it was an incredible story line to follow when a new deck was dominating a tournament. The emphasis is on new. I find these tournaments the most compelling to watch, whether I like the dominant deck or not. I can’t help but enjoy when a group of players or individual players break it. I believe this is far less likely to happen with more and more players having access to play Standard for several weeks before the Pro Tour, which is something I may miss about the Pro Tour.
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t been more excited than when downtime ended and Amonkhet Drafts were available the day after I did a prerelease. I just think we should all think about the costs and benefits a little more closely while the landscape of Magic may shift right in front of us.
So for now, I’m going to keep an eye on these working theories I have and if I notice any changes. I know there’s been discussion within my own team about whether we should change our usual preparation already, and it’s only been a few days of testing. Let me know in the comments if you think you’ll be any less excited for the Pro Tour having had access to Amonkhet for more time.