Pro Tour-Philadelphia Preview

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The letter T!he Pro Tour pulls into the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia this Thursday, but before the first card is played, it's time to get the lowdown on the stories, players, cards, and decks you should watch for all weekend, from the LCQ to the finals webcast.

The format for the Pro Tour is Kamigawa Block Constructed, which means that players this weekend will all be wielding decks made up from only cards contained in the Champions of Kamigawa and Betrayers of Kamigawa expansions. This will be the first Block Constructed event for this set of cards and it will send out ripples that affect players looking to partake in other Constructed events for the next year-and-a-half.

The next major Constructed tournaments that will be relevant for us rank-and-file Magic players are Regional tournaments. Although by the time my Regionals rolls around the format will also incorporate the upcoming Saviors of Kamigawa expansion, this weekend's Block Constructed decks will nonetheless set the stage for the Standard format for months to come. If you look back at the top decks from last year's Block Pro Tour-Kobe, you will see a couple of familiar decks in the Top 8. While the winning Big Red deck hasn't necessarily been popular in Standard, Affinity may have been a factor at your local Standard tournaments over the past year. Kobe was also the first sighting of TwelvePost decks, which are now more commonly known as Tooth and Nail.

There could be an even more direct correlation between this weekend's activities and the new Standard. Thursday will provide players with a final shot at earning an invite to the Pro Tour with the aptly named Last Chance Qualifier, earning four players a midnight call from the governor. While the PTQs for Philadelphia were run using the wildly diverse Extended format, the LCQ is going to be using the relatively unexplored Standard format. Look for decklists, metagame breakdowns, and maybe even some Mike Flores analysis of what that tournament means for the future of Standard.

Looking a little further into the future, this weekend's tournament will also give you a checklist of cards you need to own before the PTQ season for Los Angeles. Look for articles detailing the new decks all weekend, including interviews with the deck designers and video tutorials with top players. The PTQ season starts in June, and this weekend's Top 8 will give you a pretty good idea of what you can expect to see in round one of week one in PTQ land.

Pro Tour-Philadelphia Payout
Round Prize (per Match)
1 $100
2 $100
3 $100
4 $125
5 $150
6 $200
7 $250
8 $300
9 $500
10 $750
11 $1,000
12 $1,500
Quarterfinal $2,500
Semifinal $5,000
Final $10,000
Total Estimated Payout* $203,675
* Based on attendance of 350 players

Of course there are going to be plenty of stories to tell at every Pro Tour, but Philadelphia should have a little extra drama every round. This Pro Tour is featuring a skins-style payout and a triple-elimination format. There is an escalating amount of money on the line every time a player sits down for a round, starting at a base of $100 for the first round and climbing to a dizzying $10,000 for the finals. Each time a player wins a round they bank the money that was being paid out that round. As soon as a player takes three losses (or draws), they take a seat for the remainder of the weekend but get to keep all the money from their wins.

The new payout system is not going to replace the old system. It was introduced for this tournament and will perhaps see use once a year, with the familiar system utilized for the other events. Or should I say "somewhat familiar system?" On Monday, Randy Buehler outlined the benefits of the Pro Player's Club that will be replacing the End-of-the-Year Payout. It offers a tiered system of benefits for Pro Tour performance that range from a single bye at a GP all the way up to the brass ring of free travel, Pro Tour appearance fees, Grand Prix appearance fees, and even free hotel accommodations.

There are eight players within reach of Level 6 benefits (the top level) coming into this weekend, although three of them would need to win the tournament to do it. Olivier Ruel, Kamiel Cornelissen and Gabriel Nassif would need a Top 4 finish to reach it. Jeroen Remie merely needs a Top 8 finish to lock up his Level 6 benefits, while. Jeroen's teammate and reigning World Champion Julien Nuijten needs only a Top 32 finish to be the first player to ascend to the lucrative Level 6 level of rewards. Can you imagine getting $500 just for showing up at a Grand Prix?

Because of the elimination format being used for this tournament, we will know precisely when players cross a Pro Tour Point threshold to advance a level in membership. While only eight players can hit Level 6 this weekend, many can earn promotion to Levels 4 and 5, which aren't too shabby, either. For example, Rich Hoaen needs seven points to bump up to Level 4. He gets two points just for showing up, but needs to make it to the Top 16 in order to get enough to ensure a $1,000 appearance fee for every Pro Tour through the end of next season. It would also secure him invites for every Pro Tour through next year, as well with a couple of free trips.

Which players should be expecting a big weekend? I think that with any Pro Tour you have to look to previous events in the same format. In Block Constructed, you have to go back to Kobe last season when Masashiro Kuroda became the first Japanese player to win a Pro Tour. If you have followed any of the stories about Kuroda over the last year, you are probably aware that he almost never travels outside of Japan for tournaments due to the constraints of his full-time job and the responsibilities of a new family.

Kuroda's taking an extended U.S. vacation to play Magic.
However, Pro Tour-Philadelphia and the Magic Invitational are rare exceptions and Kuroda will make the coast-to-coast trek from Philadelphia to E3 in Los Angeles with deck designer extraordinaire Tsuyoshi Fujita. Fujita designed the Big Red deck Kuroda piloted to victory in Kobe and will most likely design whatever deck Kuroda plays this weekend as well. Don't overlook other Japanese deck designers, such as Akira Asahara and Masami Ibamoto.

The growing dominance of the Japanese players has been a storyline in Magic since before Kuroda's win. Masahsi Oiso has strung together several remarkable seasons since winning the Rookie of the Year and recently made headlines with a couple of trips to the United States for Grand Prix tournaments (including an Extended win in Boston). Grand Prix Top 8 mastermind Masahiko Morita has started traveling outside of Japan for tournaments, recently adding to his total of 13 GP Top 8 appearances in Boston. There were three Japanese players who reached the Top 8 in Columbus and new faces seem to make Sunday appearances all the time. Just look at Pro Tour-Nagoya winner Shu Komuro or Pro Tour-Atlanta semifinalists Tomohiro Kaji, Kenji Tsumura, and Tomoharu Saito.

Gabriel Nassif finished second at Pro Tour-Kobe and finally shed the bridesmaid status in Atlanta when he won with his Canadian teammates David Rood and Gab Tsang. No word on whether or not the Player's Club will pry the two Canadian away from World of Warcraft for a Constructed event, but Nassif has been hard at work with his countrymen to swing the deckbuilding spotlight away from Fujita and back in his direction. Nassif was responsible for the development of what we now know as Tooth and Nail and built not only the version that he took as far as the finals in Kobe, but also the green-red version that Jeff Garza used to win Grand Prix-New Jersey.

Jelger and the Dutch players have joined forces with TOGIT.
Kobe's fourth-place finisher was from a third hotbed of Magic – the Netherlands. Jelger Wiegersma piloted a Dutch/YMG collaborative build of Affinity that abused Aether Vial as well as Skullclamp. Frank Karsten would go on to make a big splash with Aether Vial in Zurich. The Dutch have been on a tear this year as well with Jelger, Kamiel, and Jeroen winning Pro Tour-Seattle, Nuijten winning Rookie of the Year and World Championships, and Karsten reaching the Top 8 of Nagoya. Not satisfied with being the third superpower of Magic, the Dutchies have thrown in with TOGIT – as well as a cadre of North Americans not from New Jersey – to form a supersquad half-kiddingly designed to put an end to Japanese dominance on the Pro Tour.

Before we can look at North America and the supersquad, we need to take a quick detour to Italy. Not often looked at as a Magic powerhouse, Italy did push three players into the Top 8 of Kobe on the strength of their Big Red build. Can Luigi Sbrozzi, Rafaelle LaMoro, and Stefano Fiore replicate that success this weekend with another metagame deck?

The only North American member of the Kobe Top 8 was Ben Stark, but he is not on the Invitation list to Philly. The fate of North America will be largely in the hands of two teams. The aforementioned TOGIT/Dutch squad features a plethora of the game's best players and top deck designers, from Osyp Lebedowicz and Eugene Harvey on the TOGIT side to Canadian evil genius Jeff Cunningham to the Dutch mad scientist Frank Karsten. At one point it seemed as though every single qualified North American player was on the mailing list, but the unwieldy nature of such a large team came into play over the past few weeks and the team has fractured to spin off a second squad – and not without some acrimony between the two bodies.

The original squad is still quite large, with the aforementioned names joined by the likes of Hoaen, Wiegersma, Nuijten, Remie, Sam Gomersall, Adam Horvath, Josh Ravitz, and Ruud Warmenhoven (among many others).

Pelcak, Aten, and Szleifer split from the supersquad, taking a few others with them.
The second team is being handled by under-the-radar :B player John Pelcak. Pelcak is obviously joined by his Chicago teammates Tim Aten and Gadiel Szleifer. Also on the team are Pro Tour-Atlanta finalist We Add members Adam Chambers, Andrew Pacifico, and Don Smith. Grand Prix finalists Eugene Levin and Lucas Glavin, Canadian Mark Zajdner, and unqualified but hopeful Ken Krouner round out the roster that I'm currently aware of. Since most of this team's members were privy to the TOGIT list up until as recently as a couple of weeks ago, there should be some overlap between the two teams' decks. There should also be at least a little bit of tension should key members of each team square off in any of this weekend's feature match action.

Kai Budde has been keeping a fairly low profile of late and is not affiliated with the TOGIT squad for this event despite working with them in the past. Apparently Kai has been preparing for this weekend with some qualified locals and the occasional Block Constructed match on Magic Online. I don't think anyone would be surprised if the new system of appearance fees and free airfares breathed some new life into Kai's Magic career.

In my interview with Zvi Mowshowitz a few weeks back, I implied that he designed the Solution deck that he used to win Pro Tour-Tokyo. While he did do some tinkering around with the final build, the deck design should be correctly credited to John Omerod. England was once a hotbed of deck design with Omerod and Dan Paskins being among the most influential designers in the world. Omerod is qualified for this tournament after winning a PTQ in Birmingham and is working with Columbus Top 8 alumnus Nick West, Stuart Wright, and a scad of other Englishman to restore their country's former glory.

The big question, of course, is what deck everyone will be playing. Thanks to the writings of a handful of players not attending the event and the magic of replays for MTGO premiere events, we can glean the outline of the format coming into the weekend.

I don't think anyone is going to be surprised if more than a few Umezawa's Jittes see play. The card's power has been much discussed, and while it is better in some decks than others, almost every creature-based deck be sporting this legendary artifact. The deck that wields the artifact most effectively is White Weenie because of its aggressive one- and two-drop creatures. The version that has performed most effectively online uses Tallowwisp to fetch Indomitable Will and Cage of Hands – the former being quite useful against Hideous Laughter and the latter against anything dragonlike.

Green decks seem to be all the rage for this format. Green offers players a combination of mana fixing and acceleration with Orochi Sustainer, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Kodama's Reach, and even Sakura-Tribe Springcaller. Green also offers reusable artifact and enchantment removal thanks to the immensely spliceable Wear Away – a good thing in light of the targets mentioned in the previous paragraph. Green also offers a nice variety of monsters to couple with all that mana acceleration and color fixing. While you will see plenty of Melokus, Kokushus, and Keigas, the big legend on everyone's must-have list has been Kodama of the North Tree.

North Tree's untargetability makes him an ideal card to fetch in a Time of Need, and even though the troublesome legend can hit play no sooner than turn four, the only spell that can remove him on a one-for-one basis is another Kodama of the North Tree.

Snakes is another popular flavor for green with Elders, Sustainers, Sosuke, Seshiro, Sachi and Sosuke Summons combining to create a perfect storm of recursion, toughness, power, and card drawing. Time of Need really shines in this deck with plenty of legends to fetch.

Hana Kami made a modest splash at this year's Champs with more than one deck opting for recursive Wear Away against Affinity decks. Recursive Cranial Extraction may be the goal this weekend, but thanks to Gifts Ungiven, Hana Kami decks can select from an arsenal of silver bullets to recycle with Hana Kami and Soulless Revival.

Honden decks have been popular online -- if they get a chance to develop their board, they seem unstoppable. The rap against these decks going into the weekend is that they can't beat White Weenie decks (or any aggressive strategy, for that matter).

Speaking of aggressive … while the red decks may lack the tricks-iness and evasion of White Weenie, they have other features to recommend them. Hearth Kami is maindeck artifact removal, while Ishi-Ishi Akki Crackshot and Zo-Zu the Punisher punish arcane and mana-intensive strategies. If Hideous Laughter is not everywhere, you could see another wedge of monored decks push their way through to Sunday. There are also white-red samurai decks, monoblack strategies, and of course creatureless splice decks to consider.

Many of the pros I have talked to feel that the format is thoroughly explored and the real battles will be fought over the 60th maindeck card and sideboard builds. Tooth and Nail took everyone by surprise in Kobe and there is certainly plenty of room for a similar experience in Philadelphia. Tune in Friday morning as we sniff out the more unusual builds, along with a complete archetype breakdown.

If you think you have solved the format and are near the East Coast, you can always come down on Thursday and try to win the Last Chance Qualifier. There will be plenty for you to do all weekend even if you don't qualify, with Grand Prix Trials, PTQs, JSS tournaments, sidedrafts, guest artists, dealer tables, and the exciting new Calling All Cards.

If you can't make it to Philly, our able-bodied coverage staff will bring you all the action starting Friday morning with the LCQ decklists. Josh Bennett is returning to blog duty, Ted Knutson and I will be camped out in the feature match area, Jon Becker will be poking his camera into the faces of your favorite players, and Mike Flores returns to the webcast vote for another live broadcast with our very own Vin Scully, Randy Buehler.

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