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The Week That Was: To Innovate or Iron Out

March 10, 2023
Corbin Hosler

The challenge was set. With a handful of people vying for the goal, who would accomplish it first?

We're hushed in our hotel for the weekend, hanging out in Discord on phones and laptops across a half dozen resort rooms to see who could do what the pros preparing for Pro Tour Phyrexia said couldn't be done: draft the perfect Blue-Black Prologue to Phyresis deck in Phyrexia: All Will Be One.

If "everyone" says that blue is bad, then it has to be open. Right?

The stakes? Well, if things were to go right there would surely be fame and glory. If things were to go wrong—a real possibility in the Phyrexia: All Will Be One Draft format—friendly banter was the price to pay. More concretely: a few hundred gems on MTG Arena.

Big stakes in the coverage world for a broadcast team still jamming drafts in the final hours before the kickoff of the official return of the Pro Tour.

The "compleation" didn't go great that night for the draft squad, but it was a valuable insight heading into the Pro Tour and the three Phyrexia: All Will Be One Draft rounds: it got the Pro Tour party started. And when the dust settled, it hadn't gone great for anyone in the actual Pro Tour trying that strategy, either.

The lesson? Sometimes it's correct to go against the grain, using a perceived element of surprise to your advantage and leveraging that gap in information into victories that would otherwise have been losses. But other times the convention wisdom is, in fact, wise. Having the range in your game to know the difference in those scenarios and the flexibility to play multiple strategies at a high level can be the difference-maker in finding sustained success on the path to the Pro Tour.

With a dozen Regional Championships coming up across the world over the next two months, there's plenty on the line and plenty of surprises in store. While the competitive Magic world has been focused on Pioneer for most of the past year—the last round of Regional Championships as well as Pro Tour Phyrexia featured the larger format— all attention now turns to a Standard scene that has quietly been reinvigorated with the addition of Phyrexia: All Will Be One.

With a Toxic-based brew making a Top 8 appearance in Japan and three different mono-colored decks finding success in a format previously dominated by Grixis and Esper midrange monstrosities, Standard is intriguing, and only stands to becomes more so as the season kicks into full gear. I recommend checking out Frank Karsten's Metagame Mentor article for the full details (with Phyrexians taking over the Top 8 decks).

That sets up what I think is going to be one of the more interesting Standard storylines to play out as the Regional Championship circuit moves forward in fast fashion—we just wrapped the Japan/South Korea, Australia/New Zealand, and South East Asia Regional Championships and this weekend is even busier with events in Europe/Middle East/Africa, West Canada, Brazil, and Chinese Taipei. Will the bones of a format that's largely looked the same since Nathan Steuer won the World Championship with Grixis Midrange back in October define the path to Pro Tour March of the Machines in Minneapolis? Or will the surprise results from the first round of Regional Championships throw everything into disarray as players worldwide begin to lock in their own deck choices?

Of course, "locking in" is a concept that's very much in flux in the midst of a Regional Championship season. There were rewards for going against the grain in the first round of events; onetime Top Finisher Rei Sato can attest to that—Frank notes that his Selesnya Toxic deck contained zero mythic rares and all the nonland cards are from Phyrexia: All Will Be One. That's about as disruptive as it gets, especially in a small format like Standard.

It makes for an excellent start, and leaves players with some big decisions over the coming days. Should they adjust their decks to adapt to the explosive Toxic innovation, or switch to the new strategy making the rounds? Is Blue-Black Prologue to Phyrexis under-drafted, or is it just bad? And even once you think you know the answer, are you able to capitalize on that knowledge?

That's one the dozens of small ways Pro Tour regulars distinguish themselves, and it's key to building not just a single Pro Tour or Regional Championship appearance but a long-lasting opportunity at the top levels of play.

Take Benton Madsen as an example. I talked last week about the Pro Tour Phyrexia Top 8 competitor's adrenaline rush of a Pro Tour debut, and how his deck choice for the tournament was the perfect way to dodge most of what the Pro Tour field had to offer; he successfully went against the conventional wisdom by sleeving up Selesnya Auras and rode it to a finals appearance. Auras is a deck that famously plays out very differently than most decks in Magic, and that's both a blessing and a curse for experts with the deck. Learning the perfect sequencing in a deck that makes every combat unique is a tough talent to master, but it doesn't necessarily transfer when you've determined a different approach is correct. Put another way: if Merfolk was the best choice for every tournament I entered, I think I'd have some pretty great showings. But when it's not in a good spot, neither am I.

But flexibility brings opportunity, and Madsen proved he has that by switching things up to a very different-looking deck from Gladecover Scout. Instead it was Ledger Shredder and Underworld Breach, and Madsen reaped the rewards that range can bring.

Speaking of Modern, there's another deck that exists in a similar space as Bogles decks: the infamous Dredge, the graveyard deck that in some formats doesn't even need to use the stack to turn a stacked graveyard into a stacked battlefield. It finds a way in every format, including Modern where Golgari Grave-Troll was one of the only cards to ever be unbanned and the re-banned, thanks to Modern Dredge innovators.

And where there's Modern Dredge innovators, there's Zen Takahashi. The Auckland native and five-time Grand Top 8 competitor was one of the key drivers alongside Hall of Famer Lee Shi Tien of breaking Prized Amalgam and Grave-Troll, so he's no stranger to playing niche decks to exploit a format's weakness when it's correct. But sustained success comes from knowing when a different approach is required, and that's exactly what he did at the Australia/New Zealand Regional Championship.

"I simply felt like Grixis Midrange was too good not to play," he explained.

Phyrexian poison is flashy, but good old Grixis, it turns out, is still pretty good. Takahashi was one of five players in the Top 8 slinging Bloodtithe Harvesters and Sheoldred, the Apocalypse. And when the mirror matches settled in the Top 8, Takahashi was the Regional champion after a 2-1 victory over Bed Tudman in the finals.

"I feel like our team came up with a good list, but more importantly in this format, a good plan and approach against the top decks," he said of his decision to stick with a known commodity. "Grixis Midrange was already the best deck before Phyrexia: All Will Be One came out, but prior to that its main weakness was in its manabase. Not only was it not very consistent—it was playing four Invoke Despair with four Shivan Reef—but it was also very painful with the eight pain lands and slow with the tap lands. That all made it weak to aggro decks, but it all changed with the new set and the fast lands like Blackcleave Cliffs and Darkslick Shores. Now the deck not only had the best spells, it also had an extremely smooth manabase, which meant you could cast those great cards on curve."

Will that be the narrative of this season: the best decks get better as their flaws are ironed out heading into the Pro Tour in May? That's one possibility we're looking at. But as Sato's Top 8 run with Toxic shows us, there may still be angles to exploit to find success (unlike the poor Blue-Black Proliferate deck in Phyrexia Limited, trust me I've tried). We're just getting the Regional Championship season started, and it's going to be a lot of fun to watch play out.

Not that much of that matters to Takahashi, at least for now. With the victory, he's qualified not just for the Pro Tour but for the World Championship later this year as well. After welcoming a child and not having the opportunity to play much Magic during the pandemic, he's grateful for the chances the Regional Championship system has afforded. He'll now enjoy his own return to the Pro Tour in Minneapolis, with some added perspective in the years since he posted a Top 32 finish at Pro Tour Amonkhet.

"It's simply amazing. My goal for the weekend was to qualify for the Pro Tour, and once I managed to win the last round to secure that, I was extremely happy," he said. "Funnily enough, the reason for wanting to be back on the Pro Tour has changed from before. In the past, it was about wanting to compete at the highest level. While that feeling still lingers, the main reason now is to see all the friends I had made throughout those years on the Pro Tour before. It was so cool getting messages from really close friends I've made, such as Matti Kuisma, Simon Nielsen and Javier Dominguez, basically saying how happy and excited they were to see me. Worlds is honestly a dream come true."

Looking Ahead

We'll hear more from Takahashi as we get closer to the Pro Tour; his team found success at the Regional Championship and is already making plans for Minneapolis.

What they'll find when they get there is another question entirely. At this point during Pioneer season we were under the impression that Mono-Green Devotion was the best deck around, but it ended up a nonfactor by the time the Pro Tour rolled around. I certainly don't think the Midrange decks are going anywhere, but I hope the poison decks and the other spicy finds Frank highlighted continue to shake things up; Magic is at its best when the answer to whether it's best to go with or against the flow changes weekly with high stakes on the line.

And there will be plenty of those in the weeks to come. These are the tournaments that will dictate where things will go next and what that Pro Tour field might ultimately look like. This coming weekend will feature Regional Championships in Europe/Middle East/Africa (streamed here), West Canada, Brazil, and Chinese Taipei. That's sure to introduce hundreds of Standard decklists that will build on the week 1 results of a format receiving revived interest and scrutiny. From there the circuit heads to South and North America in the weeks leading up to Pro Tour March of the Machines.

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