As you probably saw over the weekend, we decided to send someone to cover Pro Tour: Battle for Zendikar live and in-person. That someone, it turned out to be, was me. Before I get into what I saw (and what my observations imply), I want to talk about why we decided to send someone to report on-site.
The short version is that QS Insiders deserve it. We don't make any money by selling advertising, nor do we make any money on affiliate sales of Magic cards. We made a strong decision not to accept any money of that kind when we launched Insider in 2011, and we've never looked back.
When we make 100% of our money based on content and data services, our incentives are aligned with our readers' expectations. If we make great stuff, we make money. If we don't, we don't. Simple.
This alignment also means I can publish an article like this one; focused on cards not to buy! More than one writer, myself included, has had an article like this rejected outright by an editor because "it doesn't encourage people to buy cards". You're darn right it doesn't, but it's the truth. Our business model lets us be honest about things like this without running afoul of sponsors or advertisers who might not want to hear what we have to say.
Another aspect of this business model is that it holds us accountable for what we do with our subscription revenue. We have expenses, like the giant data warehouse that runs Trader Tools, writers, editors & consultants. But beyond those, we also have what I consider a duty to reinvest some of our revenue in the site itself.
There are a lot of great opportunities to spend money (some better than others), but we looked at the opportunity to attend a Pro Tour as the absolute best among them all. That's because more happens in the first 48 hours of a Pro Tour than happens at any other time in the season beyond Spoiler Coverage time.
The bottom line, literally, is that if we do a smashing good job on covering the Pro Tour, our Insiders will get information that's worth more than they paid for their subscription. By that virtue, everyone makes more money. Quite simply, if your goal is to play Magic for free, you need to know what's going on when it's happening, not after the fact.
During the last Pro Tour, I got so frustrated with gathering whatever scraps I could from watching the Twitch stream that I said, "Nevermore"! I want to know what's really going on, at every single table.
So, I made it my job to know what was happening. I used the approximately 8 hours during Limited portions and breaks to interview a suite of some of the best Magic players of all time. You can read these interviews, along with the rest of our coverage and infographics, on our Pro Tour page. These alone were worth the plane ticket, but the real good stuff came from walking the floor during Constructed.
Thanks to my press credentials, I was able to spectate every single match in vivid detail. I got to see sideboard plans, entire decks during fetch-landing, intricacies of board states, and hands from both sides of the table simultaneously. It was awesome.
At one point I realized I had probably watched more individual games of Magic than anyone on planet earth. Each round had approximately 200 games going at once (more on Day 1, less on Day 2), and there were 10 rounds of Constructed to be played.
I attempted to walk past all 200 tables each round, with varying degrees of success. Towards the later rounds, I focused intently on the top tables to ensure a density of relevant information.
In all, I must have seen over 500, individual games of Magic being played at the highest level. It was exhausting and amazingly fun, and I'm already looking forward to doing it again at the next PT. I even had my own office, which contained WiFi, a photo backdrop of Zendikar, and ample plugs for my small army of robots.
I owe a big thank-you to the entire Event & PR staff for making this happen. It was an excellent experience and I look forward to the next event.
Conspicuous by Their Absence
Enough has been said about what showed up at the Pro Tour. Diego's infographics from our coverage sum that up nicely. What we need to focus on is what did not. What follows is a summary of my observations to that end.
The following refer to the decklists with a Standard record of 7-3 or better.
7 total, one deck with 4. The 4-of deck was an uninspiring Ramp deck (sorry Victoriano!) and did not place especially highly. This was a popular speculation target going into the PT, but it has been utterly absent from the metagame. I suspect it will have its day (likely in April when KTK and FRF leave Standard), but I also suspect today's not its day. If you have more compelling places to invest MTG money, feel free to sell them, but if you intend to play 4, just keep the ones you have right now.
Zero. Goose-Egg. Declaration of Naught. The utter lack of this card in top decks tells me it's just not good enough against the format, and will rotate out before making any impact. I strongly doubt OGW will add enough to the format to make this important. The buylist prices have already dropped substantially.
7, mostly 1-ofs. He's competing with Gideon for a spot on the team, and he's not winning the job. His abilities are great, but are all situational. Gideon, by comparison, does proactive, dangerous things. This is another KTK card I want to be rid of, as much as I enjoy the card, the reality is that it's outclassed at the mana cost and role.
3. Despite all the "Aristocrats" strategy discussion, Mardu colors proved not to be the direction chosen by deck builders. I think this card does still have room to shine, and further testing with maybe a 4-color Aristocrats shell could yield results.
7, one deck with a 4x. I am really glad to see this, honestly. Ruinous Path is a crazy good card, but not when it's competing with Murderous Cut, Abzan Charm, Silkwrap and other premium removal spells. The format also seems fast enough that I doubt the Awaken cost will be invoked very often.
At 7 mana, you'd like to be casting Ugin, not making a 4/4. Thus, I think that this card represents a great buy-low target in the coming weeks and months. Calling a bottom is hard, but I don't expect this will see play until post-rotation (after which I believe it will be very, very strong).
12, skewing towards the better-performing decks. Cited as a Pro favorite in multiple interviews, I saw a disproportionate number of these on the battlefield during my time in Milwaukee. I chalk that up to his ability to protect himself and the fact that he comes out later in games and tends to stick around.
This is a great case study of two Planeswalkers; Gideon, who is an omnipresent 4-of, and Nix, who is a situational 1- or 2-of. This tells us everything we need to know about their price. Gideon is appropriately priced in the $40+ range given his ubiquity, and Nix is less than half that.
5, skewing towards the lower-performing decks. One Pro I interviewed cited this as a powerful and under-rated card, but my suspicion here is that double mana costs are keeping Chandra from being dominant. Once KTK block and its tri-color madness rotates out of Standard, I will revisit this card.
Zero. Missing in action. Disappeared. The format is probably just too fast. When KTK rotates, it may slow down by virtue of losing Temur Battle Rage, Monastery Swiftspear and fetch lands. This is still an insanely powerful thing to do on 7 mana, but the Dragonlord is going to be sitting out for a few months. I intend to keep mine, as I have long-term faith in the card.
4, all in one deck. See above, Oblivion Sower. These two giants come as a pair, but in a format this fast and punishing you just don't have time to set up before you take a Temur Battle Rage to the face.
There's no reason Ulamog should be anywhere near this expensive given his abject lack of play. I would not be holding my copies of this, as I suspect there will be an opportunity to re-acquire them for less. Just keep an eye on OGW spoilers when they start next year; you might see something that changes your mind.
4, all in one 7-3 deck. This card has a ton of potential, but no one is exploiting it sufficiently to break into the format. I want to monitor the evolution of the Aristocrats archetype, but time is limited for this FRF card. If you have spares, I might trade them in for something more useful, but I'd still hold on to a 4-set for deckbuilding.
8 across 3 decks. Shaun McLaren cited this as his "sleeper" pick in my interview, stating that it's a card he was surprised more people weren't playing. I once again refer to my "format's too fast" theory to support its absence in top-performing decks. This will likely reduce the Uncommon's value to near-bulk levels, at which point I will be acquiring them semi-aggressively.
8. For comparison, its cousin Shambling Vent saw three times as much play, often as a 4-of. The Simic man-land suffers from a key issue that Vent doesn't; right now, decks that play blue don't play green, or vice versa. Dark Jeskai eschews the power of the basic Forest in favor of Crackling Doom & Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Abzan decks don't have any use for a blue splash, nor do Esper Control decks a use for a Green splash.
This landscape changes entirely after KTK rotates; there are no inherent rewards for playing any 3-color pair. Cards like Crackling Doom, Mantis Rider and Siege Rhino are ridiculously under-costed because they're on the 'wedge'. These disproportionate rewards skew the format, in this case away from the UG shards/wedges.
Shambling Vent should steal most of the value away from Lumbering Falls, but once again I see this as an awesome buy-low target in a few months. We anticipate 3 more man-lands in the next set, so the true measure of this land's value is obviously in the strength of the UG color pair going forward.
3, all in one deck. Double-color is rough, and decks that have access to black now have access to Mantis Rider and Anafenza, the Foremost. This is another card that gets way better once KTK rotates. I am once again hoping that a buy-low opportunity arises here. The card is very powerful, but even great cards rely on context to shine.
9, mostly in the under-performing decks. Once again the format is too fast for this bomb. Since he was printed in FRF, I doubt the format will slow down sufficiently before he rotates. As a Planeswalker Dragon, the card has massive casual appeal (only surpassable if he somehow gains the creature types Vampire, Angel & Elf), and he is also relevant in Modern as a TRON finisher.
That said, the price has got to be propped up by Standard somewhat, so I might be willing to swap mine into more useful things with a longer shelf-life.
10. Not a bad showing, but definitely not reflective of what some people tried to call a $10 card. The card's great, but this isn't the context for it. Sadly, we're in an era of awesome 5-color mana bases and under-costed multicolor cards, but Bring to Light is so versatile that it can shine in many contexts.
I do not think it can maintain its current price tag, so I would be moving them into more useful cards unless you're actively playing them in a deck. Long-term I like the card but right now there are better things to do than cast Siege Rhino for 5 mana.
The next Pro Tour is being played in the Modern format and it's only a few months away. As many of my colleagues have been saying, maybe it's time to start paying attention to Modern again.