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Instant Analysis: Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar Day One


Covering the first day of a Pro Tour is always challenging since we are dealing with sometimes contradictory, confusing or, at the very least, incomplete information. As a result, we are left making generalizations based on metagame breakdowns and the handful of matches that end up getting featured. We'll know a whole lot more Sunday than we do today, but thankfully we can still glean some very good and interesting information from the first day of Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar. You can view all of the decks featured in Deck Techs on the Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar page.

Day One Metagame Breakdown

Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar Day One Metagame Breakdown

For better or worse, the most played decks at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar were pretty much what everyone expected. Pro Tour Magic Origins winner Atarka Red comes in as the most played deck at 14.40 percent of the field, just barely beating out Jeskai Black. GW Megamorph, the breakout deck from last week's SCG Open, comes in third, followed by Esper Dragons, Abzan and Esper Control. Not all that exciting or innovative.

Fortunately, if you look a bit further down the list, you'll see there is some spice. People are using the easy mana to splash colors in almost all archetypes. GW Megamorph is sometimes Naya, sometimes Bant, and sometimes even four-colors. Four- and five-color decks are seeing play mostly as control decks (although there are some midrange variants), often featuring Bring to Light or various dragons. Maybe the most intriguing deck of all is Blue-Black Aristocrats. Blue-Black is probably one of the most surprising color combinations for the archetype that has typically involved Green and/or Red. Given the free-mana atmosphere of Battle for Zendikar Standard, another interesting way to explore the meta is to take an even more "meta" view and look at the broader archetypes. 

Here we get a pretty clear picture of the three pillars of Battle for Zendikar Standard: Jeskai, Red Aggro, and Megamorph combined to make up about 55 percent of the field. The seemingly diverse format is actually far less diverse than it might appear at first glance. While decks might have different splash colors, half of the pros in the room decided to play one of the three decks. From this perspective, Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar is one of the LEAST diverse Pro Tours in recent memory. In this Standard format, instead of diversity being measured in different archetypes and decks, diversity is measured by the splashing of a handful of powerful cards. Speaking of easy mana, let's briefly look at the color breakdown for the day one meta.

The most staggering number here is also the smallest: only one mono-colored deck showed up at the Pro Tour. One! To put this in perspective, Pro Tour Magic Origins had 57 mono-colored decks and Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir had 47. Otherwise, two-, three- and four- color decks show a relatively even split. The fact that four-color decks are as frequent as two- and three-color decks might be almost as amazing as the fact that there is only a single mono-colored deck. Comparatively, Pro Tour Magic Origins and Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir combined had a total of five four-color decks — all of which were Jeskai Ascendancy combo. That's how good the mana is in our current Standard. 

Round 4: Jund Aristocrats

Right off the bat it's clear that while three archetypes dominate the room, Wizards is going to do its best to keep the feature matches from being just Jace, Vryn's Prodigy vs Deathmist Raptor vs Atarka's Command. Standard coverage starts with Gabriel Nassif playing Jund Aristocrats, highlighted by Smoldering Abomination and (of course) Zulaport Cutthroat. One of the questions I'm hoping gets answered this weekend is what color combination of Aristocrats is best. I started on Mardu because I'm a huge fan of Butcher of the Horde as a sacrifice outlet and Falkenrath Aristocrat imitator. Chaz started with Abzan, preferring Blisterpod and Evolutionary Leap. Magic Online this week I ran into four- and even five-color builds. Nassif picked none of the above and went with a BG build splashing Red for Radiant Flames. This might seem odd in a deck full of small creatures, but it actually offers the potential for a combo-esque kill. 

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One thing that was clear in Nassif's match against Frank Karsten playing Atarka Red is just how much worse Zulaport Cutthroat is in comparison to Blood Artist. Some people tried to convince me that +1 power made the new version the superior card, but how often are you attacking with your Blood Artist anyway? The big difference is that Zulaport Cutthroat only triggers when your creatures die, while Blood Artist triggers upon the death of any creature. Against the aggressive red deck, Nassif ended up with two Zulaport Cutthroats on the battlefield but no sacrifice outlets and could not trigger his Zulaport Cutthroats. Blood Artist would have triggered on the opponent's creatures from various removal or creature combat. 

Round Five: Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

Here we get our first look at another pillar of the format, GW Megamorph in the hands of the Paul Cheon who is up against Gerry Thompson's Mardu. Since the GW deck itself isn't all that innovative — looking pretty much the same as the brews that dominated last weekend's SCG Open — let's talk about one of the most important non-land cards in Battle for Zendikar featured in the deck:

 

 

Based on the metagame breakdown we talked about earlier, it's almost guaranteed that Gideon, Ally of Zendikar will be the most played (non-land) Battle for Zendikar card this weekend. In just three weeks, the white planeswalker has quickly proved to be not only the best mythic from Battle for Zendikar, but perhaps the only mythic from Battle for Zendikar that will see significant play in Standard. As such, the question here isn't whether or not the card it good, but rather what does the financial future hold for this new found Standard staple?

My initial impression of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar was that he would be very powerful, but likely doomed to follow the Sorin, Solemn Visitor path down to $10 or $15, mostly because of the massive amount of Battle for Zendikar that has been (and will be) opened. While this may still be true, showing up en mass on Magic's biggest stage means this process will likely take a lot long than I initially thought. It took Narset Transcendent three months to go from $45 to $15 while seeing almost zero play. Sorin, Solemn Visitor, on the other hand, lost value over the first three months from $30 to $15, but the decline was much more gradual. 

 

 

Maybe the best comparison for Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is Elspeth, Sun's Champion. Elspeth started off at almost exactly the same price range as Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and was also one of the best (and most heavily played) cards in Standard. While she quickly crashed to about $20, she also spent her life in Standard bouncing between $20 and $30 before being reprinted in a Duel Deck. While Gideon, Ally of Zendikar faces a few more hurdles in maintaining such a price — coming from a set with a better, more expensive land cycle and the inclusion of Expeditions — the chances that he crashes to Narset Transcendent, Sorin, Solemn Visitor, or Sarkhan Dragonspeaker lows ($5-$10) is getting lower by the day. At this point, I expect somewhere between $15 and $20 to be the floor, and bouncing back as high as $25 or even $30 this spring isn't out of the question. If you're waiting to pick up your playset, sometime around December or January will be the floor.

Round Six: Esper Control

Seeing what control decks show up at the Pro Tour is one of my favorite parts of the event. At this point Esper Dragons is a known quantity, and non-Dragons Esper control isn't that much of a stretch. Oliver Polak-Rottmann brought an Esper deck that was little bit different, straddling the line between Esper Control and Esper Super Friends. While we don't have the exact list as of yet, it definitely contains Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, Sorin, Solemn Visitor, Ob Nixilis Reignited and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, backed up by Ruinous Path, Languish, Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Utter End. Across the table we had Jacob Wilson playing Jeskai Black, highlighted by the inclusion of Dragonlord Kolaghan. At around $3.50, Dragonlord Kolaghan does have room to grow, but it's difficult to imagine it ever being more than a one-of. Later in the round, Matt Sperling appeared in a backup 5-0 feature match also playing Esper Control (not Super Friends). Seeing two Jace, Vryn's Prodigy control decks doing well begs the question, just how expensive will Jace, Vryn's Prodigy be on Sunday?

 

Based on the coverage, some people on social media are saying that Jace, Vryn's Prodigy will be $100 before the weekend is over. While I'm not convinced that this will happen, the fact that I don't find the idea utterly ridiculous scares me. Before Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, most of Jace's demand was coming from Jeskai builds. While popular, they were less than 20 percent of the meta. If a deck like Esper Control (or Esper Super Friends) emerges, the percent of the meta playing Jace has potential to increase significantly. 

My argument against the price of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy being a real problem for Standard has been that there were plenty of non-Jace decks that are extremely competitive (and much less expensive). This argument works when Jace decks make up less than 20 percent of the meta, like it did during week one of Battle for Zendikar. There 75 percent of the blue decks in the Top 64 played Jace, but less than 1/3 of the decks in the Top 64 were blue. This argument doesn't work if everyone is playing blue decks. Check out just how many blue decks showed up to the Pro Tour. 

That's right, nearly one half of all decks are playing blue, and considering at least 75 percent of blue decks are playing Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, the dominance of the little blue planeswalker has increased significantly over the past two weeks. This means that the demand — and therefore the price — of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is likely to increase along with it. So while $100 will likely not happen this weekend, Jace could certainly hit that mark before long, assuming there isn't a major shift away from blue in the format. 

Round Seven: Siege Rhino

Let's take a minute to talk about a card we haven't seen on camera during the first four rounds of Standard: Siege Rhino. We know some number of people are still playing Siege Rhino in Five-Color Bring to Light and Abzan, so the boogeyman is still lurking. But similar to how the meta has shifted towards blue decks increasing the presence of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, it has shifted away from Abzan making Siege Rhino an endangered species. 

It makes sense that Abzan Control would be on the downswing; it lost several of its most powerful and important cards to the recent Standard rotation (ThoughtseizeCourser of Kruphix, Elspeth, Sun's Champion). It's more surprising that Abzan Aggro is so far down the list since the deck (more or less) remained intact. Getting lapped by Esper is particularly troubling. Esper isn't even a Khans of Tarkir wedge, so it doesn't get access to powerful multi-colored spells like Siege Rhino, Mantis Rider, Butcher of the Horde, or even a charm. Ironically (since I just made a video featuring 34 Rhinos), I'm starting to wonder if Siege Rhino really won't be a major force in Standard moving forward. Maybe it was just a good card made into a dominant card by Hero's Downfall, Thoughtseize and Elspeth, Sun's Champion. Things change so fast enough in Standard that we could all be hailing the return of King Rhino next weekend, but at least for Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, Siege Rhino is just an afterthought. 

Round Eight: The One Where They Featured Jeskai and Atarka Red Over UB Aristocrats

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Let's finish up by talking about the philosophy of feature matches. Going into the final round of Standard on day one, we have some options for the feature match. All of the players in the feature match consideration have already made day two, so there isn't any win-and-in type drama. I'm a fan of win-and-in matches regardless of the decks or players because they are Magic's version of game seven of the NBA finals. Everything both players have been working for over the past hours, days, and months is on the line in one match. But this doesn't apply to round eight. 

So here are the two options: We have PVDDR playing Atarka Red (which we've already seen on camera) against Eric Severson playing Jeskai Black (which we've seen on camera several times). Both players are 7-0, so the winner enters day two on the top of the standings. The other option is Guilherme Merjam against Christian Calcano. Calcano is playing UB Aristocrats, one of the few unique decks at the top tables. Merjam is 7-0 while Calcano is 6-1. 

Personally, I want to see the unique, innovative and exciting deck every single time over the two players fighting for a relatively meaningless 8-0. I'm really interested in your opinions on what makes a good feature match, so I've decided to finish up our discussion tonight with a little poll. If you have additional comments about feature matches, or want to explain or quantify how you voted, make sure to leave them in the comments. Here's a brief definition of the choices, and the poll will follow:

  • Personalities: This refers to the actual players in the match. If the most important thing to you is seeing Cheon, LSV, NumoTtheNummy, or whoever your favorite Magic pro or personality might be, this is the choice for you. 
  • The Records: If you want to see the people at the very top of the standings above everything else, vote for The Records. This is what we received during coverage.
  • The Deck: If you'd rather see a unique, different, new or exciting deck, vote for The Deck. 
  • Narrative: Are you interested in a 9-5 player who really needs a win to make gold, even if they are out of the running for the top eight? Or the player who won the last Pro Tour on their quest to go back-to-back? If so, you're a fan of the Narrative. 
  • Others: Is there something else that really wets your whistle for a great feature match? Did I forget an important characteristic of a good feature match? Vote other, just make sure to explain in the comments. 
  • Win-and-in: I didn't even include this option in the poll because it's already set in stone. We are always going to see players battle win-and-ins for top eight, and that's a good thing.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. What did you notice during the day one action? What cards, decks, or players stood out to you? What cards, decks or players were disappointing? What are your predictions for the rest of the weekend? As always, leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments, or you can reach me on Twitter (or MTGO) @SaffronOlive. 


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