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2021 Through the Eyes of the Rivals League, Part 2

Hey there, my name is Jakub Tóth and while you have probably never heard of me, I’ve been playing some form of professional Magic since I was 14 when I highrolled a PTQ for Pro Tour Honolulu and kept grinding Pro Tours from that point. I had a few year hiatus as a full-time poker player, then started working as an equity trader in the Czech company Quantlane, which somehow brought me back to Magic. A few incredible hot runs in qualifiers later I found myself in the Rivals League, so here we are. To celebrate the end of the year, I’ll be breaking 2021 in this four-part series. I’ll be overviewing the changes to Magic, the pro scene and every major tournament from the past year.

If you missed my first part, you can read it here:

 

 

Header - April

The fifth and one of the most important League weekends is coming up and we’re testing hard. This is the first time we’ll be paired in pods and we know our Round 1 opponents, so dynamics change, but overall it’s very hard to exploit and in the end we all submitted completely the same Standard and Historic decks, which is super rare.

Dimir Rogues was the choice for Standard, which brings me back to the very first League weekend, where I piloted it without much testing to a 4-8 score. The deck is super hard to play and I usually have no idea what to do even on the first turn, and it doesn’t get much better after that. Seriously, I have no idea where all this “Oh, Rogues, what a braindead easy deck” in Twitch chat is coming from – those people don’t even know that they don’t know. However, this time I’m playing more Magic than ever. As of writing this on Thursday, two days before the tournament, I’m very close to #1 Mythic, so tomorrow as part of practice I’ll push hard for that, but we’ll see how much time I’ll be able to spend with Rogues as my Historic skills are the ones lacking right now.

Speaking of which, we submitted Bant, with the only difference for me being Rest in Peace in sideboard instead of Yasharn, Implacable Earth as more of a catch-all for unusual decks, which are bit more likely in my pod in the middle of the standing than for example in Stan’s pod, who will be battling hard for top spots to lock World Championship. I disliked the deck at first and it’s not very well suited for ladder, but rather it’s more of a tournament metagame prediction that’s trying to hunt Jund.

We started off with a blast, where both me and Ondřej finished day one with a perfect 6-0 score. This is especially awesome for Stračísek as he is now first in the MPL league and I think if he goes like 4-2 on Sunday, he’ll be locked for the World Championship. I’m slowly starting to think that he’s not only incredibly lucky, but might also be quite good. Too bad there’s no way of telling.

Fortunately for me, I booked a small session with Ondřej right before the tournament for some “mulligans against Sparky” action, where you mulligan to zero and then get trash-talked by the Arena bot after conceding. It’s highly recommended to talk about your opening hands in the process to make it worthwhile. I definitely got a lot of insight for Rogues from this very handsome player (I should start mulliganing more), but more importantly some of his “luckbox” charm got onto me as well.

Ondřej also delivered on the second day, went 5-1 and got to the World Championship! I’m super happy for him; he can seem very inconspicuous, but he thinks about the game super hard, plays a ton and combined with his hotrun, he deserves it a lot. I also had a great day with a 4-2 score (throwing one match to the garbage bin by playing horrendously), so overall this weekend went well for our Czech House.

Ondřej also beat PV three times in one weekend. I don’t think anyone else has that achievement.

One of the surprises for us this weekend was Historic Sultai Ultimatum, having all kinds of super combos hidden in the packages you can find. LSV piloted it to a 6-0 score and others in his testing also did well with it.

 

 

Historic Sultai Ultimatum by Luis Scott-Vargas

In fact, the deck was impressive and unexpected to us that even the big boss himself went through trouble finding his Twitter password and writing a tweet complementing Pantheon’s deck building skills. Turns out the main brain behind this deck was Brent Vos, pretty impressive to craft a new deck with format that has been around for quite some time now.

Strixhaven is coming in three days! Martin is on a trash-talking spree naming all the cards in Strixhaven that survive against Bonecrusher Giant (based on his tweets, it’s only Ageless Guardian, but I have my doubts). Regardless, I’m really looking towards the set. Flavor looks so good – this is the first time I’m reading flavor texts and it kinda feels like Harry Potter again.

Professor OnyxExpressive IterationElite Spellbinder

It appears that basically nothing is going to change for Standard, but Historic got a complete overhaul and you can suddenly see Brainstorm everywhere you look. This is caused by the Strixhaven Mystical Archives, a confusing part of the new set where these new cards are not legal in Standard, but are legal in Historic. Well, with some exceptions to make it as complicated as possible.

Tainted Pact is also making some waves, but as of writing this, it’s impossible to mill your whole deck on Arena before the rope runs out since apparently we need to see every animation of the card being exiled for two seconds. This creates a weird situation where there’s a decent chance the Tainted Pact combo is the best deck in Historic, but submitting it for May League Weekend and hoping they will fix it before the tournament starts seems very risky.

 

Header - May

We started off this month with a pretty wild announcement. None of the flip cards like Search for Azcanta will be legal for the League Weekend, since they count for devotion even when they shouldn’t. This interaction seems incredibly low impact and the only relevant card is the Azcanta, so personally I would just ignore it, but I don’t mind either way.

We were also told to stockpile on anxiety pills and start practicing our turboclicker abilities as one month to fix the Tainted Pact problem is unfortunately not enough. I love Magic Arena, I think the product is awesome and when zoomed out, I think it is pretty much perfect (drafting on mobile, weeee!). However when zoomed in, it feels crazy there’s still no spectator mode, no sandbox mode and no Tainted Pact fix when alarmed about it 30 days in advance. If these developers were in our company, I would tell them to “if decline is clicked → +1 second to rope time” and expect them to do it in a day or two. Inability to fix things like this makes me worried about Arena code scalability a bit.

It’s May 9 and we just had a Limited Arena Open, which was a sweet event that was unfortunately dragged down a bit with server’s technical issues, so after waiting for a few minutes and just watching the “waiting for server” black screen, I decided to skip it. I still enjoyed watching the event, especially on day two. I watched a live stream of Ben Stark for the first time and even though I was planning to stay and watch for just a few minutes, his content turned out to be really good and I just stayed for the whole 4-2 run. That also “raided” me to my nemesis Numot and his sweet five-color Approach of the Second Sun deck, which got him $1000. Thanks for the sweet content as well Numot!

The highlight of the event has to be LSV and his 7-0 deck that looks so ridiculously good that I think he will just jam extra 20 cards in there and submit it for the League Weekend next week.

I caught myself daydreaming about playing with this deck twice today, and every time I look at it I find another absurd card or combo included. Six brutal rares and eight learn cards to be able to get two of them anytime, three good ramp spells to cast all of those as soon as possible – this deck has it all.

Right before the sixth League Weekend, we got some extra news, but it was nothing crazy – just that professional Magic is coming to an end and we’re all being essentially fired. From the player’s perspective, Martin is once again on a frenzy fully unchained (rightfully) and I think Huey sums it up the best for all of us.

As for me personally, my main focus has always been on equity trading, and while I’m sad to see Magic go this way, especially when I think it’s a huge mistake with minor upside (saving few millions of dollars while having record profits) and huge downside (dream is dead now, Magic will slowly spiral away), I will at least be able to stop splitting my energy and just do one thing properly. Anyway, it’s time to take a deep breath and focus on last relegation week. I think if I avoid going 0-12, I should just be super locked in for another (last possible) year.

Over 50 percent of players, including us, submitted Tainted Pact Highlanders as apparently we all enjoy a good time sweat. Wizards said Commander is their main concern now and we wanted to make them happy. We also played Sultai, which I wasn’t exactly thrilled about and my gut feeling was correct when I played mirror and won against Ivan on the bottom table after the first two rounds.

I lost roughly four games to rope with Pact over the weekend and was completely steaming during the process. It’s incredible that we had to play with this, and yeah I know, we took that risk ourselves, but it still feels bad and could have been fixed easily if Wizards cared at least a tiny bit. A mediocre 5-7 finish was not something I was thrilled about, but given the nature of some of these losses and accomplishing my goal of staying in Rivals, I was fine with it. I also have the same amount of points as my Slovakian brother and coach Ivan Floch, so I can’t complain.

Last but not least, Stan caught up with Matt Sperling in a race for the first place and battled him in a decider match to see who qualifies for the World Championship. I was very surprised they were about to play the same day. It was roughly 1 a.m. in the Czech Republic and such high stakes triple Best-of-Three matches could use some time for rest. 

Luckily, Stan was still in fine shape except for forgetting to play Polukranos, Unchained one game and just dying instead. He was trying to convince me the next day at work he didn’t have enough cards to escape it, but luckily thanks to the huge technological advance in video recording, I was able to prove him wrong. Anyway, he got there, so congratulations!

There are a few weeks until the Strixhaven Championship, and everybody is awaiting a ban hammer after the dominance of Roping Pact in Historic. It arrives, and Thassa’s Oracle is banned. Pact was a bit more expected but I kinda like this. We’re told the Pact will be fixed by the time Championship starts, and this way the deck could still theoretically exist with Jace, Wielder of Mysteries instead of Oracle, but should be more of a Tier 2 deck in my opinion.

Thassa's OracleJace, Wielder of Mysteries

 

Header - June

The Strixhaven Championship is coming up, and this time we’ll be able to play with cards from the actual Strixhaven. We’re about as underprepared as one can be. Since Ondřej and Stan are qualified for Worlds, they didn’t test much – points don’t matter to them and prize pool is really small. I’m in the similar spot in terms of not caring for this one. There were 50 people added to the tournament as someone at WotC made a mistake, and naturally we’re the ones paying for it. I’m still playing for MPL Gauntlet, which would give me a better shot for Worlds and MPL, but since MPL turned into just a one-time payout, it doesn’t matter that much.

To not completely skip the preparation, I at least looked at the deck lists I submitted. Turns out I’m playing Rogues in Standard and Phoenix in Historic, which I like and I’m glad that I have Rogues instead of Stan’s Ultimatum.

Day one went fine. Rogues performed well enough after my 1-2 start with Phoenix so I joined day two with a 4-3 score, same as Ivan. Stan got super unlucky twice so he’s only 5-2 and the only bust out from our Czech crew was Ondřej.

However, somebody else from our testing team is on complete roll and I would be really surprised if Seth didn’t convert this into a top eight.

My prediction came true and Seth Manfield made yet another major top eight alongside some other well-known names such as Sam Pardee, Raphael Levy and Matt Sperling. This finish was really big especially for Matt Sperling as he’s currently in first place in Rivals League (after Eli Kassis and Stan Cifka already locked their places) and would really like to lock the World Championship slot in the last League Weekend, so four points for this finish will definitely come in handy. In the end, it was Sam Pardee taking the trophy home with the breakout deck of the tournament, Jeskai Turns, which looks to hit Time Warp with Velomachus Lorehold that gets cheated into play.

Velomachus LoreholdTime Warp

As for the Czech squad, Ivan and I finished with an average 9-6 score, which is good enough for one extra point in the League that will hopefully come in handy when deciding if we’ll play Rivals or MPL Gauntlet, although I have to say that since WotC decided to kill professional Magic, I care a lot less about this one.

Time Warp gets banned in Historic. After seeing Brainstorm and Memory Lapse completely dominate, it makes perfect sense to ban this five-mana sorcery. Hopefully we’ll see 32 Brainstorms in the next top eight instead of just 31, courtesy of Seth Manfield who played only three of them.

Based on Sam Black’s tweet, Urza’s Saga, a card from freshly released edition Modern Horizons 2, was not tested at all, which gives us some insight into testing and printing new uber powerful cards. I haven’t played Modern in like forever and probably never will unless it becomes a relevant competitive format at some point, but based on what I heard, this card is incredibly strong and will likely be banned soon in the future.

Time WarpUrza's Saga

We finally got some info about the upcoming World Championship, and it turns out we will have a thrilling $250,000 prize pool! Some people were expecting one million to be on the line, probably because it was promised when this year Champs were announced, but I guess it could have been cut down to zero. #positivity

In response to this Stan, Ondřej and Ivan wrote a very polite open letter to Hasbro’s CEO, which got a ton of traction. The community came together and instantly focused on what’s important – the word “Championship” was spelled wrong and everybody is just going nuts about it.

However, a few days after the letter, Wizards told us there is some good news incoming (news about upcoming news is the best), so fingers crossed!

 

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