4 Lessons from Grand Prix Hong Kong, Liverpool, and Phoenix

The Result

Over the weekend, an Ixalan Limited triple-header spanned the globe, with Grand Prix held in Hong Kong, Liverpool, and Phoenix. For many, it was an opportunity to test the skills and knowledge they’ve picked up while playing Ixalan over the last month, but for those heading to Albuquerque this weekend for the Pro Tour, it was a final crucible to help prepare for one of the biggest stages in Magic.

The Hong Kong Top 8 included some very powerful mages indeed, with PT Battle for Zendikar Champion Kazuyuki Takimura going down in the quarters, while the world’s 14th-ranked player, Lee Shi Tian, made his tenth GP Top 8. It was Sato Rei, however, who took down the tournament after drafting a green-blue “explore” deck—so many of his creatures were looking to get on that Magellan tip that he even splashed for Lurking Chupacabra!

In Liverpool, we saw a European field that wasn’t dominated as it normally would be by the biggest names in Magic—most of them had already made the trip across the Atlantic for the Pro Tour. This meant that the Top 8 was filled with fresh faces and young blood, with the only GP Top 8 experience split between GP Madrid Champion Carmine D’Aniello and the Berlin-based wizard, Thoralf “Toffel” Severin (who, for all his successes in Magic, remains one of the worst Mario Kart players on Earth, as I can personally attest). Eventually, however, it was Marc Purvis who took home the title—congratulations on the victory!

Across the pond in Phoenix, the final pre-PT proving ground was overrun with the world’s strongest players, with the Top 8 being headlined by Christian “TI-84” Calcano, Anton “HoF Hopeful” Jonsson, and Reid “Mr. Magic” Duke. Calcano lost out in the quarters to Jonsson, who himself fell in the semis. Duke made it to the finals before being beaten out in the nice guy mirror, Sean Miller. Miller ran hot all weekend, slamming down consistent and well-built Limited decks like so many Tetris blocks, and took home a well-deserved trophy!

The Moment

In covering the action at GP Phoenix, coverage writer and caps lock enthusiast Marc Calderaro wrote that “not all moments happen in front of the cameras, but are still worth shining a little light on.” How true this is.

Highlighting how this game we all love really is a game for everyone, a pair of incredibly powerful wizards blasted their way through the side events at GP Phoenix. Quan Cade and Dana Fischer crushed their opposition on their way to a perfect 4-0 finish in Two-Headed Giant. Given that these two players have fewer years between them than Martin Jůza has GP Top 8s, that’s quite a feat!

Fischer, a dedicated Elves player, has already received a fair bit of publicity for her achievements so far, featuring in YouTube documentaries as well as appearing as a special guest expert on official Magic coverage.

Fischer obviously chose her teammate carefully and both she and Quan sailed to victory without ever really looking to be in any trouble. Seeing stuff like this is just about the coolest thing Magic offers us as a community. And to Fischer and Quan: We will watch your career with great interest!

The Deck

The debate about Ixalan Limited continues, with many different perspectives being robustly offered as to the best way to tackle the format. Christian Calcano certainly indicated his chosen approach at the World Championship, drafting the “Calcano Special”—cheap creatures alongside more auras than a hot yoga class.

Calcano stuck to this tried-and-true strategy throughout GP Phoenix, but he wasn’t the only one to capitalize on cards like One With the Wind, Mark of the Vampire, and of course Swashbuckling throughout the weekend. Thoralf “Toffel” Severin first secured his place in the GP Liverpool Top 8 with a triple-Swashbuckling deck, then doubled down on this strategy immediately in the Top 8 Draft itself!

Severin’s second Draft deck (photo credit: Wizards of the Coast)

Black-Red Swashbuckling

Thoralf Severin, Top 8 at GP Liverpool

“It is much, much better than it looks,” said Toffel, the Man Who Never Mulligans. “It’s a good wheel deck, where you use unwanted commons that always go around the table.” Supporting this strategy, Toffel is also extremely accomplished at greedily keeping 1-land hands on the play. He’s also pretty good at turning them into GP Top 8s—his total Day 1 mulligan count in Sealed was just one.

In any case, Blight Keeper into Swashbucking offers more free wins than a 2000s internet banner ad, and the nature of Ixalan removal means that moving all-in on Auras is less of a risky proposition than in other formats. But given that this strategy is now a known quantity, it will doubtless be on the radars of those sitting down to draft in Albuquerque. This means that as our understanding of the format solidifies, it remains to be seen whether buckling swashes will continue to be a viable angle to take.

The Takeaway

In recent times, more and more focus has been placed on identifying and then taking advantage of the differences between Draft and Sealed. Traditionally, Draft decks are faster and more streamlined, as despite having a smaller card pool than Sealed, having a say over which cards end up in that pool tends to be decisive. Sealed decks are characterized as slower, and more oriented around enormous haymakers that will stretch mana bases into 3 or even 4 colors.

Perhaps more than any format recently, Ixalan exemplifies the enormous differences between these two Limited formats. A good Ixalan Draft deck will rely on a quick clock, based on good synergy and strong tempo-based interaction. In Sealed, however, the format slows down glacially, with unconditional removal and premium bombs often played on the splash. Plan accordingly depending on your format. With Ixalan, Sealed and Draft really are poles apart.

With the Pro Tour taking place a full month after the release of the set, we’re in for fewer surprises than usual in the Limited portion of the action in Albuquerque. Pros around the world already have an excellent handle on Ixalan Limited, which means that we’re going to see the best the format has to offer over the coming weekend.

Players will already have a ruthlessly optimized take on every individual card and interaction, having had more than enough time to test and decide what really is the best way to win in Ixalan. For the rest of us mere mortals, this will be an excellent opportunity to get a glimpse into what happens when the best in the world come more prepared than ever for a marquee event like the Pro Tour!

I’m already settled in here under the scorching New Mexico sun, ready for the scorching action that will grace our Twitch screens this weekend at Pro Tour Ixalan. I’m looking forward to your company throughout the weekend, and then of course next week back here when we wrap up all the news from Albuquerque!


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