Analyzing the top 8 decks from GP Philadelphia

So, we finally had a high-level event featuring (non-team) RTR draft for more than just a few rounds, and its coverage thus gives us the first reliable indication how this environment is actually shaping up. Let’s do a short analysis of the top 8 draft decks, shall we?

First, we must note that the lists as published can not be completely correct. Three main decks are missing a card, showing only 39: Greg Smith, Shuhei Nakamura and Martin Juza. In two cases, it is possible to deduce that card: Juza put a picture of his deck up on twitter, showing that he had not just one but two Gore-House Chainwalker. From the Coverage we know that there was a Faerie Impostor in Nakamura’s deck. As to Smith’s list, I canot say what was left out, though.

Counting all the drafted cards in the players’ pools, it also seems that Nakamura is an additional card in his SB short, and Gans also misses one there, but they might just have ended up with a foil basic land each, which naturally wouldn’t show up on their lists.

Let’s start with the winning deck: Nakamura sticked to one guild without any splash, using only 16 lands and no additional mana cards. He played no less than six 2-drops, stooping as low as to include a Crosstown Courier (he had two more in his SB, a slight indication that he may have drafted them rather aggressively, but seeing as he had no shortage in the two-mana slot, he could afford to leave them out – something LSV couldn’t, for example).

Note how his low mana curve and the amount of early pressure he generates are interwoven with the overall design of his deck! Faerie Impostor can not just get his tougher creatures out from under Stab Wound and reuse his creatures with detain, it can also quite reliable be played as a 2/1 flyer for three mana that untaps one of his bears. Blustersquall and Downsize would be rather bad if he was forced to use them as fog effects on defense; however, with a good board presence, Blustersquall can allow for a final creature assault finishing his opponent off, and Downsize can wreak havoc on an opponent’s team in blocking situations. Putting up steady pressure also means that he is near guaranteed that he can use his Knightly Valor against a tapped out opponent, without fear of getting two-for-oned by an instant. In short, Nakamura drafted exactly the kind of deck I advovated so vehemently in my RTR preview!

In the finals, he beat Lukas Jaklovsky, who battled with a deck built around the same principle, although in a guild where I did not expect that to be possible at first. However, seeing how the drafters distributed the guilds between them, it is clear that he was able to exploit a heavily underdrafted color combination: He was the only Izzet drafter, and there was also only one Rakdos drafter at the table! In the end, he shared Red only with Juza’s Rakdos, and Blue with Nakamura and LSV, which allowed him to the get the critical mass he needed to assemble an Izzet aggro build. Once again, note his use of six two-drops, supported by two Pursuit of Flight and a Dynacharge which made the maindeck over more expensive cards like the two Cobblebrute, the second Goblin Rally, Runewing, Essence Backlash or Inspiration. Jaklovsky’s curve was a bit higher than Nakamura’s, so he had to run 17 lands, but his carefully chosen high-end spells (Goblin Rally, Thoughtflare, Hypersonic Dragon, Explosive Impact and Chaos Imps) were certainly strong enough to justify employing a slightly higher curve.

Juza was one of the semi-finalists, losing to Nakamura, and his deck had been declared favorite by several pros (source: Twitter). Since he was Rakdos, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he ran six 2-drops as well, in addition to a one-drop (Rakdos Cackler). His two Deviant Glee and his Traitorous Instinct make it clear that he wanted to apply presusre in the early game. However, I believe he misbuilt his deck slightly, just being started to become convinced by PT Return to Ravnica winner Cifka (who went 6:0 in the draft portion of that event and also finished at a very respectable 13th place in this GP) that the way to go were not lategame decks featuring seven-mana spells, but fast, focussed decks with a low curve. I believe 17 lands is fine with Spawn of Rix Maadi and Rakdos Ragemutt at the high end, but it can not have been correct to leave Dynacharge and Pursuit of Flight in the SB for Carnival Hellsteed and Explosive Impact! I don’t know if that change would have helped him in his match against Nakamura, but overall the strength of his deck lay in blazingly fast starts which could nearly not be defended against, even if his opponents had a good curve themselves, and those two cards could have made sure that his early offense never faltered.

The fourth semifinalist was Greg Smith, who lost to Javlosky. He was the only player in the top 8 to win a game with a deck featuring more than two colors and less than six two-drops, and while he was able to dispatch Watanabe’s defensive build with the help of his powerful 4-mana rares (Deadbridge Goliath and Corspejack Menace), he stumbled on his mana in the semis, allowing Jaklovsky to run him over in less time than you would need to boil an egg, even if you like them soft-boiled. Just like Juza and Javlosky, he didn’t leave a single 2-drop he could have used in his SB, so it is quite possible that he was just unable to reach critical mass here, owing to the fact that he was one of three Selesnya drafters (in addition to two Azorius drafters and a Golgari drafter). He still used Dryad Militant, Keening Apparition and of course Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage, though (Centaur’s Herald doesn’t count here, obviously). I suspect he was forced to dip into Golgari a little deeper than he might have intended to – he certainly would have wanted to include the Menace and be happy to have the option to activate lifelink on his crocodiles, but the rest of his black cards, while certainly playable, suggest that he was simply unable to find enough Selesnya cards to put together either a focussed aggressive deck or a strong populate deck. While he had a few really strong cards (I include the Guildmage and Wild Beastmaster here), he ended up with too many three-mana fillers and no clear game plan. It was enough to best Watanabe, who had put together a similarly disjointed heap of cards, but I doubt he had any real chance against any of the other semi-finalists.

Speaking of Watanabe: He was the only Golgari drafter, although Smith took a few strong cards away from him. He dipped into White for Grove of the Guardian, which is understandable, but for some reason didn’t seem to be able to construct a strong deck, even though his card quality was overall rather high (Corpsejack Menace, two Dreg Mangler, Korozda Guildmage, two Stab Wound). True, a few strong cards in his colors were hate-drafted by other players (Thrill-Kill Assassin, Stab Wound, Loleth Troll), but that shouldn’t have been enough to prevent him from assembling a strong deck from that position.

I believe he simply misbuilt. He had the tools for a great Golgari aggro deck available, but got distracted by the idea to dominate the lategame. There are 17 lands, a Gatecreeper Vine and a Selesnya Keyrune among his cards, which I believe is just too much mana. There are two Trestle Troll, which in my opinion do not belong in a maindeck at all unless it is based on Axebane Guardian (of which not a single copy seems to have been opened in that draft at all!) On the other hand, there are two more Grim Roustabout in his SB, which are very strong in any aggressive deck, but especially in one with a large scavenge component (not to mention the synergy with the Menace). There were probably a few picks where Watanabe could have opted for more aggressive cards in the draft, and he would likely have ended up with a better deck. As it is, he was neither really focussed on offense, nor was he that excellent at controlling the board.

LSV lost to Nakamura in the quarterfinals in an Azorius mirror. Note that he used both Drayd Militant and Crosstown Courier and left no two-drop in the SB, but seeing as Nakamura could afford to leave out two Crosstown Courier, LSV might not have priorized them high enough. In the end, he only had three creatures for less than three mana and was just not able to put up a dominating board presence in the way Nakamura did, weakening his tricks and his Knightly Valor. Obviously, his main plan was to stall the ground and win through the air. Unfortunately, this is the only match from this top 8 with no coverage, but I have no doubt that Nakamura out-tempoed him badly, LSV’s three Voidwielder nonewithstanding (BTW, I don’t think you ever want THREE of that card in your maindeck…) Note also how much LSV’s high mana curve hurts the efficiency of his instants and his three Tower Drake. If you read LSV’s limited previews over the last few years you will realize, just as I did, that tempo is a lesson which that player, even though he is one of the best in the world, has to learn again with every single new environment, and this deck showcases that he has only come halfway so far in RTR.

Harry Corvese got outtempoed and overpowered by Jaklovsky in his first match, who proved that even an overloaded Cyclonic Rift and an active Mercurial Chemister will not help you if you are too far behind. Corvese was basically Selesnya, but realizing that he had to share that guild with too many (two) other drafters, dipped into Izzet/Blue for a few lategame cards. He had a bit of bad luck, though: With no Axebane Guardian and only a single Gatecreeper Vine in the whole draft, he had to rely on decidingly mediocre ways to fix his mana (Transguild Promenade, Izzet Keyrune, Seek the Horizon), although it seems that he wasn’t color-screwed in both games. Running just a single 2-drop (Keening Apparition – he left no two-drops in his SB), he had to rely on his three-mana-slot to establish board presence, via the excellent Centaur Healer and Loxodon Smiter (two of those!), the very mediocre Selesnya Sentry and the activations of his two Centaur’s Herald. There are traces betraying his desire to draft the populate deck, which obviously didn’t pan out. In the end, he had bad mana, no clear focus, a too high mana curve, a little too few creatures and not even convincing overall card quality for a deck accessing so many colors. It is quite possible that he did not desire at all a deck structure like this, but simply found himself in an overdrafted guild and had to try to salvage his draft by improvising.

Lastly, there was Gans, who got run into the ground by Juza in short order, and who thoroughly deserved it! His deck list is a true eyeblight – those are actually two Horncaller’s Chant, powered by just 17 lands and a Mana Bloom! Among his few creatures (yes, he has a few token producers, but still) were three really unexciting five-drops, especially in a dedicated populate deck (Golgari Longlegs, two Rubbleback Rhino), and he not only had just one and a half two-drops (Drudge Beetle & Selesnya Charm, which you would prefer to keep for other uses), he even left his Fencing Ace in the SB (doubly inexplicable since he had a few scavengers and pump spells)! While he might get lucky sometimes with producing an early centaur token and then populate it a few times, there wasn’t a single deck in this top 8 which shouldn’t have been a clear favorite against his. I believe it is no coincidence that he got into the top 8 with two draft decks featuring Pack Rats…

Overall, I believe that Nakamura is a deserving winner. His deck is a masterpiece, and he neither was the only drafter of his guild, like the pilots of the other two really strong decks in this draft (Juza and Jaklovsky), nor did he profit from the presence of rare bombs, as Jaklovsky and Smith did. Jaklovsky would have been a decent winner, too, having done everything right as far as I can tell, while Juza was a bit lucky to be handed the only Rakdos deck at the table, but did not build it consequentially enough.

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2 Comments on “Analyzing the top 8 decks from GP Philadelphia”

  1. jashinc Says:

    I watched the coverage and it was quite amazing how wrong the commentators were all the time.
    In the quaterfinals they were quite enthusiastic about the deck LSV had, which was promtly outtempoed by Nakamuras agression. Nakamura even beat a lucky topdecked Palisade Giant which completely foiled Nakamuras Blustersquall set-up.
    In the semifinal they were completely sure Juza would finish off Nakamura quite easily only to witness Juza’s manascrew in the first game and then Nakamura beating a good opening hand with his tempocards.
    Finally in the finals it dawned to them that Nakamura’s deck had to be much better than they initially thought, which proved to be true – Arrest and Detaincards are quite good against enchanted creatures…

    In my opinion Nakamura not only had a very good curve with tempo-elements, he also had two Armory Guards along with their gates which are excellent if you want to attack relentlessly with your army and not die to a counterattack of unleashed or enchanted dudes – they really did some heavy lifting every time they entered the battlefield!

  2. @jashinc: While Marshall Sutcliffe is a great entertainer, he’s one of the greatest scrubs as far as playing MTG is concerned. Perhaps that’s exactly why makes such a good commentator, though.

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