The following is a deeper look into the stories of the eight players that reached the Top 8 of Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir. One of our coverage reporters spent some time with the friends of each of these players to learn a little bit more about them.
For more on Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, head over to the coverage page to see all the articles, video, and results of this event.
For some, earning the right to even play on the Pro Tour is a big achievement already. People all over the world work hard and try their best to qualify, just a select few actually do. Of all the thousands of players involved in the world of competitive Magic, only about 400 managed to grab a spot at this event, for example. Further narrowing the field in our quest to find a worthy champion, only 260 of them made the cut to Day Two. Finally, only eight players made it to the Sunday stage to play for their shot at the fame and the glory. To be the last one standing and hoist the trophy at the very end of an event like this truly is a lifetime achievement—a dream come true—but just being part of a group of eight who can legitimately call themselves the top performers of Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir is quite a feat.
So who are these people? What did the Top 8 mean to them?
Denmark's Martin Dang, said it meant "a lot" to him. He let that hang in the air for emphasis for a bit, took a deep breath, then continued, "I'm very glad. It's the culmination of many years of playing Magic." Dang had actually taken a bit of a break from the game, for about three or four years, and only recently got back into the game around the time of last year's Grand Prix Utrecht. "Though I never quit completely, during my break I only played, like, once or twice per month. I came back because I started working at a Magic store. I'm responsible for running the tournaments there, which also gave me an opportunity to play two drafts per week all of a sudden," Dang told me. "That has helped a lot."
And he apparently picked the perfect time to make his return. "Yes, it has been a good year for me," Dang agreed. "At Grand Prix Utrecht, I finished in tenth place, so I figured I might as well give it a try and travel to these things regularly again. Give it a real shot, maybe even go further than that."
And he did. He qualified for this Pro Tour via Magic Online and its Championship Series. And then he won Grand Prix Liverpool last month. Now he was playing in his first Pro Tour Top 8 and was determined to make the most of it. Apart from all the cash and Pro Points associated with it, Dang was particularly happy about collecting the signatures of all of his fellow Top 8 competitors. "I love the Magic merchandise store they have here," said Dang, proudly displaying his playmat with the signatures, as well as his newly acquired event-exclusive Nicol Bolas Funko POP! figurine.
Another longtime player who has only now made the first Pro Tour Top 8 of his career was Adrian Sullivan, although one has to admit that Sullivan's story goes further back. My colleague Craig Jones, himself a true veteran of Magic with a Grand Prix Top 8 from 1998 to his name, recalled, "I think Sullivan was already around when I started playing."
Though it took Sullivan a while to finally reach a Top 8 at the Pro Tour, it certainly wasn't for lack of skill at the game. Evidence of that can be found in his two Grand Prix Top 8s…even if they happened 15 years apart—and also in the statements of his teammate, Bob Maher. In particular, the Hall of Famer recalled the time when he was testing Sullivan's deck. "Adrian was standing behind me, looking over my shoulder and pointing out all the mistakes I made," Maher said. "And there were a lot. Which is funny because I usually love control decks. But yeah, this one is just too hard to play correctly—for me, not for Adrian."
Sullivan stated that a Pro Tour victory would mean "the culmination of 22 years of living Magic." But simply by winning his quarterfinal, he locked up Gold in the Pro Players Club and all the benefits that come with that. To qualify for this event, he needed to win a PTQ; for the foreseeable future he won't have to worry about that anymore.
Another PTQ winner with previous Top 8 experience at the Grand Prix level was Andrew Ohlschwager from Fort Collins, Colorado. When asked what this finish meant to him, he was literally at a loss for words. "My birthday was yesterday," he said after a long pause. "So this was kind of an awesome present." He went on to describe how he followed premier event Magic coverage growing up, and how he always wanted to make it to the big stage himself.
"I still remember when he started playing, 17 or 18 years ago," his mother, whom Ohlschwager had invited to come with him on this trip, recalled. "I didn't understand it, and for a while, I was worried because of all the time he spend on Magic. Now I'm beginning to understand more about the culture, and how complicated this game really is."
"I'm very proud of my son. I'm happy he has made it this far," she said. "And I was thrilled when he asked me to come with him!" While Ohlschwager locked up Silver level in the Pro Players Club this weekend, and only has invitations to the next two Pro Tours (in Vancouver and Milwaukee, respectively) lined up, if he builds on his performance here, there will be ample opportunity for trips around the world in the future.
Jason Chung of New Zealand was another first-timer, though he came close once before, at Pro Tour Fate Reforged. He finished in 11th place, qualifying him for this event and kindling an ambition to do better the next time. On Sunday morning, he could be found skyping on his iPad with friends back home. Getting last-minute advice? "I wouldn't say they're giving me instructions," Chung said. "They're mostly making fun of me, really."
"Though this is the first time I've actually spent a big amount of time with him, I've known Jason for years, simply for being around all the events in New Zealand and Australia," said Patrick Robertson. "A kid who somehow was better than all the others."
He described Chung as a very laid-back and relaxed person, typical of the players from the region. "But I think this match," Robertson said, referring to the quarterfinal then about to start, "means more to him than he's letting on. He's playing for Platinum, after all."
The word "kid" was also used when Hall of Famer Frank Karsten talked about his teammate Ondrej Strasky, the 19-year-old from the Czech Republic. "All of the other Czech players simply call him 'the kid' because, well, he is a kid and he acts like a kid at times," Karsten said. "For example, he went out partying last night, he's just so carefree."
There are certain advantages to this, of course. Karsten pointed out that Strasky, or "Straca" as his friends refer to him, was definitely one of the funniest people in the Cabin Crew. "Many of us, including himself, don't necessarily consider him the best player on the team," Karsten said about Strasky's quality as a player. "But that's not saying much."
In any case, one can hardly argue with Strasky's results. For Strasky, this Top 8—his second within half a year's time—meant reaching the Platinum in the Pro Players Club, cementing his position among the highest of current Magic players.
Also testing with Team Cabin Crew for this event was Thomas Hendriks. Frank Karsten got to play with the 22-year-old student at last year's World Magic Cup and was full of praise for his ability as a player. "He's definitely one of the better and more active players from the Netherlands," Karsten said. "At the World Magic Cup and during testing, leading up to that, I was continuously impressed with his playing skill as well as his insights into deck building and game play. I even relied on him for advice several times throughout the tournament rather than the other way round."
Working together again for Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir seemed logical, but the team-up almost didn't happen. "I didn't even know he was qualified at first! He must have won a PTQ that I missed," Karsten explained. "I knew he had been qualified for Pro Tour Fate Reforged. There were a bunch of Dutch players, something like 14, at that event and his original plan had been to work with them again for this Pro Tour. But the Dutch didn't do well, and suddenly Thomas was without team."
When Hendriks sent Karsten a message inquiring about testing with him for the Pro Tour, Karsten told me, he was very happy indeed. "I knew our team was looking to add more people to fill out the roster, so I asked the others. Only, I didn't really ask them but rather told them, 'We are adding this man.'"
The Cabin Crew also had a nickname for Hendriks. "Whereas Straca was 'the kid,' Thomas was 'the giant' towering over everyone," said Karsten. Apparently, Hendriks had a big role in the testing process as well. "He was one of the first to build and play and really champion the red-green devotion deck," Karsten explained. "And that has worked very well for him."
The Dutch may have their giant, but the Italians have their Cammilluzzi! Marco Cammilluzzi entered the Top 8 amid the cheers of his countrymen, with former Pro Tour champion Samuele Estratti going in for a hug. Cammilluzzi himself was overwhelmed with joy too. "What can I say? When I started playing, I always heard stories of all those folks traveling the world, playing the game," he recalled. "I wanted to reach that level."
Cammilluzzi had some taste of the pro player lifestyle before, with three Grand Prix Top 8s to date. He finished in the Top 50 at both of this season's previous Pro Tour events, but this was his first time under the Pro Tour lights on Sunday. And Cammilluzzi suggested there was more to come. "This is not an end but a beginning," he said.
Alessandro Portaro, who has known Cammilluzzi for eight years ("Nine maybe? I don't know."), said Cammilluzzi was one of the funniest people he knew and one of his best friends. "He laughs all the time, he always has a smile on his face," Portaro said. "He's a good person and a great player."
Finally, there was Shota Yasooka. I managed to talk to Masami Kaneko, a member of the Japanese coverage team and longtime friend of Yasooka-san. "He's a great Magic player and a fantastic deck builder," Kaneko said. "He never just plays a popular deck, but always builds an original one. He's famous for this in Japan."
This was Yasooka's first Top 8 since 2006 and I asked Kaneko, well, what took him so long? Kaneko explained that Yasooka was not exactly a Limited specialist, which was the reason why he had mostly found success at Grand Prix in recent years. "Sometimes he would go 9-1 or 8-1-1 in the Constructed portion of a Pro Tour, but he never made it because of his draft record."
So what changed this time? "This time Yasooka got in a lot more Limited practice," Kaneko explained. Yasooka had apparently joined a boot camp where a group of Japanese players got together the weekend before the Pro Tour and just drafted…and drafted…and drafted. "This time, he went 5-1 in Draft," Kaneko noted.
Eight players made it to the elimination rounds, and while obviously only one of them could get the trophy and the giant check, in some way all of them were champions. These were some of their stories.