Each one of the eight people who walked onto the Sunday stage this weekend took a different path to get there. To each person, this Top 8 meant something different. To a first-timer like Australia's Paul Johnson, it means something different than to a former Pro Tour finalist like Joel Larsson—to someone who just locked up Gold, it's different than it is for someone who just locked up Platinum.
What were the journeys here? I caught up with each Top 8 competitor and their friends to get the skinny.
"The first Pro Tour top 8 is a monkey off your back. Now the second one means something different." Team Ultra Pro member Matt Sperling has always found himself around players with results, but for a while, he was without the same accolades. When he broke the Top 8 meniscus last year at Pro Tour Magic 2015, people who weren't already aware of his bona fides started to get clued in.
As Pro Tour Hall of Fame member, teammate, and soon-to-be best man Paul Rietzl said, "Most people forget that when he's focused, he is one of the elite players in the game." Perhaps with this Top 8, Sperling's acumen will be talked about more frequently.
However, Sperling isn't buying all that quite yet. "I'm still very much looking at the top, top players," he said. But who knows what the next year will bring; he just made the Top 8 in two Pro Tours in two years. Another important factor meant more to Sperling than just the Top 8: "Now I'm Platinum for the first time. I take that very seriously," he said. He's very clearly got that look.
His Grand Prix San Jose teammate and Pro Tour Tokyo Top 8 finisher Dave Williams said, "Even I could see the fire in him for this PT . . . and seeing him do so well here makes me want to get back to it." Once Sperling made a conscious effort to tighten up his play, and took out the "Oops Mistakes," as Rietzl called them, Sperling has begun to shine. What caused the change?
"You know, sometimes you just get sick of losing," Williams said.
"Yeah," Rietzl echoed, "he was sick of it."
I met up with Kentaro Yamamoto sitting and testing with other Japanese legends—Hall of Fame member Makihito Mihara and two-time Pro Tour Top 8 finisher Yuuki Ichikawa—to discuss Yamamoto's third individual Pro Tour Top 8.
Mihara and Ichikawa say that much of his success comes from his strict playstyle. "He's not a risk-taker; he's extremely methodical and will play around absolutely everything." Mihara contrasted that with his own style, saying, "I'm really trying to read my opponents, getting into their heads." But with Yamamoto, it's all business.
Although Ichikawa was remiss to add this: "He seems very stern and good-looking, but he's actually very charming." Everyone laughed, including Yamamoto.
Yamamoto is this Top 8's elder statesman, and was already a Platinum-level Pro last year. So what's most important to Yamamoto now? "Winning the Pro Tour is a big lifetime goal," he said, adding that after achieving that, "I can't think of anything more that I'd need."
For Yamamoto, he's in it for the whole enchilada. But he admitted that his match-ups from the quarterfinals through the finals go as follows: "Difficult, difficult, then . . . even." It didn't go so well in the quarters, but with a resume like his, Yamamoto will be trying for that elusive Pro Tour win again very soon.
For Sweden's Joel Larsson, this Top 8 might cause a little life rearranging. Though he'd been stepping away from the game a bit, here he is. "I started as a student about a year ago . . . I only went to five Grand Prix this year. Now, if I win the quarterfinals, I'll be Platinum." Though he wasn't exactly sure what he'd do if that happened, he'd certainly have to give it some thought. Team Thommo teammate Matej Zatlkaj said that Larsson still had a lot invested in the game before—and that's only increased now.
Larsson's journey started about five years ago, when his proverbial switch turned on. Flying home from Pro Tour Nagoya, he wrote a decklist on an airplane napkin for Swedish Nationals. "I played 73 of the 75 cards on that napkin, and I came in third." It was like something triggered in his brain. Ever since then, he's been gunning for the top.
This wasn't surprising to his other Team Thommo teammates, Magnus Lantto and Martin Müller, who said that he always figures out things quickly. Zatlkaj added that "Sometimes, though, he's too smart for his own good; trying to outthink everyone."
He almost got there at Pro Tour Gatecrash, coming in second. But he had yet to win. Larsson said, "I just want to win, you know? I want to win very badly."
It reminds me of Gerrard Fabiano's exclamation after his long-overdue first Grand Prix win in Philadelphia: "I've never actually won anything before!" This Sunday, Larsson achieved his goal.
Steven Neal realizes he's part of a wave. Everything's coming up Madisonian. Friend and fellow Wisconsinite Louis Kaplan noted, "In each of the last three Pro Tours, there has been a new person from Madison in the Top 8, who hadn't made the Top 8 before"—Justin Cohen, Adrian Sullivan, and now Steven Neal.
Humorously, Neal's goal for the weekend didn't even include Top 8. He said "I thought 'How do I get to Silver? I need get 11-4.' At that point everyone said, 'Why don't you just try to get the whole thing? It made sense." This jovialness is something Kaplan and David Heinemann said has always been a part of Neal. "He's always in a good mood. He's clever, but goofy." Heinemann said further, "He never turns his wit on people." He's a good Midwestern guy.
Neal said seeing good friends (and sometimes roommates) second-ranked Sam Black and Gaudenis Vidugiris succeed vaulted the entire scene to higher heights, and he hopes his finish, along with the finishes of other recent top Madisonians, will continue to move his community forward.
As for who's next, Neal said, "Maybe Brian Kowal or Matt Severa, or Jasper Johnson-Epstein." Then he looked at his friends sitting next to him and added, "And of course Dave Heinemann and Louis Kaplan will get there soon."
(20) Mike Sigrist
Unlike anyone else here, this Top 8 means something very specific for No. 20-ranked Mike Sigirst. And it means something that wasn't even a thought until basically now. He was focused on smaller goals. "I was sweating Gold a month ago," he said.
With his finals appearance, Mike Sigrist became the United States captain for the World Magic Cup, and was crowned the Player of Year. The Face to Face team member is a bona fide Limited machine—Sam Pardee remarked, "If Shuhei weren't on the team, he'd be the best." Hampton added "He's pretty useful," in his trademark glibness.
Sigrist's journey here started when he moved back to Massachusetts. "There was a year straight where I did not play any Magic," he said. But since coming back, he's been giving it his all. This Top 8 and the other potentials couldn't be more of a thrill. "I started devoting more to the game, and I'm really glad it's paying off."
"It's really not fun to play unless you're playing with people," he said, which makes sense in the context of the now famous "Siggi Skype," where players gather online to prepare for Grand Prix—putting four people into Top 8s in the last few months.
His devotion is extra meaningful, considering he will soon be a father to identical twin girls. It's a lot to give yourself to this game, and I could see the happiness in Sigrist's eyes—the feeling of validation for his efforts.
But Pardee was slightly less impressed. He said jokingly, "Eh, he's my second favorite Sigrist. Soon to be forth." Everyone at the table got a good laugh. "Well, if he wins the PT and his kids aren't great, he might stay second."
Hampton added, "Also, he's super lucky."
"I remember when I met Steve; it was at a PTQ in Louisville. He was loud and obnoxious—then he took the whole thing down; it was awesome." Thus began two-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor and Chicagoan Steve Berrios's story.
He was quick to amend that. "That was the old me. I'm a lawyer now; I've aged out of that a bit." He smiled assuredly. Berrios is a combination of his old and new self in a pragmatic and defined way. This game is so important to him, he has to regiment himself. "I've always wanted to compete at this stage," he said about this first Pro Tour Top 8, "but you can get burnt out real easy." So he keeps a strict regimen.
"After the end of each Pro Tour, I'll not play for a month straight." he said. That keeps it healthy and focused. But once he gets back in the habit, he's back. "Once the spoiler came out [for Magic Origins], it was like 'Okay. It's on.' "
Good friend Adam Jansen was sincerely happy for the success, saying, "It's really great to see him do well here, because he's the Limited specialist." Well-known in the Chicago area (and not just for his former boisterousness), Berrios getting a shot on the main stage for the first time is a dream come true—almost literally.
"People say they dream about it or whatever, but I woke up two days ago, and I had dreamt I won the Pro Tour. Really." He added, "This is the culmination of seventeen years. This is my competition outlet; well, my fun competition outlet," and he's ecstatic to see where it leads—you could see it bursting from his pores.
He may be more regimented now, but that braggadocio is still in there somewhere, and that emotion for almost two decades of his life is starting to come to a head.
Team Ultra Pro's Pat Cox has had a journey of redemption getting here. As good friend Hall of Fame member Luis Scott-Vargas extolled, "The last two summer Pro Tours, Pat thought it was going to be his last." In each of the last two years, Cox has put up a Top 8 at the last possible Pro Tour to keep his status up.
"I'd accepted my fate last year," he said, "but I didn't really expect lightning to strike twice." But now he'd locked himself for Gold, and with a win he'll be Platinum for the first time. "I've gotten Gold six times."
And though for many Platinum statues would be the end-all, be-all, Cox knows that he only has so much time to devote to the game. So for him, it's the trophy or bust. "Yeah, getting Platinum would be pretty cool, but it wouldn't be as big as winning to me." He added, "This Top 8, to me, means another chance to win a Pro Tour; that's been my plan." And a solid plan it is.
He is getting married this month to the love of his life; so even if he had won it all, it might still not have been the best part of the summer.
"Is that a real place?" is a question Paul Jackson says he hears after telling people he's from Perth. Nestled on the western edge of Australia, the city is secluded from the other metropolises in the country. The remoteness can be a bonus, but also has a cost. No. 24-ranked New Zealander and friend Jason Chung put it like this: "How many good Magic players are in Perth? One and a half."
Jackson, or "PJax," wasn't quite as harsh as Chung about it, and mentioned that though the Magic community is low-key, "It's been growing since a good game store opened. That was the water we needed."
The two originally met after scrubbing out at a Grand Prix. But in the last year, both Jackson and Chung performed well enough in a first Pro Tour to chain the events. Chung was the first to Top 8 at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir and just reached Platinum, so now it's Jackson's turn.
Chung and Jackson are part of the new united wave of Australia and New Zealand. Though the two countries have a classic neighborly feud, Jackson said, "That doesn't exist in Magic." At events abroad, "The international front is always unified."
To make Platinum and meet Chung at the top level of Magic, Jackson had to make it to the finals. It was a fight, as his lone Green-Red Devotion had a tough matchup against the Blue-Red Ensoul Artifact deck. But for Jackson, he couldn't think about the odds anymore. "The only thing left is winning," he said.