I have been to exactly three World Championships in my Magic career. I was in Seattle for the 1997 event – as a spectator – when Jacob Slemr hoisted the trophy. After that I missed more than a few until I started the coverage gig and have had the opportunity to be in Berlin and San Francisco for the last two year-end tournaments.
The 2005 Magic: The Gathering World Championships will cap the longest season in Magic history. The year began in Columbus, Ohio 13 months ago. Six Pro Tours, 31 Grand Prix, and thousands of frequent-flier miles later, the season comes to a close in Yokohama, Japan.
Hall of Fame
Before the event gets kicked off and the players dive into the action, there will be a ceremony to honor the five inductees into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame. Jon Finkel, Darwin Kastle, Alan Comer, Tommi Hovi, and Olle Råde will all be on hand to take part in the festivities and receive their Hall of Fame rings. All five players will also have the opportunity to play at Worlds (and all future Pro Tours) and I believe most of them will be availing themselves of Level 3 perks. Alan Comer, plus Quirion Dryad, plus six rounds of Extended, anyone?
Player of the Year Race
At the start of last year's World Championship, there was a similar dogfight between Gabriel Nassif, Nicolai Herzog, and Rickard Osterberg. Going into a day of Limited, it looked like two-time Pro Tour winner Herzog was going to be able to maintain his lead but somehow the 40-card master collapsed on draft day and Nassif capped a remarkable season with the Player of the Year title.
The spotlight will be firmly focused on all three of this year's contenders, although size doesn't matter to this trio. All year long they have been equally adept with 40- and 60-card decks. They way all three have played this year, the winner might not become clear until Sunday when only eight players remain standing. Perhaps Beijing was a harbinger...no one would be surprised to find Oli, Kenji, and Masashi still standing come the Top 8 in Yokohama. Ruel has already shared the Pro Tour Top 8 spotlight with each of his Japanese competitors this season. How fitting would it be for the 2005 season to end with all three of them playing in the closing matches of the year?
With a nine-point gap between Masashi Oiso and the Player of the Year lead, he has been ruing his decision to skip out on Pro Tour-Philadelphia. While Kenji and Ruel made the most of Oiso's decision to skip that one – they were both in the Philly Top 8 – Oiso will have a chance to make up his lost ground Saturday as a member of the Japanese National team while Kenji and Olivier are watching on the sidelines.
Being a member of his National team provides Oiso with an opportunity to pick up as many as a six points in the PoY race with a team championship. The Japanese team is clearly an early favorite with Oiso, Ichirou Shimura, and Takuma Morofuji. Despite all the accomplishments Japanese players have racked up over the last few seasons, they have yet to win the team championship. The fact that last year's team – featuring Tsuyoshi Fujita and Kenji Tsumura – did not win is a big spur for Oiso to lead this year's team to victory.
"Last year's team was probably the best Japanese National team ever," admitted Masashi. "But they were not the champions. Kenji's team couldn't do it so I want to get the trophy this year with my team."
While Oiso would like to win the Player of the Year title his sights are not necessarily set on that race so much as accomplishing what Kenji could not. Passing him in the Player of the Year standings would not be too shabby either.
"Actually Kenji is a really good friend and the best playtest partner ever," Oiso said. "We are even writing a draft article together for the Internet. But mostly Kenji is my biggest rival. My motivation is simple: I don't want to lose against him. It's true that Oli is at the top of PoY standing right now but my rivalry is with my countryman, Kenji."De Rosa leads a strong U.S. team full of PT experience.
The American team looks to be a formidable squad this year with Antonino De Rosa, Jon Sonne, and Neil Reeves. DeRosa and Sonne have both racked up Grand Prix wins and Neil Reeves is a seasoned Pro Tour veteran who would love nothing more than to return the team title to the United States.
This year's English team seems well suited to make a run at the title. Sam Gomersall is one of the most feared Limited players on the planet and he will play alongside his good friend Richard Moore and Mark Knight.
Much like Oiso is looking to take advantage of a few extra points to close the ground in the Player of the Year race, Julien Goron will be looking to do the same as the captain of the French National team in the Rookie of the Year race. His countryman Pierre Canali has had a stranglehold on the title since winning Pro Tour-Columbus but a strong individual tournament from Julien, coupled with the team competition, should spice that race up considerably.
Another team to watch for is the delegation from Chinese Taipei featuring Pro Tour-Los Angeles Top 8 competitor Chih-Hsiang Chang. Finland's Tuomo Nieminen is hoping to lead the Finnish team back to the Finals after his team lost to the U.S. in Berlin two seasons ago. Vasilis Fatouros has not made much noise since reaching the Top 8 of Pro Tour-Nagoya but as the captain of the Greek National team, he is hoping to raise the decibel level. Don't sleep on the team from Norway either, as fashion plate and 2002 Pro Tour-Nice champion Eivind Nitter mounts his comeback.
Those are the three formats that players will need to navigate in order to reach the Top 8, where Standard will be the weapon of choice. We have already looked at the trio in the Player of the Year race and we will be bird-dogging them throughout the weekend.
Who are the other players to keep an eye on throughout the long week of coverage?
For me, the first player to look for as the Standings refresh each round is Masashiro Kuroda. Historically the Japanese have taken advantage of the home field. Tsuyoshi Fujita reached the Top 8 in Tokyo to become the first Japanese player to reach that plateau. Kuroda became the first to win a Pro Tour in Kobe. Shu Komuro was the second in Nagoya. You have to like a Japanese player to win this weekend, and why not Kuroda? Japanese Pro Tours are the only opportunity the family/salary man gets to play at the game's highest level and he always makes the best of it.
Two Japanese players I am going to be watching for to make the first individual Pro Tour Top 8 of their careers are Itaru Ishida and Masahiko Morita. Each player has 15 Grand Prix Top 8s and can go toe to toe with any of their countryman.
Japan has been dominant all year, but the trophies keep getting shipped back to France. Reigning Player of the Year Gabriel Nassif, Pierre Canali, and Antoine Ruel have all won Pro Tours this season. Over the past two seasons, Nassif and the two Ruels have been the most successful players in the game. Throw in adopted Ruel brother Alexander Peset and National team captain Julien Goron and the French can keep you busy refreshing your browser all week long.
When talking about Magic superpowers, it feels like the Dutch have hit a slump. It seems like this time last year the Dutch were running neck and neck with Japan and France with players in almost every Top 8. Only Frank Karsten's Top 8 in Nagoya is keeping the Netherlands from getting shut out this season. It could just be the luck of the draw – according to last year's World Champion Julien Nuijten (who has won a pair of GPs this year), more Dutch players than ever are enjoying the gravy train.
Nuijten was looking forward to two explored Constructed formats for the Dutch to metagame their way back into the Sunday spotlight. Nuijten, Karsten, Jeroen Remie, Jelger Wiegersma, Kamiel Cornelissen, Ruud Warmenhoven, Rogier Matten – and the list goes on and on. None of those players would surprise anyone if they were playing on Sunday. In fact, if the Dutch were to close this long season out with only one Top 8 way back at the second Pro Tour, that would be the biggest surprise of all.
To be fair, the sudden burst of fresh new American faces in Pro Tour Top 8s has to rank up there as far as surprises go. For the past few years the ongoing story of the Pro Tour has been the impending demise of American Magic. While the U.S. was shut out of the Top 8 in London and Nagoya, it has fared pretty well in the other events this year. Gadiel Szleifer has two Top 8s this season (including at win at Philly) and there have been three Americans in two different Pro Tour Top 8s this season.
You could look for anyone from Gadiel, Osyp Lebedowicz and Antonino DeRosa to fresh-faced Ervin Tormos, Billy Moreno, and Chris McDaniel from the recently resurgent United States to make it to Sunday's action.Siron's two Top 8s make him a name to watch.
Another player I will be keeping tabs on is Geoffrey Siron. Since first popping up during the finals of last year's team competition as a member of the darkhorse Belgian team, Geoffrey has gone on to finish in the money at most of the PTs this season and has reached the Top 8 twice. In his second Top 8 turn, he ran off nine straight wins to win Pro Tour-London.
There are players all over Europe to watch for. Hall of Fame inductees Olle Råde and Tommi Hovi first made people aware of Sweden and Finland as world powers on the Magic scene. Both players are eligible to compete this week and given their past track records, I would not be shocked to see either of them finish in the money. A Top 8 would knock me on me rear though, as it would be more likely to see Finland's Tuomo Nieminen, Antti Malin, and Tomi Walamies or Sweden's Anton Jonsson and Johan Sadeghpour to reach the Sunday leg of the competition.
Worlds starts with six rounds of Standard on Wednesday, and it's a format that has not changed since Champs. All the decks are still listed on the Champs page and you can expect that this is what most players used to prepare their playtesting gauntlet of this format. Extended brackets the three days of competition and it will be very interesting to see what happens here with a Pro Tour, a handful of Grand Prix events, and a plethora of PTQs informing the format.
Thursday will be the only Pro Tour-level competition that utilizes three packs of Ravnica and will be our first real look at what the Pros are drafting. Will players fight for red-white? Is blue-black mill better than the Halcyon Glazed aggro strategy? And how many colors are too many to be playing? Look for answers to these questions in our Thursday booster draft coverage.
The whole celebration kick off Wednesday morning when I will be emceeing the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. Four days later, we'll be down to the individual Top 8 and Team final. I'll be in the webcast booth on Sunday with Randy Buehler to bring you the latest crop of stars fighting to be the 2005 Magic: The Gathering World Championship. See you then!