For just the second time in the ten years I have been doing coverage of high-level Magic events, I am forced to the sidelines to watch from home. It is killing me to miss the Magic Players Championship, as it is the highest concentration of the best players in the game with this much money and prestige on the line. As I have been watching the event I have been reflecting on my interactions and memories of the participants. Normally, I would be working on a behind-the-scenes look at the event or bringing you an in-depth profile of World Magic Cup winner Tzu Ching Kuo (my original plan for this week), but instead you get my cough syrup-inspired meandering down memory lane.
Kuo, Watanabe, Juza, Yasooka, Finkel, Damo da Rosa, Ochoa, Duke, Estratti, Nakamura, Iyanga, Kibler, Utter-Leyton, Scott-Vargas, Turtenwald, Hayne
Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
The unfolding of Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa's career is my most compelling memory of the Brazilian Hall of Famer-elect. As Randy Buehler and I were doing some research on the Sunday competitors at Pro Tour Charleston, it became quickly apparent that his success should have been something we saw coming. He had been consistently finishing in the money throughout the previous season and as a result of his success, the coverage teams have been much more aware of solid performances that could herald future success. Of course, we had no idea just how successful he would go on to be, with a staggering NINE Top 8 finishes in the six years since that event.
The highlight of Reid Duke's career is obviously his win at the Magic Online Championship Series during the World Championships in San Francisco, but when I think back over the brief career of Reid Duke it has to be his Grand Prix success that has impressed me the most about him. Duke came to the Pro Tour through his experiences as an online player but quickly demonstrated that he was up to the demands—and differences—of the physical game, with back-to-back Grand Prix Top 8s in Montreal and Providence. When you add in that the two events were radically different formats—Limited and Legacy—it is all the more impressive. Duke went on to win Grand Prix Nashville without dropping a match during the 2012 season. Working with the likes of Patrick Chapin, Jon Finkel, and Sam Black to prepare for Pro Tours, there is no reason not to expect big things from him in the coming year.
Samuele Estratti burst onto the scene at Pro Tour Philadelphia when he won his seat at the Player's Championship—the first Italian player to win a Pro Tour. It is hard to win a Pro Tour—hell, it is hard to make Day Two of a Pro Tour—yet people are always quick to dismiss a victory by a player they have never heard of before as a fluke. Estratti did his best to dispel any claims of flukedom with his performance at Pro Tour Dark Ascension. Along the way, he faked Tom Martell out of his deck shoes—a bluff that I missed and will always regret in my webcasting career—and came within one round of making back-to-back Top 8s.
When I found out that I was not going to be able to attend the Player's Championship, I joked that it meant Jon Finkel was going to win it all. The last time I missed a big event was during Finkel's amazing return to the Sunday stage at Kuala Lumpur. When I look back at Jon's career—which goes way back to him winning Juzám Djinns during our Sealed Deck Speed Tournaments in early 1995—it is his first Pro Tour victory that will always stand out for me. Not only did Jon win, but he seemed to emerge from that event changed. He wrote a tournament report after that event—something he has rarely done during his career—that announced the arrival of a more serious Finkel who wanted more from his life and his friends than he had asked of either previously.
When I think about Alexander Hayne I think of two things. The first is that lounge full of Canadian—and Canadian-for-a-day—Magic players tumbling out to congratulate the young man on his miraculous victory and singing "Hallelujah" very badly. More than that I think about talking to Hayne before the Top 8 and asking him about the prospect of facing Jon Finkel in what was supposed to be a pretty bad matchup for him. Hayne just grinned and said he would not have it any other way. If he was going to win, he wanted to win against the very best. As a New Yorker, I was sad to see Finkel and Vidugiris fall to Hayne in the Top 8, but as a fan of the game it was hard not be impressed with the young man and sing along with the crowd to celebrate his win in Barcelona.
Despite the humor of my barely profanity-free tirade about Jun'ya Iyanaga's time lapse shuffling as he went on to win the World Championships, that is not what I think of when I think of the World Champion. I think instead about his brief reign as the Japanese National champion several years previous. Iyanaga had won the match against Takuma Morofuji. It came to light that there has been an illegal play involving a Mogg Fanatic, equipped with
Martin Juza first appeared on my radar the last time I was sitting at home for a Pro Tour. Juza got off to a 9–0 start at Pro Tour Kuala Lumpur and finished 10th. Remember the anecdote about Paulo a few paragraphs earlier? Juza went on the coverage short list and when he finally broke out a few events later in Berlin we were already featuring him in the coverage before he took his bow on the Sunday stage. Martin's grasp of the Zendikar Draft format at PT Austin is what truly stands out for me about him. The confidence he had in his pick orders and the depth of his knowledge about archetypes and their matchups has made him a go-to guy for Limited in my book ever since.
Much like Finkel, Brian Kibler has been around forever. He was an elite player who was not quite up to the bar of the Hall of Fame after he retired from competitive play to become a full-time game designer. Even not playing he was active in the social media around Magic and there was an audible buzz in the community as Kibler began to claw his way back to the Pro Tour through the PTQ trenches. He qualified himself for Pro Tour Honolulu and has not looked back since. He made the Top 8 of that event and then won Pro Tour Austin shortly thereafter. He locked up the Hall of Fame, which had driven him back to the game. He is better than he ever was in the early days of his career with no signs of slowing down anytime soon, with a second win this season in Hawaii.
Tzu Ching Kuo
Tzu Ching Kuo is a name I have been aware of for the past few years, but it was not until his last-round victory at Pro Tour Avacyn Restored that he stood out from the pack. He followed that up with a commanding win at the inaugural World Magic Cup. Expect to see more about this rising star in a near future column.
Shuhei Nakamura is the fourth Hall of Famer in the field and one of five players to win Player of the Year. Nakamura has been one of the most traveled players in Magic history; the story that I always think about is his trip to Florida with some American players, including Gaudenis Vidugiris. Nakamura, who is always taking pictures wherever he goes, saw an alligator and trotted over toward it to take a picture. He had no experience with animals in the wild being dangerous and had to be physically restrained by his travel companions while other tourists were horrified at the seemingly suicidal tourist.
David Ochoa is in the discussion for best player without a Pro Tour Top 8, but it is impossible to discuss him without acknowledging his outstanding comedic work in the recent Walking The Planes videos.
Down two games to zero in the quarterfinals of Pro Tour Berlin, Randy Buehler offered me a chance to revise my pick that had Luis Scott-Vargas winning the whole thing. It would have been easy to fold, but it felt like LSV's weekend to me. Somehow, he clawed his way back into the match, with a gallery full of LSV fans cheering at full volume. I will never forget the look of pure joy on Paul Cheon's face as his good friend and Nationals teammate hoisted the trophy.
When Owen Turtenwald—another player in that discussion along with Ochoa—won the Player of the Year title in San Francisco I was struck by the humility with which Turtenwald accepted his title. When Owen started his playing career he was a brash and often abrasive young man. It would be easy for someone winning the Player of the Year title on the back of a historic run of Grand Prix Top 8 appearances to use that as fuel for his ego, but it seemed to have an opposite effect on Turtenwald. Should he win this week, he would be the first player to win back-to-back PoY titles since Kai Budde, and yet I think it would only reinforce his drive to keep improving at the game and cross his name off the list of players waiting for their first Pro Tour Top 8.
Josh Utter-Leyton has been one of the best players in the world while quietly racking up three Pro Tour Top 8s over the past few seasons. Much like Brad Nelson and Reid Duke, he has made the transition from dominant online player to tournament player, but he is by and far the most successful of the lot. Josh is a quiet player and his good humor might not always be as obvious as it is with some of his more gregarious teammates. The glint in his eye as he told Sam Black to just "slam it" during Game 5 of their semifinal matchup was a window into how much the normally placid player enjoys playing the game at the highest level.
Yuuya Watanabe had one of the most amazing seasons in Magic history in 2009 when he seemed to Top 8 every event for a three-month stretch. It was a Kai Budde-like dominance that carried him to the second title of his career. He won the Rookie of the Year title in 2007 and became the only player to win both titles two years later. He will be looking to add to the hardware and become a member of an elite club of people who have won the Player of the Year title twice.
The fifth member of the Player of the Year club is Shouta Yasooka. He has been one of the most dominant Constructed players over the past few years and really crashed upon the rocks of Limited. When I think about Yasooka, I am reminded of Pro Tour Nagoya, where his crazy five-color artifact deck did not get to the Top 8. After playing two solid days of Magic, Yasooka agreed to play an exhibition match against Luis Scott-Vargas for the Japanese cameras to see how his deck would fare against the dominant ChannelFireball Tempered Steel deck.
The Magic Player's Championship is such an amazing collection of talent and personalities and I am sad to be missing it. On the bright side, I get to sit home and watch it all unfold with the rest of you. I can't wait to see who wins.