The big story of the tournament going into the top eight is Ben Stark. This is not only a back to back Grand Prix Top 8 for Stark, who finished third at GP Kansas City, but it's the second time in a row he's finished the Swiss in first place. Stark didn't lose an actual match all weekend - the only blemish on his perfect record came from a concession to teammate Peter Szigeti to ensure Magic's bad boy a seat in the Top 8. Many pros have spoken highly of Stark's abilities for quite some time, but it's only recently that he has seemingly caught fire. Stark lead his team "The Cutting Crew" - himself, Szigeti, and Brian Hegstad - to a 10th place finish in Boston before posting a top 32 performance of his own in New Orleans with a similar Tinker deck to the one he stormed the standings with this weekend. Add to this his recent Grand Prix domination and Stark is clearly a force to be reckoned with on the Pro Tour.
Right behind Stark in the standings sits Paul "Little Darwin" Rietzl, a longtime member of Team Your Move Games. Rietzl has found himself perennially in the shadow of his better-known teammates, repeatedly qualifying for major events but until now a Top 8 finish has eluded him. He came closest at this year's US Nationals, where he qualified by winning the last Open after getting second place in another. He was in contention until a final round loss to Jordan Berkowitz kept him out of the spotlight, but his seemingly archaic Psychatog deck didn't let him down this weekend. His recent move away from YMG's Boston headquarters for college doesn't seem to dulled his game any, and with the confidence boost coming from this finish, Rietzl's name is sure to be one that won't fade back into obscurity.
Speaking of fading into obscurity, one time Pro Tour powerhouse Ben Rubin had all but vanished from the competitive scene recently. Frustration with his play and distaste for the Pro Tour venues this season compelled Ben to take time off from serious play, and he hasn't been seen at a premiere level event since Pro Tour Boston. Apparently his seclusion hasn't kept him from his usual antics, however, and Ben's performance this weekend is courtesy of his home brewed metagame "Dump Truck" deck, complete with all manner of classically eccentric card choices - Peek probably wasn't a card most players were expecting to see this weekend. Regardless of what conventional wisdom may say, however, Rubin's performance this weekend has shown that this two-time Masters Series champion isn't done putting up the numbers just yet.
Blake Quelle's disappearance from the competitive Magic scene didn't cause as much a stir as Rubin's, as the Southern California native doesn't have quite the same resume as the San Francisco superstar. Nevertheless, Quelle claims that before this week he hadn't even seen a Magic card since Nationals. The prospect of a Grand Prix in his back yard was apparently too good to pass up, and the 2002 US Nationals quarterfinalist has made the best of it, piloting his heavily meta-gamed Rock deck to another impressive finish. Whether Quelle will once again hang up the wand after this weekend remains to be seen, but I'm sure he's glad he gave it one last wave this weekend.
Gerard Fabiano's individual performances until now have gone largely unnoticed by the Magic community at large, with his only real claim to fame being his Top 4 finish at the 2002 Pro Tour Boston with his team "Slay, Pillage, Gerard". He narrowly missed Top 8 at Pro Tour Osaka, and has put up a string of performances since that have been good enough to keep him on the gravy train but not so impressive as to put his name up in lights. A longtime member of the CMU-TOGIT playtesting conglomerate, Fabiano strayed from the path his more prominent teammates Osyp Lebedowitz and Eugene Harvey chose this weekend, audibling from Tinker to Hatetog on Friday night - uncoincidentally when yours truly crashed on his hotel room floor. Gerard's unconventional play style draws the criticism of many other Pros, but whatever the naysayers may think, this weekend Gerard got the job done.
Rounding out the known quantities in the Top 8 is Pro Tour bad boy Peter Szigeti. Before this weekend Peter's most impressive individual accomplishment at a premiere event was getting himself a match loss for "creatively" playing a Searing Flesh at Pro Tour Yokohama, but he's made himself a prominent staple of the PT community regardless. This is Szigeti's second GP Top 8, his previous coming at GP Turin where he won as part of a team with Dan Clegg and Brock Parker. There are those who'd prefer to see Peter's antics gone from the Pro Tour, but with this performance he's ensured his place on the gravy train for a while more to come. Whether he'll spend that time posting wins or just showing off his latest in ghetto-fabulous fashion is unclear, but what is certain is that he won't do either quietly.
The x-factors in the Top eight are Nathan Saunders and Nick Meves, both piloting the apparently aptly named "Red Deck Wins". Meves - who, by his own description lives "right down the street" - has had his share of success on the PTQ level and played in Nationals this past year, but hasn't attended any of the Pro Tours he's qualified for. The 16 year old's mother doesn't like the idea of him flying cross country, a situation which is reminiscent of the origins of a certain French phenomenon. Meves is admittedly a constructed specialist, having experienced a great deal of success in Block Format PTQs recently, but claims his limited rating hovers somewhere below 1500 - and he's not exaggerating. His only win in the limited portion of Nationals this year, ironically enough, came from defeating Pro Tour Nice Quarterfinalist Gary Talim. Apparently his skills with sixty card decks can carry him well enough.
Nathan Saunders is this year's Oregon State Champion, and he too has had his share of success on the PTQ circuit. With six PTQ Top 8's to his name, Saunders has sold the slot twice and never attended, which has him sitting pretty on amateur status for this event. He says Red Deck Wins is his favorite kind of deck, and Cursed Scroll is his "favorite card ever". He won his three byes in a trial Friday night, which puts his record on the weekend at 15-4-1 going into the top eight - certainly reason for the deck to be his favorite. Saunders asked to give a shout-out to northwestmagic.com, a forum for Magic players from his area that keeps them connected. From Saunders results this weekend, it seems like his networking paid off.