Pro Tour Aether Revolt is over, and that means we have officially crossed over into the back half of the 2016–17 professional Magic season. There are just two more Pro Tours remaining for players to tick off their to-do lists, whether that is hitting Silver, Gold, or ideally Platinum in the Pro Players Club; fortifying Pro Tour Hall of Fame resumes before ballots go out later this year; or just finishing one tier better in their next tournament.
One player who got to tick lots of boxes this past weekend was Brazil's Lucas Esper Berthoud, who hit Platinum with his win—by far the best finish in his six Pro Tour starts. Congratulations to him and everyone else who finished in the Top 8 of the event. But I am not here to talk about them this week. Instead, as I try to do after every Pro Tour, I wanted to catch up with the players who finished just outside of the Top 8. To finish in the Top 16 is a huge accomplishment—and often involves a record, if not the tiebreakers, good enough to have made the Top 8. It can also give us an idea of which decks and players, standing just outside the spotlight of the Sunday stage, we should be paying more attention to as the year marches on.
9th Place—Ivan Floch (Face to Face Games)
Hailing from the Slovak Republic, Ivan Floch has won a Pro Tour and is a World Team Champion from the old World Championship format. He has seen and done it all in this game, and with three Pro Tour Top 8s on his resume was someone who garnered Hall of Fame support but fell short of being elected last season. Going into the Top 8 announcement on Saturday, he knew he was an underdog to hear his name called out in the last spot despite having an identical record to Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. He was also keenly aware of what hearing his name called would mean come balloting for the Hall.
"I would be lying if I said no," said Floch when asked if the Hall was on his mind during the announcement. "I want to make it at some point, and I know that a Top 8 would be a step in the right way in this regard. I was just hoping, but I talked to a bunch of people and they all said I was probably going to be ninth. Going into the round, I was behind by 2% on tiebreakers, and I know that is a lot to overcome in a sixteen-round tournament. I knew I was probably gonna be ninth. Then when I saw the final standings, it was so close. It went from 2% to .04%. It was very close; what can you do?"
What he did was go over and congratulate the person who had edged him out: Hall of Famer Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, with whom he had tested for the event as a superteam he referred to as "The Conglomerate"—which included teams ChannelFireball Ice and his Face to Face Games team.
"We tested together before the Team Series was announced and we just kept testing together for this Pro Tour. I think we will test like that for the next Pro Tour as well," said Floch of the star-studded group that also included Petr Sochůrek and Hall of Famer Shuhei Nakamura. It was the collected experience of that group that led the well-known control player to get behind the wheel of an aggro deck like Mardu Vehicles for this tournament.
"It is not my style of deck," laughed Floch. "Sometimes I lost with the deck because damage racing it's just not natural to me. I don't think I played really well, but the deck is very good. Here and there, I feel like I must've made some mistakes that might've cost me a better finish.
Despite feeling like he plays better when he is controlling the game with counterspells and board sweepers, Floch could not ignore his house's playtesting results—or his teammates' experience.
"On this team, when my teammates decide that something is the best deck, it is probably just best for me to go with it," he said. "In the past, I always made my deck decision based on my own opinion because I was smarter than most people, but on this team I am not. If they say this is the best deck and I think I should play something else . . . I am usually wrong."
Floch has put himself in a position that should assure him Gold status—attaining qualification for all the Pro Tours throughout the next season is the minimum goal of every professional Magic player—but Floch had his eyes set on Platinum and the extra benefits it affords. He was also very happy with where his six-person team finished in the first event of the new Pro Tour Team Series.
Despite placing nobody in the Top 8, his team—which also includes Alexander Hayne, Samuel Pardee, Steve Rubin, Jacob Wilson, and Oliver Tiu—stands in third place with 44 Pro Points.
"I think that is a great start for us," said the always-modest Slovak superstar.
10th Place—Thierry Ramboa
France's Thierry Ramboa has been playing on and off the Pro Tour since his debut at Pro Tour Kuala Lumpur in 2008, and this is by far the best finish of his career. Previously he had made the Top 32 at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir in Brussels in 2015. With some wind in his sails from this event, he is hopeful that he will be able to reach Gold status for the first time in his career.
"In the past, I've missed Gold by 3 points and by 2 points. And two years in a row, I had to miss one Pro Tour. I'm in a better spot now because I'm qualified for all the Pro Tours," said Ramboa, who gets an invite for locking Silver and an invite for finishing 11-5 or better. "I was Silver, and this was my last invite from it. I really had to do something here—I only had 5 points for the year. If I didn't have a good result here, I don't know how much Magic I would play this year. With this money, I can play all the Grand Prix in Europe until the end of the season."
Thierry posted a 5-1 record in Limited and went 7-3 in Standard, where his weapon of choice was a Black-Green Energy deck that eschewed Verdurous Gearhulk. Instead he played a more tempo-oriented game with Glint-Sleeve Siphoner and Tireless Tracker in the main deck.
"I expected to see more [Copycat], and those cards are really good when you have to interact with an opponent by putting pressure on early and then keeping mana open for removal. I thought it was real good," said Thierry, who will often look to players in the card shop he works in for deck building inspiration. "Sometimes you'll see a player trying something that you never even thought about. It is great to have so many points of view."
One of the unexpected aspects of doing so well in the tournament was learning to play under the lights and cameras of the feature match area.
"I was really stressed because of the camera; I'm not used to it," he admitted before adding, "I really liked my feature match against Lukas Blohon, even though it only lasted 10 minutes."
11th Place—Federico Del Basso
Italian Magic has been on the upswing ever since Samuele Estratti became the first Italian player to win a Pro Tour with his victory at PT Philadelphia 2011. Sitting at home watching that tournament from Naples was Federico Del Basso. Del Basso had previously had a chance to see a countryman do well at the Pro Tour when he watched Giulio Barra make the Top 4 of Pro Tour Valencia, where Del Basso made his Pro Tour debut. It has been a long road for Del Basso to reach this, the high-water mark of his career.
"I started to play Magic at fifteen years old, and now I'm 29. My first Pro Tour was ten years ago in Valencia, and this is my seventh Pro Tour. With this result, I become Gold and I'm qualified for the next six Pro Tours," said Del Basso, who was just looking to be able to play in his eighth Pro Tour when he set his goals for the tournament. "When I went to this Pro Tour, my dream was to become Silver. I locked up Silver in Round 13. And then I continued to win and I became Gold. It really is a dream for me."
Del Basso has three Limited Grand Prix Top 8s and considers himself to be mostly a Limited player, but it was his 9-1 record with yet another Black-Green Energy deck that propelled him up the standings—and it probably should have been a perfect record.
"I only lost to Donald Smith in the last round of the first day," he recalled with a wry smile. "I counted up 14 damage and he was at 14 without any cards in hand. I attacked with everything, but it was only 13 damage—I was so tired. He drew an Unlicensed Disintegration, did 3 damage to me, attacked for 7, and I died. If I don't miscount, it's actually impossible to lose the game."
Del Basso tested with Marco Camaluzzi, Matteo Moure, and Davide Miani. I interviewed the latter two for a similar piece after they both made the Top 16 of Pro Tour Kaladesh in Honolulu.
"We are all qualified for the rest of the Pro Tours this year. I hope so many Italians become Gold or Platinum this year," Del Basso beamed.
12th Place—Ken Yukuhiro (Musashi)
Last seen in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Eldritch Moon, this was another strong finish for the Japanese pro. I was hoping to have an interview with him through a translator on-site, but the breakneck pace of the Top 8 ran that plan off the road. You can expect to see much more about Ken Yukuhiro as the season progresses. His team, Musashi, is tied for the lead in the Team Series with 49 points, and he was the biggest contributor to their success on the weekend.
The Top 8 may have been dominated by Mardu Vehicles, but Black-Green Constrictor decks of various skins made up the bulk of the decks in the 9th–16th bracket. Yukuhiro went 9-1 in Constructed, and his version of the deck with Glint-Sleeve Siphoner and Aethersphere Harvester is certainly something to explore if you're playing Standard this weekend.
13th place—Brad Nelson (Genesis)
Brad Nelson is no stranger to doing well at Pro Tours, whether it is Top 8s or Top 16s. Anytime he can walk away from a huge tournament winning three of every four matches he played, he considers that tournament to have been a success.
"If anyone thinks that 75% is not an aesthetically good record, they should probably not be playing this game. People get bummed about going 75% at Grand Prix's and you just can't be. Take your X-3 and go home. You can't be sad about that," said Nelson. Often asked by newer players what it takes to do well at a tournament, he feels that the secret is in accepting your losses.
"When a new kid asks for advice about going to his first Pro Tour, I ask if they think they're gonna win all sixteen rounds. They say, 'of course not.' Then I tell them if you lose a round, don't let it unravel you. Just take your losses where they come. I like to use that for testing too; I don't like to come in with expectations of getting Gold or Platinum. I just want to do the best that I possibly can, hit the metagame as best as I can, and see how it all plays out once I'm here," said the former Player of the Year, who felt great about his finish this past weekend.
"Every Top 16 has actually felt better than my Top 8s in the moment. Your tournament is over, and I consider Top 16 and getting the 15 Pro Points to be the big finishes—the ones that catapult you to where you need to be. Every time I've ever finished in the Top 16 on Saturday night, it's the happiest I ever am at a Pro Tour on Saturday night."
Once the tournament is over, Nelson can uncoil and let himself enjoy being in some far off place with his friends, usually for the first time since the weeks leading up to a Pro Tour. Being able to look back at an event with a 12-4 record—with two losses in each of the two formats—is a reward for all his hard work and metagame analysis. It also means he chose the right deck for the weekend. Stop me if you heard this one before, but he played Black-Green Energy, a deck he really loved for this field.
"I hate playing decks that have a really high win percentage on the play and a much lower win percentage on the draw," said the consummate deck tuner. He kept working on ways to shore the deck up when it did not win the die roll. "Truth be told, this format is just perfect for me. Granted we were expecting about 10% Mardu—we didn't expect 20% Mardu. It's really good against the Mardu decks specifically because you have Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, which can be really good on the draw."
"Everyone's all excited about Heart of Kiran right now—and Heart is really good. If it is left unchecked it might just win the game, but it can get Fatal Pushed really easily. Harvester is just unbelievable. It is much better than even I thought it was. The only removal that kills it straight-up costs three mana. Mardu can't hold up three mana for a whole turn cycle. You just don't crew it. If they waste all their mana, it's just bad for them."
Another card in his deck that Nelson really likes going forward is Gonti, Lord of Luxury.
"He didn't really find his place last format because of Reflector Mage. Gonti is just so good in every match up. After Game 1, things slow down and everyone has lots of removal and more planeswalkers. In the mirror you want deathtouch to block things. You also have more shots at Gearhulking the next turn because you get their four cards. Even against Mardu, they have planeswalkers and stuff. Gonti is always a two-for-one."
Getting to play with cards in your opponent's deck also leads to unusual lines of play that Nelson found very rewarding. He recalled one game in particular where he had his opponent's Pia Nalaar exiled with Gonti and knew that it was going to provide him a way to break through a stalled board by sacrificing Tireless Tracker's Clues to Pia's ability to make creatures not block. This also added +1/+1 counters to the Tracker, despite the atypical methodology.
"I was just stockpiling Clues and he thought I was leaving mana up for removal. I had to pop one at some point so he would not know I had his Pia. It was a cool play pattern."
Nelson's goal coming into the Pro Tour was to hit Gold, and now that he has done that he can turn his attention to getting Platinum. And to getting his brother, Corey Baumeister, who went 10-6 in the tournament, to hit Gold as well. You can expect to see both of them hitting up a ton of Grand Prix down the back half of the season.
"Corey has 22 points this season. He started with 0 points after a few Grand Prix and no qualifications, and now he is sitting at 22 and qualified for the next Pro Tour. He's got four GP slots open," said Nelson, who was beaming with pride about his younger brother. "That's just my favorite thing about Magic right now. I'm gonna try to get him to Gold. It would be the first year that we are both playing Magic for a whole season. He started playing first before me, but this will be the first time we are ever playing professional Magic together. It is the literal best thing that could ever happen at a Pro tour. It's not even remotely close."
14th place—Panagiotis Papadopoulos (Conflagreece)
Coming into the Team Series, there were several factors working against Conflagreece. Not the least of which was having only five players in attendance at Pro Tour Aether Revolt. Panagiotis Papadopoulos, Bill Chronopoulos, Dimitris Triantafillou, Petros Tziotis, and Makis Matsoukas were all playing, but Nikolaos Kaponis had to skip this event after injuring his leg playing basketball. On top of that, the bulk of the team was not sure how many Pro Tours they would get to play in this season. Chronopoulos, Papadopoulos, Tziotis, and Kaponis had one invite each from winning the World Magic Cup. Triantafillou had just the one invite, and only Matsoukas was guaranteed to play in Nashville. With a Silver invite, Chronopoulos would have to choose between attending either Nashville or Kyoto.
The tournament went really well for the team, led by Papadopoulos and his 12-4 record. Triantafillou went 11-5 and earned another invite, and suddenly they are able to bring back at least five players for Nashville. They sit in 9th place in the Team Series, just 13 points off the lead.
It is all a little dizzying for Papadopoulos, who has been playing the game for nearly two decades since he picked Magic up with his brothers back in Greece.
"I qualified for my first World Championship in 2009—in Rome—then I had a pretty good streak, qualified for Worlds in Chiba. Then Pro Tour Philadelphia, then the first World Magic Cup in Indianapolis," he recalled. "Then I had a short break for about two years where I couldn't win anything—an unintentional break. Then I had two more World Magic Cups with Bill. The most recent one was our win, which was just an amazing feeling."
Playing Magic away from home used to overwhelm him, but this year has been different and he has found his footing. Even as the expectations for the Greek pro community become greater with each success story.
"After winning the World Magic Cup and coming here and locking up Silver status, I feel really great about the future. A lot of people admire us back in Greece. Now we are disappointed if we don't make a Top 8. Back then even making Day Two was a huge achievement. Now 80% of our team made Day Two. We have five or six players going to the Pro Tour instead of one or two."
Papadopoulos had advice for players in smaller Magic playing countries or even parts of larger countries that might be isolated and not have access to as many big events.
"Play Magic Online. We have small Friday Night Magics at local stores and not a lot of big tournaments. Magic Online allows you to play any time of day," said the World Magic Cup Champion. "The WMC is also a tournament that can really give a big push to players. It is much easier to play in a team tournament than an individual one."
15th Place—Daniel Grafensteiner
Germany's Daniel Grafensteiner last made the Top 8 of a Pro Tour back in 2010. If you were looking for the highest-finishing Copycat player, you have found him. Grafensteiner liked the deck a lot and confessed that he underestimated the presence of Mardu Vehicles in the metagame.
"Our plan was to sideboard out the combo in most of the matchups," said Grafensteiner, who played the deck as a more traditional control deck after Game 1. "That's why we had so many planeswalkers in the sideboard."
"My goal for the Pro Tour was to go 11-5 so I could play in the next Pro Tour again. I needed to win two out of three games in the last three rounds to make Top 8, but got only one win. I am still very happy about the result," he said. He is sitting on 11 Pro Points and will get to play in both of the remaining Pro Tours this season. If he can find 3 additional Pro Points this season, he will lock up Silver for next season.
16th Place—Gabriel Nassif (Opportunity)
When the Pantheon was drawing up teams for the Pro Tour Team Series, they found themselves with thirteen players to squeeze onto two six-person rosters. Hall of Famer Gabriel Nassif was not sure if he was going to be able to play in all the Pro Tours this season and stepped aside to create an even number. Instead, he decided to play as a member of Opportunity. Joining Nassif on the team were Pierre Dagen, Magnus Lantto, Matteo Moure, Marco Cammilluzzi, and Grzegorz Kowalski. Nassif, who only met Kowalski at the Pro Tour, had an awkward encounter with his teammate when they played against each other in Round 4.
"I played [Kowalski] in the first round of Constructed. The first time I had actually met him in real life was that morning. He was wearing different clothes and I didn't recognize him right away. Only when I signed the match slip was I like, "Oh . . . sorry buddy, I didn't realize." My own teammate . . . so that happened," relayed the Hall of Famer before adding with a sly grin, "I crushed him."
Nassif still tested with the larger Pantheon group and ended up on their Mardu Vehicles list despite being very close to playing black-green up until the last minute and being reluctant to switch to the deck that had the best record in the house.
"I usually get emotionally attached to the decks I play with the most. That was kind of the case with black-green. I was really biased when the first time I played with black-green against Mardu Vehicles, the Vehicle side just had super clunky draws. Then I did a bunch of testing
with Vehicles and I realize the deck was super consistent and mulligans really well. And it's just busted. Finkel had a set on Thursday morning where he went 17-3 in games."
Nassif did get to play with some of the cards from that black-green deck when he started off this Day One with a draft deck that featured Winding Constrictor and Walking Ballista. He had started out with losing records in the Draft portions at recent events, but this time he was able to begin with a solid 2-1 start.
Whenever you talk to Nassif about Magic, he is quick to point out all the matches he could have won and the mistakes he made. He lamented bringing in Fragmentize against a Dynavolt Tower deck that he suspected sided those artifacts out and sticking to a sideboard Fumigate plan against Martin Jůza after Jůza played around Fumigate in Game 2. In fact, if you talk about the other Top 16 finishes in his career, he can still remember each of the mistakes he made that may or may not have cost him additional Top 8s.
"That's what you remember, right?" he asked when I pressed him about his litany of bad beat stories. "[Tom] Martell was quoting the line from Rounders about how you don't really remember your wins but you can remember every beat you took. If not for dumb mistakes, I could have like four extra Top 8s. I think for my level of achievement I make more mistakes than someone like Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. I am considered to be like fourth or fifth (all-time) and PV is just running away with third place." [Editor's note: Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa is now in second place all-time for Pro Tour Top 8 finishes.]
To underscore his point, he told the story about when he used Mindslaver on his opponent at a Pro Tour and ended up having to chump block to live through an attack he made against himself.
"I made him make an attack where I thought I was gonna trade and it was good for me. I realized I was short one mana and wouldn't be able to pump my Nexus to not die. That was playing for Top 8, but I won the next game. I have some crazy bad mistakes."
Nassif is one of the all-time greats of the game, and is much more keenly aware of those mistakes he makes than most other players would be. He also explained that when he wins, he is just happy and feels no need to go tell anyone else that he just played great Magic.
"When you lose you need to vent. That's how I roll, anyway. It's not as bad now but when I used to play Magic all the time, when I made one mistake that cost me a match in a Pro Tour, I wouldn't get over it until the next Pro Tour. I would just think about it for the two months or three months in between Pro Tours. It's not as bad now; I'll just dwell on it for a few days now . . . . Maybe a week."