Placing 9th through 16th at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch

Posted in Competitive Gaming on February 12, 2016

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

At the very first Pro Tour in New York City 20 years ago, the field cut to a Top 16 at the end of the Swiss rounds. It was the only time in the history of the Pro Tour that the field was culled to that large a number of players for the single-elimination rounds. It is hard to argue with the change, as the Top 8 has a nice ring to it, is easily manageable on Sunday, and makes playing on that stage all the more impressive of an accomplishment. The downside of cutting to a Top 8 is that we often overlook tremendous finishes by players who post a record—albeit with weaker tiebreakers—identical to that of the player who places 8th after the Swiss.

Over the last ten years or so, I have endeavored to look a little deeper in the standings during the week after the Pro Tour, at the players who would have been playing on Sunday in an alternate timeline where the Top 16 became the norm.

For this tournament, it could have easily been a clean cut to the Top 8 had top seeds Shuhei Nakamura and Ivan Floch chosen to intentionally draw with Jiachen Tao and Jason Chung, but, looking for the ability to be on the play throughout the Top 8 and possibly open up Sunday slots for friends and teammates with four losses, they played it out and opened up two berths for players at 12-4. Frank Lepore took one of those berths, as did eventual tournament winner Jiachen Tao, who got to eliminate Shuhei Nakamura in the quarterfinals en route to winning the whole tournament. That left seven players with a "virtual Top 8"—a record that was good enough to play on Sunday but missing out on tiebreakers.

9th Place—William Jensen

Hall of Famer William "Huey" Jensen was the highest-finishing player from the Pantheon. It could have easily been his teammate Owen Turtenwald in this spot, but the two close friends had to play each other in the last round on Saturday in an Infect mirror match. Over the course of the tournament, Jensen went 5-1 in Limited and 7-3 in Modern. You can play the Pantheon Infect deck in the Pro Tour Gauntlet on Magic Online, but you may have troubles if you run up against the Colorless Eldrazi deck from the ChannelFireball/Face to Face Games contingent.

"It's not great against main deck Chalice of the Void, but it's a very powerful deck in general," said the Hall of Famer about the deck, which boasts an abundance of one- and two-drops.

"I'm pretty happy with a 9th-place finish," said Jensen, a five-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor. "Of course, it's an objectively good result, but it definitely stings a little to come that close to a Top 8 only to end up a little short." With the 15 Pro Points that accompanied his finish, Jensen is on track for another Platinum season and has his eye on a World Championship berth come season's end.

10th Place—Jason Chung

Platinum Pro Jason Chung finished Round 15 and, while players know anything can happen and there are no guarantees of a draw, thought he was headed for the second Top 8 of his young career. Instead he found himself facing off against one of the most formidable players in the game, playing the scariest deck in the tournament. Pro Tour Champion Ivan Floch defeated the Blue Moon player with the Colorless Eldrazi deck, and when the standings were announced, Chung was two spots away from an opportunity to play on Sunday.

The near-miss still stung on Sunday, as he watched the person who eliminated him make it all the way to the finals of the tournament. It is unlikely that he will forget the experience anytime soon, but he was able to appreciate his overall performance over the weekend.

"No matter how bad I feel, if you told me before the Pro Tour that I could have a Top 16 finish I would have taken it in a heartbeat," said Chung, who now sits at 29 Pro Points and is assured at least 6 more for just showing up to the remaining PTs this season. "Top 16 was the line that locked me in for Gold. Anything less would not have locked me in, so I will be playing in at least the next six Pro Tours."

Chung was happy not just for himself, but because it meant that any New Zealand players who qualify for a Pro Tour over the remainder of this season and next will not have to go to it without knowing anyone.

"I was lucky enough that at my first Pro Tour there were multiple New Zealanders qualified, so I didn't have to go there alone. I can see where going to your first Pro Tour when you don't really know anyone is going to be hard—especially if you have to go to a new country," explained Chung.

Chung's Blue Moon deck may not have reached the Sunday stage, but it is a part of the Pro Tour Gauntlet. Grand Prix Melbourne is rapidly approaching, and Chung was discussing what to play with his teammates in light of the results from the Pro Tour. The initial reaction was to give up on his deck and play some flavor of Eldrazi. But buoyed by support for the deck on social media, he has instead gone back to the drawing board and is looking to shore up its vulnerabilities.

"I was overwhelmed by the support. I think I am going to play Blue Moon in Melbourne and work on it to improve the Eldrazi matchup. In that matchup, Blood Moon is so important, but it dies to Ratchet Bomb. I am going to try and splash black for Kolaghan's Command," was the message Chung had for fans of his deck.

11th Place—Paul Cheon

This was another great finish for the ChannelFireball/Face to Face Games collaboration. Between the 20 players across both teams, they ended up with ten players finishing in the Top 25. Cheon was one of the few members of the team to not play the Colorless Eldrazi deck, opting instead to play Affinity. On Day One he was able to exploit that to his advantage during one of the Modern rounds.

He was seated against his opponent with notable teammates on either side of him. Cheon was on the draw and had to mulligan multiple times while his opponent kept a full hand. While he was taking his mulligans, both teammates were putting the power of the Eldrazi on full display. Cheon's opponent had a very strong first turn that Cheon had a very small chance of overcoming with his meager hand of spells. He decided to concede the game without showing his opponent what he was playing—but knowing that his opponent would assume he was on the same deck as his teammates. Affinity is a great Game 1 deck, but it loses a ton of edge after sideboarding, and Cheon gave up none of that edge with a calculated concession.

The finish puts Cheon in an excellent position to clinch Gold. He only needs to find 1 more point beyond the minimum payout at the remaining PTs to lock up Gold. With a second child on the way, it is going to be increasingly difficult for Cheon to get away to Grand Prix. His next chance to even pick up Pro Points will come in Spain at Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad, although he may reconsider his travel schedule if he does well there.

"Based on my performance [in Madrid], I will see whether or not Platinum is a realistic goal. I currently don't have any plans to attend too many Grand Prix—definitely not for the next couple of months at least," said the popular streamer, who came within inches of the first Pro Tour Top 8 of his Magic-playing career. A career that is going to be increasingly (and happily) impinged upon by the demands of raising his family.

12th Place—Josh McClain

Josh McClain actually finished better than anyone else from Team Face to Face Games—and Team ChannelFireball, for that matter—with the Colorless Eldrazi deck that his team built for the Pro Tour. He finished 9-1 in Modern and was tripped up from making the Top 8 by a 3-3 Draft record.

13th Place—Oliver Tiu

The eighteen-year-old Massachusetts player was only playing in the second Pro Tour of his young career, but he has already earned the admiration of the likes of Hall of Famer William Jensen and Player of the Year Mike Sigrist. Both are familiar with Oliver Tiu—the highest-finishing player on Team Hotsauce Games—from the New England Magic scene, and made a point to call him out as a player to keep an eye on at the Pro Tour.

While Tiu is a new name to many Pro Tour observers, he has been playing competitively for eight years—and for ten years overall. He qualified for Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar by virtue of a Top 8 finish at Grand Prix Providence with his Black-Green Dragon Megamorph deck.

He started out his Pro Tour career with a 6-2 start on Day One and a 4-4 finish on Day Two. His Day One ended with a loss to Reid Duke.

"It felt kinda bad," recalled Tiu. "I was hoping to get 7-1, but reflecting back on it I was pretty happy to get that result. A couple of weeks before that I had won a [Magic Online Championship Series], so I knew I was going to be playing in this Pro Tour. It was pretty sweet."

Fittingly, considering his MOCS invite, Tiu prepared largely on Magic Online for this event, playing "a ton of Modern." He focused on drafting as soon as the set was available to draft online, and came to Atlanta to get some drafts in with his teammates prior to the event. That prep work paid off with a perfect record in the Draft portion, as he headed into Modern with his Affinity deck.

"I was super happy. I had never 3-0'd a Pro Tour draft before," recalled the youngest player in the tournament. "I won the Affinity mirror to win my first Modern match, then I played against back-to-back Eldrazi decks—which I actually think is a pretty good matchup for me—but I just got demolished both times. I was feeling pretty bad because now I was 4-2 after starting 4-0. I just needed to get my head back in the game and I rattled off the next two wins."

He posted his second 6-2 finish in two tries and lost once in each leg of Day Two to improve on his performance from the last Pro Tour.

"It feels great. I was not expecting this result at all going in," said the Rookie of the Year–hopeful. "My goal was to go 11-5 and qualify for the next one, so this obviously exceeded my goal. I was super-excited. I am actually Silver now, which means I am qualified for the next three."

When I caught up with Tiu, he was sitting in the audience Sunday absorbing every moment. When I asked the young player on the cusp of a successful Pro Tour career who he admires and hopes to emulate among the successful players, and he did not hesitate with his answer. He chose another player who was in the hall but not one of the players in the Top 8.

"Easily Owen Turtenwald. He is a monster. He just consistently puts up results. He Top 20ed this one and he Top 8ed the last one. Even though Magic has tons of variance in it, he shows that you can limit that variance as much as [possible] and just consistently do well. He is the player I most strive to be like. I wish he streamed more."

14th Place—Kentaro Yamamoto

Japan's Kentaro Yamamoto already has three Pro Tour Top 8 finishes in his career and came within percentage points of adding a fourth. He was the highest finisher for Japan's Team Cygames and played one of the scarier decks in the tournament: a Through the Breach deck that was also piloted by Kenji Tsumura, Yuuya Watanabe, and Yuuki Ichikawa.

Yamamoto split his four losses evenly across both formats and is in 11th place for the title of Constructed Master with his 8-2 finish in Atlanta.

15th Place—Oliver Polak-Rottmann

Austrian player Polak-Rottmann was the highest-placing member of Team EUreka, but he was also one of the few team members not playing their Death's Shadow Zoo deck. Instead the veteran player was piloting an Infect deck that he felt very comfortable playing. He went 7-3 in Modern and posted a hearty 5-1 record in Draft. That mirrored his Day Two record at the Grand Prix, where he also finished in the Top 16.

"I did not want to draft black-white because I thought it would be overdrafted, but I ended up drafting the deck twice," said Polak-Rottmann of his drafts in Atlanta. "That is usually how it happens. My decks were nothing great—they were basically all commons—but if you know what's good, especially in Battle for Zendikar, you end up with quite a nice deck. Kalastria Nightwatch is quite a good card now, but before it was pretty bad. Before Oath of the Gatewatch, it was quite hard to gain life, but now you can attack with Vampire Envoy, and a 4/5 flier for five is quite a good deal."

Polak-Rottmann has been playing the Infect deck in Modern events over the last year and a half and felt comfortable with it for this tournament.

"I tested the Death's Shadow Zoo deck, but felt the game plan was very similar. They both have a proactive game plan, but the counterspells—you have Spell Pierce and Vines of Vastwood—are really, really good, and that's why I chose Infect."

Of his three losses with the deck, two came early against Jund and Abzan—which are two of the worst matchups for him—and he did not lose again in the format until Ivan Floch knocked him out of the Top 8 with Colorless Eldrazi. He had won an earlier matchup against Matt Nass and felt like the Infect deck was not a bad choice in a room full of giant monsters.

"If they mulligan to a turn-one or turn-two Chalice of the Void, it can be bad, but it is not the end of the world. You have Viridian Corrupters in the sideboard and you can still win through it with Blighted Agent and Inkmoth Nexus," said Polak-Rottmann, who posted the best finish of his career. His previous best came a couple of years back when he finished 17th.

"It feels great. Both times I lost to the Slovakians. Last time it was Matej (Zatlkaj) who knocked me out, and this time it was Ivan, but I am super happy," said the Grand Prix Utrecht 2014 Champion. "I am locked for Gold now and I am back on the train again. I was on the train for the '08 season, but then I started studying. Now I am done with my studies and I have time to focus on the game. This season is very good. I need 6 more points for Platinum."

Polak-Rottmann was looking forward to tackling a new Standard format at the next Pro Tour, where he feels his talents really shine, and he is not worried about Limited as long as he is a member of Team EUreka.

"I think right now Joel Larsson is the best Limited player in the world, and getting inside information from him is great."

16th Place—Alexander Hayne

In the alternate universe where the Pro Tour still cut to a Top 16, a goateed Alexander Hayne would have been a clean cut just below the 12-4 at 11-4-1. He was the fifth member of the ChannelFireball/Face to Face Games collaboration to make the Top 16, which gives you an idea of just how dominant that team's performance was over the weekend.

Hayne is a known quantity at this point, and it seems like it is only a matter of time before the frequency of his Top 8s at the Pro Tour level starts increasing. I want to take a moment to call out the finish of Poland's Bart Lewandowski at 17th. This was just the third PT for the player and the second time he has made a deep run in an event. He was in the Top 16 of Pro Tour Magic Origins and is someone I will have my eye on heading into Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad.

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