Every year when the Hall of Fame class in announced, one of my tasks is to look back at the first Pro Tour those players played in. I can tell you that very few of them of had great success to start their careers. Magic is a challenging game that offers gradual improvement over time for hard work and dedication, and it is very rare for a player to even make Day Two at their first event at this level. Neither Josh Utter-Leyton nor Martin Jůza, who were just elected into the 2017 class, made it past Day One of their first event.
As we headed into this last Pro Tour of the season, I wanted to find out more about what players did to prepare for their first Pro Tour and what their expectations and goals for this next level of their Magic career were. And to see just how far a run into the tournament this fresh crop of Magic players could make.
I doubt any first-time Pro Tour competitor had access to a better playtesting house than Denmark's Tina Dahl, who won an online PTQ to qualify. The long-time fixture on the judging scene of the European GP circuit got to prepare for this event with two World Champions, a World Magic Cup Champion, a Player of the Year, two Pro Tour Champions, and enough Platinum to serve as a plot device in a heist film. In addition to the roster of team Genesis made up of Martin Dang, Martin Müller, Brad Nelson, Seth Manfield, Thomas Hendriks, and Lukas Blohon, there was also reigning World Champion Brian Braun-Duin, Corey Baumeister, and Christoffer Larsen preparing for the big event.
"I might actually take them for granted," laughed Dahl when I caught up with her the week before the PT. "I have known most of them for years and always test Limited with them for the Grand Prix before the Pro Tour. I enjoy hanging out with the people here. It doesn't feel like it is the World Champion and some Pro Tour Champions; it is just a bunch of nice guys who I know are better than me and who can teach me a lot of stuff. I do a lot of looking over their shoulders instead of playing because I know that will teach me more. I would guess that if other people got the shot that I have to test with these guys . . . they might be a little more star-struck."
Dahl began playing almost a dozen years ago and immediately fell into the competitive end of Denmark's player pool even if she was not ready to do more than tread water for a while.
"Half a year of playing two or three tournaments a week in Copenhagen," said Dahl of how long it took for her to hold her own. "Then there was another store that was more than an hour away—Fanatic in Roskilde, Denmark. They were really competitive but really, really friendly on top of that. That was the store Martin Müller was from. I really liked going there."
Part of her journey to becoming a better player involved becoming more well-versed in the rules of the game than her opponents. It was not long before everyone was coming to her with their rules questions.
As she and Dang (now her boyfriend) began to date, her social circle changed, and suddenly she was surrounded by players making the rounds of the Grand Prix circuit and her competitive instincts kicked in. Dahl laughed when I asked how long she has been trying to qualify for the Pro Tour.
"For all twelve years that I have been playing, and none of the twelve years. I don't think I have done as much as I could to try and qualify for the Pro Tour," said the online PTQ winner who only qualified for that event because it seemed easier than traveling more than an hour away for a local RPTQ. Now that she had finally qualified, her goals for the event were modest—and no doubt tempered by a roomful of pros who for the most part had their PT debuts end on Day One.
"For this weekend, I want to make Day Two," said Dahl, who would in fact achieve that goal. "I think I have to be realistic about it. Obviously, I would like to do better than just make Day Two, but I think it is realistic for me to make Day Two. I will be happy if I make it."
Dahl was one of three women playing in the Pro Tour, and all of them were making their PT debut. For the United States' Alexis Ostrander, who made the Top 4 of an RPTQ in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a big part of the challenge of coming to her first Pro Tour was finding other players to prepare with.
"I have been playing since I was twelve, but about two and half years ago I decided to start playing competitively and I started grinding GPs and the PPTQ circuit. That was my third RPTQ and I finally qualified," said Ostrander, who works in management consulting as a business analyst.
"I always played in tournaments and did really well, but you don't have much money when you are in college. Once I got a big-girl job, I decided to take Magic more seriously and started traveling for GPs. For work I travel every week, so instead of flying home on weekends I fly to GPs."
With a solid local scene to draw upon in Pittsburgh, social media was the solution to augmenting her playtesting and finding other players in the same situation as her.
"There was actually a post on Reddit asking for other players going to their first Pro Tour and if they wanted to form a group. I messaged them and we formed a Facebook group. There were ten to fifteen of us in the group, and then we branched out into smaller teams. I had a main core team that was made up of four us—two from the United States and two from Canada. We set up big spreadsheets for Draft percentages and testing for Constructed."
Ostrander said she was anxious leading up to the tournament, but at some point it was just time to play Magic.
"I was a little bit nervous going into the draft, but once I started actually drafting it was just like any other draft—except I was sitting across from Owen Turtenwald in my pod. I just had to draft and stay calm. My Round 1 opponent was really nervous, too. It was his first Pro Tour and he missed an opportunity to tap one of my creatures. You have to get the bugs out," she said.
Although Ostrander did not make Day Two, one of her teammates from that original Reddit thread, Yi Xuan, did advance. Ostrander plans to get right back at the GP grind to work her way back to the Pro Tour.
One player who already has his next invite for the Pro Tour locked up is Sergio Ferrer Rozalen of Spain. He managed to finish with the eleven wins needed to earn an invite for Pro Tour Ixalan in New Mexico later this year. The Spanish player from Valencia won a Limited RPTQ for the first invite of his Pro Tour career.
"The RPTQ was in Madrid. It is almost always in Madrid. It is the capital city of Spain. It is three and a half hours away and you have to go the day before because you don't want to have to wake up at 5 a.m. to play in a big tournament," said Rozalen, who was happy to not have to make that long trip again for the next Pro Tour. "Limited is the format I play the most. I just play in the store, but once I qualified, I needed to play more Magic Online because I needed more opportunities to test than the store could give me."
He made the most of that preparation and was off to a 6-0 start in the Draft rounds, including a win over Draft Master Martin Jůza in a feature match during Day One.
"I have played against the best players in the world and I have gone 6-0 in Draft. I am really, really happy about that. I played against Martin and now I have beaten Jacob Wilson—two really big names in the Magic community. I am really happy about this."
His goal coming into the event was to hit that 11-5 mark, but when we talked early on Day Two he was apprehensive about his chances to get there.
"I think the Standard deck the Spanish players chose for this event was not great for the metagame, but I will try to fight for the best. Mardu is badly positioned against [Ramunap Red] with our sideboard, and almost everyone is playing [Ramunap Red]. I am going to try and go 3-0 in this draft and then hope for the best."
Another player who made it through to Day Two in his first Pro Tour experience was Lucas Kiefer. Kiefer and his brothers have been a fixture on the Grand Prix and StarCityGames.com circuit, and he was sporting a Team Cardhoarder jersey for this event. The group had a large contingent qualified for this tournament, and Kiefer availed himself of them whenever possible.
"Having a team definitely helped me understand the Limited and Standard formats. Just being able to talk to other people about a format really helps me. I am somebody who likes to talk about things. Being able to talk about it and have someone understand is super helpful."
Seventeen-year-old Kiefer has been playing the game for half his life and qualified for the tournament through the RPTQ system. He has always dreamt of playing at this level and he was surprised by sounds of the event that did not match up with what he had imagined for many years.
"It was crazy. It was completely different from anything I would have expected. I felt calm, which was weird; I thought my Draft deck was strong, which was also weird. I didn't expect that. As soon as I sat down, everything felt calm and normal. It was a lot quieter than a GP, which I was not expecting at all. I was expecting it to be louder. It was really cool."
For Standard, Kiefer ended up playing the White-Blue God-Pharaoh's Gift deck, but he switched onto the deck late in the week and advised other first-time Pro Tour players to not make that same mistake.
"I thought the deck was great and I went 3-2 with it on Day One. I probably could have used more practice with it. I settled on the deck the Wednesday before the Pro Tour. You have to make sure you practice really hard and that you settle on a deck as soon as possible. Making sure you get the experience needed to play with your deck is super important. Everyone knows how to play the game at the top level, so you want to make sure that you can compete with them."
Another piece of advice that Kiefer had was to listen to your mother when it comes to metagame reads. Jennifer Kiefer is as much a fixture on the Grand Prix circuit as her three sons and was enjoying a well-deserved trip to Kyoto, Japan. During her shopping experiences, she would stop in the many local Magic shops; she noticed they all seemed to be sold out of Bomat Couriers.
"I am someone who is known to love a red deck. She asked me why I didn't try that deck out, and I did, but I thought it was only okay. She said, 'Are you sure you don't want to play it? I think it is going to be super popular.' I thought it did not seem super amazing, but it turned out she was completely right. Probably the best deck in the format and an incredible read on her part. Unfortunate that I did not follow her advice."
Kiefer was heading back to the Grand Prix circuit and could not wait for his next crack at the game's toughest competition.
"This is just the first step. Now I need to requalify so I can come back and do even better than I did this week."
Earlier in this article I mentioned that it is rare for players to have success in their Pro Tour debut, but at this event we had two first-time competitors make it as far as Sunday—a remarkable showing for Japan's Shintaro Kurata and Yusuke Sasabe. I had the chance to catch up with the sharply dressed Kurata just after he was eliminated by Yam Wing Chun.
The 27-year-old player had played the game as a child but only came back to it in college around Rise of the Eldrazi when he ran into an old friend who rekindled his passion for the game.
"Around last year I started playing Japanese Grand Prix and RPTQs. I qualified for this [Pro Tour] from Grand Prix Kobe," said Kurata, who mostly looks at the game as a way to socialize. "I am not such a competitive player. I want to play with my friends; I want to have fun with my friends. I went to Grand Prix Kobe with my friends and I feel lucky to have done so well—and now lucky to play on Sunday."
Kurata knew that the Ramunap Red deck was going to have a big presence in the metagame and wanted to have a good answer.
"The point was to beat red, and Collective Brutality is really good against it, so I took the mono-red base and added Collective Brutality. Ammit Eternal is also a nice size against the red decks," said Kurata, who went 8-1-1 in the Swiss rounds of Standard, losing to only another black-red deck.
I asked Kurata, who was sporting sharp clothes throughout the tournament, if that was his normal style of garb or if that was something special for the tournament.
"Don't be nervous and have fun," he smiled with his arms outstretched in a flourish. "I dressed up for the tournament. This is my stage."
It will be his stage again in New Mexico when Pro Tour Ixalan rolls into town. And it will also be the stage for a whole new crop of first-time players. If you are one of them, please find me and say hello. I definitely want to hear how you are doing.