It's Boston, this time, in case you were wondering. Boston's a tremendous city. There's lots to see, lots to do. People to eat, places to meet, food to see, things to be. None of it matters this weekend. None of it, except one building, nestled deep in the heart of wherever it's nestled deep in. For one weekend, that one building becomes the center of the Magic Multiverse. For one weekend, it's home to 24 of the finest players in the modern game, plus the two standout teams from the inaugural season of Team Series play. For one weekend, the least we can offer you is Pro Tour Champion versus Player of the Year, Hall of Famer versus the best Standard player on earth, twelve Pro Tour Top 8s versus . . . fewer. Every round, for three days, we get to see these players—so tightly packed that finding the chink in the armor is nigh-impossible—embark on that very task. Where is the weakness that can lead to a precious victory?
Nowhere in the professional game is a single match win more important. The history of this prestigious tournament has taught us that, if nothing else. In a field of just 24, in a structure of fourteen rounds across two days and two formats, in a group where the worst you can say of any of them is that they were "only" among the top two dozen of last season:
Actually, that's always true at the sharp end of the pro scene, but nowhere and nowhen does it mean more than at the World Championship. Nobody is here to see Boston and hope to catch the Red Sox one night. Nobody is here to get some sweet rares in the drafts to add to their collection. Nobody is here to hang out with friends, swap cool stories, eat pizza, and go see It for the second time. Don't get me wrong; I plan on doing all of those things while I'm in Boston, but all of that happens alongside the reason we're here. And I trust that's why you're here. Like me, you can't wait to see who comes out on top in the single most competitive event of the Magic year.
Part of the reason it's so competitive is that, just like the Pro Tour, we have multiple formats. Both days will begin with our 24 standouts divided into three tables of eight, ready to draft and then play three rounds against other players from their table (most often sharing the same record). There's no cut at the end of Day One, meaning all 24 will be back again on Saturday morning. Realistically, fewer than a handful will be out of contention by then, with 20 or so still hoping that they can make the final four who advance to Sunday. Both drafts will feature fresh-out-of-the-pack booster goodness from Ixalan. It's easy enough to say that, yes, there'll be Pirate-y decks, and Merfolk-y decks, and Vampire-y decks, and Dinosaur-y decks. One of the largest questions surrounding the Limited rounds is the nature of all those "-y" decks. Are Vampire decks supposed to have only Vampires in their creature base, or can you dip your fangs into other tribes? What's the right number of Pirates to ensure that your crew is more than simply motley? How many 'folk are in the sweet spot? Eight? Ten? Or do you need even Mer to swim with the fishes? And how many Dinos are needed to make your deck soar?
In the Boston afternoons, it's Standard that takes center stage. Magic has always been a game of churn and innovation, but we are at the high end of the dial for both those aspects right now. Maybe by the time the tournament starts we'll have a better idea of what the new Standard might look like. But, if ever there was an opportunity for the best deck builders in the game to come up with something genuinely groundbreaking, this feels like it might be that moment. Four rounds of Standard on Friday afternoon will give us an overnight leaderboard, and four more on Saturday afternoon will take us to the end of Round 14 and the announcement of the Top 4 for Sunday. There, it will be best three out of five in the same Standard they've been battling in, using the same decks they submitted at the start of the tournament.
I'll get to the 24 players in the main event in a moment, but the hors d'oeuvre to the main course on Sunday shouldn't be underestimated. This, of course, is the final of the Team Series. Teams Genesis and Musashi will go at it, having comfortably demonstrated that they were the best two teams from the past season of Pro Tour play. The rosters:
Yuuki Ichikawa, Teruya Kakumae, Yuuya Watanabe, Kentaro Yamamoto, Shota Yasooka, and Ken Yukuhiro.
Three players from the main event, supplemented with Ichikawa, Kakumae, and Yamamoto. Musashi was comfortably the best team during the season and comes in with the mantle of favorites.
Lukas Blohon, Martin Dang, Thomas Hendriks, Seth Manfield, Martin Müller, and Brad Nelson.
Again, three have main event duties, with Blohon, Dang, and Hendricks joining the team for Sunday. If you're wondering where Michael Majors went (who began the season with Genesis), he's now working inside Wizards of the Coast in Renton, Washington, necessitating the mid-season substitution with Hendriks.
The two teams will split themselves down the middle into two groups of three. Each of these groups will then take twelve boosters of Ixalan and come up with the best three 40-card decks they can muster. The first group of three will play their opposite numbers, and then the remaining trios face off. If either team wins both of those matches (they're all two-out-of-three, with two wins needed to claim the overall match point), that's the end, and the 2-0 team becomes the holder of the Team Series Championship. If two matches aren't enough to split them, the winning trio from each team will go again to determine the destination of the trophy. And all of that happens before we get into the awesomeness that is the Top 4 in the World Championship itself.
So just who do we have on show at our pinnacle event this time around? Five are Champions from the past season: Shota Yasooka (Pro Tour Kaladesh), Lucas Esper Berthoud (Pro Tour Aether Revolt), Gerry Thompson (Pro Tour Amonkhet), Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa (Pro Tour Hour of Devastation), and Josh Utter-Leyton (2016 Magic Online Champion). Then there's the two "Masters": Martin Jůza, Draft Master (via the best record in Draft at the Pro Tours in 2016–17), and Sebastian Pozzo, Standard Master (you get the idea).
Representing the regions of the world are Reid Duke for North America, Márcio Carvalho for Europe, and Yuuya Watanabe for Asia-Pacific. If you're wondering where the Latin America slot is, that belongs to Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, so, as a Pro Tour Champion, his slot passes down to an extra At-Large. Speaking of which, the remaining fourteen competitors form this group, being the top fourteen players in last season's Player of the Year race that weren't otherwise qualified. So, in order: Sam Pardee, Seth Manfield, Brad Nelson, Owen Turtenwald, Kelvin Chew, Lee Shi Tian, Ken Yukuhiro, Donald Smith, Martin Müller, Javier Dominguez, Christian Calcano, William Jensen, Samuel Black, Eric Froehlich.
Trying to put a pin between these 24 is not going to be easy. Experience tells us that all but a few are going to end up somewhere between 6-8 and 8-6 by the end of Saturday, and any one match could easily come down to the kind of 52/48% play that can so easily lead to "right play, wrong outcome." Still, since you're doubtless planning on picking your own idea of the winner at home, let's see if we can give you some useful guidance. To do this, I'm going to divide up the field by a unique method based exclusively on their last names, which I've christened "alphabetical" . . .
Lucas Esper Berthoud
If we're going to do this properly, we need to be real, so here goes: Berthoud is not among the favorites to win the World Championship. Most of you may be thinking this is a perfectly reasonable, non-inflammatory, accurate assessment. Some of you (my hunch is you speak Portuguese and own a yellow and green soccer shirt) will think that said sentence is a crime that should be punishable only by death. Mine.
Thing is, like everyone in the field, Berthoud is really good at Magic. In fact, let's assume that I've said that for everyone in the field. Here:
"_ _ _ _ _ _ is really good at Magic."
Now, whenever you need reassurance that Your Guy has what it takes, you can use this cut out and keep sentence. Meanwhile, back to Berthoud. It truly says something that a Pro Tour Champion has worse odds than his theoretical 1 in 24 (4.166%) chance of claiming the title. But, the facts are that the Pro Tour Aether Revolt win was his first and only PT Top 8. The facts are also that he has just a single Grand Prix Top 8 (admittedly only from sixteen starts), and his Pro Tour win rate is only 55%, despite a stat-building win. But, if you want a reason to support him, remember that his title came this season (i.e., he's good right now), and he was demonstrably unfazed by playing, and beating, the best.
Sam is one of the players who has, to my mind, a "silver bullet" in his armory for this tournament. At a typical Pro Tour, there are 400 or so players trying to get a handle on the new Standard. Here, there are 24. While that may mean that more article writers around the web are going to be more open about their initial brews, I believe it also means that the best deck builders in the tournament are going to have the best opportunity they've had in ages to make their mark. I've already said that 6-8/8-6 is the closest range of results for most players. Now seems a good time to say that 9-5 could be enough for the Top 4. In that context, finding just a single match win on the back of your deck-building skill could be all the difference you need, and that seems well within range for Sam.
As ego-free as you could want in a top player, Calcano deserved every bit of rejoicing when he made his first Pro Tour Top 8 at Pro Tour Amonkhet last season. He's played in almost 150 Grand Prix, which is a gargantuan effort, and winning this would be a gargantuan effort, too. It's certainly possible to imagine him going 2-1 and 3-0 in Draft over two days, and a literally average performance in Standard on Day One would leave him at 7-3 in that scenario. Could he then go 5-1 in Standard, thus reaching the Top 4, and then win the whole thing? That's a much tougher sell. If he does go the distance, the New York Magic community might just explode with happiness. Get the tissues ready.
Márcio had any number of good days last season, and one—well, really half of one—bad one. Unfortunately, that was the Saturday afternoon of Pro Tour Hour of Devastation. With only the minimum points accrued, Carvalho had to watch from the sidelines as Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa made the Top 8, somehow reached the final, and then won the titles of both Pro Tour Champion and Player of the Year. On the plus side, Carvalho's still really good at Magic and was the beaten finalist in this competition last year. Along the way, he gave us one of the greatest games in history, eventually succumbing to Brian Braun-Duin. This year's field is no easier, but don't be surprised to find Márcio quietly eviscerating another stack of world-class opponents.
Being a Platinum pro means that you're very consistent across high-level tournament play throughout the year. Chew ticks that box, including a Grand Prix title in Guangzhou earlier this year. Most pros have a lower win rate at Pro Tour level than at Grand Prix level; the competition is straightforwardly harder at the invite-only PT. But, the gap for Chew is pretty big: 54% at PT level, 64% at GP level. If you're not much beyond a toss-up against the standard Pro Tour opposition, what does that mean when you're up against the hand-picked best in the business? I guess we'll find out.
Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa became the first ever Player of the Year to hail from Latin America, and although it took him until literally the last match of the entire season to overtake Márcio Carvalho, his crowning was thoroughly deserved. His numbers are essentially stat-busting: twelve PT Top 8s, over $400,000 earnings, nineteen GP Top 8s, over 72% win rate at the PT this past season, over 600 lifetime Pro Points, and a Hall of Fame career. In a way, the only surprise is that there are two entire human beings in the history of forever who can claim to be better than PV at Magic. That anyone can claim that with a straight face is extraordinary. If PV isn't in your best guess of the Top 4, you can finish this sentence in a way that suggests to you best that re-evaluating your position could be part of your near future.
It's important in life to know when you've been good, and it's important in life to know when you've been lucky. Dominguez knows he's good, but he also knows he's been lucky. Owen Turtenwald would have had Worlds circled on the calendar a year ago. Javier Dominguez probably did too, but Dominguez would have been planning to watch the best players in the world. He wasn't expecting to be one. But, now he's in. Why not hurl everything at it, and see where he ends up? He certainly sees it as a "freeroll" opportunity, and he certainly won't be plagued by the doubts that have crippled plenty of big names trying to justify their reputations on the big stage. I'm not sure we're going to get a Brian Braun-Duin this year, but, if we do, it could be Dominguez. So keep an eye on him (as, now that I've said this, he finishes 2-12 in 24th place).
"He's been at the top, he's been at the bottom, and he's been stuck right in the middle" sounds like the start of a rock song. So, why not?
He's been at the top.
He's been at the bottom.
And he's been stuck right in the middle.
As he started to rap,
He wanted something to untap,
So he used an Island for Twiddle.
Er, right, back to Reid. Thing is, he has been at the top (finishing 2nd to Shahar Shenhar in the 2013 World Championship), he has been at the bottom (a horrible then-named Players Championship in Seattle), and he has been stuck right in the middle of the pack at this event. So just how good is Reid? He's a former Magic Online Champion. He's part of the Peach Garden Oath, one of the best teams ever assembled. Indeed, he's the only one of the three (William Jensen and Owen Turtenwald being the others) who isn't yet in the Hall of Fame (give him time). He has two Pro Tour Top 8s and six Grand Prix titles from a mammoth 21 GP Top 8s. All of this makes him seem like a true world-beater, but there are doubts. Those two PT Top 8s come from 30 starts. One in fifteen isn't a great return (Lee Shi Tian, for reference, has five PT Top 8s from one fewer starts). His Standard win rate this season is just 55%. That's nowhere near enough to get the job done at Worlds. And there's that Players Championship "been at the bottom." So just how good is he? Will we know more by Sunday night?
If Froehlich wins Worlds, my mind will go instantly to an overhead camera shot of the feature match area at Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, when Froehlich was seen galloping into the area to embrace Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. Now, like me, Froehlich and galloping aren't natural bedfellows, so it must have taken something pretty special to get Eric revved into motion. It was, of course—a seat at the World Championship table, courtesy of Paulo claiming the Pro Tour title and thus abdicating the Latin America seat, freeing up a fourteenth and final spot for Froehlich. He may be the last one in, but he sure won't be the first one out. Froehlich understands more than most the importance of maximizing opportunities, and I believe that a lot of people in this field are going to rue the day that Froehlich secured his invite.
I still haven't worked out whether he's Peach, Garden, or Oath, but I have managed to work out that he's 1) a Hall of Famer, 2) a Pro Tour Champion, 3) a six-time Grand Prix Champion, and 4) likely the single least "tiltable" player in this, or any other, Magic pack. The man is truly granite, and that's real important at a tournament like this. In his other professional life, "monsters under the bed" is a real thing. Jensen knows that there are no monsters, and the only thing under the bed are socks. This lack of imagination is a powerful, powerful tool in his mental armory, and puts him high on the list of candidates for a Top 4 finish.
One of the two players in this field waiting for their Hall of Fame induction at Pro Tour Ixalan (Josh Utter-Leyton is the other), Jůza has reignited a career that seemed destined to stall just one step short of greatness, instead nestling firmly in the "extremely good" category. Twenty-seven Grand Prix Top 8s don't happen by accident, and Jůza has been the most affable of schoolyard bullies, beating up on weaker opponents with metronomic regularity. Two Pro Tour Top 8s, however, coming into last season, looked like a meager return for one so talented. Many were holding their breath, desperate for another reason to bring him into Magic's Cooperstown or Canton. Jůza duly obliged with a Top 8 at Pro Tour Aether Revolt in Dublin, and yet another Platinum season. Like Reid Duke, he's been actively taken apart at this tournament in the past, but this year's Jůza is in very different shape. The Draft Master can go a long way toward a Top 4 finish by running the Draft tables on Friday morning—something of which he's obviously well capable.
We really have been blessed with finals action over the last two years. Prior to Braun-Duin and Carvalho trading epic blows, we had Manfield eventually triumphing over Owen Turtenwald in another match that will be long remembered. In addition to his attempt at becoming a two-time Champion, Manfield has the added bonus/distraction (your call) of playing in the Team Series Final on Sunday as part of Genesis. The "new Standard" part of the main event seems ideally suited to Manfield, who continues to impress with his ability to win with a deck one week and then ditch the deck without hesitation, only to win with a completely different archetype a week later. A lot of his chances may depend on his ability to end up ahead of this most illustrious of metagames.
The youngest player in the field, and the only teen, Müller is closing in on $100,000 career earnings—and that's a career that's barely three years old at this point. It may have started with a high point (being the Captain of the winning World Magic Cup side for Denmark in 2014 isn't something to treat lightly), but he's been prominent throughout the intervening seasons, even if an individual trophy hasn't yet adorned the Danish mantelpiece. This is his third individual appearance in a row at Worlds, and, to be clear, just appearing once is a major achievement. He's very much part of the pro furniture at all the major events, and no one would be surprised if he went the distance.
Look, it's an easy trope to fall into, okay? You've known someone for a long time, you know he's really good at the game, and he has a personal brand that's built around Standard. So, you start saying he's the best Standard player in the world. Aside from being essentially unprovable, it's also most likely to be sometimes true, sometimes not. So "Brad Nelson, Best Standard Player in the World" starts to lose its meaning, and that presents me with a bit of a problem.
See, right now (can you guess what's coming?), Brad Nelson is the Best Standard Player in the World. Brad's a fine human being, and may take issue with this, but he's already won two Grand Prix in 2017, has teamed up with brother Corey Baumeister and former World Champ Brian Braun-Duin to quietly redefine Standard on what seems to be an almost weekly basis, and is in the midst of a run for which "white-hot" doesn't do justice. It isn't realistic to say that anyone in a field this good is in great shape to win the whole thing, but whatever the win percentage is for Brad, it's probably a little bit higher than anyone else. He is, you see, the Best Standard Player in the World.
Self-promotion and talent don't always go hand in hand. Plenty of players have had the first but not enough of the second, and plenty have tons of talent, but don't feel the need to shout it from the rooftops. For success, that second route is generally preferred, and it's the Pardee route to Worlds. His season stats for Limited were startling—a stonking 68.4% win rate that ultimately carried him to his second appearance at Worlds. Both his Pro Tour Top 8s have come within a year of each other, and both were in the final event of the season. He has surprisingly few "miles on the clock"—only 20 PT starts to his name since his debut in Nagoya 2001—and his 241 Lifetime Pro Points don't stack up against some of the storied Hall of Famers in the field. But Pardee doesn't bother with gaudy numbers or "look at how good I am" articles or videos. Pardee just gets on with beating people, and although he won't say so, he's actually rather good at it.
What a fantastic achievement already sits unlocked for Argentina's Pozzo. If you exclude Sebastian Pozzo, the number of people in the world who thought he would be Standard Master at the end of the season was zero. Add in Sebastian Pozzo, and it's still zero. But Standard Master he most certainly is, and behind the raw title of Standard Master lurk some important truths. First, it means that he never ended up on the wrong deck at a Pro Tour last season. Now, four events isn't the largest sample size, but that's still no missteps. Expect him to get his deck choice right again in Boston. Second, it means he always made the cut to Day Two—no failing his way through Draft on Day One and missing out on the latter Standard rounds on Day Two. So, while he might not be the Draft Master, he's no Draft Disaster either. And third? While he doesn't yet have a Pro Tour Top 8 to his name, he does know how to handle the pressure of the must-win match down the stretch. Let's see how he fares in Draft; 2-1 would be a tremendous start for the first Argentinian to play in this tournament, and 2-1 would leave him very well positioned for the Master to make a difference in his namesake format.
Lee Shi Tian
As I mentioned, Lee Shi Tian has five Pro Tour Top 8s from 29 starts, and that's a great conversion rate. It's almost a decade since his lone title at Grand Prix Birmingham 2008, but his consistently high-level performances just don't seem to dip, ever. This season, for example: 68% PT win rate, 68% at Standard, 67% at Limited, and 59 Pro Points. He's so routinely excellent that it's very hard to imagine him not being in at least some kind of contention coming back into Standard on Saturday afternoon. If you want to find a weakness, I suppose you can say that he's 1-5 in his five Pro Tour Top 8s, and that only improves to 7-12 when you add in his Grand Prix Top 8 performances. But, seriously, players have been trying to find a weakness in his game for a bunch of seasons, and mostly they've failed. Absolutely a prime contender.
Somebody has to be the player I know the least in this field, and I think I should be honest and say that Smith is that player. Hang around the Pro Tour long enough, and you get to know almost everyone among the regulars. He's only been on the scene since Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar in 2015, but beyond his third place at Pro Tour Aether Revolt and a Grand Prix Top 8 in Charlotte 2015, I really don't have much insight. He could be your surprise winner, he could be your rarely-seen 7-7, he could be your crash and burn 3-11. And I have no idea which. My apologies.
No, don't know him either. Who lets me write these preview things? Well, okay, I'm kidding. Everyone knows Gerry T., but what makes him tick is still frequently unclear. What is clear is that he's one of the most outstanding deck builders of Ever, something I first mentioned in an article the best part of a decade ago, and which still holds true. In theory, he's a little outmatched in this field—a Pro Tour win rate of 53% is propping up the bulk of the opposition—but, as we may have discussed before, getting Standard right is going to be such an enormous deal that, with that in his back pocket, anything's possible.
For most players who make it in, entering the Hall of Fame is the pinnacle of their Magic career. For plenty, the bulk of their playing career is already done, and the Hall is an exclamation point, a recognition of all that they accomplished "back in the day." Sure, they may find their way to an occasional Pro Tour start line, but even then, the dedication they showed, the dedication that was essential to put up the numbers that got them into the Hall in the first place, is often missing. Their focus shifts to family, work, or The Great British Bake-Off. None of that applies to Turtenwald, whose Hall of Fame induction in 2016 serves as only a pause in a stellar career that doesn't yet, by the narrowest of margins, have a World Championship title. Just like every time he sleeves up a deck, he's among the favorites. Resting on his laurels? Don't make me laugh.
Do you believe in momentum? Do you believe in a nebulous ability to find yourself "in the zone," "locked in" to your best choices, turn after turn after turn? Do you think that "Big Mo" is what separates someone from a 10-6 record and a place in the Top 8 at a Pro Tour? If you do, you're not Josh Utter-Leyton. One of the most thoughtful, rational, and emotion-exiling players at the tabletop, Josh believes in tangible things he can control. That's things like a starting 60 explicitly designed to tackle an expected metagame. That's things like a carefully structured and targeted sideboard built to prey upon opponents' weaknesses and shore up his own. That's things like rigorous analysis at every point in every game of every match until somebody tells him he has to stop playing for the night. Momentum hasn't carried Josh Utter-Leyton to five Pro Tour Top 8s, nor to his position as a member-elect of the Hall of Fame. Josh Utter-Leyton has done that all by himself.
$350,000. Four Pro Tour Top 8s. Two Player of the Year titles. 26 Grand Prix Top 8s. Seven Grand Prix Titles. 573 Lifetime Pro Points. Winner of this title in 2012. Hall of Fame. Probably not the strongest chance for Japan in this tournament. Think about that.
. . . Which makes this guy seem positively terrifying because he is arguably Japan's best chance in this year's tournament, ahead of Watanabe, the National Team Captain for the World Magic Cup and Yasooka's teammate. Also closing in on $350,000, also with four Pro Tour Top 8s, and also a former Player of the Year (2006). Yasooka is a two-time PT Champ, first as part of the winning team at Pro Tour Charleston 2006, and then at Pro Tour Kaladesh in Honolulu 2016. The make-or-break for Yasooka may be how well he's able to determine the metagame. One of his great strengths is attacking a series of known parameters, and if Standard starts to look "solved," that's exactly when Yasooka is at his most dangerous. If the format is still in total flux, that may make things harder for Yasooka to find the right 60 cards, especially if he's gravitating toward control. Control doesn't like uncertainty—there are no wrong threats, only wrong answers, as the saying goes—so much could ride on him knowing what the right answers might be.
The smiling face of Japanese Magic could easily have joined Yasooka and Watanabe on the National Team were it not for an unfortunate absence of mana. In his win-and-in for the Top 8, Yukuhiro spent a grand total of eight turns with either three or four Glorybringers in hand, and exactly four mana in play. And still he kept on smiling. He's up to three Pro Tour Top 8s now, most recently via Pro Tour Amonkhet, and he comfortably hit Platinum status once again. Even with five mana, he's realistically a little bit behind his Hall of Fame compatriots, but his willingness to not take the game too seriously—especially when there's a never-ending succession of marquee matchups—should stand him in good stead.
Still here, or is it just me? I could have highlighted half a dozen players for you and left it at that, but that would have been disingenuous. When we pitch up for a Pro Tour, there are a lot of players who not only likely won't win, but realistically likely can't win. Yes, there are some tremendous talents among the RPTQ winners, and first timers, and players with a recent Grand Prix Top 8. Increasingly, though, fighting through the PT regulars is a big ask. Here, though, nobody is at their first PT, nobody got here via RPTQ, everyone has a real shot at the final four. Ask Brian David-Marshall, Maria Bartholdi, Marshall Sutcliffe, Riley Knight, Tim Willoughby, Luis Scott-Vargas, Paul Cheon, Meghan Wolff, Frank Karsten, or Nate and Shawn from Walking the Planes, and you'll get eleven different answers for who's going to win.
Ask me, and I'll tell you Josh Utter-Leyton has got this. But hey, what do I know?
See you on Friday.