It may seem a little weird to be talking with the 7th-place finisher from the previous weekend's Grand Prix as opposed to perhaps the winner, but I am sure we will be discussing GP Salt Lake City winner Brandon Nelson in a couple of weeks in the context of Player of the Month. In the meantime, I wanted to shine the spotlight on the aforementioned 7th-place finisher, Nathan Holiday, who racked up his fourth Grand Prix Top 8 in just two seasons. He finds himself heading into the new Pro Tour season with three invitations secured and high hopes that he can take his game to the next level, starting in just a couple of weeks at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir.
Nathan Holiday in the Grand Prix Phoenix finals
The 23-year-old student from Santa Cruz, California, has been playing Magic for more than half his life, and began playing the game with his dad as a 10-year-old. A Seventh Edition Starter Deck was his introduction to the game. Throughout middle and high school, a vibrant local store scene kept him engaged and playing until one fateful stumble on YouTube made him want to strive for something more.
"About two or three years ago, I decided I wanted to try my hand at professional-level Magic tournaments. I attribute this to discovering the MTV Invitational—a series of television commercials put out by Wizards in 1997. After watching Mark Justice, Brian Hacker, and especially Shawn 'Hammer' Regnier duke it out in Long Beach, I had to see if I could 'tear up the cards competition on the Left Coast,' just like the Hammer!" joked (I think) Holiday.
Of course "tearing up the card competition on the Left Coast" was just what Holiday did not long after deciding to test the competitive waters. Grand Prix San Diego 2013 saw Holiday pilot the Second Sunrise combo deck known as Eggs through the Modern field and emerge the champion. It also qualified him for his first Pro Tour. The number of people qualifying for the PT from a Grand Prix has changed a couple of times over the last few seasons. Currently, everyone with an X–2 or better record automatically qualifies, but at the time of Holiday's first Top 8, Grand Prix qualified either eight or four players depending on attendance thresholds. San Diego was only going to yield invitations for four players, and that meant the biggest obstacle of that GP for Holiday was his quarterfinal matchup.
"Who was I paired against? Hall of Famer Brian Kibler! Luckily, I was able to vanquish the giant and win the tournament, but I definitely felt starstruck," admitted Holiday, who then had to get past none other than Eric Froehlich in the semifinals before winning the whole event against Sammy Tukeman.
Holiday, after winning GP San Diego 2013
As exciting as that win was, Holiday could not help but wonder if the deck deserved the lion's share of the credit for his achievement. He quelled that uncertainty with a 2nd-place finish at Grand Prix Phoenix, playing Mono-Blue Devotion in Standard.
"I particularly treasure getting 2nd at Grand Prix Phoenix, because I proved to myself that I had what it took to Top 8 a Grand Prix, without the help of a deck that was busted in half, like Eggs," said Holiday. "Unfortunately, there is no proof that I can achieve 1st place without the help of such a deck..."
While Holiday was quick to credit his deck's raw power for his Grand Prix win, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that not many people had a ton of success with Eggs in the wake of Stanislav Cifka's Modern Pro Tour win. The deck is very exacting to play and is not something that can be played well without a lot of preparation. Not surprisingly, it turns out that Holiday spends a fair amount of time preparing for these Grand Prix. I asked him about his preparation for a typical GP, such as his third Top 8 at Grand Prix Minneapolis.
"I knew I wanted to play Melira Pod at GP Minneapolis, so I borrowed and bought the deck on Magic Online more than a month in advance. Magic Online is a fantastic resource for learning a deck. I attribute my success with Pod and Mono-Blue to endless testing online. The familiarity you get from testing a deck online for many hours is irreplaceable." Holiday then added that you can't ignore playing a deck in physical form as well. "I try to take my deck of choice to some paper tournaments, and meet up IRL to do some playtesting. Once I have already played a Grand Prix with a deck, I test much less in preparation for the next Grand Prix, where I want to play the deck—just a little to refresh my memory."
With three invitations squirreled away for the coming season, Holiday was hopeful that he would be able to get enough Pro Points to secure Gold or maybe even Platinum this year and not need to go back to the grind of qualifying for the fourth and last Pro Tour of the coming season. We discussed the various routes that a Pro Tour aspirant has to qualify and it turned out the Californian has never done so via the PTQ circuit.
The all-or-nothing aspect of a PTQ made it tougher for Holiday to prepare for them than a Grand Prix, which yield valuable Pro Points and cash prizes for even a Top 64 finish. Knowing he was much more likely to gain something for his work, even if it was not the mythical blue envelope of Pro Tour qualification, made preparing for GPs a much better investment of his time.
"I think the value of preparation cannot be overstated. In all three Constructed Grand Prix I've Top 8ed, I have tested my deck and knew it inside and out. I am not sure which route is objectively easier, but for me, I've had more success qualifying through Grand Prix, because I've been much more motivated to prepare," he explained. "I'm not playing PTQs currently—and here's to hoping I won't have to next season!—but I believe the new PreTQ structure will make PTQs easier for me. Winning a PreTQ seems doable for anyone who's motivated, and the final PTQ seems like a tournament I could get excited to prepare for, much like a Grand Prix."
So far in his young career, Holiday has played on two Pro Tours. His first was Pro Tour Dragon's Maze in San Diego at the end of the 2012–13 season and, while it was bittersweet, he discovered that he could play at that level given the opportunity.
"I learned that Pro Tours are just another Magic tournament," he said. "They are completely awesome, amazing, the-best-ever Magic tournaments, but in the end if you play well you will have success. I was happy with my result at the time—27th was a great result for my first Pro Tour. However, missing Top 25 by only two places, and simultaneously Silver level by 1 Pro Point, was a bit frustrating once the next Pro Tour rolled around. That said, I definitely played my best in San Diego and don't regret a thing."
Holiday made his way to Silver this past season, which gives him one invitation to use as needed. He went 13–2 at Grand Prix Boston-Worcester and thanks to those new qualification rules earned an invitation for Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir despite his tiebreakers leaving him in 10th place. His Top 8 in Salt Lake City earned him a chair at the Modern Pro Tour in Washington, DC, and he will be able to bridge the two invitations with his Silver to have three-quarters of the PT season accounted for. Playing with Team
"Be ambitious!" offered Holiday in the way of advice for aspiring Grand Prix players looking to follow in his footsteps. "The most common mistake I see players make at Grand Prix is selling themselves short. Many times I have heard the phrase 'I don't expect to make Day Two.' In Grand Prix, as in any Magic tournament, the only things that determine success are how well you choose your deck, how well you play it at the tournament, and variance. There is no reason why anyone that has familiarity with their deck, and confidence in themselves cannot put up a great result."
"Call it superstition, but I won't talk about missing Day Two at a Grand Prix," he continued. "It's just not something that has any value for me to consider. Sure, it's a possibility, but I like to keep my mind directed toward my goal. When players tell themselves they are not going to make Day Two, they are making it more likely to come true. Be confident in yourself and you are likely to have success."
I am looking forward to seeing what Holiday can accomplish on the Pro Tour and the plethora of Grand Prix on the schedule for the season. He joked that perhaps he was not the best bet to root for this year, with a Benjamin Button stat line at GPs that starts with a win and ends with a couple of quarterfinals sandwiched around a 10th place finish. Somehow I think he will be okay.
August Player of the Month: Ivan Floch (#MTGPoM)
There was definitely a call for Owen Turtenwald to emerge as the Player of the Month for August. He had a Pro Tour Top 4 finish and a Grand Prix win, which to some reader's minds eclipsed a "mere" Pro Tour victory.
As impressive as Ross has been, I had set the bar for this month's award at a minimum of a Pro Tour Top 8. Even Reid Duke, who won a GP and finished 2nd at the Invitational to Ross, was not on the ballot. At least one reader appreciated that not only did one player have a Top 8 and a GP Top 8, but did it solo without the help of the aforementioned Reid Duke.
#MTGPoM I vote for Ichikawa; gp and pt t8 without Reid to help. Also honorable mention for Jackson— Jon Metzger (@tehCorinthian) September 6, 2014
For me, it was not just that Ivan Floch had won the Pro Tour. He had finally broken through into his first Top 8 after a long career and many close calls but it was also that utterly memorable final game that made him my choice—and the most suggested choice by readers for August's Player of the Month honors.