It's hard not to use incredulous expletives when talking about the past Pro Tour season put up by the three friends known as Peach Garden Oath. Trust me, I've had to restrain myself at countless stops along the way: from Reid Duke's stunning reversal of fortune at the World Championship and his first career Pro Tour Top 8, to Owen Turtenwald's emphatic and long-awaited back-to-back Grand Prix victories, to the Pro Tour Hall of Fame induction ceremony for William Jensen that was the preamble to a record-breaking Grand Prix season and a fifth career Pro Tour Top 8.
In the week leading up to Grand Prix Portland I did a podcast with Mike Flores for Top 8 Magic and basically gave Peach Garden Oath a bye into the finals of the GP. There was no doubt in my mind those three would be playing when the elimination rounds came around. Having watched these guys play Magic (and specifically having been taken to school on Team Limited by Jensen), I thought there had never been a safer pick of a GP winner in all my years following the game.
Reid Duke, William Jensen, and Owen Turtenwald, Grand Prix Portland champions
Their Sealed decks on Day One were absurd (multiple Souls and the sick combo of double Constricting Sliver with Sliver Hive) and with a strong wind at their backs, they dispatched Luis Scott-Vargas, Paul Cheon, and Eric Froehlich in the semifinals before winning the Grand Prix against Eric Severson, Benjamin Weitz, and Josiah Skallerup in the Team Draft finals. It was the third Grand Prix victory for Turtenwald and Duke, the fourth for Hall of Famer Jensen. They emerge from Week One of the new season occupying the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th spots in the Top 25 Player Rankings.
It's a relatively faster start for the season than last year, when no member of the team won a Grand Prix until four weeks into the season, when Reid Duke took down the field at Grand Prix Miami. He would follow that up with a 2nd-place finish at the World Championship after finishing at the bottom of the field in the previous season's Players Championship.
This success came as no surprise to William Jensen, who had been playing with Duke and testing with the team that would become known as The Pantheon, since early in the previous year. This shortly after he just missed getting into the Hall of Fame but found himself with an invitation to Pro Tour Return to Ravnica.
"Every interaction I had with Reid was very positive. He was very inquisitive and always seemed genuinely interested in my ideas, opinions, as well as stories about the old days," Jensen recalled. "It was obvious to me from the first day that Reid had an unparalleled work ethic and a burning desire to be the absolute best he could be, which (combined with his easygoing personality and impeccable character) make up just about all the qualities of a perfect teammate."
Duke, who would win Player of the Month for September, soaked up everything he could from Jensen and credits the Hall of Famer with making a huge difference for him at the World Championship. It's easily the toughest tournament on the organized play calendar, with a concentration of the best players from the past season.
"He's willing to put every ounce of energy toward helping his friends and teammates," said Duke about Jensen's help for that event. "Despite not being qualified for Worlds last year, he played Constructed with me for six hours or more every single day preceding the event. Owen and I are always available for Huey any time he needs help, but up to this point, I don't feel that I've had the opportunity to fully return the favor regarding his help with last year's World Championship."
Following the World Championship, Jensen reminded the world why the likes of Jon Finkel, Kai Budde, and Bob Maher were campaigning for him to be elected into the Hall of Fame and invited him to be on their playtesting team when he won Grand Prix Oakland in August. Pro Tour Theros and his Hall of Fame induction were just a handful of weeks away. Jensen had been away from competitive Magic for a good number of years and many of the game's current crop of top players had never seen the titan in action. It took a handful of years of listening to those top players advocating for him and some resounding success in the StarCityGames Open Series to get him over the hump and into the Hall.
"William Jensen deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, there's no way around that statement," said Turtenwald of his teammate's record-breaking season that would see Jensen make the Top 8 of a GP eight times and culminated in his fifth PT Top 8. "The best players to ever play the game have been saying it for ages and now Huey has silenced all the critics. He is one of the current best in the world and undeniably one of the best in history."
Both Turtenwald and Duke had the chance to not only see their teammate inducted at PT Theros but had the opportunity to laud him in the video tribute that was played during the ceremony.
"This time last year, Huey was a 'deserving Hall of Fame candidate.' Now, it's my opinion that he's proven himself as one of the best of all time," said Duke. "Making the Hall of Fame meant everything to Huey and I was thrilled not only to see him be given the honor, but also to prove beyond a doubt that he's earned it."
On the Pro Tour front, things got off to a slow start for the trio.
"Dublin, as a tournament, just played out as these things often do," said Jensen. "I think we all finished in the money, but none of us did amazingly. Certainly we all would have liked to have done better, but I don't think there was a major take-away from that one—aside from the Hall of Fame ring."
During the previous season, Turtenwald had crossed his name off the list of players with the most Pro Points and no Pro Tour Top 8s. He had won the Player of the Year in 2011 but had still not won a major tournament at the Grand Prix or Pro Tour level to that point. That would all change in the weeks after Pro Tour Theros, when Turtenwald won back-to-back Grand Prix in Washington, DC, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. When you talk to the top players in the game, they often have a sense of detachment about the variance within the game that can be the tiebreaker difference between 8th and 9th, or whether or not the vagaries of matchups have kept them from a trophy.
Turtenwald usually manages that even-handedness as well as anyone, but his joy at winning those tournaments was infectious. If you've seen his reaction to finding out he finished 8th instead of his expected 9th at Pro Tour Magic 2015, that totally dispatches any notion of the pros as clockwork automata. Both Jensen and Duke knew the wins meant more to Turtenwald than he let on.
"I think getting those wins helped Owen a lot. I think it gave him a sense of accomplishment and a newfound wealth of confidence," said Jensen. "A lot of people who do something competitive professionally feel like they have something to prove. People want to prove they are the best. I think Owen felt that way, and on some level I think (after those two wins) he felt like he proved it. I thought Owen was the best player in the world before he won those two Grand Prix and I think he's the best player in the world right now, but likely more people share my opinion now, in part, because of those back-to-back wins. Incredible results like that definitely have an effect on perception."
Duke concurred about the November Player of the Month winner.
"It was a symbolic victory for Owen. Career Magic players know that it's very possible to get unlucky a number of times in a row. When you see a player with ten Top 8s and zero wins, there may be some kind of 'can't handle the pressure' syndrome in the background, but equally likely is that it's simply a fluke. Either way, though, getting the first win and being able to erase that possibility from the face of the Earth—and from his own mind—is surely a huge confidence booster. Now that Owen has a GP win and (another) PT Top 8, the sky is going to be the limit."
Jensen would become the final member of their trio to win Player of the Month in just four months, when he finished in the Top 4 of two different Grand Prix and was setting the pace to break Turtenwald's record of seven Grand Prix Top 8s in one season. Despite the fact that the three players jostled for World Magic Cup captaincy, berths in the World Championship, and finishes in each individual event, they maintained an "all-for-one" attitude throughout the year.
"Huey and I prepare for every event together and have a remarkably similar play style to the point of us employing identical strategies for almost every single tournament," said Turtenwald. "For Limited specifically, we usually agree on every draft pick and card choice down the line. If he wins, then I feel a little bit of vindication since I know the way he plays is partly as a result of both his and my own hard work."
"There's inevitably a lot of jealousy in professional Magic," admitted Duke. "Most of the top players are friends, and yet we're simultaneously in direct competition. However, what the 'Peach Garden Oath' means is that we're a team in the truest sense of the word. There can be no jealousy, and anything that one of us accomplishes reflects positively on the other two."
Turtenwald, who had just won the Sunday Super Series Finals at the Wizards of the Coast offices, came close to a second Pro Tour Top 8 at Pro Tour Born of the Gods, and finished the event in 13th place for the best showing by any of the three. Duke also finished in the Top 50 but Jensen finished outside the money. The trio, who had previously won a team event on the StarCityGames Open Series, stayed in Europe to make the Top 4 of Team GP Barcelona.
Owen Turtenwald, Sunday Super Series Final champion
"It was very exciting to have a good result in a Wizards event as a team. We've always been very confident in our abilities, as a team even more so than individually, and wanted to prove ourselves," said Duke. "Going undefeated on Day One was a highlight, but it was also disappointing to go home without the trophy."
"GP Barcelona was a great tournament and super fun," said Turtenwald. "For a while now, Huey, Reid, and I have been teaming up, and the first Grand Prix we played together we failed to make Day Two, the second was Barcelona where we finished in the Top 4, and the third was Portland where we won. GP Portland was incredible. Winning a GP is an amazing experience, but to have peers and friends on social media saying you won and you deserved it the most is gratifying on a whole new level."
Turtenwald is not a fan of the list of "Best players without a Pro Tour Top 8" and was relieved to cross his name off of it during Pro Tour Gatecrash. His teammate, Reid Duke, would get to do the same thing at the third Pro Tour of the season, in Atlanta.
"I've always hated being on that list because it's a way for people to focus on what I haven't accomplished rather than focusing on what I have accomplished," Turtenwald said. "I knew I was a player who was skilled and capable of making Top 8 of a Pro Tour before I ever did, and that all it took was dedication and time for the cards to fall into place. I know the same is true for Reid Duke. He is a world-class player and no number of Pro Tour Top 8s would ever shake me of that opinion, even if it was zero."
The last stretch of the 2013–14 season saw Jensen make the Top 8 of seemingly every Grand Prix he showed up to compete in, and he would eventually set the record for the most in a season with eight. Due to the Grand Prix cap, which only counted the five best finishes at the GP level toward your season point total, he did not make any headway in the Player of the Year race. That race is crucial to determining whether or not he would be playing at the World Championship this year instead of just helping, like last season. If he was going to join Duke and Turtenwald at the elite tournament, he was going to need a strong Pro Tour finish.
A Top 25 might have been enough for Jensen, but instead he finished the season with the fifth Top 8 of his Pro Tour career to lock up that spot with authority. I got to interview Jensen on the eve of that Top 8 and he was barely able to contain his emotion at achieving what he considered to be an elite stat on the Pro Tour.
"Personally, I've loved watching the World Championships for the past few years and I've always thought it looked like an incredibly fun event. Playing in Worlds is certainly something that I hoped to achieve and I'm really looking forward to it."
Joining him in the Top 8 was Turtenwald (who made no attempt to contain any emotion upon hearing his name called), who not only got the second Top 8 in two seasons but leapfrogged Duke for the US National Championship. All three players will be heading to Nice, France, for the World Championship.
"I know Huey, Reid, and I all work very hard and are extremely dedicated to the game, so it's good to see that the people who I respect the most, and who I know try the hardest, have been rewarded with the results they deserve," said Turtenwald. "I don't know anyone who plays more Magic than they do and for them to finish 3rd and 4th in the POY race reaffirms my belief that Magic is a game of skill."
It has been an amazing season for this three-player subset of The Pantheon. When it comes to the World Magic Cup in Nice, US players have the first chance to win a seat on the National team alongside Turtenwald this weekend. US players can find all the details here. For players looking for WMCQ information in other countries, you can go here.
July Player of the Month (#MTGPoM):
Congratulations to Huang Hao-Shan, the hometown hero of Grand Prix Taipei, on being July's Player of the Month. It was the fifth Top 8 of the Team MTGMintCard member's career, and he edged out GP Boston winner Robin Dolar on the local hero axis. It was the second time a hometown player defended the trophy in Taipei. You have to go all the way back to 2002 to find a non-local winner.