Alchemical Reaction

Posted in The Week That Was on June 7, 2013

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.

Seventeen players.


A teeming mass of players churn into the system every weekend hoping to win the local PTQ. Thousands of players descend on different spots around the globe nearly every weekend to test their mettle in Grand Prix competition. On a few special weekends each year, hundreds of players fight at the highest level for fame, money, and the right to be held alongside the greats of the game.

But when the 2012–13 season came to a close, only seventeen players had figured out the alchemical process for converting cardboard into Platinum—the pinnacle of the Pro Players Club, a status that bestows upon its holder invitations, appearance fees, and airfare and accommodations to all the Pro Tours for the coming season. It also means you are among the very best players in the game. Let's meet the seventeen alchemists and see how they got there this year.

Craig Wescoe had only one outcome for Pro Tour Dragon's Maze that would yield him Platinum and, of course, he accomplished that when he won the first Pro Tour of his long career. The thirty-year-old American player has been shuffling the cards since 1996 and has playing on the Pro Tour since 1999, when he debuted at Pro Tour Chicago. After toiling in the middle of the pack for years, Wescoe turned on the jets at Pro Tour San Diego 2010, when he made his first Top 8. California is clearly conducive to alchemy for Wescoe, who has conjured up all three of his career Top 8s in that state.


While the Pro Tour won't resume until PT Theros in Dublin this October, we will get a chance to see Wescoe in action at the Magic World Championship in the seat that was reserved for the PT Dragon's Maze Champion.

Luis Scott-Vargas was having a very non-LSV type of performance heading into the closing act of the 2012–13 season. Perennially Platinum for the better part of a decade, the thirty-year old American player was in danger of "merely" being Gold after a series of lackluster finishes. If not for two Limited Grand Prix Top 8s—Indianapolis and Philadelphia—things could have been even more dire for the founder of the ChannelFireball team. As it stood, those points bolstered him so that he needed only a Top 16 finish to renew his Platinum membership. Scott-Vargas made things even harder on himself by getting his tournament started with a 1–3 record that left him little to no room to maneuver for the rest of the event.


LSV is no stranger to rattling off wins in San Diego, once famously winning eighteen straight matches at PT San Diego 2010, and put his head down and resolved to let himself feel bad after the season but focus on winning and playing each round of Magic to the best of his ability. It was a tremendous run that culminated in one final round against Ari Lax, with the winner earning Platinum and the loser replaying those crucial games in his head all off-season.

Next season will be the tenth of LSV's Pro Tour career, which began at PT San Diego 2004, and, as such, he will be eligible for induction in the Pro Tour Hall of Fame with 350+ lifetime Pro Points and nearly a quarter of a million dollars in lifetime winnings. He has been penciled onto the top of my ballot for several years and I fully expect to see him take the stage in Dublin and be enshrined alongside the game's all-time greatest players. In the meanwhile, he will be joining the video coverage team for Worlds Week, and we are thrilled to have him.

Owen Turtenwald once won the Player of the Year title without ever making the Top 8 of a Pro Tour. Seven Grand Prix Top 8s in one year will do that for a player, but he crossed himself off the list of most accomplished players without a Sunday appearance when he broke through at Pro Tour Gatecrash . The twenty-four-year-old American player has been playing Magic more than half his life and playing on the Pro Tour since his debut at PT Valencia in 2007, where he finished in an impressive 18th place. His finish in San Diego was nothing to write home about but it still carried him past the 200 Pro Point mark for his lifetime total.


One of Owen's big finishes this past season came at Grand Prix San Jose alongside his teammates Eric Froehlich and Conley Woods. He recently won an SCG three-person team event with William Jensen and Reid Duke. Look for the latter permutation to be very much in the mix this weekend as Grand Prix Providence brings three-person team action to the East Coast of the United States.

Former World Champion Makihito Mihara earned the fourth Top 8 of his long career in San Diego and may very well have written himself into Pro Tour Hall of Fame contention in the process. The Japanese player was on the ballot last year but was overshadowed by players with gaudier numbers than "just" three Pro Tour Top 8s. This fourth Top 8 finish, two more GP Top 8s—including his second win—and his storied success at the National Championship level certainly have put him on my ballot for this season.


The thirty-one year old has been playing on the Pro Tour since his debut at Pro Tour Venice in 2003 but came into the last event with a Gold membership in the Pro Players Club and needing to make the Top 8 if he was going to secure an upgrade for the coming year. He finished in 3rd and set himself up for the four upcoming Pro Tours with all the perks that come with the highest level of player status.

The United States's David Ochoa has been playing Magic on the Pro Tour since 2005, but it was not until the first Pro Tour of the season that he got the Top 8 monkey off of his back. It was not until the eighteenth Pro Tour when Ochoa made the Top 8 of Pro Tour Return to Ravnica and got as far as the semifinals


Ochoa was Platinum last season and also got to participate in the Magic Players Championship—now known as the Magic World Championship. He will be returning to the sixteen-person Championship as one of eight ChannelFireball players qualified for that event.

The Czech Republic's twenty-five-year-old Martin Juza seems way too young to be entering into the Hall of Fame discussion this year, but with more than 300 lifetime Pro Points you have to consider the two-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor to be a contender for many voters' ballots. It has been a quiet year for Juza, with just 1 point over the minimum coming from Pro Tours, but the world traveler has made the most of his Grand Prix travels with Top 8s in Manila, Philadelphia, and Sydney, as well as a win at GP Bochum. His season totals brought him up to fifteen lifetime Grand Prix Top 8s, with four wins.


Six of Juza's points came from the Players Championship last year and he will be looking to give himself an even bigger boost to kick off the upcoming season as part of the ChannelFireball half of the field.

The job ahead of Pro Tour Hall of Fame voters this year has become increasingly difficult as the season progressed. Brazil's thirty-three-year-old Willy Edel entered into the rare air of four Pro Tour Top 8s for his career when he played on Sunday of Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. Add in a Top 64 finish at Pro Tour Gatecrash with two Grand Prix Top 8s—including his win at GP Toronto—and you have a formula for Platinum and a busy Pro Tour offseason that will see him playing in both events during Worlds Week in Amsterdam. AND he is already off to a running start for the upcoming season with a Top 8 at GP Guadalajara.


The United States's Reid Duke started off this season qualified for the Magic Players Championship by virtue of his victory in the Magic Online Championship at the end of 2011. He finished in last place at that event and there were some murmurs about whether or not the twenty-three-year-old online player had the chops to keep up with the paper warriors. While Duke is still looking for his first Top 8 finish on the Pro Tour, he has shown his mettle by placing 65th at Pro Tour Gatecrash and closing the season with a 9th-place finish at Pro Tour Dragon's Maze as a member of Team StarCityGames. He is one of two players from that team who will be taking on the CFB-dominated field at the Magic World Championship this summer.


The youngest Platinum player is Israel's nineteen-year-old Shahar Shenhar—also the youngest and newest member of Team ChannelFireball. Shenhar debuted on the Pro Tour in 2011 when he placed 38th at Pro Tour Paris. Despite his young career, Shenhar has already amassed 100 lifetime Pro Points. Four Grand Prix Top 8s, along with two wins have been a big part of his rapid point accumulation, but his Top 32 finish at Pro Tour Gatecrash is a big part of why he will be the Israeli National Champion at the World Magic Cup and will also be playing in the World Championship.


Twenty-five-year-old Stanislav Cifka's next Pro Tour will be the tenth of his young career, but he has already done something most Magic players will never ever get to do by winning Pro Tour Return to Ravnica to kick off the season in Seattle. Just the weekend prior he posted a Top 4 finish at Grand Prix San Jose alongside Ivan Floch and Luka Jaklovsky. He also placed Top 8 at Grand Prix Sydney and made the Top 64 of the last Pro Tour of the season. Add it all up and you end up with the Czech Republic's National Champion and a seat at the World Championship.


Pro Tour Hall of Famer Shuhei Nakamura won the star-studded Top 8 at Grand Prix Costa Rica but has had a quiet Pro Tour season that clocked in at just 1 point over the minimum for the three appearances. Solid GP finishes and a 7-point boost from last year's Magic Players Championship will carry the thirty-one-year-old Japanese player back to the sixteen-person event this season, where the former Player of the Year will hope to catapult himself to yet another Platinum season. With more than 500 lifetime Pro Points, Nakamura is one of the most experienced and successful players in this year's crop of Platinum pros.


Alongside Nakamura in the Hall of Fame is two-time Pro Tour Champion Brian Kibler from the United States. The thirty-two-year old ChannelFireball member has been playing on the Pro Tour since the very first stop on the train as a Junior at PT1 in New York. He was away from the game for a couple of years but when he was not elected into the Hall of Fame he realized he had some unfinished business. Since his return, he has been in the Top 8 of a PT three times and won the trophy twice. He closed his season strong with a Top 32 finish but fell short of the Player of the Year title—one of very few blank spots on his resume. He could cross World Champion off the list this summer.


The United States's Ben Stark was considered one of the top players in the game in the mid-2000s, when he suddenly retired to pursue other interests. Since his return, he has doubled his lifetime Pro Tour Top 8 total to four and added the title Pro Tour Champion in Paris 2011. He returned to the Sunday stage in Montreal with a semifinal finish at Pro Tour Gatecrash and has very much thrust himself into the increasingly crowded Hall of Fame debate (currently, he is penciled into my ballot). He also joins the crowded eight-person ChannelFireball field at the Magic World Championship and it will be interesting to see how they prepare for such a small event in which they are guaranteed to be playing each other with regularity.


Japan's Yuuya Watanabe is a two-time holder of the Player of the Year title. With 11 points earned at the Magic Players Championship, followed up with a 2nd-place finish at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, he was a frontrunner for the Player of the Year title throughout the season, until the waning rounds of Pro Tour Dragon's Maze. The twenty-four year old had Platinum locked up before many of the players on this list were assured of Gold. He has more than 325 lifetime Pro Points in his young career and will not be Hall of Fame eligible until 2017. He will be attempting to defend last year's title at the World Championship as well as captaining the Japanese National team in the WMC. Last year, his team had to pay off a four-digit meter to a cabbie just to get to Indianapolis in time for the event when the National team got stuck without a connecting flight in DC. I am sure he is looking forward to tackling the event with a well-rested and less jangled team this year.


When I look back at the 2012–13 season, I will always recall the United States's Eric Froehlich's emotional reaction to hearing the roar of the crowd as he locked up the third Pro Tour Top 8 of his career during Pro Tour Gatecrash in Montreal. He came within one match of locking up his fourth just one event later when he placed 10th at Pro Tour Dragon's Maze. Froehlich has been one of the greatest Team Limited players in the history of the game and you can follow him this weekend at Grand Prix Providence before the twenty-nine year old heads to Amsterdam to tackle the World Championship. The Vegas resident will also be playing host to some of the biggest names in the game in the days leading up to the Modern Master Limited Grand Prix Las Vegas.


The United States's Tom Martell has had a long career that goes back to Pro Tour Chicago 2000, but it was sporadic until recently. This last PT was just his fourteenth, but he has been making up for lost time, including his aristocratic win at Pro Tour Gatecrash in Montreal. The Team StarCityGames member has won a PT and a GP over the past couple of seasons and will be hoping to win his first World Championship this summer. He and Reid Duke are the only two players from their super team qualified for the sixteen-person event and it will interesting to see what the focused group mind of that collection can do to propel the two of them there.


Finally, I got a chance to talk to Player of the Year, United States National Champion, and World Championship–competitor Josh Utter-Leyton about what it takes to mount a Platinum season and his legendary penchant for playtesting.

Player of the Year, Josh Utter-Leyton
BDM: When did you lock up Platinum for last season and how important an achievement is that for you in terms of your playing career?
JUL: I'm not really sure when I locked it up, but I was certainly in great shape to hit it after PT Return to Ravnica. The Top 25 from that PT combined with good GP finishes gave me enough points to feel confident I would Platinum even with bad finishes in the next two PTs. I couldn't really justify the expenses for travelling to very many GPs without Platinum as an incentive, so Platinum is what allows me to fly around the world to play in tournaments on a regular basis.
Utter-Leyton talking about his top picks for an Azorius deck. Click to see the video.
BDM: Coming into the last event of that season, how reasonable a chance did you think you had at becoming Player of the Year?
JUL: I expected I would have to Top 8 (at least) to win Player of the Year, so yeah I knew there was a decent shot at it, but it wasn't something I was really thinking about. It was more of an added bonus if I happened to have an incredible tournament. My goal going in was "only" to clench the US National Champion spot.
BDM: At what point did you start to believe it was going to happen?
JUL: When I went 3–0 in the second draft and was headed into the last five Constructed rounds at 9–2. At that point, the other players ahead of me in the race (Ben Stark and Yuuya) were doing worse in the tournament, and I really liked my deck against the field.
BDM: Your Boros deck was pretty different from almost everyone else on the team. What drew you to the aggressive deck?
JUL: It was the deck I had spent the most time on in testing and knew the best, and none of our decks really stood out to me as clear choices. I thought Boros was our best deck against control, and the closer the tournament got, the more and more control we were expecting, which is what made me eventually choose Boros over Esper.
BDM: When I talked to LSV about the team he talked about you basically waking up and playing Magic until you went to sleep during playtesting. What drives you during playtesting (or are you always like that)?
JUL: To some extent I'm always like that—when I'm really into something I'm working on, I just keep at it relentlessly. But it's also not common for me to actually be that invested and focused on something. What drives me during playtesting is how much I enjoy it. I love playing Magic, and figuring out new formats is Magic at its very best to me, so I just want to play a ton.
BDM: There was a point when you had all but locked up your Top 8 and the Player of the Year title and the camera caught only the faintest flicker of a smile. When I asked you about that after the match you said: "I played that game very badly." Is part of being an elite player not letting yourself feel good in the light of less-than-optimal play? Is it really just about making the right play ALL the time?
JUL: I think part of being an elite player is not letting how you feel affect your play; you can feel whatever, and trying to actually control how you feel sounds pretty hopeless to me. So no, I don't think you need to not let yourself feel good in light of less-than-optimal play, as long as you can still identify and correct suboptimal play while feeling good about it.

After winning that round, I would have liked to have felt nothing but joy, but I was extremely upset at myself because I thought I had thrown a game away. While I certainly WAS very happy to have made Top 8 and won Player of the Year, I also felt like I didn't deserve it.

BDM: Obviously, Platinum and securing two berths for Worlds Week was job one, but what did being in that elite club of Players of the Year mean in your relatively short career?
JUL: It's the accomplishment I'm most proud of. The list of Players of the Year reads like a list of most of the best players the game has seen, and it feels incredible seeing my name there with them.
BDM: What goals have you set for yourself for the upcoming season?
JUL: Playing in the Players Championship was such a fantastic experience, one that I hope to repeat every year. Qualifying for that tournament is my goal for next season.

Congratulations to all of this season's Platinum pros. See many of them in action later this summer during Magic's Worlds Week, from July 31–August 4, first with the World Championship, followed by the 2013World Magic Cup.


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