Austin Top 8 Profiles

Posted in The Week That Was on October 23, 2009

By Brian David-Marshall

When I first started doing event coverage for the Pro Tour the most dreaded assignment was the Top 8 Player Profiles which were, at the time, written features about each player. They took a long time, had to happen overnight after an already long day of coverage, and at events where time was a rare commodity, that process would occasionally get sacrificed for the greater good of the coverage and the coverage team.

The quick questionnaire profile became de rigueur and while the new guy on each coverage team still gets stuck typing them, it is hardly the six-mile, in-the-snow, uphill climb that I had to make way back when. It was hard to see the value of those expanded pieces—especially when you were standing at the base of that metaphoric climb—but whenever I am researching a player for the Hall of Fame or just looking for some good tidbits to use for a column or commentary, I find myself going back to the ones before we used a questionnaire. With a little hindsight, some time, and the internet I decided to put together an expanded Top 8 profile piece for the Austin Top 8 with some reactions from the players whenever possible.

    The Quarterfinalists

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa is a 22-year-old professional Magic player who appeared in his 19th Pro Tour this past weekend and made the Top 8 for the fifth time in his young career—reaching Sunday just a shade over 25% of the time he shows up on the Tour. Paulo had been a Magic writer and avid online player of the game in his native Brazil but did not begin attending Pro Tours until airfare became a part of the prize package for winning a PTQ. Paulo made the most of his chances with a pair of Top 32 finishes and then a Finals appearance as part of Team Raaala Pumba in Charleston—it was only his sixth Pro Tour. He immediately followed that up with a Top 64 in Kobe before nabbing his second Sunday berth at the 2006 World Championships in Paris.

Paulo racked up more strong money finishes and three more Top 8 appearances during the next three seasons; the most recent before Austin was last year's Worlds in Memphis. He was off to something of a rough start for the 2009 Pro Tour season. After starting out Austin with a 4-0 record, Paulo joked, "I now have more wins than I have gotten at my last two Pro Tours!" He had notched just three wins across PT–Kyoto and PT–Honolulu. Despite his early stumbles Paulo has managed to make himself a dark horse in this year's Player of the Year Race with a couple of Grand Prix Top 8s in Seattle and Barcelona to augment the PT points payout from winning the Brazilian National Championships for the second time in his career. Between four more Grand Prix, the Worlds Team Championship, and the individual Championships, Paulo will have ample opportunity to close ground on the players in front of him.

Paulo, who is about to cross the 200 Pro Point threshold in record time, has shown a whole generation of Brazilian players how to play on the Pro Tour. His home country put the fourth most players through to Day Two of Austin of any country, after The U.S., Japan, and France, with nine—more players than have traditionally shown up from Brazil for a PT, much less made Day Two.

Martin Juza is another young player who has been tearing up the Pro Tour with an early career that is reminiscent of Paulo's. The 22-year-old from Plzen, Czech Republic lists "flying miles collector" as his occupation, but he is clearly a professional Magic player who—according to him—has not reached his full potential on the Pro Tour yet. Martin's first Pro Tour was New Orleans 2003 where he played a "pretty bad Psychatog deck with Isochron Scepters" in a field full of Charbelcher combo and Tinker decks and failed to reach Day Two. He first taste of success came the following year when he finished 12th at GP–Brussels. The following seasons saw him crowned the Czech National Champion, but he did not really break out until the start of last season. Martin made himself known with a Day One tear at Pro Tour–Kuala Lumpur, where he opened on a 7-0 run and ended up finishing in 10th place. Since then he has seemed to be toward the top of the standings in every event he has played in.

Martin earned his first Top 8 berth in Berlin and his second this past weekend sandwiched around a couple of GP Top 8s. Coming into the event, Martin had his eyes on Player of the Year frontrunner Yuuya Watanabe and seemed to spur himself on throughout the tournament by keeping pace with the Japanese player. He did manage to pull into second place with his finish but both players made Quarterfinals exits this past weekend, which may have been Juza's best shot to catch the Japanese Juggernaut.

When asked what it would take for him to catch Watanabe, Juza sighed, "Not screw up Game 3 of my Quarterfinal match in Austin, where I missed that there was a Bridge in the graveyard. Now I'd say win a GP and Top 8 Worlds. I'm optimistic; everything is possible. And a Japanese player winning the POY every year is getting kinda old!"

While Player of the Year would be nice, Martin was not going to stress about it. His plan for the remainder of the season is to: "Collect my appearance fees, Top 8 one of the remaining GPs, and, well, we'll see what happens at Worlds."

While Martin does not actually enjoy flying very much, he does enjoy seeing the world and making new friends. He is heading to Tampa, then to Japan over the next two weeks and left stuff at Shuhei Nakamura's house on the way to Austin so he would not have to carry it there and back. That plan almost backfired this past week.

"Shuhei just tried to get us killed today by touching an alligator," laughed Martin. "But we managed to stop him, so everything is good. We are driving around Florida with Gaudenis [Vidugiris], his girlfriend, Shuhei and Chief [Kazuya Mitamura]. We started in Miami, went to Key West for two days, now we are in the Everglades National Park, going to the Kennedy Space Center, and finally getting to Tampa on Friday."

What can you say about Yuuya Watanabe right now without making inevitable comparisons to Kai Budde? Yuuya's Top 8 appearance in Austin was his fifth straight Top 8 after four Grand Prix elimination bracket appearances including his win in Melbourne that finally gave him the lead in the Player of the Year race. The 20-year-old Yuuya first came to the attention of the Magic community when he won the Rookie of the Year title in 2007, propelled in part by his win at Grand Prix–Kyoto playing a Blue-Red Tron deck. He had cut his competitive teeth at a Japanese Tournament series called the Planeswalkers Cup, and his regular playtest partner was none other than Tomoharu Saito, who won the Player of the Year title the same season that Yuuya was crowned Rookie. Interviewed immediately after winning the title, Yuuya credited his friend with spurring him on.

"Saito is my good friend and rival," said Yuuya at the time. He declared that he was going to try and wrest the title away from Saito. Neither player won it last season—it went to Shuhei Nakamura instead—but the way Yuuya is playing Magic right now he seems poised to make good on that promise a year later. The title has remained in Japan since Gabriel Nassif last held it in 2004, and the Japanese pro community has seen some impressive runs but even seasoned vets and former Players of the Year such as Nakamura, Saito, and Shouta Yasooka seem awed by Yuuya's juggernaut-like streak over the past month or so. They would all huddle around his tables and watch him play—even watch him practice—and mutter the name of a certain German champion with a reverent tone.

Evangelos "Van" Papatsarouchas was one of three relatively unknown players in the Top 8 of Austin—and the only one of that subset not to escape the Quarterfinals. The 29-year-old Greek IT specialist was playing the Hypergenesis Cascade deck, and took eventual champion Brian Kibler to five games. A missed trigger on Angel of Despair likely cost him that fifth game and at least partially obscured the success of his more controlling take on the Cascade / suspend combo deck. This was Van's first trip through to Day Two—much less the Sunday stage—in a handful of Pro Tour appearances. His first event was the first PT–Honolulu, where he played a Heartbeat of Spring combo deck.

"My first decent finish was at GP–Rimini where I was 21st," recalled the Greek player, who has a distinct English accent to this American's ear. "Then Copenhagen at 22nd and Athens in the Top 8. I have been on the National team twice—we were 6th in Memphis last year."

"Well, the Quarters went pretty much as I expected," said Van when I asked him to walk me through his match with Kibler and the missed trigger. "I should win the first and then try and win two of the next four. Basically, Blood Moon was bad but in testing—I won several games with it in play because Kibler's deck can't do much with a Blood Moon in play either, so it was draw-go until I hit eight land [and] Akroma. In the last game I screwed up by forgetting a trigger from my Angel of Despair. I was looking at my hand to find a way to remove all the Meddling Mages Kibler put in play and not paying attention to the board. Since it was not a "may" ability, it would have been nice if a judge or my opponent would mention it, but in the end I can't blame anyone but myself. Still I think it was a really good tournament for me and I hope I can make it to the Top 8 again."

Evangelos is planning to attend Worlds but will not be making the trek to the remaining GPs in pursuit of leveling up.

"I already had tickets to Rome, but apart from that the season is over for me," he explained. "I am looking forward to San Diego."

For anyone looking to tinker with the Hypergenesis deck he offered the following advice: "I would agree with Patric Chapin that a basic Forest would be good to deal with Ghost Quarter and be able to resolve a Violent Outburst under Blood Moon. If the metagame is basically the Top 8 decks I would remove the Sundering Titans and go with three Sakashima and a red Akroma. Also I would take the deck to 60 cards, removing one Hypergenesis, while counterspells are unpopular. The sideboard needs a way to deal with the Dark Depths combo—probably Ghost Quarters and Ingot Chewers."

    The Semifinalists

Hunter Burton was poised to play local hero but fell to Brian Kibler in the Semifinals in what was ostensibly a Zoo mirror match but neither deck looked much like the Zoo people were expecting coming into the event. Hunter proved to be a man of few words when I spoke with him at the event, but what few words he did muster came from behind a huge grin when I mentioned a player complaining about getting Molten Rained out of contention by Burton's "Molten Zoo" deck. A the 24-year-old "wealthy and uneducated" player who hails from Fort Worth, Texas, Burton has played on the PT a handful of times without anything to match his PT–Austin finish, although he does have two GP finishes of note. He made the Top 8 of Grand Prix–Denver last season and qualified for this event with a Top 16 at Seattle.

Burton, who is known in the Magic Online community as a strong player, was clearly not fazed by the hoopla of the Top 8 and urged Brian Kibler to finish him off in the Semis so he could get something to eat. Apparently Burton had missed the memo about the Pro Tour Top 8 lunch and was left to his own devices while the rest of us enjoyed a boxed lunch on the fourth floor of the convention center. While I did not get much intel on Hunter, I did get the sense that this will not be the last time we hear from him. Whether or not he will say very much is a different matter.

Naoki Shimizu occasionally contributes to Premier event coverage on both the English and Japanese side of the mothership and has picked up where Craig Jones left off for the coverage types to live vicariously through. The 23-year-old student from Kamakura, Japan was recently considering making the switch over to judging, but with a Top 8 berth finally on his resume he is looking more likely to follow in the footsteps of the Japanese Pros he has been writing about for the past few years instead.

Naoki got his first taste of the Pro Tour in 2006 when the event came to Kobe: "I won the LCQ there and took part in the PT for the first time. The format was booster draft of triple Time Spiral and my record was 3-3."

His first taste of success came later that year at Japanese Nationals: "I won 10 matches in a row to make Top 8, but I lost in the Quarterfinals, against Ken Ishimaru."

Naoki probably speaks and writes the best English of any Japanese player to have Pro Tour success outside of Kobe winner Masashiro Kuroda, and has at times served as the go between for the non-Japanese Magic community and players like Kenji Tsumura and Shuhei Nakamura. He translated strategy articles by both players for

Looking toward the rest of the season, Shimizu has set goals for himself, some of which may be harder to achieve than others.

"Of course, World Champion!" he answered with his trademark grin before presenting a more easily attainable goal: "I would like to make more and more non-Japanese Magic friends."

When asked what decks impressed him from the event he pointed to the winning decklist with mixed emotions.

"I think the deck Brian Kibler played was really interesting in that it had a lot of Standard-legal cards. It was not only interesting, but also overwhelming on the weekend, as he won the Pro Tour," said the Dredge player before sighing, "I could have been the Champion if only I had beat Tsuyoshi, because Brian's deck did not contain any graveyard hate."

    The Finalists

Tsuyoshi Ikeda was in danger of falling off the Hall of Fame ballot for next year after appearing on less than 5% of the committee ballots. His finals appearance this weekend not only ensured that he would remain on the ballot but shined a spotlight on an impressive career that has seen the 36-year old shop owner amass close to 300 lifetime Pro Points and make four Top 8 appearances split up between two Finals and two Semifinals exits. Now with 289 lifetime points, the only players ahead of him without a Hall of Fame ring are slam-dunk first ballot Hall of Famers Gabriel Nassif and Shuhei Nakamura.

Ikeda's Fukuoka card shop has served as the home base to some of the game's greatest players, including Kuroda, Itaru Ishida, Masahiko Morita, and Jin Okomoto. His store, Shop Fireball, has branded two different teams—including when Ikeda teamed with Ishida and Okomoto to reach the Finals of Pro Tour–Seattle in 2005. If first recall becoming aware of Ikeda when his team dominated the Extended portion of Worlds in Berlin with Gob-Vantage, a deck that fully exploited Goblin Matron and Goblin Ringleader for the first time, but he was already posting money finishes on the Tour well before that. After a Top 16 finish at PT–Osaka, Ikeda narrowly edged out Craig Krempels from the Top 8 of PT–Yokohama (which likely gave Masashi Oiso the Rookie of the Year title that year) and reached the Semifinals.

Next up for Ikeda was Pro Tour–Seattle, where his team took the silver medal. While the two famous Tsuyoshis did not always work together—I was shocked to learn that Tsuyoshi Fujita had no hand in the Gob-Vantage deck—the store owner now regularly plays decks built by his Hall of Fame friend. Fujita gave Ikeda a ridiculous Shaman deck for PT–Hollywood that earned him a Top 32 finish. The partnership flourished at the most recent World Championships when Ikeda took third playing Fujita's aggro deck. This past weekend he played Rolly Zoo, a.k.a. Spectral Zoo.

How much faith does he have in the deck-building prowess of Fujita? When asked about the Rift Sweepers in the board of his Zoo deck Ikeda replied, "I don't know. I trust Rolly!"

Brian Kibler's win this past weekend has been a long time coming.

"The first PT event that I played in was the junior division of the very first Pro Tour," recalled the jubilant 29-year old game designer. "I played a black-red discard / The Rack deck that splashed white for Balance. I actually had Necropotence in my deck up until the week before the tournament when I cut it because I was taking too much damage from my City of Brass that I was using to fill the Chronicles requirement. I ended up finishing 30th, which qualified me for the second PT in LA, but I'd never drafted so I decided against flying out to that tournament."

He did not play with the big boys until the Chicago Pro Tour that was won by Randy Buehler.

"I played the same Prison deck that Jon Finkel made Top 8 with and had a poor finish in which I failed to make day two," said Kibler, who has clearly gotten past the Day One streaks / Day Two fades of PTs past. "At one point during that tournament I lost seven consecutive Frenetic Efreet flips, using two full Serrated Arrows and a Swords to Plowshares to kill one Efreet."

It was not until 1997 that Kibler felt like he belonged on the Pro Tour.

"I lost playing for Top 8 of U.S. Nationals in 1997 against Jeff Butz playing a Buried Alive mirror match—to this day Justin Gary harasses me that it's my fault the team lost that year because I didn't make it," said Brian. "A month or so later, I won GP–Toronto, which was Mirage block, with an Ophidian / Vodalian Illusionist deck that I worked on with Brian Schneider."

Brian notched one PT Top 8 during the first leg of his career before spending four years away from the game. A PTQ win for Honolulu was all he needed to come back with a vengeance. He has torn through two Day Ones with perfect records and has yet to miss a Top 8 in two tries. I asked him what had changed in his approach that allowed him to start strong—something he was always known for previously—and now also finish strong, historically a weak point for him.

"I think a big part of my results now is just related to my mindset and approach to the game," he explained. "Back when I was playing before, Magic was my job, and tournaments could be pretty stressful because I felt like I really needed to do well. Making mistakes bothered me a lot more and could more easily become a big distraction for the rest of the tournament. I feel like I've matured a lot since then and I'm better able to focus on what matters rather than thinking about how many more wins I need to make Top 8."

"As weird as it may seem," he added, "I think social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter help me keep my head in the game as well. It's no secret that I'm someone who enjoys the spotlight, and the energy and encouragement that comes from people supporting me as I update them on my progress online definitely keeps me motivated. So thank you to everyone out there who follows my tournament progress online!"

When asked what other decks impressed him in the tournament Kibler had to point to the one he narrowly dodged in the Quarterfinals.

"I think Van's Hypergenesis deck was excellent," said the Austin Champion. "Most of the Hypergenesis decks played a bunch of cards like Magister Sphinx, Wound Reflection, and Hellkite Overlord to try to kill the opponent on the turn they went off, but Van's deck focused on disruption and hard-to-kill creatures, which I think made it much more powerful overall. Cards like Path to Exile and Wrath of God, which could be outs against the average Hypergenesis deck, were largely useless against his Progenitus and Sundering Titans. He definitely took that deck to the next level compared to everyone else."

"Given that I'd have to win Worlds and have Yuuya not even show up for me to just tie him for Player of the Year, I'm focusing my energy on just leveling up in the Pro Player Club," said Kibler when asked about his post-Austin plans. "I'm going to attend Tampa and Minneapolis and try to pick up the points I can on my way to Worlds. I only need to get one extra point to make level 7, but if I pick up 10 more I can make level 8 and get all my hotel rooms paid for next year. But more than the money I really want to keep doing well to keep my name in peoples' minds when next year's Hall of Fame ballot comes around. The Hall of Fame is a big part of the reason I started playing again, and I think next year will be my best chance of making it."

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