Even though I had a preview card last week, it feels like forever since I last wrote a column (probably because that column was written more than a month in advance) and I have been chomping at the bit to get back to talking about Magic as we roll out of preview season and begin preparing for Pro Tour Fate Reforged in February.
I had a couple of opportunities to play Magic over the break, including my first ever PPTQ, which saw me pick up one loss too many to make the Top 8…but was fun nonetheless. Someone who had more fun at their PPTQ was a player who has participated in just about every possible type of tournament, ranging from my old pre-Pro Tour events in New York to multiple Pro Tour Top 8s to winning the Invitational and creating the Meddling Mage. I am talking, of course, about Chris Pikula.
Pikula has come agonizingly close to induction into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame on multiple ballots, but recently found himself ineligible for candidacy. The rules for Hall of Fame eligibility changed: it now requires players to have 150 lifetime Pro Points instead of 100. Despite his close finish on the last ballot he was eligible for, Pikula now finds himself in need of some Pro Tour appearances and more than a dozen Pro Points to get back onto the ballot and into the discussion.
I don't have to tell those of you reading this column how hard it is to qualify for the Pro Tour. I know many players who will grind out PTQs and GPs every weekend in the hopes of getting their crack at the Pro Tour. It's not quite that easy for Pikula, who has a family and a career. They make a compelling case to compete for both brain space and precious weekends. He can usually manage one event a month, and found himself having to choose between a PPTQ and one of the dwindling classic PTQs that were taking place on the same weekend of the New Year's break.
"I was looking forward to a local, more casual, small tourney because I had just gotten back from London and was not really up for a two hour drive to a 9 round PTQ," Chris explained. "The tourney ended up having 31 players, which is pretty much in-line with the other Pennsylvania and New Jersey PPTQs I've heard about. There were a couple other competing PPTQs and the PTQ I was skipping going on at the same time which could have reduced attendance. I think that only one other player besides me had any Pro Tour experience, so it was an inexperienced field compared to almost any other event I play in."
The event was Standard and he chose to play with an Abzan Aggro deck.
"I took my only loss in round 2 of the Swiss, losing to a green-black Devotion strategy. I lost pretty badly and was worried I might be missing something in the matchup, so I actually messaged Brian Braun-Duin between rounds to ask about sideboarding advice, but he was driving home from busting out of a PTQ himself and couldn't answer me," said Pikula, who would go on to win the tournament. "I ended up getting my revenge in the semifinals, when I beat the same player just as badly as he had beat me in Swiss."
With his Regional Qualifier invite in hand, Pikula has another tournament to get through before he can get back to the hard work of playing on the Pro Tour. Of course, that also means deciding which of the Regional events to attend. Larger events award eight slots, while the smaller ones only offer four. Philadelphia, where Pikula lives, is projected to be one of the larger Regional events, but everyone thinks their local metagame is the toughest and Pikula is no exception.
"The idea of traveling to one that you expect to have fewer players is definitely attractive, especially because the closest one to where I live is arguably the worst one to play in," he said, based on playing in this area for longer than there has been a Pro Tour. "But, these events are new and it isn't at all clear how good anyone is at guessing how many players will show up at each event."
As he forges ahead into the New Year, there may not be as many opportunities to play Magic as he had when he was younger, but the fire to compete at the highest level burns as hot as ever.
"Magic is still a big deal to me. I've said this on social media quite a bit already, but it was pretty crushing for me to have such a terrible, terrible 2014 after having actually done pretty well at Magic in 2013. I'm basically able to play Magic one weekend a month, with the occasional smaller event thrown in—like this PPTQ—which is a decent amount of Magic but not quite enough for me to feel like I'm always practiced and playing well. My goal is to get back on the Pro Tour and get the Pro Points necessary to get back on the Hall of Fame ballot. Playing once a month isn't quite enough to make me feel like I'm a big favorite to accomplish this, but I have a shot."
While the PPTQs are ramping up some Magic players, as Pikula alluded to earlier, are taking advantage of the remaining classic PTQs to earn spots. Brian Braun-Duin has been one of those players. While he lost on the weekend that Pikula was trying to reach him, Braun-Duin managed to take down another PTQ this past weekend. The Open Series star and two-time Grand Prix Champion (one of which involved besting 4002 other players) has Gold in his eyes for the New Year. And, despite being qualified for the upcoming Pro Tour, he was looking to ensure Pro Tours all the way through into next season.
"Thanks to a GP win in New Jersey, I was qualified for Pro Tour Fate Reforged, but remained unqualified for the remaining Pro Tours," said Braun-Duin, who has 16 Pro Points for the current season. "Winning this PTQ actually gave me three additional qualifications beyond Pro Tour Fate Reforged. I'm qualified for Brussels from the PTQ. By virtue of attending both DC and Brussels, I get a minimum of 6 Pro Points, which locks me for Silver. I can use that Silver invite on the following Pro Tour in Vancouver, and then again for the Pro Tour after Vancouver, since it will be the start of the new year and Silver will carry over from this one."
The impact of the win on his upcoming year of Magic is profound. For one thing, he gets to dedicate his weekends to playing in Grand Prix and Open Series events and not have to concern himself with the grind of qualifying for the next 12 months. And when he does play in a Grand Prix, he doesn't have to fear the sword of qualification dangling a hair's breadth from his neck. Crucially, it also means that he can work with a playtesting team, with them having the confidence he will be someone who can participate in planning for the future.
For the PTQ, he chose a deck that has served him well since he started playing it for the SCG Player's Championship, Abzan Aggro. Across three PTQs since then it has carried him to 9th, 2nd, and an elusive 1st place finish.
Also attending the PTQ with him were his SCG running mates Chris Van Meter and Todd Anderson. He found himself facing off against Van Meter in a 75-card mirror in round four and, while it went to three games, it was Braun-Duin who cast Duneblast in game three. He won round five and was able to draw with Anderson into the top two seeds in the tournament.
"Since the PTQ was in Roanoke, that gave us time to go to one of my favorite restaurants near StarCityGames and get a fantastic meal before the Top 8. Nothing beats a hometown PTQ," recalled Braun-Duin, who dispatched White-Blue Heroic in the quarters and managed to get past a Mardu deck in the semis. After losing game one, he thought his run was coming to an end.
"We ended up reaching a board state where he was dead on-board, but I was at 12 and he had two Butchers. He attacked me down to two life, and then tapped two mana. I thought I was just dead to Lightning Strike, but he ended up tapping 3 more mana for an End Hostilities. He was at 4, I was at 2, and it was a pure topdeck war. I drew an Anafenza, he drew a brick, and I managed to squeak it out," recalled Braun-Duin of the tournament's most harrowing moment. "Game 3, I had to tap out for an Elspeth to kill a Stormbreath Dragon, and I was just dead if he had any way to remove Elspeth. He didn't and I managed to barely escape with a win. The finals were unfortunately anticlimactic against Todd. He suffered from mulligans both games and I was able to capitalize on an aggressive draw to take it home."
Braun-Duin will begin playtesting soon with Anderson, Brad Nelson, and the rest of Team Revolution as they prepare for Pro Tour Fate Reforged.
"I'm really looking forward to being able to work with two of my best friends, and a great team of some of the best players in the world. I've heard only great things about the team, and I'm ready to contribute whatever I can to the testing process," he said. "As soon as they make the announcement for Modern bans and unbans, I plan on jumping into Modern testing nonstop. I've already gotten a head start on testing for Grand Prix Omaha, but it's possible that testing ends up being moot, depending on what changes in the format."
Gold is the goal for Braun-Duin in 2015, as he looks to replicate the tremendous success he has had in the Open Series and at Grand Prix on the Pro Tour.
"It seemed like it was going to be a really uphill battle at first, but after winning a GP it started to look more and more like a reality. Now with this PTQ win, and a guarantee that I will be able to play in the remaining Pro Tours, I am already locked at 25 points," said the two-time GP Champion. "I just need to find a way to pick up 10 more this year. I feel that if I keep working as hard at it as I have in the past few months, I certainly have it in me. I'm going to keep my nose to grindstone and play my best, and see what happens when the dust clears."
Just this past weekend, we had two Grand Prix which both churned a conveyor belt worth of players onto the Pro Tour for Brussels. It doesn't require the all-or-nothing mentality of a PPTQ or PTQ, but the scale is a little different. The field for GPs is regularly in excess of 1,000 players and there is little margin for error. World Team Champion Paul Cheon has recently returned to Magic and played in Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir but found himself on the outside looking in as the calendar turned to 2015.
"I was actually qualified for absolutely nothing heading into the Grand Prix. I've only recently started playing tournament Magic again and, after doing poorly at the Pro Tour, I was once again left trying to grind it out and try to earn a slot to the next Pro Tour. Hell, I even had to win a Grand Prix Trial to get my two byes, and after this GP I still only have one bye! Qualifying was definitely the number-one priority and I am ecstatic that I once again have the opportunity to play against the best," said Cheon, whose Top 8 finish will have him fighting in the trenches at Brussels.
Cheon chose to play Abzan Midrange for the tournament, feeling it was the right choice to play, given the rise of Abzan Aggro decks. That made an already long weekend of Magic go even more slowly for him than for many others, with virtually all of his matches going the full three games.
"Abzan Midrange tries to grind the opponent out of resources and then goes over the top with one of its many Planeswalkers," said Cheon. "The closest call I had in the tournament was when I was 11-1-1 with two rounds to go. If I win, I can draw into the Top 8. I was down a game to red-white Tokens and mulliganed down to FOUR cards. I all but wrote off the match as a loss as he seemed fairly happy with his seven. I proceeded to cast an Abzan Charm on turn three, followed by a Courser of Kruphix and hit land, spell, land, spell followed by an on-curve, turn-six Elspeth.
"I ended up winning the match and locked up a Top 8 berth. It turns out mulliganing to four doesn't matter much when the perfect card is on top, every turn."
The GP left Cheon sitting on 14 Pro Points and no invitation to Pro Tour Fate Reforged in a few short weeks. He is already planning on attending Grand Prix San Jose the weekend before, and was sorely tempted to book a last-minute ticket to Grand Prix Omaha this weekend. Like Pikula, playing Magic every weekend is not realistic for the former World Team Champion, with a full time job and a family. He could be playing on back-to-back weekends, though, if he wins Grand Prix San Jose. The format is Team Sealed and he'll be playing with none other than Luis Scott-Vargas and Eric Froehlich.
"My initial goals prior to Denver were to qualify for a Pro Tour and hit Silver status. Now that I'm qualified for Brussels, I'm one step closer to achieving that goal. And if I can pick up 6 Pro Points between Brussels and a handful of Grand Prixs, I would be qualified for Vancouver," said Cheon of his plans for the New Year. "I think I have a good shot at hitting Silver, but I would be thrilled if I were to somehow make it back onto the gravy train and pick up Gold status. I've put in a lot of work to try and qualify again for the Pro Tour and words couldn't describe the wave of emotion that hit me when I knew I locked up Top 8 and a qualification. Qualifying for the Pro Tour and playing against the best in the world is all I want to do, so…Brussels, here I come!"
You can follow along this weekend from Omaha to see how Brian Braun-Duin does in Modern and whether or not Paul Cheon has been cruising ticketing sites in the middle of the night. It is going to be a long and exciting year. Following along as Pikula fights his way back onto the Hall of Fame ballot, as Braun-Duin tries to replicate his success at the highest level of the game with an all-star team at his back, and if Cheon can transform Silver into Gold are just a few of the things I will be looking forward to watching and talking about.
Players of the Month for November and December
Lost in the shuffle of Worlds Week and the break over the New Year were a pair of Magic Player of the Month honors. I am going to dispense with the normal polling with the #MTGPoM hashtag since we're backlogged, but it will resume the first week of February with a new host of candidates.
In the meanwhile, our November Player of the Month is someone already interviewed in this column. Winning a 4,003-person Legacy Grand Prix will boost you a little higher than the competition, who waded through fields of less than half that size in some cases. Congratulations to GP Champion, PTQ winner, and the newest member of Team Revolution, Brian Braun-Duin.
November Player of the Month Brian Braun-Duin
As for December, there could be no doubt about Shahar Shenhar winning the Player of the Month honors. He became the first player to win two individual World Championship trophies and he did it in back to back years. It was an amazing showing from the Israeli National Champion, who by virtue of his World Magic Cup showing may have played more high-pressure Magic than anyone else that whole week in Nice, France. Shenhar is the player I am most excited to watch this coming year on the Pro Tour. Despite a couple of close calls and two World Championship titles, he still hasn't achieved a Sunday appearance on the Pro Tour. Nobody who plays Magic with Shenhar expects that to remain true for very much longer.
December Player of the Month Shahar Shenhar