Coming Around the Turn

Posted in The Week That Was on November 14, 2008

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.

When the Sealed Deck product for Grand Prix–Atlanta is handed out on Saturday morning, we will have made the turn into the final stretch run of the 2008 Pro Tour season. While the vast majority of the players at that tournament will be dreaming of an elusive Pro Tour invitation—courtesy of some good mana and a Broodmate Dragon, perhaps—there will be a handful of elite players peeking out of the corner of their eyes to see if their closest pursuers have closed any ground in the Player of the Year race.

Shuhei Nakamura has been hot all season.

Going into Pro Tour–Berlin, it seemed like the 2008 title was Shuhei Nakamura's to lose. PoY aficionados were wondering if Olivier Ruel could make up any of his 16 point deficit with a little help from the Super Team, but both players ended up with respectable Top 64 finishes and 5 points apiece. Shuhei's lead remained secure—from Olivier at least. Tomoharu Saito leapfrogged Olivier and clawed his way to within 15 points of defending his Player of the Year title.

With four Grand Prix remaining before the finish line in Memphis, it is suddenly a three-person race with a pack of dark horses looking to insert themselves into the mix. If one thing has been made clear over the past several seasons of nail-biting PoY races, it is that Grand Prix have become a vital component in winning the title. If you go back a few years to the World Championships in 2004 the title came down to a race between Nicolai Herzog, Gabriel Nassif, and Rickard Osterberg.

The 2004 title was almost entirely Pro Tour–driven, with Herzog winning two events in one season, Nassif seemingly making the Top 8 of every Constructed GP he played in, and Rickard making the Top 8 of one event and winning another. That was when the Pro Tour season featured a larger schedule than it does now. Originally, Pro Tour seasons straddled two calendar years with Worlds taking place in August. Wizards tinkered with the schedule to nudge Worlds towards year-end as opposed to its traditional time slot and added a Pro Tour during the 2004 and 2005 season—seven each year, counting Worlds.

With fewer Pro Tours there are fewer opportunities for a season like 2004 with multiple players having multiple Top 8 finishes—much less winning multiple Pro Tours. Grand Prix have become increasingly important in determining the Player of the Year title. You just have to look to the 2005 season—still a long year—when Olivier Ruel and Kenji Tsumura chased each other all around the World for the title, including a Grand Prix in China that saw them meet in the Quarterfinals just a week before Worlds.

It felt like that race turned a spotlight on the Grand Prix circuit, and the Player of the Year title has never been the same. Just look at this year's race and you can see how much of Shuhei's lead has been built up on the road in between Pro Tours.

PlaceName Pro PointsPoints from Summer Season
1Shuhei Nakamura5918
2Tomoharu Saito4416
3Olivier Ruel4316
4Raphael Levy397
4Luis Scott-Vargas391
4Marcio Carvalho3912
7Mario Pascoli373
7Martin Juza374
9Yuuta Takahashi3414
9Matej Zatlkaj346

With three of the four remaining Grand Prix taking place in places that qualify as "really far away" for most of the non-Japanese players on this list—Japan, Taiwan, and New Zealand—it seems likely that the if anyone is going to overtake Shuhei it is going to be either Saito or honorary Japanese player Olivier Ruel. Raph Levy has displayed a willingness to travel in the past and could certainly make a run as well.

Luis Scott-Vargas did not seem likely to fly around the globe in the closing weeks of 2008, but winning a Pro Tour has been known to change behavior patterns. What will be very interesting to me is whether or not rising stars Martin Juza and Matej Zatlkaj will look to pad their sparse point totals on the Grand Prix page of the ledger. They only need to look at the top three spots on the leader board for inspiration, with players putting up almost a third of their season totals at Grand Prix and National Championships this summer. It seems clear that you can hit the 40-point threshold with a solid, breakout season like the one Juza has had. It is also clear that you want to break away from the pack and see the unbroken tape of the Player of the Year title with no one between it and you then you had better make some Grand Prix travel plans.

Tune into the Grand Prix–Atlanta coverage all weekend long to see who has made the trek. Will the Japanese come to Atlanta only to turn around and head to Okayama the following weekend? What about the European contingent? It is going to be an exciting kickoff to the stretch run of events that will culminate in a few short weeks in Memphis.

Five Questions: Checking in on the PTQ Project

Throughout the current PTQ season I have been following four players in their pursuit of a Pro Tour–Kyoto invite. Three of the four players—Gavin Verhey, Samuel Stoddard, and Gabe Carlton-Barnes—were invited to Pro Tour–Berlin and were hoping to avoid the rest of the PTQ season with a Top 50 or better finish there. I caught up with them for five quick questions to see how their event went and what the remainder of the season had in store for them.

1. What deck did you play in Berlin and why did you choose it?

Gabe Carlton-Barnes mugs for the camera.

Gavin: I played a green-black Death Cloud deck with Raven's Crime and Life from the Loam. In such a wide field, the deck had game against everything, although it didn't have a ton of astoundingly in-your-favor matchups pre-sideboarding. It's the classic Rock problem: no good matchups, no bad matchups. I wanted to switch to another deck late in playtesting—specially the Blood Swans deck that Mike Gurney played—but I just wasn't comfortable switching two days before the Pro Tour.

Gabe: "Eggs! Disclaimer: No actual eggs." (Second Sunrise Combo)

Sam: Zoo. Specifically, it had 14 one-drop creatures and contained Fanatics, Seal of Fires, and Blightning over O-Ring or Molten Rain. I decided to play Zoo because it was a very strong deck with a good clock (turn 4 isn't unreasonable), a lot of good matchups, and it was doing the best out of all the decks in my testing experience. It's also a really hard to hate out. Our version ended up being better against Elves, though I will admit that was partially dumb luck.

2. How did you finish? Did anyone from your group do well?

Sam: I finished 160th out of 160 on Day Two. Still, I was happy to get there after an abysmal 0-2 start. I put on the rally cap and won my next five. The frustrating part came when I played All-In-Red in the last round of Day One. I was already a lock for Day two, but going in at 6-2 is a lot better for your moral fortitude than 5-3. I accidentally flipped one of my own cards over when shuffling—a Lightning Helix. My opponent chanted "I see, I see, I see." I shrugged and went on my way shuffling. I lost the die roll and kept a solid opening hand only to be met with a turn-one Blood Moon .... when we were deciding the one basic land for our deck, we decided to go with a single Mountain because a Forest is very awkward to draw and we didn't have an O-Ring. This made our list much better in every non-Blood Moon matchup—a tradeoff I was willing to make. You start kicking yourself for ignoring specific matchups when you are actually playing them, but I still think that we made the right choice on the land. The fact that my Round 9 and 10 matchups were All-In-Red as well was pretty much just dumb bad luck. I played half of the All-In-Reds that made Day Two. Rough beats.

Five people played our list; Dale DeWood, Ben Sowards, Adam Yurchick, and Brian Six. Yurchick, Six, and I made Day Two. Adam finished just out of the money, but Brian Six made 57th, taking home a few hundred dollars in his first Pro Tour.

Gabe: 152nd. Our group of six had only one Day Two representative and I was it. Four of us played the deck. I think I could have finished better, but a combination of poor planning—got locked out of my room the night before Day Two and had to improvise, resulting in poor sleep—and not having my crew there on Day Two for support resulted in a very poor showing.

Threads of Disloyalty

Gavin: I went 4-4, losing my last round feature match to not make Day Two. Mike Gurney, playing the Blood Swans deck (Swans with Blood Moon), made Day Two, but hit a string of unexpected Mono-Blue matchups to finish outside of Top 50. The deck was a very good and innovative deck, and what I really wanted to play, but we built it more or less on the plane flight over and when it's the night before the Pro Tour and you're just starting to build your sideboard ... Yeesh!

As far as people that made Top 50 go, Jed Dolbeer ended up 29th place with the innovative take on his Zoo deck—named Aquarium—that features Rhox War Monks, Threads of Disloyalty, Stifle, and sideboard Firespouts! I'm also extremely proud to say that Matej Zatltkaj, a Team Unknown Stars member, ended up as a Pro Tour Finalist. His second place list of the Elves deck is really good, and I think it's being overlooked because of LSV's deck. But make no mistake, if Elves survives the December 1st Banned and Restricted announcement, I think his list is a really good place to start.

3. What, if anything, did you learn from your experience?

Gabe: I'm still mulling this one over. We worked really hard, but I don't think we worked very effectively, in preparing for the event. We ended up getting excited about an interesting deck which came to us late, was very hard to judge, and had some obvious weaknesses ... but was powerful and fun, and we were charmed by it. We also disqualified a lot of decks from viability too quickly in testing. Extended is tough!

Gavin: I agree with Gabe ... Extended is tough! It feels like anybody could switch into any deck on any given day, and then sometimes you have a deck like Elves show up two weeks before the Pro Tour that starts messing with all of your testing.

I learned a lot in Germany, but one of the things that I've been thinking about since the event—and is a little unconventional—is to be more flexible right before a major event. Contrary to the advice people always give about knowing your deck and playing what you know, I've learned that you also can't go down with a sinking ship. As long as you know the format, you can play pretty much anything. It's that knowledge of the format and other peoples' decks that is important, not necessarily how well you know your own deck. Many times I've done well I've picked up a deck pretty recently before the event, and just known the format well enough to figure out which plays to make in each situation. As long as you know what decks other people could be playing and which cards they could have, I think a lot of your plays will script themselves.

Sam: We had the Elf deck in testing. I think our main deck was around 55/60 LSV's main deck. The sideboard wasn't very good though. My Friend Matt Kransteuber had built it up after losing to it on Magic Online, and really liked it. The thing was that our Zoo list, because of the greater than average number of one-mana removal spells, was beating it in testing. Also, because of the poor sideboard, it wasn't beating a lot of the hate in Game 2s. Our unwillingness to test against it led to him getting frustrated and yelling "I hope everyone there is playing Elves, and I hope you lose to it all day." Oh, hindsight. But it was the same thing with All-In Red and Mono-Red Burn, both of which we flat-out dismissed as being kiddy decks. I feel that we should have spent a lot more time working on improving the lists we had of those decks, rather than assuming that the first drafts that we had were as good as they would get. I don't think I will be dismissing the online metagame quite so quickly next time.

4. Did you PTQ at all while in Germany and how did that go? How does a Pro Tour PTQ compare to a normal PTQ?

Sam: Since I was playing both days there were PTQs, I didn't get to play in one. Chances are, I wouldn't have played in one anyway. Those things are gigantic (250-300 easy) and the level of competition is very high. The plus side is you get the opportunity to play against people from all over the world, but for me, I find it more rewarding to do sight-seeing or cube/draft at Pro Tours.

Gabe: Nope! I took Sunday off and enjoyed Berlin.

Gavin: I played in the PTQ at the Pro Tour, and went 0-2 drop. My pool was pretty bad; it would have been very, very hard for me to make the Top 8 of such a long and difficult PTQ. The PTQ at the Pro Tour didn't feel that much different from a PTQ at a Grand Prix: it's huge, and you have a smattering of Pros that didn't make Day Two playing in it.

5. What is next for you—PTQ? Worlds?

Gavin Verhey in action.

Gabe: PTQ. I was qualified for Worlds for about an hour during the last PTQ I played in. I started 5-0, and at that point I would have been Qed on rating ... but I kept playing and missed my chance. I'm excited to play some PTQs; they always feel easier after playing on the Tour! I still haven't ever won a Limited PTQ—I plan on changing that this season.

Sam: There are three PTQs left for me. I'm going to be going to one in Nashville next weekend, then there are two more PTQs in Detroit on November 29th and December 6th that I will be going to. I'm not Qed for worlds, but I'm going to try and go there just to have fun and play in side events.

Gavin: I have a couple more PTQs left. Since the Pro Tour happened I really, really wanted to go to Atlanta for the Grand Prix, but the plane ticket was just too much. I really want to go to Kyoto though, so I've started to practice on Magic Online again and am aiming to do extremely well in the PTQs I have left!

I'm going to try and be at Worlds. I don't have a flight booked yet, but I'm looking into costs. A lot of the side events look great, and Worlds would be a lot of fun!

Firestarter: Handicapping the Race

Mike Flores and I spend a lot of time talking about Magic and one of the topics we keep revisiting is about whether or not Shuhei can hold onto his significant Player of the Year lead. Mike is confident that Saito is going to swoop in and steal the title down the stretch run. Personally I think Olivier has a run in him in the closing month of the 2008 season—he also has the National team to feed him some extra points at Worlds—but that ultimately Shuhei will win the title this year.

What do you think? Head to the forums and handicap the race. Is there a dark horse we are overlooking?

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