Countdown to the Showdown

Posted in The Week That Was on February 4, 2011

By Brian David-Marshall

Both Brad Nelson and Guillaume Matignon got their 2011 seasons off to uninspiring starts in Atlanta. Come Sunday of the Grand Prix both players could be found lurking along the rail to watch friends in the Feature Match area or—more frequently—looking for drafts among the other thousand-plus players who did not make the cut at the end of Day One. With two players of this caliber it is hard to imagine that the unfinished business of the Player of the Year race would interfere with their focus but it is an unprecedented match in the history of the game.

As you might expect between two players who finished in a dead heat for the Player of the Year title this is a showdown between two players playing at the very top of their games. Both players put up a pair of Pro Tour Top 8s during the season—a feat usually associated with the game's best players. Nelson added three Grand Prix Top 8s, including his roaring victory in Washington D.C., to his season while Matignon made his way onto the French National team and bested his friend Guillaume Wafo-Tapa in the finals of Worlds. Two different equations with the same sum—66 Pro Points and a share of the Player of the Year lead.

The two players are going to have to put that match aside to play on the first two days of Magic Weekend Paris before they can settle the custody dispute over the trophy. The historic match is going to be played out on Saturday morning at 9 a.m. during the bye rounds of the Grand Prix and after the first two days of the Pro Tour. That match will be shown via a live webcast—at 3 a.m. EST—with Rich Hagon and I sitting in the booth bringing you all the action. For as long as I have been on the coverage team, which is the better part of a decade now, I have been waiting for just this scenario in the Player of the Year race. I am thrilled to be able to commentate on a form of Premier Event Level Magic that is taking place for the first time in the fifteen seasons of Pro Tour history.

As I have been anticipating this showdown it got me to thinking about some of the best Finals clashes in those past fifteen seasons. I was looking for matches with a trophy on the line and two players either at the height of their power or ascending toward it.

A showdown between two enshrined Hall of Famers is coming in at number five? You have to keep in mind that while Kai Budde was already known as the German Juggernaut by the time this Standard Pro Tour rolled into the Windy City, Kamiel Cornelissen was hardly a household name at this point. This was the Dutch player's breakout performance—although he did finish one win out of the Top 8 in his Pro Tour debut during the Masques Block Constructed Pro Tour in New York—and his path to the finals was littered with the bodies of Hall of Famers Jon Finkel and Rob Dougherty before he ran afoul of Budde in the finals.

Budde made short work of Cornelissen in three games, which actually culminated with Budde uttering the German name for his title clinching Armageddon in the third game ... "Götterdämmerung."

Level 5 judge Sheldon Menery, then a Level 3, was in the unique position of both judging that match and covering it for the

"In 2000, we were still in the infancy of covering the Pro Tour. The ESPN folks wanted a limited number of people on camera, so instead of a Judge and a reporter, we had to find someone who had the skills to both cover and table judge the match. That someone turned out to be me," explained Sheldon about how he came to pull the double shift. "This was maybe my fifth Pro Tour, but having lived in Belgium for the preceding six years, I was intimately familiar with the top European players and the GP circuit. I remember Kai when he wasn't even regarded as the best player in his home city of Köln—that honor belonging at the time to one Thomas Esser, if I recall correctly."

"Judging those GPs and PTs, I literally had a front-row seat watching him go from good to great to greatest," he continued. "There was no one who combined raw talent and raw desire to succeed like Kai. Even with living in Belgium and spending a good deal of time in the Netherlands, I'll confess to still not knowing Kamiel's name until it appeared in the Top 8, and in this particular Top 8, he was the only unknown. I fully expected the bright lights and the intimidating competition to get the best of him. Instead, he was unflappable. When he waltzed through Jon Finkel and Rob Dougherty, we knew we might be onto someone special, a rare talent. Even though he spent most of the Finals on the ropes against Kai, his now-famous cool demeanor never changed. We didn't know it at the time, but we were watching the first steps of that coolness walking him all the way to the Hall of Fame, in retrospect one of the great Magic matches of all time."

Pro Tour Philadelphia was a unique one-time event in the history of Pro Tour Magic. The format for the event was Kamigawa Block Constructed and the Pro Tour utilized the Skins payout. Each round of the Pro Tour was worth an escalating prize for the winner and nothing for the loser. Once a player took three losses they were eliminated from the event. It was a bizarre tournament in which you could go 1-3, win money and, depending on where you took your losses, the prize that players in the Top 8 won could vary wildly.

Coming into the event a group of American players declared that they were "Taking Back Sunday" borrowing the name and T-shirt of a popular indie band. It had been two seasons since an American had won a Pro Tour and there was rarely even room for them in the Top 8 as the Dutch, French, and Japanese players were often taking up all the seats. It was a brash pre-tournament statement and who better to back it up than Gadiel Szleifer? He was considered one of the best young players on the Pro Tour and racked up Pro Points at a rate that would not be matched until Brad Nelson's run this past season.

Gadiel dropped only one game with his Gifts Ungiven deck en route to the Finals where Kenji would take him to a full five games. Kenji—who would go on to win the Player of the Year title that season—had just defeated Olivier Ruel in the semifinals during which the French player declared that Kenji was the best player in the game.

Mike Flores had a booth-side seat for the match and recalled it vividly:

"Half a dozen years later and we can refer to particular Magic players by their first names only ... Jon, Bob, Kai, Kamiel... Kenji and Gadiel," said Mike of this particular match. "Gadiel's play throughout the tournament exhibited a stone certainty in his deck choice, a keen awareness of "what mattered" in the mirror, and almost a contempt for lesser strategies."

"Kenji was the most impressive player at the time, coming off an Atlanta Top 4 where he showed a mental game light years beyond his fellow elite Japanese countrymen—before Kenji we all assumed they were "merely" great technical players—and the road through the quarterfinals came on the back of a dramatic last-second—literally last-second—mind trick that combined Kenji's mastery of the rules and verbal timing to escape the game-winning Blessed Breath. For history, it was another domino in the long line of superb Tsumura finishes, and for Gadiel, the first U.S. Pro Tour victory since 2003."

Prior to this tournament I sat down with the Your Move Games squad to get a little insight into the Extended format. I was struck at the time by the fact that none of them—Rob Dougherty, Darwin Kastle, or Justin Gary—seemed to be on the same page about what deck to play. Hardly the type of behavior you would expect from a super team like YMG. In the end they all played different decks with Rob choosing to play Reanimator, Darwin played the Rock, and Justin Gary took Cognivore from the bulk rare box to trade binder staple with his take on Oath of Druids.

All three players made the Top 8 and in the bracketed rounds they did not lose a game to anyone other than a teammate. Darwin won 3-0 over Matthias Jorstedt, Rob took down Bob Maher in the minimum number of games, and Justin made short work of Jeroen Remie. Fittingly that finals match between Rob Dougherty and Justin Gary went the full five games. (Interestingly the first game went to Justin and could have worked out differently using modern lifelink.)

Coverage reporter extraordinaire Josh Bennett was sitting courtside for this match and in his memory it was the camaraderie of teammates that made this such an all-time match.

"It would be hard to do better for an archetypical Master/Apprentice showdown. You had the generational split; Rob Dougherty from the original days of the Tour and Justin Gary the up-and-comer," recalled Bennett. "Then there was deck choice. Despite the fact that YMG, a Constructed powerhouse, often rolled out its squad playing a single finely-tuned weapon, the two were playing decks chosen based on their individual play styles. What really drove the point home, though, was their respective attitudes. Dougherty was the picture of ease and deliberation, as if he was playing one more test match. Conversely, Gary's natural flair and animation seemed to double under the Sunday lights, as if every part of him was filled with the desire to hoist the trophy. When he did, taking the fifth and final game, whatever disappointment Dougherty may have felt did not show. He wore the smile of someone cheering a teammate to victory."

Before this tournament started Randy Buehler and I announced our picks for the winner. Coming hot on the heels of his win in Berlin and a near miss at Worlds Luis Scott-Vargas had become one of the game's elite players and was a slam-dunk pick for Randy. Me? I always pick a Gabriel Nassif or Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa figuring I have a one in five chance of having a horse in the running down the Top 8 stretch and I went with Nassif—who, to this point, had still not won an individual title.

This was also the first of the split format Pro Tours, which made picking players like LSV and Nassif who have demonstrated cross-format excellence easy. When Gabriel Nassif called his shot in the quaterfinals I just knew that this was going to be his tournament and despite LSV's best efforts to foil him that is exactly how it played out. Again, this was a titanic battle of the game's all-time greats that went to the full five games.

In the fourth game, watching Gabriel Nassif narrow the focus of their fight to whether or not Luis Scott-Vargas would be able to activate his Windbrisk Heights, you saw two players playing not only their cards, but also each other. Both players had nothing but the utmost respect for the other's game and played carefully. When LSV spoke about Nassif on the video that was played prior to the French player's induction into the Hall of Fame he said that that there was no player on the Tour he wanted to play against less than Nassif.

Coverage reporter Nate Price recalled the change in atmosphere in the Arena as soon as an unknown card was tucked beneath LSV's hideaway land.

"It was kind of surreal because I don't consider myself to be anywhere near either of their levels and as soon as LSV played the Heights you could see this glint in Nassif's eye like he knew exactly what card was under there and that he was going to have to play around it if he wanted to win the match," said Price. "He was playing for the worst possible scenario—Head Games—which would make it impossible for him to win if it resolved. His back was against the wall and if he lost that game he would lose the match. He spent the entire game waiting to make sure he did not use the Negate on anything else. Unbelievable!"

It is hard to imagine another showdown between two players at their height of power topping this match but allow me to present two friends playing a mirror match in the finals of a World Championship during a year that ends in a 0 ...

Guillaume vs. Guillaume is clearly an honorable mention in this category and could easily be a justifiable Top 5 match but it just does not get any better than this Hall of Fame showdown between two of the greatest players to ever tap some mana played before the ESPN cameras. Bob Maher had already won a Pro Tour earlier that season in Chicago and was in his full-blown ascent to the title of The Great One. For Jon, it was his second go-round on the Pro Tour and he was having a similarly terrific year, which included winning his National Championship. Had that event counted toward Pro Points like it does today it could have meant another Player of the Year title for the suited-up Jonny Magic.

Hall of Famer Randy Buehler got to call this match for ESPN2 and he vividly recalled the details for me.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the greatest championship match I ever saw was Maher vs. Finkel at Worlds 2000. Not only did they meet for the World Championship, but Finkel had already won the Team World Championship earlier in the day and Maher had clinched the Player of the Year title by winning his semi-final," said Randy. "Throw in the fact that they were good friends and both clear first-ballot Hall of Famers—the Hall of Fame may not have existed at the time, but trust me, we still thought in those terms—and it was clearly a battle of the titans. It was the first time two former Pro Tour champions had ever met in a PT finals and to this day it remains the only time two Players of the Year have sat directly across the table and played each other for a PT title."

"You'd think the match would have been hurt by the fact that they were playing nearly identical mono-blue Tinker decks, but it wasn't. Game 1 consisted of haymaker after haymaker and remains one of the five best games of Magic I've ever seen. It started when Maher paid 19 life to a Phyrexian Processor, giving him the ability to make 19/19 creatures—usually more than enough to win the game. Finkel responded with a Phyrexian Colossus, which would be immediately lethal since there was no way Maher could come up with three blockers. Game over, right? No. Maher played a Crumbling Sanctuary, effectively changing his life total from 1 to the number of cards in his library. Now his stream of 19/19 creatures looked like it would be good enough to win the game again, but Finkel wasn't done yet. He played a Processor of his own, paid 19 life, and the crucial part was that he came up with a Voltaic Key and enough mana that he could make 2 19/19's per turn. That punch finally connected and Jon took Game 1. Unbelievable."

"Bob then won the next two games—one blow-out and one mana screw—but Jon came back with some quick 19/19 Processor tokens in Game 4. Of course this match was destined to go to Game 5, right? The final game was another good one with Bob establishing a tenuous amount of control thanks to a Tangle Wire that tapped down Jon's Phyrexian Colossus. However, some nifty brainstorming from Jon allowed him to get Voltaic Key down and untap his Colossus without having to pay any life. Bob then tried to come up with the three blockers he needed, but Jon's own Tangle Wire iced the game and completed the greatest run of Jon's career, making him the second ever two-time Pro Tour winner, and the first to ever win both the individual and team World Championships at the same time."

Make sure to tune in next Saturday for the live webcast of an unprecedented showdown between two of today's top players as they vie for the unresolved title of Player of the Year—plus there is gonna be coverage of a whole Pro Tour and Grand Prix to boot! Join us for Magic Weekend Paris!

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