Before we dive into the stretch run of the season, let's pause for a breath and acknowledge three players who crossed some pretty big items of their Magical to-do lists at Pro Tour Gatecrash. Just before the event started I wrote an article called "Next Man Up" about the eight players in that weekend's Pro Tour with the most Pro Points without a Pro Tour Top 8. At the top of that list, with close to 200 lifetime points, was Gerry Thompson, who had grown accustomed to the idea that he was going to come up short. Even after a strong finish to the first leg of the Pro Tour he was wary about his chances of finally playing on Sunday.
"I had to come to mostly expect failure. I had some money finishes but nothing noteworthy—it wasn't even like I had some near misses," admitted Thompson. "At the end of Day One, I was 7–1 but still needed to go 5–2–1 to make Top 8. As anyone who plays in those tournaments regularly can tell you, they're pretty long and anything could happen."
Thompson, known largely for his mastery of Constructed formats, kicked off Day Two with a clean sweep of his Draft pod and suddenly found himself at 10–1 and, by his own math, needed to go 2–2–1 in the final five rounds. It was not a position he had found himself in previously and he knew that a big part of closing out the tournament was going to be keeping himself on an even keel.
"I was running around the venue asking players I respected with solid mental games for advice. I desperately needed a pep talk," he said of where his head was at heading into the Constructed rounds. "People like Brian Kibler and Eric Froehlich were like, 'Just keep doing what you're doing.'"
Thompson, who was playing Reckoner Control in Standard, came into the Tournament Center for a Deck Tech with just one round left—a mere handshake away from making the Top 8. He was reluctant to make the assumption that he was locked for the Top 8 and, as it turns out, there was some behind-the-scenes drama in play. His final round opponent was Owen Turtenwald, who was considering the implications of playing his final round to jockey for Top 8 position with none other than Jon Finkel spurring him on.
"We were definitely going to get paired in the last round and Owen could tell that his Top 8 opponent would likely be EFro [Eric Froehlich], which was a bad matchup," Thompson recalled. "They told him that playing and winning would give him a higher seed and a better matchup. If he lost, he wouldn't be on the play, but he wouldn't have to play EFro. In the end, he took the draw and I was incredibly relieved. I've had near misses in several Grand Prix tournaments and definitely didn't want to do that in the first Pro Tour where I actually had a shot of making Top 8. Had I ended up in Top 16 or something, I might have stopped going to Pro Tours altogether. That type of soul crushing defeat might have been the end of me."
As it turns out, Thompson would have likely made the Top 8 win, lose, or draw, although the latter was the preferable option, and with a handshake he was crossed off the top of the list no pro player wants to be on. It is hard not to look at the dramatic change in his preparation for this event as a key to that long-awaited success. In the past, Thompson had mostly prepared for Pro Tours as the leader of a group of friends testing for the event. For Montreal, he got to work with a group of once-and-future Hall of Famers on Team ChannelFireball. With Shuhei Nakamura, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Brian Kibler, Luis Scott-Vargas, Ben Stark, David Ochoa, Josh Utter-Leyton, and Martin Juza on the team, Thompson did not need to worry about manning the rudder.
"I didn't have any idea what to expect as far as their process was concerned," said Thompson of the preparation for the tournament. "I tried to voice my opinion on certain things that needed to be done, but mostly if I was handed a deck to play for a few games, I played with it. Being able to focus on myself was incredibly important, as opposed to making sure that everyone else was up to speed. There was still some of that since I play more Standard than anyone else on the team, probably, so I was very knowledgeable on what worked, what didn't, and what type of technology was out there. Mostly, I was just able to sit back, learn, and focus on improving myself. Whenever someone had a question about Standard, I probably had the answer."
He definitely did have the answer—even if took him a little bit of time to come around on it. Thompson had been playing Red-White-Blue Flash decks in Standard on the SCG Open series and knew the deck well. He assumed that since the deck was such a known quantity there would be something better lurking in the shadows of the new format.
"I figured that with the team we had, we could potentially 'break' the format. When they started to build the UWR deck with Reckoners, I didn't chime in and I mostly stayed away from the deck. I wanted to play something else," he said of the deck he would eventually pilot into the Top 8. "When everything else ended doing poorly, I finally started to come around on playing UWR again. I took a look at the list they had and changed very little. They immediately realized that Reckoner was the real deal and Pillar of Flame wasn't very good since most of the good creatures had 3 toughness.
"There were cards like Searing Spear and Mizzium Mortars in the deck that I hated pre-Gatecrash, but they intuitively knew were awesome post-Gatecrash. Someone, probably Josh Utter-Leyton, suggested Harvest Pyre as a late-game win condition with Boros Reckoner, and that sold me on the deck. The fact that I knew the deck inside and out certainly carried me throughout the Pro Tour and that will probably affect my future deck selection."
The Top 8 leaves Thompson with 33 Pro Points on the season. Platinum status is well within his reach and an invite to the World Championship is a real possibility. To maximize his chances at those two goals, Thompson will be playing in more Grand Prix than we have seen in the past, including a rare appearance away from North America for Grand Prix Verona and possibly even Strasbourg.
"I really, REALLY want to hit Platinum, not just for the money, but to prove to myself that I can do it," said Thompson of his jam-packed travel itinerary. "If I make Platinum but barely miss out on Worlds, I'll certainly be disappointed. If you could guarantee me Platinum right now with the caveat that I couldn't play in Worlds even if I qualified, I would take it, though. So, hopefully, I won't feel too bad at the end of the season. I think the only other event that I'm definitely attending is the StarCityGames Invitational in Atlanta. I would never miss one of those tournaments."
The player who Thompson ultimately shook hands with in that last round was in a similar historical predicament. Despite winning the Player of the Year title in 2011, Owen Turtenwald came into Pro Tour Gatecrash with the second-most Pro Points in the room among players without a Pro Tour Top 8. He came close a couple of times—most notably a Top 16 finish to start off his Player of the Year campaign at Pro Tour Paris—but the absence of a Sunday appearance on his resume was something that loomed over his career.
Heading into Day Two, Turtenwald tried to take the tournament one leg at a time. His primary mission was to emerge from the Draft rounds with a good enough record that he could let his powerful Jund deck get back to work on dismantling the Standard field. He may have debated his options in that last round with Thompson, but once he agreed to the draw and was locked into the Top 8, the reality of the accomplishment began to settle in.
"I called my dad and he told me how proud he was of me... that was easily the thing that made me happiest about making Top 8," recalled Turtenwald, who seemed surprised by the swell of joy for his accomplishment. "Everyone was SO excited! I was really just surprised and amazed at how excited all my friends were for me and my accomplishment even while some of them were having a rough weekend themselves in the tournament. So many people congratulated me and wished me luck and told me how it was a long time coming and how I deserved it. The people who showed support and said such kind words really made this all that much more special."
Similarly to Thompson, Turtenwald was working with a different team than he had in the past. During his Player of the Year run, he had been a key figure on Team ChannelFireball but stopped working with them soon thereafter. His new testing team actually manages to out-Hall of Fame his old one with the likes of Jon Finkel, Zvi Mowshowitz, Gabriel Nassif, Patrick Chapin, Kai Budde, and Jelger Wiegersma, along with Sam Black, Tom Martell, Reid Duke, and many more making up the all-star roster that was Team SCG.
"The actual testing process between SCG and ChannelFireball really isn't all that different, honestly; both teams just do a couple drafts a day and let everyone do their own thing for Constructed while sharing information and providing input when people ask for it," said Turtenwald of the differences between his two teams. "It's mostly just everyone saying what they like and don't like about each Constructed deck as they try them. The process of playtesting is the same between the two teams but the people are way different. Both teams have great players but there really is no match for Jon Finkel, and I think my personality just meshed a lot better with those players. I have greatly enjoyed my time so far at SCG."
Since getting to play on the Pro Tour regularly, Turtenwald has learned to take Draft preparation seriously and to play the best deck he can lay his hands on—and not just get tunnel vision and lock into a deck he really likes. While many of Team SCG played The Aristocrats deck that Tom Martell would pilot to victory, there were multiple viable choices for the team to choose from.
"I played the Jund deck that Reid Duke designed and it was awesome," said Turtenwald. "I said the day before the Pro Tour that it was the most confident I had ever been before a Pro Tour. When I played with ChannelFireball and it came down to crunch time to make a decision on what deck to play, I just always played the team deck and never really had any exceptional results. I know for me, personally, I always perform much better in tournaments when I have mastered my deck. When I have a good list and I know how to play the matchup and how to sideboard, my edge is so much higher than when I get a deck handed to me before the event. Reid and I tested Jund all day, every day, and with a day or two to go before the event, when Sam said he was going to play his Aristocrats deck and everyone decided to jump ship, I had a decision to make. I ended up going with my gut and playing the deck I knew and I know for me there was no better choice I could have made. The Aristocrats deck was great and congrats to Tom for winning it all, but I would never have made Top 8 if I didn't play Jund."
Turtenwald will lock up Platinum status with the 3 points awarded for attending Pro Tour Dragon's Maze and expects to ease up on the gas pedal for these last couple of months.
"I am going to go to the US GPs to try and get points to hopefully make the Player's Championship," said Turtenwald. "Also I want to Top 8 the next PT very badly—almost as bad as I wanted to Top 8 the last one—to show that it was not a fluke. People know me as a good player and I would like it if they remembered me as a great player."
Melissa DeTora may not have had as many lifetime Pro Points as the first two players featured today, but her Top 8 at Pro Tour Gatecrash was as long in coming as any in the history of the Pro Tour, as the only female player to accomplish that feat. DeTora has been playing Magic since 1997, starting casually but moving from the kitchen table to the top tables almost as soon as she discovered tournaments two years later, when a new kid at school showed her that aspect of the game.
"He actually played tournaments, and I didn't even know that tournaments existed. I've always been competitive at everything I did, including sports and video games, so naturally, when I found out that competitive tournaments existed, I immediately started going. I even spiked the first Regionals I went to in 2000 and qualified for Nationals—I was very bad, but played a really good metagame deck and crushed Replenish like six times. After I played my first Nationals, I started going to PTQs." DeTora hit the Pro Tour three years later in Venice. She strung together regular Pro Tour appearances via a combination of PTQs and high rating until she stepped away from that aspect of the game in 2008 after Worlds.
"After I scrubbed out of Worlds I only had 12 Pro Points on the season, which got me nothing, and after a couple of failed attempts at qualifying again, I concentrated on real life and took a break," said DeTora, who never stopped playing the game. "I didn't actually quit Magic; I still drafted four (or more) times a week. I just stopped PTQing."
When the Planeswalker Points program was implemented, DeTora found herself being somewhat reluctantly reintroduced to competitive Magic, as she began traveling all around the world to almost every Grand Prix and striking up that competitive spark again.
"The PWP thing was not my idea, actually. James Searles realized that he could qualify for Honolulu if he went to the rest of the GPs for the year. I wasn't really interested, but he asked me to go with him anyway. I had just lost my job so I actually had nothing to do, so I agreed," said DeTora, who rapidly found her game returning from event to event. "I was really rusty at GP Milan. I made a lot of stupid mistakes. I was able to learn quickly from them and I could feel my play improving as the weeks went on. I felt like I played really well in Santiago, and I Top 4ed. After that tournament, I had the fire again. I started traveling to most US GPs, had a few money finishes, and won a PTQ for Barcelona. I only got 17 points on the year, though, so I wasn't qualified for anything else until the special invite.
"I had never been this motivated to do this well at a PT in my life," said DeTora of the special invite and the scrutiny that it brought on her performance. "I had to prove to Wizards that they were right in inviting me, and I had to prove that to the players who didn't agree with the invite. This was by far the hardest I've worked for a PT."
For the tournament, she worked with Hall of Famer Raphael Levy and a number of up-and-coming French players who have had GP success—Jérémy Dezani (won GP Lyon), Timothee Simonot (won GP London), Louis Deltour (Top 8 GP Bilbao), and Pierre Dagen (Top 8 GP Bochum)—as well as a returning Pro Tour Champion in Guillaume Wafo-Tapa. Other players who helped her prepare included Dustin Taylor and Jackie Lee.
"I got together with the French players a week before the PT," said DeTora of the testing process that would ultimately lead her Top 8 appearance. "We knew we wanted to beat aggro and midrange. We basically had two decks, Esper and Bant. The Bant deck just wasn't quite there—it had no Kessig Wolf Run at the time—and I didn't like the Esper deck because it always had the wrong answers at the wrong time. Some of the French players found a four-color midrange deck from one of the SCG Opens that played Kessig Wolf Run, and we decided to modify the Bant control deck to add Kessig Wolf Run. Once we decided that Kessig Wolf Run was amazing in Bant, we all worked together to tweak the deck and build the sideboard."
I have known DeTora for a long time, going back to my days as a tournament organizer when she was a regular at my PTQs, and I know that she wants to recognized for her accomplishments as a Magic player and not as a "female Magic player," but there is no denying her place in history and we discussed what it meant for her to be playing on Sunday.
"As much as I'd like to think that gender doesn't matter and I'm just like any other player, unfortunately, that's not the case," DeTora conceded. "Personally, this is my best finish ever, I'm really proud of myself for making Top 8, and I want to be treated like any other player. However, I understand that that's not going to happen and my gender is a thing. I realize that this is a huge thing for Magic history. Overall, I think it's good. Magic needed this to happen to grow as a game, and I'm really proud of myself that I was the one to do it.
"I got a lot of messages from female players who said I was an inspiration to them, and they were scared to play in GPs and PTQs before but are no longer scared," she continued. "I also got messages from guys/dads who said that their girlfriends/daughters were so excited that there was a female player doing well and couldn't stop watching the coverage all weekend, and they never cared about PT coverage before. A female player even approached me at GP Charlotte the next week and said that I was her hero. It definitely feels good to be someone's hero, and it feels amazing that something that I did was an inspiration to other female players."
Despite the weight of history, the real pressure for DeTora came from living up to her Pro Tour invitation.
"After I was 8–0, I did feel some extra pressure," she explained. "I had to prove that the 8–0 Day One wasn't a fluke. I didn't really think about the 'first female to Top 8 thing.' I was more focused on the 'I have to do well to prove the special invite was deserved.' The fact that I was going to make history didn't occur to me until I knew I was locked for Top 8 after Round 15."
So what do the next few months of Magic hold in store for her?
"My goal before this PT was to Top 25 so that I could qualify for Dragon's Maze and make Gold. However, this Top 8 exceeded that goal, as I am now locked for Gold for next year. Naturally, the next step is to try for Platinum, but that is a really hard goal to achieve with three GPs and a Pro Tour left. It's possible, so I'm going to try, for sure. My goal for next year is to win a GP. I've Top 8ed, so I need to win one now. My plans for the rest of the season are to go to GP San Diego, Pittsburgh, and Portland. If I spike San Diego or Pittsburgh, I'll probably go to the European one in April. Then, obviously, I'll be at PT Dragon's Maze in May."
DeTora is also one the co-authors of Ten Packs, a Gatecrash Drafting strategy guide along with other luminaries like Raphael Levy, LSV, and Tom Martell. It should be coming out by March 15 and you can find out more from her Facebook page.