It is pretty rare that I get to write on-theme with the rest of the regular columnists, but as I prepared to write about this year's winners of the Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year trophies I could not avoid the theme even if I wanted to. Neither Player of the Year winner Owen Turtenwald nor Rookie of the Year winner Matthias Hunt came out of the very first event of the 2011 season with a win, but for each of them it was crucial step along the way to winning their respective trophies.
Owen Turtenwald had already begun his transformation in the middle of the 2010 season when he became a part of the ChannelFireball.com team that was a dominant force throughout the 2011 season right through their spectacular end to the year—a dominance that Owen has played no small role in himself. For those of you who have not paid any attention to competitive Magic over the past few seasons and might not know who or what being a member of Team Channel Fireball means, just look at some of the game's biggest names who work with the team: Luis Scott-Vargas, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Brian Kibler, Martin Juza, Shuhei Nakamura, Ben Stark, Conley Woods, Brad Nelson, Josh Utter-Leyton, David Ochoa... and, of course Owen Turtenwald.
"I started to play with CFB at PT Amsterdam," recalled Owen of how he came to join up with the juggernaut Magic team. "I was in another country, alone, and had no deck for the PT. I asked LSV if I could test with them and we all ended up getting along really well together. I didn't make Day 2 of that PT, but I Top 50ed Worlds and then the next event was GP Atlanta and it just snowballed from there."
It is a team full of players who know what they are talking about when it comes to the game of Magic and none of them are shy about sharing that knowledge.
"You are constantly getting feedback from really smart people with different perspectives," said Owen, who had more than just his game transformed in that kiln as he went from being the best player in his PTQ circuit to someone with barely the resume of the big names on the squad. "Everyone in the group has their own style and thinks about the game differently. [It is] so good to have your ideas get challenged."
When the 2011 season started at that first Grand Prix in Atlanta, the format was Extended and the team began their pattern of having the best deck and dominating. For the most part the team played Faeries with Vampire Nighthawks in the sideboard. When Day One came to a close, Owen was 9-0 while Scott-Vargas, Ochoa, and Utter-Leyton were all 8-1.
"It was just luck that I made Top 8 with the deck and none of them did," said Turtenwald of the start of a record-breaking Grand Prix season that would see him go on to make the Top 8 of a GP six more times. It may have been unlucky that his teammates missed the Top 8, but Owen clearly showed that his Top 8 was anything but luck.
Owen won the Player of the Year title after being forced to sit on the sidelines at Worlds, needing the likes of Luis Scott-Vargas, Josh Utter-Leyton, and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa not to advance past the quarterfinals. Owen has likely been interviewed more times in the past two weeks than in his entire career leading up to Worlds.
"This year has just been amazing. I don't really know what else to say about it," said Owen, who has never failed to take the chance to share the spotlight with his teammates. "It's a relief to see my hard work finally paying off. It's been said before, but it's the truth: I wouldn't have had anywhere near the amount of success I've had this year if it wasn't for LSV and the whole team. Without them I wouldn't have had good decks at all the Constructed tournaments and I wouldn't have improved my drafting like I have. I can only hope that they have gained as much from playing with me as I have from them."
After Atlanta the team headed to Paris where they dominated the Pro Tour with the new and improved Caw-Blade that put Tom Martell and Ben Stark into the Top 8—and that Ben won with—as well as placing four more players in the Top 16. One of those players was Owen, earning the best PT finish of his young career. The deck became a demon of the Standard format and eventually got two cards banned. As dominant as the deck would become, on the eve of Pro Tour Paris it was still an unknown quantity.
"Well that's kind of funny, actually," laughed Owen about his confidence level in the deck heading into the first PT of the season. "I'm sort of the big skeptic on the team who always thinks that all our decks are bad up until the point when I know they are good. So I was on the fence about Caw-Blade until about 11 p.m. the night before."
Two events into the year found Owen Turtenwald and Ben Stark out in front of the Player of the Year hunt. Owen had the Top 8 and the Top 16 while Ben had finished second in Atlanta and now won Pro Tour Paris. They would remain neck and neck right down to the last event of the season but Owen says their was never any rivalry between the two.
"I have a lot of respect for Ben and he has a funny way of looking about things and he always found a way to remind us that Player of the Year is a marathon and it lasts all year. So having an early lead only means you had the best results in two months, not twelve," said Owen, who continued to post results with his dominating Grand Prix performances, including getting two more GP Top 8s in Santiago and San Diego to close out the season.
Despite having the Player of the Year trophy on his mantle, there is still some unfinished business that is fueling his competitive fire. He became the first player to win the trophy without having a Pro Tour Top 8, and he still has yet to win all three single-elimination matches in one of his eleven career Grand Prix Top 8 appearances to rack up a GP win. I asked him how badly he wanted to cross those two items off his to-do list.
"More than you will ever know," he said simply.
As Grand Prix Atlanta kicked off the new year, eventual Rookie of the Year winner Matthias Hunt was a dominant PTQ player who was heading to Pro Tour Paris courtesy of a PTQ win in Madison. Before the 2011 season he had played in only two Limited Grand Prix, missing the cut to Day Two each time. Despite that, he came into Atlanta with some pretty lofty goals.
"Winning Rookie of the Year was one of my goals even before the season had started, though it felt like a distant goal up until Pro Tour Nagoya," admitted Hunt. "I wanted to make 2011 "my year." I knew I was aiming high, but I figured I would try and win Rookie of the Year and, in the event that I didn't win, I was hoping to get myself up to Level 3 or 4 on the Pro Tour."
Grand Prix Atlanta proved to be transformative for Hunt, as the deck he built for the event—a Valakut combo creation that played Prismatic Omen and Scapeshift—not only carried him deep into Day Two but also nabbed the first trophy of the season for his friend Jason Ford. The deck's success stoked the fires of his ambition and gave him the confidence he needed heading into a long Pro Tour season that would not see him secure the Rookie of the Year title until the middle of the day on the last Sunday of the tournament year.
"It's one thing when you do well with a deck you created, but it's something else when you see lots of other people do the same. There were more than a few players from Minnesota who, along with myself, made their first Grand Prix Day Twos that weekend with our deck," said Hunt of that fateful Valakut deck from the start of the season. "In the end it took the hands of a more experienced player to pilot the deck to the championship, but the results were still clear. Along with Kyle Stoll, the deck's co-creator, I had been able to actually figure out a format as well as anyone out there. It made me trust my own results and made both of us eager to try and break other formats that year."
Hunt went on to make the Top 32 of Pro Tour Paris and came back to the States with the early lead in the Rookie of the Year race—a lead he did not expect to hold onto until he was able to repeat his Paris performance at the very next Pro Tour.
"I had assumed that during the summer I would be passed by a slew of players from smaller countries who had won their national championships. After Pro Tour Nagoya, where I got 22nd, I suddenly had enough points that I realized I might be able to stay ahead of the pack if I made it to enough tournaments," said Hunt, who had suddenly posted back-to-back Top 32 finishes at the Pro Tour level after years of PTQ play. "I think the only tournament that I ended up going to that wasn't initially on my schedule was Grand Prix Montreal. I ended up getting 18th, which was good for what turned out to be a very relevant two points."
Every point ended up counting for the title by the time the race came down to the World Championships. Hunt and Germany's Fabian Thiele were jockeying back and forth throughout the tournament, and as Team Norway surged to the top of the team standings, Sveinung Bjørnerud made it a three-horse race. Thiele fell 1 point shy of a share of the lead and on Sunday Hunt took a front row seat to watch Team Japan take the trophy from Norway to win the title by a 1-point margin. A Norwegian victory would have meant a tie.
"I thought I had lost it during the Swiss rounds," said Hunt of his shiny new trophy. "With three rounds to go I was behind Fabian Thiele in the standings AND he had a lead of two pro points on me. Not to mention that Norway was starting to do very well in the team competition. I knew that I needed to go 3-0 to have a chance, and even then it could be out of my hands. I ended up playing Thiele's roommate in the match that pretty much decided it, with Thiele watching. I learned after Game 1 that Thiele had lost his round, which meant that this one was for the title. When you are that close to something big it can make you play very well or very poorly. Fortunately for me it was the former. The team rounds the following day were easier since I knew I had a share of the title. If Norway had won then I was ready to battle at Pro Tour Dark Ascension."
When he is not slinging Magic cards, Hunt can be found teaching math back in St. Paul, Minnesota. I asked him if any of his students were aware of his new Magic hardware at all.
"When I got home from California I had a lot of messages from former students who had been following the World Championships online," said Hunt. "In addition to being congratulatory a lot of them were pretty surprised. I got a lot of responses along the lines of 'I didn't know you played Magic. You must be pretty good or something.' I'm not sure if any of my current students play Magic, though last spring I had a student who 'found me out' over the internet. He wanted to know what my favorite colors and my favorite card were. I told him that I like green-blue and that my favorite card is Goldenglow Moth because 'life gain is hilarious.' I don't think that was the answer he was expecting."
After all those late-night trips home from a PTQ with the blue envelope in someone else's hands, Hunt had fulfilled his goal from the start of this season. Three Pro Tour Top 32 finishes and seven Grand Prix Day Twos later, he was the Rookie of the Year with a new season looming on the horizon. Is making a Top 8 on his list of New Year's resolutions?
"During the year that I was grinding PTQs it took me eight Top 8 appearances until I was finally able to get the envelope. What changed wasn't so much how I was playing but instead what my expectations were. I stopped feeling a sense of victory just from making it into the Top 8; I needed more. I don't think one can play every event this way, but right now I would say that success for me at a Grand Prix is nothing short of making it into the Top 8. Only time will tell..."
It has been a long year, but personally I can't wait for the next one to get here—at Grand Prix Austin in January—to see what these two trophy winners have in store.