When Japan's Naoki Nakada played Jace, the Mind Sculptor and used it to bounce Taufik Indrakesuma's freshly grown Emrakul, the Aeons Torn then swing in for the title of Grand Prix–Manila Champion we reached the unofficial halfway mark of the 2010 Pro Tour season. Two Pro Tours and twelve Grand Prix are in the books and the races for the Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year titles are starting to take shape. There is one more Pro Tour, the World Championships, and nine more Grand Prix coming up after the halftime entertainment to determine the outcome of those races—oh yeah, and the halftime entertainment as well. We are entering into Nationals season which can provide a valuable leg up in both of those races. Aaron Nicastri made the most of the Pro Points he earned by being a member of the Australian National team to win the Rookie of the Year title a couple of years back. Just last season Yuuya Watanabe's spot on his National team was the difference between—well, the difference between winning the title by one point and winning it by a dozen.
Let's take a look at the top of the leader board as the competitors pause to catch their breath before their National Championships. On the top of the standings is none other than Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa fresh off his sixth Pro Tour Top 8—and first Pro Tour trophy—in what is just a twenty-three event Pro Tour career. The bulk of Paulo's thirty-seven points, which gives him a five point cushion over his closest pursuant Tomoharu Saito, came from his win in San Juan (twenty-five points) and a Top 8 turn at Grand Prix–Houston (five points). Paulo's story is well chronicled at this point, as he was a dominant force in Brazilian Magic but did not begin traveling to Pro Tours until the airfare became a part of the prize several years back. He instantly became a Day 2 fixture and it was not long before he was playing on Sundays. It still took until last season for him to begin traveling to foreign Grand Prix, which when you live in South America is pretty much all of them.
He made the Top 8 of three of last season's events—including the one event in South America—which helped him reach Level 8 for the current season. Grand Prix events are going to play a big part of his 2010 season as he tries to renew his Level 8 membership and possibly win the Player of the Year title.
"My schedule for the second half of the year is pretty extensive," said the San Juan Champion. "I'm probably going to Columbus, then Gothenburg-Amsterdam-Portland, then Nationals, then maybe Sydney—still undecided on this one—then Nashville, and Worlds, so seven or eight important events. The next one will be Grand Prix–Columbus."
Paulo has made the Brazilian National team for three years running. He felt that extending his streak to four years, the Pro Points that come from those events, as well as the bonus points from playing in the Team Championships at Worlds would all be key to his pursuit of the title.
"I think I have to keep doing well, but that is kinda obvious," he replied when asked about the role of a National team berth in earning a Player of the Year Title. "I think doing well at Nationals would go a long way toward me being Player of the Year, too. It's very critical—it has the best value in terms of points/difficulty, at least for most places. Being in the Top 4 means you not only get the points for that, but you also get to battle for more points in the team portion—that is already more than Grand Prix, while being like ten times smaller. It's also very important to me because I think I want to be the World Team Champion more than I want to be Player of the Year—though one thing might lead to another."
Often when talking to the game's top players their year-end focus will be on securing the highest level they can in the Player's Club to assure the highest level of benefits for the following season. There is no real monetary difference between being Level 8 and winning the title so would it mean anything to a pragmatic player such as Paulo?
"The Player of the Year title does have meaning to me, because it is something very special—only around ten people in the world have ever been, after all," answered Paulo. "It is also very imposing to say you were the Player of the Year and it would make me happy to finally take it away from Japan."
Hot on Paulo's heels is one of Japan's former Player of the Year winners, Tomoharu Saito. Japan has won the Player of the Year title for the last five seasons, starting with Kenji Tsumura during the 2005 season. While Japanese players have won five Player of the Year titles, none of them have won it twice. Saito is looking to change that. Paulo viewed Saito as the player most likely to be able to pass him due to the Japanese player's legendary tournament stamina. There has barely been a weekend for the past few years where Saito has not been playing Magic. There was one season where he actually missed a couple of Grand Prix events but that was only because he could not be on two continents at the same time.
"I have to hope that none of the people who have a lot of points do exceedingly well in something," said Paulo, adding, "especially Saito since he is already second and travels to everything."
Saito does not have any exceptional finishes yet this season. He has made the Top 8 of a pair of Grand Prix—in Oakland and Madrid. He bides his time while he grinds out event after event picking up whatever points he can manage. Maybe he will repeat the end of last season: he went on a run when he kept tinkering with his Zoo lists and piling up Grand Prix Top 8s in the Extended format. When the Hall of Fame ballots go out this summer Saito's name will be on them for the first time as he is playing his tenth season on the Pro Tour and has become eligible. He is one of two players on the top of the standings that could also be on stage at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Chiba this winter—and one of three players currently playing some of the best Magic of their lives.
According to Brian Kibler, who is currently tied for seventh place in the standings, Saito is a man on a mission.
"I know Saito is planning on going to every single event," said the Pro Tour–Austin Champion. "He has his sights set on Player of the Year and he'll be hard for anyone to catch."
While the first two players in the race will show up at virtually every event for the rest of the season the third place hopeful knows he will need to do very well in another large event if he is going to return the Player of the Year trophy to Germany (where it had taken up a long term lease when Kai Budde would win it year in and year out).
Simon Görtzen earned the bulk of his thirty-one points as the winner of the first Pro Tour of the 2010 season in San Diego and will not be getting nearly as many stamps in his passport as some of the other players in the race.
"The next large event I am going to attend is German Nationals, immediately followed by Grand Prix–Gothenburg and Pro Tour–Amsterdam on consecutive weekends," said Simon of his itinerary. "After that I am planning to play the remaining two European Grand Prix, Bochum and Florence, but none of the North American ones or Sydney. Of course I will attend Worlds in Chiba, which means my remaining schedule consists of Nationals, three Grand Prix and two Pro Tours."
With such a reduced travel schedule—if you can consider bouncing around to five European events before jetting off to Japan a reduced schedule—Simon knows that he will likely need to win another Pro Tour to earn the title. He would be doing it in true Kai Budde style if the race plays out that way.
"Becoming the Player of the Year would mean very much to me. However, there are a lot of people more deserving of this title. They are the players that really go the whole distance, attending every Grand Prix and basically devoting everything to playing this game at the highest professional level," said Simon. "There are a number of very good reasons keeping me away from this level of commitment, but this is not something I regret. In fact, I am happy for every single player that reaches Level 8 at the end of the season—in the long run, a strong number of high-level pros is much more important than the race towards the Player of the Year title."
Simon knows that there are two more points each waiting for him at registration for Pro Tour–Amsterdam and Worlds. Beyond those minimum assurances an additional five points would get him to Level 7 and fifteen would get him into the elite lounge with the other Level 8 players.
"In this regard the points given out at Nationals are comparable to a very solid Pro Tour finish," said the San Diego Champion of his upcoming National Championships. "My goal is to improve on my last year finish, where I came in 12th. If I can make the German National Team, Level 8 is not out of the question."
Regardless of what happens, Simon has gone from being an anonymous pro prior to the start of the season to one of the few players in the game who can say they have won a Pro Tour title. With that trophy comes some of the hidden obligations of notoriety—not that Simon is complaining.
"I did have a great time at Grand Prix–Washington though, talking to a lot of incredibly friendly players while signing a never ending stream of playmats," he said. "I tried to carry as much of the positive vibe I experienced there to San Juan, which definitely helped me at the Pro Tour to turn things around after a 0-2 start."
Simon managed to claw his way back up from the bottom tables to finish in 39th place in San Juan, which was good for $1,000 and five precious Pro Points.
Right behind Simon in the standings is his opponent from the finals of Pro Tour–San Diego, Kyle Boggemes. Somewhat lost in the understandable excitement over Brad Nelson's win at Grand Prix–Washington D.C. was Kyle's second Premier Event Top 8 of the season which gave him six points and propelled him to the front half of the pack.
Kyle will be hitting the Grand Prix circuit and Nationals in an attempt to nab at least two more points before his next Pro Tour stop.
"I will be attending Grand Prix–Columbus, U.S. Nationals, PT–Amsterdam, Grand Prix–Nashville, Grand Prix–Portland, Grand Prix–Toronto, and Worlds," said the San Diego finalist. "Nationals is very important because I only have that tournament and Grand Prix–Columbus to get two points before Amsterdam. I currently have twenty-eight points so the difference between Level 5 and 6 is 1,000 dollars."
While he is focused on those two extra points, he would love to be last player standing at the end of the race.
"I would love to be Player of the Year, it would validate all of the time I have put into the game," said Kyle, who was not expecting to be commenting on his Player of the Year chances at the start of this whirlwind season. "The weirdest thing that has happened to me was making Top 8 at a Pro Tour. I never could have expected that."
Tied for fifth place behind Kyle is Grand Prix–Houston winner Adam Yurchick and Grand Prix–Washington D.C. winner Brad Nelson both with twenty-five points. Brad picked up the bulk of his points in a one week span that saw him win the Grand Prix and then earn his first Pro Tour Top 8 berth—almost exactly one year after his Pro Tour debut that saw him finish 9th in Honolulu. I asked Brad about his travel schedule but he did not know exactly what events he would be attending. His plan was to use the WWLSVD strategy—What would LSV do?
"I will be attending everything Luis Scott-Vargas tells me to play in," said the Grand Prix–D.C. Champion. "I will be going to the Grand Prix in Columbus at the end of July and see what happens from there. Luis knows the value of Pro Points better than I do and so it will just be better if he decides what is most profitable. If I had to guess, I will be playing in between four and eight Grand Prix, Nationals, the Pro Tour and Worlds."
Brad, who recently wrote a tremendous article on ChannelFireball.com about playing process-oriented Magic and his mental approach to the game, explained how it has allowed him to focus on the immediate task at hand: winning the game, playing the best possible Magic in the game he is playing, and not focusing on where you finish. He is taking a similar approach to the Player of the Year race.
"It would be a title I am not ready to shoot for," explained Brad. "There are too many good players trying to achieve this that it is not a goal of mine. My goal is Level 7 with a chance at 8. I will not be traveling as much as some players to get the (number of points) needed to get there. Rookie of the Year was a possibility for me last year. I thought it was icing on the cake if I got to Level 6 and won Rookie of the Year. That is the same way I look at this season."
Brad followed up his Pro Tour–Honolulu debut last season with a 4th place finish at U.S. Nationals—just one match win away from making the National team and all the extra points that come with it.
"Nationals would be a big part in getting to Level 8," said Brad. "There are so many Pro Points up for grabs if you make the team. Missing out on the team last year cost me Level 6. I will be taking that tournament very seriously."
Regardless of what happens the rest of the way this season, Brad is having a great time and has become one of the most well-known players in the game rather quickly. Getting to know the players he was following from home until last season has been a big part of that fun.
Tomoharu ... Nelson?
"During the Player Party in San Juan I ran into Tomoharu Saito outside," Brad recalled. "I have not gotten to know many Japanese players yet and never knew how funny they were. He saw me, then immediately turned towards me and pointed. Then, with all of his voice, he screamed," CHAMPION!" While screaming this he made the pose I did for the trophy picture. Then he swayed his head back and forth making the sound of a cheering crowd. It was amazing!"
Until recently Adam Yurchick was used to just missing the cut. Whether it was placing 9th at Pro Tour–Hollywood or his second place finishes at Grand Prix–Philadelphia, last season's U.S. Nationals, or this season's Grand Prix–Oakland. He finally broke the curse—if that's what you want to call three second place finishes against the game's toughest competition—in Grand Prix–Houston.
That win and his second place finish in Oakland make up the bulk of Adam's twenty-four Pro Points but don't expect Adam to be showing up in Sydney chasing down a couple of extra points like some of the other players who are bunched up in the race with him.
"I will be attending the remaining two Pro Tours, Nationals, and I am planning on attending the remaining four American Grand Prix," said the Houston Champion when asked to assess his Player of the Year chances. "I might go to Europe early and attend Gothenburg, but that's still up in the air. So seven or eight more events. The next one is Grand Prix–Columbus in my quasi-hometown, and I expect to win. I'm not going to go crazy globetrotting like some other people, so I'll need to put up some very strong Pro Tour finishes to take it down. Winning Player of the Year would definitely be amazing, but to be honest it doesn't have that much allure for me at this point, and I know I don't want it as bad as other people do."
While Adam would love to repeat—or even exceed—his finish at last year's Nationals, he cautioned people who were counting on those Pro Points when laying out their season's plans.
"Nationals is a really tough tournament so I think it's a big mistake for someone to treat it as points in the bag," said Adam. "There is a nice opportunity for some extra points to people who finish well. Getting second last year put me right into Level 4."
Right behind Yurchick and Nelson is a scrum of players that make up the remainder of the top 10 in this year's race. Luis-Scott Vargas, and former Player of the Year winners Shouta Yasooka and Yuuya Watanabe shared a tie for seventh place with potential Hall of Famer Brian Kibler. Up until the last few weeks Kibler's start to the 2010 season was, in his own words, "uninspiring." But after a three-week jaunt he finds himself right in the thick of things.
"To be honest, I haven't given Player of the Year that much thought," said Kibler when asked about winning the race. "I guess finishing 17th, 1st, and 16th in three straight Grand Prix is worth a decent chunk of points! It would be amazing to win, but it'll be hard to compete unless I put up some impressive Pro Tour results or go on a Watanabe-like Grand Prix tear. I plan on attending all of the North American Grand Prix, and I'll certainly be at Grand Prix–Gothenburg the week before Pro Tour–Amsterdam. Depending on what my point total looks like toward the end of the year, I may hit up some of the European Grand Prix, but I'm not terribly excited about the prospect of playing sealed deck with 2000+ of my closest friends. The next event I'm playing is Grand Prix–Columbus. I've only played Legacy once before, but I'm hoping to put in some serious study before then and post a good finish! I wish there were more Grand Prix in Asia—I've had a blast on both of my trips there so far this year."
Like Tomoharu Saito, Kibler could be inducted into the Hall of Fame this season. He has been eligible for induction since before he returned to the game but came up short in the balloting. Of course that was before multiple Grand Prix Top 8s, two Pro Tour Top 8s—including his win in Austin—and becoming one of the most visible and popular weekly columnists about the game. I know he is going to be on my ballot along with Nassif and Saito with two additional votes yet to be determined.
"I'd be lying if I said the Hall of Fame wasn't a big part of why I came back to competitive Magic," admitted the Pro Tour–Austin and Grand Prix–Sendai Champion. "I knew my results from before weren't good enough to earn a place in the Hall, and I also knew that I could do better. Magic, and even the Pro Tour specifically, has been a huge part of my life—I played in the first Pro Tour when I was fifteen years old, and I turn thirty just after Pro Tour–Amsterdam this year. I have traveled the world, met many of my lifelong best friends, and even built my career, all as a result of my involvement in this game. Being inducted into the Hall of Fame would serve as an indication that I have left my mark on the game that has played such a huge role in my life."
That's a quick look at the top 10 players in the standings and where you might find them playing for the remainder of the season. There is still plenty of Magic left to be played and the only thing that would surprise me is if the second half of the season held no surprises. Tune in next week when we catch up on the Rookie of the Year race!