Hall of Fame Calisthenics

Posted in The Week That Was on June 22, 2012

By Brian David-Marshall

Early next week, the ballots for the 2012–13 class of the Pro Tour Hall of Fame will be going out to both the player and selection committees to determine who will be enshrined alongside the likes of Jon Finkel, Kai Budde, and dozens of the game's best and brightest. This year's ballot is a challenging mix of players looking to improve on last year's near misses, like Patrick Chapin and William Jensen, and players new to the ballot like Masashi Oiso, Kenji Tsumura, and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa.

We will be talking much more about the Hall of Fame over the coming months and you can expect to see a lot of discussion about people's ballots in various columns and on social media—the Twitter hashtag is #MTGHoF. And even if you don't have a ballot you can still chime in to the discussion.

I wanted to step back from the narrow focus of this year's ballot and take a broader view of the five all-time greatest players to sit down at a Pro Tour Feature Match table. There is a consensus that the best two players of all time are Jon Finkel and Kai Budde, although they jostle back and forth for the top slot depending on whose opinion you ask. Things get trickier once you get below that level, though. At one time, the third player in that elite class was easily Bob Maher, but as a new generation of players mount absurd finishes he is not even on everyone's Top 5 list anymore.

I decided to reach out to a decidedly non-scientific sampling of players, commentators, and Hall of Famers for their Top 5 players to try and sort it out. I assigned 5 points for a first-place vote, 4 points for second, and so on, to determine the power ranking for the Top 5. I will also include some of the reasoning that respondents included when they made their Top 5 selections.

Jon Finkel

#1—Jon Finkel narrowly edged out Kai Budde for the top spot, but multiple people—including Jon—chose not to rank them beyond saying they occupied the top two spots in the history of the game. One person who chose Finkel was Pro Tour observer Tim Aten:

Finkel vs. Kai has been a heated debate for over ten years now. Consensus seemed to be that Finkel has more natural talent, whereas Kai's hard work yielded his outstanding (and arguably better) results. Finkel has more Pro Tour Top 8s; Kai, more wins. Ultimately, it seemed like the only people who really put Finkel ahead of Kai were his friends and admirers from the NY/NJ area as well as other assorted patriotic Americans. I couldn't really decide, but gun to head, I would have had to pick Kai.

In 2008, the momentum shifted. I was duly impressed when Finkel came back many years after his gravy train run to win Pro Tour Kuala Lumpur. That in itself might not have been quite enough to push him past Kai, but then this year Finkel got two more Top 8s in back-to-back PTs! Even though Kai still has four more wins, it's hard not to give the edge to Finkel... for now.

Pro Tour Berlin Champion Luis Scott-Vargas also had Finkel in first place by the narrowest of margins:

I have Jon slightly edging out Kai on raw skill, but I'd question the credentials of anyone who doesn't think these are the two best players Magic‘s ever seen."

Kai Budde

#2—Kai Budde was just edged out by Finkel but there were plenty of advocates for him occupying the number-one spot. Even Finkel was loathe to put himself ahead of Budde—although he didn't put himself behind him either.

First-time Hall of Fame nominee Kenji Tsumura felt there was one thing that made Budde stand head and shoulders above the other possible candidates:

He is the best player in Magic history and he is my hero. He won Pro Tour Chicago 2002, which was my first PT. I watched him through the weekend [and] realized that Magic is a skill game. I wanted to be the best player like Kai, but I realized that no one gets seven wins at the Pro Tour except Kai.

Gabriel Nassif

#3—After the top two spots things get a little more interesting, with several different players getting third-place votes, but in the end it was the two-time Pro Tour Champion and nine-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Gabriel Nassif who ended up solidly in third place—something Jon Finkel referred to as "obvious."

If not for Gabriel Nassif, it might well be Luis Scott-Vargas, who is a two-time Pro Tour Champion. He explained:

Nassif excels in both the deck builder and player category, even going so far as to win Player of the Year in the same year that Nicolai Herzog won two Pro Tours. I'm still convinced that I would have been the winner of Pro Tour Kyoto had just about anyone else been playing that Game 4 (worth a watch, if I do say so myself). Nassif just makes plays that nobody else would and is always one of the most difficult players to play against."

Pro Tour Hall of Famer Nassif got a fourth place vote from my boothmate, Pro Tour Statistician Richard Hagon, who had a surprising choice for number one that we will get to shortly:

My number four is easy—Gabriel Nassif. Stupid numbers of Top 8s, staggering will to win, and plenty of winning despite playing other games for a living.

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa

#4—First-time Hall of Fame nominee Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa was right behind Nassif with the second highest number of third-place votes—also known as virtual first place votes when you discount the Jon/Kai layup. He was the only player other than Jon or Kai to receive an actual first place vote as well. The startling ballot was cast by none other than the aforementioned Pro Tour Statistician:

I don't think you have to wait for him to play for five more years and have fifteen Top 8s—my number one is Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. His ratio of PTs played [to] Top 8s is ridiculous, and I do believe making a PT Top 8 is harder now than it once was—so many more players are better prepared, and have worthy decks.

For Tim Aten—who knows a thing or two about writing about Magic—the allure of PV goes beyond the convention centers where he plies his trade:

In addition, he might be the greatest strategy writer of all time. Through his articles, you can easily ascertain his intimate understanding of all the facets of competitive play. If you want to get better at Magic, my advice is to watch someone better than you play and to read PV's work.

Fellow first-time ballot member Kenji Tsumura was in agreement with Aten and put Paulo in the "legend class" alongside Jon and Kai.

He is the most skillful player in the world right now. I usually don't read his feature match report because I know he usually wins most [of] his matches. In addition, he is the greatest writer I have ever seen. His articles are very useful and sometimes funny.

Finally, his teammate Luis Scott-Vargas had this to say:

Paulo is the player on this list I've played the most with and against, by an extremely wide margin. We have playtested together for years, and after watching countless matches as both a spectator and an opponent, I'm firmly convinced that he belongs in the Top 5. His technical play and theoretical grasp of Magic are incredibly good, and I certainly owe a lot of my success to how much I played with him. Luckily, his nine Pro Tour Top 8s make that a pretty easy argument to make, even for those who haven't seen PV play hundreds of hours of Magic.

Bob Maher

#5—Bob Maher, once the de facto third best player in the history of the game, managed to remain in the Top 5 despite being pushed down two notches by a pair of players with NINE Pro Tour Top 8s apiece. The Pro Tour Chicago champion still pulled down a number of third-place votes from the players who had a chance to see him exhibit his mastery of the game up close and personal.

His fellow Pro Tour Hall of Famer Rob Dougherty explained that Bob Maher played not only the game at the highest level, but also played his opponents:

Obviously the [suspension] is a blemish, but the man's play was incredibly precise, and his complete knowledge of the game was insane. He could tell at a glance at the back of a card what set it was from, he could tell by the position of the stamp what pick you took a draft card, and he could get in his opponent's head simply by speeding up his pace of play.

Jon Finkel also had The Great One on that tough fifth spot, narrowly edging out another Hall of Famer, Zvi Mowshowitz:

Bob had the ability to be "more confidently wrong" than anyone I've ever met. I've seen people misplay against him because on the rare occasions he'd misplay, they'd assume something was up. Even when he noticed it—not a flicker would appear on his face.

Jon went on to explain that great players—himself included—are often ego driven to point out their own mistakes so no one will think they missed it. In Jon's opinion, that would often compound the error by giving away information, and Maher was one of the rare players not guilty of that crime.

Veteran writer, player, and commentator Adrian Sullivan had Maher in the Top 3 of all-time and could not distill the 4th and 5th place finishers from a list of more than a dozen contenders. He also pointed to Maher's mental game as a reason for why he was a clear third:

I can tell you that even when he's not playing, his ability to just read a game to its core is shocking. GGsLive was covering an event and brought Bob into the booth during a Sam Black match. Bob knew that Sam was bluffing (shown to be true as coverage resolved) AND pointed out three errors that Sam had made that turn that were all subtle but decreased the potential EV of the game. Rashad asked Bob if Bob had been over at the match previously, and Bob said, "No, I just sat down." Everything Bob said in that instant ended up being correct and played out on camera.

Honorable mentions right below the Top 5 go to Kenji Tsumura, Masashi Oiso, and Luis Scott-Vargas.

Kenji Tsumura, Masashi Oiso, and Luis Scott-Vargas

Pro Tour Venice Champion Osyp Lebedowicz picked Kenji Tsumura with one of his five precious votes and explained:

I think Kenji is number five because even though he doesn't have the resume as the others (wins), I got the same sense of inevitability watching him play. He also had Jordan-esque moments like in Geneva when he just [rattled off] twelve straight wins to come out of nowhere and make Top 8, or when he just said "I'm going to be good at Limited now," spent a year practicing, and then dominated the drafts.

Kenji Tsumura pointed out Masashi Oiso as being in the Top 5 as the top player to come out of Japan with a Rookie of the Year title, being the first Japanese player to have multiple Pro Tour Top 8s, and for influencing a generation of Magic players.

He is the best Japanese player in Magic history. There are so many good players in Japan like Tsuyoshi Fujita, Itaru Ishida, Katsuhiro Mori, and Shouta Yasooka, but Oiso changed everything about Japanese Magic. Who could expect a local player to take the Rookie of the Year and keep making Top 8s?

He didn't have a good testing group but he made a lot of brilliant results by his efforts. We learned from him we can win PTs if we make enough effort. A good example is PT San Diego 2004. He just practiced on Magic Online every day, and he made Top 8. I didn't realize Magic Online was good practice for the Pro Tour.

Kenji also explained that Oiso never made excuses for his losses. Instead of blaming mana flood or screw, Oiso always looked for reasons why he lost that were within his control and for ways to improve his results. Pro Tour Hall of Famer Shuhei Nakamura shared Kenji's opinion that Oiso was a Top 5 talent.

Oiso is the best Japanese player in all time.

Jon Finkel has Luis Scott-Vargas in his Top 5 for not only his play but how he has transformed the competitive landscape of the Pro Tour. He ticked off the reasons:

  • Best player now.
  • Great results that speak for themselves.
  • Head of the team that really redefined "team" in the modern era.

Tim Aten explained that while LSV is a pillar of the Magic community, that almost distracts from how good Luis really is at playing Magic:

There was a several year stretch (2008 to 2011–12) where Luis's median PT finish was about 10th. That's the kind of stat that will get you banned from PT fantasy drafts. The most telling evidence about Luis's otherworldly skill, however, is gleaned from simply watching him fling spells. Not only does he play as close to perfectly as one could reasonably hope from a human being taking on an incredibly complicated game, he does it with astonishing speed. Mere words can't do it justice; I really recommend you watch him play (with actual cardboard) for yourself. If he can avoid loose drafting and occasionally forgetting to play a land, he's basically unstoppable.

Who do you think the Top 5 players of all time are? Head to the forums and share your lists. Also feel free to start talking about the Hall of Fame on Twitter using the #MTGHoF hashtag. Next week we will return to your regularly scheduled preview cards.

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