One of the things I enjoy looking at after a major event is to look beyond the Top 8 at the players who finished just on the wrongside of the cut. I have always felt that close finishes bear closer scrutiny and are usually leading indicators of future success. If you look at the Top 16 finishes from the last Pro Tour–Honolulu, there are at least two names that leap out in hindsight as pretty major players but were not prominent in the weeks after that event. Guillaume Wafo-Tapa would not emerge as one of the game's top players until 2007 when he won Pro Tour–Yokohama (over this past weekend's winner Mitamura in the Finals) but if you were paying attention to Top 16 finishes you might have caught a glimpse of him coming on fast in the game's rear-view mirror. The same is true of Makihito Mihara, who kicked off the 2006 season on the outside of the Top 8 looking in with his 13th place Honolulu finish but ended the season on top of the World as he beat Ryo Ogura in the Finals of the World Championships in Paris.
This past weekend you could not help but be impressed with the performance of Brad Nelson, who ended up in 9th place on the wrong side of a hard cut to a Top 8. Randy and I have often talked about "virtual" Top 8 finishes on the Pro Tour. These are finishes where a player has the same match record as someone who finishes in the Top 8 but misses the cut on tiebreakers. This was not the case for Brad as he was the highest finishing player with 36 points (a 12-4 record) but the lowest total in the Top 8 was 37 points. You may recall that a couple of weeks back I featured some Shards of Alara Block Constructed PE winning decklists by an unnamed online player known as FFfreaK. I wondered in that article if the player was qualfied for Honolulu. That Magic Online prodigy turned out to be Brad, who ended up making his PT debut this past weekend.
While this was Brad's first PT he had made the coverage for a live event once before when he rattled off a 7-0 finish in the Limited portion of U.S. Nationals in 2007. (Also rattling off 7-0 Limited finishes that weekend were eventual LI author Steve Sadin and Jim Davis, who finished this past weekend with the best record in the ten Constructed rounds out of anyone in the tournament.) Luis Scott-Vargas, who started his career off as a Magic Online prodigy as well, won that National Championship and was the first Pro Tour opponent of Brad Nelson's career. I caught up with the 23-year-old student and Magic Online grinder from Bismark, North Dakota to talk to him about Magic, the Pro Tour, and how he got started playing the game.
"In 10th grade, my friend and current roommate Bill Lies asked me if I would like to play a card game with him," recalled Brad of his introduction to the game. "Two hours later I had spent $200 dollars on booster boxes and have been hooked ever since."
He played the game solely with physical cards for the first two years but with a dearth of players in his local area to play with and learn from, he turned to the digital version of the game.
"I started an account and lost a lot, but what I gained was a very fast learning curve and about a year later was profiting on MTGO," he said of his transition from Brad to FFfreaK.
"I play tournaments at Paradox Comics and Cards," said Brad when asked about his ratio of real-life Magic as compared to online play. "They run awesome tournaments and give away decent prizes. Brian Hellevang is the best judge ever and he gave me an amazing disco velociraptor t-shirt. I play a lot of Thursday Night Drafts and random cash or box tournaments on Saturdays. Still, I probably play five times more on Magic Online. Most of my testing comes online. The community is so vast that you can get so much more done online than anywhere else."
Bolstered by his ascent up the learning curve, Brad decided to try his hand again at the physical game and steeper competition.
"I never played in any major event yet. I knew I was getting better at the game and decided to try my luck at Regionals during the Dragonstorm season," Brad said of his Premier Event debut. "Tulio Juady had worked on a Hatching Plans / Ignite Memories storm deck that was really well positioned in the metagame. I took that to my first Regionals and walked out with an invite to Nationals."
Brad would end up in 16th place at that Nationals, largely on the back of his 7-0 finish in Limited and a 3-4 finish in Constructed.
"At the time I really liked Rakdos Aggro," said Brad of his Constructed deck choice from that tournament. "I tested a lot online and felt I had an edge in the metagame. The week before U.S. Nationals, Rakdos won Australian Nationals. It became slightly more hated, but without much testing with other decks I still ran it in there to an unimpressive 3-4 finish. I still count that weekend as my first real taste of competitive Magic. After that I wanted to get really good at the game, so I started to evaluate my whole game. I could have won more games if I was more familiar with playing Magic in the real world."
Brad began his attempts to reach the Pro Tour after that and tried his hand in nearly a dozen PTQs before finally being able to book a ticket for Honolulu. Despite making the Top 8 of roughly three quarters of those events, he never even won a Top 8 match until he won his PTQ for Honolulu.
"Hawaii was just a bonus," said Brad when asked if the tropical locale was an incentive to win. "All I wanted was to get on the tour—I felt ready and wanted to see what I could do. I played Tezzerator all season, and at the PTQ, because it had decent matchups, but most importantly it had great matchups when people didn't playtest against the deck."
With his blue envelope in his pocket, Brad returned to his preferred stomping grounds to prepare for his PT debut.
"I did a lot of testing for the Pro Tour on MTGO, mostly Limited because I thought it would be my weakest format," he admitted. "I also played around with several archetypes in the early PEs of Shards of Alara Block. Angry Face was based around a failed design that used Lorescale Coatle, Lord of Extinction, and Drastic Revelation. The deck was a flop, but what I learned was how to get a fourth color into Jund. Sedraxis Specter was a perfect fit. I thought 50 percent of the meta would involve mainstream MTGO archetypes: Jund and Four-Color Cascade decks. I was really impressed with how good some of the pros really are. I love block format and play it all the time, even when it's not the PT season. For some of those guys to jump in and instantly define deck styles like Esper Aggro and Green-White Aggro was really impressive. Those decks were so streamlined, I know I'll have to improve a lot to stay competitive in Austin."
After his first match with LSV in the feature match Arena, Brad commented that there was a lot more in play during a live PT match than he had expected after years of playing mostly online.
"Learning to play Magic Online very well is hard," explained Brad. "A lot of people don't make the transition to MTGO from the real world, like my other roommate Ryan. He goes straight to autopilot instead of focusing on the game and every decision. I can avoid distractions and do well online because of that. But now I think I've gone too far—I'm so conditioned to play in my comfortable apartment in silence, or with a bit of music, that real-life Magic is more wearing. I can't walk around, watch some television, or raid the fridge between rounds at a real-life event. It was physically tiring to play eight rounds a day at the Pro Tour. I was so worn out after both days that I had to force myself to stay up just so I didn't wake up at 5 in the morning, not to mention the jet lag."
"There wasn't a specific moment I would say was the most memorable," he replied when asked for a trip highlight. "The whole thing was amazing. This was my first Pro Tour, and the only way it will get better is if I get to Top 8 next time. I did well, saw Hawaii with my brother and my roommate, and got to play against the best in the world at the game I love. If I had to do the whole trip over again there wouldn't be one thing I change except to stay even longer."
He did add, though, after his initial answer: "I guess my favorite part of my trip was going into Round 16. My brother and I have always had a percentage of Magic winnings go to the other person. So he comes up to me before the final match and says ,"Brad, remember I need to buy a new car!" That was his version of a good luck pep talk and I won't forget that."
This four-weekend leg of the Player of the Year Race will come to a close this weekend in Brazil as we get ready to embark on Nationals season. Also starting this weekend will be a three-weekend string of Star City 5K events kicking off in Atlanta. For those of you out there looking for a break from all the Standard action, there is a Legacy 5K event taking place on the Sunday after the Standard 5K in Boston. One July event that will certainly attract the attention of Magic players everywhere is the first major Standard event to be played after the release of Magic 2010. All eyes will certainly be on the $5,000 Kentucky Open on July 18th.
|June 13-14||Grand Prix–Sao Paulo feeding PT–Austin||Standard|
|June 13||SCG 5K: Atlanta||Standard|
|June 20||SCG 5K: Boston||Standard|
|June 21||SCG 5K: Boston||Legacy|
|June 27||SCG 5K: Minneapolis||Standard|
|July 11 - 12||Magic 2010 Prereleases||Sealed Deck|
|July 17 - 19||Magic 2010 Launch Parties||Sealed Deck|
|July 18||$5,000 Kentucky Open||Standard|
Firestarter: What Picks Would You Have Made?
If you haven't already gone to the Draft Viewer you should go and check it out right now. If you have gone to the Viewer you should head to the forums and share your thoughts on the Pros picks from the Top 8 of the Pro Tour. What would you have done differently?