The discussion about the Pro Tour Hall of Fame simmers all year long. As players accumulate finishes, we will often discuss them in the context of their Hall of Fame viability. Over the past month, the discussion has erupted into a rolling boil as ballots were sent out to a Selection Committee made up of players, commentators, reporters, judges, key Wizards personnel, and tournament officials. For the first time in the history of the Hall of Fame, there was a ballot from the overall Magic community as well. After all the discussion, after all the soapboxing, after all the parsing of Hall of Fame criteria, it is finally time to meet the newest Hall of Famers-elect.
This year's class is made up of three players. In first place on the ballot was current Player of the Year leader and four-time PT Top 8 competitor, Eric Froehlich from the United States. Next on the ballot was 2006 Player of the Year and Pro Tour Champion, Shota Yasooka from Japan. Finally we had four-time PT Top 8 competitor and last year's National Champion from Brazil, Willy Edel. Let's meet the Hall of Famers-elect, who will be inducted at a ceremony preceding Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar later this year.
Brazil's Willy Edel first appeared on the Sunday Stage at the Pro Tour alongside his teammate—and now fellow Hall of Famer—Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, when they finished second at Pro Tour Charleston in the Team Ravnica Block Constructed tournament. The third member of the team known as Raaala Pumba was Celso Zampere. It was only the second time a Brazilian player had reached the Sunday stage at this level, but that feat would become increasing more common over the next decade.
Edel started out his gaming pursuits mostly with role-playing games, but was always hankering for something exactly like Magic. When he saw some other people playing the game at a convention, he was immediately drawn to it.
"When I figured out that it was actually a one-on-one game with a fantasy background, I was instantly hooked, since my biggest issue with RPGs was the lack of competitiveness and I'm extremely competitive," said Edel of his introduction to Magic. He did not waste any time getting into tournament play—even though he did not bring the most finely tuned weapon to his first event. It had only been a week since he discovered the game.
Armed with only knowledge from the games he had witnessed and from reading the rule book, along with a dawning metagame awareness that some local players liked burn decks, he built a 67-card deck featuring four copies of Reverse Damage.
"I didn't win a game," he recalled with a laugh. "But I could see how powerful Necropotence was against my Serra Angels and Seraphs. I left the tournament and bought several magazines with Magic information and devoured them in the same weekend. I went to another tournament two weeks later, and that time I missed my win-and-in for the Top 8. I started to play even more, and nine months later I qualified for Brazilian Nationals through rating and never looked back."
This was before the era when could you watch the top players compete in Magic tournaments all over the world on any given weekend, or follow the streams of your favorite individual players. Edel relied on magazines like The Duelist, InQuest, and Scrye to bring him tales of the game's best players, and he became intrigued by the success of seven-time Pro Tour Champion Kai Budde.
"When I actually started to see the video highlights from his wins, I became a fan and learned that I should always play to my outs and never give up," said Edel, referring to Budde's seemingly impossible win from Pro Tour New Orleans.
His first Pro Tour was the first of two Team Pro Tours held in Madison Square Garden in New York City. He was playing with two of his best friends, and largely viewed the tournament as a chance to visit New York and shop at local outlet stores. Instead, it ignited a fire to succeed at the highest level of competition Magic has to offer. After a 2-3 record capped by a loss to Hall of Famer Bram Snepvanger's team, he decided that the next time he was able to qualify for the PT, shopping was not going to be anywhere near the top of his to-do list.
It took a few years to get back there, but he was motivated by the World Championship win in 2002 by his countryman Carlos Romao. As Romao was winning, Edel was graduating from college, and he decided that he would give himself a chance to become a Magic professional. He qualified for Worlds in 2004 and 2005 as a member of the National team, but did not post cash finishes either time. By that time, he was working full-time and pursuing his Masters degree, and considered giving up his dream. He gave himself one more shot to get to where he wanted to be.
"It was a team PTQ for PT Charleston, but a couple days before the PTQ one of my teammates said he wouldn't be able to play because he didn't have a visa for the United States," said Edel who was able to cobble together a third when future Hall of Famer Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, who had cashed a handful of Pro Tours, somehow found himself without a team for the qualifier. "This story had a happy ending!"
They won the qualifier, and their second-place finish at Pro Tour Charleston launched long and successful careers for both him and Damo da Rosa. Edel would go on to finish second in an individual Pro Tour that season as well, when he reached the finals of Pro Tour Kobe. He played steadily on the Pro Tour, including another Limited Top 8 at Pro Tour Geneva, before fading away after the 2009 season. He requalified in 2011 and has steadily climbed back up the Pro Player's Club ladder, capped by a Platinum season in 2012 that saw him Top 8 Pro Tour Return to Ravnica and win Grand Prix Toronto.
When he looked back on his career, his personal finishes were obviously special to him, but time and time again he talked about teams, country, and the accomplishments of his friends and countrymen.
"Paulo's Hall of Fame induction in 2012 was super emotional, since I remember his first PT, his first steps, and in part, I was there with him . . . I kinda felt I was being inducted with him," said Edel, when asked about some of the highlights of his career. "The Top 8 of the World Magic Cup last year definitely put Brazil on the Magic map and showed that we have more than three players with individual success."
Willy Edel did not know what to expect from the voting process this year. His name had been bandied about as someone on people's ballots since he picked up his fourth Pro Tour Top 8 a couple of seasons ago. He appeared on 30% of the ballots last year and thought he might be able to get in this year with a strong season, but was worried as he posted what he described as only "an OK season." He was pleasantly surprised when his name was continually raised in the discussion surrounding the community ballot, and he began to be hopeful that he would find the votes from the extra 10% of the Selection Committee to get elected this year.
"The community vote was amazing and I don't think I ever got so much love on social media, and the Brazilians were really engaged. A friend started a spreadsheet to track the votes that were made public. I googled "mtg hof 2015" more times than is reasonable, and my top search on Twitter was #mtghof," admitted Edel. "Hall of Fame season can be really stressful if you are on the edge, even though 90% of the posts and articles were really kind with me."
As he readied himself this past weekend to play at Grand Prix Dallas/Fort Worth, he actually thought he had missed getting elected. When Organized Play Programs Manager Scott Larabee pulled him aside at the event, he thought it was going to be a request to record a testimonial for Yasooka, whom he had voted for and publically supported.
"Then he congratulated me and said I was voted in. I was kind of in shock. He gave me a lot of details and information that I didn't hear at all," recalled Edel, regarding finding out he was indeed going to be a Hall of Famer. "I was just smiling nonstop like an idiot."
I asked Edel what being a Hall of Famer would mean to him. He identified the lifetime Pro Tour invites, but not for the reasons you might expect.
"It is a lifetime achievement to be recognized for the things you did during a career. I think this is what counts; other benefits such as fees to attend events and byes didn't really appeal too much for me, but the fact that I have lifetime invites means that if my son qualifies for a PT he will surely have a playtest partner."
"I'd like to thank my family, first and most," said Edel. "They supported me when I quit my job to try to play pro Magic. They never complained about all the time locked in a room playtesting or the long trips. They were always there in the good, and especially in the bad runs. Also, I would like to thank the Brazilian Magic community. There are just so many that it would be unfair to name only a few. And finally, I would like to thank everyone that voted and campaigned for me. I don't feel good doing it myself, but several people were able to put into words some stuff I did that probably would never have become public, and I'm sure this definitely helped me to get there. In this case, a very special thanks to Paulo, among several others."
The next player from this year's class, Shota Yasooka, was pitted against Willy Edel in the finals of Pro Tour Charleston. For a player who is so readily identified as being a lone wolf Magic player, there is no small irony that his breakthrough moment came on a three-person team. Yasooka was one third of the victorious team Kajiharu80, alongside Tomohiro Kaji and Tomaharu Saito.
Yasooka began playing Magic during middle school, when he was introduced to the game by classmates. He was always drawn to the competitive aspects of the game, but it was not until half a decade later that the success of his countrymen drove him to try his hand at playing seriously on the Pro Tour.
"I was always kind of flirting with being a competitive player, but after seeing what the Japanese players did at Worlds 2005, I got more enthusiastic and decided to be serious about being competitive," said Yasooka, who had played on the Pro Tour a half-dozen times before his breakthrough season—which culminated with him winning the Player of the year title in addition to the team Pro Tour victory.
Yasooka's first Pro Tour started promisingly, but ended short of where he hoped.
"I remember my results well: three wins in a row followed by four losses in a row," said Yasooka. "My goal was to make Day Two, but alas I was dropped after the first day."
Yasooka has always viewed Magic as a solitary experience, and was drawn to the cards. And while he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his countrymen, he wanted to do so on his own terms and never set out to emulate anyone.
"I wasn't that into people much," he admitted. That is not to say he did not enjoy the camaraderie that emerges when you travel the world playing the game at the very highest level. "I look back a lot to 2006-2007, when Saitō, Nakamura, Tsumura, and I traveled the world together. It's an irreplaceable experience."
While Yasooka has always been a tremendous deck builder and consistent performer on the Pro Tour, with many deep runs into Day Two, it was not until this past season that he notched his second Pro Tour Top 8, during Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir. Perhaps his most iconic finish was when he came in second at the Players Championship—now known as the World Championship—playing a completely rogue deck of his own fiendish design. His success was not limited to face-to-face Magic; he has notched both Player of the Year titles after winning the Magic Online title in 2009.
"I think my proudest moment was when I took the Magic Online Player of the Year title," said Yasooka, when asked to look back at his most treasured accomplishments.
Yasooka did not expect to get into the Hall of Fame this year, and was taken by surprise when he received notification that he had been elected. While he did not necessarily think he would get in this season, he did always think he would ultimately get in.
"Once the Pro Tour Hall of Fame was announced, I felt that as long as Magic continued, eventually I would probably get it," said the Pro Tour Charleston Champion. "I'm just happy that my accomplishments are being recognized."
When asked if there was anyone in particular he wanted to thank in light of his election, Yasooka said succinctly; "I would like to thank everyone who voted for me."
The leading vote-getter on this year's ballot is also the current front-runner in the Player of the Year race, in a year that saw him win a Grand Prix and notch the fourth Pro Tour Top 8 of his career. Eric Froehlich's love affair with Magic goes back to before there was even such a thing as the Pro Tour. He discovered the game at ten years old, watching other kids play the game at school in 1994; and with a little help from his family, he hit the ground running.
"I had my dad take me to the local comic shop to buy a Revised Starter Kit. The rules were too complicated for me, being only ten years old at the time, but I was lucky to have a father who took an interest in everything I took an interest in," recalled Froehlich. "He read the rules and taught the game to me and my seven-year-old brother. From there, I found small local tournaments and really enjoyed the competition. When Grand Prix first started happening, one of the very first was in Washington D.C., not too far from my home, in 1997."
Playing in the Junior Division of the first North American Grand Prix at the age of thirteen, Eric Froehlich earned his first Pro Tour invite by finishing in the Top 8 of the event. He was unable to cash in that invite, due to his family moving into a new home over the weekend of the Pro Tour. Froehlich was hooked on the competitive aspects of the game, and focused his attention specifically on Limited. It took him two more years to earn another invite, when he qualified for Pro Tour London at the age of fifteen by winning a PTQ at the Origins International Game Expo (as it was known at the time).
"I've played so many matches of Magic across so many tournaments, and I've never really been one to feel the nerves there. I remember a few of the matches, a few of my Draft decks, and a little bit about how weird it was to actually be in London as a fifteen-year-old kid playing in my first PT. It was special, but to me all the Pro Tours are pretty special," said Froehlich when asked about his memories of that first Pro Tour, where he would ultimately post a cash finish in his debut. "I don't remember having any goal besides being a fifteen-year-old kid who was getting to play the game I most loved on the world's biggest stage. I don't remember having any goals, but finishing in the money was definitely exciting!"
Froehlich would continue to hunt down invites to Limited Pro Tours and would find himself with an invite more often than not, building his way toward an eventual Top 8 berth. The first time he came close to that was when he played for Top 8 at Pro Tour Los Angeles 2001. He was turned away short of the mark by eventual Hall of Famer Kamiel Cornelissen in the last round.
"I ended up asking him to team with me for the upcoming team Pro Tour in New York, and he agreed. We joined forces with former U.S. National Champion and Pro Tour Champion Kyle Rose, finishing seventh there," Froehlich recounted. It should be noted that seventh at a team event does not count as a Pro Tour Top 8. He would have to wait a little while longer to play on Sunday. "This was my senior year of high school, and I ended up taking quite a bit of time off to travel to all the Pro Tours that year, putting up a Top 64 in New Orleans, my first PT Top 8 in San Diego, a Top 16 in Osaka, and an 18th place in Nice. It was a really great run and a fantastic year, before I headed off to college and started taking the game less seriously for a period of time."
As he was getting started, Froehlich always looked to the best players in the game for inspiration.
"I grew up playing Magic in the same area as Mike Long, one of the most successful players at the time, but I didn't really like his antics. I wanted to emulate the best player in the world, Jon Finkel. There was something known as the FFF back then: the Finkel Fear Factor. I thought this was pretty ridiculous, but in my first match against him I ended up forgetting what a key card did and succumbed to the FFF myself. As I started playing competitively, I got to play with and befriend the likes of Kai Budde, William Jensen, Bob Maher, Kamiel, and Jon himself, among many others. The way they all played the game and saw the game was very different, and there was always something new to learn from each of these titans of Magic, along with the many other fantastic players I met along the way."
Since his return to the game in the last half decade, Froehlich has been one of the most consistent and dominant players in the game, with three more Top 8s, including Worlds in 2010, Pro Tour Gatecrash, and the most recent at Pro Tour Fate Reforged, in addition to consistently finishing deep into Day Two when he wasn't posting a Top 8. As he continued to post results, the discussion about his Hall of Fame viability became louder with each passing event.
As the discussion for the Hall of Fame rippled throughout social media, Froehlich was one of the most discussed candidates. It was a stressful time for Froehlich, who was anxiously waiting to hear what the results of the ballot were.
"It was a really interesting time for me . . . hearing so many people talk about reasons you don't deserve something while many others are saying some incredibly nice and thoughtful things. It was a truly overwhelming experience, in both positive and negative ways, before ballots were submitted. Waiting for the results . . . well, we all know waiting is the hardest part," he said. Froehlich finally got the call from Scott Larabee this past weekend, and was overcome with emotion. "Immediate reaction? Probably relief, honestly, before quickly becoming overwhelmed with joy. It's the phone call you most want to receive in your life as a Magic player, and it was pretty hard to believe it was actually happening. Magic is my world. Magic has been my life. Magic has brought me so much of what I have and has made me so much of what I am. I've written a little bit about that in the past, but being given the highest honor in the most important facet to shaping your life and who you are as a person . . . yeah, no words."
"This is the crowning achievement in my 21 years of playing Magic. There are a lot of things I'm really proud of, to be honest. I think I've put up some great results that really feel fantastic. I think I've written some good articles, provided some good commentary, and the fact that I can do more to give back to the community, in addition to getting to be a part of one of Magic's biggest podcasts, is really special to me. I'm also really happy that I've been playing this game for so long and I've always played it right. I don't have infractions on my resume. I've played the game clean and honest, and I've done all I can to help make sure the game stays that way," said the Hall of Famer-elect, who also went on to express his thanks to a list of people almost as long as his career itself.
"The list could literally go on until my voice gets tired. For starters, my parents, for always being supportive. My dad taught me the game, flew around the world with me as a kid to make sure everything was alright and that I was able to play in these competitions, and always made me feel special and smart even when things weren't going well. I have the most amazing and supportive mother in the world, who has always trusted me 100% to make the right decisions and has been by my side emotionally forever."
"The list of people I've met in Magic is endless. I started the game with many of my closest friends being the likes of Huey Jensen, Brock Parker, Matt Linde, Brian Kibler, Ben Rubin, Brian Hegstad, Brett Shears, Jon Finkel, Kyle Rose, Kamiel Cornelissen, Bob Maher, David Williams, Neil Reeves, Ben Stark, Kai Budde, Paul Rietzl, Matt Sperling, Gabriel Nassif, Liz Lempicki, and Patrick Chapin. After taking a break, I came back and immediately met the likes of Luis Scott-Vargas and the rest of the amazing Channel Fireball team, as well as Jon Saso, Mashi Scanlan, and the third member of the Pork Bun Oath, Paul Cheon. The people who work on Magic, from Brian David-Marshall to Rich Hagon to Hélène Bergeot to Scott Larabee, to all of the amazing coverage writers and personalities, to my current podcast partner, Marshall Sutcliffe. For the people who have helped me out, given me moral support and ideas when I was tilting off or not handling myself well on social media. For the people who saw past the hard exterior that tried to push people away to see the actual person underneath. For the most important person in my life today, who I also met through Magic, my girlfriend Athena. I want to thank all the people who voted for me, all the people who took the time out of their lives to say something nice and supportive, who took the process seriously and really put the time and effort into making the decisions they felt were right (and this goes for people who didn't vote for me, as well.) To the best community in the world. To my fantastic fans. And honestly to just everyone who really loves this game. It's the greatest game in the world, but without tons of Magic players, there would be no Pro Tour and no Hall of Fame. This means everything to me, so for everybody who has helped me along this incredible journey, from the bottom of my heart, thank you."
Eric Froehlich will have plenty on his plate this weekend, in addition to the election to the Hall of Fame. He has to fight off more than 50 players who could conceivably surpass him in the Player of the Year race, and prepare to sit in the coverage booth on Sunday should he not rack up the fifth Pro Tour Top 8 of his Hall of Fame career.
The induction ceremony for the Hall of Fame will take place at the start of the next season, the day before Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar. You can see all the results from this year's ballot here.
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