The King of the North

Posted in The Week That Was on January 31, 2014

By Brian David-Marshall

The first time I remember hearing about Alexander Hayne was after he made the finals of Grand Prix Montreal before falling to Richard Hoaen. Hayne apparently made enough of an impression on the Limited master and GP Champion that Hoaen took Hayne under his wing to help him navigate the choppy waters of forty-card decks. Hayne would go on early the next year to win Pro Tour Avacyn Restored and has been a fixture on the Pro Tour ever since. During the last two years, he has been the Canadian National Champion, played in the Players Championship, and added four more Grand Prix Top 8s to his resume—including his victory in Vancouver this past weekend.

Hayne, PT Avacyn Restored Champion, 2012

It was the third Grand Prix trophy for Hayne in the last six months, and his third win in his last seven GPs played. Also worth noting is that three of his five career Top 8s—and two of his three wins—have taken place in his home country. With Hayne—and the rest of Team FacetoFaceGames about to head to Spain for the upcoming Pro Tour, I caught up with the champion to find out how his life has changed over these two years, how he has evolved as a Magic player, and what the team's plans are for Spain.

Coming into Pro Tour Avacyn Restored, Hayne was not even locked into being qualified for his next Pro Tour. When he departed with his trophy in tow, he also had an invitation to the Player's Championship, the title of Canadian National Champion, and Platinum membership in the Player's Club. It would seem impossible for that to not have a huge impact on a young man's life.

"It definitely has changed my life," agreed Hayne. "I got many opportunities for travel around the world, and to meet awesome people who I wouldn't have otherwise. Playing in more high-level tournaments also definitely helped me improve at Magic faster. I've learned that I can accomplish things if I put my mind to it, and that many things that used to scare me no longer do, such as travelling alone to a foreign country. In terms of Magic, I have learned that I make more mistakes than I thought I did, and the better I get the number of mistakes I make (that I notice) seems to grow exponentially."

When I speak with players who are attending their first tournament at the next level of play—jumping from FNM to a PTQ or from PTQs to GPs—I always talk about the increasing game speeds of Magic competition—likening them to advancing through the levels of a video game. I wondered how the in-game reflexes and emotions of 2011 Alexander Hayne compare to those of the 2014 version who won GP Vancouver. Much like video gamers not wanting to plod through those early levels once they have beaten an end boss, the Pro Tour Champion finds it difficult to go back and play something like FNM at this point.

"The joy I get in the game is now, in many ways, less about the game itself than about the rush of the competition. I played a PTQ a month ago for the first time in two years, and it just didn't feel right, both without the same difficulty of opponents and without the feeling that the tournament really mattered," he explained. "2011 Alexander Hayne was much more nervous playing important matches and playing under the camera and lights than 2014 Alexander Hayne, but he also was more comfortable playing casual games, or low-stakes tournaments. Now, I am completely at home in a feature match or Top 8, and I definitely use that to my advantage. I was basically up all night unable to sleep before playing Finkel, afraid that I would embarrass myself in front of all my friends who were watching and supporting me, but now I can zone out and just focus on playing my best Magic. My confidence has definitely increased in that regard."

Richard Hoaen and Alexander Hayne became friends after facing each other in the finals of Grand Prix Montreal 2011. Earlier this year, they made up two-thirds of the team—along with Pro Tour Geneva Champion Mike Hron—that won Grand Prix Kyoto. Hayne explained that team events have a completely different vibe than an individual tournament. Wins are more exciting when you pull through for your friends and losses have an extra sting for that same reason. That was very much a motivating factor for him in Kyoto, despite not meeting Mike Hron until just prior to Round 1 of the event.

Hayne vs. Hoaen, GP Montreal 2011

"Despite not having known him, I feel our team had great chemistry, and I really enjoyed playing with both Rich, who I have played with and against often and have great respect for, and Mike, who I now consider a friend," said Hayne. "I also felt I learnt a lot from both of these players who are considered Limited masters, but who I think are just masters in general, and it was definitely an honor for them to strongly insist that I be the middle-seat player. Winning the tournament felt even better than when I won GP Calgary, because I got to share that feeling and experience with my friends."

Hayne is always looking to bring his game up to the next level and is constantly synthesizing behaviors he sees his most successful peers implementing, whether it is the pace with which Hoaen processes in-game information and plans out his turns or how he feeds his opponent misinformation by the way he taps his mana, Hoaen continues to make a strong impression on the three-time GP Champ.

"Just generally, I learn a lot watching great players play Magic, since each one has their own style, with its strengths and weaknesses, and I try to absorb some of their strengths into my own play style," said the player who has won two of the last three GPs in his home country.

Hayne attributed his home-field advantage to a couple of different factors. National pride plays some role in his success, as there is a strong urge to repel foreign invaders from the last spot in the bracket, but he admitted that comfort was a big part of it since it is very easy for him to travel across the country.

"There are also generally more fans of mine at Canadian Grand Prix, and having them all there rooting for me definitely provides a psychological edge," said Hayne. "Canadian Grand Prix also tend to be smaller, which makes Top 8ing them easier, and they often have fewer of the big name US players in attendance."

Much like Hayne himself, the team he is playing on has evolved over the last two years. Formerly known as Team ManaDeprived they are now Team Once made up entirely of up-and-coming Canadian players, the team has looked south of the border and now features a mix of Americans (Josh McClain, Dave Shiels, Sam Pardee, Brian Braun-Duin, Todd Anderson, and Alex Majlaton) and Canadians (Jon Stern, Lucas Siow, Steve Wolfman, Ben Moir, Glenn McIelwain, and Hayne).

"We are planning to head to Spain a full week before, missing GP Paris, where we have rented out a house and will be testing Modern and drafting (probably more of the latter). I'm really happy with my team, and am hoping for a good showing. We have a lot of experts on the top decks in Modern, so barring some extreme bans we will already have excellent players for various gauntlets," he said, optimistically.

Hayne had to face off against one of those teammates in the semifinals of this weekend's Grand Prix in a match that could ultimately have National Champion implications. He and Jon Stern have alternated the title for the last two years and despite their friendly rivalry, Hayne still finds he can learn from the veteran Canadian Pro.

Hayne vs. Sundholm, Grand Prix Vancouver, 2014

"Jon always takes his time to think through EVERY possibility, usually from the worst to the best, which is the opposite of how I have always processed things. He also puts in the time and effort, often at the cost of his own sleep, such as spending a few hours before the tournament figuring out every sideboard plan for every matchup and how many cards go in and out, and using that to figure out what his exact seventy-five should look like," he said of his teammate. That level of knowledge of each other added another interesting level when the two players faced off last Sunday.

"The only thing different, for me, in playing a teammate at that level is that I know what level to make my plays at. I know how he will interpret the information that I give him, and generally how he will play the cards that he has," said Hayne about playing Stern instead of a non-teammate. "Other than that, when I play good Magic, I ignore the rest of the world. Nothing exists except for this game. Outside of the match, however, I know that whatever the result, I will be happy, and that if I lose it won't sting quite as much, but when I'm playing my game I don't let those things affect me."

Hayne vs. teammate Jon Stern, Grand Prix Vancouver 2014

There is a real rivalry between the two friends, though, and the words of fellow Canadian and coverage reporter Josh Bennett often serve as motivation—"Who is Canada's Pride? My head says Alexander Hayne, but my heart says Jon Stern."—for Hayne, who hoped that his win in the Top 4 might draw some hearts and minds. In a field dominated by Rats and Raptors, any deck—even a grinding white-blue control deck—will go a long way to winning over some of those hearts that have grown heavy at the sight of blue and black devotion decks dominating the field.

"I was on the fence last minute about whether I should play White-Blue or Mono-Black, but I definitely have more experience with Revelation decks," said Hayne, who did win the last Standard GP he played with Sphinx's Revelation. "As the only player—besides Shahar at Worlds—to win with Revelation, Kar Yung Tom convinced me as he told me I generally do best with decks where I can provoke my opponents into making mistakes, and I felt White-Blue was the better choice for that. I definitely lean toward playing the control deck in general if I think all things are equal."

With Born of the Gods on the horizon, there is one card Hayne will be looking for to add to his Standard weapon of choice.

"The obvious change to my deck is Temple of Enlightenment. The deck I played benefits enormously from scry, and that was the reason that the list can afford to not play Divination," said Hayne, who played off-color scry lands in his Vancouver build. "Brimaz may see some sideboard play, as 4 toughness is going to be particularly good with what seems like Red decks are getting some love, and black is going to be giving a lot of creatures -2/-2 or -3/-3. In general, the deck will have to adjust based on what new threats people are playing, and if the metagame becomes less stable, a card like Last Breath will possibly no longer be good as a four-of in the main."

Rumors that Hayne and his team will be playtesting in a shipping container on a slow boat bound for Spain may or may not be true (and may or may not have been started by me) but one thing that is true is that Hayne has more than lived up to the hype that followed in the wake of his win in Barcelona and all eyes will be on him in Valencia as he tackles the Modern format with Team FacetoFaceGames.

Brian David-MarshallBrian David-Marshall
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Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

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