I have known Christian Calcano for the bulk of his Magic playing career going back to when he made the transition from the side of Neutral Ground where people were playing "those other card games" to the Friday Night Magic half of the room. It has been about six years since he started playing and despite making the Top 8 of his very first Pro Tour Qualifier (back in the Champions Rochester Draft Top 8 era), it was just this season in San Juan that he finally got to play on the Pro Tour.
He has posted some solid results, getting within shooting distance of the Top 8 for both Grand Prix–Gothenburg and Pro Tour–Amsterdam, and has thrust himself into the Rookie of the Year race despite only starting his season at the second Pro Tour of the year. With 14 points he is tied for 6th place and preparing to log some airline miles to hit as many Grand Prix as possible, lock down his invite for Worlds, and chase down the only title you can win only once.
I talked to Christian about his road: from watching the Magic players at Forbidden Planet—the original store he played games at after school—to Rookie contender. Pretty impressive for a guy who used to look at the Magic players and shake his head in amazement that people would want to play "that game." That all changed when he actually got a chance to play with a friend's—who played multiple games including Magic—Constructed deck.
"It was a zombie deck," recalled Calcano. "It had Rotlung Reanimator, Shepherd of Rot, and all that. I had fun playing and started playing FNM. A few months later I was going to Neutral Ground, which is when I started meeting you guys—all the old school players from back in the day. Ever since then I have just been playing Magic."
The first time Calcano—and everyone simply refers to him by his last name—got his name mentioned in my column was when the Makeshift Mannequin deck flashed onto the Standard stage in the hands of Gavin Verhey and Jonathan Loucks. Calcano was credited in part for the deck design and playtesting as a member of Team Unknown Stars.
"I remember when they signed me up (for the team) that they got me mostly for my Limited skills," foreshadowed Calcano who has had a pretty spectacular year with forty-card decks. "Gavin referred to me as a Limited guru from New York."
Calcano has played his fair share of FNM and Junior Super Series qualifiers by the time the Grand Prix circuit rolled through New Jersey for Mirrodin Block Constructed and that was his first taste of high-level Magic.
"I played in a Grand Prix before I played in a PTQ," laughed Calcano. "There were pros from all over the world and I did not even know there was a Day Two in the event. I started off 3-0 and beat John Fiorillo—one of the best players in New Jersey at the time—in round four. Then in round five I lost to some guy playing an Affinity deck. I later came to know that guy was Mark Herberholz.
Calcano was 6-1 in the event when his friends told him he could make Day Two—something he did not know even existed when he signed up for the tournament. Perhaps it was the sudden pressure of knowing there was a cut or it was simply his inexperience coupled with the increasing quality of opponents but he did not make Day Two.
The first time Calcano would make the cut of an event was the following season during Champions of Kamigawa Limited in a PTQ at Neutral Ground—his first PTQ and his first Top 8. Once they cut to the Top 8 he had a surprise waiting for him. The Top 8 was going to be a Rochester Draft. On top of that his first opponent in the Top 8 was going to be none other than Top Decks author Mike Flores.
"I had no idea what people were talking about when they said I had to Rochester Draft. Adam Rubens gave me the rundown on what the format was all about: Don't hate-draft from other people and since I was going to be the number one seed I could pick who opened first. He told me to make my opponent open and that's what I did."
The Top 8 from that PTQ included many of the best players from Neutral Ground at the time including PT–Venice winner Osyp Lebedowicz and Grudge Match grinder Zev Gurwitz. The player to Calcano's right had clearly not gotten a primer on the format and was actively hate-drafting from players left and right. It famously prompted Osyp to hate-draft a card from that player and dramatically rip it in half in front of him. Calcano beat Flores in the Quarterfinals but lost in the Semifinals. Zev Gurwitz would go on to win that event with many Kabuto Moths and Glacial Rays.
"That was my first taste of a PTQ and it was obviously a good one. I knew this was something I wanted to do and something I wanted to be good at," said Calcano, who has since played in over one hundred PTQs and twenty Grand Prix over six seasons.
I was curious if he felt something click this season as he finally got to the Pro Tour, made the Top 32 of a Grand Prix, was competing for Top 8 deep into Day Two of Pro Tour–Amsterdam, and made the Top 8 of two straight Draft Challenges on the Sunday of Pro Tours.
"To be honest I don't feel like I have done anything different at all. In the weeks leading up to Gothenburg I played in as many Release Events as possible and did a bunch of drafts," shrugged Calcano.
He described his early experiences with any new Limited set as a process of elimination during which he is not discouraged by losses. Each draft is an opportunity to try something else, fine tune card evaluations, and learn what works and what doesn't. Coming into the Magic 2011 Limited format he had thought green was going to the best color. That notion was quickly dispelled through those practice sessions and by the time the matches counted for something he was squarely drafting blue and white cards.
His approach to Limited has some striking similarities to how this season has progressed for him after getting off to a rocky start and missing Day Two of Pro Tour–San Juan, despite working with the Zvi-led New York team that put multiple players into the Top 8. He was pretty disheartened as he watched his teammates advance onto Day Two. However, he soldiered on to play in the myriad Public Events that make Pro Tours such an exciting convention experience for any Magic player regardless of whether they are playing in the Pro Tour or not.
He played in a couple of drafts and dived back into the PTQ grind that he had been on for the past six seasons. He was feeling pretty low about finding himself on the outside of the Pro Tour looking in after such a long trip to get there. Then his fortunes began to change. One of the highlights of that Public Event schedule each time is the Draft Challenge that takes place on Sunday.
Calcano would emerge from the first pod of that draft having taken down some Hall of Fame-caliber talents en route to a 4-0 record. He beat Jon Finkel in the first round and Darwin Kastle in the fourth.
"My second pod also had two Hall of Famers," Calcano recalled. "Rob Dougherty and Zvi Mowshowitz. I beat Zvi in round one of that pod."
He would go 6-1 in the seven rounds of that event and split in the Top 4 of the event with the likes of Rob Dougherty and Makihito Mihara. Still he was disheartened about going home to the PTQ scene.
"I was back in New York and the Wednesday rating update came out," Calcano explained. "I saw that my rating had jumped to 2046 and I was only 30 points away from going back to the Pro Tour on rating. There was a Star City Open coming up that weekend in Philadelphia and I went to that thinking I needed to go 3-0 and drop."
His first couple of opponents relayed that they had fairly anemic ratings coming into the event and Calcano had to tack on a couple of extra rounds to win his virtual PTQ. He dropped from the event at 5-0 and squeaked onto the Amsterdam invite list with two rating points to spare.
"It was a relief to qualify for two Pro Tours in a row," said Calcano, who decided to make the most of a run of consecutive events going to Nationals, GP–Gothenburg, PT–Amsterdam, and GP–Portland. "It was the first time I ever did anything like that in terms of traveling extensively for Magic."
Grand Prix–Gothenburg was the first event with Pro Points on the line that saw Calcano play deep into Day Two after winning three byes at a Grand Prix Trial for the event during Day Two of Nationals. He made the most of those byes going 7-2 on Day One and started off Day Two with a 5-0 record.
"I was 12-2 going into the last round of the tournament and there were ten of us going down to that record and I could not draw in. I had the worst breakers. I had to face Marijn Lybaert in a Feature Match and he apparently just does not lose. I ended up finishing 19th. It was the deepest I have ever been in a Grand Prix which was exciting."
Next up for Calcano was Pro Tour–Amsterdam and the Constructed rounds of Day One did not go so well for him. He was playing a Doran deck—an archetype he was well familiar with after qualifying for San Juan with that deck in the pre-rotation Extended. He was not however playing the same Doran build that put multiple players into the Top 8 of that event. He got off to a 2-3 start in Constructed and could not lose any draft matches for the remainder of Day One if he wanted to see Day Two of the Pro Tour from the inside of the rail.
He pulled off that feat and did the same thing in the first three rounds of Day Two. He found himself at 8-3 with five rounds to go. He won the next two rounds and was 10-3 with only three rounds remaining.
"I was starting to feel it obviously," laughed Calcano. "Win the next two and you are in. I guess the pressure started to get to me."
He played against a player who was wielding a Restore Balance deck—an archetype not on Calcano's radar. That player turned out to be Jan Van Nieuwenhove, who currently sits one point ahead of Calcano in the Rookie of the Year race.
"I guess my lack of knowledge cost me Game 1 when I made a savage misplay. He had double Mistvein Borderpost out on turn two. I could have used Maelstrom Pulse to kill both of his 'lands' but instead I played Doran and attacked for a bunch of damage. I kind of auto-piloted to cast the Doran but the very next turn he played a land and cascaded into Restore Balance. I lost in three games and was out of Top 8 contention."
He was playing for Top 16 contention in the last round but had bad tiebreakers so had to turn down the offer of a draw. He lost to an Elf deck—one of his worst match-ups—and ended up in a heart-breaking 33rd place. One place higher would have put him at 15 points and locked up an invite to Worlds. Although, after his finish in yet another Sunday Draft Challenge his rating should be enough to get him to Chiba.
"I Top 8ed my second consecutive Draft Challenge going 6-0-1," said Calcano, who lost in the Top 4 to "a guy with a bunch of Titans. Overall it was a really good trip to Europe in draft going 5-1 in Sweden, 6-0 at the Pro Tour, and 7-1-1 in the Draft Challenge.
Next up for Calcano is another series of Grand Prix events to close out the year. He is definitely going to be attending Toronto, Nashville, and Bochum. Depending on how close he is in the Rookie of the Year race he could add Florence to that itinerary. As is usually the case, many of the players packed in around him in the Rookie standings picked up a lot of their points by doing well in their Nationals and will have the additional chance to pick up points during the Worlds Team Competition—not an option that Calcano has in front of him.
"This is the only chance I will ever have in my career to win this title," said Calcano when he was laying out his travel plans. While many of the other contenders might be playing in the Team Competition his plan is to play in the most Grand Prix out of the top of the pack. Even if it does not result in a title he is looking to wrap up a series of invites for next season and avoid those tough East Coast and online Pro Tour Qualifiers.
And while those GP are Limited, he knows he will need to step up his Constructed game if wants to do well at Worlds.
"Two-thirds of my matches will be Constructed," said Calcano as he prepared to playtest extensively in Standard and Extended looking to carry over the success he has found with forty-card decks into the sixty-card competition.
- Looking Forward to 2011
Christian Calcano has thrust himself into the Rookie of the Year race in no small part due to winning byes at a Grand Prix Trial and traveling to a far off land to play Magic in a Grand Prix and is going to be logging some serious mileage through the end of this season to build on his success. Looking forward to the 2011 Grand Prix schedule you can start making your plans for a run at next year's Rookie title, playing Magic against some of the best players in the world, or simply being in a room with thousands of players who love the same thing you do—Magic: the Gathering.
The 2011 Grand Prix Schedule can be found here.
I caught up with Program Manager for Magic Organized Play Scott Larabee to discuss the schedule and what is different about it from years past. Even as we spoke there was still one open event on the schedule—a floating Legacy Grand Prix in Amsterdam—and I asked what the challenges were in coming up with a year of events.
"The idea is to offer an interesting slate of international events that are balanced regionally," said Scott. "We are also trying to balance them over the year. Take the eight events in North America, we don't want them to all happen in the back of the year —we want to spread them out."
The biggest change to the Grand Prix schedule is untethering the formats from the PTQ formats. Traditionally a Limited PTQ season coincides with Limited Grand Prix feeding the same Pro Tour. Not anymore.
"Grand Prix are usually the same format as the PTQ season but this year we are trying almost the opposite," Scott explained. "We want formats to be valid all year. If there is an Extended Pro Tour Qualifier season there are going to be plenty of Extended events for people to play in. We want to provide all the formats during that season so you will see Standard and Limited GPs during that season."
He pointed to events that will feed Nagoya as an example, with six events sending players invites to the Japanese Pro Tour. That season will feature Extended PTQs but the Grand Prix will include three Sealed Deck, two Extended, and one Standard. Scott was not concerned that there would be any confusion about formats among players citing past Legacy Grand Prix and Asian Standard Grand Prix during PTQ seasons utilizing different formats.
"We have done this before. There have always been Grand Prix during an Extended season that were not Extended and it was not a problem," he said. "We are just doing it more next year. Also this way we can mix up the Sealed Deck format throughout the year as opposed to bunching them all up in the end of the year like this season. This also means players can play Extended throughout the year."
I asked Scott to skim through the events and highlight some of the notable events.
"The Grand Prix in Paris taking place during Magic Weekend in Paris. I think it is going to be record breaking attendance," Scott replied. "We debated formats for that one a lot. We seriously considered making it Legacy but it is going to be Sealed Deck. I expect that this can break the previous attendance record set in Madrid."
"London in late April is an interesting one," Scott continued. "We have not been there in a long time; Prague in May—everyone loves the Czech Republic—and Shanghai in August are all exciting. It is the first time we are going into Shanghai and that one will be Magic 2012 Sealed Deck. Speaking of Sealed Deck, how about a Grand Prix in South America? I don't know that there has ever been a Sealed Deck GP in Latin America and we have never been to Chile before."
Scott also pointed out a handful of events that will allow Pro Tour players to string together weekends in the same general area such as Grand Prix–Singapore before Nagoya and San Diego before Worlds.
"That one is the warm weather trip for players on the East Coast and in Europe," laughed Scott who added that there will also be an all Pennsylvania trip with Grand Prix–Pittsburgh leading into Pro Tour–Philadelphia.
"The entire schedule represents twenty-one events in fourteen different countries and four different formats with two Legacy Grand Prix," said Scott who has been impressed with the amazing turnout for previous Legacy events. "The North American one will be in Providence, Rhode Island—another place we have never been—and the second one will be in Amsterdam on a date to be determined shortly."
For me, I am looking forward to going back to Kobe and getting stuffed with steak again. If you have a chance to attend this Grand Prix and eat at Sakurai, you absolutely need to go there.
For players looking to rack up three byes for a Grand Prix—and trust me, nothing helps you get to Day Two quite like three free wins and good tiebreakers to start out your event—there are going to plenty of opportunities for players to win those byes with more Grand Prix Trials than ever before. Select Wizards Play Network locations in North America (for the time being) will be able to run a Grand Prix Trial for each and every Grand Prix on the 2011 schedule.
Check your calendars, and sharpen your game! Who knows, at this time next year I might be talking to you about your run at the Rookie of the Year title, and your travel itinerary as you get ready to play in the World Championships.