Looking Back with the Coverage Team

Posted in The Week That Was on January 15, 2010

By Brian David-Marshall

It is hard to believe that Magic is about to enter the a new decade of Pro Tour action. I still remember playing with my Unlimited Starter deck for ante like it was just yesterday. The latter half of the 90s made for an exciting Wild West era on the Pro Tour, but it really came into its own after the turn of the millennium with the emergence of Japan as a force to be reckoned with, the continued success of Jon Finkel, the juggernaut that was Kai Budde rattling off an unprecedented—and unlikely ever to be repeated—string of Top 8s and wins, and the debut of so many future Hall of Famers.

I sat down with some of the people who will be bringing you Pro Tour and Grand Prix coverage in the coming season to look back at the highlights of the last 10 years of the Pro Tour. Joining me at the table are my booth partner for the coming season, Rich Hagon; his countrymen Tim Willoughby; coverage Road Warrior Bill Stark; and the towering Nate Price. I have also chimed in with my take on many of the questions.

Q: First of all, how do you guys refer to the past decade? The "aughts"? the "2000s"? I have taken to calling them The Aughties, but only because I have not found anything else less uncomfortable.

Rich: In the UK it's called the Noughties.

Tim: The last decade was definitely the Naughties.

Bill: I say "the 2000s." I feel like saying "the Aughts" is something Old Man Becker would do.

Nate: Considering how much I've won during the decade, I think I'm going to refer to them as the "0-Xs."

Q: Two-part question to start talking about Magic: A. Best player of the decade, and (if neccessary) B. Best Player of the decade not named Kai Budde?

Tim: Kai was the best, with Gabriel Nassif coming second. Having covered Nassif in the Worlds Top 8s for both Paris and New York and seen him miss the trophy, I was pretty excited to see him finally get that solo win, which for me topped things off on what has been a fairly epic magical career.

Nate: Kai with Nassif second. Kai kinda goes without explanation. As for Nassif, he's just always been good. He started off being just a good deck designer in most people's minds. And then he started winning consistently, and he's never really stopped that.

Bill: I think you definitely need the addendum or it's just Kai. After Kai the list gets interesting. There are credible cases to be made for Kenji Tsumura and Shuhei Nakamura. You can also make a case for Tomoharu Saito, and even Jon Finkel. Let's not forget it was a decade in which he was great, then semi-retired (while still being great), then came back and as if by sheer will alone simply won a Pro Tour. That type of Magic power is a once-in-a-generation-type skill. Truthfully, there are so many different players you can make the argument for I'd be hard pressed to pick one. What I wouldn't be hard pressed to do is artfully dodge the question with this point: at the start of the decade, Japan was the laughingstock of the Pro Tour. Americans and Europeans hoped to play a Japanese player every round, knowing they were generally weaker opponents and would likely be easier wins. By the end of the decade, Japan was not only one of the most powerful Magic nations in the world, it had put up a stranglehold on the Player of the Year race and was home to the best active pros in the world (arguably in history). So I would say rather than player of the decade, I'd select country of the decade and it would be Japan by a wide margin.

Rich: Kai, but let's not forget that Jon Finkel was winning Worlds in 2000, and PT–Kuala Lumpur in 2008.

BDM:There is no way to slice this question so it comes up any other way than Kai Budde followed by Gabriel Nassif. These two players are second and third on the all-time list for Pro Tour Top 8s and all but one of those—Kai's first Top 8—came in this decade. I guess you could argue that Nassif has sustained his success throughout the decade, but Kai's SEVEN (!!) wins quickly shut down any cross-examination.

Q: Best Pro Tour of the Decade? Best one you attended?

Bill: I think the best Pro Tour of the decade has to be Chicago 2003. Kai Budde, Jon Finkel, Eugene Harvey, Baby Huey, Nicolai Herzog, Bram Snepvangers—if you had to hand pick a Top 8 for a Pro Tour, I'm not sure you could come up with a roster that good on purpose. It was yet another Kai win, and that after he had to get through both Finkel and Jensen. Truly epic. As for the best one I attended, that's a tougher call. Pro Tour–Honolulu 2009 was absolutely beautiful, and I watched a friend and one of the guys I was living with on the island Top 8 (Belgium's Christoph Gregoir). Kuala Lumpur was truly a unique event; Malaysia is this fascinating meeting ground of a dozen cultures, many of which most Pro Tour players aren't exposed to at home. For my money, however, it's just hard to beat the tropical paradise that is Hawaii.

Rich: Shortlist would include Honolulu 2006, Kuala Lumpur 2008, Tokyo 2001. Honolulu saw a great Top 8 that featured both Ruels, some really funky decks, an incredible topdeck, and a decent final. KL was the return of Jon. Tokyo 2001 has resonance for Brits, because the best British players (John Ormerod, Tony Dobson, and the Palace crew) were involved in the design of Zvi's winning Solution deck.

But the winner for me has to be Houston 2002. Justin Gary wins, but the standings really say: All The Places that Matter—Your Move Games. All The Places that Don't—Everybody Else. We will not see such dominance ever again. Ever again.

Nate: This was a hard one. I think my answer is the same for both. I'm going with 2008's Kuala Lumpur. It had arguably the best Top 8 ever, the resurgence of some of the best "old" names of the game, and I got to cover Finkel's Finals match, which I think we can all agree was one of the best illustrations of how amazing he is at every aspect of the game. I will admit that both Valencia, thanks to the flooding, and Memphis, for the awesome come-from-behind for the U.S. team, weigh high in my opinion of PTs I've been to as well.

Tim: Either Kuala Lumpur (which I sadly missed) where both Jon Finkel and Nicolai Herzog made the Top 8, and Jon showed that he still has it, or perhaps Pro Tour–Houston 2002, where Justin Gary and YMG dominated a diverse (and super fun) Extended format. I would edge it to KL, but it is close.

The best PT I attended was actually my first on coverage, a controversial choice in PT–London 2005. This was the weekend that a bomb attack threw on the city threw London into turmoil, and threatened to scupper the whole event. In actuality, the city rallied together well, and the weekend was capped for me by Tomi Walamies going straight from making Top 8 of the event to going and performing a stand-up comedy gig that evening, where almost the entire audience consisted of Pro Tour regulars. Suffice to say the hostess was entirely unprepared for this and, when she asked what Magic was, looked baffled to receive a core set starter winged at her through the crowd by one Randy Buehler!

BDM: I agree with Bill on the Chicago part— just not on the season. For me the best Pro Tour of the decade has to be Chicago 2000. Just look at that Top 8. It is more than half made up of Hall of Famers, with Kai Budde, Kamiel Cornelissen, Rob Dougherty, Jon Finkel, and Zvi Mowshowitz. It could easily hit the 75% mark with Kibler's performance this past season catapulting him prominently into the discussion about the coming year's ballot.

Q: Most exciting Player of the Year Race?

Nate: This year. It was neck and neck between Juza and Watanabe almost all year, and even then, it came down to a third player and the last round of the Swiss. You can't ask for any more than that in terms of tight.

Tim: The 2003-2004 season, where Gabriel Nassif successfully took the Player of the Year crown away from Kai without winning a Pro Tour that year, in spite of the fact that he was battling against Nicolai Herzog who had won two. Looking back at the names in the PT Top 8s from that season, each of them is stacked with names, many of whom achieved multiple Top 8s in a single season, meaning that it was a more closely fought race than many.

Rich: 2005. Kenji defeats a shattered Olivier Ruel by a single point. Watching that unfold down the stretch was wondrous.

Bill: I actually like this year's race a lot. The eventual champion, Yuuya Watanabe, is a huge name right now, but the fact that the race wasn't decided until the very last round of Swiss at Worlds speaks volumes to its closeness. It was really an exciting thing to watch, and I felt the end was good for the game overall. Then again, the race between Gabriel Nassif and Nicolai Herzog to be the first player to unseat Kai Budde is pretty significant as well. That Nassif won despite Herzog having two Pro Tour titles that year really speaks volumes to Gab's skills.

BDM:This one was really hard for me. You could point to any of the seasons that Kai won, the battle between Gabriel Nassif, Nicolai Herzog, and Rickard Osterberg for the title coming into Worlds in 2004 to be the first player not named Kai to win the title in that decade, or even the gripping season that is just behind us. I have to go with Kenji becoming the first Japanese player to win the title in that epic, fun-filled chase around the world with Olivier. That World Championships was a huge power shift in the game as the Japanese swept all the titles with wins in the main event, the team event, and the Player of the Year—a title that country has yet to relinquish.

Q: Which Rookie of the Year winner has most delivered on the promise of that title?

Rich: The obvious one would be Yuuya Watanabe, who turned '07 ROY into POY in '09.

Nate: Hmm ... I'm going to have to go with Watanabe. I know it's been a short time since his winning the award in 2007, but he's already won the POY trophy and is recognized as one of the most feared players in the game today. Hard to argue with that.

Bill: That's a tough call, because so many players have delivered. Katsuhiro Mori took down a Worlds title, then made the Top 8 the following year. Sebastian Thaler has multiple Pro Tour Top 8s, and is generally regarded as a top German pro. Masashi Oiso is a National Champ, a probable Hall of Famer, and a Pro Tour star. The list goes on, but of the group, only Yuuya Watanabe ran off with a Player of the Year title. At Worlds in 2007, when he took his Rookie of the Year title, I did an interview with him for the coverage. I asked him then what he planned on doing next. Without hesitation, he turned to his friend Tomoharu Saito, that year's Player of the Year, and said with a smile "Player of the Year!" At the time I thought it was a clever response, but the weight of that title and the race to get it is just such a grind. And yet here we were this past season, 24 months removed from that interview, and Yuuya's name was on top. It was incredible that he managed to pull it off in such a short span, and I think we have more (much more) to come from Mr. Watanabe.

Tim: Masashi Oiso. He went from a single PT Top 8 to an utterly absurd number of Top 8s following his breakout year. While he may never have achieved the title of PT champion, Oiso gets my vote.

BDM: Hands-down this is Masashi Oiso. I am a huge Thaler fan and expect great things from him in the future. I would not be surprised to see Yuuya Watanabe's name mentioned frequently when we reconvene in ten years to discuss this topic again, but he has not piled up the six Sunday appearances that Oiso—a certain Hall of Famer in my mind—has accumulated.

Q: Topdeck of the Decade?

Bill:Craig Jones at Pro Tour–Honolulu. Nassif's Cruel Ultimatum this year is a close second, but you just have to hand it to one of the biggest plays in Pro Tour history. It was immortalized by Randy Buehler's great job calling it (erupting in pandemonium at a big play like that really helps build the game from a coverage perspective in my opinion, and I thought he did a great job capturing the excitement of it all), and the dejected look on poor Olivier Ruel's face told the story so well. The Professor had one of the best weekends in Magic history (a fact he'll readily admit), and that Lightning Helix was one of the top moments in the game's history.

Tim: As classy as the called shot was, it has to go to Prof (Craig Jones) for his Lightning Helix off the top. Every time I see the video, with Ted Knutson with his head in his hands from the coverage station, it gets me.

Nate: In my mind, there are only two contenders. First, you have to consider Craig Jones's "Topdeck of the Ages" from Honolulu. That Lightning Helix and the reactions from everyone...let's just say it's pretty amazing that it was all caught on film. My other selection is Nassif's "Called Shot" against Matteo Orsini-Jones in Kyoto. Considering I was right freaking there, I'm going to have to go with Nassif's. I literally could not speak or write for a few solid minutes after watching that go down. Just sick.

Rich: I'm British, Cruel Ultimatum be damned, it's Craig Jones in Honolulu 2006. I stayed up half the night for that, and woke the house. Awesome.

BDM: I love the Lightning Helix and if Craig had gone on to win from that spot it would be the clear winner. Nassif not only had the panache to call his shot but propelled himself to win his first ever individual Pro Tour with that timely pull. I want to give honorable mention to Kai's topdeck of Morphling against Walamies in Game 5 of the finals of Pro Tour–New Orleans. Kai managed the game masterfully to give himself as many turns—and cards—as possible to draw his out. When he won the game, the match, and the Pro Tour he was at just one life. On top of cementing himself as one of the elite players to ever play the game it also forced Eric "EDT" Taylor to literally eat his hat.

Q: If you had to select one Constructed deck as the deck of the decade, what would it be?

Nate: You are really making these easy questions (I hope this reads sarcastic enough ...). I'm going to go with Psychatog. It fundamentally changed the game and was not just present, but a dominating force across every format in which the card was legal. It was even a first-pick quality card in Draft. Not many cards are good enough to get Gush restricted in a format that allowed four copies of Mind Twist.

Rich: Back in the days when you really could break the format, Zvi in Tokyo 2001 was a classic example of hideous cards being put to amazing use.

Tim: I think that the Brit in me has to go for the Solution, the deck designed by John Ormerod that dismantled the PT–Tokyo 2001 Invasion Block Constructed format. After that I would say Kai's Trix deck from PT–New Orleans in 2001. Everyone thought that they knew what Trix was about, and bannings meant that it was no longer able to use the power of the Necropotence draw engine to keep it together. The essential combo was still there, though, and Kai showed up with a version that one-upped most of the mono-blue builds for a small red splash, which allowed (amongst other things) Pyroblast to swing the mirror. It was a classy update that left much of the competition cold.

Bill: Affinity. Maybe Trix, but Affinity was just so dominant and across multiple formats. You could even draft sick Affinity decks in the Limited format. I also felt it was a big learning point for Wizards Ramp;D.

BDM: I would like to think my friendships with Billy Moreno and Steven Sadin don't color this vote too much, but the Billy-designed Flash / Protean Hulk deck that was backed up by the Counterbalance / Sensei's Divining Top combo was one of the most robust decks I have ever had the opportunity to see in action. NecroDonate (Trix) and Affinity were both so persistent and pervasive in their respective formats that I have to give a nod to them as well.

Q: What one card epitomizes the decade on the Pro Tour for you?

Tim:Tooth and Nail (or possibly Tarmogoyf). Tooth and Nail wasn't even given the dignity of being maligned when it first came out—it was at best ignored. Later though it flourished into being a card around which there was a whole deck built. When the namesake spell resolved, the game was forever changed. Tarmogoyf and Tooth and Nail have more in common than being green in my mind ....

Rich: How about Gifts Ungiven? Yeah, I'll go with that, since that was a card that the Pros absolutely loved.

Bill:Psychatog. Once players figured that card out, it was at every Constructed format in which it was legal. It won a World Championships, it won a Pro Tour, and it Top 8ed countless times. Psychatog represented the control mentality that so often defines the game's top players, and it was just always around.

Nate: This was the hardest question to answer. Due to the shifting formats, it's been really hard for me to pin down one card that I feel truly encapsulates the Pro Tour.

BDM: It is hard to argue with Psychatog, but Tarmogoyf is pretty convincing. It is played in every format it is legal in and is public enemy number one in some of the older formats to this day.

Q: Was there any deck that you felt a special fondness for that has been overshadowed by more dominat decks of that time?

Nate: Hah, I am so going to laughed at for this. It is commonly known amongst my friends that my motto when playing Magic has always been something along the lines of "Why win when I can not lose?". During Standard in the very beginning of the decade, I fell madly in love with an Adrian Sullivan creation known as Chevy Blue. It was not the best deck in the format by a long shot. That honor probably went to Fires. But Chevy Blue was designed specifically to beat Fires. It packed Glacial Wall to stop the rampaging Blastoderms. It ran a countermagic suite. It drew a ton of cards with Thieving Magpie. It bounced permanents with Temporal Adept. I tried to find a decklist for you, but failed miserably. Needless to say, the deck did a lot of things I loved, and I loved it for that. If only it could find a way to win.

Rich: Any deck with fewer than 23 counterspells and more than one Aladdin's Ring as a lone win condition is always a disappointment to me, so no.

Tim: Red Bridge in Odyssey / Onslaught Standard. It was thoroughly overshadowed by Green-Blue Madness, and probably rightly so, but I think that Red Bridge, specifically the build that Dirk Baberowski designed, taught me more about being a better Magic player than any other deck. Playing it required a fine idea of how close to death one was at any given time and a good evaluation of when burn should be pointed at the head rather than at the terrifying creatures on the other side of the board. I loved that deck.

Q: Pro Tour location of the decade?

Rich: I wasn't there, and haven't been, but it's hard to imagine anything topping the venue for Worlds 2002, Sydney. Of those I've attended, I'm thrilled to be going back to San Diego next month, a city that to me represents everything I love about the U.S. Apart from not having the New York Mets, obviously.

Tim: Hawaii: the island so good that the tour had to go there twice. I only made it out the second time, but it was a seriously good time, and I still find myself having dreams about the sushi there ....

Nate: I'm going to say Prague. I don't think I've ever heard as unanimously loved a PT stop as Prague. I sadly was not in attendance, but I guarantee that I will be at the next one, one way or another.

Bill: Hawaii. I say we make it official: the Pro Tour returns to Honolulu every two or three years. When you go to Pro Tour–Honolulu you feel like you're putting one over on someone. Here you are in this island paradise, and you're what? Playing Magic? You didn't even have to pay a billion dollars to have the privilege of going? It just seems like the best practical joke on the world ever, and you see it reflected in the energy level of the players competing there.

BDM: I love Hawaii and second the motion to go there as often as possible, but I had such an amazing time in Paris that it gets the nod for locations I have been to. Of the ones I have missed, Australia is on the top of my list of places I desperately want to visit.

Q: Player you are most excited to follow in the coming decade?

Tim: I am really looking forward to seeing what Martin Juza has to offer in the coming decade. He combines being a wickedly good player with a clear love for playing that makes him exciting to watch.

Bill: Yuuya Watanabe. If working/studying don't steal him like so many other Japanese players, he's sure to be The Next Big Thing.

Rich: This is the easiest question of the lot for me. Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa has five PT Top 8s in just 21 starts. Five years from now, he may well be surpassing Nassif, if not Jon and Kai. He is very possibly the ultimate ambassador for the game, and it's always exciting to watch him play when it really matters.

Nate: Brian Kibler. He has had quite the resurgence recently, and is looking to get back into a more full-time role in the Magic community. Clearly he has the chops, as well as the support crew, plus he's a good man who I think has done nothing but good for the game. Not to mention that events he's involved with are always a hell of a lot of fun. Conley Woods is a close second. I've been all about him ever since talking to him at Grand Prix–Denver last year. He's a great deck designer, and a source of inspiration for years to come, I'm sure.

BDM: I have not met him—or her—yet. The thing I enjoy most about coverage is meeting new players and watching them grow into the game and thrive under the Pro Tour spotlight.

Q: Beatdown player of the decade?

Bill: Mike Turian. Sure, he wound up leaving the tour when the Ramp;D monster gobbled him up, but this is the decade in which he made the Hall of Fame, and he practically taught the Pro Tour how to attack for 2 with a 40-card deck.

Rich: Hmm. I guess you go with Raphael Levy. He's not achieved a PT victory, but his back-to-back GP wins with Gaea's Might Get There were a clinic in the application of beatdown pressure. He literally owned that metagame.

Tim: Brian Kibler is the beatdown. He neatly managed to bookend the decade with Chicago Dragons and Austin Angels. I look forward to seeing him attack for substantial amounts in the years to come. Honourable mention goes to Tomoharu Saito, who takes childlike glee in attacking with monsters, and does very well with it. When LSV plays Elves, it looks like a combo deck. When Saito plays it, it looks like a beatdown deck. How is that even possible?

BDM: Tsuyoshi Fujita anyone?

Q: Control player of the decade?

Tim: There are few players on the Pro Tour that I associate more with playing control decks than Guillaume Wafo-Tapa.

Bill: I'm going to pick a dark horse in Carlos Romao. He's not the first name that pops to the front of many people's minds when asked that question, but the former world champion and his Brazilian crew figured out the Psychatog mirror, the most dominant control strategy of the past ten years, in a way the rest of the world didn't, and they got a big trophy as payment. Romao and company knew that countering their opponent's card draw spells like Fact or Fiction just left them without counterspells for the spells that mattered like Psychatog or Upheaval. So they just let the card draw resolve, then easily won counter battles by having all of their counterspells left over when they wanted to drop 'Tog on the battlefield. It's also worth mentioning Brazil would be my choice for number two Magic country of the decade. When you look at the amount of players they have, then compare the success those players have on Tour, the ratio is ridiculously skewed.

Rich: My lack of knowledge from the early part of the decade leads me towards more modern exponents, so it won't surprise you to learn I've gone with Frenchman Guillaume Wafo-Tapa. PT–Yokohama was a masterful performance.

Q: Combo player of the decade?

Nate (answering for all three styles of play): These questions are really hard to answer. This past decade hasn't really been one like the one before it where you have a guy like Dave Price or Dan Paskins, who play Mountains, even though something better might be available. The closest we've come to that recently was [Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa] being intimately linked with Faeries. I guess if I had to choose a beatdown player, I'll go with Kibler, since he burst on the scene with the Red Zone and has kept the aggressive urge alive with his Zoo deck. The control player is probably Nassif, though I may just be jaded by his most recent performances. As for combo, I guess I'll go with LSV. His big breakout wins last year were both with combo decks, and they couldn't have been more different.

Rich: I'm going to cheat with this one, and go with two combo players. Chris Lachmann and Jacob van Lunen may not have brought their Sliver decks with them to San Diego in 2007, but they assembled all the components draft after draft after draft and rendered literally hundreds upon hundreds of "fair" cards utterly redundant en route to the title. Now that's combo.

Bill: Kai Budde. Winning with Trix puts him up there in my opinion. And his topdecked Morphling against Tomi Walamies is also one of the top topdecks in the game's history (probably third behind Craig Jones and Gabriel Nassif).

Tim: Luis Scott-Vargas is the combo player of the decade for me. I've seen him winning with Elves, Mind's Desire, SeismicSwans, Thopter Foundry .... While I know that he likes a good control deck, he seems to have a great temperament for playing combo. He'll rattle through even the most complicated turns like it is nothing, and before you know it he has won. I would love to be able to make anything look that easy.

Q: Limited player of the decade?

Nate: I'm going with Nicolai Herzog. Back-to-back Limited PT wins and proving he still has it in KL is all the proof I need.

Tim: Mike Turian. Nobody attacks for 2 better than Mike.

Rich: Hard to argue, although how about Nicolai Herzog? Won back-to-back PTs, and then made Top 8 of KL in 2008, overshadowed by the return of Jon, but still a huge achievement.

BDM:Where is the love for Anton Jonson or Richard Hoaen? They were two of the most consistent Limiteds players of the decade. I have Anton on my shortlist for this year's Hall of Fame ballot -- although that shortlist gets longer and longer all the time.

Q: Deck designer of the decade?

Tim: Ben Rubin. His hand in the second coming of Kibler was a pretty big deal, and on top of that I for one was a big fan of Super Grow, his extension of the ideas of Alan Comer's Miracle Grow deck, which with the addition of white became quite the beast in Extended.

Nate: I am going to give you two, because my brain has been destroyed by trying to sift through ten years worth of Magic events, most of which I didn't attend. My finalists are Gabriel Nassif, who has been stupidly good in addition to designing, or at least helping design, all of his decks. My other is the legendary Japanese designer Go Anan. He's one of the major forces behind the deck production warehouse that churned out the massive surge of top finishes by Japanese players in the middle part of the decade. I would like to give a nod to Conley Woods as my favorite deck designer right now, and someone I'm definitely going to be keeping my eye on in years to come.

Rich: Not sure, but Ben Rubin, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Zvi Mowshowitz, Mike Flores, and Patrick Chapin are all people who have delivered serious decks at important times.

BDM: Tsuyoshi Fujita or Itaru Ishida anyone?

What are your answers to any of these questions? Head to the forums and share your thoughts about the Pro Tour in the past decade. The next decade of Pro Tour action will kick off in Oakland on February 13 with a Grand Prix, and the next weekend when San Diego plays host to the first Pro Tour of the ... now what the heck are we going to call this decade?

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