Just a couple of months ago I did an interview with DCI Program Manager Scott Larabee to discuss the Wizards Play Nnetwork Championship Qualifiers that were feeding a tournament in San Juan for a free trip to Pro Tour–Amsterdam for the winner and the tournament organizer of the event that player qualified in. It was the second iteration of this event following up on an open version of the tournament that was held at Pro Tour–San Diego which was won by Tom Raney. If the goal of these WPN events is to get players to come to Pro Tours, play in public events, and use the experience as a stepping stone to higher levels of competition, then Tom is the poster child for the program—or poster-twenty-four-year-old-Oracle-programmer.
Tom has been playing Magic since the release of 4th Edition but it was not until the last couple of years that he began to pursue the more competitive aspects of the game.
"I play at Superstars in San Jose. They run some good tournaments every weekend, which is very important to me since I don't like to (play) Magic Online very much," said Tom of his local Magic scene. "We have a ton of very good players in the area, so the competition at local tournaments is usually at a high level."
Having the means to travel for events thanks to his job—if not always the time—opened up that aspect of the game for him and his Pro Tour journey began with about as long a trip as you can possibly make in an effort to qualify—Grand Prix–Melbourne late last year.
"I went to Australia specifically for the GP," said Tom, who finished 11th in that event and qualified for Pro Tour–San Diego. "Starting with that tournament, I wanted to make more of an effort to qualify by playing in everything, and it worked out!"
Tom was not content to wait until the 2010 season rolled around to get to the Pro Tour so he flew to Austin for the Last Chance Qualifier there. While only four players emerge from each LCQ with an invite to wake up in four hours and play on the Pro Tour there are abundant public events throughout the weekend to keep even the most relentless Magic player busy from the time the hall opens each day until the very last Booster Draft each night.
"I ended up winning an iPod in one of the side events and did plenty of Team Drafts, so it was a good time," said Tom of his Austin experience and the seven Public Events he took part in over the weekend but his first Pro Tour experience would have to wait until 2010.
When San Diego rolled around Tom came armed with a Naya deck for the Standard portion and the tournament started off just the way it does for everyone who dreams of one day playing on the Pro Tour. He earned himself the right to keep playing on Day 2.
"I started out 5-0 in Constructed with the Naya deck, which was exciting," he recalled. "Finally getting to play in a PT was nice after a few years of trying to qualify."
He fell short on Day 2 and found himself choosing between two Sunday events to play in. He could either take part in the $3000 Draft Challenge that happens on Day 3 of every Pro Tour or he could play in the WPN Open which could underwrite his trip to San Juan where he could once again dive into the Public Events starting with the LCQ. Tom liked his chances with the Naya deck that had gotten him off to such a strong start at the PT—and did not especially care for Zendikar / Worldwake Limited—and opted for the Open.
"The Naya deck was still very good for that event, so I felt like I had an edge over most of the field, having played it in the PT," said Tom of his win that not only earned him airfare to San Juan but also ended up qualifying him for the event courtesy of being in the Top 100 in Total DCI rating after the event.
"My rating was only about 1850 when I started PT–San Diego, but I realized I might have a shot at a ratings invite," he said in an interview during Pro Tour–San Juan for the community blog. "I just refreshed the page a bunch of times, and when it finally updated and I was like 200+ points up, I was pretty excited."
For San Juan, Tom worked with a handful of Northern Californian players and they came into the event with a Green-White Eldrazi Ramp deck that underperformed across the board for them. There was no Day 2 but there was a Saturday Pro Tour Qualifier—as there always is at every Pro Tour—and he looked to get to the third Pro Tour of the season via Public Events.
"I played Mythic, with many planeswalkers," said Tom of his Standard deck for the PTQ. "The build was designed to beat white-blue, which is exactly what I did. The finals against Polymorph was exciting, since in the final game my opponent made an Emrakul, but my Birds of Paradise was too big for it. It was an epic game and a good way to end a PTQ."
This was his third Pro Tour qualification of the year via the third method—Top 16 of a GP for San Diego, rating for San Juan, and an old-fashioned blue envelope for Amsterdam. At the time of this interview he was in the Philippines for Grand Prix–Manila hoping to secure 6 more Pro Points to hit Level 3 in the Players Club, which he could use to qualify for Worlds in Chiba. At this rate I would not be at all surprised to see him get there.
"I feel like I've earned my spot on the Tour by now," he said. "Qualifying in Australia didn't feel very real since it was only a Top 16, but now that I've won some tough tournaments it feels more concrete."
So what of the WPN Championship that took place in San Juan? Unlike the event that Tom won in San Diego this version was invite only and those invites were earned at select WPN locations in Puerto Rico and the eastern end of North America. One of those events took place at Cool Stuff Games in southern Florida and was won by Ben Stark. When I first started doing regular event coverage in the early part of this millennium, Ben was one of the most dominating players in the game. He was capable of making rapid-fire decisions while maintaining a steady stream of chatter that was pure gold to every coverage reporter. He stepped away from the Pro Tour for a couple of years but has made his way back onto the tour via the local PTQ scene in Florida and earned both himself and his local Tournament Organizer a trip to Amsterdam with his WPN win in San Juan.
Ben has been playing Magic for more than half his life having started in the sixth grade: "When I was in elementary school no one played—then suddenly in middle school it was everywhere and all my friends were playing."
He began playing in PTQs when Tempest was released and first earned a spot on the Tour in 1999 for PT–London as a 15 year old. He did not do well but managed to keep finding his way to events where he was taken under the wing of another colorful character blessed with uncanny skill and a verbosity to match it.
"I started cashing like 80 percent of the PTs I played around the middle of 2002," Ben recalled. "I think I mostly got really good by playing with Neil Reeves. He was sooo much better than than everyone else and we did a lot of drafting at events."
In addition to be consistently finishing in the money Ben made the Top 8 of Pro Tour–San Diego and Kobe as well as two Grand Prix Top 8s before stepping away from the Pro Tour—although Ben is quick to underscore that he did not step away from Magic.
"I have always played Magic—Magic Online, FNM, Booster Drafts ... " he said. "I quit playing on the Pro Tour because I didn't feel like I had the time to put in to be one of the best and I didn't want to go and do poorly since so many people spoke/thought so highly of me. I missed it too much though and couldn't take it anymore so I had to come back."
He has once again become a fixture on the Pro Tour and last season he made the finals of the 1500 person Grand Prix–Boston but he remains firmly entrenched in his local Magic scene as well.
"I play Tuesday night drafts/FNM pretty much every week I am home," said the Floridian player. "We draft a ton down there. There's really just a lot of gaming all the time."
The draft practice was apparent in Ben's San Juan PT perfomance where he was one of a handful of players to go 6-0 at the (now proverbial) round tables but he had more losses in Constructed than he had wins in Limited. He made it through to Day 2 but he promises to do better at the remaining events this season.
"I will be ready for the field in Amsterdam and play a better deck," Ben vowed. "I'm gonna practice a lot and try to get back to playing the Magic I know is in me."
He will have his trip to Amsterdam—and the trip of his local TO—paid for by virtue of his WPN win in San Juan.
"I played a standard-ish Jund control list—Bituminous Blast and all the usual suspects," said Ben of his little-S weapon of choice for the big-S-Standard event. "Pretty similiar to the list Owen (Turtenwald) got 2nd at GP–DC with. I loved the Prophetic Prisms. Spreading Seas used to just win so many games and your mana base playing Jund is so fragile but here is a two mana cantrip that fixes all that."
As for the TO he was, "Pretty excited," said Ben. "The WPN Champs was around his birthday and he's a friend of mine so he was getting status updates during the day. He loves Magic and plays all the time too so I am sure hes really looking forward to the free trip to the Pro Tour."
You can keep an eye out for Ben—and Tom Raney—this weekend via the Grand Prix–Manila coverage in the Tournament Center.