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For almost all of the hundreds upon hundreds of players heading to compete in the World Championships taking place in Chiba, Japan there is the standard prize purse of a couple hundred thousand dollars waiting to be paid out in the main event. For a smaller subset of those players there is the Team Championship with its guaranteed minimum payout of a thousand dollars per team member. For an even smaller subset—a dozen grizzled Magic Online grinders—there is shot at a first prize that exceeds all in the main event save the $45,000 for first place. I am talking, of course, about the Magic Online World Championship that will take place during Worlds on December 9-12. From the fact sheet:
ADMISSION: FREE – No Tix, No Product for Limited, Invitation only
PRIZE SUPPORT: Prizes paid as follows:
The winner of the MTGO World Championship will win more money than the second-place finisher in the Worlds main event, and the last-place finishers will earn the equivalent of a 16th-place finish in the main event. With such heady prizes on the line, the invites for these twelve players did not come easy. Players earned a seat at this event throughout the calendar year via ten invitation-only Season Championships, one slot for a Last Chance Qualifier, and one slot awarded to the Magic Online Player of the Year.
Let's meet the competitors, who not only won a chance to play in the Magic Online World Championship but also earned a berth in the main event, which for some of these players will be their first taste of Premier Event competition.
The first slot of the season went to twenty-one-year-old Christopher O'Bryant (ceobry01 on Magic Online) from Lexington, Kentucky. Christopher earned his seat with the ubiquitous Thopter Depths deck that dominated the last days of seven-year Extended. O'Bryant came to Magic after getting his start playing a children's card game.
"I would see other players with cards from a different game and they got me interested in Magic," said Christopher in a previous interview. He went on to explain why he identifies himself mostly as an online player. "School takes up too much time for me to keep up with paper Magic and travel to different events. I haven't played in a paper event since States and that was the first one in a while before that."
"The two things that make it way better is not having to shuffle your deck ever—such a time saver—and also not having to keep your collection organized," he continued. "A paper collection is such a pain to keep organized and can be expensive too if you go the distance. What makes [Magic Online] a little worse is the anonymous aspect of the game play as you can't see your opponent, and don't know who they are."
Next up was twenty-one-year-old Reid Duke (reiderrabbit on Magic Online) from Sugar Loaf, NY. Reid, who has been playing Magic since he was five years old, has been enjoying success this year both offline and online. As a result his World Championship qualification is the second of three straight Pro Tours he has qualified for.
"Amsterdam was my first PT. I qualified on rating after having a couple of good live tournaments in a row. I qualified for Worlds and Paris by winning online tournaments," Reid explained. While he was happy and excited about Worlds his main focus was definitely on the Magic Online event. "My main goal is to win the Magic Online Championship Series."
When asked about his competitors, Reid identified Logan Nettles as one of the players most likely to win, but admitted: "I spend most of my time throwing darts at a picture of Brad Nelson."
While he will split his time between online and offline events Reid has been logging some extra time at the computer in anticipation of the event.
"Often, I don't play at all, but lately it has been twenty to twenty-five hours per week," said Reid of his Magic Online play pattern. According to Reid it should be an essential part of any Magic player's regimen. "I can't imagine trying to be a serious player without MTGO. I can play any time I want to, I can play against a hundred new opponents in a day, and I get sixteen more Pro Tour Qualifiers in a season."
The third season's winner was Brad Nelson. While all of the players competing in the MOCS have a shot at winning $70,000 if they string together two first-place finishes, it is hard to not imagine the player most likely to do that right now would be none other than MTGO's FFfreaK. Brad is coming into Worlds with a 15-point lead in the Player of the Year race, has made the Top 8 of a Pro Tour twice this season, made the Top 8 of U.S. Nationals, and ferociously (if the picture is to be believed) won a Grand Prix. Not bad for a player who made his Pro Tour debut last season in Honolulu.
Brad has been playing Magic since he was in high school, when his best friend William Lies introduced the game to him. Almost from the start Brad played the game competitively both online and offline. It was during the 2007-2008 season that he began attending Pro Tour Qualifiers. His brother, Corey Baumeister, qualified for the Pro Tour before Brad finally broke through in Hawaii.
"I would Top 8 almost every PTQ I played," recalled Brad. "I don't know the final record, but I think I Top 8ed about 75% of them. I just could never win a match in the Top 8. I was considering quitting the game and the morning of a PTQ my friend William Lies talked me into going to one more. I got the cards together and played the same deck I was playing all season. Made a few updates from the Grand Prix happening at the time and took the whole thing down. That got me to Honolulu. I owe this whole ride to him. Thanks Bill!"
As the patron saint of the Magic Online player turned pro, did Brad have any advice for his fellow competitors getting their first taste of the Pro Tour?
"I would tell them to relax and have a good time. It will be a long weekend with the MOCS and Worlds event happening at the same time. Get as much sleep as possible and prepare for some very long days. Just concentrate on being your best. Even the best in the world have off days and there is variance involved. Just don't let it get to you and worry about doing as well as possible," he advised.
With the possibility of being the first American Player of the Year in ten years—and the first non-Japanese player in half a decade—Brad has a little more on his plate than the other eleven players.
"I will be focusing most of my energy on the main event," admitted Brad. "I have to worry about winning Player of the Year this year, and need to accomplish some other goals as well. I will have to concentrate on the MOCS as well, so it wont be on the back burner or anything."
Brad, who has dubbed the collection of Magic Online Championship Series competitors The December Twelve, thinks any one of them could take down the title.
"I think Magic Online has been producing a very high number of talented players these days," said Brad. "It will not be an easy event."
For a player who spends 50-60 hours a week playing Magic Online, Brad feels like the step-by-step nature of the user interface has allowed him to be more precise when playing the game offline.
"It has propelled my technical play so far from what I ever expected," said the Player of the Year front-runner. "Just being able to see the game and how it works on the screen has allowed me to see it at such a different level. I have MTGO to thank for all of my accomplishments ... and Bill."
Former World Champion Carlos Romão (jabs on MTGO) took the fourth season championship. Twenty-seven years old and hailing from São Paulo, Brazil, Carlos was the first Latin American player to win a Pro Tour, leading the way for the likes of Willy Edel and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa to the Pro Tour. He is still leading the way, as many of the top Brazillian players have followed in his digital footsteps.
Carlos looks to be in fine form heading into the MOCS as he recently made his sixth career Top 8 in Grand Prix competition besting more than 2000 other players in Grand Prix–D.C.
The fifth season invite went to Bangkok, Thailand's Mongkol Techarattanaprasert (7720 on Magic Online). He's the most successful player from Thailand, having qualified for multiple World Championships and posting two Top 16 finishes and a 33rd-place finish in that limited exposure to the Pro Tour.
"I finished 13th, 33rd, and 16th in the last three Worlds I attended—2003, 2005, and 2009," said Mongkol. "I attended two more in 2001 and 2002 but did not get good results."
Mongkol's strong Worlds finishes made him one of the first players to put the world on notice that Magic Online was the great democratizer for competitive Magic. No longer did players need to hail from one of the so-called powerhouse countries like the U.S.k, Germany, the Netherlands, France, or Japan.
"I can play anywhere," said Mongkol, who plays anywhere from ten to fifty hours a week online. "Anytime, if I want."
Mongkol shops at the same dart store as Reid Duke and thinks that Brad Nelson is the most likely person to win the $25,000 first prize.
Meng Fan Xuan
China's Meng Fan Xuan (mengfanxuan on MTGO) won the sixth season qualifier and we will have to wait until Chiba to find out more about him. Between the success of the Chinese National team at least year's World Championships, his 11th-place finish at this year's China Nationals, and the quality of the other players who emerged from the same qualification process as Meng, you can expect he will be more than up to any challenges thrown his way.
Japan's Akira Asahara (Archer on Magic Online) is no stranger to the Pro Tour or a World Championship in his home country. He has made the Top 8 of a World Championship twice, most recently in Memphis two seasons ago. During the 2005 World Championships he famously "suited up" for the Top 8 to channel the power of Jon Finkel in order to get past a terrible quarterfinal matchup.
Asahara is one of my favorite deck designers, often taking unexpected decks right to the top of the standings. Not that he is incapable of winning with a powerful known deck, as evidenced by his Legacy win with the Ad Nauseam / Tendrils combo.
I am always excited to see what deck Asahara has chosen for an event and his choices for the MTGO World Championship will be among the first I check out in Chiba.
One player who knows Asahara well is the season seven winner Oliver Oks (mindcandy on Magic Online). Something of a Magic nomad, the Australian player spent several years in Japan as an English teacher and occasional Magic professional.
The thirty-one-year-old student / law clerk from Adelaide, Australia has been playing Magic since The Dark. He has won countless Pro Tour Qualifiers with a Pro Tour best finish of 28th at Pro Tour–Philadelphia and has made the Top 8 of a Grand Prix four times. With exams limiting his ability to prepare for the events he was leery about his chances but still eager to get back into the Pro Tour environment—and advised any of his fellow competitors who might be going to a PT for the first time, to soak it all in.
"Of course you want to do well in the event, but even if you bomb out, the first PT experience is always going to be amazing if you let it," said the Pro Tour veteran. "I think I won two matches in mine, but it was still one of the best weekends of my life. I met so many cool people from around the world and ended up staying up for two days straight just playing side events and hanging out with new friends."
With the competitive Australian Magic players sprinkled across the vast continent, it is not easy to get the same level of preparation for an event in person. This is opposed to the easy access to Magic players, at any time of the day or night, anywhere in the world on MTGO.
"The opportunity to get in twenty or more drafts a week is obviously going to improve your understanding of a format more than the two to three drafts on offer in my town. Same with Constructed formats," explained Oks, who feels like he has to overcome some of the ease of having Magic Online walk you through the priority check points when playing in real life. "It has helped me understand tricky card interactions more easily though, since MTGO has pretty much the best judges ever."
"I think live Magic is more difficult because you have to keep track of a lot more things like life totals and triggered effects by yourself, while at the same time playing a lot faster since so much more time gets eaten up by shuffling and such," he continued. "Also in live Magic you have more opportunities to play the opponent through bluffing so I have to suppress the urge to jump up and run a victory lap every time I top deck. On the bright side at least there are judges handy to give me a nudge if I fall asleep!"
Season nine winner Logan Nettles (jabberwocki on MTGO) was one of the players Reid Duke felt most capable of winning the MOCS and he made a similar prediction about Reid. The twenty-two-year-old entrepreneur from Santa Barbara, California will be heading to his first Pro Tour despite playing the game off and on since he was six years old.
"I've only played in a couple live Pro Tour Qualifiers and a couple of Grand Prix, but I have played almost every block since Ice Age mostly drafting at local shops every now and again," said Logan of his offline Magic experience. "Online I have played for quite a while and pretty frequently the last year or two."
So after having Magic be a part of his life for more than a decade and a half, how did it feel to be heading to his first Pro Tour and getting a crack at a $70,000 payday?
"I'd give it a ten on the excite scale," said Logan who fully expects to come home with at least $25,000 of that prize money. "I don't really have expectations for Worlds, but I expect to win the Magic Online Championship Series!"
I asked Logan, a self-described Magic Online grinder, to describe a typical day of MTGO.
"Absurd hours. I play Sealed Daily Events and Sealed Premier Events whenever they fire and I'm around to play them," Logan elaborated. "It has just made me better because I'm able to practice constantly, watch my replays, learn from my mistakes."
As for the differences between playing online and off:
"Playing online is easier because you don't have to hide your emotion, and you're given much more time on your decisions," said Logan. "The downtime between rounds playing live is much longer, which I don't like. The mindset is the same though—just play as well as I can."
The final winner of the ten season championship was the second player to hail from Thailand. Jakguy Subcharoen is a twenty-eight-year-old student, who, like Mongkol, hails from Bangkok. He has been playing Magic for the last three years and his MOCS win was his first digital tournament success. He is twice the Thailand National Champion and his first Pro Tour was last year's World Championships. Earlier this year he had a third-place showing at Grand Prix–Kuala Lumpur.
"This is gonna be my second PT, I'm a little excited about it," said Jakguy. In terms of preparation for the event he is just going to do what he always does—play MTGO. "It's a great tool for testing decks."
He usually puts in about 24 hours a week on MTGO and will continue to do so in the hopes of defeating the player he thinks is most likely to win other than himself: "7720, a.k.a. Mongkol Techarattanaprasert, another one of the best Thailand players."
Like Brad Nelson, Jakguy's Magic Online handle comes from his love of a certain RPG.
"I just loved playing Final Fantasy RPG games when I was younger, explained the two-time National Champion. "9999 is maximum amount of damage in that game. I put it together with my favorite word and that became millennium9999."
Shintaro Ishimura (rizer on Magic Online) won the Last Chance Qualifier for the Magic Online Championship Series and we will find out more about him in the coverage for the World Championships weekend. He has 21 lifetime Pro Points, finishing sixth at the team Grand Prix in Hamamatsu and 70th at last year's Worlds. He also finished second in the 2009 The Limits tournament, an end-of-year Limited event in Japan that often features that country's top players.
Perhaps the most intriguing figure of the so-called December Twelve is MTGO Player of the Year Bing Luke. When the twenty-nine-year-old New York based attorney sits down to play his first round of the World Championships in Chiba it will only be the second sanctioned event he ever played in—and he did not do so well in that first outing, coming into Chiba with a rating below 1600.
"I'm pretty stoked," said Bing of his impending first Pro Tour experience. "I look forward to wrecking some people's ratings for sure."
After picking up Magic around The Dark, Bing began playing Magic Online with the release of Ravnica. His virtual trophy case overflows with online Premier Event wins but until the addition of online Pro Tour Qualifiers and the Magic Online Championship Series there was a glass ceiling to playing online. He does not know what to expect from this next level of competition and is trying to temper his expectations.
"I'm obviously setting the bar low since a lot of playing well in a long tournament is letting the mindless stuff be automatic so that you can focus on the small parts of the game that actually matter," Bing explained. "Then again, my friends assure me that the average level of play, even on the Pro Tour, runs the gamut from comparable to MTGO to significantly worse, so I'm cautiously optimistic."
His preparation for both events involves the usual playtesting, but he has added a physical component to his training for the live portion of the weekend.
"I've been drafting a ton of Scars and it's too early to have a deck, so I'm just familiarizing myself with the different Standard and Extended archetypes hoping not to be completely awful at whatever decks I end up playing," said the Magic Online Player of the Year. "The estimable Jarvis Yu says to practice shuffling, which is about the most I'm doing to practice paper."
Bing assumes that all the players who are able to qualify for one of the dozen seats in Chiba have to be of comparable skill. Still, one stands out as the main threat in the small field.
"The level that Magic Online grinders reach has to be close to Brad Nelson, but Brad Nelson is Brad Nelson," said Bing. "And Brad Nelson is even more Brad Nelson when he is part of the best team in Magic."
Bing had a hard time imagining a modern player being competitive without the aid of MTGO.
"Not to rail on Team Paper too much, but the average Magic Online player just has to be better considering the availability and speed of the games, the average quality of play stemming from the size of the player pool and being forced to learn the technical aspects of the game. Like, from what I've seen, MTGO has made things like proper trigger stacking from being a cool play to being commonplace," he explained.
"Another subtle difference is it's really easy to find a competent team of quality Magic players online—such as the fine folks at GoodGamery.com—that you can brew with and bounce ideas off of that isn't limited by physical distance. I mean, I know paper players have access to this mystical device called the internet, but having to defend awful plays in public MTGO replays at multiple decision points and in real time has certainly helped me a ton."