Anytime a Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa or Alexander Hayne win a Grand Prix, I look forward to interviewing them and finding out about their deck, the current status of their career, or where they are in their yearlong metallurgy program. Seeing established greats of the game dominate a Grand Prix-sized field is always an affirming event about the skill element of Magic. It's easy to forget that each of them had a breakthrough event where they were some random person who did well at a Magic tournament.
Alexander Hayne finished second to Richard Hoaen at Grand Prix Montreal in 2011, and all was right in the world as the established (and returning) pro defeated the unknown player in the finals. Hayne's career has been on a rocket-propelled trajectory ever since then. And the only person who saw that coming was Rich Hoaen, who saw something in his young finals opponent and invited him to study at the prestigious Hoaen 8-4 Academy after the GP.
Hall of Famer Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa earned the first of his SEVENTEEN Grand Prix Top 8 finishes at GP Porto Alegre a decade ago, during the 2005 season. How could anyone have known that Damo da Rosa would go on from there to become one of the most dominating players in the game for the next ten years.
I am in no way saying that Grand Prix Charlotte Champion Michael Malone will go on to have the career that these two greats have had, but it's certainly possible. Which is why I relish the opportunity to get to know players we are unfamiliar with, even more than any other aspect of doing this column.
Middle school seems to be a common element in these interviews for when players discovered the game of Magic, and Michael Malone is no exception. I find it remarkable—and a little humbling to the Spike in me—that people will have more than a decade of experience with the game, playing on coffee tables, schoolyard benches, and in local game stores before they pop up at an Open, PTQ, or even a Grand Prix. It is fitting that the next Pro Tour Malone competes in will be PT Battle for Zendikar since it will represent something of a competitive homecoming for him.
Grand Prix Charlotte Champion Michael Malone
"I was attempting to delve into competitive Magic around the time Zendikar was released," recalled the GP Charlotte Champion. "At that point, I had been playing kitchen table Magic for years, but I was beginning to read articles on StarCityGames and ChannelFireball I tried reading articles on Brainburst when I was younger, but I didn't understand the differences in formats. Around the time Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor got banned was when I started traveling to PTQs and obtained my first Top 8 with Red-Green Valakut. Even though I lost quickly in the Top 8, it was my best finish at the time and I have been hooked ever since."
Malone began hammering away at the Grand Prix circuit and had half a dozen attempts stall on Day One. He finally made it past the first cut at Grand Prix Atlanta last season and got to draft on Sunday (the brass ring of playing in a Limited GP). Before Atlanta, he had missed the cut with an x-3 record more often than not. Atlanta was the first event where he had played enough to accrue the Planeswalker Points needed for a bye.
"It was also my first tournament that I was lucky enough to battle professional Magic players, such as Guillaume Wafo-Tappa and Yuuya Wantanabe—too surreal, to say the least!" said Malone, who did not have a great Day Two. "My final record was a mediocre 10-5 and I didn't cash due to my tiebreakers, but I had a fantastic time."
He and his teammates, JW Kingsley and Jesus Buenrostro, got a taste for finishing in the money when they did well at Grand Prix Nashville. Malone had previously qualified for Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir with a win in his sixth PTQ Top 8 finish; and also won a TCGPlayer Diamond Open. All of that paled for him compared to his accomplishment at his first Modern Grand Prix.
"This Grand Prix win ranks far and above everything else thus far in my career," said the Elves player. "After graduating college last spring, my goal was to take some time off from pursuing my master's degree—or finding a nine-to-five—in an attempt to fulfill my dream of qualifying for the Pro Tour. Up until I won the last 'real' PTQ within driving distance from my home this past January, I had come just shy of qualifying so many times. It was disappointing to be an end boss or a bridesmaid; I wanted to win."
Despite never having played in a Modern Grand Prix before, Malone had a lot of experience with the format and a local community that provides plenty of chances to play in Modern events.
"I was playing Modern every week because our local stores and community support the format pretty well. Modern was a format that I didn't test often because I almost exclusively played Scapeshift at competitive tournaments. However, this changed recently since the banning of Birthing Pod, and I was looking for a new deck to pick up," said Malone who found solace for his banned Birthing Pod in the Company of Elves.
"I have played the deck for about five weeks, ever since I saw similar versions doing well on Magic Online. The deck is great against all of the "Rock" style decks in the format, as well as Burn, Affinity, random Zoo decks, and other creature-based decks," Malone, who appreciated how punishing the deck could be against opponents who stumble, explained. "I won a PPTQ the weekend before the GP and managed to Top 8 two IQs the previous two weeks before that. I know it doesn't sound like much, but I felt as though I knew the deck very well and I believe that Modern is a very 'play what you know' format. I used the results from the Invitational to tweak the last few slots of my sideboard."
In his Top 8 Profile for the coverage from the Grand Prix, Malone talked about an exciting Collected Company win and elaborated on the details for me. He was playing in the last Swiss round of the event and needed to win in order to get into the Top 8. He was up a game, but he was pretty sure that a third game was coming up in pretty short order.
"My opponent was playing the Abzan Company deck and had more creatures than me, and my life was in the single digits. I had no cards in my hand and drew for the turn—Collected Company," he recalled. "I waited for my opponent to attack and I took all of the damage, falling to 4 life. I cast my spell at the end of turn and managed to find a copy of Elvish Archdruid and an Elvish Visionary. The Visionary drew a blank, but my draw for the turn was another Collected Company—lucky, I know! When my opponent turned his creatures sideways, he thought I was dead because I appeared to be in chump block mode, but before blockers I cast the second copy of Collected Company, hit two more Elvish Archdruids, and I killed his whole team. Two activations of Ezuri later and I was attacking for exactly lethal in a game I had no business winning, thus locking up my first Grand Prix Top 8."
He would cruise through the Top 8, dropping only one game along the way, to win his first Grand Prix—and possible test the limits of his cellular data plan.
"This past weekend was one of the most memorable experiences of my life and the support from friends, family, and fellow players was just unreal. After I won my quarterfinals match, my phone had 20 missed calls, over 60 unread texts, and over 200 Facebook notifications," marveled Malone, who will be counting on some of those friends to join him in Milwaukee for the Pro Tour next season.
"I have several friends that have won PPTQs for Milwaukee, so hopefully the majority of them can perform well enough at their RPTQs and I can have some close friends to test with for the PT. I'm living out one of my greatest dreams by being eligible to compete in another Pro Tour and I want to do as well as possible."
SPEAKING OF ALEXANDER HAYNE…
Alexander Hayne finished seventeenth this past weekend, which was good for three Pro Points toward his Grand Prix Player of the Year leading total. With Pascal Maynard not in attendance for Charlotte, Hayne has pulled ahead to a four-point lead with scant GPs remaining on the schedule. There are just four more weekends—with a total of seven GPs—available for the players to rack up points.
Four-time Grand Prix Champion Alexander Hayne
This weekend is a double-header, with Modern in Copenhagen and Standard in Providence. The next weekend is more Modern in Singapore (I'm officially jealous of everyone going there, btw) and Standard in Buenos Aires (similarly jealous here). Legacy is on the docket in France during the first weekend of July, as is the swan song for Dragons of Tarkir Limited in Montreal. There is a multiple-week break in GP action with the Prerelease and subsequent Release weekends for Magic Origins. Then one last Grand Prix in Dallas-Fort Worth, which will determine the Grand Prix Player of the Year AND an invitation to the World Championship this August.
That invitation is set in stone once the final results from the Grand Prix are posted and the Pro Points are parceled out. That means any duplication of invitation from winning the Pro Tour the following weekend or landing one of the regional Pro Point leader invitations would open up an additional At-Large berth for the event.
Hayne is 18 and 15 points off the lead for the two North American invitations, but he has surged from behind in the past. Just recall the year we all learned his name, when he came into Pro Tour Avacyn Restored and swept his way into the World Championship, World Magic Cup, and Rookie of the Year title by winning that Pro Tour. Theoretically, he could open two berths by winning the PT and leapfrogging half a dozen people.
Or Pascal Maynard can close some of the ground this weekend with a strong showing in Providence. Stay tuned, this race is far from over.
My friend Dan Tack got to reveal one of the more exciting cards from Magic Origins when he wrote about Kytheon, Hero of Akros/Gideon, Battle-Forged. The card is going to displace some white one-drop in just about every Cube ever made, and Twitter was abuzz with turn one Battlefield Forge casting this only to be followed up by a pair of Monastery Swiftspears on turn two in Standard.
What I always wonder about when I see a powerful, cheap creature is: what impact it will have on the Eternal formats. I pretty much assume that the bar for clearing Vintage is very high, and few creatures will ever make that leap. But what about Legacy and Modern? I turned to Legacy Champion Ari Lax, a long-time player of white creatures in the format with Death and Taxes, to see if Kytheon could be viable—or even Vial-able in Legacy.
Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir Champion Ari Lax
"Pretty sure the answer is no," said Pro Tour Champion Ari Lax. "If you look at all of the white creatures people play in Legacy, you will find most of them are actually Stax-style lock pieces. The exceptions are Stoneforge Mystic, which is a one-card game ender, and fliers to put Umezawa's Jitte on to build another lock component. None of them just attack. Gideon is pretty good at just attacking, but when Wild Nacatl isn't good enough at that job to be played, you need more than Kytheon/Gideon can offer."
For Modern I looked to another player—and another Pro Tour Champion—with an affinity for white creatures in Craig Wescoe. He was more optimistic about Kytheon's chances to see some turn-one play in Modern.
Pro Tour Dragon's Maze Champion Craig Wescoe
"Yes." Wescoe replied flatly before going on to add, "In White-Black Tokens, you have the token enablers to flip him reliably: Spectral Procession, Raise the Alarm, and Lingering Souls. In a heavy one-drop zoo deck, you can use a pair of Goblin Guides to flip him on the second turn and then later untap your Grim Lavamancer with his +1 ability. He also gets us one step closer to making Champion of the Parish viable."