In the Money

Posted in The Week That Was on May 13, 2011

By Brian David-Marshall

The race for Pro Tour Player of the Year is about to enter its second leg with Grand Prix Prague next weekend. It is going to be a grueling five-week stretch that should go a long way to determining the results when the Player of the Year hopefuls cross the finish line at Worlds in San Francisco at the end of the year. Players going to all five events will face four different formats—Limited, Standard, Legacy, and Scars of Mirrodin Block Constructed—with a whole new set plopped right in the middle of all of them.

If you take a snapshot of the four players currently in the money of the race—using the term in the horse-racing sense—you find Ben Stark, Owen Turtenwald, Paul Rietzl, and Martin Juza hoping to maintain their pace over the next two months. Player of the Year front-runner Ben Stark will be attending four of the five events, skipping the event next weekend in Prague.

"My travel is unaffected by the Player of the Year race. I would go to those tournaments anyway," said Ben Stark when asked what his schedule would have been like without having 33 points heading into this stretch. "I really don't consider PoY a realistic possibility yet. I know I am in the race but I think I still need another 30+ points to win it so it's not mine because I won the first Pro Tour. I am just in the lead because there has been one Pro Tour and I won it."

Since coming back to the Pro Tour two seasons ago with a renewed sense of purpose, Ben has been on something of a tear with three Grand Prix Top 8s—including a pair of second-place finishes—and, of course his long-awaited win at Pro Tour Paris. If he is going to win the title he estimated that he would need to make a couple more deep runs this season.

"I think it will take between 30 and 40 Pro points, which means a Pro Tour Top 4 and a Grand Prix finals or something of that nature to go with the normal decent finishes," Ben projected.

Having two Limited Grand Prix to work with would seem to favor Stark, but he opted to skip the no doubt very large Grand Prix Prague. He will have to wait for Pro Tour Nagoya and Grand Prix Kansas City to put his 40-card skills on display. I asked him what New Phyrexia offerings he was most excited to play with over the next few weeks.

"I am really excited about Beast from Within because it kills Jace and I am excited about Phyrexian mana in Limited," said the finalist of the Limited-format Grand Prix Boston and semifinalist from Grand Prix Toronto. "I think it's a sweet ability that gives people choices—which I am always in favor of."

If you are looking for a dark horse candidate in the race you need look no further than second place in the current standings, where Owen Turtenwald, spurred by three Grand Prix Top 8 finishes and a Top 16 at Pro Tour Paris, sits at 25 points. Not only is Owen playing Magic as well as anyone in the game today but he is also going to be at all but one of the five events in five weeks—although he was not thinking primarily about the Player of the Year title when he set his itinerary.

"I have already booked for Providence-Singapore-Nagoya-Kansas City and plan on attending all of them," explained Owen. "Personally I would rather get Level 8 than PoY, especially with the amount of GPs next year getting doubled and that would be my primary reason for traveling to any Grand Prix that I wouldn't normally attend. That said, I would be thrilled to win Player of the Year as it's a pretty huge honor."

Owen has been playing Magic for long time and has been making Top 8s at the Grand Prix level since his breakout performance at Grand Prix Columbus 2007 when he made the finals of the Legacy tournament with Goblins. He made two more Top 8s over the next three seasons but has kicked things into high gear in 2011. With his three Top 8 finishes this season—3rd at GP Denver, 3rd at GP Dallas/Ft. Worth, and 8th at GP Atlanta—he has doubled his lifetime Top 8 output. When you throw in the Top 16 finish at the first Pro Tour of the season you have a player who has clearly made a leap to the next level—a leap he attributes to surrounding himself with the all-star squad that is Team ChannelFireball.

"Ever since I started playing with them my results have greatly improved, not only because they are amazing players and playing with them has helped me step up my own game, but also because we always seem to come up with a great deck for any given tournament," said Owen of his affiliation with the CFB crew, led by Luis Scott-Vargas. "As much as I think my results this year are a culmination of a lifetime of experience as a Magic player I definitely have to take this moment to thank everyone on ChannelFireball for their help: LSV, Wrapter, David Ochoa, PV, Brad Nelson, Brian Kibler, Efro, Ben Stark, Martin Juza, and Conley Woods."

With such a formidable army at his back, Owen saw no reason he could not win the Player of the Year title if things fall the right way during the next three legs of this year-long race. A Pro Tour Sunday showing is still missing from his resume and he did think that would need to remedied if the title was in his future.

"As long as I don't lose my focus I will continue to work hard and expect good things to happen," said an optimistic Owen. "As far as Sunday goes I would just ask you: has any player won PoY without a PT Top 8 in that season?"

Owen held out some hope that a couple of New Phyrexia mythic rares could find their way into his Nagoya draft decks in order to get that Top 8 sooner rather than later.

"I'm not sure which cards are best for Constructed but Karn Liberated seems like a lot of fun," said Owen of the new set. "I hope I have Sheoldred or Batterskull in my draft decks at the PT!"

Sitting in third place is Pro Tour Amsterdam winner Paul Rietzl, who does not get to play in as many events as his contemporaries on the Tour due to a full-time job and a finite amount of weekends on which he can get away to play. With weekends so precious he made the most of his opportunity in Paris when he got to double-table, playing in the Grand Prix while en route to a second place finish at the Pro Tour. Of all the players on top of the standings he will be logging the fewest frequent flier miles.

"I'll be going to Providence, the Pro Tour, and GP Kansas City," said Paul of his limited—lower case "L"—opportunities to move up in the standings. "Singapore is just not possible with my work schedule. I did make an effort to make sure I'm in Providence to pick up a point or two given how close last year's race was."

With so many of the other players ahead of him and behind him sitting in first class upgrades thanks to all the miles they will be logging, can Rietzl economy class his way to the Player of the Year title?

"It's possible, but extremely difficult given the limited amount of GPs I can play," he admitted. "I may have to even skip Pittsburgh, Montreal, or both. I am certainly going to need to make another Pro Tour Top 8 to have a chance. I could also stand to have a few good GP finishes—I haven't made a Grand Prix Top 8 since 2009. The key thing is that I'm going to need to get lucky for the tournaments I'm well prepared for and go on some runs."

We saw Paul win a Pro Tour title with a White Weenie deck and make the Top 8 of Pro Tour Paris with Boros. Should it come as any surprise that he was looking to an aggressive strategy to emerge from the release of New Phyrexia?

"Gitaxian Probe USED to be my kind of card, and I'm definitely going to enjoy playing with it," said Paul when asked about which of the new cards seemed exciting to him. "I'll switch things up and say Shrine of Loyal Legions. Seems like a perfect card to take White Weenie / Tempered Steel to the next level."

Martin Juza is the only one of the Top 4 players in the race who will be attending all five tournament weekends. Of course, he gets the home court advantage for the first event in Prague. Giving the Czech superstar an extra event has to give the other would-be title holders pause. While he becomes Hall of Fame–eligible in 2013 due to some World Championships appearances, only the last four seasons or so that have seen Martin play regularly on the Pro Tour. The bulk of his 200 career Pro Points are back-loaded to the latter portion of the decade, and he has shown no signs of slowing down any time soon.

You can expect to see Martin competing in just about every event he is able to get to this year, but not because of the Player of the Year race—or even the prospect of getting to Level 8 again.

"Not just because I'm doing fine in the PoY race, but more like because that's what I do," said the road warrior. "There are still a lot of places I would like to see, so as long as I do well enough to travel for free you will definitely keep seeing me on a different side of the planet every weekend."

Another reason for other would-be PoY title holder to be nervous about Martin was a tidbit from the Grand Prix Kobe coverage as Juza racked up the eighth Grand Prix Top 8 of his career. Martin, who has been considered a Limited master the past couple of seasons, decided to simply play the best deck in Standard for Kobe. While Caw-Blade may be an eye-rolling experience for many of the Standard players in the game, for one of the game's best players it was an eye-opening one.

"Playing Boros in a format where Jace, the Mind Sculptor was legal turned out not to be the wisest decision I've made this year," laughed Martin. "There is no doubt Caw-Blade is the best deck in Standard and while it's very frustrating to play mirror matches all day long there is just no reason to play anything else. Two years ago I played three straight Extended GPs with mono-blue Faeries and my worst finish was 17th. In the next three GPs I played Dredge, Sanity Grinding, and Elementals, winning a total of six matches. I think I've played enough tournaments to see that I have had the best results when I played the best deck."

Based on recent history Martin has to be confident that the Grand Prix finishes will be there for him—especially armed with his elite traveler status and the best decks for each format—but he felt that the opportunity to win the Player of the Year title will require a deep run during at least one of the three remaining Pro Tour events this season.

"If I can get 20 or 25 points from a single event I would feel pretty confident," he said.

As for the card he was most excited about from New Phyrexia, Martin looked to a common removal spell in Limited.

"I really like Forced Worship. It's a pretty simple card, but very powerful," said Martin. "Usually the problem with removal is that you don't want to use it on an early drop just to save some life, but this lets you move it later on a bigger and better guy."

Armed with good advice from these four superstars of the game don't forget to patronize your local WPN location for a New Phyrexia Launch Party. Next weekend you will get a chance to follow along the second leg of the Player of the Year race—which will no doubt include a piece about how the Czech superstar tackles the newly forged Sealed Deck format.

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