I landed Tuesday morning after an overnight flight from the NY area. That meant only one thing—stay awake at all costs. Jet lag is going to be something to struggle with all week but the worst thing that you can possibly do to exacerbate it is to take a much desired mid-afternoon nap. I have learned that lesson the hard way. I remember the last time I was in Paris I was in the booth for the Worlds Top 8 when my wife's plane landed and I could not communicate the toll a mid-afternoon nap would take on her. She was pretty devastated for the first couple of days of our stay. Fortunately she rallied for the bulk of our stay and our time in Paris remains one of the best vacations we have ever shared, but those first couple of days were brutal on her.
I dropped my bags off in the room and did not even make eye to pillow contact with the bed. I went to the lobby to meet up with the rest of the coverage team and assorted Wizards personnel for a midday repast and the fuel to get through the day without giving in to the siren's song of sleep calling me to crash to my doom on the pillows.
One of the things I love about Paris is the food. I have seen a handful of American players grousing about the food there but I just don't understand it. Even if you are not someone who likes foie gras and escargot—two things we consumed in mass quantities on the trip—there is plenty of accessible and delicious food to be found on every street corner. My initial meal was a croque madame and French onion soup. There are also the amazing street corner crepes that never fail to provide a satisfying mid-afternoon or late evening snack.
Now that I think about it, Tuesday was pretty much mono-food with a couple of drafts and train rides interspersed throughout. We ate lunch, bought books at Shakespeare and Company, ate crepes, drafted, and then ate dinner at an excellent Italian restaurant that messed up my risotto order and accidentally served me one of the best plates of spaghetti I have had. We managed to cram one coverage draft in after dinner and then everyone went off to a long awaited night of sleep.
The first half of the day was my last chance to see any of Paris before the weekend pulled us all up into the vortex of the Last Chance Qualifier, Pro Tour, Grand Prix, and Player of the Year playoff. I met up with Josh Bennett and Nate Price in the hotel lobby and we made our way to the Musee d'Orsay where we met up with Evan Erwin. I know that people always talk about the Louvre but given a choice between revisiting the two I went with the more intimate museum. They have a truly mind-blowing collection of artwork that includes pieces by Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Rodin, Gauguin, Lautrec, and others in what was formerly a train station converted to museum.
With a 4 p.m. coverage meeting looming I only had two and a half hours to take in as much of the collections as I could. I had a mission that needed to be accomplished before then. When I stayed in Paris the last time our apartment was just down the street from chocolatier Jean Paul-Hévin and I was given orders that I absolutely needed to return with one of the few items the store will not ship overseas. I managed to find our way there in a meandering way that inspired absolutely zero confidence in those following me, but their faith was rewarded by some of the most insane treats any of us had ever tasted.
With chocolates in tow for the coverage guys who did not make the day trip with us we headed over for our first look at the event site and the start of our work weekend. After our meeting the players began to drift into the site and pick up last minute cards for their Standard decks. I love a format that has just gotten an infusion of new cards and the reaction that inspires in deck-builders.
Two players in particular standout from that evening: Brian Kibler showed off five cards that were going to take his Caw Go list, last seen at the World Championships in Chiba, from strong metagame deck to the format defining deck for this chapter of Standard. With a grin wider than normal—if that is at all possible—Kibler fanned a playset of Stoneforge Mystics and one Sword of Feast and Famine. That was the first time we heard about anyone playing the card but it would become a common tandem of cards on the top tables through the weekend.
Steven Sadin, columnist for Limited Information, had gotten promising results with a Tempered Steel deck and was gleefully making Asp puns that would leave LSV groaning. Based on testing out the deck, Hall of Famers Kai Budde and Zvi Mowshowitz decided to go with that build, along with some other notable players like Alex West, Sam Black, and Gaudenis Vidugiris. If you happened to wander by an early Feature Match table and see the most dominating player to ever play our game cast a turn one Vector Asp in Constructed you were not hallucinating. The group playing this deck struggled to keep their heads above water throughout the weekend.
Finally. The kickoff to the 2011 Pro Tour season was finally here. Rich Hagon and I got down to the business of looking for the decks that were going to have a significant impact for Deck Techs and new emerging draft strategies that would come from the addition of Mirrodin Besieged, and the change in the order in which packs are drafted when a new set is released. Two of the Deck Techs were layups since they involved previewing the decks we would see in the Player of the year playoff between Brad Nelson and Guillaume Matignon on Saturday. Little did we know that we would also be seeing both decks in action on Sunday during the Top 8 with Guillaume's Tezzeret deck being played by Patrick Chapin and Brad's CawBlade being played by eventual winner Ben Stark and his quarterfinal opponent Tom Martell.
For the Draft Tech we had to choose one player from the star studded top table at the end of the Day One Standard rounds. We had to choose between two of the players that would eventually make the Top 8 and we went with positioning Draft Tech host Rich Hagon behind Ben Stark—who is widely recognized as one of the best Limited players in the world. The results of that draft piece were pretty spectacular and serve as a great introduction to this new Limited format.
While Rich was positioned behind Stark I was recording the draft picks of Patrick Chapin for the awesome Draft Viewer that lets you see every decision that the players faced in every seat of the draft. Watching Patrick make his picks I was struck by the confidence he had with the format and the shift in card values he utilized due to picking up a pair of Ichor Wellsprings in the first pack. I made a note to pencil in Patrick for a Friday Draft Tech if he emerged from this draft still in contention—which seemed like a safe call to make.
The largest Day One field in Pro Tour history had been culled to the largest Day Two field after eight rounds of play. Once again Patrick Chapin was at table one and I promptly pulled up a chair and watched him go to work. Draft table one featured half the players who would make the Top 8 of the event as well as eventual 9th place finisher Eric Froelich. This is easily one of my favorite Draft Techs I have had the chance to do. We got to talk about not just the picks themselves but the implications of what you are passing and what you are receiving around the table. In addition it featured Patrick warping his draft strategy around Ichor Wellspring and talking about how he takes it over both Go for the Throat and Burn the Impure.
As this tournament came down the stretch it was obvious that it would be a potent Top 8 as there were abundant names scrumming in the Top 32 of the standings down the stretch. One of the things that might get lost from this event is how dominant CawBlade performed. There may have only been two copies of the deck in the Top 8—not including Nakada's version of the deck without much in the way of countermagic—but Eric Froehlich, Luis Scott-Vargas, Owen Turtenwald, and Erik Landriz all piloted the deck to a Top 16 finish as well.
The Top 8 for this event was deep in experience. Even when players were making their debut on the Sunday stage of a Pro Tour there was plenty of experience to draw upon. Nakada had been in the Top 8 of his Nationals a few years back and had won Grand Prix Manila just last season. Ishimura was playing in the Magic Online Championship in Chiba. Lemoine had gotten as far as the finals of the Team Championship at Worlds in San Francisco, and Tom Martell was coming off a finals finish at Grand Prix Columbus. Team World Champion Nico Bohny was making his second Top 8 appearance but it was a trio of Americans all making at least their third Top 8 appearance—Chapin was making his fourth—who were also looking to make their case as potential Hall of Famers in the near future.
Before the Top 8 would get played out there was still a Grand Prix for players to play in and a Player of the Year trophy to give away.
Rich Hagon and I got to sit down with the two contenders for the Player of the Year title and watch them build their Super Sealed decks the night before the showdown. Rich talked with Matignon while I sat with Nelson. Interestingly, both players had dismissed infect as a real strategy for what they thought would be a bomb- and removal-heavy mini-"Constructed" format but both players ended up with infect decks for the Limited leg of the showdown.Brian David-Marshall and Rich Hagon.
Brad felt good about his deck, which had both removal and bombs but Guillaume could not settle on a deck that he felt good playing with and had multiple builds at the ready should the Limited portion go the full three games. The two players split the opening Constructed rounds and that meant at the very least three rounds of Limited would be needed to settle the match. Brad's forty cards performed as advertised but that did not stop him from swapping out green cards for white ones while Matignon completely overhauled his deck from black-green to blue-red.
With Brad up two games to none in Limited and on the verge of winning the title without it going back to Standard Matignon had to dig deep into his card pool for a red-white jank deck that featured a turn three Training Drone, which prompted me to joke in the booth that perhaps Matignon thought the format was some Iron Man variant where you could not play with the same cards twice. It proved to be just what he needed, though, as he quickly overran Nelson with a janky assortment of critters, spells, and Equipment.
In the sixth game of the best of seven series the critical fourth win went to Nelson notching another win in the tool belt of the CawBlade deck.
Meanwhile there was still the matter of a 2,200-person Grand Prix to be settled. While most of the other players in the Top 8 of the Pro Tour chose to take a day off from Magic, Paul Rietzl—facing what he deemed to be an unwinnable match-up in the quarterfinals decided to play and see if he could not get some sort of hedge against his looming ouster in the round of eight.
Sunday started earlier for Paul Rietzl than the other players in the Top 8 as he had an 8 a.m. date with a draft table for Day Two of the GP. His plan was top draft, register his deck, take a round one loss, lose to Patrick Chapin, and then resume his Grand Prix. A funny thing happened on the way to the Feature Match arena though and Rietzl swept past Chapin in three games through a combination of solid draws and excellent reads. He managed to get it done just in time too, as pairings for Round Two of the Grand Prix went up moments after swinging in for the win.
As fast as that match went, the mirror between Ben Stark and Tom Martell took in excess of three hours. Fittingly, the winners of the shortest and longest matches would meet in the finals with Rietzl facing what was supposed to be a favorable match-up for him. Of course he was still in the Grand Prix and doing well with only three losses on that particular leg of Magic Weekend. Realizing that we were seeing something unique in the history of the game the webcast team scrambled to create an additional table for Rietzl to play his Grand Prix matches on camera en route to the Finals of the PT.
There is no doubt that the two events took a toll on Rietzl—much like the three-hour quarterfinals took a toll on Stark—who looked exhausted by the end. Rich Hagon wondered if Rietzl regretted the decision to play in both events and when I put the question to the Boros player he emphatically said, "Hell no! I came here to play Magic."
While Boros may have been favored in the match-up against Caw-Blade coming into the Finals I don't know if anyone will believe that after watching Ben Stark win his first Pro Tour title in four games that looked like he was in control the entire time. Combine the win with a second place finish at Grand Prix Atlanta and you have your 2011 Player of the Year leader with 33 points—half the total that Brad Nelson and Guillaume Matignon accrued en route to their historic tie.
As if this was not enough of an action-packed weekend—while this was all happening, none other than Kai Budde was making the Top 8 of the Grand Prix. Kai would fall to William Lowry in the Quarterfinals and William would go on to lose in the Finals against David Sharfman—making Forida 2 for 2 in trophies on the day. At that point I had traded my suit coat for a hoodie and my note cards for a Commander deck to play some Magic before a well deserved coverage dinner with an amazing team of people that make up the coverage team.Paul Rietzl, Brad Neslon, Ben Stark, and David Sharfman.
I was exhausted and could not wait to be home. But at the same time I was already looking forward to doing it all again in Nagoya!