Player of the Month Club

Posted in The Week That Was on December 21, 2007

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

As original column programming on for the year comes to a close, it is time to look back on the 2007 season. For the most part, premier-level Magic is an event-based system and we often don't think about a player's accomplishments outside of a given event. To review 2007, I am going to break down the year month by month and select a player of each month. I hope everyone is enjoying their holiday season and look forward to seeing you all in the New Year!

January: Rookie Warm-ups

Watanabe gave a sneak peek at his 2007 success at the end of 2006.January was a slow month for Pro Tour-caliber events. There were not any Grand Prix or Pro Tours to make for an easy choice for the Player of the Month title. I have to reach back to the waning days of 2006 for January's player of the month. Every year the Japanese Magic community winds down their year with a couple of high-level events. The Finals is a prestigious Constructed tournament that has spawned a spinoff Limited event known as The Limits. It has also been a proving ground for young Japanese talent.

Coming off of a 2006 Worlds Top 8 finish—one year removed from winning the World Championships—Katsuhiro Mori emerged on top of The Finals in 2006 playing a modified TronTeachings deck that included the Pickles lock of Brine Elemental and Vesuvan Shapeshifter. It would be easy to give the month to Mori but his then-anonymous opponent in the finals of The Finals would go on to have a pretty notable 2007 season (and Mori would end up sitting on the bench for the bulk of the 2007 calendar year).

Yuuya Watanabe played Izzetron to the second spot in that tournament. The player from Kanagawa would later pilot a nearly identical list to victory at the Standard format Grand Prix–Kyoto. Combined with some solid PT finishes along the way, Yuuya would go on to close out the 2007 season as the Rookie of the Year (outdistancing Grand Prix–Daytona Top 8 finisher Steven Wolansky and the Pro Tour–San Diego winning tandem of Chris Lachmann and Jacob Van Lunen).

Yuya Watanabe's IzzeTron

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February: Wisconsin conquers Switzerland

Hron's strategy paved the way to Pro Tour glory.If you had to handicap the Player of the Month title for February way back on Saturday, February 10th, 2007 you would easily hand the title to Kenji Tsumura. Kenji was on the eve of playing in his fifth Pro Tour Top 8 and was going to be focus for the draft coverage of Pro Tour–Geneva on Sunday as the most accomplished player at a pretty solid draft table that included Pro Tour Kobe finalist Willy Edel, Pro Tour–Prague winner Takuya Osawa, and then-unknown but eventual PoY candidate Shingou Kurihara.

The Top 8 competitor under the camera's draft spotlight at Limited PTs had not fared well over the past few seasons, with quarterfinal exits by the likes of Antonino De Rosa, Masashi Oiso, and Kenji Tsumura himself. Kenji survived the coverage curse in the quarters of Geneva but could not dodge the old-school stylings of Madison's Mike Hron.

Hron, who has played on the Pro Tour since Chicago '99, had never reached the Top 8 prior to having the opportunity to knock Kenji out in the semifinals and would go on to win the event—the first Pro Tour win by an American since Mark Herberholz won Pro Tour–Honolulu. Hron had been featured prominently in the coverage as he held an opinion that was very different from the majority of the participants that weekend.

Planar Chaos had just been introduced into the Limited mix and the consensus was that black was the weakest color. A savvy draft veteran of the late-night draft circuit, Mike knew that this would create a market that he could exploit.

"If you look at the black commons from Planar Chaos there are really only two good ones—Rathi Trapper and Blightspeaker. My goal was to draft black-white rebels in theory, if it was coming," explained Hron in an interview after his win. "I figured most people wouldn't be drafting black. Brain Gorgers is a card most people don't even feel is playable and Trespasser il-Vec is another card that people rarely take. It is available much later than it should be."

You can follow Mike Hron's winning draft—which ironically featured multiple players going black due to an unusual concentration of copies of the card Phthisis at the table—with the Draft Viewer from the Pro Tour coverage.

March: A Hall of a Run

Levy's two Grand Prix titles to start the season showed the Hall of Famer was a force to be reckoned with.The 2006 season closed with Raphaël Lévy getting inducted into the Hall of Fame. From there he proceeded to have what has to be his best season as a Pro. Levy made it clear that he was invigorated by the Hall of Fame induction when he was the clear Player of the Month for March. He tore up the Extended format at Grand Prix–Dallas to close out February playing Domain Zoo, and then calmly did the same thing one week later in Singapore.

By the way, that unknown Kurihara kid from the Top 8 of Geneva popped his parka'd head up again at this event, making it as far as the finals of Singapore playing Balancing Tings and amassing points for his run at the Player of the Year title.

Kurihara could not get past Levy though, who was fresh off his win in Dallas. Before winning in Dallas, Levy had last won a GP in Lyons, France during the 1997-98 season—although he does have a whopping thirteen Top 8 finishes in his career. It took him almost 10 years to win his second but only seven days to win his third. Levy would eventually close out the season in the hunt for the Player of the Year title and secure Level 6 status for the 2008 season.

With Extended PTQs on the immediate horizon for 2008, I would be remiss not to include the list for this back-to-back powerhouse.

Raphael Levy's Gaea's Might Get There

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April: Battle for the Resident Genius Ballot

Wafo-Tapa defeated Kazuya Mitamura in the finals of Yokohama.Long before anyone knew the person most Magic players knew the name—and the decklists—of Guillaume Wafo-Tapa. His name first surfaced as a lab partner of Pierre Canali (along with 2007 French National Champion Guillaume Matignon) when the trio tricked out Affinity for Pro Tour¬–Columbus 2004. Wafo-Tapa began to make a name for himself when he got as far as the Top 16 of Pro Tour–Honolulu with Counter-Mizzet—a deck that would later be reconfigured by Mike Flores into Wafo-Tapa Control.

While Mike was pitching Pro Tour–Honolulu winner Mark Herberholz as his successor for the 2007 Resident Genius Invitational ballot, Guillaume campaigned by defeating Mark in the semifinals of Pro Tour–Yokohama. Both players chose to play Teachings-based control decks and Guillaume emerged victorious. Given the French player's penchant for Control decks—he also designed Dralnu Du Louvre at the end of the 2006 season—it seemed impossible for him not to win a Time Spiral Block Constructed format.

"I remember seeing Mystical Teachings and Teferi," Guillaume recalled fondly of his first impressions of Time Spiral. "I couldn't believe they made a card as good as Teferi. This is such a perfect card for the control player—and Mystical Teachings along with it? I remember thinking, 'Well I probably know what I'm gonna be playing in Standard for the next two years now'."

Guillaume Wafo-Tapa's Mystical Teachings Control

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May: Surging into the Lead

Saito was a constant force all season on Tour.I really want to give this month to Steve Sadin for his win at Grand Prix–Columbus with the Moreno-designed CounterFlash deck, but there is no way to get around Tomoharu Saito's turn in Strasbourg on the very same weekend. Saito has made the Top 8 of Pro Tour–Yokohama the month previous but the Level 6 mage was lagging behind back-to-back Grand Prix winner Raphael Levy in the Player of the Year race.

Saito had reached the Top 8 of Yokohama with a nearly mono-red deck that touched green for Stormbind but eschewed the power tandem of Greater Gargadon and Mogg War Marshal. He dumped the green for the European Grand Prix and emerged with the trophy from a Top 8 that included reigning PoY Shota Yasooka and eventual Worlds Top 8 competitor Christoph Huber.

The win allowed Saito to surge to a five-point lead in the Player of the Year race and he never eased up on the gas pedal for the remainder of the season. He even skipped out on playing in the Invitational for Grand Prix¬–Brisbane. His hard work and dedication paid off and Saito would eventually win the Player of the Year title, following in the footsteps of teammates Kenji Tsumura and Shota Yasooka. It only seems fitting that Saito got his turn in the spotlight, as he had earned the nickname "PoY maker" for his contributions to Tsumura's and Yasooka's successes.

Tomoharu Saito's Mono Red

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June: Sliving on the Edge

Lachmann and Van Lunen turned convention on its ear in San Diego.Coming into the 2007 season, America had been in something of a Pro Tour slump. The U.S. had brought home only one PT win in each of the previous two seasons. It took only two Pro Tours for the second American win of the 2007 season at Pro Tour–San Diego.

The format for San Diego was Two-Headed Giant Limited and coming into the tournament the Time Spiral strategies had been all about storm spells, Pyrohemia, and flying. Two young players from New Jersey had learned a different lesson from their playtesting sessions back home with Gerard Fabiano.

"It was actually Gerard Fabiano who got us started on slivers—I am pretty sure he is one of the best 2HG players in the world," said Pro Tour winner Jacob Van Lunen after the event. "He was not too into the poison but he got us started down that road. We figured out the poison thing but we would never have gotten there without Gerard getting us looking at slivers."

I remember seeing Jacob after one of the early drafts on Day One. He was sporting an ear-to-ear grin and fanning a fistful of Virulent Slivers—a card that was going last pick at most practice drafts. Jacob and Chris Lachmann were more than happy to pick them up along with every Shadow Sliver, Two-Headed Sliver, and Sidewinder Sliver they could find. While the rest of the field was building up to huge storm turns, the so-called Sliver Kids were racking up turn-four kills against the likes of Jon Finkel, Dave Humpherys, and their Top 4 competition in San Diego.

Despite their strategy becoming one of the lead stories from the tournament, Chris and Jacob were still able to implement it at the final draft table. They won the tournament in what has to be the shortest Sunday in Pro Tour history.

"I was pretty sure that slivers was the best strategy and that it was an undervalued strategy which gave it more thunder. Chris thought Virulent Sliver could have been a first-pick but knew that we could get them 15th and we did get one with the very last pick of the second draft," said Jacob. "People just refused to respect the strategy."

July/August: Striking the Right Chord

Scott-Vargas's deck designs were one of the summer's top stories.The summer months are notoriously unfocused for Magic and I have rolled July and August up to accommodate the big summer by Luis Scott-Vargas. There were a handful of National Championships held in July but few were won with a deck as unusual as Scott-Vargas's OmniChord deck from U.S. Nationals. I recall one match where an opponent had a board full of one-toughness creatures and a suspended Greater Gargadon. Luis cast Chord of Calling with X at six mana and his opponent allowed the spell to resolve, only to find himself blinded by the glare of Crovax, Ascendant Hero. The opponent missed his opportunity to sacrifice anything to the Gargadon and his board of weenies went away with no chance to recoup his losses.

It was Luis's second time on the U.S. National team. He had made the squad the year before when Paul Cheon was the champion. The deck was a design compromise between Luis and last year's national champ.

"I wanted to play Pickles combo because I liked it against Solar Flare, the prevailing control deck, but it could not beat the red decks. Paul wanted to play Wall of Roots and Loxodon Hierarchs because from Gifts Rock in Extended that is how we always beat red decks," explained Luis after his win at Nationals. "If you look at the deck it is actually Mono-blue with Wall of Roots and Hierarchs. We tried to mash it all together and we played it enough to get it to work even though it was a little awkward at first."

Luis Scott-Vargas's Blue-Green-White Chord

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Luis followed up on his Nationals performance with a win across the bay from his hometown at Grand Prix¬–San Francisco. The Magic community began to take the Luis Scott-Vargas/Paul Cheon team much more seriously after they both made the Top 8 of the event with their Relic-based control deck.

Luis Scott-Vargas's Cheontourage Relic Teachings

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You can expect to see lots more deck design work from both Luis and Paul—and the rest of the Cheontourage—next season as they ended up racking up eleven Players Club levels between them (Paul at Level 6 and Luis at Level 5).

September: The Return of the Juggernaut

Kai Budde, Hall of Fame, 'nuff said.While there were very few tournaments in September, the third Hall of Fame class was announced and, to the surprise of exactly no one, Kai Budde stood at the head of a class that included Zvi Mowshowitz, Nicolai Herzog, Tsuyoshi Fujita, and Randy Buehler. The third class was one of the most anticipated ballots since the Hall was first created, with seven fresh candidates who would all be considered locks on almost any other year's ballot. When you consider that Ben Rubin and Mike Turian—two of the finest players to ever grace a Top 8—were left on the outside looking to 2008, you get an idea of the caliber of this club.

Kai's résumé is just absurd, with more Player of the Year titles than anyone else has Pro Tour victories. He leads in just about every category except for overall Top 8 appearances (where he is edged out by Jon Finkel), but in the nine times that Kai reached the Top 8 he took home seven wins.

"First of all it means I am going to play some tournaments again, which I am looking forward to," replied the inveterate gamer when he learned that he had indeed made the Hall. "Playing in big events has always been the most fun to me, but I was definitely not going through the PTQ circuit again or try to keep up Level 3 if I should make it there at some point. For a long time I devoted most of my time to Magic and to that extent, I don't want to and won't be able to do that again. Being voted into the Hall of Fame shows me that the people who did those votes recognize the time and effort I put into playing Magic and believe I should be a future part of the Pro Tour as well, which makes me feel even better about looking back at my time on the Pro Tour."

October: A Magic Savant

Fortier's last-second deck change proved to be a wise choice.Let's face it...winning a Pro Tour is pretty much a guarantee that you will win your month, and 16-year old Remi Fortier is no exception after his win in rain-soaked Valencia. The Spanish Pro Tour was nearly wiped out by rain after flood waters surged into the convention hall—which was apparently built in a dried-out river bed that had been evacuated and drained after lethal floods many ages ago. While the event did go on, it took place a day later than originally planned. Given an extra 24 hours to work on his deck, the young French player audibled into a deck designed by Magic Online wunderkind Manuel Bucher, a.k.a. ManuelB.

"The day before the PT I was going to play Blue-white Tron and then Day One was cancelled," grinned Fortier after his win over Germany's Andre Mueller in the finals. "I had one more day to test and I decided to play the deck thanks to the rain. I love rain!"

His match against Andre Mueller demonstrated the power of Venser over the inevitability of the epic mechanic. There was nothing the German Enduring Ideal player could do if Remi drew his wizard to bounce a key Solitary Confinement that was staving off defeat—and that's exactly how the finals played out.

Remi Fortier

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November: A Tasty Pickle

Cheon went to Europe and came back a GP champion.With his win at Grand Prix–Krakow, Paul Cheon became the first American player to achieve Level 6 status in the Players Club—rounding out a pretty solid year for the much-maligned American Pros. Cheon had started out strong in Valencia and faltered down the stretch, leading him to redouble his focus and preparation for the last Constructed GP of the season and the first major event to include Lorwyn outside of Champs.

"After that disappointing performance, I had that fire inside of me that really wanted to win and do well so I basically shut off everything I was doing and played as much Magic as I could," Cheon explained. "Unfortunately I didn't have the cards until a couple nights before Krakow but as soon as the cards were available I started buying a ton of Standard cards from Lorwyn and started testing. I had a pretty good idea that I was going to be playing Pickles even before I left so I spent a couple days practicing in the 8-man Standard queues to get a good feel for the deck. Testing for Krakow involved some 8-mans on Magic Online and then I met up with LSV [Luis Scott-Vargas] in Krakow. We played with several decks and eventually hashed out a blue-white Pickles list as I wanted to play with Oblivion Ring and Wrath of God because we expected a bunch of aggro."

Paul Cheon

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December: Bright Lights, Big Treefolk

Peleg blazed a trail for a new country to enter Magic's hall of champions.December was exciting for me as the Pro Tour returned to my hometown for the first time since 2001. It was a crazy week of oversized Magic cards, delicious hamburgers, and old friends at the 2007 Magic World Championships in New York City.

Uri Peleg made history as the first Israeli player to make the Top 8 of a Pro Tour, and while that might have been enough for some, Uri dispatched big-name talent like Katsuhiro Mori and Patrick Chapin to become the first Israeli player to win a Pro Tour. Chapin and fellow Top 8 competitor Gabriel Nassif had the breakout deck of the tournament with mono-red Dragonstorm. While virtually every other player had put away their Riftsweepers, Peleg was able to buy just enough time against Chapin in the finals to make history.

When preparing for the event, Uri knew he was going to play green-black but was unsure if he could also accommodate white to support the Doran, the Siege Tower that ended up being essential to his victory—originally the list included Troll Ascetic in its place.

"Doran is much better than Troll in a lot of matchups," said Uri. "We just did not know if we could cast him consistently. It turns out you can pretty much. The damage you take from your lands is irrelevant in almost every situation. So Doran is much better. We weren't sure about whether to play Troll or Viper but we were certain we wanted Doran."

By "we" Uri was referring to fellow Israeli team member Elisha Amir, who also played the deck to what would have been the highest finish by player from Israel if not for Uri's win. Uri was looking forward to having another countryman qualified for the Pro Tour and following up on Israel's strong performance at Worlds.

"[Amir] finished 14th in this tournament—that is the best finish an Israeli has ever had besides me today—and he was playing the same deck," Peleg said. "He is going to be qualified because he finished 14th and his DCI rating should be pretty high, provided he doesn't do anything stupid."

Uri Peleg

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Firestarter: Player of the Year

Yes, yes...I know that Tomoharu Saito won the Player of the Year title, but if you got to pick a winner—based on whatever criteria you saw fit to use—who would it be? Head to the forums and share your thoughts on 2007's most exciting Magic players.

Again, Happy Holidays and I look forward to seeing you all in the New Year!

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