Player of the Month Club: 2008 Edition

Posted in The Week That Was on December 19, 2008

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.

Where did an entire Pro Tour season go? Can 12 months have possibly passed since last year's inaugural edition of The Year That Was? Let's take a look back at the players who stood out each month in 2008.

January – The Easiest Month in the Race

Grand Prix–Stuttgart champion Shuhei Nakamura

Shuhei Nakamura got to spend one easy month in pursuit of Japan's fourth straight Player of the Year title—following in the footsteps of Kenji Tsumura, Shouta Yasooka, and Tomoharu Saito. Grand Prix–Stuttgart took place in December, and it gave Nakamura an early lead that would briefly be surpassed by a Hall of Famer in February and would be threatened in the closing weeks of the year. In the end, Shuhei would stagger across the finish line in Memphis after 13 grueling months that would see him play Magic virtually every weekend it was possible.

The format for Stuttgart was Lorwyn Draft, and the winning deck list featured two cards that would go on to win the World Championships last week in Memphis. Broken Ambitions and Sower of Temptation were in the winning decklists for the first and last events of the 2008 season. While this was a Limited event, the success of Faeries in Constructed would become a running storyline throughout the season once Bitterblossom joined the format with the next set's release.

Shuhei Nakamura's Lorwyn Draft Deck

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February – Short Month Long on History

For Paul Cheon to not win Player of the Month for his Vancouver finish something pretty big better have happened in another event this month ... Like Hall of Famer Jon Finkel's historic win over Mario Pascoli in the finals of Pro Tour–Kuala Lumpur. Jon became the first Hall of Famer to win a title post-induction and was one of two Hall of Famers in this Lorwyn / Morningtide Booster Draft tournament. Nicolai Herzog also made the Top 8 of the tournament, and both Hall members had predicted their finishes in pregame comments.

Pro Tour–Kuala Lumpur winner and Hall of Famer Jon Finkel in the Finals

After being inducted into the Hall of Fame Nicolai Herzog—one of the most successful players at Limited Pro Tours—responded to a question about whether he expected to play again on a Sunday.

"Oh. and Sundays?" said Nico in the interview, "Absolutely. Next Limited PT. Wait and see! To everyone that voted for me! Thanks mates!"

Of course that prediction was overshadowed by the one Jon Finkel made prior to Kuala Lumpur when he learned that Olivier Ruel was about to pass him in second place on the lifetime Pro Points list. Jon's reply?
"I guess I will just have to win this Pro Tour then."

It was a spectacular win for Jon, showcasing his uncanny knack for winning and renewed love of Magic that was sparked by his inauguration into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame in 2005.

Wizened Cenn and its tribe were the featured players in Jon's final draft on the weekend. The walking Kithkin crusade would also make multiple Premier Level Constructed finishes in 2008—most notably in the Semifinals deck of Hannes Kerem from Worlds. Mulldrifter would go on to become a Constructed staple and was featured prominently in Jamie Parke's second place deck that was more notable for another Booster Draft transplant: Rhox War Monk.

Jon Finkel's Lorwyn / Morningtide Draft Deck

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March – Rolls In and Rocks Out

Mateusz Kopec, winner of the 1150-player Grand Prix–Vienna

Yuuta Takahashi had quite a year and will certainly tear off a page of the calendar later on in the season, and Grand Prix–Philadelphia was the first Premier Level event win for Gerard Fabiano, who had previously finished advanced as far as the Semifinals of Pro Tour–Boston alongside fellow Philly Top 8 finisher Jon Sonne. That earns them both the check mark for March—a month that saw three different Grand Prix tournaments take place—but you have to give credit where credit is due.

With well over 1000 participants—on the same weekend as Grand Prix–Philadelphia—Grand Prix–Vienna was the largest Extended Grand Prix in Magic history, and as such hats off to Mateusz Kopec on emerging from the grueling event with his sanity intact and a trophy in hand.

His opponent in the Finals was Nikolaus Eigner playing Dredge, one of the most dreaded decks in the format before, but not really after, Pro Tour–Valencia the previous year. There was a lot of talk about what to ban in the Dredge deck to keep the archetype in check, but when cards were added to the Extended banned list in 2008 it was the Sensei's Divining Top in Kopec's deck that stopped spinning. The card was also featured in Gerard's Rock list—albeit in singleton fashion—and in the winning list from Pro Tour–Valencia.

Mateusz Kopec's Polish Level Blue

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April – Nobody's Fool

April was the one quiet month for the Grand Prix / Nationals / Pro Tour scene, with none of those events taking place. I thought about giving the nod to myself for winning a Booster Draft tournament using old formats, but I had to hand it to Magic columnist Kyle Sanchez for showing he does more than just write about Magic. Kyle won his City Champs with an off-the-radar Wizards deck that featured such unlikely cards as Arbiter of Knollridge, which could be tutored up and flashed out thanks, respectively, to Vedalken Aethermage and Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir.

Vedalken Aethermage
Arbiter of Knollridge

Kyle Sanchez's Wizards

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May – You'll Make a Name for Your Elf

Charles Gindy, Pro Tour–Hollywood champion

Pro Tour–Hollywood could not have worked out better for Charles Gindy had it been written up as a movie script. It started when the Team Rochester Draft master opened up a fortune cookie that read: "You'll make a name for yourself."

And that is exactly what he did, emerging from an elimination bracket that included such stars as Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Shuhei Nakamura, Makihito Mihara, and Marijn Lybaert. Gindy has been playing Magic since he was a small child, and his victory in Hollywood was clearly the culmination of a childhood dream for the American player who beamed from ear to ear throughout the weekend.

Coming into the event public enemy number one was Faeries, but in the Finals it was Elves vs. Merfolk with Gindy's pack from Wren's Run coming out on top. Notably absent from the Top 8—but not from the Standard metagame for the rest of the year including a second place finish at Worlds—was Five-Color Control. The deck was called Quick 'n Toast at Hollywood, but that was a story for later in the year. May belonged to Charles Gindy and his Elves.

Charles Gindy's Elves

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June – Padding his Resume

GP–Indy champ and Hall of Famer Jelger Wiegersma

Sorry, Francisco Braga—when you get close to a dozen Grand Prix Top 8s with a handful of wins, become a Day Two juggernaut on the Pro Tour, win a Pro Tour, and then come back from retirement to win a Grand Prix, I will give you the month of June. In the meanwhile it belongs to Hall of Famer Jelger Wiegersma.

Jelger has been a machine since his second Pro Tour when he earned the first of a slew of Pro Tour Top 16 finishes. Seemingly a lock for every Day Two, Jelger had stepped away from the game in order to dedicate his energies to a full time job. Grand Prix–Indianapolis was almost a going-away party for him. You can get a good sense for a player based on how he is regarded by his contemporaries. By that gauge Jelger is both loved and feared. He would be voted into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame later this year, largely on the back of a wave of support from the Players' Committee, and was the player most often cited in Indy profiles when players were asked who they least wanted to play.

Jelger Wiegersma's Morningtide Draft

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July – Rookie Rising

Aaron Nicastri battles his way to the top in the Finals of Australia Nationals.

The addition of Pro Points to National Championships completely transformed the Rookie of the Year race in 2008. While Tyler Mantey and Tim Landale were grinding out their points on the Grand Prix level, Estonia's Hannes Selem, Belgium's Pacal Vieren, and Canada's Dan Lanthier were all working with bonus points earned at their National Championships.

Already working off of a Top 64 finish in Hollywood and realizing he had a special opportunity on his hands, Australia's Aaron Nicastri took off on a worldwide tour that started in Grand Prix–Paris and took him to Berlin, Taipei, Okayama, Atlanta, and Auckland in pursuit of a better Player's Club level in 2009 and the Rookie of the Year title. His journey did not yield many additional points, but he did get the opportunity to run with a pack of players that included Luis Scott-Vargas, Paul Cheon, Olivier Ruel, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, and Shuhei Nakamura.

By the time Aaron ended up in Memphis for the World Championships he was able to parlay that experience into a 17th place in the individual competition, a Finals finish in the team competition at Worlds, and the 2008 Rookie of the Year title.

Aaron Nicastri's Aussie Assault

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August – A Fairy Tale Ending

Yuuta Takahashi wins a Grand Prix with Faeries—again.

Yuuta Takahashi first popped up on the radar during the Top 4 of Pro Tour–San Diego. While he was unknown at the time he came highly recommended by the Japanese coverage team that had watched him play on the local scene. Takahashi won Grand Prix–Shizuoka with Faeries in Standard and then repeated with another iteration of the deck in Block Constructed at Grand Prix–Kobe to earn the check mark for August over two-time National team members Paul Cheon and Michael Jacob and soon to be Hall of Famer Olivier Ruel.

The two finishes by the 22-year-old Tokyo student quickly put him on the short list of Japanese players to watch and Faeries on the short list of decks to beat. By the time the Standard portion of Worlds rolled around, versions of this deck included Peppersmoke in the main deck—at least in the case of Akira Asahara—and many players were sporting main-deck Jace Beleren. The sideboarded Stillmoon Caveliers, so good in the mirror for Yuuta, would become the weapon of choice for many decks looking to keep the swarm of Faerie Rogue tokens at bay.

Yuuta Takahashi's Blue-Black Faeries

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September – Six and Counting

Masashi Oiso has six Pro Tour Top 8s on his resume, tied with his former apprentice Kenji Tsumura, who picked up his sixth this weekend in Memphis when he managed to knock his former master out of contention with one round to go. The debate over which of those two players is the Japan's greatest contribution to the Pro Tour is unresolved, but with Oiso seemingly reinvigorated about playing Magic after taking time off to complete his studies it could be settled in the coming year.

2008 Japan National Champion Masashi Oiso

Oiso caused a stir in August when he took his National Championship—the second time he has been on the team—and vowed to return the team title to Japan. While he fell short of the mark, losing to the U.S. team in the Semifinals, the bravura he showed promises an exciting 2009 from one of the game's elite players. He is the first person I am penciling into my fantasy Top 8 for Kyoto.

October – Luis Makes a Stretch Run

Luis Scott-Vargas rode the explosive Elves deck to victory in Berlin.

It was stunning to realize that coming into Pro Tour–Berlin, America's Luis Scott-Vargas had not made the Top 8 of a Pro Tour. Similarly stunning were the Extended Elves decks that ran rampant in Berlin—much to the surprise of the Zoo-heavy field. The players that chose Elves all agreed that the synergies between Heritage Druid, Nettle Sentinel, and Glimpse of Nature were incredibly powerful. What no seemed to be able to agree upon was a means of killing their opponents. Some players choose to attack with Mirror Entity–fueled Shapeshifter hordes, while others stoked a Predator Dragon to triple-digit stats.

Luis Scott-Vargas chose to kill with storm, using Grapeshot to finish off his victims. In Game 1 anyway. More often than not, LSV would shuffle his deck's configuration around and win sideboarded games the old fashioned way: attacking with a Umezawa's Jitte-equipped creature.

While the season may have started quietly for him, Luis ended up making a lot of noise down the stretch and was one of a small handful of players chasing down Shuhei Nakamura for the Player of the Year title in Memphis. He won Grand Prix–Atlanta, finished well in Auckland, and then closed out his Swiss rounds of Worlds with a 6-0 record in Extended playing a Swans deck.

Luis Scott-Vargas's Swans

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November – Things Get Interesting

2006 World Champion Makihito Mihara hoists the trophy in Okayama.

The Player of the Year race could have taken a much more exciting turn at Grand Prix–Okayama had Olivier Ruel emerged from his Quarterfinals with a win, but instead he only gained one point on eventual PoY winner Shuhei Nakamura. Instead it was former World Champion Makihito Mihara doing what he does best when he plays Magic: winning.

Mihara was in cruise control throughout the tournament and was one of only two Esper drafters at a Top 8 table that saw too many players trying to squeeze into the Naya shard. Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, the other Esper player, was knocked out in the Quarterfinals by his arch nemesis Kazuya Mitamura—who had drafted a beatdown deck with main-deck Naturalize just to beat Wafo-Tapa—which set up one of the most bizarre Semifinal matches I have ever watched.

Strapped for playables, Mitamura's deck included Keeper of Progenitus, Ooze Garden, and Godtoucher. Mihara got to see at least one of these cards with a turn-two Tidehollow Sculler and then nearly lost the game when Mitamura topdecked Quasali Ambusher on his second turn. Mihara bit his lip, had bloody teeth, and laughed nervously throughout the match which took on Lovecraftian proportions in my jet lagged mind.

Makihito Mihara's Shards of Alara Draft Deck

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December – Winning in Memphis

After my friend Jamie Parke dodged two terrible match-ups in the quarters and semis, I really thought that destiny was on his side for the 2008 World Championships but in the end it was Finland's Antti Malin playing Faeries who took the title against Jamie Parke's Five-Color Control deck that had sported a 2-3-1 record in the Swiss. Malin was making his second Sunday appearance after a Top 8 finish in London a couple years back. If you want to hear more about Antti or see mine and Randy's brief interview with him after his win you can go to the Tournament Center for all the highlights, decklists, and commentary.

Firestarter: Your Player of the Year

Who was your favorite player to follow this year? Head to the forums and tell us who it was and why. Happy Holidays everyone. When next we meet it will be in 2009!

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