Player of the Month Club: 2009 Edition

Posted in The Week That Was on December 18, 2009

By Brian David-Marshall

As we come to the end of another year of weeks that were, it seemed like a fine time to go back and look at the year that was month by month and identify that players that stood out throughout the jam-packed 2009 events calendar.

    January: Luis Scott-Vargas

Between the end of the 2008 season and the start of 2009, Luis Scott-Vargas put together one of the greatest runs in Pro Tour history. He won Pro Tour–Berlin—after being down two games to none in the Quarterfinals—and followed that up with a Top 16 finish at Worlds, sweeping through the Extended portion of Worlds in Memphis to land in 11th place. Everyone wanted to know how he would follow up during the 2009 season, and he promptly crushed an 834-person Extended format field at Grand Prix–Los Angeles with Tendrils Desire.

Luis Scott-Vargas's Tendrils Desire

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It was the third straight Extended-format premier event that Luis had dominated with his third different deck archetype—an Extended hat trick, if you will.

"They're all combo decks," said Luis, in a post–LA interview, of his success with Grapeshot Elves in Berlin, Swans in Memphis, and then Tendrils in LA. "But they are different enough decks—calling something a combo deck doesn't it really make it like another combo deck."

It was a breakthrough stretch of events for Luis ,who had never even placed in the Top 8 of a Pro Tour before his win in Berlin. He was playing well and running hot. How hot? So hot that after his win in Los Angeles he did not have to pay for the victory dinner. That fell to Brett Piazza, who agreed to pay for the meal before the event if Luis continued with his winning ways. There is no telling how much that "added" to Luis's payout from Los Angeles, but the traditional post-victory celebration can make a significant dent in even those oversized novelty checks.

"The biggest change in what I am doing now and what I used to is deck selection. I played some pretty bad decks at Pro Tours in the past," said Luis when asked to explain his hot streak at that time. "I have improved significantly in that area. Other than that I don't feel like my level of play has shifted dramatically other than that now I am doing so well. Maybe I am catching more breaks or something. People have made the comparison to Kai Budde, and I think that is ridiculous. I haven't even come close to doing anything nearly like him. I have won some Grand Prix, and it is cool that it has happened in a short span of time."

Luis's success would continue at the next Pro Tour—he would get as far as the Finals in Kyoto—but he was derailed from capturing running Player of the Month honors by someone who is all but a lock to be enshrined in the Pro Tour Hall of Fame next season.

    February: Gabriel Nassif

It was the most amazing moment I have ever had the opportunity to witness from the vantage of the webcast booth. Gabriel Nassif was looking down the barrel of a Quarterfinal exit against Matteo Orsini-Jones. He drew his card and placed it face down in front of him without looking at it. He proceeded to fiddle around with his lands and announced, "I'm preparing my Cruel Ultimatum mana."

It was worth a chuckle as he said it, but that chuckle quickly gave way to raw-throated screams of amazement as the card Gab had drawn turned out to be the one he predicted. It was Magic's version of The Called Shot. I think it is more amazing than Craig Jones' Lightning Helix simply because he came back from the brink of elimination, not only to win the match but to hoist the trophy and win $40,000 in the process. To do so he had to best none other than LSV—easily the hottest Magic player on the planet at the time they played—to do it. Gab must have taken a little of Luis Scott-Vargas' mojo in the process, because he promptly turned around and won Grand Prix–Chicago—triumphing over a 1200-person Legacy field—just one week later and surged into an early lead for the Player of the Year title.

Gabriel Nassif's CounterTop

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    March: Lino Burgold

It would be easy to hand the back-to-back months to Nassif—especially since the last rounds of Pro Tour–Kyoto were played out on the 1st of March—but Lino Burgold's win in Hanover was the start of a breakout season that included making the German National team, Top 8ing the monstrous Grand Prix–Paris, and winning the Rookie of the Year title with a late-season surge to pass Akimasa Yamamoto and Brian Robinson at Worlds. It all started in March, when Lino won Grand Prix–Hanover with Combo Elves. He defeated Gaudenis Vidugiris—another breakout player of the 2009 season—in the Finals.

Lino Burgold's Combo Elves

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Despite Burgold's rookie status, he has been playing Magic for the most of his life and for longer than his ability to sound out the names of the cards.

"I started playing Magic—even though that's hard to believe—when I could barely even read," said Burgold in a pre-Worlds interview. "Although what we played back then could hardly be called Magic. My first tournament was around Mirrodin, and my first Grand Prix was in 2006 in Dortmund."

The player totals in the two events where Lino made the Top 8 came in at a whopping 3000+. There were over 1000 in Hanover when he won in March, and there were 2000 players in Paris—the largest Magic tournament ever held. Lino explained that the trick to navigating those vast oceans of players was to just get to the point where you could see the shore.

"It feels quite awesome," said Lino when asked about making it through such big fields in Hanover and Paris. "However, you really lose the feeling on Day Two. It doesn't even feel like a 200-player tournament, it is more like two 8-player [Limited pods]. I really enjoy this atmosphere on Day Two of a Grand Prix. And that atmosphere is a lot more important for me than remembering the 2,000 people on Day One, although it does sound pretty cool if you think back at it."

    April: Tomoharu Saito

Throughout the first quarter of the 2009 season, the Player of the year lead had toggled back and forth between the two Pro Tour–Kyoto finalists; Luis Scott-Vargas and Gabriel Nassif. Tomoharu Saito closed ground on the duo by winning Grand Prix–Singapore to close out March and was within single digits of the lead after winning Grand Prix–Kobe to close out the Extended season. I had the opportunity to cover this Grand Prix and I came away from it with a newfound appreciation of Saito as both a player and a deck builder. After playing at every possible event in 2008, Saito came into 2009 with the same passion and fire he had the year previous. While many players might be reluctant to put the work in to innovate at the very end of a Constructed season, Saito honed his Zoo deck into exactly what was required to win in Kobe.

Tomoharu Saito's Knight Zoo

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"With normal Zoo the main deck is kind of rough against Storm and Elves," explained Saito in a deck tech piece for the Kobe coverage. "Why not play a deck that can play Ethersworn Canonist maindeck, which is good against those decks? Now, Canonist is weak against Loam and Faeries. Against Faeries and Loam we have Ranger of Eos, but you need more land so I put in Treetop Village, which is land and a creature. If you are going to play Villages then you want Knight, which is better in this case than Woolly Thoctar."

"The end result of how I got here was that I was trying to make a metagame deck that was good against the top five archetypes," said Saito, who had won Singapore with Woolly Thoctars in place of the now-ubiquitous Knight of the Reliquary. "Everyone who had three byes playing the deck made Day Two."

Like Nassif, Saito will appear on the 2010 Hall of Fame ballot, and looks to stand a very good chance.

    May: Joel Calafell

Joel has been quietly building an impressive resume over the past few seasons. The Spanish player has a Pro Tour Top 8 in Kuala Lumpur and racked up a total of three Grand Prix Top 8 finishes including last May's triumph in his hometown of Barcelona over a nearly 1500-person Standard field. He did it with a brand new deck archetype for Standard: Cascade Swans. He and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa met in the Semifinals of the event playing a mirror match with over 80 lands between their two decks.

Joel Calafell's Cascade Swans

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Joel shook Standard up again at the end of the year when he swept through Standard at Worlds playing Sunspring Expeditions in his Jacerator deck.

    June: Kazuya Mitamura

Pro Tour–Honolulu was an amazing event. We saw the reemergence of Brian Kibler at his first Pro Tour in several years, we were on hand at the debut of online ringer Brad Nelson on the Pro Tour, and we got introduced to the unconventional stylings of Conley Woods. In the end, though, it was Kazuya Mitamura who won the Pro Tour and padded an already impressive resume that has seen him step onto the Sunday stage three times—including a previous Finals appearance in Yokohama against Guillaume Wafo-Tapa. With a little help from Quietus Spike and a couple of pingers like Vithian Stinger, Mitamura earned the first trophy of his young career.

    July: Shuhei Nakamura

The reigning Player of the Year had a shot at back to back titles this year thanks to his captaincy of the Japanese National team. His victory at this year's Japan National Championship sent rumbles throughout the worldwide Magic community as it had the potential to be one of the greatest National teams ever assembled. Shuhei was the captain, defeating Yuuya Watanabe in the Finals. Watanabe was at the time a two-time National team member who had been the Rookie of the Year, but we would come to know him much better in the coming months. Rounding out the team was Yuma Shiota, but rumors swirled that he would step aside for work reasons, sending the alternate—none other than Kenji Tsumura—to play in his stead.

Shuhei Nakamura's Quick 'n Toast

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In the end, Kenji would not play, the Japanese National Team would sputter down the stretch at Worlds, and Yuuya Watanabewould put together one of the all-time great runs at premier-level events to overtake Nakamura, Nassif, Scott-Vargas, and everyone else in front of him to win the Player of the Year title. But in July, Nakamura's captaincy was the talk of the Magic community. Honorable mention of this month has to go to Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, who started his climb back into the Player of the Year race with his win at Brazil Nationals.

    August: Martin Juza

There were four Grand Prix in August, one on every weekend of the month. The month of winners started with the relatively unknown Martin Egolf, then closed with big names Oliver Ruel, Shinghou Kurihara, and Tsuyoshi Ikeda winning the remaining events. It was hard to narrow in on one of those players. Instead the honor fell to two-time second place finisher Martin Juza, who would rack up three Grand Prix Top 8s, his second career Pro Tour Top 8, and abundant money finishes along the way to finishing second in the Player of the Year race this season. Juza seemed to get stronger as the season progressed, and he felt that there was still room for him to improve his game. The thought of a Level 8 Martin Juza taking his game up a notch makes him one of the most exciting players to watch during the coming season.

    September: Yuuya Watanabe

At the tail end of August, Yuuya Watanabe made the Top 8 of two Grand Prix and continued to earn the title of "M10 Master" as he made it through to the finals of Grand Prix–Prague in September. In fact, Yuuya was in the middle of a Top 8 run that began with Japanese Nationals and would continue through until his stumble at Grand Prix–Tampa. He would rack up six Top 8s in six straight premier events he played in over the summer and fall. Yuuya surged into the lead of the Player of the Year race during that stretch. Despite the opportunity for his pursuers to catch him at Worlds, he managed to stay in the lead and take the Player of the Year title that he had stated was his next goal after winning the Rookie crown two seasons ago. A friendly rivalry, reminiscent of Olivier and Kenji from a few seasons back, developed between Watanabe and Juza, and this promises to be an entertaining storyline to follow as both players try to follow up on their Level 8 2009 campaigns.

    October: Brian Kibler

Kibler's return to the game has a storybook quality to it. He had been playing the game at the highest level since he played in the very first Pro Tour—albeit in the Junior division of that event.

"The first PT event that I played in was the junior division of the very first Pro Tour," recalled Kibler in an interview after he hoisted the trophy for winning Pro Tour–Austin. "I played a black-red discard / The Rack deck that splashed white for Balance. I actually had Necropotence in my deck up until the week before the tournament, when I cut it because I was taking too much damage from my City of Brass that I was using to fill the Chronicles requirement. I ended up finishing 30th, which qualified me for the second PT in LA, but I'd never drafted so I decided against flying out to that tournament."

Kibler put together an impressive career that included a Top 8 in Chicago, multiple Nationals Top 8s, and two Grand Prix victories, but he stepped away from the game to take a game design job without being able to put the most coveted trophy in Magic—the kind that is accompanied by a $40,000 novelty check—on his mantle. He qualified for Honolulu via a PTQ and made the most of his opportunity with a Top 8 finish. His next event, in Austin, saw him finally accomplish what he had never been able to do before.

Brian Kibler's Rubin Zoo

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"I think a big part of my results now is just related to my mindset and approach to the game," explained Kibler about the differences in his current approach to the game from his approach before his hiatus. "Back when I was playing before, Magic was my job, and tournaments could be pretty stressful because I felt like I really needed to do well. Making mistakes bothered me a lot more and could more easily become a big distraction for the rest of the tournament. I feel like I've matured a lot since then and I'm better able to focus on what matters rather than thinking about how many more wins I need to make Top 8."

Kibler ended up with 47 pro points despite not playing in the first Pro Tour of the 2009 season and barely playing in any Grand Prix. So what will a full 2010 season hold for the dragonmaster?

    November: Andre Coimbra

World Champion Andre Coimbra had one invite in the bank for the 2009 season, and he made the absolute most of it. He wielded Mike Flores's Naya Lightsaber deck in Standard and Tomoharu Saito's Bant Zoo in Extended, and slammed the draft portion to win his first premier-level event in a career that had already seen him make the Top 8 of Worlds in Yokohama and the Top 8 of five Grand Prix tournaments.

Andre Coimbra's Naya Lightsaber

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    December: Breakout Player of the Year

With the Pro Tour season closed down for the holidays, I decided to use December to take a couple of paragraphs for Conley Woods—one of the breakout players of 2009. Conley qualified for Pro Tour–Honolulu playing a rogue deck during the qualifier season and not only made the most of the opportunity, but did so staying through to his rogue origins.

Conley Woods's Extend-a-Geddon

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He has played offbeat decks in both Constructed and Limited—from his Markov Cocktail in Austin to his Emeria Control draft deck at Grand Prix–Tampa—while playing at the highest level of the game. He made the Top 4 of Pro Tour–Honolulu and came close to playing in the Top 8 of Worlds as well after going 5-1 on each of the first two days. His Magical Christmasland deck tech is one of the most popular in the history of the Tournament Center, and he was penciled in for another session on Sunday with an Extended deck that included Vampire Nighthawk, Dark Confidant, Ninja of the Deep Hours, and Malakir Gatekeeper. He audibled at the last minute to a "safe" Zoo deck that was built by Ben Rubin and fell short of the necessary record to make it through to Sunday.

"I find there to be a huge edge in taking an original deck to a tournament anytime, although it has extra merit during an already explored metagame," said Conley in an interview for The Week That Was prior to Honolulu. "It invalidates the playtesting of other individuals. Playtesting is used to A) master your deck of choice, and B) learn how to play against the other popular decks. When an entire portion of it is removed, in that they have no or little idea on how to play against you, players often make small mistakes that contribute to a win for the opponent. Playtesting gets a player comfortable with situations they may encounter and playing an unknown deck removes that comfort zone. In addition, you often can get players to sideboard incorrectly—if they even have sideboard cards for you at all. I had a player at the PTQ bring in Pithing Needle against me and promptly set it for Seismic Assault. A fine guess on his part, but no dice. I had created real and virtual card advantage just by sleeving up a unique 75."

I can't wait to see what 75 cards Conley brings to the table in San Diego.

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