In last week's column we took a look at the 2011 season from the perspective of the Player and Rookie of the Year winners—two players whose success was deeply rooted in their Grand Prix performances. This week we are going to catch up with the three Pro Tour winners before wrapping up our end of year review with the end of year Champions from the World Championships.
The first Pro Tour of the season took place in Paris and it was pure spectacle with the Pro Tour, what promised to be one of the largest Grand Prix of all time, and a Player of the Year playoff on the docket. There were a number of different storylines all jostling for the lead on the weekend and any one of them—Brad Nelson finally securing his Player of the Year trophy in an unprecedented playoff that was webcast live; Paul Rietzl making the Top 8 of the Pro Tour while still vying for a Top 8 berth in the GP (also webcast live); and Kai Budde playing in the Top 8 of the Grand Prix—could have been the headline that people took away if not for Ben Stark winning a long-deserved trophy with his win over the aforementioned Rietzl.
Stark, who has been playing the game for almost as long as a person can without having been on the playtest team, was always drawn to the strategic elements of the game and has competed at every level of play, from local game stores to Junior Super Series to the 2004 season that saw him make two Pro Tour Top 8s before stepping away from the game to get his footing in the real world.
If you have followed Magic coverage for long enough you know that no one really stays away from the game forever—or even very long. A couple of years ago Stark began grinding his way back to the Pro Tour on the Floridian PTQ scene, and once he got back he began padding his resume with strong Grand Prix finishes. Regarded as one of the great Limited minds in the game, he was absorbed into the ChannelFireball.com fold, where he lays down the Limited law. In a recent draft tech with Conley Woods at Worlds, Stark was credited with the strict CFB pick orders.
"I always missed the Pro Tour," said Stark of what drew him back to competitive play, and why he had stopped playing in the first place. "Everyone who knows me knows I don't really like travelling. If every Pro Tour was in Fort Lauderdale I would never have quit, but I got sick of the travelling. There wasn't really any one thing that made me start playing again. I just kept following the coverage and missing playing in Pro Tours."
Coming into Paris, Stark had plenty of Top 8 experience at the Grand Prix and Pro Tour level, but had yet to hold a winner's cup. In Japan they call a player with multiple second-place finishes a "silver collector," and that was exactly the collection Stark was amassing, with two second-place finishes in Grand Prix since his return—including GP Atlanta just a few weeks earlier. As he looked over the Top 8 bracket—armed with the ChannelFireball Caw-Blade deck—he did not expect this event to be the one that yielded hardware for him.
"I mean, it's not that easy to win Top 8s," sighed Stark. "In Pro Tours I had lost in the quarters the two previous times. Everyone wants to win, but really I did not expect to beat the Boros decks or the Quest deck if he got good draws, so I was just hoping to get through [Tom] Martell in what I knew would be a tough mirror match in the quarters. I didn't really expect to win the Top 8."
In addition to winning the tournament with Caw-Blade, Stark's ChannelFireball teammates posted six players in the Top 16 with the deck and would repeat that type of domination at Worlds, where they had four members of their roster in the Top 8 with Tempered Steel. I asked Stark for the secret to their success.
"I dunno if there is much of a secret," said Stark. "If you take a bunch of the best players and have them work together, it isn't really unexpected that they will produce good results. Maybe the diversity of our skill sets and thought processes... A lot of times groups have the problem of being too hive-minded. We do a really good job of challenging each others' ideas and statements, and the people in the group all think differently and like different types of strategies."
With his win in Paris, Stark's name was suddenly popping up in Hall of Fame discussions, much like Rietzl's did after his Amsterdam victory. Stark came close to another Top 8 this season twice with a 17th-place finish in Nagoya and a 14th-place finish at Worlds but even without that fourth Top 8, Stark could see himself in the Hall of Fame—even though he admitted it was a little bit of a long shot.
"I think I am as good at playing Magic as an average Hall of Famer, but on three Pro Tour Top 8s and 210 lifetime pro points, that puts me around the threshold and not an automatic invite," Stark admitted. "I understand if people do or do not vote for me, but I would love to get in."
Stark did not make any bold predictions for the coming year. Instead, he was looking to continue enjoying himself on the PT. His definition of "enjoying himself" might be different from yours and mine, though, with a win, a Top 16, and a 17th-place finish for his 2011 season.
"I am not really a goals kind of guy," he said in closing. "I did very well this year, not just the win in Paris but 17th in Nagoya and 14th at Worlds. I don't expect to do better than that or as well this year because I ran really good. I mostly just hope that the Pro Tour stays fun for me and I can keep enjoying the experience."
Magic Weekend Paris was dominated by Florida, with Ben Stark winning the Pro Tour leg and David Sharfman finally living up to the buzz about him with a win in the Limited Grand Prix. Sharfman had first popped up in coverage during Nationals when he put together a series of solid Standard performances. He turned his attention to improving his 40-card game—which got him to the Top 8 of Nationals in 2008—and he is considered more of a Limited specialist than Constructed at this point.
You just have to look to Sharfman's two wins this season to understand why he is associated with 40-card decks. He followed up the win in Paris with another Limited victory, hoisting the cup in Nagoya with a winning Top 8 draft that saw him get past Hall of Famer Tsuyoshi Fujita in the quarterfinals. Much like those long-ago Nationals, Sharfman had to contend with two formats to reach the Top 8 and got there with strong finishes in both Limited and Constructed, going 5-1 at the draft table and 7-2-1 in Block Constructed.
"We had Mark Herberholz giving our team a deck to play! It's not every day you get to test or play a deck designed by a player of that caliber," said Sharfman of the Puresteel Paladin Block Constructed deck that got him and Pat Cox a seat at the Top 8 draft table. For people looking to port the deck over to Standard, however, Sharfman cautioned against it. "In that tournament, for the most part people didn't kill my Paladins because they had no clue what my deck did. Now that people know what the deck is supposed to do, it is very weak."
My fellow Pro Tour Top 8 commentator Rich Hagon often asks up-and-coming players whether or not they can picture themselves holding a trophy and puts a lot of stock in their response to that question. It is Rich's belief that players who can't see themselves winning a Pro Tour, holding that victory cup, are not going to be able to navigate the turbulent emotional waters of the Top 8. Sharfman came into the Top 8 of Nagoya armed with the confidence he earned along with his win at that huge Grand Prix.
"Paris assured me that I had what it took to actually win one of these huge tournaments. I practiced a lot so I knew I could play well, but didn't see myself as being able to Top 8, let alone win, one of these professional tournaments before Paris," admitted Sharfman.
Sharfman ended the season with 42 pro points—all but 7 of them coming from those two wins—and was very happy with his season (as well he should be). He was looking forward to a 2012 season with the security of being qualified for the whole year.
"Well, I'm very happy about locking level 7 for the 2012 season," said Sharfman of his 2012 goals. "It is completely unrealistic to set winning another PT as a goal. I would say that I would like to add some more to my Grand Prix resume this year due to how many there will be. When/if they announce a new player's club, I would also like to step my game up and lock up the top level!"
The last Pro Tour of the season saw something unprecedented happen. Before Pro Tour Philadelphia no Italian Magic player had ever hoisted the cup at a Pro Tour. Dark horse Samuele Estratti took on all Modern challengers with his Splinter Twin deck and became a national hero—something he could not have imagined fifteen years ago when he first picked up Magic cards with his brother.
Estratti recalled that they started playing "homemade Magic," with their own rules and ways of playing. "Then I stopped playing very often [until in] 2007 Alessandro Fedi, one of my Magic comrades, told me that a Grand Prix was taking place in Florence. I began playing again but this time knowing about a professional circuit I started to play the 'real Magic.'"
After his Grand Prix experience, Estratti dove into the competitive scene, hitting Grand Prix and PTQs whenever he could. With attendances at PTQs often exceeding 300 players Estratti felt fortunate to make two Top 8s which eventually led him to Worlds in Memphis through a ratings invite to Nationals and an alternate's spot on the National team. Not soon thereafter he won a PTQ for Kyoto. During those years in the trenches he forged friendships that carry over to today and provide his network for playtesting and traveling.
"In those tournaments I got to know other people like the Arezzo team ([Francesco] Cipolleschi, [Emanuele] Giusti, [Riccardo] Picciafuochi, [Nicola] Benigni and many others) that makes spending holidays with Magic such a great time. That's the thing I love most about Magic, finding new friends to share wins and losses with—awesome!"
Prior to his win in Philadelphia, Estratti's two previous best finishes had been at Italy Nationals in 2008 and 2009. He had no idea what was in store for him coming into Philadelphia and did nothing out of the ordinary in terms of his individual preparation for the event, but he credited a surging Italian Magic scene with providing excellent playtesting and even better railbird support.
"The Italian expedition for that Pro Tour was amazing—the best current players in my country all [getting] together to share ideas was simply enlightening," said Estratti of the exuberant crew that burst onto the stage after his win.
Estratti heard from countless people back home who were glued to the webcast to see if he could finally bring a trophy home to Italy after his win, and he was both uplifted and daunted by their support.
"That made me really proud, but it left [a weight on my shoulders]. Now in every tournament I feel like I have to get a good result," said Estratti, who was already thinking about the 16-player World Championship he is qualified for in 2012. "I'd like to [not let down] Italy, so I'll try to win the competition at any cost!"