Rising Star from Down Under

Posted in The Week That Was on December 30, 2011

By Brian David-Marshall

One of the great joys of doing what I do with Magic is getting the chance to watch some of the game's best players as they ascend the ranks of the Pro Tour. It was my distinct pleasure to interview Jeremy Neeman after his Grand Prix win at Grand Prix Brisbane. It provided an opportunity not only to shine a light on the fact that in three Pro Tours to that point he had finished Top 16 twice and no lower than 40th, but also to showcase an intelligent and articulate voice as he dissected his deck choice for the event. I am happy to report that in the World Championships since this article, Jeremy posted yet another strong finish, coming in the Top 32. It was an outstanding year for an outstanding player who I am looking forward to following in 2012.

Once upon a time there was a young Magic player from Brazil who could easily qualify for Pro Tours, but the cost of traveling just about anywhere from his homeland was prohibitive for an unproven Pro Tour competitor. Eventually airfare was added into the prize pool for PTQs and the young Magic player was able to see how he would fare on the game's biggest stage. As it turns out, he fared pretty well, with a staggering seven Pro Tour Top 8s in a relatively short window of competition. Even before he was racking up those Top 8 finishes he was posting deep run into Day Two after deep run into Day Two. I am, of course, talking about Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa.

Once upon a time there was a young Magic player from Australia who could easily qualify for Pro Tours, but the cost of traveling just about anywhere from his homeland was prohibitive for an unproven Pro Tour competitor. Eventually airfare was added into the prize pool for PTQs and the young Magic player was able to see how he would fare on the game's biggest stage. As it turns out, he fared pretty well himself, with a Top 8 and multiple Top 16 finishes after finishing Top 50 in his Pro Tour debut.

I am talking about last weekend's Grand Prix Brisbane winner Jeremy Neeman. Will the 21-year-old student from Canberra, Australia go on to post six more PT Top 8s over the next half decade? I don't know but his early career and geographic isolation certainly bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the winner of Pro Tour San Juan—coincidentally, the first Pro Tour where Neeman got to stride upon the Sunday stage.

Neeman has been playing Magic for a full two-thirds of his life, starting with a dragon sighting in 1997.

"The very first booster pack I bought was Mirage, and the rare I opened was Crimson Hellkite, which is just about the most awesome thing you can own when you're 7—so I was hooked from an early age," Neeman reflected. "I used to just play against my older brothers with casual decks, until we heard about Prereleases. The first one of those I went to was Apocalypse. I must've been about 11. I went 3-2, then dropped because it was getting dark and I had to go home—I had no idea a Magic tournament was expected to go for seven-plus hours!"

Jeremy continued to play at higher and higher levels of competition, regularly making the finals of local PTQs and even Top 16ing two Grand Prix but never availing himself of the chance to play at the pinnacle of the game's competitive events—the Pro Tour. Once Wizards of the Coast began to offer airfare with a PTQ win it became much more alluring to win those finals. With a blue envelope in hand and his airfare paid, he flew more than a dozen hours to Hollywood for his big break. Jeremy finished 44th at that event playing Reveillark and earned an invite for Berlin.

Jeremy Neeman's Reveillark

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With a berth on the national team and another PTQ win in his pocket he was qualified for the next three PTs. It was the fairy-tale start to a Pro Tour career that every PTQ grinder dreams about, but Jeremy could not bring himself to jump onto that moving train.

"I didn't end up going to any of them—Berlin, Worlds, or Kyoto—and in retrospect I wish I had," lamented Neeman. "Money was the excuse I used, but it was something more fundamental. Deep down, I didn't think I was good enough to compete at the highest level. When I Top 8ed Nationals for the second time in 2009 (but just missed out on making the team), a local player, Al Connelly-Hansen, offered to sponsor part of my trip to Worlds. It was a pledge of faith in my ability, and I was really taken aback. I didn't end up taking him up on the offer, but when I won a PTQ for San Juan the next year, I couldn't not go. I Top 8ed there, made the National team a couple months later, and, well, the rest is history."

It took a while for Neeman to develop his confidence. He felt like he did not play well in Hollywood despite a terrific finish as well as a handful of strong Grand Prix finishes. It was seeing someone else do well that made him realize he could not only replicate his success from Hollywood but improve upon it.

"A local player, John-Paul Kelly, who I'd known for years, came 10th in PT Austin, and I thought, 'If he can do that, why not me?'" recalled Neeman. "Going into San Juan I actually believed I could win the tournament, and I was genuinely a little disappointed to only finish 8th. I think that level of confidence is critical if you want to do well—although I'm wise enough and know enough about randomness these days that I would never again be disappointed with that result."

Neeman has always been his own harshest critic when it comes to his game play, and constantly strives to improve. Despite being critical he can see his improvement from year to year on the Pro Tour. It would be hard not to seeing as he has two Top 16 finishes this year—in Paris and Philadelphia—as well as a 40th-place finish in Nagoya. He has come a long way from when he was a 16-year-old playing against Shouta Yasooka in the quarterfinals of Grand Prix Sydney.

"When I look back at how I played in 2006, I'm amazed I managed to win anything!" laughed Neeman. "In the quarterfinals of GP Sydney against Shouta Yasooka, I attacked a 2/2 Spinneret Sliver into a 3/3 Fury Sliver, which promptly haumphed it. Then I drew an Unyaro Bees off the top for the final 2 damage the turn before he was going to kill me. Shouta was gracious enough not only to shake my hand and wish me luck in the semis, but even to sign the lethal Bees, so thanks, Shouta, for being a good sport."

Neeman went on to explain how his view of center-stage matches has changed since then.

"I guess the first time you're in the Top 8 of a GP or a PT or Nationals, it's a little overwhelming—you're covered, you're the center of attention, and it's scary to think that everyone else is watching your misplays," he continued. "But every match is just another match, whether it's the very first round at a GP or the finals of a Pro Tour, and once you play in enough Top 8s you start getting used to it."

I have always gotten the impression from coverage of Australian Grand Prix that the local community muscles up against the stray Americans, Europeans, and Japanese who come to those events in search of easy Pro Points in a field bereft of name players. But just because people don't know their names, cautions Jeremy, that does not mean there are many easy wins to be found: "I think we're just a lot better than people give us credit for."

Many of the best players in Australia cannot afford to take advantage of qualifications that come from something other than a PTQ win. With flights costing upwards of $2,000 to go almost anywhere, players like 2010 National Champion Adam Witton, who finished 9th at Worlds in the individual category and 2nd in the Team Championships, find themselves not taking advantage of a Level 4 membership in the Player's Club in 2011.

Neeman credits a Melbourne shop—Meta Games owned by Isaac Egan—as being his own personal living room where he was able to meet other top players and hone his game. One of those players was fellow Brisbane Top 8 competitor Daniel Unwin, whom Neeman calls one of the best players and deckbuilders in Australia.

"The fact that Magic was being played at a high level at every hour of the day and night meant that it worked like a crucible," he explains. "OK players became good, good players became better. It's telling that of the Top 4 in GP Brisbane, the other three—apart from me—were Melbourne locals and regulars at Meta Games. So were four of the Top 8 in Nationals this year, including the two finalists. Before a Pro Tour, I usually go to Melbourne for a week or so."

In preparing for this past weekend's Standard GP, Neeman and company were anticipating a field chock-full of Red Deck Wins, Tempered Steel, Solar Flare, and the deck du jour, Wolf Run Ramp. They strove to find a deck that could be both consistent and viable against those archetypes.

"Dan Unwin built a Green-White Tokens list that was up two to one against the aggro strategies," said Neeman of his preparations for the event. "It wasn't the one from the SCG Opens that ran Shrine of Loyal Legions and Anthem effects. It had Blade Splicers, Geist-Honored Monks, and mana dorks. That made it faster, and it wasn't vulnerable to getting the all-Anthem draw. It was weak to control, particularly sweepers, but Garruk Relentless and Elspeth Tirel helped a ton against Slagstorm and Day of Judgment. In case it sounds familiar, it's the deck that Tim Fondum ended up piloting all the way to the finals."

Neeman was on the verge of sleeving up the green-white deck when an eleventh-hour phone call came in from the Meta Game crowd.

"Wilfy Horig had built a Blue-Black Control deck, and he hadn't lost a sanctioned match over quite a few FNMs," he continued. "I volunteered to play Green-White against it, and got repeatedly smashed. 'But surely it loses to red and Tempered Steel,' I insisted, and so we ran it through the aggro gauntlet, and found that, astonishingly, it didn't. Sure, they could take games off you with the Stromkirk Noble into Stormblood Berserker into Chandra's Phoenix into Koth draws, but more often than not you'd trade one-for-one with enough of their threats to establish control and run out a Consecrated Sphinx."

While cards like Think Twice and Forbidden Alchemy allowed him to play a classic, don't tap out on your turn, draw-go style of Magic it was the tap-out blue creature that made the deck really tick.

"If they play a spell, you counter it; if they don't, you draw cards, and continue ad nauseam until you find a win condition and finish them off. Snapcaster Mage is amazing—anytime from turn four on, he's a split Mystic Snake / Nekrataal with flash, and he helps ensure that you can have enough removal against aggro while also running effectively thirteen counterspells against control and ramp," said Neeman as he broke down what made the deck tick.

"Consecrated Sphinx is the win condition of choice, because almost your entire deck is counterspells and removal. Sphinx has the same line of text that Jace, the Mind Sculptor used to have, which is that if you ever untap with it in play, you win the game—even if they untap and play a Primeval Titan, which is what happens against Wolf Run more often than not. With the card advantage Sphinx gives you, they're never resolving anything again, and whatever creatures they have in play will soon be Doom Bladed, even if they could swing through a 4/6 flier. It's slower than Grave Titan but a whole lot surer—and it even kills planeswalkers!"

There were a number of intriguing decisions and card choices in the blue-black deck that Neeman piloted to his win, and we did a quick Qamp;A session to address them.

Jeremy Neeman's Blue-Black Control

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    No Dismember? That card has been so ubiquitous in nonblack decks it seems surprising to not have it in a deck that could occasionally pay its mana cost.

I mean, the reason Dismember is ubiquitous in nonblack decks is because those decks don't have that many other removal options. If there was a white Doom Blade, Dismember would see a lot less play.

It is an efficient removal spell, though, and in fact a copy or two was in our deck for awhile. The problem is twofold: a) you can't really afford the life and b) it doesn't kill Titans or Consecrated Sphinx. Doom Blade is the all-around better card for the deck. There are hardly any black creatures getting play these days, so Doom Blade is pretty close to a mono-black Terminate, and the advantage of being able to cast Dismember for one is outweighed by the corresponding disadvantages. If you're casting a removal spell for one mana, you'd rather it be Wring Flesh, which still kills Birds, Inkmoth, Viridian Emissary, Snapcaster Mage, every red one-drop, and most of Tempered Steel's creatures. Getting blasted for 4 in the face is pretty bad for a deck as controlling as this one.

    How many games did you win with Nephalia Drownyard, and when would you bring in two copies from your sideboard?

Drownyard occupies an interesting slot in this deck. It's only rarely useful, but in the matchups where it's good, it single-handedly wins you the game. I won only three games with it over the course of the tournament, but that was because I played only two control mirrors. My feature match in Round 11 was one, and it pretty much sums it up. He was the Blue-Black mirror, but he had Inkmoth Nexus where I had Drownyard, so both games we sat around and durdled for a while and then I milled him. The other match was against Solar Flare. Usually the mill strategy works there as well, and I did mill him out in Game 1, but for Game 2 he had Surgical Extraction + Ghost Quarter to take out my land-based kill condition. Game 3, knowing he'd taken Doom Blades out, I sided my Sphinxes back in and beat him up while he missed land drops.

You want to side up to 29 lands against control because you never ever want to miss land drops, and it's not like getting flooded is an issue. What are they going to do? Beat you up? The person with more lands is the person who can cast more spells, or pay for more Mana Leaks, or activate more Drownyards, and they almost always have the upper hand. The lands you side in could reasonably be Ghost Quarter + Drownyard, but I preferred 2 Drownyard. You want to have two in play against Solar Flare because milling them with just one can be a little risky, putting gas into their bin, especially if they then deal with it (some Flare lists are playing their own Ghost Quarter these days). Once you have two in play you can usually just race whatever they're doing, though. It's a surprisingly fast clock.

Take-home message: Drownyard beats control. If you don't want to lose to the mirror with Drownyard, play Drownyard.

    What were the various plans your sideboard had? It seems like all the cards were very cheap to cast. Was that deliberate?

Not as such, but it's interesting you should mention that. As I said earlier, because of the way the deck is constructed, you basically never want to tap out on your turn unless it's for a six-drop that's just going to kill them. Four- and five-mana sorcery speed spells like Curse of Death's Hold, Skinrender, and Solemn Simulacrum didn't make it for exactly that reason. Part of the reason Phantasmal Image is such a great answer to Thrun is that you can play it and still have Mana Leak up for their follow-up Garruk. So while we never consciously thought "our sideboard has to be full of cheap spells," that's what sort of naturally arose because of the need to have untapped mana on turns three through six. If something like Treachery existed, or a four-mana instant that dealt with Thrun and planeswalkers, you can bet we would've played it, cheap or no.

    Wring Flesh was not a card on a lot of people's radar coming into the event. How did you end up playing it, and what role did it play for you?

Wring Flesh is AWESOME! Removal spells that deal with 1-toughness creatures are better placed now than they have ever been in the past (see also: Geistflame and Gut Shot actually getting played in Mono-Red). If Hornet Sting was still legal, I would not be surprised to see a few in green decks' boards. Every deck has targets for Wring Flesh: Snapcaster Mage in the control mirrors, mana dorks or tokens against the Token decks, every cheap creature Mono-Red or Tempered Steel runs, Inkmoth and Birds against the ramp decks. It basically does the same thing Disfigure did in Blue-Black Control at Worlds 2010 in Chiba—trades with the cheap creatures aggro plays for the low, low price of one mana—and taking out a Stromkirk Noble still takes the wind out of a red deck's sails the same way taking out a Goblin Guide used to.

The blue-black deck gave Jeremy all the tools he needed to win the Grand Prix. And the win took Jeremy to 31 pro points on the season—and leaves him only 5 shy of 100 lifetime points with just seven Pro Tours under his belt. Between his Top 8 last season and his 2nd-place finish in the World Team Championships he was able to hit the coveted Level 7 in the Player's Club and attend all of this year's Pro Tours to great success. A few rounds into the first event of the season, though, you would not have convinced him that the season was going to be anything other than a disaster.

"Paris was insane. I started 0-3 and was just disgusted," Neeman said of his 2011 start. "Then I won twelve of the next thirteen rounds to finish 15th, which I never anticipated in my wildest dreams. It just goes to show you're never out until you're really out—I lost two of the first four rounds I played in Brisbane last weekend, for example, and had to win all of my next nine."

It is hard to be disappointed with a 40th-place finish at a Pro Tour, but Jeremy could not feel anything but after starting Pro Tour Nagoya with a 5-0 record and going 2-1 in both of his draft pods. He needed only three wins out of the last five rounds to make the Top 8. He went 1-4 and could not close out the event. Despite the disappointment, he would come back stronger in Philadelphia playing the Empty the Warrens combo deck.

"I think PT Philadelphia was the best I've ever played in a Magic event," said the increasingly confident Neeman. "I'd learned from last time, and done a ton of preparation for both Modern and draft, and I genuinely believe we had the best deck in the room. Storm was an absolute machine; it killed a turn faster than any of the other combo decks, so your combo matchups were great, and on top of that it was highly consistent. Most decks in the field needed to draw both cards X and Y to kill you. All Storm needed was a single Empty the Warrens and bang, sixteen Goblins on turn two, what are you going to do about it? That's how I killed LSV in our feature match. We seem to play at least once in every major event over the last year, and I'm currently 4-2 up, which gives me the distinctive honor of being his 'neemesis.' I finished 10th there, missing out on Top 8 by a few percentage points."

If you are looking for someone to pick in your Worlds Fantasy draft, you clearly need to make sure Neeman is on your radar. The way he is playing now reminds me of a particular Brazilian player heading into Pro Tour Charleston—and Neeman already has his first Top 8 squared away. As for his second...

"I've come pretty close to reclaiming the Sunday stage," said Neeman when the question was asked of him. "When will I get there again? I don't know, but hopefully sooner rather than later! I think I'm playing better now than I did when I made it in San Juan last year, so we'll see. A Top 8 at Worlds would be amazing. I'm keen to get my 100th Pro Point this year—I'm only 5 away now."

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