For the past two seasons, the field at the World Championship (formerly the Player's Championship) has been made up of sixteen players. This season, there are eight more slots in play—seats being added through additional at-large bids and regional invites. Perhaps the most interesting of the new slots, to me, is the invitation extended to the Rookie of the Year.
In past seasons, the rookie title has been largely a function of bookkeeping. The Player of the Year has come with various perks over the years, but this is the first meaningful prize attached to being the best new player on the Pro Tour.
The Rookie of the Year has made it into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame three times, and eight holders of the title have won a Pro Tour in their careers. Of course, winning a Pro Tour during your rookie campaign is a pretty good way to lock up the title, going all the way back to the first Rookie of the Year, Randy Buehler, through the most recent rookie champion, Alexander Hayne. More often than not, though, the rookie title is a function of putting together an amazing season with multiple solid finishes, just like reigning Rookie of the Year Felipe Tapia Becerra or current season frontrunner Jared Boettcher.
Boettcher is having a pretty amazing run that started a full quarter of the way into the current season. He qualified for his PT debut at Pro Tour Born of the Gods with a 2nd-place finish at Grand Prix Washington, D.C., and promptly finished 9th playing an Ad Nauseam combo deck that was pretty far off the well-beaten path of the Pro Tour's metagame.
He followed that performance with a Top 4 at Grand Prix Cincinnati before finishing 10th at Pro Tour Journey into Nyx. That spate of finishes has left the 21-year-old 3 points shy of the 45 points needed for Platinum status—which I like to call Virtually Platinum, since he will get those last 3 pro points by virtue of playing at Pro Tour Magic 2015. That will assure him all the benefits of Platinum throughout the upcoming season. Barring any radical upsets, it should also guarantee him the Rookie of the Year title and that coveted seat at the World Championship.
"I did not think I would be Rookie of the Year," admitted Boettcher when asked about his expectations coming into his first Pro Tour. He went on to explain that he was not focusing on any specific goals beyond putting his best effort forward each time he plays. "It's not even a top concern of mine right now. It'll be nice if I actually lock it up, however I'm just going to play my best anyways and find out what happens."
In preparing for the Pro Tour his first two times out, Boettcher worked closely with Team Flipside Games. Specifically, he worked closely with Dan Jordan—someone who knows a thing or three about Pro Tour Top 16 finishes—but with not much time left until Pro Tour Magic 2015 in Portland, he is still looking for an established group of pros to prepare with. In the meanwhile, he is just going to keep doing what he always does.
"I will be testing Standard hard, and figuring out how I can better myself to try and maybe break the elusive Top 8, and not end up 11th, even though my trend would show it," said the player who has finished 9th and 10th in his last two Pro Tours. Boettcher will be competing in the StarCityGames Invitational this weekend before hitting the last spate of North American Grand Prix leading up to the PT and hoping to turn that virtual Platinum into actual Platinum before he gets to Portland. "I'm going to Grand Prix Chicago, DC, and Boston. Platinum now is hotel and an extra $2,500 for an appearance fee."
It is possible that Boettcher won't win the Rookie of the Year title, but it would take a lot for him to not book a flight to Nice, France, for the World Championship. The two closest people to him in the standings—Neal Oliver and Rasmus Björklund—are not currently qualified for Portland and would need to get to Gold between now and Round 1 of the Pro Tour to compete. The next-closest player is 17 points back and Boettcher has been working his calculator.
"I have done the math, and it would require the people who are qualified for Portland to either get 2nd or 1st place and for me to only get 3 more points the rest of the season," said the Rookie hopeful. "I think it's a lock but don't want to count my chickens yet. I still have to play good Magic."
I did an interview with Boettcher when he first bumped ahead in the rookie race, where he revealed that, inspired by his father, he has been playing Magic since he was four years old. After a decade and a half he finally made the Pro Tour, and with a little taste of success he is trying not to get caught up in peering into the future.
"We're taking it one tournament at a time," he said, reading from the Crash Davis playbook. "Once Rookie is under my belt, I'm going to keep playing the best I can. Hopefully, down the ten-year stretch I'd like to make it into the Hall of Fame, but I don't want to look too far ahead."
With his rookie season winding down, Boettcher had some advice for those of you slugging it out in the Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir qualifiers for when you get to Hawaii.
"I have learned that it's not actually as scary as you'd think, being on the Pro Tour," said Boettcher, dispelling one of the biggest misconceptions about high-level play. "All the other pros are very nice and you can learn a lot from talking about even how they take on the basics. Go into it with an open mind and absorb everything you think you'll want to learn. Just keep an open mind for yourself and don't be intimidated. I'm glad I'm finally on the Pro Tour train, and want to stay on it and progress as a player and help others as well."
The player in this best position to catch Boettcher is Raymond Perez, Jr., who, despite being in 4th place in the race, is the next person on the list qualified for Portland. I interviewed Perez after his Top 16 finish at Pro Tour Theros, but his year has been a rollercoaster since then, including falling back into the PTQ ranks in order to lock up an invitation for Pro Tour Magic 2015. Not only did he have to return to the PTQs but he had to risk alienating one of his closest friends in the process.
"One of my good friends, Jeremy Pinter, was getting married on that Saturday. I had to tell him I was going to miss his wedding in order to give myself the best chance at not missing the final PT. Jeremy was an old MTG Grinder himself (GP Top 4 during Onslaught Block Constructed) so he at least understood," said Perez, who had a double-PTQ weekend to work with but got there without having to make the overnight drive from Michigan to Chicago. "I made the Top 8 with a 6–0–1 record, good for 1st seed. I drafted a mono-red deck with 16 Mountains in the Top 8 and played some really great games to win it all."
Perez is still trying to finalize team details, but he plans to use every tool at his disposal to prepare for the event while he tries to close some ground on Boettcher at the three remaining North American Grand Prix.
"I have to give it my all these last few tournaments before the year is up. Not making Day Two of Pro Tour Journey into Nyx put me quite far behind," said Perez, who found himself in a pretty bad mindset about his game after following up with a poor showing at Grand Prix Atlanta. He credited Pro Tour Champion Jacob Van Lunen with helping him to realize what a great opportunity lay ahead of him.
"Gerry Thompson also told me to not worry about what needs to be or could have been and just focus on playing good games of Magic. He said that if you keep playing well, the rest falls into place. That is the mentality I now have going forward. I know there are a lot of points between me and the rookie spot, but if I can just play well and stay focused, no number of points will stop me from earning the spot."
Regardless of how things go in Portland, Perez is already qualified for Hawaii thanks to a PTQ win this past weekend. Perez used his win to underscore what he has learned playing on the Pro Tour for the past year.
"I learned that anyone can get to the PT with enough practice," said the player who has won multiple PTQs this year. "I am not a prodigy of the game; I had to work three years of grinding before I made it to the PT. The biggest advice I can give to anyone trying to qualify for any PT is to do your homework on whatever the format is. If it's Standard, watch the Open results and latest GP coverage. Check the Magic Online daily results for new tech. If the format is Limited, do some drafts in person or online. Play in Magic Online phantom queues for Sealed reps. For Modern, pick a deck and learn it. I played Melira Pod for the first time the Wednesday before PT Born of the Gods—I went 5–4–1. I played it again at GP Richmond and went 6–3. I played it again at a PTQ this past weekend and won it. Any games you play in Modern are knowledge that tends not to expire. Take full advantage of that fact."
Keep an eye on Perez at those last three Grand Prix as he tries to close some ground on the three players ahead of him in the Rookie of the Year standings. Not that he will be focused on anything beyond the game at hand...
"Take it one game at a time. Don't worry about winning the next three matches to make Top 8 or Day Two, stay focused on what game is at hand and the rest will follow. I wish someone told me that before the last Pro Tour."