Sprinting on the Road to Worlds

Posted in The Week That Was on October 14, 2011

By Brian David-Marshall

The 2011 Pro Tour season is winding down, with just four Grand Prix weekends—containing five opportunities to play in GPs—remaining before the Magic: The GatheringWorld Championships in San Francisco. The race for the title of Player of the Year—the player who amasses the most Pro Points over the course of a single season—will be decided in the sprint from this weekend's Grand Prix in Brisbane to the final rounds of Worlds—and if it is anything like last year, possibly even beyond, with the potential for a tiebreaker played out in Honolulu at the start of the 2012 season.

The race is certainly close enough that it could come to that with five players clustered within 8 points of each other for the lead in the race. Thirteen players can amass as many as 60 points with a win at Worlds, and if anyone can manage a GP win and a deep run at Worlds, the winner could be coming up from even deeper in the pack. Here are the current standings after taking into account the results from the huge field at Grand Prix Milan.

2011 Player of the Year Standings (as of October 14)
PlaceNamePro PointsCountry
1 Luis Scott-Vargas 48United States
1 Owen Turtenwald48United States
3 Ben Stark46United States
4 Yuuya Watanabe45Japan
5 David Sharfman40United States
6 Shouta Yasooka39Japan
7 Vincent Lemoine38Belgium
7 Josh Utter-Leyton38United States
9 Paul Rietzl37United States
9 Martin Juza37Czech Republic
11 Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa36Brazil
11 Shuhei Nakamura36Japan
13 Samuele Estratti35Italy

Milan did not have any big shakeups in the race, with most of the leaders of the pack sitting this one out on the sidelines—massive European Sealed Deck GPs have never been a great value proposition for jet-lagged American players—but it did let a handful of European players claw their way into contention.

Pro Tour Philadelphia winner Samuele Estratti finished third in Milan, and the 6 points that came with it give him a shot at the title—although he would have to hurdle a dozen players to do it. Estratti fell in the semifinals to Hall of Famer Raphael Levy who, with the 8 points from his 2nd-place finish, also finds himself able to see the finish line of the race only 15 points off of the lead. One hot streak over these remaining events could see either of these two players near the front of the pack in just a couple of weeks.

Vincent Lemoine picked up one point for his Top 64 finish this past weekend, and as we have seen, every single point can count in this race. Lemoine has been very quiet throughout this Player of the Year race, but he has the secret weapon in his back pocket as a member of the Belgium National team. That gives him access to some extra points not available to anyone else in his vicinity thanks to the points awarded in the Team Championships at Worlds. The 10 points he earned for winning his National Championship certainly don't hurt either. Keep in mind that Lemoine first popped up on the coverage radar way back in 2004, the last time Worlds was in San Francisco, as a member of the Belgium National team. He finished second in the team competition with eventual PT winner Geoffrey Siron and Dilson Ramos Da Fonseca.

There were exactly two Japanese players in attendance at GP Milan, and only one of them is in the middle of the Player of the Year race. With Grand Prix Brisbane on the docket for this coming weekend, many of the Japanese road warriors did not relish the prospect of traveling to Europe and then back over and down to Australia. Disturbed sleep schedules, however, have never stood between Pro Tour Hall of Famer elect Shuhei Nakamura and a pro point. He picked up 3 this weekend for his Top 16 finish, and he is a single point ahead of Estratti in the standings. It is a testament to Nakamura's dedication to the game that just weeks before being inducted into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame—and thus being qualified for every event—he is even a long shot to win the Player of the Year title.

Nakamura already has a Player of the Year trophy on his cluttered mantle, and should he win another this year he would join Kai Budde on the list of players who have won it more than once. Since the 2005 season when Nakamura broke through onto the Sunday stage in Columbus and at Worlds, he has been in the Top 5 of the Player of the Year race every season except one—when he finished with 40 points in 2007. Don't count him out.

As we climb up the list and look at the remaining players, you have to assume that Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa and Paul Rietzl are long shots to show up in Brisbane, Australia this weekend, but Martin Juza—also in the 9th-12th cluster of the race—is already in Australia and looking to return to the Limited dominance that has served him so well in the past in a player pool that is unlikely to be teeming with sharks... although the Australian players have been pretty staunch in the defense of their hometown GPs.

Paulo will be looking to dominate the first South American Grand Prix since São Paulo in 2009 when the circuit comes to Santiago, Chile in two weekends. Those waters will be much more shark infested, with most of the Americans in the mix traveling south of the equator. With another Grand Prix in Amsterdam that same weekend, you can expect that the European players will be taking the train—and not an airplane—to their Grand Prix next weekend.

I am not sure which event the Japanese contingent will be attending, but whichever one offers the best travel options back to Hiroshima the following weekend is the likelier answer. I would not be surprised to see Player of the Year contenders Yuuya Watanabe and Shouta Yasooka sit on the sidelines for the weekend of Chile/Amsterdam in order to be fresh and well-rested for the last Japanese GP of the season.

Floridians David Sharfman and Ben Stark—who won the two events at Magic Weekend Paris—are wild cards when it comes to GP attendance; it's always a mystery which ones they'll show up for. Sharfman, in his first year of success on the Pro Tour, has not fully embraced the road warrior lifestyle, and Stark has certainly taken off a couple of events, most notably Nationals. Thanks to a Pro Tour title for each of them and some strong GP finishes, either player could parlay a strong Worlds finish into yet another trophy going back to Florida this season.

The race could very well be determined by a strong finish in San Diego, which will be attended by just about everyone since it takes place the weekend before Worlds and is an easy hop, skip or jump away from San Francisco. San Francisco is the backyard of Bay Area resident Luis Scott-Vargas, who currently shares the lead in the race with Owen Turtenwald. Just about everyone loves a hometown hero, and those who don't certainly love an LSV and his insane median finish over the last few seasons. A typical Top 16 finish from LSV at Worlds would give him 56 points for the season without any other points earned at GPs down this stretch. That would not be enough to take the title based on the results from the past few years, though; the fewest points to win a title in the last few years was the 60-point season by Shouta Yasooka in 2006.

Someone who has put more than a little thought into what it would take to win the Player of the Year title from LSV's position is his teammate and co-leader in the race, Owen Turtenwald. This has been a breakout year for Owen, who is easily the best player on the Pro Tour without a Pro Tour Top 8 to his credit. The bulk of his 48 points this season came from an early burst that included a Top 16 at Pro Tour Paris and five GP Top 8 finishes.

The 22-year-old Wisconsin native has been playing games since he was very young—starting out with other TCGs but quickly transitioning to Magic when he saw the older kids in his community playing it. He was playing in PTQs by the time Kamigawa block came out and attended his first Grand Prix in the midst of Kamigawa Block Constructed season.

"I didn't even know what a Grand Prix was at the time," recalls Turtenwald, "but some friends of mine were going so I just went also. I made Top 32. It was exciting playing in a big tournament, and with the amateur prize back then it was the most amount of money I had ever won playing Magic. I was hooked."

Two years later he bested that 23rd-place finish with a finals appearance against Steve Sadin at Grand Prix Columbus. He had been making a biennial trip to the Top 8 of a GP until this season, when he busted out with five. He has two more chances this season to up that total to an even half dozen or better. He expects to attend Santiago, San Diego, and Worlds. Just by signing up for Worlds, he'll get 2 pro points that will secure Level 8 benefits throughout the 2012 season.

"With Level 8 locked up my goals have been more than exceeded," says the Player of the Year hopeful. "At this point I'm 'just happy to be here,' but I know that isn't the right mentality to have, and hopefully I can buckle down and get one or two more strong finishes and lock up Player of the Year. I don't think I can win without either winning a GP or Top 8ing Worlds."

When asked for a prediction about how the race would play out, Owen wanted either of the frontrunners to keep on running all the way across the finish line.

"No predictions, but I hope I win, and failing that I hope LSV wins. I would not be upset with either outcome. If you told me a year ago that I would be tied for the PoY lead with three events to go, I wouldn't have believed you."

Don't forget to check Daily MTG next weekend as the neck-and-neck race between these two good friends will no doubt be front and center in the coverage.

    Details Released on Magic Weekend San Francisco and Worlds

Earlier this week, the formats for the 2011 World Championships and the public events schedule for Magic Weekend San Francisco were announced. The individual formats are Standard, Innistrad Booster Draft, and Modern, which will give us all a good look at the Modern format after the introduction of Innistrad and the September bannings. The three-person team formats are Standard, Legacy, and Modern—each member of the team plays one of the formats in all four team Swiss rounds.

And if that’s not enough Modern for you, the Pro Tour Qualifier season that starts in January (feeding the second Pro Tour of 2012) will also be Modern. Look for more information about that PTQ season after Worlds. The current PTQ season—offering invitations to Pro Tour Dark Ascension in Honolulu—is Innistrad Sealed Deck / Booster Draft and runs until December 25.

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