Stage One

Posted in The Week That Was on March 27, 2009

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

The current Pro Tour season is made up of five stages centered around the four big events and the Nationals season over the summer. The conclusion of Grand Prix–Singapore also marked the conclusion of Stage One. Players who have been on the road since Grand Prix–Los Angeles get to spend a few weeks at home before embarking on the next continuous run around the world starting in May at Grand Prix–Barcelona, followed by Grand Prix–Seattle, Pro Tour–Honolulu, and Grand Prix–San Paulo.

With the breather on the schedule and the recent publication of the Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year leaderboards it seemed like a good week to check in on the pack of players leading the race and how they accumulated their points.

Gabriel Nassif: 35 points – 1st Place

Gabriel Nassif, who has traded in his yellow hat for a yellow jersey at the end of Stage One, needs little introduction and is one of the greatest players to ever shuffle up a deck of 60 ... er ... 61 cards. Nassif is one of an elite group of players to already hold the title of Player of the Year. He won it in 2004 without actually winning a Pro Tour and upsetting (both literally and figuratively) Nicolai Herzog, who had won two that season.

Nassif's points come from two breakthrough wins for him this season. While Nassif did have a team win at Pro Tour–Atlanta it felt wrong for one of the greatest Constructed minds in the game's history not to have an individual title. There was a run during the 2003 and 2004 seasons where there was nary a Constructed Top 8 that did not include the yellow-hatted Nassif. He finally got that win at the first Pro Tour of the season in his ninth Pro Tour Top 8 appearance with a win for the ages over Luis Scott-Vargas in the finals of Pro Tour–Kyoto with his 61-card Five-Color Control deck, along with one of the greatest moments in Pro Tour history against Matteo Orsini Jones in the quarterfinals.

From the Pro Tour coverage by Nate Price:

Nassif put his top card in front of him, face down, and then went about arranging his lands.

"I'm preparing my Cruel Ultimatum mana."

He slowly peeled the card back before snapping it into his hand and hiding it behind his Reflecting Pool, all without looking at it. He then dropped the Reflecting Pool, tapped seven mana, and blindly dropped his card onto the table. The roar from the spectator-packed observation area threatened to level the Arena with a wall of sound.

Nassif had topdecked the Cruel Ultimatum he had set up the mana for.

The stupid grin that seems to be the human body's natural reaction to BEING ABSOLUTELY AMAZING still had yet to fade from his face. Barely audible under the still raucous crowd in the next room, Nassif simply managed to utter, "Ridiculous."

With the taste of victory fresh in his jaws Nassif jetted off to Grand Prix–Chicago for a taste of Legacy. Nassif has never pursued the Grand Prix circuit as aggressively as many of his peers and only had four Top 8 appearances at that level of play before his Chicago win just one week after winning Kyoto—and no wins at that level.

Nassif opted for a more traditional 60-card build for this event, piloting a Counterbalance deck through the record breaking 1200+ person field that descended upon Chicago to try their hand at the Legacy format. Once again the idiosyncratic Nassif put his own unique touch on the deck list with 15 different miser's/sideboard cards without a Wish of any type anywhere near his deck.

Gabriel Nassif's Counterbalance

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Nassif was the last player to win a Player of the Year title before the Japanese began their current streak. Can he maintain his lead throughout the season without taking advantage of the opportunities for points that Grand Prix represent? It seems unlikely, especially with the guy breathing down his neck at the end of Stage One.

Luis Scott-Vargas: 34 Points – 2nd Place

There has been no player hotter than LSV during the past 12 months of Magic, and the American superstar is just one point off the lead. It is hard to imagine that before Pro Tour–Berlin, Luis had never stepped onto the Sunday stage at that level of play. After he quickly found himself down two games in the quarterfinals of that event, it looked like his appearance might be merely a cameo, but he surged back to win the last three games and the trophy. Since then he has seemingly done nothing but win and has garnered comparisons to the best to ever play the game.

No one wants to sit down across the table from LSV with anything on the line, but that is even more true when the format is Extended. Luis swept through three different Extended events with three different deck between the end of last season and the start of the current one. After winning Berlin with Elves he swept the Extended portion of Worlds with Swans and then won Grand Prix–Los Angeles—the first event of the 2009 season—with a storm combo deck.

Luis Scott-Vargas's Storm

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Taking into account the seven straight wins Luis racked up in the closing rounds of Worlds—to finish 11th—and the eleven straight wins he rattled off to start Pro Tour–Kyoto, Luis Scott-Vargas put together the longest winning streak the Pro Tour has ever seen—18 straight wins. The streak is made all the more impressive when you consider that it came in three completely different formats: Extended, Limited, and Standard.

Luis collided with Nassif in the finals of Pro Tour–Kyoto and fell short in a haymaker-packed five-game set and handed over his lead. The two players nearly found themselves meeting in another Top 8 a week later in Chicago, but Luis fell a few points shy and had to content himself with a 10th-place finish and four Pro Points to leave him just a hair behind Gab heading into Stage Two. While Luis did attend two Grand Prix this season—for a 1st and a 10th and 14 points—he did not make trips to Europe or Asia in pursuit of points. He and Gab have plenty of room at the top of the standings but they have to know that lead will be pursued relentlessly by players who know a thing or two about winning the title—and who will not take a weekend off throughout the season.

Tomoharu Saito, Shuhei Nakamura, and Martin Juza: 18 Points – Tied for 3rd

When you look in your rearview mirror and see the last two Player of Year winners, no lead—even one of the double-digit variety—is safe. Last year the only time Saito or Nakamura missed an opportunity to play in a Grand Prix was when there was a conflicting GP on the same weekend (a problem that does not exist this year). Interestingly, both former PoY players elected to skip Grand Prix–Chicago, but you can expect to see them at any other event where Pro Points are up for grabs.

Saito called up his Woolly Thoctars—who thought they were being held back for the Block season—and took down the field in Singapore with his take on Naya in Extended. It also jumped him 10 points in the standings.

Tomoharu Saito's Naya Zoo

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When I posted a link to the PoY standings on Twitter the other day, there was much discussion that no one was going to catch Gab or Luis, but Grand Prix play such a huge role in the race that I would be loathe to dismiss anyone with the commitment and skill to win an event on any given weekend of the year. Combine that with solid Pro Tour finishes—both Saito and Nakamura posted Top 32 in Kyoto—and either of these players could emerge with a second title and the fifth straight PoY from Japan.

Of course, if solid finishes matter you cannot sleep on Martin Juza, who has been a Top 16 machine. The Czech player broke through into the Top 8 of a Pro Tour last year in Berlin, and he just missed the Top 8 in Kyoto. His 11th-place finish there was tiebreakers shy of making the Top 8 with Black-White Tokens, and he has also posted multiple Top 16 finishes on the Grand Prix level (with a 17th-place for good measure in Los Angeles). He has assembled his third place standing in the PoY race without any Top 8s and has been aggressively traveling around the world with the likes of Manuel Bucher, Olivier Ruel, and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa.

Martin Juza's Black-White Tokens

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Brian Robinson, Akimasa Yamamoto: 16 points – Tied for 6th

Tied for sixth in the Player of the Year race are Rookie of the Year frontrunners Brian Robinson from the U.S. and Akimasa Yamamoto of Japan, who each made the semifinals of Pro Tour–Kyoto for the sum total of their 16 points.

Robinson had one of the most exciting decks in the tournament with Doran, the Siege Tower; Rafiq of the Many; and Rhox War Monk all fighting on the same team and powered out on turn two by eight mana producing creatures and the unexpected Ancient Ziggurat.

Brian Robinson's Dark Bant

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Yamamoto played Red-White Reveillark, which many pros felt was the best deck coming into the tournament.

Akimasa Yamamoto's Boat Brew

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Both players will need to follow up their showings with solid PT finishes and some Grand Prix appearances if they want to hold onto their Rookie leads. As we saw last year with Aaron Nicastri's run to the title, the points that have been added to Nationals will churn a handful of new players into the heart of the Rookie race. If those players are willing to make the commitment to the Grand Prix circuit in the final stage of the season, they could find themselves passing by the current Rookie leaders.

Robert van Medevoort, Matteo Orsini Jones: 14 points – Tied for 8th Place

Former World Team Champion Robert van Medevoort has assembled 14 points with 1 point in Hanover, 8 points for a second-place finish in Rotterdam, and another 5 points for his Top 64 in Kyoto, getting the most out of the events he has been attending. He has clearly shown himself to be a formidable competitor but will need to put some more stamps in his passport if he wants to close the ground between himself and the leaders.

Only the top of Nassif's deck stands in the way of Matteo being further along at the conclusion of Stage One. Like finalist Luis Scott-Vargas, Matteo played Black-White Tokens in Kyoto, and the Englishman looks like a solid player to keep any eye on for the remainder of the year.

Sam Black: 13 Points – 10th Place

Sam Black is a name that has seen print more and more frequently over the past few seasons. He first popped up when he won the car at Worlds in New York with an unusual take on Goblins. From there he made the U.S. National team last year and won the Team Championship at Worlds alongside Paul Cheon and team captain Michael Jacob. This season has seen him playing at a Saito-like number of events—most recently making the Top 8 of Grand Prix–Singapore—and making himself a dark horse in this year's Player of the Year race.

Black has been playing the game for almost as long as it has been in print; a friend's older brother taught him how to play in 1994. He had always aspired to play the game at the highest levels and with the points he picked up last season he has been afforded the opportunity to see how far he can take himself in 2009.

"I've wanted to try 'going pro' for a long time," said Black of his headfirst dive into frequent flier mileage. "This is the first time I've hit Level 4 and I want to make the most of it and see where I can take my game."

"So far I've gone GP–LA, Chicago, Hanover, and Singapore, and PT–Kyoto this year," he continued.

Sam is quick to point out that when he is traveling to some exotic locales he is all business. "I've been going with Brian Kowal and Gaudenis Vidugiris. I don't do a lot of sightseeing when I travel. I travel to see people and play games, rather than traveling to see places. Places generally don't interest me that much in themselves. That said, the Japanese in general are pretty amazing."

L-R: Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Sam Black, Manuel Bucher, Gaudenis Vidugiris, Brian Kowal, and Martin Juza

"Most recently I spent a few days preparing for GP–Singapore with Manuel Bucher, Martin Juza, Paulo Vitor, Zac Hill, and Brian Kowal (Gau was mostly sightseeing), and that helped my game," explained Black when asked if the immersion in Magic had affected his game. "I feel like I've been getting better at the game very quickly over the last year, and probably even more so more recently. That's very exciting to me. I really have no idea how high my limit is at the moment. I don't have a set goal, I just want to see what I'm capable of and gather more data about myself to know what to expect in the future."

It will be exciting to follow these players over the remainder of the season and see how the positioning changes when events resume in April at Grand Prix–Kobe, and then kicking in to high gear with Barcelona in mid-May.

Firestarter: Handicapping the Race

Gabriel Nassif and Luis Scott-Vargas have amassed a lead that is basically the equivalent of a Top 4 finish at a Pro Tour and are both playing the best Magic of their careers. If you had to pick either of them versus the rest of the field, which way would you lean? Head to the forums and share your assessment of the race there.


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