This Player of the Year race just keeps getting more intense. Just one week after three of the players vying for the Player of the Year title made the Top 8 of Pro Tour–Austin, Martin Juza and Gabriel Nassif both sat at the final draft table of Grand Prix–Tampa. Juza continued his relentless pursuit of Yuuya Watanabe's lead with his third Grand Prix Top 8 this season, although this was the first of the three in which he did not advance past the Quarterfinals. It was Nassif's second Top 8 of the season including his win in Chicago early in the season. GP–Tampa winner Gaudenis Vidugiris locked up Level 7 Players Club status and pulled to within a Pro Tour win of the PoY lead with his third GP Top 8 finish of the season. You can find the most updated Player of the Year standings here, with only three GPs, Worlds, and the Worlds Team Championship left for players to earn points.
The format for the Grand Prix was Zendikar Limited, but that did not stop PT–Honolulu Semifinalist and noted deck designer Conley Woods from taking a Constructed approach to drafting the format. Check out the coverage for two draft decks that Conley had featuring World Queller. In the first deck Conley drafted a controlling green-white deck that featured a Smokestack-like combo of World Queller with Nissa Revane and a couple of her Chosen. In the second draft he presented his 40-card version of a Martyr of Sands / Proclamation of Rebirth deck. In the hyper-aggresive Zendikar landscape, both Ondu Cleric and Makindi Shieldmate have seen their value steadily increase in drafts as they can completely alter the tempo of the game by presenting difficult obstacles to attack around and gaining significant amounts of life. Conley took the extra turns that multiples of those cards offered him and decided he had time for Emeria, the Sky Ruin and World Queller to create an inevitable board position where he was gaining life each turn while his opponent was steadily losing creatures.
Woods drafted a much more traditional creatures and removal strategy in the Top 8 of the event and reached the finals against Vidugiris. The match only went two games, but those two games highlighted the themes of Zendikar, with Conley urging his deck to give him more lands when he already had six in play—something you rarely see in other Limited formats. In the final game of the match, it appeared that Conley had stabilized behind a Giant Scorpion to hold Crypt Ripper at bay. There was not a spell in Gaudenis' deck that could get the Scorpion out of the way, and it looked as though he would lose the race to force a rubber game. Fittingly for the Zendikar draft format, a land turned out to be better than any spell in that situation, as Soaring Seacliff vaulted the muckbreathing Shade over the hapless Scorpion for the Grand Prix–Tampa trophy.
If you have not checked in on the coverage since it was originally posted, a Draft Viewer for the Top 8 has been added and you can see what you would have done in any of the eight seats vying for the GP Tampa title. One player sure to be reviewing the picks and attempting to glean additional insight from the draft is semifinalist John Skinner. The 27-year-old Ph.D. student from Mercerberg, PA had some early exposure to the game when it first came out in the mid 90s but did not actually start playing the game for real until March of this year under fairly unusual circumstances. I interviewed this player who went from essentially starting out with the game in March to making the Semifinals of a GP and qualifying for his first Pro Tour. A little bit of bravado would not be unexpected considering his rapid ascent to the pro Tour ranks, but I was not expect to hear the phrase "humbling experience" in regard to his Top 4 finish or "I expect to get clobbered" in regard to his expectations at his first Pro Tour.
John's initial Magic experience came a high school freshman in 1996 when a friend handed over his Magic collection.
"I didn't even know what was a common vs. a rare but I knew people were happy to trade me all the burn spells I wanted for all the other 'useless' cards I had," recalled John. "Soon I was running a mono-red deck and powering my Fireballs with 'Tron lands—with no way to search for them of course. My biggest accomplishment was taking down my buddie's Kismet-Stasis-Chronatog deck with Curse of Marit Lage and Red Elemental Blasts."
Skinner stopped playing soon thereafter and, with the exception of some head-to-head Sealed Deck with his buddy Paul Hartberger early this decade, he did not pick the game up again until this past March when he wanted to make a good impression on someone who was a fan of the game. He turned to his friend Paul for a Magic refresher and where to buy some packs.
"I started playing again because I had been seeing a girl who played casually," John explained. "I surprised her with eight packs of Shards and eight packs of Conflux. We split them and played some 1-on-1 Sealed. This may seem surprising to my fellow Magic players out there, but her eyes just lit up when she saw those packs and she couldn't wait to get home and open them up. After doing this once more I had a pile of cards sitting around my apartment. I was bored one day and decided to see what kind of deck I could make out of all of them. I cobbled together a Standard deck and played a local FNM. Soon I was drafting and then trading my cards for ones for my Constructed deck."
John, who started GP–Tampa off 7-2 and had to 6-0 Day Two to make the Top 8, found he preferred Draft to Sealed Deck.
"After those first two one-on-one Sealed games I pretty much stuck to Draft and Constructed. I seemed to have a knack for drafting and soon I was winning enough store credit to go infinite from time to time," his story continued. "My initial attraction to the game was deck building. I'm a natural Johnny, and I just loved showing off card interactions that other people hadn't seen before. Eventually the Spike in me took over and my drive became self-improvement. I love it when I find a new way to improve my game."
Not only does John's relationship with the game continue, but he is still in contact with his inspiration for getting back into the game.
"She was really happy to have someone to play with. I guess she felt happy that I not only accepted her hobby but even participated in it," said John when asked about her reaction to his assimilation into the game. "I called her Monday to tell her how I did and she was dumbfounded. I picked her up some foil Angels while I was in Tampa and I'll be sure to treat her to a nice dinner with my winnings. I guess even Magic can be romantic if you try."
John quickly became a regular at the Sunday drafts at Redcap's Corner in Philadelphia.
"I wanted to improve my game so I could pay for my cards with my winnings," said John of his entry into more competitive play. "Then I had big dreams of making Top 4 in Standard FNM. Each time I accomplished a goal I set a new one a little higher. Soon I was going to PTQs with Paul, the guy I had called for advice on Sealed."
As we were taking pictures for the Top 8 of Tampa, John laughed when I asked him about his previous Magic accomplishments. He pointed out that he had never even made the Top 8 of a PTQ prior to his Tampa experience.
"You know, my friends made fun of me because when I found out I made Top 8 in Tampa I said, 'I guess I finally get that Top 8 pin,'" admitted John. "I was a little sad to find out you don't get one at GPs, and my friends just shook their heads in disbelief. I began going to PTQs when Standard season started. I've gone to most of the ones around Philly and one in Pittsburgh. My best record was 7-2, but my breakers weren't good enough to make Top 8. I was looking forward to finally breaking into the Top 8 at a Limited PTQ this season, but I guess I'll have to wait until Extended season. I kind of leap-frogged a few goals there."
John decided to try his hand at the GP with modest goals since his mom lived in Florida and he was able to combine the costs of the GP into the costs of visiting his family.
"Two-for-ones are good, right?" he joked. "My expectation was to make Day Two. I would have been disappointed in myself if I didn't unless I had a lousy pool. My hope was that I would break into the Top 64 and money. My Sealed Deck was green-white landfall with a red splash. The all-stars were Oracle of Mul Daya, Baloth Woodcrasher, and Nissa Revane. I was a little sketchy about playing her with only one Chosen, but she was money all day. I had an Arid Mesa and a Teetering Peaks, so I went ahead and splashed red for more removal. The best part was having the Oracle out and using Nissa to ship the top card. It was an incredibly fun deck to play and I don't think I'll ever take it apart. I had one bye. It was incredibly useful because it gave me time to playtest and figure out what the true best build was so I could board into it for Game 2."
In order to meet his pre-tournament goal of a Top 64 finish, John figured he needed a 3-3 record, but he won seven in a row on Day Two before losing to eventual winner Gaudenis in the Semifinals.
"The first deck I drafted was blue-black," he said of his Day Two decks. "I first-picked Vampire Nighthawk and then I was fed black for the rest of pack 1. In pack 2 I was passed a second-pick Nighthawk. My second draft deck was green-white allies. I grabbed Trusty Machete and River Boa picks 1 and 2, but after that I was lost. I didn't try to force anything and it took me until the end of the pack to be sure that white-green was open. I had grabbed two Ondu Clerics in that pack so I went with that theme. Grabbing Kazandu Blademaster in pack 2 and in pack 3 really helped."
The immediate impression that John left with me with this weekend was of someone who put a lot of thought into his game and did not take his presence in the Top 8 for granted. I asked him what he learned about Magic or himself over the course of his whirlwind qualification for the Pro Tour.
"Believe it or not, this was really a humbling experience. I was constantly beating people who were better players than myself," he replied. "Just look at the Top 8 coverage and you can see how many play errors and gaffes I made. The most beneficial thing I learned is that when I start feeling myself going on tilt, I need to stop thinking about the last play and focus on the next play."
"I will definately be at Pro Tour–San Diego but only because it's not Extended—I haven't even played a game in that format yet," said John when asked about his participation in next year's Rookie of the Year Race and what he will need to do to compete against the PT field. Intriguingly, his goals for that event were not merely about doing well at that isolated event.
"I think that what I need to do to be successful at the next level is not the same thing I need to do to be successful in San Diego. If I wanted to do my best in SD I would come in with an aggro deck that would keep my misplays to a minimum. What I will be doing is coming with a control deck that will give me the opportunity to outplay my opponent. I expect to get clobbered and I expect to have a notebook full of things I learned and can apply to the next Pro Tour I go to—should I be lucky enough to Q again. But who knows, maybe lightning will strike twice and I can leap past a few more goals in SD. I'm not betting on it, but I'll be trying for it."
- Get in the Game Day
If you are looking for more draft coverage—and Player of the Year jockeying—don't forget to tune into the Tournament Center all weekend for updates from Kitakyushu, Japan as Nate Price brings you all the action from the opening deck building to the hoisting of the trophy. For those of you looking for a more immediate Magic experience this weekend—virtually anywhere you are in the World—you should head out to your local game store and throw your hat and your Standard deck into the ring for a chance to be crowned your store's Zendikar Game Day Champion. Everyone who participates will receive an extended-art Nissa's Chosen while supplies last, and the Top 8 players get an extended-, alternate-art foil Emeria Angel.
Selected winning and Top 8 decklists from Game Day events will be featured all next week in Daily Decks, Decks of the Week, and Mike Flores's Top Decks column. If you have ever wanted to see your name and Magic creations on this site, then participating in Game Day is a positive step in that direction. Corey Lege was not expecting to find himself featured on the Austin coverage when he played in the LCQ two weeks ago, but interesting (read: non-Jund) Standard decks have a tendency to find their way into the coverage. Good luck this weekend, and have fun at Game Day!
- Firestarter: What the Halloween?!
I need some help from people. As I write this I still don't know what I am going to wear to a Saturday costume party for Halloween. I know that this is not an international holiday, as evidenced by Nassif and Juza's responses to their Top 8 profile questions, but any costume suggestions will be appreciated. Last year I went as a crime scene. I dressed in black from head to toe and outlined myself with reflective white tape to mimic a chalk outline. Another year I wore a cheap C-3PO mask and carried a white trash can with me to go as the recurring droid characters from the Star Wars films. I am only going to wear it once, so it should be something that I can either toss away without regret or actually use—such as the trash can by my desk that once summoned the aid of Obi Wan. Head to the forums and share your suggestions there!