The Thing About Shahar

Posted in The Week That Was on August 14, 2015

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.

In this Issue:

All about Shahar | July Player of the Month

The Magic World Championship looms large, taking place in Seattle during PAX Prime. It's large for Magic, large for the competitors, and large in particular for one very familiar competitor.

All About Shahar

All eyes will be on 21-year-old Shahar Shenhar as he attempts to win this tournament for the third year in a row. Since breaking through onto the Pro Tour five years ago, Shenhar has established himself as one of the bright young stars of the game with multiple Grand Prix victories, the two World Championship titles, and Platinum status in the Pro Player's Club year in and year out.

It does not seem that long ago that I was interviewing him after his Pro Tour debut at Magic Weekend in Paris during the 2011 season. Just seventeen years old at the time, Shenhar finished 38th at the Pro Tour and also finished 50th in the Grand Prix that took place that same weekend. He made what would turn out to be a portentous statement when I asked him about playing at that level for the first time.

"What I enjoy the most is meeting new people. This can be helpful for years to come, to know more professional Magic players," said the future two-time World Champion, who would play with many of the biggest names in the history of the game over the course of the next five years. Later on that same season, Shenhar would win the first of three Grand Prix titles in his career when he beat England's Richard Bland in the finals.

"Bland, like a lot of the Europeans en route to Worlds, took in Grand Prix San Diego," remembered commentator—and countryman to Bland—Richard Hagon. "Like many supporters following a particular player, I was constantly refreshing the text coverage page for news of the latest round, and Bland kept on winning, and winning, and winning, and eventually he reached the final. Go England! Go Rich Bland! Go Europe! Go—oh. He was beaten in the final by someone called Shahar Shenhar. That name's going to be tough to get right on commentary, if he ever gets really good."

That victory was good enough to get Shahar within 10 points of the Rookie of the Year lead by season's end, but more importantly it opened the eyes of some players who had known him growing up in the Northern California Magic scene. One of those players was future two-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Jacob Wilson.

Jacob Wilson

"Shahar and I each went to high school in Northern California. We played at ChannelFireball Game Center—formerly Superstars—and local PTQs. Shahar got onto the PT and GP circuit a little bit before me, and seeing him succeed spurred me on to begin traveling to events," said Wilson. "Shahar and I are quite different people—however I think that there is not a single person on earth who leads a life more similar to mine."

Another person who had a front row seat to the early career of Shenhar was Hall of Famer—and mayor of the Northern Californian Magic scene—Luis Scott-Vargas. LSV played in the same local store when he first met Shenhar, and he marveled at how much has changed in the intervening years:

"He was like fourteen when I first met him, and I was much taller and much better than him. Flash forward eight years, and I don't know if I can claim either—the height part certainly isn't up for debate," joked the Hall of Famer. "Watching Shahar go from a kid really getting into Magic, to going to his first Pro Tour—where he had to get permission from his parents to travel with guys from the local shop—to being a fixture of the Pro scene has been incredible. Shahar is now a two-time World Champion! If you'd told me that the fourteen-year-old kid from my local shop would win back-to-back Worlds in a few years, I'd have been skeptical to say the least. Of course, by the time it actually happened, it really wasn't surprising. Shahar has been one of the elite players for the last few years now, and his victorious emergence at Worlds was awesome to see."

Shenhar would eventually join forces with LSV as a member of Team ChannelFireball, playing alongside all the Hall of Famers on that legendary team. Despite being the young upstart, he impressed his teammates with his maturity, willingness to absorb knowledge, and his blossoming mastery of the game. Just last season, he finished second at the Team Grand Prix alongside Tom Martell and Hall of Famer Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, who explained what makes the young man such a formidable Pro:

Paolo Vitor Damo da Rosa

"I think Shahar's biggest strength at the competitive level is that he understands that Magic is a game being played by two rational human beings, and he exploits that to the fullest by making plays that will change the way his opponents play. Shahar is very good at representing a card or a combination of cards that he doesn't have—he knows just how far he can go to be very realistic but at the same time not flat out lose if called on it."

Wilson, who now playtests with Shenhar as a fellow member of The Pantheon, has a personal example of the type of play that Paulo described:

"During this past Pro Tour testing camp with Pantheon, Shahar thought about a block for a long time against me, eventually he cringed and blocked. I immediately cast my combat trick, only to be surprised by his removal spell. I had never seen Shahar act or bluff during a game before, but now I know to look out for it."

Another player from Northern California who has a long history with Shenhar is five-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Josh Utter-Leyton, who marveled at the seriousness Shenhar can bring to the game while still having fun when he is away from the Feature Match area.

"He doesn't treat Magic as simply a fun game; he embraces it fully as a competitive endeavor and is always actively trying to improve. I've tested with Shahar for countless tournaments, including last year's World Championships—and I am helping him test for this year's, as well. What stands out to me about Shahar is his razor-sharp intuition for finding the right play; he plays nearly flawlessly even when on auto-pilot," said Utter-Leyton, who also has plenty of tales of Shenhar's less serious side. "My favorite story is when Shahar was doing a ton of impersonations during testing. This was greatly annoying Eric Froehlich, who asked Shahar how much he would have to pay to get Shahar to stop. Shahar responded with 'I'll bet you I can never make a weird voice again for the rest of my life.' Efro snap accepted the "bet," and Shahar obviously lost later that day—making it several hours longer than anyone expected him to, to be fair."

Hall of Famer-elect Eric Froehlich recalled that there was something of an adjustment that the younger player had to make when surrounded by older, more experienced players:

Eric Froehlich

"Shahar is probably best known for his ability to get distracted during playtesting, which is almost par for the course at such a young age and when playing so many matches to prepare. We commonly referred to various disagreements as being "Shaharguments," coined by LSV, for Shahar repeating something that somebody just said or just going off about something else entirely independent of the discussion at hand. It definitely kept things entertaining."

Shenhar flourished with Team ChannelFireball, which came as no surprise to Froehlich.

"Shahar plays Magic all of the time, and that dedication is what allowed him to improve rapidly. Seeking out players better than you and working hard to prove your worth are huge for potential growth, and he did everything right. There's no guarantee that every player will be able to do that, but Shahar being so likable as a person who cares so much about all the people around him made it easy for CFB to include him in our testing group."

Shenhar has had some success at the Pro Tour despite not having a Top 8 at that level on his resume yet, but when he defeated Ben Stark and Reid Duke in the Top 4 of the 2013 World Championship to win his first Final Day appearance, he made it clear to the Magic world that he was an elite player.

"I remember his game against Ben Stark during his first Worlds performance," said LSV, recalling the semifinals from that tournament. "It was the Blue-White-Red Control mirror in Modern, and Ben had pretty much complete control. Despite having just three Lightning Bolts in hand as Ben resolved spell after spell, Shahar bided his time, and eventually Ben cracked an Arid Mesa, and Shahar somehow stole the game by burning Ben out from 9 life."

In the finals, Shenhar was facing down Reid Duke, who was in the process of writing a dream ending to his own tournament. At the previous year's tournament, Duke had finished dead last and vowed to capitalize on that experience and turn things around the following World Championship. It looked like he was going to achieve that goal, as he tore through the Modern field with his Hexproof Auras deck that nobody seemed prepared for. Up two games to none against Shenhar in the finals, it looked like he was going to have his happy ending.

Shahar Shenhar and Reid Duke, 2013 Magic World Championship Finals

"In that match, most people thought that, because of the way our decks matched up, Shahar was such a big underdog that it was almost a foregone conclusion. As he started down 2-0, it started to look that way more and more. However, Shahar never gave up, and he showed a remarkable understanding of the matchup, what strategies weren't going to work, and which gambits might be able to earn him a win. He followed through with his plan, and beat me fair and square," said Reid Duke, who calls that match the most important one of his career.

"I didn't win the title, but what I did come away with was a relationship with a player who could inspire me to continue trying to be the best I can be," said Duke, who now prepares for events alongside Shenhar. "A few months ago, Shahar joined The Pantheon, and I've had the opportunity to watch him and play with him more than I ever had before. I already held him in high regard, but have been continually impressed with how well he plays. Shahar doesn't always get attention as a cutthroat competitor because he's very friendly and very humble. However, if you let that fool you when you play against him, you're going to lose and you'll hardly know what happened to you."

It wasn't long ago that Reid Duke was on that list of players without a Pro Tour Top 8, but he has crossed his name off and expects that Shenhar will do the same soon enough.

"Shahar is on track for a Pro Tour Top 8. And sooner rather than later. He had a great start at Pro Tour Origins in Vancouver, and in my mind it just seemed to fit that it would be his tournament to shine. It turned out not to be, but it wasn't a surprise at all to see him doing well, and it won't be a surprise when he breaks through to a Top 8 next year or the year after," said Duke. "The most dangerous thing about Shahar is that, as good as he already is, he's still growing as a player at a much faster rate than most of his peers. Shahar is young, bright, humble, and incredibly eager to learn. Add that to the fact that everybody likes him and he has the right connections, and the sky is truly the limit."

The following season, Shahar repeated as World Champion and really opened the eyes of Hall of Famer-elect Willy Edel, who was one of the players with whom he prepared for the event.

Willy Edel

"Shahar always impressed me with his high level of technical play and because of how "cold" he is while playing—winning or losing, he won't complain or give any hints of what's going on, pretty much no emotion—which is a pretty good thing in Magic," said Edel, who advocated for the difficult-to-play Sidisi Whip deck that eventually won the tournament. "We played the deck a lot against several decks, but I don't remember him playing it even once. He was usually on the other side, testing the expected matchups. I think he played his first sanctioned match with the deck at Worlds itself and played really well, including a clean sweep in the semifinals and finals versus super good opponents in matchups that weren't that good. The deck was really hard to play/sideboard, and my respect for Shahar went through the roof when I saw him doing it flawless with very limited testing. The fact that he can play pretty much any deck—from Burn to Jeskai or pure Control—at a super high level is incredible as well."

Shenhar played storybook-ruiner in the finals of that tournament as well. He was facing off against Hall of Famer Patrick Chapin, who had earned his invite to the exclusive tournament by winning Pro Tour Journey into Nyx. Chapin referred to the Pro Tour as his qualifier tournament, as his dream for the 20 years since he started following high-level Magic had been to be crowned the Magic World Champion.

Patrick Chapin

"Above all else, Shahar has an unending appetite for learning. He loves learning about everything, and he isn't afraid of looking dumb by asking about something he doesn't yet know. He is super brilliant and continuing to learn more and more every year. It's not an accident that he's one of the best in the world, despite being so young, and he's still on the way up," said Chapin. "We were introduced by some mutual friends a few years ago, and have gotten to know each other better since then from seeing each other at events. Eventually, he smashed me in the finals of the World Championship."

Despite two World Championship titles, three Grand Prix titles, and a string of solid finishes at the Pro Tour-level, one of his new teammates on The Pantheon thinks Shenhar still does not get the respect he is due as one of the greats of the game right now.

"Shahar is criminally underrated, and by my estimation, considering everything he's accomplished and his continued success, he's one of the top echelon of Magic players in the world," said Pro Tour Hall of Famer William Jensen. "I am actually something like 0-5 against Shahar in premier-level play. I went 0-2 at Worlds last year, 0-2 in Pro Tours, and 0-1 at Grand Prix. I am looking forward to having a chance to get one in the win column, but don't particularly want to play high-level matches against friends of mine, so I'm fine being 0-5 for a while, I guess."

Even the two most successful players in the history of the game have been impressed by the two-time World Champion.

"I didn't interact at all with Shahar before the playtesting for the Pro Tour in Vancouver, and was very positively surprised, both by him and Jacob Wilson," said Hall of Famer and seven-time Pro Tour Champion Kai Budde. "I expected them to be very good Magic players, but both turned out to be more mature than I expected them to be—especially Shahar, who was very helpful for Constructed testing. He was the guy that figured out that Jeskai should be well positioned. There was one testing series with Jeskai against Green Devotion where the green deck was winning a bunch of games, Shahar stepped in and completely reversed the results by playing the Jeskai deck in a different, way more aggressive way. Overall, there isn't anything bad to say, really."

Seeker of the Way | Art by Craig J Spearing

Jon Finkel was in the first class inducted into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame, and has been one of the game's most successful player since before there was even such as thing as the Pro Tour. He was very pleased to have the two-time World Champion on The Pantheon.

"I've always really liked Shahar, but Vancouver was my first time working with him. He's a genuinely likable, decent person and an excellent Magic player. We were working on the same deck, and there were a bunch of times when I looked at a play, questioned it, and he brought up something I hadn't thought of. Also he taps his lands in the wrong direction."

All eyes will be on Shenhar at the World Championship as he tries for the seemingly impossible three-peat. Luis Scott-Vargas, who has known Shenhar longer than anyone else on the Pro Tour, may not have imagined that the fourteen-year-old kid at his local shop would one day be a World Champion, but he has no trouble imagining even bigger and better things for the man Shenhar has grown into.

"Another World Championship win would be awesome, of course, but I'd love to see Shahar show up in the Top 8 of a Pro Tour. I don't think that we are too far away from that happening, and I know Shahar is working towards it as well. Despite being relatively new to the game—at least compared to many of his peers on the Pro Tour—Shahar can more than hold his own, and I'm interested in seeing where he goes from here," said LSV. "He's very good now, and it's possible he still hasn't hit his peak, which is pretty interesting considering the two Worlds titles he has under his belt. He's preparing for Worlds with Eric Froehlich this year, and has myself, Josh Utter-Leyton, and Paul Cheon as backup, even though the three of us aren't actually qualified. I'd be very happy if Shahar racked up a third Worlds win, and even more than that, I'd be impressed."

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July Player of the Month: Mike Sigrist

It has been a busy couple of months for Mike Sigrist. He started out with a win at Grand Prix Montreal, which gave him a nice little boost of Pro Points that helped propel him to the title of Player of the Year with his second-place finish at Pro Tour Magic Origins to start off August. He followed that up by going home and becoming a father to twin girls, Annabella and Sofia Sigrist—of course all the hard work was done by his wife, Heather—and now he has to prepare for the World Championship.

He earns the title by virtue of his Grand Prix win following the Pro Tour, his Player of the Year title, and his recent fatherhood, which all occurred in August. Coupled with those accomplishments, if Sigrist can make a deep run at the World Championship, he can unseat current August Player of the Month front-runner Joel Larsson.

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