One of the things I enjoy most about this column is when we can follow a player's career from the Pro Tour Qualifier ranks through to actual Pro Tour success. Last year I got to interview rogue deckbuilder Conley Woods about a wacky land destruction deck that earned him an invite to Honolulu. Tim Aten urged me to interview a young midwestern player named Adam Yurchick many years before he would reach the finals of PT–Hollywood and eventually win Grand Prix–Houston. I am always happy when players breaking through to the Top 8 for the first time have already been featured in my column. I have interviewed or discussed half of the Top 8—Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Guillaume Matignon, Brad Nelson, and Josh Utter-Leyton—in past columns.
Andre Coimbra just pointed out that a few years back I had interviewed him, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa as players to watch for in the future and that all three have finally won a Pro Tour. There is a trick to such things though. You just have to pay attention to who is just on the other side of all those Top 8 finishes. Virtual Top 8 and Top 16 finishes are usually great indicators of future success. Both Guillaumes were first brought to my attention when Pierre Canali shared deckbuilding glory with them after his victory at Pro Tour–Columbus. When Wafo-Tapa proceeded to make the Top 16 of Pro Tour–Honolulu I started to pay attention. Before breaking out at Pro Tour–Charleston Paulo Vitor Dama da Rosa was busy playing deep into Day 2 at his previous Pro Tours.
Take a look at the eight names who finished in the Top 16 and you might have some names to pick in your next Pro Tour fantasy draft.
|9||Suarez, Andres [USA]||8||$7,000|
|10||Sasaki, Yuuta [JPN]||8||$6,500|
|11||Hayes, Benjamin [USA]||8||$6,000|
|12||Ochoa, David [USA]||8||$5,500|
|13||Vidugiris, Gaudenis [USA]||8||$5,000|
|14||Medeiros Merjan, Guilh [BRA]||8||$4,500|
|15||Sperling, Matt [USA]||8||$4,000|
|16||Jaklovsky, Lukas [CZE]||8||$3,750|
This is not to take any credit away from the players who made the Top 8 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Congrats to them all, especially the Brazilian superstar who finally made it out of the quarterfinals of an individual Pro Tour Top 8 in his fifth try. You can see the interview with a visibly stunned Damo da Rosa that Rich Hagon and I did in the final Tournament Center for the weekend below. Don't forget to check out the full coverage of the event too.
We had a handful of other players from the Top 8 on video throughout the weekend. You can see Josh Utter-Leyton discussing the blue-red-green deck that the ChannelFireball squad brought for the Block Constructed portion of the event.
Quarterfinalist Brad Nelson reached the Top 8 for the first time in four tries (although he did finish 9th in Honolulu last season) and his 6-0 draft record was a big part of him getting there. You can see him describe how he handled his second draft—one that did not go as well as he would have liked—and sit in his seat for multiple Draft Viewers including the Top 8 draft.
Brad did not play the same deck as the rest of his ChannelFireball squad instead opting to switch to Zvi's Beastmaster deck. Top 4 finisher Noah Swartz also played Zvi's deck—and was one of only two players to go 10-0 in Block Constructed. The Hall of Fame deck designer—who finished Top 32 yet again—illuminated me as to his thought process in creating the breakout deck for the tournament.
The only other player besides Noah to manage a 10-0 Block record was Ben Hayes. The young Hayes was playing in his first Pro Tour after winning a Magic Online PTQ for the event. I interviewed Ben and his friend Yoni Skolnik a few months back after the duo managed to win PTQs from the same couch for this event. Ben's deck bears a passing resemblance to the Beastmaster deck but the addition of Jace and Unified Will made for a very different deck in the end. Let's take a look at the two undefeated Block decks side by side.
I caught up with Ben after his return from the event to interview him about his deck, his experience at his first Pro Tour, and some of the big names he had to fend off on the way to a perfect Constructed record.
BDM: What was your preparation like for PT–San Juan? Who did you work with and how did you playtest?
Ben: I played a lot of Block Constructed on Magic Online after Rise of the Eldrazi was released online, but I wasn't really happy with any of the decks that I made or saw people playing. During the week leading up to the Pro Tour I tested with Yoni Skolnik in our beach house and we decided on Wednesday night to play the green-white Eldrazi Ramp deck, unless we could find some sick rogue list during the Last Chance Qualifier. Fortunately, I ran into Gavin Verhey and Conley Woods once I got to the site on Thursday, and they showed me the green-blue Fish deck that they were planning to play. It seemed pretty sweet, so Yoni and I got cards together for it and tested it on Thursday night before deciding that we would both be switching to it.
BDM: What were you expecting from the Block Constructed format and how did that shape the deck you ultimately played?
Ben: I think my expectations were similar to most peoples. Lots of White-Blue Control and Eldrazi Ramp, with Mono Red or Boros being the third most represented deck. Gavin told me that his deck was very favorable against White-Blue Control and Eldrazi Ramp, and unfavorable against Mono Red and Boros. Considering that I thought the latter two would be less represented, and no deck in the format seemed to have an edge against everything, Gavin's deck was an easy choice. I also expected the better players to be playing White-Blue Control and Ramp, and I thought having an edge against them would be very significant.
BDM: Were there any key last minute adjustments to the deck?
Ben: The deck was Green Blue Aggro-Control. We played Joraga Treespeaker, Lotus Cobra, and Nest Invader to enable turn-three Jace or Vengevine, as well as very kicked Wolfbriar Elementals. We also had River Boa to attack White-Blue, Eldrazi Monument because it's actually insane, and Into the Roil for some utility and value, as well as sick tricks like bouncing Wolfbriar and replaying him for a ton. The glue, though, was Unified Will, which was enabled nicely by all of our cheap guys (especially Nest Invader), and Khalni Gardens. Unified Will was a complete blowout every time I played it, and more than half of my opponents had to read it when I showed it to them. I feel like no one played around a counterspell from Island
BDM: You went 10-0 in Constructed but 2-4 in Limited. How much preparation did you put in for the draft format vs. Constructed?
Ben: Contrary to my results, I actually prepared much more for Draft than Constructed. I drafted at least once a day online from the time that ROE was released, and I also drafted semi-regularly at Zvi's apartment with his team. I probably did about 50 ROE Drafts, and only spent about 7 dedicated nights in total testing Block.
BDM: What were your expectations coming into your first Pro Tour?
Ben: Obviously I wanted to do well. Honestly, I feel like I'm a pretty good player, so I thought I would do well. I was worried about getting nervous, but I thought that if I could avoid that, I would put up a respectable finish. My personal goal was Top 50, to qualify for Amsterdam, but Yoni always tells me that my goal should be to make the right play every turn, and I feel like I only really started actively trying to follow that motto in DC and San Juan. That's not to say that I wasn't trying to play correctly before then, but rather that I feel I was really able to focus on each game individually as opposed to anything external of that.
BDM: What were your nerves like before Round 1 pairings went up?
Ben: I was a bit nervous. Less so than I thought I would be, though. One thing that I think helped me in a sort of backwards way is that I was fairly sick leading up to and during the Pro Tour, and so I was getting a lot of sleep and really taking care of myself, which is not something I'm normally good at before big events.
BDM: When you look and see someone with a resume like Ben Stark as your first round opponent what goes through your mind?
Ben: I definitely got more nervous after seeing that! It's funny though, I think to a certain extent I have Ben to thank for how calm I was through the rest of the event. Ben showed up to our match with an un-sleeved deck, and no sleeves. Fortunately, I had bought sleeves before the event, not realizing that we would be given free ones at the player meeting, so I had an extra pack. I gave Ben my extra pack and helped him sleeve so that we could start before the judges would have to do their thing to him, and I felt really good about that. Ben was a bit flustered during our match because of all the rushing he'd done, and I think it was good for me to see that Pros are human too.
BDM: Your 10-0 Constructed bracket included four players with pretty impressive resumes and multiple Hall of Fame inductions in its future. What do you remember about each of these matches starting with Ben Stark:
Ben: He was playing Black-Green Eldrazi Ramp, and I remember that in Game 1 he missed his 3rd land drop while I had a quick Jace, and I managed to fateseal him off of lands while beating down with a couple guys. On my turn, before I finished him off, he had a Forest and Eldrazi Temple in play, and I used Jace's +2 ability to find a Swamp on top of his deck. I shipped it to the bottom and finished the game, but I was definitely proud of myself for getting the extra information.
BDM: Martin Juza?
Ben: Seeing his name across from mine definitely made me a bit nervous, although I was able to calm myself down before the games started, by thinking about my first round. He was playing the Blue-Red-Green Ramp deck that all the ChannelFireball guys were playing. We played three very close games, and I remember winning one of them by ripping an Eldrazi Monument for lethal when I had a board of about five unimpressive guys to his Rampaging Baloths and two 4/4 tokens—after we were both down to just 1 or 2 cards in hand. I also Vapor Snared his Oracle of Mul Daya in one of our games and hit two blue lands off the top of my deck in a row on that same turn, allowing me to also cast Deprive on his turn. I think casting the Vapor Snare was right, either way, but being able to cast the Deprive right then was definitely nice.
BDM: Luis Scott-Vargas?
Ben: The third time I was nervous during the tournament. I did not know what LSV was playing, although I suspected it was the Blue-Red-Green Ramp deck. Once we sat down and started chatting a bit, my nerves cooled off a bit. I took my opportunity to thank him for designing the Tezzeret Gifts deck that I used to qualify for San Juan, and he was very nice. I had very close to the nuts in game 1, with three very fast guys and an Eldrazi Monument. Unfortunately, I never drew a fourth creature and ended up losing to my own Monument. We both acknowledged how absurd my hand would have been with a fourth creature and moved on to the next game. He only drew a few spells during our Game 2, and I was able to win pretty easily. In Game 3 I had a fairly quick start involving Vengevine, and was able to finish him off before his big spells came online.
BDM: Shuhei Nakamura?
Ben: I was paired against Shuhei right after LSV, and I actually wasn't nervous at all during this match. I was really proud of myself for winning my match against LSV despite losing the first game, so I was feeling great at this point. Shuhei was playing White-Blue, and our match was not particularly eventful. I played against White-Blue five times in the tournament and I don't feel like any of those matches were particularly close. The deck was designed to destroy White-Blue, and it did just that. As the green-blue deck, you just present White-Blue with so many powerful threats—River Boa, Vengevine, Jace, Monument—and back it all up with cheap counters.
BDM: When you look back on the draft portion do you think there was anything you could have done differently and will it change the way you prepare for Limited heading into Amsterdam?
Ben: In the first Draft Noah Swartz and I were sitting next to each other, and I think we messed each other up pretty badly. He passed me a Corpsehatch and some other quality black in pack 1, but ended up drafting black as well. I thought I hooked him up with pretty good green cards in pack 2, but apparently he was not taking them, and then I got no black in pack 3 and was forced to fill my deck out with questionable blue cards—including 2 Gravitational Shift. Overall I had a lot of removal and 4 Cadaver Imp, but my game plan for actually winning was too clunky.
In my second Draft I took a Nest Invader over Hada Spy Patrol first pick, because I'd been hearing from literally everyone that green was insane. I got passed a Cryptologist first after that and ended up taking it because it was the best card in the pack by quite a bit. After that I took another green card and then a Rapacious One. After pack 1 I had green cards, Cryptologist and Rapacious One, and just ended up going into red, although looking back on it I might have been better off in blue. I dislike green blue in this draft format, but I think in this case it might have been right.
Despite going 2-4 in Limited, I don't think I would do much different in terms of my preparation. I drafted a lot and talked to people about the format, and I think that's just the best thing you can do. I had some awkward draws and mana issues in my limited matches and just didn't get there. My first deck wasn't great, but neither deck was particularly bad, and I think my second deck was definitely not a "1-2" deck.
BDM: Did you think you had a shot at the Top 8 after completing the sweep of the block rounds—something only you and Noah accomplished—or did you know your tiebreakers were not going to get you there?
Ben: I thought it was possible. I had been told that if I won Round 16 I would either be somewhere between 8th and 12th place, but I knew that my chances of actually being 8th were incredibly slim. At that point I wasn't even thinking about it. I was thrilled to have done so well, and whether or not I made Top 8 was honestly the last thing on my mind. I wasn't even in the building when they started announcing Top 8, although I did get back in time to congratulate Noah.
BDM: What was your first Pro Tour experience—as a competitor—like overall?
Ben: Awesome. All of my opponents were very friendly, and all of my matches (even against White-Blue) were fun and challenging. I'm really looking forward to Amsterdam.
BDM: What are you hoping for from the remainder of this PT season?
Ben: Well, I'm qualified for Amsterdam and Nationals now. I also plan to go to all of the remaining North American GP's, as well as Gothenburg the week before Amsterdam. I would really like to qualify for Worlds. The plan is to get 6 Pro Points between all of the Grand Prix's, Nationals, and Amsterdam, or to keep my Total rating in the Top 50 in North America, which I currently have about a 110 point cushion for. The broader goal is Level 4 by the end of the season, which I'm very confident I can achieve if I can continue to play tight.