What a Week!
When the whole weekend was said and done, more than $1 million was given away. It also brought the prize total for the just-concluded season to $3 million. Even more impressive than that was the fact -- which Wizards emphasized with a towering physical representation -- that since the inception of the Pro Tour, just shy of $22 million dollars has been given way in cash and scholarships!
Walking away with more than his fair share of the million bucks on the weekend was 15-year-old Julien Nuijten from Amsterdam. He was the youngest player to ever win a Pro Tour, much less be crowned World Champion. Between the main event and the Dutch finish in the team competition, which culminated in a bolt up the standings in the Player-of-the-Year race from five points (earned at Grand Prix Brussels) to 41 points and a 25th-place finish in the year-long race.
The first time I heard of Julien was when I interviewed Frank Karsten for this column during Grand Prix-New Jersey. Karsten gave credit to his young countryman for suggesting that Aether Vial be reinserted into the post-Skullclamp version of Affinity. Karsten went on to place in the Top 4 of Grand Prix Zurich with the resulting deck, and Affinity players around the world have adopted the Vial version of Affinity ever since.
The next time I heard of him was this week when he won the Rookie of the Year in one fell swoop, passing Alexander Peset, Tomohiro Kaji, and Aeo Paquette (who ended up second in both the World Championships and the Rookie race). When all the money was heaped into one big pile and tallied, it rung up at $52,366 -- the single largest payout at any collectable card game tournament in history. Even without the five points he had coming into the tournament it would have been enough to surpass the previous mark of $45,000 set by Jon Finkel during the World Championships in 2000 when he won the both the individual and team portions of the event. (To be fair, there was not an end-of-year payout back then.)
Nuijten played an Eternal Slide deck in Standard and tore his way through the Top 8 defeating Canada's Murray Evans (with Affinity), Japan's Ryo Ogura (with mono-red Goblins), and then Paquette in the finals. When Nuijten faced off with Paquette, their match had more money in play than any in the history of the game. Not only would the winner take home $12,000 more than the loser, but the corresponding Pro Tour points would come with a hefty chunk of the end-of-year cash. They were also playing for Rookie of the Year honors and a free trip to any Pro Tour this coming season (*cough* Japan *cough*).
While the 15-year-old showed remarkable poise during the finals -- Aeo's Affinity deck was the significant underdog coming into the finals -- Nuijten seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the enormity of his accomplishments afterward.
I tagged along with photographer Craig Gibson as he shot the young champion for the site's front page and asked him how he felt about his accomplishment, “Everyone keeps asking me that but I don't know what to say to that question.”
It was not the first time the young man had won money playing Magic. In fact he had held a job delivering fliers but quit it when he realized that he could make more money playing Magic instead. He took home some money for making the Dutch National team but his biggest win previously was a third-place finish at Grand Prix Brussels worth $1200. “I haven't done anything with it yet. I was trying to save it to get to Columbus with it since Brussels qualified me for that Pro Tour.”
He will certainly not have to worry much about qualifying for upcoming Pro Tours. He is qualified for the remainder of the year now and he plans on attending every one of them. Besides airline tickets there was only one other specific item earmarked for purchase with his winnings. “I will go to the next 10 Pro Tours and spend the rest on stuff -- and I promised my brother a car if I won. And I won, so…”
His brother Daniel should not get his hopes up for a fancy new sports car. “I just said “a car” though. He is just two years living on his own and he had a car but it was hit by a truck. He will be happy with any car.”
The curly-haired Julien played green-white slide this week but it was not his choice for the Standard portion of Dutch Nationals, where he played Affinity. I asked him why the change and he pointed to some recent metagame changes. “Well, the reason I didn't play it at Nationals was because it has a horrible matchup against Goblin Bidding. It is almost unwinnable. I figured everyone was taking out the Biddings for Naturalizes and stuff since everyone was going to play Affinity. So Goblins suddenly turned into a good matchup and that made me decide to play green-white. And it just felt right in testing.”
The recent demise of the Tooth and Nail decks did not hurt his decision either, since that deck is the Slide deck's worst matchup. Sundering Titan can give the deck fits but there are even worse problems than that.
“It is really hard to play Slide if they have already used a Mindslaver or even if you think they have one in hand. They will Slave you and then play Eternal Witness so they keep Sliding out the Witness with their own Slide to get Mindslaver back.”
Julien had been so focused on this five-day tournament that he did not pay attention to the recent banned and restricted announcement that had affected the Extended format going into the next Pro Tour. He took the news in stride and was already metagaming for the new format while we chatted. “That is new to me. I will probably like the Rock and maybe Ravager Affinity. If Ravager is good maybe Goblins will be the deck. There was a card in Mercadian Masques that says you can sacrifice two Mountains to destroy all artifacts -- that might be good.”
As we walked back to the tournament site, Julien was looking forward to celebrating with his friends and was waiting for a reasonable hour to call his parents in the Netherlands -- it was 1:30 a.m. in his country at the time. He also seemed to be gaining back some of the brash confidence he exuded in his final match with Paquette. Looking forward to the Pro Tour in Japan, I asked him how strong his draft game was. He winked and smiled, “I went 6-0 in the draft pods so I guess it is okay.”
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Twenty-three-year old Gabriel Nassif is the 2004 Player of the Year. The young Frenchman is the first player not named Kai Budde to win that award in the last three years. He is also the first player to win the title without winning a Pro Tour over the course of that season. He vaulted ahead of front-running, two-time Pro Tour winner Nicolai Herzog with his third Top 8 this season to take the title and the top cash prize of $20,000. He will also get free airfare and accommodations to the next season of Pro Tour events.
In addition to being one of the best players in the world, Nassif is one of the most beloved. His good humor, humble nature, and refusal to ever direct the spotlight in his own direction have made him into a favorite of both professional and casual players all over the world.
Nassif began playing Magic with his friends from school when Ice Age came out. Although his friends never ascended into the competitive ranks with the man known as Yellowhat, he would not even put himself over when asked if he knew he was better than them.
“They didn't stop, they just play casually not seriously," Nassif said. "They are all pretty excited by what I have done but I was never better than them cause they never played in a PTQ. We started playing casually and trading cards. Then I went to the local gaming center and they never went there. They never tried to compete on the same level. I think a few of them would have been pretty good if they had played because they were smart and all that. So it was never a competition like that.”
Nassif's rise from casual to competitive player was rapid, although he does not think so. While many players toil in the PTQ ranks for years before understanding how to break onto the Pro Tour, it seems to have come to him with great ease -- although there were other obstacles.
“One year I played…my Mom didn't know I was playing and I had to keep it from her. So I just played in a few PTQs and was just scooping. I went 4-0 and scooped twice and went 6-0 and scooped twice. I did this a couple of times. Then I played in the first PTQ in Paris and won it.
“In the very beginning I played in PTQs and did not do very well and then I went through this phase where I was scooping. I actually had to call my Mom during the semis to confirm she would let me go. I was like 17. I talked to my brother and he was like, “I will help you convince her.””
“It was for Chicago when Kai won with Rebels in Type 2. Then after that there was like six months where I didn't play in PTQs and then came the team PTQ we won and that was it.”
Nassif finished in the money for his very first Pro Tour but looked back on the event with mixed feelings. “I think my deck was really good. It wasn't quite tuned and maybe I didn't play too well. I played Blue Skies and I think it was really good. If I had tuned it properly and played well I pretty much could have Top 8'ed. The deck was really good enough but I wasn't.”
He then had a “cold streak” where he was not on the Tour for six months. He finished second to Kai at Grand Prix-London, and the next weekend in New York 2001 he finished second to Kai again as a member of Les Plus Class in the Team Pro Tour. After that he has never had to return to the Pro Qualifier Circuit. Despite the fact that his first Sunday appearance on the Pro Tour was for a Limited event, Nassif has taken on the mantle of “best constructed player on the planet.”
He seems to chaff at that distinction for a couple of reasons. Most importantly seems to the fact that he hardly works alone and is concerned that he will diminish the contributions of the players he builds with. “I have always worked with friends' lists and changed them.” For example, he does not take sole credit for the TwlevePost or Tooth and Nail deck that he took to the Top 8 of Pro Tour-Kobe.
“What happened was Olivier Ruel had a Cloudpost deck with I don't know what in it -- Angels, Memnarch and stuff. It wasn't very good. You never come with a deck on your own. In this case Oliver had the Sylvan Scrying-Reap and Sow-Cloudpost deck with lots of expensive artifacts but not the card Tooth and Nail. That was my contribution and then we all tested the deck together.”
It is no coincidence that, like World Champion Nuijten, Nassif lives in an area with a high concentration of the game's top players. “We all live in Paris so that is pretty lucky. Like for New Orleans for instance I was only with Frank Canu -- it was mostly me and Canu. I would go to his place every day after school and test the Charbelcher deck. For Kobe I tested with the Ruels mostly.”
Nassif also uses Magic Online to test his constructed decks whenever possible, “For this PT I did. When I can I try to get the cards and play both in real life and Magic Online. The eight-mans are pretty decent -- not all scrubs. For this event I played a few eight-mans with my blue-white deck.”
I asked Nassif how he felt about winning Player of the Year without winning a Pro Tour and whether or not someone with two Pro Tour victories was more deserving. William Jensen, who was standing nearby, answered for him rather emphatically, stating that Nassif was the best player in the world.
When asked who those players were, Nassif grinned and rolled his eyes hoping to dodge the question. When pressed he conceded, “Kai is probably better.” Then he pointed toward a moved William Jensen, who ran over and gave him a bear hug, and added, “He is probably better. Actually probably more than five -- I make a lot of mistakes. Maybe people don't talk about their mistakes but I still find myself making lots of them.”
At this point Neil Reeves chimed in, “What a monkey. You know this is like the act you are supposed to put on, but with Nassif it is not an act.”
The other reason the mantle of “best constructed player” chaffs is that it diminishes his Limited game. He thinks the difference between his successes in the two disciplines is that he dedicates as much time to Constructed as to Limited -- something most players appear reluctant to do.
“Everyone likes Limited better -- I like Limited better too but I suppose I put in more work than other people for Constructed. I guess it pays off. I used to be a Limited player. I think I am pretty good. Everyone is like, ‘You are way better at Constructed. You are not good at Limited.” The fact is that I think I am pretty good at Limited.”
“I probably make less mistakes in Limited. I never have had a great Limited PT. I guess everyone is way better at Limited than Constructed. It seems like you have to get way more lucky to make it. Your drafts have to go well. If one draft goes wrong and you are in the wrong colors and you go 0-3 and you are almost out of contention. In Constructed you can have bad draws even twice, mulligan a few times and still win the night. It is a hard question.”
Nassif credits his love of Limited with his success in Constructed as he relies on the former to understand the cards for the latter. He was looking forward to the Champions of Kamigawa prerelease in two weeks and expected it to help him understand what cards would be good. “I don't even read the spoilers. I play the prerelease and like to discover the cards. I usually draft a lot first then it helps you know the cards. A week after the Prerelease you usually know all the cards. Usually the Extended format comes first after the prerelease and there are only a few relevant cards that come in so it is not a lot of work usually. Then you draft a lot more so you know the cards and what looks good.”
I asked what he was looking at for the upcoming Pro Tour and like many players focused on this weekend's tournament had not given the suddenly new format much thought. “I have no clue. I guess Alluren is still good. It will probably be those decks that didn't get any cards banned that are best but Ravager might be fine without Skullclamp. It is so hard to tell.”
I closed by asking him if he would ever win that elusive Pro Tour Champion title. There is no question in my mind that he is the best player in the world to never have done so. Once again he smiled his thousand-watt grin and would not make any bold statements.
“Probably not. The odds are probably against me, but I will try.”
Deck of the Week
Player of the Year Gabriel Nassif played a mono-green deck in the Block Constructed portion of Worlds, recording a 4-1-1 record (he drew in the last round with Kamiel Cornelissen). It might be something to keep in mind going into those final PTQ weekends.
The Pro Tour Qualifier season for Columbus is winding down and there are only a few weekends left with qualifying tournaments. Congratulations to everyone who won an event this weekend. If you don't see your name here you should chide your organizer to get their results in faster.
|Event City||Event Date||State||TO|
|Waco (GP Trial)||9/4/2004||Texas||Dequan Watson|
|Finish: 1. Sherman Duncan; 2. Joshua McCarthy; 3. Chad Koss; 4. Ike Okoro; 5. Mark Dean; 6. John Butler; 7. Damien Mayfield; 8. Angela Rae Riley|
|Wichita (GP Trial)||9/4/2004||Kansas||Edward Fox|
|Finish: 1. Will Farrell; 2. John Conlon; 3. Amanda Doty; 4. Kit Larson; 5. william clark; 6. Nathan Spillman; 7. Paul Rednour; 8. Terry Haywood|
|Knoxville (GP Trial)||9/4/2004||Tennessee||Jym Resciniti|
|Finish: 1. Matthew Frazier; 2. adam tatum; 3. Eli Aden; 4. Chris Naessig; 5. John Mayes; 6. Derrick Sheets; 7. Tyler Corbitt; 8. Daniel Dooley|
|Little Rock (GP Trial)||9/4/2004||Arkansas||Mike Rodieck|
|Finish: 1. Todd Renuard; 2. Jonathon Green; 3. Kerry Stark; 4. Ashley White; 5. marshall lane; 6. Martin Caillouet; 7. John Green; 8. Don Ding|
|Portland (GP Trial)||9/4/2004||Oregon||Tim Shields|
|Finish: 1. Michael Aitchison; 2. Ross Christian Freeman; 3. Justin Ruby; 4. Eric Olson; 5. Graham Taylor; 6. Carl Anderson; 7. Vincent Montchalin; 8. Robbie Chan|
|Witchita (PT Qualifier)||9/4/2004||Kansas||Edward Fox|
|Finish: 1. Ronnie Jones; 2. John Nelson; 3. Michael Stranc; 4. Quanah Gray; 5. David LaFon; 6. Brandon Simmons; 7. David Green; 8. Shane Houston|
|Providence (PT Qualifier)||9/4/2004||Rhode Island||Rob Dougherty|
|Finish: 1. Brian Lynch; 2. Joseph Kambourakis; 3. Michael Visconti; 4. Gregory Kelly; 5. Gabriel Schwartz; 6. Mat Chamberlain; 7. Mike Lynch; 8. David Edgar|
|Indianapolis (PT Qualifier)||9/4/2004||Indiana||Victor Aldridge|
|Finish: 1. Steve Downing; 2. Thomas LaPille; 3. Adam Werne; 4. Mark Gordon; 5. Matthew Katz; 6. Cody Damm; 7. Justin Brewer; 8. Christopher Catt|
Good Beat of the Week
I don't know how many of you have been following the World Series of Poker on ESPN, but there was a pretty cool feature on this week's episode which mentioned that a couple of players, John Murphy and Dave Williams, played another type of card game called Magic: The Gathering. They cut away to a shot of Fifth Dawn packs and even showed a couple of Magic players cheering from the sidelines. I could only make out Casey McCarrell but I'm sure the other two slung some spells as well.
Next week is the wrap-up for the WSOP and you may hear a thing or two about Magic on those final two episodes. You may hear a thing or two about the World Series in this column next week, as well.
Bad Beat of the Week
Nicolai Herzog won two Limited Pro Tours this year and was leading the Player-of-the-Year race coming into the 2004 World Championships. There were two players close on his heels in the standings and we know that Nassif managed to overtake him with his Top 8 performance.
After Day 1, Nicolai was in excellent shape and heading into what many felt would be his strongest day of competition -- Mirrodin Block booster draft. After all, he had won two Limited Pro Tours in Mirrodin block this season. He went 2-1 in his first draft, and despite being extremely happy with his draft in the second pod, stunned everyone with an 0-3 performance and dropped out of Top 8 contention with a 6-6 record after Day 2.
Don't feel too bad for the Norwegian player, though. He still won $19,800 in the end-of-year payout. What really stung for him was that he will have to use that money to play for his Pro Tour travels for next year. He jokingly asked during my interview with Nassif, “So…if the current Player of the Year suddenly…say…disappears. What happens?”
I would say 'what happens' is that you had better make sure you have a pretty good alibi!