It is hard to win a Magic tournament. Just take a look at Grand Prix Cleveland a few weeks back, which had a Top 8 laden with the likes of Gerard Fabiano, Christian Calcano, Andrew Cuneo and Yuuya Watanabe; any one of whom could have been a fan pick to win the event looking at the bracket. However, when the last damage was dealt, it was Bill Tsang defeating Jake Mondello for the title of Grand Prix Cleveland Champion.
It doesn't matter if you have been playing the game since the 90s like Andrew Cuneo and looking for the first title of your long career; or if you have been one of the dominant figures of the game since the mid-2000s like former Rookie of the Year, Player of the Year, and 7-time Grand Prix Champion Watanabe. Wave after wave of new players are always coming for the throne—coming from Magic Online , from the StarCityGames Open Series, from the PPTQ circuit—looking to have their pictures taken with a trophy.
It is hard to win a Magic tournament. I already mentioned that Cuneo's still looking for his first trophy, and we saw Player of the Year hopeful Eric Froehlich win Grand Prix San Jose after a long and very successful career without one. World Magic Cup Champion Tzu Ching Kuo has finished in the Top 8 of a Grand Prix eleven times in his career without a win. Sam Black is right behind him with ten trophy-less appearances in the Top 8. Pro Tour Hall of Famer Bram Snepvangers, Alex Majlaton, and Player of the Year Josh Utter-Leyton have all finished in a GP Top 8 eight times without a trophy to show for their efforts.
Winning any major event is a huge accomplishment in any Pro career, but there have been a handful of players who have been able to not only achieve that but to repeat it—sometimes more than once. Only two players have won the Player of the Year title more than once, and they are both tied atop the Grand Prix winners list with seven titles apiece. With Yuuya Watanabe's next GP win he will move ahead of Pro Tour Hall of Famer Kai Budde to become the winningest player at that level. Of course, he has a way to go to catch up to Budde in the Pro Tour win category. Watanabe has yet to win at that level, while Budde has seven wins at that level as well.
Yuuya Watanabe | Kai Budde
While most voters focus primarily on Pro Tour success, if you look at the players surrounding Watanabe on the GP wins leaderboard, you can get blinded by all the Hall of Fame bling. In addition to Budde, you have Shuhei Nakamura with six wins, and Luis Scott-Vargas and Olivier Ruel with five wins apiece.
Winner, Winner, Grand Prix Dinner
Why the rumination on winning—and winning multiple—Grand Prix this week? Well, by the time the finals of Grand Prix Krakow were taking place, we were guaranteed of having two Grand Prix Champions with multiple wins take home a title from the weekend. Yuuta Takahashi took home his third Grand Prix title at the 1900-person GP Kyoto, playing Legacy. While it was not the Blue-Black Fairies deck that had carried him to victory in the past, his Counter Top deck did contain multiple copies of Vendilion Clique. (Also in the Top 8 was the suddenly red-hot Shota Yasooka on the heels of his Top 8 at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir.). With his third victory, Takahashi joins a club that includes: Owen Turtenwald, Brian Kibler, Reid Duke and Bob Maher and—at the time of Takahashi's victory—Alexander Hayne.
Grand Prix Kyoto Champion Yuuta Takahashi
Just a few time zones away, Hayne was heading toward the seventh Top 8 finish of his Grand Prix career. He had won three previously but had some stiff competition to make the Top 8 of GP Krakow, with Hall of Famer Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, World Magic Cup Champion Martin Müller, Grand Prix Boston winner Robin Dolar, and Grand Prix Portland Champion Sam Pardee—which, if GP Cleveland was any indication, meant that none of them would be standing by the time the finals rolled around.
Instead we had Hayne cruising into the finals without dropping a game while awaiting the outcome of a semifinal between Damo da Rosa and Dolar. No matter how it played out from there, the weekend would see multiple Grand Prix won by multiple-time champions. Hayne would face Dolar in the finals and would not drop a game there either, winning the bracket with a tidy 6-0 record in games. That path included two Esper Dragon mirror matches, making the feat all the more impressive. It was the fourth Grand Prix trophy for Hayne and the third time he won playing a control deck in Standard.
Interview with GP Krakow Champion Alexander Hayne
Grand Prix Krakow Champion Alexander Hayne
BDM: Congrats on the fourth title Alex. The Esper Dragons list you won with is a product of the ChannelFireball / Face to Face Games super team. What has the experience of bringing your team into the CFB fold been like for you?
Hayne: While I haven't had success at the two PTs that we have collaborated together, our teams as a whole have done quite well, putting two people into the Top 8 in D.C. and three into the Top 16 in Brussels. I definitely like all the people on the team, and am always happy to work with and learn from such talented and hardworking players. When I started following the Pro Tour, CFB was the dominant team by an enormous margin, and I dreamed of one day being able to join their team. Having all these players that I looked up to in my early competitive days now be my peers, friends, and teammates is great. And to have earned their support and respect is even better.
BDM: You stuck around Europe for a week after a disappointing Pro Tour. What was the week like for you and where was your head after a rough weekend?
Hayne: After the PT, a bunch of us (Luis Scott-Vargas, Wrapdog [Josh Utter-Leyton], Shahar Shenhar, Jesse Hampton, Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa, and I) went to Bruges for a day trip on Monday. Then we lost Luis but gained Wescoe for our Tuesday morning flight to Krakow, where we spent a pleasant week hanging around and seeing the sights. It was a lot of fun in a beautiful city with great company. After a rough weekend, you can't let yourself get down too much. To play professional Magic, you have take the good with the bad, and to learn to control your emotions…because you will always have times where you lose. And often, the times where you do well enough to be satisfied will be few and far between. I make sure that I always get to mix the Magic with travel, because I love to see different places, eat different food, and talk with different people and grow from the experiences.
BDM: How do you choose a deck for a large event like a Grand Prix?
Hayne: I unwisely did not play the Esper Dragons deck at the Pro Tour, but I decided to play it for the GP because it had clearly been great. And I felt it was better for a Grand Prix field of players who would generally be weaker than the field at the Pro Tour, and less experienced with Ojutai mini-games.
BDM: Ojutai mini-games? Can you elaborate?
Hayne: It is where you cast Dragonlord Ojutai and then your opponent has to keep mana open to be able to kill it with Hero's Downfall or Abzan Charm or whatever, and you get to sit around and draw cards until you are ready to attack or they blink. And then you can attack and start snowballing.
BDM: Gotcha. Back to the deck. Were there any changes from the Pro Tour to the Grand Prix?
Hayne: Since I was staying with PV and Wrapdog, we discussed the deck and decided to make the tiniest change of swapping the sideboard Negate they had played for an Ashiok, mainly due to Craig Wescoe's deck and the expectation of more Den Protectors and Deathmist Raptors. Shahar had decided to play Wescoe's deck, and our group definitely joked about playing 4 Ashioks main deck just in case we played against him, but ultimately decided on just the one in the board.
BDM: As you came down the home stretch and into the Top 8, there were plenty of Esper Dragons decks flying around. For people thinking about picking the deck up—possibly for the RPTQs this weekend—what is the key to winning the control mirror? Is there a way to gain advantage over another player with a similar deck?
Hayne: Many people had a lot of tech for the mirror, between main deck Dragonlord's Prerogative and Jace's Ingenuity…to sideboard Risen Executioners and Stratus Dancers. But generally, I felt that recognizing which cards mattered at which points of the game, and to sculpt out the next few turns with the information you had was the most important. Definitely card-drawing spells, and other ways to get two-for-ones, were key. And many of them—such as Dig Through Time or connecting with Ojutai—would start to snowball out of control, enabling you to stop your opponent's two-for-ones while also getting more of your own. For example; resolving a Dig Through Time in response to your opponent's Dig, finding another Dig and a counterspell for their Dig. Cards like Negate and Duress were worse than I expected, since many of the cards that matter are actually creatures. I would also recommend you play very quickly, as the games are slow and mirrors that go to three games will often end in draws unless both players play fast.
BDM: How has your mindset changed from the first time you won a Grand Prix in Calgary to this one?
Hayne: Back in Calgary, I was just in my third GP Top 8, and had never won a Grand Prix before. I was thrilled to just make it to the Top 8 again. Nowadays, I make the Top 8 and I know I'm only halfway done. I won't be satisfied unless I am the one holding the trophy at the end. It is the curse of doing well at Magic that every competitive player knows. Everyone starts out being content to win their local FNM, but the hunger grows and soon enough you're unhappy 'only' Top 8ing PTQs. It's kind of like being Sylar from the TV show Heroes. You keep having more and more success, but it takes a higher and higher level of success for you to actually feel like it was success. Besides that, I just knew that I could do it—that I could play control mirrors and beat some of the best in the world like when I beat Jacob Wilson in Calgary.
My Top 8 Magic Cards
If you follow anybody on social media who plays, talks about, or makes Magic cards for a living you have no doubt seen countless lists of Top 8 Magic cards…but not one from me. If you follow me at all or have heard me talk on my Top8Magic podcast, you know I have a hard time containing myself to a concise list. My Top 5 movies of all time are jammed well into double digits, and I have three bookshelves that are double-stacked with my Top 10 books of all time. After playing this game for as long as I have, I decided I needed to buckle down and make my Top 8 list of card. So, in no particular order, here goes…but know that it hurts to do this.
This card is special because it reminds me of my friend and neighbor Pat Donovan, who died several years ago and whom I miss terribly. I will always remember him qualifying for the Pro Tour at an Extended PTQ with Natural Order and Verdant Force, while everyone around him was Donating Illusions of Grandeur and protecting it with Force of Will.
I wrote about my love for this card many years ago, when I was first getting started here as a columnist. It was a "fun" Extended deck that I always kept on hand to play with, but I can't help but notice that the card is Modern legal…
There are going to be a lot of blue and/or green cards on this list. One of the first Standard decks I ever built was How to Keep an Idiot Busy, which relied on multiple Feldon's Canes to cycle through cantrips as quickly as possible. Eventually that was replaced by Blessing. I wrote about my history with these decks (although Serene Remembrance was not one of the close calls for the Top 8 card).
I am definitely a quixotic deck builder, and one of my tiltiest efforts (multiple ways to read that word here) was Natural Affinity. During Masques Block Constructed, I had a deck that would ramp out as many lands as possible and attack your opponent to death with all your lands. Ideally you would tap Vine Trellis and two Islands to play Natural Affinity, and then return those two Islands before blockers were declared…to tap all your opponent's creatures and lands (which were now also creatures).
I only play him in one of my Commander decks, but I have so much love for this card. With the advent of the new tuck rules in Commander and the changing of the legend rules a few years back, it's the only way to really mess with your opponents' commanders. I also love that it creates an unspecified category of face-down creatures that are neither morphs nor manifests and cannot be turned up for any mana cost. I like to call them morphans.
But, specifically, this one:
I loved this Innistrad Draft deck so much I jammed pretty much every single relevant card from the combo into a Sidisi, Brood Tyrant Commander deck. That deck is not only fun to play, but wins a pretty fair amount of the time with a swarm of giant, tramply, flying zombies and spiders.
I started playing this card almost immediately after it and Zombie Infestation were passed to me in a Prerelease draft. I played those two cards in Constructed in what would have been a pretty prescient deck, had my Shadowmage Infiltrators just been Psychatogs.