If you are reading this column you have likely consumed a late-night meal at Waffle House or Denny's (or your country's variation thereof) after falling short of the mark at a PTQ. While drizzling your food with syrup, you wondered what would have been if you had tapped your mana a little differently or just held back an extra blocker. As you fueled up on one last cup of coffee you thought about the long ride home and what it will be like when you finally get that chance to play on the Pro Tour.
I have every confidence that with enough hard work and patience you will get to trade in pancakes for victory cake. In the meanwhile I wanted to share with you the stories of two PTQ players who kicked off their Professional Magic careers at Magic Weekend Paris and are already looking forward to Pro Tour Nagoya.
Shahar Shenhar stood out from the mass of humanity in Paris for two reasons. First, because he looked so much younger than everyone else playing around him—and rightfully so, since the Sacramento, California student just turned 17 at the end of last year. The second was because he kept doing well with a Standard deck list that included Precursor Golem alongside Lightning Bolt, Lotus Cobra, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I had been hoping to get him in a Deck Tech during the closing rounds of the event, but the logistics did not work out.
Shahar ended up with only one loss playing the deck and finished in 38th place, which was good for 5 pro points and a $1050 check to start his professional Magic career. Not content with just that, he signed up for the Grand Prix on Saturday and finished in 50th place, earning another point and another $200 for an impressive debut weekend.
Matthias Hunt, a 25-year-old math instructor from St. Paul, Minnesota, was a player I had heard a lot about a couple of weeks prior to Magic Weekend. A lot of big name players spoke highly of his skill as a player and as a deck designer. When Jason Ford won Grand Prix Atlanta with a deck that Matthias had a strong hand in designing, I paid their words a lot more heed. Matthias then went on to post a Top 32 finish at the Pro Tour and a Top 16 at Grand Prix Denver for nearly $2,000 in winnings and 9 Pro Points to kick off his rookie campaign.
I caught up with the two players to talk to them about their Magic Weekend experience, their Standard decks from Paris, and what the rest of the year has in store for them.
When did you start playing Magic, and how did you pick it up?
Shahar: I started playing in Lorwyn block. My friend in my school played the game on Saturday and it caught my interest.
Matthias: My parents bought me some starter packs of Revised when I was young because Magic had gotten popular with the older—and naturally "cooler"—kids on my block. I learned the basics of the game then but didn't really get into Magic until I found out that my college had a Magic club. The new set at the time was Champions of Kamigawa.
When did you make the jump to playing the game competitively, and why did that happen?
Shahar: Two weeks after I started I played in a draft—0-3ed—and just kept on getting better from there.
Matthias: Our Magic club would usually make the half-hour trip from St. Olaf College to the Twin Cities for States and Regionals. While I would say that I became one of the more seasoned players at my college, none of us really did well at larger events. In 2008, I played a red-green Ramp deck—without Chameleon Colossus, because I didn't own any—and made the Top 4 of Regionals off a string of good match-ups and good luck. Although I went 6-8 at Nationals that year, the experience encouraged me to start going to FNMs and weekly drafts at local stores.
What was the first experience you had that made you think you could do well playing the game competitively?
Shahar: I won a couple of local shop tournaments in a row with a deck I built and local shop players asked for my list. This made me feel that I had potential because the players who asked me were much older than me.
Matthias: Nationals the following year. I didn't qualify this time, but went anyway because I had a really good time the year before. Then I won a grinder. And then I won the first five rounds of Nationals. I stayed in contention for most of the tournament and even got a feature match against eventual champion Charles Gindy. I didn't end up in the prize, but I don't think that was the point. The fact that I was two rounds away from making the Top 8 of U.S. Nationals made me realize that I could bring my game to a professional level of play with a good team and some hard work.
(Following up to Matthias) Did you get a confidence boost from the success of your Extended deck in the hands of Jason Ford in Atlanta?
Matthias: Absolutely! The deck was the product of a lot of testing from a team of six Minnesotans meeting weekly for five weeks prior to the event. After seeing the results, I'm pretty sure this is how I'll prepare for every format. It also makes me less hesitant to bring my own deck to a high-level tournament. I think when you have a group of relatively new players, it's hard to believe that you would come up with an idea that a pro hasn't already come up with and dismissed. There's a part of you that wants to say, "Since when do you think you're the next Gerry Thompson?" It's going to be easier now to resist the urge to just play a netdeck.
How long have you been trying to qualify for the Pro Tour?
Shahar: I did a couple of very local PTQs a year after I became competitive. In the beginning of last year I started driving to L.A. for some PTQs but that's the farthest I have driven to PTQ.
Matthias: This last year was the first time I have left my hometown just to play in a PTQ, but I've been pretty determined over the last twelve months and was willing to drive to anything less than eight hours away. The PTQ in Madison that I finally won was my seventh Top 8 in that period and my fourth finals appearance.
Have you ever attended a Pro Tour weekend before Paris?
Shahar: Pro Tour Paris was the first Pro Tour I have attended.
Matthias: I went to Worlds 2008 in Memphis because I was qualified for the "Win Gold" tournament. I did not win any gold.
How did you qualify for Paris?
Shahar: I won a Sealed Deck PTQ in Santa Clara after many attempts.
Matthias: I won a PTQ in Madison. Three weeks later I won a PTQ for Nagoya in Minneapolis, which was really rewarding after missing in so many Top 8s.
Once you qualified, how did you prepare? Who did you playtest with?
Shahar: The week that I had to prepare I tested with Michael "_ShipItHolla" Hetrick and other Magic friends from my local shop. It was difficult to do drafts because Besieged came out right before Paris.
Matthias: We got the team back together and tried to do the same thing we did for Atlanta, except we didn't have as much time. Kyle Stoll, Dave Yetka, and myself were qualified and got help from Forrest Ryan, Ken Bearl, and Jason Schousboe. About a week before the event we started trading decklists online with Oregonians Mat Marr and Jesse Smith of www.60cards.com.
Tell us about your Standard deck for the event.
Shahar: I chose to play Blue-Green-Red because that was the deck I felt most comfortable with. I thought Valakut would be popular and [would] cut Lightning Bolts out of the deck to make room for Green Sun's Zenith. Also, Go for the Throat seemed to be getting a lot of attention since it killed everything that Doom Blade didn't. I thought this would be a good time to put Precursor Golems in my deck since it didn't die to anything that was being played. Blue-Green-Red has a favorable match-up against the Caw-Go decks and has at least a 50/50 against the rest of the field. I know the inside and out of the deck because I've been playing with it for months, testing against every tier 1 and 2.
Matthias: It was Boros. It wasn't my deck during playtesting. I was trying to make Blue-Black Tezzeret work. I played a list that Kyle Stoll had been tuning. He had decided to put a larger focus on the Equipment package, including a third Adventuring Gear, Bonehoard, and the full set of Squadron Hawks. In the end, we both tuned the list to be better against aggro decks by finding room in the main deck for Arc Trails.
Would you recommend your deck in light of the top decks from Paris?
Shahar: Yes, I would. With enough testing this deck can beat any other deck in the format.
Matthias: I think the deck is still pretty good, though Caw-Blade is probably the deck to beat at this point. Certainly Boros has replaced Vampires as the best aggro deck in the format. If you want to keep playing Boros, then I think you need to go bigger rather than faster because a lot of the control decks are using cheap creatures to get in the way of your initial assault. Hero of Oxid Ridge is your new go-to guy for the late game and I might look into cards like Hero of Bladehold or Mirran Crusader. You want creatures that can win the game by themselves if they aren't answered.
What were your records in Limited and Constructed at Pro Tour Paris?
Shahar: Constructed: 8-1-1, Limited: 2-3-1. Should have found more time to test the new limited format. Next time I will do better.
Matthias: I went 2-1 in both my drafts and 7-3 in Constructed.
Then you played in the GP! Tell me about playing in two high level events on the same weekend. What were the highlights from that event?
Shahar: It took a lot of stamina to play for so many rounds in a competitive environment like that, but I adapted pretty well to it because I'm used to playing Magic for so long. What I enjoyed the most is meeting new people. This can be helpful for years to come to know more professional Magic players. I also beat Conley Woods in the GP to put me on 6-0.
Matthias: It's... a lot of Magic, that's for sure. The GP was definitely the biggest Magic undertaking I have seen. It was split into three pods with separate judging teams and clocks for each pod. After going 8-2 on day one I was one of the nearly 300 players who made Day Two. I ended up at 11-5, which wasn't in the prize, but then again, 12-4 wouldn't have been enough either. I really liked that the Magic Weekend was so close to the release of a new set because it put people on the spot, especially in formats like Sealed and Draft.
What is the key to this new draft format? I have really been struggling with it so far. Any suggestions?
Shahar: If you take any suggestions from me you may just go 2-3-1, but stay away from infect!
Matthias: I think Mirrodin Besieged makes the draft format a lot more "normal" in how you should evaluate cards. Good removal, fliers, and solid creatures are once again the backbone of good decks more often then metalcraft and infect synergies are. I think artifact removal, while still playable, isn't as good as it was in triple Scars of Mirrodin because a lot decks are foregoing artifact threats for large, colored creature spells.
You are now qualified for Nagoya based on a Top 50 finish. Will you attend, and do you have any notions about pursuing Rookie of the Year?
Shahar: I will do my best to attend Nagoya, but with school it's complicated. Also, now that I can't play in any PTQs, I have to pay for the ticket from my pocket. I will, however, go to Philadelphia and San Francisco for sure if I qualify. Yes for Rookie of the Year. It's my goal this year!
Matthias: There's a pretty good story about this one. After I won a PTQ for Nagoya, Brad Nelson made a comment to me that it must feel good to be qualified for two Pro Tours before playing in your first one. I off-handedly joked that it was all part of my plan to win Rookie of the Year. I'm pretty sure he's holding me to that claim because he started mentioning it to other people.
After finishing in the Top 50 of Paris I started travelling to domestic GPs and managed to pick up 3 more points in Denver which puts me in first place for the Rookie of the Year. There's a long season ahead, but if I could bring that title back to the United States it would really make this a sweet year.
Did you learn anything about how to prepare for and to play in a Pro Tour from your experience?
Shahar: I learned that you need a lot of stamina and it's a must to do well in Limited. Also, French bread is amazing!
Matthias: I was so ready to finally play in a Pro Tour. In Constructed, seven of my ten matches went to Game 3, so I would say I learned that winning at the Pro level comes down to the details. Things like tight play and practice are rewarded, but the reverse is also true. If you aren't ready then you can lose every round because the players don't get much weaker in the lower brackets. Every round's a fight.