At every Grand Prix, you will find a number of players that are extremely excited to advance to Day 2 for the very first time. Then you have a number of veterans that are chasing Silver or Gold levels to be able to play in the next Pro Tour. And then you get a handful of guys that are seemingly playing in a league of their own.
I found two exemplars of this very special breed of Magic players: Hall of Famers Ben Stark and (14) William Jensen. Both of them have collected 40 or more Pro Points, counting the three points they are guaranteed for attending Pro Tour Magic Origins in Vancouver. Since the season was nearing its conclusion, every single point mattered a tiny bit more when it came to locking up Platinum. 46 was the Magic number and with their goal within reach, one couldn't help but wonder how that affected their preparation for this event.
All about that Platinum
I wanted to know how much their decision to make the trip to Florence was influenced by their need for Pro Points. After all, they also seemed to simply have a great time building decks together and dismantling the opposition.
Jensen admitted that his main reason for making the trip was the chance to lock up Platinum, though. At the time of this writing, he was just two more wins away from accomplishing that goal. He couldn't have been much happier and thought that the odds were in his favor, considering he was playing with two of the best Limited players in the world.
Left to right: (14) William "Huey" Jensen, Ben Stark
Unlike Jensen, Stark had already scored points in six Grand Prix. So he needed an even better finish for it to have a positive effect on his Pro Point total. Since two of his finishes were one-pointers, however, he felt rather good about his chances. Heading into the tournament, he considered the "expected value" and found it to be positive.
"I need a five-point finish to lock up Platinum," said Stark. "It played a big role, but it's also just exciting to play with those guys. I think Huey [William Jensen] is one of the Top 5 Limited Players of all times."
Both Stark and Jensen were in agreement that they had the perfect teammate in Reid Duke. Stark put it this way: "Reid is one of the nicest persons in the world, so he's naturally one of the best teammates ever too. If you ask a hundred Magic players who the nicest person they knew was, at least fifty of them would say Reid Duke."
Since I had watched a number of their games somewhat close-up this weekend, I was familiar with the way they operated. Very rarely, they interfered in each other's matches.
They explained that they weren't that big on coaching each other. Stark said that he only told his friends what he would do if he were sitting in their seat, but that's pretty much the extent of his advice. If they didn't comply and went for a different approach, he didn't mind, he wasn't forcing any of them into a particular decision.
Jensen had a reasonable explanation why he wasn't so big on words while sitting at the table. Back when he had his first big run on the high-level Magic circuit, you simply weren't allowed to talk to your teammates. Since he came back, he only played with Owen Turtenwald and Reid Duke and didn't see the need for extensive communication. The Hall of Famer added that things could be different if he were to play with less experienced players, a somewhat common sight among the rest of the field at a Team Grand Prix.
One time, at a previous event, Ben Stark had teamed up with Shuhei Nakamura and Martin Jůza—two other extremely accomplished players— and he admitted that things were rather different in that particular team. "Both Shuhei and Martin like to talk during the match," Stark recalled. "They love Two-Headed Giant games, so they're a lot more used to communicating with each other during a match."
Asked where they tend to draw the line, Stark replied that he was used to discussing mulligan discussions with his teammates, but he disliked arguing over every single play. Instead, he would only ask when he was in a "very complicated spot."
The last time we saw Jensen enrolling in a team tournament in Europe, he was playing together with Owen Turtenwald and Reid Duke. I wanted to know about the differences between his last and his current team. "Owen's a bit more of a character, but then again, Ben's kind of a character himself," Jensen replied. "Owen might be a slightly better technical player, but I think that Ben is slightly better in team drafting. So it really doesn't make much of a difference."
Stark chimed in and told me that he was very happy to "fill in" for Turtenwald. In case you wondered why Turtenwald didn't make the trip, the reason was rather straightforward: he already had so many Pro Points this season that he didn't feel like investing a four-digit amount in airfare.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
Asked about their decision-making process during the deck-building portion of the tournament as well as during the matches, Jensen simply replied that they always strive to "make the best decisions." Unlike other teams that only prepared individually, they did run a number of Team Sealeds together, but their approach never changed. They simply tried to work out the three best aggregated decks that they could come up with and then worked out where to go from there.
Stark added that they never ended up with the same color combinations during their practice sessions. Not because they desperately tried to work with all possible combinations, but rather because those were really the best possible decks. Stark said that color combinations weren't all that important. "You just try to build very good decks with very solid curves. You don't look at it from a color-perspective, you need to look at the curves of your deck."
Were there any goals beyond Platinum, further events they would attend? Jensen shared that he would love to play on the American team at the World Magic Cup, but he said that becoming the captain was an almost unobtainable goal. "I'd love to do it, don't get me wrong, but I don't think another Grand Prix will help a lot with that."
All the more reason to watch these guys closely in the remaining rounds of the tournament. With a win here, they might not be seen in the feature match area at Grand Prix for a while …