Considered to be one of the best in Asia Pacific, it would seem that Tzu Ching Kuo knows a thing or two about Standard. After all, he did just win a Pro Tour Qualifer last Sunday in his hometown, qualifying him for Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir.
It seemed like a great opportunity to have a quick chat with Kuo about the state of Standard, as well as the story of how he became the player that he is today.
Tzu Ching Kuo
Kuo's resume is more than startling. World Magic Cup 2012 Champion. Ten Grand Prix Top 8s. Top Pro Points in Asia Pacific. Most Nationals Top 8s and most National Champion titles. Level 50 Archmage.
Some also consider him the best player to have never made it to the Sunday Stage of the Pro Tour. Ever since Owen Turtenwald won his first (and second) Grand Prix, Kuo is now tied with Eric Froehlich as the player with the most Grand Prix Top 8s without a win. Not sure if praise or mild mockery.
Regardless, while songs are frequently sung and tales frequently told about him, few people know who is the person behind the menacing facade and how he grew to become the player he is today.
Kuo has always been a Spike, the type of player who plays solely to win. Most gamers in their infancy are drawn to the beauty of Scaled Wurms and the like. But not Kuo. In his very first sanctioned tournament, he was already armed with a hardcore Tier 1 deck. A relentless predator whose motivation is to win. To go for the throat like a hunting dachshund. He didn't make Top 8 of that one, but he had tasted blood.
Kuo's very first deck contains a three-card combo that produces as many Pegasi as you want!
Kuo fondly recalls the first of his ten Grand Prix Top 8 fifteen years ago, at Grand Prix Taipei 2000. At that time, a relative-unknown, he shocked the local community when he broke into the Top 8 alongside superstars such as Tsuyoshi Fujita, Alex Shvartsman and Satoshi Nakamura. "RecSur" was his weapon of choice, a deck utilizing the classic combo Recurring Nightmare and Survival of the Fittest.
The cornerstone of Kuo's very first Grand Prix Top 8 Constructed Deck.
"I remembered I was paired against Alex Shvartsman, the man with the most lifetime Grand Prix Top 8s at that time. It was very scary to an amateur like me but the matchup was so good I thought there was no way I could lose."
But he did.
Outplayed. Outclassed. Ousted.
Experience and skill does count in this game.
Up until then, Kuo still considered himself to be a casual player. Only attending local events such as National Championships and local Grand Prix, Kuo seldom ventured abroad and was far from being the road warrior that he is today.
Most of his victories at that time were all on local soil. His second and third Grand Prix Top 8 came a year later in Kaohsiung and Taipei, and he quickly rose to prominence. Kuo went on to win his first of five National Champion titles in 2002, and made the Top 8 three consecutive times in 2004, 2005 and 2006. With this series of victories, he cemented his place as the best Taiwanese player of the era, a reputation he has been able to uphold even until today.
"I've also won a lot of Pro Tour Qualifiers in the past. Back then, cash awards of USD$375 or USD$500 were given out instead of travel awards. I usually kept the cash prize and never ventured to Europe or the States, playing only a couple of Pro Tours in Japan." To this day, he regrets his decisions to not have attended all the Pro Tours that he could have.
After a couple of quiet years in addition to crashing out at Pro Tour Nagoya 2005, he was disheartened to the point where he shared with some of his friends that he wanted to quit the game, and drown his sorrows in online gaming.
Old friends meet each other in the Featured Match Area at Grand Prix Yokohama.
Under the encouragement and inspiration of Chen Liang, Kuo decided to stay in the game but it was not until 2009 that he decided to give this whole "Pro Player" affair his best shot. Unknown to the rest of the world, this confidant and good friend of Kuo's was actually the brains behind most of Kuo's winning Constructed decks. A Grand Prix Top 8 competitor himself, Chen often built and tuned Kuo's weapons of choice and they playtested together regularly.
The road was not easy for him and it was a few seasons of wrenching misses. He ended his very first professional season at 29 points, one point short of achieving the Gold Level equivalent. Despite being a brilliant attempt for a first-timer, Kuo was disgruntled. How typical of a Spike!
Tzu Ching Kuo at Grand Prix Kobe 2009, making his sixth Grand Prix Top 8. He lost to eventual champion Tomoharu Saito in the elimination rounds.
His next season was similarly impressive, but equally heartbreaking. Kuo finished with 38 points, two points short of the Platinum equivalent. Regardless, his consistency on the Pro Tour is not something to be sneezed at, finishing two seasons at Silver, three at Gold and the 2012 season at Platinum in the past six seasons.
Magic World Cup Champions 2012
2012 also happened to be the pinnacle of his career. He scored his highest lifetime Pro Tour finish at Pro Tour Avacyn Restored. That event was miraculous, literally. Kuo started off 1-4 and was on the brink of elimination. He went on to rattle off 11 straight wins to finish 10th and locked up Platinum for that season. That year, he also won the very first Magic World Cup.
Despite being slightly past his heyday, Kuo remains passionate about the game and hopes to run the tables today in Manila. Kuo feels like he has given so much of his life to the game and can't walk away just yet. At least not now.
"I am a part of Magic and Magic will always be a part of me. Forever."