GP New Jersey Day 1 Highlights

Posted in Event Coverage on December 16, 2017

By Marc Calderaro

It's the most wonderful time of the year, everybody! And in New Jersey the weather couldn't be more in-season. There's a light snowfall on the ground, but not enough to make it stick around when it becomes that grimy, dirty pile on the side of the road.

And matching the appropriate cold outside was a fire inside. Ixalan Sealed was raging, with the pirates, the merfolk, the vampires, and the big ol' dinos fueling the inferno. It's the last Grand Prix of the year, and the last non-team Limited for Ixalan, so people are getting in those last final licks with cutlasses before Rivals of Ixalan broadsides us all.

For many players here, as the year winds down, it was a great time to reflect on the year that was, and look ahead to the resolutions of 2018.

Favorite Moments of 2017

There were tons of the moments from the year worth reflection, and the pros here all fondly remembered the year that was.

Two-thirds of the Peach Garden Oath team had a clear favorite—when their third member, Pro Tour Hall of Famer seventh-ranked William "Huey" Jensen took down the most prestigious yearly honor, the World Championship—and in his home town of Boston, no less! Earlier in the year, Jensen had said this feat would be the last great achievement he'd yet to unlock, and he was especially excited about the prospect because his family could be there to watch.

That moment paying off was truly blissful to watch for such an amazing talent and an amazing person.

Like Peach Garden Oath, Steve Rubin remembered fondly the triumphant return of Shahar Shenhar at Grand Prix Portland. The back-to-back World Champion had a year or two of lackluster performance, but returned with a vengeance in the last few months. He had a great run at Grand Prix Phoenix, but finished 9th, then another fantastic run at Pro Tour Ixalan finishing 14th. But then in Portland, he put the close-but-no-cigar finishes in the rearview and took home the trophy!

It was a great month for a great player.

But winning isn't everything, as twelfth-ranked Sam Pardee reminded us. His favorite moment was when he lost in the finals of Pro Tour Hour of Devastation and third-ranked Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa clinched Player of the Year.

Pardee's tweet provoked a humorous response from the Pro Tour champion:

Not only is winning not everything, Craig Wescoe's favorite moment wasn't even at a tournament! The long-time writer has always taken his prose seriously, and this year he crossed the threshold of 1,000,000 words written in Magic columns . Which puts him into serious Mark Rosewater–writing territory!

But lastly, which happens to mirror my own favorite moment, Pro Tour coverage giant Brian David-Marshall remembers fondly twentieth-ranked Christian Calcano's first Pro Tour Top 8 at Pro Tour Amonkhet.

It was an emotional moment for everyone—Calcano is one of the most genuine, hardworking, kind players in the game, and it was a long road getting here.

The teary eyes, from Twitch viewers around the world were not crazy in welling up, as Calcano himself couldn't hold back what was the most defining moment so far in his amazing career.

Play It Forward – the First Year

Not just the top pros had banner years. Simone Aiken's Play It Forward initiative has had an incredible first twelve months, and doesn't look to be slowing anytime soon.

"Play It Forward always had a plan from the very beginning," founder Simone Aiken said about her project to get more women on the Pro Tour. Sick of the lack of representation of women in the game, despite there being talented woman at every Grand Prix, Aiken got an idea. "It's just a numbers game," she said. "If you have 2,000 people, and ten of them are left-handed, and the pros only have a 65% chance of winning, the chances of a left-handed pro winning a tournament are slim—no matter how good they are ... Right now we're only 1 in every 200 players—for every 100 matches, in 99 of them a man is guaranteed to win. And that last one, a woman might win." But Aiken wondered, "What if we could increase that number?"

So Aiken's Play It Forward campaign looked to flip the script. At Grand Prix Denver one year ago, she tried to entice anyone she could to compete, hoping to increase the odds one well-qualified woman could convert that great finish into a Pro Tour invite. She offered a bounty with a big prize for the top-finishing woman. It seemed like a great way get the "left-handed" a few more troops.

But we all know about the best laid plans of mice and women..., and the attendance in Denver was disappointing. But when a plan doesn't work, just change the plan. Quickly Aiken realized that Play It Forward was gaining traction online, despite the in-person first showing. The more women she talked to, the more she discovered that travel and schedule was just a bit tougher for them. She would have to make some changes if her campaign were to flourish.

"So I need to schedule them," Aiken said she decided. "And to schedule them, I have to find them." So the introverted Aiken started sifting through Grand Prix standings history and building a database of high-performing women players. But she needed to get into contact with them—and get them in contact with each other.

"So I was thinking, how do I find them? I know they exist, even though other people don't seem to know that, but I do." She began making individual playmats for every Grand Prix that would be awarded to the top-finishing woman at each event. Immediately, women from all over began coming up to her at tournaments saying, "That playmat's mine."

"There's a lot of negative stress placed on women specifically and other underrepresented Magic-playing groups," Aiken said. "There's impostor stress, stereotyping stress, and confirmation bias ... basically, when you're worried about what other people are thinking, you're not playing your best." Aiken worried that all the well-intentioned aims at women in Magic were hurting rather than helping.

"I always hated all those articles that single out one woman, saying 'Jackie Lee has to be 10% better than everyone else,' and 'Oh poor you, you're the only woman around'—that doesn't help." She continued, "But what does help is being able to say, 'Oh look, there's another person who's like me.'" This is because, Aiken says, women aren't used to seeing other people they can quite relate to, and often worry that their performance, or behavior will be representative of all women in Magic.

"Or when you see another woman, you assuming she's a wife, a girlfriend or a mother—she's not like you. And most women Magic players are used to being the best woman player they know. So there's even this 'Where do I go from here?' problem."

Aiken looked to help all these problems by getting more competitive-minded women in the same room together. Because you can replace the negative of impostor, stereotyping, and confirmation bias stress with positive stress of rival or competition.

"The first time I did the playmat," Aiken said, "twelve people came up to me and said, 'That's a great playmat, and I'm going home with it.' ... But none of them did."

All those women realized that there were other women better than them. "We're no longer trying to beat the guy across from us, now we're trying to beat the woman over there," and in Aiken's mind, that will lead to increased positive results.

Aiken caveated, "There's a tremendous amount of internalized sexism in the fact that we are more comfortable playing with each other, I know that. But it works. It allows us to relax, and it allows us to play at our best." And that is after all, her aim.

"And I haven't learned so much, as I've had theories confirmed ... There's a plan here, and the plan is moving and its working," Aiken said. "I've never played better than since I started Play It Forward," and she knows that's true for other women as well.

"We just need to speak all with the same voice at the same time."

Sometime in 2018, don't be surprised if you see a high percentage of women at a Grand Prix or two, and be even less surprised when multiple of them make it to the Top 8.

Though this initiative wasn't originally a long-term project for Aiken, now she's all in. "The original plan was to prove the point. Now I've put such an investment in the infrastructure and the networks, I can't walk away from it—someone has be at the center of the networks!"

It's been a great 2017 for Play It Forward, but 2018 looks even brighter.

Also, Simone ended by saying, "So many thanks to all the volunteer judges who carried mats from Denver around the country. Cassidy, Kali, Matt, CJ, Kimberly, Bryan, Scott and more as well as the scorekeepers and info desk people like Liz who awarded them and got pics. You made PiF possible."

9-0 Players

Only four players out of the 1,135 were able to navigate the waters perfectly and emerge unscathed with an immaculate 9-0 record. Let's take a closer look at who to beat tomorrow.

David Schnayer

David Schnayer hails form Montreal, Canada, a good six-hour's drive away. He travels to Grand Prix whenever he can, but caveated, "Personally, I don't want to get on a plane to go to a Grand Prix—it's just a feel-bad for me."

But Schnayer's certainly gotten on a plane for a Pro Tour before, as he played in Sydney, Australia at Pro Tour Eldritch Moon, coming in 82nd. "I got three feature matches at my first Pro Tour," he said. That's a heck of an introduction for the hardest tournament in the world. He said the best advice he could give to a player going into that first PT is simple: "Relax, it's just another tournament."

He's really looking to qualify again. "I had a great experience, and I just want to repeat it." Don't we all, David, don't we all?

Eric Severson

Team Massdrop West's Eric Severson has been going through a transition in his Magic career. He's been attending fewer Grand Prix, and was looking to go to fewer still next year. "I've been really getting ready for real life—I'm getting married next summer, grad school's finishing up," but something's keeping a hook in him. "I just keep doing well enough," he explained.

Because he's not going to as many tournaments, he's looking to make them count, and just pick up points where he can. "Obviously [going undefeated] is better," he said, but Severson's happy to get what he can.

Last time he was here, he finished 9-0, but then went 0-6 on the second day. So though Severson will try and reverse his fortunes, he's also got tempered expectations.

Malcolm Kim

Hailing from Brooklyn, by way of San Francisco and Buffalo, Malcolm Kim is the only undefeated player with zero byes—he had to defeat the other zero-bye'd 8-0 Alex Hauser in the last round to do it.

And that's not the only obstacle Kim overcame. "I hadn't played the Sealed format at all until today." He laughed and shrugged. "I played a handful of drafts on line—and they did not go well—and I looked a few pools online, but today was it." He said he felt his finish was a combination of tight play, and his deck providing him what he needed, and he was thankful.

When Kim's not slinging spells, he's lawyering it up in New York, which I hear can be a bit time-intensive, so maybe we can cut him a little slack. Like Schnayer, Kim's been on the Pro Tour once before, and hoping he can get there again.

(16) Mike Sigrist

This photo of sixteenth-ranked Mike Sigrist is clearly incomplete. He did not get to his perfect record without ...

...his wife Heather—the couple is currently celebrating their sixth anniversary! Now, though she might not help directly in matches (at least, I sure hope she doesn't), Sigrist has lost a total of three matches when she was in the room, ever. This weekend is no exception.

In fact, Heather was also attending when Sigrist 9-0ed in this building in 2016 as well—so clearly there's something going on. The Pro Tour Ixalan semifinalist was on fire all day. He was 12-1 in games, and it was the last round that brought his first game loss.

In 2016 Sigrist converted his 9-0 first day to a Top 8, and he's hoping to do the same here.

Those are the players to beat tomorrow! We'll see if anyone is up to the task.

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