The Grand Prix Master Piece

Posted in Event Coverage on June 25, 2016

By Marc Calderaro

For Pros, the end of the season is always about points—enough points to clinch Gold, an At-Large spot to the World Championships, World Magic Cup captaincy, even Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year. And though all those races are going on, this weekend, all eyes are on the final leg of Grand Prix Master.

The player with the most points from only Grand Prix events wins the race and qualifies for the World Championship. Here are the standings so far. In the Magic Pro community, this fairly new award means more than just an invite to the most prestigious tournament in all of Magic. For the warriors, the competitors who trot the globe each weekend to compete in Grands Prix in country after country, this is a true honor commemorating consistency and determination throughout the Magic season.

Three players in the running are here at Grand Prix Pittsburgh, along with Tomoharu Saito at Grand Prix Taipei. First-ranked Seth Manfield, sixteenth-ranked Reid Duke, and multiple-time Grand Prix winner Brian Braun-Duin are all vying for this coveted spot.

Each of them spoke with reverence to the honor. “I really like the slot. It's the way for people to qualify for Worlds who aren't Platinum.” Manfield said. “Grand Prix are the tournament series I play the most. To be able to say that you're the best player of the year at Grand Prix is a big honor.”

“You have to always do well,” Manfield explained. Unlike winning a Pro Tour you can't just do well at one event to earn a spot. Grand Prix warriors must prove themselves throughout the entire year, and usually on multiple continents. For example, Manfield said, “Saito's been traveling to everything for it—it takes a lot of effort to do that.”

Manfield himself is actually behind the others, but for him, because he will be qualified for Worlds no matter what—he is the reigning World Champion, after all—earning the title would just be a badge of Magic achievement. “If I weren't in such a good position [to make Worlds already], I would be going to every Grand Prix in the world to get this.”

Reid Duke is in a similar position. Though he has earned enough total Pro Points to have a strong shot at the World Championship anyway (through the “At-Large” qualifier), that hasn't changed what this title would mean to him.

“It's rewarding. I've worked hard each year; I'm always trying to show up with the best deck, and to play my best,” Duke said. Being able to reward that resolve is what makes the Grand Prix title so special.

“It's definitely something I'm going for ... I want to do everything I can to get to the World Championship, to give myself the best chance I can of getting there.” But he did specify, “I'd rather do it the easy way—you know, an At-Large spot.” He laughed.

Ironically, if Seth wins, and donates the qualification to another At-Large position, that just increases Duke's chances of making it to the Championship. But Duke recognizes that he is quite an underdog in the Grand Prix Master competition. Especially because unlike Saito or Braun-Duin, Duke's not going to Grand Prix São Paulo next week. And neither is Manfield. Here's where it get interesting.

“I expect it to come down to BBD and Saito,” Manfield said. And he believes it's fitting, as they are both very deserving of the distinction. “Såo Paulo, that's going to be the key tournament ... The Olympics may be going on [in Brazil], but those two will be having their own Olympic trial that weekend. I mean, that sounds kinda stupid, but that's exactly what it is.”

For all of these stalwarts, the Grand Prix Master means something more than just qualifying for Worlds. But for Manfield and Duke, they are already considered in the top echelon of Magic Pros. A win for them would be wonderful, but not unexpected. It's the third contestant here in Pittsburgh, Brian Braun-Duin, who is the less-lauded name, but that might just make him the most deserving of the three.

“It is kinda my award,” six-time Grand Prix Top 8 finisher Braun-Duin said, laughing. Though he was a bit facetious, the smiles that were on his face each time he talked told a different story. Winning this would mean a heck of lot to Braun-Duin.

“I'm not like Reid or Owen or Brad—in the Player of the Year race every year ... But one thing I do better than most Magic players in the world is work. I work hard at this game.” Braun-Duin has commit himself fully, and his determination has certainly been paying off.

“You know, all year I travel around the world for this. And a lot of times it's frustrating.” He continued, about the Grand Prix Master title, “It's great to know that all that would, you know, mean something.”

The last few years have been good for Braun-Duin. He made his name on the SCG circuit, and since then, has proven himself at the Grand Prix level again and again. But he knows there's still a lot more work to be done.

“I want to start doing better at Pro Tours,” he said slightly dejected. “I've had a lot of average results, and it's not for lack of trying.” Things just haven't come together for him yet at that level. “Any tournament I've done well in Constructed, I do poorly in Limited, and vice versa.”

But this race has given him a big boost. He was unexpectedly vaulted near the top, when the leader made an untimely exit from the scene. Before that, Braun-Duin said, “Worlds was never even on my radar.” Combining that fortune, with more strong finishes, and Braun-Duin is now tied for the lead.

Earning an invite to the World Championship his way would be a testament that he can get to that next level. That maybe he is ready to compete with the best. He said he knows he'd be a huge underdog at the event, but quite frankly so is most everyone there.

As we talked, Braun-Duin was grinning ever wider. I told him he looked excited.

“I am excited,” he volleyed. “Even if I lose this race, this is the best season I've ever had.” He said, “I don't have any real expectations or whatever, but ...” We all know where that but is going. We've all been so close to something that we could taste it. Braun-Duin was ready to eat that entire Grand Prix Master pie.

“After Costa Rica, I was 1 point behind Saito; and I tied him in Columbus.” After that, he booked his ticket to Brazil for next weekend. Where the final showdown will take place, just as Manfield had foretold. He had a tough time finding teammates for the Team Limited format who would fly over 4,500 miles to the bottom of Brazil. But he recruited a strong threesome with Shaheen Soorani, and then, later, Pascal Maynard.

Braun-Duin is the competitor the Grand Prix Master was made for. And though both Duke and Manfield, who are only inches behind, also deserve the slot, it seems fitting that the contest will likely come down Saito and Braun-Duin competing in another corner of the globe, five days after they were competing on completely different continents simultaneously.

This is what the Grand Prix Master award is all about. Manfield, Duke, and Braun-Duin. These three incredibly consistent Magic players are ready for World Championship season here at Grand Prix Pittsburgh—making that final push to reach the top of the mountain.

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