Last weekend's Grand Prix Manila boasted a star-studded Top 8. Six of the eight had planned to continue here to Shizuoka to make it a double-header, and suddenly found themselves with the opportunity for back-to-back honors. There were the dynamic duo of Tzu-Ching Kuo and ninth-ranked Lee Shi Tian from Team MTGMintcard. There was Hall of Famer Makihito Mihara. There were globetrotters Martin Jůza and Christian Calcano. And then there was the man who shocked them all to be crowned champion, Joseph Sclauzero.
Of course, nobody calls their shot at the start of Day 1. A lot can happen over the course of fifteen rounds. So it was for Kuo, bounced from contention with losses early. For the other five, however, the dream was kept alive. Just barely. All the others advanced with a 7-2 record. That meant a Top 8 could only be had with two perfect drafts.
Left to right: Martin Jůza, Christian Calcano, Tzu-Ching Kuo, Lee Shi Tian, Joseph Sclauzero, and Makihito Mihara
Jůza was the next to fall. Starting Sunday 0-2 would take the wind out of anyone's sails, but Jůza battled on. Sclauzero caught his loss in Round 11. I managed to grab his ear after he'd rattled off another two wins. An Australian, Sclauzero has been playing with increasing seriousness for the past five years. Originally, Manila and Shizuoka were only stops punctuating a long sightseeing trip of the APAC region, but his surprise victory at Manila cast them in a new light. “I love GPs, but in Australia we don't get many chances for them. I'd just finished with University so I decided to take a bit of a trip. This was my tenth GP. I'd made Day 2 of the last six, but never better than that, never played on the Pro Tour. Now I'm qualified for Brussels, I'm in the run for some points here, getting close to Silver status, and so I'm also thinking about Rookie of the Year.”
The remaining three – Lee, Mihara and Calcano – completed their sweep of their pods. They also wound up in separate pods for the second draft, there was a chance (however slight) of all three putting up back-to-back finishes. Calcano suffered a frustrating loss in Round 13 and he worked to get his head back into the game for the final stretch. “You know, if you told me at the start of today that I'd go 5-1 I'd be thrilled. I can still pick up three Pro Points if I win out, which is a pretty big deal. I'm Gold for this year, I want to keep that for next year.” A table away, Mihara finished a long match on the wrong side of the scoresheet as well. He took it in stride, laughing off my having hoped for a repeat of his Manila performance.
So with two rounds to go, Lee is last man standing, and keenly aware of how close he is. “Just two more. Come on.” His voice is full of the passion he has for the game, simmering just beneath a surface of icy focus.