If Canada has a flaw (and here I'm culturally obligated to apologize just in case) it is that its population is spread lengthwise across the continent. There are three major population centers: Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, so Magic-wise, that's where the action is. This presents a problem for those of us living in the Prairies: If you want to compete, you have to travel, and not just a little. Technically players from Edmonton can drive out to Vancouver to broaden their opportunities. It's just twelve hours by car. There's also a mountain range in the way.
In defiance of this, over the past two years Alberta's two major cities – Edmonton and Calgary – have been developing strong competitive scenes. Edmonton's Shaun McLaren brought Alberta into the limelight with his stunning win at Pro Tour – Born of the Gods, but he was a one-man-army, essentially hailing from the Isle of McLaren. Calgary's Tyler Blum took top honors at Grand Prix Chicago, and then joined forces with GP Seattle Champ Robert Smith and Sean Gifford to Top 4 Grand Prix San Jose with an all-Calgary power trio. Those representing the Edmonton scene have been comparatively quiet, but here at Toronto they put up a strong Day 1.
Though not internationally known, Marcel Zafra has been a fixture of the Canadian pro scene for years. Always in the hunt at Grand Prix Day 2's, he's got just a single Top 8 to his name. He's Edmonton's go-to player, and after he notched an 8-1 Day 1 I asked him about the burgeoning scene in Edmonton.
Marcel Zafra and Gordo Tonner
"I think the average Edmonton PPTQ is harder than the Toronto RPTQ."
That speaks volumes about the density of quality players in Edmonton. So how is it that a community with few opportunities for top level play becomes a competitive hotbed?
"Part of it is definitely the rivalry with Calgary. And they've been killing it. Obviously with Sean [Gifford] but also Tyler Blum, Robert Smith, they have a lot of really good players. I think we're stepping up our game, though."
But it's not just the top tier of players looking to break through. "A lot of our lower-level players have gotten serious about becoming better players. They're reading, studying, I mean between videos and articles there's a lot of information. They're trying to learn from the players that are better than they are."
It's the rising tide that lifts all boats. Of course, travel remains a big hurdle, but that barrier means that those who finally do make the jump are that much surer of themselves. They don't travel until they really feel ready. Not only will Edmonton have a good presence at Pro Tour Magic Origins in Vancouver, the Modern Masters Weekend has given the perfect excuse for more of their players to take the plunge. Zafra says they are bringing a "huge" group down to Las Vegas. It will be interesting to see how they fare.
Gordo Tonner might be the illustrative precursor. He's a product of the Edmonton crucible, and put up a perfect 9-0 Day 1 at this, his first "real" Grand Prix. He was understandably a bit overwhelmed by the end of the day, both amped up by his success but also preparing himself for the harder day ahead. I asked him about Magic in Alberta, and his answer was unequivocal: "Alberta is hands-down the best Magic province in Canada." That earned him a stare-down from a nearby Alexander Hayne.
A longtime player, Tonner has only been playing competitively for a few years. "I remember to the day getting my first box of 8th Edition. That was so long ago, now." He took a few breaks from the game, as so many do, but since his last return had become a solid FNM player. He moved around from Kelowna in British Columbia, then to Barrie in Ontario, before landing in Edmonton. "That was the best thing that could've happened to me as a player. Where I used to be 5-0'ing FNM easily suddenly I was struggling to put up 3-2."
It was a real wake-up call for Tonner. He dedicated himself to improvement and finally started seeing the results this year. "I owe it all to Siege Rhino," he jokes. "Really, though. I saw Ari Lax win the Pro Tour with it, copied his deck card for card and went to work learning to play it." He made the Top 8 of the World Magic Cup Qualifier but was struck down by staremaster Alex Hayne. He won a MDSS – the Mana Deprived Super Series, an open event series sponsored by Face to Face Games, similar to the Star City Games circuit. He won two PPTQs.
Grand Prix Toronto was the perfect opportunity, just a week after the Regional PTQ. His RPTQ started off well, but the wheels came off in round four. "I punted. Back-to-back rounds." He managed to shake it off for this weekend, however, and steered his handcrafted take on Abzan Midrange to a perfect record. "It's sort of a weird take, bits from Aggro, Midrange and Control. Sorin has been absolutely huge for me."
Is it daunting to look ahead at Day 2? "I'm excited, obviously. I played a lot of good players on Day 1, I know I belong here, but I'm going to take it one game at a time." After a pause, he added "and make Top 8."