For many of the people here, the Pro Tour is old hat. That doesn't mean it's easy—players test for weeks leading up to a each event—but it becomes easy to take things for granted. Ho hum, posh event space. La di da, playing against the best players in the world. We are celebrating many amazing milestones this weekend for many pros, such as 400 match wins, 500 matches played. With amazing numbers like those, it's understandable that the Pro Tour lights can seem commonplace. But for some people here, the Pro Tour means something different.
Out of 407 players this weekend, about 150 have never competed at the Pro Tour before. When they look back on their Magic careers, no matter how long or short they are, they will remember this: Pro Tour Fate Reforged was the first time.
The vast majority of that 150 did not do very well, and that's to be expected. Some of them weren't even able to win a round, but for a lot of folks, results don't even matter.
I ran into Dan Scheid in the hallway after the first five rounds. Scheid qualified by winning Grand Prix Los Angeles, but was mostly a local player before that. I asked how he was doing on the day, and he responding with a resounding, "Great!" I only found out later that he was 1-4. His first time at the Pro Tour was such a thrill, he didn't even consider that I was also asking about his performance in the tournament itself and not just his happiness about being here.
That feeling extends into the second day as well. Going 4-4 is enough to make Day Two, and most first-timers don't expect to break even, let along break even and come back to play Saturday. William Hogan was ecstatic this morning coming in at 4-4. He had spiked a PTQ in New Jersey, and had to get himself acquainted with the format quick. Though he didn't run hot Day Two like he needed to finish well, just getting into that second day means something big.
But not all the new players are out of contention. After eleven rounds, Matt Oldaker, Nathan Smith, and Eugene Hwang were 8-3. And on the top of the heap was Justin Cohen at 9-2. Cohen immediately won his next round to go to 10-2, staying right near the top tables, as did Nathan Smith.
Grand Prix Orlando winner Eugene Hwang and his good friend and testing partner Jiachen Tao (who qualified by winning an online PTQ) are both first timers, but Hwang had been doing well deep into the second day. Even though the two live states away from each other, Hwang said "We've seen each other the last four weekends in a row." Between Grand Prix San Jose and testing for the Pro Tour, a thousand miles apparently can't keep them apart.
Hwang 3-0'ed his draft today, and has his hopes pinned on Burn for Modern. Earlier in the weekend he told me that it was the best proactive strategy he could ready in the short time since the metagame shift. About the deck he said, "I just want to say to my opponent each round, 'I don't care who you are; you don't care who I am. Let's just play some cards.'"
Eugene Hwang and testing partner Jiachen Tao are making the best of their first Pro Tour appearance.
Though Hwang is now 8-4, he's still got high hopes. "If I go 3-1, I'm qualified for the next Pro Tour, and if I go 2-2 I get some Pro Points and I'm almost locked for Silver." But even his worst-case scenario wasn't bad, all things considered. "I can't possibly have a losing record; even if I lose the rest of my matches. That's just math."
Just not having a losing record is something Hwang wouldn't stand for at a Grand Prix, but the Pro Tour is different. Tao and Hwang both told me, "It's weird, because the stakes are higher [than a Grand Prix], but it feels less tense." And Hwang added later, "I was surprised by the free stuff. The draft sets and all. It's trivial, I know, but I didn't expect it. It was nice." The Pro Tour is so magical, even a Grand Prix winner can be made happier by a draft set.
But there's still something better for a first timer than qualifying for the next Pro Tour (and even a draft set). That's breaking into the Top 8. There are two first-time Pro Tour competitors still in that position at the time of writing this—Madison native Justin Cohen, and Houstonian, Nathan Smith.
First up, Nathan Smith, qualified through a Magic Online Championship Series event. Though he's excited to be here and near Top 8 contention, you wouldn't know it from his demeanor. "I don't really think it's sunk in yet," were his thoughts on the matter. He smiled after he said it. A game-player by nature and a TCG veteran, Smith carries himself like he's done this before. He's new to Magic, but he's not new to the tournament lights.
Smith is also on the Burn plan, despite usually going to midrange. "After testing it a bit, I realized it's actually really good in the metagame right now." As long as he keeps piloting it like he had in the first day, he just might make it to Sunday.
The other first-time combatant in contention for Top 8 is Justin Cohen. His name might be new to you, but if you've been around America for the last six months, you've seen him traveling and competing. Though Cohen's played Magic since he was a kid (growing up in the vibrant Madison, Wisconsin scene will do that to young man), he didn't commit to competing until Khans of Tarkir. And he did it for a specific reason. He is both roommates and amazing friends with two-time Pro Tour Top 8 finisher, twelfth–ranked Sam Black.
Cohen said, "Half the year he's hanging with me, and half the year he's traveling playing Magic." He said, "This friendship is the best thing I've got going on, so I thought, ‘I'd better get good at Magic.'" Apparently he did, and in a hurry. "Once Khans of Tarkir was spoiled, I got out my spreadsheets and really did it." He got himself qualified off a PTQ win, and now here he is, right near the Top 8.
Among all the Pro Tour first-timers, it's easy to pinpoint who is having the biggest weekend: that person is Justin Cohen.
Going this deep into Day Two of a Pro Tour is amazing, and honestly, for a newb, validating. But for Cohen, he rejects that reading. "Living with him gives me a bit of an edge." He put on a silly grin. He downplays his own skill, but no matter who you live with, going from very little to Pro Tour Top 8 contention in six months is no joke.
These snapshots are just a smattering of the new Pro Tour faces this weekend. Some of the big future names are here right now, hiding somewhere. Or maybe I just mentioned their names in the last thousand words. Who knows? Though only time will tell, depending on how the last couple rounds break, that time might be only between now and when the Top 8 is announced. But either way things go, for many players in DC, they've just reached their own milestone.