Innovations – An Interview With Gabriel Nassif

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Monday, July 28th – U.S Nationals approaches, and people are tight-lipped regarding their Standard technology. As a break of pace from his usual high strategy, today’s Innovations sees Patrick interview one of the true greats of the game, Gabriel Nassif. He questions Gabriel on Magical improvement, Eventide thoughts, and the life of a Pro Tour legend…

Translated from the French

Patrick Chapin: Hi there Gabriel… say hello to the folks here on StarCityGames.com.

Gabriel Nassif: Yo.

PChapin: I am about to leave for Chicago, for U.S. Nationals. Since I don’t have the sick Block Constructed tech yet, I was wondering if I could interview you for an article? It’ll hopefully hold people over until I have a chance to do some playtesting for the PTQ format.

Nassif: Sure!

PChapin: Okay… I am going to ask you some questions on Magic and non-Magic topics.. (I’m also gonna alter your words to make you look like a fool, of course.)

Nassif: Of course…

PChapin: To start, for those readers who are not familiar with your incredible history, what is your proudest Magic accomplishment?

Nassif: Hmm… I guess it has to be Player of the Year, back in 2004.

PChapin: And in what Pro Tours did you make Top 8?

Nassif: I’m not sure of the years and places… can’t you look it up? Hehe!

PChapin: Of course I can, but I want you to share them with us…

Nassif: New York Teams, New Orleans Extended, Venice Block Constructed, Kobe Block Constructed, San Francisco Worlds, Paris Worlds, New York Worlds, Atlanta Teams…

PChapin: The list goes on and on…

Nassif: I think that’s it… eight, right?

PChapin: Add in your Grand Prix results, and that really is a very nice list of accomplishments, nearly without equal. When did you become good? I mean really good…?

Nassif: I think I was already pretty good at my first Pro Tours. All I did was play back at home, and I had the chance to play with really good players every day. Also I think I was better comparatively to the other players back then. That was before MTGO.

PChapin: Who do you play with regularly?

Nassif: I don’t really play that much anymore. I draft once in a while in Paris, mostly before Limited GPs. I’ve been playtesting with Mark Herberholz and some other random people for Constructed Pro Tours.

PChapin: Heh. Are you playing in French Nationals?

Nassif: Yeah, for the first time in a few years.

PChapin: Why is that?

Nassif: For the last few years, it fell during World Series of Poker.

PChapin: You are one of the top Magic Pros to make the crossover to poker successfully. Tell us a little about that. You haven’t jumped yet… does this mean poker is going well lately?

Nassif: Last year was pretty bad, but this year has been going better. I don’t consistently kill it, but I do okay.

PChapin: Poker obviously pays better, but what do you enjoy more: Poker or Magic?

Nassif: I still enjoy Magic more, I think. Nothing really beats a three-on-three draft, and I still enjoy working on new Constructed formats.

PChapin: You have had success across the board, from Team tournaments to Constructed to Limited…what format(s) do you think are your strongest?

Nassif: It’s hard to say. I’ve always had the feeling I was better at Limited, but my results speak otherwise. I guess the edge I get from deckbuilding just carries me in Constructed, whereas in Limited everyone is really good. My record in Team Drafts is really good too; I think I’m something like 16-2 in Days 2 and 3 of Team Limited Pro Tour play… I’m not sure what to make about that.

PChapin: What is your strategy for Team events, whether they are three-on-three drafts with friends or a Team Pro Tour draft?

Nassif: In three-on-three drafts, I usually just try to have fun, but I still try to draft a competitive deck. In Team Pro Tour drafts, my teammates and I were usually able to get a good enough grasp of the format that we’d know which deck to draft in which seat, or how to react to our opponents’ color choices and thus match them up with what we thought was the optimal strategy

For instance, in New York 2001 we just drafted the same archetypes in the same seat every time: I was UWr or UWb, which was usually the strongest deck; Olivier was Five-Color Green; and Amiel just had some pile, usually some weird Five-Color Red deck that always looked terrible, I wasn’t suppose to lose any games, and one of my teammates had to pick up the other win. But in Atlanta, with Dave Rood and Gab Tsang, we’d just react to whatever our opponents were playing, and try to set up the colors properly.

PChapin: What did you think about the Two-Headed Giant format?

Nassif: It seemed interesting, and I thought it was pretty fun too.

PChapin: Let’s switch gears for a minute… how do you prepare for Constructed Pro Tours?

Nassif: I just try to get good versions of all the Tier 1 decks, then try to build something that posts passable results against each of them. Alternately, I try to play a really well-tuned Tier 1 deck.

PChapin: I understand you like to scout the side events at Grand Prix tournaments, looking for tech. How has that been going for you?

Nassif: I don’t scout them myself; I usually have my lackeys do the dirty work.

PChapin: Of course. What advice would you give to young pros trying to put up a good finish at a Pro Tour?

Nassif: Play, play, and play some more. There’s really no secret.

PChapin: What about for players trying to make it past the PTQ circuit and get on to the Pro Tour? I mean, surely there is more they can do than just practice…

Nassif: But we’re talking about practice. Seriously though, I’m not sure. I was pretty lucky and got onto the Pro Tour almost instantly, doing really well at my first few tourneys, and I’m pretty sure it was just payoff from having played so much for many years. I just loved the game, and all I did was play and think about the game.

Also, play against the best players you can. You will learn so much more if you just play against the best. It can be hard to get a chance to play with the best players, so take advantage of it when you can, and play against the best available to you.

PChapin: You were the clear Number 1 player in the world for a period, and you are consistently listed in the Top 3 of just about every expert’s all time list for Magic players. Who would be your choices for top non-Gabriel Nassif Pros?

Nassif: That’s pretty tough. All time, Kai and Jon are obviously the top two. Maybe Oiso, Kenji, and Dirk. There are a few others I could mention, especially if you base yourself on more recent achievements. Someone like Antoine Ruel has been so solid throughout the years, and he has one of the most solid games; he plays so tight. Olivier is really good too.

The best active players in the world today? I guess you just have to take results. Off the top of my head, I’d say Wafo-Tapa, Nakamura, and Saitou for sure. Finkel, Jelger, and your good self deserve a special mention. Then players like Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa and Paul Cheon are up there too.

PChapin: What events are you going to attend later this year?

Nassif: I’ll be attending Pro Tour: Berlin and Worlds in Memphis, plus French Nationals next weekend and a few GPs… maybe Copenhagen, and probably Paris

PChapin: So it is safe to say that you love the game as much as ever, even if you don’t have the time to play as much as you used to?

Nassif: I think so. I still enjoy it every time I play, and I almost never turn down a draft proposition.

PChapin: Talk to me about Eventide, both for Constructed and Limited.

Nassif: I’ve played one draft with Eventide, and it seemed really cool. It added a little twist to Shadowmoor. I’m not sure exactly how to adapt to the new format, but I think you can draft anything from mono-color to triple-color, usually with something like a 9/5/4 or an 8/5/5 manabase.

Eventide seems pretty bad for Constructed, at least Standard. Everything is a huge monster, and nothing seems especially undercosted. I haven’t really spotted a playable card besides Figure of Destiny, and that one is pretty obvious. The duals might fit in some decks, but the set seems pretty miserable overall.

PChapin: Let’s talk about some of your friends for a minute. First of all, give us one really embarrassing story about Mark Herberholz!

Nassif: There’s no such thing as an embarrassing story about Mark Herberholz, since the man is shameless. How are you supposed to embarrass a shameless man?

PChapin: What about your boy Wafo-Tapa? What is his secret?

Nassif: As I said before… Practice.

PChapin: I see.

Nassif: All he does is game, for real. He games in real life rather than online most of the time, which is a huge plus. It is so much more efficient to play in real life than on Magic Online. He is always gaming. He just loves it. He’ll playtest formats that he might not even play. Or he will play just to help write his articles, which keeps him always a step ahead of his opposition.

PChapin: He writes articles?

Nassif: I think he does… I’m not sure where. For one of the French Magic newspapers, I believe.

PChapin: They have newspapers about Magic in France? Wow. You don’t mean magazines, right?

Nassif: Ah, excuse my French. I guess the word is magazine, yeah.

PChapin: What do you like in Standard these days?

Nassif: I just played a few games today, my first since Pro Tour: Hollywood. My friend had one of the new versions of Mono-Red that seemed pretty good. I might just play Faeries or some version of R/B tokens at Nationals. We’ll see.

PChapin: Have you played any Block Constructed?

Nassif: I must say I don’t play many Constructed formats unless I’m specifically testing for an upcoming event.

PChapin: How about Vintage?

Nassif: Same. I never play it.

PChapin: What do you like to do when you are not playing Magic or Poker?

Nassif: During the day, if I’m not playing either, I’ll usually be watching TV shows like Lost, or in spring/summer I’ll go out and play some basketball.

PChapin: Yeah, when you played here in Michigan, you were sick!

Nassif: Thanks… you were sicker!

PChapin: Let’s see… before we go, I have another way of phrasing the question about getting better. What should people trying to get better do their best to avoid? Practice will make you better. What things should people avoid that will make them worse or hold them back?

Nassif: I’d advise them to avoid blaming luck and being sour about a bad draw, as such outlooks will really hold you back. Be objective about your play, and don’t blame luck.

There’s a pretty cool story that appeared in a Manuel Bevand article a few years ago. He remembered that the first thing I said after losing a quarterfinals match of Worlds 2004, to Aeo Paquette, after getting really unlucky and mulliganing a lot… instead of complaining about my luck and bad draws, I merely said “I should have mulliganed down to five in the last game.”

PChapin: It is really interesting to hear that and then think back to how you weren’t afraid to mulligan to four in our semifinal at Worlds 2007, and it paid off.

Nassif: Yeah.

PChapin: Many people would just keep a bad five or six and then complain that they had to mulligan.

Nassif: I probably had that match in mind. Against Aeo, I kept a bad six-card hand, just because I didn’t want to go down to five. I’d kinda given up, already blaming bad luck.

PChapin: That really is the difference between a player and a champion.

Nassif: Yeah, except I still punted every game against you, even those I won, hehe.

I think that there’s really very little luck in new Constructed formats, compared to any other form of Magic. That’s what’s pretty cool about it. Because, in most of the formats, everyone gets a ton of practice and has access to infinite knowledge, but that’s not the case for Constructed Pro Tours.

PChapin: Thanks for your time, Gabriel. Good luck at French Nationals.

Nassif: No problem. See you soon!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”