Removed From Game – Calling Out Around the World

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Tuesday, August 12th – It’s the busiest time of the Magic year, with National teams being decided across multiple continents. With Pro Points on the line this time around, the quest for team berths becomes even more critical to the Pro season. From Australia to America, it’s time to go inside the numbers and find out who did what, when, and how.

I could be wrong. Wouldn’t you just love it if my article ended there? Then whenever I said something stupid or controversial (generally only when my mouth’s open or the laptop’s powered) you could send me an email linking me to this very article. One day, perhaps. Meanwhile, I could be wrong, but I suspect this is quite possibly the busiest Premier period in the history of the game. American Nationals, Italian Nationals, French Nationals, Canadian Nationals, Australian Nationals, Dutch Nationals, Great British Nationals, Grand Prix: Denver, Grand Prix: Kobe, I can’t actually keep up. So, to preserve my sanity, and give some of the performances the coverage they deserve, I’m not even going to try. Instead, I’m going to start at, if not the very beginning, at least at the beginning of the period of utter carnage that is threatening to swamp all my powers of half-decent analysis. (Pray tell Rich, what are they exactly?). So before yet more results pile on top of the in tray, let’s at least put to rest a couple of events a looooooong way apart, starting with Australia.

Australian Nationals

Of the literally not hundreds of you who emailed me asking for my predictions for the Australian Nationals Top 8, I was delighted to dispense the following list:

Tim He
Oliver Oks
Anatoli Lightfoot
Steven Aplin
Daniel Piechnick
Andrew Eckermann
Basam Tabet
Aaron Nicastri

To my mind, Australia and Britain have much more in common than an overwhelming love for the Queen. When it comes to Magic, both nations have a fairly small pool of talent, neither has a Pro Tour victory to its name, and the cream tends to rise to the top. I’ll return to this theme next week when I accurately predict all eight members of the UK Nats Top 8 a full two days after the event concludes. But for now, a modicum of explanation. Tim He, Steven Aplin, Andrew Eckermann, and Daniel Piechnick all have form. Oliver Oks, now apparently back in Oz having ‘been’ Japanese for a while, and generally travelled the world playing the game, has a Grand Prix Top 8 last year to his name. Basam Tabet played for a while in the UK, and also has a Grand Prix Top 8, exactly the kind of churning-through-the-chaff performance that’s needed to reach the knockout stages of a Nationals. Aaron Nicastri I didn’t know from Adam (Yurchick or otherwise) until Pro Tour: Hollywood, where I interviewed him near the back end of Day 2 when he was still thoroughly involved in the main event. The next day I asked him when his flight home was, and he cheerfully informed me that you didn’t travel around the world to find yourself less than three hours from Las Vegas and not actually go to Las Vegas. More than his playing skill, it was his wide-eyed happy-go-lucky attitude that struck me as out of the ordinary in a roomful of people who sometimes forget that the idea is certainly to have fun, even if winning isn’t always possible. That left mine, and anyone’s favorite for the event, Anatoli Lightfoot, a man with an unforgettable name, and also a comprehensive Magic resume Down Under, which I nearly didn’t capitalise until I realized how that could be misconstrued.

Of my eight, precisely one got to the last three rounds, and it certainly wasn’t the one I expected. 27 points across 12 rounds was the cutoff, and although Eckermann and Piechnick managed 8-4 records, that was as close as the rest of my squad got. Aplin had a positive record at 7-5, Lightfoot retired with 4 wins to his name along with Oks, Tabet left the scene with 9 points, and former Champion Tim He got the hell out of Dodge with just a solitary match win. That left Aaron Nicastri to take his skill, attitude, and seriously frizzy hair to the title, piloting a deck with a manabase that only a mother could love, a phrase that leads me neatly to Erik Lauer. Now I love talking with Erik, first because he knows more about Magic than I ever will, and second because he has a most refreshing habit of asking me questions I hadn’t previously thought to ask myself. At U.S. Nats, Erik asked if I thought Wizards had made it too easy to play all five colors in Constructed. Blimey. So, because he’s a patient soul, I took my time to, you know, think about it, and concluded the following.

Actually, what Wizards have done is a thing of utter subtlety and beauty. I freely admit that I’m not exactly a poster boy for complicated manabases. To me, 17 Mountains, 3 Wasteland, and 4 Rishadan Ports is about as complicated as a man needs. Or just 27 Islands, come to that. The manabase that Nicastri played to victory in his Swans deck was one of the most patently offensive in the game’s history. And I don’t mean in an attacking sense. I mean in a ‘holy crap have you seen the manabase on THIS?’ And that’s what’s so great about the tools we’ve been offered to play in our deckbuilding sandboxes with. Frankly, most of the lands should come with a government health warning, because watching people fiddle about with 5 color Reveillark decks, Swans decks, and Quick n’ Toast decks has taught me that most people have large quantities of no clue when it comes to mana management. Yes, the tools to play these decks exist, but they are tools absolutely designed for handling with extreme care by, in the truest sense, Professionals. It is no coincidence whatsoever that it is players like Manuel Bucher, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Olivier Ruel, and Nicastri (though I’m not suggesting that Nicastri has yet demonstrated his world-class status) and Mark Herberholz who manage to pilot these decks successfully. In the old days, you did this:

Forest, Birds Of Paradise
Forest, Fertile Ground.
Oh look, it’s five-color Green.

Not anymore. Yes you can play it, and yes you can play it in your forthcoming National championships. But you better be good.

Enough of the Antipodes, let’s head for Chicago, and a detailed look at U.S. Nats. Now seems a good time to remind you that the final scores of players frequently don’t reflect their actual record, because once they’re out of contention for a high finish they amazingly find better things to do with their lives, like eat, drink, sleep…..oh all right, I’m lying, of course they don’t do any of those things… they play some more Magic, but at least it’s Magic that they might be able to win. So, someone on 6 points had two total wins, but that could be over anywhere between 5 and 14 rounds. (Although a 2-12 record would demonstrate some severe fortitude in the face of comprehensive signs that it isn’t your weekend.)

Six points included:

John Pelcak
Gabe Walls
Jason Imperiale
Michael Krumb
Michael Pinnegar
Tyler Mantey
Alex Majlaton

By and large I’ve attempted to highlight players who have at least made a Top 8 in some kind of Premier event such as a Grand Prix or a high-level finish in a previous Nationals. Of these, probably the two biggest disappointments were John Pelcak and Gabe Walls. 18 months ago it looked as if Pelcak might be about to break through into the top tier of the Pro ranks, as he narrowly missed Top 8, if memory serves, in Pro Tour: Yokohama last year. Since then, not a lot, but I still expected more than this from him. To an extent, the same can’t be said of Gabe Walls, and my disappointment was more to do with the fact that I wouldn’t get to see him in more action over the weekend, since Gabe is good times, as long as you’re not playing against him, where I believe he’s among the craftiest opponents out there.

Nine points:

Kyle Sanchez
John Fiorillo
Greg Peloquin

Two of these you’ll probably know, one you won’t. I’ve now had the pleasure of meeting Kyle up close and personal (not that up close and personal, get your minds out of the gutter) on two occasions, at Grand Prix: Indianapolis and now in Chicago for Nats, and I can confirm my clinical judgment that he is batsh** insane, but in the best possible way. He’s top entertainment, and coincidentally really knows his stuff. Fiorillo was the partner of Eugene Harvey with an unsatisfyingly brief walk-on role in the Top 8/4 of Pro Tour: San Diego last year, when manascrew took him and Harvey out of the semi-finals. As for the one you don’t know, I didn’t know Peloquin either until he was my first contestant/victim on The Magic Game Show, which had two awesome audiences on the Friday and Saturday night. In total we gave away about 1350 Rares across the two shows, with two players (including Chris Lachmann) taking away 500 Rares each, before choosing to avoid a tricky final question for the jackpot of 1,000 Rares. I’m informed that at least one of these final questions was easy, but as I like to say, it’s only easy if you know it. Hopefully there’ll be more Magic Game Shows at future events, because as you’ll know if you listened to the show, a good time was had by all.

Twelve points:

Billy Moreno
Mark Conkle
Owen Turtenwald
Chris Lachmann

Conkle had a great performance at Pro Tour: Kuala Lumpur but never threatened here. Owen Turtenwald occupies a similar space as John Pelcak, someone who looked as if they were going to make significant waves, but have yet to actually do so. The other two were basically saying farewell to Magic, at least for now. For Billy, this was the last event he was auto-qualified for, and he doesn’t seem to have the time for further forays into PTQ-land. As for Lachmann, I’m starting to lose the will to live detailing the passing of yet another paradise-bound Pro. All I’m saying is that when Headhunter gets reprinted in 11th Edition next year, it will bear the face of erstwhile Editor Ted Knutson.

Fifteen points:

Zack Hall
Adam Yurchick
Gerry Thompson

Of these, I suppose Yurchick would have had the most expectation of a Top 8 finish, but the one who needed a good finish most was Gerry T. To find that he’s not a given at the next Pro Tour in Berlin came as a shock to me, since he’s so central to the Magic scene, not just in the U.S. but throughout the Pro world. Finding the backdoor routes onto the Pro Tour is one of the hardest things for us as reporters to cover, because it demands knowing ratings and Pro Points for hundreds of players across multiple nations, so sometimes we don’t even realize the full impact of finishing in a particular spot down the field. A prime example of this would be Jamie Parke finishing exactly 50th at Pro Tour: Hollywood, the precise position required for a coveted place in Berlin. I’d like to tell you that it won’t be long before Gerry T is full-time on the Tour, but having spoken to a Who’s Who of the US scene it’s fair to say that nothing, but nothing terrifies them more, Magically speaking, than a return to the PTQ slugfest. [This past weekend will have improved Gerry T’s standing somewhat, I’d wager. — Craig.]

Eighteen points:

Thomas Drake
Charles Gindy
David Irvine
Steve Sadin
Jacob van Lunen
Luis Scott-Vargas

There was a case to be made for every one of these to make Top 8, a group that includes a National Defending Champion in Scott-Vargas, Pro Tour winners van Lunen and Gindy, Grand Prix winner Sadin, and two men in Irvine and Drake who have been at the sharp end of major events. Irvine seems to take defeat in his largely unfazed stride. Despite his victory at Pro Tour: Hollywood, Gindy has no sudden pretensions of being the greatest player the game has ever seen, a fact deliciously reinforced here by his Slaughter Pact loss during the Constructed rounds. Drake had his best ever performance at the previous Nationals, where he found only Luis Scott-Vargas between him and the winning post, but I’d be surprised if he was exactly expecting to make the squad for a second year running. Hoping, sure, but maybe not expecting. For the other three, the disappointments will have been more severe. Scott-Vargas as the defending champion will have expected to be in the running for far longer than he was, and whilst the success of close friend Paul Cheon brought him short-term solace, I expect he went away from Chicago less than chuffed. Jacob van Lunen rarely leaves you in doubt how he’s feeling, and one of the more abiding memories of the weekend was seeing him physically on his knees, literally screaming at a 30 inch monitor during the Magic Online laptop competition, a competition that also featured Kyle Sanchez playing with 80 cards in the quarter final due to an ‘administrative error.’ That’s Rich-speak for missing out the click segment of ‘point and click.’ That leaves Sadin, who came out with a positive 2-1 start from Standard, following an opening round loss to Patrick Chapin, nobody’s idea of a fun start to the tournament. Bizarrely it was in Limited that the wheels came off, with the first five rounds of Draft eliminating him from contention with a 2-3 record. A great believer in process leading to results, Steve is starting to be in urgent need of a major result to justify to himself the intense thought and devotion he puts into the game.

Twenty-one points:

David Williams
Seth Manfield
Ben Lundquist
Brandon Scheel

At a break-even 21 points, the multi-discipline and multi-talented Scheel will not have quite spotted how this middle of the pack result came to be. From what I hear, there were no major alarms, no major bad breaks, no major mistakes, he just didn’t win enough Magic, and then ran out of rounds, which in some ways seems the most irritating kind of result of all, because it’s so hard to pick out the lessons to help build for the future. Lundquist never looks especially comfortable away from the table, and on this occasion didn’t seem as in control of events on the table as he might have anticipated. Manfield was one of my relative outsiders for Top 8, but I thought he’d finish higher than this. As for Williams, I’m going to choose my words carefully here. I wish I’d known Williams at his peak, rather than just seeing him occasionally as a ‘Guest Artist,’ because he fascinates me as a player and as a person. Here’s the comparison: Me, an utterly middle class, utterly went to a posh school, utterly uncool, unhip, and untrendy unsuccessful Magic player with not a lot of money. Him, an utterly cool, utterly hip, utterly trendy, successful Magic player with a ton of money that features in my favorite Magic quote of all time, which I believe I’ve quoted elsewhere. (Interviewer: ‘Here’s Dave Williams, who has just won 2.8 million dollars at the World Series of Poker.’ Williams: ‘2.9 million.’) Never mind the money, I would kill for that kind of cool. This man has charisma to burn.

Twenty-four points:

Adrian Sullivan
Jim Davis
Gerard Fabiano
John Sittner
Gadiel Szleifer

By and large Magic is not a game of extremes, which is why players who show any kind of emotion at the table are both relatively rare and a considerable boon to a tournament day. Compare and contrast Adrian Sullivan and Gadiel Szleifer. There’s a good bet that says neither of these extremes are precisely true, but here’s how it looks: Sullivan appears to think that Magic is the best thing ever invented. Ahead of the wheel. Ahead of Eve. Ahead of Star Trek, and even ahead of oxygen. Having won his way through five rounds of knockout Grinder action the day before, he played through every single round with joie de vivre mixed with fierce competition, and had you offered him another seven rounds of Swiss the following day, hell, even the same day, he’d have bitten your hand off to sign up. In contrast, Szleifer gives the impression of hating the game. Losses understandably hurt, true of anyone at this level, but winning appears to bring no pleasure or sense of achievement. Perhaps that’s a function of having won a Pro Tour (Philadelphia 2005) and suddenly anything else seems hollow. Perhaps he’s just a very closed person, reluctant to put his feelings on public display (and there’s no criticism implied in that, it can be a valuable weapon in the psychological battle). Or perhaps he really doesn’t like the game. Whatever the truth, and extremes like this always find their truth someone in between, it’s hard to imagine a more striking contrast in outward approach than Sullivan and Szleifer. For the rest, all three will probably feel mildly disappointed by a 24-point record, but maybe not by much.

Twenty-seven points:

Antonino de Rosa
Chris McDaniel
Patrick Chapin
Zac Hill

If this had been half the Top 8, not many would have been surprised. Prior to his trip to Malaysia with the Luce Scholarship – a task incidentally that has genuine real-world implications of significant importance, though he’s infinitely too pleasant a fellow to say so – Zac Hill took his swansong performance comfortably into Day 2, but couldn’t extend his stay to Sunday. With a startling lack of pink alcohol in the venue, Patrick Chapin was immaculately behaved, and was seen with a veritable posse of a film crew, which may or may not have been compiling ‘Innovator II: Judgment Day.’ Chris McDaniel demonstrated his mastery of Limited, but fell away with a Mono-Black Control deck that turned out to be rather more Mono-Black than Control, and Antonino de Rosa’s phenomenal run of three consecutive Top 8 appearances finally came to an end.

Thirty points:

Matt Hansen
Melissa DeTora
Taylor Webb
Steve Locke
Tim Aten
Sam Stein

This is a group I don’t know too much about. Although Stein finished 10th, 30 points was still a full two away from Top 8, a mountain in a world of fractions. Tim Aten is one who never appears to get out of second gear, which if true would be scary for the rest of the field. Webb, Locke, and Hansen are all people who would not have looked out of place in the Top 8, while for a time Melissa DeTora looked like doing something spectacular. To be fair, she did indeed do something spectacular, namely going 7-0 in the Limited portion. As one seasoned spectator was heard to remark, you’d have got pretty long odds on DeTora facing Patrick Chapin in a round 10 Feature Match to determine which would have the perfect Limited record. Unfortunately her 1-2 start was matched by an even 2-2 in the final Standard segment, and that just wasn’t enough. Still, there’s no doubt that she’s currently the First Lady of Magic, and it’s entirely possible to visualize a Top 8 performance at a big event sooner rather than later.

The Top 8:

David Sharfman
Carl Dillahay
Mark Herberholz
Sam Black
Shaheen Soorani
Michael Jacob
Marsh Usary
Paul Cheon

So coming into Sunday, to my mind the Top 8 looked like this:

Obvious pedigree, and automatic inclusions if you could pick 4 from 8 for Worlds – Mark Herberholz and Paul Cheon.

Outstanding performance, but not performances – Shaheen Soorani, who finished 9th at Worlds in Paris 2006.

One of the best Magic players you don’t really know – Sam Black, a man who has played Versus, Dreamblade, Magic, and for all I know Tiddlywinks at the highest level, but without the global recognition that a Pro Tour victory brings.

Looking to go one better – Michael Jacob, a member of the last U.S. Nationals team.

??? – Marsh Usary, Carl Dillahay, David Sharfman.

These three question marks quickly resolved into:

King of U.S. Nationals Constructed, with a lifetime record of 35-2. That’s 35 wins and 2 losses, lifetime. Bonkers – David Sharfman.

King of U.S. Grinders, having gone 5-0 to qualify and then 11-3 to make the Top 8 – Carl Dillahay.

??? – Marsh Usary. Yes, investigative journalism at its finest. I thank you.

Despite the existence of Bitterblossom, and I understand that some of you feel physically sick at the mere mention of it, the fact remains that Standard seems extremely healthy right now. Yes, there were three Mono-Red decks in the Top 8, but they were joined by Cheon’s faeries, Sharfman’s Reveillark, Black’s Elves, Soorani’s Teferi Pact and Herberholz’s Quick n’ Toast. That’s one hell of a varied field, when you consider that there was also Swans, Doran, and of course the forthcoming GB Nats-winning Helix Pinnacle deck. Oops, have I just utterly warped the global Metagame? Probably not.

35-2 became 35-3 as Paul Cheon edged past the nigh-unbeatable Sharfman, and while most casual observers would probably justifiably argue that the U.S. team is greatly enhanced with the addition of Cheon, Sharfman’s Constructed expertise may be missed at an event with multiple Constructed formats. Sam Black moved past Soorani with slightly surprising ease, and then inflicted a five-game defeat on the former Champion Cheon. That guaranteed Black a place on the U.S. team, and as someone whose meticulous preparation is arguably his greatest strength, he’s likely to be an immense bonus to U.S. hopes of claiming a world title on home soil in Memphis.

In the bottom half of the draw, the great shootout of the Red decks led to victory for Marsh Usary who finally put an end to Dillahay’s outstanding weekend. It turns out that 5/4 haste flyers are quite tough to deal with. Can you say Flame Javelin or bust? Awaiting Usary in the semi-finals was last year’s team member Michael Jacob, who had demonstrated what can happen in Constructed when you get good draws, having utterly demolished Mark Herberholz in three straight, with Herberholz helpless against a spectacular barrage of super-efficient monsters. Jacob soon put himself into the final, as Usary ended on the wrong end of the Mono-Red matchup. In a sense, that made the critical match the 3rd/4th place playoff between Usary and Cheon. While both were going to Worlds, only the winner of their playoff match would count towards the team total. Again, neutrals were largely looking for a Cheon victory, and they got their wish, although Usary fought all the way to a fifth game, battling back from an unexpected 2-0 down. That just left Black and Jacob to settle the title, and although Sam quickly worked out that his only hope was to activate manlands at turbospeed before Jacob’s mighty airforce and burn overmatched him, this was a fairly forlorn plan, optimum though it was, and Jacob duly improved on his ‘merely’ being part of the team last year, and became the champion.

So there you have it, a team of Michael Jacob, Sam Black, and Paul Cheon, with Marsh Usary there as emergency backup. To judge by the satisfied nods of approval around the venue, the general view of this group is that they can absolutely go to Worlds and get the job done. It’s hard to argue against Jacob, with his back-to-back team performances, but Herberholz is a Pro Tour winner, and a team of Cheon, Herberholz, and Black would I suspect have had plenty of Americans telling me they would win Worlds, rather than they could win Worlds. In four months, we’ll know.

So by my limited reckoning, that’s Australia and America put to bed. Which just leaves 176 events to cover. Great. Should be done by Thursday then.

Until next week, as ever, thanks for reading.