Removed From Game – Catching Up With The Pros

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Tuesday, May 6th – It’s been a while since we caught up with the fast-moving world of Pro Magic. In his latest update, Rich Hagon examines what went right and what went wrong in Grand Prix in Vancouver, Vienna, Shizuoka, and Philadelphia, naming and shaming the winners and losers, and generally making a nuisance of himself. Just like normal.

May is upon us, and it’s a month of likely massive upheaval in the Player of the Year Race. I’m writing from Brussels, where yesterday a monster Top 8 took place at the first Grand Prix to give Shadowmoor its Limited coming-out party. In three weeks’ time the second Pro Tour of the year will take us to lights-camera-action land in Hollywood, and less than a week after Standard has been redefined by the Pros, Block Constructed comes to Birmingham, England for the British Grand Prix. So, to set ourselves up for the manic month ahead, let’s catch up with events around the world since we last checked into the Pro Lounge with Jon Finkel finally ending the run of Italian Champ Mario Pascoli to win Pro Tour: Kuala Lumpur with his Kithkin deck of doom. Our first voyage takes us from Asia to North America, and Grand Prix: Vancouver.

Grand Prix: Vancouver — Extended

I won’t lie, I simply love Extended. First off, you get extraordinary power at your fingertips. Of course, you can get that feeling in just about any format, but in Extended that sense of doing unfair things isn’t an illusion, it’s real. Some of the spells still knocking about in the back end of the current Extended rotation are from the Glory Days of Magic, whatever that might mean, and amongst other things that means you get to use words like “innnsane” and “baroken” during testing. In a decent North American-sized field of nearly 400, even with three byes there were going to be plenty of names that didn’t get over the hump into Day 2 action. For the overwhelmingly represented home team Steve Sadin, Antonino de Rosa, Gerry Thompson, David Irvine, Jon Sonne, Adam Yurchick, Jeff Cunningham, and Jacob van Lunen turned good Byes into goodbyes. By no means a shabby lineup, and come to that, a perfectly viable North American Top 8. Not this time. Four big names from further afield tried their luck, and to be honest met with only minimal success. Raphael Levy finished 151st and Player of the Year Tomaharu Saitou also missed out in 102nd. Their travelling companions did get onto the Day 2 scoreboard however, and that at least meant some small reward for Frenchman Olivier Ruel (42nd) and Shuuhei Nakamura (29th). One suspects the Pro Points are of more significance than the $200 and $400 they earned respectively, and Shuuhei’s 2 Points in particular may come to be seen as a job well done come the Autumn. Brandon Scheel continued a decent run of form, adding to his Top 16 finish in Kuala Lumpur with Top 32 here. Owen Turtenwald, who is probably due a decent PT sometime in the next, oooh, three weeks, paid for the weekend with $400, 2 Points, and 21st place. Places 9-16 were mostly filled by Magic journeymen, with 2005 Pro Tour: Philadelphia champion Gadiel Szleifer easily the most recognizable and least spellable.

Into the Top 8 we go. Ben Lundquist got much of the deckbuilding plaudits for his UG Urzatron deck. Seven mana off three lands? Now that’s authentic abuse of the game. 13 mana and Academy Ruins and Mindslaver for infinite turn-stealing? Soooo much fun. In case you’re wondering, neither of these elements are new or in any way Lundquist’s own. Just wanted to remind you how much fun you could be having, so that you’ll play Extended next time… Lundquist was paired in the quarters against Hunter Coale playing the rather a mouthful CounterTopGoyf or Chase Rare Control or Bunch Of Toolbox Answers To Give Me A Chance Against Everything.dec. Don’t really understand why the last one didn’t catch on. Coale had to be content with $1000 as Lundquist won handily. Playing an identical 75 card list to Lundquist (yes, that wasn’t a coincidence) Zac Hall, who hasn’t ever been in my bed and is therefore not to be confused with Zac Hill who has, faced Jason Fleurent with his BG deck. Again, the Urzatron UG goodness proved too strong. In the other bracket, genuine Player of the Year contender Paul Cheon had brought another deck which was a strong candidate for Most Irritating Deck Name. Someday I’m going to do a quiz where you get to try and name as many of the cards as possible from Blue, Next, Next Blue, Blue Next, Next Level Blue, Previous Level Blue, Blue Again, Ol Blue Eyes Is Back, and sundry other variations on a theme nobody cares about. Unlike the mighty Four Word Film Reviews website (Supergirl – It Is A Bird!), 75 cards just don’t always lend themselves to curt witty little handles. The 94 Blue ‘archetypes’ we saw during the season proved this admirably. Since talk is cheap, how about ‘Blue Control, plus a bit of Green’? And now, welcome back to Paul Cheon, who’s waiting patiently for me to tell you that he defeated Michael Gurney with CounterTopGoyf by 2-0. That left Aaron Paquette, apparently no relation of Worlds runner-up Aeo, against Marc Bonnefoy. This, deliciously, was a TEPS mirror match. Now TEPS, boys and girls, is another reason you should make Extended part of your life. Most of you are probably too young to have played with Cadaverous Bloom in its Mirage heydey, but boy oh boy TEPS is a good substitute, a bit like methadone. Bonnefoy squeezed out the win in this one, but Cheon lay in wait in the semi-finals, and because this was a crucial must-win match in a Grand Prix and not a crucial must-win match in a Pro Tour, Cheon won. Yeah, you probably saw what I did there, and if you didn’t I’ll spell it out for you. I implied in that sentence that Cheon chokes when it really matters. Now I’m going to tell you that I don’t really think that’s true, and much more importantly I’m going to tell you that he doesn’t think that’s true, which is great if he’s right and an issue if he’s wrong. I’m not allowed to be biased when it comes to coverage, but I’d pay good money to see Cheon on top of the standings with say, 5 rounds to go, and giving him the opportunity to put that storyline to bed by cruising into the Top 8. In any given game, he’s clearly one of the best playing right now. He’s shown real character en route to Grand Prix: Krakow victory. But getting the monkey off his back and actually, well, never mind winning a Super Sunday, but getting to one, is starting to look like a priority.

In the second mirror-match of the Top 8, card-for-card colleagues Lundquist and Hall went toe to toe and, as so often doesn’t happen, the guy who actually designed the deck played it better than the guy he gave it to, and went on to face Cheon in the final. Guess what happened? It was a crucial must-win match in a Grand Prix… and Cheon was the very happy recipient of $3500 and a very tasty 8 Points to add to his campaign.

Grand Prix: Shizuoka, Japan – Standard

From year to year, trans-continental appearances at GPs wax and wane. The Holy Trinity of Shuuhei Nakamura, Tomaharu Saitou, and Kenji Tsumura are pretty much fixtures on the European circuit of late, although Kenji has been somewhat curtailed recently. The reverse route has largely been populated by intrepid Frenchman, notably the Ruel brothers and Raphael Levy. Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa (the only Pro for whom I have a macro set up on my computer) and Willy Edel of Brazil have also selectively appeared at far-flung events when the Format and Point-hunting demanded it. But for Shizuoka Standard, only one player made it to the start line from beyond Asian shores, and that man was Olivier Ruel. With Morningtide available, the big impact card on the format was Bitterblossom, a card that practically screamed for deck inclusion. Although not as hyped as Lorwyn’s Thoughtseize, this Black enchantment was going to be the defining card in the Standard ahead. And right at the front of the use-it and abuse-it crowd was the dashing Ruel, a man whose quest for Magic immortality continues unabated. There are plenty of real-world reasons for Olivier to travel to Japan – he has friends there, loves the culture, is learning the language – but if you’re going to cross half the planet to play some cards, you might as well try and be good at it. More of Ruel in a bit.

For those of you not up to speed with the Pro world, the simple fact is that a lot of the Japanese names tend to blur into one another. Even I find I’m sometimes talking about the wrong Takahashi or Kentarou or Kitayama. But, for the record, among the better-known competitiors making it into the money were Koutarou Ootsuka (57th), Shingou Kurihara (50th), Yuuya Watanabe (32nd), Shuu Komuro (31st), Osamu Fujita (27th), Masaya Kitayama (18th) and Taru Genki, who just missed out on the single-elimination rounds in 9th place. Shingou Kurihara went into Worlds in New York last year with a theoretical shot at Player of the Year, based in part on a flying start to his 2007 campaign. There’s been no sign of a repeat performance this time around, and a decent showing in Hollywood is pretty much essential if he isn’t going to be an also-ran this time. The 32nd-placed Watanabe will probably be disappointed, since his stated goal is to turn 2007 Rookie of the Year into 2008 Player of the Year, and although Top 32s can be useful, you don’t want too many of them in amongst the Top 8s.

As for the Top 8, Ruel had made the most of his ‘end of turn’ Faeries deck, and faced Akira Asahara in the quarters, piloting the super-funky Reveillark deck. Notionally a Combo deck, in truth the Reveillark was more of a collection of decent Suspend spells and cheeky comes into play effects, topped off with a rather expansive cherry that could ultimately leave opponents utterly bamboozled. Not Ruel this time however, as Faeries stopped assorted Cloudskates and Venser, Shaper Savants and so on from doing their funky thing. Also running the Reveillark deck, Kazuya Mitamura fell to Ryousuke Masuno, playing every super-fast super-efficient super-tough Green creature in the format, all of which conveniently had the creature type Elf. Somehow this led to this archetype being called, for reasons that surpass mortal understanding, ELVES! Personally, I’d have gone for ‘Elves’ but perhaps that’s traditional British understatement coming to the fore. Another Elf deck in the hands of Taichi Fujimoto (whose name incidentally means an ancient Eastern philosophy promoting harmony in the world of digital cameras and mobile phones) narrowly lost to another Reveillark deck, this time piloted by the little master Kenji Tsumura. And in the final matchup, Shintarou Ishimaru couldn’t force his Doran deck past Yuuta Takahashi, who, like Ruel, had discovered the power of the end of turn step and nearly-free monsters. The flying beatdown showed its prowess again in the semis, as Ruel and Takahashi advanced at the expense of the remaining Elf and Reveillark decks. That left Kenji in third place, demonstrating that, studies or no, he remains a live contender for any tournament he enters. For Ruel at least the final was anti-climactic. Having intently studied Takahashi’s decklist, the Frenchman grimly acknowledged that this last opponent was going to be more than a little problematic, with both a maindeck and especially a sideboard designed to profit from any mirror matches. And so Ruel had to be content with $2300, which comfortably paid for his trip, and more importantly gained him 6 Points towards a run at Player of the Year.

Grand Prix: Vienna – Extended

Remember how the Top 8 of Grand Prix: Vancouver looked like this?

2 x TEPS
1 x God Knows What Level Blue
2 x UG Urzatron
2 x CounterTopGoyf
1 x BG

See anything missing? Alright, let’s try Vienna:

4 x Dredge
1 x It’s Not Cheon or Chapin But By God It’s Still Some Level Blue
1 x UG Urzatron
1 x Ideal
1 x Doran

Hmm. And how about Grand Prix: Philadelphia taking place the same weekend as Vienna?

1 x Barra Rock
1 x Retro Tron (thank God nobody decided this would be Previous Level ‘Tron)
1 x I Can’t Bear It Somebody Let Me Outta Here Next Level Blue
1 x Doran
1 x Domain Zoo
1 x Spirit Stompy
1 x TEPS
1 x Death Cloud

Something very very strange went on in Vienna. How is it possible that in two North American GPs the sum total of final table finishes for the clear-cut best archetype, taken in the round, was zero? And yet in a 1400-odd player GP in Europe no less than four copies of the mighty Dredge saw one-on-one shootout action. I’ll offer you two hypotheses. Here’s mine. This is a classic case of Romanticism versus Ruthlessness. On both sides of the Atlantic, players were told that Dredge Is Dangerous. It quickly became apparent that these warnings were eminently well-founded, and at the biggest show of all last Autumn, Pro Tour: Valencia, Dredge was hunted to the brink of extinction. Very few players were willing to risk the bloodbath of hate that they knew was waiting for the graveyard strategy. Dredge, RIP.

This is where I think attitudes differ. In Europe, when a deck lies bleeding on the pavement, tattered and torn, our first instinct is to avert our gaze, cross the street, and walk away, secure in the knowledge that we’ve given it a good kicking, but that we didn’t actually kill it (that would be murder) and it will technically die of natural causes. In America, when a deck lies bleeding on the pavement, players get a stethoscope, check for the faintest of pulses, and then put a bullet through its brain, ideally using a rocket launcher. In Vienna, players knew that The Threat had been Vanquished, and that The Streets Were Safe once more. The idiots.

Suddenly sideboards changed. What used to be ‘7 cards plus a Dredge package’ became ‘do we really need 8 cards?’ and ‘do we really need 6 cards?’ and ‘I’m not going to face it, so 4 cards is plenty.’ Except of course it wasn’t, it isn’t and it won’t be. Their name escapes me, but one of my august colleagues here described Dredge as the second most broken deck of all time, and that puts it right up there with Jack the Ripper for notoriety and sheer volume of blood spilled. (Some of you are doubtless wondering what cards went into the Jack the Ripper deck round about now. Jack the Ripper was a person, not a deck. Please see the oeuvre of Jonny Depp for further details.)

And the second hypothesis? This comes from a respected American Pro who said, quite simply, that U.S. players are ‘lazy as all get go.’ Or it may have been ‘all get up.’ Or even ‘all get out.’ In any case, I think lazy was the key word, and that they had a mindset of ‘Dredge has been the best deck forever and it’s still the best deck so my 8 card sideboard plan can just sit there in the sleeves they’ve been in since I played my deck at the last GP/PTQ/FNM and that way I’ll beat Dredge.’ You pays your money and you takes your choice. Presumably there are elements of both lurking in there somewhere. Perhaps we’re both as right as all get go.

Amongst the carnage, plenty of decent Euro Pros navigated their way to cash and Points, although Belgians Jan Doise and Fried Meulders just missed out in 65th and 66th respectively. Andre Coimbra came up with yet another funky deck to add to his resume, and that’s no mean feat in a format as powerful and relatively stable as Extended. That was good enough for 59th. Pro Tour: Valencia champion Remi Fortier finished 54th, and I can reveal that he has been spending time in the company of a certain Mr. Wafo-Tapa ahead of Pro Tour: Hollywood. Now that’s something to think about, although apparently no major technological breakthroughs have yet surfaced. Kuala Lumpar quarter finalist Joel Calafell came 52nd, Florian Pils was 39th, Rasmus Sibast 31st, Austrian stalwart Helmut Summersberger 26th, the afore-mentioned Guillaume Wafo-Tapa 23rd, one place behind Germany’s Jan Ruess. Christophe Gregoir had the best finish amongst the powerful Belgian quartet in 12th bringing him a welcome $600, and the unlucky 9th spot fell to yet another Dredge merchant in the form of former Rookie of the Year Sebastian Thaler.

The Enduring Ideal deck of Gianluca Bevere of Italy faced Japanese powerhouse Tomaharu Saitou in the quarter finals. Saitou had correctly identified the window of opportunity for the monstrous graveyard strategy, and dispatched the Italian in super-one-sided fashion. Horst Winkelmann of Austria faced compatriot Nikolaus Eigner in the Dredge mirror. Eigner was responsible for one of the best Magic statistics I’ve ever heard. He was the winner of the previous Grand Prix to be held in Vienna. Assuming an equal chance as everyone else (yes, yes, don’t stop me now), the probability of Eigner defeating way over a thousand competitors in two specific tournaments back-to-back was in the region of 1.3 million to one. Makes topdecks seem pretty paltry, doesn’t it? Eigner kept that ridiculous possibility alive by 2-0. The final Dredge deck saw Wojciech Zuber of Poland take on Croatia’s Matija Vlahovic, running a near-match for Ben Lundquist UG Urzatron deck. The Croatian successfully dealt with the Dredge deck, and the semi-final lineup was completed when Poland’s Mateusz Kopec used his (kill me now) Polish Level Blue deck to take down the Hungarian Andras Nagy and his Doran deck. Incidentally, if you’re thinking there’s a lot of guys here that you’ve never ever heard of, don’t worry, you weren’t alone.

The semis saw Kopec defeat Vlahovic’s Urzatron deck. I’d like to tell you that Kopec boogied his way to victory, thus making him a Pole Dancer, but that would be cheap, and I’m never cheap. That left Saitou and Eigner to reduce the Dredge component down to one, and in a thoroughly non-entertaining match that saw Saitou mulligan to almost nil, Eigner brushed the Japanese man aside. In the final however, Kopec found all sorts of naughty things to do to the Dredge man, including stealing Eigner’s monsters with Vedalken Shackles before sacrificing them to Miren, The Moaning Well. Despite falling at the final hurdle, you really couldn’t fault Eigner, who once again demonstrated that if you’ve got it, you’ve got it, no matter how much you do or don’t play, a theme we’ll return to next week. Kopec meanwhile seemed a little embarrassed by all the attention that came with, you know, winning, but although unheralded he played better than solid Magic all weekend and deserved to be the first Polish GP champion. What are the odds on him winning GP: Vienna next time…?

That brings us to our final event this time around, the concurrent Grand Prix in Philadelphia. Anyone out there clinging to an incredibly romantic storyline about Jon Finkel using his Kuala Lumpur victory to mount a deliberate assault on the Player of the Year summit would by now have had their belief truly quashed, as Finkel was, as mostly expected, 100% absent. Of the more likely end of year challengers, only Paul Cheon missed out on points in Philly. Ervin Tormos took time out from studies to sneak into the money in 63rd place. Dan O’Mahoney-Schwartz placed 61st, Zack Hall moneyed once again in 60th and former Canadian National Champion Guillaume Cardin was 49th. Craig Krempels, Kyle Goodman and John Pelcak all fell just shy of an additional Pro Point in 33rd-35th place, while Gerry Thompson(27th), Steve Sadin (19th) and the Innovator himself Patrick Chapin (18th) all generated 2 Points. Jamie Parke (14th) and former World Champ Carlos Romao of Brazil in 11th were the big guns not quite making it to elimination play.

But the Top 8 was pretty stacked in Philly, much more so, with all respect, than the equivalent Euro event. Paul Mathews and Tyler Mantey featured in the least-known of the quarter finals, with Mantey’s Doran deck edging out TEPS by 2-1. At the bottom of the bracket, Ben Wienburg tried to push Domain Zoo over the top against Luis Scott-Vargas running his (pause to scoop eyeballs out with hot rusty spoons) 179th Iteration Of X Level Blue. Scott-Vargas handled the pressure, both figurative and literal, and advanced 2-1. The other quarters featured two marquee North American matchups. Adam Yurchick took an old-fashioned Urzatron deck to fight Jon Sonne with Death Cloud, and Urzatron prevailed. And Matt Hansen, a clear figurehead of the ginger global conspiracy, resurrected Spirit Stompy into the public gaze, before running into the grinning assassin Gerard Fabiano, professional joker and the yeast that leavens many a Pro Tour bread. Wow, did you feel the clunk of that analogy landing? Sorry about that. Anyhoo, Fabiano had gone back to his Italian ancestry and taken a leaf out of Giulio Barra’s book from Pro Tour: Valencia, running a BG Rock deck. Fabiano advanced, and then took out Mantey’s Doran deck in the semis. Adam Yurchick meanwhile dispatched Scott-Vargas, who nonetheless yet again demonstrated what a serious competitor and contender he is. $1500 and 5 Pro Points felt like an excellent weekend’s work for him. The final then saw Urzatron versus Rock, Yurchick versus Fabiano. And in one of the more popular moments in Magic history, the grinning mugshot of Fabiano holding the trophy aloft now adorns the Past Event page of the mothership in perpetuity.

And do you know what he called his Rock deck based on Giulio Barra’s Rock deck from Valencia?

‘Barra Rock.’

Ah. That’s better.

As ever, thanks for reading.