Removed From Game – Countdown to Worlds, Part II

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Tuesday, November 17th – As the hours tick down to the ultimate gaming challenge, Rich takes us through the Player of the Year Race, and exclusively reveals that a certain entertaining American will be lifting the individual title come Sunday. Or he could be completely wrong…

There are times when I like to make great play of my fundamental omniscience. There will be a classic example of this overreaching ego-fest when, following my 100% accurate prediction last week of Switzerland winning the Team World Championship in Rome next week, I unveil the winner in the individual competition, and the Player of the Year to boot. While none of my three predictions should be especially surprising to seasoned watchers of Pro Magic, or indeed regular readers of this column, all three have the inestimable virtue of being right.

(Note to new readers: I am British. Irony is kind of an extra organ, like the lungs, kidney, or heart, but only British people have one. My Anatomy knowledge is sketchy at best, mostly culled (sorry) from the hit U.S. TV show of a similar name, but I believe the Irony to be located somewhere near the hippocampus (where the hippos go to college.) End of note to new readers.)

Despite the aforementioned omniscience, somehow the outcome of Grand Prix: Minneapolis remains somewhat cloudy in my crystal ball. Therefore, I have decided to write this missive in advance of that event, and therefore you should be aware that things may have changed by the time you read this. If you’re good, I may even stick an extra bit on the end of the article, reflecting the outcome of the Grand Prix. But only if you’re really good, and pay attention.

I’m going to focus most of my attention on the contenders for Player of the Year, or at least the current Top 10. Apart from anything else, the simple fact that they’ve accumulated more points than anyone else makes them deserving of some recognition for those achievements, and it stands to reason that they’ll be among the favorites in Rome. At the end, if there’s time and there’s nothing good on the telly, I’ll add a few more from the Worlds invite list that I’m particularly looking forward to seeing in action. Let the countdown begin…

10th = Tsuyoshi Ikeda, Brian Kibler

Well, my plan to start at 10 and work upwards hasn’t got off to the greatest of starts, since I’m going to save Kibler until later. Can you guess why? But by all means, let’s take a look at the cowboy hat-sporting Ikeda. It’s clear that Player of the Year was never part of the plan for Ikeda, who has already skipped fourteen of the twenty two Premier events to date, with two to come. His involvement here therefore is as a consequence of just two meaningful events. The first was his win at Grand Prix: Niigata, and the second came just a few short weeks ago, when he was the last man to be steamrollered by Brian Kibler in the final of Pro Tour: Austin.

Ikeda has been around the block (or indeed the Block) rather more than most, having been part of the Japanese Worlds Team in 2000, back when being part of the Japanese Team didn’t automatically promote you to favoritism. Niigata was his 6th Grand Prix Top 8, and his first win, while Austin represented his 4th Pro Tour Top 8, where he’s still waiting for a title.

9th — Gaudenis Vidugiris

I have a ton of time for Gaudenis, because I think he represents a great deal that’s good about the game. First off, he had the imagination to stare at a calendar and start to shape the possibility of being a fully-fledged Pro. There are hundreds of highly competent Pro-level players who miss out this first crucial step, and get to 23 or however old, and look back and realize that there was, in fact, a window of opportunity, if only they’d seen it in time. For Gaudenis, that window of opportunity came about because his studies were coming to an end, and he had a fantastic job lined up for the start of 2010.

That meant that Spring Break this year was a perfect time to embark upon a global tour with traveling companions Brian Kowal and Sam Black. Having finished runner-up behind Jelger Wiegersma at Grand Prix: Indianapolis last year, and represented his native Lithuania at Worlds 2008, he wasn’t just doing this on a whim. Rather, he put faith in his ability, and those around him, to make a go of it. And he really has.

He frankly looked shattered by the time he lost the final of Grand Prix: Hanover to Lino Burgold, of whom more later. When he made a second Top 8 of the year at Grand Prix: Niigata, ironically meaning that it was only in North America that he didn’t have a Top 8, it seemed like a fair reward, but a title would have capped it off nicely. That’ll be Grand Prix: Tampa, then.

At two of the three Pro Tours this year, he’s done not much, simply collecting the minimum two points. Honolulu was the exception, where he made the Top 24, and while that doesn’t sound like much — ‘Top 24’ doesn’t exactly sound like a sexy number, now does it? – this is not to be sniffed at, representing a finish in the Top 7%, which is more than most players achieve in a season of Pro Tours.

As for Worlds, it’s arguable that the best thing going for him, aside from his persistence and skill, which he’s shown in abundance this year, is the group that surrounds him, with both Kowal and Black likely to be of substantial benefit in trying to outwit the double Metagames of Standard and Extended. One of the season’s real success stories, and thoroughly deserved.

8th — Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa

It’s been a strange season for Paulo. In 2006, he entered the Top 8 of Worlds with the possibility of becoming Player of the Year, but his exit left him in 3rd place. With a little more help, he could have been in the thick of things once again this year, but a few disappointing results have led to him (again, pre-Minneapolis remember) being largely on the fringe of the Race.

Following minimum returns from the first two Pro Tours of the season in Kyoto and Honolulu, Paulo — a renowned global traveller, to the extent that airline lounges automatically open their doors to him, which is either a good or bad sign depending on your view of airline lounges — looked to the early Grand Prix to bolster his points, and justify further trips. By most measures, making consecutive Top 8s in Barcelona and then Seattle/Tacoma en route to Honolulu would be considered a success. Missing out in the semi-finals each time represented a ‘loss’ of 8 points against a pair of wins (something that Tomaharu Saitou would accomplish, for example). With Grand Prix: Boston and Brighton netting him lots of air miles but no points, it was time to reign in the travel, and he was absent from the Bangkok-Niigata-Prague-Melbourne stretch.

At least he put the time at home to good use, arriving for Pro Tour: Austin with the nutty Combo deck, Dark Depths. Four things intrigue me about Paulo coming into Worlds this year. First off, can he make a third Worlds Top 8 in four years? I believe the answer to this one is yes. He’s a tremendous player at every discipline of the game, and his ten Premier event Top 8 finishes — split evenly between Grand Prix and Pro Tours — are a testament to that.

Question number two is a Metagame call. Will Paulo play Dark Depths again in Extended? Getting that call wrong could well be the end of the road, as many Elves players found last year, when they essentially incorrectly believed that the decks that won Pro Tour: Berlin would be good enough to win the Extended portion of Worlds a few weeks later. Word on the street (if Magic could be said to have a ‘street’) is that Dark Depths is the kind of deck that you can prepare for if you want to, and my bet is people will want to. Does that mean Dark Depths will no longer be a good choice? I’m not sure, but I can’t wait to find out what Paulo decides on this.

Question three is about leadership. He’s proud to represent his country around the world, and to my mind the Brazilians bring a lot to the party. How will he fare as the Team Leader, with four extra rounds to deal with, and the possibility of Legacy to factor in? I suspect he’ll handle it just fine, and Brazil will go close to Sunday action, but it is another thing on his considerable plate of business.

And finally, if he does make the Top 8, will it be eleventh time lucky? Of course, he has won things before, not least the National Championship this year, but with the best will in the world, there’s a difference. Fact is, ten Top 8s have come and gone, and Paulo has two finals, four semis, and four quarter final eliminations to show for it, and all of these were at Pro Tour level. My view is that Top 8s, especially Constructed, can be a real crap shoot, and he was undoubtedly unlucky in his matchup against Jamie Parke in Memphis last year, where the odds were in his favor.

My expectation is for another very interesting Worlds ahead for one of the most exciting players in the game.

7th — Kazuya Mitamura

Just like Ikeda, Mitamura’s points tally are largely come by through a few select results. Following a decent Top 64 showing at Pro Tour: Kyoto, his season burst into life by being the undisputed Draft master at the ‘Draft’ Pro Tour in Honolulu, where he navigated his way to a perfect Limited record en route to the title and 25 points. That could have been the start of an assault on the Player of the Year title, but his results in Grand Prix since his Pro Tour triumph have been, to put it kindly, mixed. In six outings, the closest he’s been was making the Top 16 at Grand Prix: Tampa, and in total those six starts have netted him a total of six points.

He was in the hunt once again at Pro Tour: Austin, where he got 7 points for his Top 24 finish. His win in Honolulu represented the culmination of a progression that began with third place at Pro Tour: Charleston in 2006, and the runners-up spot behind Guillaume Wafo-Tapa at Yokohama a year later. I don’t see him winning Worlds this year, and the math says that Player of the Year is almost mathematically impossible, but however he does in Rome, he’s had a career year.

6th — Shuhei Nakamura

The reigning Player of the Year is a great example of how to accumulate points through the year. The most active of the top contenders, he has only missed two out of the twenty two events so far.

The three Pro Tours so far have netted him 15 points, which is well above average, and yet somehow disappointing, since he’s never really been in the hunt for the Top 8 at any of them, Pro Tour: Kyoto being his best finish, with 7 points in the Top 24.

He has a lot on his plate in Rome, since he’s part of the National team that always has high expectation placed upon it. With the leader in the Player of the Year race, Yuuya Watanabe, also on the team, there’s no easy way for Shuhei to make up ground. Nonetheless, he’s well capable of taking the individual title, as his record shows.

People tend to forget how long Shuhei’s been around, since it’s only since 2006 that he’s fully embraced the ‘play the game, see the world’ ethic. The simple fact is that his first Grand Prix Top 8 was as long ago as Grand Prix: Kobe in 2001. That was the first of fourteen Grand Prix Top 8s, which include three wins, at St. Louis and Hiroshima in 2006, and a year later at Grand Prix: Stuttgart.

Even more impressive is his Pro Tour record, where he can boast five Top 8s, beginning at Pro Tour: Columbus 2004, and continuing at a rate of one a year through Yokohama 2005, Prague 2006, Valencia 2007, and Hollywood 2008. Now only Worlds remains for him to keep this annual streak alive, a truly phenomenal achievement, especially in an era of four Pro Tours per year.

He probably won’t win Player of the Year, but his place in the elite of the game is unquestioned.

5th — Luis Scott-Vargas

I’ve just spoken about the longevity of Shuhei Nakamura, and there’s a contrast to be drawn with Luis. In the early part of this year, such was the commanding nature of Scott-Vargas at the table that he not only seemed invincible, it seemed as if he’d been invincible forever. An abiding memory of this season was watching a flood of former Pro Tour champions essentially come to pay homage in the feature match area to a man whose performances were redolent of Kai at his most overwhelming.

And yet it was only a couple of years ago that LSV was generally regarded as being in the shadow of his friend Paul Cheon. How things change. Since the start of 2007, LSV has a National title, two Team berths, five Grand Prix Top 8s, including a fantastic conversion rate with three wins, and two Top 8s at the highest stage of all. Having taken the title at Pro Tour: Berlin last year, it looked like he was going to repeat the feat at Pro Tour: Kyoto, until Gabriel Nassif got in the way in the fifth game of the final.

What all these Top 8s don’t reveal, is that he was unbelievably close to taking Worlds last time out. Only an unfortunate opening day (2-4 if memory serves) resulted in him just running out of rounds, despite going something like 11-1 down the stretch. It’s for this reason that I regard LSV as one of the likeliest competitors come Sunday, although his absence from most of the Grand Prix this season will almost certainly tell against him in terms of POY.

4th — Gabriel Nassif

The 2004 Player of the Year really has done everything in the game, and yet continues to reach new personal milestones. In the space of a month, he had his first individual Pro Tour title (in Kyoto, the first PT of this season) and his first Grand Prix title, in Chicago. Bearing in mind that Nassif is far from a ‘full-time’ Pro — he devotes much of his time to cards bearing hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades — he has a positively scary track record, that includes a monumental nine Pro Tour Top 8s, stretching back almost a decade.

Although mathematically unlikely, it’s not inconceivable that Nassif could wind up Player of the Year, despite his lack of events (he’s skipped more than a dozen Grand Prix this year), because he’s certainly capable of winning the individual crown in Rome. That would still leave him at the mercy of Yuuya Watanabe, who has the huge advantage of the Team Japan points coming his way.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Nassif in Rome is what decks he brings to the table. Joining Mark Herberholz, Dave Williams, and our own Patrick Chapin with their Gifts deck in Austin, Nassif managed three points but was eliminated before Day 2, with Draws counting against him. At Worlds 2007, he featured in one of the great matches against Chapin, and both were piloting the mono-red Dragonstorm deck that had taken the tournament by, ahem, Storm. If they can come up with something similar this time, Nassif should again be in the thick of it around the back end of Saturday, if not Sunday.

3rd — Tomaharu Saitou

Another former Player of the Year, the 2007 version comes to Worlds with another solid season behind him. He entered 2009 with ten Grand Prix Top 8s to his name, and has efficiently added another three to the list, including back-to-back wins at Grand Prix: Singapore and Grand Prix: Kobe. He nearly turned that into a hat trick of victories, when he was defeated at the final hurdle of Grand Prix: Melbourne.

With five Pro Tour Top 8s in the last four years, including team victory at Pro Tour: Charleston 2006, it’s impossible to discount him from the reckoning, especially as he’s been so thoroughly dependable for so long.

One note of caution, however. The famous ‘Saito slap’ has been conspicuous by its absence in recent times, and I do wonder whether a new-found contentment has led him to care about the outcome just a little bit less than he used to, when he was a truly fearsome opponent.

2nd — Martin Juza

For Worlds to be a fair fight, Juza really needed to be on the Czech Republic Team, as he was in 2005. And 2006. And 2007. Sadly, he misses out this year, and it’s realistic to assume that Watanabe will generate at least another 3-4 points via Team Japan. Juza, ever the realist, believes that leaves him too much to do to catch Watanabe, and unless he can bridge some of the gap in Minneapolis, you have to say he’s probably about right.

Juza knows a thing or two about being good at Magic, and the evident admiration he has for what Watanabe has accomplished in the second half of 2009 isn’t just about the Japanese results, it’s having watched Watanabe up close for most of the year. Just to be in his rearview mirror as the closest threat is a massive achievement.

Undoubtedly one of the best around, Juza has yet to post a major victory outside his home country, with five Premier event Top 8s yielding three quarter final exits, and two second places, at Grand Prix: Brighton and Grand Prix: Bangkok, both earlier this year.

At the time of writing, Standard in particular seems super-wide open, and I’m not sure that suits Juza, since the top Pros tend to have the best versions of The Best Deck, and can outplay most people who are also playing The Best Deck, but can’t always get around the fact that they face three random matches early in the tournament, and just get beaten by things they couldn’t quite beat when it counted. As a result, I don’t really see him overhauling Watanabe, although you can expect him to take things to at least the back end of Saturday before the game’s up.

1st — Yuuya Watanabe

But for a quarterfinal defeat at Pro Tour: Austin, Yuuya Watanabe would be home and hosed as the Player of the Year by now. When you look at his tournament history, you find seven Grand Prix and that Austin berth. And then you see that six of those Grand Prix Top 8s were this year. That’s remarkable. To put that into some kind of historical perspective, Olivier Ruel made his first Grand Prix Top 8 in 2000, and has amassed twenty six appearances in the Top 8 during that ten year run. Watanabe is on pace to get there much, much faster, and Ruel is one of the most decorated players in the history of the game.

Any hopes rivals might have of him being underprepared for Rome will surely be dashed, as it’s hard to imagine a Japanese Team that includes Shuhei Nakamura being without the right tools to fight with.

The only hope I can hold out for those opposing Watanabe is a stark memory from Worlds 2006. On the Sunday morning there, as the Top 8 prepared to go into action, I saw Shouta Yasooka, standing, helpless. He was the leader in the Player of the Year Race, but had missed out on Sunday play. Three of the remaining eight could pip him to the title if they won the Individual competition. None managed it, but I have a feeling that the Player of the Year will once again be live coming into the final day of the season. But Watanabe will indeed get there.

10th — Brian Kibler

Okay, so I’ve saved Kibler until the end of this section, for the very simple reason that I’m going to take a punt on him becoming the Individual World Champion. I admit to a certain bias in this assessment. I’m from the entertainment world, I love entertaining Magic players, and Kibler is about as showbiz as Magic gets. That’s probably why I like Guillaume Wafo-Tapa too. Oh wait…

Anyhow, back to Kibler. It’s easy to sneer at choosing him for Rome, since anyone with eyes can see he’s seriously hot right now. Hmm, that sentence could be misconstrued. At the moment, he’s very good at Magic. Less ambivalent. Much better. Onward.

There are a bunch of reasons to feel that Kibler could be the man. While some of them may be obvious, I hope others are less so. Here’s my current list:

1. The super-obvious, already stated — he’s the latest Pro Tour winner.

2. He didn’t exactly do badly at the previous Pro Tour either.

3. Let’s talk about Draft. At the ‘Draft’ Pro Tour in Honolulu, his Draft record was an overall 3-4, which was still good enough to put him into the Top 8, but insufficient to get him past the quarter final. Fine. Let’s fast forward to Pro Tour: Austin. There, his Draft record was 3-3. These mediocre records were insufficient to rule him out of the Top 8.

Now let’s look at the mix of Formats at Worlds. Six rounds Standard. Six rounds Extended. Six rounds Draft. In other words, Kibler has two extra rounds of Constructed to offset any possible Draft shortcomings.

4. What shortcomings? Here’s the thing. Before both Honolulu and Austin, Magic Online was not up to date with the real world of paper Magic. For Worlds, that’s not the case. If Kibler (and this applies to Mr. Ben Rubin also) feel the urge to get in some Zendikar Draft practice, that opportunity is just a click away. Since both these gentlemen strike me as players who like to leave as little to chance as possible, it strikes me that point and click may currently be happening quite regularly.

5. I mentioned that there’s additional Constructed rounds, giving Kibler the chance to make any Deck advantage really count. It gets better, though. A lot of players at Worlds tend to focus on only one of the two Constructed Formats, especially those who are part of a National Team and have the addition of Legacy to consider. For the other Constructed Format, these players tend to choose a fairly ‘stock’ list, hoping to fare reasonably but unspectacularly.

Standard is incredibly wide open right now. Is it reasonable to assume that Kibler and Rubin and assorted chums will have been busy attempting to sort the huge diversity into a meaningful Metagame? To me, this seems certain. Is it also reasonable to assume that they won’t have let the grass grow under their feet when it comes to Extended? Ditto.

There may be many copies of Zoo running around at Worlds that look remarkably similar/identical to the list Kibler piloted to Austin success. Is it likely that Kibler will be playing a near-identical 75? That seems improbable, since that deck sliced through a very particular Metagame beautifully, and isn’t necessarily the weapon of choice this time around. If not Rubin and Kibler and Co., who is more likely to have advanced Extended tech in the intervening weeks?

Of course there’s no guarantee in Magic, and assuming for a moment that he gets as far as Sunday, he will (like every other Pro Tour Champion) need a degree of luck in both the individual matchups, and in the matches themselves. Nonetheless, Kibler’s chances can only have improved over the last few weeks, and we could be in for quite a ride.

Now, looking at other possibles for the Top 8 is like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. The way the invite policy works, there are dozens upon dozens of players who would be fascinating contenders, if they turn up. For the most part, they won’t, because an invite and an invite+flight are not at all the same thing. In particular, looking at the list of the ‘Top X in region Y’ players gives us very little clue as to how many, if any, will attend. That said, here are a few additional players to watch out for:

Akira Asahara — Top 8 last year, formidable Japanese Pro with a wealth of experience.

Sam Black has been the travelling companion of Gaudenis Vidugiris for much of the year, and Black has a ton of experience at building decks that do well in fresh Formats. I expect both of them to arrive very well-equipped for the Constructed portion of the event.

In addition to being part of the German Team, Lino Burgold warmed up for Worlds with a Top 8 at Grand Prix: Paris last week. In addition to be rather good, he’s tremendous value, with a great outlook on the game. Fun to watch.

Our own Patrick Chapin so nearly won Worlds in 2007, and in part that was because he had in his hands a deck that he and his group had worked out was positioned beautifully to exploit the Metagame. A few weeks ago, Chapin was looking at the Rubin/Kibler list that won Austin. He, plus others, went a different route that was ultimately less successful. My point is that it’s entirely likely that he will once again have The Best Deck within his visual range, and it’ll be interesting to see whether he makes the right call.

This is a little rogue as a tip, but I do wonder about Kamiel Cornelissen making a run. He played in one event in 2008, Grand Prix: Brussels. And he won it. Surely somebody Dutch will have given him a decent Jund list for Standard, and 75 Dark Depths cards for Extended? And then he can just go about the business of being mostly better than most people most of the time. It genuinely wouldn’t surprise me to see him contending down the stretch.

From a GB perspective, I’m interested to see Mark Glenister in action across three days. He has the temperament and maturity to be around for a long while.

Kevin Grove is the Dutch Champion this year. In addition to my expectation that they will be in the mix for the Team contest, I suspect Grove may actually be very good, rather than ‘just’ good. In which case, he’s a contender.

Assuming that he’ll be associated with Chapin and Nassif, Mark Herberholz could show why he has a Pro Tour title to his name.

David Irvine missed out on the Top 8 last year in the unkindest place of all, 9th. He remains one of the more likely Americans to be consistent throughout, and remain in the hunt.

Not sure if he’ll be there, but Masami Kaneko of Japan remains one of the most authoritative Grand Prix winners I’ve seen, from Florence 2007, and I have a ton of respect for his game.

Shingou Kurihara is another Japanese player worthy of note, having been in the mix two years ago for the Player of the Year.

Shi Tian Lee is the Hong Kong No.1, and the fact that he’s from an ‘unfashionable’ Magic location shouldn’t blind you to the fact that he was a Grand Prix winner last year in Birmingham, and is seriously good.

Another former World Champion is the 2006 incarnation, Makahito Mihara. Yet another Japanese player who could win this.

Despite no Pro Tour Top 8, Nicolay Potovin is a terrific player with an unshakeable will. He provides stiff opposition to anyone, and I expect him to do well again this time around.

Perhaps because of the succession of Pro Sports attire, Brian Robinson hasn’t in my view got the full credit he deserves for his achievements this season. Underneath the folksy exterior lies a guy who prepares well, and could go close again.

Guillaume Wafo-Tapa looks certain to benefit from extra Constructed rounds, and (as much as this can ever be true, which is ‘not at all’ I suppose) is ‘due’ a decent performance.

Conley Woods has a growing reputation for thinking outside multiple boxes, which this schedule suits.

Shouta Yasooka will have his eyes firmly on the Magic Online Championship at Worlds, but that shouldn’t stop him having a solid result in the main event.

Alright, I have to draw the line somewhere, and the fact is that a similar article like this over the last three years probably wouldn’t have mentioned Mihara (2006), Peleg (2007), or Malin (2008) as likely winners. Nonetheless, I’ve looked at 30 players here, so now I’ll give you my oh-so-foolish-come-next-Monday idea of the Top 8:

Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa
Tomaharu Saitou
Martin Juza
Brian Kibler
Shingou Kurihara
Shi Tian Lee
Luis Scott-Vargas
Gaudenis Vidugiris

Ballpark? If I’ve got two out of eight, I’ve done well! I hope you have a fantastic Worlds Week. It’s the highlight of the Magic year, and by the time you read this I’ll be in the air, taking the short European trip to Rome. Do please join me and all the Coverage team for four fantastic days of gaming.

Until next time, as ever, thanks for reading.