Removed From Game – Making Sense Of The Summer

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As we head into the Fall season, Rich Hagon takes us right through the Summer, taking in such fabulous locations as France, Germany, Japan, Canada, Italy, Australia, and Birmingham. Sadly not covering Venezuelan Nationals, he nevertheless brings us up to date with all the comings and goings – and they’re mostly goings – in Pro Magic, plus a look at the Magic Invitational, Hall Of Fame, AND his exclusive Lorwyn Preview Card! [Editor’s Note — Richard may be lying about the preview card…]

It’s been an odd sort of Summer. Once the flurry of PTQs got into the groove after Future Sight appeared in April, we seem to have been on holiday from the game for month after month after month. In part, this is because the Pro Scene goes its disparate ways, with nothing to fill the yawning hole between Montreal and San Francisco. (Note to world travellers – this hole is metaphorical and not, as far as I am aware, actual). For two months, the attention focuses in on the small matter of what might be referred to as domestic disputes – the right to be called National Champion and carry the flag at Worlds.

In this article, I’m going to try and make sense of what, to me at least, has been a Summer of Magic that has not been quite “right.” If that sounds woolly to you, it does to me too. I can’t quite put my finger on one particular thing that makes me feel that this hasn’t been a vintage Summer. Instead there are a lot of fairly small events that leave me with this slightly disappointed sense that the last two months could have delivered so much more. As we travel together through Grand Prix, assorted Nationals, the Magic Invitational, the Hall Of Fame, and 10th Edition, I’ll try to pinpoint where the halcyon days have gone, and look ahead with optimism to the Fall season ahead. So let’s do the Time Walk again, back to the end of June and the arrival of 10th Edition.

10th Edition

The only base set I really remember anything about was 6th, or Classic, and that’s only because of all the rule changes associated with it. I suspect I’m not alone in this regard. Take Jayemdae Tome for example, which, in my view, has the most gorgeous art in the whole of 10th. Which of 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th was it in? If your answer was 6th, 7th and 8th, you’re correct. If your answer was a “like I should care why?” shrug, I think you’ve got a point. Base sets are fantastic for teaching new players about the game. They contain core mechanics that all but the most limited of players need to master, mostly in a fabulously “clean” environment, where rules text and exceptions to rule 42.9.3iii(a) are kept to the minimum. Rule 42.9.3iii(a) states of course that anytime you write 42.9.3iii(a) in an article, at least fifty Level 1 judges will wonder what they’ve missed. When it comes to draft, the value of base sets only rise. Signalling, forcing, tempo, synergy, curve, removal – all techniques and aspects of drafting that are highlighted crisply and cleanly in a base environment.

That’s where the good news ends. Maybe it’s always been true that base sets have more impact for what they replace than for what they bring to the Standard environment, but this time the list of fare-thee-wells was enormous, and the hello-agains were largely unconvincing. There’s the possibility that this is entirely deliberate on the part of R&D, a group of guys and gals for whom my respect and trust constantly grows. With Timeshifted cards in the environment for the next year, and a four-expansion Block to come headlined by Lorwyn, maybe dialling things back a little is a top plan. We’ll see. For now though, a booster pack of 4 Treetop Village, 3 Troll Ascetic, 4 Incinerate and 4 Mogg Fanatic would cover the needs of probably half the field at most of the National Champs we’ll be talking about this week. Even Pithing Needle didn’t get much of a look-in. I guess we have to hope that as the two-year cycle moves along, both the innovators and the Innovators will find a lot more use for a large collection of cards that right now doesn’t seem to have much of a home. One final thought on 10th – last year we were getting Coldsnap. Ignoring assorted views about the ethics / morality of the situation, I’ve got to tell you that I liked Coldsnap. It was fun, had some interesting mechanics, some cool cards, and it was bursting with flavor. I accept that 10th isn’t necessarily meant to be cool and interesting and bursting with flavor, which is just as well, because it isn’t.

French Nationals

One powerhouse of world Magic. Right now I think it’s reasonable to put France at the head of European Magic, nudging ahead of the Dutchies. Although the Dutch are reigning Team World Champions, none of their top Pros have had an outstanding season to date, and there is a subtle “changing of the guard” feel in the land of windmills, Edam cheese, and fine Magic players. At the top end, the French are looking strong. Any list would be strong with the Ruel brothers in it, and Pierre Canali is a Pro Tour winner within the past three seasons. On top of that we have two standout performances. Guillaume Wafo-Tapa utterly justified his decision to look at Magic as more than a hobby in 2007 with a masterly display at Pro Tour: Yokohama, and has backed it up with other solid performances. Then you have Hall of Famer Raphael Levy, and anytime you win back-to-back Grand Prix, chances are you can play a bit. For none of these to reach Top 8 of French Nationals comes as something of a surprise, although four of their five finishes (Antoine 10th, Raphael 11th, Olivier 18th, Pierre 31st) being perfectly presentable. Only Wafo-Tapa’s crash-and-burn 158th spoils the picture. What this means is that the French team is decidedly lacking in big names. Angelfire took the prize for Guillaume Matignon, and Wilfried Ranque (who finished 4th) is a good enough performer to have played Pro Tour: San Diego earlier this year with Raphael Levy. Runner-up Nicolas Boistard and 3rd placed Jerome Renevier round out the team for New York.

Australian Nationals

Now this is one place that ranks high on my wishlist for a PT. If the Top 8 in France wasn’t exactly populated by national Magic royalty, the reverse was pretty much the case in Australia. Tim He seems to either win the whole thing or settle, as this year, for a berth at Worlds, this time as runner-up. With perennial Grand Prix men about town like James Zhang and the unforgettably-named Anatoli Lightfoot, big congratulations go to Steve Alpin who burned people about the face with his Rakdos deck to take the title. Whilst Australia is clearly a small market, the sheer consistency of the main protagonists is hard to beat. I’m guessing that in some ways the Australian metagame shares quite a lot with the Vintage scene in the U.S. – the same people meeting again and again, with rivalries, reputations, and respect enhanced along the way. With due respect to 4th place Craig Chapman, only a Lightfoot victory in the quarter final could have produced a more experienced top-level Aussie team.

Italian Nationals

Mario Pascoli, who as a past National Champion had quite the following at Grand Prix: Florence last weekend, used all his experience in a brand spanking new Standard format, as both Italian, U.S., and Great British Nationals played the role of guinea pig for 10th Edition entering Standard. Pacoli found himself in a Blink Rider mirror match against Gianluca Filippini for all the marbles, and duly repeated his 2004 win. As you should know by now, I have a great deal of time for players who go the metaphorical, or actual, extra mile. Judging at the GenCon UK game convention a couple of weekends back there was a substantial Italian presence at the three days of Pro Tour Qualifiers. It turns out that the average attendance for a PTQ in Italy is round about the 200 mark. In Britain, you’re lucky if it’s forty, at least for Block Constructed. So here’s how our intrepid band of Italians fared across the three days :

Friday – 35 players – 11 Italians – 4 Italians in Top 8 – Italian winner.
Saturday – 29 players – 10 Italians – 5 Italians in Top 8 – Italian winner.
Sunday – 26 players – 9 Italians – 2 Italians in Top 8 – Italian winner.

Ciao, GB Magic.

Talking of which…

Great Britain Nationals

I’ve already shared many thoughts about the glories of M-Fest, and will attempt not to duplicate here. As these things go, the Top 8 was pretty star-studded, with perennial favourite Dave Grant and 3rd placed from Paris Worlds Nick Lovett among the losing quarter-finalists. Lovett lost out in the all-Welsh battle to Daniel Godfrey, who used the experience he gained at Pro Tour: Yokohama to stay calm under pressure. Lovett, who appears as laid back as they come, really wanted the validation of making the GB team. Now he must commit to a repeat standout performance in New York purely in the individual competition. Marco Orsini-Jones couldn’t get past Craig Jones in the semi-final, but he and his brother Matteo are having a fantastic year where everything they touch turns to gold. Marco was a game away from the Top 8 of Grand Prix: Florence, and both brothers will be displaying their talents next month at Pro Tour: Valencia. Runner-up Stuart Wright won his personal battle effectively in the quarterfinal, where a horrendous matchup for his Dredge strategy against Rakdos was turned around by persistence, practice, sobriety and a dedication to Constructed Magic few can match. That left a fleet of 16 burn spells – Char, Incinerate, Seal Of Fire and Rift Bolt – to propel Craig “Lightning Helix” Jones to a victory that was cheered to the rafters by a genuinely appreciative crowd. There was an added poignancy to the victory, since it seems real life is destined to intervene in the career of the Professor. GB Nats 2007 may well have been the final chance to add a National title to his substantial CV before sailing off into the proverbial sunset. On the other hand, having Zvi Mowshowitz, Kai Budde, Dirk Baberowski, Marco Blume and Ted Knutson as workmates almost certainly guarantees Jones a place at the second-most ridiculous draft table in the world, with only the legendary Finkel drafts in New York holding a candle to the mighty Phoenix Foundation and colleagues.

U.S. Nationals

So here’s an action-packed, talent-stacked, Pro Tour-backed U.S. Nationals Top 8: Ben Lundquist, Osyp Lebedowicz, Steve Sadin, Paul Cheon, Mike Hron, David Irvine, Chris McDaniel, Eugene Harvey. Thing is, they finished between 20th and 40th. Anyone telling you that making the Top 8 of this thing would be easy is yanking your chain (or is that chaining your Yank?). Two former champions did make it to the final table, and both are standout examples of players who bring enjoyment to the table in very distinctive ways. Craig Krempels is basically a quiet guy who certainly isn’t going to get involved in heavy-duty banter during a match. However, as I’ve come to know him a little, a man has been revealed who seems very much at peace with the world, and who realises what a blast the whole Pro Magic thing is. An abiding memory of Pro Tour: San Diego is watching him and Sam Gomersall deep in conversation. Sure, they wanted to win. Sure, this was two people working at the limit of their mental faculties. And sure, they were crestfallen when they lost. But only for a moment. Then they smiled, and carried on enjoying themselves. This easier attitude doesn’t work for everyone – I can’t imagine Raphael Levy in this mode, for instance – but for Krempels it seems to be working a treat. Meanwhile, Antonino de Rosa was busy making his third consecutive appearance in the Top 8. With customary self-deprecation, de Rosa insists that it’s getting much easier to make the final table, and to an extent that’s true, with the U.S. global dominance a thing of the past, and the Hall Of Fame. Nevertheless, alongside Ben Rubin and a bunch of other guys with brains, game designer de Rosa is churning out good results backed by good decks. In good form, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him do extremely well in Valencia. Here, though, he had to be content with a Top 8 berth that didn’t convert to a World’s team chair. That honor goes to Michael Jacob (4th), Michael Bennett (3rd), Thomas Drake (2nd), and none other than Luis Scott-Vargas, living proof of the most fundamental success equation at work in Magic today:

Talent plus Practice plus Support plus Luck plus more Practice equals I Win.

Together with last year’s champion Paul Cheon, LSV is part of the most quietly impressive duo in world Magic right now. Taken as a pair, you might even take them over the Ruels for Valencia success, and that’s high praise indeed.

Grand Prix: San Francisco

Just as Fitchburg was the actual home of what people slightly bitterly referred to as GP: Not Boston, so it was here, with San Jose being the slightly more accurate destination of GP: Not San Francisco. Four U/G decks made the final table for this Time Spiral Block Constructed event. Now you may have heard of Luis Scott-Vargas and Paul Cheon. They were both there, churning out the wins late on the Sunday with their take on U/B Teachings, and also utilising this strategy to get to the knockout stages was Brazilian Fan Favorite Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa. The Brazilian appearances at assorted European Grand Prix has been a breath of fresh air, and PVDdR seems more sanguine than most when he eventually bites the dust. Heading the Swiss was David Irvine, the only Pro I know who can speak less often and more softly than Guillaume Wafo-Tapa. Irvine is very much of the “Ears – use them” school of thought, and one of the nicest guys on the Tour. It was noticeable how many other big names were delighted for the likeable American. Unfortunately he couldn’t break past the quarters, and it was left to Jonathon Stocks to attempt to derail the Scott-Vargas juggernaut in the final. It couldn’t be done, and LSV was rampaging his way across America, slaying all in his path. (Note to Michael Moore – you probably don’t want to make a documentary about this.)

German Nationals

Another puzzler. Talking to Klaus Jons in Florence, he was able to give me some insight into the German team. It turns out that, if you’re German, champion Bodo Rosner, runner-up Dennis Johannsen, and fellow team members for Worlds Tobias Grafensteiner and Paul Borczyk are at least reasonably well-known. If you’re not German, you’re pretty much left scratching your head. Admittedly there were some no-shows, including Jons, David Brucker and Rookie of the Year 2006 Sebastian Thaler, who between you and me is turning into a regular machine at Magic — watch for strong finishes from him in Valencia and New York. Even with these omissions, it was a surprise to find Grand Prix finalists Raul Porojan (9th) and Andre Mueller (25th), plus Michael Deisel (28th), Jim Herold (59th) and Aaron Brackmann (71st) all failing to add some recognition to a final table. Veteran coverage guy Hanno Terbuyken couldn’t disguise a certain lack of belief that the victorious squad could cut the mustard when it comes to Worlds. Still, there’ll be at least one German there ready to strike fear into the hearts of lesser mortals — Kai Budde is inducted into the Hall Of Fame on the morning of Day 1. Right now, I think the German team could do with him.

Japanese Nationals

I’m going to tread very carefully here, as the capacity to offend when discussing different cultures is an ever-present, so let’s kick off with an agreement between ourselves that that is not my intention, okay? When I started covering events for Wizards, the Japanese players were clearly where my lack of knowledge was most obvious. During the last eighteen months, I’ve gradually taken a bunch of small steps towards knowing some of the regular Pros from Japan, and a few things are starting to become clear to me. First, these guys love the game. They also respect the game, or perhaps an even better word to describe what I mean is “honor.” Yes, that feels better. They honor the game in the sense of their gratitude that it exists. I’m sure all the Pros enjoy being on Tour and the benefits they receive, but it seems to me that the Japanese players as a whole have a slightly different agenda to many of their Western counterparts. To me, Magic for the Japanese is at least in part about testing oneself not so much against other players, but against themselves. A voyage of personal intellectual growth, if you will. Most good players will acknowledge when they make the wrong play, but for some that implies personal failure. The Japanese players seem to me to be able to take all the necessary lessons from defeat, without burdening themselves unduly with the idea of personal failing, which psychologically speaking is a neat trick. To Westerners, Japan has an exotic flavor, and the language barrier helps that air of mysticism. After all, who else are the Japanese going to talk to at a PT other than each other? Well, as we’ll see when we get to talk about Grand Prix: Florence in a minute, the answer turns out to be — everyone.

Over the last few years it’s become increasingly apparent that the serious reader and listener really wants a source in Japan, because Cheon, Scott-Vargas, Da Rosa, and Rubin notwithstanding, the U.S. is no longer your one-stop shop for deck tech. That honor now mostly falls to Japan. Although Champion Masaya Kitayama may not be a name familiar to all of you, I can guarantee you he will carry the flag with some success come December. The rest of the Top 8 was packed with recognisable names, including Shuu Komura, Pro Tour: San Diego finalist Yuuta Takahashi (who has obviously survived being slivered out of existence by Lachmann and van Lunen), Kazuya Mitamura (who made it all the way to the final of Pro Tour: Yokohama earlier this year), and Ren Ishikawa (himself no slouch with two GP Top 8s to his name). The Champion went with a Green/Black Tarmogoyf/Rack deck, and although Messrs. Ishikawa, Akiyama, and Nagashima wouldn’t necessarily be the names you would expect to join him on the team looking to go one place better than last year in the team event, the people they vanquished from proceedings should be more than adequate warning to the rest of the world that, as usual, the Japanese team will prove formidable opposition.

Canadian Nationals

You know the old joke, “What’s the smallest room in the world?” and the answer, “The Belgian Hall Of Fame”…? Well, Canada is kind of the Magic version of that right now. Go on, try and name five decent Canadian Magic players. My guess is you can name one, Rich Hoaen, and then you’re starting to look backwards into the history of the game to find people like Matt Vienneau and Gary Wise. Well, all three played this year, and Vienneau, playing off something resembling muscle memory, made it to the final table. Given his trials and tribulations away from the game, which have been extensively documented, it’s hard to imagine anyone begrudging Vienneau a place at Worlds. Magic doesn’t work like that though, and Mike Arenson made 4th place his own. Hoaen and Wise finished well down the field, which will probably have disappointed both but surprised only Hoaen, what with Wise (now in the Hall Of Fame) dedicated to the deadly game of the baize, poker. Defending champ Guillaume Cardin put up a spirited defence, coming up short in 20th, and eventually Andrew Ting-A-Kee and his Angelfire deck replaced him for the coming year. Shaun McLaren and Daniel Kramer round out the team, although there was no sign of Daniel having to play a brother during the tournament, a fact that won’t stop me using the utterly rubbish Kramer versus Kramer gag. So what’s the deal with Canadian Magic? Is there a very small player base, or is there something more at work here? If you’re involved in Canadian Magic, please, let me know, because Rich Hoaen won’t be around forever, and then where will you be?

The Magic Invitational

Looking at Brian David-Marshall’s column last week, I realised that I hadn’t seen that many red splurges on my monitor since my daughter discovered tomato ketchup. Wow, what with all the “discussion” (read “mudslinging”) about Mr. Erwin, who apparently is the anti-Christ, add in the 25% of pass-downs and you have a Magic Invitational forthcoming that’s not short on interest long before it starts. Real Life is an acknowledged enemy of all serious players, and we all know that keeping it at arm’s length can be a tricky business. For many of the big names from the past, it was this cost of keeping Real Life at bay that led to them quitting the game, rather than any direct dissatisfaction with the game itself. Take this year’s Invitational “no thank you’s.” Makahita Mihara is now into the world of work, and so randomly tagging on an extra week to a Valencia trip already taking him halfway around the world just wasn’t practical. Given some warning, it’s a fair bet that his replacement, Olivier Ruel, would have jumped at the chance, but not when he was already holding an airline ticket to the Grand Prix in Brisbane. Even ignoring the possibility of bonus Pro Points, nobody could seriously expect him to rip up the extremely expensive ticket he’d just bought. So, via umpteen back doors, Craig the Professor Jones is in. Next up we have Tomaharu Saitou. Already a Level 6 mage, only the Player of the Year is left to achieve, and that means going to Brisbane, no matter what the cost. His replacement, Shuhei Nakamura, is a welcome addition to any tournament. Always affable in victory or defeat, it’s a legitimate argument to say that he is the busiest man in world Magic, with sanctioned tournaments on average every single week. Incredible. The final recalcitrant is Mark Herberholz, whose North American slot passes to Rich Hoaen, once of these august pages. Real Life has come knocking again for Herberholz, who put college success on hold to pursue the game he loves, and who now feels it’s time to pay that back. The Invitational provides a welcome improvement in fortune for Hoaen, who has never really got his season going after Pro Tour: Geneva saw him finish an unexciting 59th. Perhaps Winston and Cube draft formats will display his Limited talents to the world once more. As for the event itself, it’s clear that the love for Eternal formats coming from inside Wizards tower is gaining momentum. Legacy at Worlds, Menendian playing in Essen, Vintage as a Constructed format and Cube draft as a Limited format — make no mistake, if this goes on much longer we’re going to be looking at some kind of Eternal Pro Tour sometime 2009.

The Hall Of Fame

The carve-up that was predicted, with seven fabulous players competing for five coveted berths duly occurred, with all the attendant hand-wringing one might expect. While Kai was always a certainty, and Zvi Mowshowitz similarly in for all money, the uniqueness of Tsuyoshi Fujita’s achievements left Wizards employees Randy Buehler and Mike Turian up against Ben Rubin and Nicolai Herzog for the last two slots. As someone who wasn’t around the Tour when Herzog was busy winning everything, I was slightly surprised by how comfortably he achieved 4th place in the voting. The race between Buehler and Rubin was ridiculously close, with one vote on the Selection Committee putting the Wizards man into the Hall, and Rubin on the sidelines for another 12 months. Since I voted for both of them, I can thankfully sleep at night. Attention now turns to whether Buehler will be able to make a sensational return to the Pro Tour immediately following his induction later this year. If he does, you could do worse than betting on him to do well.

Dutch Nationals

Although you won’t find official event coverage, Frank Karsten gives us all the lowdown in his Online Tech article. Although Tijs de Kler is not well-known, Robert van Medevoort, Roel van Heeswijk and Olaf Koster should all be familiar to veteran PT-watchers. Whilst clearly having something to prove compared to last year’s stellar team (Julien Njuiten and Kamiel Cornelissen joined van Medevoort) there’s no shortage of talent here.

Grand Prix: Florence

And so we’re almost up to date. As we’ve come to expect, the Japanese top names were much in evidence. In what could turn out to be the most significant day of the entire Player of the Year race, Kenji Tsumura took his three byes, added three straight wins, and then managed just one more point from the last three rounds of the day, leaving him in the one position everybody hates, the Wheelbarrow. (Sorry, different article. 65th was what I meant to say.) Tomaharu Saitou now stands alone at the top of the standings, but was only able to get two extra points over Kenji. The real story of the weekend was the emergence of yet another Japanese card master, Masami Kaneko, who quite frankly butchered the field, with an unfailing smile on his face as he did so. If Magic is a game of mistakes, it’s fair to say that Kaneko’s performance was well on the way to perfection, as he masterminded his U/G deck to 12-0, before suffering one lone defeat, which served only to refocus him as he plundered his way through the knockout rounds. Time Spiral Block Constructed has been a truly fantastic format, and whether with 2, 3 or 4 expansions at its disposal, Lorwyn and Jelly “uber-Block” has one hell of an act to follow. Special mention should also go to finalist Andre Coimbra of Portugal, who saw what might be called a gap in the market, and came with his homebrew blend of Wild Pair, Grinning Ignus, and Avalanche Riders to cast more virtual Armageddons than have been seen in Magic for a long time. His deck sliced its way through an army of U/B Teachings that, as Frank Karsten will tell you, was the defining deck of the Block.

The Future

So that brings us to right here, right now. What does the future hold? October is a big month for coverage, with Pro Tour: Valencia leading straight into the Magic Invitational coming from Essen, plus the GPs in Brisbane and Bangkok should give us a much clearer idea of the destination of the Player of the Year title. Krakow in Poland plays host to a European GP in November, Daytona Beach is the venue in North America, and the East has GP: Kitakyuushuu. Then it’s downhill to Worlds. Although it looks as if Saitou and Tsumura have started to pull away, I believe that there are at least half a dozen candidates who could definitely win in Valencia, and thus propel them into the thick of things.

And before all that, Lorwyn. Next week, I’ll be showing you some techniques for accurately evaluating that precious spoiler list, and then we’ll see how that works in practice, since the Pre-Release weekend is less than two weeks away! It’s going to be a great journey between here and the end of the year. I’ll be there for most of it, and I hope that you will too.

As ever,

Thanks for reading.