Here we go then, with the four best days in gaming, starting with the epic adventure that was Thursday.
It’s the little stories that give me the greatest satisfaction, and I started Thursday with a tiny, tiny piece of Magic history that I will always treasure. Last year, waiting for the Opening Ceremony to begin, I found myself near Olivier Ruel, who was finding his tie as inexplicable to him as most Combo decks are to me. Two minutes later, and your trusty guide to all things elegant (me) had ensured that Olivier looked immaculate in his Hall of Fame photos. ‘See that knot?’ I shall say to my grandchildren. ‘I did that.’
Now we’re one year further on, and Antoine Ruel came up to me, requesting the same sartorial service, since that was the family ‘tradition.’ ‘See that knot?’ I shall say to my grandchildren. ‘I did that one too.’
Then it was time for the Opening Ceremony. I’d like to apologize to our huge contingent of Polish readers, since we somehow missed them out in the rundown of the nations, thus ensuring that I spent much of the following three days praying they wouldn’t win. They didn’t, although their three first timers acquitted themselves well.
As you’ll know if you put yourself through the torture of reading my articles every week, I wrote a piece earlier in the year about Chris Rossiter, the finalist from Great Britain Nationals, who unfortunately died before he could take his place at Worlds. At his funeral, I told his parents Cindy and Paul that I would try to mark his passing during the Opening Ceremony, and Wizards did him proud. Having rehearsed the opening speech a bunch of times, I managed to avoid any huge emotion, but I hadn’t counted on a spontaneous and prolonged round of applause for Chris. A fine moment, and a reminder that however passionate we are about the game, we understand that there are bigger things in the world.
Then it was Hall of Fame time. My sometime-colleague Dave Sutcliffe is a massive fan of Kamiel Cornelissen, having watched him do some serious dismantling of talented opponents, and his win at Grand Prix: Brussels in 2008 was quite extraordinary. I won’t waste words here on Antoine Ruel, who has a stupendous record of achievement across the years. I would, however, like to take a moment to reflect on Frank Karsten.
I believe Karsten’s Deckopedia series on the Mothership to be arguably the greatest resource for the Common Man in the history of Magic journalism. Lucid, apt, subtle, to the point, and filled with wisdom and insight, the average player could learn more from Frank in fifty words than most of us can impart in five thousand. The long-term future of the game is a topic for another day, but if we assume for a moment that Magic will indeed go on and on, I believe it is Frank, of all the writers and pontificators and deckbuilders and hype merchants, that will be held up as THE player who was ahead of his time. His (no pun intended) deep analysis of deck trends and card selection is the closest our fledgling sport has come to true professionalism, and should, in time, become the default modus operandi for anyone serious about their game.
With the preliminaries out of the way, it was time for seeing no Magic. Yes, back to the Coverage room for me, and putting together the ‘Setting The Table’ feature. I’m a sucker for a good stat, and part of the appeal to me of Worlds is that we’re finally able to answer all the storyline questions we’ve been following over the previous ten months. With five Championships on the line (Individual, Team, Online, Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year), it was my job to periodically report in on all the major races. Top fun, but it does mean I spend rather more time looking at results sheets and pairings than actual Magic.
The first match I got to see was in Round 3, but it was worth the wait. Having never seen Kai Budde in his prime, I guess the aura of invincibility just isn’t there for me, but I imagine Matej Zatlkaj enjoyed claiming his scalp. Meanwhile, Gabriel Nassif was living the dream against Naoki Umesaki of Japan. For eight mana, he cast Nicol Bolas, and many turns later sent the Planeswalker Ultimate, to achieve a flawless victory. That these kind of things exist in the game is great, but to find them being enacted in the most prestigious tournament of the year by a stone-cold future Hall of Famer? Spectacular.
My next writing assignment was ‘Level Up,’ which was basically the companion piece to the championship races. I chose to focus on 40 or so players who had assorted ambitions for the week in terms of the Pro Points they needed to achieve various Levels within the Pro Player Club. It’s a testament to the year-long structure that I could easily have chosen a hundred more, all striving to make Top 128 to make Level 3, or Top 16 for Level 7, and so on.
My second podcast of the day took me to my favorite round of every Magic year. Yes, it’s Team play at Worlds, which is special in so many ways. A lot of factors are at work here. First off, there’s pride — pride in being the representative of your country. Second, relief — relief that the main action of day one is in the bag, and now you have two wingmen to help with your tricky choices. Third, camaraderie — that sense of belonging and togetherness can be very special (although there are some famous cases of players on National teams loathing the sight of each other!).
Next up, exclusivity — when two hundred and fifty players go home, it’s a very exclusive club that gets to sit down for the Team rounds. Next, formats — this is the only time in the year you can stand in one place and see a Bloodbraid Elf Cascading into Blightning in Standard, right next to a Tormod’s Crypt facing down a Golgari Grave-Troll in Extended, right next to a bunch of Actual Dual Lands staring forlornly at a turn 1 kill in Legacy. And finally, money — even the Team World Champions only get an extra $2,500 per man, and although that’s clearly worth having, it isn’t the $40,000 that the Individual title holder stands to take home. All these factors combine to create a unique and special atmosphere of fun as Teams gets under way, and I love it.
During the last round of the day, I completed the voiceover for the ‘Brothers In Arms’ video piece that we’d shot with Brad, Corey, Antoine, and Olivier. And then it was off to the Magic Game Show. For legal reasons, we couldn’t call it ‘Who Wants To Be A Million-Rare?’, but that gives you a good guide. If you want to play along, you can see a set of the questions that took our players from 1 to 1,000 rares.
The highlight of this show was getting to work with Antonino de Rosa as my Italian translator. The rules for Hall of Fame selection worked against Antonino this year, since there wasn’t enough unanimity among the panel for more than the three players to make it in. Despite the disappointment, he was in great form, and I won’t easily forget him attempting to translate the flavor text of Patrol Hound into Italian, featuring the immortal ‘woovo muffino.’
Frankly, by 9.30pm I was knackered, but there was the small essential matter of getting food. That came courtesy of one part of the Trinity, your guarantee of mediocrity throughout the world, McDonalds. I’d taken the end of day standings for a bit of light reading (!), but I ended up having an awesome time with a member of the Norwegian National Team and a Portuguese Judge, Filips, who struck me as highly impressive. We swapped tall tales, talked about Magic in our home countries (small but with history / small but good / small and crap — you can guess which is which), managed to eradicate cheating entirely from Magic (!!!), and generally rejoiced at being in Rome with nothing more pressing to do than talk Magic. A great end to a great day.
Thank goodness, Friday was a much more civilized day. No Opening Ceremony, no Game Show, no Team rounds — just six rounds of Draft action. That meant the most stressful part of the day would be the two Drafts themselves. As far as I’m aware, there is no ‘Little Black Book of Players Coverage Hates’, but if there isn’t, there should be. We know that the Draft Viewer is one of the most popular items on the website, but in order to make that happen, certain key pieces of information need to be recorded, such as, ooh, the Draft picks, for example.
At this point, an elaborate game begins amongst the Coverage team, as we jostle for position around the top table. I could write an entire article just about the five minutes that precedes each Draft, but will give you the edited version here. There are plenty of competing Agendas to be reconciled. For Randy and BDM, they’re looking for someone who might be a good choice for a Draft Tech video piece. That means, ideally, someone with a reputation, someone with a known Plan for the Draft, and someone with good English.
Then there are the personal affiliations. The Belgian contingent are always popular amongst Coverage staff, because they’re fun, travel to a lot of events, speak great English, and in the case of Bill Stark, count most of them as close friends. Other affiliations come into play too. In my case, I don’t usually get the opportunity to call dibs on the Brit at the table, because, since it’s later than round one, there aren’t any Brits on the top table to cover. Still, I’ll often end up with a European, and on this occasion I took David Reitbauer, one of those mid-level Pros who continue to stay on the train without generally challenging the leaders.
Now I’m going to reveal one of my dirty little secrets, and it’s one of my biggest edges over my Coverage colleagues. See, you might think that writing down Draft picks would be easy. It isn’t. It’s hideously difficult, and can sometimes be close to impossible. If you ever want to make the case for gun control, I’d point you to the Coverage room after each Draft, as at least two of our charges would be dead at our hands, if we had a lethal weapon handy. Despite our official announcement before the Draft that we need to see every pick, even the later ones, some players seem to take a perverse delight in making their choices virtually impossible to detect. (In reality, of course, they’re just concentrating on what’s important, and we do all understand that.)
The ways in which our blood pressure can rise are myriad. My personal favorite is the player who took each booster, waited at least five seconds before turning them upright, then flicked them at warp speed left to right — ONCE — before flicking his choice to the right end and then resting the pile face down near the table, with his eyes closed, until the call came to Draft. At that point, he’d slide the bottom card onto the table.
As a result, I have a little corner of my Database of Doom dedicated to knowing how players Draft, and how easy it’s going to be to cover them. I’ve probably covered about 50 Drafts at Pro Tours, Grand Prix, and Nationals, and I’m still waiting for the wheels to come off. But I know that one day, it’s all going to go horribly wrong.
As so often happens, a storyline that we’ve almost picked by ‘accident’ turns out to have a nice twist. Mid-afternoon, Brad Nelson and Corey Baumeister found themselves in the same Draft pod, and there was the possibility that they would play for the pod in the last round of the day. Unfortunately, both had less than great Drafts, and by the time they met in the last round, both were still looking for their first victory. A quick look at the standings, and an understanding of Player Club Levels, and a putative Feature Match was taken away, as Corey scooped to Brad, ensuring that Brad could still make a run on the final day.
With this shortest day of work out of the way, Friday was the night that most of Coverage had dedicated as Draft Night. In some ways, I find these quite embarrassing, since I’m frequently the worst player at the table. Still, since the table generally includes anywhere from 1 to 3 Hall of Famers or Pro Tour Champions, I guess I have something of an excuse. No such self-pity is required by Master Tim Willoughby, who had a weekend that won’t be soon forgotten. On Friday night alone, across four Team Drafts, he didn’t drop a single game.
His reward? The chance to take part in the Rare Game, where the winning team selects Rares at random, and the player with the highest mana cost gets all three. Any ties, and all three go into the next round. Yes, finally there’s a format where Lorthos, The Tidemaker is prized more highly than Archive Trap, and where Guul Draz Specter savagely mocks the fetch lands. Tim’s haul for the night may well be a single-session record, comprising a total of SEVENTY Rares, and a princely number of fetch lands that ran into double figures.
Knowing that Saturday was going to be a serious day of work, I packed it in about 10pm, meaning to just get to the room and render myself unconscious. Instead, I found a message on my phone from the fabulous duo of British Scorekeeper Fizz and German Judge Claudia. Fizz has been a long-time friend, and she improved my Worlds experience some months ago, by explaining that my behavior at Pro Tours was rubbish!
It turned out that I wasn’t spending time with people, and always seemed to be rushing around with something ‘more important’ to do. The fact is, of course, that I wasn’t spending time with people, I was always rushing around, and what I was rushing around doing was, within the narrow terms of the event, more important. Given that I tend to get home from Pro Tours having felt that I’ve not had a second of genuinely spare time, I wasn’t sure what I could do to rectify this, but I’ve always gone away wishing I had more time to just spend with people without constantly watching the clock.
In Rome, I debuted my new system, and as a result, I managed to spend at least two minutes with a whole group of people I’d have missed out on in the past! At the end of our quality seconds together, I apologized, and told them that, in all probability, we had just completed our entire interactions for the weekend! If it seems like I’m busy, I am, and I’m sorry if I’ve ever seemed to blank you at an event. It’s never deliberate, and the fact is that I’m running at my absolute limit at these things. As always, though, there’s an open invitation to come say hi when you see me around.
Following a truly splendid chat about many things not Magic, Fizz and Claudia took their leave, and I took my shattered little self to bed.
A great start, watching Brazil against Japan in Team play. Watanabe, Nakamura, Romao, da Rosa, all in the same match. Although defeating Japan by no means guaranteed Brazil a place in the top four, defeat put Japan in a real hole. As the updates continued, both Paulo, and Tomoharu Saito, were doing a good job of keeping the Player of the Year Race alive. Whilst going over the numbers, I did some research into the fate of the Last Man Standing, the player who is the last to be defeated. Marijn Lybaert had that dubious honor, since nobody has gone on to win the event from that position. On the plus side, they pretty much always make the Top 8, so if you ever find yourself with the chance to add your name to the list, don’t hold back.
Marijn features in the next part of my day, as the Top 8 began to take shape, and it started to look as if it would take shape without him. Having audibled overnight in order to get a favorable matchup against Bram Snepvangers in Extended, Marijn stood at 12-1 with five rounds to go. That became 12-2 thanks to Petr Brozek. Then it was 12-3, as David Reitbauer secured his place in the Top 8. Then, a real heartbreaker against Shouta Yasooka, as they fought each other to a standstill, and took a point each.
Suddenly, it was the penultimate round, and Marijn faced Tomoharu Saito. You can read Marijn’s own account of that tumultuous Saturday, but from my perspective, virtually on top of the two players, this was as high pressure as Magic gets. Marijn was practically shaking with the adrenaline of the moment, and as long as Magic continues to deliver moments like these, I’m going to be in love with the game.
The hard-fought victory ensured Marijn’s place on Sunday, but spare a thought for Adam Koska. He eliminated Saito in the final round, but his 2-0 victory still only secured him 9th place. I’ll be talking about the ins and outs of the standings next week in my Worlds Report Card, but Koska is clearly a very cool customer, who dealt with this second 9th place in successive Pro Tour starts as a triumph rather than a disaster.
It might be tempting to think that this would be the end of the day, but it actually marked the start of the busiest section of the entire trip. While the last round was going on, I sat with Tournament Manager Scott Larabee, wading through the official database for information about the likely Top 8 (at that point there were twelve still in with a shout) and the Top 4 teams. This featured a mad scramble for data on the Chinese team, which currently stood at:
(a) They are Chinese
(b) They have names, which may or may not be in the correct order
Oh yes, in-depth detail for sure. The database didn’t reveal too much more, but we did at least pick up the tasty little nugget that one of them was born on Christmas Day! At the Top 8 meeting, I congratulated them through an interpreter. It turned out that one of them had four words of English. Here’s the conversation:
Me: You Bo Li?
Bo Li: Me Li Bo.
Me: You Li Bo?
Li Bo: Me Li Bo.
Me: You Li Bo, Christmas Day, Yes?
Li Bo: Me, Christmas Day, No.
So much for our awesome Fun Fact. Bugger.
Thankfully, I had plenty of information for the rest of the Sunday squad, and I spent the next hour or so with Deb Slater, who puts together all the graphics for Sunday. It’s nice when we can show something other than players shuffling between games, and there’ll be plenty more of this kind of thing next year.
Then it was back to Coverage HQ, and the Team Preview piece for Sunday, which didn’t feature the information that Li Bo wasn’t born on Christmas Day. Finally, I could start work on the main Top 8 preview piece, ready to record on Sunday morning. As I mentioned last week, any time you get in before Greg Collins in the morning at a Pro Tour, you start to wonder whether he’s dead, and any time you leave after he does at night, you start to wish you were. Fifteen hours after starting the updates for the day, I stumbled off toward the Golden Arches.
The final day of competition always goes by in a blur. We begin with the recording of the Top 8 preview, and I always rely on some super-smart people to give me the inside view of the quarter final matchups. It’s not designed to be the ultimate reference, but to set the stage for some of our occasional viewers, who might not know every Standard archetype since the dawn of time, which most viewers seem to.
Rehearsing the Award Ceremony is up next, which is always an occasion fraught with organized chaos. While there are exceptions to this, the majority of Pro Magic players seem profoundly uncomfortable once taken away from their natural surroundings of a chair, a scorepad, and 40 or 75 sleeved cards sitting on a table. While thousands, or even millions, of us dream of winning the Pro Tour, few consider the practicalities of stand-here-wait-to-be-introduced-walk-to-Sheldon-shake-his-hand-collect-trophy-collect-cheque-smile-repeatedly.
To make things more complex, the players aren’t required to attend, so we use Wizards staff for the various winners. Since there’s a lot of blank space in my script, I get to make up random players and countries during the rehearsal. In the Team final, Bolivia A defeated Bolivia B, but I had a couple of special guests for the Individual event. As many of you will know, Richard Garfield was in attendance, and he’d brought the family. Whether or not this is a sign of things to come I don’t know, but I was able to announce, ‘Your 2009 Player of the Year, Terry Garfield. And now, your 2009 Magic the Gathering World Champion, Schuyler Garfield’. The early crowd went nuts.
I’m often asked who I want to win on Sunday. It’s a good bet that you’ll get the same response from anyone on Coverage: ‘Whoever’s winning.’ Svelte, petite, rugged, yes, these are just three words you can’t accurately use to describe me. Under the lights, standing for many hours is no easy task, and as a game enters hour two at 2-1, I’m praying for 3-1 rather than a 5th game. I’ll talk more about the Top 8 next week.
Eventually, of course, Andre Coimbra finally ended David Reitbauer’s undefeated Standard run to claim the title, with China already victorious in the Team event. There was time for Drafting, and time for Staff Dinner (which is always a great end to an event) and time for more Drafting.
And like that, Worlds week was done. Roll on 2010.
As ever, thanks for reading…