Removed From Game – Pro Tour: San Diego Report Card, Part One

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Friday, March 12th – Four hundred and some players sat down for round one, and every one had a story to tell. We go inside the Day 1 numbers, and highlight some of the tales from the first PT of the 2010 season. How did your favorite Pros get on?

I try to be discerning, I really do, but of the four hundred and some contenders for the first Pro Tour title of the 2010 season, I’ve only managed to cull my finishing list down to 147 players I want to mention, at least in passing. I really should get out more. To business:

0 Points

Coimbra, André [PRT]
Bielick, Scott [USA]
Zidek, Arnost [CZE]
Baumeister, Corey [USA]
Nikolai, Jake [USA]

It’s hard to remember that a few years ago, Arnost Zidek more or less represented the entire Pro Magic fraternity from the Czech Republic. Nowadays, you can barely turn up at a Grand Prix or Pro Tour without some Czech you (and sometimes even I) have never heard of confidently turning cards sideways and making the Top 8. Every community needs a flagbearer, and although Arnost wasn’t here, he has been for many years, and is part of the reason for the increased success for that country.

Scott Bielick is, if you will, the Anti-Goertzen. Whereas the winner arrived at Jund because he was confident of it being better than anything else, Bielick, and many others like him, turned to Jund because they couldn’t make anything else seem a better choice. These two ideas may superficially sound alike, but they’re a million miles apart. Goertzen couldn’t wait to get stuck into Cascade nonsense, while Bielick was almost (literally) embarassed to be playing Jund after all his considerable playtesting with AJ Sacher, Owen Turtenwald, and friends. Whilst attitude can’t make all the difference, it sure makes some. OH, and incidentally, if you think I’m picking on Scott, I’m only mentioning him because I got to spend some time with him in the week leading up to the PT, and he was a good guy. I’m sorry things didn’t go better for him.

Neither Corey Baumeister nor Andre Coimbra would have anticipated this kind of record, although Andre suspected his deck choice was, indeed, suspect. While Corey undoubtedly has better days ahead, Coimbra had the day of all days just behind him. Would you trade a rubbish 0-4 for a World Championship title? I know I would, every time.

And why mention Jake Nicolai? His round one defeat was at the hands of one Simon Goertzen, thus preserving the record that no individual Pro Tour Champion this century has lost round one and gone on to overall triumph in that event.

1 Point

Jacob, Michael [USA]

Like Coimbra, Jacob had an awesome run at Worlds. While it didn’t take him to Top 8, it did propel him to Level 6 this year. Building on that will be harder after day one here, but by no means impossible, especially as there are plenty of Pro Points up for grabs at Nationals, a tournament he’s rather good at lately.

3 Points

Dougherty, Robert [USA]
Robinson, Brian [USA]
Humpherys, David [USA)

Robinson, the proud owner of a Top 8 berth at the equivalent event a year ago, Pro Tour: Kyoto, came here with a smile, and minimal expectations, which were realized. The pair of Hall of Famers never got out of the blocks, meanwhile. Since being inaugurated, Dougherty (who balances Magic commitments with a huge investment in doing pretty much everything else the gaming industry has to offer an entrepreneur) has tended to come to Pro Tours with a fairly standard Aggro deck, and results have varied accordingly. At Pro Tour: Austin, where Rubin Zoo was the dominant force, he was a whisker away from what would have been a sixth Top 8 appearance. Here, his Vampires deck (a deck I’m on the record as essentially loathing) didn’t measure up.

6 Points

Scheel, Brandon [USA]
Snepvangers, Bram [NLD]
Zhang, Zhiyang [CHN]
Sibast, Rasmus [DNK]
Rubin, Ben [USA]
Doise, Jan [BEL]
Calafell, Joel [ESP]
Burton, hunter [USA]

With two wins each, it’s easy to see how stupidly hard doing well at Pro Tours can be. Scheel was super-consistent in 2008, but less so currently. Snepvangers, had he played the last round of day one, would have become only the second player in history to reach the phenomenal milestone of 600 individual Pro Tour matches. Outrageous.

Zhiyang Zhang was using his invite as Team World Champion to come to America from China, and I hope we’ll see him and teammates again through the year, despite this discouraging result. Sibast had won a PTQ in America, where he’s now living, but couldn’t get going.

Ben Rubin gets a prize for one of the better Magic quotes. “How many losses do I have to have before they take away the Hall of Fame membership?” he was heard to self-deprecatingly mutter, as he headed off for another pounding. It certainly seems as if the mixed formats are not really his idea of good times, or at least successful ones. There’s a bigger issue here to cover, and it certainly informs debate on entry into the Hall. How do we value player talent, as opposed to hard work? I imagine if Rubin did 50 Drafts before San Diego, he’d have a very good handle on the format. Jon Finkel allegedly couldn’t buy a draft win in the run-up to Pro Tour: Kuala Lumpur, which he won. A question for another time.

Doise and Calafell both have Top 8s in the last 18 months, with Calafell both a Grand Prix winner in Barcelona, and also an undefeated Standard merchant at Rome Worlds last year. He elected not to run Turbo-Fog, going with Time Sieve, which led to much rueful head-shaking. As for Hunter Burton, semi-finalist at Pro Tour: Austin, he continues to present an attitude of glorious unconcern, whatever the result.

9 Points

Nass, Matthew [USA]
Kim, Cynic [KOR]
Nyström, Per [SWE]
Thaler, Sebastian [DEU]
Larsson, David [SWE]

Nystrom went deep into Grand Prix: Oakland, before finishing 32nd there, and looking impressive along the way. I was surprised at this result for him. He joined fellow Swede David Larsson, Grand Prix: Copenhagen 2008 winner, on this unexciting mark.

Seb Thaler continues to frustrate seasoned watchers, who see him veer from apparent contention without reward to outright failure. It’s hard to put a finger on why, and his National Championship win in 2009 suggests that what we all expect — a serious assault on a Pro Tour title — shouldn’t be too far away. But he does keep doing things like this.

Cynic Kim is one of the flagship players from that region of the world, and had several notable encounters with Zac Hill, while the Luce scholar was busy waiting for his eventual role in R&D. This, of course, should not be confused with R&B, one of the few areas of human endeavour I suspect Mr. Hill of being deficient in.

That leaves Matt Nass, who entered the weekend as the first leader of the 2010 Player of the Year Race, courtesy of Grand Prix: Oakland, and who left here, even with the minimum two Points, well on his way to at least Level 4 status next year.

10 Points

Cavaglieri, William [ITA]
Brumby, Gene [NZL]
Ruel, Olivier [FRA]

Cavaglieri has a well-deserved reputation as an innovative deckbuilder, a skillset I dare say comes in handy when working as a games designer for Nintendo (I think I’ve got that right!). Most recently, his white Tokens deck took him to a Top 8 berth at Worlds last year, but his Baneslayer/Emeria Angel-led deck wasn’t anything special this time around. Gene Brumby, in a local field not exactly cluttered with big name competition, continues to dominate his region, this time winning a PTQ in Australia.

Ruel continues to make us, and him, wait to claim the title of Most Pro Points In History. With one Point for his Top 64 finish at Grand Prix: Oakland, and the two Point minimum here, the scores stand at Kai Budde 481 to Olivier’s 480. Maybe we’ll see that record broken at a European Grand Prix, or perhaps we’ll have to wait for round one of Pro Tour: San Juan. Either way, it’s a phenomenal and (obviously) unique achievement.

12 Points

Comer, Alan [USA]
Bhagat, Zohar [USA]
Castor, Kenneth [USA]
Imperiale, Jason [USA]
Lachmann, Chris [USA]
Kowal, Brian [USA]
Nelson, Brad [USA]
Walls, Gabe [USA]
Loucks, Jonathon [USA]
Sacher, Aj [USA]
Utter-Leyton, Josh [USA]
Fabiano, Gerard [USA]
Kibler, Brian [USA]
Woods, Conley [USA]
Williams, David [USA]
Mowshowitz, Zvi [USA]

Romão, Carlos [BRA]
Tong, Wu [CHN]
Sirilertvorakul, Veerapat [THA]

Dictus, Mark [BEL]
Reitbauer, David [AUT]
Neri, Riccardo [ITA]
Jurkovic, Robert [SVK]
Hebky, Michal [CZE]
Edwards, Andrew [ENG]
Grove, Kevin [NLD]
van Lamoen, Tom [NLD]
Oberg, Kenny [SWE]
Unfried, Jörg [DEU]
Fanghaenel, Alex [DEU]
Ruel, Antoine [FRA]
Gräfensteiner, Tobias [DEU]
Levy, Raphael [FRA]
Rosada, Adrian [DEU]

Mihara, Makihito [JPN]
Kurihara, Shingou [JPN]
Shimizu, Naoki [JPN]
Yamamoto, Akimasa [JPN]

In total, 95 players (or heading towards a quarter of the field) finished day one on 4-4. While it’s true that every one of them was ‘just’ one win away from getting to come back on Saturday for another eight rounds, it also suggests that a lot of players play ‘from behind’ ie 2-4, hoping that a 4-4 record will be enough to get them an extra Point, courtesy of crossing the 200th place threshold. Whilst it might seem that having to win two matches, and then only have a 50/50 shot of a measly one bonus Point, is a bridge too far, remember that single Points ultimately confer Pro Levels at the end of each year, and there are always players who can look to that solitary Point making all the difference.

In short, this goes some way to explaining the vast swaths of players who are out of contention, but play to the end of day one (a practice I thoroughly applaud, by the way.) So let’s wade through some of the crowd. First, the Americans:

Alan Comer’s great crime is a wicked sense of humor, that means he’d rather win a little and laugh a lot than the other way round. While this makes him perfect for Gunslinging, it does make headway at the PT a much tougher proposition.

Zohar Bhagat won the last Grand Prix of last year, in Minneapolis, leading to one of the better headlines (‘Don’t Mess with the Zohar’), but he couldn’t get more column inches this time.

The Sentimentalist in me really missed Jacob van Lunen, one half of the Sliver Kids that won the Pro Tour last time we were in San Diego. At the very least, it seemed as if there might have been room for JvL and Chris Lachmann to Gunsling. Still, Lachmann was otherwise engaged on Friday, but never looked like adding a solo win to his famous double act victory.

Although Brian Kowal has been part of the US scene forever, it’s only recently that he’s come to the Pro world, so I’m still learning about him. He’s a curious mix, in that he’s capable of startlingly sloppy play, coupled with an ability to jump on an innocent mistake at warp speed. There’s nothing illegal about any of this, but it does make him a highly dangerous opponent, since this is one yawning lion who is definitely waiting to pounce.

Missing out on day two, albeit with four more wins than brother Corey, completed a disappointing weekend for Brad Nelson. Gabe Walls plays mostly for fun exclusively these days, but while he’s having fun, we’re having fun, so it was a shame that he couldn’t give us another day of uniquely Gwalls entertainment. Someone else who doesn’t play much these days is Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz, and it was clear that his play was rusty, simply from a lack of familiarity with the Standard environment. That said, his deck (named Mythic after the rather high preponderance of rares required to get it to the launch pad) performed extremely well, as we’ll see when we get to talk about Sam Black and Gaudenis Vidugiris next week.

Jonathon Loucks, based near Wizards HQ in Seattle, is a nice guy with a good attitude, who was every bit as excited to be in San Diego for his second Pro Tour as Honolulu last year for his debut. Look for progress from him soon. Slightly further along the path are AJ Sacher and Josh Utter-Leyton. This was the seventh PT for Sacher, and the eighth for Utter-Leyton, and that’s about the time that most players who are going to make a serious impact on the Pro scene are starting to feel they belong at the top tables, and putting up some numbers. That’s something both these players have yet to do, making this a big year for proving to themselves that they have what it takes.

With only four Pro Tours, a poor performance in the opener can really impact the Player of the Year Race. Neither Brian Kibler nor Conley Woods will have been happy therefore to miss out on the Points bonanza of day two. Both are prime candidates for high honors this year, not least for one of the reasons that most people tend to forget — they believe in the possibility, and are putting themselves in position for good things to happen. At the time of writing, Kibler is poised for an assault on the Asian Grand Prix, and that should close the gap on the early front runners.

As for Woods, he comes across as a very serious individual, and you have to be around him for a while before you work out that there’s a positively arid sense of humor at work that would almost, but not quite, qualify him for British citizenship.

It’s a long time since Carlos Romao was World Champion, and this is also a year that Brazil is without a fully-firing Willy Edel on Tour. That said, there are signs that there’s a significant upswing in fortune on the way, with a number of players putting in decent finishes at the highest level. Although we’re barely away from the last Worlds, Brazil are already among my countries to watch in Chiba, regardless of which names end up on the team sheet.

Another team to watch will be the reigning World Champions, which, let me remind you, are the Chinese. Like teammate Zhiyang Zhang, Wu Tong took advantage of qualification, and simple math tells us that if China ever takes to the game in a serious way, they have the resources to become a true global powerhouse.

What of the Europeans on this mark? Although 4-4 isn’t spectacular, the fact that I can point to four Germans (Alex Fanghaenel has Grand Prix Top 8s, Toby Grafensteiner is the brother of Top 8 man Daniel, Jorg Unfried was 3rd at Nationals in 2006, and Adrian Rosada was the winner of the largest tournament in history before last weekend) is another small piece of the puzzle that suggests this is another nation on the rise once more.

It’s tough on the Germans, with such a dominant presence in the global game looming over their every accomplishment, but it does seem that the shadow of Kai is thoroughly receding, and having the Rookie of the Year in Lino Burgold, and the San Diego Champion in Simon Goertzen certainly doesn’t hurt. Watch for the Germans this year.

While Germany may be on the up, it’s startling that talking here about Antoine Ruel and Raphael Levy is indicative that they were among the better French performances. A couple of years ago, you could point to these two, Olivier Ruel, Remi Fortier, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Gabriel Nassif, and Amiel Tenenbaum, as an elite squad of seven, any of whom could easily Top 8 at any given event. Right now, that could only fairly be said of Nassif, who continues to make the case for being one of the best the game has ever seen.

To be fair, Raphael Levy was due an off day, since his consistency is quite simply phenomenal. Nobody in the history of the game has more Top 32 finishes, and if one day everything falls into place to the point that he actually wins one of these things, the roof is going to come off.

What of the four Japanese on my list at 4-4? Akimasa Yamamoto was pipped at the post to Rookie of the Year by Lino Burgold, but couldn’t replicate his awesome start from 2009, where he finished 3rd in Kyoto. Naoki Shimizu is also relatively inexperienced at this level, but this was his 10th Pro Tour, and Pro Tour: Austin was a sign of his growing comfort, with his first Top 8 there.

The other two are heavyhitters, or at least I think of them that way. There’s no doubt about Makihito Mihara, who generally contends whenever he attends, but I do wonder whether I need to re-evaluate Kurihara. In 2007 he was within reach of Player of the Year, and was tremendously impressive in the style and manner of his successes, but the edge seems to have gone from his play. Still, he’s a Level 6 this year, so I can’t be too far wrong about him. I guess I just expect an awful lot of him. Like a PT win. Soon.

And finally, a word about Andy Edwards in his first Pro Tour. You may suspect that this is a comment out of pity for my fellow Brits but (whisper it quietly) there are some stirrings in the Mother Country that point to good times ahead. I’ll talk more on this another time, but for now, well done to Mr. Edwards, who reached a point many first timers dream of — the chance to play a live last round of day one match for the chance to extend the run for another 24 hours. In the event, it was Sascha Schwartz of Germany, in his debut Pro Tour, that took the honors, but four wins is nothing to mock on debut — or indeed at any Pro Tour. So well done Andy, and we hope to see you again soon.

13 Points

Roulot, Sebastien [FRA]
Siow, Lucas [USA]

Commiserations to a couple of players who got punished for having a draw somewhere in day one. One of the random (well, not random, but you’ll see what I mean) facts that came out of the Pro Tour 2009 was that Siow was right up the top of the Constructed players across the four ‘Magic Majors’ — Kyoto, Honolulu, Austin, and Rome. Ironically, it was 2-1 in draft that almost saved him, after a mediocre 2-2-1 from Standard. Still, a name to watch. Roulot, meanwhile, is a name on a lengthy watchlist for the next generation of French Pros…

15 Points

Creiche, Selim [FRA]
Loddo, Bastien [FRA]

Like these two, for example, both of whom at least made day two. Although yet to break the top 100 in his first half dozen Pro Tours, Creiche is a likeable fellow who seems to really enjoy the whole experience, quite apart from the high level competition.

18 Points

Matignon, Guillaume [FRA]

And then there’s this guy, the ‘other’ Guillaume who is starting to emerge from the shadow of Wafo-Tapa. No stranger to high level competition, Matignon, a man who takes his games very seriously, has all the mental tools needed to win big, having climbed the summit of the World of Warcraft trading game, as World Champion. Like Raphael Ait Slimane, another Frenchman who excels at that game, there is a question mark about being about to translate their WOW skills into a Pro Tour Top 8. I think it’s entirely possible Matignon will put up a strong performance sometime this year.

24 Points

Massicard, Yann [FRA]
Murray, Stephen [SCO]
Kopec, Mateusz [POL]
Randle, Jonathan [ENG]
Lax, Ari [USA]

And now we’ve reached the break even point. Not all of these will necessarily have played all sixteen rounds, but 24 points represents 50% of the total available across the Swiss. Oh, and it also represents 50% of the total won by Luis Scott-Vargas. But then you knew that.

Massicard continues to look like he could be around the Pro ranks for some time, following his Grand Prix win last year. Kopec was in his 9th Pro Tour here, and is due a good finish sooner rather than later. Lax remains a puzzle to me. In some ways, he absolutely has The Fire, pulling mental tricks out of the book left, right, and center, looking for any legitimate edge over an opponent. Then I’ll see him apparently utterly indifferent, mooching along in second gear at the still-playing-but-out-of-contention tables. He may just be difficult to read, a thought I’m certain would please him.

Former British Champion Jonathan Randle has always worked hard for everything he’s got out of the game, and is quietly accumulating experience at this level, with a 40th place in Kyoto last year his best to date, out of six outings. On a similar learning curve is Stephen Murray, the softly-spoken Scot who consistently outperforms most of his countrymen, and the English too. He’s now been to Worlds three times, and it would be no surprise to see him there again in Chiba.

And that’s where we’ll draw a line. We’ve waded our way up from the 400’s all the way to Massicard in 106th, the highest placed finisher without a positive record. That should tell you what an astonishing feat it is to consistently take away more wins than losses at these events, and makes the Consistency rating of Katsuhiro Mori (80% across 25 individual Pro Tours leading up to San Diego) even more potent. It really is very, very hard to win matches at this level.

Next time, we’ll look at the 105 who won more than they lost, including the man who started the last round of day one on 4-3, unsure if he would even be back for Saturday. That’ll be Simon Goertzen of Germany, then.

Until then, as ever, thanks for reading…