Removed From Game – Surprise? Surprise!

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Some of you may know that the Magic World Championship happened this weekend. Some of you may know that Rich Hagon was there, and that he writes a column here on a weekly basis. This is that event. This is that man. This is that column. Late.

This has been a rather strange Worlds, in that so many of the anticipated storylines failed to pan out. I’m writing this from the Coverage Room backstage, and as I look along the line at Chris Millar, Tim Willoughby, Evan Erwin, Craig Jones, Ben Coleman, Kelly Digges, Josh Bennett, Bill Stark, Keita Mori, Craig Gibson, and Greg Collins (phew), I’m struck by what a talented and hard-working bunch of people I get to spend my working life with – and that’s without Randy and BDM and all the dozens of people who make sure that there’s a Pro Tour for us to cover in the first place. Some of you may not appreciate everything that goes up on the Official Event Coverage, but whatever you think of it you should be in no doubt that these people pretty much sweat blood to bring you the best coverage possible. Long before play starts, and long after the last round finishes, laptops are in overdrive as we try to convey the sights, sounds, and smells of a mammoth event like Worlds. We may not always succeed, but we always try.

So what were the stories of Worlds 2007? Trying to process them all is a next to impossible task, something I’ll probably take a stab at before my Review Show hits the streets just before Christmas. What follows therefore is just some “first-minute” thoughts as we come to a close here in New York. I’ll try to indicate how likely some of these things were by using my newly-patented Surprise rating. They’ll either be “Surprise? Not really.” or “Surprise? Surprise!” Wow, I’m simply salivating at the immensity of the levity that could ensue. Let’s get started.

Surprise? Surprise!

New Yorkers have a reputation for being surly, unco-operative, untrusting folk who would go out of their way to cross the street rather than have to step over your bleeding body on the sidewalk. Kings of the surly, unco-operative, untrusting folk who would go out of their way to cross the street rather than have to step over your bleeding body on the sidewalk are the taxicab drivers. If I ever want my Mother assassinated, I know where to come. Except I don’t any more. Something’s changed since the last time I was here. I don’t want to be overly fanciful and say “9/11,” but on this, my 5th visit to my favorite city on Earth, I feel a sea-change. The level of politeness and courtesy and all those other good words that make the world a better place seem to be more in evidence wherever I look in this city that never sleeps. Always exciting, New York now feels like a place I could bring my family and expect them to have a good time too. Top marks to the host city, in other words.

Surprise? Not really.

Amongst the chattering classes there was a certain amount of heat and light generated over the makeup of the Hall Of Fame Class of 2007. Having sat 30 feet away as Nicolai Herzog, Randy Buehler, Kai Budde, Tsuyoshi Fujita and Zvi Mowshowitz joined the hallowed Hall, I have to say that instinctively it felt right. This group felt as if it belonged together, and players like Mike Turian and Ben Rubin will in no sense be diminished by entering the Hall in 2008, as seems likely. To see Tsuyoshi Fujita in full ceremonial Japanese garb was a memory to treasure, since it so clearly displayed his desire to honor the game that was honoring him. Even in his moment in the spotlight, he was the very definition of dignity and modesty, and that too was not a surprise.

Surprise? Not really.

Tomaharu Saitou won the Player of the Year Race. I suppose I kind of spoiled things by setting it all up so thoroughly last week, pointing out that so many ducks had to be lined up in a row for anyone to beat him that he’d probably get there. To be fair, we had some excitement when we realised that the door was ajar, once Saitou couldn’t make Top 8. First to go out the back door were Shingou Kurihara and Olivier Ruel. To be honest I don’t think too much should be read into their failure to impact the tournament here. Neither have suddenly become bad players, but both will have been highly distressed to find their challenge so comprehensively derailed so early in proceedings. 1-4 in Standard is a nightmare at any level, and they were effectively done before the first pick of pack one in Draft. Saitou also got off to a poor start, and with Kenji on 3-0 and Saitou back on 1-2 it looked as if we could be witnessing a major implosion by the leader. Not a bit of it. Saitou ended day one at 6-2, and that was good enough for him to be ahead overnight of all his rivals except Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, who also had a 6-2 record. As we headed for Legacy, it was apparent that Saitou’s consistency coupled with his lead over Raphael Levy and the failure of the U.S. team to help Luis Scott-Vargas meant that Saitou’s essential rivals had boiled down to Wafo-Tapa. With two rounds to go it looked as if we would get our wish for a grandstand finish. If Wafo-Tapa could beat Roel van Heeswijk of the Netherlands he could intentionally draw his last round. 1-0 down and having mulliganed to 4 cards, Wafo-Tapa astonishingly pulled it back to 1-1 before finally succumbing to the Dutchman, who was deeply and profoundly moved by his achievement. This was definitely one of the best moments of Worlds. To strive, and to accomplish – fabulous to see, and fabulous to be around. Wafo-Tapa still had one more crack at it, but in the final round Stuart Wright of the GB team put paid to his chances and finally guaranteed Saitou’s victory. While we’re here, let’s look at the finishes for the Player of the Year contenders:

Tomaharu Saitou – Surprise? Not really. 31 points took him to 37th place, and that was good enough.

Kenji Tsumura – Surprise? Not really. Kenji ended with the same points as Saitou in the main event, coming in two places lower in 39th. To an extent he did better than I expected, and there was no sign of any implosion.

Shingou Kurihara – Surprise? Surprise! As you know, I was concerned by his performance at Pro Tour: Valencia, but those doubts were dispelled by his subsequent Grand Prix performances. Now those concerns are back again. Having won Round 1, he went on a 4 match losing streak just like in Valencia, only halted by the onset of Lorwyn Draft action. Two wins there were the end of things. I can’t tell you when he finally threw in the towel, but the record shows just 3 wins in many attempts. 9 points, 370th place… I’m disappointed, so imagine how he feels about it.

Guillaume Wafo-Tapa – Surprise? Not really. 33 points, 22nd. The affable Frenchman has a gift for a steady equilibrium that might come across as cold to some, until you get a flash of that lazy grin and realise you’re looking at a man who loves the playing almost as much as the winning. Frank Karsten once told me that there are times when friends are wanting to do a Draft that he’d much rather sit down and play the Wake mirror, two words that probably strike terror into the hearts of most of you who fully comprehend them. My guess is that Wafo-Tapa is cut from the same cloth as Mr. K, and would happily play mono-Blue on mono-Blue until the cows come home. It turns out that his “I’m not fussed” stance over the Player of the Year was genuine, since he seemed more than happy with his week’s work here. With a new Magical year starting on Saturday – ye Gods! – he’ll be hungry for more points and a quest for back to back Level 6 seasons. Betting in Magic isn’t generally to be recommended, but expecting WT to do good things again next year is as close to a sure thing as it gets.

Olivier Ruel – Surprise? Surprise! 25 points, 146th. Once we reached Draft, Ruel’s record was 7 wins, 3 losses and a draw. If Draft and Legacy had been the first two formats, we would have been talking about him being in contention going into the last of the three disciplines. Unfortunately Standard had already happened before he embarked on that record, and Standard was nothing short of disastrous at 1-4. It’s been an odd year for Ruel, and his brother Antoine again stated his belief that Olivier is not back to his best. With all of his current rivals likely to return for another crack at the title, and Americans Scott-Vargas and Cheon likely to up their GP attendance record next year, being at his best may be essential if Ruel is to deliver a Player of the Year title.

Paul Cheon – Surprise? Not really. 27 points here was a positive record that left Cheon 117th. He fell away during Legacy, posting a 2-3 record that didn’t essentially cost him much of anything, since Level 6 was already in the bag as early as sitting down opposite his first opponent. With monetary incentives aplenty, I’ll be surprised if he comes into Worlds 2008 needing as many things to go his way if he is to be crowned the Champion.

Raphael Levy – Surprise? Surprise! 34 points, 15th place. Just to be clear, it’s no surprise at all that Raphael had a good Worlds. The surprise comes in a minute. Having got off to a 3-0 start, his challenge stalled for a costly 3 rounds, and although Saitou was still within sight, the likelihood was that tiebreaks might eventually play a part, if he could get to that point. Starting with the second round of Draft, Levy went on a magnificent run that took him through the rest of Draft and well into Legacy with 7 straight wins. Putting that kind of run together against anyone is awesome, doing it against the calibre and experience of opponents here is utterly exceptional. A crucial round 14 loss meant that he was probably eliminated from contention even with two wins, and he eventually drew the last round to ensure a Top 16 finish. So where’s the surprise? Well, with someone this good you might think of words like “strong,” “consistent “, “relentless,” and “falafel.” Well, possibly not the last one, but I certainly check the first three against Levy’s name. Yet he views himself as something of a streak player. Now, okay, I’ve just told you all about a 7 game streak, and he won back-to-back Grand Prix, but I feel this misses the point. The GPs were identical formats separated by geography rather than any in-game considerations. What I found surprising is that his mental approach veered sharply between that very special feeling of invincibility that winning brings and the feeling that the world’s about to end and that you couldn’t buy a win when you’re on the downswing. I would have expected the psychological impact of a losing run to be minimal on a Pro’s psyche, since their dealing with defeat is one of the ways I believe they give themselves an edge over us “normal” players. Still, here’s the key thing. He manages to have streaks, sure, but his losing streak at Worlds was 3 and his winning streak was 7, and that tells you quite a lot about Hall of Famer Raphael Levy.

Luis Scott-Vargas – Surprise? Not really. 33 points, 25th. When you don’t know them really well, it’s hard to distinguish between LSV and teammate Paul Cheon. Oh don’t worry, I’m not blind, since physically they’re very different specimens. But you have no idea which of them is going to do better. Either of them could win the tournament. You don’t know who put the winning sideboard in place. You don’t know who insisted that Aggro was the way to go for that tournament or this one, and you don’t really know who’s the Limited brains and who needs 75 friends to do his best. All you can be sure of is that the U.S. Champion is a really good player by any definition, and although the freakish set of results didn’t materialise, he is now Level 5 for 2008, and that should be enough to make him a regular travelling companion for the Level 6 Cheon.

Surprise? Surprise!

The afore-mentioned Stuart Wright made it to Level 3 here at Worlds. Yeah, most people think he’s been a Pro forever, but in reality his frequent appearances have been from a blend of Constructed ranking and an occasional PTQ foray, mixed in with a below-the-radar performance or two that qualifies him for the next one. That someone so talented can have existed on the fringes of the Pro Tour for so long is a good indication of just how hellishly difficult it is to be in the best 100 or so players on the planet. As an aside, Stu was 9-1 in Constructed here, and when you add his 6-0 performance in Extended last year, there’s a case to be made for the man once described as Mini-Zvi to be acknowledged as one of the great Constructed minds in Magic at present, especially as the deck he annihilated everyone with in Legacy was his own homebrew affair. A welcome addition to the Tour.

Surprise? Not really.

Yuuya Watanabe won Rookie of the Year. Just like Saitou, he faced a small crisis halfway through Day 1 when rivals Chris Lachmann and Nicolay Potovin were lighting up the tournament, but recovered to keep them firmly in sight. Just as in the Player of the Year race, having a 6 point lead turned out to be a lot bigger than it seemed. On reflection, when we get to Worlds next year, I’ll probably remind myself to be much more positive about the chances of the leader at the start of the event.

Surprise? Surprise!

Alright then, tell the truth, how many of you picked Uri Peleg to be the World Champion? Exactly, none of you. How about Uri Peleg? His Day 1 prediction was 1-7-drop. Clearly confidence isn’t a necessary part of the winning package. One of the more surreal moments of my working life came after the tournament, when I interviewed Uri for the Review show in the back of a yellow cab on the way to the Rockefeller center. I won’t spoil it all for you here – you’ll have to wait ten days or so – but this softly-spoken Israeli was an impressive man. Talking with Raphael Levy, who has a smattering of Hebrew to join in Israeli-style conversations, it was clear that Peleg was one of those guys who Pros tend to shrug about with a kind of, “yeah, he can play a bit.” This was his 5th appearance at Worlds, with one as the now-defunct Alternate team member, but no matter how you try and justify his winning the whole thing, you really can’t. Far too many people should have been in his way for this to have happened. Still, there it is. Pro Tour: Jerusalem anyone?

Surprise? Surprise!

Still with Peleg, you would expect people to be gunning for him when the 2008 PT season opens up in Malaysia. Turns out, that might not be happening. My in-depth CNN-style analysis of the geo-political issues reveals a couple of pertinent facts, or even three, as it happens.

1. Peleg is Jewish.
2. Malaysia is a Moslem country.
3. Malaysia does not acknowledge Israel to be a country, and considers it (and if not a country, one wonders what they think “it” is) hostile.

For these reasons Uri Peleg will not be welcome in Kuala Lumpur. Setting aside any kind of political stance, isn’t it crap that politics gets to screw with Magic?

Surprise? Not really.

The hall looked great, with an absolute mountain of things to do. Even if you decided that umpteen different Draft formats, Standard, Extended, Legacy, and even Vintage weren’t your thing, for a change of pace you could see four great Magic artists in residence over the weekend, gunsling with Mark Rosewater, Aaron Forsythe, Randy Buehler, and Chris Millar amongst others, watch the best players in the world battle it out, or – hey why not? – win a car. That singular honor fell to Sam Black, who seems to me to be one of the great gamers in the world right now. I’ll probably get some of the games wrong, but it feels like wherever there’s a big-money tournament, Sam is there, ready to more or less clean up. Dreamblade, Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh, World Of Warcraft…he’s probably targeting The Spoils next or something. Just a consummate gamer.

Surprise? Surprise!

Having mentioned Aaron Forsythe, now seems like a good opportunity to tell you about one of the cooler plays of the weekend. So Aaron is up against some poor schmo at Gunslinging, and the board is empty except for a bunch of land each. Aaron casts Nova Chaser into this scenario, and allows his opponent to struggle for a few moments, as he searches for a way to tell the boss of R & D that he doesn’t have a clue what the cards do. In the end, he settles for something along the lines of, ‘Sure, Championing?’. Aaron stacks the trigger, responds by activating his Mosswort Bridge, since he now has 10 power of guys on board, plays Deepfire Elemental for free from under the Bridge, and then Champions it before smashing for 10. I can hardly believe that the raw power and sheer genius of the Hideaway lands wasn’t immediately apparent to me.

Surprise? Surprise!

And while we’re on the humble pie trail, let’s talk about the breakout Standard deck of the weekend, the mono-Red Dragonstorm deck piloted by two of the Top 8, Gabriel Nassif and Patrick Chapin. There are a couple of things you should know about this deck. First, it’s extremely elegant. When Standard changed in November, amongst the niche decks going skyward was the Aussie Storm deck seen at assorted Nationals over the Summer. This, you encyclopaedic deck-watchers will doubtless recall, featured Perilous Research, Hatching Plans, Telling Time, Repeal, and Rewind to generate foolish amounts of cards and Storm count, before generally dropping Pyromancer’s Swath and Grapeshot to lethal effect. All the Blue cards I mentioned vanished in the rotation, neutering the deck. You will also recall that many of these same Clue cards, plus Gigadrowse (also gone) and Seething Song (bye) featured in the dominant deck of last year’s Worlds, Dragonstorm, this time featuring a nine-mana Storm Sorcery that fetched Bogardan Hellkites aplenty. Conventional wisdom says that you can’t play a Combo deck if you’re playing the Combo itself “naked.” That’s to say that you have no way of accessing the Combo through tutoring or other library manipulation. The clever bit about this year’s version is the use of Spinerock Knoll. This generally ill-thought-of Hideaway only triggers when you’ve already dealt 7 damage to your opponent. Surely there wasn’t a Constructed use for that? Turns out there was. Suspend a couple of Rift Bolts to synchronise with a Lotus Bloom, untap, aim Bolts at face, add in a Shock or a Tarfire, then activate the Knoll revealing (ideally) a Dragonstorm for Game Over, or the might-as-well-be-Game-Over alternative, Bogardan Hellkite. Do you want to know how many decks can survive an instant-speed Hellkite backed up with burn? Not many. So, you’re probably thinking by now that Rich is going off on one of his Dragonstorm love-ins and can’t wait to try the Combo at his next Friday Night Magic. Well, tempting though that is, I’d rather win. Huh? Yep, this deck is a deck that was amazing on Friday, great on Sunday, and almost certainly only fine by the time you read this. Just as Guillaume Wafo-Tapa mono-Blue deck was precisely designed to take advantage of a particular Metagame at Grand Prix: Krakow, so the D-storm was here at Worlds. You all know the cards that rain on Combo’s parade, and this is the kind of deck that three sideboarded Trickbind can really hurt. So, play it if you must, but remember that like Santa, Dragonstorm may be most appropriate just once a year.

Surprise? Not really.

If you write for long enough, sooner or later you’ll say something that turns out to have the ring of prescience. (+2 to Intelligence, bonus on checking for traps, or something. Whatever.) Last week I was kind of impressed by the makeup of the Austrian and Swiss teams, and said so, whilst leaving myself maximum wiggle room for when they crashed and burned. Yes, I did have them both in the top 10 or so, but let’s be clear, the Swiss were in the final about three weeks ago, at least that’s how it seemed. Nico Bohny, Manuel Bucher, Raphael Gennari, and Christoph Huber didn’t just beat the field, they handed out a royal kicking.

Surprise? Surprise!

Pacing the Swiss throughout the, er, Swiss, was Christoph Huber. Having admitted to doing next to no testing for the event, leaving it to his three team colleagues, he was especially impressive in fending off Katsuhiro Mori in the last round of Day 1. The kitchen sink had obviously been drafted by someone else at the table, but Mori threw everything else at Huber who refused to buckle under the pressure. His run came to an end in the quarter final in a match that he was always going to struggle in, and 3-1 was probably about right. Nonetheless, a real breakout performance.

Surprise? Not really.

Okay, so we get to the team final. A while back I talked about the fictional scenario where everyone in the Top 8 got busy conceding to each other, leaving us with lots to talk about but no Magic to watch. Thankfully that didn’t happen here, but it was certainly close in the team event. Here’s how it went. The Austrians had flights booked for the back end of Sunday afternoon. The final, scheduled to begin at 1, didn’t get underway until close on 1.30. If both pairs of a team won their respective matches, that was that. If the two games were split, the two winning pairs would face off to determine the title. If Austria missed their flights it was going to cost them 800 Euros apiece to get a new one. Yes boys and girls, that’s a lot of money. If they won the team event, rather than finishing second, they could get an extra 500 Euros apiece. So you see, the best they could hope for was to lose 300 Euros, if they missed their flight. Now my guess is that “don’t miss flight” was quite high up their priority list. Summersberger had been drafting an awesome strategy all weekend, where his deck was GW Kithkin, and they paired it with every Blue Counter and Bounce spell known to man. It had worked superbly throughout the team day, but against Huber and Gennari their tempo-oriented offence was blunted, and the Swiss went 1-0 up pretty quickly. In the other match, triple Mudbutton Torchrunner had the ground clogged up, but the Swiss were starting to dominate with assorted Judge of Currents plus Summon The School action. Now comes a great moment. One of the Austrians looks at the board position, which was indeed pretty darn poor for the Austrians still playing, and locks eyes with Thomas Preyer. He then glances down, and moves his hand about, oh, an eighth of an inch. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. This picture said something like this:

“Gentlemen, I hate to have to draw your attention to this uncomfortable fact, but given that I am standing over your opponent’s shoulders watching you getting a kicking should indicate to you that our game across there has finished. You will recall we alerted you to the fact that we were indeed 1-0 down at that point. You may also recall a certain cost-benefit analysis that took place earlier today involving the spending of large sums of money that we don’t have in order to return us to the land of our fathers. Using my skill and judgment, I cannot help but notice that our worthy Swiss adversaries are gaining approximately 426 life a turn whilst generating a soon to be near-infinite supply of Merfolk to go with the table-groaning number of Elves they already have. Furthermore, your evasion count stands at zero, while at least 17 of their monsters can sneak past your defences. If, for the next 26 turns or so, they choose to do nothing whatsoever, ever, it is possible that you may win this game and cost us 300 Euros each. You appear to be earnestly discussing with each other how this loss of monetary income might still be achieved. In the name of Satan’s underwear, WHY?!?!?!?!?!?!?’ Switzerland 2, Austria 0.”

Surprise? Surprise!

I’m almost done here, and although I’m bound to have left lots unsaid, I hope that I’ve given you a flavor of the biggest Magic week of the Year. And so to my final surprise, and this time I was responsible. I asked Uri Peleg how it felt to be World Champion and he was clearly unsure how to respond, since the whole business had really caught him unawares. Then I said, “And of course, as World Champion you’ll be guaranteed a slot at next year’s Invitational.”

He looked at me as if I was mad, before his face split into a massive grin. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said.

As ever, thanks for reading.


PS: Surprise? Surprise!

The new 2008 Season begins this Saturday in Stuttgart, Germany with Lorwyn Sealed and Booster Draft on show. Listen in as Tomaharu Saitou begins the defence of his crown. See you Saturday on the mothership.