Removed From Game – The 2008 Runners and Riders, Part 1

Read Rich Hagon every week... at StarCityGames.com!
With only ten days to go until the unveiling of the first Pro Tour of a new season, it’s time to dust off the archives, trawl through the stats, and then make outrageously unfounded statements about the likely winners and losers. At least, that’s how Rich Hagon does it. Travel around the globe from Austria to Japan, via Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Britain, Germany, Greece, and Israel. Don’t forget your frequent flyer cards!

Welcome to another year of Pro Magic. There have been some changes to both the schedule and Player Club Levels for 2008, but, with your indulgence, I propose to wait a couple of weeks before offering you a detailed view of what it all might mean to you, me, and Uncle Henry with the limp. Nonetheless, as a frame of reference, here’s the benefits for the top Levels:

Level 4 (this is a kind of old Level 3)
* Member is invited to his or her country’s national championship
* Member receives three byes at all Grand Prix tournaments
* Member is invited to all Pro Tours and the World Championship. Players will not receive their invitations until the Thursday prior to each Pro Tour.

Level 5 (pretty much Level 3.5)
* Member is invited to his or her country’s national championship
* Member receives three byes at all Grand Prix tournaments
* Member is invited to all Pro Tours and the World Championship. Players will not receive their invitations until the Thursday prior to each Pro Tour.
* Member receives a $250 appearance fee whenever he or she competes in a Pro Tour or the World Championship

Level 6 (replacing Level 4)
* Member is invited to his or her country’s national championship.
* Member receives three byes at all Grand Prix tournaments.
* Member is invited to all Pro Tours and the World Championship.
* Member receives a $1250 appearance fee whenever he or she competes in a Pro Tour or the World Championship.
* Member receives expenses-paid air travel ticket to one Pro Tour or the World Championships (as chosen by each member) during the current season*

Level 7 (old style Level 5)
* Member is invited to his or her country’s national championship.
* Member receives three byes at all Grand Prix tournaments.
* Member is invited to all Pro Tours and the World Championship.
* Member receives a $1750 appearance fee whenever he or she competes in a Pro Tour or the World Championship.
* Member receives expenses-paid air travel ticket to all Pro Tours and the World Championship during the current season*.

* Member receives a $250 appearance fee whenever he or she competes in a Grand Prix.

Level 8 (Level 6 as was)
* Member is invited to his or her country’s national championship.
* Members receives three byes at all Grand Prix tournaments.
* Member is invited to all Pro Tours and the World Championship.
* Member receives a $2250 appearance fee whenever he or she competes in a Pro Tour or the World Championship.
* Member receives expenses-paid air travel ticket and hotel accommodations at all Pro Tours and the World Championship during the current season*.
* Member receives a $500 appearance fee whenever he or she competes in a Grand Prix.

For this week and next, I’m going to take you by the hand and walk you through the runners and riders for the 2008 Season. Under the new scheme, there are 88 players at Level 4 or higher (with 8 being the highest) and that’s where we’re going to concentrate our efforts. Unlike last year, when I gave you a comprehensive A to Z of the competitors, this time around we’ll go globetrotting, looking at the representatives of the 20 nations that can boast a Pro. In Part 2 next week we’ll visit Malaysia, The Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and of course the United States of America. But those air miles are still seven days away. For now, let’s pack our bags and start our World Tour in the heart of Europe, and Austria.

Austria — The runners-up from the team portion of Worlds 2007 have 2 Pros this year. Helmut Summersberger has been around forever, with his first Top 8 appearance at Worlds 2000, and the first of his 3 Grand Prix Top 8s in 2001. Summersberger briefly led the 2006 Player of the Year Race when he won the first event of that season, the Grand Prix in Lille at the back end of 2005. That was a good year for him, as he also won Grand Prix: Barcelona. Thanks in part to the team performance in New York in December, Summersberger mustered 31 points last year, which takes him to Level 6. The other Austrian who we can expect to see a bunch of is Armin Birner. 2007 was comfortably Birner’s best season to date, with two Grand Prix Top 8s, in Florence and Krakow. Whilst fearsome competition is the lifeblood of Pro Magic, it’s nice to find some players who will not only have a smile on their face away from the table, but at the table too. Birner is in that category, someone who really appreciates what Magic does for them away from their ‘real’ life. At 24 points, he’s the type of player who could build on those Top 8 appearances, or gently slip away outside the World’s Top 100. Either way, we can expect at least one of these two to be seen at a final table somewhere around the world.

Belgium — I have a lot of time for the group of Belgians who are steadily making an imprint on the Pro scene. Not only are they a fine group of individuals, but they have excellent teamwork and networking skills. In a world where most of the Pro friendships cross national boundaries, the Belgians have developed quite a close-knit unit. At the same time, they’ve pulled off the trick of accessing plenty of deckbuilding minds around the world. Coverage guy Bill Stark and columnist Zac Hill are generally in close contact, and that helps to keep ideas fresh. Belgian hopes rest with 4 players — Marijn Lybaert, Fried Meulders, Jan Doise and Christophe Gregoir. At 39 points, Lybaert missed out on Level 7 by the smallest of margins, and that’s quite a significant financial difference. It’s a measure of his growing stature on Tour that he feels like both a permanent fixture and a serious threat, this despite the fact that he currently has just two Top 8s to his name. He lost in the final of Grand Prix: Toulouse in 2006 to Kenji Tsumura (hardly a disgrace) and then made the first Top 8 of the Pro Tour a year ago in Geneva. Once again the opening PT of the season is Limited, and I would be astonished if Lybaert finished outside, say, the Top 32. Frankly I expect him to do rather better than that. Ranked 16 in the world, I fully expect him to be inside the top 10 by the time we’re done with 2008. Next up is Fried Meulders, the current National Champion. This man is a serious competitor. Some players look like they’re just ticking away in neutral, no matter what the circumstances. Shingou Kurihara for example always appears to be in control. On the other hand, there are some players where you can practically hear the gears grinding away. Personally, I find this pretty appealing, as you feel you’re in there with them, sweating over each decision. Frank Karsten is one such, and Meulders is another. He’s already made a great start to the campaign, making Top 8 at Grand Prix: Stuttgart. With 27 points to build on, this is another Belgian I expect to see climbing the ranks. At Level 4, Jan Doise is the old man of the squad, with the most recent of his two Grand Prix Top 8s coming in Genoa 2003. I suspect Doise is one of those players who has no illusions about making a full-time living from the game, but that doesn’t stop him being a worthy opponent. In short, the lifeblood of the Pro Tour. Finally we have Christophe Gregoir, one of only 4 players on our list who made Level 4 or higher without a lifetime Top 8 to his name. There may be some small groups of players who have more raw talent, but there will be very, very few who are better prepared than the cream of the Belgian crop.

Brazil — Three Brazilian Pros line up for the 2008 season. They are headed by Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa, the man who makes me sweat blood every time I have to spell his name, since utterly mutilating it in my very first column. Paulo is one of the most interesting and complex figures on Tour, a man of some odd contradictions. On the one hand, he gives the impression of hot-headedness at the table, where he undoubtedly plays faster than anyone out there. Thinking that he’s impetuous would be a mistake however, since I’ve found him to be one of the more thoughtful and insightful players around, and I’m not just talking about pick orders and sideboard choices, but perspective on the world and Magic’s place within it. He’s a ferocious competitor, and against Gaetan Lefebvre in Krakow he displayed a certain snittiness in a bad-tempered affair that basically saw both players working quite hard to get each other game losses. In contrast, this is a man who sees a lot more to Magic than just what goes on in the red zone, as he’s been quite vocal in his acknowledgment of his appreciation of all the little extras that being on Tour get you — the Pro Lounge, goodie bags, the chance to ski in Geneva, in fact the chance to see snow for the first time in Geneva, the free travel… I don’t see PV thinking of his PT shirts as worthless pieces of cloth. 2006 was his best year to date, with the runner-up spot in Charleston at the team PT and then his ultimately doomed attempt to derail eventual World Champion Makahito Mihara in the Top 8 in Paris. It was always going to be a mighty task to maintain the highest Club Level two years running, but with 40 points he’s well positioned to have another crack at the pinnacle of the game. Now if he’d only slow down a little… Next up is Willy Edel. PV’s teammate from Charleston, Edel also finished runner-up behind Jan-Moritz Merkel in Pro Tour: Kobe in 2006, and was the whitest of white-hot properties when he also made Top 8 in Geneva at the start of last season. Then things went cold for one of the few married Pros on the circuit. 28 points meant quite a comedown from the lofty heights of 2007, but a year on from Geneva I expect Edel to get 2008 off to a similarly flamboyant start. Just like PV, the mission this year is to get back to the summit. A pivotal year for Edel. The contingent is completed by 2002 World Champion Carlos Romao. He has a seriously fine conversion rate. Not only does he have that Worlds triumph, but he has taken down the big prize in 3 out his 5 Grand Prix Top 8s, in Rio 2001, Amsterdam 2003 and Phoenix 2006. 22 points sees him ranked 71st on our list of the great eighty-eight, and at Level 4 he probably won’t contend for Player of the Year, but if he gets a sniff of the finish line, watch out.

Canada — Okay, time to take my life in my hands once more. Yes, all over Canada bulletin boards are poised for the influx of players ready to debate my latest wayward views on the land of the brave and the home of the… oh wait, that’s the other lot. Seriously now maple leafers, the national side proved a point and a half at Worlds in New York. After two largely anonymous days, team day saw Canada tear up the standings, eventually finishing just outside the final. So fair play to a trio of players who were largely unknown on the global scene, certainly in comparison to the fourth member of the squad Rich Hoaen. Despite that display, only Hoaen has enough points to make the Pro ranks, and if you didn’t know, he’s not planning on being at a PT anytime soon. For the first time in a long time it really is a case of ‘Oh… Canada.’ Andrew Ting-a-Kee and friends, your country needs you.

Denmark — At 21 points, Rasmus Sibast is your Danish representative this season. Denmark is something of the poor relation of Scandinavian Magic, and there isn’t much sign of that changing. Sibast however continues to wave the flag with honor, having made the final table somewhere around the world each year since 2005 (Grand Prix: Mexico City 2005, Pro Tour: Prague 2006, and Grand Prix: Florence 2007). Another Top 8 somewhere this year seems at least possible.

Finland — Antti Malin is the lone rep for Finland, having secured his berth in the starting line-up on the final day of Swiss competition at Worlds. Malin may benefit from the changes to the Pro scene, since he’s a relentless Grand Prix attendee, and if he can put a run together over the Summer Series he could vault up the leaderboard.

France — Japan and the U.S. may have the weight of numbers with 21 Pros apiece, but for sheer quality it’s impossible to argue with the French case as the leading Magic nation, at least at the very top of the game. Here’s the seven French Pros for 2008:

Guillaume Wafo-Tapa: 59 points last year, Level 8. The least surprising Pro Tour winner of 2007, Wafo-Tapa continues to demonstrate his mastery of the 60 card format. In addition to his Yokohama trophy-winning performance, he has four Grand Prix Top 8s to his name over the last two years, in Athens and Torino in 2006 and Montreal and Krakow in 2007. As someone who actually genuinely does live a Pro Tour lifestyle, Wafo-Tapa is ideally placed to maintain his status as one of the premier deckbuilders in the world, with success to match.

Olivier Ruel: 54 points last year, Level 8. Finishing 5th in the title race last year, Ruel has a phenomenal career record that sees him tied with Alex Shvartsman for career Grand Prix Top 8s at 21. I’m sorry, I’ll say that again. Twenty-one. That’s like going to every European Grand Prix for the next three years and making the final table of every single one. Unreal. The most recent of his four victories came in Bilbao in 2006, but despite 5 Pro Tour Top 8 appearances, he is yet to take home the title. He came closest at his first attempt in Osaka 2002, where he finished runner-up, but none of Amsterdam 2004, Columbus 2004, Philadephia 2005 or Honolulu 2006 have taken him across the finish line. With 26 Premier event Top 8s, you can bet he wants a PT title to crown his efforts, and it would be no surprise to see him crank things up yet another notch this year.

Raphael Levy: 52 points, Level 8. Yep, that’s three Level 8 mages. Levy built a great year around back-to-back Grand Prix wins at Dallas and Singapore, and a ferocious run at the back end of Worlds pushed him over the edge into the ultimate elite group. Ranked 6th in the world, the man who really does travel the globe to play will be looking to hold steady inside the top 10, and maybe pick up an elusive victory as he continues a phenomenal streak of PT appearances that is into the 50s and counting.

Gabriel Nassif — 42 points, Level 7. What a talent this guy is. Three Worlds Top 8 finishes in the last four years confirms him at the very top of the game, with his Pro Tour victory in Atlanta coming in the one year since 2004 that he hasn’t been playing on the last day of the Magic year. This time around he was involved in an epic Dragonstorm mirror against Patrick Chapin, a match that will live long in the memory. Some have even suggested this was the match of the year. They are of course wrong and I am of course right (ho ho ho). The fourth Frenchman inside the top 10, and I fully expect him to be there or thereabouts again this year.

Amiel Tenenbaum: 35 points, Level 6. Amiel’s sole Top 8 PT came as long ago as 2001 in New York. Following a six year drought, he managed two second places last year, firstly with partner Gab Nassif at the Two-Headed Giant Grand Prix in Amsterdam, and then when finally succumbing to Paul Cheon in the final of Grand Prix: Krakow. You can always be certain that Amiel will have a fantastic deck for Constructed events, since he has access to both Nassif and Wafo-Tapa, and he always brings a competitive game face to the table. A good season sees him ranked 22nd in the world, and maintaining Level 6 seems like an aim for this year.

Antoine Ruel: 32 points, Level 6. The third French Pro with a PT victory to his name, Antoine raised the trophy in Los Angeles back in 2005 with Extended the format. His other most notable individual achievement is probably his Magic Invitational win in 2006. We continue to wait for his Invitational card to make it into freshly-minted booster packs, and in the meantime we’ll have to make do with the man himself. Over the last couple of years his priorities have changed, and the Antoine Ruel that I’ve come to know has a few softer edges than the man who began his career with a win on home soil in Grand Prix: Cannes back in the last century. In total, he’s reached the final table 21 times, a colossal achievement. This feels like a pivotal year for Ruel. Will he summon up new reserves of will and power his way back to the summit? Or will he gently decline towards being someone who you expect to make Day 2, but not to see on Super Sunday any more?

Remi Fortier: 29 points, Level 5. Almost literally the new kid on the block (oh how I wanted to do the ‘new kid on the Block Constructed’ gag, but Valencia was Extended.) Only the most hubristic / arrogant / talented (delete as applicable) can expect to win Pro Tours in consecutive seasons, and managing expectations will be a key part of his development as a Pro. This will be his first full year on Tour, and with or without another stunning victory, he can expect to make at least Level 5 again.

So there’s the Magnificent Seven, or les Sept Magnifique. 4 Pro Tour wins. 9 Grand Prix wins. 23 Pro Tour Top 8s. 60 Grand Prix Top 8s. 303 Pro Points accumulated last year, at an average of almost 45. 48 Club Levels between them. In an increasingly competitive environment, these are epic numbers. Vive la France. Or something.

Great Britain — or not so great Britain. Sam Gomersall has been entirely devoured by World of Warcraft, Craig Jones has been entirely devoured by Ted Knutson (a potent image, I’m sure you’ll agree), and Nick Lovett has been entirely devoured by being Welsh. Hoo boy, am I going to be in trouble for that one. That leaves GB with just one and a half Pros this year. The ‘half’ is Quentin Martin, not because he isn’t a worthy player, but because real life commitments are going to take him away from the game for much of 2008. That leaves one man standing, and in Constructed at least, he measures up to the best. Stuart Wright is something like 18-4 in Constructed formats at Worlds over the last two years, and is 15-1 in his last 16. Awesome. Why he reserves these PT-winning levels of performance for the one tournament where his relatively less-stellar Limited skills prevent him from claiming victory is a question I’m sure he’s asked himself a good deal. It would be no surprise to see him Top 8 at Hollywood, and even less of a shock to find him nail Extended in Berlin. Either way, it’s time for SW to step up to the plate and hit the ball out of the park. (That, by the way Stuart, is a modern pop culture reference to a sporting pastime perpetrated by our American cousins. Just so you know.)

Germany — Andre Mueller heads the rankings amongst the six German Pros, with 36 points and a Level 6 accreditation. Two performances highlighted his 2007, first his appearance in the final of Grand Prix: Stockholm ,where he was eventually bested by Russia’s Nicolay Potovin. Then, he survived the flood to make the final again of Pro Tour: Valencia, where his expertly-piloted Enduring Ideal deck ran into the edge-of-your-seat wall that was Remi Fortier. I comprehend that Mueller may be irritating as all get-go to play against, but my Lord he’s fun to watch. One of the Tour’s real characters, and scientific evidence suggests he may talk Magic even faster than PvDDr plays it.

Next up is Sebastian Thaler, the 2006 Rookie of the Year. Thaler had a largely frustrating 2nd season in the Pro ranks. He made the Top 8 in Yokohama, but his pessimism regarding his quarter-final matchup was well justified. From there, a barren spell of near-misses and solid play that never quite went nova took him to 32 points and Level 6. He will doubtless have learned a harsh lesson from his disqualification in Valencia, where he and friend Klaus Jons were found to be having naughty conversations that thankfully didn’t lead to a ban for either. Currently ranked 26th, I fully expect Thaler to be a major contender this season.

Jim Herold was introduced to me as a guy from ‘ago.’ To be honest, I wasn’t paying that much attention to the Grand Prix scene back in 1999-2001 when he was busy winning Oslo, Frankfurt, and Cologne. There was a temptation therefore to view him as a talented old school guy who managed to put a run together that took him to the Top 8 in Geneva, and who wouldn’t be seen again. While that’s true to the extent that no further Top 8s occurred during 2007, the fact remains that Herold had a very solid season that saw him accumulate enough points to make Level 6. I think his laid-back style, ready smile, and a very quiet manner have slightly pulled the wool over my eyes, and that underneath there beats the heart of a true competitor. Always enjoyable to watch, I’m looking forward to seeing him again this year. As for his finishing position come December? I really don’t know.

At Level 5 we have Florian Pils, another quiet guy whose best performance of the year came in Strasbourg, where he made Top 8. That was his second final table, the first being in Rimini in 2004, where the Grand Prix circuit returns to later this year. Next comes Klaus Jons, a man who freely acknowledges that his attitude to the game is hanging on the edge of acceptability. Never knowingly turning down an opportunity to profit from an opponent’s mistake — whether a genuine play error or an opportunity afforded by the minutiae of the rules — Jons is an extremely dangerous opponent. Last year, one of Klaus Jons and Kenji Tsumura stopped no less than four opponents from forgetting to pay for assorted Future Sight Pacts in a single tournament. Clue: it wasn’t Klaus Jons. With all three Grand Prix Top 8s coming in the last 18 months, this relentless approach clearly pays dividends for a man who is one of the most likeable away from the table. Since I don’t have to play him, I really like him. If I had to play him, I’d probably hate him. Rounding out the team we have Jan Ruess, who accumulated 22 points to secure Level 4, and who will be looking for his first Premier Top 8.

Greece — Georgios Kapalos sneaked in at 21 points to guarantee an invite to the big show. He made Top 8 at Grand Prix: Munich back in 2003, and more recently teamed up with fellow Greek heavyweight (but only in a Magic sense) Vasilis Fatuoros to outlast almost everyone whilst making the final table of Grand Prix: Amsterdam last year. Nobody’s suggesting that Greece is a hotbed of Pro Magic, but Kapalos is a good guy to have on the scene, always affable in both victory and defeat.

Israel — well, I wasn’t expecting to be typing those letters anytime soon, but Uri Peleg firmly put Israel on the map. An almost certain absentee from Kuala Lumpur later this month, Peleg has a tough road ahead of him, following in the recent footsteps of Makahito Mihara, Katsuhiro Mori and Julien Nuijten, the previous three World Champs. An unknown quantity on Tour, much of his season will be defined by how he defends his title in Memphis, still over 10 months away.

And then it’s the turn of Japan, with a massive 21 Pros. Well…

They all look the same, they all sounds the same, they don’t speak English, and they win everything.

See you next week!


Yep, the word count alarm is ringing. But actually, the caricature is as wrong as it’s ever been. Setting aside the obviously wrong first two, increasing numbers of Japanese Pros are able to hold their own in the default language of Magic. As for winning everything, that’s a very mixed picture. You can’t argue with putting that many Pros out there. That’s basically a quarter of the Pro field. Equally, you can’t quibble with the fact that three of the top four ranked players on the planet hail from Japan, with only Guillaume Wafo-Tapa separating last year’s big three. However, most of the large prizes eluded the Japanese in 2007. None of the five Pro Tours fell to the Japanese, and that hasn’t happened since the 2002-3 season. Here’s how the massive squad breaks down:

Level 8: Tomaharu Saitou, Kenji Tsumura, Shingou Kurihara.
Level 7: Koutarou Ootsuka, Shuuhei Nakamura, Shouta Yasooka.
Level 6: Takuya Oosawa, Kazuya Mitamura, Yuuta Takahashi, Yuuya Watanabe, Masami Kaneko, Makahito Mihara, Masahiko Morita.
Level 5: Osamu Fujita, Katsuhiro Mori, Genki Taru, Shuu Komuro.
Level 4: Chikara Nakajima, Yuuta Hirosawa, Tsuyoshi Ikeda, Kentarou Yamamoto.

Let’s work from the bottom up.

Level 4: Only Hirosawa has yet to post a PT Top 8. Nakajima made it in Charleston at the team Pro Tour, Yamamoto was part of the runner-up team in San Diego last year, while Ikeda has two appearances on his resume, first in Yokohama 2003, then a year later in Seattle. Of these, Yamamoto has perhaps the best shot of climbing up the ranks, since the others have all been around a while without making a stratospheric breakthrough.

Level 5: 28 points was good enough for 35th last year for Genki Taru, and the lion’s share of the points came at Pro Tour: San Diego where he made the final table. Osamu Fujita is vastly experienced, with Top 8 Grand Prix appearances heading towards double figures at 8, his one win coming in Taipei back in 2006. The other two have both won Pro Tours. Shuu Komuro emerged victorious from Pro Tour: Nagoya in 2005, while that same year saw Katsuhiro Mori crowned World Champion. If you’ve been away for a while, you might be surprised to find the uber-talented Mori at ‘just’ Level 5. Au contraire, this represents a mighty achievement for a man whose 2007 season was comprehensively derailed by disqualification in Yokohama. To spend six months on the sidelines, including two Pro Tours with zero points, and still finish up the year at Level 5 is nothing short of silly. And he achieved this of course with his third consecutive Top 8 appearance at Worlds. Level 5 contains some very heavy hitters this year, but it’s hard to imagine one bigger than Mori.

Level 6: Seven players making it to Level 6 indicates the strength in depth of Japan, and it’s here of course that it scores heavily over countries like France in any mythical ‘best nation’ beauty contest. At the head of the group is Takuya Oosawa, Pro Tour champion from Prague in 2006. He so nearly made it two wins out of two when narrowly losing the final of Pro Tour: Geneva to Mike Hron last year. With six Grand Prix Top 8s behind him, he’s a vastly experienced competitor who could well be in contention in Kuala Lumpur. On 36 points, finishing 20th last year, Kazuya Mitamura made it all the way to the final of his home PT in Yokohama, before succumbing to Guillaume Wafo-Tapa. If he’s to push higher up the standings, he’ll probably need to record his first career GP Top 8. On 35 points, Yuuta Takahashi piled up the points in San Diego, where he finished second. Still, that’s only half the story, and plenty of points came elsewhere without headline finishes. He too has no GP Top 8s to his name. The highlight of Yuuya Watanabe’s year came in Kyoto, where he won the Grand Prix. That was the foundation stone for him becoming the 2007 Rookie of the Year, and now he has the chance to step up in class in his second year. Masami Kaneko made the final table in San Diego, but his dominant performance of 2007 came in Florence, where he more than justified the travel from Japan by winning the Grand Prix there in scintillating fashion. I believe that Kaneko could be this year’s Shingou Kurihara, a relative unknown who goes toe-to-toe at the top. Next is 2006 World Champion Makahito Mihara. Despite extensive work commitments, Mihara demonstrated a thorough understanding of the game when making the Top 8 in Valencia last October. His stock rose through his tenure as World Champ, and although the real world is liekly to curtail any Player of the Year ambitions, his appearance on any start list should be a precursor to a good finish. Rounding out the Level 6 brigade is Masahiko Morita. Morita has yet to post a Pro Tour Top 8, but that’s far from the case on the GP side. Four wins, most recently in Bangkok in 2007, are part of a whopping 16 Top 8 starts. That puts him 5th all-time in that category.

Level 7: On 40 points, just securing Level 7 status, are two familiar names, Shouta Yasooka and Shuuhei Nakamura. Yasooka’s 8 Grand Prix Top 8s include appearances in Asia, Europe, America, and Australasia, while his one Premier event victory came in 2006, when he was part of the team that defeated the Brazilians in the final of Pro Tour: Charleston. Shuuhei meanwhile is someone to really keep an eye on. Prior to this season he had spent two years at the maximum Club Level, but 2007 saw a succession of near-misses and tales of woe. That he still managed to come out of it with Level 7 demonstrates what a versatile and persistent Pro he is. Top 8 at Pro Tour: Valencia gave him the points when he needed them most, and he wasted no time in banishing the 2007 season, by travelling to Europe for the first event of the 2008 season, and going home for Christmas with 8 points in the bag. Now I must confess that the third Japanese Level 7 is something of a mystery to me. Koutarou Ootsuka got to the brink of Level 8 by scoring 49 points, thus finishing 8th in the world. And I have absolutely no clue how he did it. He has one lifetime PT Top 8, and that was Worlds in New York, where he lost in the semi-final. So where the hell did all those other points come from? A trawl through the archives reveals:

PT Geneva – 34th — 5
PT Yokohama – 143rd – 3
PT San Diego – 32nd – 5
PT Valencia – 28th – 6
Worlds – 4th – 16
GP Singapore – 6th – 4
GP Kyoto – 25th – 2
GP Montreal – 6th – 4
GP Bangkok – 6th – 4

Yes, Worlds was massive for him, since he could have ended at mid-Level 6 on 35 points. But a full 14 points accumulated via ultra-consistent GP finishes. So now I know, so now you know.

Level 8: Three of the top four finishers last year inhabit this rarefied atmosphere. Shingou Kurihara clearly had a breakout year, although like Ootsuka he owed much to consistency over splashy results. His one PT Top 8 came in Geneva, and with Limited the format in Kuala Lumpur I fully expect him to make another strong start to the campaign. A runner-up in both Singapore and Bangkok Grand Prix last year, he’s still in search of his first Premier event victory, and I believe that he is likely to rectify that this coming year. It’s hard to describe finishing second in the Player of the Year Race as a disappointing return, but in truth that’s how I, and more importantly Kenji Tsumura himself will probably see it. Yes, five lifetime PT Top 8s, but only 1 in 2007 in Geneva. Yes, 11 Grand Prix Top 8s lifetime, including two titles, but no victories in 2007. When you’ve been Player of the Year, by default anything less is a comedown. Rumor has it that Kenji will not be able to devote as much time to Magic this coming year, so he may have to content himself with attempting to maintain Level 8 status through fewer events. That leaves the reigning Player of the Year, Tomaharu Saitou. He won Grand Prix: Strasbourg in masterful fashion, and mapped out a campaign that saw him travelling the globe incessantly in search of Pro Points, even at the expense — both figurative and literal — of missing the Magic Invitational in order to compete in Grand Prix: Brisbane. You can’t fault his commitment, and it’s pretty damn hard to fault his play either. A thoroughly worthy winner, and anyone who wants to take the crown away will have to work very hard indeed, or produce some incredibly unlikely results, such as winning two of the four PTs this season.

And now, with the internet on the point of expiry, it’s time to bid you farewell until next time, when we begin, appropriately enough, with Malaysia’s finest Magical son, Terry Soh. Oh, and I’ll be introducing you to a Worlds in Memphis Countdown that should, if I do it right, result in multiple death threats.

Until then, as ever, thanks for reading.