Removed From Game – The 2008 Runners and Riders, Part 2

Read Rich Hagon every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Tuesday, February 12th – Can you guess? You can? Clever you. Yes, it’s the exact same article as last week, only with different players and different words in a different order. That’s what they mean when they call Rich Hagon “versatile.”

Let’s get straight back into our preview of the Pro year ahead. Last week we travelled the globe from Austria to the powerhouse of Japan via 10 other nations of assorted Magical pedigree. This time around we’ll complete our tour of the globe, taking in the exotic sights of Malaysia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and of course the USA. But we begin with the venue for the first Pro Tour of the 2008 season, Malaysia.

Malaysia – while Rich Hoaen may be fairly synonymous with Canadian Magic, how much more true is that of Malaysia’s sole representative on Tour, Terry Soh? Last seen at the top tables during last year’s Pro Tour: San Diego with his brother Joe, Terry has a more than decent record. Top 8 at Worlds 2004 and Nagoya the following season have been complemented by 3 Grand Prix final appearances. Although he’s yet to win one, having lost the final of Grand Prix: Singapore in 2003, he does have a truly significant victory to his name. In 2005, he sat down with a stellar field for the Magic Invitational, and emerged triumphant. His prize, of course, was to be immortalised in card form. When you think of what great cards some of the Invitational winners have had – Shadowmage Infiltrator, Avalanche Riders, Meddling Mage, and Dark Confidant are just four of the tastier ones – you’d have to be gutted if you ended up as Rakdos Augermage. This is a card that has seen play on approximately 14 occasions in Magic history, all of them as a proxy for a basic land. Seriously, when I win the Invitational (hardy hardy har) I shall avoid the curse of the Augermage at all costs. On to weightier matters. How will Soh respond to being on home turf? Will the weight of national expectation weigh heavily on his shoulders, or will he rise to the occasion? I very much hope it’s the latter, although as someone who barely scraped over the line into Level 4 on 20 points, winning the thing may be beyond realism.

The Netherlands – I’ve had a week to decide what to write about the Netherlands squad for 2008, and every time I look I come up with a different answer. It’s like an Escher drawing where you can’t find the beginning, let alone the middle and the end. So, I’m going to present to you two alternate views of the state of Dutch Magic. First the positive:

As usual, the Dutchies have assembled an impressive squad, blending rising talent with vast experience. Heading the list is Frank Karsten, a comfortable Level 6 finish last year leaving him ranked 18th in the list. In addition to his 4 European Grand Prix final tables, he can boast similar results in Salt Lake City and Mexico City, both in 2005. That was an awesome year for Karsten, who also made Top 8 at Pro Tour: Nagoya, and then fought his way all the way to the final of Worlds in Yokohama. Ruud Warmenhoven ground his way through the final day of Worlds in New York to generate just enough points to take him to Level 6. He will have fond memories of Kuala Lumpur, having made the Top 8 of the Grand Prix held there in 2006, the year that he also made Top 8 of Pro Tour: Honolulu. Three more Dutchies have Level 5 status. The 2003 National Champion Rogier Maaten has three GP Top 8s to his name. Roel van Heeswijk made an emotional breakthrough with his first Pro Tour Top 8 at Worlds back in December, and will look to build on that finish to last year. Then comes the mightily impressive Jelger Wiegersma, a man with Grand Prix final tables into double figures, and the only Pro Tour Champion on the squad, having carried off the trophy in Seattle 2004. The two remaining members of the team are Grand Prix: Malmo winner Wessel Oomens and 2007 National Champion Robert van Medevoort, a man who has already made an impressive start to the Player of the Year Race with his Top 8 at Grand Prix: Stuttgart. Between the seven of them they have 7 PT and 28 GP Top 8s. As usual, the Dutchies will be a group to be feared this season.

Now the alternate version:

Despite 35 Top 8 appearances between these seven, only Roel van Heeswijk’s Super Sunday slot at Worlds has come in the last twelve months. By his own admission, Frank Karsten, the highest ranked in 18th place last year, is unlikely to actually win a Premier Event, due to his deck choices so often being ultra-consistent and therefore getting beaten by some “out there” strategy or other at the sharp end. In addition, Karsten is cutting back on the Magic in 2008, and as someone whose testing habits are legendary that could really hurt his game. Ruud Warmenhoven is exactly the kind of solid Pro the game needs, but at 31st in the standings he makes an unlikely candidate for Player of the Year. Both Rogier Maaten and Wessel Oomens are seen playing Bridge as often as Magic at PTs these days. The “big beast” of the group is Jelger Wiegersma, with his massive 14 Top 8s, including a Pro Tour victory. However, he acknowledges that his game has slipped in recent times, and like Antoine Ruel he finds his priorities are now about more than simply wanting it more than the other guy. Falling off the train this year are former World Champion Julien Nuijten and the legendary Bram Snepvangers, a pivotal figure in Dutch Magic. That leaves the new blood as Robert van Medevoort. Admittedly, he’s had a great start to his Pro Magic career, with a National Title, World Team title, and his recent Grand Prix Top 8 in Stuttgart. However, there are big shoes that he has to fill if he is to dispel the feeling that the glory days of Dutch Magic are well and truly over.

Like so many things, the truth lies somewhere between. If I had to stick my neck out, and I suppose I do, I believe that the apparent resurgence of the U.S. coupled with the enforced “retirement” of a couple of big names mean that it will be hard for the Dutch to put up big numbers this year. However, I believe van Medevoort is thoroughly the real deal, and will likely win at least one major event this season.

Portugal – For a country with a relatively small base of players, to have three highly competent Pros is an achievement. Readers of StarCityGames.com will be more than familiar with one of them, Tiago Chan. Although he had a poor 2007, much of that was washed away by a spectacular performance at the Magic Invitational where he dominated the standings and then dispatched Canadian Rich Hoaen in the final. Will the Rakdos Augermage strike Chan when it comes time for his counterspell-land to see print? At four mana it sounds pretty exciting. The highest ranked of the three is Andre Coimbra, who is developing a thoroughly deserved reputation as a deckbuilder of very solid, innovative affairs that can dance with the best. A true globetrotter, Coimbra has Grand Prix Top 8s in four continents, with results in Hiroshima, Phoenix, Malmo, Florence, and Brisbane. His stated goal at the back end of last year was to make Level 7 (as now is). Although he fell three points short of that benchmark, I expect him to put that right in 2008, not least because of his burgeoning testing/deckbuilding relationship with Steve Sadin, more of whom later. The trio is rounded out by Paulo Carvalho, no slouch himself, having made the Top 8 of Worlds in 2006, and then having the misfortune to face Guillaume Wafo-Tapa in the quarter finals of Pro Tour: Yokohama last year. Although he’s only Level 4, he has two PT Top 8s to his name, and could well be in for a decent year. Rumor has it that Tiago will be less conspicuous on the Magic scene this year, and that means that Andre Coimbra will almost certainly be the leading Portuguese on tour.

Russia – only one name to bring you from Mother Russia, but he’s a player who I believe has all the tools to make a serious breakthrough in 2008. In some ways, that’s a misnomer, as Nicolay Potovin already has a Grand Prix victory, winning Stockholm last year. Two matches stick in the mind. As it happens he won both of them, but it was the manner in which he fought that most impressed. Against both Tomaharu Saitou and Jacob van Lunen he displayed a rare tenacity which I only saw matched in 2007 by Fried Meulders. There are clearly some economic issues affecting the growth of the game in Russia, but I believe that as we start to see more Russians, particularly on the Grand Prix circuit, we’ll see them not just competing, but winning. As for Potovin himself, even with one fewer Pro Tour in 2008, I have him down for at least one Sunday appearance.

Spain – I admit it, I just don’t get it. Spain is a large country, has its fair share of smart people, and plenty of Magic players. Yet right now their sole participant in the Pro game is Saul Aguado, one of only four without a Premier event Top 8 to his name, and sneaking in at exactly 20 points, joint 79th on the list. I’ve yet to hear a theory on why there is such a dearth of Pro talent, and I’d really welcome some info. Any Spanish readers care to contribute?

Sweden – There are two competitors on show, but neither have stellar career records. Mattias Kettil made the last of his two Top 8 appearances at Grand Prix: Warsaw. That was in 2001. As for Johan Sadeghpour, he’s a more than competent player, but one who doesn’t enjoy world travel in the way that a Shuuhei Nakamura or Raphael Levy does. As such, he’s unlikely to pick up many points away from the Pro Tour, and that pretty much guarantees no eye-catching season.

Switzerland – one of the few predictions I made last year that actually bore some resemblance to reality, I only wish I’d been braver in promoting the appeal of the Swiss team at Worlds. Nonetheless, even I didn’t think that Nico Bohny, Raphael Gennari, Manuel Bucher, and Christoph Huber would be so dominant. If Kaneko in Florence was the best individual performance of the year, the collective efforts of the Swiss were similarly impressive. Only one of that winning quartet has Pro status this year, but that one is arguably the best of the bunch. In addition to being a nice guy, Christoph Huber came across as someone who wasn’t just having an unbelievable ride at Worlds, but as someone who could have other days like that, and possibly sooner rather than later. To complement his Worlds Individual Top 8 and Team World title, he also made the final table at Grand Prix: Strasbourg last year. Like Potovin, I expect to see quite a lot more of Huber.

And now, with 67 Pros gone, and 21 to go, we come to our final destination, the USA. When I first came onto the Pro Tour scene, I’d already been covering the European Grand Prix circuit for a year, so I obviously had some catching up to do when it came to Magic “across the pond.” I was slightly bemused by the sense of national celebration that heralded Mike Hron’s victory in the first Pro Tour of 2007 in Geneva. To me, a smart guy who I didn’t know beat some other smart guys, most of whom I didn’t know, and that was that. He played well, he deserved it through the weekend, he had a bit of good fortune at a few crucial moments, let’s move on. Therefore to find that he was, capital A, American, came as a surprise. I suppose that if you grew up with Magic during the 1990s then you’re used to America winning everything in sight, much as Japan has achieved apparent dominance in recent years. So what is the true state of U.S. Magic? BDM is probably better qualified to answer, but I’ll have a crack at it. Let’s start with the 21 players on the Pro list:

Level 8: Paul Cheon
Level 7: Mark Herberholz, Mike Hron, Luis Scott-Vargas
Level 5: Jon Sonne, Ervin Tormos, Antonino De Rosa, Steven Wolansky, Chris Lachmann, Steve Sadin, Patrick Chapin, Jacob van Lunen, Ben Rubin
Level 4: John Pelcak, Ben Lundquist, Adam Chambers, Sam Stein, John Fiorillo, Gerard Fabiano, David Irvine, John Sittner

We’ll work from the bottom up.

Level 4: The bottom three – Gerard Fabiano, David Irvine, and Alex Sittner made it into the Level 4 club with precisely 20 points. That should give you some measure of the power that the U.S. has at its disposal. Sittner has yet to register a Top 8 Premier finish, but both the others have headline results. Fabiano has been around forever, and has a final table appearance in four of the last six years, including Pro Tour: Boston in 2002 and a geographically-adjacent runner-up finish in Grand Prix: Massachusetts last year. As for Irvine, I’m not rash enough to suggest that his time with us in the UK has taken him where he is today, but his Top 8 in San Francisco last year, where he led the standings after the Swiss rounds, feels like a sign of more to come. Irvine is someone who talks a little and listens a lot, and that feels like the correct way round if you want to be good at Magic.

Moving up we find John Fiorillo on 22 points and Sam Stein , Adam Chambers, Ben Lundquist, and John Pelcak all on 23. Of this group, only Lundquist has yet to play under the lights at a Pro Tour on Super Sunday. All five have made it to the last 8 of a Grand Prix, but only Pelcak, at Grand Prix: Chicago in 2004, has tasted victory, and to me this is the key for the rest of them. Can they get over the winner’s line, or will there always be someone a bit better on the day? Chambers came closest, finishing runner-up in Atlanta. Incidentally, his “Gindy’s Sister’s Fan Club” remains one of the best team names ever. Fiorillo was the teammate of Eugene Harvey as they found themselves horribly mana-crippled in the Semi-finals of Pro Tour: San Diego. He also has two Grand Prix final tables, both in the last two seasons. As for Stein, his Affinity deck was no match for Andre Mueller in the quarter-finals of Pro Tour: Valencia, but simply getting to Sunday at all with a hardcore Aggro deck was achievement in itself. Ben Lundquist is one of the mildest-mannered Pros on Tour, and maybe a bit more aggression is exactly what he needs to progress up the rankings.

Our next group of five on the U.S. ladder have some serious power. Let’s start with Ben Rubin. I was around the fringes of high-level Magic at the back end of the last century, and Rubin used to scare me witless. To me he was the embodiment of the American Pro that you heard about in whispers from people who had actually been on Tour. He was merciless, an automaton, flawless, and he absolutely would not stop until you were dead. Hmm, that sounds familiar. To find a softly-spoken old school gentlemen was one of my larger surprises when I joined the Tour full-time last year, and it was with regret that I saw Ben hadn’t quite made the Hall of Fame, by the narrowest of margins. This year there should be no cause for a recount, since Ben has a great career record that includes 4 PT Top 8s, and two Grand Prix wins in six Top 8 attempts.

Pro Tour: San Diego winners Chris Lachmann and Jacob van Lunen were ultimately separated by just two points come the end of the year, with the Serious Lachmann edging out the Joker van Lunen. They were a great pairing in terms of personal dynamic, and their win will linger long in the memory, and certainly longer than the time it took them to win the title. With no Two-Headed Giant Pro Tour on the schedule for 2008, we’ll get a whole year to see how they fare alone. It’s tempting to think that Lachmann is the brains behind the outfit, not least because that’s what van Lunen says every other sentence, but van Lunen is a serious gamer too, and understands that winning a PT could be the springboard to a Magical career, rather than the end of one.

Sandwiched between the two Sliver overlords are two of the most interesting characters in Magic today. Patrick Chapin spent some years away from the game, but never lost interest and continued to contribute excellent articles on some website or other. San Diego was something of a coming out party for him too, as he partnered Mark Herberholz, a fact in itself enough to get tongues wagging. After all, Herberholz was a mightily hot ticket, and could have chosen almost anyone, so who was this Chapin guy? Well, chances are that if you didn’t know before, you sure as sure know now, because Chapin featured rather heavily at the back end of 2007. Yep, he was the Dragonstorm pilot who kept his cool while all about them were losing theirs, sucked up a memorable Gabriel Nassif escapology act worthy of Harry Houdini in game 4 of their World Championship semi-finals, and then won game 5 in convincing fashion. That he lost to Israeli Uri Peleg in the final doesn’t stop this being the great comeback story of 2007, and Zvi Mowshowitz has his work cut out for him if he is to match Chapin’s return season story.

Approximately 9000 years younger than Chapin is another man to watch in 2008, Steve Sadin. Having won Grand Prix: Columbus last year at his first Top 8 appearance, Sadin took the brave and insightful decision to actively pursue the points he needed to become Pro. Travelling the globe in search of points, he achieved his target, and now sits comfortably among the Level 5s. Don’t expect Sadin to be Level 5 for long though. He may be ranked 51st right now, but this is a guy with all the tools to be Top 10 come year end. At the very least I expect him to make level 7. Why? Because Magic has got a lot tougher in recent years, and fewer and fewer players now expect to turn up at an event with minimal practice and simply “wing it.” Geoffrey Siron almost managed Top 8 at Valencia last year, but Siron isn’t your average guy by any means, and increasingly the spoils go to those who Test. Sadin is part of an outstanding group in New York – you’d be hard pressed to think of anyone you’d rather be nurtured by in your early years in the game than BDM, Flores et al. In addition to all that great deckbuilding conversation, Sadin has also allied himself with Portugal’s Andre Coimbra, and although that didn’t quite work out as they hoped in Valencia, it’s a relationship that could bear significant fruit. Most of all though, I’m intrigued by Sadin’s interest in matters that appear to be well off the Magic radar. When I first started reading Magic articles, if you dug around enough you’d find a piece about Jedi Mind Tricks, or Positive Visualisation, or some other arcane aspect of gaining an edge. It was just a throwaway comment, but Sadin has explored the idea of keeping your breathing regular under pressure, so as to avoid adrenaline-fuelled disasters where, literally, the blood rushes to your head and you cast all caution to the four winds. Not good, and Sadin’s taken steps to make sure that, when the time comes, he doesn’t buckle. To my mind, there is a vast unexplored resource within the world of Psychology in general and Sports Psychology in particular that Sadin is well-placed to exploit. In a world of ever-decreasing margins between the heavyhitters, someone who introduces an Edge that really is unique to them could buy themselves just the momentum to cross the line first. Sadin is my idea of that man.

Four more American Level 5s remain. Steven Wolansky was in the running for Rookie of the Year throughout proceedings, until we reached New York, where the wheels unceremoniously came off his campaign as he endured a truly epic run of losses. Still, he was back at the Feature Match area come Sunday morning, watching the quarter finals and looking to learn, which is probably the kind of attitude that got him into contention in the first place. Ervin Tormos is another who began last year with a Sunday appearance, ending up with a horrible matchup in the quarters in Geneva. Ever the joker, Ervin is as good as almost anyone on his day. Ervin’s trouble, and he freely admits this, is that he doesn’t often have his Day, because somewhere along the line he comes to the conclusion that it’s only a game and we’re all here to have fun and – hey – let’s try this risky play and see what happens, because it’ll be really cool if it works. It didn’t? Oh well, never mind. If Tormos cut out the comedy from his game, he’d be a lean mean winning machine. John Sonne is almost my working definition of a Magic Pro. He attends all the PTs. He’s not won a PT, but has five Grand Prix Top 8s, two of which he’s converted into wins back in 2004 and 2005 in Austin and Philadelphia respectively. He always seems to be having a good time, more or less regardless of results, and my guess is that he could be a Level 4 or 5 or 6 for as long as he cared to be, probably without ever really sniffing the finishing post. If you were new on Tour, you’d expect to get expertly thrashed. If you’re Kenji or Kai, you’d probably think there were worse matchups out there.

And then we come to the big four. Three Level 7s and a Level 8 make up the pinnacle of the American game. Sneaking into Level 7 is Luis Scott-Vargas. Obviously you can’t pick and choose where you display your utter mastery of the game, but I’m sure LSV would happily swap his two massive victories of last year — U.S. Nationals almost immediately followed up by Grand Prix: San Francisco – for one crack at a PT title. Because he comes across as a very mature guy there’s a tendency to think of him as having been around forever, but in fact that victory in San Fran was his first GP Top 8 appearance. We’ll be discussing Paul Cheon shortly, but even by mentioning the name here I’m falling prey to the natural tendency to group LSV under the catchy but misleading title of the Cheontourage. You only need to spend a short amount of time with them to see that both view their relationship as a partnership of equals, and it has served them terrifically well. My guess is that LSV will be targeting a Level 8 ticket for 2009, and to do that he’ll need to showcase his dominance on a truly global stage. Eight seats await in the first PT of 2008 just a few days from now, and LSV looks a great candidate for one of them.

On 42 points, and both inside the world Top 10, are Mike Hron and Mark Herberholz. Hron is the Tour poster-boy for softly-spoken annihilation. Boiling down our one-hour plus conversation following his pulse-pounding win against Takuya Oosawa in Geneva, he said roughly this:

“Well, testing showed that Black would be underdrafted. When Black’s underdrafted you can get pretty much all of it, and pretty much all of it beats pretty much not-all-of-it for any of the other colors. So I drafted Black, which turned out to be underdrafted, and I beat lots of people, because when Black’s underdrafted you can get pretty much all of it, and pretty much all of it beats pretty much not-all-of-it for any of the other colors.”

I was looking for the word to describe Hron for ages afterwards, and was then rescued by a reader who came up with “stoic.” This is a guy who makes Gary Cooper seem gushing. Although Geneva obviously contributed the major portion of his end of year total, 17 points came from the remainder of the year, and you don’t get that many just by turning up. Hron had decent finishes throughout the year, and now he must try and maintain Level 7, either by yet more consistency, or maybe by figuring out the truth about Draft, just as he did a year ago in Geneva.

Mark Herberholz would surely be considered the world’s leading deck designer by a considerable majority of those in the know, were it not for the existence of a certain Frenchman who bested him in the semis in Yokohama last year. When you consider how hard it is to reach a final table, you should ponder this stat: Herberholz has a Super Sunday appearance each of the last four years. In 2004 he made it in San Diego. In 2005, it was Philadelphia. He did, of course, win the whole thing in Honolulu in 2006, and then there was that titanic tussle with Wafo-Tapa in Yokohama. The question becomes not so much “if” as “when” he will once again get under the lights. Smart money would obviously be on Los Angeles (Standard) or Berlin (Extended), but his first PT Top 8 in San Diego featured Mrirodin-Darksteel Draft, so a quick start to the year could be on the cards. Herberholz is one of the most ruthless players on Tour, and I mean that in its most genuine and positive sense, namely that he never ever ever lets go of a winning situation if he can possibly help it, and will keep his foot on the gas until you are comprehensively mauled. A great competitor in other words, and another standout name to watch once again.

That leaves us just one U.S. citizen to discuss, Paul Cheon. With 52 points to his name he joins Tomaharu Saitou, Kenji Tsumura, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Shingou Kurihara, Olivier Ruel, and Raphael Levy in the exclusive realms of the Level 8s. Like teammate LSV, Cheon feels like an old-timer, but has yet to see Sunday play at the highest level. Doubts were raised about his character during Pro Tour: Valencia, where his stellar undefeated start gave way to a series of bitter defeats, leading some to wonder whether he was suffering from The Chokes. Thankfully for Cheon fans, a much more plausible explanation is simply that his Psychatog deck cut a swath through the Day 1 field, and then ran into largely hostile Sideboards-in-waiting during the home stretch. Nonetheless, Cheon will be anxious to get that first Pro Tour Top 8 under his belt, since two of the big three have already been achieved, namely becoming National Champion in 2006, and taking down Grand Prix: Krakow in 2007. With two Constructed PTs following Kuala Lumpur, you can be certain that Cheon will be well prepared. In fact, possibly only Frank Karsten, or a Chapin, has a similar reputation for coming to Constructed events with matters well in hand.

And that about does it for the Runners and Riders in 2008. Of course, that isn’t the whole story. Who knows how many Hall of Famers will be trying their luck around the world this year? Zvi Mowshowitz is definitely in attendance in Kuala Lumpur, as is the Shadowmage Infiltrator Mr. Jon Finkel. Nicolai Herzog is also rumored to be on his way to the Far East as we speak, and Messrs. Dougherty and Kastle at least seem likely to be there again. Then of course there’s all the hundreds of players who will play their part in the 2008 season without being in the Pro ranks. Hron, Wafo-Tapa, Lachmann and van Lunen, Fortier, Peleg. How many of us could have predicted that these would be the Pro Tour winners of 2007? All were well deserved, but none were easily predicted, with the possible exception of Wafo-Tapa, who is now established as one of the great Constructed minds. So who will emerge from the pack to dominate? What’s in store? Whatever the outcome, you can follow all the action over at magicthegathering.com. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a busy few days ahead, as for the first time I’ll be doing Tournament Centers with BDM and the live show from The Booth on Super Sunday. Yes, that’s right… in their ever-expanding generosity, Wizards of the Coast will now allow you not only to hear me day and night, but to see my ugly face as well.

Until next week, when I jump to Warp Speed… as ever, thanks for reading.


PS: As promised, here’s the start of our Countdown to Worlds in Memphis Tennessee, home of The King, Elvis. Well, not actually his home, because he’s dead – no, he really is. But in honor of the great man, I’ll be counting down to Worlds with a serious of puns so dreadful that only Chris Millar may dare to watch. Here’s the first…

It’s a little-known fact that Elvis suffered from arthritis due to his strumming his guitar so hard. He came off stage and his knuckles would swell enormously. Thankfully, he had on his payroll a masseuse, whose sole job it was to tend to those poor swollen knuckles. That’s right, she was the Elvis Hand Servant.

Only 41 weeks to go…