Removed From Game – The Grand Prix Merry-Go-Round

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With a Grand Prix seeming to turn up on our Magical doorsteps every week, someone has to make sense of it all. While the search for that person continues, join Rich Hagon for all the news from Brisbane, Bangkok and Krakow.

As we head towards Worlds at breakneck pace, the big names have to decide how far they’re prepared to go in pursuit of their goals, both figuratively and literally. There’s no escaping the fact that Brisbane, Bangkok, Krakow, Kitakyuushu, and Daytona Beach aren’t exactly neighboring districts. First decision then is financial – how much is it going to cost to get to these events? Then there are the other costs, like the time away from wherever home might be, and the wear and tear of body and mind accumulated from life on the road. Not everyone can be like Raphael Levy and turn up time after time without paying the price. Once you’ve worked out the cost, it’s time to complete the equation with the benefits. How much money is enough to justify the trip? More importantly, how many Pro Points can you expect to make towards your goal? And what is your goal? Level 4, 5, 6? Each carry additional benefits, and it’s at this time of year that players up and down the standings are taking a long hard look at the consequences of success and failure. 5 Grand Prix in 7 weeks will determine the shape of the Leaderboard going into Worlds, where the only thing you can be certain of is this – there will not be enough points to go round. That’s why as I write this some of the heavy hitters in world Magic have come to Krakow to set the new Standard. Paul Cheon, Luis Scott-Vargas, Tomaharu Saitou, Kenji Tsumura, Raphael Levy, and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa are just 6 who will be desperate to take home as many points as possible. And that drive for points can be seen in the last two Grand Prix, in Brisbane and then Bangkok.


With not much over 200 players, getting to Day 2 action shouldn’t have been too problematic for the big Pros with three big byes. A record of 2 wins and 2 losses would likely make it through, and with only 64 coming back on Sunday, that guaranteed those left standing at least 1 point. Here’s some of the key results:

1st – Anatoli Lightfoot. For those who keep an eye on the Antipodean scene, Lightfoot actually converting a Top 8 appearance into a trophy-holding photo opportunity was a truly welcome sight. Having finished runner-up twice before on home turf in Brisbane 2004 and Sydney 2006, he put things to rest with a fine win here.

3rd – Andre Coimbra. The Portuguese man recently set himself what looked like a stiff task, leveling up to Level 5, a considerable distance away. Without targeting specific finishes in individual events, he reasoned that he could expect an average amount from each GP and the two remaining PTs, and if his predictions came true he would achieve his goal. Then came Valencia, when the deck he shared with Steve Sadin threw a spanner into the works and left Coimbra with a lot of work to do. Full credit then for coming back so strongly in the GP that couldn’t be further from home, and required the most money to reach. Five points isn’t by itself enough to get on target, but it’s a definite start and another considerable achievement for a man who is building a reputation as an innovative deckbuilder – his performance in Firenze was testament to that.

9th – Shingou Kurihara – Doubtless missing out on the Top 8 will have hurt the “unknown” Japanese player in the hunt for Player of the Year, but in the grand scheme of things this was still an excellent result on several levels. First of all, simply finishing ahead of 224 out of 233 isn’t shabby. Second, those 3 points could prove utterly crucial. Most importantly, this was his first chance to get back on the proverbial horse following a dismal weekend at Valencia where he was among the first to be out of contention with a miserable 0-4 record. Picking up points here would be critical if he was to mount a challenge for the overall title, and that mission was comfortably accomplished.

14th – Steve Sadin. In these last few months, more and more matches are going to matter to more and more players. 14th place doesn’t sound like much. Good, but not, say, amazing. For Steve Sadin however, it WAS amazing, as it allowed him to realise the dream of finally joining the Pro ranks for 2008. His report right here on starcitygames.com is a great read, but in addition to simply giving you lots of highs and lows, something possibly more significant lurks between the lines. Magic is still an extremely young sport, and very few high-level players use techniques that in other mental disciplines of endeavor would be second nature. Sadin seems to be a young man who thinks about a lot more than just the cards – we talked in Valencia about his ability to steady his heart rate at crucial pressure moments – and that suggests that he may find ways to win that most ignore. Since he is obviously a capable player, I’m very much looking forward to seeing whether he can be a flagbearer for a new approach to some of the mental aspects of the game. This column is called Removed From Game for a reason, and Sadin may be as close to that as Pros currently get.

21st – Taru Genki. Not in contention for big honors, it’s still noteworthy that the man who made the final four in San Diego is still putting up more than solid finishes.

31st – Takuya Oosawa. The winner of Pro Tour: Prague had a red-hot start to the 2007 season, only being bested by Mike Hron in Geneva when some much-documented Spectral Force shenanigans took the title from his grasp. Since then he’s been fairly quiet at GP and PTs, yet still has a realistic shot of making it to Level 5.

42nd – Tomoharu Saitou. Hmm, this is a tough one. Remember that while this tournament was going on, Kenji Tsumura was flying the flag at the Magic Invitational. Reviewing that last sentence I can feel some of you poised to mutilate me in the forums for suggesting that Saitou dishonored the game by his refusal to attend Essen. I don’t believe that is the case. Saitou found himself in a desperately difficult position, and took what was, for my money, the right clear-headed decision to pursue what for almost anyone is going to be a once in a lifetime achievement, becoming Player of the Year. It’s true that for some players Level 6 is the ultimate goal, and what happens from there on doesn’t matter. Guillaume Wafo-Tapa definitely belongs to this camp. Within sniffing distance of the title, he won’t be travelling to Florida or Japan in the coming fortnight. Saitou isn’t one of this group. For him, he wants to get to number one, and people don’t often remember who finishes second. Having taken the decision to fly to Brisbane rather than stay in Europe after Pro Tour: Valencia, the pressure must have been intense to make the tournament count. To an extent he did, because a point is a point is a point, and that’s one more than Kenji could ever have taken home from Essen at the Invitational. However, 42nd place isn’t where you expect to be if you’re looking to be enshrined as the most successful player of 2007, and you suspect that Saitou may not have felt that the gamble paid off.

Alright, time to spin the global wheel once more and head for Bangkok in Thailand for the penultimate Asian event of the year.


1st – Masahiko Morita. Morita had only 17 points coming into this event, and that meant a Pro Point finish would take the pressure off him at Worlds. He achieved this in spades with the maximum return of 8 points, putting him at a comfortable Level 3 next year. Japanese players seem to fall prey more than most to the facts of life, suddenly having to devote all their attention to either study or work – you know, stuff that gets in the way of Magic. It seems to me that the whole work/life balance notion doesn’t translate very well to Japanese culture. They really do seem to go “all in” for one thing or another, and simply stop whatever gets in the way. In Magic, this can be a really good thing. I remember being amazed when Kenji stopped doing a daily draft for StarCityGames.com. I mean, what could be easier than doing something you’d do anyway, writing a couple of paragraphs and you’re done? Turns out, he didn’t have enough time to do a daily draft and practice for Valencia, so he decided to practice for Valencia. As I say, I suspect this single-minded and clear-sighted approach may be one of the most powerful weapons in the Japanese player’s armory.

2nd – Shingou Kurihara. Okay, I think we have an answer to the question posed earlier. I think Shingou probably either is a great player, or is going to be a great player very soon. I’ve seen players crushed by a single match defeat, let alone the early kicking Kurihara received in Valencia. He is clearly a player who can win Worlds, and that means he can clearly win Player of the Year. Given what Saitou and Tsumura are doing currently, I’m beginning to think at the least he’ll be the leading Japanese player, and that would mean only a win at Worlds from someone like Herberholz or Cheon could take POY from him. Still plenty of ifs and buts, I grant you, but I’m nearly ready to stick my colors to the mast and say he’ll be the overall champion. Nearly.

8th – Takuya Oosawa. Four more tasty points mean that it’s been a great couple of weeks for a Japanese player who sometimes suffers from an image problem. Shuuhei Nakamura is a joker and relentlessly cheery. Tomaharu Saitou has the Saitou Slap. Kenji is Kenji. Oosawa is…..not desperately photogenic, and taciturn. Plus, in a scandalous turn of events, he doesn’t speak perfect idiomatic English… how dare he!?!

15th – Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa. One of the fastest players on Tour, Paulo plays real live matches at approximately the speed he plays practice matches. That’s somewhere in the region of 8-10 games per hour, and that, my friends, is a lot of Magic to squeeze into 60 minutes. I spoke with him about it at the Invitational, and he asked whether I felt it harmed his play. I don’t think it does, since he’s a guy who just thinks fast, talks fast, plays fast and, if he had a mind to do so, could undoubtedly leave a trail of broken-hearted young ladies around the world. If I really wanted to beat Paulo (something most of you will know I accomplished approximately 100% of the single time we’ve played), I would play very very slowly. Well, not as in “slow play” slowly, but I certainly wouldn’t be dancing to his samba rhythm, nosirree. Whenever I’m not covering a Grand Prix, I always look to see how the guys I know well are doing. For Paulo, the first place I look is round about 9th-16th. He seems to be making an art form of not quite making the Top 8. This of course means that he’s relentlessly, consistently good across multiple formats in multiple continents month in and month out. It also means that he’s rarely the favorite for actually lifting a title.

18th – Tomaharu Saitou. Well that’s better. 18th gets 3 Pro Points, especially critical given Kurihara’s outstanding weekend finish. Saitou already knows that he’s very good at the game. He probably knows that he’s great at the game, with a small “g.” He may not necessarily believe that he’s recognised as being “a Great” at the game, and that Capital Letter may be exactly what’s driving him on in his quest for Player of the Year – recognition and Magic immortality. This was a necessary step on that path.

24th – Olivier Ruel. If I’m good at my job, and I hope I’m at least half decent, then getting inside people’s heads and finding out what makes them tick is my bread and butter. Yes, I’d like to know what deck they’re playing, and what the threats are in the RG matchup and so on, but what I really care about is why they play, what pushes their buttons, what they think about the world of Magic and the magic of the world, and so on. Of the players I come into contact with most regularly, only Julien Nuijten is a player I feel I know less well than Olivier Ruel. For me, he’s a mass of contradictions. (Yes I know we all are, but give me some license.) He’s witty. He’s charming. He’s friendly. He’s attentive. He’s assiduous. He’s helpful. He’s thoughtful. He’s dedicated. He sees the bigger picture. He’s photogenic. He’s talkative. He has time for the fans, and trust me there are many fans at GPs and PTs who want a little piece of him, whether it’s a photo, or a signed Pro card. If all this sounds like I’m a paid up member of the OR fan club, I guess I am, but with a significant caveat. I know as much about what motivates him and makes him tick as I did before I met him. I have no clue how he views the wider world, or what he aims to accomplish in his life. Is he just a very talented sociable guy who wants to carry on being sociable and talented? Player of the Year? World Champion? And whatever the answers, why? And why does he get himself into trouble with the powers that be? Because he’s a cheating scumbag? I don’t believe so, yet whatever you believe about his assorted skirmishes with authority it’s undeniable that he must have some inner compulsion to push right to the edges of acceptability, and maybe beyond, in the pursuit of his goals. To not know how the dynamo works seems poor of me. I shall make it my business to find out at Worlds.

31st – Willy Edel. I’m not often lost for words, but Willy reduced me to silence at the Invitational. I know as well as you do that Willy has had some success playing Magic, but I’m guessing most of you don’t realize just how much success. So, here’s the thing. He used to have a really good job which he quit to play Magic full-time. Many of you may fancy the idea of playing full-time, but many of you won’t have had a job with the best part of a six-figure salary to walk away from in order to sling spells. Bear in mind though, that we’re dealing with the Brazilian economy here, so that six figures I alluded to doesn’t actually amount to all that many dollars or cash pounds. The prices for the Brazilians travelling the world are very high. Nonetheless, in his first full year of being a Pro, Willy was able to take home paycheques equivalent in Brazil of roughly a quarter of a million dollars. That’s like winning the next five World championships in a row, which, barring unexpected intelligence from deep in South America somewhere, suggests to me that Willy Edel is technically the most successful Magic player on the planet right now. Exchange rates, gotta love ’em. (He says earnestly, enjoying the 27 pence he gets for writing each week.)

35th – Taru Genki. And here he is again. Still don’t know much about him.

49th – Tiago Chan. Jetting off for Bangkok with the Invitational win only hours behind him, Tiago can look forward to millions of players hating him for creating a good Blue counterspell. There are plenty of different approaches to Magic, and finding one that’s right for you is key to success. I remember being mildly surprised reading one of Tiago’s articles here, focusing on some mistakes he had made. Now I’m not surprised that he suggested learning from your mistakes, that’s clearly a top plan. Rather I was surprised at how detailed his recollection of those errors were. The more I get to know him, the more I realise that Tiago tends to see things from an angle of failure. Yes I’m Level 6, but I’m not really very good. Yes I beat him but I played badly. Yes my Limited is fine, but I really want to improve my Constructed play because it’s not good enough. Yes I won the Invitational but I haven’t even got a Grand Prix Top 8. I’m all for self-deprecation. Nobody likes an arrogant strutting peacock telling everyone how he’s the greatest thing since Finkel, but somewhere down the line doesn’t being relentlessly down on your performances impact on your performances? Judging by the Invitational, apparently not.


And so, hot off the presses, the latest Grand Prix to hit your ears (you have been listening all weekend, haven’t you?). Yes, it’s Grand Prix: Krakow, held at a venue that won’t be winning any awards for, er, buildings, but which catered quite happily to 848 players and a split tournament on Day 1. Now you all better brace yourselves, because that equine quadruped over there that’s quite tall belongs to me, and in a few paragraphs time I shall be getting on my high horse and letting rip in a fashion you may not have become accustomed to. Meanwhile, let’s talk about some select results.

1st – Paul Cheon. What a wonderful story this is. Paul is trying to level up, and in Valencia all is going well at 6-0 when the wheels fall off. Also every other moving part that could fall off falls off. Undeterred, he hatches a plan with Luis Scott-Vargas to travel first to Krakow, then Daytona Beach (which for those of you geographically challenged like me is several thousand miles away from the two California residents), and then Worlds. Two points here, two in Daytona Beach, and five at Worlds would get Cheon to Level 6. This isn’t a guy overreaching – he is a former U.S. Champion after all – this is a guy looking really hard at an opportunity and believing in himself enough to invest time, effort, expertise, and money in trying to make it happen. One of the things I absolutely love about my job is the chance to look back on time I’ve spent with winners of events before they’ve won them. I met up with Guillaume Wafo-Tapa in Paris en route for Yokohama in April. There was nothing to suggest that this unfailingly polite, quiet, small guy reading a novel with a rucksack in front of him was only days away from triumph. Here, I sat on Saturday morning just chatting with Paul and Luis as they tried to finalise their sideboard for the event. Sure, they were genuinely trying to make the deck as good as possible in light of the evolving pre-tournament metagame information, but they were also just two guys chatting and chilling and, as I believe our colonial cousins sometimes say, shooting the breeze. Again, nothing to indicate that the perfect finish lay ahead of him. Very little in life thrills me more than seeing someone willing to risk a part of themselves in order to try and make something good happen, and then it happening. Of course I’m impartial from a coverage standpoint, and a victory for the eventual runner-up would have been a great story. Fact is, I’m thrilled for Cheon. Just as the Brazilians Paulo and Willy, the Japanese Kenji, Tomoharu and Shuuhei, just as these players grace our European game with their presence, so do Cheon and LSV. This result was great for Cheon, great for the Cheontourage, great for North America, and great for the world Magic scene. Did I say this result was great? It was great.

2nd – Amiel Tenenbaum. Playing the mono-Blue deck of Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Amiel was the absolute Terminator of the tournament. Beginning with three byes, he lost his opening two matches, putting him to single elimination. 4 opponents later, Day 1was done and four opponents were out of the running. Day 2, we start the coverage with the obligatory reminder that for the 7-2 brigade, a run of five straight victories is going to be the minimum requirement to make the Top 8. Five more opponents later, five more opponents going home. Quarter final, opponent goes home. Semi final, opponent goes home. Final, ah, okay, Cheon, well, can’t say I didn’t try…Under the pressure of the trapdoor, Amiel played superb Magic, and finished the day in rather better shape than when he lost the final of Grand Prix: Amsterdam with Gabriel Nassif at silly o’clock in the morning. This time, he was still awake when the time came to extend the hand to Cheon. A terrific performance, and 6 thoroughly deserved points that take him to Level 4 for ’08.

3rd – Armin Birner. A really good finish in Valencia, where he was close to the Show, coupled with a Final Table finish here makes it a great couple of weeks for the medical student who, like Jacko, seems to really enjoy the playing, as well as the winning.

4th – Oliver Ruel. This is pretty much the first time this year that Ruel has appeared to be in contention from the word go, and subsequently delivered. His semi-final match against Cheon was an absolute tour de force between two players who are not only amongst the best in the world, but who recognised a truly worthy adversary across the table. I frequently get to watch Magic where both players are better at the game than I am – that’s true at pretty much every round of every Pro Tour. Here, I came to the conclusion that these two were playing at a level beyond most people, contemplating interactions and tempo swings and targets and outs that is as different from you and me as Sunday School from the Vatican. It was truly a sight to behold, unlike the non-existent quarter final versus Guillaume Wafo-Tapa (see below.)

5th – Robert Jacko. Fine, you don’t know him. Somebody at every GP sweeps all before them. In Krakow, it was Jacko (pronounced Yatsko). Playing an aggressive UG Faeries deck, the leading Amateur of the tournament scythed his way to 12 wins, 2 draws and just a solitary loss before succumbing to the vastly experienced Tenenbaum in the quarters. Throughout, he played with a smile on his face, and a straightforward enjoyment of the cards he was dealt, figuratively and literally.

7th – Guillaume Wafo-Tapa. Undoubtedly one of the world’s finest, not only at deck design but at piloting the blessed things, W-T did his usual thing of quietly and efficiently watching opponents batter futilely against his masterful defence before choosing the perfect moment to just, you know, win, or occasionally allow a gracious draw to particularly valiant or problematic adversaries. It was a real pleasure to watch some of his matches, unlike the non-existent quarter final against Olivier Ruel (see below.)

10th – Jan Moritz Merkel. No sooner had I commented on his near-invisibility since winning the Pro Tour than he powers his way into contention here. With only 11 points coming in, the 3 he gets here gives him at least some kind of shot at retaining Pro status for 2008.

20th – Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa. Played Olivier Ruel for a spot in the Top 8, lost. Same as usual, right up there, comfortably Level 4 and probably Level 5 by year’s end.

28th – Tomoharu Saitou. A 2nd point is good news for Saitou, since Kenji Tsumura failed to get any by not winning enough, and Shingou failed to get any by, er, not playing. Tsumura is having a bad run at the moment, and with Gabriel Nassif due to spend the best part of three weeks with Mark Herberholz in Michigan training for Worlds, you wouldn’t bank on any of the three Japanese leaders getting the full 25 in New York.

Alright, here we go, soapbox time. Here’s my take on the quarter final between Guillaume Wafo-Tapa and Olivier Ruel. I expect some of you will feel the urge to vehemently argue with me in the forums. Not only is this your right, I expect no less of you if you feel strongly about it. Fine. Do me the favor of reading what I say very, very carefully, since I will be very, very careful about what I write. My complaints are extremely specific, and although I can’t immediately offer obvious solutions, I’m not going to entertain anyone who thinks I’m having a go at something or someone that I am palpably not. Happy? Right then, here’s what happened.

Wafo-Tapa is a guaranteed Level 6 for next year. Player of the Year would entitle him to a bigger room at Pro Tours, a guaranteed seat at the Invitational, a name on a list of Player of the Year winners, that kind of thing. W-T isn’t fussed about this. He’s taken an entirely pragmatic decision that the money it would take to go to events like Kitakyuushu or Daytona Beach simply don’t warrant his attendance. I’m certain that he would be delighted if he happened to lift the POY trophy next month, but he isn’t going to start earning air miles in a desperate race to make it happen. This is all fine, and although I suspect I’d be like a kid at Christmas at the prospect of POY, that’s probably part of the reason that I’m never likely to be one. Clean slate so far.

Olivier Ruel is currently Level 4. He badly wants to get to at least Level 5 for next year, and who can blame him? Not me certainly.

GW-T and OR are paired in the quarter finals of Grand Prix: Krakow. Wafo-Tapa immediately concedes to his friend, knowing that the money is basically irrelevant to him, he’s already got 4 Pro Points which only mean something in the context of Player of the Year, which he doesn’t care about, and that Olivier will be at least one point closer to Level 5 with the concession, ignoring any minor considerations like the extra hour won’t do Olivier any harm in terms of focus and concentration, freshness and so on. Still, everything’s fine.

Except it isn’t.

Let me cover the bases. I’m going to use the word “wrong” in the next few sentences in the sense of “illegal,” i.e. outside the accepted behavior of the game, okay? Olivier did PRECISELY nothing wrong. Guillaume Wafo-Tapa did PRECISELY nothing wrong. Had I been in Wafo-Tapa’s position, assuming my lack of ambition in the POY race, I would DEFINITELY have conceded to my friend Olivier. Hell, I’m going to a PTQ on Saturday in the express hope that I may be able to fight my way towards the top and then play a friend who I can concede to, because I want them on Tour. Concessions are not wrong. Intentional draws are not wrong. Prize splits are not wrong.

Here’s what’s wrong:

There’s an argument that says that it is unreasonable not to expect gamers to game. In other words, if there is a system in place which can be exploited by two incredibly smart people, it is a nonsense to suppose that they will not spot that possibility, and act on it. I’m prepared to accept this logic. Now is where things go badly astray. This argument is predicated on the idea that the two players involved exist in a vacuum. Player A benefits by conceding to Player B. Player B benefits by Player A conceding to him. End of story, apparently.

This is bullsh**.

I apologise for my choice of word there, but this is important. In every important decision there are three parties, not two: Player A, Player B and The Game Of Magic. I appreciate that this may come across as some noble high-faluting notion, with me confusing “honor” or “fair play” with “reality” or “the way the system works.” So I won’t appeal to you on a level that requires you to believe in any kind of morality or code of ethics or any such bleeding heart liberal softass nonsense. Instead, I’m going to appeal to you with cold hard facts.

Wafo-Tapa may not care about the Player of the Year Race, but hundreds of thousands of people around the world do care. They spend their weekends waiting for updates to find out how the guy from their local store / country / continent is doing. They get up at three in the morning to watch live coverage of the Pro Tour Top 8s, hoping that they’ll get to see his match live. They listen to the highlights shows, wanting to hear his reaction to being a first time PT champion. They post in the forums with their support. And more importantly than all of this stuff, which you may choose to shrug off if you wish with a “who cares about the fans?”, many of them buy singles and boosters and boxes and sleeves and turn up to Friday Night Magic and PTQs because there is a dream out there that says if they try hard, one day they might just become the man on the TV holding the trophy. Dreams aren’t just precious for the soul. Dreams sell cards.

What the world of Magic got yesterday was an empty table with the words, “sorry, doesn’t make sense to play cards, better off not to, but thanks for tuning in” metaphorically written on it.

Again, I have NO ISSUE with what Guillaume did, or Olivier, but consider this:

One day soon, somebody’s not going to care about the Player of the Year Race.
They will have already agreed a Prize Split with their friend.
They will already have won a Pro Tour.
They will have a plane to catch.
They will concede the Pro Tour final.

Trust me my friends, you won’t be thinking there’s nothing wrong then. You’ll think it stinks, and you will be right. That’s the way to destroy Professional Magic, and if you think I’m being alarmist, go right ahead and be comfortable. The Pro lifestyle is a Dream Factory, and when you take away the dreams, I for one would be wondering what I was doing with my $3,000,000 of prize money and my expenditure on Pro Magic of many times that amount.

Concessions are not wrong.
IDs are not wrong.
Nothing wrong happened in Krakow.

I wish I had answers for you, but instead I have only concerns. How many concessions at Worlds in the final round will it take to break the system? 1? 5? 15? 30? There could be that many. And how many in the Top 8? My over/under is set at 1, and that’s only one more than none.


As ever, thanks for reading.