Removed From Game – The Muscles From Brussels

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Tuesday, May 20th – Grand Prix: Brussels was one of the truly great GP Sundays. As we head for Pro Tour: Hollywood, another Box Office production from the team that brought you ‘Lightning Helix: The Craig Jones Story’ and ‘The Magic Is Back’ starring Jon Finkel, join reviewer Rich Hagon as he talks you through the story of a spectacular Belgian weekend and looks ahead to what could be a very special three days in the land of dreams. Showtime!

For someone as in love with crap jokes as I am, I think I’ve done pretty well to get as far as only three days to go before Pro Tour: Hollywood to start making puns about the fact. For much more movie-related cringe-makers, you can of course join me over on the mothership later in the week as PT 2 of the new season blitzes in and out of Tinseltown. And no, I’m not prepared to take any bets on whether the winning deck will be named Tinseltown, The Oscars, or Rodeo Drive. Personally, my money’s on Finding Neverland, an independent British production starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, and Stuart Wright. This deck will, naturlich mein Herr, be UB Faeries.

We’ll come on to Hollywood again in a bit, but it turns out that the Walk of the Stars got a teeny bit relocated last month, as a final shootout line-up so top-heavy it threatened to capsize Belgium, never mind Brussels, came to the party. Three words, boys and girls:


This was probably the most exciting Magic I’ve had the privilege to see. Let’s not be coy, we all know the percentages – most of the time you don’t win at Magic, at least not match after match after match. So just the simple math of putting four staggeringly good players into the Top 8 of a Grand Prix is a pretty rare event, and I’ll qualify that by saying that I’m not talking about the days when if you were American and breathing you could turn up to a European Grand Prix and be close to spot on with your own prediction of making Top 8. No, this is in the right now of 1200+ players in Vienna and nearly 1500 in Brussels and the cream still rising to the top. Then we get the next statistical anomaly. Now usually I just jump at the chance to stick some tasty math-crunching into one of my articles – witness assorted forays into the world of Clash, Hideaway lands, and tea-making in Bolivia in the past 12 months for proof – but I’m going to plead the fifth on this one. (For our international audience, pleading the fifth is an oblique reference to a quasi-judicial minor democracy in which I am currently a visiting alien. Sorry, Alien.) So, forget how the math works, just take it from me that getting Raphael Levy, Kamiel Cornelissen, Gabriel Nassif, and Antoine Ruel into four separate quarter-finals was either a considerable stroke of luck or further evidence of the Wizards Global Conspiracy. Rumors of a five-hour delay before the Top 8 while the first 927 iterations of the quarter-finals spat forth by DCI Reporter were discarded were unconfirmed at the time of writing.

So the math gave the four Great Ones an opportunity to advance to two killer semi-finals. We’ve spoken enough together for you to know that one of the things I value highly amongst the best in the business is their ability to recognise opportunity and then grab it extremely tightly by the throat and not let go. Nonetheless, although favorite in any given matchup – let’s give them all Finkel-like powers and give them roughly a two-thirds win percentage – the theoretical chances of all four making the semis were still just less than a fifth. That’s before you factor in the actual opponents. Rogier Kleij of the Netherlands and Holger Lange of Germany aren’t household names for sure, but both Alexandre Peset and Gaetan Lefebvre of France didn’t strike from nowhere. Lefebvre in particular is starting to put together the kind of form on the Grand Prix circuit that suggests it won’t be long before les Sept Magnifiques (Olivier and Antoine Ruel, Gabriel Nassif, Amiel Tenenbaum, Remi Fortier, Raphael Levy, and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa) get an addition. He’s good.

We’ll get to the story of the Top 8 shortly, but with Shadowmoor Sealed being a brand new format, maybe now would be a good time to share a few observations from watching a truly gargantuan field get whittled down from 1471 to 128 over nine great rounds of Magic. So, first up, this isn’t a format where bombs mightily dominate. I want you to treat that sentence with care, especially if you’re about to think back to your personal Prerelease where some stupid Witherscale Wurm or whatever wrecked your day. (And I chose Witherscale Wurm almost at random for that sentence, so no ‘I’m not sure that’s really a bomb’ in the forums please.) Truth is, we always believe that a Sealed format is bomb-heavy, because it’s the bombs that we remember losing to, or winning with. Now 10th Edition, that was a bomb-heavy format, but that’s not a complaint, because 10th isn’t necessarily designed to play nice in Sealed. Shadowmoor definitely is, and it seemed that on our usual scientific method of counting the shaking heads and shrugging shoulders during each round, fewer people than normal were hacked off at ‘random’ losses to enormous flyers or guys with ridiculous abilities. To be fair, probably the most common complaint we saw during the weekend was all about machine-guns. 1/1 flyer Pili-Pala plus Red enchantment Power Of Fire = Quite Good was a formula employed to near-universal good effect. Red enchantment Power Of Fire plus Leech Bonder was also a combo that could go in the same usefulness bracket as Ice + Skating, Fish + Chips, or Lachmann + van Lunen. Given a poll of ‘Players Least In Need Of Help From Their Sealed Pool,’ Gabriel Nassif would be high on the list. The Frenchman had a Sealed Pool featuring killer rare Twilight Shepherd, plus killer rare Twilight Shepherd. In a move that should only surprise those of you that (a) don’t have Star City Premium and (b) don’t play Magic, Nassif built his deck around the pair of 5/5 Vigilant Persist Non-Legendary flyers (and yes, I’m shaking my head as I type that) and massacred his way through the day 1 field.

Joining Nassif were Antoine Ruel and Raph Levy of France, newcomer Simon Ritzka of Germany, and Bram Meulders, brother of Belgian National Champion Fried. Levy is a cautious old fox, and tends not to get excited unless it’s the final, his opponent has no permanents, is on 1 life, and Levy’s already sent his 14 power of guys into the red zone. Levy was shaking his head at the absurdity of his Sealed deck on Brussels Saturday at how over-the-top powerful it was. This is something you rarely hear about, because Sealed is never a Pro Tour format right now, but I’ve watched a lot of Pros rebuilding each other’s decks during their downtime of three byes at the start of Grand Prix, and Levy is spoken of with massive respect for his understanding of this version of the game, particularly when it comes to concocting aggressive builds out of sub-optimal cards that can tear an opponent apart before they can bring their higher-quality pool to bear on the match. He may be the best exponent of this in the world. In terms of reputation, think Rich Hoaen for Draft, or Guillaume Wafo-Tapa for Constructed. Levy may just be the best at Sealed in the world.

You probably know by now that I’m not averse to a statistic or two, and the last couple of months have thrown up a couple of special, special stats. To be honest, I thought that the Grand Prix: Vienna thing of the same player winning both the last two at theoretical odds of around 1.3 million to one (with the previous winner getting all the way to the final this time) was going to be my Number One Magic Stat for a long time to come, but it barely lasted 6 weeks. So, here’s the lineup for Draft Pod One going into rounds 13-15 at Brussels:

Raphael Levy — France – 347 Lifetime Pro Points
Antoine Ruel — France – 328 Lifetime Pro Points
Gabriel Nassif — France – 296 Lifetime Pro Points
Guillaume Wafo-Tapa — France – 96 Lifetime Pro Points
Alexandre Peset – France – 67 Lifetime Pro Points
Gaetan Lefebvre – France – 15 Lifetime Pro Points

With me so far? That’s six Frenchman, with a combined Lifetime Points haul of 1145. That’s quarter to midday. Or, if you prefer, that’s like attending 572.5 Pro Tours. Or winning nearly 56. However you stack the numbers, they’re just foolish. (As an aside, the one surprise in the list is Wafo-Tapa, who feels like he’s been on the Tour since shortly before the Romans invaded Britain, but is actually a fairly recent phenomenon.)

So which two plucky top-table explorers would be pitted against these six Frenchmen? Here they come:

Simon Ritzka — Germany – Lifetime Pro Points…
Nickolay Michnev — Germany – Lifetime Pro Points…


That’s right boys and girls, France won this baby one thousand one hundred and forty five Pro Points to nil, which I’m pretty certain is the most theoretically lopsided Draft Table there has ever been in the history of Pro Magic. If anyone would like to find something sillier, I am ready to take your call, but good luck with that.

1145 to 0.

Of the six Frenchmen – and remember this was all on one table, so everyone was busy knocking everyone else out, at least in theory – only Wafo-Tapa fell by the wayside. He hated his first draft of the day, and simply outplayed opponents in his first draft pod. He hated his second draft of the day, and against this lineup he couldn’t make up the lost ground. To yours and my intense non-surprise, our two German lambs to the slaughter couldn’t make it over the hump, but Ritzka was absolutely thrilled to have made the Top 16. Having never made better than 9th at a couple of Pro Tour Qualifiers before the weekend, he now has an automatic qualification for Pro Tour: Berlin in his home country later this year. Truly, this was a great story of a true amateur living the dream, and he did so with decorum, self-deprecation and a ready grin. A winner in many ways.

And that brings us to the Top 8. Yes, the Big Four got through the quarters, but there was a lot more to it than that. Antoine Ruel in particular had to call on every trick in the book – and that’s not a euphemism for anything underhand, I just mean he had to be completely on his mettle – to get past Dutchman Rogier Kleij. In Game 1, Ruel managed to cast Incremental Blight twice and still lost, largely because Kleij had superfast recovery for the boardsweepers in the form of tasty hasty men. Incremental Blight shouldn’t be far off game over. Double Incremental Blight should almost never be anything else. And still the Frenchman fell one behind. Let’s cut to the chase in Game 2. Kleij made an Inkfathom Infiltrator early in the piece, and the story of the second game was Ruel casting about for answers as the Infiltrator did a pretty good impression of a clock — tick (18) tock (16) tick (14) tock (12)… you get the idea, and so did Antoine. With one card in hand and on just two life, Ruel saw Kleij yet again turn the unblockable 2/1 into the red zone and pray. Ruel had Puncture Bolt and survived. But then it was time for Booby Trap Magic, as almost any haste monster from Kleij, or his Corrupt, would finally put the Frenchman to bed. Didn’t happen. Turn after turn Ruel stared down the precipice, and turn after turn he had just enough to stay alive, eventually squaring the match at 1-1. And then in the decider, an unfortunate error. Kleij came powering out for the third time running, and the pressure was on from the start. Ruel strove valiantly to stablise, but Kleij just kept adding threats. With Ruel barely on double figures and staring down a marauding horde, Kleij spent his Turn 5 casting Beseech The Queen (which as last week’s readers will know is a funny name for a Queen) and fetching Corrupt. Except of course he didn’t, because, as Antoine was quick to point out, 5 doesn’t equal 6, and with only a fifth land played, the six-mana Corrupt was beyond the range of the Dutchman, no matter how hard he entreated the capricious female monarch. My card evaluations aren’t always amazing, but I’m prepared to stick my neck out and say that 4/4 for 3 Ashenmoor Gouger wasn’t quite as powerful as Corrupt at that juncture. Kleij shared my analysis, and so did Ruel, curiously. Although he never threw in the towel, Kleij was fighting his own demons as well as Ruel’s deck from that point on, and Ruel made it out of a quarter-final he basically had no right to get anywhere near winning. Once again, the player at the pinnacle of the game had given himself every possible millimetre of opportunity and then kicked the door down when the scent of victory presented itself. Was that a mixed metaphor?

On to the semis then, and this time the shoe was on the other foot. Against Gab Nassif, who had edged past Gaetan Lefebvre in 3, Ruel took Game 1 by virtue of having land and spells in acceptable combinations, while Nassif managed near-infinite mulligans before succumbing with no small resistance given his crippling disadvantage. Ruel pressed again in Game 2, and Nassif found out what Ruel had felt in the quarter-final, facing down lethal damage on the following turn with only one card in hand. Again, the underdog survived, and for turn after turn Nassif hung right on the edge on one life, but with Illuminated Folio turbo-ing him back into contention. Eventually, the card advantage engine did the job, and in Game 3 Nassif found the power of an unblockable 3/3 to finish off his compatriot in a superb matchup of two guaranteed future Hall of Famers going at it hammer and tongs. Wonderful to watch, simply wonderful.

In the other bracket, Kamiel Cornelissen who, apart from not being French, is quite good at Magic (!) had dealt with Peset in the quarters and now faced down Levy in the semis. I mention this now not because it’s aimed at these two specifically, but just because it seemed a good moment in the article:

Dear DCI,
Have you ever heard of Slow Play warnings?
Richard Hagon, Level 1 Judge.
p.s. Because I have.

Here’s the thing. 128 players sat down shortly after 8am on the Sunday in Brussels. By 4pm there had been 2 complete Drafts, 2 complete builds and 6 complete rounds, including all the assorted extra turn time-chomping associated with that many matches going on each round. That’s 8 hours for two entire Draft iterations. The Top 8 started at roughly 4.30 and finished somewhere around 10. That’s an hour and a half longer, and with a maximum of four matches going on. Yes, matches in the Top 8 are untimed, but there is still a duty on the players to play at a reasonable speed. This rule exists. Presumably it exists for a reason. There were times in several matches in the Top 8 that the match appeared to enter suspended animation. Yet the DCI seems reluctant/incapable of giving out Slow Play Warnings at the back end of big events. It’s almost as if the Judges run out of steam and just stand around going, ‘ah, it’s the Top 8, it’ll be fine. You going to Berlin?’ I think the DCI is a great organisation, and I’m proud to be a part of it. But this abdication of responsibility in this one instance does the game no service at all, and needs resolving. New judge manager, are you listening?

Back to the action. Kamiel denied the crowd an all-French final by beating Levy 2-1, and then confronted Nassif in the decider. Although not quite as sparkling as the previous two rounds, the theme continued as Kamiel found himself 1-0 down and on the back foot in Game 2. And yes, he still came back to win. Fellow European Grand Prix Coverage man Dave Sutcliffe reckoned Kamiel was just about the best player he’s ever seen in action, harking back to a Coldsnap Grand Prix in 2006 where the Dutchman just did things that nobody else was seeing. To be fair, he put on a masterclass in Brussels, and it was a pleasure to witness.

It’s almost time for me to go, but before I do I thought you might like to know who’s going to make the Top 8 in Hollywood later this week. If you’ve read BDM’s article on the mothership, and you like Constructed, you can’t fail to have been excited by the alignment of teams testing for this massively entertaining event. To think of a Japanese crowd of Shuhei Nakamura, Naoki Shimizu, Kazuya Mitamura, Masashi Oiso, Yuuta Takahashi, Yuuya Watanabe, and Kenji Tsumura headed up by Tomaharu Saitou is pretty wicked. On the East Coast you have Steve Sadin, Zvi Mowshowitz, Jon Finkel, Chris Lachmann, and Jacob van Lunen and more throwing in their lot together. I chatted with van Lunen last week and he seems pretty excited about their chances. Admittedly Jake is a guy who seems pretty excited about things like, well, breathing, but it seems inconceivable that this lot haven’t solved the conundrum of the Fae. Then you start in on Chapin and Co., which sounds like the title for a sitcom and probably should be. I think Chapin is probably telling you at least some of the truth when he says that the field will probably be Combo, Faeries, and Anti-Faeries. I think the bit he’s probably not telling you is the bit where he adds ‘competing for second place behind my deck.’ And then there are people like Stuart Wright, hatching plans deep in the English countryside with a testing team of one, quietly plotting the format’s downfall… and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa and assorted Frenchman of some considerable standing, practically guaranteed to have something tasty going on.

Hollywood is going to be amazing. Will the Faeries maintain their position as undisputed Best Deck? Remember the last undisputed Best Deck at a Constructed Pro Tour? A year ago, Pro Tour: Yokohama, White Weenie… utterly butchered beyond all recognition. Even dental records couldn’t identify the corpse. It’s inconceivable that all these super-teams won’t have a plan for the 1/1s. But it is conceivable that their plan for the little 1/1s is to cast them. Even if the format moves away from the Fae, that could leave the way open for a totally unheralded deck to rear its head and claim the prize. For me, almost nothing in the game is as exciting as the seismic metagame shifts we get in the days before a Pro Tour. So, in order to give you something to mercilessly mock me with, here’s my idea of the Top 8, and two decks I expect to ‘unexpectedly’ do something good this weekend. The two decks both involve counting. The first counts to nine, and is Dragonstorm. The second counts to somewhere near Infinity, and will be some Metagame-tweaked weirdness involving Martyr Of Sands. As for the actual Top 8, with no reasoning attached until I can say ‘I told you so’…

Steve Sadin
Guillaume Wafo-Tapa
Jacob van Lunen
Stuart Wright
Shuuhei Nakamura
Tomaharu Saitou
Patrick Chapin
Mark Herberholz

I don’t believe Hollywood is any place for the faint of heart, and I don’t believe that there is a Remi Fortier waiting to announce themselves on the world stage. Hollywood is the place for A-Listers to justify their expensive price tags. Hollywood is a place for Box Office performers to strut their stuff, and a Top 8 like that would be The Incredibles, would be Armageddon, would be the Field of Dreams.

It’s going to be… (sorry)….


As ever, thanks for reading.