Removed From Game – Three Continents

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Tuesday, July 1st – Three formats, three continents, three cities beginning with B – Birmingham, Buenos Aires and Bindianapolis. Time for a roundup of all things Pro, tech, and cardboardy with the ginger one.

We’ve reached the halfway point in the Player of the Year Race, and within the last month three Grand Prix have taken place across three formats and three continents. In this article, I’ll take you through the ins and outs of Birmingham in the UK, Indianapolis in the United States, and Buenos Aires in Argentina, as the big names position themselves for a run at the biggest prize in the game. Indianapolis marked the beginning of the Summer Series, and it’s going to be interesting to see how much difference the extra cash and more importantly the extra Pro Points make to the shape of the race. So let’s head back to Britain, and Grand Prix: Birmingham.

Birmingham, England

Being on home turf is both a matter of pride and a source of worry to me. It’s fantastic to be only two hours from the venue by car, and to be able to leave the passport at home feels good too. As a celebration of UK Magic, I get to see literally hundreds of friends and neighbours for the first time in ages. And, with the ratio of players as always heavily slanted towards the home side, I can cling to the possibility of a UK winner of a European Premier Event, something that doesn’t often enter my head to predict on the Grand Prix circuit at the moment. So why the concern? Well, the UK, and perhaps more relevantly England, isn’t exactly on top of world Magic right now. The last half dozen players to have seen authentic success from these isles are Sam Gomersall (winner of Grand Prix: Hasselt in 2006), Quentin Martin (Top 8 from Pro Tour: Prague), Martin Dingler (winner, Grand Prix: Cardiff), Nick Lovett (3rd at Worlds 2006), Craig Jones (2nd Pro Tour: Honolulu) and Stuart Wright (runner-up from Nationals 2007). We remain without a Pro Tour winner, despite Messrs. Jones, Ormerod, and Marsh having got as far as a 50/50 shot. So I’ve now mentioned eight names. Only Wright plays Magic competitively on a regular basis, although Nick Lovett does turn up at Grand Prix from time to time. In short, things aren’t that great here, and although I’d love a home victory, even if a single carload of Frenchmen turned up, featuring Olivier Ruel, Antoine Ruel, Remi Fortier and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, right there is where you would say it’s odds against a home victory. The other cause for concern coming in is the size of the event. Grand Prix tournaments in Britain have to fight against one rather overwhelming geographical factor. It’s called the sea. Whereas the rest of Europe have handily-placed collections of tarmac and asphalt called ‘roads’ to help them get to tournaments, we need the Royal Navy or the Air Force to get us to pretty much anywhere. (Pedants should note I’ve ignored the Channel Tunnel, as the idea that there’s a way for the French to invade without getting their feet wet tends to keep true Brits up at night, waiting for the call to arms.)

As it turns out, I need not have worried about the event being a flop. 581 was a knockout field, once again falling in line with attendances in the rest of the world, with Grand Prix proving a bigger and bigger draw. Of these, 335 were representing the UK, while there were strong turnouts from France (38), Germany (30), a surprisingly high number of Spanish (24), and a less surprising goodly number from Poland (20), quite possibly reflecting the likelihood of friends or family being able to offer accommodation within the burgeoning Polish community. Amongst my more esoteric delights is the opportunity to ponder over the identity of the lone representative from assorted ports. Consider for example the competitor for the Seychelles. What were they thinking? ‘Hmm, Seychelles or Birmingham, Seychelles or Birmingham.’ I mean, I know Magic’s great and all, but this joker clearly hadn’t been to Birmingham. Or doesn’t like sunburn. Meanwhile, what about the solitary player from Iran? Excuse me, Iran? Now the truth is probably really mundane, and our Iranian friend is over here studying as part of an exchange programme. But wouldn’t it be great if it was actually the President of Iran? Picture the scene. State visit, arranged in secret owing to political sensitivities. Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, gets on the phone to Tehran.

‘So, I was thinking Saturday.’
‘No way, Gordon. Listen mate, I’ve got three byes, yeah, and a bangin’ Block Constructed Deck. Let’s call it Sunday, unless I make Day 2.’
‘I wanted to discuss nuclear non-proliferation.’
‘Yes, yes, all in good time Gordon. I don’t suppose you have a foil Careful Consideration?’

That’s the kind of world history that never makes it into the official record. In the future, entire world wars will be prevented thanks to a concession during five extra turns. Possibly.

Meanwhile, in addition to Seychelles and Iran, South Korea, Denmark, Croatia, China, and Australia all had just one bullet in the chamber as we headed for eight rounds on Day 1.

To describe Faeries and Kithkin as ‘dominant’ in the Format, at least on the evidence of Birmingham, would be to severely understate the case. With roughly 1/3rd of the field sporting these two decks from the outset, by the time we reached Sunday play, a full 66% of the field were little White men or little Blue men. The Faeries deck had already had plenty of prominence due to Pro Tour: Hollywood the week before. As a result, many of the characters in the drama were essentially unchanged. In part that was due to the extreme ‘portability’ of the Standard deck, but it also owed something to the absence of quality Pro testing time between Hollywood and Birmingham. Although Wafo-Tapa playing Quick n’ Toast in Buenos Aires this past weekend suggests that he and Manuel Bucher and Co. had hit upon the correct solution for Standard (at least if you’re an amazingly gifted Magic player), their choice to play the Block version of the deck in Birmingham probably owes more to the vagaries of international travel than any serious conviction that theirs was the best deck in town.

As for the Kithkin deck, this was a traditional White Weenie deck only in part. Yes, there were super-swift early game efficient beaters, but that’s where the similarities to Armageddon-style weenie decks ends. My fellow European coverage colleague Dave Sutcliffe makes the point that without Armageddon, White Weenie decks have really struggled. This version of the white men took another path entirely, saying in effect ‘Okay, I’ve got you to 10, 8, 6 life or so, and you’ve stabilised. Plus, you’ve got pots of mana over there. Well, so have I, and I’m not spending mine on a 2/2 for 1. Meet — der der der — Cloudgoat Ranger.’ Now be honest, how many of us saw the awesome goatmeister as a Constructed finisher when Lorwyn came on the scene? But in a format that seemed to have forgotten about Hurly Burly, and didn’t have access to Night of Souls Betrayal (just think what a format changer that might have been), it turned out that splurging a bunch of tokens across the table was very frequently the way to go. You want a second wave? Here it is, all in one card, just like Spectral Procession. And yes, I know, Windbrisk Heights was totally awesome in this deck too. Armageddon-schmeddon, this deck ran a whopping twenty-six lands.

Among the foreign contingent looking to cash in on a relatively weak field were American Pro Tour champs Chris Lachmann and Jacob van Lunen, while Steve Sadin was busy in a Los Angeles hospital and therefore couldn’t join the Special Relationship UK/U.S. squad assembled chez Hagon. For more details on this, I point you towards our esteemed Editor’s tales of whoa, woe, and wow in an earlier recap. By the time we reached Day 2 only van Lunen remained, and his Day 2 was pretty miserable [Stuart Wright made Day 2… — Craig]. Of the 19 Brits still in attendance, only one could boast a perfect record. Magic trader Michael Duke had taken Kithkin to the top, along with sole Danish representative Rasmus Sibast. The other three undefeated decks were all Faeries. Alongside Carlos Santiago of Spain, two well-known names headed the leaderboard, Matthias Kunzler of Switzerland (the answer to the trivia question ‘which well-known Swiss player isn’t part of the reigning Team World Champions?’) and the flying Finn Antti Malin, someone who seems to have got the balance of competition and enjoyment just about right. A ferocious but fair competitor at the table, Malin is one of the most likeable guys around away from it, and with six rounds to go looked a likely bet for Top 8.

By the time we reached the Top 8, Malin and Kunzler had indeed continued their run of good form, whilst Sibast, Duke, and Santiago had missed out. Although Lee Shi Tian (Hong Kong) and last man standing Brit Jonathan Randle were unknowns, for the second Grand Prix running on the European circuit the cream had well and truly risen to the top. Manuel Bucher provided the Swiss with a second shot at the title. Jelger Wiegersma, in between reading the kind of book that melts your brain just looking at the back cover, was quietly annihilating everything in sight with Kithkin. And then there was room in the Top 8 for two stellar Frenchmen. For Remi Fortier, this was the first time back at the final table since polishing off a monumental flood-abused weekend in Valencia last year. Although I can’t say how much impact the Pro Tour win had on him, in the nine months since that victory he seems to have moved from a slightly callow youth, bewildered and exhausted by his success, to a fully-fledged young man, secure in his environment, and content with his status within the game. And, as he said to me before the Top 8, ‘my English, it is improving?’ He’s virtually fluent. Swine.

That left Raphael Levy, who was certainly playing an entertaining deck. This was five-color Elementals, and featured the crowd-pleasing prospect of a super-speedy Horde Of Notions. I must be honest and admit that I didn’t see much of Raphael through the weekend, but quite a few people with eyes, ears, and a solid Magic brain told me time and again that he was playing Magic at a level they’ve rarely seen. When Dave compared his dominance to the performance of Kamiel Cornelissen back in Malmo (Grand Prix: 2007) it was clear that Levy was again demonstrating his all-around mastery of the game. Right now, off the top of my head I can’t imagine a more popular Pro Tour winner should it happen.

The semi between Fortier and Wiegersma was over in approximately 19 seconds, with the penultimate showdown between Kithkin and Faeries being something of a washout. In Game 2, Wiegersma, on the play, malfunctioned badly, with minimal early beats including a — feel the excitement — turn 3 Wispmare on beatdown. As he signed his results slip away in (mild) disgust he was heard to complain about his inability to mulligan correctly. That left Fortier about an hour to wait for the final, where he would face the Hong Kong man who had narrowly dispatched Levy in a thriller. So, as it was apparently always destined to be, the last Kithkin versus Fae showdown was the last match of the weekend. In a match not always entirely civil, perhaps in part due to language issues, the Kithkin were more than quick enough to get the job done, and Fortier had to be content with second place.

All in all, it had been a good British Grand Prix. Excellent attendance, a properly stacked Top 8, home interest all the way to the quarter-finals, a surprise winner, all positives. Perhaps the only loser from the Grand Prix was the apparent state of the format. Surely Block Constructed wasn’t destined to be a two-against-the-field nightmare? The silver lining on the cloud was that timegap between Hollywood and Birmingham. When White Weenie had threatened to be dominant prior to Pro Tour: Yokohama, that had proved utterly false in the face of concerted testing. Surely now players around the world would go away and develop some proper answers to the Big Two?

Indianapolis, USA

If I was excited about the prospect of covering my home Grand Prix, that paled by comparison with the opportunity to attend my first ever North American GP in a city I’ve always wanted to visit. With Tim Willoughby, also from these shores, taking the lead on coverage, we got a bunch of odd looks from players not expecting to see us there, and many just couldn’t resist the urge to explore exactly why the entire coverage team was from the UK (although I can assure you we got a bucketload of fantastic help from assorted American colleagues as the weekend went by). So, for the record, there are of course multiple compelling arguments for a UK crew:

1. You want journalists from a country with a proven track record of Magical excellence (see above).
2. You want pundits with a deep understanding of the game.
3. You want a coverage team that can reed, rite, and spel.
4. In a battle between low-definition and high-definition cultures, Britannia rules the (air) waves.
5. You want a coverage team that understands the word ‘irony.’

I trust you all understand that point five is the most cogent.

Over recent Grand Prix, I’ve been trying to work out exactly how many players you’d need to pick in order for your ‘team’ to be favourite to win the title. At Brussels we took a list of 48 named Pros or ex-Pros and watched them battle against the other 1398 contenders. We’re all aware by this point that God didn’t make everyone equal, so the fact that my near-1400 player squad had a favourable numerical ratio of something like 27 to 1 still didn’t inspire me with much confidence. By the time the Top 8 rolled around there were four left from either side, and all four of the Pros managed to win, leaving me without a horse with two rounds to go. So then we got to Indy, and I took just ten from outside the U.S. to take on the 1100 or so gunning for homestand glory. I’m the first to admit that my team were a bit good : Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Carlos Romao, Remi Fortier, Raphael Levy, Gabriel Nassif, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Tomaharu Saitou, Shuuhei Nakamura, Jelger Wiegersma, and Sam Gomersall. Even so, that left my opposite number an awful lot of choices. His list reveals something pretty interesting about the state of world Magic right now. Here it is : Tim Aten, Paul Cheon, Antonino Da Rosa, Mark Herberholz, Chris Lachmann, Ben Lundquist, Steve Sadin, Luis Scott-Vargas, Jacob Van Lunen, and Gabe Walls. Now I think it’s clear that I have an edge here, and yet the conundrum is that by most Pro’s reckoning the U.S. is the dominant force on the global scene. Still, perhaps the absence of PT winners Mike Hron and Jon Finkel weaken the squad, and Tim elected not to pick Hollywood champ Charles Gindy. I’m very much looking forward to attending U.S. Nationals in Chicago next month, and get a look at the best the States has to offer in a more extended (though not Extended) setting.

Nine rounds were all accomplished within a single tournament structure on Day 1, thus departing from our European model of running two ‘pods’ of 550-ish each. On the plus side, the guy in 129th place knows that he’s been beaten out on genuine tiebreaks, whereas sometimes the 65th placed guy in one pod would have made it in had his record been in the other half of the draw. It’s only subtle, but the Top 128 and the Top 2 x 64 are not always the same thing. On the down side, you only needed one long drawn-out match with a deckcheck going into prolonged extra turns with a ruling or two and a Head Judge appeal thrown in to watch the entire 560 match tournament go into suspended animation. This seems a good moment to pay tribute to Jason Ness, the Head Judge for this North American behemoth. Presumably it isn’t possible to reach Level 4 without keeping a cool head in pressure situations, but JN not only kept his own cool, he communicated that to a team of floor judges that could, under other circumstances have wilted under the sheer weight of numbers. In particular, the efficiency with which the best part of 7000 rares, 21000 uncommons and over 70000 commons were distributed, registered and redistributed was something to behold. Another unusual aspect of this event were the utterly lovely John Avon playmats that were being given away to participants (and you’ll be delighted to know that the first half of the sentence just got auto-corrected to ‘John Avon playmates,’ which is almost certainly something quite different). Absolutely stunning, I’m very tempted to treat myself to the full set of five, and if you have eyes you owe it to yourself to have a look at them in the store here. (Here endeth the heartfelt commercial.)

Overnight, four players had navigated their way through the Sealed portion of the event to perfect 9-0 records. Whereas sometimes this means a still-impressive 6-0 plus three helpful byes, in the case of Eric Franklin it meant exactly what it said on the tin, nine (count them) nine wins. Even more impressively, you couldn’t simply pass this off as a super-powerful Sealed deck, since Franklin went on to make Top 8, something only two others of the overnight ‘Top 8′ managed to do. Whilst Clayton Mooney and Cody Damm fell by the wayside, Jamie Parke continued his excellent run of form on his return to competitive play, joining Franklin at the final table. Comfortably the biggest name at that final draft was Dutchie Jelger Wiegersma, making back-to-back Top 8 appearances. In talking to a lot of the Pros before the event, Wiegersma came up time and time again as a likely non-U.S. winner of the event (having already asked them for a home-based champ prediction). It seems that Wiegersma had been turning over draft after draft in the run-up to Indy, and Steve Sadin was vocal in his support for the man who was the Pro Player choice for the Magic Invitational last year.

As for notable finishes outside the final table, Brandon Scheel wound up 11th for the third straight time (Pro Tour: Hollywood and Pro Tour: Kuala Lumpur being the previous two.) Interestingly, the Pro Points he garnered for being better than approximately 2000 people across these three events still were still less than the Points Jon Finkel or Charles Gindy got for winning those respective Pro Tours, and I’ll be talking more about this points balance next week. Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa yet again made Top 16, a place he seems to occupy almost permanently. Zac Hill also had a stormer (15th), while Player of the Year Tomaharu Saitou, Chris Lachmann, and Remi Fortier all secured 2 Pro Points inside the Top 32. Among those getting a point for Top 64 were Owen Turtenwald, who discovered the power of Dire Undercurrents on Day One, David Irvine in 53rd, ‘The’ Ben Seck of Australia in 62nd, and the mightily-named Jasper A Johnson-Epstein who finished 64th. That left the less mightily-named but still mighty Gabe Walls to finish just outside the money in 65th.

Given the heavyweight nature of the Top 8 we’d seen in Brussels and Birmingham, it wouldn’t be fair to describe this one as a Classic. Nonetheless, Gaudenis Vidugiris is a name you should remember. He has impeccable Magic credentials, having been ‘brought up’ in the Madison Wisconsin scene that probably only bows to CMU (historically) and the New York crowd (currently) as the place to play. Oh, and possibly whatever room Wafo-Tapa is sitting in. Vidugiris edged past James Beltz in the quarters before finally eliminating old-timer Jamie Parke from proceedings in the semis. But he couldn’t make it past the Pro pick for the title. From first-pick to last, Wiegersma demonstrated a total grasp of the format, and with a day two record of seven wins and two intentional draws he appeared to claim the victory without even getting out of third gear. Several people have told me in recent weeks how grateful they are that Jelger doesn’t take the game super-seriously, the unspoken implication being that he would be a different class to most of the contenders if he did. Nonetheless, he was forthright in his determination to win another Grand Prix title to go with his previous win in Gothenburg back in 2003, and in his own uniquely laconic fashion was delighted with the victory.

And then he went and drafted. Obviously.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

With deadline looming, there’s just time to bring you a quick update from the absolute latest happenings in the Pro scene. Completing the hat trick across the three continents, Buenos Aires thoroughly annihilated previous attendance records for South America, almost doubling from 300 to nearly 600. With a sidedish of Pros looking to claim Summer Series points, the main dish was the rivalry between the hundreds of Argentineans and the three figures-worth of contenders who had made the trip from Brazil, spearheaded by Messrs. Edel, Romao and da Rosa. As for the Standard metagame, Faeries led the way into Day 2, with 14 of the 64 starters. In part thanks to the exposure granted the deck by Gindy’s win in Hollywood, BG Elves had a dozen representatives, while it was slightly surprising to find only seven Reveillark decks. Perhaps this reflects the intricacies of the deck, or maybe even the availability of physically putting together the 30+ rares needed to make the deck function. Either way, at the business end of things late on Sunday, three BG Elf decks were joined by Quick ‘n’ Toast piloted by French maestro Olivier Ruel, two of the seven Day 2 Reveillark players, a lone Faeries (as in Hollywood, this time played by Damian Buckley) and a certain Felipe Alves Pellegrini, who I confess had my support once I saw he was running Gassy Knoll, the Red Storm deck made famous by Patrick Chapin and friends.

Pellegrini made it to the final, but unexpectedly he would not face fan favourite Olivier Ruel, who had been ousted in the quarters by Adrien Degaspare. That left the way clear for Brazilian Francisco Braga to make an all-Brazil final, Damian Buckley having succumbed as the last Argentinean in the semis against Pellegrini. Just like the final of Worlds 2007, the Red Storm deck couldn’t make it happen against BG, and 2007 Worlds Team member Francisco Braga had the $4,000 and the 10 Pro Points. Meanwhile, trivia buffs should note that Oliver Ruel outscored the other seven members of the final table on previous Grand Prix Top 8s by a slightly comprehensive scoreline of 23 to zero.

So that’s about it for now. Next week we’ll take a look at how the last couple of months have affected the standings, I’ll narrow down the Race for Player of the Year to the final seven, and I’ll show you some fascinating trends that point towards a very bright and exciting time for Pro Magic in the years ahead.

Until then, as ever, thanks for reading.