Removed From Game – Worlds Report Card, Part 1

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Wednesday, December 16th – From 0 points to 31, we wade through the finishing order at Rome, looking for clues to future performance, an understanding of what happened, and a whole host of great stories, all in the company of RH.

Money at Worlds went down to 75th place, but to talk only about those 75 would be dull in the extreme. Instead, here’s my own 75 people who took part in Worlds 2009, with scores and pithy comments attached. Enjoy.

0 points — Primoz Lavs: Even if you know that realistically you’re never winning the whole thing, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t go to bed on Wednesday night dreaming of $40,000 and a trophy. So when it all goes wrong, how long can you stand it before Magic isn’t fun anymore? Primoz, the only player to end Worlds without a win before signing out, went five rounds before throwing in the towel. If everything was crashing around you, how long would you last?

6 points — Gerry Thompson, Charles Gindy: Gerry elected to walk away after a 2-4 day of Standard. Charles had a slightly less voluntary ending, which has been well documented. Early next year, I’m going to write a lengthy look at cheating in the game, and why it evokes such passionate responses. For now, therefore, I’ll content myself with this observation:

Having had the utter calamity of being Disqualified, it was well within reason to suppose that Gindy would have gone into a darkened room and stayed there until it was all over. Instead, he returned the next day, and took the teasing, the joking, and the abuse, and didn’t try to make himself out to be the Wronged Hero. Knowing what’s coming your way, and facing it anyway, gets marks in my book, even if what came beforehand doesn’t.

7 points — Sam Black: You often find out more about people in adversity than in success, and Sam’s Worlds was as far from success as you could reasonably expect to get. Sometimes, you can look at the pairings, and see that a player had a monster set of roadblocks in his way. Almost certainly Sam’s toughest opponent across nine rounds of horror was Justin Cheung, part of the Magic Online Championship, and part of Australia’s finalists from the Team Competition Black won with Michael Jacob and Paul Cheon last year. That Sam was able to continue to smile and derive pleasure from simply being in Rome playing Magic says a lot.

9 points — Aaron Nicastri: How things can change in a year. Bursting onto the scene at Pro Tour: Hollywood, Nicastri monstered his way through 2008, with some less-awesome results at the back end of the season making Rookie of the Year closer than it might have been. This year — disaster, plunging him back down to Level 3 and on the fringes of Pro play. After 2-4 in Standard, 1-3 in Draft was enough. He seems a shadow of his former self, and may be finding that huge effort doesn’t always lead to good results, and luck really hasn’t gone his way this year.

12 points — Antoine Ruel: This was always about the Hall of Fame, and doing well at Worlds was very much an afterthought. I’ll be intrigued to see whether either of the Ruels can rekindle the flame that saw them at the very top of the Pro pile. There was a real feeling of one chapter closing and another opening with them both now in the Hall, but whether that new chapter is about Magic is debatable. If the fire has been doused, we may never see their like again.

15 points — Mark Herberholz: Mark spent almost his entire tournament playing against members of National teams. That should theoretically have given him a Pro edge, since, with respect, National teams are generally weaker across the board than any random set of three Pros. Nonetheless, Mark fell to 2-4 on Day 1, and couldn’t make a move in Draft, losing to 2/3rds of the Israeli National side in the second pod.

15 points — Willy Edel: Some people love competing, and travelling the world, and some people like winning. In my view, the happiest people love both, but I have a lot of respect for those for whom ‘it’s all about the X-O’ rings true. A few years back, Willy Edel was the natural successor to Carlos Romao as the flagbearer for Brazilian Magic. With three Pro Tour Top 8s in just over a year, he was correctly feared by most.

Seeing him at Worlds was a saddening sight. He knew things were coming to an end, and that he wasn’t competing as he used to. It seems as if he won’t be back next year, and the Real World has finally put an end to the dream of living the lifestyle. To look up 100 tables, and see the people in the thick of the action, know you’re not capable of being there, and that you probably won’t be again… for a true competitor, that’s a horrible feeling. I shall miss him.

18 points — Ben Rubin: When Ben comes to play Magic, he doesn’t let anything get in the way. His travel tale of woe getting to Pro Tour: Geneva is the stuff of legend, featuring what is almost certainly the world’s longest gaming-related taxi ride. In Rome, the thing getting in the way was losing. 3-3 in Standard led to a horrible Draft day, something that’s been troubling him of late, with a 1-10 record in Zendikar across Worlds and Pro Tour: Austin. Undeterred, he came back for Day 3, and despite a string of losses, kept on trucking, ending at 6-12 on the week, a far cry from his utterly dominant past performances that saw him make the Hall of Fame. Still, as I said, he came to play Magic, and play Magic he did.

18 points — Remi Fortier: Like Aaron Nicastri, Fortier had a run of success that has been hard to sustain. It took all his reserves of stamina to force his way through a gruelling Top 8 when winning Pro Tour: Valencia in 2007, but increasing maturity hasn’t funnelled into continued winning ways. He started strong, with 5-1 in Standard, but reversed that in Draft, with only Manuel Bucher as recognised Pro opposition, and didn’t come back for Extended.

21 points — Andre Mueller: Fortier’s final opponent from Valencia (and how’s that for a link?) hasn’t been seen much on Tour this year, and his always entertaining presence has been missed, though not necessarily by his opponents. Make no mistake, Andre is a horrible person to have to face, because he’s very much part of the school that believes in playing right on the line of messing with your head in an unfair way. Like Rubin, he didn’t let being out of contention deter him, and played to the end. It’s back to PTQs before we’ll see him again. I hope we do.

21 points — Hannes Kerem: The 2008 Estonian National Champion very nearly took the Rookie of the Year title away from Aaron Nicastri in Memphis, when he beat Kenji Tsumura in a quarter-final upset which brought him within reach of the Australian. That didn’t work out, and neither did Rome, where a 7-11 finish came about largely on the back of a horrible 1-5 final day in Extended.

22 points — Nico Bohny: As you know, I saw Switzerland as likely winners of the team competition, and Bohny was a large part of my thinking. To find him without a positive record in any of the three formats was a huge surprise to me, but those are the facts. With a Grand Prix title in 2006, the Worlds Team title in 2007, and a Pro Tour Top 8 in 2008, 2009 was a backward step, but one that still leaves him as a Level 4 Pro with full invite status for 2010.

24 points — Mick Edwards: Yes, I know, most of you are wondering ‘who?’, but I’m British, he’s British, so deal with it. Yes, 8-10 is no great shakes, but it takes some serious resolve to come back from an utter pummelling early in the tournament (1-5 Standard) and post wins over Koutarou Ootsuka, Yong Han Choo, and Jan Doise amongst others. Not everyone can win, or even do well, but everyone can try, and this represents a fair showing.

24 points – Frank Karsten: You may be assuming that the 2009 Hall of Fame inductee also went 8-10. He didn’t. To put it mildly, Frank had put all serious thoughts of winning Worlds aside long ago, at roughly the same point that he decided to pilot a Highlander deck in Extended. Or was it Standard? Or was it both?!? As the rounds wore on, it became apparent that he was getting rather a lot of draws. Then a slight demonic intervention occurred, and someone pointed out to Frank that it was likely that nobody in Pro Tour history had ever gone an even split of wins, losses, and draws. With eighteen rounds, that would make an intriguing 6-6-6. It took a little bit of manoeuvring down the stretch, but he made it. Just another little thing that makes Frank truly unique amongst men.

24 points — Anssi Myllymaki: Picture the scene. It’s the year 2046, and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Pro Tour, FOX 1 (the sole remaining TV channel on Earth, for all your Newsportainment Needs) shows a $5,000,000 Magic trivia game show. The final question is this: Which World Champion went 8-10 in the Main Event the year he became World Champion? It will, I trust, not tax you too far to work out that it’s Anssi Myllymaki, because the Finn defeated Shouta Yasooka for the Magic Online title early on Sunday morning.

Speaking personally, I thought having the Online event at Rome was a spectacular win for Wizards, and I can’t wait for the SuperDraft to take place as part of the San Diego festival of Magic in February.

24 points – Christophe Gregoir: This is a man well in control of his emotions, and you would have been hard-pressed to tell that he’d made his first Top 8 in Pro Tour: Honolulu earlier this year. He looked much the same at the end of Worlds, having gone 4-2 in Standard, 3-3 in Draft, and then fallen to 1-5 in Extended. I’d really like to see him win a Pro Tour, just to see if he goes absolutely bonkers. The winning bit is possible, the bonkers bit probably less so.

24 points — Guillaume Wafo-Tapa: It’s been a horrible year for Guillaume, who just hasn’t been able to string together any kind of form. As a result, he’s well outside the automatic invites for next year, and will have to wade through the French PTQ system if we are to see his latest deck creation on the big stage.

If you follow the line of Patrick Chapin, it’s possible to make the case that this loss of form is directly tied-in to the inability of Control to dominate the Pro Tour. You can certainly defend the suggestion that at one point Wafo-Tapa was The Best Control Player in the world, and he was generally playing The Best Control Deck in the room, and that’s largely how he won Pro Tour: Yokohama. As Patrick says, in Rome Wafo-Tapa was unable to find a Control archetype to dominate, and as a result, he didn’t dominate. What does Guillaume want for Christmas? Cryptic Command and Mystical Teachings in M11 please.

Bonus Update: On the last day of Worlds, Guillaume told me he was off to a PTQ the following weekend. He won it, and will be in San Diego.

25 points — Zhiyang Zhang: Among the many things I learned from the Chinese victory in the Team competition, an understanding that you don’t have to do all that well individually comes out tops. 25 points is only two below break-even, but you wouldn’t have thought that would get you in the mix for honors on Sunday. It did, and it wasn’t as if his teammates particularly took up the slack, with 27 and 31 points respectively. In other words, as a team they were 27 — 25 — 2. That’s where the Team bit of the Team Competition kicked in, as they won all four matches, and garnered another 36 points. As a group, they were behind all the other top 10 sets of National squads, but when it came to sitting down 3-on-3, they were literally invincible throughout the weekend.

26 points — Dave Williams: I’ve never asked him, but I imagine Dave looks at the mental toughness of most Magic players, Pro or otherwise, and inwardly shakes his head. This is the man who won over three million dollars at the World Series of Poker, and regularly risks thousands on the turn of a card. It’s impossible to do that job as well as he does without extreme mental toughness, discipline, and a willingness to acknowledge your own shortcomings when you make the wrong play.

I caught up with Dave just after he’d lost to England’s Mark Glenister, someone who also exhibits a most welcome case of self-analysis. Dave was livid at having fallen to 0-2, and the more so for the realization that it could have been avoided. When I asked what the mistake was, he brusquely replied that there were seven or eight plays involved, and it was far too much to go into. He absolutely didn’t want inane babbling from me while he was busy working through his options. Just for a moment, being there was profoundly uncomfortable. The man is granite, and that’s why he’s good at what he does.

26 points — Justin Cheung: It’s not often that you can accurately type the phrase ‘unfortunately, he lives in Australia,’ since that’s many people’s idea of heaven on Earth. However, I think it’s justified, or even Justin-fied, in the case of Cheung. When he was on camera in the Team finals last year, nobody seemed to know much about him. This year, he was in the Magic Online Championship, and I get the impression that if he lived in Madison, Wisconsin, or Prague in the Czech Republic, he’d be close to a household name by now. Unfortunately, he lives in Australia.

27 points — Kenny Oberg: I guess the idea for Kenny was to still be in contention when Extended rolled around, where he’s been rather good over the last couple of years. 2-4 in Standard rather scuppered that plan, and he couldn’t piece together a run on the final day.

27 points — Kai Budde: When Kai first used his Hall of Fame invite to return to the big stage, there was a palpable sense of excitement. Could the Juggernaut recapture past glories? No, seems to be the answer. The thing is, this makes perfect sense. Kai was utterly dominant in an era where meticulous attention to detail paid dividends, and where achieving that was a monumental task. These days, the amount of ‘edge’ given away by the big names via their internet articles, coupled with Magic Online, has ensured that the gap has narrowed to near-invisibility.

Doing 50 Drafts used to be a matter of finding seven other people within driving distance of a venue, and playing two drafts a night twice a week for six months. Now it’s possible to do 50 Drafts in a long weekend, round the clock. Shouta Yasooka said in an interview that he prepared for Worlds by playing Magic Online more than 12 hours a day. That’s the sort of dedication that Kai and Co put in at a time when it was almost impossible. Now any student with an internet connection and an easy degree course can be a pro Poker player, dominate Magic Online, or become a leading authority on the porn industry.

Yasooka is not alone in his fanatical devotion to the game, and Kai simply doesn’t have the time to devote to the game anymore. Is it still exciting to see him play in the Feature Match area? Sure, but you see him play there as an underdog.

27 points — Olivier Ruel: I’ll talk more about this next week, from a Manuel Bucher perspective. One of the most powerful bits of media to come out of Worlds was Evan Erwin camera following Bucher on his route to the Top 8. What was so telling for me was the way that both Ruel brothers, especially Olivier, were invested in their friend. We all do this to some extent, and I have a couple of friends who I’m desperate to see make it back to the Tour. That said, there’s been a definite shift in priorities for Olivier, and the realization that Bucher’s success was almost as important to him as his own, suggests that, like Antoine, the fire doesn’t burn so bright.

Talking at the Coliseum in Rome, filming the lifestyle piece for Wizards, we talked a little about next year, and he was philosophical about the lessening of his relationship with the game. Raphael Levy seems to be as hungry for success as ever, and still has the air of ‘unfinished business’ about him. That’s not true for Olivier, who understands the accomplishments he’s achieved, the goals he’s reached, and that there are other things in life out there. Whilst he’s still capable of winning things (Grand Prix: Brighton 2009), this attitude can’t help when it comes to the matches that matter, because, for him, by and large those matches don’t any more.

27 points — Brian Kibler: One of the problems of being a Magic star is that fans around the world want to know what’s happened when you don’t win. Sometimes that leads to painful introspection, a heartfelt apology, a ‘Magic’s just like that’ shrug, or a passionate defence of a strategy that was Right but Didn’t Work. Kibler’s comment post-Worlds was that he had suffered badly from jet lag. His points across the three days — 12 on day one, 9 on day two, and 6 on day three — do point to a decline in mental faculties. For some, jet lag would sound like an excuse. Chances are, in this case it’s just a simple observation. Unfortunately, that may make it less likely that Kibler will use his Level 7 status to travel to European Grand Prix next season. On the plus side, you can be sure he’ll arrive in Chiba early next year, ready to tackle Worlds with a brain in full working order.

27 points — Joel Calafell: Calafell found himself in a position most of us can only dream of, and I for one can’t imagine the frustration that he must have felt as a big prize slipped away. Already with a reputation for unusual decks that were positioned beautifully in the Metagame ‘for one week only,’ Calafell brought Turbo-Fog to Standard, and swept Day 1. As he said to me on the second morning, ‘I just don’t see how this deck can lose best three out of five.’

So, there you are, at 6-0, and in your own mind the World title is yours for the taking, as long as you can turn 6-0 into 13-5-1 and make the Top 8. 2-4 in Draft left Calafell with no lives left to give, including defeats in both pods to David Reitbauer. Extended saw him take a beating at 1-5, and the ‘unbeatable’ deck stayed in its box, and Calafell was forced to watch on Sunday, knowing he could have destroyed them all. A bitter pill to swallow, but on the plus side, he proved once again that he’s a true master of the weird Metagame call.

28 points — Reinhold Kohl: With two Grand Prix Top 8s this year (both on the European scene at Brighton and Rotterdam), Kohl isn’t someone you’re likely to know too much about. I wanted to mention him because he’s made Level 4 status for next year, and so should be at all the Pro Tours in 2010, but more because of his attitude. This is someone who loves the game, and loves the competition, even if that means he’s going to lose some of the time. Even at times of head-shaking manascrew, he continues to smile, and not through gritted teeth either. A welcome addition to the Tour.

29 points — Antti Malin: The 2008 World Champion carried his title with customary self-effacement and dignity through the year, and although his 2-4 start in Standard ensured that he was never really in contention here, he played his way through to a positive record. 2009 was a slow but steady year, and he’ll be back, competitive as ever, in 2010.

29 points — Lino Burgold: One of the youngest players around the Pro scene at just 18, Burgold has an outgoing disposition, and a definite belief that Magic should be fun at all times. 29 points seems like a disappointing figure for someone with this much talent, but it masks a Draft day meltdown that saw him with just one Limited win. Meanwhile, he was battling away with his teammates in the National competition, and combining the two saw him earn just enough points to edge out Akimasa Yamamoto for the Rookie of the Year title.

The 2006 winner, Sebastian Thaler, has been a solid Pro since. In 2007, Yuuya Watanabe won, and turned that into Player of the Year this season. 2008 was Aaron Nicastri, who hasn’t been so successful in season two. How will Burgold fare? Well, I think.

30 points — Shi Tian Lee: The 2008 Grand Prix: Birmingham winner came out of Worlds with a positive record, but by the time he embarked upon his 5-1 run in Extended, he was well out of contention. Hong Kong is almost by definition a small community, but he continues to make progress, and begins 2010 as a Level 5. He’s the sort of player who you don’t fear to play, but should definitely respect.

30 points — Matteo Orsini-Jones: Talent is something you can’t always do anything about. You have it, or you don’t. Working hard, taking opportunities — these are things you can do something about. This O-J does have talent, but more importantly, he took the opportunity presented by making the Top 8 of Pro Tour: Kyoto at the start of the season to do some global travelling, and made an Asian Grand Prix Top 8 as a result, something few Brits have achieved. As a result, he’s Britain’s only full-time Pro for next season, confirming him at the pinnacle of our island community.

30 points — Gaudenis Vidugiris: Someone else who has worked hard and taken his opportunities, Gaudenis had a disappointing Worlds, with a near break-even performance right across the board. Although he won’t have quite as much time to devote to the game next year, he’s likely to build on what’s been an excellent 2009.

30 points — Shuhei Nakamura: Something’s up with Shuhei, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Over the time I’ve known him, he’s been unfailingly polite, and clearly in love with the game. In Rome, he looked exhausted and disenchanted. At no point did he threaten to make the Top 8, and he seemed largely indifferent during the Team competition. It takes a certain kind of person to actively enjoy the global merry-go-round, and Raphael Levy is a prime example. Up until now, I would have said the same of Shuhei, but he had the look of someone in Rome who just can’t wait to get home and bury the passport for a good long while.

30 points — Sebastian Thaler: Arguably one of the most frustrating players on the entire Tour. He’s so impressive when you watch him, and in a very quiet way he dominates the table nine times out of ten. It always comes as a surprise when he loses, yet he does that rather more than his talent suggests he probably should. In particular, he’s developed a nasty habit of ending up with unintentional draws, which are really costing him. He’s still clearly very good, it just seems as if he should be even better.

30 points — Ben Lundquist: Although ending with a positive record, Ben had a relatively smooth run of opponents, and it’s a surprise that he didn’t take advantage. Ben now has five Grand Prix Top 8s, and it feels like he’s been around forever, whereas he is in fact a relatively new face on the scene. As such, he still has plenty of time to turn those opportunities into Titles, and I believe he will.

30 points — Kamiel Cornelissen: I talked earlier about Kai being someone who benefitted hugely from vast reams of testing. Kamiel is an example of a quite different type of player, one who simply intuits the game, and gets it right almost every time. At Grand Prix: Brussels, one of the most stacked Top 8s ever assembled fell to Kamiel, who was essentially playing the event as a Pre-release. Here, in the formats where testing gave you an edge (Standard and Extended) he was 5-7. In Draft, where card evaluations are apparently as instinctive to him as breathing, he went 5-1. He almost certainly won’t, but if he ever returned to the game seriously, he’d be an absolute monster.

31 points — Yuuya Watanabe: 0-2. 1-3. 3-5. None of these scorelines would have done much for the heart-rate of Yuuya Watanabe, who spent most of his time on the first two days watching rival Tomoharu Saitou in the Feature Match area, waiting to see whether the 2007 Player of the Year could deprive Watanabe of the 2009 version. His real comeback came at the back end of Day 2, when 3-5 became 7-5. The title was still in Saitou’s hands, though, and only a final round loss against Adam Koska prevented him from taking the race into the final day.

This wobble at the end of the season shouldn’t distract us from the simple fact that Watanabe was simply magnificent during the second half of the season, and well deserved his crown.

That seems like a neat point to slice things in two, so we’ll head on up the table in Part 2 next week. And then, something a little bit different to tide you over the festive season.

As ever, thanks for reading…