Removed From Game – Worlds Report Card Part 2

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Tuesday, January 6th – Rich wraps up Worlds with thoughts and comments about the back end of 2008, with L thru Z taking center stage. Plus news of a forthcoming series about a very special player…

We’re into 2009, but there’s a little bit of housekeeping left over from the back end of 2008. Last week we looked at the first half of the results out of Memphis, and now L-Z gets their turn. Let’s go.

L is for Tim Landale. I hadn’t met this Grand Prix winner before Memphis, and was looking forward to it. He only secured 3 wins in 11 matches, but to me of more significance was his ability to put that disappointment into proper perspective. Yes, he expected to do much better, and yes, he wasn’t best pleased that he hadn’t. But he maintained a sense of equilibrium, and an apparent awareness of how 3-8 at Worlds was a darn sight better than many alternative lifestyles he might have spent the weekend involved in. In short, a rubbish tournament, but I believe it’s likely that GP win won’t be his last big finish.

Congratulations to Dan Lanthier, the Canadian Champion. Worlds is a big stamina test at any time, but when you’re representing your country, meaning 22 rounds across 3 days, you really need to take one match at a time, and that can’t be easy when you start out 1-5. An overall haul of 25 points doesn’t sound that exciting, but coming back to 5-1 in Extended was a top performance, doing his bit for the team.

What more is there to say about Raphael Levy? The Frenchman seems never to tire of the global whirl, consistently turning up, and consistently putting up great finishes. Last year he had a lot riding on his Worlds performance, successfully levelling up in the final round. This time around he was his usual, utterly predictable better-than-most self. 4-2 in Standard, 3-3 in Draft, 4-1-1 in Extended. None of these records sound super-hot, but that ability to simply not have a bad day is what has turned the Hall of Famer into one of the most relentless Pros in the business. This time around, 34 points was enough for 36th place, and one of the few bets about 2009 I’m prepared to make at this stage is that he’ll be inside the Top 20 for Player of the Year yet again. What a guy.

Two more players who finished neck and neck with Levy were Ben Lundquist and Marijn Lybaert. Whereas Levy arrived there via consistency, it was a true rollercoaster for these two. Both posted 5-1 in Standard. While Lundquist dropped back slightly in Draft with a 4-2 run, Lybaert continued apace, and stood in prime position for yet another assault on the Top 8. Wins over Manuel Bucher, Andre Mueller and Jun’ya Iyanaga were the highlights of his Day 2, while Lundquist couldn’t defeat either of the two big names he faced, pacesetter Ervin Tormos and eventual top of the Swiss Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa. Then the wheels came off. For Lundquist, 7 points in Extended were hard-won, with losses against a mighty trio of Kenji Tsumura, Olivier Ruel, and Andre Mueller. For Lybaert, the final day was even worse. Tsuyoshi Ikeda, David Irvine, Ben Rubin, and Luis Scott-Vargas all took away three points, and Ervin Tormos secured a draw, his only point of the entire Extended portion. The fact that Lundquist and Lybaert had such poor third days and still finished in 31st and 33rd respectively says much about their talents. Lybaert in particular has been one of the best players in the world over the last two seasons, and I very much hope that the next stage of his life will still have at least some room for Magic.

M is for Antti Malin. Day 1 was especially disappointing, since he faced as reasonable a set of opponents as one could wish, yet made no real headway, ending the day at 3-3. That’s where the Antti Malin Story takes off, with only one solitary defeat to Frank Karsten in Extended standing between him and being crowned Individual World Champion. Arguably the toughest matchup of Sunday was the quarter final against Akira Asahara, who had comprehensively butchered multiple Faeries decks on the first day, and when the Japanese player took the opener against a double Bitterblossom ploy from Malin, it seemed as if that trend would continue. That Malin remained unrattled by this unexpected reverse was significant, and he seemed largely nerveless throughout the rest of that match, and the all-European semi against Hannes Kerem. He seemed a little more nervous once he reached the final and Jamie Parke, but that’s only natural with $40,000 on the line. Quite apart from the wads of cash, perhaps the greatest news for Malin is that he is once again firmly a Pro, something that has been very much a last-gasp call in recent seasons.

Patrick McDonagh isn’t a name most of you will recognise. I’m not entirely surprised. Here’s the thing — I was sitting with Tournament Manager Scott Larabee when Mr. McDonagh came to drop from the tournament. He’d just played in the two Team rounds at the start of Day 3, as part of the Irish team that were, putting it gently, quite a way adrift from the top of the leaderboard. Regular listeners to the podcasts will know that we rarely interview players when they’ve just lost a match. What do you say to them? ‘Well, you’ve just been knocked out of Top 8 contention, how are you feeling?’ So when McDonagh was suggesting calling a halt to proceedings with six rounds of Extended still to go, I did my usual last-chance spiel of ‘Really? You sure you don’t want the opportunity to play in the final day? Get some useful Pro experience?’ This was met by an emphatic no, and a grin. Here’s McDonagh’s record to that point:

Standard wins : none
Standard draws : none
Standard losses : Aaron Nicastri, Adam Chambers, Adrei Vuia, Alexander Lefterov, Diego Tejerina, Ferenc Nagy.
Draft wins: Bye, Bye
Draft draws: none
Draft losses: Petras Ratkevicius, Pedro Velhinho, Julio Bernabe, Arick Dickerman

Maybe he had a point. Still, not willing to give up without a fight, I gamely tried for, ‘Well, things haven’t gone your way in the tournament, but have you still managed to have a good time here in Memphis?’ His reply…

‘I’ve had an amazing time in Memphis. Every single night. And I think maybe that was the problem.’

M is also for Makahito Mihara. He was my pick for Champion, but 2-4 in Standard effectively negated his challenge almost before it had begun. Positive records in Draft and Extended took him close to the top third, barely, in 113th, but this was a sub-par performance from the 2006 World Champion.

Andre Mueller has been around for ages, and his outgoing and dogmatic manner is great to be around, although not necessarily great fun to play against. Only Remi Fortier stopped him winning the Pro Tour in Valencia last year, and with a solid all-round game he came into Worlds as a legitimate Top 8 contender. In the event, his Constructed results were among the best in the field, posting 5-1 in both Standard and Extended. Any kind of positive record in Draft would have seen him on Sunday, but 2 wins and a draw weren’t sufficient. In 18th place, he has much to be pleased with, but I imagine that 15-7-15 points profile will leave him thinking about what might/should have been.

N is for Shuuhei Nakamura. For much of the weekend, things were looking bleak for the presumed Player of the Year. That he went 3-3 in Standard wasn’t so surprising — a stack of good players were at this record or worse of course — but that he fell further behind during Draft with a 2-4 record did raise eyebrows. One of my abiding memories of the 2006 Worlds in Paris was seeing Shouta Yasooka anxiously watching the Top 8, knowing that any of three players had the possibility of wresting the crown from him at the last gasp. With Olivier Ruel piling up the leaderboard, that scenario looked destined for Shuuhei. Day 3 turned things around on two levels. First, he generated 15 points in Extended, taking him to a mediocre yet positive 10-8 record on the weekend. Second, and much more importantly, Ruel failed to make the cut to Super Sunday, and a relieved Shuuhei emerged victorious. Those last-minute worries shouldn’t detract from this simple truth — Shuuhei was undoubtedly the best player in the world in 2008, and utterly deserved his Player of the Year accolade.

One of the collapses of the week belonged to Sung-wook Nam. The South Korean shared the lead at the end of Standard, one of five players to stand on a perfect 6-0 record. He defeated future Top 8 man Akira Asahara in Draft, but that was his only win of the second day, and 2-4 in Extended saw him subside well down the list, with an even 9-9 record.

This time last year Gabriel Nassif was carving himself a slice of Magic folklore with a mathematically improbable Storm win against Patrick Chapin in the semi-final. This time around was substantially less exciting. 3-3 in Standard turned into a Day 2 nightmare of 1-5 in Draft, and that was enough for Nassif, who didn’t see the need to put himself through an irrelevant day of Extended.

Someone who played more matches than anyone else was Aaron Nicastri of Australia. Six rounds of Standard plus two Team rounds on Thursday. Six rounds of Draft on Friday. Two rounds of Team plus six of Extended on Saturday. Semis and Team Finals on Sunday. 24 rounds, and competitive throughout. For much of the weekend, Nicastri was locked in a struggle with Tyler Mantey for the Rookie of the Year title, and then once we reached Sunday it became apparent that the unheralded Hannes Kerem could take the title away in the final stride. Nicastri suffered two major reverses during the tournament. First, he started 6-0 in Standard yet missed out on Top 8, ultimately due to an opening Draft slump on table one. Second, team Australia lost out to the hosts in the final. Nonetheless, you only get one shot at Rookie of the Year, and the man who won Australian Nationals and then committed himself to a travel schedule of epic proportions deserved his win.

O is for Kenny Oberg, the man who caused such a stir at Pro Tour: Berlin with his Tezzerator deck. Several high-profile successes from that tournament found that Extended had moved on, and posted less than optimal records. Oberg once again succeeded, with a 5-1 record. Unfortunately, by then it was just a pyrrhic victory, taking him to a 10-8 record after a slow start had ended his Top 8 chances.

For much of the weekend, Masashi Oiso threatened to make one of the best stories ever seen at a World champs. The Japanese National Champion promised the Team title, and after a 6-0 run in Standard he was in prime position to help make good on that. 4-2 in Draft left him in good shape, but he couldn’t quite make it in. Day 3 included a Feature Match against Kenji Tsumura that was more wake than celebration, as the winner Tsumura not only effectively knocked Oiso out of Top 8 contention, but also damaged Japan’s chances of making the Team semi-finals. Oiso ended up in 21st, but still managed a Sunday appearance with the team. In the semi that most neutral observers would have wanted for the final, Japan took on the U.S. and came up short. One of the unwritten stories from Memphis is how close Oiso came to a Game Loss penalty that would have handed the match to the U.S., but for now let me just say that his Gifts Ungivens were amongst the two longest ‘nothing’s changed’ thought processes I’ve ever seen. Having done this gig for a while, I’m aware that there’s a Pandora’s Box quality to that last sentence, but this really isn’t the time and place for a discussion of Slow Play. Eventually that potential Game Loss became irrelevant, as the U.S. went on to win not only the match but the title against Australia. Oiso meanwhile can look back on a four-day campaign that so nearly delivered what he promised.

Koutarou Ootsuka isn’t a Japanese player many outside the Pro community know, since he lacks the flair, dress sense, charisma or indeed splashy finishes of his more famous compatriots. Worlds showcased his place perfectly. 15 points from Standard, 12 from Draft and 10 from Extended. Three successive positive records, which very few achieve. 37 points, which took him to 19th place. Ironically three of his five defeats came at the hands of other Japanese players, including Kenji Tsumura and the underrated Yoshitaka Nakano in Extended. Still, he proved once again that it would be foolish to discount him, and I’m starting to see him as a kind of Japanese Raphael Levy, without a Pro Tour victory, but relentlessly good across all formats.

P is for Jamie Parke, and what a ride he had. He made the Top 8 of Worlds in 1999, finishing 6th, and now almost a decade later was back in the most powerful spotlight. Parke to me represents a thoroughly exciting new movement within the game, a group of powerful players from Ago who have left the game, gone into the Real World, set their lives onto a chosen path, and found the game that they love still very much intact, and fertile with possibilities. Perhaps the most significant result of the entire Pro year was Parke finishing Pro Tour: Hollywood in exactly 50th place. That qualified him for Pro Tour: Berlin, encouraged him to embrace the game again, and contributed to his travelling to Grand Prix: Indianapolis, where he made the Top 8. Here in Memphis things started badly, and had he won the final, I’m confident he would have done so from the furthest back after Day 1 of any World Champion. 7 Points would have left many players properly miserable, but one of the things I’ve learned about Parke this year is that he’s amazingly strong at not letting adversity affect him. He came piling back in Draft, with one of a handful of 6-0 records. Then came the astonishing bit, because I know for a fact — since I had dinner with him that night — that he was really feeling his way in Extended, and that meant that he was playing most of the final day on talent and instinct and intellect alone. That put him in the same camp as Ervin Tormos, and Parke outscored the overnight leader by 15 to 1 on the final day. To be fair, once into Sunday action he was left with the Five-Color Control deck that had only generated two wins in six on Day 1. The fact that he managed a further two wins was probably above the bar, and although he came up short in the final, this was a fantastic performance, and I believe the shape of things to come.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the outgoing World Champion Uri Peleg. After a poor 2-4 start in Standard he came back to a respectable 29 Points. He was affable as ever, and it’s just a shame that we didn’t see more of him in 2008. It’s good for the game if the World Champion is a presence on the Pro scene, and we’ll have that this year with Malin.

I met up with Nicolay Potovin in Atlanta, where he was busy bemoaning the inability of his fellow Russians to organise their trip round the assorted red tape. That left Potovin, who would have been on the Russian Team had the absentees been known further ahead of time, needing a Top 16 finish to secure a high level for next year. 37 Points later, and Potovin had triumphed, squeezing into 15th place. He has been one of the better European Pros over the last couple of years, and I believe that 2009 is the year he can show that he is among the best in the world. One to watch.

R is for Petras Ratkevicius, who had the largest swing of anyone. Masaya Kitayama, Jia Wu, Orr Bildner, Kazuya Hirabayashi, Francisco Arcos and Torfi Asgeirsson all beat him in Standard, leaving him dead last. Pedro Velhinho, Diego Tejerina and Danilo Prieto were the three who took points away in Draft, still leaving him at 3-9 going into Extended. Who beat him on that final day? Nobody. 18 points, and a break even 9-9 record. Whilst going from 6-0 to 9-9 may be gutwrenching, going from 0-6 to 9-9 takes guts, so hats off.

Ben Rubin had an epic weekend that so nearly saw him in the spotlight from first to last. Before the first card was turned sideways he was already a winner, part of the 2008 Hall of Fame class. The record of Hall of Famers at the Worlds they were inducted isn’t great, not least because so few of them had the time to devote themselves to putting together a successful run. Rubin spent much of 2007 on the Pro Tour, and missed out by a whisker from being inducted in New York. Although absent through 2008, he came to Memphis not just for a ring, but for a slice of the glory. With 10 Points on the board after Day 1, he was consistently just behind the leaders, and eventually ran out of rounds, effectively losing a win and in scenario against Jamie Parke, his only loss in Extended. With the ring and the invite now secure, it would be a major disappointment not to see him in 2009, and assuming he’s there, he’s a contender, make no mistake about it.

Another contender next year, quelle surprise, will be Olivier Ruel who played in more Premier events this year than anyone other than the eventual Player of the Year Shuuhei Nakamura. Ruel threatened to set up a blockbuster finish to the season, starting off with a solid 4-1-1 in Standard before demonstrating his customary mastery of the Limited field with 5-1 in Draft. The final day was anti-climactic, with only two Extended wins leaving him well short of the mark to take the title race into extra time. Behind anyone else, Ruel might have felt a more deserving champion, but, ever the realist, Olivier I believe understands that he was beaten by the better man this time around. Add to your list of certainties for 2009 that he will be in the thick of the Race once again.

S is for Omar Sagol. Spain had a good start to the year via Joel Calafell in Kuala Lumpur, but here Sagol was the highest-placed Spaniard in 34th place. He’s a good example of why consistency isn’t quite enough, since his points were positive throughout (12-12-10) and yet that never saw him on anything other than the periphery of contention.

Whilst 34th for Sagol was a good result, perhaps the largest surprise of the entire tournament was the disaster of Tomaharu Saitou, one of the four potential challengers to Nakamura. None of his Standard opponents were truly world class, which he undoubtedly is, yet he struggled to 2-4. Tom van Lamoen, the Dutch Champion, was his toughest opponent on Day 2, yet Draft saw him at 1-3 before he eventually threw in the towel at 3-7. Swiss demands that somebody has this kind of outcome, but to find Saitou languishing amongst the also-rans was a real shock. Assuming that he continues to travel with Nakamura next year, he’ll be back challenging again.

Luis Scott-Vargas has had quite a run, but then you already knew that. Winning Pro Tour: Berlin, winning Grand Prix: Atlanta, 12th at Grand Prix: Auckland, he was clearly amongst the favorites to do well. Tsuyoshi Ikeda prevented the clean sweep in Standard, leaving LSV handily poised at 5-1. Then he somewhat fell off the radar, as 2-4 in Draft saw him fall to a mediocre 7-5, almost certainly out of Top 8 contention. One of the features of Extended at Worlds was that plenty of those who had done well in the Format at Berlin suffered badly here, often by sticking with their earlier deck choice. Not a problem for LSV, who cut a swathe through the field, taking out Yuuya Watanabe and Marijn Lybaert in the final rounds to end on 39 Points and 11th place. Over 12 months Shuuhei ruled supreme, but over three LSV was untouchable.

Bram Snepvangers was another of a smallish group that managed to avoid a negative record in all three Formats. 4-2 in Standard, 3-3 in Draft meant that he was never in Top 8 contention, but 13 more points on the final day took him well inside the Top 64 in 40th. When Bram fell off the Pro train in New York, it felt like the end of an era, but he’s bounced back, as Bram as ever, and Pro Magic really wouldn’t be the same without him.

T is for Sebastian Thaler, who puzzles me. I came into Pro Magic at the start of 2006, the year that Thaler would become Rookie of the Year, so it seemed a natural progression when he made the Top 8 of Pro Tour: Yokohama the following Spring. Since then, very little, which seemed odd to me since he has both the talent and the temperament for success. When he made Top 8 again at Pro Tour: Berlin, I guess I felt relieved on his behalf. Here, his challenge never quite got going, since he entered the final day at 6-6, splitting both Standard and Draft. Still, like LSV, he built on his Berlin performance, acing Extended 6-0 to take him to 36 points and 29th place. Although 18 months apart, Thaler has PT Top 8s in 2007 and 2008, and I wouldn’t bet against one in 2009.

Ervin Tormos had a fantastic week, and a rubbish weekend. On Thursday and Friday he was well-nigh untouchable, with a defeat to Tsuyoshi Ikeda in Standard his only deviation from maximum points. That left him alone at the head of the standings coming into Extended, a format that it’s well documented he was less than well-versed in. Six rounds later, and only a draw against Marijn Lybaert had been added to the ledger, and 1st place had become 30th.

Someone who got better as the week went on was perennial crowd favorite Kenji Tsumura. At this level, to only be beaten four times across three formats is quite extraordinary, and Tommi Lindgren, Ryan Fuller, Martin Juza and Tsuyoshi Ikeda will all have earned their victories. By defeating Masashi Oiso at the back end of Extended, Kenji effectively took himself into yet another Top 8. It’s a good while before he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame, but he is, as my friend BDM likes to say, ‘a mortal lock.’ On Sunday, any edge he might have had in his quarter final matchup was based firmly on Kenji being Kenji and Hannes Kerem being, er, not. Kerem held firm under pressure, and dispatched Tsumura by the odd game in five. Already somewhat distanced from Pro Magic during 2008, Kenji formally announced his semi-retirement, with school becoming a massive factor back at home. Still, we’ve seen enough brilliance from him to suggest that a few days testing and a spare weekend could still see him right at the top of the leaderboard.

U is for U.S. reserve seed Marsh Usary, and Josh Utter-Leyton. Usary improved through the week, with 4-2 in Extended his best performance. Utter-Leyton meanwhile ended 10-8, with some prize scalps, including Paul Cheon in Standard, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa in Draft, and Jelger Wiegersma in Extended.

V is for Van. Dutch Champion Tom van Lamoen had a tough time, only breaking even in Extended. Next up the van scale was Alejandro van Mourik who broke even at 9-9, Draft supplying him with 4 wins. The other Dutch van, Robert van Medevoort, was someone I expected to make a strong challenge. That didn’t quite materialise, although 34 points took him inside the Top 64. One point higher was Jacob van Lunen, the Pro Tour: San Diego winner. His Limited excellence was on display with a 5-1 record, but unlike playtest partner Jamie Parke, he couldn’t quite muster the Extended record he needed. Still, 38th was a decent showing.

W is for Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, who shared top spot in the Headscratching Record competition with Saitou. You can prove anything you like with statistics, and this particular absurdity was arrived at using the following annual formula: Take the last Team in the standings, and compare them with the three biggest names in Magic with the worst records, then chuckle. Nonetheless, this year produced a belter. After seven rounds of Swiss, the Irish team, lying in last place, had a combined record of 7-14, or 21 points. The Tri-Continental All-Stars Team of Tomaharu Saitou (Japan), Steve Sadin (USA) and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa (France) had a combined record at that point of 5-16, or 15 points. To be fair to Guillaume, he did at least win his second Draft pod to finish at 5-7 before remembering he had better things to do than play Extended. Nonetheless, a poor finish to a season that hasn’t really caught fire. The last person who that happened to was Shuuhei Nakamura, who turned up at everything in 2007 and couldn’t buy a win, and we all know what happened to him…

Yuuya Watanabe was involved right to the end of proceedings, going all the way to the final as part of Team Japan. In the main event he got himself into a decent position with back-to-back 4-2s in Standard and Draft, but couldn’t kick on in the closing stages, Koutarou Ootsuka and LSV effectively ending his run.

With Hall of Fame ring, Jelger Wiegersma came to Worlds short on practice and long on deserved reputation. After 2-4 in Standard he posted a positive 4-2 in Draft, but a couple of early Extended losses persuaded him to end things early. A Grand Prix winner in 2008 at Indianapolis, hopefully the permanent invite will be enough to see him at most of the Pro Tours this year.

X is for (yes, there really is one!) Su Xu, for whom the highlight was undoubtedly Day 1, when Christophe Peyronnel, Jan Lorenz, Stuart Wright, Mario Pascoli and Mark Herberholz all fell to the Chinese player. Despite falling away from contention, he still ended 10-8, a creditable outcome.

Y is for former Player of the Year Shouta Yasooka, who had a moderately miserable time, ending on 7-11, with no positive records to show.

And Z, so congratulations for making it this far, is for Matej Zatlkaj, the man who made it all the way to the final of Pro Tour: Berlin. With that in mind, at 8-4 coming into Extended Matej must have felt in a reasonable position to make a run at Sunday action for the second time running, but it never materialised. Indeed, four losses and a draw were all she wrote, but that won’t be all she wrote next year, when I fully expect him to build on a growing reputation.

And that, my friends, wraps up Worlds 2008. There’s a ton of great stuff to look forward to as we embark on another Pro season, and next week I’ll be starting a special series on how a Player of the Year is made. With unprecedented access to every sanctioned match he’s ever played, I’ll be bringing you the Shuuhei Nakamura story, from his first sanctioned match back in 1998 all the way to the pinnacle of the game as the 2008 Player of the Year.

Until then, as ever, thanks for reading.