spent this past weekend covering Grand Prix Santiago and it was my first opportunity to visit South America and meet scads of players I have not had a chance to get to know at events in North America, Asia, and Europe. In researching the players I might not know yet I pulled the lists of this year's South American National Champions and their team members. Early on in the coverage we featured Chilean National Champion David Kaliski—fresh off of a Top 64 finish at Pro Tour Philadelphia—as he made his way to a Top 8 finish.
With just a few weeks before the World Championships, Kaliski should feel pretty good as he boards his flight to San Diego for the GP just a weekend before Worlds—especially since his teammate Patricio Roman finished in 11th place in Santiago. While Peru does not have a National team this year, its National Champion Sergio Sanabio put up an impressive showing in Chile with 36 points putting him into a virtual Top 8 along with Roman and four other players. Seeing how well the National Champions from Peru and Chile fared this weekend got me to thinking about the upcoming World Team Championships in San Francisco and who might be playing under the lights come Sunday.
Each country that fields a three-person National team at Worlds has all their individual points from the Swiss rounds (three points for a win and one point for a tie) go toward their team total, and as a safeguard against awkward situations they can't get paired against a teammate. At the end of Thursday and the start of Saturday, there are two National Team rounds where the teams go up against each other with a player from each team each playing Standard, Modern, or Legacy. If a team wins at least two of their matches in a round, it is worth another nine points toward their team total. In the event of a tie each team would get three points. At the end of all that Magic—that's 22 rounds for the National Team players—the top two teams advance to face off on Sunday for the World Team Championship trophy.
So which teams might we see fighting for the title?
In last week's column I wrote about Jeremy Neeman's ascension through the Pro ranks. A big part of that success came when Neeman, as a member of the Australia National Team, got as far as the finals of the Team Championship last year in Chiba. This year's team from Australia is led by Aaron Nicoll, who is coming off a Top 16 finish at Grand Prix Brisbane (with Wolf Run Ramp), and both of his teammates finished in the money as well. Jiann Hua Chin finished 23rd—with blue-black control—while Maitland Cameron ended up in 37th. With six rounds of Standard in the individual competition, the Australian team is a solid choice to make a deep run in the team standings.
Maitland Cameron, Aaron Nicoll, and Jiann Hua Chin.
One of the most intriguing teams in the entire competition is the Belgian squad led by Vincent Lemoine. Lemoine is smack dab in the middle of the Player of the Year race despite having far fewer stamps in his passport than the frequent fliers ahead of him in the standings. Heading into Grand Prix in Hiroshima and San Diego, the Belgian National Champion is 16 points off the leader of the POY pack—but with up to 25 points up for grabs in the individual event and up to another six points available to team competitors, Lemoine has more point opportunities than anyone else near the top of the standings. Flanking him in the team event will be Pro Tour veteran and two-time GP Top 8 competitor Stan Van Der Velden and newcomer Raf Mesotten. Lemoine has been as far as the Team Finals at Worlds once before when Belgium finished second to Germany the last time Worlds was in San Francisco back in 2004.
Vincent Lemoine and Stan Van Der Velden
I mentioned the Chilean team in the opener, and watching David Kaliski in action he has all the attributes of a player who can go on to bigger and better things. Lack of premier-event experience will certainly be a factor that Kaliski, Roman, and Walter Ruz will have to overcome. When you look at the combined lifetime Competitive Planeswalker Points of the Chilean team, they have fewer points than either of the two veteran players on the Belgian team. Lemoine alone has 33,870 points, more than 10,000 points ahead of the 21,148 total for the three members of Chile's squad.
Would it surprise you to learn that the team with the second-most Lifetime Competitive Planeswalker Points is from Chinese Taipei? National Champion Bo Ruad Chun, Tzu-Ching Kuo, and Hao-Shan Huang have a combined total of 57,285 points—more than the Japanese team or the United States team, which are all populated with Pro Tour stalwarts. Only Team Belgium has more Lifetime Competitive points!
Tzu-Ching Kuo and Hao-Shan Huang
More than half of Chinese Taipei's points are contributed by Kuo, who has a very much under-the-radar seven lifetime Grand Prix Top 8s as well as two National titles. Can Chinese Taipei emerge from the shadow of the trophy that mainland China won in 2009? Kuo certainly has the resume and the recent Standard practice. He just finished Top 32 in Brisbane with Wolf Run Ramp.
Former World Champion Makihito Mihara—of Dragonstorm fame—is the player at the top of the charts among all National Team members with 37,334 lifetime Competitive Planesewalker Points. Mihara has the most accomplishments on his resume of any player in the team leg of the competition with three Pro Tour Top 8s—one of those was the win in Paris—and four Grand Prix Top 8s. Mihara's points are more than triple the combined points of his teammates Ryuuichirou Ishida and Tomoya Fujimoto, so the more experienced player may need to show the rest of the team what it takes to win at the World Championships.
Ivan Floch returns to the team competition not just as the back-to-back Slovak Republic National Champion, but also as a reigning World Team Champion from last year when he, Robert Jurkovic, and Patrick Surab defeated Australia on Sunday in Chiba, Japan. This time, Floch is joined by Jacob Toth and Filip Valis on the National Team.
Patrick Surab, Ivan Floch, and Robert Jurkovic
I wrote about players at home organizing fantasy Pro Tour drafts and someone recently suggested adding in two extra rounds for Worlds in order to draft teams. If I was doing something like this, I would certainly be looking at Spain as a dark horse pick. National Champion Joel Calafell is a talented deck builder with a Pro Tour Top 8 and three Grand Prix Top 8s, including a win. He has built format-shattering Constructed decks like the Fog Machine deck that "tore" through Day One of Worlds in Rome, and his one PT Top 8 is in Limited. Gorka Fernandez and Daniel Rodriguez don't have his level of experience but a good deck designer can carry a team a long way.
Speaking of good deck designers... United States National Champion Ali Aintrazi has proven equally adept at designing and piloting rogue builds (such as the Turbo Land and Mono Blue Architect decks he used to make a name for himself with in the Star City Open Series) as he is tuning and enduring with metagame control decks like the blue-black deck he used to win Nationals. With Pro Tour veteran Haibing Hu and Player of the Year hopeful David Ochoa on the squad, the team has more lifetime Competitive Planeswalker Points that any other team except Belgium and Chinese Taipei. Ochoa would love to remove himself from that short list of the game's best players without a Pro Tour Top 8, and if he could do it at Worlds—with a help from the team points—it could catapult him toward the finish line of the Player of the Year title as well.
Haibing Hu, David Ochoa, and Ali Aintrazi
So how does your country's National Team stack up against the field? Here's a breakdown of the three-member teams' Lifetime, Lifetime Competitive, and Lifetime Professional Planeswalker Points. These totals don't include the alternate player, and not all invitation pass-downs have come through yet so keep that in mind while handicapping the field.
|Hong Kong / Macau
Player of the Year Update
With three Grand Prix over the past two weekends, the race for the Player of the Year title has tightened up with only three events left to go—four if you are David Ochoa or Vincent Lemoine. Owen Turtenwald posted his sixth Grand Prix Top 8 of the season—and the ninth of his career—and put some distance between himself and Luis Scott-Vargas for the top spot. LSV picked up three losses on Day One in Santiago and was helping out with coverage while Owen padded his lead. Also making the Top 8 in Santiago were Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa and Martin Juza, pushing them over the 40-point threshold for the season. Shuhei Nakamura finished 17th despite suffering from stomach ailments throughout Day Two. His two points for that finish brought his three-week total to eight points from Milan (14th), Brisbane (15th), and Santiago.
Owen Turtenwald, Luis Scott-Vargas, Martin Juza, and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa.
Despite being a Hall of Famer-elect, Shuhei was traveling to Hiroshima this weekend. I asked him if he was trying to win Player of the Year the same season he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame and he just laughed: "I am not that greedy. I just want Level 8 again." That's a feat he has achieved every year it has been possible except for one year when he was "only" Level 7.
Hiroshima can really tighten the race with so few of the top players making the trip from Santiago or Amsterdam across the globe to Japan. For most players the last chance for Pro Points before Worlds will be San Diego. If Nakamura, Juza, Shouta Yasooka, or Yuuya Watanabe can make the Top 8 in Hiroshima we will have one of our closest POY race in years. Usually there are only one or two players out in the lead, but this year any of the top ten players could easily win the title—with even more mathematically capable of winning it with a huge performance at Worlds.
Rookie of the Year Update
With his Grand Prix Amsterdam runner-up finish last weekend, France's Elie Pichon pulled into a tie with Germany's Fabian Thiele for top rookie honors. Since so many players in the Rookie of the Year race get their big break from making a National team, it is a tough race to predict. Just look at Julien Nuijten's run the last time Worlds was in San Francisco. He was not on anyone's radar coming into the event, but winning the individual title and doing well in the Team Championship propelled him past the competition.
Should Singapore put together a solid run in the Team event, teammates Lee Benedict and Kelvin Chew could make a big move as both are tied at 10 points. It would be amazing to see the rookie title come down to the individual placement of two players on the same National squad. Japanese National Champion Ryuuichirou Ishida's inexperience is a sharp contrast to the lengthy resume of his teammate Makihito Mihara, but with a little guidance from the former World Champion he could add his name to the illustrious list of Rookie of the Year winners from Japan: Yuuya Watanabe, Masashi Oiso, and Katsuhiro Mori.
Speaking of Japan... don't forget to check out the coverage of Grand Prix Hiroshima this weekend. Fresh off of her breakthrough top-four finish in Santiago, Melissa DeTora will be there in her quest to hoard all the Planeswalker Points for herself and James Searles. The pair has been traveling every weekend—from Milan to Brisbane to Santiago and now to Hiroshima—to earn one of the 100 Competitive Planeswalker Points invites for Pro Tour Dark Ascension in Honolulu. They are tweeting about their adventures at @AllWeDoIsWinPWP and you can follow along as Melissa—the third woman to Top 8 a Grand Prix—quests to become the first female player to both win a Grand Prix and make two Top 8s.