here are nine players clustered within 14 points of the lead in the Player of the Year race—and a player on a national team 2 points further back. This year's race is easily one of the most hotly contested in the sixteen years of its existence. The 10 pro points on the line for winning this weekend's Grand Prix San Diego have the potential to let one of these players pull away heading into Worlds or—should someone lurking behind the pack win—muddy the waters even further.
Owen Turtenwald remains in the lead after his decision to follow Luis Scott-Vargas to Chile resulted in a sixth Grand Prix Top 8 for his breakout season. Owen's year started with a Top 8 at Grand Prix Atlanta playing Faeries in the new Extended format and he immediately followed up with a Top 16 finish at Pro Tour Paris playing the breakout Caw-Go deck that seeded the Player of the Year race with three strong finishes by Ben Stark, Luis Scott-Vargas, and Owen. Turtenwald finished one draw shy of making the Top 8 in Paris, and if he manages to maintain his lead through the final rounds of Worlds without making the Top 8, he will become the first player in the history of the race to do so without making the Top 8. With so many formidable opponents clustered around him in the standings, it seems improbable that Owen can earn the title without also getting that first Pro Tour appearance on the Sunday stage.
Instead Owen has feasted on Grand Prix Sundays, with six Top 8 finishes over the course of the season. That number matches Yuuya Watanabe's 2009 season and exceeds Kai Budde's 2001-2002 season, years in which both players took home the Player of the Year hardware. After making the Top 8 with Extended in Atlanta Owen has been all over the format map with Top 8 finishes playing Standard (Dallas/Ft. Worth), Scars Block Limited (Denver), Legacy (Providence), Standard (Singapore), and finally Innistrad Limited (Santiago). A historic seventh Top 8 would go a long way to cementing the title for Owen this weekend.
Martin Juza has leapfrogged over more than half a dozen players in the last couple of weeks. I thought he was crazy when I saw him at the Santiago airport about to depart for Hiroshima after staggering into Chile from the previous weekend in Australia. To his credit, the travel just seems to make him stronger. After a 99th-place finish in Brisbane, he pulled off a Top 8 in Chile and then managed to win Hiroshima despite it being a Constructed event for the Limited specialist. They were the third and fourth Top 8s of the season for Juza—who, like Owen, has not made the Top 8 of a PT yet this season—and he heads into San Diego just two points off the lead.
As for his Pro Tour finishes this season, Juza has two events that paid out points just above the minimum, earning 3 points apiece in Paris and Philly. Those finishes bracketed a 19th place finish in Nagoya that was good for 7 points.
Luis Scott-Vargas—banned in Fantasy Draft formats—sits 4 points off the lead with a disappointing stumble in Santiago and a no-show in Hiroshima. Luis has been money all year long, kicking off his season with a Top 16 finish in Paris, a Top 8 in Nagoya, and a Top 24 finish in Philadelphia. Combine that with his Grand Prix win in Kansas City over Yuuya Watanabe and throw in a Top 8 finish at Nationals and you have another great season from one of the game's very best players.
Luis has never been one to travel much chasing down Grand Prix points (and when you finish Top 32 at seemingly every Pro Tour, you don't have to), but he will be in his own time zone for both the upcoming Grand Prix and just across the Bay from home for Worlds—a tournament he has always done well in. Over the past few seasons the worst he has finished is 80th, and he has been in the Top 64 every other season since 2006. Combine that with being well prepared and well rested and you have a formula for potentially winning the Player of the Year—one of the only things missing from a stellar Magic resume that has seen him win a Nationals, four Grand Prix, and a Pro Tour.
Ben Stark has made his pursuit of the Player of the Year race in big strides. He started things off with a finals finish at Grand Prix Atlanta and then surged out into the lead with his win at Pro Tour Paris. When you add in his 17th-place finish at Pro Tour Nagoya you get 39 of his 48 points this season coming from three events. Ben skipped Nationals and a handful of Grand Prix over the summer, but he remains right in the thick of the race... which just goes to show you how much a win means when the race is all said and done. We saw Guillaume Matignon surge from the back of the pack to force a playoff with Brad Nelson last year at Worlds, but Ben Stark may need only two solid finishes—not necessarily a win—over the coming weekends to secure what was once a commanding lead.
Yuuya Watanabe knows a thing or two about getting hot to win a Player of the Year race. Watanabe, who first caught our attention winning the Rookie of the Year race in 2007, rattled off six GP Top 8s in 2009 to win the Player of the Year title. He has posted half that number of Top 8s in this season, but he has certainly made the most of those appearances, earning 28 of his 47 points in two GP wins and one finals finish. Another 11 points come from finishing Top 32 in Philadelphia and Top 64 in Paris. The last 8 points come from minimum Pro Tour payouts and grinding away on the GP circuit.
Yuuya is already the only player to have both a Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year trophy on his mantle. Only Kai Budde has ever won the Player of the Year more than once, and he did it a preposterous four times. Yuuya has put himself in an excellent position to add his name to the list of winners for the second time, but he is not alone in that opportunity.
Shouta Yasooka won the title in 2006 and has always been a force to be reckoned with as a Magic player, but he has been quietly and steadily marching toward the front of the pack throughout the year. He has finished in the top 32 of all three Pro Tours so far this season and has three Grand Prix Top 8s as well, including a win at GP Kobe over former World Champion Makihito Mihara. His under-the-radar resurgence has certainly gotten me reevaluating Yasooka for when Hall of Fame ballots get distributed next year. He is only 10 points off the lead, winning a second Player of the Year title—or just getting a second career Pro Tour Top 8—would go a long way toward earning my vote.
Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, much like LSV, has done pretty much everything there is to do in the game of Magic, from Nationals to Grand Prix to Pro Tour Champion. He has racked up Pro Tour Top 8s at a historic pace, but he has not won a Player of the Year race. He finished 3rd last year and came within a match of winning the whole thing. The year before that he placed 5th in the race after finishing 9th in 2008. He keeps getting closer.
Paulo has three Top 8s at the Grand Prix level this season, including his win in Singapore, a surprising Legacy Top 8 in Providence, and his recent finish in Santiago. He seems to get a Pro Tour Top 8 just about every season and has fallen short of that mark thus far this year with "only" two Top 64 finishes to show for 2011. He is 13 points off the lead, so he will need to make up a little ground in San Diego and post something similar to his Worlds finish from last season to close that gap. Keep in mind that his next Top 8 will pull him into a tie with Darwin Kastle on the lifetime list, with only the likes of Gabriel Nassif, Kai Budde, and Jon Finkel having more than that.
Somehow Hall of Famer elect Shuhei Nakamura has only one Grand Prix Top 8 this season and zero Pro Tour Top 8s. Yet he is sitting just 13 points off the lead heading into this stretch run, a run that will see him inducted into the Hall of Fame on a weekend he could potentially win his second Player of the Year title. It seems crazy that with just a Top 64 PT finish and one GP Top 8 he could be in the thick of yet another Player of the Year race, but he has continually finished with two and three points in GP forays that have seem him go back and forth from Europe, to Asia, to South America, back to Asia, and finally on to North America. If anyone on the leaderboard is due for a hot streak, it is the incoming Hall of Famer. It would be a crazy way to end Worlds.
Don't sleep on David Sharfman, who has earned 35 of his 40 points with two wins—one at GP Paris and the other Pro Tour Philadelphia—and can close some of the ground between the frontrunners with another Limited GP win to close the season. Also don't discount Vincent Lemoine, the Belgium National Champion, who is the only player anywhere near the front of the pack—and by near in this case we mean 16 points—who has the buffer of being able to earn extra points in the Team Championships.
I am going to be covering both San Diego and the World Championships. If you see me there watching someone play, there is a pretty high likelihood that it will be one of the players mentioned above. If you are not there you can follow along at home here on DailyMTG.com.