ro Tour Dragon's Maze is right around the corner and the last handful of invitations to compete in the prestigious event have been sent out. With the PTQ calendar now dotted with Pro Tour Theros qualifiers, the last remaining invites for San Diego were Special Invitations and Sponsor's Exemptions. Sponsor's Exemptions, which include airfare, are awarded to players for excellence throughout the qualifier season who fell short of earning an invite. Results that are factored into this decision include PTQs, Grand Prix, MOCS, and the previous Pro Tour. A Special Invitation does not include airfare and is awarded to members of the Magic community who represent the game in a positive light.
Players from both categories did exceptionally well at Pro Tour Gatecrash. Sponsor's Exemptions Eric Froehlich and Jon Stern finished 4th and 13th, respectively, while Special Invitations Melissa DeTora and Roberto Gonzales landed in 6th and 9th. The players looking to follow in their footsteps at Pro Tour Dragon's Maze next month are:
Daniel Unwin (Australia)
Matthew Tickal (United States)
Caleb Durward (United States)
Dean McLaren (Canada)
Josh McClain (United States)
(Editor's note: McClain was awarded the Sponsor's Exemption after initial publication of this list. He was mistakenly overlooked due to a data issue compiling results across in-person and Magic Online PTQs.)
David Williams (United States)
Troy Thompson (United States)
Christopher Passow (Germany)
Sean "Day" Plott (United States)
Allow me to introduce you to these players, find out their reactions to getting invited, and see how they will be preparing for the toughest Magic tournament in the world.
Daniel Unwin is a twenty-eight-year-old Magic "grinder" who had two close calls during the Dragon's Maze qualifier season. He lost in the quarterfinals of Grand Prix Sydney and also got as far as the finals of one of the few PTQs on his entire continent. It was the third Grand Prix Top 8 of his career, which has also seen him go to the Pro Tour four previous times. He felt good as he was heading into the Top 8 but ran afoul of the returning Tomoharu Saito, who won the match and earned his way back onto the Pro Tour.
"This was frustrating, as I had just 6–0ed the draft portion. I was feeling really confident," said Unwin, who would then lose in the finals of the Melbourne PTQ to his friend Wilfred Horig. "This was brutal. I felt I had a great matchup but missed a couple of critical land drops. There were mixed emotions, though, as he is a good friend of mine and I was thrilled to see him reach the Pro Tour again. Just annoyed it had to be by beating me."
As Unwin toiled away during the PTQ season he grew quite fond of his deck and was sad as the format moved away from Modern and onto Standard.
"It was a version of the RWU Geist deck. It took ages to build it and I felt really good about it. There aren't a lot of PTQs in Australia so it's hard to find enough opportunities to qualify, even if you have a great deck. There were only four weeks between the Modern PTQ and the local WMCQ and Standard PTQ so I just started testing Standard straight away, tried not to dwell on the disappointments," recalled Unwin of his mindset, as he thought the door was closed on invites to San Diego. His emotions did a complete turnaround when he received the email early this week from OP Program Manager Scott Larabee. "I was thrilled! I literally jumped out of bed. Not being able to tell everyone is excruciating."
Now that the cat is out of the bag, Unwin has access to a talented group of countrymen who all find themselves qualified at the same time.
"A lot of my good friends are qualified: Isaac Egan, Jeremy Neeman, Justin Cheung, Wilfy Horig, and Sam Loy," said Unwin, who along with Neeman and Horig, has come with some very successful decklists in the past few years. "I will be working with them and a couple of other Aussies; I think we have a strong, motivated group and that we will be able to learn a lot about the Block and Limited formats. I hope I can build a good deck and play it well. Every PT is an amazing opportunity and I hope to make the most of it."
Dean McLaren is a twenty-nine-year-old business student from Edmonton, Alberta, who has been to the Pro Tour two previous times. He won a PTQ the last time the Pro Tour was in San Diego and also won a Last Chance Qualifier for Pro Tour Amsterdam when he flew there to accompany his qualified little brother, Shaun McLaren (aka ArsenalMunch of the recent Magic Online Championship ).
McLaren made the finals of two Magic Online PTQs on the same weekend with his Splinter Twin deck.
"I really liked my deck," said McLaren. "The special things to me were the main deck Izzet Staticaster, two Desolate Lighthouses, and four main-deck Spellskites. The Aura Boggle deck and Infect decks were big at the time and Spellskite hosed both of them very well—it was also good against burn decks."
McLaren would make yet another Top 8 that season, but his loss on Sunday heralded the end of the Splinter Twin deck in his mind. "I was beaten in the finals by KrazyKirby, aka Larry Swasey. Which was the rise of the RWU deck," he recalled. "The RWU deck is a really, really tough matchup for my Twin. I also Top 8ed the next online PTQ, which was won by the same RWU deck piloted by LargeBrandon, aka Brandon Large, who had gotten the deck personally from Larry. Shout out to Brandon Large for being an awesome guy and scooping me into that Top 8. I hope to say hi to both Larry and Brandon in San Diego."
McLaren had already turned his attention to getting a blue envelope for Dublin since his brother Shaun opted to use his MOCS Pro Tour invite to attend the first Pro Tour of next season. At the time of this writing, he had not yet informed his brother of his invite—he was on a trip to the mountains and off the proverbial grid—but Dean planned to test with him and fellow Canadian players Doug Potter and Tyler Blum.
Caleb Durward is a twenty-five-year-old Chicago player who writes for ChannelFireball.com and is credited with getting Survival of the Fittest banned in the Legacy format. He had made the Top 8 of a Grand Prix three times and played on the Pro Tour a handful of times—including a previous Sponsor's Exemption for Pro Tour Avacyn Restored.
As Durward approached the season with the intention of playing an aggro deck, he was excited about the prospect of Deathrite Shaman keeping the dreaded Kitchen Finks at bay.
"I designed a Jund Zoo list around the new tool, topping the curve with Bloodbraid Elf and a miser Thundermaw Hellkite. I faced a field of combo and aggro control decks, as expected, and was fortunate to keep my focus and get some good draws. In the finals, I lost to Jasper Epstein playing Burn, which felt unwinnable. The symmetry of losing in the finals of Indy PTQs with Kird Apes wasn't lost on me, but I couldn't predict it would again lead to a Sponsor's."
As the season progressed, and Bloodbraid Elf got banned, Durward worked with a friend on a new/old approach to Modern.
"Joe Bernal brought up the RWU Wall of Omens/Twin combo control deck I used to play in Extended. I knew the archetype was consistent and it seemed well positioned. Wall of Omens is great against all the Kird Apes and Path solves many problems for Splinter Twin like Tarmogoyf and Spellskite. While we didn't have Jace, we did have Restoration Angel, which would improve both the beatdown and combo strategies. Over the week, we tested individually, and the night before the Chicago PTQ we got together at Hot Sauce Games (the store Joe works at in Naperville) to Cube and swap notes."
Not too long thereafter, he and Bernal met in the finals of a Madison PTQ and Durward came in second for the second time that season—along with a GP Top 16 in Indianapolis. Durward knew from experience that a Sponsor's Exemption was a possibility, but even after he got the email this past Monday he was not certain he would get one...
"I fist pumped and shouted a loud 'YES!,'" laughed Durward. "Then I paused, thinking, 'Oh lord it's April Fool's Day.' "
Durward plans to work with his PTQ finals opponent Joe Bernal, and he has learned from his previous Exemption and plans to do things a little differently this time.
"Barcelona, the other PT I got a Sponsor's for, was also Block, and my unfamiliarity with the format hindered my testing. I held out until the last set, which is different from how I approach Standard. Since I know Standard well before the set is released, I can better identify the movers and shakers in the new set and can predict the metagame," said Durward, who is among the tougher players at the SCG Opens. "This time, I started paying attention to Block before the PTQ season was over, and my actual testing started yesterday. Also, I need to improve on my typical 3–3 Draft record. It usually takes me a while to really learn a Draft format, which is why I tend to do better at Limited events near the end of a season. I'm not sure how I'm going to address this, but it's one of the problems I'll have to solve if I want a strong finish."
The last Sponsor's Exemption went to Matthew Tickal, a twenty-eight-year-old Minneapolis player who has been playing Magic since his father was selling Ice Age boosters out of his comic-book store, Oak Leaf Collectibles. Like the two previous players, a pair of PTQ finals were the catalyst for the invitation.
Inspired by a renewed local interest in qualifying, Tickal approached the qualifier season in an analytical fashion with Excel spreadsheets of the winning Modern decklists from Magic Online and identified Melira Pod as a deck he wanted to play in the field.
"I was well prepped for the PTQs, knowing the format well," said Tickal, who made the finals with the deck in Iowa and North Dakota. "In the Iowa PTQ, I surprised both my Top 8 and Top 4 opponents by Podding into Magus of the Moon, effectively playing Armageddon. That week, we had testing on Monday and Thursday night. The next weekend, I played in the Fargo PTQ and had a very similar weekend. My friend Eric Hawkins also Top 8ed and we were seated so we wouldn't play each other until the finals. We both lost to the same guy, him in Top 4 me in Top 2. Not feeling down, we ordered pizza and played Ryan Overturf's Pauper Cube later that night and had a lot of laughs."
Tickal, who is hoping to win enough money at the Pro Tour to justify a trip to Grand Prix Las Vegas, will be working with his same compatriots from the PTQ season and hopes to connect with other qualified friends and acquaintances for the tournament.
The Special Invitations for Pro Tour Dragon's Maze include two players who were toiling in the PTQ ranks and two players who were invited based on their celebrity, ability, and passion for the game.
Troy Thompson is a twenty-four-year-old player from Centerville, Minnesota, who lost in the finals of a PTQ only to find out that his opponent was suspended by the DCI for a pending investigation just days later. It was a bittersweet experience for the international logistics coordinator. He only played in two PTQs during the San Diego season, but the his finals appearance came in the very last one before the Standard events for Dublin rolled in.
"I felt I had let down myself and my teammates," said Thompson of his PTQ finish. "Of those involved in our group, I had locked up the third second-place finish in the past three weeks of events. I feel excited, but the phrase 'by default' is so very bitter sweet. I'm just going to try to show that this invite wasn't a waste."
Twenty-four-year-old German PhD student Christopher Passow traveled all over Europe for his PTQ season and ended up with five Top 8 finishes in five different countries.
"I really enjoyed the last season," said Passow, "but unfortunately, although, I have now enough PTQ Top 8 Playmats to decorate a whole wall—literally—I didn't get all the way. So a Sponsor's Exemption I thought to be unlikely but possible, but a Special Invitation feels a little unreal." Passow explained that he thought such invites were reserved for the likes of William Jensen. "I only could assume that the passion for the game, which shared the better part of my life with me, is responsible for this invitation. During this season, I played a number of PTQs in five different countries, and a visit of more than three different countries in only one weekend happened more than once. And yes, you could interpret this as 'grinding,' but this season was to prove myself that you could really get there (again) if you really try, and if there is a take-home message, it's probably that the urge for self-improvement is the only necessity for progress as a Magic player."
Like Durward, receiving the email on Monday tempered his initial burst of enthusiasm and led to a little computer forensics before he could truly celebrate.
"The first 30 seconds I was so happy, but then I looked at the date and it took half an hour to convince myself—with emails from previous PTs—that it's not an April Fools' joke."
Passow hopes to work with the other qualified German players and explained that his personal goals for the event are, "Fun, self-improvement, and maybe a good finish. To play a PT is for me simply the greatest joy as a Magic player, because it's the highest competition you can get."
Dave Williams has been a recipient of a Special Invitation in the past, and with good reason. The recent Grand Prix San Jose champion is a World Series of Poker bracelet winner and famously reached the finals of the main event years ago to launch his career as a poker celebrity. He is featured on telecasts of the WSOP, the WPT, and has appeared on the NBC Heads Up Championship. If there is a camera at a poker event, rest assured that it will seek out the charismatic Williams, who has always been vocal about his love for Magic both on and off camera.
"Balancing Magic and poker is very difficult, especially with the added responsibility of being a good father to my two-year-old daughter," said Williams. "The hardest part about doing both simultaneously is staying competitive. Each game requires a huge time commitment and lots of dedication to be successful at it, and when you are spending time on one, that is time you aren't spending on the other. Since poker pays my bills and supports my family, it has priority, even though I would much rather be playing competitive Magic."
Williams still plays in PTQs whenever he can. "When my team won Grand Prix San Jose, even though I was happy we won, I was disappointed when I found out I was no longer allowed to play the PTQ in Las Vegas for PT Gatecrash. #firstworldproblems for sure."
Recently, Williams has taken the plunge and has been streaming Magic Online matches.
"I really enjoy the spotlight, and I think that is what got me into streaming. I have some of the most fun playing Magic when I'm streaming it and interacting with my viewers. The reaction has been awesome. Most of my viewers are Magic players and have heard of me but I tweet about it when I start a session and often get poker fan viewers who will pop in and write, 'I have no idea what I'm watching, but this is cool.' One of my goals of streaming is to bring more awareness to Magic. Since I have a fan base outside of the game I felt that by streaming me playing Magic, I could get those who don't know much about it to come check it out, ask me questions in the stream about the game, and maybe direct them to where they can learn more about it and hopefully build the player base a little."
When Williams first talked about playing Magic in poker circles it may have seemed an oddity, but no longer.
"Magic is definitely respected in the poker community. The non-Magic-playing poker players see the great results that those with a Magic background are putting up and always ask me about it and want to know what about it makes us so successful. There are lots of poker players who are currently playing Magic, mostly Magic Online since it's easy to do on the road, and I'm finding out about new players every time I'm at the tables. Myself, Eric Froehlich, and Brock Parker are probably the three biggest who have major crossover success at both games and are very competitive at both, but there are some really good poker players who are also competitive at Magic. Justin Bonomo and Adam 'Roothlus' Levy both recently went to GP Utrecht and Adam's team finished in 11th place. We have gotten big groups together to draft, especially during the World Series of Poker in the summer, and those events get pretty competitive. Two summers ago, we were able to get almost twenty-four players over at my building drafting in the game room. There were many WSOP bracelet winners, WPT Champs, and PT Top 8 players involved. Those drafts are some of the things I look forward to most during the summer."
Williams worked with the StarCityGames.com crew in the past, and with his San Jose teammates Paul Rietzl and Matt Sperling already working with that group for Dragon's Maze, he was excited about working with all of them now that he is qualified. When you consider the success that group has had in identifying the best decks in the room—they built both Owen Turtenwald's Top 8 Jund list and the winning Aristocrats deck that Tom Martell played for Pro Tour Gatecrash—it fits right in with Williams's resolve for this tournament.
"I was looking over my Pro Tour results and noticed I have lots of mediocre finishes with a few shining moments here and there," admitted Williams. "I started to think about the decks I have played and realized in forty-four PTs I have rarely played the 'best' deck. Always a random brew. And while some of them have been good, I think it's time to play a good, solid, consistent deck. My draft results have been stellar, so hopefully combined with playing a good deck I can give myself the best chance to win. Another thing I've noticed is once I am no longer in contention for Top 8, I lose my focus and drive to win. It's as if I feel 'if I can't win the tournament, I don't care anymore,' which is a terrible mindset to have and probably a reason I don't have many Top 32 results. Finishing strong is important and I plan to do that in San Diego for all sixteen rounds, regardless of my record."
The final invite was handed out to Sean "Day" Plott, who is a wildly popular e-sports commentator and professional StarCraft player. He has a daily webshow called DayTV, which peers into the world of competitive StarCraft. He has also covered other games in Day's Day Off and has been playing more Magic, including a recent foray into paper Magic at Grand Prix San Jose.
"The GP San Jose experience is one of my all-time favorite weekend memories," Plott said. "Competitive gaming always generates incredible stories and rewarding moments."
Plott, who started playing Magic back in the sixth grade, took the plunge into serious Magic in June of last year by "happily spending money on Magic Online drafts," as he describes it.
"I currently draft two or three times a week (with occasional weekends of drafting eight or more times!)," Plott said. "Drafting is my current favorite format because I know it the most, but I'm sure Standard will overtake that as I play it more."
Plott points to the color pie and card art as his favorite parts of Magic. "I love playing a red deck and 'feeling aggressive' or playing a black deck and raising my creatures from the dead," he said. "The thematic tie-ins in the Return to Ravnica block are especially sweet. I might be twenty-six, but I still enjoy enacting the role of a powerful Planeswalker. :]."
To help prepare for the Pro Tour, Plott is turning to two of his closest friends, whom he describes as "fairly serious Magic players." A two-week cram session leading up to the Pro Tour is in the works, plus Plott expects to watch and read as much as he can about the new set. He cites Luis Scott-Vargas and Travis Woo as two of his favorites.
"In essence, I'm going to rely on everything except myself," he said, in his trademark self-deprecating manner. Then again, Plott is a life-long gamer and has experienced intense competition and pressure over his ten-plus-year StarCraft career, so it's not like he's expecting to go to the Pro Tour just for a good time.
"As odd as it might sound, my goal is to win a match with a series of correct decisions. Allow me to explain myself! As a StarCraft player, I've trained myself to approximate correct decisions as quickly as possible and then focus on executing that choice. In Magic, I have to constantly battle this instinct and, instead, slow down to process all the information at hand. In my current state, I make a few too many mistakes by acting slightly too hastily. I'd like to be able to look back at a PT game and say 'I definitely made the right choice in that spot.' Whether I win or lose, my main goal is to learn to play better."
He looked back at his Grand Prix experience as important exposure to high-level Magic.
"In terms of learning, I definitely discovered what it feels like to commit a rules violation (accidentally drew seven cards after a mulligan)," said Plott. "However, I was reminded that, even though it's a competition, everyone is a Magic-loving nerd at heart. Every single person I played against was pleasant, helped answer any questions I had, and had a great attitude. At the next Grand Prix, I'll be looking forward more to the people than anything else."
Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on DailyMTG.com, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.