t is hard to imagine an 11th-place finish at a Grand Prix being labeled as "cooling off," but what else can you call Sam Black's 11th-place finish at Grand Prix Toronto this past weekend? Previous to the Theros Limited tournament, Black had made the Top 8 of every Premier-level event he had played in since Pro Tour Theros, and steadily clawed his way up the Top 25 Pro Player Rankings. When the new rankings were introduced, Black found himself headed into Pro Tour Theros as No. 25.
Rankings as of October 10, 2013
Black came into the current season as a Gold member of the Pro Player's Club and had his sights set on hitting the next tier of the game's frequent fighter club. Working with Team StarCityGames he had the infrastructure for success in place, but that is only part of the alchemical formula for turning Gold into Platinum.
"One accomplishes the goal of becoming Platinum by playing well and frequently, which is always what I'm trying to do in Magic regardless of level," said Black, who now must face a decision about how many GPs to continue playing in since only your best five GP finishes count toward your year-end totals. "I'm halfway through the season and now I can't earn more points for anything short of a Top 8 finish. That said, I like attending GPs, and I think it keeps me sharp, and I'm certainly glad I've gone to the recent ones I've attended."
The bulk of Black's success has come playing with the Mono-Blue Devotion deck that carried him to his second career Pro Tour Top 8 and two of his eight career Grand Prix Top 8 finishes. The deck, which is built around Theros newcomers Thassa, God of the Sea and Master of Waves, was not the deck the renowned deck builder—who has built multiple Pro Tour Top 8 decks for the SCG squad in the past—was working on when the team was sequestered in a Dublin castle.
"I was mostly working on other things while Kai [Budde] and [Gabriel] Nassif, and then others, handled the blue deck. I'm fortunate enough to work with players who I can trust to do their own work on a deck while I work on other things, and I can believe them when they tell me they've gotten their deck to a place where they're very happy with it, so I played it on my faith in my teammates," said Black of the deck that would carry him into semifinals of that Pro Tour. " I guess my aha moment with the deck came during the PT when the deck played out fabulously, and I figured out some important conclusions about what was going on in some of the matchups by talking with Kai between rounds."
Sam at Grand Prix Denver 2011
In an era of super teams and all the collaborative efforts that are implied, it is easy to wonder if the appellation "deck designer" is a relic of a Wild West Pro Tour past, where a quiet stranger can wander into a format and shoot his or her way to glory. Black disagreed with that premise, pointing to his past work as a member of one of the Big Two super teams.
"I was largely responsible for our Spirits deck in Honolulu, Hexproof deck in Barcelona, and Aristocrats in Montreal," said Black of decks that carried his teammates to multiple Top 8s and a Pro Tour trophy. Ironically, it was a deck that he had no hand in designing that got him within a game of playing for the trophy in Dublin. "I haven't been closely involved in building the last couple decks we've played, but that doesn't discourage me from trying new decks when I'm working with the team, and I think my teammates still trust me to put my efforts into new ideas."
With a team full of superstars capable of breaking a Standard format in half, how do Black and company approach a Constructed format?
"I'd say we just try everything we can think of and figure out what's good. We try to both figure out what other people are going to be doing and look for angles others might not think to explore—that last part is where I put most of my efforts; I leave tuning expected decks for others. Working on radically new ideas is more fun for me, so I'm going to work with more passion at that, which means I'll be a lot more involved and effective."
Rankings as of October 17, 2013
With his second Pro Tour Top 8 added to his resume, Sam Black began his ascent up the Rankings. Like most of the game's top players, he was not going to let seeing his name there make him too full of himself. That is not to say that it is not a point of pride for the other people in his life—and a tactical advantage when playing in tournaments.
"Ultimately, I know that the rankings, while fun, aren't a list of the most skilled players in the world, just a list of who's done best lately, and I know that I've done well without seeing my name on the list," said the pragmatic Black. "That said, it's been fun to be able to tell my mom about, and it's been flattering to be the focus of so much talk lately. I also think it probably helps in tournaments; it's always good to play against someone who expects to lose because of your reputation."
Next up for Black was Grand Prix Louisville, where he saw no reason to switch weapons. The format was Standard, and he had the plenty of experience with the best deck in the format. He quickly added the sixth Grand Prix Top 8 to his expanding resume—with two more on the immediate horizon.
"I've been minimally tweaking the blue deck based largely on theory rather than dedicated practice as I go," said Black. "For the most part, it was just a matter of using what I knew from the Pro Tour and leaning on the raw strength of the deck."
Rankings as of October 24, 2013
Black had to put aside Standard the next weekend and work with a much larger card pool. Grand Prix Washington DC was the Legacy format; a format that he did not play often outside of tournaments. Fortunately for Black, StarCityGames runs Legacy Opens just about every Sunday, which gives him a chance to play mad scientist with cards that don't see a lot of play in the format.
"Most of my previous efforts in the format have been with the Zombie deck that I played in the Top 8 of Grand Prix Atlanta, but between the rise of Deathrite Shaman and the printing of True-Name Nemesis, I didn't think that deck was well positioned," said Black, who once again placed his trust in the deck-building skills of his teammates. "I knew I wanted to play True-Name Nemesis if possible, and Reid Duke and Matt Costa had mentioned to me that they were similarly inclined. I didn't have a chance to play any with the card, so I just asked them what they were playing, and I trusted Reid Duke when he said he was confident in his deck."
Black added his seventh Grand Prix Top 8 and then quickly followed it up with an eighth when he returned to Mono-Blue Devotion for Grand Prix Albuquerque. His accomplishments were understandably overshadowed by the back-to-back victories in those same GPs by Owen Turtenwald, who had gone winless in his previous dozen Grand Prix Top 8s. With his Top 8 in New Mexico, Black was up to eight such finishes without a win.
"Not only do I not have a win—I haven't even made it to the finals," said an understandably exasperated Black, who is trying to take his tournaments one event at a time. "I've dramatically underperformed in Top 8s and I'd really like to turn that around. At [this] point, I think it helps me make Top 8s, but I'm not sure it helps me win. I have a danger of getting too excited as I get close to reaching a goal, and that can cause me to lose focus when I'm playing. The goal now is to win, where it may once have been just to Top 8."
While he is winless in ten Top 8 trips at Grand Prix and Pro Tour play, he is not without trophies in his career. Black has won a car playing in public events at the World Championships in New York and, a year later, as a member of the US National team, he won the World Team Championship.
"It's a weird tournament that's part of another tournament that doesn't exist anymore, so people don't really understand what's involved, and it's a niche enough finish that it doesn't get discussed the way that PT and GP Top 8s do," said Black, who feels "silly" bringing up winning the car or the teams win. "I think everyone wants to be able to easily directly compare numbers between various players and those are simple quantities that are easy to compare to each other; that makes people focus less on every other kind of achievement. It's weird, because you'd think more unique finishes might demand more attention, but it's just too hard for people to figure out what to do with those kinds of results, so I think they just ignore them. It also hurts that it's a team event, because no one has any idea how to credit each individual team member, and my teammates, Paul Cheon and Michael Jacob, are both excellent players themselves."
This past weekend, Black played Limited at Grand Prix Toronto and narrowly missed the Top 8 with an 11th-place finish. Truly an absurd run of success—one that Black has never experienced at any other level of the game.
Rankings as of December 5, 2013
"I've had similar win rates in Prereleases in the past, but that just isn't the same kind of thing, or really comparable in any way," said Black, who is—weather permitting—heading to Texas this weekend in the hopes of pushing that 11th-place finish just a little lower in his Top 5 GP finishes for the season.
"I booked a flight to Grand Prix Dallas well before I hit the cap the way that I have now, so I'll be at that one; after that, I'll be far less likely to attend more before I'm Platinum. At the moment, I need a Top 100 finish in Valencia or a Top 8 in Dallas to hit Platinum after Valencia, so if I can do that, the appearance fees might allow me to resume my regular schedule of GP attendance. I find that cap really frustrating because it makes it hard to justify going to GPs, and unlike others, I haven't really felt overly pressured, I just like showing up and meeting people and playing Magic."
Something tells me that despite his most pragmatic leanings it will be hard to keep Black away from any Grand Prix regardless of his finish this weekend.
Player of the Month: November (#MTGPoM)
Here's the deal right up front. I have Owen Turtenwald's name penciled in for the Player of the Month for November. After one dozen Grand Prix Top 8 finishes spread out over six years, Turtenwald got that elusive Premier-level win in his thirteenth—and fourteenth—Grand Prix Top 8s. Throughout the month of November, Turtenwald played in three Grand Prix events and finished 1st, 1st, and 19th, with an overall record of 36–7–1. The two wins came in two different Constructed formats—Standard and Legacy.
It is going to be next to impossible to convince me that Turtenwald should not win the honor for November but I am willing to listen to any case you might muster. Use the hashtag #MTGPoM on Twitter to make the case for Turtenwald or any of these other candidates. I can be found on Twitter as @Top8Games if you want to plead the case directly, but make sure to use the hashtag.
I spent the first couple of thousand words of this column talking about Sam Black and his impressive run of events going back to Pro Tour Theros, but only two of the events covered finished in the month of November. Black made the Top 8—finishing 4th and 5th—of both GP DC and GP Albuquerque. He also played in one StarCityGames Open without a notable finish. Overall, for the month Black posted a record of 23–7–2 at big tournaments.
Luis "Scott" Navas won Grand Prix Santiago within a year of learning how to play Magic. While he lives in Columbus, Ohio, these days, Navas is Chilean, and delighted the boisterous home crowd. Coming hot on the heels of the Pro Tour, GP Santiago could have been expected to be dominated by a deck from that Top 8, but Navas shocked the field with his Rakdos Aggro deck and won the first event of the month. It was the only major tournament in November for Navas, but he played plenty of Magic, with a total of twelve tournaments ranging from FNM to Booster Drafts. His November record was 27–13–2.
You know I have a ton of respect for anyone who wins a Grand Prix playing a deck with Forests and Islands, which is exactly what Samuel Marti did to emerge on top of a 1,000+-person field at Grand Prix Valencia. The Swiss player showed off the power of Voyaging Satyr in his winning green-blue draft deck from that event. Marti also played in five other tournaments throughout the month, including an 81st-place finish in the Bazaar of Moxen, and ended up with a 31–11 record for November.
Valentin Mackl quietly has two Grand Prix Top 4 finishes and achieved them both an ocean apart. The Austrian student was coming off a Day Two finish at Pro Tour Theros and notched the second GP Top 8 of his career playing Limited in Valencia. He traveled to Washington, DC, drawn by the bright lights of Legacy, and stayed stateside to play Standard in New Mexico, where Mono-Blue Devotion carried him to the semifinals for the second Top 8 of the month. Mackl played in four events besides the two GPs during the month and posted a November record of 37–17–2.
Again, I urge you to make the case for your choice for Player of the Month using the #MTGPoM hashtag. If you think I would be crazy to give the honor to someone other than Turtenwald, make yourself heard. Similarly, if you think someone else had a better month than Owen, you should make that case as well.
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.