o Zendikar previews here (although you can find my preview of Baloth Woodcrasher over at Top8Magic.com), as we have some unfinished Magic 2010 business to take care of. Smack-dab in the middle of a stunningly successful season of Standard PTQs there was a run of Grand Prix events featuring M10 Limited. Fueled by a dearth of Limited events and a short supply of Baneslayer Angels, these tournaments featured record-breaking attendances, remarkable performances by players looking to make up ground in the Player of the Year race, and plenty of fodder for me to chat about with fellow coverage reporters about the events of the past several weekends.
There were a record-setting 1500 players in the event as the season kicked off in Boston. I got to watch old-school pro Ben Stark make his return to the top tables only to fall short of a trophy—something that has eluded him throughout his career—to local player Marlon Egolf. The following weekend Tim Willoughby got to chronicle a showdown between Hall of Famer Olivier Ruel and one of the game's brightest new stars, Martin Juza, with Olivier triumphing in the end. Juza was featured in the Finals match just one event later by Ray 'blisterguy' Walkinshaw. While Juza lost again, this time to Shingou Kurihara, he thrust himself right into the middle of the Player of the Year race. Amazingly, Bill "No relation to Ben" Stark got to watch Kurihara play in another Finals at the following event in Niigata, only to see him fall to old-timer Tsuyoshi Ikeda. Even more amazing was what Hanno Terbuyken got to witness in Prague as Yuuya Watanabe made his third GP Top 8 in a row but fell to Jan Schmidt.
BDM (Boston): For Grand Prix–Boston Josh Bennett and I had to struggle with the effects of a power outage in Renton which made updating the coverage impossible down the stretch run. Josh leaped to action and kept the event constantly updated for anyone following along on Twitter. That and the idea that 1500 players showed up for a North American Grand Prix are my lasting memories of covering that tournament. What about you guys at your respective tournaments?
Willoughby (Brighton): Watching the various international reactions to the British seaside delicacy of fish and chips. Not particularly magical, but it was entertaining for us Brits. Saito said the fish needed to be saltier and more raw; Nakamura excitedly took photos of his food and then proceeded to eat it so fast that he nearly choked and died on a fish bone; and GerryT grudgingly ate the fish before declaring the chips to be non-food.
Walkinshaw (Bangkok): The coolest thing about GP–Bangkok was the old-school players who came out of the woodwork for whatever reason. Americans Ken Krouner and Rudy Edwards are living in Phuket, so they popped in for a game or three, and Canada's Jeff Fung was visiting family nearby, so he was here too. Names I'd never expected to see at an Asia-Pacific GP, especially any time in the last five years, that's for sure.
Ken Krouner and Jeff Fung.
Stark (Niigata): The utter dominance of the nation of Japan. Last year America put a player into the Finals of every Pro Tour, winning all but one. Watching the Japanese sort of make a mini-comeback this year (not that they were far behind last season) has been fun. Grand Prix-Niigata saw them just crush; only one player in that Top 8 did not reside in the host nation, and he—Gaudenis Vidugiris—was dead after the Quarterfinals.
Terbuyken (Prague): Definitely the setting. Prague is a beautiful city, and the Industrial Palace that the Grand Prix was held in was just magnificient.
Luis Scott-Vargas, Shuhei Nakamura, and Tomoharu Saito.
BDM: Coming into Boston my focus was clearly on Luis Scott-Vargas, Shuhei Nakamura, and Tomoharu Saito—the last two Player of the Year winners, who were both hoping to repeat this year, and this year's most likely candidate in my mind. Which players did you have your eye on coming into the event?
Terbuyken: Certainly Martin Juza, as he came off a second place at GP–Bangkok and was looking for a good finish in his home country. Unfortunately, that didn't turn out as well as he had hoped for. Also, there was one sight that got me excited on Friday night. Imagine you're walking towards the GP hall. You enter the huge plaza in front of it, and from the other side walk three players: Shuhei Nakamura. Kazuya Mitamura. Yuuya Watanabe. And you see heads turn as they walk through the crowd, heading for the registration line. That was a really cool moment. And of course, Yuuya Watanabe was always on our radar the whole weekend, because he is on a really hot streak right now with his three Top 8 finishes in M10 Limited GPs!
Stark: Shingou Kurihara and Martin Juza; I said on the start of Day 1 that Shingou was a favorite after his win the weekend before the event in England, but almost as soon as I typed those words I thought "Who actually back-to-backs Grand Prixs?" A day later I was watching Shingou in the Finals, repeating Martin's back-to-back Finals appearances from the week prior. It turned out, the player I really should have been watching was Yuuya Watanabe.
Walkinshaw: After their finals appearance the event before in Brighton, I was definitely keen to follow Olivier Ruel and Martin Juza. It was especially great to see Juza battle to back-to-back Finals.
Willoughby: Arjan van Leeuwen was someone I was looking to for big things, as he has won a pair of Shards of Alara block Sealed Deck GPs, and I was keen to see if he was particularly well suited to that exact format, or if he is generally breaking through for something big. As always, I was also keenly keeping track of the players who had travelled furthest to be there. Normally that would mean Shuhei and Saito, but in this instance, we had a Gerry Thompson, a Steve Sadin, and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. I would have been looking out for Gaudenis Vidugiris prior to the event, but he only actually arrived during deck registration, having called ahead to say that he had just landed for the event. A welcome late addition indeed!
BDM: Ben Stark really showed me something in Boston. I thought he had the potential to be one of the all-time greats during the 2004 season but he walked away before he could fulfill that promise. He has been scratching his way back onto the Tour via the PTQ scene, but he looked like someone who could post some exciting finishes in the last half of this Pro Tour season. Were you surprised by anyone at your events?
Stark: I was, and it was the aforementioned Watanabe. The year he won the Rookie of the Year title, at Worlds 2007 in New York, I interviewed him and asked "What's the next step?" With a huge grin and zero hesitation, he said, "Player of the Year!" Watching him Top 8 back-to-back Grand Prixs, then making it three straight in Prague the following weekend was very impressive. He's also got back-to-back Nationals team appearances, and a consistent competitive record. As far as I'm concerned, he's the new face of Japanese Magic.
Terbuyken: Ognjen Cividini. Of course, a 14th place at Worlds 2008 is a clear indication that a player is up to something. But I had not reckoned with Cividini's domination throughout the event. And he is a really calm, collected player, while being really competitive. In Round 13, he could have probably conceded to or IDed with Matej Zatlkaj. Both players sat down, and Cividini said: "Let's play." To me, it felt like he was gunning for the perfect streak, the 15-0 at a Grand Prix. In the end, once he was safely in the Top 8, even Cividini didn't play through—a guy has to relax at some point, especially with a Top 8 coming up. But I think he could be that guy.
Also, he has two more things going for him: He is very modest. With a 14th place at Worlds, would you note "Nothing relevant" as previous Magic success in your Top 8 profile? And, of course, Ognjen Cividini caused podcaster Rich Hagon to google onion jokes all Sunday.
Everybody was surprised by Jan Schmidt. The young German earned his first ten pro points ever with a win on the back of a really solid draft. Even with two German coverage reporters on the staff, we did not have Schmidt on our collective radar. We'll make sure to watch him in the future, though!
Willoughby: Kevin Grove wasn't someone I'd encountered before, but the Dutch national champ definitely put up good numbers in Brighton, making it into the Top 8 undefeated. This included playing Olivier Ruel in the last round rather than choosing to take an intentional draw. While I can see the desire to live the dream of a perfect score, I think it was probably an unwise choice, as it left Kevin with less rest prior to the Top 8 than most others in it, and lit a fire under Olivier that saw him through to lifting the trophy. Kevin made a few mistakes in the Top 8 that he might have avoided had he had a round to rest and eat, and I can't help but think that getting the 15-0 in Swiss wasn't worth it.
Walkinshaw: Rudy Edwards—last seen playing in the 90s—rocking into Day Two and appearing to have a plan, even if it didn't work out so well, and Ruud Warmenhoven, steamrolling into the Top 8 while claiming he didn't even know what was in the set.
BDM: It was fascinating to me, so early into the release cycle of M10, to watch people have very different card valuations. Every time I watched a table it was interesting to see how people approached the black-matters cards like Tendrils and Looming Shade, which want you to be as close to mono-black as possible. You can check out the Top 8 draft from Boston via the Draft Viewer we did for the event. Was there a draft strategy that stood out or impressed you from that event?
Willoughby: I saw Raphael Levy doing the blue-red plan that I know you're a fan of, but at the time didn't recognise it for what it was: a really solid tempo plan. At the time, Tomoharu Saito was the person I was getting most of my draft advice from. He seems to have a great handle on how mono-black works, and he also had a nice sideline into a strong black-green archetype, should the main plan falter. A start of Duress, Black Knight, Oakenform is pretty much the ballgame against a lot of decks in M10 Limited, and Saito was ready with it if mono-black dried up.
Walkinshaw: No draft strategy as such, but that the players knew the format as well as they did. For instance, Martin Juza drafting a Whispersilk Cloak highly and winning a feature match because of it, showing that he understood that core set Limited is considerably different to Mirrodin block Limited—the set the Cloak debuted in.
Terbuyken: Not really, no. It was rather the opposite. In the drafts I saw, I felt that red was always slipping through everyone's fingers. In the back of my head, I always thought "Why doesn't someone pull a [Geoffrey] Siron here?" Of course, picking up all the red is really tough when you are guaranteed to lose your Lightning Bolts to everybody else. But that's the thing I would have like to see: an all-red deck, and a good one at that.
Stark: In the Top 8, Tsuyoshi Ikeda put together a white-blue aggro deck I initially thought was pretty average. But watching it in action, and specifically him playing it was a whole different story. He knew exactly when to press his opponents, when to pull the trigger on his modicum of removal, and his "average" deck actually seemed anything but in Ikeda's hands (though a mana flood from Shingou Kurihara in the Finals helped seal the deal). Watching the eventual champion's performance made me want to get my hands on a blue-white deck in the Magic 2010 format.
BDM: In Boston all the players who reached Day Two seemed pleasantly surprised by how skill-intensive a base-set Draft format could actually be. The other 1300-odd players were a little grumbly about the Sealed format of Day One. As the format evolved over the five weekends, did you find a similar reaction to the Day One format?
Stark: No. Every season players seem to complain the Sealed formats are too "bomb-laden," but if you read the coverage from Niigata, you'll notice some clever in-depth analysis of the format from the Japanese. When I asked Watanabe what card he most wanted to open in his Sealed pool, he answered, "Magebane Armor." To that point, and since, I have not heard someone echo that sentiment and, judging by his Top 8s, he's right on. There weren't any complaints from the people I interviewed at the event that the Sealed format was any worse than in years previous.
Willoughby: There were certainly those who weren't so keen on the Sealed format, where bombs seem a big part of the game. Even winning the event didn't warm Olivier up to M10 greatly. The Draft day was more exciting for players and for us covering the event. Games tended not to bog down as much, and we got to see how different draft plans fared against each other.
Walkinshaw: Very much so. Players were also saying that it wasn't so much the bombs you had, although they were obviously great, but your ability to deal with bombs. Cards like Safe Passage or Cancel/Negate for Fireball or Overrun, and creature removal for Baneslayer Angels, and so on.
Terbuyken: Essentially yes. The drafts favored the good players, those who could read the tables and see what was going on to their left and right. Misevalutating your cards would lead to a subpar deck, and spotting the openings in the drafts was both skill-testing and rewarding for those who did. It's an interesting format, and it'll hold until Zendikar comes around—not too long now!
BDM: I am a big Martin Juza fan, and Yuuya Watanabe has all the makings of a breakout season, but I liked LSV to win the Player of the Year coming into Boston. Nothing that happened at the top tables in that event changed that expectation for me—I don't think Gabriel Nassif will attend the GPs needed to make the difference in the race. Did your PoY predictions change at all based on what you saw at your event?
Terbuyken: I had expected Martin Juza to pick up a couple of points in Prague. That would have made the race much more interesting, because in the Top 8, Juza could have gained the lead in the race. But the upcoming GP schedule favors the Japanese and Americans, because they'll have an easier time travelling to all of them. Yuuya Watanabe picked up 8 points and is now tied with Saito at 40, so he is a contender for sure, if his streak holds. I think it will come down to a race between him and Shuhei. Both are on their National team, so they have more possible pro points to get than anyone else up there in the PoY race. If they go neck-and-neck at Worlds, Rome will be really exciting: They will have to compete with each other and at the same time work together for their National team!
Walkinshaw: I'm cheering for Martin Juza. He's only just behind Shuhei Nakamura and Tomoharu Saito, the other two guys grinding the Grand Prix circuit. Mind you, all it will take is a good finish in Austin or at Worlds from either Nassif or LSV to blow them out of the water, but I can remain hopeful. Juza seems to be running strong. Realistically, I think LSV has the best shot from here.
Willoughby: The PoY race this year is looking very exciting. While LSV and Nassif are riding high off massive Pro Tour finishes, both Shuhei and Saito have been grinding out points all season, and are really not very far behind at all. Having seen Martin Juza step up in Brighton, I would love to see him catch up with good showings at the final big stops on tour, but in all honesty I think my vote would be for Nassif. While he didn't set things alight in Brighton, he is in excellent form at the moment, and we are fast heading towards the World Championships, which feels like exactly the sort of tournament that rewards a player with Nassif's skill. He has already shown us this season that he can switch around formats without breaking a sweat, and with so many formats being played at Worlds he is one of those I think most likely to have the stamina and consistency to make yet another Top 8.
Stark: My thinking on this is pretty similar to pre-Niigata, but that's only because I'm such a fence-sitter! Shuhei and Tomoharu Saito will continue being the players most likely to show up at a Pro Points–awarding Magic event, and as a result I feel they're the likely candidates. But Luis Scott-Vargas had a red hot start to the season, and though he's cooled off ever so slightly after a busy personal year, if he's putting in the usual amount of work he does for events, he's also a solid shot. And Gabriel Nassif, who finally got his individual title in Kyoto, benefits from being an all-around great player, meaning the split formats of the remaining Pro Tour events are good for him. Of course, both Shuhei Nakamura and Yuuya Watanabe will benefit from the team portion of Worlds, so it's still too in the air to say. I do know this: the race was exciting before Grand Prix–Niigata, and it remains exciting now.
Firestarter: Handicapping the Player of the Year Race
Here are the most up-to-date Player of the Year standings at the halfway point of the Pro Tour season. You have heard the picks from the coverage side. Who do you think will win the coveted title after all is said and done for the 2009 season? Head the newly rebooted forums and share your opinions and reasoning there.