bout eight or nine hours after this column goes live, the second half of the 2009 Pro Tour season will be officially underway as the Pro Tour comes to Texas. Pro Tour–Austin will fully chart the boundaries of Zendikar as the still newly released set will figure prominently in three different formats this weekend.
First up will be Standard. Standard was the format for the über-popular PTQs that fed this Pro Tour, and it is the format for the Last Chance Qualifier. The LCQ, as it is more commonly referred to, has not taken place as of this writing but will be in the books around the time this column hits your browser.
When the LCQ is finished, locals and unqualified travel buddies from around the world will have battled with the new Zendikar-fueled Standard for the last four Pro Tour invites before the main event. You can expect that the winning decklists from that event will be posted early on in the coverage, and if there is something exciting at the top of the standings you can count on a deck tech video as well. In the meantime, Mike Flores looked at the Top 16 decklists from last weekend's StarCityGames 5K Standard Open in Top Decks if you want to see what the format looks like right out of the gate. Early on, the Jund decks—similar to the ones that were all over the top tables in Block Constructed at PT–Honolulu—look to be dominating this format as well. Armed with a week of playtesting and actual decklists to playtest against and possibly prey upon, players may be able to keep the the Putrid Leeches at bay. Players who were scavenging for LCQ cards were definitely picking Goblin Bushwackers out of the draft leavings, as Christian Calcano's second-place Boros Bushwacker decklist was apparently testing very well.
A quick aside about Christian, who is from my local group of players: After finishing second in the Philly 5K, Christian returned home to spend Sunday in front of his computer playing in the second Magic Online Pro Tour Qualifier, only to lose in the Finals of that event as well. It was an epic weekend of exhilaration and frustration for one my area's up-and-coming players.
For all but the four players who earn that last-minute invite, the public event schedule will beckon. Players attending Pro Tour–Austin and not playing in the main event will be able to play all weekend long in eight-person tournaments that fire off as soon as the fill up, in formats ranging from Booster Draft to Vintage. For fans of the EDH format there will even be four-person EDH events which are worth two Zendikar boosters for each player you eliminate from your match. I might have to sign up for one of those myself.
Other public events include two Pro Tour Qualifiers for next year's PT–San Diego on Friday and Saturday; the Magic Online Live Championship Series, which awards $8,000 in prize purse; a $3,000 Booster Draft Challenge on Sunday; Super Friday Night Magic; and tournaments with prizes like a 32GB iPod Touch, a foil Zendikar set, and twenty original dual lands. There will also be artist signings, R&D members gunslinging at the Champion Challenge, the Mark Rosewater-hosted Question Mark trivia contest, and tons of other stuff to do. One of the biggest misconceptions I always see about the Pro Tour is that it is some exclusive event for the players who have qualified. The event is really a four-day Magic convention, and if you are within driving range of the Austin Convention Center you should make a point of checking it out at some point this weekend.
Of course, for those of you watching along at home the main event is the big draw and starting on Friday you will have a chance to see the brightest and best players in the game tackle the radically overhauled Extended format, which has been stripped of all the expansion sets prior to Mirrodin. This means no allied-color fetch lands, no cycling lands, no Astral Slide, and no Riptide Laboratory, just off the top of my head. More importantly it is the first major Extended event to incorporate Zendikar and its Zoo-friendly creatures. It will also be the first major Extended event since the introduction of the cascade mechanic. Will players be flipping the top of their decks into suspend spells like Hypergenesis and Restore Balance? Will Zendikar unlock some new combo deck? The Dark Depths / Vampire Hexmage combo (as seen here) was good enough to make the Top 8 of the $5K Legacy Open this past weekend. Could it hold up in Extended as well? There will be glimpses of the new format throughout the opening rounds via feature matches, but you may need to wait until Saturday for the Extended Deck Tech videos, as players are loathe to lay their decks bare before the cameras with a whole day of play still to go.
In addition to Extended, this weekend will feature Zendikar Booster Draft. Personally, I cannot wait to watch the Pros tackle this new draft format. As always, there will be a Draft Viewer featuring the top tables of the event, and you will get an over-the-shoulder glimpse at the decisions eight different players make throughout a draft that could very well determine whether or not those players get to continue playing on Saturday. You can also expect augmented coverage of the Draft Viewer with a Draft Tech video or two.
One player who has a leg up on the draft competition is former Rookie of the Year winner—and current Player of the Year front-runner—Yuuya Watanabe, fresh off of sweeping the final Zendikar draft en route to winning Grand Prix–Melbourne. It was Yuuya's fourth straight Grand Prix Top 8, and it leapfrogged him from fifth to first in the Player of the Year standings. Also leapfrogging three players was former Player of the Year Tomoharu Saito, who was tied with Watanabe at 40 points coming into the event. The two Japanese players met in the Finals, and Watanabe emerged with a narrow 2-point lead. Previous leaders Gabriel Nassif and Luis Scott-Vargas will have their work cut out for them this weekend if they want to regain their once mighty leads. Nassif almost never attends Grand Prix events, and Luis does not usually travel as far as other players near the top of the standings are willing to. Luis did make the trip to Melbourne and looked to be in good position to make a run after Day One, but fell out of contention early in Day Two.
Watanabe is in the midst of a historic run that is reminiscent of an early Kai Budde, who rattled off sequences of European Grand Prix Top 8 appearances and wins before repeating that success on the Pro Tour. Do I think Yuuya Watanabe is going to win the next handful of Pro Tours? Not necessarily. Would I be willing to wager the consumption of a hat against it? Not a chance.
On the Rookie of the Year front I will be keeping an eye on Brad "FFfreaK" Nelson, who comes into this event 10 points of the lead after a pair of heartbreaking bubble finishes in Honolulu—where he was 9th—and at U.S. Nationals—where he lost the 3rd/4th playoff for the remaining berth on the team to Todd Anderson. In the days leading up to Honolulu, Brad, who had been tearing up the Block Constructed PEs on Magic Online, was featured in this article using only his nom de MTGO. Anonymity quickly fell by the wayside for Brad, who found himself in the Feature Match Arena throughout the weekend playing against the likes of Luis Scott-Vargas and Shuhei Nakamura, and even taking part in a deck tech video. Since then he has become a weekly columnist on Channelfireball.com and a highly sought-after source of Magic advice.
I was able to pull Brad aside from a pre-PT playtest session to find out how Pro Tour success has changed his life over the past three months.
"One of the biggest things that changed was the whole people-knowing-your-name thing," said the soft-spoken Brad. "It blew me out. I am a forgetful person to begin with, and when people come up to me and say, 'Hey Brad!' I never know if I actually know them or not."
Becoming an overnight success was many years in the making for the North Dakota player.
"Working so hard for all those years to finally go somewhere and do well at Nationals and Hawaii was pretty reassuring," Brad admitted. "I always felt like getting to the Pro Tour was something I could never achieve—something unattainable. Then all of a sudden I am in there. It is an almost out-of-body experience getting here. I look at it and I don't feel that it is real. It is really fast. The last three months have been very fast."
"I just want to play the best Magic I can every round," Brad answered immediately when asked about his goal for this Pro Tour. "I just want to play tight. You play badly and win matches, and you play like the best game that you can and you can lose. I just want to give myself the best options."
Would he rather lose playing well than win playing badly?
"Of course I would rather win the match," he laughed. "But I would rather play well and win then play well and lose. It is all about winning, but playing tight Magic will give you those percentages so that is my goal. If I play really good Magic and don't make Day Two there is nothing I can do about it."
Brad went on to explain that it was crucial to take something away—to learn something—from every match win, lose or draw.
"That is really important. I played Shuhei [Nakamura] in Round 8 and he outplayed me—just unbelievably. I beat him and I was happy, but I knew that he outplayed me," Brad elaborated. "I am not at that level of player and I knew I had to go into it, and the couple of cards that were better than his took the match-up. Enjoy it. It is just the best time in the world to sit down against someone like Luis Scott-Vargas or Shuhei and to play on the Pro Tour—especially if it is your first."
One player who will be getting that first-ever Pro Tour experience this weekend is Brad's younger brother Corey Baumeister—known as FFfreaKsLittleBro on MTGO.
"This is our first Pro Tour together," said Brad, who had claimed his brother was the better of the two when we talked in Hawaii. "I think at the table with all the information in a defined metagame the kid plays tighter Magic than I do. When it comes down to theorizing and the newer stuff I have the edge. I give him the deck and he wins."
Corey earned his invite via rating, taking 1st place in the Minnesota $5K Standard Open and then finishing second in the PTQ the next day.
"He went 18-1-2 and his rating shot up to qualify him for this and for Worlds," beamed an obviously proud older brother. "We're very excited."
And there is plenty to be excited about. Keep aiming your browser to the official event coverage, where Randy Buehler and I will be doing updates, Deck Techs, Draft Techs, and Quick Question interviews all weekend long, and the amazing coverage team of Monty Ashley, Josh Bennett, Randy Buehler, Greg Collins, Kelly Digges, Craig Gibson, Rich Hagon, Bill Stark, and myself will keep you up to date on all the action. The live webcast will start at 11:45 a.m. Eastern on Sunday.
Congrats and Thank Yous!
Congratulations to former coverage great Toby Wachter and his beautiful bride Maureen Ryan on this past weekend's marriage in Pasadena. I was lucky enough to take part in the wedding as a groomsman in a wedding party that was nearly mono-Magic players on the groom's side. (Interestingly the one groomsman who did not play Magic had a girlfriend with him who did.) With a few nervous hours to spend before the ceremony, Toby decided he wanted to do a Zendikar draft with his friends. We went to Game Empire in Pasadena to buy packs, and while they do not normally sell or provide basic lands except for in-store tournaments they were generous enough to supply our draft with lands. It is an awesome store, and you should definitely take a trip there if you find yourself hankering for a pre-wedding draft in Pasadena.