The_Week_That_Was

Take it from the Pros – there's always room for improvement, as a review of the 2006 season reveals.

A Year’s Worth of Lessons

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The letter T!his is the last Week That Was for 2006 and I find myself looking back at the year that was with a unique new perspective. For the entire Pro Tour season I have had the opportunity to sit next to Randy Buehler in the webcast booth for a front row seat on the 10th anniversary Pro Tour season. I have been playing this game for a long time and have been involved as a professional spectator for going on half of a decade. Yet somehow I feel that the past 12 months of webcasting, feature match analysis, and chronicling Pro Tour history taught me more about the game than in any of the previous seasons.

Rather than just run through the events of the past season as I have done in the previous years helming TWTW I have instead chosen to share some of the lessons I learned in 2006.

1. If You Fly Them, They Will Come

Get used to that spotlight, Paulo.
Each and every stop on the Pro Tour this year featured record player participation. It started in Hawaii and continued straight through to Kobe – two fairly distant locales for much of the world to reach easily. The player attendance in Charleston was so high that it threatened to warp the projections for Level 3 of the Players Club and necessitated a minor tweaking to this year's thresholds. Pro Tour point distribution was also adjusted for the upcoming season's Pro Tours.

The key to this attendance upturn is tied to the decision to have all Pro Tour Qualifier winners be awarded airfare in addition to winning the invite itself. You only need to look as far as rising superstar Paulo Vitor Damo de Rosa to find the poster child for this initiative. Paulo is a player who has been writing about the game for years and toiled away on the PTQ scene unable to justify the airfare form Brazil to the multiple Pro Tours he had qualified for over the years.

It turns out that Paulo should have just bit the bullet and flown himself out there earlier because he makes this thing look easy. He ended up with two Top 8 finishes this year, Level 6 Players Club status, money finishes at each and every Pro Tour he played in, and has migrated from the free side to the premium side at Brainburst, the website he had toiled on for such a long time.

Plus, he has dragged Brazil kicking and screaming into the mix when you talk about countries with the top Magic players. For years the lone Brazilian claim to Magical fame was Carlos Romao – and Carlos appears re-energized by the presence of fresh blood on those long flights from Brazil to all points Pro. Now you have Paulo with two Top 8s, Willy Edel with two runner-up finals finishes, and a worldwide Magic community waiting for 2007 to see who else Latin America is ready to propel into the Sunday spotlight with free airfare to Geneva, Yokohama, San Diego, Valencia, and a soon-to-be announced Worlds venue.

There were two free airfare stories to come out of Kobe before we move on to the rest of 2006. The first is that Kobe winner Jan-Moritz Merkel got to that event with an airplane ticket paid for by a PTQ win. The other was ninth-place finisher Brian Hegstad – a cagey Pro Tour veteran – using his PTQ win as a means to an end. While Brian was not looking to get back on the Pro Tour full time, he did want to go to Japan and see some friends so he defrayed his travel costs by winning his local PTQ. I wonder if he has any friends he wants to visit in Geneva?

2. Not All Topdecks Are Created Equal

Don't look, just slam it!"

Those were the words Olivier Ruel said to his opponent before he lost in the semifinals of Pro Tour – Honolulu. No one is ever going to forget Craig Jones' topdecked Lightning Helix in Honolulu to start off the 2006 season.

Lovett's seemingly innocuous Stone Rain gave Ogura an opening.
It is easy to dismiss Craig as pulling the lucky card at the fortuitous moment, but that would not be entirely fair to Professor Jones. While it may seem like basic common sense in hindsight, you have to remember that in order for Craig to be in a position to topdeck he needed to use the Char he was holding at the end of the previous turn, knowing that another burn spell was the only answer he could hope to find. So much of the art of topdecking comes down to playing yourself into a position where the card on top of your deck is relevant – after all, players tend to have relevant cards in their decks to draw.

Once you get down to the Top 8 there is not much margin for error, something multiple players have learned this season. Willy Edel would have ‘topdecked' a Disintegrate in the finals of Pro Tour – Kobe if he had just laid back for one more turn (more on this one shortly!). We chide Edel for his misplay yet we do not give credit to a player who manages his game effectively and gives his deck the most chances to offer up the cards he needs to win – instead we dismiss it as topdecking.

At Worlds this year we saw Welsh National Champion Nick Lovett beating down in Game 3 of the semifinals with a Savannah Lions and Soltari Priest and his opponent at two. Lovett was stuck on two lands for most of the game and his third land allowed him to Stone Rain his opponent's land – or so he thought.

Instead he accelerated Ryo Ogura's mana by allowing the Japanese player to Remand into a completed Urzatron and salvage the game with Triskelavus. It flies in the face of how you normally play against permission – since you want to draw out the control player's counterspells with test spells so you can stick important cards later – but the best play there was to do nothing and represent lethal burn in hand. Instead he doubled the chances for Ogura to find a way out of the seemingly impossible situation with a ‘lucky' topdeck.

3 - Anyone Can Get Better

Do you think that you cannot make the leap to the next level of the game, or that success in Limited or Constructed are mutually exclusive? If so, I have a young player from Hiroshima who would like to have a word with you. I would suggest that if Kenji Tsumura, the most dominant player on the planet last year, can resolve to get better there are no excuses for the rest of us. Almost immediately upon winning the Player of the Year crown last season, Kenji vowed to improve his Limited play. He had not made Day Two of a single individual Limited event that year and Constructed-format domination was not enough for him.

If you look back over the past few seasons at players who have posted format-dominating performances akin to Kenji's 2005 season, you find players who have historically been associated with that format. Gabriel Nassif went on a two-season tear through Constructed that culminated in his 2004 Player of the Year title, narrowly edging out Nicolai Herzog (who had just crushed 40-card decks all year). With the exception of Nassif's two team finishes, he has never posted anything of note with a non-wingmanned 40-card deck. Nicolai's lack of success with the larger decks mirrored Nassif's Limited struggles.

Kenji chose not to rest on his laurels and did in fact improve his Limited game. He took home the trophy in back-to-back Limited Grand Prix events, made the Top 8 of another, and went on an inspirational eight-win run to secure the fourth Top 8 of his young career in Kobe. Allow me to repeat myself: If Kenji can get demonstrably better at Magic, then there is probably room for the rest of us to improve as well.

4 - Measure Twice and Cut Once

“This isn't Friday Night Magic. You can't just turn all your guys sideways and hope it all adds up,” is an approximation of what I said in the webcast booth just before Willy Edel sent all his creatures into the red zone for what turned out to be a lethal alpha strike … for him. Jan-Moritz Merkel did not die to the attack and was able to un-morph his Brine Elemental to finish off the Brazilian player on the return strike to win Pro Tour – Kobe. Not only did Willy merely have to wait one more turn to have enough creatures to finish off his opponent in one fell swoop, but he had a Disintegrate on top of his deck which would have also gotten the job done.

Edel's alpha strike was lethal…to himself.
Had Edel put a little more thought into the scenario, he would have realized how many more tokens he was going to produce with his Thallid bar, and that from Moritz's decklist and graveyard he should have known the morph was not the Trickster he feared it was, and that he had at least one more turn before the alpha strike was necessary.

I am not saying that I could have made the correct decision in that situation, but rather I am trying to illustrate that skill matters in games of Magic and those skills, time and time again, come down to knowing when you need to push everyone into combat and when you need to hold back and trust in the cards you have in play – the same as we saw in the Lovett situation with the Stone Rain.

Willy Edel is obviously a formidable foe who in just three events managed to rack up two Pro Tour finals finishes and a Level 5 status for the 2007 season. With a little more deliberation he could easily be Level 6 and have a trophy on his mantle, as opposed to a Kamiel-monkey on his back.

We saw the same thing with Gabriel Nassif – someone that Randy Buehler places on the short list alongside Kai and Jon as the best the game has ever seen. Had he sat back with his mana untapped, two Remands in hand, and an active Martyr of Sands we would have likely had a different result to this year's World Championships.

During the Swiss rounds of Worlds, Osyp Lebedowicz took a painful loss (could be as much a $4,000 hit based on where he finished in the standings) when he chose not to look at his last card before attempting to kill Tsuyoshi Fujita. The last card turned out to be a land he could have played to have enough mana to pay for the Mana Leak that Tsuyoshi essentially killed him with.

The decisions you make, the lack of consideration you pay to what your opponent might have, and a general sense of carelessness are going to be the differences between winning games and losing them. This is going to be true at every level of the game and despite my quote at the top of this entry, there no reason even at Friday Night Magic for you to attack with everyone without at least taking a few moments to weigh all the options.

5. Sideboards and the Men Who Use Them

I don't think that the sideboard can ever be emphasized enough in regard to succeeding at Magic on any level. It has been pointed out time and time again that you play the majority of your games after sideboard and players should be testing as such. Who knows how the finals of Worlds would have played out had Ryo Ogura left his Triskelavi in the deck and sided in Annex – a card that he may have overlooked because he had it relegated to the role of breaking up opposing Trons in mirror matches.

Not only was Ogura's opponent relying on storage lands to build up to a critical mass of mana, but Makihito Mihara was able to Gigadrowse his way through Teferi thanks to the ersatz mana batteries. In fact, the storage lands were so important in this matchup that Mihara sided in three more of them for the post board games, taking out three basic lands to make room for them.

Sideboarding in Limited events is even more overlooked. In a recent article on Star City Games, Kenji Tsumura continually talked about minor alterations he would make to his deck after each game in Kobe on his way to his Top 8 finish. From his article:

“After every game I play, I change one or two cards in my maindeck. I see a lot of people begin shuffling for the second without even taking a look their sideboard, but I think for sure that there will be something you should change in every matchup. The only exceptions to this are if you think, 'my opponent's deck is simply too strong,' or 'there is no other cards I'd rather play, because of a failure in my drafting.'

The best example I can give here is Jedit's Dragoons. This card should be played when your opponent plays White and you don't see many creatures with flying. When I play White and see this card in the latter half of a draft, I will pick this. One reason is that I don't want my opponents to play this. The other is that it makes a fine sideboard option against decks with little evasion.

This is obviously true when you're playing Sealed deck, so why not the same in draft? To put it simply, when you see enchantments or artifacts in the game (Sacred Mesa, Temporal Isolation, etc), you will play Molder... won't you? The same is true when you draft. There could be lethal card to battle against opponent, sat sadly in your sideboard. It would be a crime not to play such a card. Make sure you take a look between games, or you may be missing out.”

Once again, if it is good enough for Kenji, it is good enough for me and I resolve to at least look to my sideboard after each game in the New Year. One of the best and most humorous examples of sideboarding in Limited comes from Pro Tour – Prague when Shuhei Nakamura and Antonino De Rosa squared off in the quarterfinals of that event. Sure you want to change your deck as the situation calls, but if you can do it without your opponent's knowledge, more the better.

After taking a bathroom break before Game 4 of the match, De Rosa did not know his opponent had sided out all his black cards in favor of blue cards and more emphasis on his white. While it was funny that he caught Antonino – almost literally – with his pants down, the more important thing to take from the anecdote was that the Tidespout Tyrant that was added to the deck was the deciding factor in a tight fifth game that advanced Shuhei to the semifinals.

6. Top 8, Schmop 8

For the past two years, Randy and I have taken time to emphasize the importance of money finishes and virtual Top 8 finishes when post-gaming the various Pro Tour events. Look back at the players who finished outside the Top 8 but inside the money in Honolulu and you see some interesting names that show up throughout the year.

Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, the man behind many 2006 decks.
World Champion Makihito Mihara finished 13th back at the start of the season while his quarterfinal opponent Paulo Vitor Damo De Rosa landed in 20th. Savvy deck technicians talked about various flavors of Wafo-Tapa control but did they know who the young French player was and that he finished in 12th at Hawaii? New Player of the Year Shouta Yasooka got that ball rolling with a 34th place finish.

If you compare that finals standings page from Hawaii with the Player of the Year final standings, you see that while everyone strives to play on Sunday there is more to playing sustainable Magic than just making the Top 8. Mark Herberholz won Pro Tour –Honolulu but he was passed in the Player of the Year race by Jelger Wiegersma – who finished almost 30 spots back of the architect of Heezy Street in the Hawaii standings.

In fact, Jelger ended up one point shy of Level 6 Players Club status without a single Top 8 finish over the course of five Pro Tours. He finished higher in the standings than four different players with a Pro Tour win during the 2006 season. Other players who reached Level 5 without the benefit of a Pro Top 8 this season include Hall of Famer Raphael Levy, Richard Hoaen, and Helmut Summersberger.

7. Grand Prix Secrets

While Pro Tour Top 8s might not be essential footwear for the Player of the Year race, there are few players who can keep pace without attending Grand Prix events. Kenji and Shuhei have Level 5 mostly on the basis of each having three Grand Prix Top 8s this season (including two wins apiece). Helmut Summersberger has been consistent but it was his big win at Grand Prix – Barcelona that injected the largest dose of points into his total.

Just look at that Barcelona Top 8 and you can see why the Grand Prix has become an essential travel destination for players aspiring for Level 5 and higher:

1) Helmut Summersberger (14th POY)
2) Raphael Levy (10th POY)
3) Jelger Wiegersma (6th POY)
4) Johan Sadeghpour (35th POY)
5) Olivier Ruel (16th POY)
6) Aniol Alcaraz
7) Jean Charles Salvin
8) Sebastian Aljiaj (10th POY, 1st ROY)

Rich Hoaen hit Level 5 almost exclusively on the back of winning two Grand Prix events and making the Top 8 of four of them. He also blazed a trail for North American players looking to climb back into the Player of the Year standings in 2007 by closing out the Grand Prix season with a Top 8 in Japan one week after finishing second at Grand Prix – New Jersey.

I am looking forward to the kickoff of the 2007 season at Grand Prix – Dallas. By now we have become accustomed to seeing the Japanese and Dutch players going where the Pro Points are, but will we see Germans, Portuguese, Brazilians, and the rest of the world following suit?

8. Not Your Standard Standard Analysis

Hey Mark Herberholz, what should I play in Standard? Shhhh…don't look now but Heezy and his 2260 Constructed rating may be the most effective barometer of Standard on the Pro scene. There have been two major Standard events this year on the Pro level and Mark has had a hand in the most successful decks at each end of the season.

After watching the Hawaii House think-tank finesse the format with transmutable silver bullets and mid-range rock-like strategies, Mark audibled into the brute force of the deck that became known as Heezy Street. At the end of the year he took part in a smaller cabal at Gabriel Nassif's Paris apartment where the two of them cooked up the MatyrTron. If not for a fateful tapping of six mana, Mark could have had a hand in the winning Standard decks to bookend the 2006 season. Instead he has to settle for one winner and one semifinal with an asterisk.

I'm just saying if I were Frank Karsten, I would not go stenciling that Resident Genius title on the pebbled glass of my outer office door just quite yet.

9. Stay With It

Does it seem like I keep using Japanese players in most of these examples? There is a good reason for that – they keep winning. In fact, the Japanese players may have had a better 2006 season than they did in 2005. They won three of the five Pro Tours this season and similarly have three of the five Level 6 mages going into next year.

Part of the reason for their success is perseverance. So many players crumble when faced with adversity or if they do not have immediate success. Katsuhiro Mori was the Rookie of the Year in 2001 but he did not really experience Pro Tour success until last season when he won the individual World Championship. Read my interview with Makihito Mihara and you will find a player who has been playing the game since Weatherlight and has climbed up each rung of the game from the kitchen table to the successful Finals at this year's World Championships.

Keep at it and the trophy could be yours.
For three years, Mihara made the Top 8 of Japanese Nationals. When success did follow immediately on the heels of hitting the Pro Tour and succeeding at Nationals, Mihara did not take this as a negative message. Instead he looked to his successes as evidence that he would eventually succeed at the next level. This perseverance is exemplified by his match against Paulo Vitor Damo de Rosa at Worlds when he found himself suddenly a mana short of being able to storm his dragons to victory.

Mihara could have easily dropped his cards and wished Paulo luck in the following rounds. It seemed like that was his only option but Mihara refused to sink beneath the weight of his mistake and stared at his cards and ran through the permutations until he could find a way out of the quicksand in which he was mired.

It is easy to focus on the mistake he made but everyone makes mistakes in this game – Gabriel Nassif, Osyp Lebedowicz, Kenji Tsumura, Nicolai Herzog, and everyone else who has ever played a game of Magic. The secret to succeeding seems to be learning from those mistakes and turning them into an opportunity to learn, as opposed to a chance to beat yourself up. If you can do that, maybe you can be the 2007 World Champion!

Firestarter: 2007 Preview

What was your favorite memory of the 2006 Pro Tour season and what are you most looking forward to in 2007?

Happy Holidays and a Healthy New Year to everyone! See you in January.

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