I must admit it, I do not only love Magic, I am also a big fan of the Pro Tour. It pains me that once again I am not qualified, especially as a few of my best friends are preparing for Pro Tour Born of the Gods right now. Thus I will do what most of you will probably do this weekend—watch the coverage and keep my fingers crossed for my friends. Of course, watching your friends compete makes the coverage more thrilling, but it becomes even more engaging if you have some kind of connection to the other players as well. This is my main motivation in making Pro Tour Specials, getting you closer to the players you will see on camera.
This time, I wanted to talk specifically to players that have won Pro Tours, and discuss their wins with them. However, I didn't just talk to any Pro Tour winners. Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Gabriel Nassif, and Jon Finkel all must be considered the headliners for this issue, but it is not only their presence that makes this issue special. I also got the chance to talk to Jérémy Dezani, Simon Görtzen, William Jensen, Paul Rietzl, Antoine Ruel, and Shouta Yasooka—all of them true masters of the game.
I'd like to thank each of these players for taking the time and the effort to answer my questions. It was my pleasure and an honor. Once again, I am very happy with how the interviews turned out. I don't know all of them personally, but just reading the answers might give you a good, if cursory, idea about the personality of these players. For example, Paulo's answers are reflective, Antoine's are emotional, and Jon's answers always account for the big picture.
Having talked to the most successful players in the world of Magic and almost 10,000 Pro Points worth of success, it makes you wonder if the next Pro Tour Special must not automatically be a drop-off from the first three. To be honest I don't think this is any problem at all. There are just so many great players in this game and I have only talked to 37 of them. I am looking forward to bringing you closer to some of the greatest minds in the game for the foreseeable future.
Thanks for reading and good luck to all of you at Pro Tour Born of the Gods!
Table of Contents
Pro Tour Born of the Gods Special
Name: Paul Rietzl
Qualified via Top 25 Pro Tour Theros, and Pro Club Gold Level
Pro Points: 28 in 2013-14, 278 lifetime
Pro Tour Debut: Pro Tour Osaka 2002
Pro Tours Played: 35
Median Finish: 82
Average Finish: 118
Top 8: 4 Pro Tours (1 win) and 9 Grand Prix (2 wins)
Planeswalker Level: 48 (Archmage)
Paul Rietzl is best known for his win at Pro Tour Amsterdam in 2010 and for double-queueing the Pro Tour Top 8 and the second day of the Grand Prix of the 2011 Magic Weekend in Paris. He is also famous for playing aggro decks. He achieved both of these Pro Tour successes with aggressive decks, White Weenie in Amsterdam and Boros Landfall in Paris. Naturally few people were surprised when Paul was reported to have drafted Boros aggro decks at Pro Tour Theros, another Pro Tour where he made it to the Top 8.
Paul's first Pro Tour attendance was in 2002 at Pro Tour Osaka. While he had a solid run from winter 2003 to winter 2005, including several money finishes at the Pro Tour and two Grand Prix Top 8s, he could never establish himself as one of the top pros. That changed in 2009 when, after two years of absence from the Pro Tour, he Top 8'd Pro Tour Honolulu. His deck of choice of course was an aggressive one, Esper artifacts. However, the Top 8 was Booster Draft and in the semifinals he fell to the eventual winner, Kazuya Mitamura. Within the next two years the aforementioned Pro Tour Top 8s followed, a win in Amsterdam and a second place in Paris. After that Paul, fell a bit on hard times on the Pro Tour, but achieved a number of Grand Prix Top 8s including two wins. However, Paul was just recently found among the last eight men standing at Pro Tour Theros, his fourth Top 8.
Q: You won PT Amsterdam in 2010. Most people are not aware of this, but your performance on that weekend was one of the most dominant in Pro Tour history. You only lost one match in the entire tournament, and didn’t lose a single game in the Top 8. How did you experience that tournament? What made you compete on a different level than everybody else that weekend?
Paul: Actually, PT Amsterdam took place at a time when I took Magic much less seriously. Two weeks before, I started U.S. Nationals 0-4. My preparation for the Pro Tour itself was OK, but not nearly as thorough as it should have been. I also arrived in Amsterdam the day before the event—suffice to say I did not have high expectations. My success in the event is really a testament to the group of players that I worked with for the tournament (including, but not limited to: Gabriel Nassif, Matt Sperling, Jelger Wiegersma, Kai Budde, and Patrick Chapin). The deck that we put together was truly miles ahead of everyone else for the new Extended format, and I was just the luckiest of everyone who played the deck. From a mindset perspective, the most important thing I learned was to just stay in the moment. Rather than thinking, "Ok, I just need to 4-1 from here and I'm in Top 8," I was able to think, "the way he played that last turn means he almost certainly isn't holding Negate." That let me maintain a high level over three days.
Q: You demonstrated another remarkable performance at the Magic Weekend in Paris. It was the only time that a Grand Prix was held in conjunction with a Pro Tour. Over the first two days of the Magic Weekend you had secured a spot in the Top 8 of the Pro Tour. Then on Saturday the Grand Prix started and you were also among the competitors. You qualified for Day Two there as well. The only problem was that the second day of the Grand Prix and the Pro Tour Top 8 would literally be held at the same time. In the end you competed in both anyway. How did you do that? Multi-tabling is not really a thing in real life after all. And weren’t you afraid that somebody would take offense, considering that Wizards had previously announced that Pro Tour Top 8 competitors were not to play in the second day of the Grand Prix?
Paul: After I made Top 8 of the PT, I asked Magic Tournament Manager Scott Larabee if I could just register and not show up for the GP and thus collect my appearance fee for what was then called Level 7. I planned on testing for my matchup against Patrick Chapin on Saturday rather than trying to slog through 2000-odd players. However, Scott told me that I needed to show up and register/build a Sealed deck in order to receive my appearance fee.
So, I participated in the Sealed deck swap and received one of the top five Sealed decks I'd ever seen—it was something like 14 infect creatures, 1 Massacre Wurm, 5 removal spells, and 2 pump spells. I intended to play a few rounds for fun and drop if I lost. I also intended to concede to anyone that I knew in order to help their chances in a tournament I could not really win. I only ended up losing round 7 (at which point I felt committed to finishing the day) and never played any friends or friends of friends. As for the announcement, I wasn't aware that WOTC had made it. They just told me that they would not make any allowances for PT players in the GP (and indeed I took a match loss to start Day 2 of the GP). However, they did hold my last round match in the GP vs. Marijn Lybaert for a short time in order to set it up in the PT Feature Match area. It was a crazy experience.
Q: In high-level Magic there are few players who regularly play aggressive decks. Most prefer midrange, control, and combo—literally anything to aggro. You are an exception to that and it has served you well so far. When you won Pro Tour Amsterdam you played White Weenie, and you piloted Boros aggro to a second place in Paris. Why do you like to play aggressive decks, and why do you think most other players avoid them? Do you think aggressive decks are disadvantaged to other strategies?
Paul: Aggressive decks are more forgiving. They sideboard less, have similar opening sequences, and get a lot of "free wins" against opponents who stumble on mana or fail to find a key card. They also reward pattern recognition and experience in unique way. Control/combo decks require extensive practice and a thorough understanding of each matchup in order to be effective. I don't really have a preference for aggro decks—I've played plenty of combo/control, I just tend to lose a lot so you don't see my deck lists in the Top 8! I don't think aggressive decks are disadvantaged in any fundamental way. Each tournament and each format is unique and requires a fresh approach. Sometimes there will be a good aggressive strategy, and sometimes the tools are just not there.
Q: When somebody watches you play, he might get the impression of a superb gamer at work. It looks like you are in full control all the time despite the unavoidable obstacles thrown at you by fortune. Is that aura of superiority something you are aware of, maybe even something you cultivate, knowing it might put additional pressure on your opponents?
Paul: It's definitely not an intentional, consistent approach. I actually try to be friendly when I play. I do think, if there is one single difference between my current successful run on the Pro Tour and my previous, less successful stint, it's tight technical play. I haven't suddenly become brilliant. I don't see 13 turns ahead and I can't stare into my opponent's soul. But I don't make nearly as many silly technical mistakes as I used to. I believe (and if it's just a placebo effect I don't care) that following the same shuffling routines, putting my lands where they belong (behind my creatures), using new sleeves for every day of an event, etc. helps me to minimize distractions and focus.
Name: Jon Finkel
Nicknames: Jonny Magic
Qualified via Hall of Fame
Pro Points: 7 in 2013-14, 522 lifetime
Pro Tour Debut: Worlds 1996
Pro Tours Played: 63
Median Finish: 52
Average Finish: 82
Top 8: 14 Pro Tours (3 wins), 2 Masters, 9 Grand Prix (3 wins), and 3 Nationals (1 win)
Planeswalker Level: 48 (Archmage)
Other Accomplishments: Pro Tour Player of the Year 1997-98, 2012-13 Players Championship Top 4, 2005 Hall of Fame class (vote leader), 1998 World Team Champion (with Matt Linde, Mike Long, and Bryce Currence), 2000 World Team Champion (with Chris Benafel, Frank Hernandez, and Aaron Forsythe), 2000 Invitational winner (designed Shadowmage Infiltrator)
Jon Finkel has been around for a long time, and he has won a lot in that time. Although Finkel hasn't won as many trophies as
a couple of other players Kai Budde he is still the most revered player in the game. Having the most Pro Tour Top 8 appearances, 14, certainly goes a long way toward that, but there are other factors that make Finkel special even among the very best players. Before Finkel there were other players considered the best players in their time, like Olle Rade and Mark Justice, but when Finkel took off in 1998 it was quickly clear that he was different. Finkel was not just the best player at that moment, he was the best player ever, and back then it was hard to imagine that anybody would ever rival him. He also isn't just good at Magic. His success at other games have earned Finkel a reputation as one of the most gifted gamers around.
Finkel started playing competitive Magic in 1996 in the Junior Division of the first Pro Tour ever held which happened to take place in his native city, New York. At the end of that season Finkel played his first senior Pro Tour, Worlds. Finkel reached the Top 8 of a Pro Tour for the first time a year later, at the 1997 Pro Tour Chicago. From there it didn't take him long to become one of the major stars of the game. He won the 1998 New York Pro Tour, added another three Top 8 appearances over the course of the next four Pro Tours and led the American national team to victory at the 1998 Worlds.
Further Top 8 appearances followed quickly. When Finkel retired from Magic Pro play in 2003 he had added another Pro Tour title, the 2000 Worlds, and increased the number of his Pro Tour Top 8s to 11. While that number has still not been matched by any other player, Finkel has added to his record in the meantime. In 2008 he showed up at Pro Tour Kuala Lumpur and hit the assembled Magic elite by the blind side, annihilating the other competitors left and right. However, it took another three years until Finkel fully committed to the Pro Tour once again.
Since Pro Tour Philadelphia 2011 he has attended all Pro Tours and added yet another two Top 8s to his resumé. The latter of these, at Pro Tour Avacyn Restored, he achieved as part of the former Team SCG Black. For that Pro Tour, the titans, Kai Budde and Jon Finkel, had joined forces for the first time. While Kai has skipped the occasional Pro Tour, the team, ChannelFireball: The Pantheon, is still in existence, and preparing to bring the Magic to Valencia.
Q: You won three Pro Tours, each at very different points of your career. The first title was at Pro Tour New York 1998. At that point you were still a rising star on the Magic Pro scene, and that title cemented your standing as current best Magic player. When you won the 2000 World Championship in Brussels that was arguably the last puzzle piece missing to have you considered the best Magic player of all time. Your third win at Pro Tour Kuala Lumpur, after some time of absence from the game, basically elevated your status to the realm of mystique. Do you think there was something special about these Pro Tours that made you win them in contrast to the other 11 where you lost at some point? As far as it is possible to say from the outside, you had changed quite a bit between each of your wins. What did the Pro Tour wins mean for you personally at the time you achieved them?
Jon: There was nothing special about the 3 Pro Tours I won vs. the other 11 I Top 8'd vs. most of the other ones I played in when I was trying. Sure there were a lot of PTs where I wasn't as engaged with the game, but that includes one of my wins, Kuala Lumpur, and a number of my Top 8s. How hard I was trying merely created a probability distribution—a bit higher '96-2001 (except '99) and maybe again now, though not as high as before. There was nothing special about that Pro Tour and most of the time people think that about themselves or anyone else it's just a false narrative with a healthy dose of confirmation bias.
As for what they meant to me? I like to win and winning at the highest level is obviously the most meaningful, but none of them meant more to me than my first Top 8 at PT Chicago '97. In terms of simplistic answers of what they meant to me? NY '98 was the first, Worlds '00 was the biggest (especially because we won the Team Finals too and I had to win my final match twice), and KL proved I still had it.
Q: In recent years you have occasionally criticized what Magic has become. Despite the often repeated argument that Magic is being dumbed down, even today a small group of players is able to enjoy almost constant success. Looking at the Pro Tour, your name is among the players who regularly perform well these days, despite increased competition when compared to the '90s, despite your processor getting slower—as you described it in a Reddit AMA—and despite the Pro Tours' increased size. Taking this into account, your main criticism probably doesn’t revolve around a lack of skill in the game. What is it that you liked about the game you encountered in the mid-'90s that Magic has lost since?
Jon: There are two narratives at play here. The first is that Magic as a game is being dumbed down to some extent—it is much more obvious what is good and what isn't. This may or may not be related to their recent growth, of which there are no doubt many factors, including the post-crash economic recovery. I would bet it is related, but probably not to the extent they think. The counter-narrative is the rise of the super team combined with the change in PT scheduling to 3 weeks after the Pro Tour. This has made being involved with the right group an enormous advantage, which is hard for the average player to overcome.
As for what I miss the most? It's threefold. First, as I mentioned before, the good cards are more obvious. Second, there are far fewer small decisions—they've turned Magic into less a game of chess and more a game of haymakers. Third, and this is related to the last point, the increase in power of threats (creatures, planeswalkers) vs. answers (noncreature spells).
Q: You have played a bunch of games professionally as everybody can read up in the book "Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids." Are there specific qualities that make some games interesting to you in contrast to other games that don’t have these qualities? Are there any games left that you would like to play on a competitive level? Judging by your Tweets you take an active interest in politics. Is that a “game” that you can see yourself pursuing at some point?
Jon: I've realized I'm much less of a pure gamer than I thought. I like games, but don't play nearly as many as most other gamers. There aren't any other games I'd like to, or be close to able to play professionally. I'm simply too old and don't have the time nor the inclination. I think a lot of what drew me to Magic, and keeps me coming back, is the constantly changing nature of the game combined with its deep complexity.
As for politics? No thanks. It seems like a rough, thankless game where very little constructive actually gets done. I have no patience for constantly banging my head against the wall.
Q: When you won the Invitational in 2000, the card you turned in was a Wrath of God variant, Wrath of Leknif, that cost 1WWU and untapped four lands. This card was deemed too powerful. How did that card become Shadowmage Infiltrator? How much influence did you have in the process, and what do you think of the result? When somebody brings the card to you to be signed is it a card that makes you smile and think "That is a cool card to have my face on"?
Jon: When I made "Wrath of Leknif" I expected it to end up being costed at 5 mana. I figured if I made it at 5, they might try to up it to 6. At the time they said that they no longer wanted to make cards with the untap lands mechanic, as they'd gotten burned pretty badly by all the combo decks. Of course this card wouldn't see play in combo decks, so I'm not sure how this logic would apply. Later I was told they wanted the Invitational cards to be creatures, and that I was the first person to submit a noncreature card. I suspect both are somewhat true. I'm pretty disappointed though, as I would have much preferred that this card were made.
I like Infiltrator fine, and I really like that a card was made with my likeness. I was very excited when I finally acquired the original art last year. I designed it with the idea of making a better [card]Ophidian[/card] but still properly costed. I think it would have seen a lot more play if Psychatog hadn't been printed. As it is, I mostly exist to go 13th pick in Cube drafts online now.
Name: Antoine Ruel
Qualified via Hall of Fame
Pro Points: 6 in 2013-14, 399 lifetime
Pro Tour Debut: Pro Tour Washington D.C. 1999
Pro Tours Played: 59
Median Finish: 99
Average Finish: 120
Top 8: 4 Pro Tours (1 win), 3 Masters, 18 Grand Prix (2 wins), and 1 Nationals
Planeswalker Level: 50 (Archmage)
Other Accomplishments: 2009 Hall of Fame class, won the 2002 "pre-Masters" at Pro Tour New York (with Olivier Ruel and Florent Jeudon)
For the most part of his career, Antoine has been known to travel the world with his brother, Olivier, playing Grand Prix tournaments on five continents. However, the brothers were not only doing a lot of sightseeing and and a bit of Magic. Through their travels, the Ruel brothers amassed 45 Grand Prix Top 8 appearances among them. While Olivier was a bit more successful at the Grand Prix tournaments, Antoine was able to collect the bigger titles. He is actually one of only three players to have won everything that can be considered a major honor in Magic: A Pro Tour, a Grand Prix, a Masters, and an Invitational.
Antoine's career started as part of team Phenome J. Antoine, Olivier, and Florent Jeudon managed a very respectable 11th place finish at their first Pro Tour in Washington D.C. Not being qualified for the next few Pro Tours Antoine's next qualification came again as a part of the same team, now renamed to Black Ops. That team won Grand Prix Cannes, and then went on to win the (pre-) Masters Series event at Pro Tour New York, beating Finkel's team Antarctica in the finals. Young Antoine added yet another win—his first individual honors—to his resumé at Grand Prix Porto 2000. Afterwards he continued to have good finishes, but it took him some time to hoist another trophy. Meanwhile, Antoine achieved his first Pro Tour Top 8 finish at Worlds 2001 in Toronto. A couple of years and a bunch of Grand Prix Top 8 appearances later, Antoine finally had his masterpiece performance at Pro Tour Los Angeles 2005, taking the title with a Psychatog control deck.
Antoine had another good season the following year, including four Grand Prix Top 8 appearances, another Pro Tour Top 8, and a win at the Invitational in Los Angeles. That win allowed him to design his own Magic card, which eventually became Ranger of Eos.
Afterwards Antoine slowly started to detach himself from Magic Pro play. However, after two years of absence from the battlefield, he has answered the summoning call of the Pro Tour again for Pro Tour Theros and will be back for more at Pro Tour Born of the Gods.
Q: In 2005 you won Pro Tour Los Angeles, which is certainly the crowning achievement of your Magic career. How did you experience that Top 8, and what do you think was the key to your success there?
Antoine: Nine years already... feels so far away, but at the same time it was such a big event in my life that it somehow also feels as if it were yesterday.
In 2002 I ran a 'Tog deck during the World Championships in Sydney. It was created by my old friend Franck Canu, and featured Mental Note. I only went 4-2 there in the Standard portion, but strongly believed the deck deserved better. When I started testing for LA, I quickly came to the conclusion that this deck was really good in the field. I only had one bad matchup—Affinity—which was the most played deck, but in LA I only played against two and got away with a loss and a win. I got lucky, as one deck that I didn’t test, Boros, was cleaning the first tables, crushing the Affinities only to have an awful matchup against me. Winning such a tournament is a tough combination of a good deck, good plays, good matchups, and a lot of luck. I simply got those all at once at the best possible moment.
Q: You and your brother, Olivier, have been touring the international Grand Prix circuit for years. At that age most people distance themselves a bit from their families, trying to live independently for the first time. However, you and Olivier shared a lot of time, flying to Grand Prix tournaments together and sharing hotel rooms. How did that work out? Didn’t you get on each others' nerves occasionally?
Antoine: We always get on each others’ nerves. And will always. But that’s what took us so far in the game, a mix of friendship and huge rivalry. Aiming to become one of the game’s best when you are not even sure to be the best in your family makes you really want to become stronger than the other, and whenever you also hope that your rival will become the best, that ends up in a weird situation. We worked very hard, probably with less talent than a lot of people, but with a huge shared motivation to aim for the top together.
Q: At what point did you start getting away from Pro Magic? Your results started to decline in 2007, but you were an active player on the Pro Tour until 2010. Was there something specific that triggered your retirement from Pro play, or was it a gradual process caused by exhaustion from all the traveling? What did you do after retiring from the Pro Tour?
Antoine: I would say there were different exhaustion factors that made me retire from Magic:
• The game itself became better for the casual players involving a lot of overpowered creatures, which was a catastrophe for the people trying to make a living out of the game. If you add the fact that with the democratization due to Magic Online, people tend to be much better than in the past, then the variance became higher.
• The tournament structures. When I started Magic, the best way of differentiating oneself from the other players was Limited. Now that anyone can draft a lot any time, the best way would have become Constructed by breaking the format and getting the right matchups and draws. Now that both are combined, the variance factor became even higher, which is not compatible with being a full-time pro. These days most of the pros make a living out of Magic through the articles they write and their sponsors (apart from the higher level players).
• The money: When you run bad in a game with only 4 tournaments a year that really can bring some money, you end up spending a lot in travels, human relationships, and experiences. That is all very good, but it doesn’t help you making a living.
• My deck choices: After so many years of Magic professional tournaments, I could not satisfy myself with playing a known deck. A lot of the decks I built contributed to Pro Tour wins or helped people to other great achievements, but didn't work out too well for me and all of the deckbuilder’s recognition was passed to someone else. However, many of those were simply not strong enough.
• The rules/some of Wizards' decisions. Many changes have been made in the last years, some were good for the game, but terrible for pros like the removal of damage on the stack. Then some were just awful for the players. If you add in some terrible tournament rulings, DQs, and some very awkward bans of friends, it just disgusted me with Magic.
• Too few tournaments: Magic is the best game there is, but the variance is too high with such a small number of tournaments in which you can win big.
Q: You have traveled the world for years on end, playing Grand Prix tournaments on five different continents. Did you do sightseeing as well, or were your trips strictly business? Of which places do you have the best memories? Are there any places where you wish there had been a Grand Prix, just so you could have visited it?
Antoine: Magic brought a lot to my life. I spent all of my young adult life traveling all around the world, creating great friendships, discovering wonderful places I would never have gone to otherwise, and meeting great people and cultures. Every time we would go to a nice place, we tried to stay there and enjoy the life there as much as we could. We stayed a month in Australia, weeks in Hawaii, Japan, Brazil, and some other incredible cities and countries, but sometimes, when the destination was not that sexy, such as—no offense—Columbus or Houston, we would basically stay for the length of the tournament.
My best memories would be every single time I went to Japan. The country is dynamic, highly technological, has a great culture, and is beautiful and serene at the same time. Moreover, the Japanese people are the best.
I would have loved a PT in Costa Rica or anywhere in South America!
Name: Jérémy Dezani
Qualified via Top 25 Pro Tour Theros, Pro Club Platinum Level, and Top 8 GP Vienna
Pro Points: 46 in 2013-14, 88 lifetime
Pro Tour Debut: San Juan 2010
Pro Tours Played: 5
Median Finish: 73
Average Finish: 100
Top 8: 1 Pro Tours (1 win), 6 Grand Prix (1 win)
Planeswalker Level: 42 (Battlemage)
Jérémy Dezani hasn't been a household name for a very long time, but after a string of top finishes in the last half year Jérémy will surely play a lot under the cameras this year. Although his victory at Pro Tour Theros is the main reason for his boost in popularity, that was not his first big finish. Dezani's first Top 8 appearance was at Grand Prix Paris 2009. That finish might have looked like an accident, as Dezani didn't accomplish much Pro play-wise in the next three years. However, Jérémy was only 19 years old back then, and it might be more appropriate to see that as a glimpse of what was to come.
The 2012 Modern Grand Prix Lyon turned out be become Dezani's breakout tournament. That win not only foreshadowed his later achievements, it also heralded the resurgence of France as a powerhouse in Magic, as he was nowhere near the only Frenchman doing well that weekend. Since Lyon, Dezani has enjoyed success as constantly as it comes in Magic. Over the course of the year 2013, he reached the Top 8 of Grand Prix Verona, then Warsaw, and later Vienna, but that last one was already after Pro Tour Theros. French Magic is back in full with with Jérémy Dezani in the lead. So far Europe has only had two Grand Prix this year, but by now it won't come as a surprise that, once again, Dezani was found among the final eight in the first one.
Q: In October you won Pro Tour Theros. On your way to the title you defeated Hall of Famer Kamiel Cornelissen, then a likely future Hall of Famer in Makihito Mihara, and finally your teammate Pierre Dagen. Despite the big names, you seem to have cruised comfortably through the Top 8. You only dropped one game in the finals against Pierre, and that was a 72-card mirror. Did the Top 8 feel that comfortable to you? On that Sunday morning did you expect the matchups to fall into place so well?
Jérémy: I think I had a good matchup for the quarters. When I saw the Kamiel's list I was pretty sure I should have a positive matchup. Lots of my friends had also previously played against Shahar and PV, who had similar lists, and they had won easily.
It was different for the semifinal against Makihito Mihara, though. You must know, we had played each other on Day Two already, and his deck worked really, really well there. When I saw the deck list, I understood that he was a bit lucky to do what he did. However, I preferred not having to play against him, because I don't like to be so dependant on my opponent's starting hand. On the other hand, I think that matchup against Paul Rietzl would have been pretty much 50/50. I had played against Patrick Chapin the day before and the games were close and hard to play.
In the final I knew it would be either a mirror or Esper Control, so nothing particularly good for me. In conclusion, I was happy with my quarterfinals but not so much about what I would have to face after that.
Q: When you won Pro Tour Theros you were still a bit of a dark horse in the Top 8. However, you followed up with back-to-back Top 8 finishes at the Grand Prix in Vienna and Prague. You have thus become the new rising star on the European Magic scene. Are you a full-time Magic pro? And if yes is that something that was an explicit goal of yours, or is it a result of your Pro Tour victory? What do you think were the key factors that made the past two years such a success for you?
Jérémy: Actually I was in transition to school at that time and I will return to study in September, so, yes, I am a full Magic Pro this year. With the win of the PT I also gained the qualification to the World Championship and probably the World Magic Cup as well. I became Platinum for the two next years already, so I had to set new goals to stay motivated. Now my goals are to win the Player of the Year race, Top 8 another Grand Prix and another Pro Tour, and thus be sure to become captain of team France.
Q: The French professional Magic community has been more or less dormant for some time. Your Pro Tour victory and Team France’s victory at the World Magic Cup are the strongest indicators of France’s resurgence over the last year. What has changed in the last two years to put France back on the map? Is the French community working more closely together?
Jérémy: The French community—Pierre Dagen, Timothée Simonot, Elie Pichon, Yann Guthman, etc.—play a lot of PTs and GPs, and I think we accumulated much experience with Hall of Famer Raphaël Lévy as a teacher. That's invaluable to prepare for events.
So, yes, the French community is working together for PTs and GPs. However, for the Pro Tours we also have players from other countries in our team like Melissa DeTora or recently Samuele Estratti.
Q: You have been successful with Jund decks and mono-blue decks, and you have been successful in Modern and in Standard. One might conjecture that you are generally at home in Constructed, but at Pro Tour Theros it was actually your draft record that carried you. What kind of a player are you then? What decks and formats do you like?
Jérémy: I think I am neither specifically a Limited or a Constructed player. In both cases it really depends on the format. I was pretty bad in Scars of Mirrodin block draft, but I loved Zendikar and Rise of the Eldrazi.
For Constructed it really depends if I like to play a deck or not. Thus, I never have any problems in Modern or previously Extended. Standard is different because you don't have so many decks to choose from. You just have to hope that you are cool with any of the decks that are good. For example, I played "Architect" when Delver was the deck to play in Standard, and unsurprisingly that was not a good time for me.
Name: William Jensen
Qualified via Hall of Fame, Top 8 GP Oakland, and Top 8 GP Toronto
Pro Points: 31 in 2013-14, 256 lifetime
Pro Tour Debut: Pro Tour Rome 1998
Pro Tours Played: 36
Median Finish: 62
Average Finish: 92
Top 8: 4 Pro Tours (1 win), 1 Masters (1 win), 11 Grand Prix (3 wins), and 1 Nationals
Planeswalker Level: 47 (Archmage)
Other Accomplishments: 2013 Hall of Fame class
William Jensen is first and foremost known as a Limited expert, especially when it comes to Team Limited. It is a reputation well earned, considering that it was Jensen's team The Brockafellas that won Pro Tour Boston 2003, a triumph only made possible by their win over Phoenix Foundation in the semifinals. However, to talk about this title is to jump right into the middle of Jensen's Magic career. His first Pro Tour attendance was at Pro Tour Rome 1998. While that and the next one turned out to be mediocre finishes for Huey, he proved to be consistent on a high level for the next couple of years, missing the Top 100 only twice over the next twenty Pro Tours. Almost at the beginning of that streak Huey managed his first Pro Tour Top 8 at the 1999 Pro Tour London.
Despite impressive finishes on average, major Pro Tour successes were elusive for a while. Meanwhile Huey garnered his trophies elsewhere. In the 1999-2000 season he made the Top 8 of four Grand Prix, including two wins. The following season had a bit of everything, with another GP Top 8, a Top 8 at U.S. Nationals, and his win at the Masters series in New York, Huey's biggest achievement up to that point. His deck of choice for that tournament was a Tradewind Rider-Survival of the Fittest control deck, and despite his opponent's deck, 5-Color Blue Control, being considered heavily favored in the matchup, he managed to take away the title.
After 2001-02 had another pair of Grand Prix Top 8 in store for Jensen, 2003 was his big year. Early in the year he managed back-to-back Pro Tour Top 8 appearances, where he was both times defeated by the eventual winner. Later that year, and late in the first part of his career, Jensen finally had his crowning achievement. At Pro Tour Boston The Brockafellas showed up without having done a single practice draft in the format, and nobody could stop them regardless. However, after the early lead in the Pro Player of the Year race Jensen couldn't get much going in that season, and retired after the end of the season.
It was not until Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, fully eight years later, that Jensen played another Pro Tour. While he could be seen giving Magic his all once again, it took him some time to Top 8 another major tournament. After some warm-up in the 2012-13 season, the 2013-14 season has started well for Huey, so far yielding three Grand Prix Top 8s and a respectable 35th place at Pro Tour Theros.
Q: When you won Pro Tour Boston in 2003 as a part of team "The Brockafellas" you had to overcome the sublime Phoenix Foundation in the semifinals. Was that something you deemed possible before the event? Who were your teammates and what made that triumph possible in your opinion?
Huey: The Phoenix Foundation was without a doubt the best team in the world. However, I was always very confident in my abilities as a Magic player and my ability to pilot a team Rochester draft. My teammates were Matt Linde and Brock Parker. Part of what made that victory possible was our relationships with each other. We were all best friends and in the situation where you have two teammates who you know care as much as you about winning a Pro Tour, it certainly puts you in the situation of wanting to give 100 percent to do your part in achieving that goal. I'm sure they felt the same way.
On Saturday night, I was very confident. Matt was being a bit if a pessimist and it was really getting on my nerves. Eventually I yelled at him and told him I was going to beat Kai the next day so one of the two of them needed to be sure to win. So maybe I was being overconfident, but despite my tremendous respect for Kai, and his absurd record on Sunday, I truly did believe that I was going to win that day.
Q: After a good run from late 1999 to mid-2003 that was basically your last major showing in that early part of your career. Was the Pro Tour title the thing you had been striving for all the time, and having achieved that you were ready to retire, or was that just coincidence?
Huey: My retirement was mostly due to the fact that many of my closest friends retired around the same time. I think the fact that I has achieved my ultimate goal in winning a Pro Tour might have played into my mindset a little bit, but mostly it was for the other reason.
Q: In 2000 you won another tournament that was a very big thing back then, the Masters in New York. The Masters was a high stakes single-elimination tournament, that was held on the weekend of the Pro Tour, in the same place. This was essentially the predecessor to the Pro Club. The Masters Series was not overwhelmingly popular mainly due to its single elimination modus, however. One might imagine that every single match is played under immense pressure as there is no margin for error. In a Pro Tour you can lose three times and still make it to the finals. In the Masters series a single mistake might lose you a lot of potential money. How did you experience playing in this event? Do you thrive in these high-pressure situations? Is a Masters-type of event something that you miss today?
Huey: The Masters was a super fun tournament. I guess it's somewhat similar to the way the World Championships are now, in that it's only the best of the best, very small field. However it was single elimination, so much higher variance, and also it wasn't as prestigious. It was cool though because they had those tournaments at every Pro Tour for a while, which created a lot more chances to try to do well. I'm old now though, if they were going to bring something like the Masters back I'd hope they were standalone events. I'd still love to play them, but I get much more tired now than when I was younger. Playing Pro Tours all day and Masters all night would make it hard to do well in both.
I'd like to think I thrive in high pressure situations. I definitely feel like I don't get over stressed by them like some people do. I personally very much enjoy those high pressure situations, typically because you're competing against the best.
Q: In 2002 you Top 8'd Grand Prix Milwaukee with a deck built around Battle of Wits of all cards. What the hell?
Huey: When I headed to Grand Prix Milwaukee in 2002, I wasn't sure what to play. I had tried the Battle of Wits deck and I always thought it was reasonably competitive. I didn't really enjoy many of the Standard decks at the time, so I decided to do what would be by far the most fun and play the Battle of Wits deck. That was one the most fun tournaments I ever played. I'm also reasonably sure that the deck was one of the best decks in the format, but very few people realize that because they all thought it was too gimmicky to try or take seriously.
Q: You returned to competitive Magic quite recently. What were your reasons to get involved with pro Magic again? Was the Hall of Fame a factor?
The Hall of Fame was definitely a factor in my return to competitive Magic. When they gave me a special invite for Pro Tour Return to Ravnica after my narrow miss on being elected to the Hall of Fame two years ago, I headed to Seattle to play that. What was interesting was that so many of the people that had retired around when I did had come back. I had such a good time with all my old friends, as well as making a lot of new friends and really enjoying playing in the tournament, I got the fire back. I'm really happy playing Magic right now, and look forward to doing it for the foreseeable future.
Name: Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
Qualified via Hall of Fame
Pro Points: 8 in 2013-14, 398 lifetime
Pro Tour Debut: Worlds 2003
Pro Tours Played: 35
Median Finish: 60
Average Finish: 98
Top 8: 9 Pro Tours (1 win), 13 Grand Prix (1 win), and 2 Nationals (2 wins)
Planeswalker Level: 49 (Archmage)
Other Accomplishments: 2012 Hall of Fame class (vote leader)
Over the years, Paulo has made himself a name for several things. His incredible success on the Pro Tour got him a lot of attention from early on, but he is also known to write some of the most excellent strategy articles for Magic. He is further known to be an ardent supporter of Faerie decks, an archetype which he achieved two Pro Tour Top 8s with, and an adamant dissenter of White Weenie decks, an archetype which he piloted to a Pro Tour Top 8 anyway.
Paulo played his first Pro Tour at the tender age of 15. While he always had respectable finishes right from the start, Paulo didn't play many Pro Tours in his youth. Allegedly, managing the various difficulties of traveling from Brazil to a foreign country proved to be more of a problem than actually qualifying for a Pro Tour at that time. After Paulo turned 18 it didn't take him long to establish himself as one of the most gifted players on the Pro Tour. At Pro Tour Charleston 2006, PV managed his first Sunday appearance as part of team Raaala Pumba. Although PV, Edel, and Zampere had claimed their Top 4 berth as the top team after the Swiss rounds they were considered the dark horse in that Top 4. In the end they only lost to Japanese Kajiharu80 in a closely contested final.
After that first episode of success, PV quickly added more top results to his resumé. In that same year he won Brazilian Nationals, and finished 6th at the World Championships. The next year did only lead to a few minor successes for Paulo, but from then on it was pretty much a Top 8 or two a year. Among these are two Pro Tour Top 8s with his beloved Faerie deck in 2008, his triumph at the 2010 Pro Tour San Juan, and no less than five Top 8s at World Championships (counting the Players Championship). Although very few players rival PV in his consistency to be found at the top of the standings, he has been falling a bit on hard times in the last season. Just this last weekend at GP Paris, Paulo ended a dry stretch of 18 months without any kind of Top 8.
Q: You have made it to the Top 8 of a Pro Tour nine times, but it took you a while to win a Pro Tour. Until your sixth Pro Tour Top 8 in San Juan you had a hard time winning any matches on Sundays. However, in San Juan, where the format of the Top 8 was Booster Draft—and that is usually said to be your weaker side—you finally managed to claim the trophy. What do you think made San Juan a success in contrast to the other Pro Tours? Or do you think it’s just a matter of variance? For most Pro players winning a Pro Tour means a whole new level of recognition and a moment of glory that they can never repeat in their life. When you won in San Juan, you were already well established as one of the best players in the game. It also doesn’t seem exceedingly unlikely that you will win another Pro Tour at some point. Winning a Pro Tour thus might not have been as much of turning point for you as it has been for other players. What did that title mean to you at the time? Did it change anything for you or to your approach to the game?
PV: Honestly, I think it’s just variance. Statistically speaking, you’re not going to win much more than one in eight Top 8s, even if you’re a little better than your average competition—it’s hard to be much better than the average Top 8 player, though. There have been tournaments before where I felt like I was favored in my quarters/semis and I feel like I was particularly unlucky to lose, and there have been tournaments where I thought I was going to lose my quarterfinals and I ended up winning, so I think it evens out.
For PT San Juan, we had two things: our Constructed deck was very, very good, and we had a good understanding of the draft format going in. I feel like many people took a while to understand that the format was much slower than we were accustomed to, and cards like Skeletal Wurm were actually playable, but our team had a bunch of guys who were very quick to adjust and forced the information into everyone else.
Winning a Pro Tour wasn’t a huge turning point (Top 8'ing my first PT was bigger, for example), but it was still very awesome! I was already a professional player at that point, and I remained a professional player, but with a little more prestige and a lot more money. People who play professionally know that the difference between a Top 8 and a win is not very big (it’s just three matches that could go either way), but people who watch the tournaments don’t think like that. On your “record” a win counts a lot more than a Top 8, even if in my opinion it really shouldn’t. You’ll see people considering resumes for Hall of Fame with things like, “well he has three Top 8s, but a win—this guy has four Top 8s but no wins.” While to me the guy with four Top 8s has the better resume, he will probably not get all the votes. The difference is especially big when we’re talking about people who don’t even play Magic, like family or friends—to them, if you say you “Top 8'd” a PT it doesn’t mean that much, but it’s very impressive to be able to say you won the highest level competition the game has to offer.
Q: For most players, being on the Pro Tour for the first time is a daunting thing. They try to prepare well, but they approach a new level of competition. With Pro Tours happening almost immediately after new set releases, preparation for Pro Tours is different than preparation for other tournaments. Also players new to the Pro Tour might for the first time encounter opponents that they had idolized before. And then there is jet lag and the excitement of going to another country, maybe also for the first time. However, none of that stopped you from immediately being very successful on the Pro Tour. Didn’t these things intimidate you? How did you deal with the distractions?
PV: I wouldn’t say I was immediately very successful. Even though I finished reasonably well in the first PTs that I played, it felt more like luck than that I was actually prepared for them. I was quite young back then, and still experienced every one of those things you mentioned; my first PT was Worlds 2003 in Berlin, for example, and I was 16 and had never left the country before—I was certainly in awe of the competition and the tournament in general, and I made several mistakes because I was nervous, including getting a match loss for forgetting to register my lands in my draft deck.
Though I cashed every tournament until then, it was only on my sixth PT that I managed to finish in the Top 8. That tournament was Team Constructed, and I think playing with two friends, one of which was older and more experienced, really helped dealing with all those issues, especially the preparation, because they knew what to do and had more friends who were going, a luxury that I had never had. After that I think things just became more natural—I felt more at ease in the environment and I had already made friends both nationally and internationally, which made preparation a lot easier.
Q: Last year was probably the toughest in your career as a Magic player. Things started out mediocre and got worse. While some bad finishes can always be attributed to variance, having had subpar finishes for a whole season probably made you reflect on what went wrong last season. What did you make out as the reasons and what does it mean for your approach to Magic in the next seasons? You were not the only member of Team ChannelFireball that was struggling. Do you think the whole team is going through a critical phase right now?
PV: I’ve thought long and hard about it, and I honestly don’t know what went wrong. I think I hit a particularly bad luck streak in the beginning of the season, and then I got disheartened about it—you know, “why would I spend all my time preparing if I’m just going to get unlucky anyway? Might as well not try and just get lucky because that’s what counts.” This obviously led to underpreparation and a bad mentality, so I started losing more and more and the feeling just snowballed.
My approach to Magic this season will not be much different—I won’t spend infinite time playing, but I never have—instead I spend my time thinking about the game, reading articles, and so on. The thing that changes is that now that I’m not Platinum, I have fewer incentives to go to GPs and I no longer feel inclined to take a 24-hour flight to find myself in a 2,000-person event in which I have to Top 4 to break even.
As for ChannelFireball, I don’t think it’s fair to say we’re struggling—we’re just not as dominant as we used to be. A couple of years ago, we were the best team in the world and no one really came close, and now other people have caught up and perhaps surpassed us, but we’re still very good and still put up good results. There are currently, if I’m not mistaken (and I could easily be since it’s hard to find this information anywhere for some reason) 17 Platinum players in the world, and 9 of those are in our team—over half of the players who got the highest possible level are on ChannelFireball and we have around 15 people total. We might not have done extremely well as a whole in a couple of events, but it’s still undeniable that ChannelFireball is one of the best teams in the world, and we still had the best season out of any team last season. Some teams are definitely ahead of us this season, the new ChannelFireball: The Pantheon team and the French team that won the PT, for example, but the season is just beginning and there’s still a lot of time for us to bounce back.
Q: Magic is not the only game that you play competitively. In Bridge you qualified for the 2012 Youth World Championship and you are also known to enjoy League of Legends. How do the different games appeal to you when you compare them to Magic? Do some of the skills you acquired in Magic translate to these games or vice versa?
PV: Those games are completely different, as is my level of dedication to them. League of Legends is a whole different animal, as it has some mechanical components that I’m just very bad at. I play it a lot, I watch the tournaments, I even read articles sometimes, and I definitely want to get better, but it’s because I like to be good at the things I like doing, and not because I have any professional aspirations—I know my limits and I know I will never be a professional League of Legends player, and I’m fine with that. I play because I like the game and I like the competitive scene, and nothing more. I don’t think it overlaps much with Magic.
Bridge is different, because I think I have the potential to be extremely good at it if I dedicate myself. It’s the kind of game that I’m naturally good at. That said, I’m still nowhere near “good.” When I say I played the World Youth Championship, people are usually impressed, but the truth is that there are very few young people who play in Brazil, so it wasn’t hard to get a spot on the team. All you had to do was be a Junior, play Bridge, and be willing to go to China. Bridge is a very hard game and it takes a lot of dedication to be really good at it, and now that I’m not a junior anymore, and thus have to play in the same league as everyone who’s really good, I know it’s going to take me a very long time to get to a competitive level Brazil-wise, let alone to become a world-class player. Even if I think I could theoretically do it, it’s not possible for me to pursue it right now—I don’t think I could juggle school, competitive Magic, and competitive Bridge, so it remains a casual activity for me. Bridge is also a partnership game, and I have no partner, so that definitely diminishes my enthusiasm about getting serious about it.
I feel that Bridge and Magic overlap a little—concepts like tempo are important in bridge and I already understood them from Magic, and the fact that you have to figure out reasons for what your opponent is doing and tie them to your overall game plan is a big part of both games. I think playing Magic for so long has improved my analytical thinking and my ability to understand what people are thinking when they make a certain move, and, though it does not translate directly to playing better Bridge, it definitely helps me when I have to use the same concepts in both games.
Name: Gabriel Nassif
Nickname: Yellow Hat
Qualified via Hall of Fame, and Pro Club Gold Level
Pro Points: 3 in 2013-14, 473 lifetime
Pro Tour Debut: Chicago 2000
Pro Tours Played: 57
Median Finish: 52
Average Finish: 89
Top 8: 9 Pro Tours (2 wins), 2 Masters, 6 Grand Prix (1 win), and 1 Nationals
Planeswalker Level: 49 (Archmage)
Among the professional players, Gabriel Nassif has long established himself as one of the most talented deckbuilders around. If not everybody thinks of Nassif first when considering great deckbuilders, then it is only because Gabriel doesn't write about his decks all that much. While Gabriel is well known for fancy control decks, he has proven his mastery of other archetypes as well. For example, at Pro Tour Amsterdam 2010 Gabriel was the driving force in building the White Weenie deck that Paul Rietzl eventually took to the title.
In 2000, Nassif qualified for the first time for the Pro Tour. Despite a 45th place, it took him a year to play in another Pro Tour. His next qualification was via a loss to Kai Budde in the finals of GP London. In his second Pro Tour, Nassif and his teammates Amiel Tenenbaum and Nicolas Olivieri Gabriel came in second, losing the finals to Phoenix Foundation. Nassif was not in the same seat as Budde there, meaning they didn't get the chance for a rematch, but they did in the semifinals of the Masters in Osaka, half a year later. Once again Budde proved to be the greater power. However, two and a half years and four other Pro Tour Top 8s later ,it was Nassif that finally ended Kai's three-year reign as Pro Player of the Year.
Since those times, Nassif has cast his yellow hat aside, but he never stopped playing top-level Magic. From 2001 to 2007 he was found among the final eight of a Pro Tour at least once a year. When he missed out on "his" Top 8 in 2008, he compensated himself for the loss by winning his first individual title in 2009, Pro Tour Kyoto, and his second individual title just a week later at Grand Prix Chicago. Although Nassif was not able to make it to another Pro Tour Top 8 since, he is regularly among the players in contention until late in the tournament.
Q: You won Pro Tour Atlanta 2005 as part of Team Nova. At that time you were generally considered to be in your prime as a Magic player. What did the Pro Tour win mean to you and how did it affect your career? You played with David Rood and Gabriel Tsang. How did it happen that you didn’t play with other French top pros? Wasn’t that a logistical problem, considering that Team Rochester needs a lot of practice?
Nassif: I was just happy to finally win a tourney, a great feeling especially since I thought we played really well and deserved it. I don't think it really affected my career though. I was really good friends with DRood and since we were both more or less teamless and he was very good at the team Limited format I figured we should team. I didn't really know Gab at the time but Dave raved about him, so I said "Yeah, sure, let's do it." I know we only played a few team drafts together the day before the PT started, but Dave and I just played so much Magic at that time and knew the Limited format so well that it wasn't a huge issue.
Q: Four years later you won Pro Tour Kyoto. At that point it seemed as if you had moved on to other things, although you still played regularly and successfully on the Pro Tour. What made that second triumph possible? The final against Luis Scott-Vargas is one of the most closely contested Pro Tour finals ever. How did you experience that situation?
Nassif: I owe a lot of my success in Kyoto to Chapin and Herberholz. We tested Constructed together in Michigan before the PT (Manuel Bucher was there too if I recall properly) and came up with a great deck for the format. I think Wafo-Tapa might have had something to do with it as well, I can't remember, sorry. Kyoto was just the perfect storm, I ran well, didn't make too many mistakes etc. The finals vs. Luis was super intense and, like in Atlanta, it just felt great to win. I thought I played really well in the Top 8—especially in that crazy game 4 against LSV where I chose not to counter Ajani.
It was great to win my first individual PT too, which happened to be the first mixed-format PT. I already had the team win but it's not the same.
Q: You don’t make much of a fuss publicly about the decks you built. Nevertheless, you are often credited with having created a deck someone else has had success with. Are you purely interested in the mental exercise of building a deck, or is it enough for you when the best players know where the best ideas came from while the public stays largely ignorant? You have built all kinds of successful decks, but you are usually portrayed as a player gravitating toward control. What kind of decks do you like to build, and with which archetypes do you excel?
Nassif: Building decks has always been my favorite part of the game, but it was even more fun before the internet became so huge. I'd just spend hours scribbling deck lists in class, tweak my decks with all my cards laid out on the floor of my bedroom, figure out precise sideboard plans for every matchup. It was like a riddle or a puzzle. I've definitely always been more of a control player, and I always have tried to bring something different to the table. I don't think I ever played Academy or Replenish in a sanctioned event for instance, when they were dominant.
It's pretty rare to actually come up with an original idea, someone has usually done it before, but that was what is great about the PT. It's usually a fresh format, even though it's been spoiled recently with some big tournaments happening the week before the PT.
Q: What happened to the yellow hat?
Nassif: It sits all year long in one of my drawers, I usually take it with me to the PT just in case, but never end up wearing it. I think the last time I wore it is when I made it to day 7 of the WSOP Main Event. We were down to less then 80 players and I figured it would be pretty cool to have it on for TV. I had survived 6 grueling days and outlasted over 6,000 players, and ended up busting the very first hand I played with the hat on.
Name: Simon Görtzen
Qualified via Winner of Pro Tour Qualifier Cologne
Pro Points: 0 in 2013-14, 113 lifetime
Pro Tour Debut: Philadelphia 2005
Pro Tours Played: 19
Median Finish: 147
Average Finish: 144
Top 8: 1 Pro Tours (1 win) and 1 Grand Prix
Planeswalker Level: 46 (Archmage)
Simon Görtzen has been one of the most respected members of the German Magic community for a very long time. He earned this reputation by writing some of the most insightful Magic articles that have ever been written in German, and by winning a bunch of PTQs. Although Simon often had a hard time doing well at the Pro Tour, getting there seemed deceptively easy for him. However, he gained renown in the international Magic community only when he won Pro Tour San Diego in 2010.
Simon qualified for the Pro Tour for the first time in 2005. Although a result of 2-3 at Pro Tour Philadelphia might not seem like the greatest start in the world, the awkward prize structure of that Pro Tour meant that Simon could take home at least some pocket money. The next Pro Tour didn't go much better for him, but his third attempt was a major breakthrough. For Pro Tour Charleston, Simon teamed up with fellow Germans Harald Stein and Simon Hockwin. Although Hockwin and Stein didn't leave much of a mark in Pro Tour history, these three formed a uniformly high-talented team, and eventually missed the Top 4 of the Pro Tour only on tiebreakers due to a loss to the eventual winners, Kajiharu80. In the next few years Simon played a couple of further Pro Tours, but wasn't able to improve upon the success of Charleston.
At the 2008 Grand Prix Paris had Görtzen his first Top 8 appearance. He made it to the semifinals there, but couldn't overcome Arjan van Leeuwen, the undisputed champion of Shards of Alara Limited. Aside from that achievement there was not exactly much that made Simon a favorite to win Pro Tour San Diego, and in fact things didn't start out too well there. After starting 1-2, Simon had to battle Alex Fanghänel in the fourth round, his best friend, best man at his wedding, and the person he had prepared with for months. And of course they played a 75-card Jund mirror. Simon prevailed in that matchup, and ended the day at 5-3, just good enough to make the cut to Saturday play. He didn't pick up another loss for the rest of the weekend, eventually defeating Kyle Boggemes in a very thrilling Jund mirror for the title. After that title Simon played the best season of his career. Since 2012 he has been an integral part of the European Grand Prix coverage.
Q: You won Pro Tour San Diego in 2010. Especially the Top 8 must have been some ride for you. In the quarterfinals you faced Niels Viaene who had designed a combo deck to beat your deck, Jund. Did you have mixed feelings about that matchup going into Sunday? After that you faced LSV in the semifinals. Luis is not only among the finest players in the world, but he also had a terrific weekend. At that point he had won all seventeen previous rounds, and it was your job to take him down if you wanted to proceed to the final. Luis has already said that this was the most heartbreaking loss of his career. How did the match feel for you? Finally, you played against Kyle Boggemes in a Jund mirror. You won the die roll, which was perceived to be quite important in the matchup. Consequently you split the first four games without anybody achieving a "break." However, the final game didn't go too well for you until you cast Bloodbraid Elf into a very good Blightning. So that game was a real nail-biter, yet after the match is over you very calmly pick up your stuff, talk for a while about the match with Kyle, and then walk over to your friends as if nothing much had happened.
Simon: There are a lot of untold stories from PT San Diego, and most of them involve my friend and best man at my wedding, Alex Fanghänel. Alex and I built and perfected the infamous, “all land, no removal” Jund list which I managed to win with. Heading into a difficult quarterfinal matchup with only Saturday night to prepare, I knew I could rely on Alex as the one person that knew my deck as well as I did. So rather than playing Jund myself, I built the Artifact-Reanimator deck of Niels and played the matchup from the perspective of my Sunday opponent. Together, we found the Achilles heel of his combo deck, which turned out to be the mana base. Armed with a game plan to exploit this weakness, I was feeling great about the quarterfinal.
I would have loved to see him play a perfect tournament, but I ended the 17-0 run of Luis Scott-Vargas in the semifinals. I still believe that I played the best Magic of my life on Saturday, where I had to go to 7-0-1 to make the Top 8, so I was on quite the run myself. At that point I was convinced that I was playing the best version of the best deck in the format. LSV's “Boss Naya” deck by Tom Ross was defeating regular Jund lists, but our deck was not a regular Jund deck and I had access to 4 Deathmark after board. The match itself played out as expected, with me winning three sideboarded games, punishing some unfortunate draws of Luis in the process.
And then the Jund mirror in the finals. Did I win the Pro Tour because I only lost a single Jund mirror on the weekend? Certainly. Was this because Alex and I built a great deck, me playing well, or because I was lucky enough to win numerous 50:50 matchups? I don't know the answer, but I like to think that it lies somewhere in between. When people think of Jund, they think of Bloodbraid Elf, cascade chains, and huge plays. The Jund mirror was brutal, but in the end it came down to small nuances. Hitting your land drops, not cascading into dead cards, mitigating Blightning damage. In the final game, Kyle allowed me to topdeck a Blightning to empty his hand and kill his Garruk at the same time, which ultimately won me the game.
Was I happy? Yes. Excited? Even that. But after being in single-elimination mode for 12 consecutive rounds, I was mostly exhausted and grateful. Looking back, I should have put on a better show for the spectators, though. I hereby promise to properly celebrate my next Pro Tour win.
Q: In the last couple of years you have been part of the European Grand Prix commentary, meaning that you didn’t get to play in many GPs. After the expiration of your pro levels you also didn’t get to play in any further Pro Tours. Is playing on the Pro Tour something you missed in the last two years? What does it mean for you to be back on the Pro Tour? Do you have any specific goals you would still like to achieve?
Simon: I will always miss playing on the Pro Tour. Emotionally speaking, some of my fondest memories involve preparing for and traveling to Pro Tours with my closest friends. Competitively speaking, there is something magical about competing at the highest possible level, which no other tournament provides.
I am looking forward to competing at PT Born of the Gods, but I do not expect to return to the Pro circuit any time soon. My primary goal is to be able to look back at my preparation, my choice of deck, and the tournament itself without regret. I'm preparing with a team of highly talented players, and want to see us succeed against the competition. It's an odd feeling—how I do personally is much less important to me than it has been in the past.
Q: Regarding your coverage activities, how did you end up on the Grand Prix coverage? Doesn’t it bug you that you don’t get to play when you do coverage? What do you think you excel at doing coverage? In what way is coverage with Simon Görtzen better than coverage without?
The short version is that Rich Hagon approached me and I said yes. I've known Rich for a long time, and he followed my progression from a PTQ/GP warrior on the European circuit to Pro Tour winner firsthand.
Doing coverage work for a Grand Prix is completely different from playing. It is both challenging and rewarding, and if you make a mistake, there is always the rest of the tournament to give your best. I prefer this to playing, where each round can be your last. The coverage team always reaches the finals.
I like to think that my specialty is providing educational Magic content. The best example for that is my “Simon Says” series at MTGOAcademy.com, which has been running for almost 3 years. I want newer players to understand deeper concepts without burying them in complexity, and I want experienced players to learn something new whenever they tune in.
Q: The European coverage has improved a lot over the course of the last year. How do you see the state of the Grand Prix coverage specifically and Magic coverage in general at the moment? What kind of further improvements would you like to see in the near future? Do you have a vision for what the perfect Magic coverage would look like?
Simon: We have entered an age in which you can watch live Magic whenever you want to. There are countless streamers, and tournament series around the world mean that there is rarely a weekend without tournament Magic being broadcast.
One of the challenges of Magic coverage is how to approach the heterogeneous viewership, especially existing differences in card knowledge and tournament experience. In a perfect world, we capture those just tuning in for the first time, while entertaining the loyal fans that watch us whenever they get the chance. Magic appeals to a diverse player base, and so should Magic coverage.
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Name: 八十岡 翔太 (Shouta Yasooka)
Qualified via Pro Club Level Gold, Top 4 GP Kyoto
Pro Points: 24 in 2013-14, 346 lifetime
Pro Tour Debut: Pro Tour Barcelona 2001
Pro Tours Played: 37
Median Finish: 64
Average Finish: 90
Top 8: 1 Pro Tour (1 win), 16 Grand Prix (1 win), and 2 Nationals
Planeswalker Level: 49 (Archmage)
Other Accomplishments: Pro Player of the Year 2006, Magic Online Champion of the Year 2009
Shouta Yasooka is one of the most renowned individual deckbuilders in the world. Whereas good teams come up with good decks that many members of their team will play then, Shouta is often seen fielding his very own, unique concoctions. The most famous example of this is probably his Eternal Command deck that he blindsided the competition with at the 2012 Players Championship. It was a deck that strived to play Cryptic Command every turn with the help of Eternal Witness, and potentially Aether Vial—a deck that mesmerized watchers with its combination of power, uniqueness, novelty, and elegance.
Yasooka played his first Pro Tour in 2001, but only became a regular part of the Pro Tour after Worlds 2005. That tournament started a series of extraordinary finishes, including five Grand Prix Top 8 appearances, and his win at Pro Tour Charleston as a part of team Kajiharu80. That run eventually culminated in Yasooka's 2006 Pro Player of the Year title.
In the following seasons, Yasooka has always put up a couple of strong finishes, but somehow managed to do so in a way that didn't get him quite as much attention as might have been adequate. In 2007 he had a couple of Grand Prix Top 8 appearances with early losses, but not much luck on the Pro Tour. In 2008 and 2009 he only made it to a Grand Prix Top 8 once, but had a couple of strong Pro Tour finishes just shy of Top 8. Arguably the achievement that got him the most attention after that period was his win of the Magic Online Player of the Year title. Where some people might have expected some unknown 80-hours-a-week grinder to win that title, it actually went to a pro, Shouta Yasooka. He also continued to put up strong finishes in real life. Every couple of months he makes another Grand Prix Top 8, another Pro Tour Top 16, or achieves something else, and still Shouta is not yet widely known to be one of the best players in the world. If a title of most underrated Magic Pro would have to be awarded, Yasooka might well be in for the honor.
Q: You won Pro Tour Charleston in 2006 as part of team Kajiharu80. With Tomohiro Kaji and Tomoharu Saito, that leaves the "80" in the team name for you. What does it stand for? Winning a Pro Tour is a very special thing, and especially when winning as a team. However, you lost your match in the finals, and had to hope that Saitou and Kaji would win. How did you experience that situation?
Shouta: If you translate my name, Yaso-oka, it means eighty hills, so that's where the 80 comes from.
Regarding the finals, I believed in my teammates and they won. Sometimes it's that simple.
Q: In the 2012 Players Championship you dominated the whole event, and your Eternal Command deck was the deck of the weekend, yet you lost the finals to Yuuya. Similarly, in 2009 you had been well ahead of the competition in the Swiss rounds of the Magic Online Championship, and then you lost to a rather unknown player in the finals. You have a staggering 15 Grand Prix Top 8s, but only one win. You have six times made Top 16 of a Pro Tour, basically one win away from Top 8, but never made it to Sunday in an individual Pro Tour. Is it something that is bothering you, that you are often just inches away from the results that bring the most recognition? Do you think this “streak” is somehow related to your approach to tournaments or is it just variance?
Shouta: I usually set goals for myself. Typically they are Top 16 for the Pro Tour, Top 8 for a Grand Prix, or advance to play in the MOCS finals in 2006 and 2007. Maybe it didn't feel like I really needed to win the last things, because I had already achieved my personal goal.
Q: You are one of the most respected deckbuilders in the world. Many people thus even considered voting you into the Hall of Fame despite your relative lack of Top 8 finishes. What kind of decks do you like to build? It is sometimes said, that Yasooka decks look different from other peoples’ decks, and are hard to play. What do you think makes your decks special?
Shouta: I don't really know why people say that. My decks are really easier than any others. Well, then of course you guys are not used to my decks like I am.
Q: In 2009 you became the first Magic Online Player of the Year, which means that you collected the most Qualifier Points of all Magic Online players that year. That achievement is only possible with an extreme amount of MTGO play. A player competing for Magic Online Player of the Year actually has to play so much that inevitably his social life will suffer from it. What was that year like for you? Was it worth it, and if it were January 2009 would make the same choice again?
Shouta: In most of 2009 I didn't have that much to do in my free time, so I played a lot for fun. I even conceded a lot to my rivals in the first few months, because I didn't really care for the Qualifier Points. Only in the last two months did I really commit most of my time to MTGO, and especially in the last month I didn't do much else.
If it were 2009 again, I guess I would do the same, only I would put my all into MTGO from the first month on.
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