Back in Business
Nicknames: The German Juggernaut
Qualified via Hall of Fame
Pro Points: 0 in 2013-14, 510 lifetime
Pro Tour debut: 1997 Pro Tour Mainz
Pro Tours played: 48
Median finish: 44.5
Average finish: 71.2
Standard deviation: 86
Top 8: 10 Pro Tours (7 wins) and 15 Grand Prix (7 wins)
Planeswalker level: 48 (Archmage)
Other accomplishments: Pro Tour Player of the Year 1998-99, 2000-01, 2001-02, 2002-03, 2002 German national champion, 2007 Hall of Fame class (vote leader), 2002 World Team Champion (with , 2001 Invitational winner (created Voidmage Prodigy), 2002 Masters Osaka champion (Team Limited with Dirk Baberowski and Marco Blume), first player to reach 500 Pro Points
The German Juggernaut is one of the two undisputed best players Magic has ever seen. Kai’s career started at Pro Tour New York in 1997. It was the last time the Pro Tour had a Junior Division, and Kai chose to attend that one instead of the main event, feeling that he was not yet good enough. One year later Kai was definitely good enough, at least for the European Grand Prix circuit. After a second place finish at Grand Prix Birmingham, he won consecutive Grand Prix in Barcelona, Vienna, and Amsterdam. Meanwhile he had had a couple of solid finishes on the Pro Tour, too, but nothing that would have made him a candidate for Player of the Year. However, in 1999 there was no stopping Kai. The World Championship provided a first taste of what was to come. He won the Worlds semifinals to lock up the Player of the Year title, and then walked over Mark LePine in about 20 minutes, including shuffling, to take down the trophy.
The next season didn’t yield any exciting results for Kai. It was the calm before the storm—a storm of three years, six Pro Tour titles, and various other trophies. Eventually it was said that, “Kai doesn’t lose on Sundays.” It didn’t matter where the Pro Tour was held or the format. Kai won Pro Tours in six different formats, and hoisted trophies on five different continents. After 2003 Kai took a step back from the game, and has basically been in retirement since 2005. About once a year Kai still attends a Pro Tour, meets some friends, and maybe adds another Top 8 to his vita.
In the last few years you played on the PT on and off, but now you have announced that you will attend all PTs this season. What made you want to get back into pro Magic?
It is more of a temporary return and I don’t plan to play any GPs either. It’s a combination of things. First of all, there’s two Pro Tours in Europe. That’s a great start. But the main reason is that the last two seasons it wasn’t all that complicated to be the German team captain for the World Magic Cup. The World Magic Cup was started way after I stopped playing so I have never played in it. It would be nice to ‘fix’ that.
In the past two seasons you needed about 20 Pro Tour points to qualify in Germany. There’s just no one playing all that seriously here right now. However, Wenzel Krautmann is already on 15+ points before the first PT is even played as he had a very strong run over multiple Grand Prix, so if Wenzel does well at only one of the Pro Tours, I would have to Top 4 one most likely.
I’m definitely attending the first two as they are in Europe and afterwards I’ll just have to see. It’s kind of annoying for me to take enough time off work to seriously prepare for a tournament, and if I don’t have a real shot at qualifying for the WMC, I will most likely not play overseas events.
After all these years you certainly have some perspective on the game. In your opinion where has the game improved in that time? What did you like more about the game when you started playing?
In general the game is a lot more bomb-heavy now. The cards are more powerful and games are more swingy. In some Standard games, every turn you think someone else is winning as every card has such a huge effect on the game. The same is true for Limited. 12 years ago a great Limited deck was mostly defined by your overall quality, having no fillers and a number of very good commons. These days a great Limited deck is mostly defined by having multiple mythics or rares.
I don’t like that change, but then it’s also very tough to compare. There were certainly huge issues back then as well, for example cards like [card]Pestilence[/card] or [card]Sparksmith[/card] and so on. There’s ups and downs for both design approaches, but you can safely say that things are very different now.
You had an impressive run in 1999, but your achievements on the Pro Tour in 2001 easily dwarf even that run, and really everything else in pro Magic. (Arbitrarily) not counting Worlds you won three Pro Tours in a row back then. At that point you were used to having success on the Pro Tour, but that must still have felt unreal. Can you explain what circumstances made this run possible?
Obviously winning literally all my Top 8 matches meant I was heavily on the positive side of variance. I don’t think it’s all luck, though. Doing insanely well at each team Pro Tour for example wasn’t just me. I wasn’t running those drafts or anything. Dirk, Marco, and I were all responsible on the same level.
Back then, without MTGO, it was super important to have good players around you that dedicated a lot of time to Magic as well. In Cologne, the guys that taught me how to play were very good, one of them being the first German to win a Pro Tour (and one of the first PTs overall, Atlanta 1996). When I moved to Hamburg in 2000, there were Marco Blume, Christian Luehrs, Patrick Mello, Dominik Hothow, Peer Kroeger, and lots of other people that regularly played on the Pro Tour.
It’s no coincidence that the good players of the pre-MTGO era all had a strong local community. For example NY with Finkel, Mowshowitz, and lots of others; the Ruels in Paris; Ronaldson, Marsh, Ormerod, and Dobson in London; Herzog, Eskeland, Nitter in Oslo; and Jonsson, Thoren, Sadeghpour in some village in the Swedish woods. I think without having those guys around, it would have been pretty much impossible to do so well.
You won seven Pro Tours in six formats. So we can safely say that you are competitive in any kind of Magic format. Do you have a favorite format? Which kinds of decks do you most enjoy playing?
Team Rochester was my favorite format by quite a bit. Afterward comes regular Rochester Draft. I think the skill level of the average Pro Tour player compared to the top Pros was way worse then it is these days. Magic Online says, “Hi – #blameWorth.” And Rochester Draft just gave you a lot more control. You saw what people were doing and it just made everything easier. I would expect that if Rochester was a format these days, it would be much, much worse.
If everyone is good, it’s very obvious what you have to do. People just settle into the obvious colors and you just distribute the cards. That wasn’t the case back then, fortunately.
In Constructed, I always tried to play blue control-ish decks. The perfect deck for me was the blue deck that won Pro Tour New Orleans, in Extended. It was nearly mono-blue, had a decent amount of control with [card]Counterspell[/card], [card]Force of Will[/card], and [card]Fire // Ice[/card]. It also had great library manipulation and won with a very strong combo, [card]Illusions of Grandeur[/card] + [card]Donate[/card]. Whenever similar decks are good in a format, you can count on me playing that. But if I am playing a big tournament and I think Jund-Cascade is the best deck—which was a deck I think is absolutely terrible and insanely boring to play—I’ll still play that. I am way too competitive to play a deck that’s more fun to play but with which I expect to put up a worse result.
Qualified via Hall of Fame
Pro Points: 1 in 2013-14, 325 lifetime
Pro Tour debut: Worlds 2000
Pro Tours played: 56
Median finish: 49.5
Average finish: 97.5
Standard deviation: 99
Top 8: 3 Pro Tours and 6 Grand Prix
Planeswalker level: 49 (Archmage)
Other accomplishments: 2009 Hall of Fame class, 4 Dutch National Championship Top 8s, Top 4 Masters Osaka (Team Limited)
Frank is best known for his highly analytical approach to the game. While many of the game’s best players are analytical, Frank takes this one step further. When you read an article of Frank’s, it will inevitably have quantification, that most would be fine discussing in general terms. Sorting all cards of a set in the order they should be picked, writing a program that analyzes 20 million matches in a hypothetical metagame, or building and playing a Faerie deck that is an amalgamation of all deck lists online? These are just a few of the crazier things Frank has done, but on most days a thorough metagame breakdown of a Grand Prix will do.
Frank Karsten’s Magic career started with a bunch of near misses. In 2000, he made Top 8 of the Dutch Nationals, but lost in the quarterfinals, thus qualifying for the European Championships, but failing to make the National team. At the European Championship he finished 9th, one place short of Top 8, but at least the good results qualified him for the World Championship on rating. In Brussels, Frank had another good showing, finishing 17th, actually one win short of Top 8 yet again.
It took Frank a string of further near misses—including a 5th place at Pro Tour Boston, the Team Pro Tour—until he finally made it to the Top 8. After six Top 20 finishes, Frank finally had that bit of extra luck at the Rochester Draft Pro Tour in Nagoya, and finally made the Top 8. He finished that season with his best finish to date, a 2nd place at the World Championship in Yokohama. Afterwards, Frank put up further good results, but only reached the Top 8 of one other Pro Tour, Worlds 2008 in Memphis. After the 2009 season Frank reduced his commitment to pro Magic, still playing every other Pro Tour, however.
In the last few years you played were playing the PT on and off, but now you have announced that you will attend all of this season’s PTs. Where did that decision come from? Did the fact that despite all your successes you have not won a title yet play a role?
The last few years, I wasn’t really focusing on Magic, instead spending most of my time on my PhD project in game theory. I have essentially finished my PhD by now, but was really doubting whether or not to continue in academia near the end, so I decided to take some time off to figure out my next steps in life. In the meantime, my passion for Magic had returned. It had cooled down a bit over the years, but it’s still such a great game and I started to miss it.
So, my decision to attend all PTs this season is based on both having the time available and a rekindled passion. The fact that I haven’t won a title yet gives me something to strive for, but it didn’t play a big role in my decision.
After all these years you certainly have some historical perspective on Magic. In your opinion, where has the game improved in that time? What did you like more about the game when you started playing?
The game has improved in many ways, but let me mention one: Limited design. Back in the old days, sets weren’t really designed for drafting. The Limited formats were slow, with poor card quality, and hardly any synergy. It wasn’t fun. Nowadays, Limited play is an important design consideration: common cards are powerful and fun, colors are well-balanced, and there are many directions and deck archetypes to try out.
One aspect of the game around 1998 that I liked was that there were many possible Constructed deck archetypes. We not only had aggro, midrange, and control, but combo and prison (e.g., [card]Winter Orb[/card] or [card]Wildfire[/card]) decks as well. In today’s Standard format, there are many midrange battles, but combo and prison strategies are missing. Creatures have gotten a lot better, and we have planeswalkers (which makes for nice, interactive games), but combo or resource denial cards are few and far between, and I miss that. I always enjoy drafting them in Cube, and I would enjoy having access to them in Standard, too.
You are known to have an extremely analytical approach to the game. At which points do you think this approach has allowed you to find strategies other players were not aware of? Have you ever felt that this approach stood in the way of success?
I’ll just tell a couple of stories.
First story. When preparing for a big tournament in an established format, I like to draw up an entire worksheet consisting of playtest results, matchup percentages both before and after sideboard, and a probability distribution over the metagame distribution. I can then use a mathematical formula to determine the best deck (the one that gives the largest expected money winnings). I also like to do the math to figure out mana bases and sideboard plans. Sometimes, when everyone is testing games, I am sitting behind my computer to do the calculations.
Second story. At the 2005 World Championships, I was paired against Akira Asahara in the semifinals. I was playing my Greater Gifts deck. He was playing Enduring Ideal, and his only main-deck kill conditions were [card]Form of the Dragon[/card] and [card]Confiscate[/card]. So, if I never played a Confiscate target, then he’d have no choice but to play Form of the Dragon. That would get him down to five, in range of a [card]Goryo’s Vengeance[/card] on [card]Yosei, the Morning Star[/card]. The only problem was getting a Dragon into the graveyard in time.
After taking the time to analyze the matchup, I found the solution. When I won the die roll, I elected to draw first. On my first turn, I did not play a land, discarded [card]Yosei, the Morning Star,[/card] and that was that.
Third story. Coming into the 2008 World Championships, I knew I wanted to play Faeries but didn’t know what build to play. To solve this, I took as many winning versions of the deck as I could find, determined the average, and piloted this well-rounded Aggregate Faeries (which featured such hits as a single [card]Ponder[/card]) to a Top 8 finish.
Nevertheless, my approach may very well have stood in the way of success from time to time. I am a slow player, I focus too much on tweaking existing strategies rather than exploring new ones, and I sometimes manage to out-think myself.
Which formats and deck types do you like most? Do these preferences reflect that your analytical approach works particularly well for those formats/decks?
The [card]Gifts Ungiven[/card] deck in Kamigawa Block Constructed stands out to me. The mirror match in particular played out differently every game, requiring the players to think on their feet. I love analyzing where the game is going, methodically considering all possible Gifts Ungiven piles, and planning ahead with [card]Sensei’s Divining Top[/card].
More generally, I like Block Constructed because due to the small card pool, it becomes possible to figure out all feasible strategies and to analyze the format exhaustively. I gladly spend as much time as it takes to understand all that can be gleaned from the card pool, find the best deck, and prepare for virtually everything.