The 2014-15 Pro Tour season is about to start. Therefore I would like to combine this Pro Tour Special with a preview of the next season. Actually I think future Pro Tour Specials will also vary a bit from issue to issue. I love to talk to the stars of the game, but it gets tough to come up with interesting questions for a bunch of people while you get to talk to players you know less and less about. Instead of interviewing a dozen people, and struggling to achieve the quality that I’d like to deliver, I’d rather keep the number of interviewees smaller and add some texture that I find interesting. Last time I talked to some Wizards staff, and this time I have a preview for the 2014-15 season. Next time—I have some ideas… So you’ll have to wait for those to find out what they are!
Naturally I will focus on the most popular players of the game, and especially those that had a noteworthy—good or bad—season in 2013-14.
Let’s start with the Player of the Year. Jérémy Dezani kicked off the last Pro Tour season with a win at Pro Tour Theros and never looked back, comfortably cruising from Top 8 to Top 8, and eventually claiming the Player of the Year title. Although Dezani was not completely unknown before the last season, about two-thirds of his lifetime Pro Points come from 2013-14. We don’t know if that run was in large part fueled by the perfect start into the season, or if Dezani basically leveled up as a Magic player at some point in 2013. Most likely both things came together for the Frenchman. It should be interesting to see how Dezani performs without a head start. Previously we have also seen players who put together a great season out of nowhere become frustrated when the high level of success was not easily sustained. I’m not wishing any bad luck to Jeremy here, but due to the nature of the game he will have to deal with setbacks at some point. And if he wants to become one of the greats of the game at some point he will have to fight through them.
Next up we have the brotherhood of the Peach Garden Oath; or Huey, Dewey, and Louie—whatever their preferred nickname is right now. Reid, Owen, and Huey had an outstanding season each on their own, finishing 2nd, 3rd, and 4th in the Player of the Year race. Owen and Reid also had important milestone finishes between them with Reid making his first Pro Tour Top 8 at Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx, and Owen winning his first Grand Prix. And then his second. And his third. With all his Grand Prix Top 8s and a new Pro Tour Top 8, Huey made clear that he is not just an old man with a ring. Also to the surprise of exactly no one, the PGO won the team Grand Prix in Portland.
And while these guys are the undisputed best in the game right now, they might still be able to step up their game. They won none of the big trophies in 2013-14, and so far we have not really seen a memorable Top 8 performance from any of them. Of course, all of them played excellently in their Top 8 matches, but we neither saw the inspiring plays that Patrick Dickmann brought to the table at PT Born of the Gods nor a next-level deck like that of Floch at the last Pro Tour, nor the combination of both, that let Patrick Chapin plow through Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx with ease. Despite that, when taking into account the sheer amount of skill and dedication these three bring to the game the adequate questions can only be: Which one of them will be first to win a Pro Tour (although Jensen has been there already), and will one of them take down the Player of the Year title this year?
Another big winner of the last season was Yuuki Ichikawa, who finished the season with back-to-back Pro Tour Top 8s. Although formally not a rookie, Ichikawa was completely unknown outside Japan before the season. Now it looks like he might be spearheading a new generation of Japanese Magic Pros. Yuuki has already started the season with a Grand Prix Top 8, which makes for almost 50 Pro Points in the last five months. Projecting this to a full season would have him finish at around 110 Pro Points, which is far more than anybody other than Kai ever achieved. Of course stochastics don’t work like that, but nevertheless it will be interesting to see how many points he can score in his first full season, after clinching Platinum in only half a season.
Similar to Dezani, Patrick Dickmann will also have a season ahead of him that will look quite different from the last one. Last year he won the Modern GP in Antwerp, after grinding Splinter Twin for the better part of a year on Magic Online. That qualified him for the Modern PT, at which he made Top 8. Additional points came from other Modern GPs, and of course his attendance at the other two Pro Tours. All things considered, Dickmann scored an incredible number of points in Modern events, but not much beyond that. This is not meant to imply that Patrick just “memorized” one deck and capitalized on that. In fact Patrick has amazing talent, and builds a lot of innovative decks. However, his success in the last season meant that he had less time to play his pet deck, thus he might not be so far ahead of the competition in his favorite format this season. Grand Prix Madrid will provide a first glimpse of the state of Modern and if Patrick can maintain his dominance there. If not, more points will have to come from other events like that Standard Pro Tour this weekend.
13, 14, 17, 26, 35, 51, 96. These were the combined finishes of Kai Budde and Jon Finkel last season. Unfortunately none of them made it to any Top 8s, but this is still remarkable consistency on a very high level. So might we see one of them—or both?!—in a Top 8 again soon? The ultimate dream of any fan of Pro play would be to see Kai and Jon duke it out for a Pro Tour title. That happening seems to be as unlikely as winning a lottery. But how unlikely is it really? We do have the numbers to make an educated guess on this one.
The very best players in the game usually Top 8 one in five Pro Tours when they are near their best. Let’s assume that is the case for Kai and Jon right now, and given their recent results that assumption seems justifiable. Actually when one of them does well that increases the chances that the other does well, because they are on the same team, and probably have the same deck and understanding of the draft format. So let’s say one of them has an 0.2 probability of Top 8’ing, and if this happens the other one has 0.25. This combines for a 5% chance of both of them making Top 8. To keep the dream of a final alive both of them have to be assigned to different brackets. The chance for that is around 4 in 7, or 0.57, so there is very roughly a 3% chance that after the Swiss rounds are over a final between Jon and Kai is still possible. Now they have to win their matches. If we are generous and assign them a win percentage that is somewhere between 55 and 60 percent, then their individual chance to make the finals is about 1 in 3 and their combined chance accordingly 1 in 9. So the chance for Kai and Jon to meet in a Pro Tour final should be around 1 in 300. Maybe the one Top 8 in five attempts is a bit too optimistic, and then the chances might only be 1 in 500 for a Finkel Budde final. It’s an unlikely event either way, but it’s likely enough that you can dream of it happening—or really any final between the two top Pros of your choice.
At the other end of the spectrum there are a bunch of the greatest players in the game that didn’t really have a great season. LSV, Kibler, Nakamura, and Mihara all were Platinum coming into the 2013-14 season, but none of them got very close to signing up for another year of all-expenses-paid Magic. More specifically, PV had announced before this season that he would try to rally after a bad 2012-13, but despite a few solid finishes the season as a whole didn’t amount to much. The season also proved to be a setback for Craig Wescoe, and for Willy Edel in his quest for the Hall of Fame. Looking at these names, it’s not only that some of greatest minds in the game had a bad year. All these players are cherished by the community for their dedication to the game, for their characteristic approach to the game, and for their dedication to the game’s community. Luckily none of them looks like they are about to quit Magic Pro play, but of course it would be great to see some of them do well—like really well—in the new season.
For this part as much as the next it is not really feasible to write an outlook. However, we can take a look at the last season of some teams, and then countries. The question that this will automatically lead to is if the current trajectory will hold over the next season.
Team ChannelFireball (the original one) has not fared well over the last season. There had been signs of this in the previous season, but it was this season that many of the team’s most popular players lost Pro levels. At the start of the last season 9 of 17 Platinum Pros were of ChannelFireball, now there are only 5 of 28. It is hard to make out the reasons from the outside, but at least part of it might be that the team could use a bit of fresh blood. The very best players on the team have proven themselves over and over again. LSV, PV, and Kibler seem to have since changed their focus, and even if they give each PT preparation season their best, in all likelihood this cannot fully replace a 24/7 Magic lifestyle. It might not be coincidence alone that the players with a Top 8 in the last season are Josh Utter-Leyton, who thus made himself a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame in 2017, and Pat Cox, the least decorated player on the team. Despite EFro’s ambition for a slot in the Hall of Fame he was notably absent from Sunday appearances in the last season. If the team can channel this ambition that might well be a key factor for a good ChannelFireball’s performance in the 2014-15 season.
The Pantheon on the other hand is the perfect blend of the most decorated players—think Finkel, Budde, Nassif—and a bunch of players eager to show off their skill on the Pro Tour like Duke, Turtenwald, Jensen, and Parke. The team had a stellar season in 2013-14 with almost two Top 8s per Pro Tour. Can they repeat this performance in 2014-15? While Chapin’s win might put him in the “achieved everything” group, that is certainly not the case for Reid and Owen. It looks like they will shape the Pro Tour for years to come, and thereby drive the Pantheon to excellence.
Looking at the season as a whole the European teams all did decently. The French started with three people in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Theros and the Germans had two in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Born of the Gods. Other than a 9th place from Dezani, both didn’t get much going after that.
The central European coalition had two players in the Top 16 of Pro Tour Theros and Born of the Gods, put Cifka in the Top 8 of PT Journey Into Nyx although the rest of them received a beating, and then finished the season with an outstanding performance at PT M15. Ivan Floch won the trophy, while Koska and Juza made Top 16, which also sent Juza back to the Platinum club. All in all the Europeans as a whole have done way better than one might have expected before the season. After 4 of 24 Top 8 slots in 2012-13, the Europeans claimed 10 of 32 in 2013-14. It certainly helped that France and Germany rallied at the same time while the Central European group continued to put up strong finishes. However, taking into account the composition of the average Pro Tour we should probably not expect the Europeans to improve on that record.
Although the Americans and Europeans have been way more successful quantitatively the team of the moment seems to be MTGMintCard. Two Pro Tour Top 8s for the South East Asians don’t seem like much, but this region could just as well have been non-existent at the beginning of the 2010s (only Magic-wise of course). Now there are a bunch of players that are recognized outside the region and have put up strong finishes. And the guys from MintCard were the driving force behind this tentative rise of South East Asian Magic as they are apparently happy to assimilate into their team whomever qualifies in their region.
I made a new section for countries although there is a strong overlap between teams and countries in some regions. The US has several strong teams, some countries build a team together like Central Europe, and some countries more or less have exactly one team like France and I believe Japan. The division between teams and countries is therefore mainly artificial, but I collected some stats for the performance of countries and wanted to give them their own section:
I chose Pro Points in 2013-14 per PTQ slot in 2013-14 as a means of judging the strength of Magic Pro Play in a country. Pro Points should be self-explanatory. The number of PTQ slots was the best proxy I could get for the size of the local community although I don’t know how accurate that is these days. Previously the number of PTQs was based on the number of players that had played a tournament in the previous year. I am not sure if that is still the case. The correlation between PTQ slots and community size will not be perfect, but I think it’s the most reliable estimate we can get in a reasonable way.
As we saw already Central Europe did extremely well in the last season. Slovakia and the Czech Republic stand out due to their Pro Tour Top 8s, but Hungary and Austria are among the top 10 countries in Pro Points per PTQ as well. Most countries that have borders to this region also did well, just not off-the-charts well. It looks like for some reason this area is the heart of competitive Magic in Europe right now.
Another region that has done very well are smaller but highly industrialized countries in South Eastern Asia. Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan are also among the top 10 of best performing countries. Malaysia (16th), South Korea (18th), and Thailand (22nd) did a bit worse but are still way above the average. Of course it is comparatively easy for a small country to rise above the overall mean, but it is just as easy to fall way below the mean, and basically all the highly industrialized countries in South East Asia had a very good season. If we combine these countries we can compare the region to individual countries with similar populations like Australia and Brazil. It turns out that the resulting South East Asia and Central Europe regions outclass any other region by a considerable margin.
The biggest individual countries that did well were Canada, Germany, Japan, and—somewhere between big and small—Mexico. Canada’s success shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anybody after the season they had. Remarkable is how much better 2013-14 was than anything in the years before. In 2012-13 Canadians had trouble doing well even in their own Grand Prix. In the period from 2006 to the end of the 2012-13 season—31 Pro Tours—Canadians accumulated a total of two Pro Tour Top 8s. In the last three Pro Tours they had three.
Germany had been presenting itself in a terrible state in the last couple of years, and as a German I didn’t consider the 2013-14 season particularly great either. However, looking at the points it turns out that the season was actually quite good, and with four players accumulating more points this season than the best German player in 2012-13 Germany is heading in the right direction again. Unfortunately Germany is lacking a strong community leader, and besides Patrick Dickmann nobody really seems dedicated to going Pro in Magic. Thus Germany might have a hard time sustaining this level of success.
Japan is also among the more successful nations. Japanese players are not as dominating as in the late 2000s any more, but still quite good. In that time it felt like we were obliterated by whatever player Japan chose to throw at us, but that’s no longer the case. One of the reasons might be that historically most Japanese players were Constructed experts, some were Limited experts, but very few were on top of the game in both. Thus it might not be a coincidence that Japan stopped being dominant a short time after the introduction of the multi-format Pro Tours. These days there is “only” one Japanese player in the average Top 8. Yet we might see the Japan improving upon their solid record with Saitou and Tsumura back in full, a new powerhouse like Ichikawa in the game, and no reason to believe that players like Watanabe and Mihara suddenly stop being awesome.
The final country that I would like to look at is South Korea. It is a little ironic that the Magic community takes a great interest in eSports, but apparently the one country that is all-in on eSports doesn’t even know that Magic exists. In 2012-13 the country won 49 Pro Points as a whole with the best player getting to 9. However, in 2013-14 the country finished with a Platinum and a Silver-level pro. Yet their total of 105 points might indicate that not much has changed, other than one prodigy, who happened to be South Korean, picking up the game and joining team MintCard. Maybe Nam Sung-Wook can spark some interest in the game. For Brazil all it took was Carlos Romão winning one World Championship.
I have four interviews for you again. This time I had the pleasure of talking to the reigning Pro Tour Champion, Ivan Floch, a retired Magic Online grinder and Grand Prix Champion in Jose Francisco Silva, Tomoharu Saitou, and finally 100% of Matt Sperling. Many thanks to Ivan, Jose Francisco, Tomoharu, and Matt!
Name: Ivan Floch
Nationality: Slovak Republic
Qualified via: Pro Tour Magic 2015 Top 25, Pro Club Level Platinum, GP Milan Top 4
Pro Points: 197 lifetime
Pro Tour Debut: Worlds 2004
Pro Tours played: 20
Win percentage: 61.6%
Top 8: 1 Pro Tour (1 win), and 4 Grand Prix (1 win)
Planeswalker Level: 46 (Archmage)
Other accomplishments: 4 times National Champion
Ivan Floch played his first Pro Tour at Worlds 2004, but has only played regularly on the Tour since 2010. In 2012 Floch made his first two Grand Prix Top 8 appearances, including a win in Lisbon. He also finished in the money at all Pro Tours that year. However, a relatively quiet year followed in 2013 before Floch had his real breakthrough only this year. After another pair of Grand Prix Top 8s, and Top 50 finishes at the first two Pro Tours, Floch was able to not only Top 8 his first Pro Tour, but win it all at Pro Tour Magic 2015.
Q: You won the last Pro Tour, and with an interesting deck, Quicken control. Of course this is only a variation of the usual Sphinx’s Revelation control decks, but for you the twist paid off handsomely. How did you arrive at that deck list? How much was it a conscious decision to build the deck in a way that would rouse very specific expectations in your opponents and then punish them for playing accordingly? Naturally a specific deck built this way can only perform at its highest level for a few tournaments. Regardless of that, do you think this is a strategy that is undervalued in Magic?
A: We saw deck lists with Quicken and Planar Cleansing in some smaller tournaments. Then Stanislav Cifka built it in our testing and improved it to the level where we both liked it enough to play it. We felt that for this tournament it could be better than classic UW control with Detention Spheres because of the many ways to destroy Sphere (especially post-board). Reclamation Sage was released in M15 and new versions of black control (BW, BG) all had ways to destroy Detention Sphere, as did Jund Planeswalkers. And yes, we were aware of surprise factor and we knew it was going to help, but I think the main reasons why the deck was successful at the PT and not after are:
- The rounds at the PT are 55 minutes, which is longer than in other tournaments. This might not seem as big a factor, but it’s huge with this deck. Combine that with the fact that it requires a lot of experience with the deck to play it correctly—it’s not for everyone—and it’s not hard to see why the deck wasn’t that good of a choice after the PT.
- A metagame shift happened after the PT. Planeswalker control with Rakdos’s Return and Slaughter Games post-board was a bad matchup for the deck.
Q: The Pro Tour title is your crowning achievement without a doubt, but even if you had lost in the quarterfinals you would have had an excellent season. And although you had been around for some time before—and people surely recognized you before this season—this was really your breakthrough season. How was this season different from previous seasons? Is there a moment where you think “At that point I stepped up my game to the next level”?
A: No, I don’t think my game has improved in any way, I still make a lot of mistakes. The only thing that has changed in the past season is our preparation for the PTs. We have a nice group including a lot of good players and that helps a lot.
Q: Last time we already heard from Matej that the Slovak Republic has a relatively small community with him, Robert, and you clearly in the lead. Do you have a special role in that community?
A: Special role? I wouldn’t say that, my biggest role is probably to answer A LOT of questions from other Slovak players.
Q: In 2010 you won the Team portion of Worlds as the captain of a highly talented Slovak team. This year you are captain again—for the fourth time no less—and your team might even be considered better than the team you won with. What are your expectations for the World Magic Cup? Can you win again?
A: Yes, we definitely can win again, and that’s what we are going to try to do. Besides me and Matej there is one player that most people probably don’t know, but is a good player that even Top 8’d Worlds in Toronto a long time ago. His name is Jan Tomcani.
Name: José Francisco Dantas Mangueira da Silva
Qualified via: Winner PTQ Brasilia
Pro Points: 39 lifetime
Pro Tour Debut: Osaka 2002
Pro Tours played: 7
Win percentage: 45.6%
Top 8: 3 Grand Prix (1 win)
Jose Francisco Silva is a former Brazilian Magic Online grinder. There he is known under the name of kaOz_Zeh. Silva has played on the Pro Tour seven times so far. His first appearance was at the 2002 Pro Tour Osaka, for which he qualified by making the Top 8 of Grand Prix Curitiba. Another qualification for the team Pro Tour in Boston, also in 2002, followed. After that Silva did not play another Tour for a couple of years. Only in 2011 did he manage to qualify for another Pro Tour. He has since played in half of the Pro Tours, and made the Top 8 of another Grand Prix. His greatest achievement so far came in 2013 when he won Grand Prix Rio de Janeiro.
Q: You are playing on the Pro Tour for the 8th time. So far your best finish is a 60th place at Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze. What are your expectations for Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir? What does it mean for you that the Pro Tour is held on Hawaii?
A: I understand that Magic is a very hard game and the PT has the highest level of competition. So I won’t be sad if the PT doesn’t go very well. If my playtesting and my game is up to my standards, I’ll be happy if I manage to get into the money for the second time in eight PTs. But the goal is always to qualify for the next PT, so it would be awesome to go 11-5 and qualify for Washington.
When I realized the Modern season would be the same as the Hawaii season, I tried my best to play in all PTQs in Brazil so I could qualify. I always wanted to go to Hawaii and to go there and even play in a PT is just awesome.
Q: Your biggest achievement so far is your victory at Grand Prix Rio de Janeiro at the end of last year. After a great weekend for you the finals ended surprisingly quickly. Your opponent just conceded the title to you. What happened there?
A: He’s a good friend of mine and he doesn’t have any expectations/goals of trying to grind Pro Points or anything. Those 2 points extra points would put me at 16 Pro Points in the season and a Top 16 away from achieving Gold. With only 14 I’d need a Top 8 at the Pro Tour for that. I know that it’s very hard to Top 16 a PT but it isn’t as hard as a Top 8, so when he asked me if I wanted the win, if the points mattered for me, I gladly accepted the concession.
Q: You were one of the Brazilian MTGO grinders. What was life as a grinder like? Why did you stop being a grinder?
A: I love playing Magic and it’s very hard to grind Magic IRL here in Brazil without any 10k Open Series or anything similar, and only 1 or 2 GPs nearby per year. The closest thing to being a Pro Player we could do over here was to grind Magic Online. I know it isn’t the same but was very cool to be playing and doing the thing I love most for those years. It worked very well until the pack prices went down and without v3 I can’t properly grind anymore so I’m back to studying in order to get a job in the public sector.
Q: MTGO v4 went live not too long ago. As a former grinder you probably followed the process with great interest. What feelings do you have about the new client?
A: I tried my best to get into v4 as I really wanted to keep playing MTGO as much as I played in v3. However it took me quite a while to learn the new things and with the giant memory leaks on v4 I just can’t play as many games as before. Also there’s still so many bugs that playing it isn’t as fun as it was before. Every time I join a Daily Event I have to restart MTGO at least once between rounds because eventually MTGO is using all the RAM on my computer and I just can’t play anymore. The layout of the game screen isn’t at its best as well, not being able to move the graveyard is just awful and I don’t understand how the “top of my library” screen of previous rounds won’t disappear unless I relog.
Also for us here in the developing world with our internet, sometimes it takes 15+ minutes to just log in. I know our internet providers aren’t as good as in most other countries but on v3 we could just log in without any problems and with all this “loading collection” it gets even worse. Before 2009, I used to log on MTGO like 1 or 2 times a year, but even between v1, v2, etc. I never had problems finding my way in the program and now it’s just harder even with me playing regularly for the past 4 years. I couldn’t find most stuff after logging on v4 and I know a lot of people are just giving up switching to v4 or entering on MTGO at all now. We used to have a bunch of streamers but v4 isn’t friendly there either. Also a lot of Pro Players aren’t even recording videos anymore and are trying other games like Hearthstone. See PV and Kibler, among others.
I won’t rule out getting back to v4, but not at this time. Maybe in 6 months or a year the program will be better but my feeling at the moment is that v3 was much, much better overall.
Name: 齋藤 友晴 (Tomoharu Saitou)
Qualified via: 39 Match Points GP Chicago, Top 8 GP Sydney, and Pro Club Level Silver (doesn’t need to use Silver invite)
Pro Points: 402 liftetime (7 in 2014-15)
Pro Tour Debut: Chicago 2000
Pro Tours played: 38
Win percentage: 59.7%
Top 8: 5 Pro Tours (1 win), 20 Grand Prix (4 wins), 1 Nationals
Planeswalker Level: 50 (Archmage)
Other accomplishments: Pro Player of the Year 2007
Tomoharu Saitou might well be the most controversial figure in the history of Magic Pro Play. Nobody doubts that he is one of the most talented players ever. Quite a few would name him as the greatest deckbuilder of all time. His designs are ingenious, he is very productive, and eager to share. Saitou’s numbers back up his greatness. He has made it to the Top 8 of a Grand Prix a staggering 20 times, and he also has five Pro Tour Top 8s, including a title. In short there cannot be much doubt about Saitou ranking among the ten best players ever in the game.
The controversy comes mainly from an incident in 2010. Saitou had been elected into the Hall of Fame, an invitation that was revoked by Wizards in between the election and the induction after Saitou had been suspended by the DCI in the aftermath of a DQ for stalling. After about two years of absence from tournament play, Saitou quickly returned to the Pro Tour. He has yet to get back on to the gravy train, but his eagerness to show the world that he is the best certainly hasn’t decreased, so it seems to be only a matter of time until Saitou gets back to the top again.
Q: You are famous for being possibly the most productive deckbuilder in the world. Just recently you demonstrated this yet again, when you published more than a dozen deck concepts on Twitter. Most famous deck designers usually build midrange decks with crazy synergies, combo decks, or control decks. In fact you might be the only deck designer that is famous for his aggro deck designs. Are your aggro decks your favorite designs? Do you think designing aggro decks is an underappreciated art?
A: SeaStompy is my favorite, I played it in PT Honolulu. I thinking new aggro decks don’t get much respect, because aggro decks are simple. You don’t have to choose between many kinds of cards, but for a beatdown deck the exact configuration is actually more important than for a control deck. Also it is actually harder to benefit from your play skill than for control.
Q: In 2006 you won Pro Tour Charleston with your teammates, Shouta Yasooka and Tomohiro Kaji. Yasooka is still around, you are back in the game, but Kaji hasn’t played a Pro Tour in a long time. Looking at his stats it seems like he could have become one of the games great players. Do you know what happened to him, why he stopped playing on the Tour? Eventually the Pro Tour finals came down to your game against PV, and your victory there secured the title for your team. Is that the greatest moment of your career?
A: Kaji loves challenges. He quit for many kinds of new challenges like studying and opening a business, but he returned to Magic. He is working for Japan as an official now. He will also be live on the Pro Tour for the Japanese.
And yeah, winning in Charleston was the greatest moment. I jumped^^
Q: After your involuntary break you have claimed Silver in the Pro Club for the second year in a row now. This would constitute a great success for many players, but your previous achievements suggest that you might have bigger goals. What are your goals for the 2014-15 season and for the next couple of years?
A: My immediate goal is to finish with Gold or more for the 2014-15 season. Beyond that I want to be the No.1 player and make my store the No.1 MTG store for a long time.
Q: In 2010 Wizards revoked your invitation to the Hall of Fame after a DQ and a subsequent ban. Nobody besides yourself can know what actually happened there, but either way it must have been one of the biggest blows in your lifetime. After all you had worked for the Hall of Fame for years, and literally days before the dream comes true everything collapses. However, taking into account the limited understanding most of us Westerners have of the Japanese culture, it seems probable that the loss of face involved with Wizards’ decision might have been even harder to bear for you. How did you deal with it all? When and how did you decide it was time for you to get back into the game?
A: It was like a nightmare for me. I had to understand, that this happened because of my playing speed, from my mistake. But damage is damage, and time is life. I can’t stop.
I quit Magic and tried to enjoy many things like hobbies and work in one year, but I just I knew I love Magic and Magic is super hot!
Name: Matt Sperling
Nationality: United States
Qualified via: Top 25 PT Magic 2015, Pro Club Level Gold
Pro Points: 145 (1 in 2014-15)
Pro Tour Debut: New York 2000
Pro Tours played: 24
Win percentage: 58.5%
Top 8: 1 Pro Tour, 3 Grand Prix (1 win)
Planeswalker Level: 47 (Archmage)
Matt Sperling had his first appearance on the Pro Tour at the 2000 Pro Tour New York. His first string of semi-regular appearances came in 2001-02, but after that he played only very infrequently on the Pro Tour. In 2009 he qualified for the Pro Tour again, and finished the season with solid performance at Pro Tour Houston and his first Grand Prix Top 8. Sperling hasn’t missed many Pro Tours since although he had to requalify via PTQs occasionally. In 2012 Sperling won his first Grand Prix alongside teammates Paul Rietzl and David Williams. Of course, going into Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir he is coming fresh off his greatest triumph so far, his Top 8 with Burn at Pro Tour Magic 2015.
Q: Over the years you have had success in all kinds of formats, and with all kinds of decks: UW Control, Mono-Black Devotion, RG Ramp, White Weenie, Zoo, and most recently Burn. With the exception of combo decks you have played basically every conceivable type of deck in one high-level tournament or other. Are there any parts of Magic that you particularly enjoy and/or are good at, or do you just like everything as long as the competition is there?
Now that I’m done defending my reputation against your unsubstantiated attack, I can answer the question. The thing I enjoy most about high-level Magic is winning enough to keep playing high-level Magic, while never taking things too seriously to the point of not enjoying my hobby. In terms of which decks I enjoy, I try to choose a deck that will give me the best chance to win, without letting too many biases cloud that evaluation. Biases aren’t just aggro vs. combo vs. control, there’s also established archetype vs. rogue/brew, and that can infect card choices not just deck choices. “I try to pick the best deck” is an answer a lot of other pros would give too, but like you alluded to, I back it up when it’s time to turn in my deck list.
Q: You have played on the Pro Tour for almost forever. And at least in the last couple of years you had good finishes. With an exception in 2010 you never managed to get on the train, though. Nonetheless you have played in over 20 Pro Tours over the years, which is ample proof of your ability to win PTQs. Did you ever feel frustrated by this repeated process of doing well, but not quite well enough, and then being tossed back to square one yet another time?
A: I certainly felt the frustration of never “breaking through,” and I felt it more back when I was worse but thought I was better. Now that I’m better but understand I’m not in the top tier of players, I realize there are guys who have more ability than me and work harder at it. I’m really fond of this quote by A.J. Liebling, “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.” I’m like that. I can outthink the guys who prepare like I do, and I now have the team in place to outprepare some of the folks who think better than me. Unlike Liebling though, there is a top tier of player that can both outthink me and is willing to outprepare me (examples: Josh Utter-Leyton, Owen Turtenwald).
As for “dealing with” the frustration of losing at Magic for 10+ years, I never put myself in a state where winning was so important to me emotionally or financially that I was absolutely devastated to lose. At no point in my life has someone asked me what I do for a living or what I want to do for a living or how I identify myself as a person and gotten an answer directly related to Magic: The Gathering. Maybe even more important than that, I was born with or developed early a really positive attitude. The little glimpses of my ability to play Magic at a Pro level, plus all the fun I was having, were enough to keep me going. I didn’t need a trophy every year.
Q: Judging by your articles and Tweets you view Magic not only as a competitive outlet, but you also care for its community. However, the way you state your comments is distinctly sarcastic. Why is that? Do you simply consider your contributions to be satire or is there some deeper motive?
A: I like trying to make my friends laugh. That’s really the long and the short of it. On Twitter or in an article, the readers and followers are standing in for my friends. The only way I know how to write a good article or Tweet is to write it in a way I find entertaining and a way I think my friends/readers will also find entertaining.
Another part of it is that I want to be saying things that are interesting. What everyone else is saying is never interesting. So I end up touching some topics or taking some approaches that others are staying away from in order to preserve what they think is their nice-guy status, reputation, or someone else’s feelings. Let’s say someone else is taking themselves too seriously discussing a change to MTGO prizes or a DCI banning or whatever. If no one else is willing to poke fun at that person for forgetting the big picture, I’m more than happy to do it. The subject sometimes feels embarrassed, sometimes I go too far, sure, but if you’re not going to be interesting and take chances, don’t pick up the pen. Oh, and making a joke about someone on Twitter is not bullying. I was bullied as a kid, and part of me wonders whether the new social media police folks were just luckier than I was, never got bullied, and therefore don’t understand what it is. I know you didn’t mention the word bullying but this answer has sort of turned into an FAQ for “Why do you make people mad online?” I could go on and on but I’ll cut myself off here.
Q: In 2009 you Top 8’d your first Grand Prix, in 2012 you won your first Grand Prix, and this year—2014—you Top 8’d your first Pro Tour. The logical conclusion of this pattern would be that you win a Pro Tour in 2015. Do you see that happening? What are your goals for the next season?
A: There are approximately 30 Platinum Pros and 30 Gold Pros. I’m better than some and worse than others, but I’d say I’m more likely to win a Pro Tour than just about anyone NOT on that top 60 list. 60 players isn’t that many, and there’s a decent amount of variance in Magic, and I work with the undisputed best team in the world (CFB Pantheon). So yes, I could see myself winning a Pro Tour in 2015. Am I likely to do so or as likely as Huey or Paul Rietzl to do so? Of course not.
My goals for this season are to apply myself to every tournament I attend. I don’t have the luxury of playing many GPs, but I am qualified for every Pro Tour and that’s where you make your name anyway. Last season I played only 2 GPs and 3 PTs, didn’t prepare at all for one of those PTs (PT Journey Into Nyx), and ended the season 5 points short of Platinum. It would be silly to think I can just replicate the points rate I had last season, but it would also be silly for me not to try and take advantage of my Gold level by applying myself and not “wasting” any opportunities by not preparing.