August 07, 2015

Top 5 World Championship Storylines

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In this issue:

Five Times for Thommo | Four for Four | Three-peat Champion?

Heads Up! | First Time's the Charm? | July Player of the Month


As we headed into the semifinals of Pro Tour Magic Origins, there were still multiple World Championship slots in play. The Player of the Year title race was still in flux, as were multiple At-Large berths—and there was, of course, the whole matter of the Pro Tour winner's berth to be determined. Once Sweden's Joel Larsson struck the last point of damage to the United States' Mike Sigrist, the World Championship picture finally became clear.

The post-Pro Tour victory obligations for the tournament winner can be a whirlwind, as the player comes to the Newsdesk, goes back to talk to Nico-Nico, gets interviewed for Walking the Planes, gets whisked away by a Pro Tour photographer extraordinaire for his trophy shot, and then comes back as the tournament is being disassembled around him to provide some insight into playing Red Deck Wins Again for Friday Night Countdown. There was barely a moment for him to think about anything other than the fact that he had won the Pro Tour, and to remember to lug his trophy from one location to the next. We finally released him from the carousel, sent him off to his friends waiting to celebrate with him (read: waiting for him to pay for dinner), and said "See you in a couple of weeks at the World Championship."

You could see the gears working in his head for a couple of seconds as it suddenly sunk in that the next two weeks would be a repeat of the preparation he had just gone through for the Pro Tour, as he had earned one of 24 precious berths at the World Championship to be held at PAX Prime. He obviously knew that winning the Pro Tour meant he would get to play in the tournament, since we had talked about it before the Top 8 started, but he had not yet grasped the fact that it loomed so large on the horizon.


#5 Five Times for Thommo?

Three of the people waiting for Joel Larsson were Magic Online Champion Magnus Lantto, World Magic Cup Champion Martin Müller, and Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir Champion Martin Dang, who will all be playing in the event as well and will be playtesting with Larsson, just like they did for this event—as members of Team Thommo. We have talked about a lot of the super teams throughout this season, but Team Thommo has been putting up winner after winner throughout the year. They have now had team members win the last two Pro Tours with hyper aggressive (but very different) red decks. When Magnus Lantto won the Magic Online Championship, he did so with some very innovative and effective decks in each format. Martin Müller will be one of the youngest players in the field, but he proved himself unflappable in last year's World Magic Cup, when his team managed to pull off one of the greatest comeback victories in recent memory with the timeliest of Duneblasts.

Joel Larsson

Normally we would be focused on members of Pantheon, ChannelFireball, or—more recently—Team Ultra Pro, but if you look at the mantle in the Team Thommo clubhouse, it is lined with hardware—and all of it's from this season. With them making up one sixth of the field and half the season's Pro Tour trophy winners, I am going to be leading off with them on my list of decks to check out during the early rounds of the World Championship.

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#4 Four for Four

In this current elite-field incarnation of the Magic World Championship, only one player will have appeared in all four tournaments. Yuuya Watanabe of Japan won the Player Championship in 2012. The tournament was renamed the World Championship one season later and he has been qualified for the tournament every single year since. Josh Utter-Leyton ended the season a couple of Pro Points shy of joining him in this elite club, so now only Watanabe remains.

Yuuya Watanabe, the only four-time World Championship competitor.

It is a testament to his ridiculous consistency at the highest level of the game that he continually rises to the top of the end-of-year standings. He has won Rookie of the Year, multiple Player of the Year titles, and seven Grand Prix in his career. He can also become the second player to win this tournament twice in just a couple of weeks.

When you look at this elite field and see the experience level of the players, with their various trophies and Platinum membership cards to the Pro Player's Club, you would not expect them to be at all intimidated by any other opponents. But when the field was asked if there was any player in last year's World Championship tournament that they did not want to face in a crucial situation, the name most often mentioned was Yuuya Watanabe.

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#3 Three-peat Champion?

Obviously, this is the predominant storyline going into the World Championship in Seattle. Can Israel's Shahar Shenhar win his third World Championship in three seasons? For the last two years, the now 21-year-old Shenhar has won the tournament in dream-crushing fashion. During the 2013 tournament, the storybook ending had Reid Duke winning the whole tournament after finishing dead last the year before. Duke was unstoppable throughout the event and his Boggles deck (an unexpected Green-White Auras strategy) seemed poised to help him write the final chapter. Still a teenager at the time, Shenhar was unfazed by talk of storybooks and took down the title even after falling into a two-game hole in the best-of-five finals.

Shahar Shenhar, two-time World Champion

A year later, Shahar was playing storybook spoiler once again. After winning Pro Tour Born of the Gods, Patrick Chapin explained that the Pro Tour was just his qualifier tournament for the World Championship and that was the only thing he was focused on. Chapin was able to follow through on that storyline all the way through to the finals and was on the brink of having his 20-year dream of being World Champion fulfilled—but a 20-year-old was standing in his way. Having already dispatched Yuuya Watanabe, the only other person to win this tournament, in the semifinals, Shenhar wrote his name in the history books as the first two-time World Champion in the history of the game.

Is it time for Shenhar's own storybook run in this tournament to come to an end, or will he be writing a sequel with an unprecedented third straight World Championship trophy?

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#2 Heads Up!

By advancing to the finals of Pro Tour Magic Origins, Mike Sigrist managed to squeeze past Player of the year frontrunner Eric Froehlich for not only the PoY title but also the captaincy of the US National team at the World Magic Cup later this year. Froehlich was gracious in defeat and very complimentary of Sigrist, an old-school player for whom he professes tremendous respect. It's hard to be anything but respectful considering Sigrist's season, which saw him win a pair of Grand Prix and make the Top 8 in two Pro Tours after being away from the competitive Magic spotlight for several years.

 

Mike Sigrist

Eric Froehlich, who was just elected to the Pro Tour Hall of Fame, won a GP and played in the fourth Pro Tour Top 8 of his career this season. The two players ended up ranked No. 1 and No. 2 going into the new season, and they will have a chance to jockey for that top position with their finishes at the World Championship. They are teammates on the ChannelFireball/Face2Face Games conglomerate, and will almost certainly work together to prepare—which makes any potential matchups between them more interesting.

Eric Froehlich

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#1 First Time's the Charm?

That's what half the field for the World Championship is hoping. Twelve players will be competing in this event for the first time. All four of our Pro Tour Champions (Ari Lax, Antonio del Moral León, Martin Dang, and Joel Larsson), Magic Online Champion Magnus Lantto, World Magic Cup Champion team captain Martin Müller, and Player of the Year Mike Sigrist are all first-timers in the elite-field World Championship. Joining them as first-timers are Americans Steve Rubin, Seth Manfield, and Brad Nelson, European Ondrej Strasky, and Brazil's Thiago Saporito.

I am intrigued by the American contingent of Lax, Rubin, Manfield, and Nelson, who all worked together in various permutations throughout the season as members of what would ultimately become known as Team Lux. Steve Rubin in particular stands out as someone who had a quiet Platinum season—if that is somehow possible—without any Pro Tour Top 8s, but he was mentioned repeatedly as the man behind decks that carried Ari Lax to a Pro Tour title and Seth Manfield into the Top 8 of Pro Tour Fate Reforged.

That makes two teams of four players competing in their first World Championship, including the aforementioned Team Thommo. Both teams have put up fantastic results and built great decks, and they combine to make up a third of the field. They seem poised to put a first-time competitor into the finals for what I can only assume will be a storybook gone horribly awry when they lose to Shahar Shenhar.

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July Player of the Month

It is time to help me decide who will win the Player of the Month honors for July. It was a sparse month for Grand Prix competition, with a couple of weeks getting boxed out by the Prerelease festivities for Magic Origins, and as such there are only three clear candidates: 

Italy's Claudio Bonanni won Grand Prix Lille playing Miracles in Legacy, and had to get past a Hall of Famer to claim the trophy. Bonanni faced Olivier Ruel in the finals, who was playing in the 28th Grand Prix Top 8 of his career. Bonanni was the front-runner throughout most of the tournament, and did not slow down once he got to the Top 8. 

The United States' Mike Sigrist ended the Pro Tour season the same way he started it—with a Grand Prix victory that led into a Pro Tour Top 8 finish. Sigrist's GP win in Montreal, playing his signature 40-card decks, was a big piece of what allowed him to leapfrog so many players and ultimately become the 2014-15 Player of the Year. 

Pro Tour Hall of Famer Shuhei Nakamura won a slice of history at Grand prix Dallas/Fort Worth, where he became only the third player to win seven Grand Prix titles in a career. The other two players? Hall of Famer Kai Budde and soon-to-be-eligible for the Hall of Fame Yuuya Watanabe. Nakamura drafted a solid, if not spectacular, deck in the Top 8 of the event and used it to run roughshod over his opponents. 

I need your help deciding which one of these three players will earn the title. Is it the player who defeated a Hall of Famer in the finals? How about the player who needed the win to put himself in a position to become the Player of the Year? What about the Hall of Famer who elevated himself to an elite class of players at the GP level? You can tell me who you think it should be by using the hashtag #MTGPoM and tweeting at @Top8Games or @MagicProTour with your choice for the honor.


What are you most looking forward to seeing at the World Championship? Let me know on Twitter @Top8Games. Tune in next week, when we take a deeper look at the young career of the two-time World Champion.

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