Ask the Pro: December

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Wizards of the Coast welcomes Hall of Famer Raphaël Lévy as the featured player here at "Ask the Pro." A fixture on the Pro Tour for the last eight years, Raphaël is uniquely positioned to answer your questions about the life of a professional Magic player, give a historical perspective on the game and high-level tournament scene, share stories about travelling the world, and talk about the role Magic plays in his life.

Fifth on the lifetime Pro Points list, Raphaël began his Pro Tour career back at Pro Tour-Paris in 1997. He became a regular on the tour starting at the 1998 World Championships. Since then he hasn't missed a Pro Tour, an astounding streak cresting 50 consecutive events. He was honored as a member of the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame's 2006 class and was inducted at the 2006 World Championships in Paris. He was also named the 2007 Road Warrior by a vote of Magicthegathering.com readers, earning a spot at the 2007 Magic Invitational in October.

The entry on Friday, December 21 marks the conclusion of the Ask the Pro feature for the immediate future. Thanks to Raphaël and Olivier Ruel for sharing their time, knowledge, and experiences, and we hope to be able to bring you new ways to interact with the pros in 2008.

 December 21, 2007  

Q: Looking back on 2007, what were the top moments?

A: I made it...

I just came back from Paris where the 2006 season ended. My head is full of memories: The Hall of Fame ceremony, my parents and my brother who made the trip to the capital city from Toulouse and Israel to attend my glory day, Worlds itself where I needed to finish in the top 48 to level up to Level 5, the party at the "Iron Bell," the bar that Cyril Grillon, the former French DCI manager, had kept open on Sunday evening for our private party...

The bus ride from Landvetter Airport to Park Aveny in Göteborg is a quiet show that welcomed me back to Sweden. Every time I went to or came back from the airport, I loved to sit by the window and stare at the hills and forests on my way to the city center. That always reminded me of how different Sweden was from France, how much peace I could find there.

I had been living for more than six months at Olle Råde's place while he was studying in Malmö. I had never noticed before, but on a bookshelf was standing his Hall of Fame ring, in the same box mine was handed to me. It was in all points similar to mine except for the name written on it. When it comes to connections, Magic has been for me an awesome way to meet people. Not only acquaintances, but friends and people I can count on. In Sweden, Mikael Polgary was the one who offered me shelter while I was looking for an apartment on my own. Olle Råde rented his place to me when he was away. Mattias Jorstedt was the one person who would help me anytime I was in trouble or needed to fix something.

But I had to leave soon, Olle was coming back from Malmö and I wanted to spend New Year's Eve in Toulouse. I packed most of my stuff, left some of them in Mattias's cellar with the intention to come pick them up when I find a new place in Göteborg.

I left Sweden on the 25th of December, not knowing that I would not be moving back. Ahead was Pro Tour–Geneva and I would not spend much time at home anyways, so no real rush to find a new place.

Back to Toulouse. Strange feeling to speak French again. My experience in Sweden lasted for more than a year and a half. I got used to speaking English, Swedish even. That's what I loved about it. In any situation of everyday life there is something to learn, a new word to add to your vocabulary at least. Everything was the same in France. All the things I had left because I was tired of them were still there. But it was only a question of time until I moved again, so I thought.

I was not going to stay there for long though. About four weeks later, we had a draft/ski trip scheduled with my gang (Geoffrey, Jelger, Julien, Ruud, Quentin, Florent and Maxime) in Avoriaz, only 45 minutes away from Geneva. When others decided to attend the ski trip organized by Wizards on the Thursday prior to the tournament, we had booked 10 in the French Alps to ski and draft.

A view of the Alps.

Training paid off for me, ending up 33rd at the first Pro Tour of the season. The next events scheduled were Grand Prix in Dallas, Singapore, Amsterdam, and Kyoto, on consecutive weekends. I wanted to enjoy my Level 5 status and therefore travel as much as possible during the year. A Grand Prix in the US, especially in Constructed (Extended), was not exactly the most exciting perspective. I had in mind to go if I could find a cheap deal. I badly wanted to go to Singapore, so I might have as well been prepared in Extended for both events. The journey looked tiring but that is what it takes.

History shows that going was definitely a good idea. I sure had good days in my Magic career, but it never reached that climax. Winning both Grand Prix–Dallas and Singapore was totally unreal. If you ask me again now, I still have a hard time realizing what I have accomplished, given the fact that I had not won a premier event in nine years. Olivier and Antoine travelled to both places with me, both of them joining me in the Top 8 in Singapore. Seldom was the trip back to France so cheerful. We had an awesome time in Asia, met success, and were ready to battle more.

The Singapore skyline.

I had planned to start looking for a place in Sweden. In Singapore, when I called home to tell my parents what happened, they announced me that my mom was diagnosed with a case of cancer. My take on superstition is mixed. I believe that details such as sitting on the same side of the table or wearing your favorite shirt will indeed influence the way you play the game as long as you are aware of them, as some kind of psychological allies or enemies. In this case, I am not sure what to think. Did I win because she was to be told bad news, to cheer her up a little? Was it a coincidence? I do not know. I did not have in mind to move back to Sweden anymore. I would remain in France until things get better, to show support and just to be there.

Grand Prix–Amsterdam on the week after was the most chaotic event ever held. Everyone expected me and wanted me to do well there. Unfortunately, I was tired, not exactly in the mood to play, in a format Two-Headed Giant that, like most of my peers, disliked a lot. Going to Kyoto on the week after was out of question. Too far, too expensive, too tired, in a Standard format mastered by Japanese minds on their own land.

Amsterdam was followed by an unsuccessful Grand Prix–Massachusetts where the testing for Pro Tour–Yokohama started. I never considered myself a Constructed player. I can not build a deck and am bored after 10 games of playtesting. Sometimes I have a good insight of what is good (experience, probably). This year was the year where it served me the most. I picked Julien Nujiten's mono-red deck the day prior to Yokohama. Eight years after my last Pro Tour Top 8 in Chicago, I finally posted another one of them. I blew my chance to win it all in the quarters against Tomoharu Saito. I was not as prepared for my match as I could have been. But I was happy enough...

The ferris wheel next door to the Yokohama event site.

With 34 points in May after Grand Prix–Stockholm, I had Level 5 locked for 2008. With 3 Pro Tours and potentially 9 Grand Prix left to play, I set another goal: Level 6.

The story would not be as fun to tell and to read if I had done well in the next events. Reading about someone who wins all the time is boring. It is hard to identify yourself with him, you want some drama. Believe me, I would have loved not to have to tell the story, lock Level 6 after San Diego or Valencia...

After Grand Prix–Stockholm, I felt nostalgic when I visited Mattias in Göteborg. The streets, the language, everything was so familiar. I was missing the place, but it was not the time for me to move back.

The Block Constructed season was next. Grand Prix–Strasbourg, Montréal, San Francisco, and Florence...and I collected three points in total. Why? Lack of preparation. The format was dominated by a deck I could not play—control. I have never been able to play control, and I do not think I would have posted better results with one. The aggressive decks I played in three of the four Grand Prix were just not good enough. The reanimator deck I played in Montréal given to me by one of the French Pro Tour winners was a joke, but earned me one point nonetheless. In the meantime, Wilfried Ranque and I, despite lots of practice, lost the last round of Day One in San Diego, meaning no Day Two.

To counterbalance the fact that I was going through a rough time in Time Spiral Block Constructed, you voted and chose to send me to the Invitational. That event date was in conflict with Grand Prix–Brisbane, but even though I would have done a lot to level up, there was no way I would give up my first chance to play in the Invitational.

That sealed my schedule for the end of the year. Except for Grand Prix–Florence, the summer was quiet and uneventful. From the beginning of October until the very moment I am writing these lines, there has not been a week in which I did not fly somewhere.

Even though only a few cards from Future Sight saw play in the new Extended format, one of them was enough to turn the Five-color Zoo that took me to the top twice into an obsolete deck: Tarmogoyf. My deck did not betray me twice, maybe it could save the face a third time? In flooded Valencia, my Tribal Flames were doused and Gaea might have drowned.

I was disappointed but had a lot of opportunities to catch up. I was to leave for the most amazing trip I ever undertook. A trip that saw me play the Invitational in Germany. A trip that took me to Thailand, Poland, Japan, and the U.S. for Grand Prix. More than 80 hours spent in planes, which was more than worth it. But one can not have it all. Except for my ninth-place finish in Bangkok, the other tournaments were fruitless.

Two different tropical locales: Thailand and ...

... Daytona Beach

That left me with 44 points before Worlds, needing to Top 32 to level up. Last year's challenge was to be replayed, with an increased difficulty. It would be hard. Too many players. Too little room for mistakes.

As you can imagine, I would not be writing these lines here if it did not have a happy ending.

...I made it.

Despite a bad start, despite the accumulated fatigue of the previous jaunts, I made it. Maybe here again, it had to do something with the fact that after months of recovery, my mom got scheduled extra treatments to fight her recurring illness.

The 2007 season was for me an incredible experience. I played Magic in 12 different countries. I have been to places I always wanted to visit. I played in my first Invitational. I won my third Grand Prix a week after I won the second, nine years after the first one. I reached another Pro Tour Top 8, eight years after my last Sunday appearance. I reached Pro Level 6, a privilege granted to seven players in the world for next year. But most importantly, I honored my Hall of Fame ring, which is overall my greatest pride.

It was tumultuous and exhausting, but a hell lot of fun. Trust me, I will take advantage of the opportunity that is offered to me, to travel even more, to give you more of my adventures. Next year can not possibly be as successful as this one, but that is exactly what I thought at the end of last season, so who knows...

I do not believe in fate. I believe you shape your own fate. It is all up to you to reach the goals you set in your life, give yourself the means to achieve them. There is no such thing as a difficult goal to reach; it is either possible or impossible. Flying to the moon and back in one day is impossible, turning Ponders into Ancestral Recalls is impossible. For the rest, it is always up to you. It is a way of life. It is the way I see things and probably what gives me my resolve and my strength...

This article concludes the 2007 season for me. It also concludes my Ask the Pro column, that I enjoyed writing for a year and a half now.

Thank you all for your support, and for reading! I hope you enjoyed it. But don't worry, you are not done reading about my adventures!

See you next season!


 December 13, 2007  

Q: What did you play in the Legacy portion of Worlds, and how did you do?

A: Not many of us were looking forward to playing in Legacy. Most of my testing consisted of finding decks online and discussing them with people who actually had a clue. I had in mind to play the deck that seemed the most dominant. During Day Two of Grand Prix–Kitakyushu, Masashiro Kuroda won a small Legacy tournament running Threshold. Threshold was also the deck I played in Grand Prix–Lille a few years ago and that I felt the most familiar with.

The other decks I was expecting were Goblins, any sort of combo deck (Aluren, Charbelcher, Iggy Pop), Dredge, 43-Lands, and heavy control decks (Landstill, Stax). Everyone seemed to have a plan against Threshold, but I was not buying that. The deck has answers to almost everything and no one can claim they beat a particular deck when there are so many different versions of it.

It sure has a problem winning against Dredge and 43-Lands, but it felt that it was a right choice anyway. I had in mind to play a version similar to Masashiro's until I got to talk to Patrick Chapin, who shared his list with me.

Once again, I was very satisfied with my deck choice. I managed to avoid the nightmare matchups (Dredge and 43-Lands). I did not like the idea of playing Legacy at Worlds, but I have to say that I played thrilling games every round, where there was a lot of room for crucial play decisions.

I do not think I would change anything from the main deck. I wanted to add a third Serenity in the sideboard against Enchantress and Stax, but I am not quite sure what to take out.

I needed a 3-2 record in Legacy to reach my goal and Patrick assured me that the deck could not post a negative result. He was indeed right...


 December 11, 2007  

Q: What Standard deck did you play at Worlds, and how did you do?

A: Before closing the season's chapter, and as I promised in the previous issue, I am going to give you the decklists of what I played last weekend in the Constructed portions of Worlds, along with a couple of tips.

Today's standard is very deep, open to many archetypes and new creations. Grand Prix–Krakow and States / Champs were the main sources for decklists to prepare for Worlds. Black-green Control, Black-green Elves, Red-green Mana Ramp, Blue-black Mannequin, and Sonic Boom were the popular decks.

I decided to go for Red-green Ramp as I believed a well-tuned version with an adapted sideboard would beat all of the above. The answer came from Jelger Wiegersma, who playtested along with Gabe Walls and who ended up with a version including snow lands and Skred.

After discussing the deck with others who were playing it, here is what I played in the standard portion of Worlds:

The deck has answers and weapons to fight about anything. Good answers to aggro, ways to deal with heavy countermagic arsenal thanks to a loaded sideboard, and enough threats that are hard to deal with for decks like green-black Control. The only really bad matchup I had to face was the red Dragonstorm deck against which I had absolutely no chance. My fourth-round loss was a mirror match.

If I had to make a few changes to the deck I played, I would probably cut some of the Spectral Forces from the sideboard (but keep some for the red snow matchup), for ways to deal with the red Storm deck, like land destruction. The Spectral Forces were surprisingly very disappointing in the matchups they were supposed to be good in: mirror and aggro. The main problem was that red-green Aggro was running four copies of Threaten and being hit once by you own Spectral Force usually means game. In the mirror, they ended up being too slow. Most red-green Ramp decks played Wall of Roots, and could save a turn by just chump blocking. A five-mana creature that hits for 3 in three turns is not exactly what you expect from a deadly sideboard card.

I posted a 3-2 record in Standard and was satisfied with my deck choice...


 December 8, 2007  

Q: Worlds was your last chance to get Pro Points for the year. How'd it turn out?

A: It's Saturday morning and I am writing these lines from the hotel lobby. I woke up an hour ago and am just realizing what just happened...

The last few months have been quite hectic; travelling all over the world with the lone purpose in mind of collecting the precious Pro Points. In the beginning, my goal seemed to be hard to miss: 9 points in four GPs and Worlds. Given that Worlds would give 2 just for attending, I needed 7 extra points. It seemed even easier when I finished 9th in Bangkok and got 3 points there.

I was up 5-0 in Krakow, and from there, things started to go downhill. I lost three rounds in a row and did not make Day Two. At 5-2 in Kitakyushu, I was paired against Olivier who beat me and I missed Day Two again. In Daytona Beach, I opened what appeared to be one of the worst sealed decks I ever got to see and did not manage to win a match. Coming into Worlds, I was still missing 6 points, which meant I had to make top 32.

Sixteen rounds, 380-plus players. It was mission impossible. I did not even want to play Worlds. I was disappointed about my previous results and could not see my bad run end. In my mind, I had missed the opportunity to make Level 6 and I would just play to try to end my bad streak. No expectations at all, I would just play for the game and try to save the day.

I started off quite well, winning three in a row; and the hope came back ... a hope shattered when I lost the next three rounds. I would need to win eight of the next ten rounds. Given the fact that I did not win eight rounds in the last three tournaments combined ... yeah, you get the point.

But when you're the main character of a story you are writing, miracles happen. That is how the good guys always beat the bad guys in movies, right? They use an incredible turn of event to their advantage and save the world.

I did not exactly save the world, but what happened next is still hard to believe. After losing my first round of draft, holding a very mediocre deck, I pulled out two wins. My second draft deck was a lot better and I managed to 3-0 that draft.

I knew which deck I wanted to play in Legacy, but had not tested enough to end up with an optimized version. Luckily enough, I dispatched my Round 10 opponent quite fast to be able to have some time to think about the deck I was going to play. Gabriel Nassif was around and advised me to talk to Pat Chapin, who had what he claimed to be the best version of Threshold (the deck I wanted to play). I collected all the cards to build his version, asked Pat for some sideboard advice, won my last round of draft and was ready to battle in Legacy.

The deck was great and I won the two first rounds of Legacy. Seven wins in a row... one win away from Level 6, and two from Top 8! My heart started to beat so hard, I was restless, walking around, trying to catch my breath. My streak ended in round 14 against Roel Van Heeswijk, who eventually made Top 8. I would play against new Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz to try to keep my dream alive.

In a grueling feature match, I defeated the last person on my way to Level 6. At that point, I could not make Top 8 even with a last-round win. It was a 1 in 100 chance that I would miss the cut with a loss in the last round. I offered a draw to Yujian Zhou, who knew how much it would mean to me to secure a place in the top 32. He finished 22nd and I ended up 15th ...

I made it... I MADE IT!!!!

Just like last year when I reached Level 5 in a dramatic way, this year's drama was even more breathtaking ...

Stay tuned next week, I will give you the lists I played along with some tips. For a longer and more elaborated version of the above story, check out the front page in the near future...


 December 6, 2007  

Q: I have final exams and next week I will go to my first Worlds, so I am a little stressed now. How do you (or I think it should be...did you) handle exams when you have to test for an important tournament? Merci beaucoup.
-xtian

A: Hello Xtian,

Back when I was in high school and university, exams were an issue. But you have to set priorities, and usually, exams should be your top priorities. When time is running out, and you have to make a choice, study or playtest, pick the safe one. And it often means study. I know, it's boring but think about it this way:

  • If you fail your exam, you will probably have to write it another time...
  • If you do not do very well at a Pro Tour... then no real big deal?
  • I sometimes had to pass on the playtesting to focus more on my exams during my university years (no wonder why I was not doing so well back then!), but I do not regret it. Having a backup degree is important for me (having a degree in general is important!). You should figure out how to schedule your study/playtest time with a bit of distance. How much time do you need to study? Why wouldn't you use your rest time to playtest? Will you regret to have spent too much time playtesting if you fail your exam?

    The real problem comes when the dates of an exam and of a Pro Tour are in conflict. At my university–and in most universities, I think—the only reasons you could postpone an exam is that:

  • Someone died in your family
  • You are being hospitalized
  • You are attending a high-level sport competition
  • The Magic Pro Tour did sound like a high-level sport competition. I gathered all the papers talking about the Pro Tour, all the articles about me in the papers and showed them to university. They thought it was a reason good enough to let me go, and so they did... And I never really had to worry about that afterwards. Maybe that could work for you too!


     December 4, 2007  

    Q: Do you have a girlfriend? If you have a non-Magic-playing girlfriend, would you teach her how to play? Would you bring her to tournaments?
    - Alex

    A: Hello Alex,

    As I explained in a previous answer, when girls play Magic, they usually have a different approach of the game. They play for fun, for 10 or 15 minutes (basically the duration of a game) and want to move on. I have rarely seen a girl being interested enough in the game to actually playtest, go to tournaments, draft...and personally, that is not something I want to share with the girl I am with. I play Magic, sure, because I like the game, but even more because I like the competition, the tournaments or drafting with my buddies.

    I did teach the game a few times to some of my girlfriends, to show them what it was about, but have never played an actual game for fun or because they wanted to play. Some of them showed up at tournaments to check them out, or just to pick me up when I was done with my rounds.

    Bringing your girlfriend to a tournament can be a liability. It is sure nice to travel around with your other half, but it also means that you will have to leave her behind when you have to play. Magic is not exactly exciting to watch, especially when you do not understand what is going on. When you are playing an important game, you want to be able to focus as much as you can, and having to worry about your girlfriend, if she is bored or just doing alright, can affect your thinking.

    As for the first part of the question, I am not discussing details of my more private life in here, so I will have to leave it unanswered!


     December 1, 2007  

    Q: I was wondering if you think the Pro Players Club/Pro Tour format as is would benefit from any changes. Obviously everyone would like prize money to increase when and if possible, but do you think any restructuring should be done given the current payout? More/less Pro Tours each year? More/less Grand Prix? Maybe a Level 7 for the Club?
    -Doron Blake

    A: Hello Doron,

    This is the way I would see the perfect Pro Tour:

  • More money/less players
  • The Pro Tour has reached records in attendance this season. That means the money is spread among more players, and it is harder to make a living out of it (as the same amount of money is given out to more players).

    The tournaments in general do not have enough rounds, and this is also due to the increasing number of players in the Pro Tours. A single win in a tournament with a big number of players is worth too much. For example, an 11-3 performance in a Grand Prix can take mean Top 8, while 10-4 is only top 32 (with all the 11-3s with bad tie-breakers and 11-3-1s occupying the top 16).

    Maybe set up a buy-in system at Pro Tours, that would make the prize pool much bigger, the circuit more attractive to everyone.

    And of course, more money injected to the Pro Tours and Grand Prix would be appreciable!

  • A better coordination between regions
  • We have seen this year conflicting event dates. GPs played at the same time in different part of the world, the Invitational played at the same time as Grand Prix–Brisbane. A better coordination would make the Pro Tour look more organized and clean, clearly showing that Magic can be played at Pro Level.

    The number of events this season was the right one. It is too bad, however, that we have had a very quiet spring/summer, while we had to attend five events on a different continent each time at the end of the season.

    About a Level 7, that could be a good idea. It does not have to be something "reachable," but something that just exists and that players could chase. It could mean trips and hotels paid for GPs and extra attendance fees, only if you reach... let's say... 70 or 75 Pro Points in the season. One or two players might reach it sometimes, but it would make the point chasing a lot more exciting.


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