he English National Championships is coming up fairly swiftly and its time to look at the runners and riders who might make a splash at this year's tournament. With a few of the more familiar names absent through a variety of reasons this year's Nationals marks a good opportunity for up and coming players to make a name for themselves.
So without much further ado let's list some of the names that might be expected to put in a strong performance.
First off we'll start with last year's National Team:
The 2005 English National Team
The current English National Champion. Rich Moore was one of the next generation of good young players to crop up out of the south. He showed some of his promise with a 10th place finish at Grand Prix Birmingham 2004 and followed it up by taking the English title at last years National Championships.
Moore has a fairly laid-back approach to the game and is usually easily recognisable if he's still sporting a mini-Gandalf beard. His chances this year may depend upon how highly motivated he is to put the work in.
Sam Gomersall at 2004 PT San Diego
For a long time Sam Gomersall was the only recognised English Pro. A while back he and a crew of London players formed the only real competition to the then dominant "Palace team". He then went on to exemplify the Pro player lifestyle by attending virtually every Grand Prix he could get to. This practise paid off and he was invited to the 2005 Invitational on the basis of being the most "feared draft opponent on the planet."
Gomersall's main strength is in the Limited format and he's probably the best draft player in England at the moment. He currently has the most life time Pro Points of any English player (with the exception of the Finnish born Tomi Wallamies), but only has one title, winner of GP Hasselt 2006, to his name. He has represented England on the National team twice before: last year and once before in 2002.
Currently Gomersall spends most of his time practising with the top American Pros out in the States. At one point there were doubts as to whether he'd be able to fly back in time for the Nationals. This now looks to be resolved and you can almost certainly expect to see his name somewhere near the top of the standings over the weekend.
Mark Knight was the relative unknown who made the finals last year. He justified his position on the national team with a creditable 120th place finish, highest of the three, at last years World Championships in Yokohama. He then went on to qualify for Pro Tour Honolulu.
Werner Cloete was also a member of a National team last year, but it was the South African one. While the buzz last year was over the Japanese Ghazi-Glare deck, the South Africans unleashed a solid red-blue Tron deck on the World that catapulted Cloete into second place after the end of day one.
Cloete since moved to London and this year will get to battle it out for the title of English National Champion.
The New Wave of English Pro Players
2006 has been a good year for English Magic. The first half of the year has seen two Pro Tour top 8's, two Grand Prix titles and multiple Grand Prix top 8's.
Perversely, at the head of the new wave is a name from English Magic's past. Craig Jones became the first, and for a long time the only, English player to win a Grand Prix after taking the title in Birmingham 1998. However he failed to follow up on this early promise and posted a disappointing string of finishes on the Pro Tour. For a while he pulled away from the top level of the game and became more well known as the coverage writer for most of the European Grand Prix.
In the last couple of years Jones has returned to the Pro Tour with a vengeance. Last year he posted a top 16 at PT Philadelphia and a top 32 at PT Los Angeles. At the start of this year he finally broke through with a second place finish at PT Honolulu, including perhaps one of the most thrilling matches of Magic in history when he drew a Lightning Helix off the top of his library to take the fifth and deciding game against Olivier Ruel in the Semi-finals.
Jones has made the national team twice before as third place finisher in 1999 and 2001. Primarily a Constructed specialist, is rumoured to have improved his Limited game recently. Is strongly tipped to do well this year.
While Jones has been posting strong finishes at Constructed events, Quentin Martin has been proving himself at the limited events and putting forward a strong challenge to Gomersall as the best English limited player.
2006 has been very good so far for Martin. After two quarter-finals on the Grand Prix circuit, he then went on to make the Quarter-finals of Pro Tour Prague and then went one better with a semi-final finish out in Kuala Lumpur.
Unfortunately Martin is currently spending a few months travelling in Asia after graduating from university. It is uncertain whether he will be able to make it back. Should he make an appearance expect him to do well.
Stuart Wright at 2003 PT New Orleans
Stuart Wright is the engine behind a lot of recent English success on the Pro Tour. Another Constructed specialist he is currently reckoned to be one of the best deck builders on the planet. His breakout finish on the Pro Tour nearly came in PT New Orleans 2003 where he was leading the field up until the last few rounds. Since then he has posted a series of solid finishes on the Pro Tour and was the highest finishing English player at last year's World Championships.
While question marks hang over his Limited abilities, he is almost certainly likely to have one of the best tuned Constructed decks at this year's tournament. Another top pick.
Martin Dingler joins Sam Gomersall and Craig Jones as one of the select few Englishmen to ever win a major Magic title. He typified the English Renaissance by following on from Gomersall's success in Hasselt to win Grand Prix Cardiff. Around that period he seemed unbeatable with both Regional Championship and Pro Tour Qualifier success.
Since then he has found further success at Grand Prix and Pro Tour level hard to find, but the experience he's gained in playing at some of the top International events will give him a significant edge over the majority of the field at this years Nationals.
The Dark Horses
Here are a few other names that might be worth keeping an eye on:
The Great White Hype himself. It is an annual tradition that Dave Grant announces himself as the future winner whenever Nationals predictions are bandied around the internet a few months before the event.
Grant made the National team back in 2002 and is no stranger to playing at the Pro Tour level. Recently he joined Sam Gomersall as part of the infamous Beach House for Pro Tour Honolulu. Who knows, this year he could make good on his claims.
The perennial dark horse, Chris Clapton has quietly been one of the stronger presences on the PTQ circuit and a consistent day two finisher at any Grand Prix on British soil. Work commitments keep him from going to as many tournaments as he used to, but has been rumoured to be putting in a lot of effort for this event.
As another solid deck builder he is likely to have an edge at Constructed and is also a fairly solid drafter on top. He played on the National team in 2003.
Currently the editor of online strategy guide Starcitygames.com, Craig Stevenson lives, breathes and eats Magic. It took a while for him to earn respect as a player when Team Leeds were still an unknown quantity, but with a GP top 8 and money finishes there is no denying Stevenson has talent. Couple this with his access to the best information in Magic and Stevenson will probably mount a strong challenge this year.
Dan Paskins is one of the few surviving members of the Palace crowd. Most of the old guard are unable to make it for the Nationals. Famed as one of the best writers about the game, expect Paskins to be there and turning little red men sideways.
The Regionals Winners
And finally it's time to look at the guys who battled their way through the Regionals to make it to Nationals. Most of these guys might not be well known, but they've already proved themselves to be the best in their area. Maybe from here they can take that step up and prove they're the best in their country.
Daniel Boundary - won possibly the largest regional in London.
Ben Jackson - Kent winner, another large Regional.
Amar Dattani - Durham winner.
Noel Bresland - Bradford winner. Bresland also competed in Honolulu earlier this year and has possibly one of the most impressive collections of magic cards tucked away in a safety deposit box.
Andrew Leeder - Doncaster winner.
Mathew Norton - High Wycombe winner.
Julian Parker - Nottingham winner.
Simon Copp - St. Austell winner.
Paul Watson - Manchester winner.
Steve Shilcock - Bristol winner.
Jason Keen - Plymouth winner.
Andrew Clayton - Stafford winner. More an aficionado of the older formats, but took his regional with an unexpectedly solid green-white-blue control deck.
Michael Bungey - Peterborough winner.
Stephen Williams - Colchester winner.
Lee Garner - Birmingham winner. Has some Pro Tour experience, but that was a while back.