Saturday, Mar 10: 9:58 a.m. - Let's Just Hope That We Make Day 1
From the outset it was obvious that Grand Prix Amsterdam was going to be special. Amsterdam was the site of the very first Grand Prix 10 years ago, and in 2007, things were all laid out for a Two-Headed Giant party.
It's nothing new for tournament venues to be open the day before a GP, but given the auspicious occasion, there were a few additional treats laid on for players and coverage reporters alike. As the players filed in two by two, they were met by a flood of music from the resident DJ, who tirelessly laid down an incredible soundtrack to the evening.
To one side of the room was a throng of players surrounding the gunslinging tables. Where normally there are 3 or 4 Magic luminaries to play against at most European GPs, for this night there was a huge cast of former GP winners, battling players in sealed deck - with prizes of raffle tickets to win boosters which would have been considered old and valuable back when the very first GP Amsterdam was held a decade ago. From 'local' pros like Julien Nujiten and Wessel Oomens to those from slightly further afield like Kenji Tsumura and Shuuhei Nakamura, there was plenty of top level talent against whom to play.
Elsewhere on the site Brian David-Marshall hosted the first Magic talk show in front of a live audience, where various Pros gave their thoughts on the format, their experiences with the GP circuit, and the pro lifestyle.
This lifestyle, for one evening only, included drinks and dancing girls at the venue itself. Members of the Pro Players Club, and anyone else playing at this GP could be forgiven for feeling that they were out clubbing, as they kicked back in little 'cocoons', Magic themed-cocktail in hand and watched the show in front of them unfold.
Saturday, Mar 10: 11:42 a.m. - How Fortunate!
Last night at around midnight, the GP Amsterdam party was in full swing. Upstairs there were a bunch of pros practising their Two-Headed Giant drafting. Pierre Canali and his teammate Wilfred Ranque were merrily building their decks for a match against Tiago Chan's team, in a pretty powerful draft which also included Geoffrey Siron and Raphael Levy.
As it turns out, Canali and Ranque didn't fair too well in the draft. This didn't matter though. Downstairs the prize draw was in full swing, where GP participants could win anything from a bag or print to a Beta or Arabian Nights booster. Karma was pretty quick in getting back to Ranque after his team lost to a bevy of slivers. His name was called out, and shortly later, he was the proud owner of one of the most tempting boosters in Magic history - one of just 20 Beta boosters given out.
Will Wilfred crack it? His response 'I guess I'll see how I do this weekend before I make up my mind'
Saturday, Mar 10: 1:22 p.m. - Round 1: Yippee Kai Yeah! vs. Phoenix Lost and Foundation - (Nick Kruithof + Barry Jeaqx) vs. (Dirk Baberowski + Marco Blume)
Marco Blume won the die roll. Don't call it a comeback.
Phoenix Lost and Foundation
Blume seemed pretty disheartened when he heard that Dirk would be able to overrule him on any decision for the tournament, but regained his composure a little when he learned that every time they won the roll, and chose to play, he'd get to draw on the first turn. Must be nice to be on the B team.
Neither team mulliganned to the point that they actually lost any cards from doing so, and the game was on. Early on it was all just about mana development, with Yippee Kai Yeah playing Chromatic Star and Vesuva (copying Dirk's Molten Slagheap) to fix things, while Marco had an Evolution Charm to get green, white and blue mana up by the third turn.
The first creatures were a morph from Marco, and a Prodigal Pyromancer from Nick, each of which was soon trumped by Plague Sliver from Dirk. With 30 life rather than 40 to begin in the format, creatures like this could now legitimately beat down. The clock was turned around though thanks to a Utopia Vow on the sliver, and some swings from a Negator Totem and a hasty Uktabi Drake. The Foundation was down a man for this tournament, and down on life 22 to 28.
Subterranean Shambler and Cockatrice came down for the Germans, who were also now facing a suspended Veiling Oddity from the other side of the table. This gave them a little more defence, but would not stop the bleeding from Plague Sliver. A few quick swings, and a Basalt Gargoyle joined the team, but nothing was stopping the attacks from the other side of the board, with Veiling Oddity allowing an unblockable 7 points to get through, after Shaper Parasite finished off Uktabi Drake.
Phoenix Lost and Foundation dropped to 12 on their upkeep, and surveyed the board. Marco had a big kicked Pouncing Wurm, and attacked Yippee Kai Yeah down to 16, while Dirk played a Saltfield Recluse, and stayed back on defence. Nick had a Lightning Axe for Cockatrice, and a Meloncholy for Pouncing Wurm, along with Synchronous Sliver but there were no attacks for the Dutch side.
As the Germans built their board with Citanul Woodreaders and Thallid Shell-Dweller, it began to appear that the Synchronous Sliver might have been a mistake. Suddenly both teams were taking 1 each upkeep, and only one had a flyer with which to attack. The life totals were 12 to 11, and in spite of this Yippee Kai Yeah played a Poultice Sliver.
Yippee Kai Yeah
Yippee Kai Yeah went down to 9 in their upkeep thanks to Plague Sliver, and in all the excitement forgot to play the upkeep on Meloncholy. They did have a StingScourger aimed at Basalt Gargoyle, but Marco had a Spell Burst and enough mana to buy it back. All of a sudden the Germans looked in complete control.
Negator Totem ran in, in what looked like a desperation swing from Yippee Kai Yeah! It was blocked by Thallid Shell-Dweller, and Saltfield Recluse made its attack a little lower. Brute Force was tried, but hit the Spell Burst, meaning that ultimately the attack bounced.
In upkeep the life totals went to 9 each, and another Gargoyle swing took the Germans into the lead. At this point, Marco dropped his bomb - Verdeloth the Ancient, along with 4 Saprolings. Suddenly, the clock on the Dutchies looked very short indeed. They swung with everyone, and were met by a mountain of blocks. Negator Totem was ganged up on by Verdeloth and his Saprolings, along with Thallid Shell-Dweller. After a little thought, the Dutchies scooped it up.
Dirk Baberowski and Marco Blume win!
Saturday, Mar 10: 1:51 p.m. - Name and Shame
One point that's been a little unusual for this tournament over other team events is that for the first time, players' team name is simply the combination of the players' names. From a coverage perspective, this is just a tiny bit boring.
As such over the course of the weekend, BDM and I will be playing a little game. Any team that is given a feature match is duty bound to come up with a team name, which they will be referred to in the coverage. If they can't do it, then they will face the wrath of the collective creative powers of the coverage team. Now, this didn't work out too badly for round one returning legends Dirk Baberowski and Marco Blume. Everyone's pretty happy at around lunchtime during the first round, and Dirk and Marco got the name Phoenix Lost and Foundation as a consequence. We can't guarantee that around round 8, which might well be in the early hours of the morning, things won't get a little snarky.
At some point in the day some team or other is going to be called Bastien's Trousers. Whether they like it or not.
Saturday, Mar 10: 3:43 p.m. - Round 2: Shake 'N' Bake vs. Better Drunk than Stoned - Jeroen Remie & Victor Van den Broek vs. Alexey Rakogon & Vladimir Emyshev
Shake 'N' Bake
For the second round, Jeroen Remie and Dutch old schooler Victor Van den Broek were in after having only a single bye. They might be playing more combined lands than any other team in today's competition. Between their two decks they have sufficient bombs that they simply don't want to get mana screwed - leading to 18 being in one deck, and a whopping 19 in the other. Of course, if you are running that many land you like to have something to do in case of mana flood. Fortunately for Victor and Jeroen, Disintegrate and Squall Line respectively fill that role just fine.
As the Russian team each took their 'free' mulligan, Jeroen smiled and shook his head.
'The first one's always free… that's how they get you'
Remie was not going to get got this round - as only Victor of the Shake N Bakers had to mulligan.
On the play, Better Drunk had the first monster, in the form of Looter il-Kor, which was quickly dealt with by Disintegrate from Van den Broek. In a format all about card advantage, the Dutch team seemed satisfied to use one of their bombs early to lessen the chance of their opponents drawing one. As it happened though, Vladimir already had one in hand though, in the form of a turn 3 suspend on Deep Sea Kraken. Meanwhile , Remie was working on a slower path to victory, with the powerful Essence Warden, and Saltfield Recluse. The warden died to Cradle to Grave in response to the Recluse, to stop the Dutch pair from gaining the life and time their decks wanted to get going with.
With Deep Sea Kraken rapidly approaching play, Victor and Jeroen had a little think before making plays for their turn. They eventually settled on Spiketail Drakeling and Amrou Scout, taking the Kraken down to 2 counters, and had no responses to a Crookclaw Transmuter that came in at the end of turn. The Russian pair played a Dreamscape Artist, suspended a Phthisis, and passed.
The Dutch team had the perfect answer to both Deep Sea Kraken, and the Flickering Spirit that had come into play on the other side of the board a turn or two earlier. Sudden Shock effectively killed both, by removing the Kraken's last counter when spells could not be put on the stack, and simply killing the spirit before it could flicker. Attacks did the first damage of the game, taking Better Drunk down to 28, and trading Remie's Scout for the Transmuter, making the board relatively clear.
Dreamscape Artist did his thing, effectively thinning Vladimir's deck, which was straight Red/Blue. Emyshev then followed with a morph, which was responded to by a Think Twice from Victor. Spiketail Drakeling then countered the morph, which was revealed to be Slipstream Serpent. Malach of the Dawn came out for Alexey, and it was over to the Dutchies.
Remie had a Nantuko Shaman unsuspend to draw a card, and rushed in with it, in spite of there being a few reasonable blockers for the 3/2. Malach of the Dawn blocked, and was made to pay with a Thrill of the Hunt. Victor then played a second Spiketail Drakeling and passed. Dread Return brought back the flyer, but there was no further play for Better Drunk, who were sitting back with more or less just Phthisis as their game. The Dutchies, confident in their late-game, had little to do themselves.
At the end of turn Dreamscape Artist again fetched lands into play. They followed up with Merfolk Thaumaturgist and passed.
Jeroen played a Citanul Woodreaders with kicker, drawing his third extra card of the game (after his Nanutko Shaman). Remie had been clear in articles about the format that he believed it all to be about card advantage, and this was certainly backed up by the way that his deck was put together.
Saltfield Recluse died to a Dark Withering, and finally Better Drunk had a reasonable attack, if only with their planeshifted Pirate Ship. It's power and toughness were switched by the Thaumaturgist, and it got in for 4. Torchling was then the play for the Russians, which successfully got through the Spiketail Drakeling of Van den Broek, though at the expense of tapping out Vladimir, which left his bomb momentarily vulnerable.
Better Drunk than Stoned
One moment was all it took. A Sulfurous Blast took out more or less the entire board, with the exception of Nantuko Shaman, who was saved by Thrill of the Hunt, and Remie's Outrider en-Kor, who redirected the damage elsewhere. All the Russians had was their Ghost Ship.
A second Citanul Woodreaders kept Remie's hand full, and Holland's own Captain America looked pretty pleased with the board, even with Malach hitting him, and a Tolarian Sentinel comin out to face the Shake 'N' Bakers down. He suspended a Nantuko Shaman, while Victor made a mystery morph. A mystery Akroma morph. Grin grin.
The mystery did not last long, as Malach of Dawn swung into the 6/6 legend. It could regenerate, but there was going to be a big swing on the rebound. The life totals were close - 14 to 13 in the Runssians' favour - but this wasn't to last. Akroma came in and took the Dutchies ahead.
Jeroen then grinned large… he tapped all his lands and played a Squall Line for enough.
'Hurricane with Double Strike does it again!!!'
Jeroen Remie and Victor win the match!
Saturday, Mar 10: 4:19 p.m. - No, Bigger Than That!
"It was big. Really, really, big. No, bigger than that. It was big!" said Arna Kennerüd, Skynight. She was referring to Polar Kraken but she could just as easily been referring to Grand Prix Amsterdam in either a literal or metaphoric sense.
This is a historic weekend. Not only is it the tenth anniversary celebration of the very first Grand Prix in Magic history but it is the first ever Two-Headed Giant Grand Prix kicking off the Pro Tour San Diego qualifying season. On top of that it is the fourth largest Grand Prix in history and the largest team event in the history of Magic - Magic history not just Grand Prix history.
It is not even close… Grand Prix Amsterdam is the largest team event in the history of Magic by a wide enough margin that it featured more teams than total players in the next largest team event. Grand Prix New Jersey held the mark previous with 201 teams - which tallied up to 603 players under the old team format. Despite the fact that the team rosters for this event have been cut to two-thirds the size of three-player teams Amsterdam still featured more than double the number of players as any previous team event - 1332 players on an auspicious 666 teams.
It is only fitting that Amsterdam was the site of the first Two-Headed Giant Grand Prix as it has hosted any number of firsts over the years. Ten years ago - actually nine years and fifty weeks ago as of this writing - Amsterdam was the site of the very first Grand Prix ever held. Surprisingly a handful of players from that event - including third place finisher Wessel Oomens - were playing in this event a decade later.
I am here this weekend to provide a slightly different angle to the coverage. Rather than doing traditional round by round reporting I will be floating about the convention center and looking back at ten years of Grand Prix memories with many of the players and tournament personnel on hand - including over twenty past winners of European Grand Prix tournaments.
Of course…I really like the Two-Headed Giant format so I will probably sneak into the feature match area from time to time as well.
Saturday, Mar 10: 5:22 p.m. - Felix's Bag of Tricks
Felix Huybrechts is the Senior Organized Play Manager for Europe and has been working for Wizards of the Coast for ten years. I could think of no better person to interview about the tenth anniversary Grand Prix tournament considering he has not only been to almost every European GP tournament but has had a hand in running them right from the start.
"I started two weeks after Grand Prix Amsterdam," recalled Felix. "I wanted to go to that first one but I could not. My first assignment - I started as an event manager running GPs - was Grand Prix Barcelona in May of 1997 like six weeks later."
Back in the early days of the European Grand Prix scene there was an effort to have the events housed in historically significant venues such as charming villas, ancient castles, and in Barcelona - a city that is synonymous with architect Antoni Gaudí - a house designed by the famous architect.
"It was in a beautiful house designed by Gaudí with very expensive stuff inside," laughed Felix as he remembered the fear of running his first tournament. "We were scared like hell having 300 Magic players in there possibly damaging the house. If you see the house it is like a museum. It turned out quite well with just some scratches on the wall and stuff."
There were only 250 players in that event - making such boutique venues a possibility - but back then the young tournament manager was overwhelmed by the idea of 250 players all in one place. How could he have possibly imagined that one day there would more than six times that number of players in Paris or five times that number this weekend in Amsterdam?
I have been to exactly two European Grand Prix in my long and varied assortment of Magic careers. The first was in Cannes and involved a boat ride to a castle that was the inspiration for The Man in the Iron Mask and the second was this already overwhelming weekend. Between those two events and reading about the intervening ones over the years one thing is very clear to me - European Grand Prix are not quite like Grand Prix events anywhere else in the world.
"We started very early on to really market the events with promotions so that it was not only the event but the added value of the promotions and the side events and the artists and it is clear that is not just a big PTQ," Felix explained. "It took a while but we have built it up like that from the beginning. The big difference is that we run it ourselves and don't outsource it. We try to go for a good location in an attractive city - that is important. We focus on side events, two or three artists, and we do a raffle."
This weekend was a special one and Felix and company turned up the heat on the added value. Last night was a full-blown party complete with go-go dancers, magical cocktails (most definitely NOT mocktails) and a raffle that had everyone's attention. In addition to the usual assortment of prints, bags, and other swag 10 happy players walked away with Arabian Nights booster packs while another 20 walked away with Beta boosters.
Felix could not help but to look back on his Grand Prix experiences and fondly recall those times of crisis that were the mother of many inventions. Emergencies that ranged from being asked to leave a venue by the local constabulary before the event is over, simply not having and ample supply of seats to fulfill unanticipated demand, to having all a tournament's supplies seized by customs on the way to Grand Prix Moscow and being told that the only way to have them released was to pay $25,000 - in cash.
There was no way that Felix was prepared to pay that price but despite the fact that they only had two laptops, some paper, some pens, and nothing else they vowed to run the event anyway.
Moscow is a city of opportunities," grinned the savvy TO. "Everything can be done in Moscow but you have to pay for it. So we spent some money - but not $25,000 - on printing banners, buying tablecloths, printing table numbers. Overnight -- in like six hours -- we were able to get all the basic materials to run the whole show. The next time we go to Moscow we are not going to bring anything."
"The first big one was in Portugal with 700 players and that was scary but in Paris I was really terrified," Felix continued as he took me back to that fateful 1500 player weekend. "We really stole every chair in that building. We went into every administrative office in that building and stole everything. It is terrifying but when it works well it is so exciting to see so many Magic players coming together at one time in one place."
Felix knew things were on the right path when players from other parts of the world first began attending Grand Prix in Europe.
"An important moment for us was in 1998 when the American players like Steve O'Mahoney-Schwartz and Jon Finkel started coming. I think Steve won Madrid that year. It was clear that they were exciting players, better than all the local players at the time."
Felix recalled that was one event where his machinations did not quite work out according to plan. The hall the event was being played in was right next to a theater. Rather than have all the people traipsing through the hall to get to the theater Felix bought all the tickets - intending to keep the theater empty and the stage dark.
"I thought I was smart," he laughed, still shaking his head at the memory. "The performance was scheduled for 8pm but at 10pm I saw people start coming through our hall. Apparently they sold me the tickets but just postponed the performance until 10. All the chic people from Madrid with their fur coats had to walk through the Magic tournament to get to their posh theater performance."
In his ten years of European Grand Prix Felix had had the opportunity to watch all of the game's biggest and brightest stars - needing one name only - Kai, Jon, Bob, Gabe, and now Kenji play. In his opinion which was the best player of the bunch?
"Kai Budde for sure," he answered without a moment's hesitation. He had a season where he won half of the GPs and we knew that if he made the Top 8 he was going to win - most of the times we were right. You could see the other players in the Top 8 shrinking from him. He always seemed so concentrated, so focused, so Zen - even when events took fourteen hours - and he let nothing affect him."
"Kai was here ten years ago as well in Amsterdam and he made money," Felix concluded with a nod to where Kai Budde and Jelger Wiegersma were preparing to play. "He was here right from the beginning."
Saturday, Mar 10: 7:07 p.m. - Round 3 - Level 12 vs. The Massage - Shouta Yasooka & Tomahiro Saito vs Aaron Brackmann & Rosario Maij
In the team system, the maximum number of byes that any team can have at Grand Prixs is two, and as such in round 3 all of a sudden the field is replete with Pros. Few could claim to have a higher Pro standing than Shouta Yasooka and Tomahiro Saito, two of the Japanese Pros currently on an incredible journey around the world playing in GPs. Technically either one of them would have had two byes if they had shown up individually. As it is, their Pro Point cup runneth over.
Aaron won the roll for his team, and elected to play, but quickly had to mulligan his opening grip. His second looked good though, so ultimately there was no loss of cards for The Massage (which is apparently like 'The Message' only a little more relaxing).
Both Saito and Yasooka eagerly started shuffling for a mulligan as soon as they had the opportunity to. It was only a single mulligan each though, and the game began with each player holding seven.
Yasooka had a turn out suspended Ancestral Visions to kick things off, while Maij went the beatdown route - playing a Mire Boa that at least initially would not be able to swampwalk. For turn two it was Saito that was looking for card advantage, with a Magus of the Library, who was accompanied by a Dreamscape Artist from Shouta.
On turn three, Shouta played a Swamp, and passed responding to an Evolution Charm from Maij to use his Dreamscape Artist, and then Piracy Charm his opponent's snake. The Massage rebuilt with a Herd Gnarr and Malach of the Dawn. Herd Gnarr is one of a number of green Time Spiral commons that jump in value in Two Headed Giant, simply due to the fact that it's ability can realistically trigger that many more times in a single turn.
For the Japanese turn, Saito led with a Utopia Vow on his teammate's Dreamscape Artist. This allowed for a well accelerated Haunting Hymn, which stripped all but one cards from Maij's hand. These were a Forest, Citanul Woodreaders, Urborg Syphon-Mage and Jedit Ojanen of Efrava - quite a spicy collection for the format. While Japan's card advantage plan was working large for them, they quickly dropped to 22 on attacks, and at some point would have to start looking to committing cards to the board. The first beater they supplied was Viscid Lemures, but beyond that they were not about the creatures. They had a different plan in the form of Pyrohemia - widely regarded as the single most powerful bomb in a format with more than it's fair share of bombs.
With 3 Mountains in play, Saito would be able to cause considerable damage to both creatures and life totals alike with the powerful planeshifted Pestilence. Viscid Lemures died in short order to Strangling Soot, and the Japanese dropped to 16 on further attacks. The plan from Brackmann and Maij was to power through before the Pyrohemia could matter. They had Walk the Aeons to make the most of the empty board opposite from them, and attacked their opponents down to just eight after Maij dropped a Magus of the Coffers to pump Herd Gnarr. Thanks to the Walk the Aeons, suddenly Level 12 were drawing pretty thin, in spite of having played the card advantage game impeccably. The difference between a 30 life format and a 40 life one could never have seemed huger. Even if Saito had a Mountain, he could not use Pyrohemia like Wrath of God at this point, as it would finish off his team in the process. Instead, Saito played Durkwood Baloth, while a Faceless Butcher from Yasooka removed Malach of the Dawn from the game. A flashed back Strangling Soot dealt with the nightmare, while Saltblast killed the Baloth. This left the way clear for big swings from Herd Gnarr, Magus and Pallid Mycoderm, who had been swinging for some time.
If there was a trick from Level 12 it would have to be now. Shouta's trick was a Tendrils of Corruption to kill the Magus of the Coffers, keeping his team at a precarious 6 life.
Ovinize the following turn allowed Pyrohemia to kill Malach of the Dawn, and another Pyrohemia activation killed Herd Gnarr. Level 12 were now on 2 life. They played a Rathi Trapper and a Keldon Halbardier and passed - still just alive. Brackmann had only a morph to add to proceedings.
Level 12 were slowly looking to turn the tide, and used Citanul Woodreaders with kicker to draw 2 cards. This was soon counteracted by a Mindstab on Saito, forcing a discard of Pyrohemia #2, Mountain and Empty the Warrens. Brackmann's morph turned out to be Fledgling Mawcor, who pinged Level 12 down to 1. Merieke Ri Berrit then briefly made an appearance before dying to Piracy Charm.
The Japanese fought with Mirri the Cursed and Keldon Halbardier in the red zone, to take The Massage down to 19, but still needed a lot of help. They played Scryb Ranger, untapped Keldon Halbardier, then brought out Phantom Wurm. Across the other side of the table there were some puzzled looks.
These looks were soon answered when the Mawcor activation for the final point was stopped by Trickbind. Even with things as they stood, Level 12 still only had 16 power on the board, to their opponent's 19 life - and that was before the knotty issue of blockers. Maij played a Deathspore Thallid, and the team passed.
It came to the Japanese draw step and both Yasooka and Saito hopefully looked to their top card. They didn't immediately scoop things up, so it wasn't clear if they had somehow figured it out. Rathi Trapper tapped down two creatures thanks to some help from Scryb Ranger, but even after this, attacks only took The Massage to 4.
The final play was for Fledgling Mawcor to finally achieve his birthright, and deal the final point, which brought the handshake from the Japanese
The Massage (Aaron Brackmann and Rosario Maij) win!
Saturday, Mar 10: 8:33 p.m. - World Explorers
The day was April 19th, 1600. The location was what is now known as Usuki in Oita Prefecture. The Dutch ship christened the Liefde hobbled into the waters off the shore of Japan with only 24 surviving members of the 110 man crew who originally embarked on the journey. Eager for an alternative to the proselytizing of Portuguese Jesuits, who had opened trade with Japan several years earlier, the Japanese embraced the protestant Dutch, who put commerce ahead of religious propagation, as trade partners.
Thus began the first partnership between the Dutch and the Japanese. It also explains the team name I am giving to Rogier Maaten and Shuhei Nakamura henceforth known as Liefde. They squared off with Gabriel Nassif and Amiel Tenenbaum now saddled with team name France, France, Revolution.
The match between these two teams showed just how powerful this format can be as Liefde set up slowly while French, French Revolution came out of the gates with a pair of Rathi Trappers, Errant Ephemeron, Thallid Sporesower, and Spectral Force. For good measure they had Greater Gargadon tucked away under glass…you know, in case of emergency.
Shuhei and Rogier looked at each other and agreed that it was time to clear the board with Damnation and followed that up with a medium sized Empty the Warrens. They looked over at the impending Gargadon and at the Phthisis they could cast next turn and felt pretty good about the state of the game.
France, France, Revolution
The Nassif-led team did not miss a beat as Amiel sacrificed down to one land after playing a Needlespeak Spider and broke the glass to let loose the Gargadon. Nassif put a Griffin Guide on it and they attacked the opposing team down to five which was well within the distance of a second-main-phase Grapeshot from Amiel.
As I watched the match play out I was struck that there were two feature matches going on with teams featuring a Japanese player and a non-Japanese player - something that would have been nearly unthinkable even a few years ago. It was not too long ago that the mere sight of a Japanese Pro at an American or European Grand Prix was cause for gawking.
There were four Japanese players in attendance - Shota Yasooka and Tomoharu Saito chose to team with each other - but Kenji Tsumura chose to play with Richie and that left Shuhei looking for a teammate. Enter Rogier Maaten.
"For the team PT I am probably going to team with Masashi Oiso," explained Maaten when asked about the path that led him to team with three-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Nakamura. Oiso was not going to attend this tournament and most of the usual local suspects were playing with their intendeds for San Diego. "I wanted to team with somebody fun…it is a fun format. I needed someone and Shuhei needed someone."
Shuhei was in similar straits with his potential partner for San Diego Shu Komuro and felt like he could not afford to skip a GP. "He never wants to play in oversea Grand Prix but I am pursuing Level 6."
Shuhei is the middle of a grueling tournament marathon that will take him to five cities around the world in just six weeks – Dallas, Singapore, Amsterdam, Kyoto, and finally Massachusetts. "I need to get ten points out of these five Grand Prix. If I average five points at every Pro Tour and two points at every GP I can make Level 6," Shuhei explained the reasoning behind the grueling schedule.
"People think I am crazy," laughed an obviously weary Shuhei who explained his inner conflict as such: "40% of me wants to play in all GPs, 40% of me wants to stay home for all the GPs, and the last part is worried about Level 6 status." Clearly the desire to repeat as a Level 6 mage is winning the tiebreakers for Shuhei but we will see if the balance of power shifts as the marathon enters the homestretch.
Rogier Maaten explained that while he has been playing for some time it was not until Grand Prix Salt Lake City in 2005 that he began trekking around the globe to attend events. That was the same season that Shuhei, Oiso, and a handful of other Japanese players began attending American events.
"We want to do well, they want to do well. European Grand Prix are the hardest events and the flights to America have been so cheap," he explained about the friendship that began to be forged by the world traveling Dutch and Japanese players that season. "We all just talk to each other a lot on MSN and Magic Online. We are always in touch. The Japanese are speaking much better English."
"Sometimes it is difficult if you both disagree but if you are both better players you make the same plays," confessed Rogier when pressed if there were ever any language barriers. He was quick to point out that speaking the same language fluently could also be a barrier. "You see players like Quentin and Ruud and they argue about a play for four minutes - that might be worse. They talk too much and they outthink themselves all the time. The ideal situation is where you talk when you have to talk and don't talk when you don't have to talk. For sealed deck it has been okay…maybe it will be harder tomorrow."
Of course, if they picked up another early loss then tomorrow would not be on the horizon.
Saturday, Mar 10: 9:01 p.m. - All-Winner's Squad
Can you name all the past Grand Prix winners pictured here? Part of the festivities yesterday at the player party was gunslinging against winner's of past European Grand Prix with a Time Spiral Tournament pack. Over 600 players queued up to test their mettle against the likes of Olivier Ruel, winner of Bilbao, Bologna, Helsinki, and Cannes; his brother Antoine, victorious in Porto and Cannes; Raphael Levy, fresh off back to back victories in Dallas and Singapore with a way back victory in Lyon for good measure; Craig Jones, who not only won in Birmingham but did so against Kai Budde making him one of a small handful of players to have ever defeated the Juggernaut in a Top 8 bracket; and almost twenty other winners.
I will get you started by identifying some of the easier ones: Olivier and Antoine are fourth and third from the right on the lower row. Levy is right above them getting "the horns" from Sam Gomersall and pointing at Shuhei Nakamura. If you have read Craig Jones' player blog you are already familiar with his smiling face immediately to Sam's left.
Kai Budde, pictured second from the right along the back row, did not take part in the gunslinging but was teaming up with Jelger Wiegersma, pictured fourth from the right, come round one of the tournament. Kai and Jelger both played at the very first Grand Prix here in Amsterdam ten years ago. While Jelger was not yet up to the task of his customary Top 16 finish Kai got right down to business with a money finish. He pocketed the first $150 of his unmatched career earnings or 0.04% of his lifetime $352,620.
Kai would ultimately go on to become the most dominating player in the history of the Grand Prix scene with an unprecedented seven wins in fourteen Top 8 appearances. The only other players with as many as four wins is Olivier Ruel with a whole gaggle of players sitting on three including the newest member of the three win crowd Raphael Levy.
So there you have your starter to figuring out who everyone is now get to work on the rest. Bonus points if you can find Richie Hoaen lurking in the back row. If you can find him then you have also found Kenji Tsumura who was standing directly behind him.
Saturday, Mar 10: 9:48 p.m. - Rueling the Grand Prix Roost
There was a funny moment yesterday when Olivier Ruel began to tick off all the Grand Prix he had been to that were listed on the commemorative deck box produced exclusively for this weekend. He ended up with over 60 events that he could recall attending. And that is just from what is listed on the box, which only covers European Grand Prix events. When asked for a rough count of all the events he has attended in total Olivier estimated it to be somewhere around 80 - more than one-third of the GPs that have been run since the inception of the program - and big brother Antoine was not far behind him.
The first Grand Prix for each Ruel was at Lyon when Raphael Levy won his first GP and the two brothers have never looked back. It was not long before they announced their presence on the tournament scene winning Grand Prix Cannes alongside teammate Florent Jeudon as Black Ops. Combine their original team name, the site of their victory, and my predilection for conspiracy theories you will understand why I have named this brother and brother team Licio Gelli for this event (and if not, that is what Google is for).
While talking to the Ruel's after their round six victory I asked them if there was anything similar about the team format from Cannes - three-person Sealed deck with Team Rochester on Day Two - with Two-Headed Giant.
"It is totally different in every way imaginable," declared Olivier. "Personally I like the three-person format more."
For Antoine it was not that simple: "It is like comparing Limited and Constructed formats - they are totally different formats."
Something else that has changed between then and now in Antoine's estimation is the level of play.
"It used to be that you could be 9-0 and play against some guy who had no idea of how to play correct Magic," said Antoine. "Now you might not play against someone who is great but anyone is good enough to beat you."
Olivier agreed with his brother explaining that Magic Online allowed online players to get enough repetitions under their belt to find the right plays.
"When you play in a tournament you will get mana screwed, you will get mana flooded," Olivier continued. "Before it was possible to win these rounds but it is not true anymore."
Antoine, who had not always pursued the Grand Prix scene as avidly as his brother, suddenly found himself only a couple of events back of his brother - much to Olivier's surprise.
"I forgot about my suspension so he has nearly caught up to me," said Olivier. While the enforced break may have had some unfortunate consequences for Olivier's bottom line it did have some positive impact as well.
"I think since my suspension I like playing better," said Olivier. "I appreciate playing more. I was way too into the competition when I finished second in the player of the year race. I was always thinking about winning, winning, winning. I am not doing that … yet"
Saturday, Mar 10: 10:33 p.m. - Round 5: Team Second Choice vs. Team Memento - Kristof von Holsbeek and David Vanderheyden vs. Kai Budde and Jelger Wiegersma
"You guys speak French? No? Perfect!"
Team Second Choice
That was about as much introduction as the Belgian team gave to their well known opponents. They named their team "Second Choice", because they originally planned on playing with different people here. But their future team-mates couldn't make it to a trial so Kristof and David played it together - and won. That of course cancelled all former plans and they went to Amsterdam together to form a two-headed-giant.
The members of the other team don't need much of an introduction. One point that is of note though, is that they got their two byes for this event as a result of Jelger being level 5 - while the consensus greatest player in the history of the game, Kai Budde, is currently only Level 1. Not that we'll hold that against him.
No mulligans were taken and the Belgians went first. They started fast with turn 2 Sinew Sliver and Rathi Trapper to put some early pressure on the table. Memento fought back at a similar rate, with Gemhide Sliver and a copy of the white Muscle Sliver of their own. At that point a judge came by and politely asked the players to wait for the round to actually start. Oops! Now that Kai's back, he was clearly eager to play!
A few apologies and minutes later the game continued. The Belgians used the mana of their Sinew Sliver to play a Pallid Mycoderm and a mysterious morphed critter. The opponents' plays were a little more impressive with a Lightning Angel that came down for Jelger, while Kai built up his mana using Yavimaya Dryad and Search for Tomorrow.
More Sliver action for team Second Choice, as they added a Watcher Sliver to their side of the table and tried to take out the Dryad, revealing the morph to be a Shaper Parasite. Thrill of the Hunt saved the landwalker to fight another day. That seemed vital, as the Dryad kept on pushing some damage through, while the Angel got tapped down by the Trapper.
While Memento built up an attacking force, the Belgians released one of their bombs. Quietly they put a Sacred Mesa to the very side of the table, nearly hiding it behind a deck box. Maybe the opponents overlooked it that way? Not today, as Kai's Molder quickly took care of that problem.
Creatures added up on both sides of the tables, unable to break through the opposing defence. The Pro-Team kept on doing a small amount of damage in the air and with the landwalking Dryad, but it were not impressive amounts. These small swings were beginning to add up though, and the Belgians were starting to feel it.
"More Slivers!?" Kai exclaimed, as a big Bonesplitter Sliver entered play on the other side, improving the total bonus for all slivers on the table to +4/+4. The Belgians sent their Watcher Sliver into the red zone, but Mementos Sinew Sliver blocked - and they traded, as the bonus for the Slivers dropped to +3/+3 after the Sinew Sliver died, lowering the stats of the Watcher Sliver so that it died right after the dust settled.
Kai seemed dissatisfied with such a settled board… time for a Pardice Dragon!
While the battlefield was pretty busy, the real problems were waiting to come into play. Both teams had Veiling Oddities ticking down, threatening lethal attacks. With two time counters left on Memento's copy, the Belgians tried to hijack the illusion with a Fury Charm on their turn. Kai and Jelger were ready for that spicy trick though, and had a Cancel to put an end to such ideas. Next turn, with just one time counter left, the Belgians were down at 14 life. Lethal damage on the next turn (thanks to the Oddity) was a huge threat, that needed an answer- quickly!
Maybe Kaervek the Merciless could help? The Belgians seemed to think so.
"I definitely have a response to that, I just don't know what"
Kai had a little think after reading the text of the amazing legend. Finally he used Strangling Soot to take care of the black Trapper, and that was the end of the game. Kaervek didn't get a chance to do his Magic, as Team Second Choice extended their hands.
"At least we played in the feature match area", the Belgians sighed. "Yeah, it is better to play here. They have nicer chairs here", Kai responded.
Kai and Jelger win!
Saturday, Mar 10: 11:13 p.m. - Round 6: 'To Beer or Not To Beer?' vs 'Yopparai'
Sebastian Thaler and Johannes Partenhauser vs. Frank Karsten and Roel van Heeswijk
To Beer or Not to Beer
Coming into round six, the number of teams that remain undefeated is dwindling, but there are still some big names right at the top. Yopparai are, believe it or not, not a Japanese team, though their name is. It literally means 'Drunk'. In fact, it is Frank Karsten, the babykillerbot himself who brings most of the Pro points to this team. Their opponents, To Beer or Not to Beer (not a difficult question) feature Sebastian Thaler, who has already shown himself to be something of a master of the Time Spiral / Planar Chaos limited game, having just missed out on top eight in Geneva, after losing to Kenji Tsumura in the final round.
After some pretty intensive mulligan decisions, play commenced with Yopparai being down a card, which they made up for by being on the draw. They did have the first plays of the game (of sorts) with suspended Greater Gargadon and Errant Ephemeron both looming on the edge of the board. In terms of creatures in play, both sides soon had a morph, and it was the Germans that got to swing in first, unmorphing Aquamorph Entity for value at the first opportunity. This forced a Hail Storm from the Dutch side of the board, and quickly things were cleared completely when Frank's morph (a Coral Trickster) was hit with Dead//Gone.
On the Dutch turn, they rebuilt with a Primal Plasma (as a 2/2 flyer) and Mire Boa. The flyer was trumped by Stormcloud Djinn from 'To Beer?', and a Basalt Gargoyle. It still seemed that little was going to get in the way of the Mire Boa though.
One question that had been raised since the reduction in life totals in the format was is beatdown viable now? This question has been distilled by BDM into a simple 'Benalish Cavalry… yes or no?'. It soon became clear what the opinion of Karsten was, as he played the two drop pseudo 3/3 along with a morph, while his teammate put a Durkwood Tracker out. Powering in for those extra two points seemed eminently worth it now.
When Errant Ephemeron finally hit play, the big swings got to be a little bigger. The Ephemeron was double blocked when it ran in, but the Mire Boa, Cavalry and Durkwood Tracker that came along too got all the way through, taking the Germans down to 20. Shaper Parasite meant that the German side of the board lost it's last creature.
'Any Damnations?' joked van Heeswijk, looking at the dominant Dutch board position.
As it turns out, there was one, which rather stymied the Dutch plan A. Plan B was Clockwork Hydra and a few land sacrifices to get Greater Gargadon in and swinging against a more or less empty German board.
Wipe Away meant that the huge beast was back on suspension though, and it seemed that the tide might have turned. Partenhauser had a Triskelavus to play, while Thaler had a Durkwood Tracker to go along with his Flowstone Channeler from the post-Damnation turn.
The Tracker quickly traded in combat, before Triskavelus got hit by a Pongify, turning from a killing machine into a damned dirty ape. The monkey got to hit for it's 3, before being joined by Magus of the Arena and Body Double, who became another Triskelavus.
The copying was not at an end though, as Frank had Vesuvan Shapeshifter, to copy the Body Double, somehow making for the third Triskelavus of the match. Magus of the Arena had something to say about this. He tapped, targeting himself and Frank. Frank chose his only creature, Vesuvan Triskelavus. He responded to the ability, which was now on the stack, by making three 1/1 flyers. Finally, before the ability resolved, Flowstone Channeler killed the now 1/1 Vesuvan Triskelavus.
In a subsequent fight in the air, the other copied Triskelavus went down, though not without producing a few tokens in the meantime. The Germans played a Corpulent Corpse, and Frank had a Moorish Cavalry. The tokens quickly traded off with each other, and the board was left with the Germans ahead, thanks largely to various 3/3s and their Magus, compared with just a 7/7 Clockwork Hydra for Yopparai.
The Dutch team fought back with a storm of spells, culminating in a Volcanic Awakening for four, to virtually cripple Thaler's mana base. With only Forests left, the Dutch team only had to worry about a much more limited set of plays from the other side of the board - which didn't include the activated abilities on either of Thaler's creatures. As it turns out, Thaler did have an Ashcoat Bear for the end of the turn, but was all of a sudden a not really in the game. The only offence from 'To Beer or Not to Beer?' was the one remaining Triskelavus token they had, but in the face of an ever growing Clockwork Hydra it wasn't clear if that would be enough.
Dream Stalker (the protagonist of much of the storming earlier on) came down, and as it became clear that the game was fast approaching time, the pace picked up quite a bit. Aven Riftwatcher bounced a little to take the Dutchies up to 28, and both Nantuko Shaman and Greater Gargadon quickly came out for Van Heeswijk, as time was called.
The clock was all out, and the neither player could realistically do the damage necessary to end the game.
To Beer or Not To Beer draw with Yopparai