nited States Nationals in Indianapolis have come and gone, and in their wake they have left a national team helmed by Ali Aintrazi, with David Ochoa and Haibing Hu as his wingmen. The players navigated eight rounds of Standard and six rounds of Magic 2012 Booster Draft before cutting to Top 8—a Top 8 that will be remembered for having six of eight players piloting Caw-Blade despite a wide variety of decks performing at the top of the Standard pack.
Aintrazi seemingly picked the perfect deck for the Top 8, where he defeated Caw-Blade decks in two out of three rounds. Throughout the tournament Aintrazi only lost two games to Caw-Blade with his Blue-Black Control deck, and both of those were in the Top 8. I first became aware of Aintrazi at the beginning of 2010 when he was advancing to the semifinals of an Atlanta area tournament with Jund.
From those netdecking roots he quickly established a reputation as a rogue deck designer, with his SCG Open victory with TurboLand and then another Top 8 finish with a mono-blue Grand Architect deck. Aintrazi, who started playing Magic when he was 15, has been steadily climbing through the ranks at the professional level as well. He finished in the Top 64 of Pro Tour San Diego and just last year finished 19th at the World Championships in Chiba, Japan. With his win in Indy he is now a Level 4 Pro for the remainder of this season and throughout next year.
Ali Aintrazi hoists the trophy.
"I'm gonna try and attend more tournaments. The next really big ones I have are Pro Tour Philadelphia and Worlds," said Aintrazi after his win—a win he didn't fully appreciate at first. "I didn't realize how huge it was until after I won. This is a big deal for me. I'm carrying a big weight on my shoulders. I'm not only playing for myself now, but also the United States. I'm gonna give it my all."
While Aintrazi is the captain of the team, he will have a seasoned veteran to lean on in David Ochoa, who just missed making last year's team with losses in the semifinals and 3rd/4th playoff. You could almost see him straightening up with the weight of last year's loss removed from his shoulders as he advanced past Brandon Nelson in the semifinals.
Ochoa, who has been playing since just before the release of Homelands when he was a high school student, has been playing competitively since a Pro Tour Qualifier for Chicago in 2000. With his finish in Indianapolis he has crossed the 100 lifetime Pro Point threshold and is on the shortlist of best players without a Pro Tour Top 8. If recent results are any measure, he should be crossing that line off his resume sometime very soon. He finished Top 16 at Worlds in 2009 and again at Pro Tour San Juan, and that experience could go a long way to returning the World Team Championship to the US this year at Worlds.
"Yes, I know I'm old, and thankfully am a bit venerable to boot," deadpanned Ochoa when asked about the team and his role on it. "I'll be helping my team as best I'm able to. There's a lot of detail that goes overlooked regarding events that doesn't become apparent until the task at hand is upon you, and I'm sure that I'll be able to provide my knowledge as a valuable resource for handling whatever may arise."
Ochoa, who is one of the core members of ChannelFireball.com, was playing the same Caw-Blade list that also put Luis Scott-Vargas and Owen Turtenwald into the Top 8. While many players opt to steer clear of mirror matches, Ochoa explained that the slowing down of the archetype by recent bannings made playing Caw-Blade against Caw-Blade a true test of play skill.
"Caw-Blade has been the defining archetype for a while now, and while it was severely weakened by the banning of its core cards—Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic—the flexibility it has to beat anything was very attractive," Ochoa explained. "The deck rewards tight play and the mirror is rather complex, which made an almost coin-flip match-up into a favorable one if you know what you're doing."
Rounding out the team was longtime Magic player Haibing Hu. Like his Nationals teammates, Hu started playing the game in high school. He started attending Pro Tour Qualifiers and Grand Prix during Urza block and first qualified for Pro Tour Nice. Hu has posted a pair of Top 64 finishes in his career, at Chicago 2002 and Kuala Lumpur. One of only three players to go 8-0, on Day One of Nats, Hu said that this past weekend was the most successful tournament weekend of his career—something he seemed quite ambivalent about.
"I'm pretty excited to be representing the National team, but not as excited as I feel I should be. I'm not sure if that makes sense," Hu mused. "While there is a lot of skill involved with Magic, anyone who tells you that there's no luck is lying. You need both to go on this type of run. I've made Day Two at PTs and GPs before, but never ran as hot as I did over the weekend. There were a couple of matches I tried to throw away, but won anyways. There were a couple of matches my opponent flat-out threw away. It's weird how the weekend went."
Having triumphed over more than three hundred other players, these three players with three very different levels of experience from three far-flung parts of the country—Aintrazi on the East Coast, Hu from Texas, and Ochoa in the Bay Area of California—now face the challenge of coming together as a team and winning the Team Championships at the World Championships in San Francisco.
Your 2011 US National Team: Haibung Hu, David Ochoa, winner Ali Aintrazi, and alternate Brandon Nelson
Playing to the Nines
I received an agonizing but amazing tale from reader Jumin Lee of South Korea. Jumin is a Magic veteran who has been playing since 1996 and competing in tournaments for the past decade. While Jumin has qualified for the Pro Tour, it has long been his dream to compete for his country at Worlds. He earned an invite in 2006 but had to skip the event due to school exams. This year marked his tenth attempt to qualify for the team and his third year in a row of being on the wrong side of decimal places.
"I came in 9th at Nationals 2009, something I didn't give much thought to at the time," Jumin relayed to me by email. "It was a disappointment to be sure, but surely coming in 9th is just a bad break that happens to everyone at some point or another."
Cut to Nationals 2010, where Jumin once again found himself a couple of wins away from the Top 8—and these are his words—"barring a disaster."
"The two wins happened, but so did disaster: one of my teammates, who I'd played twice during the tournament, dropped his last three matches and sent my tiebreakers crashing down just enough to cause the unimaginable," he lamented. "After all was said and done, I was 9th again [on opponent match win percentage], based on a difference of less than one-tenth of a percent. For the second straight year, I was best of the rest."
His back-to-back 9th-place finishes earned him something a cult following in the small South Korean Magic community, and he was warmly received at this year's event.
"Going into the final round, my tiebreakers meant that I could still get into the Top 8 depending on the result of table 3. I was so focused on getting that final spot that the obvious didn't even enter my mind until my opponent reminded me that I was about to make history: If I won but didn't get the result I wanted at table 3, I would be ninth for the third year running," said Jumin, setting up the only possible outcome for the story. "I won my match, but at that point table 3 had already been settled and the writing was on the wall. With the Top 8 already decided, all eyes were on whether my tiebreakers would hold up. Needless to say, they did. I was 9th for the third year running."
Despite the obvious frustration of being the last person on the line when the Top 8 window closed, Jumin realizes he is almost as well known in Korea for this feat as he would be for doing well at Worlds as a member of the team. He was not sure if work commitments would allow him to play next year, but I am sure you will join me in wishing him a fraction more luck than the past three tries if he does.
Feedback Week: Johnny Drafts
I asked players to send me questions to ask Magic players for this week's column. The question I have chosen comes from Donny J. of Maine.
My question is about setting up drafts at home with anywhere from 4 to 10 players. I want to know how to setup player pools and seeding, is there a place to go online that will set it up for us if we put the names in? Also, can there be sanctioned drafts at home rather than at a shop? Thanks, My friends and I want to make it easier to draft for fun at home, and its getting more and more of my friends into the game! thanks for the help
To answer this question I turned to the foremost expert on home drafts: none other than Hall of Famer Jon Finkel. Jon has been hosting drafts at his Mana-hattan apartment since the release of Ravnica. His preferred format for drafting is team drafts ranging from two-person to four-person teams—although there have certainly been times with five-player teams. According to Finkel, no fancy equipment is needed:
For drafts in New York we use a Google group mailing list with everyone on it and a couple of moderators and one database manager, Paul Jordan, for our results - yes we're nerds. So I can see that over the last 5 years I've won about 59% of my matches while other people have less good statistics. If people want to draft on a given day, we send out an email and the first 6 (or 8) are in. It's very democratic.
For teams I was always a big fan of doing randomized teams after the draft, as it cuts down the counter-drafting incentive and is thus better practice for actual events. It also cuts down on the number of complete train wrecks, but our group still drafts our fair share.
We have a pile of different "Avatars," each corresponding to a player - they are magic cards (tho occasionally other cards) that correspond to the players - the only rule is that they should mock the player. For example, I'm the Kai Budde player card.
We deal out the Avatars face down to determine seating, then afterwards shuffle them up again and deal them into 2 piles to determine teams. Then we separate, build decks, and play.