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Feature: The Magic Players Championship Final Stretch

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With Round 1 of Pro Tour Avacyn Restored underway, the hourglass has been upended, as each round that passes is one more grain of sand counting down to the last chance for Pro Points for the 2011-2012 season, and the last chance for a coveted slot in the 2012 Magic: the Gathering Players Championship. A three day competition across three skill-testing formats, the Players Championship is the ultimate in top-tier Magic competition. Sixteen of the best of the best players from around the globe will be convening in Seattle, Washington during the last week of August, fighting for a cash purse exceeding $100,000, including a first prize equal to that of a Pro Tour: a whopping $40,000.

Since only sixteen players earn the right to compete in this elite tournament, strict qualifications are imposed to ensure that the only the top players of the season are represented. First, the reigning Player of the Year, the self (and other)-described "luckiest man in Magic", Owen Turtenwald, has earned himself a slot in the Players Championship by virtue of simply having an astounding year of Magic.

Owen Turtenwald earned himself a slot in the Magic: The Gathering Players Championship with his amazing run in the 2011-2012 season.

At literally every event he played in last year, Turtenwald was a favorite to win. His year marked a level of consistency seen very rarely, even at the top levels of Magic. In the 2011-2012 season, he set a record with seven Grand Prix Top 8s. Though he never crested the wave to win an event during that season, by virtue of finishing near the top of virtually every tournament he played in during the season, he managed to keep two other massive names in Magic, Luis Scott-Vargas and Ben Stark, at bay during the final weeks to take the Player of the Year title, netting himself an invite to the inaugural Players Championship.

In addition to the reigning Player of the Year, the winners of both the previous year's World Championships and Magic Online Championships are issued invites, going to Jun'ya Iyanaga and Reid "reiderrabbit" Duke respectively after their dominating performances at those events. Next, the individual winners of the Pro Tours for the previous season are issued invites. This year, invites went to Samuele Estratti for winning Pro Tour Philadelphia and Brian Kibler for winning Pro Tour Dark Ascension, including a semifinal win over the legendary Jon Finkel in one of the most thrilling matches of Magic ever captured on film. Seriously, check it out, it's incredible. The final Pro Tour winner will obviously be decided here this weekend, but it isn't the only slot up for grabs in this event. The points gained (or not gained as the case may be) in this event will decide virtually all of the remaining slots up for grabs here in Barcelona.

Brian Kibler locked up his slot in the Player's Championship with his win at Pro Tour Dark Ascension.

Of the slots available due to Pro Points accumulated, the first group belongs to the regional representatives: the players from each geographic region with the highest number of Pro Points gained throughout the season. Of those slots, only one is locked up as of right now, and that belongs to the Latin American representative Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. Currently two points behind the Pro Player co-leaders Brian Kibler and Yuuya Watanabe, and in the stratosphere of Magic as he always seems to be, Damo da Rosa has distanced himself not only from any potential challengers from Latin America, but from most other Magic players as well. It is no surprise that he is commonly in the discussion of "best Magic player in the world" right now. Damo da Rosa is an utter machine, posting a 65% match win percentage at Pro Level events, making nine Pro Tour Top 8s, twelve Grand Prix Top 8s, and one win a piece. He is eligible for the Pro Tour Hall of Fame this year, and is seemingly a lock to make it in on the first ballot.

Paul Vitor Damo da Rosa is the only player to have a virtual lock for the Magic Players Championship as a representative of his region.

For the rest of the regional slots, things get a little muddy. Considering that the winner of the event gets the winner's invite, second place gets 24 Pro Points, and players who place over 100th get 3 Points, any player who is within 21 Points of the current regional leader has a chance to overtake them and wind up in the lead. Should a tie arise (as the above situation would lead to), the first tiebreakers examined are number of Pro Tour Top 8s, number of Grand Prix Top 8s, and then highest Pro Tour finish. Considering that the goal is to have only the pinnacle of Magic players in attendance, these metrics seem like a wonderful way to ensure just that. As far as the individual regions go, here are the players still in the running as things currently stand:

Pro Tour Points, North America
Luis Scott-Vargas – 54
Josh Utter-Leyton – 53
Matt Costa – 47
David Ochoa – 46
Tom Martell – 43
Conley Woods – 39
Sam Black – 38
John Finkel – 37
Jesse Hampton – 37
Craig Wescoe – 37
Ben Stark – 33

His teammate Luis Scott-Vargas might be ahead right now, but Josh Utter-Leyton is only one point behind in the race to be the North American representative for the Players Championship.

The top of the North American region is a veritable who's who of American Magic. The perennial favorite Luis Scott-Vargas currently occupies the second slot in the region, behind only Brian Kibler, who is already invited due to his exceptional performance winning Pro Tour Dark Ascension. The top of the tables is very tight, though. Only one point behind LSV is his teammate, the somehow still underrated Josh Utter-Leyton. The utter picture of quiet consistency, Utter-Leyton has posted a year of four Top 16 Grand Prix finishes and a second place finish to Samuele Estratti at Pro Tour Philadelphia. Considering his full-time job and limited ability to playtest, his performances are nothing short of astounding. Coming in a mere six points behind Wrapter is the meteoric Matt Costa. Costa's arrival on the scene has just blown the roof off of the Pro scene. Posting top finish after top finish with an icy cool demeanor, Costa has been incredibly impressive to watch play the game. Attributing his success to a large amount of situational experience and memory, he never seems unprepared or flustered by anything, even under the harsh glare of the Sunday stage. Right on the tail of a Top 8 finish at Pro Tour Dark Ascension, Costa powered back to win Grand Prix Baltimore, cementing the fact that he was the real deal and a force to be reckoned with.

Pro Tour Points, Europe
Martin Juza – 45
Richard Bland – 38
Lukas Jaklovsky – 38
Raphael Levy – 38
Lukas Blohon – 30
Allan Christensen – 30
Joel Larsson – 28
Ivan Floch – 27
Stanislav Cifka – 26
Vincent Lemoine – 26
Kenny Oberg – 26
Andreas Ganz – 25
Thomas Holzinger – 25
Robert Jurkovic – 25
Andreas Nordahl – 25
Jelger Wiegersma – 25
Bernd Brendemühl – 24
Andrejs Prost – 24
Ruben Snijdewind – 24

Martin Juza doesn't have his invitation to the Players Championship locked up yet, but going into this event, he is the current Pro Tour Points leader in Europe with 45.

Europe has a bit more of a break between its top players. The globetrotting Martin Juza is the current leader, with 45 Pro Club Points earned in a string of five Grand Prix Top 32 finishes, including a Top 8 at Madrid. The first of the top three players chasing him down is Englishman Richard Bland, who tore off an amazing sixteen straight wins after a 1-3 start to Worlds this past year, only losing again once he reached the finals against Jun'ya Iyanaga. Tied with Bland are the Hall of Famer Raphael Levy, who is at literally every Grand Prix and Pro Tour that the laws of physics will allow him. His desire to play the game led to an impressive track record of jaunting around the globe, allowing him to amass the all-time record for Pro Points, an amazing 506. Since this is one of the major foundations that gave him entry to the Hall of Fame (other than being ridiculously good at the game, of course), it is no surprise that his traveling hasn't slowed at all since breaking into the hall, a sight that is great for Magic. Finally, Lukas Jaklovsky, Martin Juza's Czech countryman, sits occupying the final 38-point slot. His ninth-place finish at Pro Tour Dark Ascension, as well as three Top 32 Grand Prix finishes this year prove that the Czech Republic is home to more Magic power than just Juza, and that Juza's current lead for both the European Players Championship slot and the Czech Republic World Magic Cup slot, isn't safe just yet.

Pro Tour Points, Japan
Yuuya Watanabe – 57
Shuhei Nakamura – 45
Shoota Yasooka – 38

Yasooka might have a ways to go to catch up with Yuuya Watanabe in the race for a Players Championship invitation, but the underrated Japanese pro still has a chance if he does well this weekend.

Poor, poor Japan. Yuuya Watanabe has not made this a very fun race. By blasting off to second place overall in the Pro Points list, Watanabe has left very little room for error in the Japanese race. The former Rookie and Player of the Year is one of the most feared players in the world, and his twelve point lead in the Japanese race proves exactly why. It's not like his competition are slouches, either. The player he has that twelve point lead on? None other than Hall of Famer Shuhei Nakamura. He of the fourteen year Magic career. He of the 461 lifetime Pro Points, former Player of the Year, and member of one of the most vomit-tastic Japanese National team ever (with Kenji Tsumura and Tsuyoshi Fujita). Some would argue that this is the best National Team assembled for any country ever. Period. Behind the two of them is another Japanese powerhouse, Shouta Yasooka. When I asked Japanese players who was the most underrated or unknown Japanese player outside of Japan, I got an almost unanimous response of Shouta Yasooka. He has won a Pro Tour, albeit a team tournament. He has fourteen Grand Prix Top 8s, including two second place finishes and a win at Kobe this past year. He Top 16ed Pro Tour Dark Ascension. How can he be underrated?

Pro Tour Points, APAC
Jeremy Neeman – 31
Hao-Shan Huang – 30
Tzu-Ching Kuo – 28
Daniel Unwin – 17
Jason Chung – 16
Gerald Camangon – 13
Xin Sui – 13
Simon Harnden – 12
Mat Marr – 11

The APAC region is another that is jumbled near the top, but with a little breathing room underneath. Leading the way is Jeremy Neeman of Australia. Neeman is one of those players that has just had us waiting on bated breath for a massive breakout. He has such skill. He just has yet to post the string of impressive finishes we associate with the marquee players of a generation. He appeared to break out at Pro Tour San Juan in 2010, where he made Top 8, but hasn't really followed it up with anything that has blown our socks off. He has two Grand Prix wins under his belt, both in Australia, but one of them was against an unstoppable Luis Scott-Vargas in Sydney in 2010. Neeman is good, very good in fact, and the Players Championship may provide him the chance to prove that he is everything we think he can be. There are a couple of players sneaking up on his chance, though. Hao-Shan Huang of Taipei has had one hell of a breakout year. He posted two Top 8 finishes in Grand Prix Singapore and Brisbane last year. He made Top 24 at Kuala Lumpur and Melbourne this season as well. His performance at Worlds in San Francisco also helped Taiwan to an impressive fourth place team finish. He is playing very sharp, and the mere one point gap between he and Neeman proves that he is a force to be reckoned with. His teammate on that National team, Tzu Ching Kuo, is only two points behind him. While his resume for the past two seasons isn't quite as impressive as his teammates, the Taiwanese national champion did crack the Top 8 at Grand Prix Kuala Lumpur, and has eight total Grand Prix Top 8s since 2000, as well as seven other national team appearances. He has over a decade of experience playing against the world's finest, and this tournament could be just what he needs to not only take the APAC slot for the Players Championship from Neeman, but the World Magic Cup slot from Huang as well.

The final five slots are at-large slots that will go to the players with the highest five Pro Point totals that are not already qualified for the Players Championship through some other means. This means that the players that are capable of snagging these slots are listed above, hiding amongst one of the regional lists. The possibilities for the slots are so wide open that it is impossible to determine who will get the slots, and the last of them will most likely remain undecided until the end of the tournament itself. In my mind, any event that matters until the last minute of the season makes for an incredibly exciting spectacle. It will be a tense weekend as matches are won and loss, with players dreams of playing for the incredible purse in the Players Championship, as well as the bragging rights of getting the beat the best of the best, coming and going with each hour that passes.

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