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Feature: Checking in on the Player of the Year Race

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The second draft here at Pro Tour Philadelphia marked the halfway point in this Pro Tour, with just eight more rounds to play before we cut to the lights, camera and action of the Top 8 on Sunday. In terms of the Player of the Year race, we are more like three quarters of the way through. If this was the 400m final in the Olympics, the runners would just be coming off the final bend and preparing for a last lung-bursting sprint to the finish line.

Pro Tour Philadelphia is the last opportunity before Worlds for players to fill their boots with the 25 pro points that go to a Pro Tour champion. If you want to know just how important it is to bag that sort of prize, just ask last year's Player of the Year, Brad Nelson. At the corresponding Pro Tour last year, when we were in Amsterdam for Extended, Brad took home 20 points for his second place finish. That hurled him into a huge lead in the race, but by the end of the year it had still turned out to be a tie! Had Brad lost his semi-final in Amsterdam he'd quite simply never have held that Player of the Year trophy aloft.

So for the players in contention for the Player of the Year prize every round matters here at Pro Tour Philadelphia, and those who have survived the cut into Day Two are now launching an assault on the Top 8, with precious Pro points on the line in every game. Let's see how they're getting on...

The Fallers

Four of the leading eleven Player of the Year (Shuhei Nakamura and Paul Rietzl are joint-tenth) contenders are already out of contention in Philadelphia. American Ben Stark made a flying start to the year by winning Pro Tour Paris, and at one point led the race with 33 Pro points. But in the seven months since that win, Stark has lost all that early momentum and added only another 9 points to his tally. Finishing the first day with a 4-4 record, Stark fell just one game short of making the cut to Day Two, and Stark must now sit and hope that one of his Player of the Year rivals doesn't walk away with the Pro Tour.

Our other Pro Tour champion in 2011 is also out of the running here in Philadelphia, and David Sharfman ended the first day on a losing 3-5 record. Virtually all of Sharfman's 38 Pro points this year have come from the two events he won—Pro Tour Nagoya and the Grand Prix title he picked up in Paris while Ben Stark was busy winning the Pro Tour—and there are fewer and fewer events remaining for the Florida native to rack up another big score and revive his Player of the Year chances.

The Czech road warrior Martin Juza could only manage a 4-4 record and will quietly add another couple of points to his pile, and the other contender to miss the cut is Brazilian Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, who crashed out with a 2-6 record. Had PVDDR managed to make a big finish here in Philadelphia, it would surely have sent alarm bells ringing among the other contenders. Handily placed on 34 points before this event, Paulo has the added advantage of having yet to play in the Brazil National Championship. Failing to launch at the Pro Tour will put extra pressure on Paulo to deliver at Nationals, but if he does so then it will make up for a lot of the disappointment of his performance here.

The Japanese

Three Japanese players were in contention for the Player of the Year title yesterday morning, and all three are still alive in this Pro Tour. Shouta Yasooka, Hall of Famer-elect Shuhei Nakamura, and Yuuya Watanabe all posted 5-3 records on the first day, meaning they are faced with a tough Day Two if they are to scrape into Sunday. They might not manage to do that, but even if they miss out on the chance to play in front of the camera tomorrow there are Pro points to be earned, and the difference between finishing 9th and finishing 200th is worth 5 critical Pro points. For Shuhei Nakamura that may not quite be enough, as he props up the top eleven players in the race—a whole 17 pro points behind leader Owen Turtenwald.

Yuuya Watanabe is on a streak he no doubt hopes to continue hear.

A 9th-place finish would probably come as a bit of a shock to Yuuya Watanabe, who has become used to playing in Top 8s. Watanabe is on a real charge, finishing 2nd, 1st, and 1st in his last three Grand Prix and wrapping up two trophies just in the last fortnight with his wins in Shanghai and Pittsburgh. Watanabe's route into the Top 8 of the Pro Tour requires a flawless Day Two, but should he make it in we could be witnessing precisely the sort of hot streak that made him Player of the Year in 2009.

The European

With Martin Juza already out of the tournament, the lone European contender in the Player of the Year race is Vincent Lemoine. The Belgian only has one Top 8 to his name this year, when he made it to the semifinals of Pro Tour Paris, but he sat on an impressive 6-2 record after the first day and will be eyeing a second Top 8 finish. A repeat of that performance would push Lemoine from the fringes of the Player of the Year race towards the head of the pack, but anything short of that will probably signal the end of his challenge. But there is a "but": Lemoine is also the Belgium national champion, and will be playing in both the individual and team World Championships, which is precisely the sort of "dark horse" position from which Frenchman Guillaume Matignon put a hold on Brad Nelson's coronation party last year!

Vincent Lemoine is a potential dark horse candidate.

The Americans

Owen Turtenwald led the Player of the Year race coming into Pro Tour Philadelphia, but that's a lead that he had amassed through his performance in Grand Prix rather than at Pro Tours. Turtenwald was a permanent fixture in the Top 8 of American Grand Prix, making the cut in Atlanta, Denver, Dallas and Providence before making the trip out to Singapore and fifth Top 8 slot. That is an incredible record, but Brian David-Marshall made an excellent point in the video preview to this Pro Tour: we've never had a Player of the Year who HASN'T made a Pro Tour Top 8 at some point in the year. On a 5-3 record after the first day, Owen has his work cut out for him if he's to post that Top 8 finish in Philadelphia. That's the bad news for Owen. The good news is that his closet rival was Ben Stark, who has already bowed out of the Pro Tour.

Owen Turtenwald has an uphill climb ahead of him.

If anyone is best-placed to capitalize on this weekend and steal a march in the Player of the Year race, then it could be Luis Scott-Vargas. LSV already has his Pro Tour Top 8 for the year under his belt, following his Quarter-Final finish in Nagoya, and while he's only occasionally made it into the Top 8 this year Scott-Vargas always been around and about to pick up a few more pro points. At the notional head of the ChannelFireball team, LSV was part of the "ski lodge" group that included many of the best players in the world and got together for two weeks to crack the Modern format wide open. The result of all that testing was the Midrange Zoo deck that one half of the ChannelFireball.com crew is playing, which has carried LSV to a 6-2 finish overnight. That puts Luis Scott-Vargas in the enviable position of being right on the shoulder of the leader, Owen Turtenwald, and Pro Tour Philadelphia could be exactly the right time for LSV to strike and steal the lead in the Player of the Year Race.

Luis Scott-Vargas is still in contention at the start of Day One.

That leaves Paul Rietzl, and if the stars align then Rietzl could find himself at the heart of an amazing story. Roll back the clock twelve months and Paul Rietzl was the champion of Pro Tour Amsterdam. Surely lightning won't strike in the same place twice? But then twelve months ago it was Paul Rietzl who beat Brad Nelson in the finals of that self-same Pro Tour, and watched Brad go on to win Player of the Year. What price an LSV-Rietzl final, which Rietzl wins only for LSV to go on and win Player of the Year? Better yet, what price Rietzl winning this Pro Tour and propelling himself out of tenth place to head the race along the final stretch? Rietzl sits on the same 6-2 record as LSV after the first day, and has the same Pro Tour Top 8 as LSV after losing the final in Paris earlier this year. Like the Pro Tour Paris winner Ben Stark, Rietzl has struggled to add pro points to his tally since then, but unlike Stark he is still in the hunt in Philadelphia. Paul Rietzl seems to be on a tipping point in his pro year, and whichever way he goes it will make for a great story.

The Player of the Year race is entering a critical phase, and today could decide an awful lot in who next holds onto that fantastic trophy. Pro Tour Philadelphia could well be the make-or-break point for our eventual Player of the Year. Owen Turtenwald could see his rivals fail to deliver, Luis Scott-Vargas could roar into the lead, Yuuya Watanabe could repeat his 2009 charge, or Paul Rietzl could make a run at it a second time. It's time to find out!

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