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Pro Tour–Atlanta Preview

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The letter T!his weekend marks the return of the Pro Tour to Atlanta, Georgia, for the first time in nine years. The last time the Pro Tour graced these southern streets was in 1996 for the fourth Pro Tour -- which also marked the release of Mirage. In fact, the players in the Pro Tour used Mirage for the tournament, marking the first and only time that a Pro Tour was played as a Prerelease.


Poulter, Justice and Johns from Atlanta's past.

It was also the site of the first team event played under the auspices of the Pro Tour. Five-player teams were assembled from around the world and were handed a pool made up of five Ice Age starter decks and five Alliances packs to build five decks. In the end it was Pacific Coast Legends (Mark Justice, Preston Poulter, Mark Chalice, Mario Robaina, and fresh-faced Scott Johns) defeating Team Oasis (Dave Lyon, Mike Reinking, Jeff Sternal, Kevin Sternal, and Chris Sternal) to take home the first prize of $11,000. Team Oasis won $6,000 while semifinalists Team Canada and Reservoir Dogs earned $4,000 apiece.

It is only fitting that after nine years away from Atlanta, the Pro Tour returns for a Limited Team event. Hundreds of teams -- of the three-person variety -- will descend upon Atlanta this weekend for their share of $200,100. On Day One, the competitors will have to grapple with two Tournament Packs (another example of how the times have changed) of Champions of Kamigawa and four booster packs of Betrayers of Kamigawa to build three separate 40-card minimum decks and sideboards.

In total, the players will have to do this three times, playing against two different teams after each build. At the end of six rounds, each team with at least 12 points (a 4-2 record or better) will advance to Day Two -- and five daunting rounds of Team Rochester Draft. Team Rochester is a completely unique and challenging format that tests skills that are unused in most other formats. (Although it should be noted that many a team has failed to make Day Two due to overtesting for the draft portion and completely overlooking the fact that Team Sealed is an altogether different animal.)

Each round of play is preceded by a draft against the opposing team. Teams are seated around the table so that Players A, B, & C from one team are in a row followed by the same progression from the opposing team (see diagram below). Each player ends up drafting opposite from the opponent that they will be facing and all the drafting is done with all the cards laid out face up on the table.

One team will win the coin toss and can choose to either “kick off” (open the first pack) or “receive” (choose to let the other team open first and react to their strategy). Which option is considered best can shift from block to block, and opinions vary from team to team in any given block. The B player on the opening team will lay out the contents of the booster pack on the table and all the players have a period of review. During this time the players cannot speak, although they may communicate through hand signals and the occasional roll of the eyes.

When the review period comes to a close, the B player will select a card. The pick then shifts to the left and the C player makes a pick. The next three picks then go to A, B, and C on the opposing team before the opening team’s Player A gets to make two picks -- otherwise known as “the wheel” -- as the picks shift direction back in the direction from whence they came.

Once all the cards from the pack have made their way into a pile in front of a player, the action shifts to Player C, who opens his first pack and the process is repeated (this time the B player has “the wheel”) with each player opening a pack in turn until it comes to the opening team’s A player, who opens the final pack of that set. Then the drafting direction reverses for the second set of packs, with the third set of packs returning to the original direction.

The players take the cards they have drafted and each build their own deck and sideboard with full knowledge of what cards their opponent has at their disposal. Because of this element, cards that are color hosers, enchantment and artifact removal, and evasion (such as flying or fear) are more important than ever. You might not normally splash green for a Matsu-Tribe Sniper or Gale Force, but if your opponent has a blue-white air force you might very well be looking for the Sniper in pack three while your opponent might be trying to get as many Heart of Lights as possible. Of course, your teammate might have to forgo one of his/her picks in order to keep that Heart of Light out of your opponent’s deck. There is a very delicate balance of taking cards for your deck, taking cards specifically to hose cards in your opponent’s deck, and also hate-drafting cards from your teammate’s opponent’s decks.

It is all very convoluted and teams develop very complex color/archetype strategies to take advantage of the direction that packs are drafted, usually focusing on the third set. Because there is a Champions of Kamigawa pack going in each direction, neither team gets a huge advantage out of that set. Teams usually try to position their colors to take advantage of what they deem to be the strongest colors in the third set.

Team Rochester Strategy 101 teaches that if you think a color -- let’s say white -- is strongest in that third set, then you want to set up your C player in that color so he/she enjoys the maximum amount of undisturbed looks at that color in the third set of packs. Of course most of these teams are way beyond Introduction to Team Rochester. If you know that your opponents are trying to put white into the C seat most of the top teams will develop counter strategies to exploit that tendency.

Phoenix Foundation will not be together in Atlanta.
Look for interviews with the top teams as we quiz them about their approach to each of the weekend’s team formats. In the past, no list of the top teams would be complete without Phoenix Foundation (Kai Budde, Dirk Baberowski, and Marco Blume). Phoenix Foundation is the single most successful team of all time with wins at multiple Pro Tours, and a Masters thrown in for good measure. Marco is unable to attend this event, which put Kai and Dirk in the unusual position of having to pull together teams. That’s right -- Phoenix Foundation has been disbanded (at least for this Pro Tour).

Kai will be playing with Mattias Jorstedt and Bernardo De Costa Cabral, but Dirk’s fate is a little less clear. He has apparently joined forces with Nick West and they were waiting on a former but ostensibly retired great of the format to round out their squad. But if that does not pan out, you may find Dirk -- a man who has won multiple Pro Tours -- looking to pull together a squad on-site.

Anton Jonsson, arguably the best Limited player in the world, is taking advantage of his success from the past year to play alongside some of his pals from Sweden, Thomas Rosholt and Johan Sadegphour. Pro Tour teams can be made up of any combination of three players with a total of 50 Pro Tour points by the Nagoya standings. Anton has 52 points all by his lonesome and can take any two players he wants.

It will be intriguing to see if Anton can find the same success in Team Limited that he has found in individual play. For the last few team events, Anton has assembled powerhouse squads only to find himself sleeping in on Saturday. His teammates in Seattle? Tuomo Nieminen and Nicolai Herzog. If you were going to argue about whether or not Anton is the best Limited player, Nico’s name is certainly one that would come up. Due to the unique communication requirements -- only with body language during the draft -- and cooperative nature of the format, many players have suggested that playing with friends you know and trust is an overlooked element of Team Limited.

A team that has done well for as long as the format has been in existence is Black Ops, featuring the players who are currently first and second in the Nagoya standings -- Olivier and Antoine Ruel. Along with Florent Jeudon, Black Ops first rose to prominence when they took the Grand Prix title in Cannes in the second season of the format’s existence. Later that year, when Magic was being featured in a series of ESPN television specials, Black Ops won a Team Challenge over Antarctica (Steven and Dan O’Mahoney-Schwartz and Jon Finkel), Your Move Games (Dave Humpherys, Rob Dougherty, and Darwin Kastle), and Team Game Empire (Alan Comer, Brian Selden, and Kurt Burgner).

Pro Tour-Columbus winner Pierre Canali is playing with two up-and-coming French players and they could be a sleeper team. Julien Goron is currently (and quietly) third in this season’s Rookie of the Year race after Top 32 finishes in both Pro Tours and money finishes in the Paris and Eindhoven Grand Prix events. Their trio is rounded out by Bastien Perez, who was last seen finishing second at Grand Prix-Paris. The three friends play and practice Magic together and have been putting in a lot of work for this tournament.

As for France’s most well-known, Yellow-hatted, constructed specialist . . . Gabriel Nassif’s team fate seems to be up in the air. By all accounts (as of late last week), his team was going to feature Canadians David Rood (of 2020 fame) and Gabe Tsang (of after-hours drafting fame) but that plan may have taken a detour in Seattle this past weekend. Jeff Cunningham was anticipating a team of Aeo Paquette and Mark Zajdner, but Mark may not be able to make it due to an illness. Apparently Nassif may now be filling the third spot, which would result in a potential powerhouse team with every member having at least one Pro Tour Top 8 on their resume.

Many of the Canadians seem to be taking international approaches to forming their teams. Rich Hoaen is from Canada and has picked up American Mark Herberholz (Top 8 Pro Tour San Diego) and Englishman Sam Gomersall (perpetual money winner and on that short list of Best Player Without Top 8). Play Magic . . . travel the world . . . make friends -- and money, as this team could be one of the more formidable squads given their Limited success and willingness to tirelessly playtest the format.

Another multi-national team that I know has been pulled together is Terry Soh, Joe Soh (his younger brother and holder of a 19th-place finish at Worlds in 2003) and Sweden’s Simon Carlsson. Terry decided this past Sunday that he did not want to let his 36 Pro Points lay fallow and he put the word out via back channels that he was looking for a team. Simon, who finished 20th in Nagoya, brought 12 points to the table which was just enough for Joe Soh’s 3 points to put them over the top.

Von Dutch hoists their prize from Pro Tour-Seattle.
Von Dutch, the reigning Team Pro Tour champions have been in the United States practicing all week with the gang from TOGIT and Kai Budde. With Jeroen Remie, Kamiel Cornelissen, and Jelger Wiegersma banging away at the format alongside countrymen Frank Karsten (remember "The List" from Nagoya?) and Ruud Warmenhoven, with Osyp Lebedowicz, Eugene Harvey, Gerard Fabiano, Craig Krempels and company -- not to mention…you know…Kai -- you have to expect that they will have a pretty thorough understanding of not just the best strategies in the format but how to react to them with developed counter-strategies.

At last check the TOGIT teams broke down as Ladies Men (Osyp, Gerard, and John Fiorillo), Doombot (Kate Stavola, Jon Sonne, and Krempels), and Eu-Gi-Noh (Eugene, Adam Horvath, and Patrick Sullivan).

The two highest finishing American teams from Pro Tour Seattle were :B (Tim Aten, Gadiel Szleifer, and John Pelcak) and the Max Fischer Players (Josh Ravitz, Chris Pikula, and Igor Frayman). Since that tournament, :B won Grand Prix-Chicago and Gadiel made the Top 8 at Pro Tour-Columbus. They are the top-rated team in the world and they have to be one of the favorites coming into Atlanta. The Max Fischer Players will be an interesting team to keep an eye on -- at the very least, Pikula is always worth one or two great sound bites per round. They made the Top 4 in Chicago, and while Igor and Craig have been working on Sealed Deck, Josh has been sitting in on the TOGIT sessions. One prominent U.S. team representing non-TOGIT American interests is the threesome of Paul Rietzl, Gabe Walls and Dave Humpherys.

Finally on the domestic front, one of the truly great American teams from the past is apparently making an appearance this weekend, but every time I try to type in the details my computer crashes and I have to start over. It seems to be some sort of conspiracy and you will have to wait until Friday to see for yourself -- provided the WotC servers don’t go down as the team tries to cover its tracks.

Last year in Seattle, only five Japanese teams made the trip to the United States for the team event. Two of those teams made the Top 4, which could help to change the perception within Japan about traveling for Team events. The Japanese have certainly shown a greater willingness to travel the past few months, with half a dozen of Japan’s best showing up in Boston and Seattle for the Grand Prix this season.

Shop-fireballpros.com is one of several powerful teams from Japan.
Shop-fireballpros.com (Tsuyoshi Ikeda, Itaru Ishida, Jin Okamoto) is considered to be the best team in Japan, after a second-place finishes Pro Tour-Seattle and Grand Prix-Osaka 2005. The team’s unquestioned leader is Ishida, who is considered to be one of the most skilled Rochester draft leaders in the world.

Gatas Brilhantes (Shu Komuro, Tomohide Sasagawa, Ichiro Shimura) qualified for this event when they made the Top 4 at Grand Prix-Osaka. Komuro then went on to win Pro Tour-Nagoya, and combined with Shimura’s 30-odd points from reaching the Top 4 with S.A.I. in Seattle, had more than enough points to form a team and a half.

With Shimura playing with the champ, Seattle Top 4 team S.A.I. had to find a new third and didn‘t have to look any further than Columbus Top 8 competitor Shuhei Nakamura. I’m not sure what their team name, is but the lineup is scheduled to be Nakamura, Masami Ibamoto, and Ryuichi Arita. Nakamura is one of the Japanese pros who made the trip to Seattle a week ahead of the Pro Tour and went on to Top 4 this past weekend.

Speaking of Grand Prix-Seattle . . . Sneak Attack deck designer, reining National Champion and Grand Prix-Seattle Top 8 finisher Tsuyoshi Fujita is joining forces with Pro Tour-Amsterdam Top 8 finisher Osamu Fujita and former Japanese National Champion Masayuki Higashino.

Masashiro Kuroda is one of the most fascinating figures in Japanese Magic, but he will be unable to attend despite winning Grand Prix-Osaka with PS2 -- the team that also won Venice Masters a few years back. Former Rookie of the Year Katsuhiro Mori and Grand Prix monster Masahiko Morita were forced to find a third, but they had to look no further than another Rookie of the Year. And there might not be a better player in the world right now than their choice, Masashi Oiso.

Be sure to follow all the action with these teams (and the ones I have inevitably overlooked) over the weekend. There will be all of the video and text coverage you have come to expect, along with the return of Josh Bennett to the coverage game (as well as a few other surprises).

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