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Pro Tour-London Preview

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The letter O!ver the past two seasons, the Pro Tour schedule has featured an extra Pro Tour in order to get the calendar year and the Pro Tour season onto a friendlier basis. Although Pro Tour Columbus kicked off this season way back in 2004, when this season ends it will be the last time a Pro Tour season straddles two calendar years. One of the subtle side effects of this process is that the second Limited Pro Tour of this season takes place later than any other in recent memory, making this the first time that I can recall where a mid-season Pro Tour event showcases an entire block on the Limited stage.

Saviors of Kamigawa will still be relatively new this weekend when players sit down for the first draft of the tournament. While it has been available for sale since the beginning of May, it has only been available for drafts on Magic Online since Tuesday of this week – a pretty small window for the international Pro Tour community that has come to rely on Magic Online for tournament preparation.

It is not the first major tournament to feature the format, though. Olivier Ruel recently won Grand Prix-Bologna which featured the full Kamigawa Block with Sealed Deck on Day One and Booster Draft on Day Two and in the Top 8. His draft deck for the Top 8 was a nearly monoblack deck that showcased Okiba-Gang Shinobi and Waking Nightmare.

With the emphasis on the number of cards a player has in hand that Saviors introduced, several cards have seen their stock take a tremendous upturn. None have gone up as much as the Okiba-Gang with at least one Limited pundit claiming that he now drafts the Mind-Rot-on-wheels higher than Horobi's Whisper. That opinion is shared by some, but it is far from a consensus. It is sure to be a story that will warrant further attention over the weekend. Look for an article polling the game's top Limited players as to the correct answer as well as draft coverage focusing on this particular pick.

Any cards that affect the number of cards a player is holding have gone up in value, whether it is by discard (Waking Nightmare, Three Tragedies, and Okiba-Gang Shinobi) or card drawing (Counsel of the Soratami, Soratami Cloudskater, and Honden of Seeing Winds). It will be interesting to see how players lay the groundwork in Champs and Betrayers for the third pack and how well it pays off.

Making its debut this Pro Tour will be a new way to review the Top 8 draft. No more trying to reconstruct that draft by merely reading one reporter's view of the events. Instead, you'll be able to see the contents of each pack just like a player would, and then see which card the player selected and which cards he passed along -- and you'll be able to do this from the seat of each of the players!

Perhaps the most significant effect of Saviors of Kamigawa on this Limited format is that many players have been choosing to draw rather than play to exploit the bonuses of cards such as Secretkeeper, Akki Underling, Deathmask Nezumi, Descendant of Kiyomaro, and Okina Nightwatch. With many players looking to go second, are there any fast beatdown draft strategies that ignore the third set's mechanics and look to “win” the coinflip no matter which side it lands on? We'll see shortly.

Players to watch

There are two players in particular that need to lead off any prognostications for a Limited tournament – Sweden's Anton Jonsson and Canada's Rich Hoaen. They have been two of the most dominant players in Limited the past few seasons regardless of the format and have to be favorites coming into London.

Anton Jonsson hasn't missed the semis in three Limited PTs.
Anton has done no worse than Top 4 in his last three individual Limited Pro Tours. Earlier this season, he made it as far as the finals of Pro Tour-Nagoya before falling to Japan's Shu Komuro. I don't know for sure but is a pretty reasonable assumption that the first draft coverage of the weekend will involve planting a reporter over Anton's right shoulder. Anton is far from the only Swede worthy of note this weekend, however. Keep an eye on Simon Carlsson, who seems poised for a huge tournament any weekend now.

Of course, if the coverage kicked off with Hoaen, it would be hard to argue with the decision. His streak may be slightly less spectacular than Anton's, but it actually goes back all the way to Pro Tour-Chicago where he finished 22nd – his WORST individual finish in a Limited Pro Tour over three seasons! Rich reached the Top 8 of his next draft event in Yokohama and over the last three such events in Amsterdam, San Diego, and Nagoya he has piled up 10th-, 12th-, and 11th-place finishes, respectively. He recently finished second at Grand Prix-Detroit and is rumored to have never done worse than 5-1 during the Limited portion of Canadian Nationals.

2005 Player of the Year Race
1 Olivier Ruel France 57
2 Gadiel Szleifer USA 47
3 Kenji Tsumura Japan 45
4 Shu Komuro Japan 43
5 Shuhei Nakamura Japan 43
6 Pierre Canali France 36
7 Masashi Oiso Japan 35
8 Anton Jonsson Sweden 30
9 Tomohiro Kaji Japan 30
10 Tomoharu Saito Japan 30

There is little question that when Randy Buehler is picking out feature matches, Anton's and Rich's names will be the first two on his checklist. The front-runners in the Player of the Year Race should also take up plenty of feature match chairs this weekend. Olivier Ruel is coming off of a win in this format at Bologna and is a good bet to pad his 10-point lead over Gadiel Szleifer this weekend.

Of course, Gadiel is coming off of a Pro Tour win and has put up a number of very strong Limited finishes in team events. The "Taking Back Sunday" T-shirt has seen action in the finals of the last two Pro Tours (look at pics of Adam Chambers from Atlanta and you can just make it out). Gadiel will be looking for a third such Sunday appearance for both himself and the T-shirt this season. Although the Taking Back Sundays gang got together as a mailing list to focus on Constructed, most of the players on the team are strong Limited players and any of them could churn to the top of the standings this weekend. In addition to team mainstays Adam Chambers, Tim Aten, John Pelcak, Don Smith, and Andrew Pacifico, you should also keep an watchful eye for the re-emergence of former U.S. National team member Bill Stead who is loosely associated with the new team.

Gadiel has been the top U.S. player in 2005.
While the acrimony between TOGIT and TBS has seemingly cooled, it will still be interesting to watch the two American teams vie for position in London. Can the upstart group supplant TOGIT as the top American team? Gadiel's win in Philadelphia pushed him 20 points ahead of the next American in the Player of the Year race, who happens to be TOGIT leader Osyp Lebedowicz. With a pair of Top 8s this season, Gadiel is the most dominant North American player coming into the weekend.

Other North Americans to watch beside the TOGIT/TBS battle of the acronyms are a handful of players from north of the border. Murray “The Mauler” Evans will be looking to follow his unorthodox pick orders to another Top 8 finish after placing fourth in Nagoya. Jeff “ffeJ” Cunningham is one of the finest drafters in the world and can usually be found hanging just back of the Top 8 but still in the money.

Lurking right behind Olivier and Gadiel in the Player of the Year race is a trio of Japanese players -- Pro Tour Nagoya winner Shu Komuro and PT finalists Kenji Tsumura and Shuhei Nakamura. While Olivier Ruel sits atop the race, he has said on multiple occasions that Kenji is the best player in the world at the moment. The Japanese have put players into the Top 8 with regularity this season, and the fact that there have been three different Japanese players in the finals of all three individual events makes it hard to handicap who is going to advance to Sunday this weekend.

Masashi Oiso returns to the Tour after skipping Philadelphia due to school commitments – an absence that could end up being very costly for Oiso in light of the Players Club announcement.

Akira Asahara with his Matsuyama trophy.
“I need to go to London,” explained Oiso. “The announcement came just a little too late, Mr. Randy!”

One player that many people might not necessarily expect to see on Sunday, but should be keeping an eye on, is Akira Asahara. Known mostly as a Constructed specialist, Asahara has a pair of Limited Grand Prix wins to his credit, including this season's Grand Prix-Matsuyama. Somehow he fought his way past a triple-Glacial Ray concoction in the quarters of the Top 8 and handily dispatched Oiso in the finals. Most of the Japanese pros agree that among the list of top names missing an individual Sunday appearance on their resume, Asahara is the best player on that list.

Gabriel Nassif's win in Atlanta may finally put to bed the myth that he is only a Constructed player, and along with Olivier Ruel and Olivier's brother Antoine has to be considered among the most likely French players to sit down for the final draft of the weekend. If you want to keep your eyes on a potential dark horse, look for Julien Goron, currently in second place for Rookie of the Year behind countryman Pierre Canali. Julien finished 19th in Columbus and 12th in Nagoya and could be poised as the next breakout star from the European Magic superpower.

What about the players from the host country? England has not been a force on the Pro Tour for a couple of years, although Sam Gomersall has been racking up money finishes in his last four Limited Pro Tours (with a 65th-place finish in Chicago prior to his streak). The Magic Invitationalist who made it a point to do separate drafts while playing matches at E3 recently made the Top 8 of Grand Prix-Detroit and drafts more than anyone else in the world (with the possible exception of Rich Hoaen or Anton Jonsson).

After Sam, you have to look to England's potential Rookie of the Year, Nick West. Nick has proven to be quite a Constructed player but has been putting in time and energy to elevate his Limited game as well. Quentin Martin has also made quite a splash in Limited events this year, including a Top 8 in Bologna a couple of weeks ago. Stuart Wright, Craig Jones, and Craig Stevenson are some other notable hometown players to track throughout the weekend.

Karsten tries to recall his entire list at once.
Like France and Germany, the Netherlands has been a dominant force on the Pro Tour over the last two seasons. But since Von Dutch won Seattle and Julien Nuijten became the World Champion, only Frank Karsten has seen any Sunday action. That's when we first heard about Karsten's “list," a systematic ranking of all the Champions cards that he used to reach the final draft table. Look for Karsten, Nuijten, Jeroen Remie, Jelger Wiegersma, and Kamiel Cornelissen to spend a lot of time in the feature match area this weekend. Jeroen told me to keep an eye on relatively unknown Bas Knapen, a player who wins regularly within the friendly confines of his home country but rarely travels to any of the Pro Tour events he qualifies for.

Malaysia's Terry Soh leads the international class from Nagoya as one of the other players to watch. Terry has become known for his bluff against Karsten and his take on Tooth and Nail that he used to win the 2005 Magic Invitational. An avid MTGO player, Terry surely has been cramming online all week long to get ready for this event. Greece's Vasilis “Jeff” Fatouros and Finland's Jarno Harkonen will be looking for follow-up performances to Nagoya, while Japan's Mashashiro Kuroda will not be in attendance.

In addition to the tournament prize purse of $200,130, a few players are poised to break the 100 lifetime Pro Points barrier this weekend. This is significant for a few reasons. For anyone cresting that plateau, they would become eligible to vote on the fifth member of this year's Hall of Fame class as part of the Player Committee. In some cases (such as Eric Taylor, who has 93 lifetime points), notching that 100th point would make them eligible for next year's Hall of Fame ballot.

Whether you tune in to get a grasp of pick orders for your own MTGO drafts, to see if Anton can finally close the deal on Sunday, or just want to know if you should be playing or drawing in this draft format be sure to tune in for the live coverage from London all weekend long.

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