he second leg of the 2006 Pro Tour season gets under way May 5 with Pro Tour-Prague. I decided to steal a page from Bill Simmons, who recently did an NBA playoff preview using the music of Pearl Jam. I always find myself associating songs with Magic cards and this seemed like a good opportunity to shake off the standard Pro Tour preview format and trot out some songs that would be ineligible for JSS competition.
The title of the preview comes from my all-time favorite band, The Replacements. I actually found myself thinking about Prague when this came up on my shuffle rotation the other day and was actually the inspiration for this format. I really cannot wait for Prague, having been looking forward to the city and format for months.
This event is remarkable because of its proximity to the release of Dissension. Dissension does not actually go on sale until Day One of the Pro Tour. This is the narrowest margin of time between the release of the product and its incorporation into a Limited Pro Tour since the fabled Pro Tour-Atlanta, which was also the Mirage Prerelease.
Pro Tour-Prague comes two weeks after the Dissension prerelease, which has sent players all around the world scrambling to win packs at their local tournaments or trade for packs from winners and judges who had Dissension. It seems like most players I have talked to were able to secure product to test with, although not many seem to have accumulated so much that they haven't been repacking boosters as Prague rolls up on them.
Living in the Real World, by Blondie
What makes this especially challenging is the fact that there is not going to be an opportunity for players to hone their draftcraft on MTGO. Magic Online has become the great leveler at the Pro level. Once upon a time, the top Pros came from areas with a high concentration of players and tournaments. It became apparent at Worlds 2004 that MTGO was changing that. Players from countries that would have been chalked up as byes in the '90s were suddenly taking down unwary pros.
Combine the short window of playtesting with the need for real-life product and playtest partners and suddenly you are testing a different set of skills than previous Limited Pro Tours (which rewarded preparation and repetition). Who will be the beneficiaries of this scenario? Are MTGO stalwarts such as Rich Hoaen, Sam Gomersall, and Terry Soh helped or hindered? Will 'raw talent' be rewarded, as Mark Herberholz mentioned in my column last week?
Players like Rich and Sam are obviously preparing for this event as much as they can, and there are clusters of top Pros all around the globe getting as may repetitions in as possible. If this hurts anyone, it would be the Terry Soh-type of player. Terry lives in Malaysia where there is not exactly a teeming population of Magic pros. Terry has been a poster child for MTGO and it will compelling to see if he can post a finish similar to Pro Tour-Nagoya from last season without the aid of his favorite playtest partner.
I'm Afraid of Americans by David Bowie
One cluster of players has been getting plenty of drafts under their collective belts by meeting almost every day at the home of the king of raw talent, Hall of Famer Jon Finkel. Back in November, Jon suggested that he might play in Prague during my video interview with him after his Hall of Fame induction. Many people thought that might just be Jonny Magic being the polite Magic
spokesman that he has been in the past, but the player with the most Top 8s in Pro Tour history is indeed returning to play in Prague.
I have known Jon since his earliest Magic days and he has always been among the very best there is at the game. When he first started playing competitively, he was driven by a passion for the game and a desire to prove to himself that he was one of the best in the world. With that quickly proven, Jon's passion for the game slackened yet he still thrived on raw talent. Eventually with nothing left to prove, Jon walked away from the game and it really seemed like he would never come back.
His induction into the Hall of Fame and a complimentary box of Ravnica rekindled his interest in drafting with his friends … and Jon even toyed with the idea of playing at Worlds, had the draft portion been on Day One. Despite a couple of stumbles as he knocked the rust off in early Ravnica drafts, Jon was still way ahead of the curve, second-picking karoos while most players were still debating their playability.
Jon's passion for the game is back and he has been drafting relentlessly – not out of a desire to practice, but simply because playing Magic makes him happy. That is good news for a handful of players from his inner circle who are qualified for Prague: Chris Manning, Jamie Parke, and Dan O'Mahoney-Schwartz should all benefit from some of the highest-level competition you can face in practice drafts.
There has been a lot of debate about where Jon will finish at this Pro Tour. Jon, ever the savvy surveyor of odds, feels the field is going to be way too large to accurately predict any player's finish. As a long-time observer of Jonny Magic, I can tell you this: Jon has more preparation for this Pro Tour than he put in for his last three Limited Pro Tour Top 8s combined – by a wide margin. Combine that with a renewed passion for playing the game and I would not be willing to bet against him – even if Jon was.
There are actually plenty of veteran American Magic players clustering to prepare for this event. Justin Gary is looking for a strong season to boost his Hall of Fame aspirations after winning a California PTQ. His surrounding cast includes Antonino De Rosa and Limited master Richie Hoaen. Gabe Walls is hosting a retreat that includes Neil Reeves, Mark Herberholz, Sam Gomersall, Mike Krumb, and Gerry Thompson. If you are looking for 'raw talent' there is definitely plenty to be found.
Old Time Rock and Roll, by Bob Seger
“I don't remember saying anything about a draft, Julien…”
Nuijten. There is no substitute.
With the parents gone, Julien Nuijten has the house to himself for a week and is ready for a little risky business. He is in Amsterdam after all, so is it any wonder that the teen former World Champion is going to be organizing a house full of …
…drafters to prepare for Prague?
Some of the most successful European players in the world will be coming to visit. Olivier Ruel won 57 Dissension packs over two days at French prereleases and will be bringing them to the party, along with his brother Antoine. Hopefully the likes of Geoffrey Siron, Frank Karsten, Jelger Wiegersma, and (almost all of) the rest of the Dutchies managed to win some packs as well.
The star power that is packing into that house includes countless Pro Tour Top 8s, close to a million dollars in lifetime winnings, the only 9-0 sweep in Pro Tour Top 8 history, and should have at least one member of Prague's Top 8 class.
Stray Cat Strut, by The Stray Cats
It's hard to feel bad for Jeroen Remie even though he is going to be excluded from the festivities at Julien's weeklong slumber party. Jeroen explained that irreconcilable differences with one of the permanent residents of that home would keep him from being able to even step foot in the house – apparently he is allergic to Julien's cat.
Poor Jeroen. He is going to have to go to Prague a week early and test with a group of Scandinavians who have holed up there to practice. Leading the playtest sessions is Last Chance Qualifier hopeful and two-time Limited Pro Tour winner Nicolai Herzog. Joining them will be Anton Jonsson, Johan Sadeghpour, Tuomo Nieminen, and a couple of American strays in John Fiorillo and Craig Krempels. I think it is safe to venture that another Top 8 player should emerge from this pack.
We're Comin' Out, by The Replacements
One of the biggest surprises in Honolulu was the absence of Japanese players in the Top 8 after a year in which they utterly dominated the Pro Tour scene. With a few notable exceptions, the Japanese players do not play on MTGO. They feel confident going into this event that they will return to form given that the rest of the world will not have its usual digital edge.
Masahiko Morita is poised for a Pro Tour breakout.
I spoke to my Japanese counterpart, Keita Mori, and asked him who he thought would do well this weekend. Apparently the Japanese consensus is that this will be Masahiko Morita's breakout event. Masahiko is among the very best Japanese players and has more Grand Prix Top 8 appearances than everyone not named Itaru Ishida, Olivier Ruel, or Alex Shvartsman. For a long time Morita barely traveled to Pro Tours outside of Asia, but turned it on last year to finish as a Level 5 mage despite never having reached the Top 8 of a Pro Tour.
There is no shortage of Japanese superstars to watch, from Player of the Year Kenji Tsumura (who has vowed to catch his Limited game up to that of his 60-card skills) to quintuple-Top-8-but-yet-to-win-a-Pro-Tour Masashi Oiso. If you are looking for a dark horse, watch for National team member Ichirou Shimura to make a run at the final table.
Alternative Ulster, by Stiff Little Fingers
Jon Becker has long contended that if he moved to the UK he would be the de facto second-best Limited player in the kingdom – and that the best Limited player can barely be considered a loyal subject. Sam Gomersall spends so much time running up American bar tabs and spending Heezy's winnings that he could probably vote in the mid-term elections.
Jon's assertion is less about blowing his own horn as it is about perpetrating the belief that Brits can't draft. Quentin Martin and Martin Dingler are just two of the players living in an alternative world where Jon would not find himself so close to the front of the line. Pro Tour-Honolulu finalist Craig Jones has demonstrated some serious Constructed chops but should find that it is much easier to topdeck Lightning Helix off of a 40-card deck than a 60-card one – assuming he can draft four, of course.
Who Wants to Live Forever, by Queen
There can be only four… players to emerge from the Last Chance Qualifier. The favorable exchange rate, exciting new format, and bevy of non-Magic distractions (if one should fall short) have made the LCQ a popular destination for many an old pro this weekend.
If you see this man smiling on Friday, look out.
The most notable highlander chopping off heads will be Nicolai Herzog. Nico was just a couple of play errors off the mark in London after winning back-to-back Limited Pro Tours the previous season. He is Mickey Mantle to Anton Jonsson's Willie Mays in the debate over the best Limited player of all time. He will not be the only Limited Pro Tour winner taking part in the LCQ, though.
Steven O'Mahoney-Schwartz has a win in Los Angeles and a Pro Tour finals in Mainz on his Limited resume, but it was his brother Dan who won a New England qualifier for Prague. Steve was coming along for the times and to cheer on his Antarctica teammate (they will be playing together in Charleston), and will be trying to join in on the main event fun while he's here.
Look for plenty of names from Pro Tours past to pop up in Thursday action. On the list of possibles are Igor Frayman, Matt Wang (last seen in the Top 32 of Pro Tour-Dallas!), Rudy Edwards, Greg Weiss, and Andy Wolf.
The Final Countdown, by Europe
You can follow all the action with Randy Buehler's podcast, the coverage from a crack crew that includes myself, Ted Knutson, Tim Willoughby, Jon Becker, and Scott Johns, and of course the webcast of the finals featuring my return to the coverage booth alongside Randy.
Also making a return to the coverage is the Draft Viewer, perhaps the most exciting coverage feature from Pro Tour-London (go back and look at the deck that Oiso could have had if he had only switched into red!). It will return this weekend and you will be able to experience the Top 8 draft firsthand. If you want to learn how to draft this block, there might not be a better investment of your time.
I'm pretty excited. How about you? Don't forget to use the forums to give us feedback over the weekend. What do you have on your Prague playlist?