We’re still a couple of weeks away from the Player of the Year race resuming so I feel it’s a good time to review the standings and try to get a feel for how the race might progress. Because of the nature of the Magic season and how early we are in the process it is definitely tough to handicap but we have enough information to start making some predictions.
1 Simon Gotzen (Germany) 26 Points
Well we can get this out of the way right now. He’s not going to win the Player of the Year race. He’s only got 1 pro point outside of his win at Pro Tour San Diego. As Brian Kibler showed last year, when he finished in 9th in the player of the year race despite winning one Pro Tour and top 8ing another, you need a lot of points outside the pro tour to win. Gortzen doesn’t look to do the traveling necessary and despite being a pro tour winner he probably isn’t good enough to really compete at the top.
2 Adam Yurchick (United States) 22 Points
Most of his points have come from two events, a Grand Prix win and second place, in different constructed events (extended and standard). That is much more encouraging path for a player of the year hopeful. He has past results to indicate that he could be a threat if he decides to go for it. I don’t expect him to be at GP Lyon, but good results at GP Washington and Pro Tour San Juan might be enough to convince him to give it a run. I think it would be good for the game if he decided to give it a go. While I will be rooting for a Japanese player to win again it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the title came back to the states. Yurchick could be that player if he buckles down.
3 Kyle Boggemes (United States) 20 Points
While Gortzen has earned just a single point outside of the Pro Tour Boggemes hasn’t earned any. He’s played a role in devising some good PTQ decks, but there are no bonus points in the Player of the Year race (though they might be a good addition). No one who finishes second at a Pro Tour is bad, but that’s different than being a real threat for the title. I’d be surprised if he was near the top of the list by the end of the season.
T4 Craig Wescoe (United States) 19 Points
He is reportedly the highest rated player on Magic Online. You don’t get to that status without being an incredible player. But I think that being such a good online player might in some ways work against a player of the year run. It might be that it makes more sense for him to focus on events like the Magic Online Championship Series. Like most of the players on the list he might have a shot if he goes for it, but like Boggemes I’m not expecting to see him in the running near the end of the season.
T4 Luis Scott-Vargas (United States) 19 Points
As a fan of the Japanese LSV’s attitude towards player of the year makes me very happy. As we’ve seen over and over again these past three years he’s absolutely amongst the very best in the game. But unfortunately that’s not enough. He might well have won a vote for best player in the game in either 2009 or 2008, but he just doesn’t seem to care enough about the title to go for it. I’d be stunned if he wasn’t in the top 10 at the end of the season, but I’d be almost as stunned to see him with the title. If I was rooting for Americans I’d be writing letters of encouragement to get him out there going for it, but I honestly think Yurchick is more likely to take the crown than LSV is.
T6 Samuel Black (United States) 18 Points
Sam Black is one of the few Americans who really has adopted the globe trotting spirit. That is definitely one attribute that is a big help. However I don’t know if he is good enough to actually really compete for the title. He’s very good, but I don’t know that he’s actually great. He’s better than almost everyone playing Magic, but I personally don’t think he’s in the league of a player like LSV or the person he’s currently tied with. He could win the title but I’m not convinced he’s really at that level.
T6 Tomoharu Saito (Japan) 18 Points
Along with Gabriel Nassif and LSV Tomoharu Saito is one of three players in my mind who can make a case for best active player. Yes I realize that excludes the last two Players of the Year, but I don’t think either of them are as good as those three. He’s certainly got the skills. He’s probably going into the hall of fame this year. And he’s got a good mind set. He’s traveling to pretty much all the events and can view flame outs as business opportunities for his store so that bad tournaments aren’t complete wastes. Considering that he’s stated that he wants another crown I think he’s the hands down favorite to win.
8 Katsuhiro Mori (Japan) 15 points
As anyone who’s read my hall of fame ballot knows I think Mori is an incredible player. But the player of the year race is much more than just play skill. You also have to have an incredible drive and consistency. As Mori’s not even sure to attend all the pro tours, much less the requisite Grand Prixs there’s just no way he’s a legitimate candidate.
T9 Martin Juza (Czech Republic) 13 Points
When he made top 8 of Pro Tour Austin I thought he’d come through and actually take down the player of the year. The complexion of the whole race probably would’ve changed if he could have gained ground there. So despite finishing third he was really close to the title last year. I think that experience and the chance to break the five year Japanese hold on the title will provide him a lot of ammunition in the challenge. While he’s technically 13 points off the pace, he’s only 9 off Yurchick, who I think should be considered the actual leader. And he’s only 5 behind Saito, who I view as the favorite. So despite a relatively uninspiring start to the season without any top 8s, he’s right there in the thick of things.
T9 Yoshihiko Ikawa (Japan) 13 Points
I’m familiar with a pretty large group of Japanese players and I’d never heard his name before his top 8 at Pro Tour San Diego. I’d be quite surprised if he got the good luck to even make another top 8 this year, much less be in the race. I’m sure we’ll see his name again somewhere this year, but I’m not expecting much.
The rest of the 10+
There are 18 players with between 12 to 10 points. To me there are four players who are real threats from this group, three huge names who I don’t expect to be that close and one player who might be a dark horse candidate. The four players who I view as real threats are Paulo Vito Damo da Rosa and Petr Brozek on 12, and Conley Woods and Matej Zatlkaj on 11. PV has finished 5th, 9th, T12, and T3 in the last four seasons. Only Shuhei Nakamura and Tomoharu Saito have been consistently up at those levels the past four years. And PV is the only one of them without a Player of the Year title. If he can get back to pro tour Sunday and get past his bugaboos then he’ll be right there in the hunt. Petr Brozek is a bit of an unorthodox pick. And he doesn’t have the resume that necessarily indicate he should be in the hunt. But I think he’s got enough skill and has his plan worked out for pretty much all events that he could be dangerous. If Brozek is the master of playing the same deck Conley Woods is the master of different ones. He broke out onto the pro tour scene last year and has quickly earned a reputation as one of the best rogue builders going. He’s had some struggles so far this year but with some breaks could be in the battle. And Zatlkaj is just a good player who is hooked into a good group with Juza and a strong Eastern European community. As for the three big names who I don’t see as real threats there are two former Player of the Years in Nakamura and Yasooka and one of the most pouplar players on tour, Patrick Chapin. Everything that I’ve heard seems to indicate that Nakamura has lost some of his passion for the game and that he won’t be hitting all of the Grand Prixs this year. My personal opinion on him is also that he tends more towards the Budde side of the Budde-Finkel spectrum and that hard work is a key part of what makes him good rather than natural talent. I don’t know that Nakamura is the type of player who will put up great results if he’s not that excited to be playing. As for Yasooka I’m just not convinced he’s that good. He came from nowhere to win the player of the year title, had a decent follow up year (T12) and has had pretty middling seasons the last two years. Yasooka and Paul McCabe are the two player of the year winners whose names look out of place. I just don’t think he’s good enough to win a second title. And Chapin doesn’t seem to have a complete enough game to compete. The last person of note is Tom Ross, who’s really risen in esteem amongst the pro community and has both good results and a deck of his creation to show his ability. Whether or not he has the skill or desire is hard to say. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was competitive, but he could also very easily fall away from the leaders.
Working 9 to 5
Looking through the rest of the people currently on the leaderboard for player of the year there are a lot of big names but only two players who I think deserve mentioning here, the reigning champ and Sam Black’s partner in crime, both on nine. Yuuya Watanabe is hard for me to get a good feel for. I know he has some good constructed results, but I really feel like he’s a limited specialist. There are slightly fewer limited GPs out there for him to earn his points and I’d guess that the desire to defend his title isn’t that great. Gaudenis Vidugiris finished 2009 quite strong and has shown a desire to travel the world to play which makes him a candidate, but 9 points to this point with no top 8s is a bit of a concern. Thankfully it’s early and he’s definitely still involved but he’ll have to bring the level of play up a lot.
All Together Now
Looking at everything it really feels like a two horse race to me. I think Saito and Juza are just miles ahead of everyone else in terms of a mixture between skill and desire. If you gave me the two of them against the field I think I’d take them. That’s how large I think the gap is. Here is how I’d rank the prospects of everyone:
1. Tomharu Saito
2. Martin Juza
3. Adam Yurchick
4. Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
5. Luis Scott Vargas
6. Sam Black
7. Craig Wescoe
8. Petr Brozek
9. Gaudenis Vidugiris
10. Conley Woods
Clearly whoever wins the next pro tour will vault into contention and there’s a very real shot that someone off the list will come charging in. Watanabe probably wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar last year at this time or even after Pro Tour Hawaii. He didn’t get the ball rolling until Japanese Nationals. So that’s definitely a possibility. But at this point I think that’s the top 10 with the clear gap for the top two. And I guess I’ll have to root hard for Saito with no other Japanese players on the list.