Wizards is a fairly amazing company in terms of online support for their product lines, with daily updates to the Magic site and product developers who regularly read and respond to email. One aspect of this support that I especially appreciate is the archiving of Pro Tour webcasts. Each Pro Tour event features a live webcast of the top eight, allowing you and thousands of other players to watch the finale of the the event and, more often than not, see some really good play. Since 2004, Wizards has been archiving those webcasts in and making them available for download on The Webcast Video Archive page. There, you can find the top eights — usually broken up into quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals — zipped and ready for download and viewing.
Recently, I’ve taken to downloading some of the event coverage, stripping out the audio into separate files, and then using that as background listening from time to time. If you know the cards and the tournament environments, the audio play-by-play is about as good as the video (and if you don’t know all that, the video tends to lose you anyway).
In the extended, I’ll talk about my favorite coverage, and why I think it’s good stuff.
I’m preceding each of these with a link to the page for the event itself, but remember that the video files are all in the same place.
Pro Tour Valencia 2007 (Extended)
The flooded Pro Tour, Valencia had a top eight that came on the heels of three final rounds of swiss play. This was the first top eight I’d ever watched live, and it ended up being at a rather ungodly hour on my time. Still, it was fun and exciting, especially the final game. That said, PT Valencia is a little sedate overall, and if I were going to tell people to watch part of it, I’d point them at the Semifinals and the Finals. Some of the good stuff to look out for:
Sam Stein making the optimal, if scary, play in his match against Andre Muller. Stein still lost, but not for lack of good play.
Shuhei Nakamura powering into Muller, again making some pretty solid plays. Especially fun is Nakamura’s simple algorithm for Fact or Fiction — always take the big pile.
Remi Fortier versus Andre Muller is a great match. Highlights include Remi getting out from under a resolved Enduring Ideal, and Remi’s obvious excitement when he realizes that he has the win in game five.
Pro Tour Yokohama 2007 (Time Spiral Block)
The top eight at Yokohama ends up being an exercise in control, and for that reason, many of the matches are a little on the sedate side. Even so, there’s some impressive play by Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Mark Heberholz, and Tomoharu Saito. The highlights:
Masashi Oisi versus Mark Herberholz in the quarterfinals is an exercise in bad matchups, and was awfully predictive of how things would continue to go for the rest of the Time Spiral block constructed qualifier season (that fed into Valencia). This is worth watching because it shows how a fundamentally good player who makes no real mistakes can still be helpless when the matchup is bad and the other player is also playing optimally.
Raphael Levy versus Tomaharu Saito is good for a couple of reasons. First, it shows that the RDW versus RDW matchup transforms two aggro decks into the control role. Second, Saito makes some solid sideboarding choices that do an end run around Levy’s game plan, converting a match that Levy considered himself favored in into a real problem instead.
Wafo-Tapa versus Herberholz in the quarterfinals is a quiet, nearly glacial control-on-control matchup. I honestly don’t enjoy watching two counterspell-based control decks having a go at each other, so I find this match boring. It is, however, a good primer on the control-control matchup. If you’re interested in playing counter-control, watch this one.
The finals between Wafo-Tapa and Kazuya Mitamura are a little depressing, because Mitamura makes a number of inexplicable play errors after having had such a good run at the event. It’s most striking for the ingenuity with which Wafo-Tapa gets out from under the Pickles lock, if only for a turn. That kind of careful yet creative thinking is something I’d like to cultivate, and which will benefit any player by eking out a few extra game wins over a long event.
Worlds 2006 (Standard)
There’s just so much to like about this one. It has the epic Chan-Nassif match, the similarly epic Mihara error and recovery, and Mihara’s very smart play to take out a seemingly invincible opponent to make it to the finals. Let’s take those one at a time:
Gabriel Nassif’s Matryrtron build broke the format, to quote Randy Buehler. With recurring dramatic life gain and several removal options, Nassif’s deck seemed like a near auto-win against Tiago Chan’s Angelfire build, which sought to control tempo a little and then power through Lightning Angels and Demonfires for the win. In testing for the event, Tiago was so down on his chances that he even considered just ditching the quarterfinals, but finally decided that the right thing to do was show up and play out the loss. The matchup on the day, however, was not nearly so clear. Attacking with Annex, Chan surprised viewers and shocked Nassif by stealing all of Nassif’s colored mana producers, cutting off Martyr recursion and hammering home a win. In a very, very long match, Chan came surprisingly close to winning the “unwinnable” and making it on to the semis. This is a great example of using orthogonal thinking to devise a solution, rather than being stuck on one solution space and seeing only an unsurmountable challenge. As mentioned, this is a tremendously long match — so long, in fact, that they start the other semifinals match even as Nassif and Chan resolve theirs. Also, look for Nassif’s ridiculous life totals in the games he wins.
Makihito Mihara went on to win the whole event, but his most famous play on the day is his miscount and recovery against Paulo Vito Damo da Rosa. All of Mihara’s games against Paulo are worth watching for the strength of Mihara’s play — unlike the scrubbier variety of Dragonstorm players, Mihara has a good feel for when to go for the kill and when to just play out a single dragon, wipe the board, and attack the other guy to death. The last game is the great one, though. I love Briand David-Marshall’s response when he realizes Mihara has miscounted his mana, and then I love the entire play of emotions on both Mihara’s and da Rosa’s faces as Mihara sees if he can dig his way out of the mistake. The solution is, of course, one of those great moments in Magic, of playing for the only possible win, and then seeing that win.
Mihara versus Nassif offers a second lesson in how to win the unwinnable, as Mihara works around the problem of Nassif being able to easily get outside of Mihara’s instant-kill range by playing out one or two dragons at a time. It’s also notable that Nassif, an excellent player, loses the match to a greedy play — similar to the greedy play that helped put him out of the quarterfinals in the most recent Worlds.
PT Charleston 2006 (Ravnica Block Team)
I like the coverage on this one because, as it’s a team event, you get a lot of different, interesting games in a fairly compact block of time. The “interestingness” is kicked up by the team format, in which deckbuilding restrictions apply across the team — so yes, that’s four Watery Graves across all three of you. This means it’s not just some dull, block constructed three-on-three event, but a more strategic-minded affair. I like both semifinal matchups in this one (no quarters, as it’s team), but I’ll only highlight:
The finals between Raaala Pumba and Kajiharu80 shows off a lot of excellent gameplay, and some inexplicable stuff as well. Watch the Yasooka-Edel matchup and see if you can figure out why Yasooka repeatedly declines to take out Sunforger with Angel of Despair, even as he’s making super-clever plays with Rise/Fall and other cards. I especially like how Tomoharu Saito figures out a plan to change his deck’s entire mode of play to deal with an otherwise terrible matchup with Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. Once again, it’s a matter of orthogonal thinking, as Saito goes entirely off the plan he’s been on all weekend because this specific matchup demands it.
Pro Tour Honolulu 2006 (Standard)
This event from the era of Ravnica-Kamigawa-Ninth constructed proved to be all about taking advantage of slow decks, as you can see by comparing the decklists going into the event with those appearing in the top eight. Once the top eight started, there was no one left to take advantage of, and the pure aggro builds took out the non-aggro Owling-Mine-style builds. The quarterfinals can be missed, although the spectacle of Antoine Ruel playing an Ancestral Recall as a joke in his terrible matchup against Craig Jones is a fun one. The semifinals are the real action in this one, including one especially well-known match.
Tiago Chan faced Mark Herberholz in a pretty bad matchup, with Owling Mine trying to take down Gruul. Even so, Chan took a game on the back of some clever theft of Herberholz’s critters. Although the conclusion was nearly foregone on this one, it’s still good to watch Chan make the best of it — something that he did a lot of in 2006, it seems.
Craig Jones versus Olivier Ruel is the $16,000 Lightning Helix. As it’s part of the lead-in bumper to all Pro Tour events now, you’ll have seen it already if you’ve watched recent PT coverage. This is another example of playing for your only out, then getting that out — much like Mihara in Worlds 2006. It’s also an awesome moment, and the kind of thing that will make you remember a game well into the future.
Worlds 2005 (Standard)
Worlds 2005 is one of my favorite top eights, even though it has a notable black mark on the final match in terms of a major, missed misplay. Even with that error, it’s full of great games up through the top eight — and you get a lot of top eight, as the quarterfinals goes exceptionally long. In retrospect, I like the Kamigawa-Ravnica-Ninth environment, and would have liked to have been playing competitively then.
Katsuhiro Mori and Shuhei Nakamura face off in a quarterfinal mirror match, and even though Katsu Mori sweeps it, I’m still not sure if he’s just that much better, or if Shuhei had a really unlucky day. I like the Ghazi-Glare build both players are using in this one, so that’s just bonus fun in watching them face off.
Akira Asahara brought his Enduring Ideal deck into a supposedly terrible matchup against Marcio Carvalho. That makes it all the more entertaining to hear continuous updates about Asahara’s wins going on in the background while the main coverage focus is elsewhere. With a little luck and some good play, Asahara took Marcio out surprisingly quickly. If you’re a combo player, this may be an especially enlightening match, with its invisible subtitle of “winning through the hate.”
Frank Karsten and Ding Leong have a very interesting, but epically placid, match. Karsten is pretty much solely responsible for the quarterfinals dragging to about three hours — no surprise, with a first game that takes over an hour! Karsten brought a Greater Good/Gifts deck with a ton of options, and in this match he gives a solid class in how to use all the tools at your disposal to win a game. That said, it is slow, and I can’t imagine just sitting and watching it for the many hours that it took — this is a match that is much better suited to listening.
Frank Karsten’s match against Akira Asahara is shorter, thankfully, and offers all sorts of fascinating lessons. I like game one, which is only reported on in the background as the cameras focus elsewhere, in which Karsten plays out the “do nothing at all” game plan, for the win. Afterward, Asahara is able to give him a real run for his money, although Karsten finally prevails in the end.
The final match between Karsten and Mori is very interesting…but is also tainted a bit by some of the (occasionally self serving) sloppy play that got Mori suspended for a while last year. Mori is a really, really good player, so it’s disappointing that his error in this match gives him a game he might otherwise have lost, because it’s hard to say then if he would really have taken the whole match without it. Even with that mistake, Mori versus Karsten is a solid match, as two very good players maneuver around each other.
Pro Tour Los Angeles 2005 (Extended)
Los Angeles 2005 was mostly the Antoine Ruel show, as his impressive play took him all the way through to the win. A second story is Chris McDaniel, who played tremendously throughout the top eight and lost to a very dodgy table judge call in game five of his semifinal matchup.
Chris McDaniel versus Chih-Hsiang Chang is a primer in playing pure combo versus pure aggro. Even though Chang’s deck is a bit of a problem for McDaniel by dint of its emphasis on burn, McDaniel manages to work around it, comboing off for the win. Most worth watching is how McDaniel plays to shut Chang out of even a tiny percentage chance of coming back for the win against him.
Antoine Ruel shows off his skills in taking down Kenji Tsumura in three games in the semifinals. To quote Mike Flores from the coverage, “What a master!” Once again, a match to watch for anyone who wants to learn to play counterspell based control.
Antoine Ruel versus Billy Moreno in the final is a match I find satisfying in a mildly vindictive way, as it bugs me that Moreno was given such a big takeback in the prior round — one that may well have won him the entire match. With that in mind, watching Antoine Ruel take him out is pretty fun. That pettiness aside, this match is also great to watch both because of Antoine’s very tight, expert play, and the way in which Moreno bleeds advantage to his own sloppiness — and if you don’t automatically know when Moreno’s being sloppy, Mike Flores will point it out for you in deeply exasperated tones.
Pro Tour Kobe 2004 (Mirrodin Block)
This Pro Tour had quite possibly the most uniform metagame of all time, with 45% of the field playing some form of Affinity, and the rest playing either mono red or red/green anti-affinity decks. Amongst all this, Gab Nassif chose the unexpected option four and brought his Twelvepost build — what we might call Tooth and Nail these days in Extended. Notice how, across many events, Nassif often shows up with metagame-breaking builds, whether it’s Twelvepost, Martyrtron, or mono-red Dragonstorm. He’s just that good. Note that unlike the other PTs I’m citing, the videos for Kobe 2004 are individual game downloads. I find this bothersome, but it does mean they’re quicker to download.
Ben Stark versus Gab Nassif in the quarterfinals shows off Gab’s skills. Stark plays his Affinity deck just the way he’s supposed to and takes it to five games, but Nassif is nonetheless able to find killer advantage to bring home the win. If you watch no other part of this match, watch game five, where Nassif reads Stark’s hand and cripples him with an unconventional play, basically ensuring the win on Nassif’s first turn.
Masashiro Kuroda versus Alexandre Peset is a fascinating mono-red versus mono-red match. This one is a real game of bluff and attrition, as Kuroda must work around the Shunts that may or may not be in Peset’s hand, and both players want to juggle their life to make the Pulse of the Forge math work out properly. Once again, this demonstrates how red-on-red matches tend to be all about control, and not so much about people fireballing each other’s faces as fast as they can.