A few weeks ago, in a discussion about the youngest player to ever cash a Grand Prix (Congratulations Dana Fischer!), Christian Calcano unearthed this nugget from Top 8 player profiles back in 2010 where Ray "Blisterguy" Walkinshaw proposed a question that seemed almost scandalous at the time.
"Is Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa the next Kai Budde/Jon Finkel?"
It was the year 2010 and Damo da Rosa had just won his first Pro Tour in six Top 8 appearances. He was right in the thick of the Player of the Year race and was certainly right at the top of the game as the new decade began. In fact, he would lock down his seventh Top 8 later that year at the 2010 Magic World Championship in Chiba, Japan later that same year.
But to throw his name around with Budde and Finkel? The replies from some of the big names in the room certainly were skeptical.
Sam Black: 'I don't think it's possible any more, but definitely, definitely a master.'
Brian Kibler: 'I don't know. He's great, but he's got a long way to go before he's that.'
Shota Yasooka: 'No.'
But now, almost a full decade later, he shows no signs of letting up. He has won another Pro Tour, earned a Player of the Year title, been inducted into the Magic Hall of Fame on his first ballot—the youngest player at the time of his induction in the history of the game—and is second place for all-time career Top Finishes with 15. He is bracketed on either side of that number by Finkel with 17 and Budde with 11.
The debate has raged for more than a decade and a half about which player was greater: Budde or Finkel? There have been a handful of players to make a run at being third over the years, with Hall of Famers Gabriel Nassif and Luis Scott-Vargas being the most recent candidates, but always as a clear third. It is safe to say that Damo da Rosa has earned his spot—not just as the third but right alongside Finkel and Budde as the three greatest Magic players to ever compete in a tournament.
And if that debate regarding who is the all-time best continues to rage on—and it has—then it also must include Damo da Rosa from now on.
Let's break down the case for all three candidates and see if we can't put a little daylight between them.
"Johnny Magic" was winning big Magic tournaments since the mid '90s when he was a fixture on the independent tournament circuit up and down the East Coast of the United States. He jumped right into top-level competition, playing in the Junior Division of the first Pro Tour. His 17 Top 8 appearances should come with an asterisk because he made the Top 8 of that first event but Juniors does not count toward Top Finishes. We could even get it as high as 20 if we counted his two Master Series Top 8s. And, of course, we are not counting his two Team Series finals, which includes a win in 2018.
He would play in the World Championship at the end of that short, first season and nearly earned his first Top 8 but instead ended up on the outside looking in from 9th in the standings. The following season was similarly heart-breaking with three Top 16 finishes that year alone. Keep in mind there had been six Pro Tours played by him as a Senior and he had made the Top 16 of two-thirds of them. Big things were coming for Finkel.
The next year was his huge breakout with a Top 8 in Chicago, his first of three Pro Tour titles in New York, and a Top 8 at Worlds. So of the five Pro Tours in the 97-98 season he made the Top 8 of three of them. And in the other two? He finished 23rd and 20th.
All of this did not come as any surprise to anyone who was playing in New York at the time, but the rest of the World was starting to notice. Not surprisingly, he won the Player of the Year trophy that season and became the first "best player in the game."
The following year he not only won the Magic World Championship but led the American team to the title in the World Team Championship. He would add a third trophy eight years later at Pro Tour Kuala Lumpur—the first Magic Hall of Fame member to return to the top and win again. Never one to travel much for "smaller events" like Grand Prix, Finkel still won three trophies in ten Top 8s at that level of play. He won the Invitational, which was commemorated with Shadowmage Infiltrator and was inducted into the Hall of Fame as the leading vote getter in the inaugural class.
When Finkel was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005 he had all but retired from competitive play but got back into the game that year. It can be argued that his post-Hall of Fame career would be worthy of induction all on its own and it's quite possible to spread his resume across three players and they would all get rings.
I could devote my entire word count to his many accomplishments but I think the one that stands out the most for me—and alluded to by his "quiet" second season on the Pro Tour—is how many times a tournament has ended with Finkel in the Top 16 or higher: At least 10, with even more if you want to count a few other prestigious events.
"The German Juggernaut" also made his Pro Tour debut on the Junior circuit, during the second season of the Pro Tour's existence. He made his senior debut a year later at Pro Tour Mainz in his home country, but it was not until 1999 that he burst onto the world stage. Earlier that season Budde had gone on a tear through the Grand Prix circuit with three wins, in Amsterdam, Vienna and Barcelona. It was a remarkable run during a time when there were only 14 Grand Prix held in a year, but people were skeptical that success would translate to the biggest stage.
Stages don't come any bigger than the World Championship and when the final curtain fell on it in 1999, Budde was holding the trophy. In fact, he was holding two. Despite his win at Worlds being his first Top 8, and thus his only one of that season, he also earned the title of Player of the Year. And he was just getting started; Budde was going to rewrite the history books.
Now, you may remember from earlier in the article that Budde was in third place in terms of total Top 8s but of those 11 Top 8s? He won a whopping total of seven of them. Seven! It is hard to imagine that number getting challenged any time soon. The next two players on the winner's list—Jon Finkel and Dirk Baberowski—don't even match that total with their combined wins of six—and it's worth noting that two of Baberowski's three wins were team Pro Tours as part of Phoenix Foundation which also featured Budde (and Marco Blume).
Five of those wins came over a two-year span with Budde becoming the first player to win three Pro Tour titles. And then four. And then five... and so on. He also became the first player to win another Player of the Year title when he won it 2001.
And then again for the next two years as well.
Budde became the stuff of legend. Each weekend during his run everyone would laugh and say "Well Kai can't do it again, can he?" Eric "EDT" Taylor even famously promised to eat his hat—an actual, literal hat and not a euphemism or metaphor—if Budde won Pro Tour New Orleans. It took a mighty top deck from Budde to pull it off, and it took a bottle of ketchup and a pair of scissors for Taylor to consume his fedora.
If you judge just by the trophies, Budde's case is clear. Four Player of the Year titles, seven Pro Tour wins, another seven Grand Prix wins, an Invitational win commemorated as Voidmage Prodigy, a Masters win with Phoenix Foundation, and a slam dunk Hall of Fame induction in 2007 just 10 years after his Top 32 finish at Pro Tour Mainz in his debut.
Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
And then the new kid from Porto Alegre, Brazil came along. He reached the finals of Pro Tour Charleston in 2006—seemingly coming out of nowhere with a squad of fellow Brazilians whose names were all new to the Sunday Playbill. But if you scratch a little below the surface you could see that Damo da Rosa had been a consistent money finisher on the Pro Tour for the season leading up to that event. He placed 20th and 30th in Honolulu and Prague respectively in the lead-up to his breakout finish. His debut, which came in 2003 at the World Championships was another Top 64. Not bad for a kid from Brazil who would not have even been able to justify the cost of the trip to Berlin unless his local distributor sponsored—
Stop the presses.
As I am writing this, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa just added another Top Finish to his already absurd resume with a semifinal appearance at Players Tour Brussels. That brings him to 16 such finishes all time, and one step closer to matching Jon Finkel's 18. When you are contemplating a Hall of Fame resume one of the first things you look at are the Top Finishes and if you see someone with four or five of them over a 10-year career that is usually a slam dunk. Damo da Rosa has had what amounts to a Hall of Fame career every five years for the last decade and a half:
- 2003-2005: Handful of events with some money finishes
- 2006-2010: 7 Top Finishes with win at Pro Tour San Juan
- 2011-2015: 4 Top finishes
- 2016-2020 (and counting): 5 Top Finishes with a win a Pro Tour Hour of Devastation
Interesting side note about Damo da Rosa's finish at Players Tour Brussels this past weekend: It completes his Top 8 bingo card and he becomes the first player in Magic history with a Top Finish in every possible position in a Top 8. The only thing missing for him was a 4th place and now he gets to add "being the answer to Top Finish Trivia question" to his multi-page resume.
So what is the bottom line argument for each of the three players?
#TeamFinkel – Jon Finkel: Quarter Century of Excellence
We talk a lot about standing on the shoulders of giants in regards to the collective knowledge about how to play the game well. Since the very first Pro Tour those shoulders have been Finkel's. He has been consistently excellent for more than 25 years of playing the game at the highest level. Not only does he lead in Top Finishes (for now) but he has also been in the Top 16 at least another 10 times—and he is still going strong all these years later.
#TeamBudde – Kai Budde: The Game's Widest Mantle
What is the first thing people ask you when you come home from a tournament?
"Did. You. Win?"
Nobody in the history of premier events has been able to say "Yes" to that question as often as Budde. Plus he made someone eat a hat.
#TeamPV – Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa: 2020 Vision
Here is the thing. All three players still compete at the highest level and are often competing in the same events. And Damo da Rosa is widely considered to be the best player in the game right now. As he closes out his second decade of top-level play over the next couple of years he is showing no signs of slowing down.