I've been playing Magic: The Gathering for half my life now. Starting on the kitchen table, I would never have dreamed a game would have such an impact on my life, but it did. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and all of a sudden fourteen years had come and gone. My love for this game matured through the years, as did I. Traveling the world, meeting people from different cultures, learning important life lessons, and appreciating accomplishments all came in the most extraordinary ways as I embarked on this unique journey of peaks and valleys.
I thought I'd seen it all, but just like in life, this game knows how to throw in some curveballs. Nothing could have prepared me for the unforgettable experience I had this past weekend at Pro Tour Amonkhet. As my Grandmother says, "Don't count your chickens before they hatch," but this may go down as my most memorable event.
Preparation for Pro Tour Amonkhet began just like for any other premier event. Team Genesis decided to come to Roanoke for our in-person testing, given how close the city was to Pro Tour Amonkhet and the corresponding GP Richmond. Brian Braun-Duin, Michael Majors, and I would host those traveling in and shuttle the team from event to event. We rented a house to make things easier, and preparation went about as planned. Well, "as planned" as Genesis gets.
Genesis is comprised of Michael Majors, Lukas Blohon, Seth Manfield, Martin Dang, Martin Muller, and me, but that's just what we put on paper. The true team extends out to my brother Corey Baumeister, best friend Brian Braun-Duin, jokester Thomas Hendrick, the ever-stoic Grzegorz Kowalski, and team mascot Christoffer Larsen. This group is pound-for-pound one of the most talented teams when it comes to theory, deckbuilding, and even playing the game. It's also easily one of the most energetic and exuberant teams out there today. This group works hard, and plays hard. Burning the candle at both ends like this only works when everyone's on board, but luckily we have that in spades as well.
We didn't know that would be the case when we initially formed Genesis. Much like with other teams out there, we jumped at the chance to create a group of talented players that could realistically qualify for Team Worlds. Having worked with all of the members at one time or another, I sent some feelers out, and we began figuring out the logistics that would be needed to bring so many people from around the world together. It would be a lie to say we weren't skeptical of it panning out at first, but quickly bonds were made, and a sense of belonging began to form for each member. Now I consider this group an extension of my family. We're more brothers now than we are partners.
This level of comradery is the heart of the team.
Christoffer Larsen was the first member of the team to embark upon the city of Roanoke. He arrived Monday after the Prerelease for Amonkhet, which was surprising since he just recently got off the boat. You see, he's a member of the Danish Navy. That level of commitment outside the game often restricts the amount of time he can put into it, but that's never stopped the Dane from qualifying for almost every Pro Tour.
I thought he would have enjoyed a few more days at home before coming to the States, but the man really loves Roanoke. He also loves drafting, and only minutes after landing, he was sprawled out on my couch in the queues. That would be his home for the next four days as he grinded draft after draft on his journey to playing over 100 of them before Pro Tour Amonkhet.
I'm being serious. The man drafted over 100 times!
Next up on the list was my little baby brother, who decided to come in over the weekend, a few days before everyone else, to get some quality time with his big bro. Corey Baumeister in fact qualified for the Pro Tour before I did. He ended up falling off when Wizards took away Elo qualifications and replaced them with Planeswalker Points. That caused him to take a step back from Magic and focus on just being a teenager.
"What could have been" ate away at him for a couple of years, and recently he found himself wanting to take another crack at it. In extraordinary fashion, the card-playing prodigy made it look easy, as he started from nothing at the beginning of the season, but somehow already found himself with Gold level status a little bit more than halfway through the season. His sights are now set even higher, as he hopes to finish the year out with Platinum privileges.
Slowly the rest of the team started gathering in Roanoke, and finally we had enough bodies to facilitate Christoffer's wishes to open actual packs of Magic cards. Limited was not what we needed to focus on as a group, though. Christoffer, Brian, and Martin Dang all drafted an absurd amount in the first week the set was on Magic Online, which meant we already had a well of knowledge to learn from. I personally felt confident enough just listening to them about Draft that I spent most of my energy on Standard.
As you saw from Pro Tour Amonkhet Standard isn't as exciting as we all hoped it would be when Wizards finally banned Felidar Guardian. What started with excitement ended with the realization that only a handful of decks could compete in the format. Mardu, Aetherworks, Zombies, and U/R Control seemed to be the only decks to choose from if winning was your main objective. Winding Constrictor strategies were fine, but clearly weren't as powerful as the other four options. Slowly things whittled down to just these four decks, and members of Genesis tried desperately to find any technology we could implement to have an advantage come Pro Tour time.
It didn't take long for us to find this little gem, given how many of us were part of Team Eureka back when we played G/R Goggles Ramp. Chandra, Flamecaller has always been an unbelievably powerful card, but creature-based aggressive decks just haven't been part of the metagame for some time now. Finally Zombies broke through as the first deck in a long time that didn't accompany its creatures with Vehicles and planeswalkers, which is exactly what Chandra, Flamecaller loves to exploit.
To our surprise, the card wasn't even that bad against Mardu Vehicles either, given how well it worked alongside Whirler Virtuoso. Every creature in Mardu Vehicles dies to two damage, which is the perfect number for Whirler Virtuoso to survive the "Pyroclasm" effect. From there a Thopter or two can protect Chandra, Flamecaller from Heart of Kiran or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Next turn, Chandra, Flamecaller's ability to "spin the wheel" will super-charge the depleted energy supply to do it all over again next turn.
Most of our members took to this version of Temur Aetherworks as their deck for the tournament. Sadly, I didn't. I had already invested a week into testing Mardu Vehicles and expected a larger-than-normal appearance of UR Control decks, which spooked me from playing Temur Aetherworks. As everyone now knows, UR Control didn't show up to the party, leaving my deck choice one of the worst in the room.
Luckily, I was able to win all of my mirrors netting me a 6-4 finish in Standard. I was also able to leverage the knowledge gained from listening to our Limited experts into a 5-1 finish in Limited. For some reason lately I've crushed Limited, but found myself with middling Standard finishes. That's how it goes sometimes, though.
This 11-5 finish doesn't just put me in the conversation for qualifying for the Magic World Championship, but in fact makes me a favorite. I still have some points to collect on the GP circuit, which, if things go well, could all but lock me before even the final Pro Tour.
That's not the story I'm here to tell, though. Pro Tour Amonkhet was my 32nd Pro Tour, and after such a long career, I thought I'd seen it all. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that a Pro Tour with such a middling finish could possibly go down in the history books as my most memorable event.
Again, that whole maturing thing...
Some of you may already know this, but my Grandmother is without a doubt my favorite person on this planet. She's selfless, humble, caring, and respectful to everyone she meets. To a fault, she respects others' time over her own. She's a role model if there ever was one, and someone I try to emulate as much as possible. I'm her biggest fan, as she is mine. Ever since Pro Tour Honolulu in 2009, she's been at the edge of her computer chair following along to every event I've played. She's also, for as long as I can remember, wanted to see the Grand Ole Opry. When I heard that the Pro Tour was coming to Nashville, I knew we had to make this work. I wanted her to see what Corey and I did firsthand, but also get her to witness live one of the most influential parts of her childhood.
Luckily, our father, Jess Nelson, was on the same page. There's no way Corey and I could have competed in the event with the same level of commitment it takes for us to succeed and show Grandma all the beauty this city had to offer. He took time off work and helped plan a weekend to remember.
For the first couple of days, Corey and I were busy with the tournament. We had brief moments to spend with our family, but for the most part they were background characters. Obviously that was fine and agreed-upon beforehand, since they wanted us to do the best we possibly could. As Corey and I played, they could be found in the background, trying to find the best vantage points to watch us compete.
Now, having my family there to support me isn't exactly new. My Dad flew all the way to Paris when I was competing for Player of the Year all those years ago. What sets these two events apart, and something that I didn't realize before it was happening, is that I've personally changed since then.
Back in 2011 I was entitled. Now, I was happy my father was there to support me, but all I really cared about was winning the title for myself, and the fame and recognition it would come with. Through the years though I've began to appreciate the more important aspects of life in and out of the game, and one thing I've come to realize is that accomplishments mean nothing without appreciation.
Sure, it feels good to get recognized for greatness, but those likes, mentions, and comments I once pursued don't have that lasting of an effect. Not to say I don't truly treasure them, but I do so in a much different way now. I no longer use them to fuel an ego or selfishly perpetuate a brand. I now understand that they come from a place of respect, and no longer misappropriate their intent by using them solely for validation.
This time around, I was proud to have my family there alongside me as the rounds counted down, and I couldn't shake the guilt of neglect as I put more emphasis on the event than them. Of course that's the way it had to be, but, as irrational as it was, I still couldn't keep from wanting their experience to be the best possible. In the end, they couldn't have asked for more. They got to watch me have a decent finish, but also meet everyone on Genesis and witness us catapult through the team standings all the way into second place.
They had the time of their lives! Just seeing us in our element was enough for them. Also, now they can put an experience to a name next time they watch coverage.
I tell you this story not because it's so unique and interesting that it must be documented. In all honesty, it's just another run-of-the-mill story about a supporting family. I'm also not here trying to preach about the value of family. Everyone's story is different making it wrong of me to push my principles onto others. I'm here to discuss perceived value and how easy it is to become misguided in the search for validation.
In Magic, accomplishments are relative. Some are excited about making Day 2, while others are disappointed when they don't break through to the Top 8. It's foolish for us to project our own goals onto others or let others' goals influence our own. That's the point when we begin to externalize validation.
I did this in Paris, when I was more concerned about what strangers on the internet had to say about me rather than living in the moment with my Dad. I didn't do that this time around after I won my last round to finish 11-5. Not the best performance, but seeing how excited my family was after the win was exhilarating. The history books would never speak my name, but for that small moment, it felt like I won the whole event thanks to them.
Find what's important to you, not what you think people deem important. Chasing the idea of accomplishment will always leave you needing more. This has taken me many years to understand, but I've finally figured out what's important to me. For me, in the present, that's family and friends. As clich as that sounds, it's just the truth. For the past three years I've been in a rat race, trying to chase Worlds, then the Players' Championship, then Worlds, then the Players' Championship, and it's left me stressed out and miserable.
The happiest I've been in the past few years has not come from holding trophies, qualifying for events, or winning matches. It's been working with my extended family Genesis, hanging out with my brother, and getting to see my Grandma be a part of the game I love. They are the people who give me the fuel to keep going.
To invest the amount of time needed to succeed at Magic, you'll need to appreciate more than just the feeling that winning provides. Trust me.
I'd like to take a moment to thank the staff and players who made this past weekend such a memorable one for my Dad and Grandma. Everyone they met was warm and inviting, which helped make this such a memorable weekend for all of us. A special shout-out goes to Liz Peloquin for gifting them with their own personalized badges, Rich Hagon for taking so much time out of his busy schedule to hang out with us, and Corbin Hosler for writing such a beautiful piece about my loved ones.
You all made this the best Pro Tour I've ever played in.