Another year, another Christmas right around the corner. The older I get, the more I find myself bringing up the fact that time flies. It’s as if I lose time nowadays instead of experiencing moments. Like when I realized I’ve already lived in Roanoke for almost six years. Or the fact that I’m Hall of Fame eligible next year. It just all felt like it sneaked up on me. I’m so wrapped up in what’s next that sometimes I forget to take a step back and breathe in my surroundings. To live in the moment.
They say time goes faster for adults due to experiencing fewer and fewer memorable moments. That makes sense. It’s not a sad thing, just a truth of life. As a baby we experience many new things like hunger, sleep deprivation, rashes, and growing pains, scary at the time. As we grow older, we repeat experiences, which makes them easier to manage. A stubbed toe no longer is the end of the world, and someone falling isn’t the funniest thing we’ve ever seen.
We grow up.
Today I want to take a step back from the rat race that I’ve accepted as my life. I don’t want to worry about what decks will get me the finishes I need to accomplish the goals I think I need to achieve. No, today I want to look back at my most memorable moment from each year as a professional Magic player, to appreciate the moments I was too busy to at the time.
I qualified for my very first Pro Tour in the spring of 2009 after a few years struggling on the PTQ circuit. I didn’t want this opportunity to go to waste, so I worked harder in preparation for this tournament than anything I’ve ever done in my life. Weeks straight in front of the computer screen grinding out daily events in Shards of Alara Block Constructed, a format that I was extremely well-versed in already as it was how I paid rent.
I played so much of this format that I’d often double-queue events, sometimes splitting the finals with myself. Now, of course this was against the rules, but I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has expired by now. I won so much in the format that once, after a night out on the town, I awoke to having my weapon of choice entirely foiled out on Magic Online. Keep in mind, back then, foils weren’t cheaper than their non-shiny counterparts.
I registered a deck that to this day I’m still proud of.
- 4 Bloodbraid Elf
- 3 Madrush Cyclops
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Putrid Leech
- 4 Sedraxis Specter
- 4 Sprouting Thrinax
Cascade was the name of the game at this Pro Tour, and everything revolved around Blightning. My tech for the event was to play a slightly more aggressive version of Jund, but that’s very counterintuitive to how Magic’s normally played. Usually you want to go slightly bigger than your opponent in the mirrors, since most of your cards equalize over time.
The reason I justified this decision was how Jund mirrors played out. Oftentimes you had to navigate the games around the fact that your opponent would cast Blightning when you went down to two cards in hand, as that’s by far the best use of the mana. If you didn’t do that, your opponent could easily catch up on the battlefield with their in-hand Bituminous Blast or Broodmate Dragon. I used this predictable line against opponents as I would strive to get to two cards in hand so they would cast Blightning instead of catching up on the battlefield. Why? So I could discard Sedraxis Specter and crack them back getting my own Blightning!
“Good luck in your feature match.”
My what? Round 1, I found myself in the feature match against Luis Scott-Vargas. One of my heroes! I lost a tight three-game set, and to this day Luis believes I punted the match. I did make unusual plays, but only because I thought he built his deck better. That’s a story for another day, though. After that I lost another match and eventually found myself against Lukas Blohon in Round 3 at 0-2. I finally got on the board, but his tournament wasn’t over. We both in fact ended up in the Top 16 of the event! Team Genesis was powerful right from the beginning.
I was just starting to get my sea legs when it came to the Pro Tour until Brian David-Marshall approached me for an interview. Okay? The cameraman was already in place, and we were recording. Keep in mind I had yet to acquire a single lifetime Pro Point at the time. They really did go all-in on me one day becoming a big deal in Magic.
May I present to you…Baby-Face Nelson!
I sure was hyperbolic back then! Even then I was evaluating everything, a lesson I talked about last week! In the last round of Day 1, I had yet another feature match, this time against Shuhei Nakamura. At the end of the day I was 1-1 against world-class pros, and was on top of the world.
On Day 2, Brian David-Marshall once again approached me, this time to record a deck tech.
I'm ashamed of my basics.
I ended up finishing in ninth place, and I couldn’t have been happier. Everyone from my local game store was blowing up my phone, and for the first time in my life I felt I was exactly where I should be. I still didn’t know why I was getting interviewed so much, or why they were talking about me in the end-of-day wrap-ups, but I did know I wanted more of it.
I knew then that I wanted to become a Pro Magic player.
2010: If You Win, You Win.
With three rounds to go at Pro Tour San Juan, I found myself needing four Swiss points to make the Top 8. It would be my first one, so the pressure was building. I was nervously pacing outside when Guillaume Matignon came up to me. He told me that we were 50/50 to play next round, but I was already well aware of that. What did catch me off-guard was what he said to me after that.
“If you win, you win. If I win, we draw.”
Excuse me? Why would he do that? It’s not like we knew each other. In fact, I’d never really talked to him before this event. Sure enough, we played a tight three-game set that he snuck out. With lethal damage on the stack I asked for the draw, and he smiled and shook my hand. At the time everyone rooting for me solemnly walked away from the feature match area, while his support roared in excitement. Soon confusion swept through them as they didn’t know what had happened, and I was confused as well.
This draw allowed me to have back-to-back matches where I could win instead of needing a victory in Round 15. I ended up not needing the extra match, as I beat my next opponent and found myself in the Top 8. "Excited" doesn’t do justice in describing how I felt, but I still was confused.
After the excitement died down and I was allowed to leave the venue, I found time to call my brother to share in my excitement. After the screams of jubilation died down, I told him about the unusual situation that happened against Guillaume. At the end of my story he asked who my opponent was, as I only told him what happened in Round 14, not who it was against.
“Ah, Matti! I hang out with that guy at every tournament!”
Are you kidding me? Are you flipping kidding me? My younger brother made connections that resulted in one of the potentially luckiest breaks of my entire career. Seriously, do you know someone luckier than me? Now, it should be mentioned that Guillaume Matignon did in fact tie for Player of the Year in 2010, and a playoff took place where I defeated him for the title. Would I have been there if it wasn’t for his act of kindness? Would he have been there if he didn’t get to embarrass me and my terrible drafting abilities in the Top 8 of that Pro Tour? Who really knows.
2011: Until It’s Gone
The match where I beat “ole Matti” wasn’t until Pro Tour Paris, which took place early in 2011. It was a memorable weekend for sure, as my father, my soon-to-be stepmother, and brother were there to witness my moment in Magic’s history. At the time I thought this would be the best part of my year. How could it get better?
There was a Grand Prix in Denver the week after the Pro Tour, and I planned on just going there instead of going home, thanks to my uncle living there. It was just way cheaper to do it this way, as there really wasn’t much of a reason to go back to North Dakota for a few days. Sure, I would get to spend some time with my uncle outside of a family gathering, but that wasn’t why I made the decision.
My uncle and I never really got a chance to bond growing up. I mean, I saw him a lot as a kid, but he moved before I became an adult. I didn’t expect much from my stay there, but did expect we’d catch up some. In reality, we spent every night talking about everything. He told me stories my dad (his brother) never knew. Real stuff. We opened up to each other, and really got to know one another. It was a pretty cool week.
A year later he was diagnosed with cancer. Within another year he was no longer with us. It was devastating at the time, and I even wrote an article providing myself with some much-needed catharsis. It took a while to get back on my feet from this family tragedy, but what helped was looking back on the week I spent with him in Denver, a moment in history that didn’t seem significant, but now means the world to me: a moment in history that was just ours.
2012: Hoof, There It Isn’t
Around this time I struggled with the idea that I no longer could make it as a competitive player. I just didn’t think I was good enough. Instead of leaning on my skill that was lacking, I decided to work on brews. I thought I needed a deck edge if I were to compete on the highest levels. I also started streaming and trying to get into commentary, as I thought I’d soon be out the door as a pro. I was needing to qualify for every Pro Tour as they came and found myself with one last chance to get to Pro Tour Vancouver.
Wild deck, I know, but the tournament was even crazier. I picked up a Round 4 draw, which at the time I thought was a bad thing, but it ended up becoming the best thing that could have happened. That’s thanks to U/W Sphinx’s Revelation Control decks being built without Supreme Verdict at the time and often drawing with themselves. Without a Wrath effect, the U/W matchup was actually unbelievable, as Hoof There It Is (as I called the deck) was one of the most consistent decks you could ever play. It just did the same thing every game, and that thing didn't lose to U/W Control.
I played against the deck six rounds in a row, and didn’t drop a game. Poised for Top 8, I was starting to get excited about getting my qualification to the next Pro Tour. Instead, I lost three of my last five matches to fall short.
I was crushed.
I left the feature match area and walked to the opposite side of the venue. Numb, I dropped to the cement, and started crying. I was alone, ashamed, and afraid my career was all but over. The fact that I wasn’t as good as I thought I once was loomed over me.
“Am I just the one-hit wonder everyone thinks I am?”
2013: So You’re Saying There’s a Chance?
2014: Your Players' Champion
For years I thought my Player of the Year run in 2010 was a fluke. To this day I still can’t shake the feeling that I’m not good enough to hang with the best in the game. I may never break my imposter syndrome, but it was much worse before my Players' Championship victory. Until then I just thought all of my accomplishments were flukes: I had the right deck for the weekend, or got lucky. Not this weekend, though. I brought great decks, played better than all of my opponents, and did what it took to be the best. This was the motivation I needed to become the player I thought I was at one point in my career.
After this win, I found myself competing in the next two following Players' Championships and even qualified for every World Championship. All it took was a confidence boost. This victory also produced the article I’m most proud of, even to this day.
The best part about winning The Players' Championship is that I decided to treat my brother to any tournament he wanted to play in as a rather lavish Christmas present to celebrate. At the time he was removed from Magic, but he wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to go have some fun in Miami with me. He did more than that, as he took second in the event and began his resurgence in the game. Now he’s a household name, and I get to play professional Magic with my brother again.
This one tournament changed the entire landscape of my reality. It wasn’t just a trophy and a large check. It was a rekindling of courage, brothers reunited, and the knowledge that I’m capable of whatever I set my mind to. It gave me a heart, a brain, and courage.
The name suited the event.
After a trip back to see family in North Dakota and a most recent move, I found myself unprepared for my next Standard Grand Prix. Brian Braun-Duin was not in a similar position and was working diligently on an Abzan decklist for the event. Before we left town I told him I’d just play his 75, as I wasn’t about to try to figure out the slight shifts in the metagame myself.
- 4 Fleecemane Lion
- 4 Rakshasa Deathdealer
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 2 Warden of the First Tree
- 2 Wingmate Roc
- 4 Anafenza, the Foremost
As the event went on, I realized this build of Abzan was behind in the mirrors and horrifically positioned against the new Abzan Megamorph decks. I voiced my opinion to a rather frustrated BBD as he took an early draw and now was only playing against Whip of Erebos-style midrange decks. Eventually I found myself in the Top 4 after defeating an Abzan Megamorph deck in the round prior. In a tight Game 3, my opponent drew running perfect cards to get out of a bad situation, but I also believe I punted the game.
On the way home, I brought up the fact that the deck felt bad once again, and for the first time in my entire life I saw a mad Brian Braun-Duin. I mean, can you blame him? I’d been having an insanely good season, and in fact just locked up Platinum with the finish. He on the other hand was floundering trying to stay on the Pro Tour. Couldn’t I have just said thank you?
Well, the answer’s no. The deck was bad, and to this day we still argue about it.
2016: Will the Real Brad Nelson Please Stand Up!
I finally did it! After six years without a Pro Tour Top 8, I found myself in the thick of it in Madrid for Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad. I didn’t win a game once I got there, but I finally got that monkey off my back. I spent the rest of my time at the hotel bar hanging out with friends, teammates, and other frequent players on the Pro Tour.
A few hours had passed, and the finals of the event was concluding. At the time I was sitting outside with Brian Kibler, as he’d become quite infrequent as of late due to his new Hearthstone hobby, and we needed some good catching up time. We also had to discuss #PaythePros, which happened that day, and what that meant for the future of Pro Magic. All of a sudden, my phone buzzed. I pulled it out and saw this.
Steve Rubin, who won the Pro Tour, was the person who knocked me out of the event. My dad must've thought I hoisted him up after his victory, but how could I when I wasn’t at the site? Who could my dad have possibly confused me for?
Oh, yeah, that guy that sometimes looks exactly like me! A joke so popular that I’ve become sick of it. Seriously, I’m sick of it! You know how many people have asked me to sign a Longtusk Cub since Mike misplayed in the Top 8 of the last Pro Tour? Seven! The joke gets me every time too, because I think it’s overdone, often making them not funny!
Anyway, this was pretty funny. I shook my head and chuckled while showing Kibler my phone. He burst out in laughter, telling me I had to tweet this. I did, and kept talking about the Platinum privilege I was about to lose. A few minutes later, I headed inside the hotel to find a restroom. As I entered the lobby, I heard a roar of laughter from the bar and headed in to investigate. Inside were about 40-50 Magic players, hysterical from laughter, passing phones around the room.
I rushed over to piggyback on whatever’s so funny, but quickly realized everyone’s laughing at my tweet: a joke transcended, thanks to a father confusing his own kin.
That tweet went on to become my most liked and retweeted of all time. It even got its own Reddit thread!
2017: A Prophecy Fulfilled
I landed in Denver to find Brian Braun-Duin in the hotel room, still testing for the Grand Prix. I wasn’t that prepared for the weekend, as I'd spent the last two weeks with family. He had been playing a ton with Temur Energy, and thought it was the best deck in the format. I played a League or two with the deck, but not enough to have strong opinions on it. We fought over a few card choices, but in the end I was more concerned about getting to Josh Utter-Leyton’s barbeque than worrying about something so trivial like where one card in my deck is. Instead I told Brian that I’d play his 75, do better than him, and then complain about how terrible the deck was after I finished better than he did. You know, like in Toronto!
He shook his head and got ready for the Friday night festivities.
Fast forward to the start of Round 15. Both Brian and I were able to draw into the Top 8, and my brother was even in a feature match playing for his own spot in the single-elimination rounds. The two of us walked over to a Starbucks to get some coffee before we had to settle in for some tough matches, the whole time eagerly watching the stream on our phones to see if our third partner in crime would be joining us.
Corey eventually won his match, and I ran to the feature match area to give him the biggest hug. We just did the impossible! We both made the Top 8 of back-to-back Grand Prix as brothers. I mean, how cool is that? Not only that, but our best friend also was there with us, and none of us played in the first round of the Top 8! We could really do this, and that’s exactly what we did. The three of us didn’t lose a match to any of the other five Top 8 competitors. We finished effectively as well as we could have. A dream come true, and a moment in Magic history I don’t believe can ever be topped.
In the end, it took beating Brian in the finals of the event for the prophecy to come true. I took his deck, did better than him, and thus was able to tell him how bad the deck was…a comment I made right after he extended his hand in the finals.
Sometimes best friends are just the worst!
2018: Who Knows?
The great thing about the future is you never know what’s going to happen. Genesis could win Team Worlds, I could make the Hall of Fame, or I might even get to witness my brother making the Top 8 of a Pro Tour. They're all dreams that could become reality. I could also see some heartbreak coming my way. We’ll just have to wait and see, but that’s what makes life so exciting. You just never know what’s right around the corner.
All we really can do is wait for what’s next, and be in the moment for whatever may come.