Junk Reanimator from Innistrad/RTR Standard. A grindy deck with an engine in Unburial Rites is exactly the kind of Magic that I enjoy playing most.
Favorite Color (or Color Combo)
Obzedat, Ghost Council. The Orzhov were in good hands when they were in charge. It’s only been in recent years, since their untimely demise at the hands of she who shall not be named, has the guild seen a drastic downturn.
Legacy, but I rarely have a chance to play it in events.
Professional Magic Player. I’m really fortunate to be able to do this as my career.
Team Tight Goose. (I don’t actually have one…but if I did?!)
Most Notable Achievement (MTG related)
Winning the 2016 World Championship is my biggest achievement and it’s hard to imagine it being outdone.
Brian! It is an absolute pleasure to have you on today as I have been following your magic career for a while. To me, you are known for your memorable win of the World Championship in 2016 (with a final game that lasted an hour, if I remember correctly), as well as your expertly written articles and goofy wisecracks. But, I’m interested in hearing how it all started. How did you get in to magic? Take us back!
For me it all started on a blustery day eons ago…
Fine, fine, not that far back. I started playing Magic in 2006. I had a group of friends in college who loved gaming as much as I did, and one day one of them brought about his old Magic cards and casual decks and taught us all how to play. I learned to play by playing multiplayer magic with a mono blue mill deck my friend had made. I never won…that deck was garbage, but I always liked trying to win games in non-traditional ways and it appealed to me. Things escalated from there. We started drafting at FNM every week, we started buying packs to take home and hold our own drafts, and eventually we started building Standard decks. Once I bought cards off of Ebay for the first time, so that I could get the Phyrexian Arenas I needed to beat my friends’ decks, it was game over from there. I was down a path I could never escape from.
I hear that you can take the man out of the Phyrexian Arena, but you can never take the Phyrexian Arena out of the man. So from casual, to draft to eventually playing standard, when did you first get the drive to compete? And in a similar vein, when did you realize that you had the ability to do it full time?
I’ve always been incredibly competitive. If anything, I am far less competitive and cutthroat in how I play games now than I ever was before. Once Magic hooked its claws into me, I was constantly hungry for more and more. I wanted to play every event I could get my hands on and I wanted to work my way up the totem pole to play whatever the next level of event was after I had mastered one level. If I find something that I like and that I show promise in, I will often dedicate way more time and energy to it than most people are willing or able to do. Magic never bored me, and, despite quitting a few times throughout the years for financial reasons, I kept coming back and kept getting hooked deeper each time I did.
The realization and decision that this was something I could do full time came at the end of 2014. I got suspended from my job at the time for showing up late too many times (mostly from oversleeping Monday mornings after getting home at 6 AM from long road trips to Magic tournaments). I used the days off to test religiously for the upcoming Grand Prix, which was Grand Prix New Jersey, a Legacy GP and one of the largest GPs of all time at over 4,000 players. I ended up building my own deck for the tournament, a Jeskai Stoneblade deck that abused Young Pyromancer and Treasure Cruise. This was the first time in a while that I truly had an abundance of time to spend testing and I ended up winning the tournament. At that point I realized that if I had the time to dedicate to Magic that I was capable of doing well enough at the game to succeed, and I ended up quitting my non-content job and focus exclusively on tournaments and creating MTG content.
Wow, that’s a really cool story about turning a hard situation (like being suspended from your job) into something positive. Along with a Grand Prix win, you are the Worlds Champion of 2016! The next question is in three parts: What was the year leading up to event like (were you just crushing all year, how did you attack tournament prep, ETC)? What were your feelings after you had won other than excitement? Finally, what was the following year after Worlds like for you?
The year leading up to qualifying for Worlds was really strong for me. I was doing really well on the Grand Prix circuit that season (as evidenced by me qualifying for Worlds by earning the most Grand Prix points that year). That was the year that Bant Company and Green-White Tokens were both top decks and both of those decks were strategies I enjoyed playing and was comfortable with. I won a lot by just playing decks I liked to play that were also really good. A perfect storm you might say. My preparation that year was done a lot with Brad Nelson, and he was a mastermind at finding the best versions and lists of Bant Company. I had a great mindset this year. I never really expected to win the Grand Prix Master slot, but I did work really hard at it and I knew I had what it took to get there, even though I had not really experienced that level of success in the past. I had no expectation or pressure to win but still gave myself the best chance to do so.
There was a lot of relief after I had won. I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about proving myself in Magic. When I was working my way up competitive Magic via the SCG circuit, there was a lot of both real and perceived situations where the top pros would snub their nose down at players at my level, even sometimes directly at me. I never really forgot any of that. So every time I won an event like this, it was a chance to prove that I belonged at the top of the game and to invalidate any mockery I experienced in the past. I had a lot of bitterness toward those players, and rather than celebrate wins like a healthy person would, I more just found relief that it was another data point to prove my place.
The following year was a rough year of Magic for me. They made an announcement that I wasn’t re-qualified for Worlds, the first World Champion to not be invited back, and there was a lot of Twitter drama surrounding a number of players insinuating that I shouldn’t have even been there in the first place. I took that pretty hard, for the reasons that I talked about above. Once again I had something to prove. I had to prove that I deserved to be there by re-qualifying again the following year. Long story short, I did not re-qualify. I had a really bad season, and had a really bad mentality toward Magic. I wasn’t enjoying it, I wasn’t playing very well or picking very good decks, and I was imposing way too much pressure on myself that was really affecting me both in and out of game.
Eventually it all boiled to a head and I knew something had to change or I couldn’t keep on like this. I ended up re-evaluating my entire outlook on Magic and came to the conclusion that even if I never did well again, I’d still be happy to be a Magic pro and in the position I was in. Since that point, things have drastically improved for me. 2018 and 2019 were both my best years of Magic ever, despite me putting way less pressure on myself, being far less cutthroat about the game, and caring way more about enjoying the process than success at any cost.
That is a roller coaster of a story! What resonates with me especially is the feeling that you have to prove yourself constantly. Do you have any practical advice for people who are struggling with the same feelings of self doubt or are in a slump?
I feel like a lot of my advice in that realm might fall flat because I have actually experienced a lot of success at this game so I am kind of coming at it from a different angle than players who might be experiencing self doubt without a lot of results to fall back on. Oftentimes my advice is met with a statement like “that’s easy for you to say as you have already established yourself.”
With that being said I think it is incredibly unhealthy to tie one’s identity to success in Magic. Success in Magic comes so infrequently, even to people who are legitimately great, that it’s a losing battle to attach real self worth to it. It can only breed bitterness.
What worked for me was focusing only on my process and, believe it or not, only on the things I enjoyed in Magic and just ignoring the stuff that I didn’t enjoy. I don’t like fretting over my results or my record or how many more wins I need to top X, so I just don’t do it anymore. And the results followed.
Well said. I would wager that focusing on your process over results is just generally good life advice beyond Magic. Circling back to some more practical Magic skills, we just recently saw two set releases shake up two different formats (Eldraine and MH1 in standard and Modern respectively). When approaching a new format, whether after a BnR or a new set release, where do you begin with card evaluation and deck building?
I typically look for cards or effects that seem abstractly powerful and then try to see how they can be built around or I take new cards and see how they might fit into existing decks.
Typically what ends up happening is I latch on to a few cards that I get excited about and try to build around those cards. Generally this is to poor results.
I am not particularly good at deck building, I tend to excel more at card identification. I am good at figuring out which cards perform well or poorly after testing a deck, which is useful for then tuning and upgrading a deck or deciding to scrap it vs continue with it. This skill manifests itself more in the weeks following a new format’s release rather than during the spoiler season.
Do you have a group of friends or colleagues that you do frequent testing with that will build decks with you?
Brad Nelson and I are roommates and test together for all the events. Generally we also test with a broader group of players that we’ve come to respect and work well with over the years.
So what’s in the horizon for you? As an accomplished Magic Pro, what do you do to set new goals and push yourself further? Are you shooting for the Hall of Fame some day?
The horizon is incredibly murky for me. Actually, it has been really hard to set new goals for myself because I don’t really know what the future holds. I am most likely locked to be in the MPL again next year, but past that point who knows. Not being able to make new goals has really made it hard to care about trying my best for events this year.
Honestly, I don’t have many new goals for Magic. I am not sure how much longer I intend on playing Magic professionally. It may soon be time for me to move on to new things for my life. I’ll stick out the MPL for as long as I remain in it but once that well dries up I don’t know if I have it in me to try to grind back to the top again.
I think I am a long ways away from the Hall of Fame. It was once a goal of mine, but I really don’t like Hall of Fame voting season and what it brings out in our community. After seeing a lot of that nastiness in full view, the Hall of Fame lost all luster to me. I’d be honored to achieve induction into it, but it is no longer a goal for me.
If you ever came to a point where you weren’t playing Magic professionally, what do you think you would be interested in doing?
I don’t have a great answer there. I like writing, I think I would really enjoy some sort of a writing related job, especially if it allows my personality to shine through. I want to crack jokes (even if nobody laughs) and just be myself in my writing.
I also really like Math, Sports, and Statistics and would love to do some sort of a sports statistic related job, but I fear it may be too late for me to get in on something like that as I have no experience, knowledge, or skills in that area.
I also still love gaming and would love a gaming adjacent kind of job.
Maybe game design is in your future? I imagine you have the ability to design a wonderful game.
It’s possible. I could possibly use my connections in Magic to get such a job in the future.
As we wind this interview down to a close, I wanted to give you the floor to say… well, anything. Go on a rant, make some plugs, say something unrelated. It’s all you.
Magic is such an important part of my life and the same is true for many others. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day, Magic is still a game and the point is to have fun. I think it’s important to make sure we’re having fun playing the game and to do the best we can to facilitate others’ fun as well. That’s all I got.
Well Brian, it was a pleasure to chat with you for a bit. Where can people find your content ?
You can find me on Twitter @BraunduinIt. I have strategy articles come out weekly on Magic.tcgplayer.com, I stream at twitch.tv/mtgBBD and I am a regular “special guest” on the Bash Bros Podcast (@BashBrosPodcast on Twitter).
Well sir, thank thank you so much for coming on! I’m looking forward to you winning another world championship!
You’re welcome! You and me both.