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Becoming the Best: The Historic Seth Manfield

September 18, 2020
Corbin Hosler

Seth Manfield has long been a champion—or at least that's how it feels. He won his first major event in 2007, when he was just 18 years old. But unlike many of his peers in the Magic Hall of Fame, he did not play continuously and lay the foundation to his career at that young age.

He chose to focus on finishing college, but after doing so returned to the game in 2013 and quickly rose through the ranks. He qualified for, and then won, the 2015 Magic World Championship not long after making his first Pro Tour Top 8. In just two years he stormed to heights players that battled every weekend since 2007 had yet to accomplish.

His latest victory, last weekend in the 2020 Mythic Invitational, wasn't just Historic but historic: he became just the fifth player in history to win three premier event titles, and the internet was ablaze—yet again—with debate about where Manfield ranked among the best to ever play.

But it was also nothing new for the Hall of Famer. Manfield was often a winner, finding victories that elude so many others. He's been, simply put, successful his entire Magic career. In fact, ever since he was a child learning to play games with his father, a world-champion bridge player, Manfield has been tenacious chasing chances to prove to himself—and everyone else—that he can compete with the best. It's what led him to this career, and it's been key to the successes that have come at a rate rarely seen in the nearly 30-year history of competitive Magic.

We're witnessing greatness; he had already qualified for the 2020 Season Grand Finals before by making it to Top 16 of the Players Tour Finals before his incredible battle back out of the Lower Bracket winning six straight matches at the Mythic Invitational. Greatness is nothing new to the World Champion, but there was something different about the man who celebrated his 30th birthday on Monday while watching the broadcast of his record-tying run.

After winning it all in 2015, Manfield wasn't content. He had only been back in the game for about two years at that point, and he was clearly uncomfortable at times with his lightning-fast rise to stardom. In that tournament, he had defeated Hall of Famers, lifelong Magic players, and the biggest names in the game at the time.

"I've always been someone who gets very nervous before a big match, and you can see that back then it was to a much greater extreme," he explained. "The year I won [the World Championship], I went in not thinking I was even among the five best competitors there. I was an unproven player and I felt like an underdog. I had been working all year and this was my one chance to prove something. I wanted to show the world what I could do, but I wasn't sure I belonged."

One hot tournament run later, and suddenly the then-24-year-old was the competitive face of the game. The man who looked uncertain and nervous in interviews had proven himself unshakable on the battlefield, but perhaps not off it. Back then, Manfield expressed amazement at making the Top 4 of the World Championship, even as he notched a dominating 13-1 record getting there.

Five years and two more of Magic's biggest trophies later, first winning Pro Tour Ixalan and now the 2020 Mythic Invitational, Manfield is liberated.

You can see it in his demeanor. While he still gets nervous before every match of Magic, he's no longer worried about whether he can win. You can see it in his engagement. The once-reclusive pro who did his event testing in private now streams to an audience of thousands regularly.

His internal confidence is easy to see outside as well. As he put simply: "Now, I know I belong."

Of that there is no doubt. There's been little reservation among those who follow the game that Manfield is among the best: he's proven it time and time again. But crucially, that now includes himself, a turning point crystallized at his memorable Magic Hall of Fame induction.

"I don't feel like I have a chip on my shoulder any more, ever since I was inducted into the Hall of Fame," he explained. "There are only a couple of times I've ever gotten really emotional about Magic, and that's one of them. I had to prove to myself that I could do it, that at that point I knew I was good enough. I'm not afraid to trust myself, whether it's a play in a game or in an interview or anywhere else."

There was a time when any comparison to legends like Jon Finkel, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa and Gabriel Nassif wound render Manfield speechless as he looked for the right way to sidestep, feeling that he couldn't live up to their storied accomplishments. But in just six years that's exactly what Manfield has done.

Seth Manfield, Magic World Championship XXVI

While he still may not like the comparisons, he isn't running from the conversation any longer.

"That's not something that goes through my head when I'm playing, and I don't believe you can really compare different eras like that," he said, looking across the history of Magic. "But I will say that I believe I am playing a level that belongs in that discussion. When I sit down to play, I have to believe I'm going to be the better player. It doesn't mean it's true, but that has to be my mindset. I know how good of a player I am, and at this point I've proven I'm good enough. When they told me I had seven Top Finishes, I was like 'Okay, so I have seven.' I hadn't realized that."

"For me," he continued, "it's not about any of that. As tournament fields grow smaller, the competition gets tougher and I can't let the competition outpace me. I can still continue to get better."

As his stardom has grown, so has Manfield. He exudes confidence but not condescension, coolness without coldness. He thanks his opponents for the matches and congratulates them when they get the better of him. He heaps praise on his teammates for their help preparing (specifically crediting fellow Magic stars Javier Dominguez and Brad Nelson, among others, for the Mythic Invitational). He represents Team Envy in the Magic world and has brought nothing but accolades to his team.

So what's the secret for the man that has done it all in the game?

"This is this is how I make my living, but when I play I'm still always nervous. I spent the Mythic Invitational pacing around my room," he admitted. "But what has been important for me is being able to take a step back sometimes and have some perspective. Because when I do play, I need to enjoy what I'm doing to play well, and I think people enjoy watching that when I'm able to showcase it."

Magic is Manfield's job, and it's important to him to treat it as such and maintain a healthy balance. While winning tournaments may be hard work, he's loving every minute of living out a dream that began with a deck of cards and his dad 25 years ago. Manfield is a master of his craft at work, and he's not slowing down anytime soon.

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