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Defining Dominance: Javier Dominguez

February 04, 2020
Rich Hagon

He's a Grand Prix Champion. He's a Team Grand Prix Champion. He's a Mythic Champion. He is, of course, the reigning Magic World Champion. He finished at the very top of the inaugural Magic Pro League with over 200 Mythic Points, 50 ahead of the nearest competitors.

He had, to put it mildly, a stellar 2019 season.

But "dominance" in Magic or the wider world of competition is hard to pin down. For one thing, it isn't just about winning, at least in Magic. Winning any given event is next to impossible for any player. The very best in history settle at a 66% career win rate, and a 10-6 or 11-5 record is rarely enough for a Top Finish.

By its nature, Magic doesn't always have the same obvious cues to dominance like other sports and esports, where a team might be atop the standings for years or individuals compile career statistics beyond reproach. In those cases, there's no room for doubt. The dominance is beyond dispute.

The harsh fact is that Dominguez has lost almost every tournament he's ever entered—like every other Magic player ever. So how can we so confidently laud his dominance over the game that can never be beaten? History gives us some clues.

A Look Back at Dominance

In rare cases, there's a multi-season body of work that screams dominance. In the late '90s it was Jon Finkel, in the early 2000s it was Kai Budde. Two of the greatest players ever to sleeve up a deck put together years of being, by consensus, the best players in the room, turning that dominance into trophy shots with staggering consistency—and Magic Hall of Fame inductions.

Kai Budde (R) in the Team Finals of the 2002 Magic World Championship.

Sometimes, dominance has been as simple as one person, one format, and one deck. Take Raphaël Lévy—he turned up to Grand Prix Dallas in 2007, won it with an aggressive "domain" deck, then flew to Singapore and won the Grand Prix there with the same deck seven days later. Lévy knew that he knew that Extended format inside and out. He knew he had the best deck. And he knew he was one of the best players of that best deck. Riding a wave of confidence, this was as close to rinse and repeat as the highest level gets.

Like Lévy, Nicolai Herzog won back-to-back tournaments in the same format. But not simply any tournaments—these were Pro Tours! Having won the Rochester Draft Pro Tour Amsterdam to open 2004, Herzog claimed victory again at Pro Tour San Diego with Booster Draft as the format—all in a Top 8 that included six future Hall of Famers!

Dominance in Magic isn't reserved for only one person at a time, either.

For six months in 2017, "Bash Brothers" Brad Nelson and Corey Baumeister dominated Standard in a way that was almost absurd. Nelson won Grand Prix Omaha. They both made the Top 8 in Minneapolis. Two weeks later, they both made the Top 8 again, as Nelson won Grand Prix Denver. When Brad took a weekend off, Baumeister made the Top 8 in Washington D.C., and then again in Atlanta, where Nelson finished in 10th. Remember, these are tournaments with thousands of competitors. And the Bash Brothers ended up on top time after time after time.

Corey Baumeister and Brad Nelson, Top 8 Grand Prix Minneapolis 2017

Zoom out one stage further, and we see dominance from teams. Take Team ChannelFireball, which took Pro Tour Paris 2011 apart with their Caw-Blade deck before an utterly dominant Worlds 2011 saw them take up four slots in the Top 8.

But my favorite tale of Magic dominance comes from Japan. And France. Specifically, Grand Prix Toulouse 2006. As Day One started, three Japanese players stood outside, chatting quietly. Now all Hall of Famers, it's hard to impart what an iconic moment this was. Kenji Tsumura, Shuhei Nakamura, and Shouta Yasooka weren't just great players—they were Magic rock stars. Tongue-in-cheek sages believed their only competition was each other. Astonishingly, that's how it turned out: all three made the Top 8, and only lost there to each other, with Tsumura taking the title. Total dominance, in human form.

A Look Back at The 2017 And 2018 Magic World Championships

So what of Javier Dominguez? Where does his path to dominance begin? With a choice to "try to be better" in 2013. He won a Legacy Grand Prix in 2014, which as he puts it: "Legacy was pretty much the only format I played, so I knew it was the format I was best at!" Then he came back to prominence with a Team Grand Prix title in Rotterdam in 2016, alongside Márcio Carvalho and Luis Salvatto.

Javier Dominguez, Márcio Carvalho, and Luis Salvatto, champions Grand Prix Rotterdam 2016

Coming into the 2017 World Championship, he was emphatically not among the favorites for the title. He earned his invite as one of the at-large slots given to top Pro Point earners for the entire season, but his name was a bit lost amid the Reid Dukes, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosas, and Brad Nelsons of the world.

"My hope was to feel I put up a good fight," Dominguez said. "I prepared for it a lot, all day, every day. I wanted to make sure I did my best, because a tournament like [the World Championship] feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I knew I was among the weakest players in the field, so I played the deck I played the best (Ramunap Red), even though I knew Temur was a better deck, because I knew they would outplay me."

Well, he certainly didn't get outplayed, and came within an ace of winning the whole thing, falling to Magic Hall of Famer William "Huey" Jensen in the Finals.

"Worlds 2017 was an extremely special experience," Dominguez shared. "I didn't feel like I lost, it felt like, overall, a win. I was super-smiley, super-happy. It was never about the result. Whenever I thought about that finals, I was just happy about it."

But ahead lay the defining tournament of his career to date, the 2018 World Championship.

"You know the saying about how the second you finish playing in your first Pro Tour you want to qualify for the second one? It's even more intense with Worlds," said Dominguez. "That experience is so unique and special. I never said to myself that I'm going to win Worlds. Just playing Worlds is the prize."

But he did win Worlds, coming back from a 2-1 deficit to win in five games over Grzegorz Kowalski. And now as the reigning World Champion, the community might view him differently—at times it's approaching reverence—but he remains unfazed.

"I didn't treat myself differently because of the Worlds win," he said. "I'm just me. I'm exactly like everyone else walking into the tournament. I'm Javier. I play Magic. It hasn't changed me at all."

A Look Back at The 2019 Season

The World Championship win began a stretch of dominance that included Top 8s at Mythic Championship II and VII, and his title-winning effort at Mythic Championship V, where he bested Stanislav Cifka, Gabriel Nassif, and Jean-Emmanuel Depraz twice during a superb Top 8 performance. Many pros will tell you that emotional equilibrium is key to success at a high-pressure tournament. Dominguez certainly gives little away in-game, but that's not the real story.

"The second I'm walking towards the feature match area for an important match, I'm a fully emotional person," he admitted. "Inside, I am not like a robot, it's quite the opposite. Those emotions make me feel good, and they help me."

His outstanding consistency, coupled with those massive Top 8 performances, and a solid win rate in the MPL Weekly play saw him rise and top the MPL standings by more than 50 Mythic Points, arguably his greatest achievement to date.

Javier Dominguez, standing with Sean "Day[9]" Plott in a familiar 2019 pose.

"It feels to me that this is the hardest thing I've accomplished in Magic," said Dominguez of his more than 12-month run of excellence. "On one weekend, you're only winning one tournament. This is a tournament that lasts a year. For me, this is the actual biggest thing. There's no trophy, there's no title, but for a whole year I fought with the best and came out on top."

So how does Dominguez feel about being put on this "dominant" pedestal?

"The word is unbelievable. I understand it's happening. I see the world around me and I know it's happening, but it's still unbelievable," he said. "Again, I'm still just me. I make too many mistakes probably. It's just amazing, it's so amazing that it's a bit confusing. Do they understand that I make lots of mistakes? For me, being here means that anyone could be here. I know that sounds like a commercial, but I mean it. Every single time I think of it, it's incredibly surprising."

Favorite or not, dominant or not, Dominguez knows full well that the numbers are against him emulating Shahar Shenhar, who won back-to-back World Championship titles in 2013 and 2014.

"That's why I cannot be disappointed," he said. "If I have, let's say, a 10% chance of winning, it makes no sense for me to be disappointed 90% of the time. My goal is to make my winning chance as high as possible."

And there's the key. Dominguez doesn't see dominance as something to aspire to, or to be weaponized, getting inside the minds of his opponents, or even as something real. His dominance exists within us, not within him. To his legions of fans, clicking on his smiling face as they find their champion, Dominguez is the player who is going to defy the numbers. Like Finkel and Budde and so many more heroes down through the years, he lets us believe that the game can be tamed, can be beaten.

Surely, though, after all the success he's had, he must be "thinking big" ahead of this mighty challenge? A chance to put on a "dominant display" to the world—at Worlds?

"For the World Championship, I do have one expectation: I want to put up a good fight. That's it."

Javier Dominguez celebrates his success against all odds.

Javier Dominguez, the player currently defining dominance, pauses, then says: "And, by the way—I think that's a really hard goal."

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