When Simon Nielsen first picked up Magic back in high school, he remembers telling his dad that he was only learning the game. He didn't have the time to invest in getting good at Magic because there were so many other games he was playing.
Of course, as Nielsen explained now, "that's just not how Magic works."
Nielsen's competitive journey began with a look at what he wanted to achieve.
"It was actually not that long after I started—you know, at the point where you're picking up random commons and trying to build a deck of all the cards you have, at that level—I stumbled upon some Pro Tour coverage from Pro Tour Paris 2011," he explained. "Watching that coverage, I was like, wow, that is what I want to do, be in a Pro Tour Top 8 and play for that. That really motivated me."
"I still haven't gotten there yet."
From that first moment of inspiration, Nielsen's road into competitive Magic was a smooth one. He feels lucky in a lot of regards, because each time he was ready to take another step forward, there was someone there to show him the way, from the friend that introduced him to a Magic club at school to the player he met there who took him to his first Friday Night Magic in a nearby city.
That store with FNM was the very same where Martin Müller, another now-famous Danish player with five career Top Finishes, battled. "He was just a kid at that point, and I was like 16 at the time," Nielsen said. "He's the best Magic player that Denmark has ever had, and we practiced a lot together and I got to watch him play tons of Magic. It was always ramping up, where you would go to the FNM, then you would make friends at the FNM and then people would talk about going to a Grand Prix and you do that. And then you start to think, oh man, I want to go to more of these, because this is just incredible."
Nielsen finally broke onto the competitive scene in 2014, and once again one step forward in Nielsen's Magic journey cascaded naturally into the next.
"It was in 2014 that I ended up winning a World Magic Cup qualifier to go play with [Müller] on the national team," Nielsen said. "We then ended up winning the event, which is also really lucky that that just happened to be my first big event."
That success, alongside playing shoulder-to-shoulder with the emergent Müller, opened the door to opportunities to join—and learn from—other incredible players. "We got onto a team that wasn't very serious but acquired a bunch of serious players, and got serious at the same time that we were joining. It was very early on, and I've been really fortunate to be surrounded by good players."
Four years later, the World Magic Cup was once again the scene of a highlight of Nielsen's Magic career.
"The thing I treasure the most is in 2018 I got to be the Danish captain, because I was the Dane with the most Pro Points," he said. "We have some seriously good players in Denmark, so the fact that I had a season where I got to be the best performing Dane was just incredible."
"It's the achievement that I'm the proudest of—and this includes two Grand Prix wins and the World Magic Cup title and eight Grand Prix Top 8s," Nielsen said. "I was just thinking about this today, that that's a lot and the 2014 Simon would be so proud of me."
Not long after that 2018 high, the pro Magic system changed, bringing with it new challenges but also an unexpected affirmation of the skill he'd spent years cultivating. As a Challenger, Nielsen had to qualify for each and every Championship that followed by doing well enough at the previous one—or by winning a qualifier.
It was a pleasant surprise to realize that his years of testing with and playing against stellar players left him more than ready for the task, but his journey wasn't without its stumbling blocks.
The Strixhaven Championship was a tough battle he lost out on. He lost in the finals of three different qualifying event and, as he put it, "that was somewhat heartbreaking. I had gotten used to playing all of the events, and this was the first time that I actually missed. At this point I was on the team that I'm still on, which is an incredibly well-oiled machine and they're very good, and they ended up putting two people in the Top 8 of this event, David Inglis and Matti Kuisma."
Nielsen still prepared for both events with his teammates, but not playing in one tournament left him wondering if that would have unlocked playing in another: the postseason Challengers Gauntlet.
"I really felt like it would've been so good to play that one, because maybe then I might have gotten a good enough result," he said. "I still prepared with my teammates for the Challengers Gauntlet, but watching that from the sidelines, knowing that I'm probably good enough now to be able to be there but I'm not, that's a bit of a sting."
Plus he needed to qualify for a Championship again. In the era of online events and near-misses, testing with those teammates had been paramount to Nielsen's motivation. For someone whose early entry into the game, and early successes, came from the Danish Magic community around him, the early months of the pandemic were difficult to push through.
"It is sometimes tough because everything is online," he explained. "If it was live tournaments it would be very easy to keep playing Magic because it's great to travel and see friends, regardless of if you don't care too much about that specific tournament." The experience and camaraderie of Magic event travel is a common connection between elite players, alongside adjusting to play without the energy of a crowd of players watching. "It was a really big hit to my motivation. It was just not as fun anymore."
Finding an international, online team for the past few years helped Nielsen recover that competitive drive, whether it was testing for tournaments together or having other players to cheer for from the sidelines.
"I'm really happy that I found this online crew to hang out with," he said. "Not just that you get better at the game and have better decks and so on, but also if you don't do well, you have someone to root for, there's always someone doing well."
He also looks at it another way: "No tournament is a bad experience because you're always happy for some people. That's the great thing about making a ton of friends in the pro community: every tournament is a success in one way or another, and that definitely helps keep me motivated."
In addition to finding solid decks for championships and creating a better and more enjoyable tournament experience, his current testing team (which includes competitive standouts such as Hall of Famer Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa, Arne Huschenbeth, Thoralf Severin, Austin Bursavitch, Tristan Wylde-LaRue, David Inglis and many more—reinforced Nielsen's conviction about his strengths as a Magic player and teammate.
Focusing on aggressive decks, his teammates look to him to understand—and have the answers—but Nielsen has his doubts.
"I sometimes get a bit of imposter syndrome because these players that I think are incredibly good ask me for my opinion on these things and trust me wholeheartedly," he said. "It is kind of wild that I've gotten to this point where my skill sets have been honed and gotten specific enough that it has a lot of value to these other really good players."
In addition to the testing team, Nielsen found yet another reason to stay motivated at the start of the current season: for the first time in his career the Magic World Championship felt within reach, and from the season's start he's been charting his possible path to a seat at Magic's most prestigious event.
He always felt the challenge to make it was outside of his skill. "But the way the qualification system works this time, where I'm mostly competing with other challengers," he explained, "makes it a lot more attainable. It was the reason why all of a sudden that actually became a reality for me, that I could qualify for the World Championship. It's a big deal because I didn't think I would get to do it, but I really want to."
Nielsen started the season by going 10-5 at the Innistrad Championship, which qualified him for the next championship and gave him a solid lead on World Championship Qualifying Points.
"I knew at that point that if I just won a qualifier for the New Capenna Championship, I would be in a prime position for the World Championship race," he said. "The fact that I could play a PTQ-level event where first place is not just an invite to a championship, but potentially an invite to the World Championship, that gives these events so much value that it would be silly of me to not push everything else aside to try to qualify. And that's what I did in these two weekends where I played seven PTQs."
That's right: Nielsen played a total of seven qualifier events across two weekends to secure a spot in the New Capenna Set Championship. It was a gauntlet borne of a singular focus.
"That was a wild thing, because some of these events were overlapping and I would have to make choices like, okay, well, which tournament do I drop out of?" He recalled. "On the very first day I had to scoop Round 1 of a tournament without playing it because I was in the other tournament, but then I quickly lost in that other tournament that I was going deep in, so then I had to play out this tournament where I started 0-1, and then ended up going to the finals."
That dedication to qualifying for the New Capenna Championship ran up against the team's preparation for the Neon Dynasty Championship. The qualifiers were only a few weeks ahead of the Neon Dynasty event, and Nielsen's team had found the Naya Runes deck ahead of the curve. Once the deck was known, they felt they had a build with an edge in the mirror. What followed was a give and take between playing the best deck possible while trying not to give away any info in advance.
I WON A PTQ!!— Sleep-In Simon Nielsen (@MrChecklistcard) February 28, 2022
With Naya Runes in Alchemy, woooo!
Dropped at 3-1 from a Standard tournament to play in this one. Went undefeated so it must have been the better choice :P
THIS MEANS I HAVE A GREAT SHOT AT QUALIFYING FOR WORLDS NOW! pic.twitter.com/unqnRHHhjl
He qualified with a list he knew wasn't optimal. "I was trying to conceal information for a bigger event coming up.," Nielsen said, following a longstanding tradition of trying to maximize competitive deck information even in an era of open decklists and constant format evolution. "Straddling that balance was really interesting because I was playing for a lot personally, but I'm also on a team where if I leak too much information, I hurt my teammates' chances at this other tournament. But if I played none of our tech, then I'm giving up a chance for myself to qualify for the World Championship."
Nielsen spent his entire season putting in the work to ensure he could make it all the way, but why? What makes going to the World Championship a rewarding thing to pursue?
"That question put a smile on my face," he said. "It is so cool to be at one of the most prestigious events that I might never have a chance to qualify for again, and get to play that level of Magic against other really good players. Just the fact that you get to say you've been there."
"I know the level of competition. Just being there would be such a cool thing."
With other challengers jockeying for position as the race to the World Championship draws to a close, Nielsen is focused on the tournament ahead.
"If I make it to Day Two I'm locked," he claimed. "That's a lot of pressure on the tournament, and my motivation has skyrocketed as a result of that realization."
And his next move? "I'm going play Magic 24/7 and try to get there."
Watch as Nielsen and more continue their sprint to the Magic World Championship XXVIII with their battles at the New Capenna Championship, broadcasting live at twitch.tv/magic, starting Friday May 20 at 9 a.m. PT!