It hasn't been the year Jean-Emmanuel Depraz was hoping for.
The France native burst onto the professional Magic scene six years ago in Grand Prix Warsaw, where he defeated everyone in Standard to claim the trophy and his place at the upper echelons of the game. From there, success compounded for the quiet competitor. He made his first Pro Tour Top 8 appearance in Bilbao in 2018 and followed that up a few months later with an outright victory at the World Magic Cup in Barcelona with the rest of Team France.
"JiRock" was just getting started. And as Arena launched and he explored the platform, Depraz's ascent only continued. He posted two more Top Finishes in 2019, and followed that with a seventh-place finish at the 2019 World Championship. When play was forced entirely online in 2020, Depraz didn't even slow down — he put up a second-place finish at the 2020 Players Tour and then famously fell just short against Yuta Takahashi in the title match of Magic World Championship XXVII.
It was one of the more prolific five-year runs we've seen in Pro Tour history, and it left Depraz in a good position heading into this season and the return of the tabletop Pro Tour. But things haven't exactly gone to plan, and as he heads into Pro Tour The Lord of The Rings next week in Barcelona, Depraz finds himself in the thick of the points race for a seat at the upcoming Magic World Championship XXIX. The World Championship field will be larger this year than in recent ones; and alongside the automatic qualifiers from the slate of completed Pro Tours, Regional Championships, Arena and Magic Online Championships, the 32 players with the most Adjusted Match Points not receiving an automatic invitation will also earn an invitation.
That means that Depraz – tied for 14th on the list alongside other notable names like Matti Kuisma, Brent Vos, Greg Orange, Will Edel, and Karl Sarap. It's a logjam, and one with a ton of talent looking to break clear of the pack — a pack that's tied very closely together. One Magic Hall of Famer near the top of the points race told me that even with a decent lead, it was going to be a sweat every round — the distance between the top and bottom of the at-large qualifiers is likely to be just two or three matches across a full season of Pro Tour play.
So, with several of the competitors ahead of them in the race already qualified for World Championship, there's plenty of opportunity for anyone clustered near the top to earn an invitation — if they can put together a solid performance next week in Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings at MagicCon: Barcelona.
There's a lot on the line at every Pro Tour, but this is intense: a last-chance World Championship qualifier for dozens of players on the edge. It's the kind of pressure that can make a 4-4 match at Table 74 of the Pro Tour feel like the Top 8.
"Honestly, it's been a weird season for me. On the one hand, returning to paper Magic is great, and there's nothing I enjoy more than pod drafting at this level," Depraz explained. "But on the other hand, losing professional status has made it harder for me to enjoy the grind; and even if I didn't want to, I found myself devoting more times to other activities like writing. As a result, I'm not the best Magic player I can be any more, which has been very frustrating. So, my biggest challenge this season is staying sharp and keeping up my motivation to test, especially for Constructed."
To be clear, a less-than-full-power Depraz is still a better Magic player than most of us could imagine. As I spoke with him for this column, he was deep in The Lord of The Rings: Tales of Middle-earth™ Draft prep with his team.
Demain, on s'entraîne pour le Pro Tour en draft Lord of the Rings !— J-E Depraz (@JEDepraz) July 13, 2023
(Ce soir aussi, mais l'orga étant un peu rushée, j'avais pas eu le temps de tout bien arranger 😅)
Boosters fournis bien sûr par @MajestiKGames pic.twitter.com/3mFE4mPiCc
With a Pro Tour in his home region and a team of his countrymen that boasts a Hall of Famer to prep with, the stage for Pro Tour The Lord of The Rings is certainly set for Depraz to break out of his slump and secure his spot back on the World Championship stage he's performed so well on.
"As usual I'm testing with a bunch of Frenchies: Matthieu Avignon, Thomas Mechin, Raphaël Rieu-Helft, Jean Zarrouati, and Hall of Famer Guillaume Wafo-Tapa," Depraz elaborated. "Raphaël and Jean qualified from their first Regional Championship in Athens, and the rest of the team is more experienced. Modern is really not my cup of tea, so most of my contribution lies in draft: I've been hosting paper pods with other good drafters since last week. Our little team will move to Barcelona this weekend, focus on Constructed there, and have a limited meeting after deck submission to align our impressions on The Lord of The Rings: Tales of Middle-earth Draft.
Depraz, too, knows how intense the points race is going to be down the stretch.
"I'm reluctant to set any goals for myself at any given event," he explained. "However, missing the World Championship after it's just grown in size would be a bit of a bummer, so I'll be happy with any finish that secures a World Championship slot."
"Remember, a tournament is successful if the games were stimulating and I feel like I gave my best," he added with a laugh.
While Depraz is heading to Spain looking to regain his footing, Brent Vos , also deep in contention for an at-large World Championship seat, is still reeling from the ride of his life that's not done careening around the globe. Its next stop? Barcelona.
"This Magic season has been wild," he marveled when asked to reflect on the past seven months. "About a year ago, Frank Karsten and I were at a wedding, and he told me I was qualified for the Regional Championship in Sofia. I had been taking a break from Magic due to real life, but I figured I'd go there as it would be fun. I squeaked into Day Two and then didn't lose, coming in ninth on breakers."
"Then at the Pro Tour in Philly I lost the last two for a 10-6 finish, which got me to Minneapolis. I wanted to defer that one since my wife was due to give birth a few weeks after the PT, but in the end I went anyway. I finished 11-5-1 there, and while I was boarding my wife went into labor! (Sorry, Kelly). I flew for eight hours, sped to the hospital, and made it to the delivery room. Within half an hour, my first child was born!"
(Aside: That's what those in the business call, "running hotter than the sun.")
"Since then, I've been combining being a father with the intensity I like to test with. Apparently, you need sleep to play well. Who would've guessed?" he added.
Now Vos heads to Barcelona with a cheering section one person larger – his wife and daughter will be attending the Pro Tour in person – and on a mighty impressive streak of his own, shouldn't get forgotten about in the midst of reigning World Champion Nathan Steuer's historic run that will draw all eyes in Barcelona.
Currently on a heater in limited. 9-0 in the last 3 PT drafts! https://t.co/p5OD3RC4sw— Brent Vos (@Brent_Vos_) May 7, 2023
"I love the tabletop Pro Tours and going to testing houses with the best players in the world — aka 'Team Boomers,' aka Channel Fireball/Ultimate Guard — and just the general vibe and hype of the Pro Tour. I'm always looking for busted cards and how to do the most unfair things possible. Kai Budde specifically is a constant punching bag for all my crazy ideas, and the new set has provided me with plenty of inspiration. It's a shame I must wear pants while playing a high-level tournament, but you can't have it all!"
Vos isn't far from it. He's already secured an invitation for the first Pro Tour of 2024, and he believes a Day Two finish in Barcelona will earn an at-large qualification for the World Championship.
"Success at this Pro Tour specifically looks like making Day Two, as it should lock me for my first World Championship," he explained. "I'd like to continue my undefeated Draft streak, which is going to be difficult, but currently I've 3-0'ed my last three drafts on the Pro Tour so I'd like to add two more to that next weekend!"
For some, the chance to qualify for the World Championship is the goal they've been chasing all year. For Magic Hall of Famer Willy Edel (who enters in the same position as Depraz and Vos), it's the unexpectedly delicious icing on an already delightful cake.
"Whatever happens in Barcelona, I already consider my season a big success," he beamed. "Everything to this point has been completely unexpected. I had a flight voucher from a cancelled event in 2020; so almost a year before the first Pro Tour, I booked a flight to Orlando for vacation. Some months later, Wizards announced the Pro Tour for the same time period I'd already be in the United States!
"I decided to play and see what happened. I didn't have much time to prepare, so I played an old favorite (Gruul Embercleave) that was poorly positioned in the field. But thanks to a good result in Draft, I finished 9-7 and qualified for Minneapolis. There I started 4-4 and was happy with the experience I had, but something unexpected happened again, and I didn't lose a match on Day Two and qualified for Barcelona. Now to my surprise, I am indeed in contention for the World Championship!"
It's a feel-good story that you can be sure thousands of players who grew up watching the Brazilian Magic legend dominate the international circuit. As good as his Magic Hall of Fame resume is, his community organizing resume is even better, and the elder statesman has for years embraced his role in bringing along the next generation of Magic players.
With the relaunch of the Pro Tour and his serendipitous arrival back on the scene, Edel is loving what he sees from the field right now.
"After three years locked home playing most casually, I'm suddenly facing all of this new generation of talented players for a [World championship] slot, which is awesome," he explained. "Qualifying for the World Championship would really crown this season; and since I owe my wife and kids some family vacations, a good excuse to travel again! I'm happy to have an excuse to travel a couple of times a year around the world and see all the friends I've made over time. And sometimes even winning and showing that old dogs can learn some new tricks!"
With Pro Tour The Lord of The Rings kicking off in a week, Edel and the rest will have to fight through not just a stacked Pro Tour field, but also outpace dozens of the game's biggest names if they want a spot at the World Championship. Other notable players I haven't yet mentioned near the top 50 entering Barcelona with a World Championship spot in their sights include:
- Márcio Carvalho
- Yuta Takahashi
- Yuuki Ichikawa
- Autumn Burchett
- Jim Davis
- Luis Scott-Vargas
- Seth Manfield
Pro Tour The Lord of The Rings is all that remains between these players and a spot at the biggest tournament of the year — and with the always-exciting Modern format leading the way at a Pro Tour for the first time since 2019 — it's sure to be a race to remember.