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The Week That Was: Warm Welcomes

August 11, 2023
Corbin Hosler

It might be the pairings board that gets you, or when you first sit down for the draft and find you're situated in between Márcio Carvalho and Rich Hoaen, two of the universally acknowledged best to ever draft at the Pro Tour. Maybe it's when you've just lost a close match to a World Champion in Javier Dominguez to fall to a 1-2 record, only to immediately be paired up against another World Champion in Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. Or when you tell your opponent you're playing in your first Pro Tour, and they gently inform you that's the 49th Pro Tour for them.

Maybe the moment hits you before that. When you get off the airplane, or for me, when I'm settled into my room and venture down to a beautiful landscape to have a drink and catch up with friends. I read an article by Gavin Verhey once many years ago about how he adorned his playmat with Top 8 pins because his mom suggested it as a reminder to have fun, and when I was fortunate enough to begin traveling for Magic events I made sure to always take some time to appreciate how lucky I am – we all are – to see the world playing the game.

Maybe it comes when you get the email welcoming you, or when you get the fabled "blue envelope," though they've long since stopped being blue, or an envelope at all. Maybe it comes when you walk into the player's lounge and see all the pros you've read and watched for years relaxing in their downtime (one Pro Tour even featured ping pong tables, as if there wasn't already enough competition in the room. And there was once an actual surfboard, which players of course turned into a competition). Or maybe you're locked in and it doesn't hit you until later, when you're 2-0 after defeating Shota Yasooka and playing for the undefeated draft… only to match up against Seth Manfield in the next round.

Heck, maybe it's bumping into Kai Budde in the registration line, or Brian David-Marshall,Rich Hagon, or Maria Bartholdi in the hotel lobby. Maybe it's seeing the full score of cameras, lights, stages, and all manner of equipment that make the Pro Tour the best Magic show in the world. Or maybe it's just that simple moment when the head judge or tournament manager announce those five words.

The moment is different for everyone, but a universal experience at the same time.

Welcome to the Pro Tour.

It was something that Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings winner Jake Beardsley mentioned a few times when I interviewed him after his incredible run from first-time Pro Tour qualifier to Pro Tour winner. It's something that is both inevitable enough to seem mundane to many of us – every draft pod with several all-time greats in it is bound to have players on the opposite end of the experience spectrum – but something that may in itself end up being the emotional high point of the Pro Tour for a newcomer.

That's something special that we can't forget, even as we devote our attention to some of the record runs of excellence going on around us.

"Márcio Carvalho walked up and sat down next to me, and I thought 'am I really going to start off my first Pro Tour with maybe the best Limited player ever passing to me?'" Beardsley recalled. "That was my welcome to the Pro Tour moment."

Jake Beardsley, Winner Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings

It was something that stuck with me as we digested Beardsley's improbable run through the new The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth™-included Modern format. I thought back to my first Pro Tour and my own welcome to the Pro Tour moment: it was the players meeting on Thursday afternoon at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir in 2014. I flew in late Wednesday to Honolulu and crashed immediately from jet lag. I get into work the next day, run through production meetings and we get to player registration where I'm greeted with a nonchalant direction from my boss that was far scarier than it maybe should have been: "just go talk to the players about what they're playing."

That was a tough ask of anyone back in the days of closed decklists that weren't due until Round 1, but it was practically terrifying for a Pro Tour newbie like myself, trying to not screw anything up in my first callup from the Grand Prix minor leagues to the show. Welcome to the Pro Tour, kid. Now go try to get Huey Jensen and Reid Duke to spill the beans to the new guy.

Beardsley's welcome to the Pro Tour, of course, went like no other since Jan Merkel at Pro Tour Kobe in 2006: he won it all in his debut. And not only did his run capture the imagination of the Magic community at large, it appears I wasn't the only one it made a tad nostalgic.

All the examples I listed in the opening? Yeah, every one of those is a real story relayed to me by a Magic player who has never forgotten their own welcome to the Pro Tour.

Tales of stacked draft pods abounded. And for all the focus on the latest decklists and tech cards to break the format, it's the players – the human beings – involved who popped up most regularly. And hundreds of Pro Tour stories later, something fascinating emerged: a link from Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings in Barcelona, all the way back to where it all began, and I truly mean where it began. Pro Tour 1, New York, 1996.

Dominic Harvey is fresh off a Top 8 appearance at Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings, and he still vividly remembers his own debut Pro Tour, where he sat next to Hall of Famer Luis Scott-Vargas in Round 1 and noted the Matter Reshaper in his deck and "realized I was absolutely not in on whatever the joke was." As you might expect, a lot of players remember playing or drafting against LSV in their first Pro Tour, and it stands out as a highlight for many who have followed the Pro Tour winner's career for years.

Even your heroes have heroes.

Another way to put that might be "all roads lead to Brian Kibler." In addition to inventing a new kind of internet search, the Hall of Famer was there for Round 1 of that first Pro Tour and you can still find him at Magic events 30 years later. One of the original prodigies at the game, the Dragonmaster was both a highlight for attendees and one of the links tying Magic's past to its present and future.

Another legendary Magic competitor who fits into that category? Sol Malka. He describes himself as "the reason your midrange deck shares a name with an actor," and that's actually a fairly accurate description. Malka earned the nickname "the godfather of midrange," and enjoyed Pro Tour success for years innovating and popularizing "The Rock," a deck archetype that today you know as grindy, usually Black-Green based, midrange (Jund. It's always Jund.)

Malka has seen it all, from the beginning all the way up to the large tournament he won at Dreamhack Dallas last year. And he has the receipts to prove it.

What are there more of today: Black Lotus, or Black Lotus invitations to Pro Tour 1? Fun thing to think about – this postcard is a really cool piece of Magic history that Malka has held onto since he secured one of the first DCI numbers ever given out. And that journey eventually landed him a debut in one of the Pro Tour's most memorable locations.

The Electoral Palace of Mainz played host to the Pro Tour in 1997.

"It was December, and the ground was covered in snow. As a native south Floridian, I wasn't keen on that, so I kept to the venue mostly," he remembered fondly, thinking back to that first Magic adventure in Germany (American Matt Place would go on to win the event, which also featured future Hall of Famer Steve O'Mahoney-Schwartz). "Walking through the tables of the tournament, I saw inaugural Pro Tour Player of the Year Olle Råde, who I recognized from The Duelist magazine, and someone introduced to Mark Chalice, one of the first great players from the United States. For better or worse, I also encountered Mike Long while walking home from the venue at night along the Rhine."

An unforgettable city and venue led to an unforgettable tournament experience – though not the one Malka was hoping for.

"In hindsight, the venue was very cool and unique. Most of my Pro Tours have been at indistinct convention centers," he recalled. "Several of us from Atlanta qualified and we all had inflated expectations for how we'd perform. Someone in the group assumed we'd all make day 2."

"None of us did. I didn't win a match until my second pod."

Welcome to the Pro Tour. Even the Jundfather needed a learning curve.

That brings us back to Beardsley. In the midst of a year where we've watched Nathan Steuer accomplish historic things not seen since Malka was first pairing Birds of Paradise with Duress, Beardsley reminded us that there's more than one way to make Magic history. And when the Magic World Championship XXIX kicks off later this year in Las Vegas, it will be Beardsley's turn to welcome someone else to the Pro Tour. Could you imagine getting paired against the defending Pro Tour champion in Round 1?

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