Jean-Emmanuel Depraz shuffled slowly as he went through his mental list of sideboard notes. The matchup against Greg "The Citrus Assassin" Orange's Bant Control deck was a tricky one, and losing the first two games meant that Depraz would need to do the improbable to stay alive in the Top 8 at Magic World Championship XXIX: defeat the Pro Tour champion and his favorite deck three straight games in a row.
"That's when I started thinking, "well, you had a good run, be satisfied with it,'" Depraz admitted. "But I had to pull myself back into the match because it clearly wasn't over."
And Depraz did pull himself together, reverse-swept Orange to win the quarterfinals match, and eventually went on to win the tournament and become the Magic World Champion.
The two matches after Orange – 3-0 sweeps of Anthony Lee and then Kazune Kosaka in the finals – are what will draw attention. Indeed, they're emblematic of the level Depraz was playing at: he went 9-2 in games played on the World Championship Sunday stage. But it's that moment against Orange that Depraz was thinking about in the days following his stunning victory. That moment, and the many that preceded it in the Top 8's of previous major tournaments. Moments that led to storybook endings – for Depraz's opponents.
Depraz's ascent through the ranks has been well documented. He started playing Magic in 2005 and grew up with the game. Eventually he began to follow the Pro Tour and would qualify for it himself in 2015. Things took off quickly for him from there, with a win at Grand Prix Warsaw in 2017 and then the World Magic Cup with team France the next year.
He was on the verge of taking over the top of the Magic world when he made the finals of a PT against Javier Dominguez in 2019. But an epic match that ended in elation for Dominguez ended instead in heartbreak instead for Depraz, and it was just the start of a string of near-misses. Second place at Mythic Championship V. Second place at an online Players Tour, and then the paradoxical high/low point of his career: a runner-up finish to Yuta Takahashi at Magic World Championship XXVII. For all his wins, an individual title still eluded him.
It was those moments that Depraz reflected on while counting his sideboard against Orange.
"The finals against Javier hurt a little more than the others," he said. "I felt like my matchup was good and I made some small mistakes throughout, so it felt like a missed opportunity."
Sometimes the difference between the Top 8 and the trophy is perspective. Depraz could have let those experiences eat at his confidence, and he would be far from the first player to feel the pressure. But rather than paralyze him, those experiences calmed him. Even when staring down an 0-2 deficit against a control master in the Top 8 of the World Championship.
"The 2nd-place finishes were good experiences for me," Depraz explained. "I know there's this narrative of 'second place hurting more than ninth' – I think it's even in one of Patrick Chapin's songs – but I've never really felt that way. I'm the type to dream about incredible runs before every single tournament, so I've learnt to draw a hard mental line between how good I'm feeling about things and what will actually happen. Any Top Finish is a gift, and then the chips fall as they may. You don't have any more agency during the finals than in any other round. At the World Championship, Kazune was very unlucky with his draws in the finals. I could have been, too.
"I was leading 1-0 and he missed his second land drop in game 2. I don't know what showed on camera, but when I took my turn, I had to shake myself to refocus and turn on 'let's not screw this up' mode. I don't know how much of it was having been there before versus just being aware of the sheer weight of these moments. The more finals you play, the more likely you are to end up on the winning side once, I suppose."
It's a humble perspective coming from someone who has experienced so much success, and it's not just a platitude – just two years ago Depraz was the unfortunate player on the other end of someone else's World Championship dream.
But last weekend in Las Vegas, it was Depraz's day. As he subtly alluded to, Depraz has made the finals a lot over his career. Now, he has a World Championship title to add to his list of accomplishments.
It was only a matter of time.
Ask anyone about Depraz, and that's what they told you. "He's too good to not win one of these eventually" is pretty much what I heard from every longtime Magic player before the World Championship. Win, lose, deep Sunday run or Friday flameout, Depraz was going to win one eventually. That kind of confidence doesn't come lightly to a crowd that prides itself on its prognosticating, but ask anyone on the Pro Tour about the player from Paris who won Grand Prix Warsaw and that's what you heard.
It comes as no surprise to his peers that Depraz is the World Champion. But it may come as a surprise that Depraz himself didn't see this coming. He made a decision to take a small step back from Magic tournaments when 2023 began, and he faced some struggles in the first half of the season.
But his plan hit a snag.
"Seeing Nathan Steuer and then Simon Nielsen win everything reignited my fire," he explained. "I started thinking more and more that I wanted to catch these guys, that I know I can. In the end, I may have been less invested in Magic this year, but I definitely had the fire coming into this event, and I think that showed during the Top 8. I did not want to let anything slip by."
That's the difference between happy-to-be-there and happier-to-win-it.
"I don't think winning the title has fully set in yet," Depraz disclosed in the days following the World Championship. "It feels like it's taken longer than any other, maybe because it means so much more. I've mostly been recovering from the travel and gathering stuff for the Regional Championship in Lille. Which, after the World Championship, is less like another big tournament and more like an opportunity to see friends."
Magic changes for the World Champion. As 2020 champ Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa once famously explained, he learned that lesson when he returned from the tournament to find his own face staring back at him on a bus. News spreads quick for the champ, and it's now time for the reserved Depraz to step into the role. That's a challenge completely unlike winning a Magic tournament, and Depraz is still trying to process what exactly that means for him.
"It's hard to describe. It's like something happens to you that is way too big for your brain to process, so you're mostly a spectator of your own life with some flashes of clarity," he explained. "When you win a major event like this, your mind gets all foggy. You can make attempts to clear it the same way you'd unplug your ears after getting off of a plane, but it takes some time before you feel everything clearly. You're happy, incredibly happy, but some of it is knowing that you're supposed to be happy and acting accordingly, which is why the interviews and social encounters, and everything can feel a little overwhelming, at least for me."
Magic players spend their entire careers learning not to become overly invested in any single result – and that dissonance can often be felt as champions seek to find their own balance. But that's also what teams and friends are for, and Depraz was quick to credit the French team he prepared with that included World Championship competitors Théau Mery, Thomas Mechin, and Alexey Paulot, who went on to finish in ninth place at the World Championship.
"I didn't know Alexey before this, but I want to shout him out for an incredible performance at his first high-level tabletop event, and with his own [Agatha's Soul Cauldron] brew," Depraz said. "I'm sure that 9th-place finish is not the last time you'll hear of him."
Is it any surprise that Depraz's teammates rushed the stage with such exuberance to celebrate his victory?
Magic World Championship XXIX closed out a monumental year for our game that saw the return of the Pro Tour alongside massive MagicCon conventions, and in many ways, it was the culminating celebration of the gathering coming back to Magic. That celebration now has a World Champion, and all eyes turn to 2024 and the first Pro Tour in Chicago.
A year that began with a step back ended in a World Championship for Depraz. So, what's next for the man with two different world titles?
"The first thing that comes to mind at this point is the Pro Tour Hall of Fame," he explained. "I try my best not to think about it too much because there haven't been new entrants, and I wouldn't be on the top of the list if there were – Javier and Simon have been crushing much more than me lately – but whether it's a thing or not, I want to build a Hall of Fame-worthy resume, and the World Championship is a big step towards it. After this, I can focus on whatever I want without any financial pressure, which is a big relief. I'll be attending all of the Pro Tour and the World Championship next season, and with any luck this win won't be my last Top Finish!"