How did you become a Magic player? Did you just from the first sight understand that Magic is your game? Or you tried a couple of other games before? How did it happen for you?
Well, I was young when I first started playing. It was when I was about nine, I was playing with friends at recess, right after lunch. I guess it was fourth grade for me. I just saw people playing with cards – I think it was around Planeshift set. So, I just started—we didn't really know what any of the cards did, but we liked trying to play or trying to trade… and I just liked big creatures at the time! So, it was just an introduction to the game without really knowing what I was getting into.
It all started more casually, or you wanted to be competitive from the beginning?
It was a gradual process for me. At first, it was very casual with friends. I didn't realize there was a competitive scene. It went from playing with friends to starting to understand the rules more when playing. I think when you first get into it, especially at a young age, it's really hard to actually grasp the full rules to be able to play.
Then it was like, “Okay, now I want to draft!” because I somehow found out what drafting was. So, we would do drafts, not in any type of official way. But then, we realized, “Oh, wait, you can draft at a store!”. In this gradual process, once I realized that it was something that I could do competitively, I always wanted more and more until [I became a pro player].
You’ve won quite a lot of competitive events. Some professionals say that you are the best Magic player globally. So how do you feel when you hear people saying that you're the best in the world?
I mean, it's definitely a compliment. I get upset with myself when I make mistakes. But I mean, at the same time, yeah, my results speak for themselves. I guess in a way since I decided to dedicate to being a professional Magic player, I've definitely exceeded my own expectations. At the same time, there are still plenty of times where I realized there are ways to improve.
I love the game so much because there's no perfect player out there. So, it's hard for me to say who the best player is, because if you can't reach perfection in the game, you can keep trying continuously to make your game better. And that's what makes it so interesting.
Yeah. This is one of our Magic’s main advantages - always giving a chance to never stop improving your skills, with all these new sets coming out quite often. For example, MTG just had a Zendikar Rising release - do you already have your favorite cards? Maybe some that you will definitely play with and add to your deck?
I am someone that does like to play limited as well as constructed. I think that people recently see me as a really good deck builder, because I did well recently with the Mythic Invitational, which was the Historic format and I think that's kind of overblown a little bit.
I've been drafting [Zendikar Rising] and I've gotten a really good feel for the draft format, really like the kicker synergies, like blue or blue-green in general. Beyond that, I think it's still early for Standard. I'm actually preparing for the Grand Finals right now, which will be both Standard and Historic. I’m kind of waiting and seeing on Standard just because I think that the four-color Omnath deck is so good that there may be a ban soon. There have been more bans recently, so you can't get too comfortable with the format, it keeps you on your toes.
You mentioned Historic in your answer, do you like the format in general, or do you just play it because it was part of the event?
I think Historic is a good format. It's kind of like Standard, I find it almost too good for Standard. I think before we had the Mythic Invitational, a lot of players just thought it was more casual and not as super competitive. But then once you watch the Mythic Invitational and you see how the format has evolved, from when it was first introduced on MTG Arena to now. The decks have changed so dramatically, and the metagame has changed so dramatically that you see that there's been a lot of tuning, there’s been a lot of people trying to catch up. There’s been a lot of room there to build better decks. I like new formats, because new formats haven't been broken, they haven't been solved. So, it leaves someone like me who loves to build decks a lot of room to maneuver.
Are there any cards that you want Wizards of the Coast to add to Historic?
My own wish list for Historic? It's dangerous. I mean, sometimes there are cards that I think, “Wait, what? This is in Historic?” I think I would like to just kind of see a gradual progression like they've been doing it now. For example, I was surprised to see Collected Company in the store. At first, I thought that was not going to work because it was going to be too good. Then it ended up being fine. I’d kind of like to see Tarmogoyf, honestly; or a Dark Confidant, but at the same time, maybe these will make the format too powerful. I am more on the side of being cautious than wanting to add too much too soon, I guess.
Do you have any tips on how to become a successful competitive player? How do you prepare for events? Do you start way in advance, or do you just finalize your strategy a couple of days before the event?
I wish there were an easy way of answering this question. There's not. But at the same time, I have a group that I play with—it's normally a combination of playing on the ladder and testing different combos in person matchups. You want a combination of different things. You want to look at content. Like if there's stuff on the internet that you can pick up and listen to, that's great, but you don't want to take what someone's saying and just only do that. It’s great to be able to insert your own ideas into what you're doing. I like to play against my teammates and also mix in some [MTG] Arena for the same reasons.
By looking at what other people are doing, you can establish a metagame. That’s the first thing that I do when I go into a tournament: I try to figure out what other people are playing. It allows me to make more informed decisions about what I'm going to play, and what cards I’ll put in my deck. For Historic, for example, we tested a bunch and we realized how popular goblins were gonna be, so we really skewed our deck towards trying to be good against goblins. You have to trust your instincts: I put four copies of Aether Gust into my deck, which is a card that basically does nothing against a number of decks. But it's good against goblins. It's good against Jund Sacrifice. So, it's good against the decks that we thought we were going to encounter, but it’s risky. If you make the wrong guess, it can be very punishing.
While preparing for the event, did you test mono red goblins?
Yeah, I was considering playing mono red goblins. I thought it was the best deck, or Rakdos goblins splashing Thoughtseize. But at the same time, I just didn't want to play the mirror match. Once I realized that it was going to be such a big percentage of the field, I wanted to try to find a different way to get an edge—not because I didn't think the goblins was a good deck, but because I wanted to find a different way to attack it. I felt like if I played it, it wasn't necessarily going to be playing to my strengths as a player and it wasn't going to allow me the ability to outmaneuver my opponents. Whereas Sultai, the deck I played, allowed me to have a lot more decisions about how to navigate through a game.
After the release of MTG Arena, do you still prefer playing paper or digital? And how do you balance these for yourself?
You know, if you asked me that question two years ago, I would have said paper all the way. But now, obviously, I haven't played paper recently, just because of everything that's been going on, globally. I’ve just really grown fonder and fonder of [MTG] Arena to the point that I prefer it to paper. It's just easier from a logistical standpoint. I don't have to find all the cards for my deck, and I don't have to travel, and so on. It’s easier.
On the other hand, there are a number of things that are cool about paper—the best thing about the live events is being with other players physically. So, from the playing Magic perspective, I like [MTG] Arena more, but from the social perspective, where I can not only play, but hang out with friends after the matches, I’m still fond of paper.
You have a family and a young daughter – how do you manage your personal life and maintain balance between competitive play and being with loved ones? Do you train at nights?
It's tough. I think a lot of players, when they see my results, must think that I'm playing 10 hours a day or whatever, but it's really not like that. Especially now with my daughter being home, I’m dedicating a decent amount of the time to her and to my home life. I'm also streaming and writing articles, these also take some time from my schedule. So, it's kind of a combination.
I do a lot of my prep directly before events. As an event approaches, I play more and more and I also theorize with other players about what we think is going to show up. This is not only effective, but also less time-consuming than playing constantly. I would say that my time commitment to Magic is not as big as a few years ago, but at the same time, I figured out a way to utilize the available time more efficiently than before.
There was a period where you stepped down from pro scene for a couple of years – did you use it to recharge your batteries? Have you kept your eye on Magic, or you just wanted to just be more flexible with your personal life?
I started my professional career when I was a teenager. That was in 2007, I believe. That was my first Pro Tour. And I played in a handful of Pro Tours, I won a Grand Prix that year—that was my introduction to Magic. But I felt that I was still young, and Magic started to feel like a job. Even though I loved playing the game, and I was addicted to it, it wasn't going to be the smartest decision because I didn't know if I was going to end up as a pro Magic player.
It felt like a risk, so I just cut Magic for four years at that time, because I went to school and I was doing other things. I'm either doing something all the way to the best of my ability, or I'm not doing it because it's there's no real halfway point for me. If I'm in, I'm really going to be in, and if I'm out, I'm just I just I'm shutting the door completely. So, the past few years I've been in and been pretty happy with that.
And what are your plans for future? Do you plan to continue being a pro player?
It is tough with Magic, just because things do kind of shift from year to year pretty quickly. Right now, I am in the Magic Pro League, which is nice, because it gives me another supplemental income source. It also gives me that motivation to compete at a super high level, but we don't really know a couple years from now how that's going to change. I might not be in the league, life circumstances, I could see myself shifting towards more of a content creation/streamer type of Magic figure—because people know me at this point. But the past few pro scene years have been great for me. If that trajectory continues, then I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing. But at the same time, I definitely know that it may not happen.
When you think about the last Mythic Invitational (the one you just won) - was there a moment when you just felt like you're about to lose, everything is falling apart, or it all was smooth on your side?
I wasn't expecting to do well in the Mythic Invitational going in for some reason. I just felt like this wasn't going to be my event. So I guess, in the early rounds of the tournament, that lifted the stress. Then, once I started moving towards the top eight, I got a little bit anxious. But at the same time, it was more of carefree playing for me with a mindset like, “If I lose, but I know that I’ve played well, then that’s OK”. Losing is a part of the game, and I’m not going to be unhappy about it—but then it turned out that I won, and that was awesome! I definitely did not expect to win. But it seemed like things just started falling my way.
Part of it is luck. Sometimes it's hard to explain, but I thought I was more likely to lose at the beginning of the tournament than I was at the end. At the end, I just felt like I was going to win. There wasn't really
any doubt in my mind that I was going to win the tournament. Starting after I beat Ken [Yukihiro] I kind of felt like the dominoes were just gonna fall into place if I played well, and they did. It doesn't really make sense logically, but it did happen. It's just this hunch of the back of my head that it was gonna work out, and it did.
I did like my deck a lot for this tournament. I thought I had a good Jund matchup, which is the deck that I played against the most towards the end. I think being well prepared for the for a couple important matchups really helped. And I want to thank my teammates, specifically Javier Dominguez because he was the person that put in the most work for this event. Had it not been for him, I certainly would not have played Sultai. So even though he didn't do well in the tournament, he really put in a lot more hours than I did, and I kind of benefited from that.
If you compare your opponents this year, and from 2007, do you feel that people became more professional, and it's harder to be in, or it's the same?
I say this every year, the competition keeps getting harder, it becomes tougher and tougher. To stay on top, you have to get better as well. Because if you stay at the same skill level, and the competition is always rising, then you're actually really falling in the grand scheme of things. With all the information through [MTG] Arena, with people just playing more and more content out there, players now are SO much better, it's night and day between now and 2007.
Do you play any other formats, except Standard and Historic?
I do. I like to play other formats. Of course, I draft, but I also play Modern and Pioneer as well. Once we get back to paper play, I'll definitely be re-engaging in those formats. I've got a big collection of cards, that I'm just kind of waiting to get a chance to use gain. But right now, definitely my focus has been on Standard and Historic.
Magic has a huge history, the game is going to turn 30 in just a couple of years. What keeps MTG so captivating, what’s its main secret, how do you think?
It is just a great game. The whole thing about getting better—it's not a solvable game, as new cards get introduced constantly. There are a number of different aspects that keep people engaged, some come for the social experience, some play strictly competitive, some just like the cards and prefer to play casually. There are so many different formats and different ways to play Magic! For example, I look at it through this competitive lens, but I'm actually in the minority. Most people that play Magic are people who doing it more casually at home with friends. So, in the end, Magic caters to a wide range of players, and I think that that's the most important part of why it continues to be so successful.
Can you give any advice for new players, newcomers who may be reading this article and would like to become a pro Magic player?
You don't want to put all your eggs in that basket [being a pro MTG player]. Don’t expect to become a pro just because you want to become a pro or because you think you can become a pro. It does obviously work for some people, it worked for me. It takes time – I started playing MTG around 20 years ago, so it may be a long process.
The first thing is making sure you know all the rules of the game. There are so many different rules and cards that you need to keep in mind. Once you begin understanding how to play, make sure you have that down, and then just take it one segment at a time. For example, you specialize in drafting or standard. Don't put too much on your plate at once. There's plenty of content that's out there, there are resources you can go to. For example, one-on-one tutoring may be great for you. So, get acquainted and do not expect too much too soon. I think that playing Arena is great.
Do you want to add anything yourself? Maybe something you want readers to know?
Well, I just want to say thanks for reaching out. I'm glad that people are listening and watching even in different areas of the world where I'm not obviously. I don't know what the scene is like there but it's always humbling. I miss traveling a lot for playing Magic because it's always humbling to go for like a Grand Prix or go for an event and then for players to kind of recognize me in in other countries. So, I just want to say thanks and good luck to all of you who may read this.
Ivan Miku especially for CQ