King of the Grinders

Posted in Magic Lifestyle on October 11, 2016

By Maria Bartholdi

Maria is one half of the podcast Magic the Amateuring. When she's not working on the podcast, she's probably in an improv show, speaking Welsh, or thinking about popcorn. Rakdos is the true nature of her heart.

"So, now that you've won the World Championship, what are you gonna do?"

"I'm gonna go to my room and take a nap."

Brian Braun-Duin has been playing Magic ever since he was in college. And when I say "playing Magic," I don't mean occasionally going to Friday Night Magic or hitting up the odd Grand Prix. When BBD plays Magic, he really plays Magic.

"I'm usually travelling four days out of the week," he says. "Friday through Sunday I'm travelling or playing in a tournament. Tuesday through Thursday I'll get up, do some errands, and then just play a bunch of Magic Online."

"How much Magic Online?" I ask.

"Sometimes 10 hours a day." I blink in shock. Brian just laughs. "I basically rinse and repeat that schedule."

If that sounds like dedication to you, I'd say you're right. It's rare to meet anyone who's dedicated to anything the way that Brian is dedicated to Magic. And, if you ask him, it's that dedication that earned him the most sought-after title in the world of Magic: World Champion.

His journey to the top started back in 2006.

Brian learned to sling spells with his college dorm room buddies, and it wasn't too long before he was playing local Friday Night Magic and Pro Tour Qualifiers. He describes himself as a "decent" player at that point in time—someone who had potential but was having trouble leveling up.

Brian admits that, like many new players, he often blamed bad luck for his losses rather than sitting down and examining where he went wrong in a game, accepting variance, or listening to advice from his peers.

"I wish I could go back in time and tell myself not to be so stubborn," Brian says. "I would have said: 'Look, you're wrong about a lot of things. Make sure to listen to other people and respect their advice.'"

Soon enough, that advice would come.

Brian Braun-Duin
Brian plays a Pro Tour Qualifier back in 2010.

Brian lived near Roanoke, Virginia, home of StarCityGames.com (SCG), which offered a unique opportunity. As SCG started to staff up with the likes of Gerry Thompson, Todd Anderson, and Brad Nelson, Brian saw not only a set of skilled players moving into his area, but the potential for a new playgroup.

"I sort of snuck my way into that group," Brian says. "It definitely elevated my game a lot."

"Should I ask them what percentage of your career you owe to them?" I asked.

"I'd be afraid to hear their answer!" Brian laughs. "But honestly, you can ask any of those guys. I was a way worse player than I am now. I pretty much owe that to them—learning how to get better at it."

And he did get better. In a big way.

Pro Tour Dublin 2013 and Grand Prix Sao Paulo 2016
Brian plays Pro Tour Theros in Dublin in 2013 and Grand Prix São Paulo in 2016.

Brian earned his first championship trophy at Grand Prix (GP) Louisville in 2013. He continued to post great results, clinching a Top 8 at GP Minneapolis in 2014, followed by another win in New Jersey that same year and a second-place finish in Oklahoma City the next.

That's when he started thinking about the World Championship.

"Early in 2016, it was something I was working to do," Brian says. "I looked at the Pro Point page and randomly saw I was in second place." So he made a decision. He was going to hit as many Grand Prix as he possibly could and battle his way to the top. His results were beyond impressive: securing Top 8 finishes in Barcelona and Costa Rica (where he locked up Gold pro status), and Top 4 at the team event in São Paulo.

"I remember at some point in April I looked at the calendar and realized I had only not played in a tournament two or three weekends out of the year so far."

"That's an insane number of tournaments," I replied.

"I want to give myself every opportunity to succeed," Brian said. "For every game of Magic you win, there's ten you lose. That's true of all players—even the best of all time. So if I skip a whole bunch of tournaments, those might have been my one chance to succeed."

By the time GP Sydney rolled around, Brian had played in an astounding 25 GPs and was all but locked for a World Championship seat as the Grand Prix Master. And when Scott Lipp defeated reigning World Champion Seth Manfield in the semifinals, it was set in stone: Brian was going to compete on the game's biggest stage.

It was an enormous payoff for the enormous amount of work he'd put in.

2016 World Champion
To be crowned the 2016 World Champion, Brian needed to face down some of Magic's greatest players.

"I've always been the person who puts everything into the things I care about, and Magic is one of those things," he told me. "I'm not interested in half-measures."

Brian's preparation paid off once again when he sat down to do battle at the World Championship. He managed to end Day One tied for first, fighting his way through a stellar field that included multiple Hall of Famers. He made his way into the finals as the top seed with a Bant Humans deck, facing down Márcio Carvalho of Portugal.

"It was such an intense match," Brian remembers. "There was a point at the very end of Game 4 where Márcio starts cracking Clues to find an answer, and if he does, I probably lose. And he's drawing one card at a time and my heart is pounding out of my chest."

Then, the world stopped.

"Márcio stuck out his hand in concession and I thought, 'Wow. I can't believe it. I actually won.'"

The crowd erupted into massive cheers.

Brian and his friends celebrate.
Brian and his friends celebrated his triumphant win at the 2016 Magic World Championship.

Brian's passion for the game is obvious to anyone who knows him or has seen him play. Lots of grinders identify with him. He's their hero—someone who has come up through the Pro Tour Qualifier system to achieve success that most Magic players only dream of. It's success that Brian truly believes anyone can achieve, as long as they are willing to put in the work.

"I think most people's ceiling is way higher than where they are," he says, knowingly. After all, he's lived it—and, in a lot of ways, he's still living it. "I get better the more and more I put into something. I don't think I've reached my cap just yet."

"Do you see yourself as an underdog?" I ask.

"I do. I don't have the same level of raw talent or skill that a lot of other people have. A lot of times I'm up against players who are just a little bit better at Magic than I am, and I have to find a way to win anyway."

"You understand that by at least one measure, you're the best in the world now, right?" I ask.

Brian smiles. It's the smile of someone who is still in a little bit in shock after achieving their greatest dreams.

"How about this: Do you ever look at yourself in the mirror and whisper, 'I'm the World Champion?'"

Brian laughs. "I plead the fifth."

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