Feature: From Casual to Phenom with Fabian Thiele

Posted in Event Coverage on June 11, 2011

By Bill Stark

Fabian Thiele defines himself in all ways as a casual Magic player. He doesn't travel for events, he doesn't care for Constructed, and he positively turns his nose up at the notion of "grinding." Though the German hails from Hamburg, home of the überfamous Kai Budde, and his testing Rolodex includes Jan Ruess and Jan Moritz-Merkel, he is by all accounts not your prototypical Pro Tour player. When a Pro Tour Qualifier for Magic Weekend Paris rolled into Hamburg, Thiele decided to give it a shot (it was nearby after all) and found himself with a blue envelope for the big day in France. At that event he found himself in 20th place at the close of the weekend, qualified for Nagoya. All of a sudden the casual player from Hamburg found himself something of a pro and on the way to stardom.

Self-described casual player Fabian Thiele beneath the bright lights of the feature match arena.

I sat down to talk with Fabian here in Nagoya as his fortunate streak of play continues: late into Day 2 he was playing for Top 8 after finishing the first day as the sole undefeated player. How did Thiele find his way to the game of Magic: The Gathering?

"I was 11 or 12 when someone sold me their collection. My deck was all fat green creatures and Giant Growths. We all had a deck, but then I quit playing for a while. After seven or eight years I found drafting and I've been hooked ever since."

Not an unfamiliar tale, but how did Fabian become known as a casual player?

"I would describe myself as casual," he explained. "I haven't been to a Grand Prix this year and probably won't. I don't grind, and I don't travel for PTQs." In fact, at times Thiele's playing is reduced to just a single draft each month as he works busily to finish off his bachelor's degree in business psychology and digital media. But that pedigree hardly matches his burst onto the Pro Tour scene and consistent finishes from Paris to Nagoya; how does he explain that?

"I'm a competitive chess player, probably in the top third of German players," Thiele said. It is his experience at highly competitive chess events that has helped hone the competitive skills he needs to turn on when the Pro Tour calls for it. "I have a strong grasp of Magic because of chess. When I play the game I plan ahead. I'm calm and concentrated playing the Pro Tours even though I'm a more casual player, and chess helped train me to do that."

That certainly gives Thiele a leg up on the Pro Tour, and he credited chess with one more specific methodology that helps him significantly: "You have to have the ability to put yourself into your opponent's shoes," he said about playing successfully. "If you were them, what would the game look like? What would you think your opponent was going to do?"

Thiele imagines the game from the viewpoint of Hall of Famer Tsuyoshi Fujita.

Because Fabian prefers playing casually, he eschews the grinding testing process that goes into preparing for a Pro Tour. Rather than spending hours on Magic Online running through countless matchups with the top Constructed decks, he prefers a draft amongst friends. His deck choices, then, are shaped by this in the Constructed portion. "I played Valakut in Paris because it basically doesn't care about the metagame," Thiele explained, describing his playtesting process for his first Pro Tour, adding, "Constructed is different than Limited because you have to know so much about the metagame. A deck like Valakut allows you to ignore most of the metagame instead. I picked a similar deck for this weekend with Mono-Red, though I burn people with spells instead of lands." The laser-sharp analysis of his weaknesses from not testing have certainly served Thiele well over the course of his two Pro Tours, and lay truth to the notion that being a casual player doesn't mean you can't have a great grasp of the fundamental elements that make up Magic.

Thiele shows off his MVPs for draft, his format of choice.

As for Fabian? I asked him what words of advice he might have for casual players reading at home. "If you're happy playing casually, I understand that. If you want to take yourself to the next level, play the deck you're comfortable with in the metagame and in your hands."

Sage advice: enjoy the game the way it makes you happy, whether it's on the Pro Tour or a Commander game with friends on a Tuesday afternoon. Hopefully this is one casual player we'll be seeing more of on the Pro Tour; Thiele has likely locked up a slot for Pro Tour Philadelphia after his performance so far in Nagoya and has pledged to attend if he has a few friends to travel with.

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