More than 350 players will descend on Atlanta in a matter of days. From every corner of the world, they gather every few months for a chance to play the game at its highest level. They come for the points, they come for the prize, they come for the trophy. They come for the glory and the thrill of competition, from the highs of a topdecked win to the lows of a crushing defeat in the final round. Put simply, they come for the Magic.
Every face you will see at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch has their own unique story to tell. From those playing in their first Pro Tour to those playing in their fiftieth, from those a short drive away to those who traveled days to reach the tournament. From those competing with super teams and trying to secure Platinum or pad their Magic Hall of Fame resume to those just hoping to find a way back to the next Pro Tour, their goals are as diverse as their backgrounds.
It may be a shared love of the game that leads them to converge at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, but the road to Atlanta is different for every competitor who will sit down Friday morning to begin that first Pro Tour draft.
These are a few of those stories.
The Old Pro
It was May 7, 2006, and Antonino De Rosa was on top of the Magic world.
Already a veteran of eight Grand Prix Top 8s with three wins to his name, he was no stranger to success. But despite all his wins on the Grand Prix circuit, one thing still eluded him: the ultimate goal of every pro-aspiring Magic player who has ever shuffled up a deck, a Pro Tour Top 8 appearance.
That changed on one historic day in Prague, and anything seemed possible for De Rosa—a Pro Tour win, an opportunity to be the face of Magic, a place among the all-time greats in the newly created Magic Hall of Fame. The Sunday Pro Tour appearance came on the heels of an insane season, a year that saw De Rosa Top 8 three Grand Prix and win two of them, in addition to a second-place finish at the 2005 World Championship.
De Rosa's Pro Tour 8 appearance cemented his status as one of the preeminent players in the game.
The dream faded prematurely, as a land-heavy draw in Game 5 against future Hall of Famer Shuhei Nakamura ended De Rosa's run. Despite the disappointment, it seemed like a missed opportunity but hardly the last. After all, De Rosa was on fire, and a staple of anyone's short list to Top 8 a given tournament. And when he won Grand Prix Toronto the next month, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before De Rosa was holding a Pro Tour trophy and snapping pictures with the big check.
But life has a funny way with things that are only a matter of time, and within a year De Rosa's charmed run was over. He didn't manage another Top 8 in 2006, or the year after. A combination of personal matters and time spent at work meant that De Rosa found himself with less and less time for Magic. And before long, the once-bright shining star of the Pro Tour found himself off it entirely.
The next few years found De Rosa playing only sporadically, and while he was able to pull together a couple solid finishes—a Grand Prix Top 8 in 2008 and then a win at Grand Prix Turin in 2012—those were the only times the former luminary of the game was able to match his old successes.
"I never stopped playing, but I did take a break. And after skipping a couple of Pro Tours I fell off the train in 2008," De Rosa said. "It was hard to keep playing so much with work and life. They say it's a young player's game, and if you don't play a lot it's hard to keep up. And it's frustrating. It's hard because you remember how good you used to be. You realize the reason you're losing is because you used to be better and you're not at that level anymore."
His history with the game made those near misses more painful to De Rosa than ever. But it's also exactly what brought him back.
"It's hard for someone who can't play a lot and doesn't have a ton of events close to them," explained De Rosa, who lives in Curacao, a small island off the coast of Venezuela. "But after I played my last Pro Tour in 2012 and missed qualifying for the next one by exactly one spot in the standings, I decided I was going to come back. I was going to really try and come back."
That meant starting from the bottom. At the height of his prowess, De Rosa had an invite to every Pro Tour of the year. Now, he had nothing but a plane ticket and a dream, the same dream shared by every player at the Regional Pro Tour Qualifier in Orlando.
"I walked into that room in Orlando, the same place I used to win all those PTQs 20 years ago," De Rosa said. "I saw some familiar faces, and there were plenty of familiar faces shocked to see me there."
For De Rosa—long removed from the grind of the qualifier circuit—there were plenty of unfamiliar faces as well. And though he didn't know it at the time, the list of players he had to defeat to reach the Top 4 and earn his Pro Tour invite was itself impressive: followers of the StarCityGames.com circuit will recognize Logan Mize, an accomplished competitor in the series, and De Rosa's list of opponents also included Grand Prix Charlotte winner Michael Malone and Pro Tour Gatecrash Top 8 finisher Stephen Mann.
It may be a young player's game, but it's one that De Rosa is still pretty darn good at.
"This is just step one," he explained. "I'm taking it one step at a time. I'm qualified for the next regional PTQ as well, and my goal is to qualify for the next Pro Tour. I have a couple tickets booked for Grand Prix as well, and I want to make a push.
"Who knows? Hopefully I'll win the Pro Tour and get in the Hall of Fame. I want to come back and go as far as I can go with the game."
Antonino De Rosa at Grand Prix Rimini in 2013
Philip James Dickman knows firsthand exactly what it takes to succeed on the Pro Tour.
And why wouldn't he? He's watched as close friend Craig Wescoe rose through the ranks and eventually found himself at the top, with three Pro Tour Top 8 appearances and a victory at Pro Tour Dragon's Maze.
Dickman has been at his side every step of the way.
"My first Pro Tour was Worldwake in 2010, and I roomed with Craig for that event," Dickman explained. "We knew each other from our hometown in Tennessee, and he was one of the players who helped me when I started getting into competitive Magic.
"I had a terrible day at that Pro Tour and went 2-6, but that was the first Pro Tour Craig Top 8ed. It was cool on the night before to test the matchups for the next day, and it was cool to be even a small part of that success."
The joy of helping Wescoe to a Top 4 finish helped to dull the pain of his own disappointing performance. Dickman chalked it up as a learning experience and vowed he would do better when he got another shot at Magic's biggest stage.
That shot came at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica in 2012, and after a blisteringly hot 4-0 start, Dickman was on the verge of making good on that vow.
"I had beaten Hall of Famer Frank Karsten in the second round, and I was in first place in the standings," Dickman recalled. "I was really feeling a groove, and I thought I was ready to make a run. Then it all fell apart."
A loss in the fifth and final round of Constructed was a setback, but it was nothing compared to what was to come. Next up was a pair of drafts, and Dickman was in a great spot if he could turn things around.
Instead, he didn't win another match. A pair of winless drafts meant seven straight losses and saw Dickman dejectedly dropping from the tournament he once led.
"It was a harrowing experience," he remembered. "After I lost that last round, I just sort of sat there and thought to myself, 'Well, that just happened.' I just cratered because I didn't prepare enough. I thought I was ready, but it was clear I didn't put the legwork in. You can't take any part of the game for granted, even something that seems as simple as a draft. At that level, you have to be prepared or you get severely punished."
It was the type of collapse that has ended professional careers, both in Magic and elsewhere. Going from the top of the leaderboard to a forgotten footnote in Pro Tour history is an incredible drop on the roller coaster of emotions, and doing so in such a dramatic fashion can be crippling; the effect of a fall that steep can crush players mentally to a point where they'll never recover.
Looking back at it, Dickman knows how close he was to that.
"It was so tough, to get crushed at both Pro Tours I played in, especially after that last one," he said. "I took a few weeks off completely, and it was hard to start playing again."
Two things eventually rescued Dickman from one of the lowest points of his Magic-playing life. The first was his experience in his other passion—classical music.
"I went to a small college as a classical piano player, and I was the guy there; I was the best musician in the school, and people knew it," he explained. "Then I went to the University of Memphis, and all of a sudden there were 30 or 40 musicians there as good as me. I went from being the guy to just one of the guys. It was a big learning experience for me.
"I realized the Pro Tour is the same way—everyone is good. At the end of the day, you have to be realistic with yourself and your abilities, and that's hard for Magic players."
Dickman relied on his experiences as a classical pianist to find his way back from a crushing Pro Tour loss.
If the first realization came from within, the second came from something every Magic player who has been in a similar situation understands as the reason Magic never completely leaves their lives.
"My friends brought me back," Dickman said simply. "It's tough to get back out there after a tough loss, but my friends helped me realize why I play this game. Craig has always been so generous with his time and makes time to help his friends. He helped me out a lot after that tournament. Honestly, he's like a brother to me, and not just where Magic is concerned. It's transcended the game.
"At this point in my life, I really just love playing, and I when I get to play now I have a different attitude than I did five years ago. I don't derive value based on my tournament success or lack thereof. I'm 34, I've been playing this game for over 20 years, and it's always going to be a big part of my life. I don't know how much longer I'll be going to PPTQs every weekend, but I'm in this game for the long haul and I just want to do the best I can while enjoying the game I love."
That game is about nothing if not redemption. Dickman qualified through a regional PTQ for Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, and he's back for a chance to succeed at the same tournament that once nearly ended his career.
Dickman has his sights set on an 11-5 finish and the automatic qualification for Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad that comes with it. Whether he finds himself again in first place or doesn't win a game, you can be sure there's at least one fellow competitor who is proud of Dickman's journey back to the stage that represents both the highs and the lows of his Magic career.
Not that Wescoe has anything but the highest hopes for his longtime friend.
"Whether it's playing Mario Kart together on his N64, drafting his Pauper Cube heads-up, or battling Modern or Standard in preparation for a Grand Prix or Pro Tour, Philip is always a worthy adversary," Wescoe said. "It wouldn't surprise me if Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch is his breakout tournament."
There's a tradition at Pro Tours you probably don't know about unless you've been to one. When the players sit down for the first time on Friday morning, tournament officials welcome them to the Pro Tour and make any announcements. Before turning things over to the first draft of the day, they make one final request from the hundreds of competitors assembled.
"The first thing they do is have everyone who is new to the Pro Tour stand up, and of course that was horrifying," recounted Robert Cucunato, who made his debut at Pro Tour Magic Origins in August.
As if that wasn't bad enough, another surprise was in store for Cucunato.
"You want to sit down for your draft and be playing with a bunch of people you don't know, not Sam Black and Josh McClain," Cucunato explained. "That was about as scary of a first Pro Tour experience as you can have."
In many ways, the experience reminded Cucunato of when he first began playing competitive Magic, more than a decade ago when Darksteel was new and hours-long trips to Pro Tour Qualifiers so often ended in disappointment.
"Back then, Grand Prix and PTQs were few and far between, and the guys who had the internet and access to the forums were so much better prepared than everyone else; we would drive a few hours to Detroit and just get destroyed," Cucunato recalled with a laugh. "The Pro Tour just wasn't in the cards then."
Times change, and college choices and classes forced Cucunato's previous play group apart. By the next time he dipped his toes into the competitive scene—around the release of Zendikar—things had certainly changed in the Magic world. Nearly everyone had access to the same resources, and with college mostly behind him, Cucunato began to reconnect with his old friends and once again felt the draw of competition.
"I started going to bigger tournaments—the StarCityGames.com circuit was a big boon for us because they came to the Midwest a lot—and I had a couple near misses that kind of lit a fire under me. I realized I could travel to these things and be competitive, so that's what I started to do."
That drive eventually landed Cucunato in a regional PTQ in Chicago, where he advanced through a loaded Top 8 that featured six players with Pro Tour experience to qualify for Pro Tour Magic Origins. And while the first few minutes of that Pro Tour may have been terrifying for the rookie making his debut, it didn't take him long to settle in.
"All along, I had just wanted to be on the other side of the velvet rope once to know what it felt like," he said. "And what I found out was that when I got past the nerves, it was just playing Magic. You draw cards and cast spells; it's really not any different. After the finals of that first draft, I sat down and realized that this isn't too big for me, I can do this."
Cucunato's performance mirrored that attitude: his 9-7 finish is more than respectable for a Pro Tour newcomer, and he narrowly missed out on cashing the event. But a respectable finish is not enough to requalify, and armed with nothing but his newfound confidence, Cucunato left Vancouver looking to reach that level again.
Enter Grand Prix Pittsburgh, two months ago. Cucunato entered the nearly 3,000-person tournament with the Affinity deck he's favored ever since his first excursion into competitive Magic back in Darksteel—and just one other thing.
"I lost to friends in the Top 8 of four PPTQs in a row, and when one of them, Nick Moore, qualified for Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, I told him, 'You're not doing this thing alone, I'm going to Pittsburgh and I'm going to qualify with you.'
"I'm not one for called shots or bravado, but it just felt right. And Pittsburgh just felt like my tournament. Affinity has these kinds of hands where you just can't lose, and I think I played well too, but the draws were just there for me. People write articles about 'going in the zone' or 'hitting your stride,' and that was it for me. My draws were all insane."
Cucunato's run ended in the semifinals to eventual champion Alex Bianchi, but that was more than enough to make good on his promise.
Having now qualified for two Pro Tours in less than a year, Cucunato believes he has what it takes to become a Pro Tour regular, and he'll look to take his rookie season to the next level in Atlanta.
"My goal last year was to qualify for a Pro Tour, and I did that," he said. "Then I wanted to qualify a different way, spike a Pro Tour or Grand Prix, and I knocked that out. Now I want to requalify for the Pro Tour against the best players in the world.
"I know it's not easy, and I know I can't go to a 3,000-person event and expect to come away with Pro Points. But I'm a competitor, and I want to play competitive Magic. If the season unfolds in a way that means I can hit Silver in the Pro Players Club, I would love to do it. The baseline for this Pro Tour is to make Day Two, the next hurdle is to cash the event, and the hurdle is 11-5 to requalify for Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad in Madrid."
Three Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch competitors, three stories. Will one of them—the old pro looking to make a push for the Hall of Fame, the determined grinder looking for Pro Tour redemption, or the up-and-coming rookie looking to make a name for himself—be the big story of Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch? Or will another player etch their own name onto that book instead?
That's one story that's yet to be written.