The Underdog Champion

Posted in Magic Lifestyle on July 18, 2016

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

Seth Manfield has been "doing well," as one puts it. He's earned two Grand Prix wins (within 30 days of each other), two Pro Tour Top 8s, and the World Championship title—all in just over a year and a half.

"I always go into it planning to do my best, and I'm due to hit a bad run, but it hasn't happened. We'll see."

Manfield's words distill his measured approach to the game. He picked up Magic like many of us did: opening booster packs after learning the game with friends. From there, his trajectory took a different turn. His local game store was, and still is, Dream Wizards in Rockville, Maryland, where he learned about Booster Draft. Jumping into a Mirrodin draft was his first adventure in that type of competition.

It was also his first Draft victory.

"When you start off winning, it's nice," he said. "It's easy to get discouraged from playing. I've never really felt that before, but I think I've always had a natural amount of skill." Playing a game like Magic seemed like something Manfield was destined for. "My dad was a world champion bridge player—a game that's more skill intensive than Magic in some ways."

Manfield's road has wandered in and out of Magic despite his skill. While he played in Pro Tour Qualifiers, being a kid and pursuing the highest level of play were often at odds. "I played in a bunch of PTQs against the good players in the area," Manfield said. "One was a team qualifier I played in with two local players, and we made it to the finals, but my mom wasn't having it. We ended up conceding because I wouldn't have been able to attend the Pro Tour. Another time, I won a PTQ for a Pro Tour in Japan. I was fourteen at the time, but again I was stopped by my mom. I don't want her to [sound like] the bad guy in this situation—she wanted me to be a kid. Going alone to Japan alone wasn't typical for a kid my age, and I understand her reasons."

Those reasons didn't stop him from battling when he could, winning thousands of dollars in scholarships through the Junior Super Series. At Dream Wizards he was able to continue playing with other local standouts, such as Alex Majlaton, Brock Parker, and future Hall of Famer Huey Jensen. Traveling with his friend and friend's mother to Daytona Beach, Florida, put Manfield onto the map; he won his first Grand Prix title there in 2007.

"I won a Grand Prix Trial ahead of time, [which] meant I had three byes," he said. "In Daytona [Beach] I felt comfortable. It was my second or third Grand Prix at the time. When you keep winning, your confidence just grows and grows. I went 9-0 on Day One. Even though I knew all these other players—Luis Scott-Vargas was my win-and-in for the Top 8, and many might remember me playing Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa in the finals—I just knew Lorwyn Limited and felt very comfortable. I was fortunate to make Top 8 at 12-3."

A young(er) Seth Manfield hoists the Grand Prix Daytona Champion trophy in 2007.
A young(er) Seth Manfield hoists the Grand Prix Daytona Champion trophy in 2007.

Manfield has now won two Grand Prix after making Top 8 with a record of 12-3 (more recently at Grand Prix Costa Rica earlier this year), but it was his 2013 victory at Grand Prix Kansas City that was his turning point. He had stepped away from Magic to focus on college and was just settling back into the game. "I took some time off the game because I went to college for four years," Manfield explained. "I wanted to see life without Magic. There was a time I was qualified for the World Championship and I skipped the Pro Tour. If I'm focusing on Magic, I'm going full throttle. In the back of my mind I thought, 'I'll come back to the game after getting my degree, but when I get back I'm going to see what I can do.' So that's what I did.

"Kansas City happened so long ago, but it was definitely where I got my start," he continued. "I was able to win Kansas City—the first Grand Prix of the year—so I was able to chain that into qualifying for the rest of the Pro Tours for the year. I was able to get enough Pro Points to earn Gold after 2013. I thought to myself, 'Now I am going to do everything to get Platinum and get to the World Championship.' I'd seen Worlds. It wasn't enough to get Platinum; I wanted to be there so badly. I'm a very competitive person. I wanted to play the best and be the best."

Alex Majlaton, one of the few to see Manfield grow throughout his career, felt it was more. "I didn't realize how much [Manfield] loved Magic until he started playing again after he finished college," Majlaton said. "At the time it looked a lot like he was just enjoying some time off, attending a few Grand Prix before looking for a job, but in retrospect it's easy to see that he had so much success so quickly because he leveraged his natural talent for games along with the free time he had available by working really hard to prepare for the events. From my perspective, [Manfield] must feel a lot of validation and relief: validation in that he's found success and reaffirmed the fact that he was meant to play games, and relief in that he gets to find that success by playing his favorite game.

"Seth has a lot of great strengths as a player, but he has two that I admire most," Majlaton continued. "One is his ability to essentially play two games of Magic at once: both his own and that of his opponent. He regularly thinks about his board from his opponent's perspective and tries to figure out what his opponent's best play is, then tries to exploit that by making plays that punish his opponent's 'best' play. It's hard for me to say that nobody else can develop this skill, but I think it came very naturally for Seth from his experience playing tournament bridge—a game where you can't succeed without deducing what your opponents and teammate have in their hands."

"The other is his mulligan intuition," Majlaton said. "In the past, [Manfield] has kind of had a reputation for making some 'loose' keeps, but the more I watch him play and succeed, the more I realize that he just has a really strong intuition for how likely an opening hand is to win. Those loose keeps are really just [him] deciding that this hand has a better chance of winning than an average six- or five-card hand, and it takes a lot of guts to risk being unable to play Magic at all by keeping a hand like that in exchange for an overall higher win rate."

It was Manfield's 2015 World Championship showdown against Owen Turtenwald where decisions around mulligans made a showing and difference. It was an obvious choice for him to battle all the way to that moment once it was clear he could get there.

"Making Top 8 at Pro Tour Fate Reforged, I thought, 'This is so many Pro Points I just got.' Once Worlds was in striking distance, I put everything into it," Manfield said. "[At Pro Tour Fate Reforged] I felt like I punted my quarterfinal match. As a Magic player, you never like to think that on a huge stage you gave it all away. Going into it I felt like it was my Pro Tour to win, and I didn't. I didn't want that feeling again."

The lead-up to locking in a slot for the World Championship came from Manfield's relentless drive. "I've had that feeling again since no one can always win at Magic. You have to have the drive to play your best and have the confidence that where a tournament didn't go your way there's always another event around the corner. I was definitely in the thick of the Worlds chance and I just kept playing," he said. "If I could do something to earn just 1 Pro Point, I'd do it. There were a lot of players at last year's World Championship that qualified under the radar. At least half the field was newcomers. People had no idea what my play style was and [I knew] I would be underestimated. I could use that to my advantage, and I did."

Coming from behind to defeat Owen Turtenwald in five games for the World Championship title made it an exciting and memorable moment, not just for the audiences watching but for Manfield himself. With a family—including his newborn daughter—looking on from home, Manfield felt he had to fight the whole way. He considers himself the perennial underdog, and that's how he looks at every tournament.

"Most of the people thought [Turtenwald] was going to beat me," Manfield admitted. "People may not have the perception I'm as good as my results indicate, but I don't let that bother me. I don't like to compare myself to other people, because in reality it's not going to help me. Focusing on one tournament at a time and the bigger picture is better. I don't have a bigger ego [about] winning Magic tournaments.

"I feel like I've always played with Pro Tour teams that are 'underdog' teams," he said. "Not the 'A team' or 'B team,' but what the community would call the 'C team.' That works for me. I'm not going to be the guy [who's] expected to win and does it. It makes it so much sweeter when I do."

Seth Manfield poses with the 2015 World Champion trophy outside an Eldrazi-torn PAX 2015
Seth poses with the 2015 World Champion trophy outside an Eldrazi-torn PAX 2015.

Of course, adding another Pro Tour Top 8 and two more Grand Prix wins this season put Manfield into exactly that position, being a player doing exceptionally well who's expected to win. Working as hard as he always has is all he can do. "Now I'm also that guy," Manfield said. "It's impossible to just always consistently win. It's just a matter of time until I have a bad tournament. I know there are multiple factors that go into making a run like this. The stars have aligned for me, but I've also been in the position to take advantage of that.

"I don't like to think about if I'm going to be as lucky in a year as I am now. Next year is a new year. We've got one more Pro Tour and I could be old news this time next year," he said. "After the World Championship there was a six-month gap where [Turtenwald] was just crushing it. I'd rather be old news and the guy creeping up. Now I'm in the front of the pack with one Pro Tour to go and then everything resets. There could be someone else that comes from off the radar. If I can do it, someone else can do it."

Can Manfield ever really be considered an underdog again? Majlaton doesn't think so. "I fully expect [Manfield] to make it into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame eventually," Majlaton said. "He's already meeting plenty of important criteria that many voters have—Pro Tour Top 8s, multiple Grand Prix [wins], World Champion, widely regarded as one of the best players in the game, content creator—and it's just a matter of time before he clears certain stat minimums that a lot of voters seem to have."

Wherever Manfield goes next is up to him, but he'll be holding to his humble ways the entire way. "I'm obviously very happy with how things have gone and to just reap the rewards of doing well," he said. "People see top players in the game as almost these robots. The perception of them—my perception of them when I was growing up—is they are robots. They always make the right play and know what you need to do in a game. Now that I'm there, I know I'm not [a robot]. I make mistakes. My emotions play at me. I almost feel like I perform better at big tournaments like Pro Tours and Worlds because I care so much. I know I tend to, and I think a lot of professional players are the same.

"It's not very typical to be raising a family on the back of playing Magic. There's lot of players with stories, and I'm just one of them."

Pro Tour Eldritch Moon may very well be where he adds "Player of the Year" to his own story. The world will be watching as the next page is written.

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