It almost seems unfathomable that Paul Rietzl has been playing the game for as long as he has. It seems like only yesterday that Little Darwin was tearing it up at events on the East Coast, shilling people for Drafts between the rounds of the Pro Tour.
"I've been playing Magic since...The Dark, I think? But I've been playing competitively for like twelve years," he explained. "So I guess I've been playing Magic since about 1994. I'm 28, so I've been playing since I was 8 years old."
Like most players getting into the game, Rietzl's first brush with the game came when someone he knew introduced him to it. In his case, it wasn't a friend, just someone looking to have a little fun...and for an easy mark.
"I immediately enjoyed the game," he began with a smile. "My babysitter taught me how to play. We played for ante, of course, even though he was 14 and I was 8. He would always beat me and take all of my best cards, like my Drudge Skeletons and my Craw Wurm and my Sol Ring... he took everything. He hustled me pretty good."
For many people, playing a game with an older kid, having him beat you repeatedly, and losing all of your sweet stuff might have really turned them off to the game. I wouldn't be surprised if more than one potential Magic player met an untimely demise in a similar situation. But Rietzl saw things differently. He began to see the strategy of the game, and, as he did, his interest in it really grew.
"I got a little frustrated. I was like, 'This kid just isn't that smart! He's beating me, but he's not that smart!' I mean, now he's a federal appeals judge, but back then... I just knew I could be better at the game. From 1995 to 1998, I just played casually, but in 1998, the Grand Prix circuit finally came to Boston. It was the first time that there had been a Grand Prix in Boston. It was Tempest Block Constructed. Jon Finkel beat Randy Buehler in the finals. I did everything that I could to beg, borrow, and steal the cards I needed to put a deck together. It was a poor man's version of White Weenie. I only had one Cataclysm because it cost like $8, and there was no way I could pick up the others. The only reason I was even able to play in the tournament is because I preregistered, so I got in for $15 instead of $18. My net worth was like $17, so, you know..."
Tools in hand, Rietzl set off on the first sanctioned match of an impressive career.
"Anyways, the very first game of my career I got a game loss because I had a 59-card deck," he began with a big laugh. "I lost a Pacifism that I was playing with casually earlier. After that, the first game that got played, my opponent gained infinite life. So that was my first sanctioned match: a game loss and then infinite life. Great start. But I battled back. I went 3-1 by beating up other little kids. And then I played against Michael Loconto, the first Pro Tour champion. And I knew the name. I had read all of the coverage. We played a really tight three-game match, I beat him, and I was hooked. It was all of the competition, playing against players I had seen in all of the coverage...I was hooked. It just so happened that the JSS was just taking off as a thing. I won a couple of JSS events back to back, which really got my parents to support me and drive me around the northeast. From there, I just started to play in other Grand Prix and PTQs."
From a rather inauspicious beginning has sprung one of the most impressive long-term careers in Magic. Rietzl has nine Grand Prix Top 8s, including a win at both a Team Limited tournament and an individual Limited Grand Prix. He also has four Pro Tour Top 8s, including one win. He is currently ranked 9th in the world, has been Platinum for multiple seasons in a row, and has consistently been in the running for the Player of the Year. His first Grand Prix Top 8 was a decade ago, and he has managed to stay on top of the game for the duration of these past ten years. What he's done is incredible, as this level of sustained success is rarely seen in Magic. He has traveled to the farthest reaches of the globe for the game, and it all got its start thanks to his success on the Junior Super Series well over a decade ago. The Junior Super Series was an age-restricted tournament that offered cash scholarships to players in much the same way as Grand Prix have cash prizes. Rietzl's early success gave him the support that he needed that helped foster him to become the player he is today.
"I played on the JSS for the first few years, and had a reasonable amount of success," he began. "So ever since I was 12 or 13 years old, I was really competitive. It wasn't until around 2000 that I really started to try and qualify for the Pro Tour. My first individual Pro Tour was in 2002 in Osaka. That was the first time I'd traveled that far for a Magic tournament. I got to go all the way to Osaka! I mean, I'd been to Cleveland, but nothing like this. I was living in Boston at the time. My mom came with me on the trip, actually. We just took two weeks and I went to Kyoto and Hiroshima, all of those places. The trip was amazing! It was back when the wonder of traveling was still very much alive in me. The idea that I could go on a vacation and then get to play in a tournament... I mean, I didn't really do well in the tournaments, but that was beside the point. In Osaka, I finished like dead last, so I got to play for one day and then got a vacation?! It was amazing!"
Since his first experience traveling the globe for Magic, things have definitely moved up for Rietzl. He was able to use his JSS winnings to help pay for his way through the University of Southern California, get his degree, and then move on to professional life. As busy as his life has become in recent years, he has still kept his passion for the game alive and tries his best to balance his professional life with his ability to play Magic.
"Nowadays, I have the resources and my life is in a place where, when I go to a Magic tournament, it's because I really want to win the tournament," Rietzl explained. "The wonder of travel is still there, but, now I feel it when I take other vacations and go to places where I want to go. It's not like I don't turn Magic tournaments into vacations anymore, though. When I go to Nice, I'm going to obviously turn that into a vacation. Well, crossing my fingers and hoping I get to go to the World Championship, that is. But for Grand Prix Chicago, for example, I'm not planning to make this a weekend of sightseeing or anything. Still, the second I'm out I'm going to try to get Cubs tickets, heh."
With as full schedule as Rietzl has in his life now, each event matters so much. He can't go to a dozen Grand Prix a year anymore. He can't just skip out on a class or two to gallivant across the globe. As such, he really has to pick his spots, and he has to make the most of them. But keeping his game in such a state that the long breaks between events doesn't hurt him is a difficult proposition.
"It's really about preparing smartly for these tournament," Rietzl said with a shake of his head. "I was going to write an article about this but I'll just tell you so I don't have to write the article, heh. This is one of the big things that Matt Sperling and I talked about after we were getting frustrated by not doing well in tournaments. There is a big similarity between mixed martial arts and Magic. Fighters have like three fights a year, that's it. Those are the most important four minutes of their lives. The rest of the year, they're technically fighters, but they aren't fighting. They're just practicing. The key is in how you spend your time off. The fighters that don't really care that much about it show up to their training camps, twelve weeks before the fight, out of shape. They take a month and a half to get into shape before they can start sparring, so they end up way behind in planning strategy against their opponents. They go on to lose the fight, get branded as a bad fighter, and they end up washing out.
What I try to do is to always keep my base level of skill at such a level that, when I have to prepare hardcore for a tournament, I'm not way behind. The way that I do that is to play lots and lots of Sealed Deck. The reason is that Sealed Deck not only keeps me aware of all of the cards in Limited, but it stocks my Magic Online account so I always have four of everything when it comes time to build decks for Standard. It also keeps me well apprised of how all of the cards work together so that when it comes time to pick a deck, tune it, and go play in a Grand Prix, I already know all of the cards and the decks I'm going to see.
Before, when there were five Grand Prix that you'd go to in a year, you might play casually throughout the year and pick it up a little and test with a friend a little bit before you go to the tournament, but for the first four hours, you're a little disoriented and might misplay because you aren't quite up to speed on the format. I mean, I have a full-time job, so there's no way I'm just sitting around playing Standard all week. I try really hard to already have such a level of "fitness" that I don't have to go do roadwork or sparring anything. I'm good to step right into strategizing and get ready for my upcoming fight."
The analogy extends beyond there, as well. Any fighter worth his salt will gush about the importance of their team, about the amazing group of people that have supported them on their road to success. Without them, they'd be just another guy who can throw a punch. Rietzl recognizes that he's been fortunate over the years. The players he's had the fortune to work with, the way he was brought into the game, the way his parents supported his early playing days...the list goes on and on. The adage says that it takes a village to raise a child, and for Rietzl, that village was Boston, where he grew up.
"There were so many great players when I was younger," he recalled. "The Your Move Games guys like Darwin Kastle, Rob Dougherty, Dave Homphrys, Justin Gary, Chad Ellis, to name a few. There was a guy Danny Mandel, who had a short Pro Tour stint, and Chris Manning was another who had a huge influence. These were the big names in my area when I was starting to get competitive, and things wouldn't have been the same without them. The thing about playing back then was that when a little kid qualified for a Pro Tour, YMG took you in no matter what. If you won a PTQ at the store, you got to work with and test with YMG. So when I won my first PTQ, they gave me the deck, basically, and let me test with them. I got to see how they prepared for things as a team. I don't know if I could pick out a mentor, or anything, but simply the fact that I had all of this around me helped mold things. If I'd been born anywhere other than Boston, I don't think I would have become a good Magic player.
I give complete credit to my network. They have made me what I am today. Look at Jamie Parke, for example. He's an excellent player, but it's still tough to do as well as he's done just coming out of the cold. But when you combine the fact that he's an excellent player with the fact that he joined up with Pantheon, he's probably a Top 20 player in the world right now. He has to be on anyone's fantasy radar for the next Pro Tour. There are players that win a player of the year or have a platinum season, but they fall off. The players that you remember as legends, the ones that last forever, they're the ones that are able to sustain that success. They're the guys that have wins in more than just one format. They aren't specialists. They're just simply the best. I have a lot of respect for guys who have been able to do that."
Rietzl himself has been one of the guys who has been able to do that. Over the years, he has managed to show his prowess in Limited and Constructed, individual events and as a part of a team. He has titles from the JSS to the Pro Tour, but there are still things that he has yet to do.
"The goalposts have kinda moved a bit since I was younger," Rietzl admitted. "At one point, I wanted to win a Grand Prix, win a Pro Tour, and play on the National team and win the Team competition at Worlds. Those were my three goals. I accomplished the first two, but I don't know if I'll be able to qualify for the National team under the current system considering my situation. Even the World Championship this year is going to be a bit of a crapshoot. I guess the last goal that I'd like to accomplish is to be able to play in the World Championships and try to make a run there. Obviously becoming the World Champion would just be an incredible experience, but with a Pro Tour win and my Grand Prix wins, I won't think my career is a bust if I don't win the World Championship. I would obviously be honored beyond belief to make it into the Hall of Fame, too. I certainly don't feel like I deserve it and that there would be some great injustice if I don't make it in, but it would be the culmination of a lot of years of Holiday Inn Expresses. It would be a great honor."
With all of the milestones he has accomplished to this point, one stands above the rest in Rietzl's memory.
"My favorite moment in my career by far is definitely winning the team Grand Prix, no question,' he told me without hesitation. "Team Limited is the purest, best, most fun Magic... I was more stressed out playing my matches in the Team GP than any I've played at the Pro Tour, and I've won a Pro Tour! I played with Matt Sperling and David Williams, two of my best friends. The idea that you can win for your team is such a cool thing, and to do it with my two best friends in Magic was incredible It was the first Team Grand Prix in ten years, and we came out and told everyone that we were going to win it To actually go out and close against 800 people was incredible. I mean, winning a Pro Tour was great, too, but this was something special."
Much like Rietzl himself.