This weekend marks the first of a series of events over the next five weeks that make up the bulk of the second quarter of the 2011 Pro Tour season. The festivities will kick off with Grand Prix Prague and the New Phyrexia–infused Limited format. The first thing the coverage team will do once the Sealed product is handed out is to see where Martin Juza is sitting to get his take on building a Sealed Deck in the new format. Talking to Juza is something every Magic player can appreciate—a two-for-one. Not only is he the most high-profile Magic player from the Czech Republic, but he is widely considered to be one of the game's elite Limited players.
Juza has become one the game's most recognizable faces, but despite his playing on and off the Pro Tour since 2003, the Magic-playing world only started to take notice of him when he finally broke through into the Top 8 of Pro Tour Berlin with Elves. For players a little closer to home, his skill was evident on the European Grand Prix circuit and during his domination of the Czech National Championships.
"I think it was when I played my first Nationals, in 2005, which Martin won," said Juza's friend Lukas Blohon about first noticing the Player of the Year hopeful. "I didn't know him before, and after that event we started to talk, became friends, and were already testing together for the next year's Nationals."
Joining Juza in a debut on the Sunday stage at Pro Tour Top 8 in Berlin was Matej Zatlkaj, who prepared for the event with him and also played Elves. Zatlkaj described a distinct memory of seeing his eventual friend for the first time at Grand Prix Brussels during the 2004 season.
"I was wandering the top tables and I saw a young Czech kid I have never seen before there," recalled Zatlkaj. "I followed Magic a lot at that time and I was thinking it must have been a one-time fluke if I had no info on him. But I was actually surprised how decent he seemed to be playing. Since then, he's only been on the rise."
It was not until the 2008 season and his amazing Day One run at Pro Tour Kuala Lumpur that Juza started to have his name underlined in the coverage room as a potential subject for a feature. Interestingly, it was an event that Juza was not expecting to do well at, and he was even considering retiring from the Pro Tour grind after the tournament. He went on a 7-0 tear to open the event and ended up in 10th place with a willingness to see how the rest of the year played out.
"My Pro Tour finishes were 10th, 19th, 6th, and 50th, and I was always in contention for Top 8 in the last rounds," said Juza of his 2008 season in a previous interview. "People started to notice and I felt like my game was finally getting good enough to play at this level."
According to Pro Tour Statistician Rich Hagon, Juza's success on the Pro Tour was just a matter of the Czech player taking his game to the next level—a level where people are always on the lookout for a hot new player.
"During 2008 he was the 'new guy' who everyone was getting excited about," explained Hagon. "But, during work on my database, I found he'd been in the Top 8 of Czech Nationals in 2005. And 2006. And 2007. He was being ultra-consistent, and now he was being ultra-consistent where people were sitting up and taking notice."
Like most people who follow such things, Japanese superstar Kenji Tsumura first noticed Juza when his name showed up in the elimination bracket for Pro Tour Berlin. That was a Constructed event but it was Juza's after-hours work with 40-card decks that made the biggest impression on Tsumura.
"I noticed him at PT Berlin when he made Top 8. Then I played some drafts against him and his deck was always good," said the six-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor. "I realized that he was a great drafter like Rich Hoaen or Anton Jonsson. Some Pros might disagree but I'm sure he is the best drafter right now."
Patrick Chapin was sitting in the front row to watch Luis Scott-Vargas win Pro Tour Berlin, but he took notice of the rising Czech star. By the time the second Pro Tour of the following season had occurred, Juza had entered into the inner circles of the elite playtest groups.
"It wasn't until the month before Pro Tour Honolulu 2009 that I got to know him better, leading to us wanting to test together," said Chapin. "He was very creative, smart, and his trademark lines, like 'Reaaaally?' were always quick to draw a laugh."
Juza ended up with 43 points for the 2008 season and fully embraced the Pro Tour lifestyle during the 2009 season. It was during that season that he showed everyone that the previous season was no fluke while he picked up teammates and friends at each stop along the way—friends like seven-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa.
"We first started talking a little bit before GP Rotterdam," recalled Damo da Rosa, who was on the first stop of a gauntlet that would take him to Pro Tour Kyoto and Grand Prix in Chicago, Hannover, and Singapore. "What caught my attention was not anything particularly Magic-related; it was simply the fact that he seemed pretty cool, he was my age—most players I hang out with are a little older—and he planned on doing the same very long trip that I was going to do. I think Martin became a good friend long before he became a "Magic partner," and to this day our relationship reflects that. It is more akin to my relationship with my university classmates than to my relationship with other Magic friends."
Anyone who was lagging behind the Juza bandwagon caught up to it by the time he was making the finals of back-to-back Limited Grand Prix in Brighton and Bangkok and picked up his second Pro Tour Top 8 at PT Austin. One can forgive Hall of Famer Brian Kibler for playing catch-up, as he had not been on the Pro Tour for a few years prior to the 2009 season.
"Martin made an impression on me with his remarkable success in Limited GPs over the summer of 2009, when I'd just gotten back on the Pro Tour," said Kibler, who would end up winning in Austin, where both he and Juza made the Top 8. "I wasn't surprised to see him alongside me at the top tables in Austin—if anything, it was more surprising that I was there!—and although we didn't play, I got the sense that he was a talented and thoughtful player just by watching his games."
Since breaking out in 2008 Juza has been in the Player of the Year mix every season with 48 points in '08, 64 points in '09, and 52 points last season. With the 19 points he has picked up this season that means the bulk of his 208 career Pro Points have come over the last four seasons, with just a little over two dozen coming from 2003 through 2007. I asked Juza's contemporaries about the qualities that have enabled him to become one of the game's dominant players. Patrick Chapin compared him to one of the game's all-time greats.
"Martin is a rare combination of exceptionally creative, yet extremely good at finding the right plays and at winning," said Chapin. "Juza is one of the greatest drafters of all time, with a play style that is somewhat reminiscent of a draft version of Gabriel Nassif. He loves thinking about the game limitlessly and is totally fearless when it comes to new ideas."
Conley Woods, who burst onto the scene a year after Juza's Berlin Top 8, has been impressed with Juza's willingness to adapt his game based on input from other exceptional players.
"He has adjusted his mulliganing and play style as new and different ideas about them have emerged from his Pro Tour peers," explained Woods. "Originally we poked fun at him for being so rigid in his thinking, but he has really opened up over the past few years, and I think success has followed as a result."
Something that came up time and time again when talking about what makes Juza so formidable is his patience, especially when playing a game of Limited. Whenever you watch the top Pros play a game of Limited, they seem to be very conservative with their removal spells where more casual players might fire off a Lightning Bolt at the first sight of an opposing creature. Brian Kibler recounted watching a match where Juza was even more conservative than the two Pro Tour champions watching him play from along the rail.
"Martin is a very thoughtful and deliberate player, which can pay enormous dividends in Limited formats. A lot of players will just run out their best threats, or use their removal at the first opportunity to get good value, but Martin will spend an entire game maneuvering for the best opportunity to play his cards," Kibler explained. "I was watching his game for Top 8 at GP Portland along with Ben Stark, and Ben and I were whispering to each other how we would have made different plays each turn, but Martin's extremely cautious play went on to see him win that game and then the entire tournament."
Ben Stark, who is one of the players jockeying with Juza for the Player of the Year lead, cited a combination of patience and persistence with his rival's rapid ascension to the 200 point club.
"Well, I think he's the very best player when it comes to beating the most combinations of cards. He plays around everything. Of course his playing every GP on every continent has helped him to get so many points so fast," said Stark, no doubt thinking about Juza closing the small gap between them in the standings. "I played him with a few rounds to go at Grand Prix Tampa 2009—still in Top 8 contention. It was a feature match and I was amazed at how well he played. He played around everything I represented."
Last season's winner in the Player of the year race looked at how he can always find Juza online playing MTGO—even when his time might seem to be better spent elsewhere.
"He is a very smart guy and a big grinder. The guy plays Magic Online all the time. I used to play all the time but it gets harder with all of the travel and writing and other priorities that come with this lifestyle," said Brad Nelson, known for playing a fair amount of MTGO himself. "Martin ignores all of that and continues to do what he loves—playing as much Magic as humanly possible. This even counts when he should be off the computer to test for the Pro Tour with us, but you still find him playing out-of-date formats on MTGO. I think he is addicted."
Matej Zatlkaj explained that Juza is simply a "hardcore gamer" who wants to be playing Magic before, during, and even after a tournament.
"Whenever I stayed longer with Martin he would always be playing some sort of game, usually Magic but also computer games, poker, and so on. I think he would be a top Pro in any game he would decide to dedicate time towards," said Zatlkaj.
"Even after a grueling nine-round GP we would go to a pub and he would just bust out his Sealed Deck and play against friends. I was in no mood for Magic at that time, that's for sure!"
While everyone I spoke to agreed that Juza was hands-down among the best Limited players in the game, there has been some inconsistency in his Constructed play. He spoke in last week's column about his desire to start playing the best deck after making the eighth Grand Prix Top 8 of his career playing Caw-Blade—the prospect of which has to be terrifying to players competing with him week in and week out.
"His opponents better be prepared. Martin playing the best deck and not fooling around with niche decks is pretty scary, to be fair!" said Zatlkaj, who knows firsthand that when Juza plays a deck like Elves or Fairies he has always shined.
Chapin found the news of Juza moving toward best deck technology to be bittersweet but necessary.
"I love a rogue deck more than most, but even I have been trying to get Juza to play less crazy decks sometimes," admitted the long-time advocate of deck innovation. "He loses a little of his advantage in creativity, but he is such a strong player, it will probably be a net positive, especially when he gets comfortable enough to find the balance between 'best decks' and 'rogue decks.'"
Not only is he willing to play the best deck, but he is very likely to have access to it, playing with the same group of players responsible for unleashing Caw Blade on the Standard format in Paris.
"Martin has started working with the "Team America" crew—Brad Nelson, LSV, the rest of the ChannelFireball crew, and myself—so I think he's much more likely to have solid decks for every event rather than showing up with brews," said Brian Kibler. "If his Constructed performances match his Limited results, I think there's a good chance he'll be hoisting a trophy soon."
As much as players wanted to talk about the skills of Martin Juza there were stories about his generous nature that kept coming up in interviews. Brad Nelson relayed one such story from the night before Brad's Top 8 draft for Pro Tour San Juan. There was a pair of Asian Grand Prix coming up after the tournament and Brad was not planning on attending them. Martin urged Brad to take the FFfreak show on the road.
"I told him I was broke, but the real reason was I didn't think of myself as the type of player that would be good enough to profit from all of the Grand Prixs," explained Brad. "He laughed at me and offered to loan me an insane amount of money to get me to both of the events on his dime until I could pay him back. It wasn't like he thought about it. I think he genuinely wanted to help me experience the lifestyle and would do anything in his power to get me to do it. He instantly offered and then tried to talk me out of not going."
"We can book the flight right now!"
"That's OK, I'll just go home."
"But why?! Don't you want to Level 8 or win Player of the Year?""
The other story comes from another Player of the Year who was struck by Juza's generosity during a rough time in Japan. Kenji Tsumura explained that after the tragic earthquake that rocked his country, many players offered their sympathy and checked to see if he and other players they knew were okay. The outpouring of concern was something that he and the rest of the Japanese Magic community were grateful for, but Juza went a step beyond, urging Japanese players to come stay with him in the Czech Republic until it was determined that it was safe to be in Japan.
"We are very pleased by his message," said Tsumura. "When I heard those stories I understood that he isn't only just a good player."
Martin Juza will become eligible for the Pro Tour Hall of Fame in 2013—ten years after debuting on the Pro Tour. He is a Pro Tour Top 8 or two from being a lock for induction, but given the names of the players he is compared to by his peers, I would be shocked if he did not show up on most of the player ballots in two years. Chapin compared him to Gabriel Nassif and Brian Kibler likened him to another pair of Hall of Famers.
"Martin reminds me of Dave Humpherys and Ben Rubin, in that he's a very cerebral player who takes his time to figure out all the possible plays," said Kibler. "That's another way of saying 'Dear God he plays slowly,' but it also means he's less likely to make the sort of brain-fart slip-ups that I know I certainly make more often than I'd like. Combine that with the fact that I'm pretty sure Martin has a direct neural link to Magic Online—he's in a draft at pretty much all hours of the day—and you have the makings of a player who can compete with the best of them."
On the other side of the ballot you have the selection committee, which is made up of the likes of judges, tournament officials, and my webcast boothmate Rich Hagon, who also made some lofty Hall of Fame comparisons.
"He has a lot in common with Frank Karsten," said Hagon before rattling off a litany of Hall of Famers. "Unbelievable consistency puts him into a position where, if things go right, he's in the Top 8. If things go wrong, he's Top 32. Probably only Jon Finkel, Kai Budde, Raphael Levy, Frank Karsten, and Gary Wise have that level of consistency."
Don't be surprised if Martin Juza pads his resume with another Top 8 this weekend in Prague. You can follow the coverage here on DailyMTG.com as we get our first look at the impact of New Phyrexia on the Limited Format in Sealed and in Draft.