The Magic of Family

Posted in Event Coverage on August 28, 2015

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.

Magic is not a solitary experience. Every game features at least one opponent to sit down and play against. Players create friendships in the journey through the rising ranks of competition, culminating in teams that test for Pro Tours and World Championships. Magic is at its core an experience where strong social bonds are created.

Outside the immediate sphere of cards and game play, there's a network of friends and family that every player brings with them. From the earliest days of learning to the highest heights competition can offer, players have much more than just Magic on their shoulders: families play a large role in the lives of players.

Seventeen year old Martin Müller had just started competing seriously a couple years ago, and his rapid rise was at a tipping point.

"My first Pro Tour was last year," Müller said. The stress of balancing school—an important stepping stone into the world—and the top of Magic's competitions was his parents' chief concern. "I'm losing a lot of school—at least my parents think so. All the way over here it's really hard for them to know what I'm actually doing, but they can see it's really important and that I'm good at it. They're very supportive, but I have to decide what I'm going to do for myself. I was one point short of Gold last year and my parents wanted me to focus on school rather than Magic. It really feels bad to only be half-committed: I'm going to have to decide after this event if I'm going to take a break or really go in for Magic."

The precarious balance between Magic and other obligations was something every player had to solve themselves. "Last year I was split between school and Magic," Müller said. "If I had committed more time to Magic maybe I would have gotten Gold, but if I had committed less time it wouldn't have felt so bad. I don't like this middle. I really need to choose."

The struggle to balance wasn't just for time. Müller's social circle was also a split between fellow competitors and the friends he had forged back home. "Most of my friends are people that travel with me and are a little older. There aren't that many teenagers traveling that much," Müller laughed. "Right now I have some Magic player friends but none of my friends from school know. [Magic]'s a really open community so if you want to be here, you can. It can be hard at home when I have different interests from classmates."

One player that's started growing up in Magic who has embraced the spirit of international competition was the defending World Champion and thirteenth-ranked Shahar Shenhar. From photos of his successes at the World Championship, you might believe his family rallies around him at every event.

"My family only comes to Worlds—they've never come to a Pro Tour or Grand Prix," Shenhar explained. "They come to the World Championship and the World Magic Cup, and used to drive me all over to Grand Prix and Magic stores."

So how does his family fit into the Magic mix for Shenhar? "It's hard to explain. They're separate form my Magic career: they don't really have anything to do with Magic. We have a very large family in Israel all living near each other. Every Friday we have a family dinner—12 people—at my grandmother's house. In the beginning they were supportive but weren't as into it," Shenhar said. "When I started showing results, they started watching coverage. My family actually saw me in my first finals. They were watching in my grandmother's house. They didn't know what was going on but they listened to the commentators to see if I was winning. Now my brother and dad have played a little bit. My dad knows what's going on now."

Two-time World Champion Shahar Shenhar's family has been very supportive of his path, even coming to all of his World Championship showings to be with him during these events.

Shenhar isn't the only one that's had a family grow into Magic in support. Pro Tour Hall of Fame elect and first-ranked Eric Froehlich's family played a large role in his long, successful career.

"My dad is one of those dads that no matter what I was into, my dad would take an interest in it," Froehlich explained. "To be fair, it's not the biggest challenge since we have similar interests. I grew up playing sports like baseball and basketball. He didn't know enough to coach or anything like that but he'd volunteer and do the best he could."

"It was in 1994 and a bunch of kids in my class started playing Magic. My dad took me to the card store and bought me decks. It was Revised but I couldn't understand the rulebook. My dad read it and then showed my brother and me how to play. He'd drive me to local competitions. It wasn't long before I qualified for my first Pro Tour when I was thirteen: I couldn't go because I moved. My next was in 1999 when I was fifteen. It was in London and he went with me to all of them for a while. He was always there with me."

The rest of Froehlich's family played a role too. "My mom is my closest friend in the world," he said. "I talk to her almost every day. There have been times we haven't been close but I realized how important she was to me. She's been completely supportive of everything I've done. From when I started playing more Magic and forward, she's always been in my corner. I have a little brother but he stopped playing Magic a long time ago. It wasn't his thing, but he looked up to me and made me feel confident. My family is more than 100% in my corner—they're the biggest contributor."

Family isn't just the parents, sibling, and friends that share the game with us. For many players that have grown up playing Magic, families now mean partners and children that may become next generation of competitors.

"My first Pro Tour was when I was fifteen. I'm thirty-two now," Pro Tour Magic Origins finalist, Player of the Year and second-ranked Mike Sigrist said. With half a lifetime of Magic behind him, the journey ahead now included his wife and twins. "The dad thing is very new. They were born two weeks ago. They've been in the hospital since they're premature twins—but they're healthy. I haven't gotten to experience taking care of them yet but my mom texts me with an update after every round. She was disappointed she had to work today because she wanted to watch [me play]."

Sigrist is getting updates from his family on how his newborn twins are doing between every round.

Like many others that have started as a teenage competing at tournaments, there was some concern before Sigrist's career took off. "My dad was always stern about 'You should go get a job.' but now he's on board. It makes sense to him now. My wife doesn't watch; it gives her anxiety to see if I'm going to lose but she asks me every round or two how I am doing."

The biggest moment that turned his family to Magic was the culminating moment in his career so far. "When I beat Paul Jackson in Top 4 [of Pro Tour Magic Origins] and became Player of the Year, it was huge. I'm not someone that shows my emotions, but if you watch the video you can see my deep breath. I knew Froehlich was watching so I didn't fist pump but my family was also watching and knew."

Sigrist wasn't the only father in the World Championship field. Fourth-ranked Seth Manfield was also new to the role.

"Back in January, I learned I was going to be a father," Manfield explained. "That was around the time I won Grand Prix Ottawa. It was a good time for me. There are always highs and lows, and it felt like I was on a bad run but things started to pick up there."

"My girlfriend and I, we've been working it out and around my schedule. I try to cut trips short so I can be back there with her. I've always liked having this Magic life and now I come home and get to be a dad. The feeling was incredible when my daughter was born, and this year had been all the things I didn't expect with my life. It's also like living two different lives and trying to combine them: It's sometimes hard to maintain relationships and family can be hard to connect to, but I'm sure they're watching me now and know how much I like Magic."

How does his family fit into things? "My mom sends out emails to everyone when I'm featured saying 'This is so cool!' My girlfriend's family is even into it now. They don't know what's going on but they can read my facial expressions. There's a lot on the line and they think it's cool, though they may not understand it."

One member of Manfield's family that hadn't been able to share in his rise to the top of Magic was his father. "My dad was a world champion bridge player: He passed away when I was eight, but I've always played games," Manfield said. "I've always wanted to be a dad, so I'm learning all the ins and outs and what my role will be—just making sure I have plenty of attention back home. But I want to continue to do well, travel to Magic tournaments, and my goal is to be back here at the World Championship next year. It's a great feeling to be at Worlds, and I just want or live in the moment."

Friends, family, and loved ones back home live in the moments unfolding here too. By Sunday there will be a World Champion crowned, and a family poised to praise a lifetime achievement in Magic.

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