"I didn't want to be the first person to ever win Worlds and then not go back."
If that sounds like a mission statement, you've only got part of it. It was more than just wishful thinking, more than a vague goal, more than a nice platitude from an already accomplished player.
No, for 2016 World Champion Brian Braun-Duin, that simple sentence became much more. It was a mantra, a guiding directive, an essential endpoint. Qualifying for Worlds again after winning the previous tournament would prove wrong the doubters—the ones who said the Grand Prix Master didn't deserve a spot at the World Championship, the ones who said his victory was a fluke—making it back would erase all skepticism. It would prove to everyone that "BBD" belonged. Most importantly, he would prove it to himself.
It wasn't the first time Braun-Duin failed. It won't be the last.
He wouldn't have it any other way.
Braun-Duin's career has been shaped by his failures. When the average Magic player looks at the best competitors in the world—including the 2018 World Championship field—it's easy to assume they got there thanks to some innate gift. There's always hard work, of course, but stories of uncanny natural spellslinging prowess abound when discussing the best players to ever play the game, and the average Friday Night Magic player doesn't always see themselves in the game's legends. Like the average high school athlete won't see themselves in LeBron James, so too can it be hard to imagine ever truly understanding the game on the same level as Jon Finkel or Owen Turtenwald.
Braun-Duin breaks that mold, and in doing so has attracted fans from across the globe drawn to his steady and painstaking rise through the ranks. Braun-Duin is no Finkel, a preternatural talent. He's not Frank Karsten, a human calculator who can dissect any game state. He's not Wyatt Darby, who won a Pro Tour in his second-ever appearance on the biggest stage.
Through it all, he's shared his journey with the rest of us. His frank assessment of his own shortcomings and willingness to address them publicly assured his fan base that he was no otherworldly Magic savant; he was just another FNM attendee who scratched and clawed every step of the way as he climbed the ladder.
And it was a steady climb. For Braun-Duin, Magic success came gratingly, in fits and starts. Moderate success on the StarCityGames.com Open circuit. Rising to the top of the Open Series. Attacking the Grand Prix grind with fervor. Qualifying for the Pro Tour. Earning a regular spot on the Tour. Embarking on a worldwide odyssey to qualify for the 2016 World Championship via the Grand Prix Master slot given to the player with the most Pro Points earned from GPs. Surviving the Worlds draft. Advancing to the Top 4 of the tournament. Winning the whole thing and being crowned World Champion.
It's an incredible resume, one that many great Magic players never match. And yet, it wasn't the myriad successes that ever resonated with Braun-Duin when he reflected on his life and career. Instead it was the failures. It wasn't winning Grand Prix Louisville in 2013 in his first Top 8 that he thought about when he sat down to draft, it was the doubt he could ever repeat the result. It wasn't achieving his dream of qualifying for the Pro Tour that stuck with him at the gym, it was wasting a good start to struggle to a mediocre finish. It wasn't succeeding in his yearlong quest to qualify for Worlds that stayed with him, it was the echoes of the people who said the way he qualified wasn't legitimate.
Braun-Duin let failure define his career even as he reached ever-greater heights, and even reaching the pinnacle of the Magic universe by winning the World Championship wasn't enough to dislodge the anxiety that took root in his mind, telling him that if he didn't make it back the cynics would be proved right about him.
With 14 Pro Points courtesy of his title to start the 2016–17 season, it certainly seemed an achievable goal. That is a massive number of points to open with, and Braun-Duin was determined to get back to Worlds—this time without relying on a "special" invite via GP Master.
When he failed in that goal, it was devastating.
"I entered the season with just a giant lead on everyone else, then I finished a good bit short. At the time, I viewed it as a failure," he reflected. "I've definitely had a chip on my shoulder most of the time I've played Magic. It kind of stemmed from starting on the SCG circuit and working my way up from there and seeing the way some people maligned other players there. I felt I had to prove them wrong."
That resentment fueled Braun-Duin. It kept him alert for 14-hour drives to tournaments. It kept him awake for marathon daylong testing sessions on Magic Online. It drove him ever forward, and yet always held him back.
There was no magic instance, no bolt of lightning that transformed Braun-Duin. The flash of insight may be the storybook moment, but it isn't very realistic. Like everything else in his career, the turning point was hard-won.
"Struggling at four Pro Tours last year and failing to requalify for Worlds brought me to a crossroads, one I spent a lot of time thinking about," he recalled. "I had to ask myself, 'If I never do well at another pro event again, am I still happy playing the game?'
"And the answer was yes; I still enjoy the game, I still enjoy producing content. I realized that a lot of these people who I was trying to prove something to weren't my friends, they didn't know me and weren't part of my life so it just didn't just matter how they viewed me, because they weren't part of my life. There are people that I care about, and I can't worry what anyone else thinks."
It may not seem like much, but the paradigm shift turned everything about Braun-Duin's career on its head. His mindset completely changed, and so too did his results. After a promising 6-2 start at a Pro Tour earlier this year turned into a 6-6 record—something that would have crushed him in the past—this time Braun-Duin regrouped and won his final four matches.
He rose to the top of the leaderboard and qualified for the 2018 World Championship, this time without any kind of "special" invite. Failure may have defined his past career, at least in his own mind, but back on the game's biggest stage with a chance to again be crowned World Champion, Braun-Duin isn't going to let success define it, either. This time, he's playing on his own terms.
"When I requalified for Worlds I was happy, but I wasn't jumping out of my chair," he explained. "As long as I'm putting work in and playing well and carry myself the right way, then at the end I'm not too worried about any one event. I don't have any specific goals at all—if I go 14-0 or 0-14 I'll be fine with that."