The lights were blinding. The cameras everywhere. The crowd around the table overwhelming. With a pair of headphones on and the most important match of Magic in his life in front of him, John Rolf just couldn't focus.
"It was just all too much; I couldn't play my normal game," lamented Rolf, who looks back on his semifinals loss to Pascal Maynard at Pro Tour Ixalan disappointed with his play. "That pressure situation, that's what you play for, and it's unfortunate because that's what people see and not the sixteen rounds before that. I want to improve in that situation, because if I can do that I still have much I can improve on."
So Rolf went back to school.
Figuratively, that is. A recent law school graduate, Rolf has always been a skilled player talked up by his teammates and friends, but school responsibilities meant his time to dedicate to Magic went through ups and downs. With college behind him and his career ahead, Rolf went to Pro Tour Ixalan figuring that his time in the game was coming to an end—or at least a long break.
Then the Pro Tour happened, and Rolf found himself in the Top 8. While that experience may not have gone exactly how he wanted, it helped prepare him for the rest of the season, where he put together a monster run to qualify for this weekend's 2018 World Championship. And, he vowed, this time he'd be ready for the pressure.
"I've been watching videos on how to improve under pressure," he explained. "One of the things I've learned is the idea of 'CRT'—challenge or threat. If you're in the right mindset and view it as a challenge, then it's easier to focus on the process and accept everything around you.
"If I could just play how I play behind the computer, I could show what I'm capable of."
That's the challenge Rolf is embracing this weekend. It's his return trip beneath the bright lights—no spotlight is brighter than the one on the World Championship—and he's determined this time will be different.
"Pro Tour Ixalan, it was a rush of emotion before the Top 8," he said. "I couldn't sleep and the next day I couldn't think straight. I was worried about all the wrong things—the lights, the white noise, the crowd around the table. It was so foreign to me and took my focus out of the game, and when you're playing the people here you need max focus."
Midway through this year's event, it seems Rolf's efforts have begun to pay off. Despite having to play an absolute murderer's row to start things off—Javier Dominguez, Márcio Carvalho, Martin Jůza, Luis Salvatto, Ken Yukuhiro, Owen Turtenwald, and Ben Stark, all of whom have far more experience than Rolf on the big stage—he won the majority of his matches. Whatever Rolf has been studying, it's worked wonders for his comfort under the camera.
"The way I played at the Pro Tour was disheartening, but it taught me a lot," he explained. "I was really afraid of people judging me, but then I realized that no one plays perfectly and as long as I'm having fun the rest will come."
The other challenge for Rolf this weekend has been managing his own expectations. For someone who holds himself to a high standard, how do you realistically set expectations in a field so stacked?
"You know every match here is going to be a tough match, and there's no easy edge," he said. "This tournament is really important to me but it's an elite field. But, like Tim Aten said, you're still playing Magic; it's a card game and anyone can win."
Rolf has done plenty of winning thus far, and is in the hunt for a Top 4 berth. Whether he makes it to the elimination rounds or not, Rolf has already demonstrated just how much he's learned from his Pro Tour Ixalan Top 8 experience, and he's well on his way to showing everyone he's more than capable—he belongs here.