Whenever there is talk of the best player in the world, a few names come up. Players who are viewed as technically perfect, players who always have the best decks, the best teammates, all the advantages in the world. When these players are discussed, it's easy to default to focusing on the underdog squaring off against one of the select few in the conversation for best in the world.
What gets lost in that narrative is what it feels like on the other side—just how does Seth Manfield, Hall of Fame–elect, handle the pressure?
He's a Pro Tour Champion (at Pro Tour Ixalan). He won the World Championship in 2015. He's been to the Top 8 of a mind-boggling sixteen Grand Prix, and won five of them. He finished second in the Player of the Year race several years ago and will battle in a playoff with Luis Salvatto later this year to try and earn the final title he's yet to add to his name.
But all that is just math. Numbers and statistics that tell you about Seth Manfield, the World Champion. It doesn't tell you anything about what it's like to play week in and week out with the biggest target on your back, to always be expected to perform better than everyone else, to be a World Champion every moment of every day.
"I always feel the pressure—the drive to do well—and I still get nervous before matches," Manfield confessed in between rounds at the 2018 World Championship. "I pace around between matches. There's a nervous energy when I care about something and it's hard to process that feeling."
You need look no further than Manfield's victory at Pro Tour Ixalan to see that even the best in the world get nervous. No amount of Pro Tour Top 8s or Grand Prix titles can completely eliminate the nerves, and that was plain as Manfield's finals opponent, Pascal Maynard, was the one to get up from the table and make Manfield realize he had just become a Pro Tour winner.
That victory qualified Manfield for the World Championship, a tournament he knows very well.
"This is the best event of the year, the one everyone tries to qualify for because it's the most prestigious, and it's my favorite tournament," he said. "It means a ton to get to play against these players. A lot of them are your friends, but you also respect them. This year felt a little different, because I had the Hall of Fame and Player of the Year race on my mind."
No one will ever accuse Manfield of not having plenty of going on—it was announced this weekend that he's been elected to the Pro Tour Hall of Fame, and he's got that Player of the Year playoff against Salvatto to look forward to. He travels to as many events as anyone. He produces multiple pieces of content a week. On top of all that, he's got a young child at home.
So how does the world's top player manage?
"To be honest, it's hard," he admitted, with his emphasis on the final word leaving no mistaking how forcefully he meant it. "My daughter is in preschool now, and my girlfriend has to deal with the travel schedule. Pro Tours are especially challenging because I'm gone for longer [to test]. We plan ahead, but it's hard."
Perhaps what's most impressive about Manfield's career is just how consistent he's been. Plenty of pros have risen through the ranks, enjoyed a run of unbridled success at the top, and then had off-years or taken breaks from the game.
Not Manfield. He's been among the leaders in Pro Points for four years in a row, and has only grown more dominant during that time. If he can lock up the Player of the Year title—one that he nearly had before Salvatto's miracle Top 8 trip to Stockholm in the last event of the season—he'll have truly done it all inMagic. And make no mistake, that's exactly what he aims to do.
"It was a crazy ending," he said of the final weekend of the season. "As soon as I saw Luis was 8-0 I would have taken the tie and playoff right then, because at least it meant I would have another match. I never really got my hopes up too much, but it does kind of suck to be the one getting caught instead of the other way around. Winning it is important to me. It's the one title I don't have."
The format for that playoff isn't yet decided, but Manfield did throw out one suggestion: two-player Winston Draft.
Where does the former World Champion and soon-to-be Hall of Famer go from here, when he's already accomplished so much? For now, he has no plans to stop, Player of the Year title or not.
"The truth of it is I've never had a bad year in the last four or five years," he explained. "If I were to have a bad year and not make it to Worlds or Platinum, that's when you have to think about if your level of play or stamina isn't there, but until that happens I'm just going to keep playing."