Wyatt Darby has it all. The Iowa native won Pro Tour Dominaria. He is competing this weekend at the World Championship in Las Vegas. He signs autographs at tournaments. He's become a Magic legend in his hometown of Iowa City. He could walk away from this weekend with $100,000 and add a World Championship trophy to his mantel next to his Pro Tour hardware. To anyone looking in from the outside, he's got it all.
It wasn't that long ago he wasn't sure if he would have Magic at all.
Darby started playing the game about six years ago, and quickly turned to the competitive scene, competing in Return to Ravnica Pro Tour Qualifiers and going on road trips with friends to chase the Pro Tour dream. He devoured Magic content and coverage, watching the Pro Tour and World Championship confident in his ability to make it there himself. He had a knack for the game and his drive to improve led to a few close calls, though the PT eluded him for several years as he focused his efforts on graduating college and beginning a career.
Finally, he had a breakthrough, qualifying for Pro Tour Amonkhet—the event, he hoped, that would solidify his place on the Pro Tour and prove to everyone he belonged at the top of the game. When he opened the bomb rare Glorybringer in the first draft of the tournament, it seemed like an auspicious start that would propel him through the rest of the event.
Things didn't quite work out that way.
The drafter seated to Darby's right also opened a Glorybringer with the first pick, and spent the rest of the draft going deep into red and cutting off Darby, who steadfastly clung to his first-pick showstopper as he tried to force the color. Of course, anyone familiar with drafting knows what happens in this situation—Darby ended up with a mediocre deck as he got the dregs of the picks, and his record showed it.
Not exactly the dream start Darby had envisioned. He failed to make Day Two of the tournament and in the span of a few short hours his Pro Tour career was, for the moment, over.
Darby's failure to launch at his first-ever Pro Tour doesn't come as a surprise; even the best players in the history of the game often took years to reach that point, and qualifying for the Pro Tour from scratch doesn't get any easier. But that didn't make it any easier for the 24-year-old to bear, and he freely admits it brought his morale to a low point.
"I was almost ready to give up, to at least back off Magic a little bit," he lamented. "If I'm going to invest in something I want to be very good at it, but I had a new job that was going to eat up my Saturdays. That was going to make playing hard, and I thought maybe it was time to take a step back from trying to qualifying."
But Magic has a way of sneaking up when you least expect it, and for Darby that came when he went to a last-ditch Rivals of Ixalan Regional Pro Tour Qualifier to which he already had an invite. He hadn't played any of the Sealed format and was unfamiliar with the cards but, he thought, why not give it a shot? Sometimes all it takes is a deck and a dream. And, in this case, a 6-hour cram session driving to the tournament as Darby's carmates got him up to speed on the format.
Whatever it was, it worked. The only Rivals of Ixalan draft Darby ever completed came in the Top 8 of the tournament, but that was all it took—he was back from the brink and back on the Pro Tour. And determined to make good this time around.
"I learned a lot from that first Pro Tour," Darby explained as he reflected on his initial trip to the big stage. "My takeaway was that even for a great card like Glorybringer, you can't sacrifice everything else. It made me realize I just had to be better if I wanted to be on the Pro Tour by more than just by accident.
"So I looked for players better than me to beat me into the ground and make me realize everything I didn't know yet."
That's exactly what Darby found in fellow World Championship competitors John Rolf and Matt Severa, though at the time they were just familiar competitors from the Midwest tournament circuit. Darby reached out to them and joined up with the famed Madison crew and their regular Draft camps. Deep in the testing process, Darby began to find some of what had been missing in his first Pro Tour.
"I was doing okay in the drafts, but I had a moment in a game against Sam Black where it just dawned on me that he was operating on an astronomical level compared to where I was at. I learned a lot from that experience. The group up there was very willing to experiment and try out everything, and that creativity taught me a lot."
Darby didn't stop there. He threw himself into testing on Magic Online. He tested the format endlessly. And when sat down for his first draft at Pro Tour Dominaria, his confidence was replaced with something better: the feeling that he belonged.
"The dedication I had preparing for that tournament just wasn't there the first time," he explained simply.
The rest is history. Darby ripped his way through the tournament, and when he needed a perfect topdeck to steal victory in the finals of the Pro Tour, the card that awaited him was fitting.
Life changed at that moment for Darby. He proved to the world—but also to himself—that he belonged at the pinnacle of the game. Fans began asking him to sign cards. One opponent even took a picture of the match slip after he defeated Darby at a Grand Prix ("If only he knew how much losing I do at GPs," the Pro Tour Champion laughed). He left his day job and is joining a pro team for the next Pro Tour season, and he's proved to the world—and to himself—that he belongs among the field here at the World Championship.
"Winning the Pro Tour was so humbling," he confessed in between rounds Friday, surrounded by the best players in the world. "Going from zero to 100 in competitive Magic was very weird, but when I think about how many players in this room have accomplished so much but haven't gotten to experience that, that's a humbling experience."
Now Darby has another chance to make a history and defy expectations, given the talent around him at Worlds. But no one else expected him to win a Pro Tour either—and when he picked up his second win by going 2-1 in the draft he announced with a grin that he had matched the win total many people spotted him in their predictions.
"I like playing better players than myself, and I can't imagine a better situation than this," he said. "I'm trying to soak it all in because you can never guarantee a second chance at a stage like this, and I don't want to get so caught up in my record that I don't appreciate the opportunity to be here."
Darby can do more than that. Fourteen rounds and 22 other competitors stand between him and a Top 4 appearance. And the newcomer has no plans of slowing down now.
"My first time watching high-level Magic was watching Reid Duke in the finals of Worlds," explained Darby, who now finds himself playing next to the luminary with a world title on the line. "I really respect him and what he does for the game, and this entire experience is just incredible. I'm loving it and I'm going to stay on the train for as long as I can. This is the dream I've been chasing since I started playing all those PTQs back in 2012, and I'm going to keep playing Magic until I can't anymore."