Before the last Pro Tour, Jiachen Tao was an unknown name. A West-Coast law-firm accountant, “JC”, was only known to his small group of players, mostly his team—now known as East-West Bowl. But his group broke the Modern format with the innovative Blue-Red Eldrazi deck (his pet deck), and became the talk of the Magic community. And JC was at the center of it all. Not only did he win, but he systematically defeated the hugest names in the Top 8 one by one.
Now JC Tao, sitting at 11-1 here at Grand Prix Albuquerque, is quite the name indeed. He’s known within his team as the most blasé Pro Tour winner of all time—he won it like an FNM.
“Ug,” he said upon hearing that, yet again. “I wish I was better at showing excitement,” Tao said with sincerity and frankness. Though from what we know about JC he seems introverted, but he’s extremely affable and honest in conversation. It comes more naturally to him than he might think.
He’s also extremely modest. Though he did admit that winning the Pro Tour was big, he was quick to point out the real important narrative from the tournament. “It was the team that broke the PT. So many people did so well from our team.” Even with a brand new Pro Tour win under his belt, it’s the team focus that’s been the most important change in Magic for Tao.
When I asked him about what’s different now, instead of pointing to the Pro Tour, he pointed to well before that. “The real transformation was about networking ... Most Magic players are good enough to succeed. If they just have a catalyst, they could rise to the top.” Sometimes, Tao felt, you just need a good group of people.
“After I qualified at some thing, Eugene [Hwang] dragged me onto the team. Whatever it was called then.” [It was “SoCal Silver”—some of the team was from Southern California; some of the team was Silver Pro Player status; some were both; some were neither.] Because he is up in Washington, JC was only really in touch with his college friend Eugene, now in LA. “I’m all by myself up there,” JC said. That’s why getting on a team of good people, whether he was dragged or not, was the key.
“It’s about finding people similarly minded,” he said. Since working with the team he’s connected with the California contingent of the now-East-West Bowl. Chiefly with now-Pro Tour Top 8 finisher Andrew Brown, who he’s played team events with, and Ben Weitz. “He really is such a nice guy,” JC said of Weitz, the runner-up Rookie of the Year, last year.
After that, the changes came for Tao like a rush. His play, practice, and results improved tremendously, and he became more secure in the contributions he brought to Magic and to his group. “Some of them I don’t know well, but Andrew Brown, Eug, Ben—I talk to them every day. It’s really helped me.”
But that doesn’t mean all these changes are complete. “It’s bad—I want to contribute more, but I don’t feel comfortable sometimes.” Which is not the sort of rhetoric one usually hears from Pro Tour champions. Perhaps no one is more justified to assert his positions and worth than PT Champ Jiachen Tao. Again, he demurred. “[Winning a Pro Tour] is difficult enough that you should [use it as a platform]; I’m just not that kind of person.”
Even with his newfound Platinum status, Tao has staunchly kept his commitment to the game at arm’s reach. “I want to do well, but I don’t want to cause myself all that social anxiety.” He has a great job, a great girlfriend, a great life. He’s hesitant to use this win to completely transform.
“I could possibly change; I’ve considered it. I could, I mean, it’s within reason that I might. I’m just not there now.” Tao then thought, as he did with most of the questions I asked. “[The Magic-traveling lifestyle] so hard; people don’t realize.” But he’s not completely unmoved, nor impassive towards change. He’s flying and driving more for the game, and he’s pumped for every Pro Tour on the schedule.
His girlfriend is pretty OK with it too. “She’s excited to go vacationing with me after every Pro Tour this year.” When I asked if there was one destination in particular, he looked at me as if I were daft. “All of it,” he said. “I don’t normally get to do enough vacationing,” so the two are using this year as an opportunity to travel the world together.
Not everyone was as enthused. “I had to talk with the job about all of it ... They were all very excited for me, but it’s still tough. I’m the only accountant [at the law firm] and they are looking into hiring a temporary employee and everything ... It really takes a lot of your life to do something like this.”
But Tao’s most staunch statement the entire interview was directed at the audience: “If you’re not in that position, and you love Magic, you should spend as much time as you can on the game now, while you still can. Because it won’t be that easy forever.”
The Pro Tour is coming fast and furious now, and JC’s prepping for the Pro Tours as fast as he can with a full-time job. “I’m a slow learner,” Tao admitted. “I have to touch the cards a lot.”
I couldn’t help but relate that statement to something Andrew Brown said of him. That dispassionate public demeanor of Tao is not representative of him at all. But when it comes to people, Brown said, JC just has to figure out where they are coming from; see what they’re doing first. It’s like he wants to understand them like he understands all things, including Magic—sometimes you just need hands-on personal experience.
With his California internet-based playgroup, Tao is extremely welcoming to the new comers, and that’s extending to his East-West Bowl comrades as well. “It’s really about the team. If my [Pro Tour] win can help them do better, that’s the best thing.” Getting on a team of like-minded, good people (who are also pretty skilled at slinging cardboard) was the biggest change for JC, because he already had it pretty good.
JC’s got his life, his Magic achievements, and his team. All he needs now is that proud triumphant trophy shot. Tao thought about wanting to change his public emotionality and said: “I’m fine with being able to remove myself from my results—I think that’s a good, positive thing. But for the viewers, I do want to do it for them; they deserve it.”
For next time, if he Top 8s again, he said: “I will practice my smile in the mirror.” With that statement, his first involuntary grin of the interview leaked out.