In many stories, transformations play a big role. This is especially the case in Innistrad, where Archangel Avacyn transformed into Avacyn, the Purifier, where Elusive Tormentor turned into Elusive Mist and then back again, and where Thing in the Ice became an Awoken Horror. But also in the lives of Magic fans, huge transformations can happen.
This article will tell one such story: The story of how and why Belgium's Niels Viaene turned from Pro Tour Top 8 competitor into Level 3 Magic judge.
Like many, Niels's Magic story started as a casual player. "I picked up the game around the release of Prophecy in 2000. I played the matchup between two of my brothers' decks, Mono-Black versus Green-White Griffins, hundreds of times. Green-White Griffins was really overpowered," he laughed.
Niels continued to play casually for a long time, but when the Outpost store opened in Ghent, he started to play more competitively. He gradually took the game more seriously, started drafting with the release of Guildpact in 2006, but still with a casual mindset. "I just wanted to have fun and achieve something that I hadn't achieved yet. So I wanted to go 5-1 at a Prerelease rather than just 4-2. Once I did that, I wanted to win a Prerelease rather than merely going 5-1. And so on, and on and on. Eventually, one or two years later, I started to compete at Grand Prix events with the goal of making Day 2."
Success on the Grand Prix and Pro Tour Circuit
Niels made his first Day 2 at Grand Prix Brussels 2008, and he continued to play until, out of the blue, he reached the Top 8 of Grand Prix Paris 2009.
"The match I played in the final Swiss round of that event was the most suspenseful, most thrilling match of my life," Niels told me. "I was playing for the Top 8 and for the opportunity to go to Pro Tour San Diego. The format was triple Zendikar draft—a format that I knew inside out because I drafted a lot at that time—and I had drafted Mono-White Control.
"In the last round, I'm paired against an opponent with a super-aggressive black-red deck. In Game 1, he puts every card that is good in that archetype on the table, and he crushes me mercilessly. In Game 2, I mulligan to six, then to five, then to four, and my heart sinks. I then look at my four-card hand: two Plains, Journey to Nowhere, and a Day of Judgement that he hadn't seen yet. Alright. He swarms the board with creatures, attacks me down to a low life total, and plays even more creatures into my board of three Plains. I topdeck the fourth land, slam it on the table so hard that I hurt my hand, and sweep the board for a 7-for-1. The next turn, he merely casts Trusty Machete and passes the turn …
"I don't remember the rest of the match, but I won," Viaene finished. "This qualified me for Pro Tour San Diego, for which Mark Dictus and I built an Open the Vaults deck with Filigree Angel. The tournament went really well, and I again played for Top 8 in the last round. But it was the complete opposite of that Grand Prix because my opponent played Stirring Wildwood on turn one. This told me that he was playing Bant Mythic, which was a huge relief since I had a 95% win percentage against that deck in testing.
"I lost to Simon Görtzen in the quarterfinals, but at the time I was thrilled that I made the quarterfinals of my very first Pro Tour. It's too bad that I lost, but I realized that that could just as well have happened three rounds ago, and then I wouldn't even have made the Top 8."
The Transformation from Pro Tour Player to Dedicated Magic Judge
"My motivation has always been to achieve something more or something better than before," Niels said, and that philosophy informs his life choices. "I felt that, realistically speaking, it was very unlikely that I would make another Pro Tour Top 8, let alone win the quarterfinals. Due to that realization, my motivation plummeted enormously."
Niels still played a number of Pro Tours, but after several mediocre finishes he fell off the train and was ready to quit Magic.
It was at that time that his compatriot Jurgen Baert began to push him into the direction of the judge program. "I was already a Level 1 judge at that point, but not an active one," Niels explained. "However, at that point in time, there was nothing in my life that showed a clear growth. My job was fairly static, and I was no longer qualified for Pro Tours. So I became a Level 2 judge, started to judge on the Grand Prix circuit, and pushed myself to get better at it."
Improving as a Magic Judge
Whereas the majority of judges are Level 1 or Level 2 judges who typically only adjudicate FNMs or PPTQs in hobby stores, the judge program has higher levels as well. A Level 3 judge, for example, leads premier organized play in their region. They mentor and develop Level 1 and Level 2 judges, lead teams at Grand Prix tournaments, have more responsibilities, and get to develop themselves in all kinds of ways.
On the Grand Prix circuit, Niels quickly stood out as someone who tried to give the people around him a good experience and who was not afraid to do some extra work. He enjoyed his Level 2 status for a while, but eventually he did the lengthy panel interview that one needs to pass to become a Level 3 judge.
Niels still fondly remembered that test, which took place at Grand Prix Liverpool 2015. At a certain point, he was told, "OK Niels, you can go outside and get some fresh air while we discuss." So he went outside, walked around the building, and waited. But when the panel members went outside to call him back in, they couldn't find him! When Niels walked back in by himelf 25 minutes later, his anxious panel members excitedly told him that he had passed his Level 3 test. The funny part was that in the meantime, someone had made the joke that Niels had gotten onto the nearby ferris wheel, which weirdly turned into a huge urban legend.
Niels did not in fact climb onto a ferris wheel, though he did climb the ladder of the judge program. Since Niels became a Level 3 judge, he picked up more tournament organizer tasks, such as manning the prize wall or cooking dinner for everyone. "For me, judging is fantastic. I started to take judging seriously because I was looking for something where I could always grow. Level 3 in particular now has so many possibilities for growth: Rules knowledge, mentoring, community building, logistics, team leading, and so on. In the judge program, it's really about improving yourself as a person, and I like that a lot."
Synergy between Niels Then and Niels Now
One of the things that became clear to me while talking to Niels was that one of his strengths and passions was to help people have a good experience. This was something that he could do more readily as a judge than as a pro player. After all, if you're competing in a professional Magic event then you have to focus on beating opponents rather than helping them. Still, I wondered how Niels's experience as a Pro Tour competitor helped him as a judge, and whether or not he missed the competition.
"The high-level competitive mindset is one that is different from 99% of all games of Magic, and I often notice in discussions with other judges that my perspective is different from theirs," he began. "For example, based on my experience at the Pro Tour, I can more readily estimate how impactful an innocuous looking game play error could be or what the motivation of a player might be. This aids me in assessing whether something was an honest error or whether it warrants a targeted investigation.
"But I do really miss the Pro Tour. I miss the atmosphere, but most of all, I miss how good I was at the game back then. I miss the feeling to know a format inside out; to know after pick five what the person to my right is drafting; to know what's going on if my opponent leaves three mana untapped; to know all the likely sideboard options. I do not play enough to know any of those things in Limited or Constructed anymore. That's frustrating, and it makes it difficult to start again on the competitive scene. There is a huge contrast between me as a player six years ago and me as a player now. But I love judging too, so it's okay."
As Niels's story shows, Magic offers many opportunities for growth: as a player, as a judge, and perhaps as a tournament organizer in the future. Although the game has remained the common thread, the things that he spent his time on have changed greatly over time, which shows the diversity of options available for everyone in the Magic community.
Looking toward the future, Niels saw plenty of opportunities. "There are so many logistical challenges, ranging from the prize wall to the preparation of Grand Prix product, which have to be tackled in an organized, structured way. I would love to get better at that, and at the moment that's my biggest drive for the upcoming year."
He may have transformed from Pro Tour Top 8 competitor into Level 3 judge, and Magic had offered him a lot of opportunities, but his quest for continual improvement continued …