After a long interview, I can now confirm that Zan Syed is one of the most competitive people I know. So much so that he challenged himself with a truly Herculean task earlier this year: Advance to the Top 8 of one of the next two Grand Prix he would be attending or give up playing Magic completely.
"I've always felt like I'm great at Magic, but I didn't feel like it was worth it when I didn't do so well. So I just set that mental goal and said, 'I have to either Top 8 or it's not worth my time. I should be on the Pro Tour!'"
You should be able to guess how that story unfolded. We wouldn't have this conversation if he hadn't reached his goal. To be more precise, he sneaked into the Top 8 at Grand Prix Miami back in March and qualified for the Pro Tour. I asked him whether he really would have given up on Magic if he had ended up in ninth place and when he answered he was dead serious and said: "Yes, absolutely."
He had come close before. He told me about another Grand Prix where he lost to Patrick Chapin in a win-and-in scenario in the last round. Despite falling short of his own expectations, he had fond memories of the match. After all, he was able to ask one of the greats of the game a question that was pretty high on his mind; whether there was something wrong with his approach.
"He [Chapin] was super friendly, and he basically told me to just keep working on it," Syed recalled. "That's what I did and how I ultimately ended up in the Top 8 in Miami."
Taking the Trip to Paris
After Miami, Syed couldn't attend Grand Prix Cleveland, so he set his sights on Grand Prix Paris instead. "My friends told me I was crazy. Next thing they knew, they tuned in on the stream and, thanks to the time difference, the first thing they saw was me sitting in the finals."
They shouldn't have been that surprised, though. Prior to the event, Syed had put in countless hours on Magic Online. The deck he later would play in Paris put up very impressive results then, so much so that he had to call over those same friends to get a second (and third) opinion. They did well with the deck too, especially after they had played a few games with it and got a better understanding of the strategy. Still, he wasn't a hundred percent sure about his deck choice and worried about differences between the European and the American metagame.
"I flew over, checked in at my hotel, went to the venue, and immediately enrolled in a Grand Prix Trial. I won all of my matches except for the finals where I handed my opponent the win since he didn't have any byes. Still, I was sold on the deck and decided to play with it that weekend."
After he lost the first round in the Grand Prix, he rebounded with a huge winning streak which led him all the way to the finals! The first two games of the finals, he played to the best of his abilities, but in the third, he started to lose his focus. He explained to me that he panicked, feared his opponent might draw into Elspeth, Sun's Champion, and played more aggressively than he should have. That's what ultimately led to his downfall. A lot of things didn't go his way in the finals and while he was clearly still upset about his loss, he was very happy that he took the trip in the first place.
In fact, he had quite a few positive things to say about Europe in general and the European Magic community in particular. He told me about his sixth round at Grand Prix Paris, where he found himself on a meager 2 life but in a very favorable position. "The game would have ended in a draw, but my opponent agreed that there was no way he could still win this game and since the draw wouldn't have helped either of us, he handed me the win. You don't see that too often. It was a crucial victory; the whole event could have gone differently if I hadn't won that round."
Teaming up for Grand Prix Florence
Prior to the finals in Paris, Syed asked our very own Richard Hagon to help him find a team for this weekend's event. Marijn Lybaert answered the call and hooked him up with Branco Neirynck and Joseph Sclauzero. Neirynck's a former Belgian National Champion who came back to the game after a break, now more motivated than ever. Sclauzero on the other hand only started playing at the highest level in January at Grand Prix Manila, but his professional career started with a bang; he took down Hall of Famer Makihito Mihara in the semifinals and Tzu Ching Kuo in the finals to walk away with the title.
Left to right: Joseph Sclauzero, Branco Neirynck, Zan Syed
Syed only had good things to say about his teammates: "They are great; they are extremely nice guys. They want to play Magic as much as I do."
The last statement was the most important one. Syed said that the first thing he did when he got here was to enroll in a draft. After that, he met up with his teammates and they started practicing Team Sealed. Pizzas were had in between, but then it was right back to playing Magic and still more Magic.
Fortunately, no member of the team had a big ego. Syed admitted that he was probably the least experienced when it came to attending big events and that this was one of the reasons why he's now trying so hard to gain more experience and to get to know more people.
Preparing for the Pro Tour
According to Syed, having a good network is what sets many of the pro players apart from the rest of the field. Coming up with the best strategy to surprise the opposition is a lot easier when you can double-check every idea in a skilled playgroup. So even though he felt like he was great at Magic, he was lacking the necessary connections to do well at the Pro Tour.
He reflected on this a bit more, stating that all of his good results came in Standard. While he's confident in his ability to do well in Constructed at the Pro Tour, he's not too certain of his skills when it comes to Limited; another reason why he decided to attend this Grand Prix.
I wanted to know a little more about his preparation for big events and about finding the right deck for a tournament. He pointed out that there are a lot of viable decks, but that it doesn't always feel that way since many of the pro players only have good things to say about a handful of them. "I feel like there are a lot of great players out there that haven't discovered themselves. They have great decks, but they don't run them just because others won't."
Let's say we're feeling confident with our deck choice and we're feeling well prepared for the upcoming tournament. What else can we do to convert all of our energy into an actual Top 8 result?
"You have to want it more than anybody else! I don't think I'm a better player than many of the other guys in the room, but I have a very strong belief that I'm gonna be in a Top 8 again at some point," Syed said. "I will continue to build decks that are able to beat the decks that everyone expects. If you want to take a shortcut, stop listening to what everybody else is saying and try your own approach. Don't be a cookie cutter!"
Syed's mathematical approach (he's been playing chess for ages) paired with his confidence are the secret ingredients that are setting him apart. To wrap things up, I wanted to hear what goals he's set for himself in the meantime. That question was easy enough to answer: "At the moment, I'm only looking at the Pro Tour. I want to make the second day and see how far I can go there."
Well, we certainly wish him the best of luck for Pro Tour Magic Origins in Vancouver, and hope we'll see him again at another European Grand Prix in the future!