The world was pain. It wasn't the first time Brandon Burton had been through this, nor would it likely be the last. Sleeping was difficult, and the medication wasn't pleasant. Nor was the thought that—as he lay flat on his back for long hours at a time—the road that lay before him wouldn't be any easier.
The world was a small bedroom in a small town. A few keepsakes, some dusty books, a laptop. The usual comforts of a room, but all the more familiar when they are some of the only scenery you're liable to see for a few weeks. A challenging surgery, an even tougher recovery ahead; it wasn't an easy time for Burton. But then, not many are when you're 11 and living with cerebral palsy.
Burton was no stranger to fighting through hard times. He had always been fighting, ever since the womb, when drug use had caused complications for his biological mother's pregnancy. Life was never simple for Burton, but there were a few things that kept Burton going.
He found Elizabeth Burton, the woman who rescued him as a baby, giving—and still giving—him everything she had to provide a full life. And, lying flat on his back, every movement a struggle, every movement a triumph, Brandon found the Magic world.
"He said to me, 'I found this game called Magic. Can I have $10?'" Elizabeth recalled, smiling at the memory. "I thought it would be something good that could keep him busy for a few days."
When Brandon and Elizabeth sat down for a Round 6 feature match at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar in front of dozens of competitors and fans and tens of thousands more watching online, the Magic world found them.
Brandon and Elizabeth are a truly unique team at Magic tournaments. Brandon, who travels in a wheelchair, has trouble reaching the table when he plays, so Elizabeth acts as an extension of her son, placing the cards as Brandon announces his moves.
Brandon learned games from a young age; Elizabeth made sure of that. She taught him to play cribbage, and he began to learn other games on his own. Through the medical struggles that at times consumed their lives, through it all the Burtons played games together. It was an escape for them, a reprieve from waiting rooms and doctor's offices, an opportunity to lose themselves in the game. Brandon grew up on gaming, and it's a love he's never lost.
So it's no surprise that Brandon went searching for something to play when faced with an extended stay in his bed recovering from a 2004 spinal cord surgery. What his searched yielded was Magic: The Gathering, a card game with an online component that gave him the chance to scratch his itch for a game, all without leaving the bed that would be his constant companion for the next few weeks.
The newest set was Fifth Dawn, and Brandon was hooked from the start.
"I was always into games, and I thought it could be fun, so I started giving it a shot," he said. "At first it was because I didn't have much else to do, but I really liked it and kept playing."
As Brandon slowly recovered, he was able to leave the bed behind. But he always came back to Magic.
"I started playing more and more online, and started to play competitively," he said shortly after picking up his fourth win of the tournament at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, guaranteeing himself a spot in Day Two of the tournament. "I started playing in the big online tournaments, and in 2011, I finished second in the Magic Online Championship Series."
It was a lofty accomplishment, but one that ultimately came as a disappointment for Brandon. A win would have given him a plane ticket to the World Championship and a chance to play on the game's biggest stage; a loss awarded substantial online compensation but not the ultimate prize.
Then, less than a month before the tournament, fortune smiled on Brandon.
"He yelled for me and showed me this email that said the winner wouldn't be able to attend, and he was now the person who would go to San Francisco and play in Worlds," Elizabeth said. "He asked me if I thought it was real. I told him there's only one way to find out, and I called Wizards of the Coast right then."
It was. Burton had the opportunity to play in the World Championship, using cardboard cards rather digital ones.
It was a breakthrough moment for Burton, but it brought along its own set of challenges.
Brandon uses a wheelchair; physically reaching across the table to play cards isn't something he can do. It's a unique situation that requires a unique solution.
As she has been for his entire life, Elizabeth is there for Brandon. She doesn't understand any more than the barest basics of the game, but she's never far from Brandon's side, and in a field studded with superstar squads, no team stands higher than Brandon and Elizabeth. She draws the cards; he reads them.
He announces the play; she makes it happen.
"There was never a doubt," Elizabeth said simply. "If I can do something to help him, I will."
And they've made plenty happen. In addition to his Worlds appearance in 2011—where he didn't place highly but did beat Jon Finkel, considered by many to be the greatest player to ever play the game—Brandon has recorded cash finishes in several premier tournaments, and came within a game of advancing to the Top 8 of Grand Prix Chicago in 2009.
When Brandon began to play paper Magic in 2009, he needed someone to help him physically play the cards. Elizabeth has been there for him ever since.
Not that it's always been easy. While the Burtons glow that almost all players and judges have been extremely supportive and accommodating, challenges do arise—Brandon has received game losses in the past when Elizabeth accidentally drew an extra card—and the pair must learn how to work through them.
"It was very interesting when I first began playing with him," Elizabeth said. "I didn't know what I was doing, and I basically just said 'I won't do anything until you tell me exactly what to do.' We had to work out the kinks, but all these years later, that's how we still do it."
Thanks to Brandon's tireless efforts on Magic Online, the 22-year-old won an online qualifier, earning the opportunity to make the short drive up from Saint Anne, Illinois, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to compete at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar.
He's made the most of it, earning enough wins to advance to the second day of competition. And minutes after playing a nail-biter of an on-camera feature match, Brandon took a moment to consider how far he's come since that day in his bed when he first discovered the game that has become a part of he and Elizabeth's life.
"I'm so thankful for all the support that people have given me," he said. "Everybody has been really nice, and I'm excited to be doing this well at the Pro Tour. People sometimes come up and tell me how it's impressive I've done what I've done, but I'm trying to just look at this as another Magic tournament. I'm nothing special."
Underneath the bright lights of the stage area in Magic's most prestigious arena, Elizabeth is still playing games with her son, just as she did when she taught him so many years ago.
"I knew he liked to play, but I didn't know how good he really was until other people came up and told me. Being here and seeing him play in this, I'm not sure it's all sunk in yet," she said. "But even more than that, I'm proud of the way he conducts himself. He's a nice guy, and he's always a gentleman. The social aspect of this is great for him, and he's enjoying himself. That's what's important to me."
When she was told her son doesn't think of himself as anything special, Elizabeth laughed softly before responding.
"He says that, but I'm so proud of what he's done, not just in the game but outside of it. He's accomplished more than he knows. He had an offer to write an article, but he didn't want to do it because he said 'no one wants to listen to me.'"
The world is listening now.