The 2015–2016 race for Grand Prix Master will go down as the final time the World Championship will offer such a slot. Though it was a just reward for consistency on the Grand Prix grind, and its passing is sad for those of us who live on the circuit week in and week out, this year's winner—the ultimate Grand Prix Master—is possibly the perfect one. Brian Braun-Duin deserved this title. For those watching the race that ended at Grand Prix Sydney last weekend, it was drama ready
But the race was years in the making for Braun-Duin. This title was the culmination of not just 2016, but the last four years in the man's life. In 2012, Brian Braun-Duin was without a job and living on a couch. And the climb from there to here never had an easy step. In Pittsburgh Braun-Duin, or "BBD," facetiously told me, "It is kinda my award," and now it truly is. How did he get from the couch to the World Championship?
"The transformation has been all about putting in the time and the work. None of this has been easy for me. At all," Braun-Duin told me. "I worked as hard as I possibly could. I gave myself every single chance I could. Because I know I'm not good enough to waste those chances. I don't have the inherent brilliance a lot of these Magic players have."
This work ethic was a sentiment echoed and strengthened by one of his closest Magic pals, No. 20-ranked Brad Nelson (seen here kissing Braun-Duin uncomfortably).
Nelson met Braun-Duin under inauspicious circumstances. "I was going to an Invitational in Baltimore, and I was staying with Todd [Anderson] and BBD. [Braun-Duin] didn't have a suitcase; he just had a plastic bag." Later on, after placing the bag under a car for safe keeping, it was stolen. Braun-Duin did not win that Invitational either.
"From there, he's literally become the hardest working Magic player I've ever witnessed. He just doesn't stop." That work extends well past Magic and into his life as well. The transition was gradual, but extremely clear.
The steps toward change started later that year—sans his plastic bag.
"I was hired by StarCityGames.com, just to work in their warehouse. I wasn't doing anything fancy or glamorous." Braun-Duin continued, "I was just pulling myself out of the financial hole I was in."
"And then, I was talking to [2011 US National Champion] Ali Aintrazi. He had lost a lot of weight doing keto. For some reason, I just decided that I was going to do it too. I'm not going to think about it; I'm not going to talk myself out of it. I'm just going to do it." And he did. "In the next year, I lost 115 pounds."
Brian Braun-Duin's transformation has been the result of hard work and sheer determination.
It was around that time he started to get better at Magic. "There's no real consensus about what the relation was [between the weight loss and the Magic success]. I mean, I know it wasn't a coincidence." He laughed. Achieving something so significant so swiftly surely had some effect on his confidence inside and outside the game, but actually defining it was difficult.
"Somewhere in 2013, I won a PTQ"—then he went to Pro Tour Theros in Dublin, Ireland, his first Pro Tour—"and I won Grand Prix Louisville a week after." It was his first step in high-level Magic, but it still wasn't gravy from there. There were times between then and now that BBD would nonchalantly fall off the train, and be back grinding the Pro Tour Qualifier circuit. And that, Nelson says, is where Braun-Duin showed his true grit.
"For three years he'd been stuck at Silver. When I was there, I would go at the last minute and just luckily Top 8 a Grand Prix. He didn't. He would go to that GP and lose Day One." Nelson continued, "Then drive 5 hours to a PTQ and lose in the finals. Then drive another 5 hours to another PTQ. He'd win that one." That was Brian Braun-Duin, almost until this year.
But this is all a familiar story for tournament Magicians. However, it was the next crucial step that made the difference. Throughout this time, always Braun-Duin maintained the motivation, never flagging. "He never loses the motivation. I don't know how he does it." Nelson related it to his own journey, saying, "When I was struggling and was doing badly, I still got articles and press and stuff. But Brian grinded in the shadows for three years without ever losing any hope."
Flash forward to November 2014," Braun-Duin jumped us further in the story. "I'm doing well, but not great; I'm Silver. I'm working full-time for StarCityGames.com, and doing VS videos, and playing in all the tournaments." It was then that Brian was given a gift, though he might not have known it at the time. "I got suspended for three days from work, just for showing up late too many times...That was usually because of tournaments. I'd get back from the drive at 6 a.m. and have to be at work at 9 a.m."
He was frustrated with himself, but—as he's consistently shown since 2012—he was resolved to power through. "I took the whole three days to actually practice for the upcoming Legacy Grand Prix." He paused only for a moment. "And I won it." He grinned. Actually taking the time to work at Magic showed dividends for him.
Braun-Duin's face gleamed brighter as he talked through this next step in his process. "It was risky, but I quit my job, and devoted myself to Magic full-time." It still didn't come quickly, or easily. It wasn't until late 2015 when he'd learn his biggest tricks in yet in Magic—tricks that gave him the tools to win Grand Prix Master.
BBD and Brad Nelson both worked hard to make it to the Pro Tour—but as Brad will attest, BBD worked harder.
"There were two big improvements that I saw. (1)"—Yes, he spoke in parenthetical titles—"(1) Upping My Mental Game. I just don't worry about what happens anymore." This is from game to game within a tournament. "If I savagely punt Game 1, I just win Games 2 and 3." He's learned to brush it off.
"And (2), My Deck Selection." This was something that Nelson had brought up. The "Old BBD" stubbornness has since gone away. Braun-Duin said, "I used to just play what I wanted to play and not listen to other people. I'd play what they called 'BBD decks.'" But at Grand Prix Oklahoma City, he hit a turning point.
"I was going to play an Abzan Deck I really enjoyed, but wasn't doing very well. I posted on Twitter something about how I didn't think the deck was good, but I was hoping to do well anyway or something. Sam Pardee responded and said he had a deck he was 18-0 with."
"It was Splinter Twin...It was basically stock Splinter Twin." He was almost appalled at Pardee for suggesting the most boring, most overplayed, most soon-to-be-banned deck in Modern. "It's not my style of deck; I don't like that kind of deck; I'm not good at playing that kind of deck." He shook his head in disgust. "But I played it anyway...and I got second. I was a lot better at the deck than I thought I would be." He added, "And I actually started enjoying playing it."
With those two changes, it was off to the races—specifically the race for Grand Prix Master. He even caught up with Corbin Hosler within the next two months and made his intentions clear—he was gunning for the World Championship slot. And thanks to the steps he'd taken in Magic and his life, he'd set himself up to succeed.
"He's playing the best Magic of his life, and it's amazing." Brad Nelson summed up, watching Braun-Duin get yet another win here at the Pro Tour, ending with his best Day One record ever. "I'm so proud of him. Look, I literally just tweeted this:"
Winning Grand Prix Master is a culmination of everything Braun-Duin has accomplished so far in Magic. Though the other contenders, Tomoharu Saito, No. 15-ranked Reid Duke, and No. 1-ranked Seth Manfield all deserve it too, for them, it would be yet another accolade for the shelf. For Braun-Duin it's the pinnacle of his career so far, and a totem to reach the next height.
What's in store for the 2016–2017 season for Brian Braun-Duin? "Easy," he said. "Pro Tour results." And as we know, when Braun-Duin sticks his mind to something, he'll get there.
"I'd never considered him a naturally gifted Magic player," Nelson said. This was a funny statement, as Nelson always says the same thing about himself. When I called him on it, and how Nelson always says he feels he too had to work for what he got, he quipped—"And he works harder than me!"
"Now were both working on exercising, going to the gym. Except I skip; he doesn't." Maybe that's the secret. Maybe that's what makes Braun-Duin's story truly different from so many do-it-yourself Magic pros of the past. Nelson said, "A lot of people let that [drive] fall off. They don't 'give up,' they just can't keep up that level. He can and he does."
"Between 2012 and 2014, the man just drove—alone if he had to—to go to a PTQ. Then he lost and just drove to another one—until he won it."
Braun-Duin said, "That's just who I am personally. When I want to succeed at something, I just hit my head against it. I always feel like I'm going to find a crack." He added, "As long as I'm finding things to improve on, and I understand them, I'll keep going." He's been rewarded for that hard-headedness so far. We have no reason to think it'll let up any time soon.
Congratulations on being the ultimate Grand Prix Master, Brian Braun-Duin. Now take this award and pound it into the wall to make a few more cracks.