Every player who earns the right to play on the Pro Tour wants to do well. Making the Day Two cut is the first hurdle, and fighting to make Top 8 is a supreme feat. Making it all the way through as the champion is a lifetime achievement.
The entire Top 8 was filled with stories and characters, each looking to fulfill that opportunity. One of them was Jacob Wilson.
Pro Tour Fate Reforged Top 8 competitor Jacob Wilson
"I think he's a competitive person; Super, duper competitive. He has a reasonable desire to win," said Matt Nass, one of the many who worked with Wilson leading up to the weekend as well as teammate in their victory at Grand Prix Nashville 2014. "He keeps his cool really well, and lost a rough match against Eric [Froehlich] in his first win-and-in yesterday. It's not that he had no emotions, but he managed to keep his cool and make it through in the next round."
Wilson had already earned a Pro Tour Sunday appearance a year ago at Pro Tour Born of the Gods. Is it really just competitiveness driving Wilson to these heights? "I think winning a Pro Tour is a big deal for him, especially after getting so close in Valencia," Nass said. "Right now it's what he's doing with his life. It's basically his full-time job playing and wiring about Magic. It's definitely really important to him."
Nass also shared something about Wilson that isn't immediately obvious from those at home. "One thing that's interesting is that Jacob's not a huge innovator. He's not going to build a wild and crazy deck, but he's surprisingly good at deck building: A lot of those small card choices in our decks are Jacob's decision. We've made several Grand Prix Top 8s using lists that we've just tuned for a week."
Pro Tour Fate Reforged Top 8 competitor Jelger Wiegersma
Wilson wasn't alone in just adding to his Pro Tour Top 8 count. One of the ongoing stories that's come up more often in recent years of Pro Tours is the rise of Hall of Fame members continuing to perform at the top of the game. Beginning with Jon Finkel's victory at Pro Tour Kuala Lumpur, and followed up by Patrick Chapin's win at Pro Tour Journey into Nyx, it's getting hard to find a Top 8 without a Hall of Fame member battling. At Pro Tour Magic 2015, William Jensen rose to the Top 8 occasion, and was one of the many skillful players who tested with Wiegersma on his road to the same this weekend.
"He's excited. I felt the fifth [Pro Tour Top 8] one was a big one and I'm sure Jelger feels the same way. It's one that sets you apart a little bit," Jensen said. "I know he's played for a long time and wants to do well, but Jelger's not one to wear his heart on his sleeve."
Unlike his testing teammate, Jelger brought a deck of his own choice. Jensen explained. "He said, and I don't necessarily agree, that he 'wouldn't play the Infect deck very well.' That's probably not the case. He thought it didn't suit his style and wanted to play the blue-red Splinter Twin deck. Obviously that's worked out well for him."
With traits that set every player apart, Jensen felt there was one thing for Wiegersma. "Jelger is excessively humble. He doesn't give himself enough credit," Jensen said. "He's in the Hall of Fame so I'm not saying he hasn't gotten his credit, but he's just quiet and doesn't get quite the amount of recognition he's earned over the years."
Pro Tour Fate Reforged Top 8 competitor Eric Froehlich
Another multiple Pro Tour Top 8 contender was Eric Froehlich, part of the Paul Cheon and Luis Scott-Vargas team that won Grand Prix San Jose the weekend prior. Scott-Vargas, a Hall of Fame member and longtime friend, described what kept Froehlich fighting.
"Eric loves competing," Scott-Vargas said. "He's got a real competitive spirit that drives him to play to his maximum potential. I think we're both similar that if we play a match and screw up we want to do better. We want to be the best Magic player, and it's a good outlet for competitiveness."
But competitiveness isn't all that drives Froehlich to greatness. "He's also just loves Magic," Scott-Vargas continued. "He reads about it, talks about it, and watches it all the time. He'll go home and watch all the coverage from this weekend, probably from [Grand Prix] San Jose also since I don't think he had time this week. He really likes watching high-level Magic being played, hearing the commentators, and seeing what the players are doing."
Everybody who's stayed on the Pro Tour has their reasons for playing. Froehlich is no different. "I think success at the Pro Tour is something a lot of us regard it as the pinnacle of Magic. Winning a Pro Tour is not something we take lightly," Scott-Vargas said. "If he loses in the Top 8 he's not going to feel bad because he's had a great run so far, but winning a Pro Tour means a lot for him. Every Magic tournament you don't win you feel like you could do better. San Jose," said Scott-Vargas, referring to his team Grand Prix victory with Froehlich last weekend, "was his first Magic tournament win."
The other teammate from that win, Paul Cheon, needed the collaborative victory to qualify to play this weekend. Cheon shared strong thoughts on his teammate too.
"I think Eric has got to be in the conversation for one of the best players in the world right now," Cheon said. "Everybody respects each other on our testing team, but he's definitely up there you know? A lot of people do look to him for advice and respect his opinions on Magic, especially Luis. I haven't seen anybody that can influence Luis's thought processes on the game like Eric, and that's saying a lot. There are few people that can do that."
Scott-Vargas, as one of Froehlich's long-time friends, pointed to something the side viewers might take for granted. "As you can see in some of the interviews, like after his win-and-in at Pro Tour Gatecrash, Eric's a really introspective and nice person," he said. "You don't always see it if you just watch him play matches but if you talk to him it becomes clear."
Pro Tour Fate Reforged Top 8 competitor Lee Shi Tian
Another multiple Pro Tour Top 8 player looking for his first win was Lee Shi Tian. The standout from the Asian super team of MTG Mint Card had earned his fourth Pro Tour Top 8, three of which—including this weekend's—came from the Modern format.
Chapman Sim, one of the many who worked with Lee on the team, thought Lee was extraordinarily sharp. "I think he has a very keen mind," Sim said. "He's very sensitive to numbers. He's an accountant, so that helps. I think he's just good. He plays very well under high pressure."
In recent months, Lee had made use of Jeskai Ascendancy in nearly every format he played. For this weekend, he set aside his powerful enchantment but it was for good reason. "He's very, very good with combo decks. He performs better at high-powered formats as well as Limited so this is the perfect combination for him," Sim said, referring to the fact this weekend was Lee's third Top 8 at a Modern format Pro Tour in a row. "If you asked him to play Standard he probably wouldn't know what to do. In Modern, if you give him a combo deck he can do it. But it wasn't hard to convince him to play Burn: he wanted to play Jeskai but I showed him how hard it was to win when I was holding Abrupt Decay. Burn gave us the highest win percentage so we went with it."
So was Lee planning to make his fourth Pro Tour Top 8 here? "I don't think he saw it coming but it wasn't unexpected. He was a favorite coming into the weekend, and back-to-back-to-back [Modern Pro Tour Top 8s] is just amazing," said Sim. "From my point of view it looks like he's Hall of Fame, but it's going to be a few years until he's eligible."
Pro Tour Fate Reforged Top 8 competitor Jesse Hampton
Jesse Hampton, like Jacob Wilson, was in his second Pro Tour Top 8. Together, with Matt Nass, the trio won Grand Prix Nashville last year. While Hampton was a lone wolf for this run, Wilson and he had worked together for previous tournaments.
"He was really into Magic. He was Platinum his rookie year," Wilson said. "I don't think he enjoys Grand Prix as much as other players, but he enjoys the Pro Tour, especially winning at it."
If touring far and wide playing Magic doesn't appeal to Hampton as much, what brings him here? "He definitely has a lot of friends on the Pro Tour that he doesn't see as much anymore," Wilson said. "He's also very competitive. He's definitely confident in his own style, and he's not afraid to be different." Wilson shared a story from earlier in the tournament when playing in the Limited rounds. "When we played I chose to play first, and when I won he then chose to draw. We have different opinions, and he ended up winning that match."
Pro Tour Fate Reforged Top 8 competitor Justin Cohen
Not every competitor came into the Top 8 with another under his belt. Justin Cohen was in his first Pro Tour and earned a title shot most players spend their entire careers chasing. How did a relative newcomer to the competitive scene rise so quickly?
"He decided to start caring," said Samuel Black, with whom Cohen tested extensively leading up to the weekend. As Black's longtime friend and roommate, Cohen contributed to the larger testing team they coordinated with remotely. It's what led to their disparate deck choices. "In Modern it's pretty normal for different people to play different decks. For us it was compounded by us all being separate. Living with Justin I could watch him playing and winning with the decks, so I was convinced. But it's different when you're just telling people on a Facebook group."
Did Black expect his roommate and longtime friend to do so well on his first Pro Tour? "You can never expect anyone to Top 8 a Pro Tour," he said, "but I expected him to do well: I knew his deck choice was good, and I knew he knew the draft format well. I think part of what led me to play the deck as well was I knew Justin would do pretty well, and I could learn it well enough to do the same."
With Cohen advancing all the way to the finals, his qualifications would carry him through the year. Would Cohen continue to prepare with the game's best? "I don't know exactly what we're doing to prepare for Brussels. We need to talk to other people and see exactly where we're at," Black said. "I've worked with a lot of the Hall of Fame and some of the best players in the game, and I can absolutely say Justin is the most helpful person I've ever tested with. I'm really looking forward to working with him on the next Pro Tours."
As a new face to the premier stage of the game, what does Cohen bring that other players aren't? "He takes doing actual research, compiling and presenting information, seriously," said Black. "Other people come up with deck ideas and refine our plays from testing, but he's brought a huge structural advantage to our play-testing. It's just how he is. He likes spreadsheets and data. If it wasn't this he'd be ranking TV shows or something else."
Pro Tour Fate Reforged Top 8 competitor Antonio Del Moral León
While it wasn't his first Pro Tour, for Antonio Del Moral León to make the Top 8 of just his fourth was a promising start to an ideally long career. As a member of Spain's 2014 World Magic Cup team, Dani Luengos had the opportunity to learn and play alongside his countryman coming into the event.
"He won a Magic Online Championship Series season and said 'I'm going to DC with you!' I didn't know him very many years ago, but with the World Magic Cup we worked together."
Luengos had high remarks for Del Moral León. "I think he's gone past the best player in Spain: he's already made it through to the semifinals," Luengos said. "I'm dreaming for him because he's a really, really good player. It's just my first Pro Tour and when you can see everything on Twitch it's amazing."
Like Jensen felt about Wiegersma, Del Moral León's semifinal opponent, Luengos felt his fellow Spaniard was a consummate player. "He has a lot of humility. He's thinks to himself all the time 'I really need to win! I really need to win!' He needed a break to become a really good player and he got it."
Pro Tour Fate Reforged Top 8 competitor Seth Manfield
Del Moral León wasn't the only player who hit a Pro Tour breakthrough. Seth Manfield, three-time Grand Prix winner, had been on the cusp before. With his Sunday appearance in DC he finally changed the tune of an on-running argument he had with testing teammate and friend Chris Fennell.
"Seth and I have been rooming and playing together since Pro Tour Dragon's Maze," Fennel said. "Seth is fiercely competitive, and I used to be able to hang it over his head. We have very similar resumes. I have Grand Prix Top 8s but he had more wins. I used to always trump our argument with my Pro Tour Top 8 and now we're back to square one."
Making Top 8, then winning, a Pro Tour is what drove Manfield as well. "His goal has always been to win a Pro Tour, as all of our goals are. Right now he's heartbroken, but he knew the match-up was bad," Fennell said, referring to Manfield's quarterfinal exit.
Part of what makes Manfield unique is his play style. "Seth does things nobody else can do," Fennell said. "He makes what looks like risky decisions that a lot of people would think are incorrect, and it's paid off for him in the past. He mulligans a smaller percentage of hands than any other Pro I've met. He plays less lands than anyone else I know – 16 lands in a draft deck in the first round, for example. He builds decks he likes to play and plays them; I can't take his decks and do as well."
For the competitors who found their way into the Top 8 only one's story for the day would end in being crowned champion, but they'd all carry on to try again in the next.
That's all any player can do: Look forward to the next match.