The time for debate is over. The votes have all been cast, and only two players met the new criteria of having their name appear on more that 60% of the ballots cast by the Selection Committee. Congratulations to Martin Jůza of the Czech Republic and Josh Utter-Leyton of the United States for being the 2017 elects of the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour Hall of Fame. The players will be inducted at a special ceremony prior to Pro Tour Ixalan in Albuquerque, New Mexico later this year. Each player will receive their Hall of Fame ring at the ceremony, which grants them invites to the Pro Tour for the rest of their careers, and they will have the opportunity to say a few words at the time of induction.
In the meantime, I caught up with the freshly elected class in the wake of Grand Prix Kyoto to look back at their Magic careers and capture their reaction to the exciting news.
Martin Jůza, 2017 Pro Tour Hall of Fame-elect
Martin Jůza becomes the first player from the Czech Republic to be elected to the Pro Tour Hall of Fame and is coming off of one his best seasons in recent memory, which includes a Top 8 finish at Pro Tour Aether Revolt. It was the third such finish of his career, and one that put him over the top for many voters. Jůza has been one of the most prodigious players at the Grand Prix level with 26 Top 8s and four wins. Along the way, he has racked up a staggering 534 Pro Points. During last year's election cycle, it became apparent to him that he needed a third Top 8 at the Pro Tour to finish high enough on the ballot to be enshrined among the game's all-time greats.
Prior to this year's Hall of Fame election, players only needed to appear on 40% of the ballots, and with a third Top 8, Jůza felt confident he could hit that threshold. Things became less certain for him when the announcement was made that he would need more than that to be elected.
"It was a pretty big rollercoaster," said Jůza with a big sigh of relief. "After I made the Top 8 of the Pro Tour, I was pretty emotional because people kept telling me that was what I needed to get into the Hall. Then on my birthday, Wizards announced that they are raising the threshold to 60%. I was telling everybody that I had no shot."
Jůza put himself as having at best a 5% chance to make the Hall of Fame, but as other Hall of Famers began to discuss their ballots online, he found himself feeling more optimistic.
"Seeing people like Luis Scott-Vargas and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa voting for me—along with Kai Budde, William Jensen, Owen Turternwald, Shuhei Nakamura—I didn't expect that. I read their articles and their reasoning, and it was really nice to hear. I went to thinking I might have a shot. Then I got the call from Scott Larabee during the night, and I was worried that I had done something wrong. But he was calling to tell me I had made it in," laughed Jůza about the call he had been hoping to get since his name first came on the ballot back in 2013.
The road to the Hall of Fame was a long and almost accidental one for Jůza, who started playing Magic with friends in High School somewhere around the release of Urza's Destiny.
"I know that the first booster that I bought, I got Donate as my rare," recalled Jůza, who was wary of the demands of that card. "I am supposed to give my card to my opponent? That is not what I signed up for! I just liked games in general, and this looked fun and complicated enough that it got my attention, plus everyone else was playing the game and we all got slightly competitive making our own decks and playing them against each other."
Jůza and his classmates became obsessed with the game, and they tried their hand at a local tournament only to get crushed by more experienced players with competitive decks.
"Eventually, we built Extended decks and started going to bigger tournaments in Prague as well as PTQs. At some point, I would play in one Pro Tour a year for multiple years. I realized that better players were going to win because they understood the game better, and they built their decks better. I was playing some Magic, but I was also trading. At my first GP, I didn't have any byes and I was missing rounds because I was busy trading. I didn't have any real ambition, but I was decent enough to make Top 16 of my first Nationals."
Jůza's first Czech Nationals was going swimmingly until he hit the Limited portion of the tournament, which was Rochester Draft, a since-discarded format that involved drafting cards face-up around the table and was notoriously punishing for new players.
"I was in a good spot, but I think I 0-3'd the draft. I needed like one win or something to make the Top 8. I didn't know what was going on," said Jůza who would eventually become one of the most feared Limited players in the game. "I won the one after that, and then the one after that. That would always qualify me for Worlds, and I would randomly win a PTQ every year and started going to one Worlds and one Pro Tour every year."
His first Pro Tour was at New Orleans in 2003, featuring the old Extended format. Jůza remembers feeling outclassed on deck technology and raw power as he and a handful of other Czech players showed up playing Psychatog while players were casting Tinker to find Goblin Charbelchers.
"My first opponent played Food Chain. I did not even know what that card did. I had never seen it before in my life. We were obviously super unprepared and had no idea what was going on. My first Pro Tour was really me being a tourist, just enjoying getting to travel. I was only 16 and really bad. I was good enough to do well at the local level, but not able to do well at the Pro Tour where people were testing in advance and had all these really good decks. We were just playing whatever we were playing at our local stores and it wasn't good enough."
Fast forward a couple of years of being invited to one or two events per season, and Jůza found himself at a crossroads heading into Worlds 2007 in New York City. He was not a kid anymore, and it was making less and less sense for him to play the game competitively without having any success to show for it. He did well enough at that tournament to earn an invite to Kula Lumpur, and figured he would give it one more try.
"I figured I would go, and if I didn't do well, then I would just stop playing. I got 30 minutes of sleep before Day One and somehow I went X-0 and lost playing for Top 8. I also lost playing for Top 8 of the next one, but qualified for the next PT. And the next one was Berlin..."
Pro Tour Berlin was the first Top 8 of Martin Jůza's suddenly surging Magic career, and his playtest group was one of several that found the breakout deck for that tournament: Elves.
"Before Berlin, the internet really started to become a thing, and about a month before the Pro Tour, we saw an Elf deck which looked really interesting. I built it and we played a bunch of games, and we realized it was insane. It was just the most powerful deck we had ever played."
The Czech players felt like they had found the golden ticket and were very paranoid about other people finding their secret deck.
"We were super paranoid, but eventually we went to the Pro Tour and we found out that obviously half the people there knew about it. Eventually I made the Top 8 and suddenly it looked like this was something I could do."
The most exciting part of that phase of his career, when he was constantly chaining together Platinum finishes—the highest level in the Pro Tour Players Club that grants invitations to everything along with appearance fees—was getting to travel all over the world.
Jůza would add another Top 8 to his resume at Pro Tour Austin, but the Sunday stage would elude him for several year afterwards. As this current season was getting underway, Jůza was again thinking about what role Magic was playing in his life. He and a good friend had opened an escape room in Prague, and for the first time in a long time, he had fallen short of Platinum. As he watched Yuuya Watanabe and Owen Turtenwald get inducted, he thought about all the players who said they wanted to vote for him if he only had one more big finish.
"They weren't really asking that much of me, and I realized I could try a little harder this year to see if I could get that and achieve something really big," recalled Jůza, who looked to his good friend and countryman Lukas Blohon for inspiration. "He realized he was playing Magic on autopilot and enjoying the occasional success. He has always been super talented and didn't need to test much, but he figured out that he was going to try really hard and play Magic all the time. That just led to him becoming one of the best players in the world and eventually winning a Pro Tour."
Jůza looked back on his career and realized there had been times when he too went on autopilot; times when he had Platinum already locked up prior to Worlds and did not put the same effort into that year-end tournament as he had during the rest of the season.
"Clearly I could see that if I tried a little harder that big things could happen. I knew I could have been standing up there with them if I had tried a little bit harder," he explained. But that was not the only thing he changed this season. He also decided to have more faith in his own ability to select a deck and not just play a team deck that did not necessarily suit him. "I didn't do that in Hawaii, but for the next Pro Tour I played the Jund deck that I liked and only I thought was decent, and it ended up working out fine. The rest of the year was also me just playing whatever I liked playing. This year is pretty good so far."
Jůza was still processing his emotions when we talked, and was not able to fully articulate his feelings about finally getting that call.
"I have been thinking about it the whole time since Scott Larabee called me to let me know I was in. I am still not sure how to quantify it or what to even say. I am in a place where I am amazed and super happy. It obviously means a lot, as it is a lifetime achievement award. It feels really nice to be rewarded for something you have been doing for a long time. It gives you a sense of satisfaction."
As for the people he wanted to take the opportunity to thank…
"There are way too many people to even mention. Certainly the people that influenced me the most are Lukas Blohon, Raphaël Lévy—he has become one of my really good friends outside of Magic—Frank Karsten, Shuhei Nakamura, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, and the whole ChannelFireball team. It is hard to single anybody out since everybody is great. Ben Stark is someone else who I have really connected to on a personal level. The whole Czech community is really great and for sure I want to thank them."
Jůza has always embodied the spirit of the road warrior when it comes to playing in Grand Prix wherever they might be held, and he doesn't expect that to change now that he is going to be in the Hall of Fame. Besides, he has not accomplished all his goals yet.
"I would like to win a Pro Tour, obviously. I know other people who make it into the Hall and don't really want to play Grand Prix anymore since they are qualified for everything, but I still like the traveling, seeing new places, and hanging out with people. I am still going to do Magic the same way I have always done it. I am still going to go to a lot of Grand Prix, I am still going to try and accumulate a lot of Pro Points to be Platinum at the end of the year. I don't think I will change anything anytime soon. I am just going to continue doing things the same way. I think the game is in a really good spot right now. The Limited formats have been great for the last few years. Obviously the last few Standard formats have not been really good, but I like playing Modern, the current Standard in really good and I loved playing Legacy at Grand Prix Las Vegas."
Josh Utter-Leyton, 2017 Pro Tour Hall of Fame-elect
While other people appearing on the ballot this year were nervous about the rules changes, Josh Utter-Leyton was a stone-cold lock to be elected this year. Every discussion about the Hall of Fame started with his five Pro Tour Top 8s, and he had by far the most impressive resume coming on to this year's ballot for the first time. Even the always modest Utter-Leyton fully expected to get the call from Scott Larabee telling him he would be joining several of his ChannelFireball teammates in the Hall of Fame.
"I definitely thought I would be getting in," admitted Utter-Leyton, who will cross the 400 lifetime Pro Point mark this weekend at Pro Tour Hour of Devastation. "I thought I was the best candidate on the ballot."
Utter-Leyton began playing the game in high school after seeing the game at a local comic shop. He picked up a Revised starter deck and attempted to teach himself the game from the enclosed rulebook.
"I played every land like it was a Lotus Petal—having to sacrifice it to use it—but I eventually learned the real rules. I got a lot of my friends at school into the game and would play with my buddies."
He stopped playing the game at some point and did not come back to it until he was returning home to visit during his freshman year of college. Ultimately it was a bad internet connection that would bring him back to the game, where he would become the feared Magic Online opponent known as Wrapter before his ascent to the Pro Tour ranks.
"I was home from college and stealing my neighbor's wi-fi, and I was looking for a game that I could play over that connection for the summer. I kind of stumbled across Magic Online and was actually able to play it, and just got super hooked right away. I just started playing a ton from there."
He would only play online for the next few years and developed a formidable reputation in Magic Online circles, where players like Luis Scott-Vargas and Gerry Thompson took note of his prowess.
"LSV knew who I was from online and I just fell in with that group eventually. It was mostly that I played a lot of Extended. The group of people that played Extended online was really small, and the group of people who could play the Counterbalance deck really well was really small. Luis and Gerry were like, 'Who is this Wrapter guy who keeps beating me? He actually knows how to play this deck.'"
His first big event was Grand Prix San Francisco, which was actually in his hometown of San Jose after graduation.
"I did not Day Two," laughed Utter-Leyton. "I think I played in one PTQ before the GP and right after that was the PTQ season for Pro Tour Hollywood. I played that whole PTQ season and won the last possible weekend for me to qualify for that Pro Tour. It was the old Extended format where Counterbalance was the best deck and I was playing CounterTop the whole season. My very first PTQ in that format I definitely ended up with three draws, and one of them was against David Ochoa. That was how I met him."
The core of what would become the ChannelFireball super-team was starting to coalesce, as was Utter-Leyton's ability to string together Pro Tour invitations after that first one in Hollywood even after a middling but star-studded Day One.
"I remember playing against Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Jon Finkel and Mark Herberholz. I lost to all of them. I went 4-4, which was pretty much the status quo for my first year on the PT. On the second day of the PT, there was a tournament to win an iPod and I went 9-0 in that. From there, my rating was really high, and that was how I qualified for that next tournament."
His first of five Top 8s at the Pro Tour level came at Pro Tour San Juan in 2010 as the ChannelFireball team was just starting to hit its stride. It is commonplace these days for playtest teams to set up Pro Tour boot camps two weeks ahead of a PT in the city that the event is being held, living and breathing the format right up until the opening bell. But that was not always the case.
"It is weird that it wasn't like that before. It was a much more casual thing. At a time when nobody else was really putting in two full weeks testing before a Pro Tour, we were just crushing it. It really demonstrated that if you put in the work that you could see the results. Revealing that made everyone else more willing to put in time and effort. It is kind of cool seeing that just become the norm from there. The light bulb moment was the Caw Blade deck at Pro Tour Paris. That was the tournament where we really did it."
At Pro Tour Paris, the Caw Blade deck put six players into the Top 16 of the event, with Ben Stark winning the whole thing. It also helped then-teammate Brad Nelson to win the Player of the Year playoff. The deck was an iteration of the Caw-Go deck that had done well at Worlds at the end of the previous season. Utter-Leyton recalled how the deck evolved.
"Michael Hetrick played in an SCG event before the tournament and he had two Stoneforge Mystics in his sideboard. On the flight to Paris the week before the tournament, Kibler mentioned that he was interested in Hetrick's list and that the Stoneforge Mystics were kind of sweet. I thought that sounded REALLY good and I drew up a list on the flight over to Paris."
When Utter-Leyton finally got to play with the deck, he realized they had lightning in a bottle.
"The very first games we played, Brad Nelson went turn two Stoneforge Mystic, and eventually had a turn where he got a Sword of Feast and Famine hit in on turn four and untapped to play Jace, the Mind Sculptor. The next turn he played a Gideon and untapped with counter magic up. We just knew at that moment that this was a busted thing to be doing. The very first thing we did was to add the fourth Mystic into the deck. We figured that out really quickly."
While that was a collaborative deck building experience, Utter-Leyton's favorite deck is one he got to build on his own, a Jeskai Ascendancy combo deck from the 2014 World Championship
"I was able to play with Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise. I loved that deck so much. That was a weird case of it just being me on my own building the deck. That just doesn't happen anymore because you test with so many people and everybody is contributing and a part of it. That was just me playing a lot of games on Magic Online by myself because it was the World Championship and there weren't these big testing groups. It was a unique experience that I can wholly claim as my own and the deck was super sweet and unique."
Five Top 8s, renowned deck builder, and founding member of the most influential team in modern Magic history. It was not hard to see why Josh Utter-Leyton is the leading vote getter on this year's ballot, and that meant a lot to him given how long he has made Magic a central part of his life.
"I have spent so much time and effort on the game to be as good as I can be at it. To be honored as one of the best of all-time is just incredible," said Utter-Leyton, who wanted to thank another person who shared the same last name as him first and foremost among many people.
"Number one would be my mom for all the support she has given me. She has just been incredible cheering me on. That has been really wonderful. Certainly all of my teammates. The results are as much theirs as mine and I seriously could not have done all of this without them. I hope that they feel like somewhat validated by me getting into the Hall because it is in some part attributed to them. Number one among those teammates has to be Luis. If anyone is the head of the CFB team, it is him. He is the one who took me under his wing when I was just starting out."
Utter-Leyton has already been a little less active in playing Magic this past year, as there are increasing demands on his time, but he did not feel like there was any unfinished business to accomplish.
"Obviously it would be great to win Worlds or win a PT, but I am not looking at those as goals. There is nothing else that I feel like I need to accomplish to be satisfied with my Magic career. I have already taken a step back from playing as much as I have in the past. Certainly without having to worry about getting to Gold every year—even though I failed to do that recently—I will be going to fewer GPs than I have in the past, but I love playing in Pro Tours. I still want to spend the time preparing for each one and playing the game at the highest level."
Congratulations to Josh Utter-Leyton and Martin Jůza on their election to the Pro Tour Hall of Fame. We wish them the best of luck at the Pro Tour this weekend and look forward to their induction speeches at the ceremony prior to Pro Tour Ixalan later this year.