Two of the more interesting Magic stories in the last few months, outside of all the amazing races coming to a close, has to be the late-season resurgence of two players in particular, team Genesis's Martin Müller, twelfth-ranked, and team Puzzle Quest's William Jensen, seventeenth-ranked. Together, they represent two ends of the tournament-Magic spectrum, career-wise.
Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Jensen has more than solidified his place in the history books, already a respected statesman of the game, while the nineteen-year-old Müller, though already earning prizes at the top of the game, is just beginning his potentially long career. Jensen played his first Pro Tour when Müller was a year old.
But this year, they both have something in common, more than being some of the best players currently playing the game. Both Jensen and Müller had a disappointing first half of the year, and planned their 2018 accordingly. In and of itself, this is not really a unique uniter, as sadly, many Magic players have experienced bad half-years. But in the last three months, both have completely changed their tunes.
Since his Hall of Fame candidacy, William Jensen has become a fixture again in the Magic scene. Though he had ebbed from the scene for a while, in the last few years he roared back like a wave. But for this last year, Jensen made a new plan.
"The road is tiring," he said. "There were stretches last year where I was on the road every week. It's tough. This year, I made the decision to do more coverage because I enjoy it. And honestly, I was going to way more GPs than I could realistically keep up."
But what looked like another movement away from competitive Magic quickly put him back into the spotlight. "This year, I went to six GPs and made the finals of half of them," he smiled. "Team GPs are great, and my team is great." With his team, Peach Garden Oath's win percentages, he's statistically correct. After making the finals of Grand Prix San Antonio, the team went on to win Grand Prix Cleveland. Then last weekend as a singles competitor, Jensen took down Grand Prix Kyoto.
He was quick to say that such success wasn't quite a fluke. He wasn't sitting at home puttering. "I really try to win every time I play…and I also live with Owen," he said. Living and being close friends with a two-time Player of the Year certainly has its benefits.
For William Jensen, of which Magic has been a large part of his life, this season has presented him with a crossroad.
But though the clean shot at Platinum and the Grand Prix trophies are nice, Jensen had another goal in mind. "The bigger thing is if I go 10-6 [this weekend], I have a good shot at Worlds." He continued, "It's in my hometown of Boston this year. Maybe my parents would come. That would be great." Though Jensen left Boston at 19 (coincidentally Müller's current age), competing at his hometown World Championship has an attraction for Jensen that isn't likely to come by. Even for one of the best in the world, there's always places in Magic for more resonance and meaning.
As for next year, even if he hits Platinum, he doubts too much would change for him. "I doubt I'd go to six GPs [again], but maybe twelve or so." He shrugged, but continued, "If I win Worlds, though, we'll see." He grinned a big, giant grin.
When I asked about his success mirroring the young Müller, and if he had any advice for people in his position, he was reluctant to answer, but lucid. After a moment of pause he said, "This is going to be token advice, but I think everyone should do whatever makes them happy."
"It's totally reasonable to take a path of playing a handful of tournaments, then concentrating on your studies or your relationship—whatever's right for you." Jensen didn't want to give blanket advice to people, but his words still reverberated. Doing what's best for you. It's what we all search for, and for many of us, Magic has become a big part of that.
His own play in Magic and life led him to where he is, and he's thankful for that. "Magic definitely helped me mature," he said, but was quick to qualify that he doesn't know how things would have gone if the game had never entered his life and it was totally possible that something else could have played that role as well. It's not like Magic is some panacea for all our problems, but it can be that for us when it should.
"People play Magic for tons of reasons," he said. And it seemed to Jensen that it's important for each person to find out what reason it plays in your life—whatever it is.
Though he's achieved many of the top accolades the game has to offer, right now Jensen wants his family to see him play at Worlds. That sounds like a great role for the game to me.
"My plan was to not even play at any Pro Tours, even if I was qualified," Dane Martin Müller said about his feelings three months ago. Before his fourth-place finish at Amonkhet, the young Platinum pro was sitting on 14 points for the season—a long shot to hit Platinum again to say the least. But after his Amonkhet Top 8, combined with Top 8s in Copenhagen, then again last weekend at Grand Prix Kyoto, Müller had already locked up the highest Pro Player status, and re-set his sights on the World Championship.
"Now, obviously, I'm going to play every PT," he said.
For Martin Müller, finding what place Magic has in his life has been a challenging task, as a crossroads on how big of a role it plays has once again been presented to him.
Müller had taken a break from school last semester, but is ready to go back in two weeks—after a pretty great summer of Magic, to put it mildly. After a jarring transition in just over three months, Müller's ready to settle back into some semblance of a routine.
As far as his tournament Magic plans after next season, "I'm going to take it year by year, maybe less," he laughed. "I think I'm going to keep trying to do other stuff and Magic too. We'll see how it goes," he said, shrugging and smiling at the same time.
As for now, when asked about his Magic goals, his mind was clear. "I want to play all the Worlds." Because he is likely the Danish World Magic Cup captain, possibly qualified for the World Championship, and his team Genesis is in the running to make the Pro Tour Team Series finals, Müller might compete in the triumvirate.
Though Müller is still in early in his life, and certainly in the middle of the process Jensen was talking about, he's been in the pro scene, and around Magic enough to have picked up some valuable lessons that has helped him figure out the role Magic can play for him. He said though his place in the game has certainly helped. It's a mixture with everything else in his life as well.
"I think when you're young," Müller said, "you think you're bad [at the game] and because of that, you take more chances." He continued, "Like, changing your deck at the last second because someone said something." But a growing confidence in yourself and your abilities can change that. "[Making those mistakes] was definitely a drawback, but I've turned it into a positive, and it's really helpful now." He needed to make the mistakes to learn when not the make them again. If that's not directly translatable to our outside lives, I don't know what is.
Müller's still having the time of his life. He's still a teen, with a great social life, a great girlfriend, and great friends in and out of the game. He's still up for the Magic grind that Jensen has passed. But Müller has been able to put into context his success in the game, and how it translates, and doesn't, to who he is holistically.
Two players on opposite ends of their Magic careers—one having debuted in Rome in 1998, the other younger than the Pro Tour itself—encapsulate well how to accept good things in tournaments when they come, but also when they don't and how to make sure you life is balanced either way. This year showcased by a quiet first half of the season, and a lion of a second.
Speaking of someone who's had a great second half of a season, we'd be remiss not to mention Josh Utter-Leyton. The perennial pro found himself less qualified at the this season's beginning than he's been in a long time. So much so, in fact, at Grand Prix events, his good friend, commentator (and pretty good player too) Luis Scott-Vargas made sure Utter-Leyton made it to camera in Round 3, because he didn't have a Round 3 bye—an unusual sight for the pro. LSV, forever trolling.
And despite having lackluster Pro Tour appearances to boot, Utter-Leyton has found himself qualified for both Worlds, and forever qualified for the Pro Tour. Just today it was announced that Utter-Leyton will be inducted into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame Class of 2017, and after winning the Magic Online Championship Series, he earned the precious spot at Worlds.
Though we have come to expect nothing less from one of the best players the game has ever seen, it certainly hit him like a wave in the last month. "It was really good to receive that call," he said about the phone call informing him of his Hall of Fame election. Utter-Leyton has all but trademarked his simultaneously sly but kind smirk, but that look had more meaning that I've ever seen after he said that sentence.
For many, the end of the Magic season brings heartbreak, but for just as many, it brings joy—in whatever way this game of ours brings us joy. This is always important to remember when the stakes seem ever higher for ourselves.