Full Circle

Posted in Event Coverage on April 23, 2016

By Marc Calderaro

Matej Zatlkaj, "Big Z," strikes you immediately when you talk to him. Not because he is imposing, or loud, or attention seeking, but because when you talk to him, he always looks you in the eye. He always responds thoughtfully. He is genuinely happy to see you.

It's striking, because you feel comfortable and happier around him, though you might not be sure why.

"Are you in charge of writing my 'obituary'?"

These were some of the first words the two-time Pro Tour Top 8 finisher, Grand Prix Stockholm winner, Magic commentator, tournament organizer, and all-around awesome dude said to me as I approached him at Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad.

It's an open secret that Matej plans to retire from competitive play after this Pro Tour. The man whose face is synonymous with European Magic coverage, Cabin Crew from years ago, Team EUreka now, and countless European community engagements will be headed to greener pastures. He plans to remain on coverage, but the competitive realm is not for him anymore. As with any decision of this magnitude, Matej's emotions are mixed.

Matej Zatlkaj has come full circle in a long, tenured career as a Magic pro. Now, it has come time for him to make a difficult decision.

"I've been going through a lot lately, and have been talking with a lot of people about this," he told me. But in many ways, Matej was being active analytically rather than competitively. It's not so much a change as it is a return and understanding of who he was all along.

"When I was a kid," he said, "I was competitive. But I was a little fat kid who wasn't really good at anything. I took guitar, dancing, music theory, soccer. I never really stood out at all. My mom always wanted me to be the guy with the guitar at the campfire. To this day, I still hate that guy."

But he enjoyed soccer, and stuck with it. If in a different way than most.

"I became an armchair soccer player—reading the sports newspaper at 10 or 11-years-old—every day going to school, I would buy the paper and read it," he reminisced. Armchair fandom isn't always respected by children, as I'm sure many of us can attest. But Matej was steadfast.

"I took in all of it," he said. Matej actively engaged in things he loved the best way he could, which was cerebrally. But where was the competition? Trying to play soccer, he'd broken his ankle, fingers, and had gotten himself all mangled up. He wasn't a competitive player. He was a little kid with a leg brace reading the sports newspaper. Armchair fandoms didn't satiate his competitive streak.

I'm sure you all know where this is going.

When Magic showed up in his life, at around 15-years-old, it struck him like a train. "It was the outlet," he expressed. "It was my chance to be competitive too."

Just like he read the sports papers, he read everything Magic. Everything. Which was hard in the days of little-to-no internet in Slovakia. "I eventually got it, but it was dial-up," he said. "You had to pay for every minute, so I would sign in, then immediately open every single Magic article, then immediately disconnect. Then, I'd sit there for hours."

This was for him.

Scratching his competitive itch also brought out more of the leader, and more of the broadcaster that we know in the Magic community. Soon, Matej had infected almost all his classmates with the Magic bug. But at this point, he was still armchair. He would attend his local tournaments. There would be one a week, and the prize would be just one booster pack. "I didn't care," he said. "I'd play all the time. Sometimes there'd be like 50 people too."

Eventually, people started falling off. But one other friend kept with it. And then the faithful day happened which directed his path.

He lent that friend a deck for Slovakian Nationals. The deck that he had meticulously put together and collected over months, as card availability and price were not always kind in Slovakia. And his friend won with it. "When that happened, I immediately thought that if he can do it, then I can do it."

So, he did it.

Matej buckled down, and when next year's Nationals came around, he was ready. "I knew everyone would be on Blue-Green Madness. So I built a deck with Life Burst." Anyone who knows that card by its mention are likely chuckling right now. "Four Life Burst. Because, you know, they're better in multiples of course." He laughed at his little joke. "I won the whole thing. I won Nationals with Life Burst."

After that, he was off to the races. Though Matej was still in high school, he felt he was getting out. "That was my first taste of freedom."

Fast forward a few years, and thousands of Magic hours later, the plot thickens. Matej had upped his game, and traveled to Poland for Grand Prix Krakow. And he Top 8'd. He found himself qualified for Pro Tour Kuala Lumpur. There, he took 17th! He had a knack for picking up friends along the way, and built himself an entire network of good friends from around the world. Across Europe, he was gaining friends who saw the same things that we all see: The big eyes, the vibrant honesty, and the ruthless drive to compete.

Next up, the same year, was Pro Tour Berlin. If you don't know, then you should. Forever embedded in Magic lore was Luis Scott-Vargas winning that Pro Tour, but many should remember that right up there at the finals tables with him was Big Z.

That could be where the narrative peaked. Just a kid from Slovakia, succeeding on a global stage after finally finding his calling. That dénouement would show his slow decline in the game that actually happened. "I was still studying, and then I got this awful-paying job," he recalled. "I was still going to GPs, but for the minimum amount of time possible."

We would watch Matej slip from the ranks of the old Pro Tour Players Club system that maintained a player's presence on the Pro Tour: Level 6 Pro, to Level 5, to Level 4, and so on. If this were a movie, the screen would fade from Matej to black, and white text would slowly appear on the screen and tell us where he is now, having moved on from Magic.

But instead, the white text showed something completely different.

"...and then in 2012, I got a message from Rich Hagon."

THE Rich Hagon. Pro Tour host, commentator, and Magic big talker extraordinaire.

"I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of Magic coverage," Matej said, his talking pace quickening by the word. "And the next thing you know, I'm back in the game." He was back just like he was before. He was living on those same websites, devouring every single piece of Magic content that existed. And now, he didn't worry about having to pay by the minute. Not only was he one of the faces of Magic across Europe, but when he wasn't working, he was traveling to Grand Prix to compete.

Both Rich Hagon and his frequent co-host, Simon Görtzen, remarked about the ease of his transition to the position. But little did they know that he'd been grooming himself for this job since before he bought that first sports newspaper.

That leadership from when he first discovered Magic came back, and he started forging teams. Both Hagon and Görtzen said separately that Matej has a preternatural ability to find the right team for himself, and his team.

Back in the groove, he Top 16'd his next three Pro Tours, including at Top 8 at Pro Tour Dragon's Maze. That, frankly, was unheard of. Through Magic Matej has scratched both itches—the competitor, and the commentator—the "armchair" analyst he always was.

But now, he's looking back at his love of both competition, and his natural tendency to analyze, and he's come full circle. Rather than think his cerebral analysis and discussion of his loves is a weakness to be compensated through competition, he sees it as an integral part of who he is, and a part of him that he loves.

Times change, and both we and life impose ideas of how we want to be, and when we should be it. Matej knows it's his time. But he's achieved so much, and found a place where he belongs. Which is much more that most of us can ever say.

Matej Zatlkaj was wrong. This isn't an obituary. It's an ode. A paean.

Maybe he's gone. Maybe we'll only see him in front of the camera, talking about the game that's defined much of his life. But maybe he's not. Though Rich Hagon is one of the few who fully believes the retirement, he wouldn't discount things fully. "If someday there's a PPTQ, he might turn up," Rich said. "And he'll probably win it. Then he might go to the RPTQ, and probably win that too."

Until that point, we'll just watch him in front of the camera. Next time you see him, go up and say hello. And congratulate him on a Magic career worth celebrating. He'll look you back in the eye, tell you, "Thank you. That means a lot," and mean it completely.

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