Exceeding Expectations

Ma No Ah
The first time I picked up a Magic card was a little after the release of M14, when a friend and I attended an introductory class at our local game store just northwest of Seoul.

At the time the presentation was nothing more than a nice way to spend an afternoon. And for my friend it remained nothing more than that. I’m the only one of us who still plays, though I suppose it’s not too surprising given the environment Magic players face in South Korea.

Korea may be home to SK Telecom T1, Faker and Flash, but Magic never ingrained itself in our culture the same way Esports did.

It might be hard to believe given our apparent love for games, but even to this day, any card game, including Magic, is reviled by many adults. It’s not that Magic is a poor use of your time. It’s a form of gambling and that makes it a condemnation of your character.

That stigma, combined with the oppressively high price of packs and singles means the player base remains very small. It’s probably hard to imagine for those who can travel to tournaments every weekend, but there’s never been a Grand Prix on Korean soil and we’re lucky if we get a couple of PTQ’s each season.

I wasn’t dissuaded, though. My friend moved on to other pursuits, but something about Magic resonated with me. I don’t know what my goals were at the very start when all I did was stick to the local tournaments, but by the time I finally I took the plunge and travelled to Nagoya, Japan, in the spring of 2014 for my first Grand Prix I only had one thing in mind—qualifying for the Pro Tour.

I fell quite short of that exceedingly ambitious goal, but just being a part of a competitive event of that scale was as exhilarating as anything I’d ever experienced. It was clear as I boarded the flight to return home that my appreciation for Magic was greater than ever before.

I travelled to Shanghai for my second Grand Prix in 2014, before playing in Grands Prix Shizuoka and Shanghai in the first half of 2015. Each time I left with high hopes, only to return home without having qualified for the Pro Tour. At the time I was frustrated, but in retrospect it wasn’t my time. My game still needed to grow. It turns out something was about to happen which would change my fortunes forever.

Nam Sung Wook had been an idol of mine ever since he finished second at Pro Tour Journey into Nyx. So when my friend introduced us, it was a dream come true. I soaked up Nam Sung Wook’s teachings like a sponge, and it wasn’t long before I considered him a mentor and a friend.

I enlisted in the military in the Spring of 2015, but I still found a way to do thousands of drafts over the two years I served despite working as many as 14 hours a day.

In many ways, it was those bleary-eyed, late-night drafts that laid the foundation for the player I am today. Not only was I getting better, but I’d begun to get a sense for who I was as a player and what I could one day become. I wasn’t a genius like Finkel, Budde or Masashi Oiso, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t become one of the best in the world if I put the work in.

Despite continually improving over the years that followed, I still hadn’t been able to achieve my long-lasting goal of earning an invitation to the Pro Tour. And then, with 2019 only weeks away, everything changed.

I couldn’t help feeling deflated when I finished one win shy of qualifying for Mythic Championship 1 at Grand Prix Shizuoka, but whatever disappointment I’d been feeling was instantly replaced by elation when I won an MCQ on Magic Online less than two weeks later.

I hadn’t done any preparation for the event, and I’d built my sideboard only minutes before the tournament began, but after all those years of tireless work, something clicked.

Less than two months had passed before I found myself sitting at a table with seven of the best players in the world waiting for the first draft of Mythic Championship 1 to start.

As I stared at the packs set in front of us I realized I was as nervous as I’d ever been in my life. But, when it became time to draft I picked up my cards, all that anxiety sloughed away. I was totally focused on playing my best Magic.

In that moment, nothing else mattered.

My deck turned out to be quite good, but my play was lacking and I only managed a single win. A lot of people might have gotten down on themselves in that situation, but I pride myself on my relentless positivity. I reminded myself that my Standard deck was the best in the room, and I was capable of playing it as well as anyone there. I remained calm, won four of the next five rounds, and didn’t let up from there.

By the time Day 2 came to a close, I’d gone 9-1 in Standard and amassed the 33 points required to qualify me for the Mythic Championship 2. To think, I’d spent years imagining what it would be like to play on the Pro Tour, but not even in my wildest dreams had I dared to think my first visit would go so well.

Placing so highly at my first Pro Tour was an incredible achievement, but I wasn’t about to let it go to my head. Mythic Championship 2 was right around the corner and, while I knew I was capable of matching, or even exceeding, my debut performance, I wasn’t taking anything for granted. Nothing was guaranteed, but if I wanted a chance at returning to those heights, I had to work harder than ever.

Six rounds into Mythic Championship 2, it seemed like all that work was paying off.

My 2-4 record during the limited portions of Mythic Championship 1 had doomed any hope of a Top 8 finish, so it felt as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders when I rallied from an opening-round loss and finished the first draft of Mythic Championship 2 with consecutive victories.

That momentum carried into Modern where I used my all-time favorite deck, Jund, to win my third, fourth and fifth matches in a row. Suddenly I was sitting at 5-1, poised to make my second deep run at a Mythic Championship in as many tries.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t able to execute my gameplan in round seven. I stumbled similarly in round eight. Before I knew it, the promising tournament had devolved into disaster. I tried to keep my head above water, but I ended up losing eight of the final ten rounds. I’d flown to London with high hopes, but left without qualifying for Mythic Championship 3—a precarious position given the limited opportunities I’d have to reach my third Mythic Championship in a row.

Just like I hadn’t gotten too high after Mythic Championship 1, I kept a level head despite my poor finish the second time around. It was clear I was playing better than ever before. I was positive more quality results would come. It turns out I didn’t have to wait long, as I qualified for Mythic Championship 4 on my first try after spiking the Friday PTQ at Grand Prix Kyoto. That gave me another opportunity to play Jund at a Mythic Championship.

Unlike last time, I took full advantage, finishing 12-4, while recording the most wins of anyone playing the deck—a feat I had also accomplished with Sultai at Mythic Championship 1.

But, as nice as it was to finish in 11th place, the event was made even sweeter by the fact that I was able to play the role Nam Sung Wook had fulfilled for me and help another Korean player, Bae Daekyeung prepare for his first Pro Tour.

I’ve long felt that the manner in which players assist one another is one of the things that makes Magic so special. I’d never turn someone down if they asked for my advice. I know how critical other players were to my evolution and I feel honored to do the same.

My confidence had been sky-high heading into the last three Mythic Championships, but I wasn’t nearly as assured leading up to Mythic Championship 6. I played Sultai Food at Grand Prix Nagoya, but with success in the mirror so heavily dependent on playing first, I didn’t feel the deck gave me a chance to outplay my opponents.

My 9-6 finish in Nagoya was thoroughly unspectacular, but something incredible came out of the weekend nonetheless. During Day 1 I noticed a Japanese player named Masukado Kenta playing a version of Golgari Adventure featuring Bolas’s Citadel.

I was so impressed with his deck that I decided the first thing I would do when the tournament ended was pick his brain. It was as if I were Liu Bei, waiting patiently to receive my battleplan from a modern day Zhuge Liang. I really want to thank him for his help. Without him, my year could have ended very differently.

Having finally found a deck I liked, I made the trip to America, intent on picking up right where I’d left off at the last Mythic Championship four months earlier.

As I took my place at the first draft, I began to feel that familiar nervousness taking hold. But, before we could even pick up our cards, the judges made an announcement that put me completely at ease. I’d had no idea heading into the event, but apparently the top finishes I’d notched throughout 2019 qualified me for the first Player’s Tour of 2020. From there I was able to play with no worries.

I shrugged off some early draws and another poor draft and managed to win three of my last four rounds. In the end, I wound up with a very unusual 10-3-3, thanks in large part to going 7-2-1 in constructed. 33 points is 33 points, though, and once more I’d achieved a result I could be proud of.

You know, I never imagined I’d qualify for all four tabletop Mythic Championship this year—let alone finish 49th, 11th and 38th at three of them. To say I exceeded my expectations would be a tremendous understatement.

I wasn’t able to qualify for Mythic Championship 7, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a special weekend. I watched the tournament with some friends—drafting, browsing YouTube and enjoying some great Magic. The real highlight, though, came early Monday morning.

People had been telling me for weeks that I was a virtual lock for Magic Rivals, the new division of the Magic Pro League, but now that the Mythic Championship had wrapped up it was finally official. This isn’t the first time I’ve said it, but it still hasn’t quite sunk in. I’m going to be in Magic Rivals! And, I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.

I’ve spent the last five years studying in university, serving in the military, and working various jobs. But, now, thanks to the salary I’ll receive as a member of Rivals, I’ll finally be able to play Magic full time. It’s validation for everything I’ve done the last half decade, and a tremendous opportunity to turn a hobby I love into something more.

You might think that after everything that happened this year, I’d be shooting for the stars in 2020. But, the truth is, I’m done with expectations. While I’d be delighted to win a Player’s Tour, make the MPL or qualify for Worlds, there are no guarantees, and I have no idea what 2020 bring.

All that matters to me is that I’ll have a chance to continue my dream of playing Magic. And, nothing makes me happier than that.

This is a translation. The original Korean article can be found here

Image Credit: Magic.GG and mgtonline.com

Michael Eisenhauer assisted with the creation of this article

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