How big are your Magic dreams?
Some people want to beat their best friend, just one time; others, win their FNM; a clutch of players I interviewed last year are aiming to taste victory at a PTQ, so they can take a long-awaited shot at the Pro Tour.
What if we went bigger? How about winning a major tournament, like a Grand Prix?
On 1 June 2014, Manaleak writer Fabrizio Anteri won Grand Prix Manchester to complete a remarkable double; just three weeks earlier, he had claimed the crown at his previous Grand Prix in Warsaw.
Back-to-back GP wins have put him in a highly exclusive club.
It can be easy to slip into the habit of regarding hugely successful players as ‘larger than life’, or Magic Superheroes, with whom we as ordinary players have little in common. But behind every trophy, every winning streak is a person – and behind every person is a story.
Reading the coverage, I decided I’d like to hear Fabrizio’s… and so in the early part of June, I arranged with him to do just that.
“I was born in Caracas, Venezuela, on the 1st of April 1990. I am an only child, and I was raised first by my grandparents at early age and by my mom afterwards.”
Fabrizio starts our conversation in a disarmingly open fashion, and doesn’t deviate thereafter. As we discuss his early years, there’s a sense of palpable contentment in his reflections. This was a happy time – and not just for him.
“My grandparents came from Italy some 40 years before I was born, the same as many Europeans after the Second World War, looking for a better place to live,” he explains, “and they surely found it. Venezuela was at it’s best moment in history, thanks to the Oil boom.”
If, like me before beginning this conversation, you know very little about the history of Venezuela, a summary may be in order.
Although the industry was in decline from its peak years in the 1970s, Oil income had already played a part in building the country Fabrizio remembers so fondly from his childhood.
“My childhood couldn’t have been better. Venezuela was still a great place to live,” says Fabrizio.
He paints a picture of a successful school career, afternoons in the park playing football, good friends – and, of course, Magic.
“I first saw a Magic card in the playground of the school, as some other kids were having some games. I was 11 or 12 and I felt instantly curious about the cards, so I started making to ask questions. A few days later, I had my first constructed deck: a Black-Red Odyssey starter, with Braids, Cabal Minion as one of the rares.”
In those pre-internet days, it wasn’t as easy to learn the game as it is for new players today. Not only was strategy content much harder to come by, but even the rules were more opaque.
“At that age many kids were making their own rules, so it was hard to know who to believe,” Fabrizio recalls.
It didn’t help that the cards were all in English, a serious challenge for he and his classmates when the only words of the language they had been taught in school were, “…numbers and colours!
“I used my Spanish/English dictionary more for translating cards I didn’t understand than for my actual classes or lessons,” Fabrizio tells me, in an admission sure to be familiar to players the world over.
Finding a community
Hooked by the game, Fabrizio started to seek out new places to play and learn.
“I started asking where to buy the cards, expecting to get better answers about the rules there, which brought me to ‘the local store’ in Caracas. It was there I discovered the Magic Community for the first time,” he explains.
“I was still 13, while the guys meeting up there for trading and gaming tended to be between 16-25.”
It was an atmosphere that could potentially have been intimidating for a young teenager, but Fabrizio’s account doesn’t reflect that kind of concern at all. Instead, he gives the impression of a precocious young person who found an important outlet in the Magic scene.
“I started to go more and more often to the store, having casual games, buying boosters every time I had saved enough from my lunches at school,” he recounts, “and trading all those useless foil fetchlands for the dragons I needed in my deck.”
“Some time later, I was asked if I was going to play in the Mirrodin prerelease. I had to ask what it was! That’s when I discovered there were Magic tournaments happening in the country, and of course I couldn’t resist attending my first sanctioned event.”
A less than stellar 2-1-4 record at that first tournament quickly developed, by the end of the block, into a 4-0 start at the Fifth Dawn prerelease, missing out on top 8 after two tough win-and-in rounds. Fabrizio had the competitive bug – and he started to delve deeper into the tournament scene.
“I built my first Standard deck, Broodstar affinity; played my first FNM; and later, my first PTQ. It didn’t take me long to start winning the Junior prizes in the upcoming prereleases and PTQs, always having decent runs of 5-2, 4-3…”
While Fabrizio is relatively blase about these achievements, they clearly show someone on a fast-track of development. That impression is confirmed by his next statement:
“Two weeks after my 15th birthday (the first non Junior tournament I played) I top8ed my first PTQ, for Pro Tour London 2005.”
More impressive results were soon to follow, as Fabrizio qualified for and subsequently made Top 8 at Venezuelan Nationals. Still 15, he was beginning to foreshadow the pedigree which would take him to triumph in Warsaw and Manchester.
Winds of Change
“I kept playing, improving my game,” he writes. “Some more Top 8’s came, a PTQ finals – I even won a Two-Headed Giant PTQ with my friend, but sadly, Visa problems kept us from using the invitation.”
I’d wager that most of us struggle to balance even a stable routine with playing – and improving – at Magic. The next few years of Fabrizio’s life saw him making significant progress in the game, but they were set against a truly tumultuous backdrop.
In his own words:
“By September of 2007, I was leaving Venezuela and moving to Italy with my Mom. With the government of Hugo Chavez, the situation in the country was not the same: everything was getting worse in economics, security, politics… Basically the country was not the best place to be living in anymore.”
The period in question was one of monumental change for Venezuela and the wider region. Winning power in the 1998 Presidential Election, Hugo Chavez embarked on an extensive series of social reforms in the country.
Supporters point to the dramatic decrease in Venezuelans living below the poverty line during his terms in office, from 49.4% to 25.6%; the establishment of thousands of free medical clinics for the poor; extensive adult literacy programmes; and subsidies for food and housing.
By contrast, critics paint a picture of nepotistic government; endemic corruption; food shortages, brought on by ill-conceived subsidy; liberal use of emergency presidential powers; and creeping encroachment on Human Rights.
While Chavez’ legacy is hotly contested, what is not in dispute is the rising level of uncertainty amongst Venezuela’s middle class as he won successive terms in office.
In 2008, the New York Times chronicled the exodus of Venezuelans worried about an uncertain future to Miami; in a 2012 article, Bloomberg.com painted a picture of still-increasing interest in emigration amongst the country’s professional classes. Fabrizio’s family were certainly not alone in deciding to take their chances elsewhere.
“It was a hard start for us in a new country, without family or friends to support us. My Mom was working very hard to make things happen,” Fabrizio recounts.
For eighteen months, he worked to acclimatise to life abroad – with Magic again providing a social bedrock – but eventually realised that his future didn’t lie in Italy.
“I was not happy there… After having a talk with my Mom and getting some points in common, I decided to go back to Venezuela, knowing that the country would be in even worse condition than when I left,” he explains.
“The idea was to go to the university in Venezuela, get my degree and then I could think again about whether leaving was the best plan.”
Against a background like this, it’s easy to imagine Magic fading into the background, or simply coasting along as an occasional distraction. In fact, not only was Fabrizio’s game intact – it was thriving.
“Back in Venezuela, I was living with my grandparents,” writes Fabrizio. “I started my studies in engineering and carried on playing Magic.”
One aspect of his stay in Europe had been particularly positive: experience on the Italian scene had sharpened Fabrizio’s skills.
“It didn’t take for people to start calling me the best player in the country,” he tells me.
“I was doing very well – and people were able to appreciate some of the skills I had developed which other players perhaps didn’t have in Venezuela. Much of this thanks to the experience I got playing in Italy – plus the many hours I spent playing Magic Online.”
Around a year after his return, Fabrizio met his girlfriend, Erika.
“We spent seven months together in Venezuela,” he recalls, “before she was heading to London to study. I initially stayed behind to finish my degree, but after about 4 months I travelled to London.”
Before he made the trip, however, Fabrizio took part in a tournament series which he believes was crucial to his competitive development: The Planeswalker Showdown.
“Planeswalker Showdown was run by a company called Devir, to encourage the competitive scene in Latin America,” Fabrizio explains. “They ran 5 qualifiers in 5 countries, with the Top 8 competitors in each receiving an invitation to the grand final in Costa Rica. It was an amazing concept – but best of all, the winner would receive a first class ticket to the GP of their choice, along with a free hotel stay.”
Eager to test himself and compete on the GP stage, Fabrizio battled his way to victory in the Venezuelan qualifier. Then, in his words, he “…went to Costa Rica, all expenses paid, to spend one of the best weekends of my life.”
Fabrizio went on to win the finals tournament too, picking up not only a first-class trip to the GP of his choice, but a sense of empowerment and confidence that he could compete at the highest level.
“The GP I attended courtesy of my Golden ticket was Milan 2011,” he continues.
“I think this was an important tournament for me, because it was both my first GP and my first tournament with more than 300 players (this one being huge by comparison, with 1800).
“I started the event 1-2 after my bye. After my second loss, I was just thinking that I may not yet be prepared for this step – and I was going to have some fun and try to learn something that could help me for the next time.
“I got some exciting games in the next few rounds and without realizing, I won the 5 rounds in a row I needed to be playing the second day. With a 5-1 record during the draft, I even managed to finish in the money spots. I was very happy overall that weekend.”
With his confidence surging, Fabrizio continued to cement himself in high-level play, claiming a Blue Envelope in Milton Keynes only a week after attending GP Milan – just 5 days after moving to London to live with Erika.
On Tour, at last
“I actually qualified three times before I finally made it to a Pro Tour event,” Fabrizio tells me, an admission sure to make many PTQ grinders feel like burning their decks and taking up golf.
“First, there was the Two-headed Giant event which I missed due to my friend’s Visa troubles; then I won an online PTQ, but missed out on a technicality – the account had been created for me by my friend when I was 15, but the rules said a Parent or Guardian had to create it if the player was underage!
“My English wasn’t quite strong enough at the time to argue with WOTC customer service, so I had to wait until my win Milton Keynes before I finally got a chance to take part.”
The event Fabrizio had earned an invitation to was Pro Tour Dark Ascension in 2012 – and it proved a crucial learning experience, even if the lessons were slow to sink in.
“At that PT, I made the mistake I was going to repeat in the next two as well: I didn’t prepare properly,” he recalls.
“I was used to doing well in tournaments just by having an idea of the metagame and matchups, then testing 10-20 matches with the deck I liked to get used to it.
“This was usually enough for a good performance in a PTQ or even in a GP, but a PT is another matter: you really need to put much more time in if you want to do well. Everyone will be prepared, know the decks and matches and try to go to the next level.
“If you don’t also make the effort to reach that level, you will simply be one more victim of their preparation. I went 2-3 in the Standard constructed portion and 2-1 in the draft. Sadly, that was the last PT a 4-4 record was not enough to make Day 2.”
Whilst the finish was disappointing, 2013 was on the horizon – and with it would come an exceptional hot streak which would completely change Fabrizio’s life in the game.
An incredible run
“When I think about my results since 2013,” Fabrizio responds to my questioning, “the numbers seem unrealistic. The only reasonable explanation is how lucky I’ve been recently.”
There is an element of modesty in his description, but it’s easy to see why he has taken that approach: for a relatively humble and grounded person, taking full credit for such a remarkable streak must be a very awkward prospect.
“A friend told me after my first Top 8: ‘I knew it was coming, I know you have the level to be here and it was just a matter of time until you made it to the Top 8.’
“For reference, he has 3 GP Top 8s to his name, so it was not just a friendly motivational speech. I realized what he said was true and I knew more results would come if I put the effort in.”
Psychologically, the Top 8 performance in London gave Fabrizio a whole new gear to move into whilst competing.
“It’s hard to explain this feeling when you are playing,” he says, “telling yourself that you are a better player than your opponent, that you should win this match, that all you have to do is to concentrate and play your best, because the knowledge to win is right there in your head.”
While Fabrizio finds it tough to completely capture the sensation of overwhelming confidence, its effect on player performance is well documented. Brad Nelson, former Pro Player of the Year, has written extensively about his confidence-fuelled race to the top during the 2010/2011 season – and the sharp decline he experienced when self-doubt and burnout crept into his game:
Even when infused with a positive mindset, however, it seems that victory at a premier-level event is still a shock to the system.
“To be honest I didn’t see that victory coming,” says Fabrizio of GP Warsaw.
“I guess I knew it was a possibility when I signed up for the event, but winning was just a bonus. It came immediately after my worst two results – in Paris, at my first ever Legacy event and a poor performance in Vienna – at which point I had started to think that my good run was over.
“Sometimes you play well, you draw well in most of your matches and finish in the Top 32 or 64; other times you draw well in basically every single match and you win the whole thing!”
Considering how philosophical he seemed to be about triumph in Warsaw, I asked Fabrizio if it had affected his mindset heading into Manchester.
His answer is honest, but self-conscious: “This is going to sound very arrogant, but actually after all the testing I put into block constructed for the Pro Tour I was feeling very confident with the format for the GP.
I really liked the deck I was playing, I knew I was going to play very complicated matches every round and I knew the smallest decisions would be the difference between winning or losing a match.”
In typically self-effacing fashion, he then points out: “From that confidence to winning the whole thing, there were a lot of lucky games and draws in between.”
Back to Back
It’s when my questioning moves to the specifics of winning back-to-back GPs that Fabrizio’s surprise and delight becomes most obvious.
Could you have foreseen this a year ago? I ask.
“No way,” he responds. “I could had been positive and seen myself making another Top 8 or maybe winning a GP, but I would have never dared to believe I was going to win back to backs.”
Very few players have won back-to-back GP titles. The names that occupy that bracket have extraordinary pedigree:
When I ask Fabrizio how it feels to join them, his first reaction is a disarming one: he thanks me for finding the list.
“I’ve been wondering how many times this had happened since I won!” he writes, clearly still unable to believe what has transpired.
I ask him if joining such a distinguished roll-call makes him optimistic for future success.
“A friend told me, it doesn’t matter what happens next, I will forever be part of Magic History for these back to back wins. This is HUGE for me, knowing that I’ve done well enough at what I love is hard to describe with words.
“I am certain that I haven’t reached the level any of these named players have… but I do wonder if they were at my level at the time of their wins – and hope I can emulate their success eventually.”
It’s difficult to be objective about one’s own success and, given that I’m not an expert on the career trajectories of professional Magic players, I decided to seek outside help to assess just how meaningful Fabrizio’s achievement could be.
Brian David Marshall is the Pro Tour Historian, a well-known and liked figure who is also in possession of an almost encyclopedic knowledge of competitive statistics. I put the question to him: what kind of predictor might back-to-back GP wins be for Fabrizio’s future career?
The next step
In his Top 8 profile article for GP Manchester, Fabrizio indicated a desire to ‘go pro’ if he was able to win the event. I ask him if his aspirations have remained the same.
“I’ve already spoken to my current employer about switching to part-time hours,” he enthuses.
“Just a week before Warsaw, I was excited about the idea of maybe becoming Silver and getting a PT invitation for next year.
“In the blink of an eye I am 2 points short of Gold, which I should lock in Portland – and I am a Top 16 away from Platinum.
“I will have the chance to play every single PT and the WMC in the next year and that will give me a bunch of Pro Points; if I manage to do even half as well in GPs as I did this year, I could find myself with a better shot at Platinum next year and I think that’s the goal to hit.
“The benefits given to Platinum players are just ridiculous: the all-inclusive transport and accomondation, plus the appearance fee is an invitation to travel the world doing what you love to do and getting paid for it. It’s just a dream.”
A future in the game
Interesting, as we discuss long-term goals, Fabrizio gives a glimpse of just how committed he is to Magic.
“Once I am old enough, after all the travelling and playing, I should have all it takes to open a Magic store and start my own business,” he says.
It tickles me to think that after everything Fabrizio and Magic have been through together, he might perhaps settle down one day to build a gaming community, just like the one which nurtured him in Caracas, and encourage a new generation of players.
Perhaps he’ll eventually see another precocious 13 year-old wander through the doors, poised to discover the game that will change their life – and unaware just how accomplished a mentor they’re about to acquire.
That’s a lot of ‘perhaps’.
There are many years, many tournaments and hopefully many trophies between then and now. But as long as he stays in love with this game, I suspect he will get there.
Just don’t let them trade the Fetches for the Dragons, Fabrizio. Get that right and the rest will follow…
Thanks for reading,