Levelling Up – What Makes A Pro Player?

Read Tiago Chan every Friday... at StarCityGames.com!
This week, Level 6 Mage Tiago Chan is in a reflective mood. How do you define a Pro Player? Is it simply enough to call anyone who’s attended the Pro Tour a “Pro,” or are the real Pros actually making a living from this game? And what skills do you need to succeed in the cutthroat world of professional spell-slinging? Tiago reveals all!

My last few articles for StarCityGames.com were all related to the tournaments I’ve played in the past months… Pro Tour: Valencia, the Magic Invitational, Grands Prix Bangkok, Krakow, Daytona Beach. This was no coincidence. During that time I barely had time to sit down at my own desk to write about something else.

As I’m standing here alone, I’m trying to come up with a topic. Sometimes such things are the difficult… when you have the world at your disposal, focusing in can be tricky. This week, I’ve looked back and remembered a suggestion that someone gave me a while ago: I should tell people the things that I learnt after becoming a Pro Player. Sometimes they’re big things that come to you like revelations. Most of the time, though, they’re nothing of the kind.

What Makes A Pro Player?

To get things started, I’ve never liked using the term Pro Player in an elitist or derogatory way. All Magic players enjoy and have pleasure playing the game, they just do it through different angles, such as judges, reporters, card collectors. I do understand the need to have a term or expression for easy reference, but what exactly is the definition of Pro Player, and who falls under it?

According to the DCI, a player that loses his amateur status and is considered a Pro Player, usually when he plays on the Pro Tour. Let me tell you something: I won many PTQ’s back in the day. I attended the Pro Tour, and someone told me, “You’ve played on the Pro Tour now, so you’re a Pro Player.” Back then I never felt close to being a Pro Player. This definition is too wide.

If we follow a more hardcore definition, you would say a Pro Player is someone who makes a living through playing this game. This definition is very restrictive, as very few players manage to do that, and not for a reliable or prolonged period of time. Most of the players just survive, as their winnings allow them to continue attending the events and pay for some of their expenses. Sometimes, they can make a small profit.

I believe the middling term between the above extremes would be to consider Pro Players as all the Level 3 players and above. These are the players invited to all the Pro Tours, therefore they are expected in advance to show up. Of course, I totally respect the opinions of those who use the definition of the DCI, and the opinions of those who ask, “do you make a living out of it?” As always, it seems to depend on perspective.

In the past, winning PTQ’s and playing at the Pro Tour – even when I occasionally posted some decent results – did not made me feel like a Pro Player. Nowadays, I don’t make a living out of it, though I accept it that people consider me to be a Pro Player since I play all the major events. But where is that line, and when did I cross it? I can’t tell, but for ease of reference, I think of it as the day I earned the Level 3 status… though I did not feel any different at the time, and I still don’t.

In fact, I can safely say that my game was sharper before. I was playing PTQ’s on average once or twice a month, and the weekends I wasn’t PTQing saw me attending tournaments of the same format to prepare myself. What I’m trying to say is that when you meet that certain condition, the one that “turns you into a Pro Player,” – be it playing on the Pro Tour or achieving Level 3 – it only makes you a Pro Player on paper. Inside, you’ll be pretty much the same person, playing the same game in the same way that got you where you are.

What really sets the course of who you’re going to be are your past experiences, and most importantly your future experiences, plus your mentality, attitude, and the lessons you learn along the way.

Past Experience

Since the day I played my first Pro Tour, until the day I reached Level 3 status, almost five years have passed, and today I still believe it happened by accident. During those five years I played many Pro Tours, maybe fifteen, perhaps more. I qualified for each either by winning a slot at a PTQ, or by making Top 16 at a Grand Prix, but two things never happened. I never managed to gather 20 pro points in a single year, and I never managed to Top 32 a Pro Tour and therefore qualify for the next one based on position, despite some Day 2 money finishes… although, I admit, most of the time I was eliminated on Day 1. It made me realize I was good enough to win a PTQ Top 8. I had the capacity to compete on the Pro Tour, but probably no more than that.

The day I reached 20 pro points in a single year did set off a magical trigger in me. I felt I was the same player, with the same playskill… good enough for a PTQ, good enough to be granted access to the Pro Tour, but I did not feel like a Pro Player. All these years – being very close to the spotlight, but never being at the center of it, just being there playing and watching – made me very comfortable with the high level competition, and it helped me grow as a player.

Take, for example, my Portuguese buddies, fellow Pro Players André Coimbra, Paulo Carvalho, and Márcio Carvalho. We have different mentalities, attitudes, and past experiences. Márcio needed only half a year from his Pro Tour debut to guarantee Level 3 status, by achieving a Top 8 at his third Pro Tour. André and Paulo needed even less time than that, as they both made Top 8 at their first Pro Tour, having only played one Grand Prix lifetime before. Paulo Carvalho then made Top 8 again after two Pro Tours. Their vision, their approach, their expectations when it comes to the Pro Tour is different to mine, based on our past experiences.


Usually a Pro Player has a very strong mentality and resolve. Let me quote Raphael Levy, as his words sum up the essence of a Pro Player’s determination.

“One thing I’m know for is coming up with solutions for the problems I’m facing.”

“Everything falls into one of two categories: executable or impossible.”

As long as a Pro Player, or an aspiring pro, still has the fire ignited in their belly, he will be focused on achieving his goals and overcoming the adversities in the way. Most of the time, when a Pro Player loses his status and rewards by not performing well enough in a single year, it’s because he lost his fire and the motivation to keep going.

Raph taught me that time can hardly be a problem if you have good management of it. Being the road warrior, space is something he always overcomes with more or less adversity. Getting physical cards can be a problem sometimes, but I no longer doubt it is possible to play the deck you want, with the build you want, because Raph once arrived at the venue the day before they tournament without a single card on him, and with a bit effort —without spending a dime – he put together a Battle of Wits deck. I was also present when he came up with the unbelievable trick of casting Cunning Wish for a card in a dealer’s binder. If there are any adversities in his way, he will fight through them.

How does this apply for those who want to take the leap? You want to go to a PTQ that’s a considerable distance away? Work through your contacts, and make new ones… do what you can to find a ride. If you can’t organize one by yourself, try to get people to join you. It’s hard to find people who have things planned that perfectly fit with your schedule, but how about you plan them and then try to find people for it. Or perhaps the tournament you want to attend conflicts with something you have to do. Re-schedule, change shifts, work harder to compensate. Try to find a solution. Most of the things will be hard, and so they’ll remain… if you don’t work around them.

Another thing I’ve noticed regarding the mentality of most Pro Players is that they’re not afraid to lose. Many of my friends try to avoid playing certain matches, in my opinion because they are afraid of losing. Some examples:

* Someone who takes an intentional draw in his last swiss round with uncertain chances of finishing in the Top 8.

* Someone who takes and intentional draw in one of the early rounds because it was a control mirror match.

* Playing an important match with both players agreeing to mulligan to zero cards.

Some time ago, a friend of mine made the biggest mistake of his Magic career. At the time we barely knew each other, so he did not seek me out for advice. With two rounds to go at Portuguese Nationals, he needed only one win to lock Top 8, but there was a reasonable chance he might make it with two points. He was paired up, and his opponent offered the draw, which clearly served the opponent. My friend decided to take it, hoping to get paired against someone willing to draw in the next round, and hoping that with those two points his tie breakers will be enough for a Top 8 slot. He took the draw in the final round as predicted… and ended up in 9th place. Obviously he won’t admit it, but to me, it seems he was afraid to play any more Magic, and he let fate and tiebreakers decide whether he was making Top 8 or not.

What he did it’s something that almost no Pro Player would’ve done. I would have played the second to last round, trying to guarantee Top 8 immediately. If I failed, I could still win the last round, and in that scenario I would be forced to play it. Most of the people I’ve met say, if in doubt, they will play.

In Krakow, a similar situation happened. Before the final round of Day 1 I checked the standings and saw that a draw advanced me into Day 2, which serves me. I arrived at the table and offered my opponent the draw. He said he’ll take it, if I think that a draw would carry us both into Day 2. I advised him to check the standings for himself, as his tiebreakers could be very different to mine. After quickly doing so, he was unsure if he could actually make it, and since the round was starting and there was no more time to do math, he decided to play, a decision I respected and admired.

Still talking about mentality, depending on your personality, you can have higher or lower goals when entering a tournament. You can look confident or apathetic during a game, either when you’re winning or losing, but one thing doesn’t change. When a player sits down to play, he wants to win that game.


Attitude can show us some things about a player, although it reflects more of his own personality, so you should not take a player’s actions and attitudes as a stereotype for the group in which he belongs. I’m happy to say that most of the Pro Players I know are extremely nice, and always ready to talk with you or help you the best they can. Of course there might be exceptions, but fortunately, I don’t recall any.

Pro Players are often accused of being arrogant and elitist. When winning is so natural to you, it’s so easy to feel you are better at something than most of the other people. It’s tempting and it feels good, and it surely feeds the ego. This wasn’t something I learnt when I became a Pro Player. It’s part of life. At school, at work, in sport, or in any activity, there will be people better suited to certain areas. Whatever they make out of their talent, and how they react to it, is their own business.

Elitist is a word always present in the Portuguese Magic scene, much more than at the Pro Tour. Let me show you a scenario from two different angles.

The outside angle: In Lisbon, where most of the Magic community gathers, there’s a group composed by the top players in the area, which contains most of the top national players. They’re extremely reserved, and don’t allow anyone in from the outside. You have to be one of the top players yourself to break in. At the stores, they don’t play sanctioned eight-man drafts with the rest of the players. They buy the packs and run unsanctioned eight-man drafts between themselves, because they think the other people in the store are not at their level, and thus they don’t want to play with them.

The inside angle: In Lisbon, there’s a long time group of friends who met through Magic, who usually hang out together for various activities. Playing soccer, watching movies, drinking, dinning, playing other games, and drafting at least once a week. Some of the top Magic players in the area are part of the group, so when someone new starts hanging out, it’s no surprise that after some months he becomes a lot better at Magic.

The outside angle accuses them of being elitist, while the inside angle says it’s called friendship… you hang out with people who are your friends, and you enjoy their company.

This also happens at the Pro Tour, and it’s easy to find examples. Once I was having a conversation with Antonino da Rosa that evolved into groups and friendships, and we came up with a very good example. It involved two of the best American players at the time. Both knew each other, both respected each other, and they exchanged a couple of Magic-related words at events, but they didn’t hang out together despite being two of the best players from the same country. They did not share many close friends in common, and they were part of different groups.

The appropriate question regarding this matter, for purposes of this article, is: Has my attitude changed from my early days to the moment I acquired to be a Pro Player? I shouldn’t be the one answering it, and there aren’t many people who knew me back then and now. Some who remember the old days say I was a little cocky when I was just a young kid who started winning tournaments in Portugal. Fortunately, I’ve had the luck of being educated by the right people. For life in general, I had my mom, and a couple of teachers who marked me. In Magic, I learnt from Frederico Bastos and Rui Mariani, my teammates at Pro Tour: Boston ‘03 and Pro Tour: Atlanta ‘05. At High School, I had a classmate named Helder Coelho, a Grand Prix champion of the past millennium. These guys were the most accomplished players back then, and are the faces of an era in history books of the Portuguese Magic scene.

Today, almost of them have drifted away from Magic. Every now and then I see an emerging young kid… let’s say, for example (and this series of results is fictitious), that he made Top 8 at a PTQ, he made Top 8 at the JSS Champs, and he won both the Prerelease and the in-store release event. It’s quite easy to notice kids like this, as there’s always a huge buzz about them. Inevitably, because our community is small, we end up meeting. Sometimes I pass them a lesson I learned – don’t lose yourself, you’ve got everyone’s attention because of what you won, but you’ll only get their respect with your attitude. To some players this becomes clear, but for others it doesn’t make sense.

To finish, and acting as sort of a conclusion, I’m going to list some of the quotes or actions that made an impression on me from some of the other Pro Players I’ve had the chance to meet.

There are no such things as good and bad matchups. There are just good and bad draws.
Antoine Ruel

Antoine told me this after playing me at some Constructed format some years ago. This one has a double meaning for me. When you are involved in a Constructed match between two decks where one has an advantage over the other, do not become over confident when testing showed that you are supposed to win the match. On the reverse side, don’t give up just because during testing you weren’t winning. The second meaning relates to mulligan decisions. In Krakow I played Antoine, and he knew I was playing discard. He had an opening hand of six lands and one Epochrasite, and he kept it, where you usually mulligan it. He understood that against discard, good cards don’t last long in hand, so he has a hand that guarantees he plays lands every turn, setting him into a position where he can topdeck cards and play them.

If only all my bad cards were lands…
Gabriel Nassif

I admit this quote is very out of context. Gabriel was not complaining about the idea I want to defend, but I couldn’t resist because it’s just so funny. We’re at the Magic Invitational, I have the Transformers deck with 24 lands and 4 Circle of Protection: Artifacts. Gab has Illusion/Donate, also with 24 lands, but with five or so useless cards like Neurok Stealthsuit. I had lost a game where I was either mana screwed or took mulligans, and always drew COP: Artifacts. Gab gave me his Neurok Stealthsuit example, and uttered the above-mentioned quote in a very disappointed way.

This Auction of the People format was one of the rare cases in which we couldn’t modify the contents of our decks. In Constructed, usually we aren’t playing with bad cards in our decks. I’ll always remember this quote for Limited, when I’d rather play an 18th land instead of a bad card in my deck. Last week I did a team draft at the local store with my friends, and one of my teammates was Blue/Black and was very short on playables. He had very weak cards as filler… I can’t remember them all, but his 23rd card was Nath’s Buffoon. I suggested, “why not play 18 lands instead of that?” He refused. I had to let it go. I don’t think he ever drew Nath’s Buffoon, and there was a game he flooded by drawing three or four lands in a row, so he did not hear the voice in his head saying: “If only all my bad cards were lands…”

There must be someone better…
Frank Karsten

I’ve said multiple times that Frank Karsten is the best-prepared player for any given Pro Tour (when he has time to prepare… and even when he hasn’t, he’s still better prepared than 90% of the field). He’s also the most methodical and genius player I know, or “Fanatical,” if you wish.

The first time I playtested with Frank was for Pro Tour: Charleston 2006. I was teaming with Bernardo da Costa Cabral and Kamiel Cornelissen, while Frank was hooked up with the Ruels. Both are teams were testing together in Belgium, along with two other teams. Playtesting with Frank made me much better at Constructed, but I couldn’t find any quote related to that, so I’ll use one Frank was saying all the time during those days. Everyone considered the team of Frank Karsten, Antoine Ruel, and Olivier Ruel to be one of the favorite teams on paper to win the Pro Tour. No matter how good you are, or how good things look for you, when you enter a Magic tournament like a Pro Tour, your chances of winning it are very small. As a side note, check the Top 4 of PT: Charleston – it’s quite impressive, one of the strongest of modern ages, and Frank’s team isn’t there.

There are infinite things I’ve learned from all the players I’ve met, be they Pro Players or no. It would be impossible to mention them all, so I’ll leave with a big thanks to everyone I’ve met and talked to, to everyone who has helped me grow up. These were some of the answers I found when I looked back and questioned myself on the nature of being a Pro Player, and how different it is from the Magic life I had before. Maybe you can do the same, whether you’re a pro or an amateur, and figure it out what things you’ve learned in Magic that have helped you become a better player… or, indeed, a better person.

Thank you for reading!