There is no event with as much on the line as the final Pro Tour of the season. By the same token, there is no tournament where fortunes can swing as wildly. With vast sums of money, a difference of 27 Pro Club points between 1st and 101st, players can gain and lose invitations to the World Championships, the World Magic Cup, and Platinum or Gold status appear or vanish based on the outcome of a single game.
Yet underneath this tumult, there is an unmistakable, all too familiar patch of stability: Josh Utter-Leyton, the 2013 Player of the Year.
Congratulations to Josh Utter-Leyton, Player of the Year for the 2012-2013 season!
Since his Pro Tour debut at Berlin in 2008, Utter-Leyton has been the picture of consistency. With one of the highest median finishes on the Pro Tour, Utter-Leyton's name has become synonymous with top finishes. In this season alone, he has a Top 75 finish, a Top 24 finish, and at least a Top 8 finish at the three Pro Tours. He has two second-place finishes at Grand Prix, along with a string of finishing Top 32 and Top 16 finishes thoughout the year. His name has a summer home at the top of the standings at the end of the event.
A deeply analytical player, Utter-Leyton's quiet table demeanor belies a player who is simply fascinated with games and the social aspect of them, and he feels that Magic is one of the best in the world.
"I love games and playing games, and Magic is one of the best," he told me right after having locked up his Player of the Year title. "It's a puzzle that you look at and try to unravel each turn, and it gives it to you in chunks every turn, so it constantly builds. There's also a strong hidden information component, so how you deal with what could be in your opponent's hand, in their deck, or in your own deck is very important. And you can't overlook the personal element of playing and competing against another person trying to solve the same puzzle. It's the perfect balance, and that balance is the reason I think it's the best game."
Utter-Leyton began the same way that many players of the current crop of Magic superstars did: via Magic Online.
"I have been playing for a very long time, but I stopped off and on and was a casual player for much of college," he told me, remembering it with a smile on his face. "I wouldn't even be playing on the Pro Tour if it weren't for Magic Online. It lets you go from no social circle to a massive group of people to play and interact with. You can get the same thing by going to your local store and playing with people there, but this was easiest for me while I was in school."
After getting back into Magic, he quickly rose to the top, winning a PTQ in his first year back. In addition to this explosion, he experienced an explosion in his social circle as he teamed up with Team ChannelFireball soon thereafter.
"All of my closest friends now, I've met through Magic. It's such a huge, huge part of my life. Quitting isn't something I could do. Magic is my tie to some of my best friends and the most important people in my life."
As a reward for his incredibly consistent play, Utter-Leyton managed to win a spot in last year's Players Championship alongside fifteen of the other best players in the world, including a number of his teammates and best friends.
"Playing in the Players Championship felt incredible," he told me, positively beaming. "It was both the most casual and most competitive tournament I've been in by far. We're all friends and having fun, but we're also incredibly competitive. It was the greatest tournament experience I've ever had."
As a virtue of his place as the Player of the Year, Utter-Leyton has secured himself a spot at this year's Players Championship, newly christened the World Championships, where he will have another chance to enjoy himself after a year of hard work. He also nets himself a chance to represent the United States as the team captain for the second time at this year's World Magic Cup.
Utter-Leyton has done a great deal to achieve the level of consistency that he has displayed over the course of his relatively short career, and he deserves the accolades he has received. Having come from a more casual style of play to competing at the highest possible level, Utter-Leyton understands how difficult the climb to the top of the ladder can be, and he has some words of wisdom for those players picturing themselves playing against the best in the world.
"Practicing is good, but you have to practice smart. I would never be where I am if I didn't play with people who were constantly trying to get better and trying to help me get better. Repetition does nothing if you don't try to learn while you're doing it. Trying to see things from another viewpoint will really help you level up your game. That's simply the best advice I can give...
...and also, hi mom."