ittle-known California-based Magic player Neal Oliver was the last person standing at the end of the 4,500-person slugfest that was Grand Prix Las Vegas. He emerged from the Swiss rounds in the low hundreds of the standings but clawed his way up throughout the Draft rounds. He went from 114th to 10th at the end of the first draft and was the 2nd seed when the Top 8 started. In the elimination rounds, his Auriok Salvagers deck earned him by far the best result in his Magic career and an invitation to Dublin.
Neal Oliver vs. Madison Jonas in the finals at GP Vegas.
There is a lot of Magic that takes place on any given weekend and it is easy to overlook one amazing finish by one unknown player. Cut to Grand Prix Oakland, where the twenty-four-year old SAT tutor from El Cerrito, California, made his second Top 8 in his last two tries, earned an invitation to the second Pro Tour of the season in Valencia, and put himself on the road to winning Rookie of the Year without having played a single round on the PT yet. The only player who has been able to stop the Oliver juggernaut is Pro Tour Hall of Famer-elect William Jensen.
It turns out that Grand Prix Oakland was the fourth Grand Prix of Oliver's career. His first foray came all the way back in 2008 at Grand Prix Kansas City, where he finished in the bottom half of the standings. Despite playing in virtually every other organized play program Magic had to offer—FNM, PTQs, Prereleases, WMCQs, Launch Parties, etc.—he did not return to the Grand Prix scene until the team event in San Jose last year. He and his teammates had an encouraging finish when they made Day Two and ended up landing in 14th place.
I caught up with Oliver to find out more about his Magic experience, his plans for the Pro Tour, and what it has been like at his local store since he went on this run. It turns out he has been playing Magic for well more than two-thirds of his life, after learning how to play right around the release of Mirage, after his family relocated from Texas to California. His friend Tyler was a Magic guru and taught him the game. It hooked him instantly, even playing on the modest budget of a small child. He was perfectly content to mix and match his collection to make different decks and to create kitchen-table formats.
"My friend Mason had a massive green deck with practically every green card and Forest he owned. We all played off the same deck and one card, Panther Warriors, was a bit scuffed up on the back, so we knew when someone would draw it. This 6/3 vanilla creature basically always traded for two creatures and it was terrifying," recalled Oliver. "I guess that was my first introduction to card advantage."
Panther Warriors | Art by Eric Peterson
Oliver eventually moved to the Bay Area for college and works there currently as an SAT tutor. His local store is Eudemonia and he still plays with friends from college there, although he did admit that he is held to a higher standard there now.
"It's nice to kick back after a week of work and play some Magic. My local community congratulated me a lot for my success, but everything by and large remains the same. I do have a few nicknames from my GP win in Vegas, and the only other thing that has changed is that if I misplay I never hear the end of it."
School was the biggest thing that kept him from playing in Grand Prix between the event in Kansas City and the one in San Jose. Both events were motivated by the desire to hang out for the weekend with some good friends.
"GP Kansas City in 2008 was just a bunch of my friends in college saying they wanted to go. I had some money and decided I could spend a weekend with them and we all went. I lost horribly but had a great time and had some of the best barbecue I've ever had," recalled Oliver, who often works Sundays and couldn't get away for many events over the next half a decade.
Interestingly, neither his win in Vegas or qualifying for his second Pro Tour before even playing on his first are his best memories of playing Magic. That is reserved for the second Grand Prix of his career.
"I jumped on San Jose for two reasons. It's very close to home—about a one-hour drive—and it's a team format. I brought two of my good friends and we had an absolutely amazing time. We won a very close match in Round 11 at around 1 a.m. to make Day Two, and to this day it's my happiest Magic memory."
Oliver came very close to not even playing in Round 2 of the event in Las Vegas. His only previous trip to Vegas had been as a high schooler and he was looking forward to combining the Magic weekend with a little vacation with his girlfriend. He started off the tournament with a loss when he kept a two-land/Kodama's Reach hand in Game 1 without ever drawing a third land. In Game 2 he was Death Clouded into oblivion and very much wanted to drop with a 4,500-person cliff to scale. "Luckily, my friends told me to stay in it, which was really tough to do given all the sweet side events available. I guess they were right."
He fought his way back from that slow start and when Day One ended he was through to Sunday. With more than thirty Modern Masters drafts under his belt he felt good about sitting down in the morning and had a good idea of what he wanted to do.
"I preferred blue strategies such as Storm, Faeries, and UWx anything," he said. "Although I liked the Storm deck, I didn't want to play that deck in Day Two as it has high variance and is tough for all the pieces to come together. I felt good about my preparation and knew I didn't want to play green, as I had lost too many games to racing and having my Imperiosaur locked down by a Blinding Beam or Pestermite."
Oliver also likes blue in Magic 2014 but had the discipline to avoid it during the Swiss rounds when drafting in Oakland. He actually felt there was a fair amount of crossover between the two draft formats in Vegas and Oakland, describing them as slower formats that "reward sculpting a board state and often winning through sheer card advantage."
"I wanted to draft blue going into Day Two. The only thing was I'd get third-to-seventh-pick Opportunity online and that wasn't going to happen at the GP. I ended up drafting two RG decks as they were underdrafted colors near my seat in both drafts. It doesn't hurt that my favorite archetypes in M14 are UB, UR, UG, GR, and RB, so I knew what a good RG deck looked like. Luckily, in Top 8 I opened a pack with Domestication, two other blue cards, and Flames of the Firebrand. It was a tough choice as Flames was the only red card but I chose the two-for-one in the stronger color and never looked back."
Both events were hard fought for Oliver, who credits a decade of online play with sharpening his skills. But playing live Magic at the highest levels is another animal entirely and he was able to see personal improvement from Vegas to Oakland. It has also taught him some valuable lessons that he can take to his professional life.
"I think the biggest thing Magic has taught me in my job is how to have a great time in what is still a serious situation," said the professional tutor. "There were definitely tense moments where everything was on the line at both Vegas and Oakland but I was still having fun because in the end I was playing Magic. I think Magic has bolstered my ability to have fun even when trying to achieve success in a serious professional setting."
Oliver is also able to take lessons from his job and apply them to playing Magic in a competitive environment.
"I heard pros and friends alike say they were impressed with my patience when watching me in my match against Ben Lundquist. As an SAT tutor, I act more as a coach to sculpt my student into a powerful player to defeat what he or she perceives as this scary test—it's not so bad to any high school students reading this; study hard. Be rewarded for your efforts. My job has taught me patience and how to plan accordingly when things don't go right."
Oliver will be testing with some local PTQ winners for his next two Pro Tours as well as absorbing as much strategic content as the game's pros put out online. He explained that he is both excited and nervous about what those events will be like.
"I feel a bit like the new kid getting on the school bus for the first day after transferring in the middle of the school year whereas everyone else is already settled in. That being said, by the end of the first week, that same kid feels like he's been getting on that same school bus for years. I certainly hope the same applies here. I'll be testing as much as possible and I'm sure I'll learn to do so more proficiently in the coming months and years."
Neal Oliver, GP Vegas Champion
Oliver already has 14 Pro Points this season and with 6 points coming from just attending these first two Pro Tours of the season he will lock up Silver status and a third Pro Tour invite. He has his eyes on what it will take to level up to Gold—and even Platinum—and would love to win the Rookie of the Year title but was quick to add that, "I'm really just looking to play good Magic. Building on fundamentals and approaching the game with the right perspective ultimately will lead to results and I'll keep on having a blast playing, thinking, and growing until that time comes."
If you want to read more about Oliver and his experience he will posting a tournament report on Magictraders.com, where he already has one from his first event of the season as well.
Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on DailyMTG.com, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.