ne of my favorite aspects of covering Magic is watching the progress of players as they ascend through the various levels of the game's competition. It usually starts with some good finishes at an independent tournament series like the Star City Games Standard Open. PTQ success follows and then the game speeds up a notch at the Grand Prix and Pro Tour level. Brian Braun-Duin is coming off a two-week stretch that saw him Day Two his second stab at the Pro Tour before conquering the rest of the field at Grand Prix Louisville to win the first premier-level trophy of his young career.
Unlike many of the lifers I have covered in this column and who have been playing the game for more than half their lives, Braun-Duin only began playing with friends as a freshman in college when Time Spiral was released.
Braun-Duin after winning GP Louisville
"We all fell in love with it and started attending drafts at the local card shop. It progressed from there," said Braun-Duin, who was drawn to the deep strategy of the game. Always competitive when gaming with his friends, Magic was a natural fit for him. "I had a blast when I first started playing by coming up with deck ideas and figuring out ways to combat the kinds of decks and cards my friends would bring to the table."
Before long that competitive fire led him to playing in more and more events beyond those initial drafts and into one of the country's hotbeds of tournament Magic.
"By virtue of attending Virginia Tech, I lived about 40 minutes away from StarCityGames," said Braun-Duin. "At the time, they had a monthly $1,000 Standard tournament they ran. The first serious tournament I can remember attending was one of those. I was playing an Orzhov deck, which was really just the only deck I actually owned. It was definitely budget. I only had one Godless Shrine that I picked up from trading at my local shop. I ended up making Top 8, which was exciting for me, though I got crushed in the quarterfinals."
As his play set of Godless Shrines filled out he continued to play Constructed. While he would try his hand at coming up with new creations, his best results came when optimizing known decks to adjust to recent tournament results.
Godless Shrine | Art by Cliff Childs
"I love to take an existing strategy and figure out how to optimize it to beat the expected metagame. Much of my recent success in standard has been by doing exactly that," said the self-described deck tuner. "I won a PTQ, Top 8'd an SCG Open and top 4'd an SCG Invitational last year by constantly tuning and evolving the Junk Reanimator archetype. I didn't invent the wheel, I just worked hard and put in a lot of time to stay ahead of the metagame. My lists from week to week were usually fairly different from the last as the metagame shifted."
He started to make a name for himself during the summer of 2011 when he was regularly making the finals of PTQs and appearing in SCG Open Top 8s. That's not to say that Limited was outside of his range; he won a Draft Open during that span as well, but his Constructed finishes were what made him first bubble up in the Magic zeitgeist.
"I think one thing that certainly helped was having a great deck. Those events came a few weeks after Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, The Mind Sculptor, were banned and people hadn't yet come to grips with the idea that Caw-Blade was still a powerful deck. I certainly had an edge playing it," he said. "Prior to that point I had lost a lot of win-and-ins for Top 8 of SCG Opens. I think my relative success the weekend prior gave me a level of confidence I needed to finally get over that hurdle and win."
His first Pro Tour came in 2012 when he qualified for Pro Tour Dark Ascension and got the event started off on the right foot with a win over a Mono-black Zombie deck.
"I had to double block a Phyrexian Obliterator with two Precursor Golem tokens. My biggest fear was that I would just scrub out and embarrass myself with a poor finish. Winning the first round helped me enormously," he said.
He would only get one more win in the Standard rounds. Then, he found himself having to go 3-0 in the draft if he wanted to make Day Two.
"I ended up losing in Game 3 of the last round to my opponent's second copy of Ludevic's Test Subject after I had killed the first. I was very disappointed to end up 2-1 and miss the cut at 4-4. All I could think about was a slight mistake I had made in that game that ended up being costly turns later."
He went back to the Pro Tour Qualifier circuit and won a chance at redemption for Pro Tour Theros with his aforementioned tweaked Junk Reanimator decklist.
PTQ Dublin Winner — Brian Braun-Duin
"I made a decision to main-deck Acidic Slimes in Junk Reanimator as a metagame call. Slime was a card that was previously a 1-2 of in the sideboard of Junk, but from my wealth of testing on Magic Online I had started to realize that Acidic Slime was quite good. Throughout the entire day, Acidic Slime was amazing for me. In fact, I considered it to be the most important card for me the entire tournament," he said.
The Slime may have been the most important card but it was another last-minute adjustment that made all the difference in getting back to the Pro Tour.
"The night before, I decided to add Trostani to my sideboard to help against the RG deck that had sprung up in popularity recently. I won Game 3 of the finals against RG by gaining well over 50 life with Trostani. Despite that, I still dipped into single digits numerous times, as I fought to beat a Wolfir Silverheart bonded with a Flinthoof Boar, a Hellrider and the three copies of Ghor-Clan Rampager my opponent drew. Eventually an Acidic Slime took care of his Ground Seal, I was able to Unburial Rites an Angel of Serenity and the rest is history."
With his blue envelope secured he worked with Jake Van Lunen and Gerry Thompson to prepare for the event. Armed with the results from the two SCG opens using the same Standard format, Braun-Duin expected a field based around Red Deck Wins, various blue-white-based control decks, and Selesnya.
"I wanted a midrange deck with a proactive game plan. I wanted to play Obzedat to close out the game against other midrange and control decks. We thought Voice of Resurgence was going to be a dominant card and Reaper of the Wilds was exceeding my expectations in testing. All roads led to Junk, which is an archetype I felt comfortable playing and enjoyed playing," he said of the deck that he and Van Lunen ended up playing—a deck that resulted with Braun-Duin going 7-3 in Standard for his first taste of Day Two action on the PT.
Brian Braun-Duin Junk Midrange
Pro Tour Theros—7-3 in Standard
"We got our list right for the expected metagame. I played numerous times against Mono-red, UWx control and G/W and won the great majority of those matchups. I think if we had known about and been able to test against the Mono-blue deck ahead of time, JVL would have Top 8'd the tournament. My 3-3 draft record was too weak to give me a shot at Top 8, despite a solid Constructed finish."
Just getting to the Pro Tour in time to play was a challenge in and of itself for Braun-Duin, who needed to get a passport in order to travel outside of the country. The day before he was scheduled to fly to Ireland he learned that his passport application had been rejected.
"In an extremely stressful week for me, I had to get a passport in one day, get all my flights rescheduled, get registered for the event without being there in person to sign up, and then actually make it to the event on time to play," said Braun-Duin, who managed to get the passport but not with a lot of time to spare. "(Wizards of the Coast) was a fantastic help, both allowing me to play in the tournament without being there to register and getting all my flights rescheduled for me. The last step was simply to arrive on time for the start of the tournament. It was a really close call. I had an hour to get off the plane, get through customs, and take the 30 minute cab ride to the venue."
After getting home from the Pro Tour on Tuesday and going right back to work, he did not have a lot of time to prepare for the following weekend's Grand Prix. He managed to find a little time to play Magic Online on Thursday night after work and started honing in on what he wanted to play.
"I knew I wanted to be on a Thoughtseize/Hero's Downfall deck but I had to figure out what the best shell for it was. It didn't take long in playing with the Mono-black deck to be set on playing it. I was crushing everything. All that remained was figuring out how to tune it. The main change was simply to add in Nightveil Specter to the main deck, a change I made after playing the mirror match a good deal on Magic Online."
Braun-Duin was not expecting there to be much in the way of aggressive decks like White Weenie or Red Deck Wins versions with abundant one-drops—the only bad matchups for the deck he ended up playing. Since those aggro decks could not cope with Pro Tour Theros decks like the winning blue deck or Mihara's red-green list, he was not expecting to face that bad matchup. For the other black decks and the unavoidable blue decks, the Nightveil Specter was a crucial addition.
Brian Braun-Duin - Mono-Black Devotion
Grand Prix Louisville—Winner
"I beat a lot of Mono-blue opponents throughout the day by using their cards against them. I was able to win my win-and-in match by beating my opponent with his own Thassa," said Bruan-Duin.
So what's next for the Grand Prix Champion?
"My finishes in Dublin and Louisville are good for twelve Pro Points. Along with the three I get from showing up in Valencia, I am only five short of hitting Silver. At this point I am hoping to travel to a lot of the North American Constructed Grand Prix in order to get those five points. Prior to the win, I wasn't planning on traveling at all, but Silver certainly feels achievable now."
If his career continues to follow the trajectory of the past couple seasons, those five points and many more Pro Tours should be in his immediate future.
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.