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The Week That Was: A Record-Setting Player of the Year

April 19, 2024
Corbin Hosler

In the beginning, there was Kai Budde and Jon Finkel.

The sun rose in the east, and Jon Finkel made the Top 8 of another Pro Tour. The sun set in the west, and Kai Budde won the Pro Tour again. While Budde hoarded hardware (seven career titles), Finkel was the picture of consistency, making the Top 8 of three Pro Tour events in a row back in 1998 as part of his legendary run to seventeen total Top Finishes (still tied for most with Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa), setting a bar for consistency that would turn out to be very hard to match; Scott Johns and Luis Scott-Vargas are the others with three in a row.

For most of the last two decades, the conventional wisdom was that no one would ever match those historic streaks. It's what made LSV's famous 2016 run just so impressive: he was doing what no one had done in almost twenty years, now in an age where it was perceived harder than ever.

Then came Nathan Steuer, who did what all the greats do: make us reconsider what is possible. The Duelist of the Mind gave us the best fifteen months of Magic ever played: five Top Finishes, four trophies, with a streak of four straight Top Finishes. It felt like history—and it was—but it also felt like it was something we wouldn't see matched, as it defied all logic and probability and Magic think pieces. We'd never see it again.

Or so we thought. What I said about the greats making us reconsider what's possible? That's what 2023 Player of the Year Simon Nielsen has done.

Simon Nielsen, 2023 Magic Player of the Year

It started with a Top 8 at Pro Tour March of the Machine last May. He added another Top 8 that summer and then won the Player of the Year title on the final day of the season by outlasting Hall of Famer Reid Duke at Magic World Championship XXIX. But then came the kicker, a fourth consecutive Top Finish, an even ten years after Nielsen's Magic breakthrough came with the "Daneblast" heard 'round the World Magic Cup.

That's the Magic player Simon Nielsen, the reigning Player of the Year with five career Top Finishes and an all-timer of a Magic nickname. But what makes up the enigma that is Sleep-in Simon, the man who went on to make his fourth consecutive Top 8 while barely making it in time for the first draft because he got lost riding his bicycle to the tournament site?

Simon Nielsen and the "Daneblast" Heard Around the World

To find out, I asked those who were there when it all started: Nielsen's teammates from the famous 2014-winning World Magic Cup team from Denmark.

"I first noticed Simon at a [Pro Tour Qualifier] in Roskilde, where he was playing an interesting Tezzeret deck that was a lot better than most brews you would see. I was intrigued, and we started talking Magic and becoming friends. We started working together for tournaments and playing out of the same local game store," recalled four-time Top Finisher Martin Müller, now retired from Magic but the captain of that famous Danish team. "He has a fun sense of humor you don't see every day. Always been super goofy and would have gimmicks, and you knew right before a draft was about to begin Simon would come running in from sleeping in 30 seconds before it began."

For the judges running the draft, it was always easy to see Nielsen coming.

"I remember in his early years, he was always wearing a red tie to get noticed by Rich Hagon," Thomas Enevoldsen recalled fondly. "He was a goofy teenager at the time who hung out with Martin and seemed invested in a good time, playing janky decks and hanging out more than winning games of Magic. He's a genuinely fun-loving guy, and that's still his personality to an extent, but he's also evolved a more professional side."

That professional side is the secret that has always lurked beneath the surface.

Simon Neilsen, second from right, was a member of the 'Daneblast' victory for team Denmark at World Magic Cup 2014 alongside (left-to-right) Thomas Enevoldsen, Martin Müller, and Lars W. Birch.

"If people only knew how much Simon has grinded for this," Müller mused. "When I was playing, I was the one with more Pro Tour Top 8s and stuff, but I always felt like it was Simon that was the one working harder, grinding harder, doing more of the work. I might have skipped reading an article or two or assembling data and being all in, but Simon has done that for a decade."

I've been covering Pro Tour Magic for a little more than a decade now, and I can tell you something I've learned clearly: no one is there by accident. You don't qualify for one of the most prestigious events in the world without proving yourself, and while there are certainly tiers of excellence within the Pro Tour itself, it's undeniably true that every single competitor in that event would be the best Magic player in most rooms.

So don't let Nielsen's silliness distract you from the fact that he's been a driving force on Team Handshake, one of the most dominant testing teams of the last several years. Because even when he was playing unproven decks and drawing eye rolls from friends, Nielsen was doing what has made him so successful at the highest levels of Magic: being himself.

That goes all the way back to how he met Müller, or even how he qualified for that 2014 World Magic Cup that started it all.

"Simon and I qualified in back-to-back weekends, with him on a homebrew concoction," remembered Lars Birch, the fourth member of the 2014 Danish team. "And then he brewed up the Abzan deck we used in that tournament. Our sideboard for the deck only had 13 cards locked in when we arrived, so the Duneblast was pulled from my trade binder on a whim with the thought 'this might be good in the mirror.' When we got to the final day, Simon asked to hold the cards while we played Two-Headed Giant. I never once regretted stepping back, and I'm proud of how Simon used that finals to launch ten years of great Magic; nobody deserves it more.

"And that Duneblast? It still sits in my trade binder."

That event was a formative moment in Nielsen's career in more ways than one. He earned the chance to play Magic at the highest levels; to work in a high-stakes environment with teammates; to travel for a big tournament with big prizes. To do so with his friends and Friday Night Magic buddies from his hometown. The perfect blend of competition and comradery. It's a foundation that has helped Nielsen to bring the best out of his team and himself, as he makes sure that having fun with friends and with Magic is always part of the equation.

"Playing the WMC together was awesome. At that point, we played a lot together and were really grinding hard," Müller added. "We had a really great team, and the Daneblast was a really special thing. We could call ourselves world champions. It was an insane moment when we got back; there where over 100 people waiting for us at the airport, plus newspapers and cameras, without us knowing. It was a really, really special moment. The success Simon has found is deserved and something he's worked really hard for. He's uncommon even among a lot of other uncommon people, both in humor and definitely in Magic skill."

It's a unique origin story for one of Magic's most unique characters, but in retrospect, it seems a fitting introduction: Nielsen came in a blast and is still rocking ten years later as he prepares for Pro Tour Thunder Junction and the opportunity to add to his record streak—and to possibly add a trophy to the mix.

The Road to Magic World Championship 30

Columnist Frank Karsten and I have been counting down the weeks to Magic World Championship 30 by highlighting some of the coolest moments and decks of the game's rich history. Frank looks at a deck from the event; I dive into a key player in the event.

This week, we're looking back at 1998, the year when Brian Selden and several other competitors discovered one of the most dominant Standard decks in RecSur—which, if you're like me, you only recently discovered was short for Recurring Nightmare and Survival of the Fittest. Frank has all the details on the powerful decks in this one—the famous Sligh mono-red archetype took up three spots in a Top 8 that looks like a retro Pro Tour fantasy draft.

  • Brian Selden (three Top Finishes)
  • Ben Rubin (Hall of Fame)
  • Raphael Levy (Hall of Fame)
  • Jon Finkel (Hall of Fame multiple times over)
  • Alan Comer (Hall of Fame)
  • Scott Johns (five Top Finishes)
  • Brian Hacker (two Top Finishes, early Pro Tour commentator)
  • Chris Pikula (three Top Finishes; Meddling Mage)

The other interesting thing about this tournament was that you can see the future structure of the Pro Tour we're used to today start to come together. With few exceptions, the highest levels of competitive Magic have been three rounds of Draft followed by Constructed rounds and then a repeat on Day Two; sustained Pro Tour success requires excellence in all aspects of the game. Back in 1998, 203 players took part in Tempest Booster Draft and then Constructed. With such a skill-testing tournament, is it any surprise the Top 8 is that stacked?

The next stop for the Pro Tour is the same place where the 1998 World Championship took place: Seattle! Pro Tour Thunder Junction kicks off April 26!

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