I am releasing previews from the Humans of Magic book, leading up to its release. Here is my conversation with Martin Juza.
Who is Martin Juza?
- Platinum level pro and self-proclaimed “Professional Tourist”
- The first Czech player to be inducted into the Magic: The Gathering Hall of Fame
- Considered one of the best Limited format players in the world
- Channel Fireball contributor
What did we talk about?
- Martin’s childhood in the Czech Republic
- Martin’s first Magic experiences, and how he leveled up as a player
- How Martin overcame the odds to turn “pro” and travel the world
- Martin’s favorite places to visit — including an active volcano!
- Martin’s thoughts on the current state of Limited
This interview was recorded in October 2017.
James: Today I’m here with Magic Hall-of-Famer and Limited superstar Martin Juza. Martin, how’s it going?
Martin: Hey, I’m good. How are you?
James: Awesome. I’m doing excellent. I am really excited because it’s not often I get to interview someone who is so accomplished. How’s your week been?
Martin: My week was okay. I just got back from the US. Two weeks ago I flew to Denver to spend a week with wrapter [Josh Utter-Leyton], Sam Black and Gerry Thompson. We drafted, played some Standard. After that I went to the Team Grand Prix in Providence, which was also sort of a preparation for Worlds. I played with Corey Burkhart and Andrew Backstrom, and then I played Worlds this past weekend and just got back home two days ago.
James: Awesome. Are you usually traveling somewhere else, instead of being at home?
Martin: I’m away from home about a third of the year. It’s mostly just for Magic, but sometimes there are two events in consecutive weekends in the same area. In that case we usually try to schedule some nice sightseeing trips, or go to something that I normally wouldn’t be able to go to. So yeah, about a third of the year I’m usually gone from home.
James: Where is home for you right now?
Martin: It’s in Plzeň in the Czech Republic. It’s known for the beer that is very popular, the Pilsner Urquell beer. That one is brewed in the city where I live. That’s the one thing that we’re famous for. We only have 200,000 people, but this is the beer they make here.
James: And do you drink the beer at all?
Martin: Oh, yeah. I do, probably a little too much than I should.
James: Is the beer super inexpensive and accessible, because that’s where it’s brewed?
Martin: Pretty much, yeah. The prices are very different from the US. So here, a large beer is like $1.50.
James: Oh, wow! It’s actually on the same price level as water. Or maybe cheaper, depending on how you look at it.
Martin: Pretty much, yeah.
James: What are the kinds of things that you like to do, when you’re at home?
Martin: I don’t do too much. I usually just try to relax—you know, watch some TV shows and go out with my friends, with my girlfriend. Spend some time with my family, go to the movies, play soccer with my friends—a little bit of everything.
James: Very cool. And can you just start off by telling me a bit about where you grew up, your family, your siblings, your parents? Just anything that you want to tell me, basically.
Martin: I grew up in the same city that I’m living in. I’ve been living in the same apartment for the last twenty years—maybe more than that. I grew up with my mom. I have no siblings. Pretty unexciting, to be honest. The one difference from today is that we grew up without cell phones, Internet, Facebook, and all that. So I spent most of my childhood just running around the neighborhood, playing on the soccer field here, and just being outside.
James: What did your mom do?
Martin: She had a few different jobs and now she runs a logistics company.
James: Can you tell me what it was like growing up in your hometown? Are there certain things you might tell somebody who has never visited before?
Martin: I don’t think it’s different from any other place at all. I don’t live downtown, but the city is not too big. So if I walk, I can walk to the city center in fifteen minutes. But I’m on the edge of the city, so it’s mostly quiet here. Parks, a soccer field here and there, schools. It’s a quiet neighborhood. Just hanging out with my friends most of the time—nothing too special.
James: Did you have any interesting childhood memories at all, or any stories of growing up? Were you a good kid? Did you get into any trouble?
Martin: I don’t have too many childhood memories. I don’t know why that is, but I don’t remember anything up until I was about ten years old. Which is weird, but that’s just how it is. And after that, I was a normal kid. Just getting into normal kinds of trouble. I didn’t get straight A’s or anything like that. A little bit of trouble, but not too much.
James: What were your favorite subjects at school?
Martin: I liked Math and English. But other than that, nothing in particular. I wasn’t a very good student because I wasn’t really interested in most of the things they were trying to teach us.
James: I see. Were you a competitive person growing up, or did it just start happening for you once you got in touch with Magic?
Martin: Yeah, I’m naturally competitive. It started just as a bunch of kids playing a bunch of games with cards they just discovered. We just played Magic for fun. Didn’t really know the rules, but once we got a little better and we started going to tournaments, I didn’t want to be the guy that kept going 1-4. Naturally, I just became more interested in doing better, and reading articles, and asking the better players how to improve my game, or what they’re doing differently. Stuff like that.
James: Was that a natural progression for you—to learn Magic and then start playing tournaments? Was that just what everyone was doing at the time?
Martin: Yeah, I think so. I mean, some of them were. Some of them were interested in going to a Prerelease, or a Standard tournament; some of them didn’t. Some of them were like, “It’s a cool game, but I have different things to do on a Saturday afternoon.” So for some of us, we started playing more competitively.
James: How old were you when you first got into Magic?
Martin: I first started playing in Wizards block, when I was twelve. At the beginning, it was just a bunch of friends and I playing cards at school during breaks. Two years later, in 2001, Odyssey came out. I was fourteen years old when I attended my first Prerelease, which was Odyssey. For the next two years, I only played in local tournaments. Sometimes I would go to Prague for something slightly bigger, but my first Grand Prix was two years after the Odyssey Prerelease.
James: When you first started playing casually, what kind of cards did you play with?
Martin: I had a green deck with Overrun. My friends were making fun of me that I couldn’t win more with Overrun, because it was one of the most busted Limited cards ever. But other than that, I don’t remember too much.
James: The first one or two years that you started playing Magic, how did you form your identity as a Magic player? And what were some of the most common mistakes that you made?
Martin: The kind of mistakes all the new players made. I would play my deck wrong. I wouldn’t pay enough attention to having a good mana curve. I would play too few lands. The usual kind of stuff. I don’t know if there was something specific for me—probably just a little bit of everything. Once you make a mistake, you can learn from it and then you don’t do it again. That’s basically why we practice for tournaments. It’s to make the mistake in practice, and not during the tournament. I learned about all the situations and things about decks I was playing from reading articles. At the time there was no Channel Fireball or Star City Games, like we have now. But I remember the first few articles I read were from a Czech MTG site. The information was not world class, but it was at least something. And I remember having the magazine Sideboard in our local store, so I was able to read a little bit of that, too. It contained information from the most recent tournaments and Pro Tours. Some of the top pros would write deck guides on what they played at the latest tournaments. And I started talking to the better local players, and they were able to teach me a thing or two.
James: How did you start understanding the importance of practice?
Martin: If you want to get better at something, you need to practice. It’s not like you become the best football player in the world by just sitting at home and watching TV, right? Everybody needs to practice whatever thing they’re doing. That’s just a natural thing that happens, I think.
James: At the beginning of your Magic career, who were the most influential people that you played with, or practiced with, that helped you get better?
Martin: Just some of the local players. Some of them were obviously better than others. Some of them would understand the rules slightly better. I’m from a small town, so it’s not like you would know if I told you the names.
James: At some point you decided to become a professional full-time Magic player. Can you walk me through your process of how that happened for you?
Martin: I just like Magic as a game. It was interesting enough that it kept my attention for a long time. I also played a little bit of Poker. After some time, when I started attending Magic tournaments, I wanted to do better. After I played my first Grand Prix in Prague around 2003, I played three Grand Prix the next year. I just naturally wanted to do better. When there was a Grand Prix that was close enough to drive to, my friends and I would put together a car and go. We would prepare together. It wasn’t great at the beginning because we weren’t very good. But at my third GP I finished in twelfth place, and that was good enough for $500. And I think that just got me hooked. I was like, “Well, this is cool. I can go to a Grand Prix during the weekend and if I do well, I can make some money. And there’s all these Pro Tours and you can win more in these tournaments.” I was hooked right after that.
James: Did you have any long-term goals in mind, at that point?
Martin: Definitely not in my first year. I started thinking about it more when I started doing better, which was a few years after that. I won my second Nationals, which qualified me for Worlds in San Francisco. That was pretty exciting. I also played my first PT in 2003 in New Orleans. I wasn’t very good, but it was nice to be able to go the US to play in a Magic tournament. After that, I would qualify for one Pro Tour and one Worlds event every year. I qualified for Worlds by doing well at Nationals, and for a PT by winning a random PTQ. Five years after my first Pro Tour, I had a pretty good season where I played all four Pro Tours. At the first one I finished 11-4, which was good enough for a Top 16 finish. It gave me 8 Pro Points and qualified me for the next one. In the next one, I lost the last round playing for Top 8, but still finished 11-5. That gave me some more Pro Points and qualified me for the next one. In Berlin I top-eighted and received some more Pro Points. That qualified me for Worlds. And at the end of that I made it to level 7, which meant that Wizards paid for your flights with a $2,000 appearance. And that became the start of all this.
James: You had already seen some early success before making it to level 7. What was going through your mind during those years? Was it just, “I want to play Magic”? Or did you already believe that you could do it full time?
Martin: I wasn’t thinking about it as playing full time. I was good enough to win a PTQ every now and then just make it to the PT. But at the PT’s I wasn’t very successful. I didn’t even make Day 2 in my first four Pro Tours. And at the four Worlds events I played in before my first full PT season, I cashed exactly once. So clearly, I was good enough to win a local PTQ, but not good enough to play with the big boys at the PT. People just had better tuned decks, and there were teams with proper preparation. We prepared too, but it was still in those years where you would get your deck lists from magazines. We didn’t have team groups on Facebook, where people shared their decks and you would get to see new things every single day.
James: How did you go from that beginning stage, to becoming more successful on the Pro Tour? What were some of the specific things that you tried to do after the first four or five PTs that you played?
Martin: I just got better with time; being more experienced. The first Pro Tour is definitely different from the ninth one. The first one, you’re nervous and you make more mistakes and stuff like that. It just took me some time to actually start playing some decent Magic.
James: How were you able to fund all the Magic travel costs? Was it from a day job, or something that you were doing on the side?
Magic: My parents paid for the ticket to my first Pro Tour. And after that, I also played some Poker. I was able to get some money out of that and just fund the travel costs with the Poker winnings—going to Grand Prix and stuff. Also, for Worlds, we would always get some money from Nationals. We would receive a plane ticket as part of the prize package, so that was good enough to pay for that trip. For North American players, they would receive plane tickets to Pro Tours. But in Europe, we would just get a box and a handshake. For the first few Pro Tours, it definitely needed some outside funding.
James: For a lot of Magic players, the travel costs can really add up. It takes an unusual amount of dedication to the game to want to do this for the first couple of years. And then following that, in a full-time capacity. Did the thought ever cross your mind to do something else, or were you completely focused on Magic?
Martin: For the first four years, it was enjoyable to go to the US, or Japan, or somewhere overseas for a tournament. But clearly, when you look at my first few results, I was not winning any money. So to continue doing that, I would need to start doing better. After the first three or four years I thought, “Maybe I’m not supposed to do this anymore.” I was considering going back to Poker, or going back to school and doing something completely different. That was around 2007, with Worlds in New York. I thought, “Well, we’ll just see how this tournament goes.” From there on, I had a decent finish and made some money. And that qualified me for the first PT of the next season. I was like, “Well, I’ll just go to that one too and see what happens.” And that became the breakout season where I did well at every single Pro Tour. That was the turning point for me. Fortunately, in the next four Pro Tours I just won a bunch of money. If that turned out differently, then I would not be here today still playing Magic.
James: When you entered those events, did you have a do-or-die mindset? What’s going through your mind as you went into those events?
Martin: It’s not that I have to do well—it’s just that I would like to do better. I’ll try to prepare better and see what happens. But it wasn’t anything like “if I don’t do well, my life is going to be completely different.” I just told myself, “Well, maybe I’ll go back to school. Maybe I’ll keep playing Poker.” And it just happened that I enjoyed all these PT’s more, and I started winning more, and I started preparing better, and it just happened. I think I also probably just got lucky, and that’s a big part of it, too. After that season, I didn’t miss a single Pro Tour or any important tournament.
James: Looking back, did you really feel that it could have gone the other way?
Martin: Yeah, probably. I don’t remember all the games, or that one exact moment where I drew the land that I needed to cast my six-mana spell. But the difference between a 10-6 record and a 12-4 record in a PT is not that big. Sometimes you keep a two-lander in game three and you don’t draw a third and you just get get mana screwed and you lose your match. And sometimes you draw a third land and you go from there. And the difference is really not that big. For 10-6 sometimes you don’t even cash, and with 12-4 you usually sneak into the Top 16 for $5,000. So it’s a big difference in terms of money and Pro Points. But when you think about it, it’s just two different wins and losses, where having an extra land in turn three can go either way.
James: But if you play enough Pro Tours, then eventually your real skill is going to come out, right?
Martin: Oh, yeah. You can just look at people’s lifetime win percentages and that disregards most of the luck if you have a good enough sample size. Four PT’s per season is not a lot of events, but there are also GP’s and that makes up for higher variance.
James: There’s a lot of traveling that you’ve done as part of your professional Magic career. What are your top two or three places that you’ve been to?
Martin: This year we went to PT Nashville. After that, there was a GP in Santiago, Chile. We went to Easter Island, which was one of the most awesome places that I have ever visited because it’s just this remote island, far from everything, with all these weird statues and a lot of mystery around them. The weather was really nice and there was a nice beach, so we spent five really enjoyable days there. Other than that, one of the other times we went to Machu Picchu with a bunch of the CFB guys. This was also in-between GP’s. And my third favorite place was an active volcano in Vanuatu. There was a GP in Sydney that Cifka and I attended, and after that we decided to do some traveling. We booked a flight to Vanuatu and visited an active volcano. We spent a night on this small island with this volcano. And that was super interesting.
James: You said “active volcano.” Was there some risk involved there? [Laughs]
Martin: Yeah, we had to sign a waiver that said we went there on our own risk. And if I remember correctly, that volcano had the distinction of being the most accessible active volcano in the world. It’s just something different. I don’t know. Normally, you don’t get a chance to see an active volcano, so we decided to do that.
James: How close did you get to it?
Martin: We were on the…what’s the word? On the edge of the rim.
James: Did you see the lava? Was it—
Martin: Yeah, yeah. We were able to see inside. We saw the lava and the bursts of lava flying in the air.
James: [Laughs] Was this some kind of dare that you had with your friend or you just—
Martin: No. It was just a question of, “Hey, what are the interesting things that we can do here?” In Fiji, we got to see all the nice beaches and all the places where they shot all the famous movies. With this one, we asked the people there, “Hey, what do you guys have here?” And they were like, “Oh, we have an active volcano. You guys would have to take a tour and fly to a different island and spend the night there.” And we said to ourselves, “Well, that sounds cool enough.” So, we decided to do that.
James: Very cool. And in these three different places that you’ve been to, are you typically traveling with the same folks? Is it the CFB team? Are there particular good friends that you tend to travel with?
Martin: It’s a big group of people, and it’s usually different people. But I did a lot of the traveling with Shuhei [Nakamura], a lot of traveling with Frank [Karsten]. The rest was mostly just different people. It’s not like I travel all the time with just one person.
James: How’s Shuhei’s English? Do you guys communicate well?
Martin: It’s good enough. It’s not on the level that you would be able to just talk about everything. But if you just use simplified English, you could just talk about whatever you just need to talk about. For Magic, it’s good enough. For the normal life kind of things, you need to simplify it and have \a simpler conversation than you would normally have. But it’s fine.
James: Do you guys talk about Magic all the time, or normal stuff, or is it a combination?
Martin: Yeah, it’s just a combination. It’s mostly Magic, but it’s a little bit of both.
James: So even when you’re standing next to the active volcano, you guys are talking about Limited drafting strategies, or something? [Laughs]
Martin: Not at the edge of the crater. But on the way there, we would talk about what we’re playing at next week’s Standard tournament. Stuff like that.
James: Is it difficult to get visas to all the countries that you have to travel to? Is that something that you have to do a lot of planning to get?
Martin: We only need visas to China, Russia, and the US. I actually have a 10-year visa to go to the US. Other than that, we don’t need visas to most countries. A visa is also needed for going to India, and that’s the only other important country that I can think of right now.
James: Are there still places that you would like to go to, but have not had the chance to?
Martin: There are, actually. In January, Frank Karsten and are going on a trip to a couple of places. We are going to Egypt, the Taj Mahal in India, and Petra in Jordan. We are visiting all three places in January. They’ve been at the top of our bucket lists. And since January was one of the “free” months between Magic tournaments, we decided to go with that. This is purely for checking out the world’s wonders.
James: Are you going to mix business with pleasure? Are you going to play Magic while you’re there?
Martin: Probably not. I don’t think we’re going to play any Magic when we’re there.
James: Has anything really surprised you when you traveled to all of these places? In terms of the local people and cultures there? Have your perceptions of different cultures in the world changed after your travels?
Martin: No, I don’t think so. Most of the places are different and similar at the same time. Every place is interesting because of something, but people are human. In some parts of the world, people can be nicer and friendlier. But other than that, I don’t think it’s that much different.
James: Okay. How do you see yourself continuing to evolve as a Magic player?
Martin: I don’t think it’s going to change too much, in terms of the events I’m playing in. I would still like to win a Pro Tour one day. But other than that, I really don’t have specific goals. I’m just happy that I get to travel the world playing Magic. That’s pretty nice on its own, and getting paid to come to tournaments is more than I can ask for. So I’m just happy to be able to have this kind of job. For now, I’m not planning on changing that or having any specific goals. I would like to keep doing well and be at Platinum level every year, because that helps pay for all the traveling. But other than that, I don’t really have any specific goals right now.
James: Do you see the game changing at all—in terms of the game itself, or the tournament structure?
Martin: The tournaments are getting bigger and the prizes are getting slightly bigger as well. At Worlds, the first prize place finish was $100,000, which was pretty nice. In terms of that, things are changing. More players also play Magic, which is great for the game. The game grows really fast. As for the changes in the game—it’s the same thing, basically. They keep putting more money into it, which is great for the players. I think R&D is doing a pretty good job at keeping things balanced. The previous couple of draft formats have been great and fun. Standard is also in a pretty good spot, I think. Maybe not exactly right now, after the new set and people are only playing three decks. But there are a lot of things you can do. They didn’t do an amazing job with cards like Emrakul, but after some time they were able to fix that, too. So I think Magic is in a pretty good spot in general right now, and it’s also good for the players.
James: You’re one of the best Limited players in the world. Recently on Twitter, you commented on the state of the Limited format. Do you think that Limited is in a healthy place right now, and is it still fun for you to play the format?
Martin: I enjoy that the Limited sets are different, but there are some things that are better for Limited and some things that are worse. The previous few sets had things like cycling on lands, Embalm as a flashback mechanic, and a lot of mana fixing. And all of these things are very good for Limited because you have more decisions. Having cycling on lands doesn’t seem important, but it gives you a lot of decisions in Draft and deck building. “Should I pick this land over this spell that I’m going to play?” I’m not counting the cycling land in my 23-17; it’s a card that I basically get to put in my deck for free. There are a lot of decisions with that. And I was very happy with the Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation sets. The previous set was decent, but I can’t say that I like Ixalan right now. We went from having cycling, Embalm, and mana fixing to having a set that basically combines all the bad things from Coldsnap, Avacyn Restored, and the Core. We now have a set where there are no mana sinks, which is bad because every land you draw after land number five is basically a blank. This makes people frustrated and gives them an impression that they got unlucky—if you draw your eighth or ninth land, then you’re basically just drawing blanks. There’s also not a lot of mana fixing. The set just doesn’t seem very well thought out for Limited. Obviously, it’s exciting for people that like Dinosaurs, and Merfolk, all that kind of stuff. But as far as Limited game play goes, it doesn’t seem to be a particularly good set. There are a lot of cards like Spell Pierce, the black five-mana Stone Rain, Demolish, Demystify, and the green Plummet. I think there are way too many of those, which makes for a lot of packs with very few playables. This also translates into a behavior where you can’t stay open for too long in draft. You can’t try to read the signals and figure out which colors are open, because if you do this for too long, then it’s going to be really hard for you to actually get twenty-three playables. Even if you figure out the colors correctly, the packs don’t contain cards for you to take. You can very easily end up having twenty playables because you stayed open for too long. The last three cards in your deck are going to be really bad. For some people, they like that kind of thing. But I’m not a big fan of that.
James: It ultimately takes skill away from the format, right?
Martin: Yeah. We had this conversation with a lot of great players—at Worlds, at the previous GP, and in team forums. Most of the people I’ve talked to share the same view. Basically, when I do well in this format, I feel like I got lucky. I first-picked a Merfolk rare. Or I picked a Vampire rare, and I just kept picking all the cards that said “Vampire” after that. It doesn’t take a lot of skill to first pick a Vampire rare and then take every card that says “Vampire.” That’s just something you do because you can read what the cards do. But for me, Limited is about figuring out which colors are open, trying to figure out what the person behind me is going to be drafting, what colors that the person in front of me is most likely drafting, keeping in mind the tricks and removal spells that I’m passing—so that I can play around them in the future rounds. Stuff like that. And this set just seems to be about fighting for playables and hoping that I’m in the lucky seat where I open something in the right colors.
James: Hopefully it’s going to improve. My understanding, however, is that Wizards designs the block, or the subsequent sets, ahead of time. Do you think that these issues will get addressed in the next one or two sets?
Martin: I think this is the last two-set block, so there is another set that gets paired with Ixalan. But I have no idea if that’s going to improve it or not. I hope so—but who knows? To be honest, it can’t be as bad as Ixalan, so I guess anything better than that will be an improvement.
James: [Laughs] So, there’s nowhere to go but up.
Martin: Yeah, basically. The bar is set pretty low. It might just be the worst set that I have ever played, I think. Even after winning the Team GP in Providence, which was the week before Worlds, I was not looking forward to drafting the set anymore because it’s just not enjoyable. And the fact that we won the Team GP, that doesn’t change anything. That doesn’t change my opinion on the format.
James: Is this a troubling sign of things to come? Is this a new kind of design philosophy, or is it just an anomaly? If they designed this set so badly, it must imply that they’re optimizing for something else in their design. Do you think that it was just not play-tested well?
Martin: I have no idea. I’m hoping it’s just a one-time thing and that the next sets are going to be better. I think this set was a transition set, in terms of having a new play-test team at Wizards. Maybe that was one of the reasons, but that’s just speculation. I have no idea what actually happened. Maybe they wanted it to be like this. Maybe they didn’t want to have a lot of playables. Maybe they wanted us to try something different after having one of the best Limited environments of all time. I have no idea.
James: If there’s one thing I know about Wizards, it’s that they care deeply about public opinion and feedback from the top Magic players. Have they gone back to you with any kind of reaction? Have they talked to you guys at all?
Martin: They talked to us and asked for our opinions, but it’s not like we can change what they print. Maybe we can change a little bit of what they think. But as you said, they work on sets for a long time in advance. Right now, they are working on a set that’s two sets after Ixalan. I don’t think that can change based on people voicing their opinions on Ixalan.
James: Yeah, hopefully it will improve. Switching gears, what is something that you would tell yourself if you could go back in time five years as a Magic player? Is there something that you may have learned in the five years, that you might tell a younger Martin Juza?
Martin: I’d probably tell myself to not be lazy and work harder. I think if I played more, and practiced more, and worked harder, then I would have better results. But I’m just very lazy to do that, so my preparation is usually not that great. So if I could go back in time, this is what I would tell myself.
James: If somebody was getting started with Limited and playing competitively for the first time, and asked you for advice—just some general advice—what would you tell that person?
Martin: Read a lot of articles, watch a lot of coverage, try to get better by absorbing all this information that’s available on the Internet. Play a lot and practice a lot—that’s basically the only way to get better.
If you’re looking for something specific, the one thing that I always tell people is—if you’re drafting and you’re deciding between two cards, and you’re not sure which one to take, always take the cheaper one. Mana curve is super important and expensive cards are usually overrated. So the one thing that I keep telling people in Limited is that if you’re deciding between two cards and you’re not sure which one to pick, then take the cheaper one.
James: Great. Martin, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your career and some of the thoughts you had regarding the state of Magic. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this, and I hope you enjoyed it as well.
Martin: Oh yeah, no problem. Thanks for having me. It was fun. Glad to be part of the show.
James: Thanks again and take care.
Martin: Alright, thank you.
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