The 2018 Magic: The Gathering World Championship recently completed, and a champion crowned, I sought out Javier Dominguez to talk to him about his introduction to the game, his rise to Pro Tour mainstay, and ascendancy to the highest level of the game.
Javier’s journey to the top of the game has a common theme throughout—humility. Even after two 9th place Pro Tour finishes (Battle for Zendikar and Hour of Devastation), a Top 8 at Pro Tour Ixalan, a finals appearance at the 2017 World Championship, and a 1st place finish at the 2018 World Championship, Javier still describes himself as “just another Magic player.” In his case, the humble attitude he has now started from humble beginnings.
Originally from Palau de Plegamans in Spain, a small town near Barcelona, Javier first encountered Magic cards in 2001 at the suggestion of his cousin, Pedro. They began to travel to the game store in town to play the newest set, Apocalypse. Much like all new players, Javier remembers having very hyperbolic evaluations of some cards that ruled the local meta but today might barely get a second look. In Javier’s case this referred to the “broken card,” Soothsaying. I asked him if he had seen the Legacy Miracles lists a year ago that were testing Soothsaying as a replacement for the newly banned Sensei’s Divining Top, and if he thought this meant that maybe he was right all along. Javier laughed, “well, at least it pitches to Force of Will.”
At 16, Javier qualified for his first Pro Tour at New Orleans in 2003, which meant it would be the first time he would travel outside of Spain to play in a tournament. One of the first obstacles in preparing for the Pro Tour was convincing his parents to allow him to travel to the U.S., but like many of the challenges that Javier has faced throughout the years, in his words he simply “got there.” So along with a small contingent of his fellow Spaniards, they prepared an Extended deck centered around Hermit Druid and became excited about their chances. I asked him how he feels about this deck selection looking back and he reminded me that this Pro Tour became known as Pro Tour Tinker for a reason. That reason is that it put 28 copies into the Top 8, but it was a card they had completely overlooked in testing. Javier and his humble Hermit Druid deck failed to make Day 2 and he finished a paltry 164th. Yet in typical Javier fashion he beamed over his finish at his next tournament, a 6-2 record at a Mirrodin Block Sealed Pro Tour Amsterdam Qualifier the very next day.
Underscoring his identity as “just another Magic player,” Javier shared his excitement in New Orleans following “legend of the game” Jon Finkel’s performance throughout the weekend and meeting his favorite player, Zvi Mowshowitz, whose deck building prowess Javier admired. After his first Pro Tour experience he was motivated to qualify for the next one, saying he had recognized that the other players were just so much better than him.
To this day Javier has never won a match against Zvi, but insists that he is not a rival (nor is anyone else), instead citing internal motivation for his success. This became important over a run of less than stellar performances, including the next year at Team Pro Tour Seattle in 2004, where Javier and his team failed to win a single match all tournament (including a loss to Zvi’s team). For most players, these early losses on the big stage might have been discouraging, but Javier says that he just loves improving at the game. “Once you start to do well at tournaments, they […] motivate you to play even more tournaments.” Losing can also be inspiring too, and Javier suggests that even if he did not always do well in the big matches early in his career, as long as he could keep making it into the big matches, eventually he could break through.
As Javier began to string together consecutive Pro Tour qualifications, Pedro was no longer playing the game, but his cousin—despite never qualifying for the Pro Tour—would regularly quip, “if you keep trying, one day you will be better than me!” Over the next several years Javier kept trying to be better and played in 11 more Pro Tours, cashing a few of them and posting some good finishes, such as a 13th place at Pro Tour Columbus in 2005 and 11th at Worlds in Yokohama. Then, following Worlds in Paris in 2006, Javier decided to leave the game to focus on poker, which temporarily brought his Magic career to an end. After several years he began to play again, but only a few small local Legacy tournaments where he enjoyed everything from Cephalid Breakfast to Temur Delver to Sultai Control.
Javier’s fire for the game was reignited when the Pro Tour went to Valencia, Spain for Pro Tour Born of the Gods in 2013, and he played in all but one Pro Tour Qualifier in an attempt to defend his home turf and play “the best” game he had missed in his time away. Even though he failed to qualify for that local Pro Tour, the competitive bug had bitten again and Javier rededicated himself to the game. He now qualified for every Pro Tour since Valencia, and with even more success than before.
Javier credits his increased success to a change in preparation, which early in his return paid dividends in a 19th place finish at Pro Tour Magic 2015 in Portland. Specifically, Javier began to devour Limited content —what he viewed as a weakness in his game—especially anything from Yuuya Watanabe, Owen Turtenwald, and Marco Carvalho. He claims to have watched every game of Limited that they played at the competitive level over the last several years. Even when watching them play now defunct formats, Javier still recognizes the skill of successful creature combat, often recognizing lines he would have taken that were different than those of the legendary players, but only to find that his lines would have snowballed the whole game out of reach and likely led to him losing those matches while these players managed to take the only lines that had a chance at winning. Over time, he was able to evolve from recognition to replication, now applying this to his own game.
As for Constructed—perhaps mirroring his childhood favorite player Zvi—Javier cited improved deck choices and widening his deck range for his recent Constructed success. This is an ongoing challenge, he said, and recently, Javier recognized that during the Temur Energy meta that he had a tendency to play anything but Temur at the beginning, but the power of that deck was eventually obvious through his own testing and the results it was putting up all around that he decided to switch outside of his comfort zone.
By increasing his range of decks—a tactic Javier had some experience with from back in his Legacy days during his professional hiatus—he slowly began to feel more comfortable switching between decks during the season, following along with the meta instead of forcing himself into a single trench, which may prove to be indefensible once the entire Constructed metagamed settles. This technique is still a work in progress, and Javier points to the 25th Anniversary Pro Tour in Minneapolis where his team had written off Standard Turbofog, which then went on to be the breakout deck of the tournament.
Few players can say that they have had as successful a run as Javier in the past couple of years. This streak is highlighted by what is potentially a Hall of Fame résumé with two 9th place Pro Tour finishes, a Pro Tour Top 8, a Worlds finals appearance, and a Worlds victory. While the favorite question of outside observers following the finals loss in last year’s Worlds was if that motivated him to his better performance this year, Javier says that he does not think like that. He did not feel bad after the loss last year and was very proud of his finish. He is not immune to the magnitude of the moment though, and when I asked him if losing in the Worlds finals was really no different than losing the finals of Grand Prix Warsaw in 2013, he said that he actually felt better about the Worlds loss because it meant that he had a very good tournament on the biggest stage.
Considering his long career in the game, Javier struggled to think about where his life would be if the game never existed. Despite the few years break where he focused on poker, Magic is such a large part of his life through the competitive outlet, the lasting relationships, and even a career. In looking forward to the next year, Javier says that he is not going to change much in his preparation methods that have given him so much success. He just welcomes a new year playing new decks piloted by new challengers or—as Javier puts it—“the great thing about Magic is that the learning never stops.”
If you have questions for Javier, you can find him on Twitter, or check out his tournament report from Worlds. If you liked this interview and would like more, let me know who you would like interviewed and what you want to know about them on Twitter or in the comments below!
Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast