Hello! Have you ever wondered what does it mean to be a Magic pro? What does it take for a random guy – living in a small country, with nothing but a big dream – to go up from casual play in a local game store, to the biggest stage of Magic? How does it feel to turn your biggest passion ever into a well-paid full-time job? If so, this is a great place for you! I’m Grzegorz “Urlich” Kowalski, and this is my story.
I’m from Poland, a relatively small country in the Central/Eastern Europe. Since an average salary here is around $900, I always had an anti-system approach to life. Ever since I finished primary school, I wanted to find a way of earning my living, without having a so-called “real” full-time job. When I was 6, I signed up for a professional soccer club in an attempt to become the best goalkeeper I could possibly be, and make a career out of that. 13 years later – when I was 19 – an injury abruptly ended my soccer path, and I had to find myself a different dream.
I just knew it had to be something that would let me be the owner of my life – not an office worker for some corporations. I tried many things, including some weird ones – like playing random MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online). I spent a lot of time learning and playing poker. I did basically everything I could to avoid going to someone else’s office at 7:00 am every single day. Luckily for me, I found one. At the beginning it was just an irrelevant hobby, but then it turned out to be a passion, a job, and simply a large part of my life. As you have probably figured out by now, I’m talking about Magic: The Gathering here.
Everything started when I was in the middle school. My classmate brought some random Magic cards. We didn’t know anything about formats, rules (other than very basic ones), and other stuff. We just played by our own rules and had a lot of fun. But since I always loved to compete with other people, soon after that, we went to the local game store and asked about Magic. That’s how I started playing my first FNMs and prereleases. It was even more fun than playing during breaks at school, so I bought a real deck. Back in the day, the most popular format in Poland was Extended.
I picked up Scepter-Chant (loved that deck!), and along with my new friends from the LGS, I went to my first big tournament outside of my hometown – a PTQ. As you can probably imagine, I got easily destroyed, but it was the best experience I’d ever had with Magic at that time. So many people sharing a hobby with me, big stakes, serious games, compared to what I’d experienced while playing FNMs, judges, the best players in Poland. It was amazing. I wanted to play more of those “higher-stakes” tournaments, but I knew I had to prepare better for the next time!
Not much later, I got my first opportunity to attend a Magic tournament abroad. My buddies and I went to GP Hannover, and it was INSANE. There were over 1000 players from so many different countries and we could communicate with each other! I was even lucky enough to make day two (7-2) without any byes! Obviously, on the second day I was destroyed again – it certainly wasn’t my level yet – but the experience I got was priceless. A trip to another country, a few days spent with good friends – it was so much better than single-day PTQ trips. It was then when I realized something: the bigger event I played, the more fun I had. Magic was great!
If you want to ever become a pro, you have to love the game first. You will spend a lot of hours practicing it, hanging out with the community, and reading articles about Magic. If you don’t truly enjoy it, it will become a nightmare sooner or later, and you will never reach your goals. Just be sure you don’t set your “pro goals” before you convince yourself that playing Magic is what you really love to do.
The First Pro Tour – (PT Nagoya 2011)
It was 2011 and I made a lot of connections in my community. I started hanging out with some of those people even outside of Magic. Some even became my close friends, and I keep hanging out with them today, even if they don’t play Magic anymore. We loved the game, so we wanted to play as much competitive Magic as possible. Generally speaking, we tried to play every single PTQ in Poland, and some GPs close to us. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to win one of the local qualifiers. It was a PTQ to Nagoya (Japan), including a flight ticket for the first place!
The opportunity was real! At that time, I didn’t even know what to expect from trip like this. It was my first flight ever, I had never seen an airport in my life, I didn’t know any other qualified player, and didn’t know what to do at all. Well, except for one thing. I knew I wanted to do my very best to prepare myself for this event in terms of Magic skill. I practiced every single day for about 2 or 3 weeks, often with the friends from my hometown.
In the end, we came up with a 《Tempered Steel》 deck (the format was Scars of Mirrodin Block Constructed), and our list was only different by a few cards from Luis Scott-Vargas‘ list! Without Magic Online, a big professional team, or any outside help really! You can’t even imagine how proud I was! It was the first time I played against players like Todd Anderson, Ivan Floch, Pierre Dagen, or Mattia Rizzi. Some of them were popular at that time already, some were still waiting for their days of glory, but I can tell you one thing: I met them many times in my life after 2011! My score wasn’t embarrassing for a first Pro Tour. After making day two, I finished with 9-7, and enjoyed my time in Japan.
As I was there along, it was a good lesson of life. I loved how everything was different than in Europe, like literally everything. Culture, people’s mindset, architecture, food. Everyone was super kind and helpful. I instantly fell in love with Japan. Do you remember when I told you that every time I played an event bigger than before, I started to love Magic even more?
Well, the Pro Tour in Japan took that to a whole new level. I’m sure I would never had a chance to visit Japan if I didn’t play Magic, and it was an insane experience. I knew getting to play the Pro Tour wasn’t easy; I also knew it was possible. If I’d qualified once, it was obvious I could do it again. I promised myself that when I come back home, I’d do my best to qualify again. This was a big turning point.
Live close with your community. Maybe Magic is a 1 on 1 game, but the majority of fun comes from people. I’m sure I wouldn’t enjoy the game as much as I do, for such a long time, without my local community. Those are the people, my friends, who keep me around this game. If you have to travel to another city, or country, to play a professional Magic event, having a group of friends going with you is priceless. Respect other people in your local game store, be kind, and have fun with them! You won’t regret it. The Magic community is awesome!
PTQ Grind and Heartbreaking Moments – (2011-2013)
I’m the kind of a guy who always tries to keep his promises, including the ones I made to myself. I had a new goal in mind, and I was willing to work hard to make it real. We formed a testing team with my local buddies, and started testing regularly in a friend’s house. At that time, in Poland we only had 2 PTQs per Pro Tour, so we were looking for some outside of our country too.
Almost every time we went somewhere, at least one of us finished in top8, which motivated us to work harder. We knew we were close, so we wanted to close the gap and get there. I’m pretty sure I improved a lot in the two years following PT Nagoya, and I believe I was a good PTQ-level player at that time, but then came probably the most heartbreaking few weeks in my Magic career. Getting back to the Pro Tour was my dream ever since I came back home from Japan.
Enter qualifier season for Pro Tour Theros, with realistic access to five PTQs: 2 in Germany, 2 in Poland, 1 in Czech Republic. Every single one had around a hundred players. During the entire season, I played with my lovely Mardu Aristocrats deck, with insane synergy between 《Boros Reckoner》 and 《Blasphemous Act》. The deck was great, so I was really looking forward to the season. The first three PTQs I finished at 8th, 4th and again 4th place. The next one was in Krakow, Poland. I advanced to the finals, and lost to my friend and teammate from my hometown.
I was obviously happy for his success because he was my friend after all. But on the other hand, it was such a huge dream-crush for me. I was so close. For the 4th time in a row. I had a win rate between 85 and 90%, and I still didn’t have a slot. This was the time when I really started doubting if all of that made any sense. It was just too much for me. There was one more chance. Prague, Czech Republic, the very next week. Since I promised myself that I’d do my best, I didn’t have a choice, I jumped into a car with my friends, registered the exact same 75 from Krakow, and gave myself another, last shot.
I won. It felt unreal. It was a dream come true. The hard work I’d put into mastering my deck paid off. And now, not only did I qualify for PT Theros, I qualified for PT Theros with my close friend!
Don’t ever give up. If you want to be a Magic pro, you will have your good and bad moments, like everyone else. Magic is a game, where variance plays a relevant role. You can be the best player in the world, and go 0-2 in a local FNM. The only way to overcome this is to work hard to become a better player, and play a lot to build a good sample size. If you don’t give up during the process, sooner or later you will get what you deserve!
First Polish Team and PT Atlanta/Madrid – (2013 – 2015)
Playing at the PT wasn’t easy. I played a lot of GPs at that time, and felt like a difference in average player’s level between both kind of events was huge. 2013 and 2014 weren’t great for me. Percentage win rate overall was decent, but I didn’t spike anything. Many GP day twos, Pro Tour invites from time to time, but nothing above that. However, everything changed in 2015.
We finally created a fully dedicated Polish team. That was the first time in my life when I went with group of other people a week before the event, booked a hotel and spent the majority of every single day on testing! We were all friends, so we also had a great time together. I believe this was the first big boost of my skill level in my career. For the first time, I felt really prepared, with so many games played versus people who also cared a lot about their own score. It’s just different from testing with people who want to help you, but are not playing the main event themselves. The first PT we played together was Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. Eldrazi Winter, one of the worst options for someone outside of a big professional testing group.
Even though we didn’t even think about Eldrazi, I managed to finish 11-5, and my friend Bart Lewandowski lost win and in for top8, after fully missing his 《Collected Company》, and losing the second copy from hand to 《Surgical Extraction》 right away. The moment was heartbreaking, but the event itself was a great success. We were qualified for another PT, so we decided to recreate the team and try again. This time we made our own deck, and played it as the whole team. GB Silumgar!
1 《Sunken Hollow》
4 《Evolving Wilds》
4 《Hissing Quagmire》
4 《Llanowar Wastes》
1 《Yavimaya Coast》
1 《Blighted Fen》
-Land (25)- 4 《Sylvan Advocate》
2 《Den Protector》
3 《Tireless Tracker》
2 《Nissa, Vastwood Seer》
2 《Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet》
1 《Gilt-Leaf Winnower》
2 《Dragonlord Silumgar》
4 《Grasp of Darkness》
2 《Ultimate Price》
1 《Transgress the Mind》
2 《Ruinous Path》
1 《Read the Bones》
2 《Dead Weight》
2 《Ob Nixilis Reignited》
It had a huge surprise factor, as everyone expected us to be running a stock GB midrange list – so no one played around 《Dragonlord Silumgar》 which was our own addition. We tried to keep blue mana off the table for as long as possible, and countless Planeswalkers were stolen during their “ultimate turn”. The deck allowed me to finish the event with 12-4, barely missing top8 and getting slot for another PT! Since that day I didn’t miss a single Pro Tour! Not everyone from the “PRONION TEAM” is still playing Magic, but I would love to use this space to say big “THANK YOU”! You were the first people who pushed me into professional Magic, and made my long-term dream possible!
Make connections with people having the same aspirations as you! If you want to win a PTQ, it’s great to form a testing group with other people interested in playing PTQs. The same is true for GPs and PTs. Sharing a goal with other players helps all of you. They will be as motivated as you, and work harder than someone who doesn’t care that much about the final result.
Cabin Crew – (2016-2017)
After adding few good GP finishes, I managed to hit Gold, which was the second-best pro status at that time. Thanks to that, one day received a surprising message from my new friend, Petr Sochurek. He asked “hey, would you be interested to test with Cabin Crew for Sydney?”. WOW. This was one of the two best teams in Europe at that time, next to EUreka. So many players I knew only from Pro Tour coverage, led by Martin Juza – the guy who had been inspiring me to play pro Magic for years, even without knowing that I exist, by showing his great “play the game, see the world” lifestyle on his social media. As the shy guy, who never really looked for attention, I was kind of overwhelmed by that offer. I knew it was a great chance for me, and an opportunity I might never get again, if I declined.
Petr Sochurek and Martin Juza
(Image Copyright : Wizards of the Coast)
On the other hand, going to another country alone, without knowing anyone on the team except for Petr, just to play cards? There would be the best players in Europe there – would I be good enough, to test with them? So many difficult questions were invading my mind, and even though today I think all of those questions were stupid, at that time I didn’t really know what to do.
Fortunately, I agreed, and met some great people, some of whom are my good friends today. As you can imagine, this was another great experience, and I learned a lot from them. The testing process was different than I’d done before. We had more people, so we could play in-person drafts. Since we met over two weeks before the event, we also had more time for everything. Some weird brews, unconventional drafts strategies, everything we basically wanted. All of that somewhere in the Czech mountains, in Martin’s big house, far away from civilization.
In the end, I didn’t feel like it was a great time for me in terms of tournament results, as I was always a little short for something big (Petr even called me Greg “X-5 every single PT” Kowalski at some point). I was very consistent, but again, couldn’t spike. I knew I improved a lot as a player, so I didn’t complain, and just humbly waited for my days to come.
Don’t be afraid of trying new things, if they might improve you. It might be stressful or inconvenient, especially if you’re a quiet and shy person like me, but at some points you will have to get out of your comfort zone, if you want to get to the top anyway. It’s different for every single one of us, but everyone has to go through things we don’t like and we’re not comfortable with: be it doing an interview, meeting new people, playing in the feature match area, or whatever someone can be afraid of. The sooner you start, the better for you.
World Championship – (2017-2019)
2017 World Magic Cup
And here we are, the brightest time of my career. The first major success was 2017 World Magic Cup. As Team Poland, together with Piotr Glogowski and Radek Kaczmarczyk, we had the honor to make history of Polish Magic. This was something I had never experienced before. All the support pouring from our countrymen was insane. It was so much different from regular Pro Tours. I wasn’t just “Kowalski”. I was a part of TEAM POLAND and I was extremely proud of it.
We managed to finish on the second place, which was far above everyone’s expectations, losing finals to definitely the best team in the competition – Team Japan. Two Hall-of-Famers plus another great player in their line-up turned out to be just a little too much for us. We played three matches, all of them with full 3 games. We lost just by one small game, against the best team in the world. If you want to read more about the match, and the event itself, I wrote an article about that below.
- World Magic Cup Report -With My Great Friends and Teammates-
- Grzegorz Kowalski
2018 World Championship
2018. September. World Championship. 24 of the best players in the world in one room, the room I was sitting in! Getting to the Worlds was an achievement itself. I didn’t have high hopes. All I wanted to do was to play my best Magic. To look in the mirror after the event, and say “I did my best, they were better, I’ll improve and come back stronger”. And that’s kind of what happened. I did play my very best, and with some genuine help of variance, I got to the finals. The last match was very close, and I know I was probably one land short from getting all I ever dreamed about, but in the end, I lost. The one single most important game of Magic in my entire life.
Fortunately, I knew how lucky I was during the weekend, and I knew I couldn’t complain at all, so I was able to handle the loss quite well. Who knows, maybe it was good for me? It’s easy to be overwhelmed by a huge success, and to start thinking differently. How to set up another goal, if you’re the World Champion? How to convince yourself to work as hard as you should, in order to remain on the top, if you already achieved “everything” in the game? Fortunately, we can ask Javier Dominguez, who is nothing less than truly deserving World Champion, and who showed us this year, that he has a perfect answer to the questions above. I wish one day I’ll get to his level, and show the world another worthy champion!
- What’s Happened in the World Championship
- Grzegorz Kowalski
- The World Champion of Glory
- Javier Dominguez
Don’t be afraid of competition. Always focus on yourself, and playing your best. It’s easy to be afraid if you sit in front of the best players in the world, but if you play well, you don’t leave them much room to outplay you. It’s not a chess game, where better player almost always wins. In Magic, it doesn’t matter who you play against, you always have a chance. At the end of the day, if you played well, and still lost, you should be happy, and proud of yourself. Don’t set goals about winning tournaments. Your goal should be to improve your skill, and become a better player. If you focus on that, your wins will come as well!
I want to be the very best, like no one ever was. – (The Future)
Magic gave me a lot in my life. Great friends, the opportunity to travel around the world, exactly as I dreamed about ten years ago, while following Martin Juza’s social media, and now, with the MPL, money to live comfortably. What will the future bring? I don’t know, but I can promise you, and myself, exactly like I did years ago, that I will work as hard as I can, to be the best Magic player I can possibly be. Other players on the top level might be smarter than me, and have more experience, but I’m convinced that not many of them are willing to work as hard as I am, and if Magic taught me something, it’s definitely that hard work really pays off. Trust me. It does.
Thank you for reading,