Julian Knab is a friendly fellow. Even when you’re literally walking in off the street and asking if he has time for an interview, he will sit down with you and tell you all about his journey to the top of the mountain.
I catch the Magic champion in Prague, where he is playing in the magiccardmarket (MKM) series. I myself am there as a player and a journalist, trying to have a little fun while also getting some serious reporting done.
It’s Saturday, day two of the weekend-long event. Julian is done playing for the day, having dropped out of the Modern tournament and preferring to prepare for Sunday’s big Legacy event.
“In 2016, I’ve actually been more successful in Modern than in Legacy, although I certainly prefer Legacy as a format,” Julian says. In Prague, he’s registered for both events. “I want to get the most out of the tournament. The more I can play, the better.”
Julian landed on Elves by accident
Julian started playing Legacy in 2006. For the first few years, he played all kinds of decks. “Zoo, High Tide, you name it.”
Today, Julian is of course most associated with Elves, a long-time Legacy staple.
“Playing Elves was kind of a happy accident. Back in 2013, I had finished college and was starting a job. I wanted to focus on that, and play less Magic. I was planning to sell most of my cards and keep only a single deck. So I was looking for a deck that was both fun and competitive, and I decided on Elves.”
Instead of playing less like he had planned, Julian actually became more successful by focusing his energy on a single deck. His first place at the 2013 Bazaar of Moxen in Paris and winning the Legacy side events of three European Grand Prix in a row in 2014 quickly built him a reputation as a dedicated Elves player. Ever since, Julian and his deck of choice have been a mainstay of the European tournament scene.
Today, Julian plays about eight major tournaments and dozens of smaller events per year. In order to prepare and keep sharp, he plays between fifty to sixty online games per week, often streaming them through his twitch.tv account. “I really play more than ever. So all of this is really kind of a failure when you think about it,” he laughs.
This is fun! pic.twitter.com/hzec5JjOIg
— Julian Knab (@itsJulian23) November 28, 2016
Every player is part of a team
During all of this time, one constant has stayed with Julian: his Munich-based group of players, who have never agreed on a fancy team name (I recommend one of those unpronouceable Bavarian expletives). Depending on the location, they fly or drive to all major tournaments together.
“The people I started with are the same people I still travel with today. We’ve evolved together, learning as we went along, constantly pushing one another to become better Magic players. As a group, we’re incredibly successful at European tournaments. The Munich-Nuremberg region has earned a lot of prize money in 2016, from the Bazaar of Moxen in Paris to the Ovino in Milan. None of us would be where we are without each other.”
At the time of our interview, his friend Marius Hausmann is 7-0 and about to break into the Top 8 of the Modern tournament. Julian is pumped to see his teammate reap the rewards of their dedicated preparation: “I’m really happy for him. He’s worked so hard and came really close a few times.”
[Author’s note: This is probably as good a time as any to mention that my own car buddy and best friend since childhood, Morten Storm, ended up placing sixth at the Legacy event in Prague and that I’ll have an interview with him up on this site shortly.]
No one is immune to variance
As if on cue, two of Julian’s friends sit down at our table, laying out their decks and discussing card choices for Sunday’s Legacy event. In the middle of our conversation, Julian offhandedly reaches over to his buddy’s sideboard and singles out a Wear/Tear: “Which matchup do you need that for?”
“Merfolk,” comes the answer.
“Well, no one is playing Merfolk, so that’s a dead card.”
“What if I need it?”
“You won’t need it. If you do, you’ll lose, but you won’t.”
The interview continues as Julian explains the reasoning behind his advice. If you want to win, he says, you’ll have to beat the best, which means concentrating on the relevant matchups.
“Sometimes you’ll lose to a deck you’re not prepared for. That’s just part of life. And it’s certainly better than losing to the top tier decks every time.”
“No one is immune to variance,” Julian says, “not me, not you.” He offers a comparison to underline this point: “That lesson really clicked with me during the time I played Poker, which actually shares a lot of important skills with Magic. In Poker, you can not win every hand. But you can do everything to maximize your chances.”
Long-term strategic advantage is undervalued
At the same time, Julian is not too worried about complex statistics. “Calculating probabilities in your head is already difficult enough to do in Poker. In Magic, it is downright impossible. It’s just not worth it. There are just too many cards and interactions. Instead, I try to generate realistic estimates and then act accordingly.”
“Let’s say you’re thinking about anticipating an opponent’s reaction to a card. You estimate the chance he will play a specific response at around 80 percent. If he does, you estimate your play should give you a 70 percent chance of winning. In that case, the probability of your play winning the game comes out to 56 percent – meaning that it’s a slightly favorable coin flip, which I’ll gladly take in some cases. In others, I might wait for a better deal.”
Many players, Julian argues, are too focused on tactical gains to pay any attention to overall strategy. Instead, they rely on rehearsed lines of play and short-term gains. For Knab, this mentality makes little sense: “In chess, you don’t see a player trade a bishop for a pawn just because he can. Yet in Magic, this is actually very common. Strategic, long-term advantage is chronically undervalued.”
His advice, then, is to always lay out a plan towards victory. “You always need to ask yourself: what do I need to win? Even more importantly, what don’t I need? What can I afford to trade away?”
Sounds like good advice. I promise to try and heed it in the next day’s tournament. Julian wishes me luck. Then he has to go. The Modern Top 8 is about to start – and Julian needs to support his teammate.
A front row seat to your own destruction
On Sunday, Julian and I meet again in the Legacy tournament – as fifth round opponents.
By pure chance, I now have a front-row seat to Julian Knab’s style of playing Magic to go with our interview.
It’s a pivotal moment: both of us are 3-1, meaning we have been doing okay so far, but a second loss would very probably put either of us out of Top 8 contention.
It’s actually quite fascinating watching Julian play after hearing him speak in-depth about his view of the game just the day before. Indeed, he plays the same way he carries a conversation. This is not at all a deadly serious player: the first thing you notice when you play him is his trusty mascot, a green Yoshi plush doll, being set down on the playmat. Knab is joking, talking left and right, offering running commentary – yet at the same time, he is clearly paying attention to your plays and how they impact his ability to win down the line.
As one would suppose from hearing him speak on sideboarding and decision-making, Julian is not a risk-averse player, preferring to act confidently on his analysis instead of trying to narrow down a list of unavoidable plays. In our game, he goes for the aggressive options early, trying, and rebuilding, and then just trying again.
The entire time, it’s almost impossible for me to say whether I’m even any close to winning the game. I’m suddenly getting the lingering suspicion that I’m one of the many players Julian sees as playing a short-sighted tactical game, while he is calmly executing on his strategy.
In the end, Julian shows why he has won a veritable litany of European events these past years and handily dismantles me, ending my hopes of finishing anywhere near the Top 8. He laughs, which makes it a bit easier for me to do so as well. Secretly, I’m still swearing bloody revenge.
After nine rounds, Julian will narrowly miss his goal as well and end up in 21st place, almost exactly thirty places above me.
Well, there’s always a next time.