Magic: the Gathering

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The Legend of Kai Budde - Player of the Year!

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In an emotional announcement during the Modern Horizons 3 Pro Tour, Wizards of the Coast changed the 2024 "Player of the Year" trophy into the "Kai Budde Player of the Year" trophy. Let's delve into the history of one of the best Magic: The Gathering players of all time!

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Introduction

Greetings, friends! Today, we'll honor one of the greatest names in Magic: The Gathering history: Kai Budde, the German Juggernaut.

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The Greatest Pro Tour Champion

There are a few debates most groups of friends love to argue: who is the best? Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? Star Wars or Lord of the Rings? The Beatles or Rolling Stones?

There are many of Magic: The Gathering old-time questions like these. Who is the greatest player of all time is a very subjective question, but, for a long time, most people agreed on two names: Jon Finkel and Kai Budde. A few years later, the Brazilian player Paulo Vítor Damo da Rosa (PV) proved he was worthy of being included in this debate as well. Nonetheless, no one can agree on who is the best, or the greatest; most people can't even agree on what criteria they should use to determine the answer to this question. However, if we only consider how many tournaments they've won, it's incredibly difficult to argue anyone besides Budde, in his dominating prime, was worthy of this title.

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Kai Budde and Jon Finkel at the Modern Horizons 3 Pro Tour
Kai Budde and Jon Finkel at the Modern Horizons 3 Pro Tour

Let's get to the numbers: Kai has won more Pro Tours, the most important Magic: The Gathering tournaments, out of all, as he won 7 of them - one of these was even the 1999 World Championship. For comparison, the other players who won the most Pro Tours after him have "only" won 3 each: Jon Finkel, Seth Manfield, and Dirk Baberowski (and two of Dirk's titles were Trio Pro Tours with Budde himself!). As World Championships were no longer considered Pro Tours from 2012 onward, PV has only won 2 Pro Tours and a World Championship.

But that's not all. Kai has also won more Grand Prix events, big tournaments open to any player: he won 7 of them. He shares this record with two other players, Yuuya Watanabe and Shuhei Nakamura. He also was named "Player of the Year" more times than anybody, namely 4. Only 2 other players got this title twice: the aforementioned Yuuya Watanabe and Owen Turtenwald. Furthermore, Budde has won basically anything he could in his time: he was Magic German National Champion in 2002, won the Team World Championship in that same year, and the now extinct Master Series and Invitational ("invite-only" tournaments). Masters happened alongside Pro Tours, and the Invitational awarded its winner with the honor of creating their own card. In Kai's case, he created Voidmage Prodigy. In 2007, he was inducted into the Pro-Tour Hall of Fame.

The reason we're discussing this incredible player today is sad, but it's also an opportunity for us to celebrate him and Magic: The Gathering. During the Modern Horizons 3 Pro Tour, they announced that Kai Budde is currently battling cancer, and that the situation isn't very promising. To honor him, the 2024 "Player of the Year" award is now the Kai Budde Player of the Year award. It was a really emotional moment for everyone present, as William "Huey" Jensen, Director of Play Programs and Hall of Fame member himself, gave a beautiful speech to celebrate Budde. Many important members of the community shed their tears, and many later declared how influential this German Juggernaut was for their careers, either indirectly or directly.

I had the honor of sitting in front of him at the 2006 World Championship's "Player's Meeting", which happens before the first round of each Pro Tour is announced, and exchanged a few words. He was always considered by community members as a very nice person outside the game table, but a fearless opponent when the game was on. That was precisely the impression I had when I talked to him and watched him play his Feature Matches.

Personally, I was always #teamKai in these debates, and I consider an honor that I met him in person. When I heard about the news, I felt obligated as a member of the MTG community and writer to also honor him, someone who will always be remembered in Magic: The Gathering history.

A Star is Born

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Though he started playing in 1994 and classified for his first Pro Tour in 1997, Kai only stood out to the rest of the world in 98-99 when, in just 7 months, he won 3 Grand Prix (Barcelona, Vienna, and Amsterdam) and got 2nd place at another.

Once he was considered the "King of the Grand Prix" and a promising player in the competitive scene, he followed it up with his first Pro Tour victory at that year's World Championship. This title also guaranteed him the points he needed to become the Player of the Year in that season (98-99). The following season was quite uneventful, as he won no titles, and some people started to think he had been just a fleeting shooting star, or a fluke. A mistake.

The German Juggernauts

His 2000-2001 season was the second-best run in a professional Magic: The Gathering circuit of all time; the best run in a professional Magic: The Gathering circuit of all time was his 2001-2002 season. He started with a 3rd place at the Florence Grand Prix, and then followed it up with his 2nd Pro Tour title in Chicago in one of the most famous Top 8 in the history of MTG: 6 out of these 8 players later made it to the Hall of Fame! I'll stress that, at this time, only two other players had won 2 Pro Tours, Jon Finkel and Tommi Hovi.

Budde laid low for the next 2 Pro Tours, but he made history for good when he became the first three-times Pro Tour champion after he won the Barcelona Pro Tour. He completed his season with his 2nd Player of the Year title. And that's where his 2001-2002 season starts.

Budde began by winning his fourth Grand Prix title at that season's fifth Grand Prix, and started preparing for the Team Pro Tour in the following week in New York. And, guess what? The Phoenix Foundation, his team with Dirk Baberowski and Marco Blume, won that tournament and made Budde a four-times champion!

The Phoenix Foundation
The Phoenix Foundation

However, the year wasn't over yet, and the Juggernaut was ready to keep on stacking titles. In October 2001, he won the Invitational, which gave him the honor of creating his own card, Voidmage Prodigy. Then came the New Orleans Pro Tour. The rumor is that the MTG columnist Eric Taylor (EDT) said he was so sure Budde would never win his 5th Pro Tour and become the first (and, so far, only) player to win 2 Pro Tours in a row that he would eat his own hat if that happened. Well, EDT had to pay up and eat his own hat, because that's precisely what happened!

EDT eats his own hat!
EDT eats his own hat!

Right afterward in this incredible season, Budde didn't win his 3rd Pro Tour in a row, but he won two other Grand Prix events, and also won Masters (at the time played with the Pro Tour) with the Phoenix Foundation in Osaka.

The Nice Pro Tour was the next event in the season and, to no one's surprise, Budde made it to another Top 8. As he had won the previous five Top 8s, the legend was that "Budde couldn't lose on Sundays (the day Top 8 matches took place)". This legend was finally over when the Dutch player Bram Snepvangers became the first player to beat Budde at a Pro Tour Top 8. As a bonus, on that same weekend, Budde also made it to Top 4 at the Masters event.

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Between the Nice Pro Tour and the World Championship (held in Sydney, Australia, and won by Brazilian player Carlos Romão (Jaba)), Budde also won the German National Championship, which earned him and his team a spot at the Team World Championship. I already spoiled it for you and said Jaba won that year's World Championship, so this was another title the Juggernaut didn't win, right? Yes, but for the individual category, because he represented Germany for the Team title. Logically, he was, once again, for the third time, named Player of the Year.

Then the 2002-2003 season started. The first Pro Tour, in Boston, was once again a Team event. At this point, it wasn't even fun anymore: it was Phoenix Foundation's 2nd title and Kai Budde's 6th overall title. He also got to another Grand Prix Top 4 in a much "lighter" season than before, and couldn't get to Top 8 at the next Pro Tour, in Houston.

Next was the 3rd Pro Tour in that season. Budde once again makes it to the Top 8, then semifinals. His opponent was Jon Finkel. That was the only time they ever faced each other in a Top 8. It is, perhaps, one of the greatest games in Magic: The Gathering history. The format was Onslaught Limited. In a magical moment, Kai Budde plays a removal on one of Finkel's Morphed creatures. It resolves. Finkel reveals the Morphed creature: Voidmage Prodigy! Kai ended up winning the game, the subsequent finals, and thus his seventh Pro Tour title.

Finkel vs Budde
Finkel vs Budde

He won no other titles this season, but he did make it into another Top 8 at the Chicago's Masters, and finished, for the fourth time and the third time in a row, as Player of the Year.

The Later Years

Having won everything, then again, then another time, Budde slowed down in the following years and stepped away from the game completely periodically. Years after his incredible 2000-2003 run, he won another title (Madrid 2004), and three Grand Prix Top 8s, three Pro Tours Top 8s (one with the Phoenix Foundation) and another Top 8 at the Las Vegas Mythic Championship III. He won more than US$380.000 in prizes in Magic: The Gathering tournaments throughout his career.

The last time he participated in a professional tournament was precisely in the Modern Horizons 3link outside website Pro Tour, when WotC honored his unbelievable career. He couldn't make it to Day 2 of that competition, but stayed to play other tournaments. Including a Pro Tour Qualifier on Sunday. Which he won. After all, Budde doesn't lose on Sundays!

Final Words

We will never agree on who is the best Magic: The Gathering player of all time (in my modest opinion, that's Budde), but no one can say Kai Budde is not among the top 3. His Pro Tour record is apparently impossible to beat, and his 2001-2002 run was the greatest feat in the history of the game.

His name will always be tied to the title of Player of the Year. The sad news about his health is nothing next to his MTG legacy. Time will pass, but the legend of Kai Budde remains.

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Thank you for reading, and see you next time!