Meet the Pandas – Magic On The Mat – Raphaël Levy

Meet the Pandas – Magic On The Mat – Raphaël Levy

Meet the Pandas sheds light on the faces of Panda Nation. Last episode we introduced brown belt medal chaser Pat Hemenway of Pellegrino MMA. Now, we focus on Raphaël Levy of association Aranha: A professional Magic: The Gathering player, brown belt BJJ dad, and driving force behind the French edition of Jits Magazine.

Since age 15, Raphaël Levy has been competing professionally in the weird world of the trading card game Magic: The Gathering. Destined for a nerdy life of physical inactivity, he somehow discovered Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and he was able to channel all his strategy skills into this new passion. Also, he brought Jits Magazine to France and managed to unite the many different strands of the French BJJ scene.

How did you get your start in martial arts?

Raphael Levy: Around 2009 I was doing karate, and I went to visit a friend in Sweden. He told me I was wasting my time, he figured I should be doing BJJ instead. So I found a school in my city of Toulouse, Association Aranha, and I tried it out. Bear in mind that I was never athletic, I’ve never done much of any sports. When all the cool kids in school played soccer, I stayed inside with my chessboard. The first thing I noticed was the variety of people on the mat: of all shapes, sizes and walks of life. That was great. But the class itself was a pretty horrible experience for me (laughs). I was exhausted, my head was spinning and I wanted to puke. So it was a big challenge. I figured that if I’d ever wanted to become good at this thing, it would have to take some serious commitment. I signed up the next day and never looked back.

Tell us about your school…

RL: The head teacher is Yan Cabral of Association Aranha, he’s originally from Nova Uniao and he fought in the UFC a couple of times. Yan is currently based in Barcelona, and his main student Eric Satgé runs the school now. I got all my belts there. I went through the ranks slowly, because I wasn’t particularly gifted. But it doesn’t matter if you’re a natural talent or not – you just show up and do it. You roll, you get your ass kicked, you learn and you get a little bit better every time. You really feel the progression – that’s what I really liked about it, because I’m a super competitive person.

Can you explain more about that attraction?

RL: Well, my actual job is playing Magic: The Gathering. Yes, the trading card game. I’ve been playing professionally for more than twenty years. That requires a lot of strategy, so I always looked for a physical activity in which I could channel both my love for strategy games and my competitiveness. Unfortunately, I sucked at team sports because I felt I could never improve individually. Same thing happened with karate. We would just do silly kata, and I never got the sense that I could really test myself against others. Unless you’re training kyokushinkai karate, you’re not doing anything in class that resembles real sparring. So when I got my butt handed to me in BJJ, I felt it was something different. I knew that everyone was better and I accepted that, but it was very easy to see how I could progress through the art.



How did your strategy skills from Magic translate to BJJ?

L: I’m very aware of my weaknesses. I started sports way too late in life, so I will never be able to compete against the super athletic top dogs. Also, I weigh 60 kilos, so there’s a lot of difficulties to overcome. But knowing that, you can still work your strategy around your limitations. I know exactly what I can and can’t do, and I’m mostly focusing on my strengths. Yes, I know I should be working on strengthening my weaknesses. But for me, I don’t think it’s possible. It would just take too much time, and I’d rather focus on the things I’m really good at. It’s the exact same mindset I have when I enter a Magic competition. When you fight, you never want to use your B-game. So you can’t rely on skills you don’t have, or haven’t mastered yet. So everything I do on the mat and in Magic is about strengthening my strengths.

What was your first weapon?

RL: Self-awareness (laughs). Not only am I not athletic, strong or heavy, but I’m also extremely inflexible. All that turned into secret weapon. Because the way I play closed guard and use my legs, it makes everything super tight. It’s very hard to actually get out of my legs when I play closed or half guard. So I developed a lot of attacks from there. When I figured that out, my entire game grew.

What was the hardest thing for you to learn in the art?

RL: All the stuff I haven’t learned yet and that I’m purposely avoiding (laughs). The stuff I figure I will never be able to do, I kind of push it to the side. That’s probably also why I will never be a top class black belt. And I’m totally happy with that.



Can you describe your main instructor, Eric Satgé?

RL: He’s a very friendly, laid back guy. Not the drill sergeant that makes you shout “OSSS!!!” all the time. He’s very Brazilian in the way he does things. If you do something wrong he won’t make you do 30 burpees, or something sadistic like that. He’s very open to competitors but the gym is truly for everybody, even hobbyists like me (laughs). His game is old school. Lots of pressure, closed guard, look for an opening, take your back, and kill you – that sort of thing. I love it.

How did you take to BJJ competition?

RL: It was a little scary and very different than Magic tournaments. I experienced a totally different kind of stress. It’s very similar to getting on a rollercoaster. You don’t want to go, but when you’re in, there’s no way back and you think you’re going to die. But afterwards it was always a good experience. I competed regularly at blue and purple. I haven’t yet at brown. It kind of sucks, because there aren’t many people in my age and weight division. Beating someone in a match feels pretty good, though. It makes you think: “Hey, maybe I’m not so bad after all”. It’s great to be able to get your techniques to work against someone who doesn’t know you and has no idea what’s coming. That’s the most rewarding. It feels like a level-up.



In contrast, what are Magic tournaments like?

RL: They’re basically one-on-one battles, with each player using a stack of cards with ‘magical’ powers. Matches last about 30 minutes. Each tournament can have from 500 to 2000 players. Everyone starts with zero points, and you get points for draws or wins. You always play against someone with the same amount of points, and at the end of each day there’s a cut off. It ends with a top eight, single elimination. Sometimes you end up playing 12 hours each day. It’s really a mental marathon. You’re also talking about many weeks of preparation. Think of it as chess, but you can choose your pieces, and they can move in all sorts of ways, and every three months entirely new pieces are introduced to the game. So you have to stay up-to-date all the time, because you have to choose your line-up before you start. All the prepping is about which cards you’re going to bring to the tournament. To win, you have to be top notch. Because everyone there will go in with a strategy, and the internet gives away ALL strategies. You’ve got to be one step ahead of everyone. It’s a constant arms race.

Is it true you’re building an army of Magic players turned BJJ fanatics?

RL: Sort of. In December of last year I made a funny video for Magic players, to get them to start training BJJ. Whenever I go abroad for Magic tournaments, I always bring my gi and look for a place to train. I’ve been doing that for over ten years. Nowadays at Magic tournaments I often get approached by players who’ve discovered BJJ because of me. That’s awesome. I love to introduce the art to new people.



Tell us how you started the French version of Jits magazine.

RL: In 2011 I went to Brazil for the first time. I ended up at Nova Uniao together with all the other gringo white belts. There, I met the guys who ran Jits magazine in the US and Canada. At the time I was doing freelance translation work, and I asked them if they would be interested to start Jits in France. First, I had the idea to just translate the original magazine into French, but then I realized that the BJJ scene in France was huge. The first BJJ school in Europe actually started in France: Cercle Tissier. Also, I figured that all the news and interviews with the big stars on the international scene can be already be found online. So as a printed magazine, I wanted to focus on the French scene, to give exposure to the many people that have shaped it over the years. There are many influential people out there, but they are not very well known outside of their city or region. We tried to change that, and we created a vibrant network of the important figures in the French BJJ scene. Now, we’re working on our 27th issue in seven years. I’m very proud of that.

Why have you stuck with the art for so long?

RL: I haven’t found anything else that gives me the sense of achievement and reward. There is no other sport that keeps me sharp, mentally and physically, without boring me to death. Even when I’m not really into it, the sessions are always fun. Even when I’m tired and feel I suck, BJJ always lightens my day.

Raphaël Levy trains at and runs
Follow him on Twitter: @raphlevymtg

Daniël Bertina is a journalist and instructor at Follow him on Instagram: @ashiorigami


Daniel Bertina

How do I become a panda on your panda team? I will keep trying.

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