The 2020 Season Grand Finals, happening October 9-11, offers some of the best Magic: The Gathering players a chance to compete head-to-head for $250,000 in prizes. While tournaments like this showcase competition and individual skill, they also foster player collaboration. While the elite testing teams have a definitive resource advantage, Magic has also seen underdogs overcome the odds, such as when Matias Leveratto defeated Brad Nelson at Mythic Championship III.
Emma Handy and Autumn Burchett are two contenders with a history of collaborating, and neither have been a consistent member of any major testing team. Together, the two forged their own path to the Grand Finals and developed an unwavering bond along the way.
Burchett has proven they are a force to be reckoned with. Burchett began playing in 2012 and since then made history several times over. After becoming a two-time National Champion for England, Burchett exploded onto the international stage during Mythic Championship I in Cleveland: They became the first Mythic Championship winner, the first English player to win that level of premier event, and the first non-male champion. Since being inaugurated into the Magic Pro League in 2019, they have posted multiple strong tournament finishes and maintained their league status into a third season.
Handy has been playing competitive Magic since she was 18. After consistent success on the SCG circuit she became a SCG Tour commentator in 2019, firmly establishing herself as a content creator. During 2019, she earned Top 8 at a slew of Mythic Championship Qualifiers and had strong finishes at several other tournaments. Her strong performances, combined with her standing in the community, made it no surprise when she was invited to the Magic Rivals League at the close of the year. After her 9th-place finish at the 2020 Mythic Invitational, Handy is looking forward to cementing her rise in competitive Magic at the Grand Finals.
Burchett and Handy first began interacting with each other in 2016 over Twitter. Then after meeting in person at Pro Tour Dominaria in 2018, their friendship was solidified. The two found a mutual understanding for each other's identities, experiences, and love of the game. And each brought important elements to teaming up.
Those who worked with Burchett describe a great mind and amusing teammate. Mimi Arthur has tested with Burchett several times, including at Mythic Championship VII in 2019.
"I think in testing, they are good at working out what decks they don't want to play relatively quickly…which allows me more time to test potentially viable decks," Arthur said. "Also, they correctly said 'honk' when casting
Ally Warfield tested with Burchett for Mythic Championship VII and noted that she was "envious" of Burchett's technical play and ability to think outside the box. "We ended up registering [Black-Green] Adventure, which most people had not considered," Warfield said. That out-of-the-box thinking ended up being a good choice that led her to finishing in the Top 16.
Although Burchett has some experience testing within large teams, they prefer preparing for high-level events with smaller groups. "The couple times I've tried being a part of a big testing team, with ten or more people, I've hated it," said Burchett. "There's a lot of information lost due to poor communication in a team that large, skill gaps can be awkward, and there's this awkward mess of simultaneously feeling like you're on your own because of those two things but also feeling responsibility towards helping the other players or not taking risks because you don't want to let the team down."
"I've loved the freedom I get from working in very small groups, often just talking with one or two other people, working with people I trust and respect and whose opinions I know what filters to apply to," Burchett said. For them, they do best when working with people who are not only good at the game but that they personally enjoy interacting with.
When it comes to playtesting in groups, Handy also expressed a preference for smaller groups and the importance of communication. "The biggest thing that I look for in other people are folks who speak in similar terms as me," she explained. "I want to work with people who I don't feel like I'm talking past, and aren't going to talk past me either."
Handy credits her successes on her strategic understanding of the game. "It makes me good at reading metagames and figuring out sideboard strategies for different matchups," she said. That skill is also what has led her to picking successful strategies for a tournament even if it hasn't always resulted in a win.
"My focus on metagames in particular can be seen in the Simic Nexus deck that Autumn and I played at Mythic Championship III last year, where we were two of three people that ended up playing the archetype in the entire field, with the third being eventual winner Matias Leveratto."
Mythic Championship III was more than just an opportunity for a budding partnership to begin bearing fruit: events in the United States, where Handy lived, meant their online interaction could move to in-person meetups. "It became almost tradition for me to try and be at the American Pro Tours that Autumn would play in, and it would be the time that we'd get to actually see each other," said Handy.
While their friendship developed over time, it wasn't until this year that Burchett and Handy started testing together for tournaments in earnest.
"There aren't a ton of folks that we really know in the upper echelons of the pro Magic community, and having someone with similar goals, that I also get along with, makes it feel less like going to work whenever we have longer playtest sessions," said Handy.
For the upcoming Grand Finals, Burchett and Handy have been preparing with Piotr Głogowski and Luis Salvatto. While Burchett and Handy have worked together on many occasions, this will be the first time working with both Głogowski and Salvatto—but they're still closer to each other than the new faces of their testing group.
"We love each other's company, are really understanding and supportive of one another, and are good at just getting where the other person is coming from in Magic discussions too," said Burchett.
"Autumn's great at taking my ideas seriously while also being able to lay out when some of them are nonsensical, and explain why," Handy added.
Their teamwork has borne results, most recently at the 2020 Mythic Invitational. The two collaborated and decided on Mono-Red Goblins, with Handy finishing 9th and Burchett ending in the Top 64.
While Handy admits the two both have a habit of going down their own rabbit holes, they have been able to pull each other out of it when necessary. It also helps that though the two rely on each other, they are capable of independently testing. "I think that it varies from person to person, but...a lot of the more successful people in marginalized groups are people who are good working independently, or in smaller groups," said Handy.
"Overall, I think there's a point where it's forced the two of us to adapt in ways that have made us stronger players, even if the reasons or conditions weren't the most positive," she added.
Burchett and Handy are clearly more than testing teammates, becoming each other's pillar of support. To them, that relationship is more important than any trophy.
"We've worked pretty hard to have the relationship that we have with one another, and making it as far as we have has just been the gravy on top," said Handy. "We're friends first and teammates second, and that really does mean a ton."
The COVID-19 pandemic has particularly led to strained mental health for both. However, they've found ways to adapt and support each other through it.
"During quarantine, there have been events where Autumn built the decks and one where I built the deck," explained Handy. The Goblins deck they took to the 2020 Mythic Invitational is the most recent example. "It's basically down to Autumn and I alternating who's 'on' and who is struggling a lot, and the other picking up the slack."
It is easy to see the depth of camaraderie when you observe them. Few can forget the sight of Handy rushing to embrace Burchett when they won the first Mythic Championship.
"I don't actually know if I can put it into words," Handy said when asked to describe that experience. "It was just unbelievable to me that someone I knew who had worked so hard to get there, through so many low points in Magic in the last year or so, had gotten something so monumentally positive out of their effort was."
"I don't know a good word for it," she said. "There isn't a positive enough word."
"It's funny," Handy added, "because to so many people, Autumn is this stone-cold killer on MTG Arena, with a pile of online accolades, a screen name you never want to see on the other side of the battlefield, and a place in the annals of Magic history. To me, they're just the person who will shriek with laughter because of the absurdity of the Signet-matching memory game they designed. It really grounds how possible so many of these accomplishments are, and how human the people that accomplish them can be."
Burchett also highlighted how important it was to have their friends with them at that moment. "This is a huge cliché, but for me this game is very much about The Gathering," said Burchett. "Getting to celebrate each other's successes and commiserate in times of failure...that's always what this game has been about."
The journey for these players has been nothing short of inspiring. Burchett and Handy exemplify the ways that adversity is surmountable, especially with friends at your side.