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Back-to-Back-to-Back: The Call for the Challenger Gauntlet

May 25, 2021
Elizabeth Rice

The Magic world is just weeks away from its last Championship of the 2020–21 regular season. The Strixhaven Championship on June 4–6 will be the penultimate battleground for members of the Magic Pro and Rivals League to earn points for a World Championship slot, and the final for challengers looking to level up to the higher echelons of competition on their own path to a world-class showdown.

Nathan Steuer and Karl Sarap are players looking to leave their mark on Magic's history as they make their third trip in three events. Both players competed in the Zendikar Rising Championship and Kaldheim Championship, and the Strixhaven Championship is their final shot to make it into the Challenger Gauntlet coming in August where four invitations for the World Championship are up for grabs..

Although Sarap and Steuer are separated by age and nationality—the former one of Estonia's World Magic Cup heroes, and the latter a West Coast phenom who made his Grand Prix Day 2 debut at his third event—their Magic beginnings mirror each other. Steuer recalled learning the game at a summer camp in elementary school, while Sarap was introduced to the game by other kids in his school library.

"I've always been a very competitive person by nature," Steuer said. "Unlike most of my friends, I took the weekly [Friday Night Magic] drafts really seriously. After getting good enough to win at them consistently, I found myself wanting a more competitive experience, hence my involvement at higher levels of play. The Pro Tour dream has always been the motivating factor for me to compete."

Nathan Steuer

Beginning with Steuer's first sanctioned event at a Gatecrash Prerelease in 2013, he threw himself into Magic competition. Any and all manner of events, be they Pro Tour Qualifiers, SCG Tour events, Grand Prixes, and everything in-between, Steuer was there. The more he played, the more he learned, and the more his competitive drive grew.

"The experiences in my [tabletop] Pro Tours have been amazing," he said. "It's everything like you see on TV. The players are all amazing, and the competition is fierce. It really brings out the hungriest competitors in the world who put in the hard work and practice so they can elevate themselves to the highest level."

"I find myself learning in my high-level Pro Tour experiences all the time, because you can see the game from a perspective that isn't always accessible at lower levels, namely card choices, in-game play evaluations, and thinking about your opponent's plans in the context of the game, [it all] has a higher importance at the professional level," he said. "You have your chance of competing, but you need to prove that you're good enough to become a mainstay at that level."

Sarap shares Steuer's competitive drive. During his career, he played in 20 Grand Prix events, was a fixture on the Pro Tour scene in 2018, and competed on Estonia's World Magic Cup team from 2016 to 2018.

Karl Sarap

He has a simple reason why he kept coming back and leveling up in competition: "The game is just so good."

Competing in the World Magic Cups was an integral part of Sarap's Magic career. "Definitely I feel I got lucky as I made it into the 2016 WMC team," he said. "Hannes Kerem, who is the best Magic player to come from Estonia, had already made connections with Team Finland, so we had strong sparring partners. They made Top 8 of the event and even though we did not Day Two, I found pro Magic to be within my grasp."

Like many competitors, the friendships and camaraderie made through practice and play formed bonds that went beyond any individual event. "Later when I qualified for my first Pro Tour (Rivals of Ixalan in 2018, I already had these connections, and this wonderful testing team definitely helped to qualify for more events."

Transitioning from the in-person play of tabletop events to the present day of online events challenged every player. However, these adapted to the digital arena, and the new competitive environment brought its own share of benefits and challenges.

Steuer has adapted to digital play by crafting a better weekend routine for events. "Online events are always accessible and have semi-consistent schedules that allow for planning out my weekends in advance," he said. The University of California Santa Cruz freshman squeezes Magic in his schedule where he can. "I tend to play a few events per week on Magic Online when I can fit time in between my classes, and play events on both Saturday and Sunday that give me the best opportunity to qualify for the [next Championship] or otherwise help pay for rent." Instead of spending time organizing and travelling, Steuer can just boot up his computer and play.

He also found ways to incorporate interaction with others. During tournaments, he makes sure to check in with friends and stay engaged. What some might consider a distraction, Steuer considers a strength: interacting with friends puts him into the right mindset for his matches.

While COVID-19 may have changed the ways these players socialized, it changed little in terms of Sarap's game play experience. "Ever since I discovered Magic Online, I have been a digital-first player," he said. Having spent most of his life in either Estonia or Colombia, Sarap has already had to adjust to having a minimal local scene. "I test and play online basically exclusively."

From a glance at his record, anyone could tell Sarap means that. Since 2020, Sarap has competed in numerous online tournaments, including SCG Tour Online, Magic Online events, and more. He capped off his 2020 hot streak by winning the LATAM Challenge and making the Top 64 of the Zendikar Rising Championship. He continued this pattern into 2021, finishing in Top 16 or better of numerous events, and most recently competed in the Kaldheim Championship.

Although the social aspect of the game is different digitally, the competitive level at these events is the same to Sarap. "In terms of gameplay, I feel the level of play in a Pro Tour or in online Set Championships is equivalent. It's very difficult and everybody who qualifies practices a lot for these events," he explained. The key to doing well and getting comfortable with this environment is practice. "Practice makes perfect, and I think there is a reason that the players who play weekly tournaments on MTGMelee or stream five days a week also do very well in the big events."

For Sarap, it all comes down to practice. "I think when I practice well, I develop a strong intuition," he explained. What he considers a lack in his technical play, he makes up for with picking a deck and practicing until he knows it like his own body. He carries that confidence with him into every arena he steps into. "Whenever I find a strong deck early in the format I end up playing 200 matches with it and those times have always been my best results in tournaments. I would say practice makes perfect really is true in Magic."

Sarap's determination is what landed his place on his current testing team, Team 7%, for the Strixhaven Championship. It includes the likes of Kaldheim Championship winner Arne Huschenbeth and 2020 Season Grand Finals champion Austin Bursavich. "I hope that I can contribute and help us find equally great decks as they did last time taking Arne to the trophy." In order to do that, Sarap is prepared to eat, sleep, and breathe Magic.

Steuer also credits the innumerable games he's played with developing his skill as a player, and prides himself on his sideboard and deck selection skills.

"I find that deck selection is currently one of the most important aspects to competitive Magic, and getting a good grasp for a format is really rewarding," he explained.

"These attributes have really helped me succeed [at this] level where you can't always get by on only tight technical play."

"I tend to look for the strongest individual cards that I believe fundamentally shift an existing archetype or create a new one on their own," Steuer continued. "It's important to assess the weaknesses of the current best decks so you can look for strategies that might get the improvements they need to compete, or ones that attack from an unexpected angle."

That approach is both fundamental and successful as in addition to his Strixhaven Championship invitation, he earned qualifation to the upcoming 2021 Magic Online Champions Showcase Season 1 event.

Steuer is going to need his online focus and mental fortitude as he looks to achieve his goal of making Top 8 and qualifying for the Challenger Gauntlet at the Strixhaven Championship. As for Sarap, his goal is much simpler. "I don't really like to set specific goals for a single tournament," he said, "as a big part of professional Magic is the variance, and all I can do is keep putting up consistent results."

Steuer, Sarap, and 250 more players are set to collide at the Strixhaven Championship. Watch the action live, June 4–6, live at!

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