The race for the World Championship is on.
The postseason Challenger Gauntlet kicked off Friday with 24 players battling to advance to the Top 12 playoff on Sunday, where the top four finishers would qualify directly to Magic World Championship XXVII, taking place in a few months.
The high stakes provided high drama, and the players delivered. As they worked their way through three rounds of a Jeskai Control-dominated Historic metagame and a diverse Standard field, a trio of players rose to the top. Leading the way was Noriyuki Mori, joined by winner of the Strixhaven Championship Sam Pardee and Kaldheim Championship victor Arne Huschenbeth.
Navigating the Shifting Metagames
The tournament was marked by some extremely close matches, with the full range of styles on display. With half the tournament coming in a somewhat surprising Historic field where 10 of the 24 had settled on Jeskai Control.
One team led the way. Huschenbeth's testing group of Sam Rolph, David Inglis and Matti Kuisma all were 3-1 after four rounds of play, and Rolph and Kuisma lurk at 4-2 just behind Huschenbeth.
For the German headlining the team on Friday, he's feeling cautiously optimistic about his odds to continue his run on Day 2 with Jeskai Control and Gruul Adventures in Standard.
"After seeing the metagame breakdown for Standard, I felt pretty bad," Huschenbeth explained. "We prepared our deck to beat Winota and Control/Rogues, but a good chunk of the field is on Gruul and 3 players on perhaps the worst matchup, Naya Adventures. I feel blessed to nonetheless escape the three Standard Rounds with three wins.I'm feeling good about Jeskai — I perhaps should have opted for the risky choice of Rakdos Arcanist in this Jeska-heavy metagame — but you can't really go wrong with a Jeskai list that is prepared for the mirror match.
"I'm feeling over the moon after this Day1 performance, what can I say? Just trying to replicate, don't count the chickens before they are hatched. Need to stay as focused as I was today."
The other player to nail the Historic rounds was Mori, who took the classic Jund Food deck and its sacrifice shenanigans to a 3-0 finish.
The rest of the field was all over the place, with some players getting very creative to try and get a leg up on the competition.
In Standard, the rise of Winota has brought a new element to an otherwise familiar metagame of Rogues and Adventures of several flavors. It presented a tricky challenge for deckbuilders, though several tried to come from more novel angles, like Mori's Izzet Control list.
Pardee kept things simple, playing with a tweaked Naya Adventures decklist that has him in perfect position to complete his run to champion and now perhaps World Championship qualifier.
"I feel pretty good about my performance today. I made a few mistakes but that's Magic — the games are always gonna be tough and I was fortunate that for the most part they didn't cost me too much. It's still very much a marathon and not a sprint so I'll be resting up tonight to try and get that top 4 slot tomorrow."
His path to a share of the lead included participating in what was no doubt the match of the day. It came in Round 4 undefeated showdown against David Inglis, where despite being counted out several times Pardee fought back to win a nailbiter of a three-game match.
"This tournament is important to me insomuch as it qualifies for [the World Championship]. That's the goal, that's the thing I'm working towards. It's nice to do well, but I really want to qualify for that."
Next up is a cut down from 24 players to 12, after another six rounds of competition on Saturday. That will set up the stakes for a Sunday playoff to see who will be the four players punch their ticket to the World Championship and who will instead look toward the future. Coverage beings at 9 a.m. PST at twitch.tv/magic!