November 2022 ushered in the first cycle of Regional Championships, where players from eleven regions around the world competed for a spot at Pro Tour Phyrexia. Over a thousand players across all eleven regions were whittled down to just 166 who earned an invitation to the Pro Tour and the opportunity to compete against Magic's best.
It's an impressive feat to qualify for the Pro Tour via a Regional Championship just once, but of those 166 Regional Championship Qualifiers (RCQs) from the first cycle, eleven managed it a second time this past March and April during the second cycle of events that qualified competitors for Pro Tour March of the Machine.
Ken Takahama in the United States; Jorgemi Sant'Anna in Brazil; André Santos, Marco Del Pivo, and Seb Rohan in Europe; Kenji Sego in Japan; Anthony Lee and Chris Miller in Australia; Norbie Mendoza in Southeast Asia; and Michael Van Vaals and Joseph Karani in Canada all faced the best players in their regions twice and rose to the top both times.
Ken Takahama, from Syracuse, New York, has been playing Magic since 2001. He took a break in 2007, and when he returned to the game in 2015, he immediately jumped into the competitive scene, playing Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers (PPTQs) to qualify for the Pro Tour. Takahama placed second at the DreamHack Magic Showdown last fall, then seventh at the next Regional Championship.
"Playing at the highest level of competition really opened my eyes to how much more I can improve," Takahama said of his drive to qualify for the Pro Tour. "I want to continue playing against the best, that way I can achieve my long-time goal of consistently competing at the Pro Tour."
André Santos, from Almada, Portugal, wants to qualify for the Pro Tour because "Magic is the best game to play competitively, and the Pro Tour provides the opportunity to play versus the best players in the world." He had that opportunity in Philadelphia after placing fifth at the Legacy European Championship in Sofia, Bulgaria, and will have it again after coming in seventh at the event in Naples.
For Australian Magic player Anthony Lee, it's the people that make qualifying for the Pro Tour worth it. "I love the competition as well, but Magic at the Pro Tour level is a uniquely global game with the way it so strongly features international teams that bring people across the world together."
Lee has been playing since Worldwake and won the first ANZ Super Series Finals in Sydney, then followed that up with a fifth-place finish in Melbourne.
Joseph Karani, from Winnipeg, also won the first Regional Championship he played in, then qualified for the next Pro Tour by finishing fourth in the F2F Tour Championship in Vancouver in March.
"I just like to play competitive Magic!" Karani said. "It's lots of fun to test myself and see where I can get to. Traveling with my friends is also a great incentive to partake in the competitive system!"
For Norbie Mendoza, "play the game, see the world" was a persuasive call. Mendoza, who is from the Philippines, played Magic casually for years before getting into the competitive scene in 2017. He went on to place fourth and seventh at the two SEA Championship Finals.
"Aside from getting to enjoy various cuisines with my wife abroad, traveling has given me a wider perspective on the world in terms of cultures and systems," Mendoza said. "Seeing what I could learn from other countries has always influenced my own viewpoints in my profession in medicine and public health. Of course, there is always that aspect of seeing how far I can go in terms of competition. Aside from that, I get to play with and talk to the best of the best, meeting wonderful people along the way."
Regional Championships (RC) bring together the best players each area has to offer, and careful preparation, from deck selection to playtesting matchups, is behind the success stories at each one. Across the board, these RC players used a mix of both online and in-person testing to finesse their decks, sideboard plans, and play.
Lee only had four days to prepare for the second Regional Championship after he spent some time traveling after the Pro Tour in Philadelphia, and the ANZ Super Series was hot on its heels.
"I quickly locked in Grixis Midrange, which I felt was unlikely to be the true best deck to play because it was sure to be heavily targeted and the format has broad options, but given I was so tight on time my familiarity with the archetype outweighed these considerations."
"Dedicating a few hours to playing mirror matches against Allen Wu," was one of the most important parts of Lee's preparation for the Regional Championship. "Standard has very long and challenging games, and knowing that my most challenging competition would mostly be playing Grixis Midrange as well, I wanted to have a decisive advantage there, and there was no better way than to train against an especially strong opponent."
Teammates were another through line for each of these competitors, who prepared with everyone from Pro Tour regulars to players they'd be competing alongside at the Regional Championship.
"I think that more than anything, talking to my teammates and bouncing my thoughts between them was the most important thing for me," Takahama said. "I believe that understanding why every card deserves its slot in the 75 was more important to me than any amount of reps I could get with the deck."
Karani tested with his roommate Mohamah Qadi, who also earned a Pro Tour invite in the second round of Regional Championships, before moving online and getting help from fellow Canadian players Eduardo Sajgalik and Liam Kane.
"Being able to trust what everyone's thoughts and ideas are was the most important part of preparation," Karani said. "Whether the idea turns out well or not, all ideas have merit, and we were able to figure out what we really liked based on what we didn't."
Mendoza took in-person preparation a step further, logging time not only testing with friends and teammates but also immersing himself in tournament settings.
"For both [Regional Championships], I made it a point to get some paper reps at local RCQs and RC LCQs [Last Chance Qualifiers] to get accustomed to playing the decks on paper and not just online," Mendoza said. "Keeping track of things in paper, including life, poison, counters, etc. can get so complicated with today's cards. I also think that tournament reps are different enough from playtesting reps that I've incorporated this into my preparation routine.
"I had both high-level online repetitions and paper repetitions with some semblance of stakes on the line. Both are harder to come by in our local setting, which makes online testing with high-quality players much more important, and I am very grateful that I have teammates who are great players and amazing people."
Pro Tour Phyrexia: All Will Be One marked the return of the Pro Tour and the resurgence of an utterly unique and thrilling tournament experience. Though Santos, Lee, Takahama, Karani, and Mendoza already had one Regional Championship success to their name when they walked into the event, it was still a memorable weekend for the players.
"It's hard to pick just one thing, but the common theme is that I just kept running into people I hadn't seen in years as well as meeting people that I only knew online before, and that was amazing," Lee said. "If it's something about the event itself, picking up the cards for the first draft was exhilarating—that was the return of the Pro Tour on a personal level."
"The most memorable part of my Pro Tour Phyrexia experience would definitely be the amazing people I met and had conversations with along the way," Mendoza said. "While I did not do as well as I had hoped and expected, I learned a lot due to it being the pinnacle of competitive Magic, particularly in terms of mental preparedness to compete at this level."
The quality of the competition also made an impression on Takahama and Karani, who were struck by the Pro Tour's stellar field of players.
"I've never played against so many international players, and I enjoyed my time playing against them," Takahama said. "Seeing the amount of good players from so many different regions of the world really opened my mind to how much more I had to improve to become the best of the best."
"The most memorable part is just seeing all the people who have done well before you and have made careers or names out of being great at the game," Karani agreed. "It's humbling to say the least."
When these competitors arrive in Minneapolis at the start of May, they'll have the advantage of playing in Pro Tour Phyrexia on their side. By making the Top 8s of back-to-back Regional Championships, they're in the midst of making names for themselves, and this Pro Tour is an opportunity to improve on their preparation and their experience.
Santos is focused on improving his results, vowing to test both Draft and Standard even more and concentrate on his mental game.
"In Standard, I will try to find a deck that suits my playstyle and test a lot versus the most played decks, and in Draft, I will try to have the most knowledge of the best color combinations and rank each card of the set by power level," Santos said.
Lee is hoping to improve on his results from the last Pro Tour, where he scraped by, barely making it into Day 2, but wins aren't the only thing on his radar.
"I will also take more photos—I was too caught up in the event itself to be mindful of that, but it would have been nice to have those as a keepsake. At least I get to make up for it going forward!"
His preparation for Pro Tour March of the Machine will mirror that for Philadelphia.
"Naturally, I'm working with Team Handshake again—I was a new addition for Pro Tour Phyrexia, and it has gone very well," Lee said. "I think we've struck a great balance between the tried-and-true testing techniques of our tabletop veterans and the modern methods of our MTG Arena champions. We'll prepare online, then move to a testing house the week before the Pro Tour."
Karani is also looking forward to testing with a team, as well as with roommate Qadi, hoping to replicate their success at the regional level by utilizing a similar testing strategy.
"This upcoming Pro Tour, I have dedicated myself to a proper team of qualified players and look forward to testing with a group with all the same goal," he said. "Hard work has proven to pay off, so I hope to do well next time!"
Takahama is testing with a team as well, but this time around, he's also adjusting the focus of his testing.
"I think I will be putting more focus on the theoretical side of testing instead of raw reps," Takahama said. "I'm starting to understand my strengths as a player and noticed that playing infinite games isn't the only way to improve."
For the previous Pro Tour, Mendoza used the expertise from podcasts like Limited Resources and Lords of Limited, alongside online play, to prepare for the draft.
"I will definitely do more of the same, but to add, I joined a testing group—shoutout to Gavin Thompson for giving me the opportunity," Mendoza said. "On top of Limited prep, I will also have the opportunity to pick some of the best MTG minds for Constructed. Historically, I've always let my biases dictate my deck selection. While I hope the right deck for the tournament is aligned with my midrange-y playstyle, I am taking this opportunity to expand my range and learn from players who are more accomplished than I am."
No matter how the coming rounds of Pro Tour March of the Machine shake out, though, these players are already on their way to becoming Pro Tour regulars and a set of names that, at the Regional Championship, are becoming synonymous with the skill, determination, and effort it takes to continue to rise to the top. Keep an eye out for them at the Pro Tour. I have a feeling we'll be seeing them again.