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Day One Highlights of the Rivals and MPL Gauntlet

September 04, 2021
Corbin Hosler

The Rivals and Magic Pro League Gauntlet that kicked off on Friday is the most important Magic event of the season for the 48 competitors across the two leagues. That's because it's the last chance to qualify for Magic World Championship XXVII, the final event of the season with $250,000 in prizes.

Twelve of the 16 spots have been locked up, and the Gauntlets will give us the final four - three from the MPL Gauntlet and one from the Rivals.

With nine rounds of play on Friday, players were aiming to put themselves into the best position before the three-match weekend sprint to the Top 8. Nine wins would guarantee a Top 8 berth, and with all of the rounds coming in Standard, the format rewarded players who could accurately predict the small-field metagame to arrive a step ahead of the field.

After the intense nine-round Day 1, the top of the field in the latest Magic tournament looked quite a bit like its earliest events: all-time Championship wins leader Kai Budde, clinching another Top 8 to go along with his his career 11 Top Finishes (fourth-most all-time).

On the MPL side, players already quite familiar with the World Championship led the way - former champion Javier Dominguez paced the field at 8-1, with Jacob Wilson right behind at 7-2.

Budde and Izzet Control Dominate

The late-season Standard metatame has certainly been explored, but in a smaller-field tournament like the Gauntlet the skill that would be the most rewarded was who could accurately predict what their competitors would bring and counter that.

The Leagues went in different directions, and in Rivals the resurgent Jeskai Mutate deck led the field, while Budde was one of just three players to bring the Izzet Control deck that Noriyuke Mori famously took the Challenger Gauntlet field with by storm to qualify for the World Championship.

Things went just as well for Budde, who put together a dazzlingly perfect run to become the first and only player to qualify for the Top 8 already.

"We expected more Gruul and Winota, that's really what our deck wanted to play against, but the deck is good against Mutate," Budde explained of their metagame call.

World Champion Dominguez Leads the MPL Field

While the Rivals League will award just one player a Worlds invite, the MPL Top 8 will yield the other three. Here the metagame was dominated by the classic Ikoria-fueled Standard deck Sultai Ultimatum, which is what Dominguez rode to his 7-1 record - though he fears he has a tough road ahead.

"We actually missed the meta prediction big-time," he admitted. "Our deck is powerful, but it is not well-suited for what we found on the MPL Gauntlet."

Three different decks put up the best Day 1 records in the MPL Gauntlet, with Jacob Wilson playing Gruul Adventures and Rei Sato on Jeskai Mutate.With no clear frontrunner for best deck and with bunched standings at the Top 8 cutoff, the state of Standard remains an open question while Dominguez proved once that he is without question one of the best in the game.

Trying to Stay a Step Ahead of Standard

The metagame had plenty of unique threats to serve up. From the lockout Izzet Control decks to aggressive Gruul beatdown or the combo-esque finishes of Winota, Joiner of Forces, players were forced to do their best to prepare for a set of very different matchups.

And sometimes it just came down to who found their namesake card.

One of the players trying to aggro their way to victory was Chris Botelho, who had a disastrous start but finished 5-4 with Gruul Adventures (plus a sideboard splash into Temur territory with Disdainful Stroke) despite dropping three in a row to open the day. But he turned his day around and now seeks to continue his ascent up the Magic ranks by adding a Top 8 finish - and hopefully more - here.

"I'm pretty happy about going 5-4," he said. "I feel much better about my final record when all the losing happens at the start of the day. I worked with Arya Karamchandani for the event. We had identified that, with Winota on people's minds, Sultai Ultimatum was the likely best counterpick alongside Jeskai Mutate. I didn't want to try to pick up Sultai and learn the really complicated mirror match, and Jeskai mutate's learning curve scared me off, so I figured I'd take a gamble and play Temur, hoping that they would be popular. I think I nailed that prediction (even more than I would have guessed) and Temur wound up being likely the most well positioned deck in the format."

With everyone trying to keep their competitors guessing, one player gave up on the intrigue and admitted they were just as confused as everyone else.

"To be honest, I kind of YOLO'd it and decided to try to make a hard metagame call," admitted Ian Birrell, who finished in the middle of hte pack on Day 1 but did so in style with Gryuda, Doom of Depths. "I thought Massacre Wurm would be excellent at taking out the Esika's Chariot decks (Winota and Adventures) and decided to go all-in on Massacre Wurming as hard as possible. I wanted to take a high upside shot because the goal is really to get in the top 1 to make Worlds in Rivals and there's no difference between finishing fifth and dead last. I'm not happy with the decision after seeing the metagame breakdown - Mutate and Ultimatum are rough - but sometimes you can just ramp into Craw Wurms and beat down."

There was even Mono-Green Aggro in attendance, as Lee Shi Tian took a similar gambit and brought a rogue deck he piloted to a 5-4 record, placing him firmly in the hunt for Top 8. It was a very long night for the Hall of Famer, but he now stands poised for a Top 8 run.

Looking Ahead

With the busy first day behind us, all attention shifts to the MPL when play resumes Saturday morning at 9 a.m. PST. Three more rounds of Standard will aim to determine the Top 8, and if that's not enough Top 8 tiebreakers could be on tap.

Once the Top 8 is set, play begins and by the end of the day three invitations to the Magic World Championship will be awarded.

Sunday brings the same for the Rivals Gauntlet, where the Top 8 competitors will all be competing to fill the one remaining seat at Worlds.

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