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Eyes on the Zendikar Rising Prize

December 01, 2020
Rich Hagon

It's almost time for the Zendikar Rising Championship, the first major event of the 2020-21 Season, and—as someone who has been watching, writing, and talking about Pro Magic for more than 15 years—it feels really good to use the "s" word again: season.

Some of the game's greatest stories come from season-long tussles between players who simply will not be denied, whether it's Kenji Tsumura and Olivier Ruel in 2005, Jérémy Dezani and Reid Duke in 2013-14, or the Player of Year playoffs featuring Brad Nelson against Guillaume Matignon in 2010 and Luis Salvatto against Seth Manfield in 2017-18.

2020 has, for obvious reasons, been both fractured and fractious. Now, as we look towards a brighter 2021, it's great to be able to bring the big picture of a competitive Magic season back into focus.

Here's what at stake at the Zendikar Rising Championship.

For Everyone

Let me paint-by-numbers the picture for you.

The first step is to get four wins across seven rounds—three Historic, four Standard—on Day One, the minimum bar for reaching Day Two. Those remaining competitors play eight more rounds on Day Two—four more Historic, then four Standard down the stretch.

The next big number is twelve, because earning a twelfth win locks a player for the Top 8. And, as usual, on Sunday it's two that's the important number: lose twice and it's the end of the road in the double-elimination Top 8 Bracket.

There's one final number to note as well: $250,000. With three days of broadcast and a field filled with both all-time greats and the newest heroes of Magic, claiming their share of prizes is something we can all get behind.

For the MPL and Rivals League

League players have already come together across the virtual tabletop in two League Weekends, beginning their season-long competitive schedule of earning their standings points.

In the MPL, the early season is led by reigning Magic World Champion Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa of Brazil and Japan's outstanding Rei Sato. Over in the Rivals League, Magic Hall of Famer Luis Scott-Vargas has a narrow lead over Matt Sperling. Of course, it's early in the season and everyone is still in the hunt for their place in the postseason tournaments.

At the Zendikar Rising Championship, all league players have four total points available: one for reaching nine wins, a second for the tenth win, a third for the eleventh, and the maximum of four points for reaching the Top 8. Those four potential points may not sound like much, but that is all the difference across half of the MPL top to bottom at this stage, and there are fifteen Rivals within four points of Scott-Vargas heading into the Championship.

Matt Sperling, Mythic Championship II Top 8

Currently in second place in the Rivals League standings a single point behind LSV, Sperlingsaid his season's goal is "to stay in Rivals or make the MPL. ... I get to play the highest-level, highest-prize-pool tournaments, which is where I find Magic to be the most interesting and exciting." One of the most common pieces of advice to a player looking to improve is to play with people who are better than them. Sperling has certainly done that, having worked with some of the greatest in the history of the game.

Competing at events like the Zendikar Rising Championship pinpoint why it matters.

"Playing with world class players is the platinum standard for improving, and something that has helped me immensely," said Sperling. “The thing that springs to mind first is the countlesstips and heuristics I've learned from Paul Rietzl, from making sure all your cards in sealed deck are high impact, to taking a list off the internet and adding a land.

”Beyond little tips, you develop a better feel for the game when you play against players better than you. When do they play like they're trying to close the door and end the game? When do you they just look to trade resources? These topics are too complex to learn from reading a strategy article. Watching players like Jon Finkel and [William] 'Huey' [Jensen] make these decisions across the table from you leaves an impression, which over time becomes a feel."

While many players have the ambition to play Magic full-time, Sperling also has a full life away from the game. Is that balance—that understanding of what's really important—good for him, or is it a hindrance?

"A benefit for sure," Sperling said. "To excel at anything requires passion that can border on obsession. I've kept many of the demons that come along with obsession at bay—at least some of the time—by having other things to focus on, an ability to take breaks, and a need (not just a desire) to learn how to efficiently focus and prepare."

For Challengers

While we'll get to see all the League players at each of the three split-ending Championships—Zendikar Rising, Kaldheim, and Strixhaven: School of Mages—that's not necessarily true for anyone outside the league, the Challengers. For everyone who earned qualification through a tournament or event, the Zendikar Rising Championship is their big chance to secure future invitations.

The key numbers for them are ten and eleven.

Get ten wins and they're guaranteed another shot at the Kaldheim Season Championship. But the eleventh win is even more precious: earn an 11-4 record across the fifteen rounds and they're guaranteed a seat in the postseason Challenger Gauntlet, unlocking the potential to join the MPL or Rivals League as well as becoming the next Magic World Champion.

Amongst the standouts looking for wins ten and eleven at the Championship is Carolyn Kavanagh. Playing since 2013, she's been a regular on the North American Grand Prix scene. Close friends with the powerhouse Denver crew that includes multiple Hall of Famers and champions—Sam Pardee, Matt Nass, Andrew Baeckstrom, Gaby Spartz, Luis Scott-Vargas, and Josh Utter-Leyton—she's part of a mighty testing team for this event, spread across both MPL and Rivals Leagues.

Recently, she garnered both accolades and a literal crown for her achievements as a back-to-back winner of the Venus and Mercury League.

"I am honored and excited to be representing the VML community at the Zendikar Rising Championship! Our mission is to show the world how talented players of marginalized genders are, help them fulfill their potential, and reach the highest levels of the game," Kavanagh said. "I am super proud to have won the league twice in a row. Seeing players like Emma [Handy], Autumn [Burchett], and Montserrat [Ayensa] making the Grand Finals has been awesome, but we have a wealth of talent coming up through the ranks too. One of the most inspiring aspects has been seeing VML competitors achieve great finishes in other tournaments such as the CFB or SCG series."

Every player, whether from the League tables or the Challenger ranks, has their own unique Magic journey. Take Mason Geyser, for instance. On April 11, he piloted Temur Adventures to 5-0 in a Last Chance Qualifier. Two days later, here he is on Twitter:

So how did that first major event go?

But that wasn't the end.

As you might expect, the Players Tour Finals was a tough tournament.

Can you guess what people like Geyser do on a Mythic Championship Qualifier Weekend? That's right: qualify.

It's been a year of success Geyser set himself up for as he earned each step along the way.

"When I started getting back into Magic competition this year it was after a six-year break from competitive Magic," he said. "I went from the largest event I've ever competed in being a Grand Prix to playing the Players Tour, then the Players Tour Finals and now a [set] Championship in just one year. I didn't know how possible it would be for me to actually attain the goal of being an MPL member, but my results this year have certainly given me some hope. It's definitely a huge goal of mine, but I try to stay realistic about my chances of achieving it!"

Whether it's points for league standings, qualification to future events and the postseason, or just the being “the best I can be” every player at the Zendikar Rising Championship will be bringing their best to Historic and Standard. The last word goes to a Challenger, Dario Fernandez, who made it to the event thanks to a standout September 2020 Qualifier Weekend performance:

"Magic represents a very important aspect of my life. Since I started playing I have met many friends and I have discovered a new world of possibilities such as traveling through different cities doing what I like," he said. "To reach a league would be a very important achievement for me. I never imagined when I started playing the possibility of being able to play with the best players in the world. If I had the possibility to show my best, it would be a dream come true.

"Making a good result would be a good way to say goodbye to this year that has been hard for everyone."

Watch as the best Challengers and league competitors battle for their share of $250,000 in prizes and more at the Zendikar Rising Championship, broadcasting live December 4-6, beginning at 9 a.m. PST on!

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