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Insider Picks for the Challenger Gauntlet

July 30, 2021
Rich Hagon

The 2020-21 Magic postseason is upon us, and our team of casters are gearing up for the Challenger Gauntlet—the first nerve-wracking weekend of Magic World Championship XXVII qualification action.

Guiding us through the action will be six of the best:

  • Maria Bartholdi will keep track across everything that's happening from the virtual newsdesk.
  • Eilidh Lonie and Marshall Sutcliffe will bring you turn after turn of the best matches in the play-by-play seat.
  • Corey Baumeister, Mani Davoudi, and Luis Scott-Vargas—our trio of experts—will unpack all the decks and plays that matter.

Plus, off camera, veteran coverage reporters Meghan Wolff and Corbin Hosler will be writing the history down across the Challenger Gauntlet event page and @MagicEsports all weekend long.

The Challenger Gauntlet field is small—just 24 elite players—but the stakes are anything but. Which of the double dozen will claim the four precious seats at the World Championship, and secure membership in the MPL at the same time? We turned to our casters for their potential Top 4s:

Player Picked for Top 4
Logan Nettles Marshall, Maria, Corey, Luis, Eilidh, Mani
Arne Huschenbeth Marshall, Maria, Corey, Eilidh, Mani
Sam Pardee Marshall, Maria, Corey, Luis, Mani
Jan Merkel Luis, Eilidh, Mani
David Inglis Marshall, Luis
Tomas Pokorny Eilidh
Sam Rolph Corey
Brad Barclay Maria

It's apparent that the casters see three clear favorites heading into the weekend: Logan Nettles, Arne Huschenbeth, and Sam Pardee. That division is maintained once we narrow things down even further—who do the casters think is the single most likely player to reach the World Championships?

Player Picked for World Championship
Arne Huschenbeth Corey, Eilidh, Mani
Logan Nettles Marshall, Maria
Sam Pardee Luis

Suggesting that a reigning champion might do well in the postseason isn't exactly a stretch, which explains the love for Huschenbeth and Pardee. Nettles, meanwhile, hasn't quite got the hardware to go with his undoubted talents, but as Marshall puts it, "Logan seems to be deadly consistent of late, and will certainly be among the most prepared for the event. Sticking to fundamentals will pay off in this field, and he's the king of doing just that."

With four slots at the World Championships up for grabs you'd certainly expect at least one of our "Big Three" favorites to make it to the October showcase, but in a field this strong there are plenty of candidates.

Other players that kept cropping up include David Inglis, Sam Rolph, and Jan Merkel.

"David Inglis had a near-heartbreaking season where he fell one win short in the Zendikar Rising Championship," noted Mani, "and then two wins short in the Kaldheim Championship, before finally converting to a Top 8 in Strixhaven to lock up his invite on the third try."

Corey, too, has his eye on Inglis, noting he "is part of a testing team with Sam Rolph, and both of them are extremely hungry and have both been titans of the digital game for years. Tangrams (Inglis) and Phill_Hellmuth are both Magic Online names that you do not want to have to sit across from. Their dynamic work ethic mixed with their tight play really reminds me of the duo from 2008, FFFreak (Brad Nelson) and Wrapter (future Hall of Famer Josh Utter-Leyton). They are the next generation, and they are here to stay."

If Corey's right, that's good news for Maria, who would like to see Rolph do well for somewhat partisan reasons. "If Rolph's at the top of the standings, we get to see the red dragon flag of Wales next to his name. That's enough of a reason for me!"

"Jan Merkel's high finishes of late got him here, but further they show that he wasn't a flash in the pan way back in 2006 (when he won Pro Tour Kobe)," Marshall said. "Few players have been relevant with such a long time frame between top finishes."

Looking from a historical perspective, but this time with a capital H, Historic has been shaken up once again. Will the suspension of Brainstorm "reset" Historic to the way it was just before the Strixhaven Championship, or will the format have moved on to a new position before Jumpstart: Historic Horizons arrives?

"Not only will the decks that were essentially built around Brainstorm be severely compromised (or even just gone)," Marshall noted, "the decks that relied on it to smooth out sketchy mana, dig for one-of silver bullets, or find key combo pieces are going to have to re-evaluate if they are still up to snuff."

But Luis and Corey still look toward the Mystical Archives.

"There will be some changes from the pre-Brainstorm era, thanks to the other powerful Mystical Archive cards (Memory Lapse, Mizzix's Mastery)," Luis said, "but we will see a return to old favorites like Jund Food and Goblins. And, if we are lucky, Omniscience Ultimatum."

"Just because we have the big bad wolf of the format gone doesn't mean that the rest of the Mystical Archive cards are just going to go away peacefully," said Corey. "Memory Lapse, Faithless Looting, and Mizzix's Mastery will still be teaching us all a lesson or two come August!"

But it's still hard to move one from looking to Historic stalwarts like Jund Food.

"I think we'll see an increase in the number of hand disruption spells now that the Brainstorm decks can't protect their best cards as well," Eilidh pointed out, "but, in terms of the metagame, I think Jeskai Control, Dragonstorm, and possibly Jund Food will be pretty popular."

Mani agreed, to a degree. "There should be a resurgence in decks like Orzhov Auras and Jund Food, but Strixhaven gave decks like Izzet Phoenix, Jeskai Control, and Dragonstorm plenty of tools to work with past Brainstorm. I would not count those decks out quite yet."

Magic has always been a game of small edges, and what lies behind a successful campaign is often incredibly complex. So, it's no surprise that our casters produced a wide variety of answers when we posed the eternal question, "What is the single most important attribute a player can have to succeed at an event like the Gauntlet?"

"The Challenger Gauntlet will have the widest range of play skill from its players compared to the other gauntlets," said Marshall. "To me, this means taking a measured approach when it comes to deck selection, and it means knowing your matchups—especially the mirror—inside and out and not getting too cute with anything else."

The metagame is important in any tournament, whether it has 2,400 players, or just 24. That's where Mani sees the difference-maker since "historically speaking, having a great read of the metagame and bringing a targeted deck has been a powerful tool in small fields like this one. This will be harder to achieve in a mixed format like this, but a player/team that is able to correctly predict the field for both formats should have an incredible edge this weekend."

Both Eilidh and Maria know that the game isn't just about what's on the table and in the hand—it's also about what's going on, unseen, between the ears.

"I think the ability to stay calm and think clearly under pressure will serve these players best," Eilidh said. "This is an incredibly talented group of players all vying for a seat at the World Championship, so being able to make the best decisions in key moments will give them an edge."

"I think mental tenacity is going to be huge. All of these players are good, obviously," said Maria, "but they aren't really household names like you'll see among the MPL or even the Rivals League. The Top 4 of this event get catapulted to the World Championshipandthe MPL— achieving the greatest dream for likely all in this field—so I can only imagine nerves will be going haywire. The players that can keep calm and play well match after match in this extreme pressure cooker will have the edge."

We've already heard from Mani, and it's interesting that all three of our experts are not just paying attention to the tournament itself, but to what happens before the tournament.

"Preparation is the biggest one for me," said Corey. "This format that the players were thrown into is as close as it gets to the old Pro Tour template that we had for years. A new set comes out and the players have around two weeks to figure out the best deck and the best plans. This is where we would see certain pro testing teams absolutely dominate because they put in the work to put themselves into a position to succeed. Not only do these players have a new set to play with (Adventures in the Forgotten Realms) but they also must adjust to Brainstorm being suspended. Not an easy task!"

Or, put succinctly by Luis in just four words: "A good testing team."

Our casters are a pretty good testing team, and they're putting in the work ahead of this first Gauntlet weekend. Will it play out as they predict, with the likes of Huschenbeth, Nettles, and Pardee dominating the action? Or will we find new heroes and stars when the big moments come around?

To find out, you know what to do: watch the battles and victories of the Challenger Gauntlet, live August 6–8 at!

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