It was 105 players who kicked off Magic World Championship XXIX, where three grueling days of competition at MagicCon: Las Vegas would leave us with the next World Champion.
But the journey to the trophy began long ago.
Let's start with the return of the Pro Tour earlier this year in Philadelphia, where players gathered in person for the first time in years for Pro Tour Phyrexia. After that came Minneapolis and Pro Tour March of the Machine, and then it was off to Barcelona for Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings. Along the way, there were dozens of Regional Championships and a heaping of high-level Magic Online and MTG Arena events.
All of that brought us to Las Vegas and the World Championship, where the 2022-23 season comes to a close by bringing together everyone who performed well enough to qualify. That gave us a skillful field where every match up and down the aisles was feature-worthy. Hall of Famers, Regional Champions, Pro Tour winners and former World Champions like Nathan Steuer were here as all paths led to the World Championship.
While all eyes were on Nathan Steuer to continue his story of success, it wasn't to be: a rough draft into Constructed losses led to four losses, and so Steuer fell short of making Day Two. Just like that, the most popular pick to win in the field was out.
So, who would slice through the best and remain undefeated on Day One?
Battling through David Olsen and Willy Edel en route to a 3-0 Draft (as well as Gabriel Nassif in the Constructed rounds), he only had a draw against Pedro Mocelin, which put him into the top seat heading into Day Two.
Ask Lee, and it's a shock to sit atop the standings. Ask his primary testing partner Javier Dominguez, and it's a different story.
"He's been telling me I was overdue, and I was playing well, and it was going to come," Lee said, marveling after knocking off Jitse Goutbeek in the final round. "And I guess he was right! He and I were the only two people on the team to play Golgari Midrange, but with all the matchups in Standard pretty close, we felt it was most important to be really familiar with your deck and its matchups so we went with the deck we were most comfortable with."
It worked to perfection for Lee, who will return Saturday morning as the overall leader and with the shortest path to the Top 8 of the World Championship.
Into the Wilds of Eldraine
Drafting well is always important to success at a Pro Tour event. At the 2023 World Championship, it was more vital than ever.
The smaller field meant that instead of the usual 16 rounds, the World Championship would run 14: Three rounds of Draft and four rounds of Standard on Day One, rinse and repeat on Day Two for everyone who finishes 4-3 or better on Friday.
It also meant that the three Draft rounds to start the tournament carried more weight than any of the Pro Tours of the season.
That was why Team Worldly Counsel had a six-hour meeting about their Draft strategy, led by the team's Limited expert and former longtime Pro Tour player and commentator Eduardo Sajgalik, whom the team thanked by bringing him out to Vegas for the World Championship, even though he's not competing.
With a bonus sheet similar to March of the Machine, Wilds of Eldraine presented a unique challenge for drafters who face a different experience every time they open up a new pack. In addition to some key build-around cards from Magic's history, there's plenty of bargain—the mechanic—fodder like Hatching Plans.
That made for a lot of possibilities when players sat down to crack their first pack of the tournament. When the dust settled, we saw many of those possibilities emerge into draft winners.
Twelve players went 3-0 in the first #MTGWorlds Wilds of Eldraine draft! By color, they played:— PlayMTG (@PlayMTG) September 22, 2023
WU x 2
GW, splashing Red
UG, splashing White
It's rare that you see a single-color deck go undefeated in a high-level draft pod. But with (nearly) mono-black for Mitchell Tamblyn and mono-white for Pedro Mocelin both pulling off undefeated records, was saw two. It's clear there is plenty going on with Wilds of Eldraine beyond what's expected.
It's reflective of the strength of their Limited preparation. Not every team had Eduardo Sajgalik to show them the ropes, and Steuer was far from alone struggling through the Draft rounds. It set the stage for a frantic afternoon of Standard with tournament lives on the line every round.
The Standard Surprises
Standard rotation has officially switched to a three-year period, which means that the card pool available for the World Championship is wider than players are used to. Combine that with the fact that we haven't seen Standard at the highest levels for months, and the format is still adjusting to life without the banned Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, Invoke Despair, and Reckoner Bankbuster. Throw all that recipe into Agatha's Soul Cauldron, and we definitely expected some surprises in Standard—and the World Championship field didn't disappoint.
As the draft ended and players began to return from lunch, things in the World Championship began to crystallize. Those ahead of the field found themselves battling to secure a strong position heading into Day Two, while a number of big Magic names found themselves fighting in Round 7 with their entire tournament on the line.
That included several former champions, including the Magic World Championship XXVII winner Yuta Takashi, who squared off against Hall of Famer Willy Edel in the final round of the day. After a long set of three tight games, it was the Brazilian legend Edel who emerged from the match with a spot in Day Two.
While most of the field was fighting to stay alive, viewers were treated to a demonstration of the open Standard metagame that's shaken up even more than expected with Wilds of Eldraine. At the World Championship, we saw a mix of new builds and updates to classic Standard archetypes, with a generous helping of
The closing bell on Day One didn't provide much clarity. There were six different decks among the top finishers, with plenty more deck diversity behind them. That includes one of the most popular picks among competitors to win the tournament, Simon Nielsen, who rebounded to 5-2 after a disastrous 0-2 start thanks to his perfect 4-0 Standard run with Azorius Soldiers.
Attention turns back to Wilds of Eldraine draft in the morning, when the 50 players who earned at least four match wins return to compete for their shot at the Magic World Championship XXIX Top 8, the Sunday stage, and the $100,000 check that comes with it.
Lee holds pole position, but as you would expect the field is tight right behind him. Pro Tour winners Reid Duke, Gabriel Nassif, and Greg Orange all lurk right behind.
You can watch all the action unfold live when Magic World Championship XXIX returns at 11 a.m. PT (2 a.m. PT // 8 p.m. CEST // 3 a.m. JST (9/23)) for Day Two!