The field for Magic World Championship XXVII is finally set after the final four qualifiers earned their spot at Gauntlet play last weekend.
The sixteen players of the World Championship field represent the most accomplished Magic players of the 2020-21 season—the culmination of an intense set of League Weekends, Championships and, for the four final qualifiers, a final sprint through the MPL and Rivals Gauntlets.
It goes without saying it's a dream come true—this is what competitive Magic players battle their entire lives for, and many of the best in the game's history haven't managed to qualify for a small-field World Championship. Rei Sato, Yoshihiko Ikawa, Jean-Emmanuel Depraz and Jan-Moritz Merkel can say they were among the 16 best players in the world this season, and now they'll have a chance to take the final step and win the World Championship.
For one, that dream was a little bittersweet.
"When I won, I had mixed feelings," explained Rei Sato. "My last opponent was my teammate Riku Kumagai, whom I respect. Before the league started, I decided to play a year with him, Yuta Takahashi, Yoshihiko Ikawa, and Kenta Harane—we've been fighting together for a year. The key to victory in the Gauntlet was teamwork, no doubt about it. In the MPL Gauntlet, our deck choices were the best."
Attending the World Championship is a career high for Sato. "It will be my proudest moment in life, along with being in the MPL for three years straight. There aren't many people who can realistically aim to be the best in the world at something they love."
Sato's experience reflects the biggest story from the Gauntlets that delivered us the final four World Championship competitors: the dominance of the Japanese players. The team had been up and down as a group throughout the season, but it came together in the most important event of their year as they showed up to surprise the MPL Gauntlet field with Jeskai Mutate. That expert metagame prediction gave them a major edge on the weekend, and when the Top 8 dust had settled, three of the final four spots belonged to Sato, Kumagai, and Ikawa.
In the end it was Kumagai who was left out, as both Sato and Ikawa advanced first before Depraz upset Kumagai in the final World Championship qualifier match. While it wasn't quite perfect, earning two players Magic World Championship XXVII seats was an impressive performance and put the team onto the radar.
"Of course I'll be teaming up with Ikawa and Takahashi," he said. "We will prove that we are the best team in the world!"
Ikawa also credited his success to working with his team, and said that for the Gauntlet they had their deck perfectly figured out down to the 75th card.
Qualifying for the World Championship is his dream come true. It's "the most honorable tournament and one of the goals as a pro player," Ikawa said. "I want to become a better player by playing against the best players in the world, and if I can make it to the end of the tournament, there is no greater joy than that."
For the Japanese team, the MPL Gauntlet was a weekend of dominance that cemented their place right at the top of the Magic world, but for Depraz and Merkel it was much more stressful. Depraz, for instance, lost his first shot at qualifying for the World Championship and was forced into a second match in a bad matchup against Kumagai. The French pro has performed at World Championship level as part of the MPL for several years now, and missed making the Zendikar Rising Championship Top 8 earlier in the season.
"I'm just so proud to have made it this far," a relieved Depraz explained after his come-from-behind victory in his qualifier match. "It was such a long grind all year with so few people succeeding in the end. The moment I won was peculiar, because my draw in game three was so unreal that I knew I would win. At that point I was delighted, but tried my hardest to remain focused and when the win actually happened all the tension and joy were relieved at once."
It's another pivotal step in a Depraz career that just keeps growing. He burst onto the scene with a victory at Grand Prix Warsaw in 2017 and followed that up with a team victory at the Magic World Cup in 2018. He came back with another finals performance at Mythic Championship V in 2019, and a Top 8 at Players Tour Online 2 last summer. In the changing world of professional Magic, Depraz has done it all, from the Grand Prix circuit to the best of the best in digital Magic. Now he'll have a chance at one more title.
"Now I'll do my best to win it all—I want a card!" Depraz proclaimed.
Jan-Moritz Merkel knows that feeling. He won Pro Tour Kobe 2006 in his professional debut, and after a long break has returned to the game with a vengeance. He punctuated his run through the ranks to earn Top 8 at the Zendikar Rising Championship. That qualified him for the Rivals Gauntlet and there made the absolute most of his opportunity, fighting back out from the lower bracket to face Gavin Thompson in the sole World Championship qualifier match, just hours after Thompson had first defeated Merkel.
But you don't make it to the Top 8 of championship events without having resilience, and once he made it back to the final match, Merkel left no doubt in his skill as he qualified for the World Championship. It capped a monumental rise through the ranks for the German, who began the 2020-21 season as a challenger but claimed a Magic Online Championship Series Showcase trophy back in March, a Top 8 appearance at the Zendikar Rising Championship, and now a 2021-22 MPL invitation and opportunity to end the season as the Magic World Champion.
"I'm incredibly happy, proud and grateful to everyone that helped me accomplish this," Merkel said after securing his Worlds berth. "It's amazing, and I'm still having a hard time believing it. I hope to have a good showing, play lots of good matches and enjoy myself."
Good matches are a guarantee when the World Championship kicks off next month. There's also the matter of a $250,000 prize pool and what may be the most exciting reward of all: the opportunity for the World Champion to be immortalized on a Magic card.
We'll watch the final champion of the 2020-21 season emerge at Magic World Championship XXVII, live at twitch.tv/magic October 8–10!