Magic World Championship XXIX field expands from recent years' slates of 32 players to just over 100. The move made room for Regional Championship and digital players from around the world to not just qualify for a Pro Tour but represent their Magic community at the biggest stage of the season.
As much as winning a Pro Tour is a career-defining success, it's the World Championship that carves names into Magic history.
"If you win a Pro Tour, it's obviously very good inside Magic, but if you win [a World Championship] everyone outside Magic knows what [that] means," said Javier Dominguez. Each World Championship feels unique for him. "These tournaments are so scarce that they all feel special in a way. ...It's definitely something I've been looking forward to."
Dominguez would know: in 2017, he finished second at the World Championship (losing in the finals to William Jensen) before returning in 2018 for a back-to-back finals appearance to take home the title.
"It's like what [2020 World Champion Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa] said: 'Being World Champion is something that a lot of people can relate to.'" said Christian Calcano, who also played at the World Championship in 2017. "For any given thing, the World Championship is usually the biggest tournament in that thing. And there's only been twenty-eight Worlds, so not many people in the game can call themselves World Champions. It's a special meeting of the top players from all the different regions, and it's a tough tournament, and you have the prestige and the money that comes with it. It's exciting."
Calcano is returning to the World Championship for the first time since 2017 after a rollercoaster season this year that included missing qualifying for the Pro Tour at the Regional Championship in Naples, then qualifying for Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings at the Regional Championship in Athens, then making his second career Pro Tour Top 8 in Barcelona.
"I definitely didn't think that I would be playing in events of this magnitude, especially at the beginning of the year," he said. "The Pro Tour was amazing and I'm looking forward to playing another big event with all the best, and I can't wait."
Gabriel Nassif is a member of the Magic Hall of Fame, a popular streamer, and another former World Championship competitor who's returning to the event this year. He first made the Top 8 of a World Championship in 2004, and most recently in 2020 — an impressive career spanning decades of competiitve Magic. That deep experience tempers how he views the most prestigous event of the season.
"The World Championship is the only really big tournament I've never won, so it would be really cool to do that and to have my card," Nassif said. "But at the same time, after getting a lot of second place finishes in Magic and in poker, I've realized that there's not that big of a difference between winning and the guy who finishes seconds or twelfth. You just try to do your best."
Reigning World Champion Nathan Steuer is another of the familiar returning faces at this year's World Championship — and perhaps the one everyone is expecting the incredible from. After winning Magic World Championship XXIX, he notched back-to-back Pro Tour Top 8s, with a win in one of them.
"[The World Championship] is where the best from the year all come together and get to play," Steuer said. "When you're playing at a World Championship, every single round, starting at Round 1, you're going to be playing against ringers."
To reach the World Championship again, all four of these players had years with at least one highlight, if not a string of them. For Dominguez and Steuer, the year was marked by the success of Team Handshake.
"The honest highlight would be how well I have felt with the Team Handshake group," Dominguez said. "We started working together this year, and I didn't know most of them that much and most of them are considerably younger, but at this point we've been together for a lot of weeks in different places. We are becoming friends and I think we are developing a very good chemistry. That's definitely the highlight of the year."
"I would say winning the Pro Tour in Minneapolis, beyond just winning the event," Steuer said, when asked about his highlights. "That was an event where I individually had a ton of testing time in the house that contributed to our team having a very good version of the best deck for that tournament. One thing that I pride myself on is that when I'm collaborating with my teammates, we can come up with really good strategies, but when I'm hyper-focused and we're in the testing house, we can get through ideas at double or triple the pace that we can online. And so I think being in the testing house is a huge part of the events, and I would say that that has been an incredible experience as well."
"For the first Pro Tour, it was actually really out of my comfort zone to play the archetype that I did in Lotus Field," Steuer continued. "One trend that I've noticed is that this year has really cemented that I can play anything and play a wide range of decks. My performance has significantly improved when I didn't limit myself by what deck can I play well and what deck is harder to play and just accepting I'm going to play whatever I think the best thing is to be doing. ...Playing Tron at the last Pro Tour reminded me that even if I'm not the one carrying the success, it's ultimately a team effort."
Calcano's year had a rocky start as he re-entered competitive Magic, but his persistence to qualify for the Pro Tour culminated in Calcano's second Top 8.
"At the beginning it was pretty rough because I was starting again and I could see myself making a bunch of mistakes, even during the Pro Tour. But I felt myself getting better throughout the year, especially once I started testing in person with teams again. That was a huge help to me because that was always what I felt like had me as prepared as I could be for every Pro Tour I played. Even though I like playing online, testing online is a lot tougher for me, especially since these tournaments are in paper. So I really value that house time a lot. I'm looking forward to meeting up with my team later this week and getting ready with them."
And though Nassif has had a stellar year, including a Pro Tour Top 8 and a Top 16 finish that have put him fifth in the Player of the Year race, he has a pragmatic view of his season.
"I think it's gotta just be the Top 8 with Reid [Duke]," Nassif said of his year's highlight. "We were actually roommates for that event, and he won, and I made Top 8 with that last run where I won a feature match to make Top 8 with a hard-cast
"I thought I played well...when I Top 8'd in Philly. In the second Pro Tour in Minneapolis, I felt like I ran above average but that fizzled out," Nassif said. "And then the last [Pro Tour] I got Top 16. I didn't play perfect, but I thought I played well. You're gonna mess up once or twice, but overall I'm actually pretty happy, as someone who's likely to beat himself up. And really it's also having more realistic expectations. It gets a little easier to accept that you're not gonna always do well."
When players sit down on Day One of Magic World Championship XXIX, they'll have six rounds of Draft and eight rounds of Standard between them and the Top 8. The slightly shorter event and the two drafts, one each on Day One and Day Two, mean that Draft carries more weight at The World Championship than it has at this year's Pro Tours. It's been shifting these players' preparation to match.
"I'm looking forward to Limited," Steuer said. "I think that's been one of the places that I've had the most holes in the past year or two. I put a ton of effort into getting ready for the draft, and six rounds of Limited versus three rounds last year is a huge difference. So it means that I can double the time that I invest into it accordingly."
The Standard environment is also fresh off the release of Wilds of Eldraine, and there also hasn't been a Standard Pro Tour since the ban of
"I'm definitely excited to see what the Constructed format looks like," Dominguez said. "That's part of the magic to me too, when there's no format defined; it's just completely new. I would like to see if there are decks still to be discovered with the old cards. I wonder if there are good decks that were not played before because of
Calcano is excited for the draft, but also sees the Limited rounds as a place where the caliber of competition has increased in the last few years.
"I still love Limited, and I still feel like I'm a really good Limited player, but nowadays it's a bit different," Calcano said. "I'm not sure if my Limited skills today would set me apart as they did in the last decade. There's [online] Draft tools now, there's a lot of content, there's more information out there than there used to be."
The bar for drafting well is high, and the edges between players are tough to come by, he explained. "Drafting well and knowing the format and understanding all the interactions really goes a long way, so my hope is that I've still got it in Limited and can maybe post a good record there."
In a field full of stellar players, many of them teammates, it's hard for even these veterans to find what sets them apart from the field. While Calcano hopes that his draft skills will still prove to be a notch above the rest, Dominguez and Nassif see their experience at previous World Championships as what sets them apart.
"I don't feel like I'm the best," Nassif said. "I'm — I don't know — maybe in the Top 20 players, maybe Top 10, of players attending. What sets me apart [is] maybe that I've been there."
"I think all Magic players have unique skill sets," Dominguez said. "If I had to tell one that's good for me, probably it would be experience at this point. I am probably among the most experienced players in high level tournaments in the field, but I think it's very hard to tell what tells a player apart from the other players because we all are so different."
For Steuer, the focus is on both the overall success of Team Handshake and the chance to add one more title to his already stellar year.
"My goal is to win Player of the Year. I'm competing against my teammate Javier, and ultimately, if one of the top three on the leaderboard — myself, Javier or Simon [Nielsen] — qualify, I'll be happy, as it sort sort of represents our team's goal to put up a ton of success over the course of this year. But personally, that's kind of the one accolade that I'm missing from my resume. I think it would be really amazing to win that."
While all four players expressed a mix of excitement and nerves at the prospect of playing this weekend, Calcano is focused on pushing past the jitters and settling in to play great Magic.
"I try not to put any kind of expectations on myself," Calcano said. "I always feel like that would set myself up for disaster, if I didn't meet it or if things weren't going well. So I try to remove all those thoughts that could potentially get in the way of me being able to play to the best of my abilities. I take it a round at a time and try and do the best I can while I'm playing. I mean, of course everyone wants to be World Champion, so even though I don't have these expectations of being World Champion, I believe I can win, and I am definitely going to try my best to do it."
At the end of the weekend, we'll know whether one of these or the many other familiar faces at the World Championship takes home the title and trophy; or if there will be one more newly familiar name to look out for next year.
Watch all the gameplay and excitement of Magic World Championship XXIX at twitch.tv/magic, kicking off September 22 at 11 a.m. PT (2 p.m. ET // 8 p.m. CEST // 2 a.m. JST 9/23)!