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Stepping into the Challenger Spotlight

August 02, 2021
Elizabeth Rice

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published with quotes from Challenger Gauntlet player Yohei Nomiya incorrectly attributed to Noriyuki Mori. These have been corrected.)

On August 6, 24 Challengers will meet on MTG Arena for the Challenger Gauntlet to determine four invitations to Magic World Championship XXVII. As if that weren't incentive enough, there are also 2021–22 Magic Pro League spots on the line for the top four finishers and second-chance-at-the-World Championship spots in the upcoming Rivals Gauntlet.

The Challenger Gauntlet is composed of the eight highest finishing Challengers from the Zendikar Rising, Kaldheim, and Strixhaven Championships. While a few of the competitors have long tournament resumes and major wins, for some, the upcoming Gauntlet will be the highest stakes tournament in their career.

Tim Wan

Gavin Thompson

Among these players will be Tim Wan and Gavin Thompson, both of whom qualified for the Gauntlet from their Zendikar Rising Championship finishes. Wan began playing in 1993, with Thompson following soon after in 1996. Thompson discovered his love for competitive Magic during the Junior Super Series and has been playing on and off since. In contrast, Wan didn't truly begin playing at a competitive level until after MTG Arena came out.

"It gave me a way to obtain every Standard deck at a reasonable cost," Wan explained. "I set out to participate in as many Mythic Qualifiers as I could, to see if I could compete at that level. I know that I still have a long way to improve my game, but I know that at least for one moment, during the Zendikar Rising Championship, I was able to compete and beat some of the best players in the world."

Lars Luckhaupt

Ron Branchaud

Lars Luckhaupt and Ron Branchaud are two of the Challengers who qualified from the Strixhaven Championship. Like Wan and Thompson, both began playing in the mid to late ‘90s, but it had primarily been a casual endeavor. While Branchaud stated that he had always wanted to compete at the highest of levels, it always felt like a long shot. Neither player ever planned on playing Magic at the competitive level.

Ian Birrell

Noriyuki Mori

Coming from the Kaldheim Championship, Ian Birrell and Noriyuki Mori are two players also looking for a bigger breakthrough. While Mori began playing MTG Arena "just for fun" that changed once he hit No. 1 in Mythic ranking—a feat made possible with his more than 24,000 games played online!

Birrell is one of the few Challengers with major tournament finishes, including a Top 8 finish at Grand Prix Austin in 2020. However, even he describes his run to the Gauntlet as "surreal" and is excited about finally reaching a goal he has carried for a long time.

What is it that makes this time, their time? What is it that these Challengers attribute to their recent success? As you might expect from any group of Magic players with such a range of experience, their answers vary.

"50% luck, 25% skill, 25% concentrated power of will," joked Thompson, riffing off the famous Fort Minor song "Remember the Name." In reality, "This is the culmination of years of hard work. I love playing this game at the highest level, and here we are!"

Wan credited the high-level Magic on MTG Arena (plus some "good spins" with Muxus, Goblin Grandee) for his successful road to the Challenger Gauntlet, Branchaud felt similaraly. "Although I've primarily played casually and on the MTG Arena ladder, I've always played with a competitive mindset and focus on improvement. I think because of my disciplined approach, I feel confident playing at such a high level."

Making it to the Gauntlet is not only a competitive dream come true, but also a chance for these players to prove to themselves and others that they can compete with the best that Magic has to offer. "Having a potential path to [the World Championship] is incredible to me," said Branchaud. "This opportunity kind of came out of nowhere, but I intend to make the most of it. Being a professional player has always been a dream of mine."

"It's inspiring!" said Birrell. "I have a chance to prove myself as a competitor amongst 23 of the best [Challengers] from all around the world."

"The Gauntlet means so much to me!" said Thompson. "The prizes for Top 4 would be life changing, and I can't think about them for fear of being distracted from my preparation!"

For these Challengers, the upcoming Gauntlet is something they are taking quite seriously, setting goals and preparing for the tournament accordingly. Most are using MTG Arena and close friends to help with their preparation.

Branchaud's preparation started in earnest after Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms dropped. Drafting the set has given him the chance to try out the new cards and get familiar with cards he may have already overlooked. "After decks are locked in, I'll be playing my chosen decks with a focus on matchups, sideboarding, and technical play," he said, looking ahead to to joining"the Rivals or the Magic Pro League with a Top 12 finish is my primary objective. As a personal goal, I'd like to tighten up my play and make fewer blunders than I did at the Strixhaven Championship."

Mori is part of the "Akio Pros" Discord community, organized by Akio Matsuzaki and filled with competitive players across MTG Arena and Magic Online. It's a source Mori attributes his recent successes. "We always discuss about Magic and test new decks together," he said, "especially Kazune Kosaka, who is RedBull Untapped World Champion." Kosaka's help was instrumental for building Mori's decks for the Challenger Gauntlet.

Thompson is keeping the specifics of his preparation process closer to his chest. "That said, I am working with some of the best and brightest in the game today," he said. "I play a lot of ladder to make sure my in-game mechanics are up to snuff, and we scrimmage matchups every morning and evening. I have a network of deck specialists to help me target test matchups."

Not all Challengers build success from collaboration with other competitors. Both Wan and Birrell have a different approach, looking to tools within their own grasp to continue their march of success.

"I'm trying to stick with a simple plan," Birrell said. "Find good decks and try to make solid technical plays, taking the tournament one match at a time [to qualify for the World Championship] and win it!"

"I know that finding good testing partners and a team is essential to taking the next step," said Wan, "but I haven't found the time." Digital resources are where he places his trust. "I've been scouring tournament results for decklists and testing them out myself on MTG Arena ladder and making modifications as I see fit."

With their preparation in full swing, these Challengers look forward to making their mark on the game and going up against the best of the best. "One of my favorite parts about Magic is getting to compete with players from other parts of the world," said Birrell. "Playing someone from thousands of miles away is a very special experience.

For these players, the doorway to the next level of competitive Magic stands in front of them, with four looking to step through to the Magic World Championship XXVII stage. Tune in August 6-8 on to see which of these players makes their dream come true.

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