The challenges of the past year reshaped both the landscape of premier-level Magic and the way players prepare for tournaments. The Challenger Gauntlet is full of players who distinguished themselves in this new environment, from earning multiple qualifications for Championships on MTG Arena to climbing the standings from one event to next until they reached a Top 8 finish.
Some players stand out from the crowd of competitors, brought to the forefront not by their determined preparation but by their stellar finishes.
Sam Pardee and Logan Nettles have been regulars on the premier Magic scene for years, dating back to sharing a Pro Tour debut in Nagoya in 2011. Pardee won the Strixhaven Championship in June, while Nettles placed fourth—major finishes in their long careers that paralleled through the years as they emerged as competitive veterans.
"I feel extremely well-positioned against the Challenger field," Pardee said. "I think I'm one of the strongest players in the Gauntlet and hopefully I'll be able to leverage that experience advantage into a great finish."
Nettles was more guarded about his hopes. "With these small-field events there is a lot of luck and chance in choosing a deck that ends up being well positioned against the other competitors. I'm very confident in my abilities as a player but I think choosing the right deck is the most important thing for positioning yourself to do well so I hope I can find decks I'm confident in."
To their ranks we add Arne Huschenbeth and Brad Barclay, the winners of the Kaldheim Championship and Zendikar Rising Championship respectively. While neither has been on the competitive scene as long as Pardee and Nettles, their wins, and particularly their pitch-perfect tournament deck choices that propelled them to the top, impressed viewers and fellow competitors.
"I hope that my experience gives me an edge and I hope it will give me a mental advantage in stressful matches," said Huschenbeth, who used Dimir Rogues to topple a Top 8 full of MPL and Rivals players and World Champions. "I learned how to be reasonably comfortable and focused under intense pressure."
"It is likely a very level playing field and will be a very competitive tournament, which I'm looking forward to," said Barclay.
In the timeless tradition of tournament preparation, all four players are testing with a small set of other Gauntlet competitors and close friends. Their groupings are often a continuation of their testing teams from the set championships, with even those players who didn't make the Gauntlet pitching in to help.
"We are brainstorming via Discord. Thinking out loud and exchanging ideas is very important to us," Huschenbeth said. "You don't have time to test everything and cover every corner. You need the discussion to sort out things. Later we go into the practical part, test the matchups that we are curious about."
The volume of new information and possible shake-ups is on a lot of Challengers' minds, with neither Standard nor Historic poised to play out the way it did when any of these players reached the peak of their competitive season.
"There's a lot to figure out with the new set impacting Standard and the recent
Deck choice and metagame aren't the only lessons to glean from the season behind them, though. Barclay and Nettles both stressed the importance of taking the tournament one round at a time.
"Winning streaks can make you careless and losing streaks can make you discouraged so it's important to separate from that and just play well one game at a time and the best results come from doing that in the long run," Nettles added.
Huschenbeth had similar advice, tied to his own experience after his win at the Kaldheim Championship.
"Don't let your ego and pride tell you that you are going to win no matter what, that you are worthy of winning or entitled to win. When you have a big victory like winning the Kaldheim Championship, feeling on top of the world, you can get swept away by the success and not think clearly anymore. I think that happened to me. At the Strixhaven Championship I felt frustration when I lost, less focused when my opponent had a much needed card in an unlikely spot. Things that shouldn't affect me much, affected me. And I believe that was due to me feeling entitled to win."
In the wake of that frustration, he's taking care with his mindset in the Challenger Gauntlet: "Have goals, but no expectations. Be aware that there are many things outside of your control. Focus and play to the best of your ability, that's it."
Pardee's focus, on the other hand, returns to the ever-present question of the metagame.
"I think the main lessons from previous events that I'll carry into the gauntlet is to not get too wrapped up in metagaming against specific players," he said. "In both of the Worlds I've played, we spent probably too much time trying to pinpoint what the other players were going to bring and counter that in some way rather than just bringing generically powerful decks. This time my focus will be on finding things that I think are well-rounded, play to my strengths as a player, and are strong against an open field."
While Pardee, Nettles, Huschenbeth, and Barclay have all experienced career highs and accomplishments any player would be thrilled to add to their name, those highs have been mirrored by lows that are as much of an obstacle as any player on the other side of the table. Before this season, Pardee was one finish away from a spot in the Rivals League, while Huschenbeth, as he says above, had a disappointing finish at the Strixhaven Championship.
Love of the game and the drive to compete brings these players back again and again, whether they're elated by a recent win or slogging through the disappointment of an underwhelming performance.
"The thrill of competition is always what drives me to return to events," Pardee said. "I love proving myself against the best competitors in the world, and the chance to do that, and earn invites to cool events like the World Championship are huge motivators to me."
While for Barclay the focus is more on the opportunity to return to the next premier event, and for Nettles the love of the game is the biggest driving factor, Huschenbeth lands somewhere in the middle.
"I love the competition. I love the community. This game has been my life since school, I love playing it. I am good at it. In the aftermath of a disappointing tournament I feel the pain perhaps a couple days or weeks if it was really painful. But the good part is, that pain can be used to train even harder and improve further. There is always the next tournament. Don't dwell too long, it's not worth it."
In addition to the drive of competition, there's also the thrill of finally breaking through, of hitting the sweet spot between great preparation, solid metagame calls, and feeling like it's your day that leads to what only one player in every tournament can accomplish – hoisting the trophy.
"It's a very validating moment to finally breakthrough and win a big event," Pardee said. "You spend a lot of time, even when you're very good, losing at Magic events. There's only one winner for most tournaments, so even if you make a deep run, it feels disappointing to come away with a loss, even if a top 8/4/finals appearance is objectively a great result. The breakthrough comes from the coverage afterwards, and knowing that just for that brief time, you were the best performer."
Those moments are their own reward that stands beside the trophy and the title.
"It's the ultimate feeling of satisfaction and relief," Nettles said. "Being rewarded for doing your best and putting in the time and effort is incredible, and I'm always seeking those moments."
"After you put so much sweat, blood, and tears into Magic to see that being honored and appreciated is a wonderful feeling," Huschenbeth said. "I am blessed to have been lucky enough to get there."
The tournament looming on the horizon for these players isn't just about a single winner or a single victory. Four players from the Challenger Gauntlet will earn invitations to the World Championship. It's the pinnacle of competitive Magic, an event that comes only once a year and that means something different, sometimes concrete and sometimes ephemeral, to every player who's dreamed of qualifying or of holding the title of Magic World Champion. For Huschenbeth, it would be a dream come true, while Nettles is excited that a shot at being World Champion is within reach, something he'd be "proud of forever!"
"To me, Worlds represents a shot at redemption," Pardee said. "I've made deep runs at basically every kind of tournament, GP, PT, Championships, MOCS, but both times I've played in Worlds it's been a pretty mediocre tournament result for me (or even my worst tournament ever)."
"Earning an invite to the World Championship would be special as it would give me the opportunity to play against the best of the best and have the chance to be World Champion," Barclay said.
One tournament stands between these players and the World Championship, a single opportunity to take a year of hard work, close calls, and already incredible success, and launch themselves onto Magic's biggest stage. With the Challenger Gauntlet looming, there's not much left to do except, to echo Huschenbeth, focus and play to the best of their ability. After all, they've all proven they can succeed.