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The Chosen Champions of Las Vegas

September 20, 2023
Corbin Hosler

Choose Your Champion.

That's not just the tagline to one of Magic's more memorable promotions tied to Pro Tour play, it's something we asked every single player who is slated to compete in Magic World Championship XXIX this weekend at MagicCon: Las Vegas: "Who, besides yourself, is your pick to win the World Championship?"

This year's World Championship is something different. It's not a 16- or 32-player field, and it's not a crowd of 200-300 like we see at a Pro Tour. It's a touch over 100 qualifiers, and the field has split into a dozen or so teams that have been exploring every inch of Wilds of Eldraine Draft and Standard.

It's a field made up of a little bit of everything, from Pro Tour Hall of Fame members to Regional Championship heroes are realizing their Magic dreams after an incredible run somewhere in 2023. There's Pro Tour winners, Magic Online and Magic Arena stalwarts, and, of course, reigning champion Nathan Steuer. He's been in a class of his own ever since winning Magic World Championship XXVIII a year ago (adding two Pro Tour Top 8s, including a win, across the three this season), and now he's heading back to Vegas where his dominant run kicked into hyperdrive.

I can only begin to set the table. For the full feast — and in the spirit of Eldraine there's a lot of Food on the table — make sure to check out all the World Championship content on the event page. From Draft insights with Marshall Sutcliffe, to the metagame breakdown with Frank Karsten arriving tomorrow, to the journeys of this year's competitors with Meghan Wolff, everything you need to know to about the World Championship is at your fingertips.

Enough stage setting. Who do the players think is gonna win?

Nathan Steuer, World Champion

It's no surprise that Steuer led the field by a comfortable margin. What may come as a surprise is putting it into this context: one out of every four players picked Steuer to repeat as the World Champion, something only Shahar Shenhar accomplished in 2013 and 2014. Incidentally, he went through Reid Duke in one of those World Championship finals, and Duke is back at the biggest tournament of the year (Duke cracked the top ten in our survey this year). Success seems to be a never-ending story for Steuer.

And one former World Champion was followed by another as a top pick.

Javier Dominguez

Dominguez is back. Not that the 2018 Magic World Championship winner ever really left, but those who know him say he's coming into this year's World Championship at the top of his game and with a passion that is purely his. That joy is what drives Dominguez even after ascending to the game's highest heights, and with another pair of Pro Tour Top 8 appearances this year, Dominguez heads to Vegas as the leader in the Player of the Year race, in what one player described as his "second heyday." Or as World Championship competitor and Pro Tour Avacyn Restored winner Alexander Hayne put it, "boomer skills combined with zoomer enthusiasm and his results lately have been the dividends."

Something Steuer and Dominguez (and a handful of others in the top ten) share is a testing team: the dominance that Team Handshake has asserted over competitive Magic in the past year has been historic. We're talking about the kind of shared success that can stack up against any of the great teams in Pro Tour history.

"The most likely to win is either Javier Dominguez or Nathan Steuer. It's an easy answer for anyone to give based on the season's results," Handshake member Anthony Lee explained. "But it's even easier when you know how well the team works behind the scenes. They are our star players on arguably the strongest team in the world."

I'm not sure there's much argument to be had with anything there. You're the champ until someone takes it from you, and Steuer has looked the part of a modern-day Kai Budde as he racks up trophies. While it's easy to say Dominguez has experience in the World Championship stage having won it, let's not forget that he was also the runner-up at the 2017 Magic World Championship that William Jensen went on to win. Put another way, Dominguez has been a match away from going back-to-back at World Championships.

Can Steuer pull off something that's only been done once in 30 years of Magic history? The odds are long, even for the defending champ. But that's probably what they told Shenhar, too. And Steuer hasn't shown the slightest hint of slowing down, putting together a historic string of finishes that began around his World Championship win. The last 18 months of Magic by Steuer are going to pass into Magic lore regardless of his finish this weekend, but if he were to win? Unforgettable. And very much possible according to those who have tested with Steuer for years.

"Nate is clearly on a different level than everyone else," is how longtime teammate Austin Bursavich described Steuer's run earlier this year. "it's a lot like Magnus Carlson in chess. The tools are there for anyone to get extremely good and people are using them, yet somehow Magnus and Nate are still a head above everyone."

The first two players in our results have the benefit of the best team in the world. The next highest vote-getter? Someone who doesn't test with any team at all.

Shota Yasooka

Everyone who has qualified for the World Championship is an opponent to be respected. Legendary Hall of Famer Shota Yasooka is referenced with awe.

"I believe he's the best technical player on the circuit right now," explained competitor Jean-Emmanuel Depraz. "His innovative approach to deckbuilding lends itself well to smaller-field tournaments, and he has learned over the past years to just play and tune the best deck when appropriate."

Yasooka is famous for preparing alone and making winning look easy once the tournament begins. The first Pro Tour finals I ever covered was a control mirror between Shota and Carlos Romão, and I got to spend 90 minutes taking in the mastery firsthand on his way to the Pro Tour Kaladesh title. He's truly a master of his craft, and multiple players highlighted his ability to craft up a deck to take the field by surprise. He did it at Pro Tour Kaladesh, he did at the 2012 Magic Players Championship when he made a run to the finals with an innovative Modern deck, and everyone who knows Shota knows that this could be the next tournament where he does the same.

I don't think there's another player in the game who could eschew a traditional testing team and be rewarded for it by other players. But with 12 Top Finishes — good enough for fourth all-time and tied with someone you might have heard of named Kai Budde — Yasooka's process shows results that speak for themselves. And more than a few players are pointing to the relatively short amount of time between the release of Wilds of Eldraine into Standard and the start of the World Championship as a benefit for Yasooka; there's a lot of noise to cut through and not a lot of time to do it in.

The other player to make the top five is someone who hasn't yet drawn the headlines like Steuer or someone who boasts the pages-long list of accomplishments like Yasooka. But Simon Nielsen has been on an absolute tear this season and is coming off a second straight Pro Tour Top 8 appearance at Pro Tour the Lord of the Rings following one at Pro Tour March of the Machine.

Simon Nielsen

A longtime veteran of Grand Prix Top 8s, and a member of the Danish team that won the World Magic Cup in 2014 with the famous "Daneblast", Nielsen later earned his first top finish at the New Capenna Championship in 2022 and has quietly put together a mighty strong run of his own: he's made three Pro Tour Top 8s in the last 14 months.

And the rest of the field has noticed. The world that most often came up with Nielsen was "consistency," with at least one "unstoppable" thrown in for good measure. However you want to describe it, Nielsen is heading into the World Championship with a chance to make a run at the Player of the Year title and bump Steuer out of the driver's seat when it comes to impressive Pro Tour streaks.

Then there's Duke, who has seen it all. For him, the World Championship is intensely personal. Large field, small field, one format or many, Duke has played in everything and made himself a World Championship mainstay along the way. He earned his Pro Tour trophy back in March and crossed a giant to-do off his Magic bucket list. Basically the only thing remaining? A World Championship title.

Reid Duke

And there you have it: five of the players voted most likely by their peers to win the World Championship. There's an excellent case to be made for all of them and plenty of other competitors who received multiple votes: last year's World Championship finalist Eli Kassis, Hall of Famer Gabriel Nassif, and David "Tangrams" Inglis.

I'm particularly interested to follow Inglis, one of the most consistent standouts in both team (Handshake) leadership as well as on the Pro Tour over the last year but has yet to have it all come together for a deep Sunday run. That could very well change at the World Championship.

Of course, that could apply to any of the 110 competitors. You don't qualify for the World Championship without bringing some serious Magic skill to the table.

But to win a World Championship? That takes poise as well as preparation.

Choose your champion and tune in to the World Championship to watch it all unfold.

Join Maria, Marshall, and more to see all the action with the Magic World Championship XXIX broadcast, kicking on Friday, September 22 at 2 p.m. ET (11 a.m. PT // 8 p.m. CEST // 3 a.m. JST 9/23)!

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