Finally. Magic World Championship XXVIII. For close on three decades, the finest players in the global game have, well, gathered for a season-defining tournament, a tournament that needs no explanation, even to the uninitiated. Formats and field sizes have come and gone, but "World Champion" is still a title that resonates with anyone that knows competition.
Delayed, postponed, cancelled, moved entirely online: the Magic: The Gathering World Championship has felt the impact of global events along with every other facet of what we used to call normal. One of those normals, of course, is that "g" word again: gathering. So, it's with a profound sense of gratitude that we look towards an event where someone will lift a trophy at the end of it—and they will get to physically lift it, in a room full of their peers and competitors.
It's no surprise that an event with decades of time for iteration has looked different through the years. From fields of hundreds, featuring the top players from every Magic-playing country on Earth, to the curated excellence of the modern era, what can't be doubted is the quality of the winners. It's no coincidence that Kai Budde, Jon Finkel, and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa—widely considered to be the three greatest players of all time—are all World Champions. That fundamental challenge, to reach the peak and claim the title that matters more than any other, is very much a part of the organized play landscape—the glories of the past are still present, even as the future is reimagined after the unimaginable last few years.
This time, as Las Vegas, USA plays host not only to Magic World Championship XXVIII but the incredible Magic 30 experience that surrounds it, the field is 32 strong. And strong is definitely the right word. First to punch their ticket was reigning World Champion Yuta Takahashi of Japan. He turned the worst possible Limited start in draft last year into an astonishing triumph. Once 60 cards were in his hands, he was unbeatable. Which, all things considered, is just as well, since he needed every single one of those Constructed wins to emerge with the trophy. Japan has historically been one of the few challengers to American dominance of Pro Tour top tables but had been largely lying fallow over recent years. With Takahashi spearheading the challenge, nothing could be further from the truth this year.
In large part, that's due to the Innistrad Championship which kicked off our season. Yo Akaike, Riku Kumagai, and Toru Saito all finished in the Top 6 of that event, while the main honors were secured by Yuuki Ichikawa. He first came to prominence with two Pro Tour Top 8 finishes in the space of three months, at PT Journey into Nyx and then Magic 2015 in Portland. That was followed by nine Grand Prix Top 8s, and then victory in the 2021 Magic Online Champions Showcase. In fact, in a tournament where it really is all about winning, it's notable that Ichikawa is something of a monster closer, to borrow a baseball term. In his thirteen top finishes, an astonishing six have resulted in first place.
In a field of 32 standouts, not everyone can be a favorite to win, but two that stand out from the Neon Dynasty Championship are Eli Kassis and Jean-Emmanuel Depraz. For Kassis, there hasn't really been a "breakout" moment, which in many ways reflects his approach to the game. You won't get wild mood swings, elation and despair, or hyperbolic statements about his chances. Instead, you'll find a quiet, reserved, thoughtful, tungsten-steel-of-an-opponent, who has worked his way through the Grand Prix ranks, generating Top 8s in 2015, 2016, and 2017, before title-winning efforts in 2018 and 2019. Top 8 at Mythic Championship VI represented another steady step forwards, with his winning effort at the Neon Dynasty Championship reflecting his status amongst the favorites for this, the ultimate challenge.
Depraz, another who never feels the need to be his own hype man, has to be on any shortlist for this, or any other event. Despite a Grand Prix and World Magic Cup title, it's the near misses that have defined his career to date, with second-place finishes at Mythic Championship V, the Players Tour Online, and, of course, at the last World Championship, where he ran into the unstoppable Takahashi at the last hurdle.
The New Capenna Championship was comprehensively won by Germany's Jan Merkel. Like Depraz, Merkel reached the Top 4 last year in the World Championship and deserves his status among the pre-tournament favorites. Winning Pro Tour Kobe as a seventeen-year-old in 2006, Merkel has emerged half a lifetime later as one of the leading forces in the online world. Magic Online Champions showcase winner, Rivals Gauntlet winner, New Capenna Championship winner. Are you spotting a theme? To be fair, this was a standout Top 6 all round, with Denmark World Magic Cup winner Simon Nielsen and former Player of the Year Mike Sigrist both featuring in the elimination rounds, and David Inglis looking to cement his reputation as one of the finest minds in the online trenches.
It's impossible to tell the history of organized play without many, many stories that feature Hall of Famers Reid Duke, and Shota Yasooka. Like Depraz, both have reached a World Championship final and come away without the trophy. But their combined excellence—18 premier event Top 8s, 46 Grand Prix Top 8s, and ten trophies—firmly establishes them as two of the top contenders this year. And, by definition, their presence as top League finishers means they don't come here based solely on their historical records—they are in top form heading into the World Championship. That in turn suggests that Matti Kuisma, Logan Nettles, and Jakub Tóth, who fill out the League qualifiers, have truly been through the flames to get here. Don't discount any of them.
And that brings us to our final group of players, the eight best challengers from across the season. If any of them go on to win the whole thing, you can be sure that we'll be able to reconstruct the reasons behind their success, but, for the most part, if the champion comes from this group, it will be something of a surprise. This is where your underdog heroic storylines come from, but there are a couple of dark horses in the running here.
Jim Davis has been playing forever, with a Grand Prix Top 8 as far back as 2007, and he certainly has the online reps to mount a challenge. Greg Orange is Mr. Control Deck, and if some combination of monoblue and counterspells are a thing, he'll be sure to exploit it. But if you're looking for pure form, watch out for white-hot Nathan Steuer. He's coming to Vegas off the back of a second triumph in the Magic Online Champions Showcase, which means that he's already qualified for World Championship XXIX. If you believe that momentum is an actual thing in the game, Steuer is your player.
Wherever our eventual winner comes from, they will have earned it. The ascent begins on Thursday, with players divided into draft tables of eight. With their decks built, they return for three rounds of Limited action on Friday morning, before five rounds of Standard finish out the first day of competition. Saturday sees us swap Constructed formats, moving to Explorer, with six more rounds determining our Top 4. If anyone pulls away from the field, they'll be awarded an automatic berth in the Top 4 at 11 match wins. Historically, though, the last round on Saturday has been epic, with at least three of the four slots likely up for grabs.
And then, our final day of the season. Standard is the format, and a double elimination bracket will determine the champion. That's not all we'll have for you on Sunday, though, as we begin our coverage with a full hour of delving into The Brothers' War live from the main stage at Magic 30. On-air, we'll be bringing you plenty more from the biggest Magic party ever, in the company of Maria Bartholdi, Mani Davoudi, Cedric Phillips, Marshall Sutcliife, Paul Cheon, Eilidh Lonie, and Corey Baumeister, plus we'll have great features, a whole bunch of preview cards, and, of course, every round of the World Championship across three days of memorable action.
It's quite the lineup on-air, and quite the lineup of players, too. As battlelines are drawn, laptops charged, and decklists submitted, you know that this is going to be peak Magic.
The Magic World Championship is back, and we are, in so many ways, here for it.