For Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, it was the bus. More accurately, it was running face first into his own oversized portrait on the city bus that told him that this was different.
He had won Grand Prix events. He'd been a two-time Pro Tour Champion, a Nationals winner, and Player of the Year. The Brazilian superstar had done it all in the Magic world, already considered by many to be the best players ever.
But this was different. This was his-picture-on-the-bus downtown fame. This is what it meant to be the World Champion.
"My life changed so much," Damo da Rosa said of winning his title in 2020. "Telling someone you were 'the World Champion' means something to people that telling them you're 'a Pro Tour champion' or 'Player of the Year' didn't. In Brazil, we have esports awards every year; I went from not even being a finalist in the card game category to winning the esports player of the year across all categories."
"It was just radically different from everything that came before."
Of all the tournaments and titles in Magic, it's the World Championship that the game's best covet most—and the best are still chasing Magic World Championship XXVIII as we head in the New Capenna Championship.
The World Championship always delivers the game's best stories: Damo da Rosa's ascent to the top of the all-time list; Shahar Shenhar's back-to-back wins; Javier Dominguez's incredible title run less than a year after a crushing runner-up finish; Brian Braun-Duin's career-defining arc from grinder to World Champion.
World Championship just hits different.
And it wasn't just the bus that drove that home for Damo da Rosa.
"In Magic, it wasn't really all that different. I was already a famous player and had won tournaments and written articles for a long time," he recalled. "But my life changed in everything outside of Magic; Everyone knows what a World Championship means, and people outside the game perceived me differently after that. My extended family were all calling me because they saw me on the news that was playing all over Brazil. It was so different than anything I had won before and it was the one title I had yet to win, so it felt like a culmination of everything in my career."
Damo da Rosa is one of a very exclusive club to know how that feels, but for every World Championship winner like him there are dozens of players—all among the best in the world—who know the agony of coming just short, watching one slip through your fingers and never knowing if you'll another chance to grasp at it.
Portuguese star Márcio Carvalho is perhaps the best-known example, having notched 10 Top Finishes highlighted by runner-up finishes at the World Championship in 2016 and 2020, but coming up short of winning any of those opportunities.
That's part of what makes the most prestigious title the most exciting to pursue: the World Championship remains elusive.
"It's the tournament I most want to win," Shota Yasooka said bluntly.
Yasooka is a living legend in Japanese Magic, a player who has won just about everything but the World Championship. Yasooka knows just how hard it is to do that, even for Pro Tour champions and Magic Hall of Famers. He went on an iconic 11-1 run with a surprising, innovative Modern deck to the Top 4 of the 2012 Players Championship, but came up just short in the finals to Yuuya Watanabe.
He's been trying to get back there ever since, the loss never far from his mind even as he's continued to rack up trophies and titles since.
"I am not satisfied because I think I could have won that championship," he lamented. "I reaffirmed that I could compete even with an original deck at that level. In the Pro Tour, you can do well by beating those weaker than you. But in the World Championship you need to beat people at your own level or better than you, every round. You have to be more prepared than ever before to play at that level."
But to win the Magic World Championship you must first qualify for it, and the New Capenna Championship is the best chance for Yasooka to get back to the World Championship stage. While some of the 32 seats have already been claimed (including one by defending champion Yuta Takahashi), many more are up for grabs as players compete this weekend: the top six finishing players in the New Capenna Championship will earn their spot, while others—including pros like Yasooka and Reid Duke—are in contention to earn a spot based on their accumulated World Championship Qualifying Points over the season.
There's no one that means more to than Duke, a fan favorite and prolific content creator from the United States who experienced the highs and the lows of truly world-class competition.
That same 2012 event where Yasooka came within inches of the trophy, Duke fell far short. "I finished in last place with a record of 2-10," he recalled. "Every Magic player knows the feeling of having a bad run. Sometimes you show up with a deck that's bad for the metagame, and sometimes the close situations just never seem to break your way. The difference is that most of the time you can just scrap the event and try again the next weekend."
But the World Championship isn't like any other event, and you can't bow out to just try again later. "You have to play out every single round with your full heart, no matter how badly things are going," he said. "You don't go home after losing a few matches, and your opponents don't get any easier if you're in the losers' bracket."
It was a devastating experience for Duke, who at the time was finding his way in the world of paper tournaments after making a name for himself dominating Magic Online events. But it was also exactly the experience that showed him where he needed to go, and he returned with a vengeance the next year only to fall just short against Shenhar in the finals.
The difference, Duke explained, comes both in preparation and mentality.
"You have to prepare and play differently when all of your opponents are equally or more skilled than you—you have to expect and be prepared for people to always find the plays that will make your life the most difficult," he elaborated. "But if you go back and look at the World Champion runs from Seth Manfield, William Jensen, Javier Dominguez, and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, you get the impression that they never even let losing enter their minds."
Like Yasooka, Duke spent a decade trying to come that close again. There is no single event to win, no automatic qualifications; these opportunities come from high-level play, and don't come often.
"When it comes to the World Championship, I like to treat every opportunity as though it could be my last," he said. It's "an opportunity to play against the very best players, at the very highest stakes, and that's what's most rewarding for me. At this point in my career, winning the World Championship is the achievement that would mean the most to me, and the one I'm working the hardest to earn."
Duke has put himself in a strong position to make another run at that achievement, with consistent performances at the two previous set championships putting him in the thick of the points race for a spot in the tournament.
"I narrowly missed competing in the last two World Championships, which was a significant blow for me; I've learned to deal with losing, but not being able to compete in the first place is even more discouraging."" he explained, noting that the field of invitees expanding from 16 to 32 players this year changes what's demanded from players. "At 32 [players], you can make it by consistent performances throughout the year. This is a unique opportunity."
All of this and more is on the line when the New Capenna Championship kicks off this week. The pressure will be immense, as will the rewards for qualifying. But for Yasooka and Duke, qualifying is just the first step: they aim to be back at the World Championship, and they mean to make sure this time is different.
Magic World Championship XXVIII comes at a singular point in Magic history. Just about everything has changed drastically in the two years since Damo da Rosa's win, both in his world and the world at large. As the pandemic brought traveling the globe for tabletop events to a hiatus and play largely moved to MTG Arena, it gave the Magic's career cash winnings leader the chance to step back from a whirlwind of travel and reflect on his career and the rest of his life as a World Champion—not to mention enjoy some time at home with his wife and two dogs.
Emma’s new favorite spot - my pillow 🤨 pic.twitter.com/gsTZ2KKzXw— [Tempo] PVDDR (@PVDDR) March 22, 2021
"I really felt like I won the best year to win with the push into esports and coming right before the pandemic, and after that I had accomplished everything pretty much everything I had wanted to in the game," he said. "It's allowed me to have a much more relaxed mentality, and I stopped stressing over things like my 15th sideboard card."
Not that the relaxed approach has slowed him down all that much: strong performances in the Innistrad and Neon Dynasty Set Championships has him tied for sixth among league players in the points race for this year's World Championship. With the possibility of returning to the biggest stage in the game now very much within reach, one of the greatest competitors to ever sleeve up sixty has found one last challenge he can't help but think about: only one other player—Israel's Shahar Shenhar—has ever won two World Championships.
"I kind of ghosted my way through the first several tournaments of the year without feeling much stress, but I did well and now the World Championship is within reach—and that means the stress is back and I'm practicing more than I have in a long time," he admitted, the cool confidence of a champion momentarily melting back into the wonderment of the boy who discovered Magic at 8 years old and dreamed about winning the World Championship ever since.
Even, it turns out, after winning it once already.
"Now there's something in front of me that I want, very much. I would be very disappointed if I don't get back. And that means I'm working as hard as I can to get back there."
Yasooka. Damo da Rosa. Duke. Watch as these legendary players and more battle for the final seats at Magic World Championship XXVIII as the New Capenna Championship plays out, broadcasting live at twitch.tv/magic, starting Friday May 20 at 9 a.m. PT!