When players enter the Philadelphia Convention Center on February 17 to sit down for the first Draft of Pro Tour Phyrexia, it will be three years to the day since the end of Magic World Championship XXVI—February 16, 2020.
That World Championship was the last in-person premier play tournament before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the landscape of competitive play. With the return to the name "Pro Tour" and revisted bustling convention halls, shuffling up, and sitting down across from an opponent, Pro Tour: Phyrexia is the beginning of a journey back to the hallmarks of competitive, tabletop Magic.
There's the draft, with its specially stamped cards and the thrill of seeing players draft a niche archetype that was still unknown. There's the convention center, buzzing with players and the hush that falls over the room when a round begins. There's finding your friends, hopefully at the top tables of the tournament and being there to cheer as the Top 8 is announced.
These are the experiences that longtime competitive Magic players recall and look forward to again when they step into the hall at the Philadelphia Convention Center. Those form the core of a Magic journey important to William Jensen, the Magic Hall of Famer and former World Champion who stepped into the role of Director of Play Programs in 2022.
"To me, playing competitive Magic and specifically tabletop competitive Magic has been the defining aspect and experience of my life," Jensen said. "I hope that current and future generations of Magic players can have a chance to have similar experiences."
With the first return-to-tabletop Pro Tour only two weeks away, players have an opportunity to look forward to some of what's been missing in the past three years—exactly what gathering to make memories made us wistful for first.
"Meeting with my Magic friends," was what World Champion Javier Dominguez missed most about tabletop events, and it's a common refrain among players returning to the Pro Tour in Philadelphia.
"Easily my friends," said 2015 Player of the Year Mike Sigrist. "I haven't seen tons of my friends since the start of the pandemic, and while I got to see some for Worlds this year, I'll get to see even more at the Pro Tour."
For some players, that excitement around seeing friends and competitors in person again is matched by the excitement of playing tabletop Magic.
"A year ago I would've said that I mostly missed seeing friends and meeting new people," said Hall of Fame member Reid Duke. "Now that I've started playing again, I realize how much I missed the physical cards. Little things like having pride in your collection, the feeling of sleeving your deck before the event – they really add to the experience!"
That sentiment is shared by Simon Nielsen, member of the 2014 winning World Magic Cup team, frequent Grand Prix Top 8-er, and New Capenna Set Championship finalist.
"At the actual game table, I have missed the sensory feelings: shuffling my smooth sleeves, the satisfying clack of a newly drawn card hitting my hand and the confidence of turning all my Dinosaurs sideways in one sweeping motion. And connecting with my opponent, an actual-factual human being right in front of me ... those sensations are just not present online."
In addition to seeing friends and players in person for the first time in years, Draft topped the list of experiences these longtime players are most looking forward to.
"This is the first time in years Limited will be such a huge percentage of the rounds of the event," Sigrist said. "There's nothing quite like peeling back that first pack and squeezing and hoping to see a busted, stamped Mythic."
"Players, pick up your cards, you have 50 seconds," Nielsen said, quoting the omnipresent voice of the judge at the start of each Pro Tour draft. "Just let me draft again! I even miss jotting down the tiny marks on those stupid deck registration sheets for draft."
Both the draft and the return of tabletop play mean that testing for the Pro Tour will look different from the tournament preparation of the last three years. Testing teams evolved during the era of online premier play, migrating to online messaging apps which benefitted by making international connections.
Those changes have stuck for some groups, like Team Handshake, which both Dominguez and Nielsen are part of. The return to tabletop play means merging the playtesting practices that have served them well for the past three years with proven methods from before the pandemic.
"Well, first of all, we have some teammates who have barely played any competitive [tabletop] Magic and we have needed to teach them the ways of resolving a trigger in real life and such," Nielsen joked. "Usually, all of our preparation on Team Handshake has been in our Discord Group, and that's also where we have started this time. But what's new here is that we will meet up at an Airbnb in Philadelphia, one week before the event and finish our testing process there. This will also include live drafts and teaching Julian how to tap a land."
Some players, like Duke. are focused on some of the other challenges that come with tabletop play. "I'm taking extra steps to make sure I'm not rusty, and that I can reliably finish matches in time."
While drafting is an exciting return for many players, it changes the logistics of preparation that has, for the most part, been focused on two different Constructed formats for the past three years—a welcome change for returning competitors.
"Honestly it is much less stressful than two Constructed formats," Nielsen said. "When you're trying to test for, for example, Standard and Historic you always have to balance how much time you spend on each, and it never feels like enough. Preparing for draft is so much more relaxed, because it never feels like working on a project where you have to specifically pick out match-ups to practice over and over. You're just joining a new draft queue and discussing picks with teammates."
Mike Sigrist, another tabletop titan and veteran of the Pro Tour, has a plan that sounds as familiar as its been successful through the years.
"I'm pretty used to balancing this from past Pro Tours, but we'll try and get as much Pioneer work done as we can at first, then likely shift our focus to mostly Limited for a bit, and then in the last few days back to Pioneer," Sigrist said. "It's nice to have two formats that are completely different to break up the monotony of playing just all Pioneer or all Phyrexia: All Will Be One Limited."
Draft rounds are also traditionally ones where players practiced in the format plan to pick up games against competitors who are less versed in it.
"I expect everyone to have a good deck and be well-prepared for Pioneer, so I'm hoping I can work hard and come in with an advantage for the Draft portion," Duke said. Starting each day with a 3-0 or 2-1 record is an advantage everyone can understand.
Returning to competitive tabletop play is a place where players with previous experience at in-person tournaments can leverage comfort as an advantage again players who prefer competitive Magic's digital play.
"I would say [I am] slightly advantaged because of experience," Dominguez said.
Duke matched his own estimation of his own edge against the field. "I have an experience advantage over most of the PT field, and I think that counts for something."
Not every player sees it quite that way though.
"I actually think I land somewhere in the middle," Sigrist said. "I haven't played a single game of paper Magic since the start of the pandemic. All of the MPL and Rivals matches were held online, and that's where I focused my attention for [the game]," Sigrist said. "I do obviously have a lot of experience at paper events but there's others who won't be as rusty with stuff like making sure they don't miss triggers, and fully see the battlefield before making decisions since they've been playing paper Magic for a while now. Then, there's another group of people who have quite literally never played paper before this event and learned to play during the pandemic on MTG Arena and Magic Online."
"Well, in-person I can't listen to music while I play so that must clearly be a disadvantage," Nielsen said, alluding to his rocking out all through the Top 8 of the New Capenna Championship. He finished second in the event, so it obviously served him well.
"I do have other ways to relieve the tension that builds up at high level match as I am quite talkative and try to make sure that I relax and have fun with my opponent, especially between games," Nielsen added. "I believe that playing in a less tense atmosphere lets me play tighter. Plus I have enough experience comprehending a boardstate, remembering triggers etc that I think live Magic is better for me. But who knows, the last few years have certainly been my best. So was that because I got better and joined a great team, or is it because online play (and dancing) just suit me better?"
When the first round starts at Pro Tour Phyrexia, it ushers in a strange combination of the future and the past. It's both a return to tabletop competitive Magic, and a look forward to the Regional Championships, Pro Tours, and Magic World Championship still to come in 2023. For some players, including many of those with stellar tournament finishes in the past three years, it will be an entirely new kind of competitive play. For others, it's a return to the Magic they love most.
"The Pro Tour is so important to me as both a player and a fan of the game," Duke said. "It helps me feel connected to Magic players across all parts of the world and all eras of the game's history."
"My life was consumed by traveling to paper events," Sigrist said, "and while I will never go back to a time where I'm traveling weekly because I have a family at home, the fact it's available to me is a sign that things will be okay."
Jensen, overseeing a worldwide system of play to reward, excite, and welcome tabletop players everywhere perhaps said it best.
"None of what we do with competitive Magic would be possible without the players and the community who have unending passion for both Magic and competition," he said. "Lots of players have made lifelong relationships competing in our games and tournaments, which is something that makes me very happy both personally and professionally. As for the competition, there's something special about sitting across the table from someone, looking them in the eye, whether they are a friend or someone you're meeting for the first time, and engaging in a game of Magic where both players are trying their best to make the best decisions and do what they can to come out on top."
For many players, the return to the Pro Tour means more than just a chance to play competitive tabletop Magic against the best players in the world again: It's about the game, the connections, and the friendships made over years and miles.
"Tabletop tournaments mean that I get to see my friends," Nielsen said. "I have traveled for tournaments for a decade now, and that results in a geographically widely scattered friend group who I have only vaguely been able to keep in touch with these past few years. That's what means the most."
And for fans not attending MagicCon: Philadelphia, you can catch all the Pro Tour Phyrexia plays right from the comfort of your home. Watch the broadcast each day at twitch.tv/magic, beginning February 17 and 18 at 11 a.m. ET and February 19 beginning at 9 a.m. ET!