On September 2, the 2020-21 postseason continues with the MPL Gauntlet and Rivals Gauntlet, each packed with players who battled their way through three championships and seven League Weekends. Chris Botelho, Noah Ma, Luca Magni, Bernardo Santos, and Zachary Kiihne all finished in the top 20 of the Rivals League standings, and now these rising stars have a one more chance this season to claim an invitation to Magic World Championship XXVII at the MPL Gauntlet.
Each of these competitors entered the Rivals League as unproven heroes. The League tested their playing skills against a level of competition beyond what they had previously experienced, but throughout this grueling season they all seized the opportunities to level up their own skills and stake their claims to big prizes.
That road to improvement always has its share of highs and lows, as these players' perspectives on the recently completed regular season can attest to. Botelho put in the work to earn a Top 16 finish at the Strixhaven Championship, and his performance this season gave him a positive outlook moving forward. "I'm pretty thrilled with my performances during the regular season across the board," he said. "I had some hot weekends and some colder ones, but where I ended up placing was far above where I would have predicted at the beginning of the season. It's honestly really encouraging to find out that I'm capable of competing on this level more than I would have given myself credit for at the start of the year."
Magni finished 13th in Rivals League regular season, highlighted by a Top 8 in the Zendikar Rising Championship that was followed up with a Top 16 finish at the Kaldheim Championship. Looking back on his season, Magni was challenged by League Weekends—intense competition exclusively against the other elite players in the league. "I'd still consider it successful," he said, "since it was my first one as a professional Magic player."
Santos had mixed feelings about his performance this season. While he felt that he started off strong with a 9-3 performance on the opening League Weekend, he attributed a lack of preparation and poor technical play to his overall performance afterwards. "I started off pretty well, but I didn't finish as strong as I should have," he said, "but overall I'm pretty happy I ended up here."
Korean standout Noah Ma joined the Rivals League after an incredible 2020 performance, where he earned his invitation through success qualifying for—and competing at—Mythic Championships to earn invitation to the Rivals League. Across the 2020-21 season, Ma earned a 10th place finish at the Strixhaven Championship but it came with his share of struggles that forced him to refine his mental game. "Even when my ranking was low, I played every week thinking positively," said Ma. "I'm lucky enough to have a great opportunity to play in the Gauntlet."
As with Ma, most of the points earned by Zachary Kiihne this season were from the League Weekends. Kiihne was a long-time regular on the SCG Tour circuit, and his breakout performance during the 2020 season earned his spot in Rivals. He credits being able to play against the top players repeatedly for the improvements he has seen in his skills, including technical play, deck construction, and reading his opponents.
Kiihne's team is filled with other incredible players like Matt Nass, Paulo Vitor Dama Da Rosa, and Mike Sigrist. Battling at this level of competition is different from his experience on the SCG Tour, where he noted how those events were "so much less skill intensive than Rivals, it's not really comparable," and how he wished he had gotten to playing at this skill level sooner.
Santos shared that experience for how important it was to his development to go up against higher levels of competition. "It was a great challenge playing so many matches against very good players," he said. "I feel I have a better understanding of what gets people those small edges needed to win at this level."
"Long-term success in Magic has a lot to do with different factors like skill at predicting metagames, deckbuilding, and ability to adapt on the fly learning new matchups and decks," Botelho said. "Those are all skills I feel like I was really tested on this year, and I think I improved at every one of them."
But that's the past—the now is taking on the stacked field of the Rivals Gauntlet.
For Ma, it's daunting but his focus is unwavering. As he puts it, "it's just another event with a good chance" to do well. "Performing well [against top competition] is why I started Magic in the first place."
"The field is really strong but I never felt intimidated by any field to be honest," said Santos. "I know that the better I do, the better players I will face and in order to go to the next level, I have to find a way to win against them."
Botelho has found the ability to shrug off any feeling of intimidation a newfound skill from his league play. "One advantage of having spent this entire year playing in the Rivals League with nothing but players who I thought were better than me is that I think I've run dry of nervousness to feel about playing against them," he said. Now, he has the awareness "to just zone in on one game at a time and do the same things as in every match I play. Focus, try to notice everything, make the best decisions I can, improve where I notice mistakes."
"If anything," Botelho added, echoing Magni's thoughts on the season, "I think I'm excited that the level of competition is going to be so high. If this year's League Weekends have taught me anything, it's how much that leads to matches of Magic that are a joy to play."
Indeed, the MPL Gauntlet is the highest stakes yet. These competitors aren't playing for cash, but for their shot at next year's Magic Pro League, and equally importantly, their shot at becoming the Magic World Champion. For all of these players, the World Championship would be the biggest tournament they have competed in in their careers—a dream that could now become a reality.
"I always had it in the back of my mind, but I wasn't considering it to be a realistic goal...until this season," said Magni. "Competing at the tournament would not only be an unbelievable point in his career, but it would also be a birthday present." Magni's birthday is in October, when Magic World Championship XXVII takes place.
Botelho also considered making the World Championship someday to be a long shot. However, he noted that his career is full of those. "Pretty much everything major I've achieved in Magic falls into that same category. My first Grand Prix Top 8 was at an event where my goal was just to Day Two for the first time. Qualifying for Rivals happened over the course of a year's worth of [qualifiers] where my goal was just to make it into a Mythic Championship. Making it into the MPL Gauntlet happened when my goal was just to requalify for the next year of Rivals League."
"I think for anyone who plays the game at the highest levels, the World Championship has a big meaning," said Santos. "Making it would be a dream come true and it would give me a sense of accomplishment that is important to me."
With the MPL Gauntlet right around the corner, these four players are going to bring everything they've learned for their shot at making it to Magic World Championship XXVII. They'll be competing against world-class Hall of Famers and some of the highest skilled players in the game.
Watch live, September 2–5 at twitch.tv/magic, as the breakout players of the season battle for their chance to become the next Magic World Champion.