The World Championship has always been the crown jewel of Magic's premier level play. Magic: The Gathering can be a complex and often opaque world when describing tournament titles to people who don't —well, let's call them "MTGgles". Winning a Grand Prix, a Mythic Invitational, or even a Friday Night Magic draft can be hard to differentiate for an outside observer but everyone understands what it means to be the World Champion of something.
Winning a Pro Tour—or Mythic Invitational or Players Tour—is something barely more than 100 players have accomplished in the 26 years of premier events, but a mere 24 individuals have ever been called a World Champion. If someone other than Seth Manfield or Javier Dominguez wins this upcoming Magic World Championship, that will become 25. And if either of them win, then they would become only the second player to become a two-time World Champion.
Let's take a look back at the most memorable moments in World Championship history as we count down the days until the Magic World Championship XXVI trophy is handed out in Honolulu, Hawaii this February 14th-16th on twitch.tv/magic.
Check back here every weekday until February 13th for the complete countdown!
Moment No. 9: In the Beginning
Moment No. 8: Japan Wins the Triple Crown
Moment No. 7: Nassif Plays to the Crowd
Moment No. 6: Romão Wakes Up Brazil
Moment No. 5: Mihara Repeals a Loss
Moment No. 4: If at First You Finish Second...
Moment No. 3: A Game for the Ages
Moment No. 2: Find a Better Finals, I Dare You!
Moment No. 1: "Little Kid Luck" Strikes Twice
No. 9: In the Beginning
If you scroll backwards through the event archives for Magic Premier level play you find fewer and fewer events each season until you get back to the earliest entry which is just one link under the year 1994—World Championships. The event was held at Gen Con '94, just one year after the commercial release of the game, and 512 players from all over the world descended on Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the right to be called the first Magic World Champion.
Magic tournaments were very different back then. There was only one format and it was called Magic. The Duelist's Convocation (now known as the DCI) had formalized rules that included a banned and restricted list and limited everything else other than basic lands to only four copies per deck. It was basically a Vintage tournament played with unsleeved Moxes on similarly uncovered wooden tables.
It did have coverage though. Chris Page and some guy named... *checks notes* ...Mark Rosewater were writing up all the action for the Duelist Magazine. The tournament was single elimination and when there were just two players left standing it was American Zak Dolan who emerged victorious over France's Bertrand Lestree to become the game's first ever World Champion.
#MTGWorlds Countdown No. 9:— Magic Esports ✈️ #MTGWorlds (@MagicEsports) February 3, 2020
No sleeves? No problem!
The very first Magic World Championship was won by Zak Dolan. Played with unsleeved Moxen on uncovered wooden tables – What a time to be alive!😳https://t.co/l9pGNtj8jz pic.twitter.com/wfDFNDP0qE
No. 8: Japan Wins the Triple Crown
We take for granted that Magic is a global game with players from all over the world having success at the highest levels, but in the mid-2000s Japan was only just establishing itself as a Magic superpower. It was only fitting that Japan dominated the world stage in 2005 at the World Championships held in Yokohama.
The race for the 2005 Player of the Year title had been neck and neck between Kenji Tsumura and Olivier Ruel as they chased down event finishes all around the world in the run-up to Worlds. Not only would Tsumura outlast Ruel in the Swiss rounds to secure Player of the Year, but Japan would pull off the World Championship Sunday double as well.
Katsuhiro Mori won the individual portion of the World Championship, becoming the first Japanese player to win that trophy. Earlier that Sunday, Japan had already won another trophy with Takuma Morofuji, Masashi Oiso and Ichirou Shimura taking the Team World Championship for Japan for the first time as well. It was all Japan at the trophy ceremony with all the major hardware staying in the country.
#MTGWorlds Countdown No. 8:— Magic Esports ✈️ #MTGWorlds (@MagicEsports) February 4, 2020
Japan was not always the global Magic superpower it is today. The 2005 World Championship changed everything and marked the start of a half-decade of utter domination. https://t.co/l9pGNtAJI9 pic.twitter.com/WrXcKN2VuX
No. 7: Nassif Plays to the Crowd
The Magic World Championship is a tremendous stage for players from all around the world. And when a player competes in a high-stakes match there is much more on the line than their own personal accomplishments. Entire countries' Magic-playing populations would hold their breath with each card drawn as their hometown heroes play for the title. Nobody could blame a player if they tuned out every distraction, pushed down every emotion, and focused only on the square of table immediately in front of them.
Someone forgot to tell that to Gabriel Nassif.
The French Hall of Famer and MPL member for this upcoming season found himself playing in his second straight Magic World Championship Top 8 in 2007 in New York after a 4th place finish in 2006 in Paris. He was playing against his friend and practice partner Patrick Chapin in a Storm deck mirror match and found himself down two games to one when Chapin resolved an Ignite Memories with a storm count of 5.
Throughout the game, with everything on the line, both Chapin and Nassif were playing to the crowd, laughing and playing the game as if they were playing across the kitchen table. It was an amazing moment of joy and sportsmanship with the right to keep playing for the game's most coveted trophy hanging in the balance.
#MTGWorlds Countdown No. 7:— Magic Esports ✈️ #MTGWorlds (@MagicEsports) February 5, 2020
Nassif (@gabnassif) vs Chapin (@thepchapin), need we say more? This was a Storm deck mirror match for the history books! Nassif finds himself down two games to one when Chapin resolves an Ignite Memories - storm count 5.https://t.co/2pN4QbIzP0 pic.twitter.com/FSs3RNjyth
No. 6: Romão Wakes up Brazil
Brazil has become one of the most dominant nations in the game of Magic. But way back in 2002 there was a dearth of Brazilian players even competing at the highest levels, much less the top tables.
Then Carlos Romão happened.
The 2002 World Championship took place in Sydney, Australia and The Latin Alliance was a playtesting team made up of players from Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Venezuela. It was an unprecedented collaboration between Latin American pros.
Diego Ostrovich of Argentina and Carlos Eduardo Romão of Brazil, armed with the playtest team's plan to only counter spells that mattered, became the first two Latin American players to Top 8 a Pro Tour or World Championship. They battled in the semifinals and it was the Brazilian who marched onward to write another chapter in the history books when he became the first player from his country—or continent—to win a World Championship.
It is impossible to talk to any Brazilian player today—or really any player from South America—who was not inspired by Romão's stunning win. Players were suddenly more willing to take the long and often expensive journey to attend the Pro Tour. He had awoken a continent and shown them not only could they play at that level but they could outplay people at that level as well.
Many years later I had a chance to speak to Romão about his win and how it affected his family. He shared with me that, due to the time difference between Australia and Brazil, his father literally woken up anyone within shouting distance celebrating his son's win.
#MTGWorlds Countdown No. 6:— Magic Esports ✈️ #MTGWorlds (@MagicEsports) February 6, 2020
The year was 2002 and when Carlos Romao (@Jabsmtg) won the World Championship it woke up Brazil—and in one particular neighborhood, quite literally. https://t.co/2pN4QbIzP0 pic.twitter.com/2gKkS21LrO
No. 5: Mihara Repeals a Loss
Just one year after Japan swept the trophy ceremony in Yokohama, the country was showing no signs of letting up. Japanese players appeared in the Top 8 of all but one Pro Tour on the season and had already won two of them with Takuya Okawa winning Pro Tour Prague and the team of Tomohiro Kaji, Shota Yasooka, and Tomoharu Saito winning Pro Tour Charleston.
When the finals of the World Championship began they were assured of another title with Ryo Ogura and Magic Hall of Famer Makihito Mihara facing off to see who would be carrying the third trophy home to Japan. Mihara would triumph in five games but whenever I think about that tournament I think back to his quarterfinals match against a very young Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa.
It was game five and Mihara appeared to have all the ingredients he needed to assemble the recipe for a lethal Dragonstorm—which was necessary, because Paulo was poised to win on his next turn. Or so Mihara thought when he started committing precious cards to build his mana and spell count to where he needed it to be and he figured out he was going to be one mana short.
It was a remarkable demonstration that even the game's elite players sometimes get the math wrong but it was also a beautiful display of composure and playing to your outs. Mihara recalibrated, took the line that would extricate him from his position and propelled himself onto a World Championship title.
Worlds Countdown No. 5:— Magic Esports ✈️ #MTGWorlds (@MagicEsports) February 7, 2020
Everyone makes mistakes—even some of the game's all-time greats. See what Makihito Mihara did to pull out a victory over Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa (@PVDDR) en route to winning the 2006 World Championship. https://t.co/2pN4QbIzP0 pic.twitter.com/l51Lv2pGsr
No. 4: If at First You Finish Second...
Before he started winning just about everything in sight, Spain's Javier Dominguez was familiar with coming up just short of the mark. Going into the 2017 Magic World Championship he had multiple 9th place finishes at Pro Tours—essentially missing out on playing on Sunday by a matter of decimal points in the tiebreaker column. As he waited for the announcement of the Top 4 in Boston there was a very real chance he would end up in 5th place on tiebreakers once again. His name was finally called for that last spot and he got to showcase his formidable skills on Sunday for the first time.
He would find a new way to come up one spot shy as he ran afoul of the hometown hero, Hall of Famer William Jensen in the finals and the trophy would end up just beyond his reach. To even play in the finals of a World Championship is a rare opportunity. When would he have another opportunity to try and do himself one win better?
As it turns out Javier Dominguez was on the beginning of a torrid hot streak that would lead him back to the World Championship in 2018. He faced off against Poland's Gzregorz Kowlaski in the finals and even though he found himself in a 2-1 he managed to win both elimination games and remarkably improve on his second-place finish from the year before.
Javier's hot streak has not come close to cooling in 2019 with three Mythic Championship Top 8s including a victory at Mythic Championship V. Can he become just the second two-time World Champion in Magic's history?
Worlds Countdown No. 4:— Magic Esports ✈️ #MTGWorlds (@MagicEsports) February 10, 2020
It seems like the only thing Javier Dominguez (@JavierDmagic) does is win these days, but in 2017 he was still sweating tiebreakers waiting for his first Top Finish. https://t.co/2pN4QbIzP0 pic.twitter.com/qceFIOkIUQ
No. 3: A Game for the Ages
Coming into the 2016 World Championship nobody had taken a longer and more arduous path to get there than Brian Braun-Duin—and perhaps had more to prove as well. While most of the slots at that World Championship were given out based on either winning a Pro Tour or sustaining excellence at that level, Braun-Duin had earned his invites chasing a special "Grand Prix Master" invite. While he was a promising player, he had not yet delivered on that potential at the highest levels of play compared to the rest of the World Championship field.
If Braun-Duin had to acquit himself, he did so while delivering one of the most memorable closing arguments in a finals match.
He found himself paired in the finals against Portugal's Márcio Carvahlo and he got to play the game of his life in Game 3 after splitting the first two games in the best of five finals. Game 3 would take one hour and seven minutes to conclude, but it felt like it whizzed by in a fraction of that time. The advantage swung back and forth wildly between both players for most of the hour with iconic creatures fighting each other, Planewalkers slowly ticking toward their ultimates, and haymaker spells trying to tidy the mess.
Braun-Duin would win that game—and the next—to complete his journey from Grand Prix stalwart to Magic World Champion, doing it the hard way at every step of his travels.
#MTGWorlds Countdown No. 3:— Magic Esports ✈️ #MTGWorlds (@MagicEsports) February 11, 2020
Players will often wish each other "good games" before a match. Game 3 of BBD (@BraunDuinIt vs Marcio (@KbolMagic) in the 2016 World Championship Finals is about as good as a game can get. https://t.co/jdF0yrkFjuhttps://t.co/2pN4QbIzP0
With the Magic World Championship title on the line, two Pro Tour Champions—and future first-ballot Hall of Famers—faced off with a chance to become only the second player in the game with two Pro Tour titles. Two of the titans of the game, each who would go on to win an Invitational and get their likeness captured on a Magic card—Shadowmage Infiltrator for Finkel and Dark Confidant for Maher, and it was all shown on ESPN.
Maher had won Pro Tour Chicago earlier that season and was a lock for the Player of the Year title regardless of the outcome of the match. Finkel was in the midst of a busy weekend having already locked up the World Team Championship trophy for the United States by defeating Ryan Fuller and Team Canada. Both players were on Tinker decks with giant threats in the form of Phyrexian Colossus and Phyrexian Processor.
But it was one of the deck's few answers which betrayed Bob Maher and opened the door for Finkel to win two different World Championship trophies on the same weekend. Maher played a Crumbling Sanctuary before combat and instead of dealing 19 damage he instead milled 19 cards. That allowed Finkel and his untarnished life total to pay 19 life for his own Processor and, with a little help from a Voltaic Key, outpace Maher in the 19/19 token department.
#MTGWorlds Countdown No. 2:— Magic Esports ✈️ #MTGWorlds (@MagicEsports) February 12, 2020
In 2000, Finkel (@Jonnymagic00) battled Maher (@acdbob) in a match for the ages…but it was a crucial sequence of cards in game one that set the stage.https://t.co/3KRYBb4qU9https://t.co/2pN4QbIzP0 pic.twitter.com/pwViKlvyff
No. 1: "Little Kid Luck" Strikes Twice
It was never supposed to be Shahar Shenhar's story. In 2013 the story coming into the Magic World Championship Top 4 was all about Reid Duke's reversal of fortune. The previous year Duke had finished dead last and took a lengthy personal inventory of what he could do to improve his game. He returned to the World Championship stage and was seemingly unstoppable with his Bogles deck throughout the Modern Swiss rounds—which boded well for him since that was the format for the Top 4.
The 19-year old Shenhar, playing on his first Sunday stage, had to get past Ben Stark in the semifinals before he could ever even get to Duke. On paper the matchup looked bad for Shenhar, and Duke seemed to confirm it storming out a quick two-game lead in the best-of-five finals. With a combination of a well-honed sideboard strategy and just a little bit of a stumble from Duke in Game 5, Shenhar shocked the world and was crowned the Magic World Champion.
The next year, the story was all about another Hall of Famer. This time it was Patrick Chapin who was having a storybook tournament. He had won Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx earlier in the year and viewed that win akin to winning a qualifier: The only tournament that mattered to him was winning the World Championship. He had gotten as far as finalist of the 2007 Magic World Championship in New York and wanted nothing more than to finish one place higher.
Once more Shenhar had no interest in telling anyone's story other than his own. This one was less dramatic than the five-game set from 2013. Shenhar dispatched Chapin in three games and became the only player to win two Magic World Championship titles—in back-to-back years no less.
#MTGWorlds Countdown No 1:— Magic Esports ✈️ #MTGWorlds (@MagicEsports) February 13, 2020
Shahar Shenhar (@shaharshenhar) is the only player to win Two World Championship trophies. But who knows? Javier Dominguez (@JavierDmagic) and Seth Manfield (@SethManfield) might join him this weekend. https://t.co/2pN4QbIzP0 pic.twitter.com/VzSzKov7qI