Magic World Championship XVIII has a wealth of talented players, and among them are challengers who had to fight through a crowded field that had grueling requirements for World Championship contention. Players qualified for each Championship individually, then jockeyed for position at the top of the field which the put pressure on to make the most of each Championship appearance.
Drew Baker, Lukas Honnay, Yuma Koizumi, and Julian Wellman are among those eight that rose to the top of the Challenger field with stellar 2021–22 season performance. Now, they're days away from their first appearance at the pinnacle of Magic tournaments.
Drew Baker is something of an anomaly at the World Championship, a player who prefers Draft to Constructed formats, though he has, of course, proven himself adept at both.
"Every draft experience is different; when every draft starts, I get to dream big about what new wild things I'll get to do this time. In Limited, my inner Johnny and Spike find harmony together. I really enjoy pushing unusual strategies to their limit, and there is no better place to do that than in Draft."
Baker has been playing Magic in all its forms since 1997, when he and his brother picked up the game.
"My brother read the rulebooks and explained everything to me. We didn't know what a lot of the words meant, and constantly mispronounced words like 'diplomacy.' My dad tried to correct us, and we'd laugh and be like 'What do you know, Dad?' My brother and I played many, many CCGs as kids; we even invented our own CCG called 'Super' and marketed it to our friends. Name a collectible card game from the 90s, and I bet we played it. But Magic was the game that stuck."
While Baker has been playing Magic for decades, he's a newcomer on the competitive scene, and the pressure of high stakes matches is still something he's learning to navigate. Baker qualified for his first premier event, the Neon Dynasty Championship, via a Draft Arena Qualifier. During his tensest matches, his watch kept giving him heart rate alerts.
"Finding ways of managing anxiety during games has been a big work in progress for me."
That anxiety colored his reaction to qualifying for the World Championship, and, even before that, his expectations of ever qualifying for the event.
"For my first Championship, I told friends and family I'd be lucky to win one match. I told my spouse not to get babysitting for Day Two because I never thought I'd make it. Then I made Day Two (don't worry, we found babysitting). Then I went 11-5. Then I got asked to do an interview prior to the next Championship because I was 'in the Worlds race.' I didn't believe I really had a shot."
Despite outperforming his expectations by eleven wins, Baker told people the exact same thing about the New Capenna Championship—that he'd be lucky to win a single match. He ended up going 8-7, enough to secure his seat in Las Vegas.
"[I was] over the moon! And anxious? And over the moon? I was shocked when I saw my name on the Twitch stream as a Worlds competitor. All of my friends and family have been telling everyone they know that I qualified for the Magic World Championship. Some of them are organizing Twitch watch parties. Many of them don't know anything about Magic. It's a really cool feeling. I've also prepped them though: 'On gameday, it isn't very likely I'll even win one match. So be ready to tell your friends watching with you that your cousin is Reid Duke.' Hopefully they believe me. And hopefully Reid Duke doesn't mind some honorary cousins."
In addition to logging over one hundred Dominaria United drafts and finding off-the-radar Standard decks, Baker is navigating the pressure of qualifying for Magic's hallmark event.
"My inner child is very, very excited. I had qualified for a few national tournaments as a kid, but we could never afford to travel to them. Inner kid Drew gets to live out a dream! Adult Drew is very, very anxious though. I'm trying to do my best to focus on the once-in-a-lifetime experience of competing at this level."
When Day Two of the New Capenna Championship closed, Lukas Honnay thought he'd come up a single slot short of the World Championship. Then, the next day, Simon Nielsen made the Top 6 of the event and opened up the final Challenger berth, qualifying Honnay for the World Championship.
"First I felt like I didn't deserve it, a lot of things had to come together for me to actually get there. Now I'm just super excited and happy, and I want to prove I deserve to be there."
Honnay entered the race for the World Championship as a long shot because he wasn't qualified for the Innistrad Championship, and so had one fewer event to garner the points needed to rise to the top of the Challenger standings. He made up for it with a 16th place finish at the Neon Dynasty Championship, followed by a 33rd place finish at the New Capenna Championship, two excellent results made even better by the fact that they were back to back.
Honnay's foray into competitive Magic began back in 2019, when he saw someone tweeting about MTG Arena and it sparked a memory of Magic cards he'd had as a kid. He downloaded the game and "what started out of boredom and very casually quickly became one of my biggest hobbies and a big-time investment."
He discovered that he liked playing competitive Magic best because, "while I do like to play games with friends I just love competing the most, regardless of the format I just like to play high stakes Magic."
That's certainly what he'll find at the World Championship, and Honnay is preparing for the event with his usual testing group, which includes fellow Worlds competitor Zach Dunn.
"I'm good at the more 'strategic' parts of Magic, having good gameplans and sideboard plans and being good at attacking a metagame. I believe my technical play can be somewhat lacking."
He's also bolstering his drafting skills because most of the Magic he plays is Constructed. The World Championship will be the first premier event he's played in that has a Draft portion. While he's logged a lot of Dominaria United Drafts, he still feels behind compared to the other competitors. But he's not letting that worry get in the way of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"Competing means a ton. Honestly, I've always struggled with what I wanted to do in my life because the only thing I really enjoyed was playing games, and this is such a big opportunity for me. I go in with very little pressure because I feel like I've already won when I earned my qualification. That said, I'm still working my ass off, and I obviously hope to do well!"
And as a player who has largely competed since the pandemic limited in-person events, Honnay is eager to meet more Magic players.
"Please contact me! Whether it's IRL, on Twitter, or on Discord, I absolutely love meeting new people and talking about Magic."
Yuma Koizumi is one of five players from the prolific and indomitable Japanese superteam playing in this year's World Championship. While Koizumi is new to the World Championship, he has an abundance of tournament experience and some of the best players in the world on his team.
Koizumi started playing Magic in 2014 with the release of Khans of Tarkir.
"It all started with a draft with a friend," Koizumi said, but drafting with friends quickly snowballed into a passion for playing competitive Magic.
Since that start in 2014, Koizumi has found his Magic niche playing in tournaments, which is his favorite way to enjoy the game. He's played in six Pro Tours, and in 2021 alone he played in over 50 tournaments, from qualifiers to Star City Games satellite events to Championships. That evens out to playing a competitive event almost every single week, and it was that dedication and passion for tournament play that set him on the path to the World Championship.
Koizumi put himself in reach of the World Championship with a stellar start to the competitive season. He finished 10-5 in back-to-back Championships, landing at 20th place at the Innistrad Championship and 25th at the Neon Dynasty Championship.
Koizumi prepared for the Innistrad Championship with a team that included reigning World Champion Yuta Takahashi, as well as Yuuki Ichikawa, Riku Kumagai, and Tori Saito. Those names are likely familiar to anyone who watched the event, where their team became known as the "Japanese superteam" after putting an astonishing four players into the Top 8.
It was a dominating performance for the team, who leveraged the power of Golgari Food, a challenging but potent Historic deck, to make their mark on the event. Golgari Food fits neatly with Koizumi's preferred play style, which tends toward midrange decks and strategies.
"I liked all the decks with Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath," he said of his favorite decks from the past.
While Koizumi's Championship finishes left him just outside of the Top 8 spotlight, they were enough to catapult him to Magic's most prominent stage. It's also worth noting that his Historic win rate across premier events this season was a whopping 74%.
For Koizumi, playing in the World Championship means standing on the stage he's dreamed of since he began playing Magic competitively. He's preparing for the event with the same team that helped propel him to the pinnacle of premier Magic events, and with teammates like that, it's no surprise that Koizumi says community is his greatest Magic strength.
Julian Wellman qualified for the World Championship in the final Swiss round of the New Capenna Championship. After placing 20th at the Neon Dynasty Championship, his first premier event, and already putting together another ten wins in the New Capenna Championship, a final victory in Round 14 launched him into the field of Worlds competitors.
"I locked up my qualification by beating LSV [Luis Scott-Vargas] in my first ever feature match, and it was very validating to get something meaningful out of all the time I poured into practicing for the online events."
Wellman started playing Magic on MTG Arena in 2019, where Throne of Eldraine drafts and playing "some truly terrible Constructed decks" eventually morphed into a competitive drive.
"My favorite way to play Magic is to win. By this I mean that I enjoy Magic when both players are truly trying their best to win, not that actually winning is necessary. All the competitive Magic formats have plenty of interesting decisions in deckbuilding and gameplay for me!"
His strengths have evolved since those days of terrible constructed decks, to the point where Wellman now considers making good deck choices for each tournament to be one of the skills he brings to the game.
"I like to think that I'm good at brewing competitive decks and putting in a ton of time testing to figure out which decks are actually good in a format."
That assessment is illustrated by the fact that Wellman won the first ever Alchemy qualifier with Gruul Werewolves, a deck that proved to be one of the best in the format at its start. Once the tournament begins, though, Wellman wrestles with some of the more nuanced aspects of gameplay.
"In gameplay, I sometimes struggle to correctly identify which potential considerations are going to be the most important to the outcome of the game. I can think for a long time in a position and understand what the pros and cons of each option are, but still get the conclusion wrong. Of course, this is what everyone struggles with, and it's hard to have a great sense for what I am better or worse at compared to other people."
This season, at least, Wellman has come out ahead of the field, and he's making the most of the opportunity by testing every day with David Inglis and the juggernaut team of Worlds competitors he's gathered together.
"I'm treating it as a real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I want to know after the fact that I did all that I could have done, so I've really been going all-in on preparation. It's taking a lot of time away from my research; in real life, I am a mathematics PhD student at MIT. I'll have a lot of work to catch up on after this is all over!"