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The Week That Was: Bringing the Fire to Athens

June 16, 2023
Corbin Hosler

It was just supposed to be a vacation. A two-week excursion overseas to celebrate his first big trip in years. A jaunt through Italy to visit friends, hit up the major tourist sites and enjoy some fine dining. Maybe even a little Magic on the side.

It was the perfect getaway for Christian Calcano after several years spent at home. And the trip lived up to the hype. It was a whirlwind of exciting locales and Magic drafts and nights out with friends and everything he had missed from his years of grinding Grand Prix and Pro Tour events across the world a decade ago.

So, when the opportunity to attend one of the first large-scale tournaments arose at the same time as his trip to Italy, it was a no-brainer for Calcano. A longtime Grand Prix grinder with Pro Tour experience to his name, he couldn't help but join his friends at the Regional Championship in Naples earlier this year.

"I played in the last chance qualifiers, but I fell short of grinding into the Regional Championship," the Pro Tour Amonkhet 2017 Top 8 competitor recalled. "I did do well enough to win a free voucher to for a qualifier entry event on Sunday. I almost decided not to play after a fun night out on Saturday with friends, but I got up out of bed at 7:30 and went to the site, where a friend loaned me his Grixis Midrange deck. After eight rounds, I found myself finishing in eighth place, which earned me an invitation to compete at the Regional Championship last weekend in Athens."

The nine-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor had been ready for a busy weekend of Magic to cap off his trip. He most certainly did not plan on that Magic leading to a return trip to Europe, but the invitation to play at Athens meant exactly that. Players must play in the region in which they qualified, so the American suddenly found himself with a great excuse to head back to see his friends a few months later.

"It was never the plan, but I thought it was sweet to have an invite nonetheless," he explained.

Quick aside: I'll say that I'm a bit skeptical about that last part – the two-time GP winner has earned the nickname "the calculator" over the years, and so I have to think that this possibility was somewhat baked into the calculation. A big overseas trip with friends to a Magic tournament where the "downside" of doing well is coming back a few months later to picturesque Athens, Greece for LEC Athens and the European Regional Championship is all EV added.

It worked out pretty well for Calcano. He'd qualified for a Regional Championship and the competitive bug was back. The only logical next step?

The Pro Tour, of course.

"When I got back to the States, I decided to go to MagicCon: Minneapolis to play in the Sealed Pro Tour Qualifiers," he said. "I battled my way ... [to] the first one and then the quarterfinals of the second one, where I lost to two strong and friendly opponents who both won the Pro Tour invite. It was a fun an exhausting weekend and while being so close to the invite and missing was a bit of a disappointment, I motivated to keep going as I felt I was slowly getting back into tabletop form."

Rounding back into tabletop form is not what you want to hear if you're one of Calcano's opponents; he gained acclaim in the United States by bursting onto the scene with a victory at Grand Prix Minneapolis in 2022. Over a decade later the GP endboss had back the most important tool in any high-level Magic player's arsenal: "the Fire."

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written by Magic authors over the years trying to define exactly what that means, but at least from a coverage perspective I'll say that I know it when I see it. I remember covering one Grand Prix in Mexico City many years ago. It was tucked into a less-than-ideal venue with extremely spotty internet and was warm, crowded, and all that. A fun event, but not the kind frequented by the world's most prolific grinders – there were only a few players in need of season-long points who had flown in internationally to compete.

One of those players was noted Japanese competitor Tomoharu Saito. The tournament wrapped up pretty late Sunday night, and I know most of the players were exhausted. As Calcano mentioned it's extremely taxing to play a long weekend of high-level Magic. But Saito had overcome the jet lag and field of hundreds to make it to the finals in his pursuit of qualification points. He came up short in those finals, which, if memory serves, was Oath of the Gatewatch Limited. A format that was already growing old by the conclusion of the event, and not one that Saito or anyone else was going to need to know after they walked out of that room.

And what did Saito do after losing that match in that already-dead format? He carefully laid his draft deck out and went back through all of his card choices, agonizing over whether there was anything he could have done differently to win it all. That's what the Fire is, and you can see it in Calcano when the first thing he can think of after a bitterly disappointing series of near misses is how he feels he's still improving.

Well, he wasn't wrong. LEC Athens is in the books, and Calcano is fresh off a Top 16 performance that will send him back to the Pro Tour. And the fire burns brighter.

"After bricking Day 1 of the Arena Qualifier in May, I knew my last chance to qualify for Pro Tour Lord of the Rings in Barcelona would be at the tournament in Athens," he said. "After a few weeks of MTGO testing with my team, I flew to Spain for five days to meet up with them at Javier Dominguez's house for some tabletop testing. After a fun week of games, good company, and amazing food courtesy of Mama Dominguez, we flew to Athens on Friday. Fast forward to Sunday and three players from our team ended up qualifying for the Pro Tour (Toni Martos and Miguel Simoes)!"

I talk a lot in "The Week That Was" about how every path to the Pro Tour is different. When we get together every few months at a random spot on a map and bring in people from all walks of life from 50 different countries, no story is the same – there's reigning World Champion Nathan Steuer, and then there's the rest of us.

But with how much Magic has grown and what the competitive landscape looks like spread out across continents, different computer programs and online leagues, the qualification path for the Pro Tour is more diverse than ever before. But ultimately what matters is qualifying for the Pro Tour, not how you got there. But it certainly doesn't hurt that Calcano will feel right at home playing in Europe – it's all a vacation that keeps on giving.

"It felt incredible to finally get back to where I've been working towards all year and having teammates get there as well made it even more special," he explained. "I spent a couple of days sightseeing and hitting up the beach after, which was a great way to end a fun and memorable trip. 'Play the game, see the world' is something that always resonated with me, so getting to play these European events and get to visit these amazing places after so many years of it not being possible has reignited my fire to reach the highest levels of the game again. For almost 20 years I've dream of winning a Pro Tour, so I'm very much looking forward to one more opportunity in Barcelona in July!"

Calcano's story is awesome for a lot of reasons (vacation and Magic? Sign me up), but one of the reasons I like it the most is because it shows just how much there is going on outside of the Top 8 at these Regional Championships. With a dozen RCs per cycle and several cycles a year, it's a busy schedule, meaning that often it's just the toplines that command attention – what player with what deck won the tournament and how did they do it? What do I need to know for sideboarding in next week's Regional Championship?

It's a lot, but Calcano's journey is a reminder that falling short of the absolute top does not mean it wasn't a successful weekend of competitive Magic. He missed on the last chance qualifiers but came away with a future RC invite. He came desperately close to winning two different Pro Tour Qualifiers in Minneapolis but left feeling reinvigorated. He didn't make the Top 8 in Athens either – but none of these incremental moves were failures (thanks, Giannis) they were steps on his path to the Pro Tour.

Calcano was far from the only player to realize their Pro Tour dreams last weekend. Federico Vuono won the Regional Championship in Athens with the format's newest and most explosive deck in Boros Convoke (Frank Karsten has the details on all the latest developments in this week's Metagame Mentor – go check it out!), while Hungyi Yu was victorious at the MIT Championship with Azorius Lotus Field Control. There were 36 Pro Tour invitations available in Athens and the final result after 15 rounds of Pioneer play was a mix of newcomers and returning veterans alike, with Hall of Famer Martin Juza among the Top 36 finishers (I'm also a fan of Marc Tobiasch's Storm Herald Combo in the Top 16!).

Looking Ahead

We're six weeks away from the start of Pro Tour Lord of the Rings, and there's a handful of Regional Championships left to determine who will join Calcano, Vuono, Yu and the rest of the field in Barcelona on July 28-30. This weekend belongs to the West Canada Regional Championship, which will stream on Sunday on FaceToFaceGames' Twitch channel.

From there, attention turns to the Regional Championships in Japan and Australia and finally Brazil and South America. That sets the stage for what is sure to be a furious month of testing for teams as players try to decipher a Modern format that hasn't been played at the Pro Tour level since Thoralf Severin won with Tron in Barcelona back in 2019. Modern is my favorite format and I cannot wait to see what comes out in the next few months – and with Vodalian Hexcatcher, anything is possible!

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