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The Week That Was: Building A Sanctum for All

June 21, 2024
Corbin Hosler

It was a Pro Tour Top 8 story for the ages; the kind that we immortalize in Magic lore and repeat in hotel lobbies years later. A team of players without lengthy Hall of Fame resumes showed up to a Pro Tour with a wholly unexpected deck and dethroned even the most popular deck in the field, and ultimately sent two members of the team to the Top 8 playoff.

There's several high-profile examples of this over the years, including a recent one with Vampires in Chicago, but the story of how team Sanctum of All members Jason Ye and Rei "cftsoc" Zhang made a memorable Top 8 at Pro Tour Thunder Junction—and what makes the team a leading force at next week's Pro Tour Modern Horizons 3 at MagicCon: Amsterdam—is familiar but unique at the same time. Ye and Zhang are two of the stars on the Pro Tour's hottest team, and watching their careers take off has been an inspiring story for the Magic world to follow.

It's also a memorable story for another reason: it almost never happened at all.

"I started playing fairly recently, original Dominaria, and when I started I was mostly just drafting, and I avoided Constructed," Ye recalled. "Sanctum of All was the team that got me to push myself to get onto the Pro Tour."

Pro Tour history will reflect how fateful that decision was. If you look at Jason Ye's career finishes page, the Top 8 in Seattle in the only thing there (for now). But Ye first burst on the Pro Tour circuit with a massive win at the $100,000 Limited Open last year, followed that up with a fourteenth-place finish at Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor, and since then its creativity alongside Zhang has helped propel both the team and the pair to new heights, culminating at Pro Tour Thunder Junction. Sanctum of All has been the undisputed innovator of Standard for the past year. Those on both the Sanctum Pro Tour team as well as its associated Regional Championship group credit the deckbuilding pair of Ye and Zhang for leading the way.

For its part, Ye is thrilled to invest the time and energy into competitive Magic and see it pay off in such a big way. It's even more thrilled to do so as part of the team that made the Pro Tour even seem like a possibility at all—Sanctum of All isn't like some testing teams that meet informally or come together haphazardly two weeks before an event. Sanctum of All is a team with an open invitation to anyone of a marginalized gender, and that's not a passive invitation either—the team is proactive in reaching out to let newly qualified players know there is a place for them, with no condescension, second-guessing, or preexisting connections needed.

"Sanctum was founded in late 2021; I came out in 2022," Ye said. "Starting my journey into Constructed as someone like me without any connections, it's very important to have this kind of space and it's important to me to continue to foster this positive environment. I got into it through the VML, and joined Sanctum to work with them for the Regional Championship in San Diego, where we brewed up Rattleblade Combo and cft made the Top 8 with it. Since then, I've been working with Sanctum a bunch, with me and cft playing off each other in the lab. It really doesn't feel like it's been all that long. It's really nice to see how far the team has come—originally we were just a team of people trying to see if this could work on the Pro Tour. Now we've got a team, it's doing well, and we've got an active team at the RC level. [There's also a new team podcast].

"I'm not the only person who has been inspired to go to Magic tournaments."

It's that last part that stands out so much; Ye and Zhang's Top 8 in Seattle is just the latest example of what is becoming a common sight: Sanctum of All members playing late into Day 2 at the Pro Tour. When Sanctum of All formed, founding member Arya Karamchandani noted that much of the high-level preparation that converts to Pro Tour success went on at the small-group level, rather than just by grinding endless Magic Online queues. And since many of those small groups were populated predominantly by existing in-groups and their friends, Karamchandani recognized that long-term success required breaking through the second, invisible wall that existed.

Enter Sanctum of All. Three years later the experiment has not just persisted, it has flourished.

"Our biggest strength is our diversity in perspective. Anyone who qualifies from an underrepresented gender is welcomed, and I'm one of the members who doesn't mind being proactive to look at pronouns on Melee and reach out. Often people are worried that they're taking up space that doesn't belong to them, when it really does. It's important that they know they're welcomed, and this is an inclusive space," Noor Singh explained. "We welcome players who are newer to competitive and professional level Magic and have the perspective of established grinders like cft and Jason. Mixing those perspective has been really helpful."

Sanctum's track record speaks for itself. From Jake Beardsley's win at Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings last year to the dual Top 8s at Thunder Junction—and even more recently Ye was back in the Top 8, this time at the United States Regional Championship.

"We have a core of really strong players; cft and Jason are such innovative deckbuilders, and they have a different perspective on Magic. Even when they're not brewing weird decks no one has seen before, they're still coming up with interesting takes on stock decks, likely for instance our Jeskai Creativity list in Chicago," Singh elaborated. "That's an advantage Sanctum structurally has, we have the ability and people who can put the time in to explore rogue decks. The mix of newer and older players really helps in exploring decks. We have this group of brewers where you come up with an idea, we come up with a shell and then play with the cards to see if it actually merits discussion. And we want the experienced players to sanity check us and say if you're lost in the sauce. We have access to some of the best deck or format specialists who are happy to help the team; there's a world of difference between testing against your average Rakdos player, and Jake Beardsley."

Another benefit Sanctum has is that its members, simply put, have worked harder than many of their peers. The Pro Tour testing house two weeks before a tournament is the classic pre-PT prep, but Sanctum doesn't wait to take the trip to start the testing—though Nicole Tipple did help to organize a Pro Tour house for Seattle and the team found it hugely beneficial, another level-up for

"Two weeks is not enough to find the weird stuff we come up with," Singh said. "You don't have enough time to throw stuff at the wall to see what sticks and then optimize the list and then work on the matchup spread to see if it's worth playing... I don't know the timescale for most teams, but we start testing a month and a half before the event. We were doing drafts of Modern Horizons 3 before we had the full list of cards."

Two places it's normal to find scribbled-on cards in a draft: Wizards of the Coast R&D, and the Sanctum of All draft table trying to get ahead of an incomplete format.

Sanctum didn't form the way many traditional teams do, but breaking some Magic norms on their way to success isn't so bad. In fact, it's been a key to the team's success.

"Magic players as a group can tend to be dismissive, especially of people you might think of as worse than yourself at Magic. There's lots of hyperbolic language, and lots of problems with how people talk about Magic in general. Something we've managed to do really well is make sure we have an environment where everyone respects each other regardless of results," explained Cain Rianhard, who finished second at Pro Tour March of the Machine to Nathan Steuer last year and is now helping to lead Sanctum's Pro Tour team for Amsterdam. "We make it clear to everyone that joins up that their input is really valuable, whether it's their first PT or their tenth, and it goes a really long way."

Rianhard is one of the team's veterans, having first made a Grand Prix Top 8 back in 2018. And like everyone I spoke to associated with Sanctum, Rianhard is eager to help the next wave of qualifiers, of which there are plenty—like Ye said, it isn't the only person who has been inspired by Sanctum to sign up for a Magic tournament.

"Originally when I got back on the train I worked with a different group, but coming back to Sanctum was really important to me to make sure that a team like this exists, to make sure that people of marginalized genders have a guaranteed team on the PT that's open to them," Rianhard said. "When it comes to community, we all have obligations to keep increasing how open and welcoming the group is, on whatever level you can. Guaranteeing there's a no-questions-asked place for that on the Pro Tour is great.

"One of the reasons I enjoy the PT so much is that it naturally encourages these team dynamics—working in a team is a lot more rewarding than tackling events on your own. You get to define what success is: even one or two people make a deep run, that's a success and a great emotional return on the investment the team has put in. Viewing Magic through that framework goes a long way toward make it a rewarding experience—these events are super high stakes and very stressful, but through it all the success of the group keeps you going and makes it feel worth it even if you have a bad event."

So what's next for Sanctum of All, the team that started as an idea and is becoming an institution?

"We just want to keep it up," Singh explained. "From the get-go, Sanctum has had two goals: the first is to help people of marginalized gender feel truly welcome, and the second is that they're winning the most. Hopefully we can accomplish that second goal."

The Road to the World Championship

Las Vegas and Magic World Championship 30 are just a few months away, and Frank and I are counting down the weeks to the World Championship by looking back at each of our previous winners. Speaking personally, it's been a fascinating look at some of Magic's earliest history, from when it was on grainy ESPN video to when Kai Budde and Jon Finkel were at the height of their powers.

Today's event in question is the 2007 World Championship, where nearly 400 players converged on New York City to battle through standard and Lorwyn Booster Draft. The event turned out a star-studded Top 8 that included Hall of Famers Gabriel Nassif (who was already making his eighth Pro Tour Top 8 at that time) and Patrick Chapin, who was making his third Top 8. The fan favorite advanced all the way to the finals, but there he lost to Uri Peleg, whose victory with Doran Rock made him the first Israeli to win the World Championship. It would be Peleg's only career Top Finish, but he would later be joined in Israel's winner's circle by Shahar Shenhar, who went on to win memorable back-to-back World titles in 2013 and 2014.

As for Magic World Championship 30, there's only a few seats left to fill. The conclusion of Pro Tour Modern Horizons 3 and the Arena Championship shortly after in July will mark the unofficial start of World Championship season, and all eyes will turn to Las Vegas where defending champion Jean-Emmanuel Depraz will headline the World Championship field.

Uri Peleg, 2007 Magic World Championship

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