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The Week That Was: Championship Memories

January 12, 2024
Corbin Hosler

It's one of the most prestigious Magic tournaments around. With a large prize pool and an invitation to the Pro Tour on the line, the winner from this small field will earn a seat at Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor at MagicCon: Chicago, not to mention free entries to all series events in 2024.

It's an experience unlike any other the 16 competitors have experienced, whether they're Pro Tour veterans or newcomers to this level of competition. Each player has worked tirelessly throughout 2023 to reach this point, and they'll never forget it. How could they, with a customized championship jacket and a shadowbox showcasing their most iconic cards from the past year being delivered while they enjoy a catered breakfast and lunch?

"The goal is to make them feel welcome and pampered and special and realize this is not any other event they've played in before. This is the NRG Championship," explained Nerd Rage Gaming founder Norman Cohen. "We closed up the store for a couple of days to set it all up for the players who qualified for the end of the season Championship. We want to make it special for them, so they'll go back and talk about it with their friends and want to return the next year."

The NRG series has continued to grow throughout the United States since we last checked in on it, with winners throughout the 2023 season qualifying directly for the end-of-year Championship with the rest of the 16-player field being filled with competitors who performed well enough throughout the season to top the leaderboard.

That culminated in the $25,000 Championship that came with a rather rare additional prize: an invite to the Pro Tour. Most players earn their first Pro Tour invitation of a season via Regional Championship, but the winner at the NRG Championship would also advance directly to Chicago. That upped the stakes event further for the 16 players who had demonstrated their mastery of Constructed Magic and set the stage for a tournament series that has vastly expanded the options for American players to play high level Magic to finally crown a 2023 champ.

That champion came as no surprise to NRG regulars, nor to anyone who followed the NRG Series leaderboard throughout the season. Stephen Dykman put not just a victory on his resume in 2023, but he spent almost the entire season atop the points leaderboard, and he entered the Championship as one of the most respected players on the well-covered circuit.

A Grand Rapids, Michigan native, Dykman was one of a handful of players in the 16-player field with previous Pro Tour experience. But that experience last came in 2017 at Pro Tour Ixalan, and Dykman has been working hard in recent years to return to that stage. With a Pro Tour invite attached to the NRG Championship, the path to the 29-year-old's final goal of becoming World Champion went directly through Nerd Rage Gaming headquarters, and the rest of the field.

Over the marathon contest, Dykman showed his prowess across Standard, Modern, and Pioneer (where he correctly predicted the metagame and was ready with maindeck Go Blank to combat the half of the field that was Izzet Phoenix and Azorius Control decks). With a victory over Jonathan Hobbs in the Championship finals, Dykman completed his journey back to the Pro Tour and earned the highest honor on the NRG Series at the same time.

"This season was very special to me. This is one of, if not the most important finishes to me in my career," Dykman said. "I've had multiple near-misses getting back to the Pro Tour and have been anxiously awaiting my opportunity to get back for nearly seven years. I think I've improved immensely in that period, so I am confident I can be a player of relevance on the Pro Tour."

It's hard to argue against that given Dykman's two-year run on the NRG circuit—he narrowly missed the Championship last season before dominating the leaderboard in 2023.

With three formats to prepare for, Dykman put in the work.

"I tested a pretty obnoxious amount for this event, 10-15 hours a day in the last few weeks leading up to it with my testing partners Raja Suleiman, Derrick Davis, Kyle Gonzalez, and Cris Smith," Dykman explained. "My goals coming in were to just focus on playing well and let everything else fall into place. There were tons of capable champions in the room, but fortunately things broke my way when I needed them to."

Dykman's next step in what he hopes is a journey to the World Championship will come in Chicago, where he might again lean on the Rakdos deck that brought him success last weekend. However far his path to the Pro Tour ultimately takes Dykman, it's a been a long and fulfilling almost 15-year run since he was first introduced to Magic when his dad's friends brought some cards over while he was in high school.

When he's not making his mark on the NRG Series, Dykman has stayed busy with Magic. He streams regularly on weekday afternoons and has managed to qualify for every single Regional Championship so far.

"I want to become a mainstay on the Pro Tour and my ultimate goal is become a world champion," he admitted. "Making Day Two of a Pro Tour would be a good step in that direction, so that's my most immediate goal."

He'll get his chance a month from now in Chicago—and he'll be sure to hit up the NRG Series tournament happening the week before the Pro Tour in the same city (after all, as the reigning champion, he has free entry to all events in 2024). The Pioneer and Standard double weekend in Chicago is one of an increased eight NRG Series weekends on the calendar for 2024, a boon for Magic players hungry for high-stakes competition and the chance to qualify for one of the most unique events in Magic.

"Players enjoy playing for something bigger than just the event they're currently playing in," Cohen explained. "The idea that you can play throughout the year and maybe spike a particular event to qualify for the Championship or do well enough to potentially qualify through the leaderboard just gives players something bigger to look forward to.

"We made it to six different states last year. This year, we are growing the Championship to 24 players and increasing the prize pool to $35,000. We're excited about Standard, and we'll be supporting Pioneer, Modern; and we'll be having at least one $5,000 Legacy event each season. The awareness is continuing to grow, and the public is supporting our efforts. This year has been a huge step in the right direction for us."

Looking Ahead

As Frank Karsten wrote in this week's Metagame Mentor, we're deep into Standard season for everyone participating in Regional Championship Qualifiers across the world. Meanwhile, upcoming Regional Championships later this year are Modern, and everyone headed to Chicago for the Pro Tour will want to be up to date with the latest developments in Pioneer. Safe to say, Dykman isn't the only Magic player juggling multiple formats right now.

Speaking of, the wrap-up Magic Online Champions Showcase of 2023 is this weekend, with a $70,000 prize pool to be split among the eight qualified players who will battle it out through three rounds of Modern and the Magic Online Vintage Cube Draft. Featuring a mix of Magic Online veterans and a few newcomers, the event will be streamed on Magic's Twitch channel.

From there, all attention turns to the previews that will be rolling in for Murders at Karlov Manor. We're just six weeks away from the start of the first Murders at Karlov Manor draft at the Pro Tour, February 23-25, and Pioneer wasn't exactly a settled format when we left it back in December with the conclusion of the 12th and final Regional Championship—which delivered us our 11th unique winning deck, none of which were the previously ubiquitous Mono-Green Devotion and the feared Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. That leaves a lot of work on the table for teams over the next month.

That includes Dykman, who gave himself at least a short respite after winning the marathon championship before moving onto his next step: filling out a testing team for the Pro Tour.

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