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The Week That Was: Digital Dreams Come True

October 13, 2023
Corbin Hosler

Editor's Note: Special thanks to Hyang Yoon for providing translation support for interviewing Arena Championship 4 winner Shinya Saito.

Magic World Championship XXIX—and Jean-Emmanuel Depraz's incredible run to the title—are only a few weeks behind us. And the calendar still says 2023, last I checked. The Lost Caverns of Ixalan is coming up, and I can't wait to dig into the Doctor Who™ decks this weekend.

But the Magic world moves fast, and players on the path to the Pro Tour are already looking ahead to—and playing for—the 2024 season.

It's perhaps ironic that a game steeped in history is at the same time paradoxically ever-changing. We celebrate old favorites making deep tournament runs, while simultaneously demanding new talent rise to the top to push the envelope further. We remember past formats fondly while voraciously devouring every new set list for cards to shake it all up.

That new-but-familiar aspect makes the game, and the Pro Tour, great. For instance, I'll be honest: there was a time when I didn't think anyone could match Kai Budde or Jon Finkel in Magic. Then Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa went and put himself right in that conversation. Just last year we watched Nathan Steuer etch his name into a Magic history book older than him. Conventional wisdom said that no one would ever come close to replicating some of the things Magic's original GOATs accomplished, and I believed that. But when we were all proven wrong by Steuer's historic year, it felt good to see the classic Magic Pro Tour dream lived by a new generation exceeding what the previous one thought possible.

That's a long way to say this: The 2024 Pro Tour season is now.

Arena Championship 4

Magic World Championship XXIX is in the books. Magic World Championship 30 is already filling its first seats.

While the Regional Championship circuit was gearing up again (Frank's been covering all the latest metagame developments in his column!) with eyes toward the first Pro Tour of 2024 in Chicago, the digital side of play was busy as well: Arena Championship 4 kicked off with a talented group of 32 competitors who qualified via excellence in online play. The Arena Championship field represented the best of the best at the pinnacle of the MTG Arena organized play path, and the stakes reflected it: a $200,000 prize pool and a pair of invitations to the Magic World Championship going to the finalists.

It's a dream that may lack a little bit of celebration space—it's a little more difficult to be hoisted into the air by teammates when you're playing from home—but for the champion Shinya Saito, it was a dream that he's harbored quietly for a long time.

"Coming into the event, I did hope to qualify for the World Championship," he said, but wanting to be more realistic he settled on "aiming to have more wins than losses."

Saito has played Magic for almost a decade and boasts a pair of Pro Tour appearances to his name, at Pro Tour Amonkhet and Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan. In recent years, the Nagoya native has again turned his focus to competitive play. That resulted in qualifications for a pair of Regional Championships earlier this year, and he has paired that with success online as well.

Saito qualified for Arena Championship 4 via the at-large MTG Arena leaderboard, a slot reserved only for the most consistent and skilled competitors. Once there, he turned to his teammates for a crash course on the Historic format that would send someone to the World Championship.

"I don't usually play Historic, so I received a lot of support from my teammates," Saito explained. "I want to thank the team members I draft with. Satoshi Nakayama is a Kethis combo master. I didn't have the confidence to handle the Kethis combo like he does, so I gave up on that deck. Masakatsu Iida helped me fine-tune the Izzet Wizards deck, and I won many matches, thanks to his recommendation to add Sokenzan, Crucible of Defiance to the deck."

If you're determined to keep up with the biggest Magic tournaments both in tabletop and online, the truth is there's a lot of formats these days to keep up with. Even from a coverage perspective, I may only get to see high-level play of a given format once a month or less. It speaks to Saito's skill that he could tackle a Historic format that's undergone massive changes thanks to The One Ring and Orcish Bowmasters and come out on top.

But it actually wasn't the two talked-about The Lords of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth cards that were the biggest players in the Arena Championship. Nor was it Lurrus of the Dream-Den, holding on in one last format. It was a pair of overlooked cards that sent Saito's Izzet Wizards deck over the top.

"I'm particularly fond of Reckless Charge and Flame of Anor," he explained. "My personal favorite card in formats like Pioneer is Invoke Despair, and that's essentially what Flame of Anor is. And in a match against Dimir Control, I won a game with three Reckless Charge in my opening hand; that was quite impressive and memorable. At first glance, it may seem weak against control decks; but through practice, I realized its effectiveness, and I'm glad it helped me win."

Reckless Charge 617033

Remember what I said about Magic's appeal lying in its comfortable unfamiliarity? That's exactly what it feels like watching Reckless Charge win matches—first printed in Odyssey 22 years ago to the month—in a format never even conceived of when it was designed.

"I've been dreaming about playing in the World Championship, and honestly it still feels like a dream," Saito confessed. "I've received congratulations from so many people, including those who don't usually play Magic. The reality hasn't sunk in quite yet. I'm determined to work hard in the coming year to achieve a good result at the World Championship!"

Saito will be joined at the 2024 World Championship by the new Pro Tour addition who narrowly fell in the finals with his Wizards deck: Bassel Nasri. The 31-year-old Boston native qualified for Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings earlier this year; and after distinguishing himself among a stacked field at the Arena Championship, he'll now follow that up with an appearance at the Magic World Championship.

"I got to play in the Pro Tour in Barcelona, and it was a joy," Nasri gushed. "Everyone I met was very friendly and welcoming, especially all the longtime pros. That was my first Pro Tour, but I've been playing on Magic Online since 2015 and MTG Arena since it released. I play in most of the Arena Opens, and I've cashed some of them. I qualified for the Arena Championship back in May playing March of the Machine Sealed."

A veteran of the high-stakes world of online tournaments, Nasri went right to work on the Arena Championship upon getting back from Spain. Historic has been a favorite format of his since its creation (mainly because he could play his pet card Tainted Pact), and he reached out to content creator Omrithopter to help prepare—and Omrithopter did more than that, helping Nasri to form a testing team and serving as an unofficial team coach.

"He gave me some great tips and introduced me to Arena Championship competitors William "WillJetzz" Grogan and Gage "Caders" Fevold," Nasri explained. "We immediately got along and started testing. I was originally considering registering Wizards, but then came along Blue-Black Lurrus of the Dream-Den that I'd been watching Mystmin stream to good success. The deck really fit my play style and with some minor alterations to shore up the mono-green matchup, the deck felt really smooth. I want to thank them all!"

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I don't think it's a coincidence that both Arena Championship 4 finalists have also found success on the tabletop circuit this year. Magic talent is Magic talent. And with a World Championship invite now secured, Nasri is looking ahead to a year he hopes will be filled with a lot more firsts.

"This is amazing, and it's all very surreal. I didn't think I would be in this position," he explained. "This helps validate all the testing and hard work I've put into improving as a Magic player. Most of all, it means that I get to play against the best players in the world that I've followed for years. After this, I want to continue to improve and make connections in the Magic community. I'm going to the Regional Championship in Atlanta in December, and hopefully I can qualify there for the Pro Tour in Chicago. I will also try my best to make it back on MTG Arena, so maybe you'll see me in Arena Championship 5!"

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