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The Week That Was: Gathering Nostalgia

March 22, 2024
Corbin Hosler

To understate it, Magic players are nostalgic.

We reminisce about the good old days regularly, when Splinter Twin was Modern legal and we drove 10 hours uphill both ways to get to that last Pro Tour Qualifier, our car full of friends and a hotel room cramped at capacity.

Those memories are what remain after the cards have faded from memory (except Splinter Twin). It is, after all, right there in the name as the saying goes, "it's not just about the Magic, it's about the gathering."

For instance, I was at the Hunter Burton Memorial Open last weekend. It's an annual event in Dallas that just hosted its tenth event, named after Magic player Hunter Burton and created with a simple motto: gaming to prevent suicide. In the years since its creation, several more events beyond the Modern $15,000 have been added to commemorate long-time members of the Magic community who helped to create the Hunter Burton and have since passed away. Magic is not just a shared language; there's a real sense of community among players that goes far beyond just those whom we might draft with or jam Commander games with at Friday Night Magic.

And that brings us to the Regional Championship series that runs several times a year and earns a lot of attention around here. We know that the RC circuit is the preeminent path to the Pro Tour—the invites awarded are expanding—but in practice it's developed into a lot more than that over the last year or so. It's the planned weekend all the tournament Magic players have come together for, and not just to play for a spot at the Pro Tour or even the Magic World Championship—those are aspirational goals, of course—but the one to compete in for a chance to see how they match up against the rest of the region.

Players working to qualify for the first or second or fifth Pro Tour talk not just about their appearances there but their accomplishments at the Regional Championship. One of my favorite stats is those who have qualified for every Regional Championship to date and tracked that—qualifying for the event is a milestone in itself and is turning into an indicator of future success more and more; players who have racked up two or three RC Top 8 or Top 16 finishes are knocking at the door and are a few good turns away from being the next presumed underdogs to qualify for the Pro Tour and prove that they belong—players like Mingyang Chen qualified via the Regional Championship circuit and went on to make the Top 8 at Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor.

Mingyang Chen, Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor Top 8

The Regional Championships filled the space of large tournaments, and the value they bring in gathering the community is appreciated. For many regions, these events may be the only time players get to interact with the larger community outside of their home base.

"Events that bring players together nationwide have been an important part of building up the wider Australian community," explained James Wilks, who recently won the ANZ Super Series Final that serves as the Regional Championship for Australia and New Zealand with a Living End deck. "Australian Magic is quite split up across its cities, and since it's not an easy road trip between most cities, you need a very good reason to bring players together. I made a lot of friends traveling for interstate PTQs and Grands Prix back in the day, and seeing those friends at events really makes the trips more appealing and worthwhile."

Add Wilks to the long list of people for whom the Regional Championship has offered more than just a possible qualification.

"For a while, it felt like we were missing these sorts of big events that people would travel for, and not just with the COVID disruptions," he explained. "The current system has felt like an opportunity to really bring everyone together again from across Australia and New Zealand; I've certainly seen a lot more of my interstate friends since the current organized play system started back up."

That's a lot about how much the Regional Championship has meant to the community, and all of that is without Wilks even considering how he plays. Which, by the way, is extremely well—he made the Top 4 of the World Magic Cup I mentioned earlier back in 2016, won Grand Prix Sydney in 2017 alongside teammates Simon Linabury and Ivan Schroder, and has played in seven Pro Tours overall. Soon to be eight, of course, after his win in Melbourne.

And Wilks won't be alone.

"I got to watch as six teammates on team Bus Stop, which is made up of mostly Canberra-based players like myself but also includes some lovely folks from Sydney and Melbourne, played at the Pro Tour in Chicago, four of whom requalified for Pro Tour Thunder Junction in Seattle," Wilks explained. "All I wanted from the Regional Championship was to be at that next Pro Tour with them, so this win means a lot to me. Ever since I played in my first Pro Tour 10 years ago, qualifying and doing it all over again has been all I wanted to do in Magic. And now I get to play the World Championship as well? It's honestly unreal, one of those dream goals that I never really thought I'd get a chance at."

One of the takeaways there? That the team experience has made the most of Magic for Wilks, and not just in the weeks of testing and lengthy tournament endurance practice to prepare for the nine-plus-round RC and practicing in lengthy tournaments to prepare with main deck Endurances in Living End. The Canberra native has gathered not just a team of locals to test together for the regular events, but he's teamed up with players from across the country that he might never have interacted with in person if not for the Regional Championships.

"Our team was initially built to support each other competitively at the RCs with the loose goal of qualifying one person from each Regional Championship. We've certainly exceeded that goal with something like two RC trophies and thirteen Pro Tour invites between us now—at the previous Regional Championship, we had four of the Top 8 slots!" Wilks gushed. "We had six players playing in Chicago, so we had a few specialists, Ben Tudman, Dylan Brown, and Jacob Golding, who did a lot of the Modern groundwork. We even had one weekend where we had like five people playing the same Modern Challenge on Magic Online and hanging out in Discord in between rounds. It was a genuinely great time. Team Bus Stop is honestly a bit of a ridiculous name—it came about after an interstate player made a comment about only knowing of Canberra for its iconic bus shelters—but I'm honestly so proud of everyone on the team, they've been crushing the Regional Championship circuit and are now doing well at the Pro Tour level as well."

James Wilks and his team were overwhelmed with joy at his win.
(Photo courtesy of Good Games.)

That list includes Matthew Giudes and Dillon Kikkawa, long-time players from Canberra who haven't had a major breakout at the Pro Tour but have been mainstays of the Australian Magic community for over a decade. When asked about his own accomplishments, Wilks was quick to point out the success of his teammates. Giudes is coming off Top 8 appearances at the last two Regional Championships and his first Pro Tour appearance, while Kikkawa finished 10th at Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor and is chasing a World Championship invite of his own.

The First World Championship

Wilks has spent so many years following his Pro Tour dream because it means so much to him. The chance to play the game and see so much of the world has afforded Magic players so many opportunities over the past three decades, and none of it would have happened if not for that very first Pro Tour season and very first World Championship three decades ago. When Zak Dolan won the 1994 World Championship at Gen Con, no one involved had any concept that we would still be writing about it a full 30 years later.

But we are, more than a hundred Pro Tours later, still talking about Zak Dolan and his use of Library of Alexandria and Swords to Plowshares and Stasis. One of Magic's greatest strengths is its history, a lore that stays alive from one generation of player to the next, and to that end, Frank and I will be diving into some more of that history over the next six months.

Magic World Championship 30 is a little over 30 weeks away at MagicCon: Las Vegas, and over that time, Frank and I will be looking back at three decades of Magic World Championships. A lot has changed since Dolan's Strip Mines—did you know that sleeves weren't allowed at the first World Championship?—even if there are at least a few constants: Mark Rosewater may not be taking notes for The Duelist magazine anymore, but he is still writing about Magic.

When I think of the first Magic World Championship, I'm thankful for how many resources we still have that documented what has become an event steeped in legend, from The Duelist and event recaps to photo galleries and even a report from Dolan himself. If not for the hard work of so many people who came long before I ever put virtual pen to paper on this column, Magic's meaningful history might be lost (Frank has included a full list of additional sources from back then if you're interested!)

The first World Championship was open to anyone who wanted to enter, and 512 players competed. It was single-elimination—talk about high-stakes Magic—with four qualifier tournaments of 128 players taking the Top 16 each to the next stage. That gave players like Dolan the opportunity to adjust their deck in between flights, and he said it suited his style well as he liked to continually tune his deck. If you think players fidget with their decks today, imagine what it was like in an era where cell phones didn't exist, no one knew what the best deck was or even what every card did.

As Rosewater put it, "Magic players had staked out every surface on the second floor of the convention center. The joke of the convention was that if there was any horizontal space, Magic players were playing on it." For anyone who attended MagicCon: Chicago, this is an especially fitting memory.

Here's a story that's pure 1994. Decades before Commander was a dream in a judge's eye—the judge program didn't even exist yet—Dolan was playing in a four-player pod with what would become his World Championship winning Green-White-Blue Prison deck. An opponent (playing decades ahead of their time, I must say) dumped a bunch of big creatures into play via Eureka, which convinced Dolan on the spot to add a second Meekstone to his deck. His next game was a three-player free-for-all where an opponent mentioned off hand that Time Elemental and Recall might be good in Dolan's deck—and both went on to win Dolan games at the World Championship the next day. Did I mention that he did all this while sleeping in his car for the night after not booking a hotel in advance? Some things never change.

Chaos Orb

Of all the wild stories to come out of early Magic, there's one other notable tale from the first World Championship that might take the cake. And, of course, it involves Chaos Orb.

As Dolan later explained. "The crowd was chuckling as we spread our cards out a bunch so that Chaos Orbs couldn't hit more than one card at a time … I also had a laugh when I figured out why there were 61 cards in Bertrand's deck—he planned to rip up his Chaos Orb and scatter the pieces to destroy all the opponent's cards, and then still have a legal 60-card deck afterwards. However, the judges decided that wasn't going to be allowed."

With his board (mostly) safe from the Orb, Dolan went on to defeat Bertrand Lestree of France in the finals. Dolan would soon retire from competitive Magic play, but the deck-building principles he shared would be taken to all-new heights as Magic began to grow and players prepared for the 1995 World Championship.

Zac Dolan (right), the first Magic World Champion

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