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The Week That Was: Showdown at the Secret Lair

May 19, 2023
Corbin Hosler

In Minneapolis, there was a new kind of Magic around every corner. MagicCon: Minneapolis featured the best the game has to offer, from Pro Tour March of the Machine to the giant convention hall next door that hosted numerous special tournaments, panels and one-of-a-kind Magic experiences.

I spend a lot of time focusing on the Pro Tour here, and for good reason. (Have you read about Nathan Steuer's history-making win?) The fact is there was even more happening in Minnesota than just the Pro Tour side of things. All across the cavernous hall, players were connecting with the game and each other in their own way, from Pro Tour Qualifiers to Commander games to Secret Lair events to premodern events and pretty much anything else you can think of.

That's what has made the convention era of Magic so exciting, speaking as a veteran of pretty much every circuit of the past decade. Events aren't just a 750-person main event surrounded by draft pods and win-a-box tournaments, they're something special from the moment you walk in until the moment you leave, with the watchful eyes and wings of a giant Archangel Elspeth looking on. It's a spectacle by design and it doesn't disappoint; it's hard to overstate the difference between walking into a bare room lined by tables and plastic chairs and walking into a convention center lobby and being greeted by this:

The difference is more than just visual or visceral, it's vindication of The Gathering. It brings the Reid Dukes of the world and puts them in the same place to celebrate as your favorite Commander content creators, and it works because everyone is there for Magic—whatever that means to them. And make no mistake—MagicCon is a meaningful ambition made reality: there's room for everyone here.

That's my biggest takeaway from Minneapolis. And while I was preoccupied with covering Steuer's historic victory, there were moments on the other side of the hall that were no less memorable.

"At the main event I was playing a game of Commander and a woman came up and asked me to sign something of hers. When I did, she told me that I inspired her to keep playing the game because she felt seen and represented. It almost made me cry right then," Commander content creator Chase (better known as @Manacurves) recalled, just one part of what they described as an amazing weekend.

Happy tears for a happy memory, one among ten thousand happening from the artist queues to the panel stage to the "Do Not Climb on the Dinosaurs" sign in front of the hall. For the Magic superfan, the convention has everything you could ever want.

That suited Richard Neal perfectly.

The Bellevue native described himself as that quintessential Magic superfan. He's been playing the game for two decades, from middle school through college and into his adult life. As recess turned into algebra class and prom turned into late-night finals cram sessions turned into job interviews turned into deadlines in his career as a software engineer, Magic has been the constant. He moved from Boston to the Seattle area 10 years ago, and brought his passion for the game across coasts. He's a level two judge and has made it a goal to attend dozens of events over the years.

As he put it:

"I live and breathe Magic, honestly," he said bluntly. "I play a lot of Magic on the weekends and weeknights, either playing or judging. I've been on the Magic grind life for quite a while; I've played in more Grand Prix than I care to count with some Top 32 finishes but no crazy results. Playing and judging Magic is how I like to interact with the world, both bring a different appeal—when you're playing you have a very focused task, but when you're judging you're conducting an orchestra and helping things to run smoothly. I love all of it."

That's what brought Neal to MagicCon: Minneapolis (he competed at the last Regional Championship at Dreamhack but failed to qualify for Pro Tour March of the Machine). And while he might have hoped for the Pro Tour Top 8 dreams that were realized in the same room, his weekend still brought him to the Pro Tour stage, a match on camera under the bright spotlights, and the prize of a lifetime.

"I thought about playing the Pro Tour Qualifiers, but we they were so big and so top-heavy, so I wanted to try my luck at other events at the convention," Neal explained. "So I decided to play in the Secret Lair qualifying events and try something new—I had played Mono-White Midrange at the Regional Championship but wanted to play something different that weekend. I saw the Five-Color Ramp deck and gave it a try. And come Saturday, it was firing on all cylinders."

The Pro Tour draws the headlines, but as Neal suggested there's plenty more competitive events on the line at a MagicCon. First among them is the PTQ tournaments that offer the rare one-shot qualifier for the Pro Tour, giving players an opportunity to bypass the Regional Championship requirement. But there's also a handful of other events that have drawn players from across the world; Neal's intentional draw into the Top 8 of the Secret Lair Showdown came with Hall of Famer Raphaël Lévy of France. And after a memorable run through the Top 8 came down to a tough match against Pro Tour regular Andrew Sullano, Neal had the opportunity to play on the PT stage, with Maria Bartholdi and Mani Davoudi calling the plays like he was on the Sunday stage proper.

"It was really cool having people come out of the woodwork who saw me win on coverage and reached out to congratulate me," Neal revealed. "I've been on coverage a few times in the past at Grand Prix, but this was a whole different ballgame on the Pro Tour stage with the spotters watching over your shoulder and the cameras all around. It was an amazing win and a sweet prize, but I know I can't let it go to my head. I'm playing in the Regional Championship in Dallas in a few weeks, but I'm no Nathan Steuer."

Oh yeah, about that prize—it's damn near the coolest prize I've ever seen at a Magic tournament, and there was once a tournament where a car was given away as the grand prize. Along with a few other notable cards in competitive Magic, Secret Lair Showdown participants compete in a culminating Sunday event where the winner receives this special printing of Brainstorm—one that will only ever be awarded to victors of the Secret Lair Showdown series.

"It's a really amazing one-off event with a sweet prize, and it seems like they worked really hard to make the event its own thing, outside of the Pro Tour and PTQs," Neal reflected. "I couldn't have made it if it wasn't for my friend Adam, who was there checking in on me all the way through the finals. I have no complaints, it was really fun and I'm glad it's how I chose to spend the weekend!"

Like I said at the top, it was a very busy weekend of Magic, and the stories came from all over the world. While Neal was headlining the MagicCon-exclusive event and Steuer was winning his second major event in three tries, at the same time the Pro Tour was providing stories of its own that go far beyond the Top 8.

Team Handshake (rightfully) gets all of the attention these days when it comes to hashtag squad goals after representing half of the Pro Tour Top 8 again, but they're far from the only team building a foundation of success at the highest levels. For instance, Team Scoreboard is a group of 13 Canadians who qualified and worked together for the PT, and had a remarkable Pro Tour run themselves. It was a journey that saw them rise from the lowest of lows (an Airbnb that only had one bathroom for 10 people) to the highest of highs (discovering and refining the Five-Color Ramp "DinoMite" deck that put David Olsen into the Top 8).

"There were six of us who registered the Dino deck: David, Markus Thibeau, Cam Sweetnam, William La Hay, Adham Momen, and myself," explained Philippe Gareau, a Pro Tour regular who championed the deck throughout the weekend and credited William with breaking the deck. "Of the six who played it, four of them made Day Two and qualified for PT Barcelona with the deck, with David even clinching Top 8! The team was great, the testing was good. The team plans to test together again for Barcelona and continue to add to the scoreboard."

Looking Ahead

The team's success proves that parity is alive and well at the highest levels of Magic, but it has to be said that the scoreboard is still dominated by Team 50%... er... I mean Team Handshake (who just happen to make up 50% of every Top 8 these days). The upcoming Pro Tour at MagicCon: Barcelona is going to be one of the most-hyped Pro Tours I can remember, from the Lord of the Rings tie-in (I'm a huge Lord of the Rings fan), to the challenge Handshake will face from the rest of the world catching up, to most of all the Nathan Steuer watch, as the 20-year-old wunderkind will chase an unheard-of fourth Top Finish in a row.

But I'm getting ahead of myself—Barcelona is two months away, and those two months are going to be filled to the brim with Regional Championships bringing in new tech and new stories from around the globe before it all comes together for the beloved Modern format at the Pro Tour.

It's going to be a fun ride.

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