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The Week That Was: Sulaiman's Success

January 27, 2023
Corbin Hosler

The room felt almost empty for the 16 competitors gathered for the players meeting. These have been a staple of Magic tournaments for 30 years, and it's always a chance to get the entire tournament together at one time. Not only is this great for event photographers like me, but it's when the head judge gives the basic rundown of the day and makes any important reminders to players. More excitingly, it's also when things like attendance records get announced as broken, or the final moments before players tear into a new set. In other words, it's a very normal pre-tournament occurrence.

But this was decidedly not a normal tournament.

Compared to cavernous convention centers and dozens of rows of table, the room for this event felt intimate. There's almost no background buzz, if you don't count the palpable nerves of those anxiously preparing to do battle with their counterparts in that tiny players meeting.

I've learned something in my decade of covering Magic tournaments: the quieter it is, the higher the stakes. And a tournament of just 16 people can be quiet.

This "small-field" tournament is something reserved for the most exclusive events, often end-of-season celebrations put on to pit the best of the best against each other. It's most famously been used in the Magic World Championship at times in the past, and let me tell you there is little more intense than watching Reid Duke and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa staring down a World Championship match.

While Magic World Championship XXIX is going back to a large-field event (loosely defined by me as more than 64 or so competitors), there was another tournament circuit showcasing its best of the best from the past year. And no one shined brighter than Raja Sulaiman, who performed under pressure round after round on his way to the title at the NRG Series Championship last weekend. And while it may not have been worlds, make no mistake that this field featured some of the best players in the region right now.

We've covered the NRG circuit in the past here at the Week That Was, and I want to make sure we give credit to the finalists of a series every bit as tough as the rest on the road to the Pro Tour. And for Sulaiman, it's a victory as meaningful as any that have come on the Pro Tour, which he first qualified for in 2012 after picking up the game in middle school and making his way up through the Friday Night Magic ranks.

"A few years later, I attended States for the first time for my first-ever competitive event. That transitioned into PTQs and eventually my first Pro Tour in Barcelona when I was 20," he recalled. "In the years to come when Magic had a huge surge in popularity and numbers at Grand Prix, I was forming groups with my friends to travel to events in the Midwest. I didn't attend my first NRG tournament until after the pandemic, but I became quickly invested, as competitive outlets for Magic are more scarce. I was able to accumulate enough season points to qualify for the Players Championship, and the tournament was a blast."

With Pro Tour Phyrexia quickly approaching (in just under a month at MagicCon: Philadelphia), players across the world are splitting up into testing teams and jamming games and drafts and compiling matrixes and all kinds of other high-minded preparation—even if the tournament itself sometimes comes down to whether or not you ever draw your Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines. The NRG Championship competitors attacked the multi-format tournament with the same ferocity.

"I prepared with friend and fellow competitor Zach Allen for the event, and I want to give a shoutout to Mack Smith for helping with the last-minute audible to Rakdos Midrange in Pioneer!" Sulaiman said. "Almost all of my matches were close and interesting as I expected nothing in a field of so many excellent players. I finished as the one seed after Day 1, with an undefeated record in Modern with Bant Control."

"I have almost exclusively played Azorius Control in Modern since Modern Horizons 2, and the archetype I was always a fan of received significant upgrades in the form of Prismatic Ending, Counterspell, Solitude, and Subtlety," Sulaiman explained. "My commitment to the deck eventually converted into success on the NRG circuit with four Top 8s in 2022, so it was fairly obvious that I wasn't going to deviate going into the championship. However, one innovation I did develop that was pivotal in taking down the tournament and catching my fellow competitors off-guard was the addition of four Endurance to the sideboard. It was a reaction to the popularity of Underworld Breach leading up to the event, and unlike more dedicated graveyard hard cards like Rest in Peace, Endurance was flexible in that it threatened to block Ragavan and Urza's Saga tokens and pressure planeswalkers while still interacting with Breach."

As Sulaiman put it dryly, it came as no surprise that Modern was his best format on the weekend, and it took him to a loaded Top 4 that included Jesse Robkin, Zoe Riederman and Pro Tour champion Andrew Elenbogen.

Sulaiman's Top 4 path went through Riederman, who had also qualified for the Championship on season points. She had a host of Top 8 appearances to their name, and was piloting Living End.

"After splitting the first two matches, it came down to a three-game match of Modern where I was able to defeat Living End in large part due to my sideboard Endurances," Sulaiman revealed. "In the finals I played against Jesse, and after winning the first match I quickly lost the second and found myself down a game in our final match. I was down 30-6 in life in Game 2, and things looked grim. But I was able to turn the corner with Sheoldred, the Apocalypse and win a game where I was behind almost the entire time. With game 3 for all the marbles, I was able to enact a game plan of using a lot of creature removal and leveraging my threats to become the aggressor and deal exactly lethal damage."

And with that, Sulaiman was the champ.

"It was incredibly satisfying to win the event, and being able to represent and bring home a trophy to a shop (RIW Hobbies) that has been an important fixture of my life since I was 10 years old was my favorite part of it all. I feel like I've always had a chip on my shoulder when it comes to competitive Magic, so whenever I get a big finish like this, it feels very vindicating," he confessed. "Pam Willoughby of RIW Hobbies has been the best sponsor a guy could ask for, and Nerd Rage Gaming ran an incredible tournament series all year long. It was really cool to see all the support from the Magic community throughout the weekend and reminded me that I'm part of something special that goes beyond just a hobby."

Looking Ahead

So what's next for the engineer from Farmington Hills? The same thing that's next for most of us: Pro Tour Phyrexia in Philadelphia on Feb. 17-19.

"I'm also qualified for the Regional Championships in San Diego and Dallas, and I'm sure I will be attending other fun tournament series in the Midwest," Sulaiman said. "I'm excited to compete in whatever comes my way."

With an NRG Championship title behind him—and a long string of PT and Regional Championship appearances on the horizon—Sulaiman can finally let that chip go. He's proven himself one of the best in North America, and there's plenty more to come in 2023. The NRG circuit will kick off afresh in March after the Pro Tour, and there's regular Regional Championship Qualifiers being played at a store near you.

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