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The Week That Was: The Best Story to Tell in Magic

December 08, 2023
Corbin Hosler

I talk in this column every week about the path to the Pro Tour, about the dream of qualifying, about the players across the world achieving that dream and preparing for a life-changing experience. These players travel the world, compete against the best gamers there are, and have Magic and their own hard work to thank for all of it.

It's a story I never get tired of telling, and one that Ha Pham lived out.

The Montreal native started playing Magic with Theros. He became a Limited and Draft enthusiast, occasionally playing in a local Grand Prix. It was an enjoyable experience; and as his life allowed for it, Pham began to take more of an interest in the competitive side of the game.

That led him to the Pro Tour qualification circuit; and after dipping his toes into Constructed and getting the hang of Standard, Pham began to level up as a Magic player. Much quicker than he anticipated, in fact — Pham qualified for the 2018 Pro Tour in Minneapolis and the 2019 Pro Tour in London, where he would play Modern for the first time.

It was an unexpected and incredible run. Pham's dad didn't know anything about Magic but refreshed the tournament standings page constantly to follow his son's progress.

That was all five years ago. It was a chapter of his life that Pham remembers fondly, one he was content with. His story didn't end with him holding a Pro Tour trophy, but it was a very real, tangible experience and a reward for the journey that takes you there.

"Going to the Pro Tour was the highlight of my Magic career. In my mind, I achieved the highest goal I could realistically have reached," Pham explained. "Even if I stopped playing Magic, I was satisfied with my achievement."

But Pham didn't stop playing Magic. In fact, as the tabletop circuit kicked back into full swing in 2023, Pham found that Pro Tour itch returning. He made himself a new goal: get to the Regional Championship. And after qualifying locally, Pham was off to Toronto for the F2F Tour Championship that served as a Canadian Regional Championship and brought with it Pro Tour invites and a spot at the World Championship up for grabs.

"Coming into this tournament, the only goal I had was to have fun," explained Pham, who has taken a more relaxed approach to his tournament results after proving to himself he has what it takes to play on the Pro Tour. "I wasn't able to play Pioneer much, so I didn't want to choose a complicated deck. I started thinking about what to play a week before the tournament, and I was tempted to play Phoenix again, since it's what I played at the Pro Tour in London."

In an age where large regional events are not the norm, tournaments like the Regional Championships are usually a lot more than just another tournament. Gathering 200 players for a Pioneer tournament on Magic Online is a good data set; gathering 200 players for an in-person Pioneer tournament is necessarily a very human experience. The most consistent piece of feedback I see from players traveling for Regional Championships is that they feel like the Grand Prix circuit of old. That's not just a reference to their similarities in awarding seats at the Pro Tour, but an acknowledgement that bringing together a country or region's best Magic players is a significant social and community-building experience.

That's a lot of words to say that Pham was set to have a good time at the Regional Championship either way. And the upshot of not having much time to practice for Pioneer is that the format was already in upheavalGeological Appraiser was banned shortly after the RC, but the Discover combo deck had already sent things awry. Two copies of the short-lived "Geoform" deck would make the Top 8 of the Regional Championship, but Jean-Philippe Goyet and Larry Bouzane weren't the only Top 8 members innovating.

Geological Appraiser Bitter Triumph

I've mentioned Phoenix a few times. And you'd be forgiven if you assumed that meant "Izzet Phoenix." After all, it's been a staple archetype in almost every format since Arclight Phoenix was printed back in 2018. And the Regional Championship field in Toronto was particularly weak to the strategy; five of the Top 8 decks aimed to bring back the birds.

But Pham was the only one to do it like this.

Thoughtseize? In an Arclight Phoenix deck? Welcome to Grixis Phoenix, the deck that helped Ha Pham to earn the title of Regional Champion, a ticket back to the Pro Tour, and a seat at that World Championship he never even dreamed of qualifying for.

"I looked at decklists online and saw a Grixis list that went 5-0 in a Magic Online league — shoutout to MTGO player Odich," Pham explained. "The list looked spicy and since my goal for the Regional Championship was to have fun, it felt like a good choice. I played about five matches with my friends a week before Toronto and had fun with the deck, so I decided to go with it.

"The key preparation came on Friday before the Regional Championship, where I played an event to get some reps in and played against [RC Top 8 member] Max Dore on Izzet Phoenix in Round 1. I got destroyed, but more importantly I learned a lot about how the mirror matchup should be played thanks to Max. Spoiler alert: I ended up beating Max in the semifinal of the Regional Championship."

The experience crystalized things for Pham before the Regional Championship kicked off. Playing an innovative deck was fun; playing it well and winning was really fun. And once the tournament started, that's exactly what happened. Pham dropped just one match on Day 1 and closed out the day winning 11 of his final 12 games.

The new piece of tech that changed the game is Bitter Triumph. It's a conditional answer to any creature or planeswalker, but with Arclight Phoenix, that condition becomes an upside. Stapling the ability to enable Arclight Phoenix onto a controlling spell like Bitter Triumph completely opened up the way the deck could be built, and Pham's winning decklist leans heavily on controlling elements like Thoughtseize, Fatal Push, and Bitter Triumph.

The result is an Arclight Phoenix deck with more interaction and game against the rest of the field (the alternate win condition of Sheoldred, the Apocalypse doesn't hurt, either).

"Most of my opponents were surprised when they saw my decklist," Pham recalled. "They'd go, 'okay, another Phoenix deck...wait, Grixis?' Some were awed, some were timidly unsure because they didn't know how to play against it. Some of my opponents sideboarded incorrectly, and they played against it like it was a typical Izzet Phoenix deck. I believed that heavily played into my favor over the weekend.

"I was nervous about the new Discover combo deck since I hadn't faced it before. Luckily, Thoughtseize helped a lot in that matchup."

Geological Appraiser combo stole all the headlines last week and won the Regional Championship in South America, but it may be Pham's deck that quietly guides the future of Modern after the Appraiser ban. The 39-year-old brewer went 6-0 in "mirror" matches against Izzet Phoenix at the Regional Championship, highlighted by a timely cast of The End to remove all the Phoenixes from Ryan Primdahl's traditional Izzet deck in the finals match. Even with zero cards in hand against Primdahl's six, that play was the moment Pham identified as the turning point, and a few moments later he was being crowned Regional Champion.

Now Pham will live out those Pro Tour dreams once again, and he won't stop there. His victory earns him a spot at the World Championship in 2024 and a place among the Regional Champions of 2023.

"I never even dreamed of qualifying for the World Championship. Anything from now on is really gravy. But that's also what I said when I qualified for the Pro Tour, so who knows?" he reflected. I'll try to not put too much pressure on myself and prioritize having fun."

Fun has worked so far.

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