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The Week That Was: The Gathering of Winners

November 28, 2022
Corbin Hosler

Cavernous halls. Tables filled with deckboxes and notepads. The hum of hundreds of players shuffling cards at the same time. The quiet that fills the room when a round begins, palpable to spectators gathered around the top tables—and pierced by the head judge chiming in.

Across, next to, behind, around... DreamHack Atlanta. Thousands of enthusiasts and competitors converging from across the continent to share in a passion for gaming, with thousands more watching along. Every step around the venue was an opportunity to stumble across a new game, a new cosplay, a new fandom or community—each as engaging as our own. That was DreamHack Atlanta, and it was there that the first US Regional Championship was taking the stage while their counterparts in Europe and Brazil did the same, all in pursuit of Pro Tour and Magic World Championship invitations. It was an in-person Magic tournament, and that meant a lot to the players and people who worked hard to get back to here: high-stakes tabletop Magic with all the pressure and accolades that come.

Matthew Saypoff was right at home.

"I first started playing competitive tournaments 20 years ago, when my parents would drive me around to play in the Junior Super Series tournaments," he explained. "So when the news of the paper Pro Tour coming back came out, I had the competitive desire again."

With the fire came the battle, and a perfect demonstration of one of the strengths of competitive play: a local Brooklyn veteran went from a small Regional Championship Qualifier to the large-scale Regional Championship. And then he took the Pioneer field by storm with one of his favorite decks: Mono-White Humans. He snuck into the Top 8 and then upset a Pro Tour winner in Eli Loveman in the quarterfinals. He kept up the momentum with a semifinals win, and then it all came together with a finals victory over Ken Takahama.

And like that, Saypoff went from local RCQs to qualifying for the World Championship, where he'll compete in 2023 thanks to his ascendant Regional Championship victory.

"It's all so surreal," Saypoff explained. "My goal had been to make it to this event and then try and finish in the Top 48 to qualify for the paper Pro Tour; the rest would all be gravy. Before this I had a handful of PTQ Top 8s and Grand Prix cashes—it was enough to know I was good enough to do okay, but doing something like this is so completely unexpected. ... I'm ecstatic about the entire situation."

As my column-mate Frank Karsten reported from his Regional Championship experience in Sofia, Bulgaria, Regional Championship genuinely felt like the return of the "Pro Tour experience." The fields in Atlanta and Sofia featured almost all of the best players rising to the top tables, we had World Champions organizing old-school testing houses, we had Hall of Famers hanging on round-by-round results on social media. With video coverage and big stakes and satellite events running hot–with the promise of the Pro Tour percolating through it all–it was clear "the gathering" was back, boosters and all.

In the United States, Saypoff's Mono-White Humans deck took the diverse field by surprise—eight different decks in the Top 8—on his way to victory. Meanwhile, Pedro Mocelin stayed to the well-known path in Brazil's Regional Championship, defeating Jorgemi Sant'Anna in a Rakdos Midrange mirror in the City Class Games Showdown final to win the title.

Pedro Mocelin

Mocelin's victory is a key part of the first weekend of Regional Championships, as it blasts another hole in the narrative that Mono-Green Devotion is the only deck in Pioneer worth playing at a high-level event. The deck's explosive Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx-fueled starts give it one of the highest ceilings in the format, and its proactive gameplan made it an easy choice for many of the 1,500 competitors. But in fact, despite leading the field at 20% Mono-Green managed a sub-50% winrate over three Regional Championships (Thanks for the insight, Frank!). Rakdos was the second-most popular archetype, and it boasted a better rate than the feared Devotion deck.

"I chose Rakdos because I like to stand a chance in all matches, and this deck gives you that," Mocelin explained. "Thoughtseize was my best card in the tournament; I like to have all the information I can to make the right plays."

Across the Atlantic, it was Madrid native Miguel Castro who took down the Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) Regional Championship, piloting Izzet Phoenix through a Top 8 that featured a handful of new faces on familiar archetypes (plus a sighting of the 2017 Italian national champion Adriano Moscato).

Miguel Castro

Castro was one of three Phoenix players in the Top 8 in Europe, the same deck that made the finals in America in Takahama's hands (one copy made the Top 8 of a diverse field in Brazil). Castro was one of the players who made a full experience of the EMEA Regional Championship, spending a week at a testing house with friends in advance of the tournament. Their conclusion was that in an open field like Pioneer where few decks held distinct advantages—a belief shared by most competitors I spoke to—was that playing a deck they were comfortable with trumped most other concerns, and Izzet Phoenix has long been the go-to deck in those kinds of circumstances.

And for good reason: it carried three players to the Top 8 and Castro to the title.

All of this sets the stage perfectly for the next month of Regional Championships as the rest of the Magic-playing world completes their own events and awards their World Championship invitations. These events bring the best in the world together and will build the field as we go for the first paper Pro Tour of 2023, coming at MagicCon Philadelphia. Much like Nathan Steuer's victory at Magic World Championship XXVIII, we are witnessing the future of Magic that has been stewing in a world of online tournaments arrive in person and announce their arrival.

Speaking of Magic World Championship XXIX coming in 2023, five players in all punched their ticket to join Steuer there. The finalists in the United States and EMEA along with the winning player in Brazil add their names to the list:

  • Matthew Saypoff
  • Ken Takahama
  • Miguel Castro
  • Théau Méry
  • Pedro Mocelin

The World Championship invite list will continue to fill in the weeks ahead, as Magic dreams are made and the gathering continues. As for Saypoff, the Regional Championship victory is a long way—hundreds of miles and a couple of decades—from the 12-year-old who pestered his parents for rides to Friday Night Magic. At the same time, it's not all that far: he's still dreaming of the Pro Tour.

"I first discovered Magic when I went into my local hobby store to look at a Gundam model, and the players there taught me to play. I was immediately hooked as a 10-year-old," he recalled. "As a kid, I loved looking at all the different art. I got insanely into it and I was very fortunate to have a family that was supportive.

"That turned into playing as much as I could, and eventually I qualified for one of the online events. I felt like I could check it off my list, but then I learned I could make it onto the paper Pro Tour. So I worked really hard with my friend Dan Sondike, a well-known Magic Online player who was able to get us hooked up to other players on Discord. We did a lot theorcrafting about the format, and played in a lot of leagues. I'm really excited for next year, and I'm going to take it really seriously because the World Championship is an opportunity you can't pass up. But for the next few weeks at least, I'm looking forward to relaxing over the holidays and relaxing with some Cube!"

Looking Ahead

The schedule for the remaining Regional Championships in this first round is as follows (including those from over the weekend):

It's not a stretch to say that these events will tell the story of 2023, even if we don't know what it is yet. But Magic history is filled with opportunities seized by upcoming players who make the Top 8 of a seemingly one-off event, only to announce themselves as a mainstay soon after. Is the next Chris Kvartek or Nathan Steuer or Yudai Miyano lurking among these tournaments fields? Almost certainly. And that what makes them so fun to watch play out—not to mention the impact this slate of events will have on Pioneer. (I'll leave that part to Frank to break down.)

The gathering is back, and the path to the Pro Tour marches on.

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