Benton Madsen's greatest Magic asset isn't his technical play. He's not the player who can look at one of the most complicated boardstates imaginable and puzzle out the perfect line of play under pressure in the defining moments of tournament, at least in the context of the field of Pro Tour Top 8 competitors. That's not where his strengths as a player lie and he's not afraid to admit that—it's something he's spent a lot of time thinking about in the leadup to Pro Tour March of the Machine next week at MagicCon: Minneapolis on May 5–7.
Coming off an incredible underdog run to the Top 8 at Pro Tour Phyrexia a few months ago—one of several players to excel in their first taste of the Pro Tour—Madsen has been thinking about a lot of things Magic-related, from draft guides for March of the Machine to why he picked up Magic in the first place to travel plans for Minneapolis and the World Championship later this year to how to best use the opportunity he's earned this year to whether or not he can make Mono-Red Battles work to what his plans are post-Magic.
"There's so much more to this game that I don't understand, and that's okay—I played in the Arena Championship and got slaughtered—I'm ready to take my lumps and learn," he explained. "After playing on the Pro Tour, you go from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a much larger pond and you have to be able to learn from that. I asked myself what is my relationship with this game and what do I want to do with this while I have this opportunity? And I know I have a lot to learn."
It's breathless, to say the least, if plenty humble for someone who leveled the Pioneer metagame at Pro Tour All Will Be One and carried that all the way to the finals against Reid Duke. But as anyone who watched Madsen's memorable journey to the Top 8 in Philadelphia understands, that's part of what has allowed him to thrive in a quickly changing tabletop Magic landscape. And therein lies what may be Madsen's greatest strength—his ability to think about many things at once, very deeply. It takes a skill very different than grinding out thousands of hours of Rakdos Midrange mirrors to look at the whole of a format and find the throughline that provides the critical insight.
It's a concept I first picked up on from former World Champion Javier Dominguez; everyone I talked to about his dominance pointed not just to playtesting prowess, but an ability to think profoundly about a format and find the thing that matters. That thing changes, of course, from year to year and set to set and month to month and tournament to tournament and—in the better Standard formats of history—from minute to minute. Those insights can completely change a deckbuilding process, and more important an understanding of what matters over the course of a long tournament weekend.
"I like to go for runs, and when I come back look at things fresh," Madsen explained.
That was the same strategy that helped him keep his emotions in check at the last Pro Tour, and taking mental breaks are a key part of Madsen's preparation strategy.
"Last time I went out for a run, came back and had an idea about where the format was and it worked out pretty well without much editing," he explained dryly, referring to his choice of Selesnya Hexproof Auras at Pro Tour Phyrexia. "This time it's been a much more bumpy process—Standard is really complicated and very difficult and the games are a lot more skill-intensive than most other formats that have access to a lot of linear strategies. There's a ton of nuance, and random cards to plan around; sideboarding around Supreme Verdict is very different than sideboarding around The Elder Dragon War."
Three months ago, Madsen's miraculous Top 8 run catapulted him onto the Pro Tour scene—and as you can tell, he's thought a lot about what returning to the Pro Tour stage in Minneapolis means, from the existential questions about achieving so much so fast (a Pro Tour Top 8 in your first appearance will do that) to the intricacies of post-sideboard Standard. Ultimately, the Manhattan native sees it as all part of a journey that's as much about managing his own expectations as his success.
"When I started playing Magic competitively, I knew I wouldn't always have the same chance so I wanted to make the most of it and I made myself some goals," he explained. "I wanted to make it to the Pro Tour and then play in the World Championship before I moved on to other parts of my life. I thought that might happen someday, but I didn't expect it so fast. I know I won't always have the time and mental space to play competitively, so I'm enjoying all it as I go."
And that brings things back around to Madsen's relatively rare sense of self-awareness: he knows his best chance of finding success at his second paper Pro Tour must remain the same as his first—draft strongly and come at the Constructed metagame at a particularly well-planned out angle.
"My preference is to remove as much skill over the course of a game, if that makes sense—if two decks have the same winrate in testing, it's correct to play the one that's easier to play because that matters when you have so much to prepare for in a short time," he explained. "I don't want to have to eke out Rakdos mirrors. I could probably do okay, but those games come down to how many hours you've played, and I can't compete with players who have put in years with Rakdos in Pioneer. I've been working mainly with Erin Diaz, Robert Pompa and Chase Masters to get an understanding of as much of the Standard format as possible, while mixing in Drafts.
"So my plan and goal for this Pro Tour remains the same: give myself a chance to draft on Day 2. Drafting at the Pro Tour is my favorite thing—days you get to show up and play card games are great days."
Madsen isn't the only rookie success story from Pro Tour Phyrexia pondering a bigger picture. For Derrick Davis—who tested with Madsen for that tournament before securing a spot in the Top 8 with Enigmatic Incarnation combo—it's not a stretch to say that it's an entirely different mindset than before Philly.
"I don't think I can say nothing changes after that—everything changes after you Top 8 the Pro Tour," he explained. "The very first Friday after the Pro Tour, someone came up to me at the store and asked me where they knew me from because I looked familiar, which was pretty funny when it happened.
"But the feeling heading into this tournament is definitely different. The last Pro Tour was boom or bust, either I do well and move on or that's it and I'm starting from square one. It was a lot of pressure that's off to some extent. I'm going to aim to do well and I want to win—I'm putting in as much if not more work than I did before the last Pro Tour—but it's good to know that no matter what happens I'll be in Barcelona at the next Pro Tour."
Life after a first-time Pro tour Top 8 means more than just a plane ticket; it means an entirely different schedule than the one Davis first expected. He wasn't chasing down Regional Championship qualifiers, he was lining up his testing teams and draft prep for multiple Pro Tours with a World Championship on the horizon.
While his prospects have changed, Davis' work ethic has not.
"It was back to the grind pretty quickly after the last Pro Tour—I had people I was helping prepare for the Regional Championship and I just went right back to it," he reflected. "Now it's a lot of Standard and draft and packed into two weeks."
That last part is another key difference for this tournament.
"With Pioneer, my process was to completely figure out the format before the new set came out, and then spend the two weeks doing nothing but preparing for Limited," explained Davis, who is preparing with a team led in part by another Pro Tour Phyrexia Top 8 competitor in Chris Ferber, as well as Isaac Sears fresh off a Regional Championship Top 8 in San Diego. "But Standard is a completely different ballgame, so things have to be a bit different this time around."
Preparing for both a Draft and Standard format—and perhaps specifically this Standard format—with the influx of March of the Machine is unique challenge that all the competitors converging from across the world right now will have to overcome to find success at the Pro Tour. The early returns from March of the Machine indicate a Standard format that will likely remain unpredictable after a surprising string of evolutions during the Regional Championship season, and with double-faced cards and Multiverse Legends in the draft run, there's surely more surprises in store for us in Minneapolis.
And you can watch it all unfold. Coverage of Pro Tour March of the Machine kicks off on Friday at 12 p.m. EST!