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The Week That Was: The Turning Point for the 2022–23 Season

September 08, 2023
Corbin Hosler

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to correct which Pro Tour Phyrexia Top 8 round Reid Duke and Nathan Steuer played.

"It's time to return to the Pro Tour."

With those words 18 months ago, everything clicked into place in the Magic world. The strands of organized play that had been moving along coalesced all at once into something very recognizable to longtime fans of high-level Magic play: the Pro Tour was back.

I've written hundreds of thousands of words since then to capture what exactly that means to all of us. It's been a long journey to bring us to the eve of Magic World Championship XXIX at MagicCon: Las Vegas. That's a year and a half of local qualifiers, of Regional Championships across the globe, of a trio of Pro Tours, of the return of high-level tabletop play—and everything that comes with it.

It's all led to the this World Championship. There's a dozen different ways that competitors punched their ticket to sleeve up a new-look Standard that now stretches across three years and is adapting quickly to the release of Wilds of Eldraine. Online play, regional standouts, Pro Tour legends and newcomers alike, anyone who achieved the pinnacle of the many ways Magic is played, they'll all come together at the World Championship in a celebration of the course those eight words put us on.

Well, all of that and an intense drive to top the dominant Nathan Steuer, who is seeking a second straight World Championship title after putting together one of the best runs we've seen by a defending champ – capped off with a quarterfinals appearance at Pro Tour Phyrexia and then a win in the very next Pro Tour (Pro Tour March of the Machine) earlier this year.

My goal this week is to try and put those 18 months into perspective. A task impossible to fully complete with 1,800 words or 18,000 (not that I haven't tried over the past year, along with my column mate Frank Karsten and his incredible deep dives on the ins and outs of every format along the way), but a noble goal nonetheless.

With the World Championship now just two weeks away, how do I put this whole thing we call the Pro Tour Season into perspective?

There's been a lot of big events with high stakes, and some even bigger storylines. Hall of Famer and all-around Magic superstar Reid Duke won Pro Tour Phyrexia to kick things off in the year's first Pro Tour (defeating Nathan Steuer in the quarterfinals). That Top 8 had it all: the reigning World Champion Steuer aiming for a second major title in six months, successful Regional Championship players breaking through, and the veteran Duke adding a Pro Tour title to his victories (one of the few accomplishments that was missing from his resume).

The last generation meeting the next – that would be hard to top. But somehow Steuer did it anyway, not just making another Top 8 appearance but winning the very next Pro Tour. Historic. There was the frantic late-night call that hilariously captured the excitement of Ben Broadstone's victory at Arena Championship 3. Or how about Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings champion Jake Beardsley, who struck gold in his first-ever PT appearance? No one saw that coming.

Jake Beardsley won Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings in his first-ever qualification.

These stories all tell the tale of Magic World Championship XXIX. But none of these trophy shots tell the whole story. I think the answer lies not just in those hundreds of thousands of words and scores of decklists, but in something I've always felt was key to making the Pro Tour something special. The PT is never just the Top 8 or the winner or the best-performing decklists, it's a million little moments along the way that all come together to make for an unforgettable experience.

It's those moments, different for every one of the 100+ players who will sit down to draft Wilds of Eldraine 14 days from now on the biggest stage our game has to offer, that brought us here. And every one these players faced a moment where their path could have gone a very different way; a different topdeck here, a missed trigger there, a different draft pack can be the razor-thin line between qualifying for the World Championship or not. It's these turning points that we asked our competitors to look back on and reflect on their own path to the biggest tournament of their lives.

Take Christian Calcano, for instance. He's walked perhaps the unlikeliest path of all, qualifying for the Pro Tour via a series of tournaments in Europe that the American hadn't necessarily planned on entering. That led to a seat at Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings, and the rest is history – Calcano made it all the way to the finals of the first Modern Pro Tour in four years piloting an updated version of Tron complete with The One Ring.

It's easy to point to any one of those European events he decided to enter as the key point of Calcano's road to the World Championship. That's a story we shared, and one that a lot of people know as part of the Calculator's growing lore. Many fewer know that it was just one of many moments that Calcano credited for his World Championship appearance.

Christian Calcano

"My season has been full of moments like this, but during testing for Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings, my old friend and teammate Lee Shi Tian, who had watched me test different decks, encouraged me to play Tron in the PT because he thought I played it the best," Calcano recalled. "It gave me a lot of confidence at a point where I was still undecided on what to play, which was huge for me."

A compliment from a friend paved the way to a Pro Tour finals for Calcano. For Yuuki Ichikawa, the turning point came deep at the Standard tables at Pro Tour Phyrexia, where players come to grips with the fact that they're not going to win the tournament out of the 2-4 bracket but have to bottle that disappointment and still perform in meaningful matches of Magic. It's a lot easier said than done when you're just a hundred feet away from the array of spotlights and cameras that make up the Feature Match at the Pro Tour, the place every entrant envisioned themselves when the day began.

Yuuki Ichikawa

"It was Round 7 ... and I was 2-4. I needed to go to 2-0 from there to advance to Day Two," he recalled. "I was playing Mono-Green Devotion in Pioneer, and my opponent named Skysovereign, Consul Flagship with Pithing Needle. I needed to topdeck a Boseiju, Who Endures or Karn, the Great Creator.

"I topdecked Karn, and then won the next round too. That was a big step on the way to competing at the World Championship."

That's not a moment you'll ever see memorialized on camera. It didn't draw headlines, and no tweets or Twitch clips of it were shared. But there, at the 2-4 bracket staring down a nightmare board in a nightmare tournament start, Ichikawa's World Championship was forged.

Let's hope the MOCS and PT winner brings the moves with him to Vegas.

It's a similar story for Matti Kuisma, who found himself under the same duress after a disastrous start to Pro Tour March of the Machine.

"In Minneapolis I started the tournament 1-4. I was frustrated and sad that things seemed to be ending on a very low note," he said. "Then I faced my teammate and semi-identical twin Tristan Wylde-LaRue and we made a pact that whoever won the match had to absorb the other one's energy and not only make Day 2 but also re-qualify for the next Pro Tour.

Matti Kuisma

"After winning that match I honored the pact and won two more in a row to sneak into day 2, and six more on the second day to finish 10-6. Tristan, on the other hand, ended up winning the PTQ on Sunday, so we both got there in the end. One bad draw step more and I would not be qualified for anything. Instead I ended up having the 12th best season in the world."

That's how close things can be at the highest levels of any sport, and often those final factors are outside our control. No one knows that better than returning World Championship competitor Duke, who finished a memorable second at the World Championship in 2013 – a finish he cites as still motivating him today – and has spent a decade trying to reach the finals again.

Reid Duke

Duke is a coach's dream, the textbook example of not riding the highs or the lows too closely, and the even-keeled approach kept Duke on his Hall of Fame path even as he still worked to convert his many Top Finishes into trophies. To keep up the sports analogy, Duke has always preached trusting the process – even when he was down two games in the quarterfinals of Pro Tour Phyrexia to Nathan Steuer – and Duke's season's turning point came in a much less metaphorical fashion than most: he turned the match around on a dime thanks to a flashed-in Hullbreaker Horror and an out-of-nowhere victory to begin the reverse-sweep.

Sometimes the World Championship path isn't paved with perfect plays, but salvaging slipups. Occasional mistakes are inevitable for even the best players in the world. The best baseball hitters fail two-thirds of the time. Success in Magic is as much mental as it is meta.

"I remember back when I was 15 or 16 years old, I was playing Burn at a Grand Prix and I started off 7-0 and was feeling really good. Then I made a bad mistake to lose Round 8," PT The Lord of the Rings winner Beardsley considered. "I started feeling awful about my play, my tournament, myself. That one mistake made me feel so out of it for the entire weekend. I finished that tournament 8-7."

Those opportunities don't come around often, and that lingering feeling taught Beardsley something about Magic, but also about himself. And when he finally got that close to the Pro Tour again, things were different.

Jake Beardsley

"Day Two of the Regional Championship in San Diego. I'm X-2 coming in, and then I lose the first round of the day so one more loss means I can't qualify for the Pro Tour," he explained. "I lose the first game of the next round, and then I find the right line but basically misclick in real life and miss lethal. My opponent lived, drew a card that really got them back in it, and I'm sitting like 'what the hell did I just do.' I thought back to how I struggled for a long time with letting those mistakes cascade and destroy my whole tournament.

"I took a deep breath. I told myself 'you made a mistake, it happens, now right the ship.' I recovered and was able to win the match. I excused myself, splashed some water on my face, shook it off, played amazing my next two matches and qualified for the Pro Tour. Looking back, that really felt like the turning point for me."

The Magic World Championship changes lives. The tournament that kicks off two weeks from today will be the major turning point for one of the 100-plus competitors, and it's all going to play out in front of our eyes.

The countdown is on. You can follow all the coverage – and trust me, there's some amazing content on its way – at the Magic World Championship XXIX event page. We'll see the next champion in Las Vegas soon enough!

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