For many of the players who will compete in the Rivals Gauntlet and MPL Gauntlet, taking place September 2—5, it will be the biggest tournament of their life. They put up results throughout the 2020—21 season to make it this far, and everything is on the line once the tournament kicks off: invitations to the MPL, and more importantly, Magic World Championship XXVII go to the top finishers.
It sets up one of the most important weekends of Magic they will ever play.
The large field is comprised of 48 players—24 in the MPL Gauntlet, and another 24 in the Rivals Gauntlent—from across the globe who all share a common trait: they've been hard at work in competitive Magic over the past year. They're some of the best of the best in the world right now, and that will be on display as they battle through 12 rounds of Standard play as well as a daunting Top 8 bracket that will ultimately award the final four spots at Worlds—three from the MPL Gauntlet, and one from the Rivals Gauntlet.
It's a formidable challenge for anyone, and no amount of practice or preparation can perfectly prepare contenders for the high—stakes matches to come, so how are the field's most decorated players — the members of the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame—readying themselves for the competition?
For one Hall of Famer, the road to the World Championship will always be special.
"This event feels different from other events because of what's at stake," Reid Duke explained. "There have always been high-stakes matches of Magic—for example, when somebody needs one more point to achieve a Pro status at the end of the year—but this is the first time I've seen the structure designed to put so much pressure on the competitors."
If anyone knows about that pressure, it's Duke. He finished as finalist at the 2013 World Championship, and came up just short in his race to secure a World Championship berth during the MPL season as he and fellow Hall of Famer Martin Jůza finished just behind Gabriel Nassif and Seth Manfield. Duke talked openly about how his 2013 loss to Shahar Shenhar in the World Championship finals has driven him ever since, and if it's to be the year he exorcises those demons it must begin with a top-three finish in the Gauntlet.
"The World Championship has a special weight for me," he acknowledged. "Competing at the highest level, against the best players in the world is the reason that I work so hard on Magic, and winding up on the sidelines is always a disappointment. Since I was tied with Gabriel Nassif going into the final League Play weekend, I felt as though I was inches away from qualifying for Worlds and getting to bypass the Gauntlets altogether, so I particularly have this feeling of 'don't blow it!'"
While Duke chases one of the three World Championship invites on the line, his testing teammate—and the man who was unquestionably the most dominant player of the early Pro Tour—Kai Budde faces a much smaller margin for error: only the victor of the Rivals Gauntlet will earn the coveted spot.
And even for the German Juggernaut and his astounding seven premier event wins, the Gauntlet offers a unique challenge.
"The payout is incredibly top heavy—the top four is great for qualifying for the MPL, but really it's first that counts," he explained. "The tournament structure is pretty much identical to the small field World Championships, which this also qualifies for. I've never played one of these, so that's probably the last real thing on my to-do list, so actually walking away with a win would be incredible."
To give himself the best chance at crossing one final achievement off his Magic checklist, Budde is working with one of the most talented testing teams in the field—he joins Andrew Cuneo, Logan Nettles and Jan Merkel to compete in the Rivals Gauntlet, while fellow teammates Duke, William Jensen and Luis Scott-Vargas try their hand at the MPL Gauntlet.
Jensen is chasing his second World Championship title after taking it all in 2017, and he expects every round to be tight as players try to work their way through a well-trodden Standard format, which places a premium on accurately predicting the metagame.
"The tournament consists of only great players, so I don't think anyone is particularly advantaged based on experience," he explained. "I used to get nervous when I was younger and I felt like I had something to prove. At this point, I don't find competition particularly nerve-wracking. It's sort of similar to a Worlds type event itself, with top three taking the lion's share, or basically all, of the prize money. The format has really been put through the wringer. I'd be relatively surprised if anyone brought anything off the beaten path to the event. I'd expect people to bring well-known, great decks, and play them well."
Jensen's approach reflects the reality for most of the seven Hall of Famers in the Gauntlet fields: this is a huge tournament, but they've been playing huge tournaments all their lives. One of the keys to their long, successful careers is the ability to filter out the noise—the pressure, the stakes, the nerves—and keep things simple. It's another match of Magic just like the hundreds they've played over the past year in League Play and Set Championship events.
For Pro Tour Kaladesh champion Shota Yasooka, that means taking a familiar approach: he's preparing alone and seeking to find any edge he can to stay a step ahead of the field, which begins with blocking out the distractions.
"All I think about going into every event is the next game," he explained. "I think I have more experience in small group competitions than other people, but I don't think there will be much of a difference since we are only playing Standard. The difference between this event and others is that there are no winners except for the Top 4."
Forty-eight competitors, four World Championship spots on the line. The Hall of Famers may have the most experience but when the tournament kicks off on September 2, everything is on the line and everyone is starting from the same spot.
"Playing from home on MTG Arena is largely about creating your own space where you can be focused and play your best, and I think all competitors will be able to do that," Duke said. "Uncertainty builds as Magic Organized Play continues to change, and as I myself get older. I treat every World Championship as though it could be my last."