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What's at Stake for the Challenger Gauntlet?

July 26, 2021
Rich Hagon

Battling through seven League Weekends and three Championships—including the most recent, the Strixhaven Championship—the 2020-21 regular season built the stage for the biggest Magic event of the year. Through hundreds of games at the very highest level, eight of the sixteen seats at Magic World Championship XXVII were filled: we know that we'll see Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Ondřej Stráský, Eli Kassis, Stanislav Cifka, Gabriel Nassif, Seth Manfield, Matt Sperling, and Yuta Takahashi this October.

Now it's time for the Postseason to determine the remaining eight seats, and we begin with the ultra-competitive Challenger Gauntlet, taking place August 6–8. It's an elite field, with the top-finishing combatants outside the leagues from each Championship making up our 24-strong Gauntlet:

  • Zendikar Rising Championship: Brad Barclay, Jan Merkel, Toni Ramis Pascual, Tomas Pokorny, Gavin Thompson, Bernardo Torres, Tim Wan, Piotr Wiktorzak
  • Kaldheim Championship: Michael Bernat, Ian Birrell, Arne Huschenbeth, Evan Kaplan, João Moreira, Noriyuki Mori, Yohei Nomiya, Keisuke Sato
  • Strixhaven Championship: Ron Branchaud, John Girardot, David Inglis, Matti Kuisma, Lars Luckhaupt, Logan Nettles, Sam Pardee, Sam Rolph

Across the first two days, these 24 will play six rounds each of Historic and Standard Constructed. Although the formats are the same, neither will be quite like what we saw at the Strixhaven Championship. For Standard, there's the world of Dungeons & Dragons come to life with Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, while Historic has been updated in the wake of Time Warp and Brainstorm taking a bow off the stage.

Two days of play lead to a cut to a Top 12, setting a Sunday stage that determines where all twelve players go next in the 2020-21 postseason. Four players advance to Magic World Championship XXVII, and the eight others move on to play for one final World Championship seat in the Rivals Gauntlet.

For the four players at the top of the standings at the end of Day Two, they'll know that they need just a single match win on Sunday to claim their World Championship slot—dropping down for one more chance if they miss on their Sunday opener.

For those in fifth through twelfth at the end of Saturday, it's straight into Sunday win-or-go-home action with three consecutive match wins needed to reach the October pinnacle.

So, who might we see setting the pace on the path to Magic World Championship XXVII? Three competitors immediately stand out, just as they did at their respective Championships: the champions themselves!

Brad Barclay, winner of the Zendikar Rising Championship

Laidback; laconic; introverted; strong-but-silent; razor-sharp; champion. All these descriptors apply to Scotland's Brad Barclay, a World Magic Cup regular who has been at the forefront of Scotland's scene for almost 20 years. Starting out at Grand Prix Birmingham Champion Gary Campbell's Dundee store as a 'wee bairn', Barclay was already playing on the Pro Tour in the early 2000s.

His story of excellence-without-titles-for-years is one shared by many tremendous players who understand that "their day" may, in fact, never come, and have made their peace with that. Certainly Barclay didn't enter the Zendikar Rising Championship as one of the favorites. As the data across the tournament accumulated, it looked as if his Azorius Control choice for Historic was not a good one as pilots of the strategy were losing left and right.

In the center, though, was Barclay, somehow getting wins out of the deck that others couldn't. It wasn't just that he didn't lose much. He didn't lose at all with the Blue-White masterpiece. With Shark Typhoons routinely tying the bow on each relentless victory, the legend of The Iceshark was born and the Scottish celebrations were doubtless legendary too.

Arne Huschenbeth, winner of the Kaldhiem Championship

For many watching the Kaldheim Championship, Arne Huschenbeth wasn't the obvious star attraction, but that changed as the Sunday highlight reel unrolled. For those who were part of the traveling circus that was the European Grand Prix circuit at its height, Huschenbeth was someone you could routinely ink in for a deep Day Two run, and a likely contender for Top 8 or better. Seven times Huschenbeth made it to the knockout rounds, claiming the title at Grand Prix Rimini in 2017.

When it came to the ultimate test, like Barclay at Zendikar Rising, deck choice was huge in propelling Huschenbeth forward. Although his Historic Orzhov Auras deck was tremendous—he went 7-1 with the deck—it was the Standard format that set his challenge alight, and he rocketed his way through the Sunday field with a Dimir Rogues list that many felt ahead of the tournament was badly-positioned. As the opponents kept on tumbling, Huschebeth could barely contain his exuberance, and his excitement at the end of the final was as delightful as it was surreal, bouncing off the walls in 3am silence.

Sam Pardee, winner of the Strixhaven Championship

"Quietly impressive" sums up the affable Pardee nicely. While there always seems to be someone else who looks like the headline act of an event, Pardee's there at almost every festival, routinely parlaying excellence into a career that includes top finishes at Pro Tour Eldritch Moon, Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, and the 2012 Magic Online Championship, plus 15 Grand Prix Top 8s—with two titles. Now, of course, that "quietly impressive" career includes the Strixhaven Championship.

Victory has many attributes. For some, it's the external affirmation—the recognition—you can see with the question "Will you sign my playmat?" For others, the validation is internal, the spur to tackle the next challenge in life and to trust your ability to succeed. Sometimes it's about the money, whether that's prizes, seats in a League, or sponsorship opportunities. And while those all play a part in aiming for success, in Pardee's case it's about the friendships forged in the pursuit thereof.

Any time the competitive landscape gets shaken up, there are winners and losers. A succession of near misses with the shift to online events for the last year left him adrift from the special bonds of friendship that come from working together toward a common goal, but it's that bond that has him so excited coming out of his Championship win. Now, the Challenger Gauntlet gives him another opportunity to reach a Magic World Championship, and that would put him, once again, in the same testing room with great players who are also his great friends.

Three Champions, then, all with a great chance of putting together another run. But who else should you keep an eye on as the twelve rounds progress towards the Sunday showdown? Here are eight more who could easily be right in the mix:

Jan Merkel

Jan Merkel is already a champion, having won Pro Tour Kobe back in 2006 when he was just 17. Want more proof that he's smart? "I learned at school how to do my homework faster so that I would have more time to play Magic." And if you're still not rooting for him, he says his approach to Historic is to "prevent people from having fun." Now that's a plan you have to love.

Logan Nettles

Logan Nettles has somehow never complained about being described as "Reid Duke's cousin." Although true (and it must be nice), Nettles is, of course, Logan Nettles. That means a Grand Prix winner, a Magic Online heavyweight as jaberwocki, Top 4s at the Magic Online Championship 2010 and 2019 (where he finished second), and over $100,000 in career winnings. This time the trivia fact is updated: Reid Duke is Logan Nettles's cousin.

David Inglis

David Inglis is one of only four competitors to have played in all three Championships of the 2020-21 season. He missed out at a Challenger Gauntlet shot on tiebreakers at the Zendikar Rising Championship, but his competitive consistency paid off with his second shot at the Kaldheim Championship. Competition itself is his driving factor, "not for chasing big extrinsic rewards."

Toni Ramis Pascual

Toni Ramis Pascual represented Spain multiple times at the World Magic Cup and has three Grand Prix Top 8s. Known predominantly through his Standard play, he competed at multiple Pro Tours with the highest Standard win rate in the entire field.

Michael Bernat

Michael Bernat certainly qualifies for veteran status. He has played top-level events in all four decades of the game, including Pro Tour Chicago 1998, Pro Tour Berlin 2008, Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica 2018, and the 2020-21 season Championships, with his best weekend coming in Limited when he won Grand Prix Las Vegas 2018.

Matti Kuisma

Matti Kuisma played three consecutive World Magic Cups for Finland, reaching the Top 8 in 2016. Online, he reached the Top 4 of the Magic Online Championship 2019 and has played close to 10,000 games on MTG Arena.

Sam Rolph

Sam Rolph is an ultra-consistent Grand Prix performer, with Top 32 finishes in the double digits. Perhaps crucially for this weekend, he carries a phenomenal 79% win rate in Historic. You may know him from both his Twitter and Magic Online handle, Phill_Hellmuth.

Evan Kaplan

Evan Kaplan comes across as exactly the kind of human who could thrive while others wilt. Consider what he learned from an experimental theatre class at college: "This class was all about collaborative work and discovering things together. It was a great opportunity to set your ego aside and learn from your peers." With so many of Magic's best acknowledging the value of good playtesting and feedback, it seems Kaplan literally went to school to become a better player.

Of course, every one of our Challenger Gauntlet competitors has their own Magic story to tell. For twelve, the season chapter will end this weekend. Finish 5th through 12th, and they'll get one more go in the Rivals Gauntlet in September. But for the Top 4 from Sunday, the season will be far from done: They will have a date with Da Rosa, Stráský, and the rest at the pinnacle of Magic showdowns—Magic World Championship XXVII.

To see which of our Challengers claim those precious seats, join us for all the action August 6–8, live beginning at 9 a.m. each day at

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