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Zooming to the Championship

March 09, 2022
Corbin Hosler

Magic history is filled with iconic moments. Times when deck met destiny and sent players soaring to the heights of the Pro Tour and World Championship. For those of us watching along, those Hall of Fame highlights become iconic: the Craig Jones Lightning Helix, the Gabriel Nassif called-shot Cruel Ultimatum, the epic Luis Scott-Vargas Settle the Wreckage moment from Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica.

For others, those incredible moments came on replay.

Henry Mildenstein

Take Mildenstein. The 18-year-old got into Magic when he was just nine, during Return to Ravnica. His first introduction to high-level Magic play was finding videos of Pro Tour Gatecrash, watching Tom Martell win with an innovative brew in a diverse Top 8. It revealed to Mildenstein all that was possible within the game—including his world-changing introduction to counterspells. From there it was Friday Night Magic when he was old enough, and Magic Online as soon as he was able.

Fast-forward almost a decade, and Mildenstein can now be found competing alongside all those players he watched growing up not so long ago—and he's far from the only successful example from the generation affectionately called "Magic Zoomers" as a parallel to the playful, and sometimes derisive, "Paper Boomers" defined by the LSVs of the game today. Mildenstein and his peers have come of age in a time of online tournaments and a path that is quite different compared to that of their predecessors, but they've quickly proven they're more than ready to compete.

"When the pandemic started, a lot of my friends who I played with were 14- to 16-year-olds, now it's been a few years, and we're all turning 18 and qualifying for tournaments—I actually qualified for the Neon Dynasty Championship by meeting my teammate in the Felix Sloo in the finals of the qualifier," explained Mildenstein, who describes himself as "Extremely (Magic) Online."

"We've gotten a bunch of the young grinders into a Discord [server], and it's really helped to push me," Mildenstein continued. "You see people your age winning and doing well, and then one of your friends wins a Magic Online Challenge and you feel like you're behind and have to win one. Then Challenges become 'casual' and you have to win PTQs to keep up. It really keeps me engaged."

The path may look different, but "the fire" to achieve wins and rise to the top is familiar for longtime competitors despite it being defined by the newest today. The generational movement is especially impressive considering the vastly different the infrastructure available now. There are no Pro Tour testing houses for young players to dip their toes into, no between-round conversation with top players at Grands Prix to make connections and build rapport as a skillful player. MTG Arena keeps the metagame moving faster than ever before, and the camaraderie that's formed between some of the game's young stars has been key to staying ahead of the curve.

Helping Mildenstein stay ahead of that curve was his PTQ finals opponent Felix Sloo, who at 21 years old is something of an elder member of the born-in-the-21st-century testing group that includes recent Magic Online Champions Showcase winner Nathan Steuer, Strixhaven Championship Top Finisher David "tangrams" Inglis, six-time Pro Tour qualifier Zach Dunn, metagame master Jonny Guttman, as well as Milan Bhayana, who first qualified for the Pro Tour in the seventh grade.

Magic has long had young phenoms rise through the ranks of online play. Reid Duke and Brad Nelson were first known by their Magic Online handles Reiderrabbit and fffreak, respectively; now an entire generation of online-first players are taking the top tables by storm.

With a growing list of tournament successes and a clear set of Magic goals in front of them, there are just a few other things the game's rising stars have had to do differently.

"Henry and I have worked together to test, and I prepared for the PTQ by reading through what he wrote about the format in Discord, but we've never actually met in person!" Sloo explained. "We met through Milan, and we're staying together at SCG Indianapolis later this month, so we'll finally get to meet.

Felix Sloo

"A little over a year ago, I thought 'I'll work with these kids for one event and that'll be it,' but playing Magic online has kickstarted a lot of my friendships and relationships I've developed over the past year. I got to experience paper Magic a little bit, but I've really grown as a player since, and it's insane to think about how Henry has never experienced paper Magic, or how maybe Jonny wouldn't have gotten into Magic at all if it hadn't gone the way it did."

It's been a perfect turn of events for Sloo, with online Magic fitting perfectly into a life upended when his family moved overseas to France in his final year of high school. With his peers back home touring colleges, Sloo found his outlet in Magic Online, and his brews over the last few years have distinguished him as one of the game's most creative young minds.

The rest of the Magic world has taken notice. What began as a loose group of young players sharing tips has emerged as one of the preeminent testing groups, and legends of the game like World Champion Javier Dominguez have at times joined the crew.

Javier Dominguez, 2018 Magic World Championship

Now Sloo, Mildenstein, and their teammates will square off against those they learned from when the Neon Dynasty Championship kicks off on Friday, March 11. And while they're doing their best to take it all in—Sloo admitted he was in awe sometimes at the level of talent he was able to learn from—he's confident they are ready to take the next step.

"The way things have worked out, we've found a way to establish ourselves in the professional scene despite having to do it from our bedrooms," he said. "This has been so much fun to prepare for, and I'm super excited to see what the future holds for us."

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