Three years ago, Luis Salvatto was crowned Magic’s last Player of the Year. This title was awarded to the player who had accumulated the most points within the Pro Players Club system. It was distinct from a single tournament trophy in that it represented sustained excellence through an entire year of play. In other words, even among the group of elite, top players, you had distinguished yourself as the best.
I’ve always been a nerd for Magic’s history. Long before I personally reached the Pro Tour, I devoured coverage, learned names, memorized stats and loved conversations about whether Jon Finkel or Kai Budde was the greatest of all time. This history made Magic special, and was something most other games lacked. It kept me interested, and made me want to be a part of it all.
Today, Magic is played at greater volumes, and (arguably) at higher levels than ever before. However, changing organized play systems, and the lack of a player of the year race creates a break in continuity, and less opportunity for celebrating some of our most impressive players.
As we reflect back on 2021, and on the three years of the Magic Pro League system, I’d like to dedicate this piece to a handful of players who I believe have distinguished themselves even among the very best. These aren’t just players who had one good result, or who treaded water within the League system. These were the ones that were consistently raising the bar, and whom you could almost always count on for a deep tournament run in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
Note that this is not meant as a ranking, and being left off the list is not in any way a slight. I’ve also focused mostly on premier-level events for this list, even though I greatly respect excellence in independent tournament series and on Magic Online.
Before getting to individual players, I’ll mention a couple of groups who’ve really made their mark on Magic’s history.
The first is the one coverage has called “the Czech testing house.” This group worked both harder and smarter than their competitors, and were constantly pushing the envelope when it came to deckbuilding. Personally, I’d practice hard and register what I believed to be the best deck, but I only felt like I’d know what the best deck was when I found out what the Czech players and their teammates had submitted.
They dominated in 2019, and it was fun to watch Ondrej Strasky and Stanislav Cifka running up the score in their respective Leagues over the course of 2021. You’ll see the Czech testing house represented in my list of individual players below.
Not all Japanese players practice together, just as not all American players work together. That said, Japan fields both individual all-stars like Shouta Yasooka, Yuta Takahashi and Ken Yukuhiro as well as coordinated teams who have dominated select events.
In this month’s Innistrad Championship, I finished with a 10-5 record where all five of my losses came against Japanese players who’d registered identical decks in both formats. I find that to be an amazing statistic! And I’d had a similar experience in my previous event, which was the MPL Gauntlet.
In the MPL Gauntlet, the Japanese team of Rei Sato, Yoshihiko Ikawa and Riku Kumagai took first, second and fourth place, which is a level of dominance that’s not quite unprecedented in three decades of tournament Magic, but is pretty darn close.
At the Innistrad Championship, the top eight shook out with five individual Japanese players, four of whom had worked together and brought identical deck lists in both formats.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about all of this is that players in Asia have been competing at a disadvantage these last three years. In 2019, they needed to routinely travel across the world in order to compete. And in the play-from-home era, the disadvantage has become even more extreme. The tournaments are scheduled to accommodate American players, audiences, and tournament staff. Due to time zone differences, players in Asia have to play long hours through the middle of the night!
It takes a special level of dedication to bring such excellence under such challenging circumstances. Japan will be represented in my list of individual players below.
Before we move on to the individuals, I once again reiterate that this is not meant as a ranking. Instead, I’ve tried to present things in a rough chronological order which can tell the story of the MTG Arena era of premier play.