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2021 Through the Eyes of the Rivals League, Part 3

Hey there, my name is Jakub Tóth and while you have probably never heard of me, I’ve been playing some form of professional Magic since I was 14 when I highrolled a PTQ for Pro Tour Honolulu and kept grinding Pro Tours from that point. I had a few year hiatus as a full-time poker player, then started working as an equity trader in the Czech company Quantlane, which somehow brought me back to Magic. A few incredible hot runs in qualifiers later I found myself in the Rivals League, so here we are. To celebrate the end of the year, I’ll be breaking 2021 in this four-part series. I’ll be overviewing the changes to Magic, the pro scene and every major tournament from the past year.

If you missed my first two parts, you can read them here:

 

 

Header - July

The last gaming weekend is coming up, and this time we play only for the MPL/Rivals Gauntlet. Ivan and I are right on the verge of making it; top 20 makes the cut and we’re 18th and 19th place. It’s very important to note that I’m the one in 18th place. There’s also something extra to play for if you’re at the very top of the standings, as top two players from both MPL and Rivals will make it to the World Championship. Seth Manfield and Matt Sperling have huge leads in their leagues, so hopefully they can close it out as I think they are both very deserving of that slot, but there are still two more spots left that many people are aiming for.

This time we added Lucca Magni to our testing team and Toffel made a triumphant return as well. I had a lot of work to do in my “main job” so I only had Thursday and Friday for testing… and fell ill on Thursday. We weren’t super coherent on our deck choices, but the majority of us played Temur Lukka in Standard and a weird Creativity Combo in Historic, which is basically the freshly banned deck without Time Warp and the Dragon, just running Koma, Cosmos Serpent instead. I’m not sure how high the odds of me playing Koma in both formats were, but turns out it was not zero.

Koma, Cosmos SerpentLukka, Coppercoat OutcastIndomitable Creativity

First day I went 4-2 and suddenly felt really good about my chances. Ivan chose Rogues instead of Lukka as he just loves them, but unfortunately got punished and finished the day with 1-5. 

On Sunday I won my first match, and knew that at this point unless something absolutely crazy happens like a huge losing streak and super unlucky tiebreakers, I should have the MPL Gauntlet locked. Welp, I guess you guys know where this is going.

I got farmed twice by Mike Sigrist as usual, Lucca Magni also got the double kill and I closed it out by losing a rough feature match… and then I was the only one with 43 points who just straight up busted and went to Rivals Gauntlet thanks to tiebreakers, which are super complex and nobody really understands, so you could say I had a pretty rough Sunday.

Seth Manfield had a horrible 0-6 day but bounced back and locked his well deserved World Championship slot – congratulations! That is the third member of our small testing group who got there. Matt Sperling also converted his big lead into a qualification, and joining them from heavily contested fourth places in their leagues are Gabriel Nassif in MPL and Yuta Takahashi in Rivals.

The “bubble boys” were Martin Jůza in MPL, who put up a very solid performance for the whole season (minus that 0-12 weekend), but the gap was just too big. It was a much closer fight in Rivals, where LSV had a very hard time with his Standard decks, and it was just one point separating him and Yuta Takahashi.

 

In the end the only thing that really matters is that my name is higher than Ivan’s, and as everyone can see below, it is. It would be a bit better if this was achieved by both of us winning a lot instead of losing a lot during the last weekend, but hey, I’ll take it.

A few days after last weekend we got great news about the World Championship – everyone attending will receive $50,000, which was basically the first prize before this, and thanks to this, the prize pool returned back to one million. Congratulations to everyone already qualified, and congrats to Stan for taking a very polite diplomatic approach with that open letter to CEO which yielded awesome results. 

It’s kinda crazy though that they told us this right after playing in the last tournament that will decide our faiths about qualification chances. For example, I would have practiced a lot more if I knew this, and given the nature of my MPL Gauntlet bust out, I truly believe I would have made it there if I had known beforehand. You could argue that others would practice more as well, but right before the tournament the quality of your gameplay gets better logarithmically – I get better more with my extra two days of training when it goes from two days to four days than somebody who will also add two extra days for preparation and goes from 10 days to 12 days. Oh well, the timing was not great but overall I’m very happy for Ondřej and Stan, who will get what was promised for their very hard work.

I guess now would be the best time to take a look back on the MPL Weekends, as we just finished an 84 rounds/81 matches ultragrind. First of all, this is the dream structure for good players that want to reduce variance. Normally you can hide behind luck and misfortune in Magic, mana screw and flood, but not here. The sample is just too big, and while variance is still involved, you will see great crushing players at the top and worse players who did not put the time in at the bottom, simple as that.

Looking at standing, that checks out. As for me, I worked and practiced for hundreds of hours and in the end won 40 out of my 81 matches (the other three points are from PTs), which makes me a very average player in this competition, and that also checks out. I remember the shock during the first League Weekend; everybody was playing so much better than anyone on ladder or PTQs as far as I can remember, and it was pretty obvious I’d have to work really hard to have a chance of staying here. I’m not thrilled about the ultra slow roll from the universe about that MPL Gauntlet, but overall when the season started, I would have been very happy with any place in the middle.

I’ve said it many times, but I guess once more it won’t hurt – huge thanks to Ivan Floch, who was assigned to teach me how to play Magic this year and I believe he delivered. Some things were tough with him, like starting a coaching session on time, but overall he did great and is a big reason why I’m still in this league. Occasionally, Ondřej Stráský or Brad Nelson would pop in to a session and give some amazing insight, which felt similar to buying new football shoes and suddenly Messi shows up to make sure you get the best ones. Overall, I was really impressed by the quality of work in our team, and I’m not surprised there will be three of us (or maybe more?) in the World Champs.

A new set, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms just came out. It’s supposed to take us through the world of Dungeon & Dragons, and I guess based on dungeon master LSV and his reviews, they did a solid job. You get to roll the D20s, choose options when you You Come to a River (somehow a name of a card) and mainly venture into one of the three Dungeons, which are some super weird zones in Magic where you get to choose different benefits such as scrying or getting a goblin token.

DemilichRanger ClassLair of the Hydra

I don’t envy the judges that will now have to decide much more frequently if that die roll they saw that decided the whole match on table 471 was an unacceptable offense that should result in both players getting immediately disqualified, or if it was just a gameplay roll which is absolutely fine.

Everybody is playing Standard 2022 all of the sudden, which I guess just appeared in the MTGA lobby for some reason, although even after 15 minutes of googling and going through Wizards archives, I still couldn’t find the announcement. Everybody seems to love it and I’ve seen some suggestions that we could have rotation early before the Gauntlets so we don’t play a dead format there once more. There have already been bans – The Book of Exalted Deeds is no longer legal with the explanation that you could use it on Faceless Haven, which is really hard to kill, especially in Best-of-One format, which is the only one available for now.

 

Brainstorm got banned in Historic! Turns out this card is a bit too much for this format, who would’ve guessed? And when I say banned, I mean suspended, which means banned with one little twist – you won’t get your wildcards back.

 

Header - August

There was a Secret GP first week of this month, which is basically all I know about it, so I guess it managed to be quite secret as planned. Oh, and based on my Twitter feed, it was also much smaller than anticipated. I guess it’s hard to advertise something you’re trying to keep hidden.

The Challenger Gauntlet gave us a ton of Magic to watch, and there was a lot to play for. Out of 24 people who qualified here through PTs that took place during the year, 12 will make it to Rivals/MPL (for the last year possible) and four of those will even get to play Worlds, which is super nice considering the newly announced/returned appearance fee of $50,000.

Congratulations to Sam Pardee, Noriyuki Mori, Arne Huschenbeth and Keisuke Sato, who move on to compete at Magic World Championship XXVII!

There is a ton of talk on Twitter about some huge announcement, so I kept looking, but it turns out it is all about just a new sets being released. There will be a ton of crossovers from Lord of the Rings and Fortnite in the upcoming sets, which I guess is fine, but I guess I was looking for something a bit more relevant.

We’ve started our preparation for Gauntlets, and by “we” I mean everyone other than me. Even though Stan and Ondřej are already qualified for Worlds, they were kind enough to agree to help us with testing. I also split vacation with Stan at work – he will take a few days off before submission and I will take them after we already have a deck ready to practice.

It looks like Jeskai Mutate is our clear winner, and I’m super thrilled to play yet another deck where you play under constant pressure and stress thanks to roping and timing out all the time. The deck is really hard to play but after a while, I found it really sweet, and once I started looking at it more like a sweet value deck rather than a storm combo deck, I was much more excited to play it.

I spent Sunday, the submit day, in our grindhouse where Stan and Ivan live, and we just played Magic for the whole day (well, both of them randomly left for several hours during the day, but other than that, the whole day). I was still super dizzy from what the deck was trying to achieve, but this day helped a lot. The tournament starts on Thursday, so my main preparation will come from three nonstop days of playing with Ivan coaching me. Three days is not a lot, but with full dedication, I should be ready to battle and just have my designated five percent to win.

Aaaaaand Magic Arena is down; the servers aren’t working. Oh well, time to reread all the theory I can find about this deck. I’ve seen quite a bit of it on ChannelFireball.

 

Header - September

Right off the bat, we started the month with a bang – there will be changes to the event schedule for the Gauntlets that are happening, well, tomorrow. Or not really, as the Thursday play date has been scratched because of Arena instability (duh), and we’ll just play nine rounds on Friday. I’m one of those tight Europeans that were planning to sleep at 4 a.m. on Friday, but playing the biggest tournament of my life for high stakes works for me as well. I just envy those Japanese players who can finish up on Friday and go right to  breakfast with their families.

The discussion on Discord was a wild one. We found out this is the fairest solution possible (non-American players basically received a game loss, probably even more than that) and that there is nothing that can be done about it anymore. Martin’s response sums it up best I think.

In all seriousness, this should have been an awesome tournament, the best I’ve ever played (ticket to it is worth over $5,000) and I should be excited and pumped to battle it out, but all I feel at this point is anger and sadness. We went from nice six rounds Historic and six rounds Standard divided into three classic days to this, and it just feels so surreal the way Wizards doesn’t care at all anymore and now they don’t even try to hide it. 

Anyway, it’s time to adapt and I did real preparation on Thursday by staying up until 5 a.m. to not feel tired during the tournament. I can already feel how fresh I’ll feel when I have to wake up on Monday at 7 a.m.  to go to work, but oh well, since my team leader is Stan, I’m sure he will understand if I come a bit later if necessary.

Metagame breakdown for Gauntlet really surprised us; there are eight (!!) Sultai Ultimatum Decks in MPL, which we expected to be basically nonexistent, and seven Jeskai Mutate decks in Rivals, which was also a big surprise, even though we’re two of those. After a super lengthy discussion between Stan and Ivan about Goldspan Dragon and how much it sucks against aggro decks and Winota (which we incorrectly expected a ton of), we submitted only three of those and went to battle.

Goldspan DragonVadrok, Apex of ThunderLore DrakkisPrismari Command

My first day started off pretty sweet. I beat all the green decks I met and lost only to the juggernaut himself (Kai Budde) who brought 80-card UR Control, which we didn’t even know existed. However, after starting 4-1 and needing only 3-4 to top eight, it went downhill very quickly. I got paired against UR Control two more times. The games were extremely long and complicated but I always felt like my back was against the wall in that matchup, and never converted a deciding game to victory. It’s probably because I’m not good enough; I think better players would have won at least one of those matches. Following that, Louis Samuel Deltour had the complete nuts twice with Rogues and to finish things off before going to sleep, Shouta Yasooka took a revenge on me with Naya Adventures in games where after mulligans, I played one spell in game one and one spell in game two.

Being 4-5 meant I had to win all three matches on Sunday, but at least losing to Kai and other people on top of the standings meant I had great tiebreakers for now. However, I lost my first match against Sultai Ultimatum immediately, and just like that, the biggest tournament in Magic in my life was over.

 

In the MPL Gauntlet, our teammate Lucca Magni made it to MPL by reaching top eight, congratulations to him! Also, Japanese players dominated there with different (and definitely better for the metagame) version of Jeskai Mutate, and both Rei Sato and Yoshihiko Ikawa, alongside Jean-Emmanuel Depraz from France, made it to top three and qualified for Worlds. Watching Japanese players play this mutate deck was a pleasure. They played super tight and I was not surprised to see them at the top, not even mentioning they had to play from like midnight to 9 a.m.

 

I was also very impressed by Riku Kumagai, who showed an amazing level of sportsmanship and conceded when it was clear he’s going to die (but it will take a lot of time) both game one and game three against his teammate, and I assume a really good friend, Rei Sato, while directly playing for World Championship slot. If he just lets him play it out, he times out for sure (he ended with one minute on the clock).

Rivals Gauntlet was characterized mainly by the dominance of Kai Budde and his 9-0 run, but in the end it was Jan Merkel coming all the way from Challenger Gauntlet, beating me twice (didn’t ask him but I’m pretty sure that was the hardest part of the tournament for him) and then sailing through top eight to claim the one and only World Championship slot available with his UR Control. Next to him it will be Gavin Thompson, Kai Budde and Lee Shi Tian going to the MPL. Congrats to all of them!

I got a completely random FedEx delivery and turns out it is a gift from Wizards for the Gauntlet: a Rivals Gauntlet playmat (which I assume is quite rare), a badge and a display of Modern Horizons 2. I had absolutely no idea this was coming so I really enjoyed this surprise.

As this was the last big tournament of this year and last professional Magic tournament with any sort of pro players existing, it was kinda bittersweet and “final write ups” were popping up left and right. Most notably, Grzegorz ‘Urlich’ Kowalski wrote that he’s basically quitting Magic, and will try his luck with a different card game, Flesh and Blood.

I guess it’s time to look back for me as well. This year was quite a rollercoaster and I have a lot of conflicting feelings:

  • I feel sad that I played badly while having a lucky enough distribution that I could have easily qualified for Worlds if I played perfect Magic.
  • I feel proud that I played the best Magic I ever played, got much better in a short time while keeping most of my focus and progress on my primary job.
  • I’m happy I succeeded with my main goal of staying in the Rivals League.
  • I feel angry with everything that’s going on with professional Magic.
  • I feel privileged and honored that I was fortunate enough to be a professional Magic player in my life before it was too late.

At work, Stanislav claimed that Dogecoin and gold are basically the same asset, which is ridiculous enough to get mentioned here even though it is quite off topic. I have heard many “bold” claims from him over the years, but I’m pretty sure this one is my favorite.

Looks like we now know everyone who will be playing at Worlds and collecting that big fat check for just attending! Two Czech flags among just 16 players is awesome, and I’ll be cheering super hard for both these guys. Also seeing five Japanese flags is impressive, and looks like these guys are back in dominance.

Stan is about to take a long vacation as the new set, Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, is about to be released so they can start drafting. 

Wrenn and SevenThe Meathook Massacre

Malevolent Hermit looks very similar to certain pro player, or at least that’s what Siggy and Mengu think.

 

Martin wrote an article about top 10 cards from Innistrad. These are very hard to guess correctly before you start playing with the set, but that won’t stop me from mocking him in case these are completely off. His highest picks are Augur of Autumn, all the slowlands and Wrenn and Seven, so let’s give it some time and see how right he was.

Time to pick our champions in the World Cup!

LSV is forcing UB Zombies deck in draft all the time and made it to #1 mythic with this complex strategy. It sounded sweet enough for me to go to Twitch archives and find some VODs. Who would have thought that Larder Zombie is the best common in the set?


Larder Zombie

Join me next time as I wrap up the year with some final thoughts!

 

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