For the past few weeks we have been looking at the various components of the upcoming Magic Weekend in San Francisco that will see the races for Rookie and Player of the Year, the Team World Championship, and the individual World Championship all play out. If that wasn't already more than enough drama, there is also the matter of the Magic Online Championship to settle up, with twelve players coming to the city by the bay to compete in something approaching thirty rounds of Magic between Worlds and the Magic Online Championship.
There were ten seasons throughout the year that each qualified a player, from Jörg Unfried in Season 1 to Andrew Cuneo—who was the first person to ever win an online qualifier to play in a Pro Tour way back when—in Season 10. Two-time GP Top 8 competitor Reid Duke won the Player of the Year tournament, and Grand Prix Kitakyushu 2007 winner Junya Iyanaga won the Last Chance Qualifier. Players qualified playing formats as varied as Scars of Mirrodin Block Constructed. Standard, Legacy, Extended, Masters Edition IV Sealed, Urza Block Sealed, Scars of Mirrodin Sealed, and Magic 2012 Sealed.
Carlos Romao, who first rose to prominence as the 2002 Magic World Champion, became the first Magic Online Champion last season, and unless one of these players also wins the main event there will not be another dual champion this year. There are, however, two players coming back from last year's Magic Online Championship as the first two repeat competitors in this competition's history. Both Reid Duke and Bing Luke first popped up our radar with their MTGO Championship berths, and each will be looking to cement their reputations with a deep run in the digital and offline events.
When we first met Bing last year he barely had any offline playing experience and was competing at Worlds with a Total rating that was below 1600. Since then he has become a regular Magic columnist and a regular on the East Coast PTQ scene, and managed to qualify for Nationals and the Magic Online Championship on the same day. The experience of going to Worlds for his first real physical event was something of an eye-opener for the New York–based lawyer, who jokingly refers to the physical card game as either "dead tree Magic" or "Magic Offline." He had learn the physical mechanics of the game for Worlds—things like shuffling and keeping track of triggers that he had grown dependant on MTGO to do for him. But there was also a tournament mentality he needed to acquire.
"It was a pretty cold splash of water," said Luke. "The MTGO environment is geared so heavily towards volume that it sabotages your play in two ways. If you don't have a good deck, you can just switch for the next event. And if you don't have the best deck, you can still win significantly more than you lose. You can do very well on MTGO without putting together the gaudy numbers you need to succeed in an eighteen-round event."
To go from playing in almost no physical tournaments to having to play in both Worlds and the MTGO Championship last season was a big shock, but Bing can look to his double-qualification day this year as evidence that he has come a long way these last twelve months.
"The physical toll was pretty rough since I wasn't used to the physical demands of playing a full day, let alone back-to-back events," admitted Bing. "I think I'm much better prepared now, evidenced by winning two full events, paper and online, over twenty straight hours."
Heading into the event Bing felt most comfortable about the Limited legs of the tournament but had mixed feelings about the Constructed formats.
"I've been spending most of my time in Standard since there's so much data—and events actually fire—but it's a pretty wide-open format and there's no guarantee that what I'm testing now will be viable in the iterations leading up to Worlds," he explained, before adding, "Modern is a complete mystery to me right now and I expect to do a lot of cramming the week before."
When it comes to Constructed, Bing described himself as more of a fine-tuner than a deck designer and said that he would be looking to his network online for help.
"For someone who has a full-time job, this is one place the online community excels," Bing said. "I can get a lot of support in both Constructed and Limited in the few hours I have free."
While Bing has his online support network he has also developed an offline network as well—something that he cites as one of the highlights of having to shuffle his own cards.
"It's been pretty great," he said of interacting with actual humans while playing Magic. "The community is as good as people say it is and is definitely a huge positive over playing online. I mean, there's a community online too, but it's different."
In the questionnaire I sent to each Magic Online Championship competitor, Bing called himself the "consensus best looking player to qualify [for the Magic Online Championship] twice" as some good natured trash talk aimed at fellow East Coast player Reid Duke—someone he considered to be one of the major obstacles to hurdle if he was going be the Magic Online Champion.
"There are a lot of names in the field that have had success in both realms, kind of like last year," said Bing. "Reid Duke is definitely one of the hardest-working people in Magic, and I would expect to see him go deep."
Reid has taken a different path than Bing. For one thing, he has been playing Magic since he was five years old, for almost as long as Magic has been around, and has only been playing MTGO for the last four of those years. While Bing's affinity for the offline community has grown through his Magic Online Championship experience, Reid has developed a kinship with the elite Magic Online Championship membership.
"I used to think of tournament Magic as having a variety of means to one end: winning a Pro Tour was all that mattered. I don't feel that way anymore," said the twenty-two-year-old player from upstate NY. "Playing and doing well [in the Championship] will mean a lot to me, and I feel a close connection to each of the twenty-one players I've played it with. I found myself rooting for Akira Asahara in last weekend's GP, even though we live on opposite sides of the world and don't speak the same language. I'm very proud of my identity as a 'Magic Online Grinder,' because MTGO is its own community with its own history."
In the twelve months since the last Championship, Duke has made the Top 8 of a Grand Prix for the first two times of his career and also made some deep runs in independent tournament series. Truly a breakout season for him.
"I've improved a lot, largely in ways that I can't put my finger on," said Duke when asked about his recent Top 8 finishes. "I've branched out in terms of what decks I'm comfortable playing in Constructed. I have a better handle on the way the tournament community behaves. My technical play was already good last year, but I'm beginning to get a handle on how much more there is to the game than that. The better I get at Magic, the more room it seems there is to grow."
If he had to distill it down to one lesson it would be this: "The trend this year has been that I perform great when I put in time and hard work, and horribly when I get lazy. That's encouraging as I now know that I can perform better and better as long as I'm determined to do so."
Heading into San Francisco, Duke was not intimidated by the amount of Magic on his docket: "Lucky for me, I love the game and can never get sick of it. The biggest thing will be to not let disappointment or overconfidence carry over from one match to the next. In a tournament this long, there's a lot more to lose from a bad attitude than there is from the results of any one particular game."
Knowing how hard it was to qualify for the Magic Online Championship, Duke felt that the online title could go to any of the competitors. Just getting to the event, he said, means you can win against the best players MTGO can throw against you.
"I have huge respect for Brandon Burton, Bing Luke, and Florian Pils," said Duke when asked to take the measure of his competition. "I lost to Bing [in the Championship] last year and Florian gave me a fine beating at Pro Tour Paris. I don't want to take anything away from those guys, but for the sake of not copping out on the question, I'd have to say Ricky Sidher (_SipitHolla). He's an excellent player from my experiences against him, and his results at the top level of MTGO competition are superhuman. He's particularly ruthless with blue control decks."
Duke made back to back Grand Prix Top 8s—Limited in Montreal and Legacy in Providence—and his ability to succeed with 40-card as well as 60-card should work to his advantage at Worlds. While many players tend to only focus on Standard and worry about the last day of Constructed when they get there, Duke was not approaching the tournament that way.
"In this particular case, I'm most confident about Modern because the recent bannings have made it an undefined format again, which will hopefully reward all the time that I'm putting into it," he said of his playtesting for the event. "I'm least confident about Standard for the opposite reason. In a defined format, against players who are as good as me, I can easily lose to someone who netdecks no matter how much prep time I put in before the tournament."
Reid explained that his approach to testing for the event was going to be on MTGO but that he would stick to Gold Queues and private games to keep his lists under wraps.
"I innovate decks, but I'm no mad scientist," cautioned Duke to anyone who thought he meant he had something crazy brewing. "If I build an original deck it typically has a straightforward game plan, and if I fine-tune an existing deck it's usually trimming the fat and making things more consistent. I've been trying out my own ideas in both Standard and Modern, but I'm not too proud to go with an established deck if I can't find anything good. I'll play whatever gives me the best chances."
I agree with Reid that any of the dozen competitors can win this event but you can't discount the experience that he and Bing have under their belts about how to allocate their resources and how to improve their results from last year. In just a couple more weekends we will get a chance to see if either of them—or the ten other players who stand in their way—can take the title.