"The best in the world."
Using that phrase to describe a player is often a debatable point, except when it specifically isn't. The World Championship, built to invite only the game's greatest players, is where the dust gets settled in this debate. It's an incredible honor and privilege to be one of the elite twenty-four invited, but it isn't something easily bestowed.
Players earn the right to attend, and some have even qualified multiple times. Of those, just three have been invited to all three of the modern World Championship events: 2012 in Seattle, 2013 in Amsterdam, and now 2014's in Nice.
One method to qualify is to win the Magic OnlineChampionship. That's how the third-ranked Reid Duke first arrived to the World Championship in 2012.
Third-ranked Reid Duke has had very polarizing finishes in the last two World Championship events, as the pursuit of wins continues to motivate him each and every year.
"You know, he time I qualified the first time I thought it was going to be the most pressure at any event in my Magic career. The reality is after playing this tournament two times it's become the most exciting week of the year for me. Despite my mixed results the past two years," Duke said, referring to his last finish in 2012 compared to being the finalist in 2013. "I've really enjoyed playing here. It's the proving ground to show I'm really one of the best."
In the years that followed his disappointing debut at the World Championship, Duke has won multiple Grand Prix, earned a Pro Tour Top 8, and formed a tight team that propelled all of them to the top of the Top 25 standings (and qualification for this year's event). Is that still a driver for Duke, proving he's one of the best? "Absolutely. Each year I play and don't get first place is an extra pressure on me to get the title this year. Qualifying for the tournament is not a goal in itself: It's just one extra opportunity to get first place."
With two of his closest teammates also qualified, first-ranked Owen Turtenwald and seventh-ranked William Jensen, is it a benefit or drawback to work with players that ultimately stand in the way of first? "It's a positive. Last year I had Jensen helping me despite not being qualified, and Turtenwald the year before that," Duke explained. "Both times I was very glad to have their help. This time it's completely different in that all three of us are equally invested in the tournament and trying to do our best individually. Having teammates you can count on working their hardest and trying their best to help you is very valuable. If we play against each other we each understand the stakes. There's no hard feelings."
Seattle, Amsterdam, and now Nice: Where in the world has Duke enjoyed playing the World Championship most? "Amsterdam," Duke said without a second thought. "Amsterdam was where my first Pro Tour was, and my best performance in the World Championship to this point. I'd say that's the highlight for sure."
The 2012 World Championship is notable for many reasons but two of the more salient points were that it was the first time the winner was qualified for the following year's championship, and its winner came into both the 2012 and 2013 events well over-qualified for his place in the biggest event of the year. The ninth-ranked Yuuya Watanabe is a legend not just in the Japanese Magic community but pros players at large, with multiple Player of the Year titles, Pro Tour Top 8s, national championships, Grand Prix wins, and a victory at the 2012 World Championship. Pithy understatement aside, Watanabe's consistency in the game is terrifying, unless he's your World Magic Cup captain three years running.
Yuuya Watanabe's utterly insane consistency since he exploded onto the Pro Tour scene ensures little shock that he has qualified for the World Championship for a third year in a row.
"The first time there were two weeks in between events to prepare," Watanabe said, referring to both the World Magic Cup and the World Championship in 2012. "The second time we had to play seven different formats in a week. It was very difficult. This year it's six different formats: It's better than last year but it's still tough. It's still a challenge."
Does that take away from Watanabe's excitement? "Magic is fun, and I like the challenge. I'm still having fun. The first time and second World Championship I practiced with Shuhei Nakamura, but this time I practiced more with Yuuki Ichikawa and Kentaro Yamamoto since they qualified. It's always good to have friends to play with. You can learn from one another in ways you can't always tell from preparing yourself. It's also great to have friends to play with if you get along with them.
Of the three locations Watanabe has attended for the World Championship, which is his favorite? "Seattle!" Watanabe said with a smile and without hesitation. "I like it because I won!"
Does the strain of so much Magic weight on Watanabe's desire to repeat? Hardly: "It's my goal to make it again," he said with a laugh and grin. "I'd really like to make it again next year."
Consistency of the highest orders is one of the harder ways to qualify for the World Championship. Others must prove their skills at enough other events to make up the difference in sheer points.
It's through phenomenal consistency that twentieth-ranked Josh Utter-Leyton reached the 2012 and 2014 World Championships, earning a Player of the Year title himself for the 2013 in between.
One of the most consistent players from the United States in the last three years is Josh Utter-Leyton, and it is through that consistency that has ensured his third qualification in a row for the World Championship.
How has being qualified for the World Championship changed from the first experience three years ago to now? "The first one was very special," Utter-Leyton said. "It was just so different from any other tournament I played in. I went in expecting it to be like the Pro Tour and it was so much better. Since then it hasn't been the new, fresh experience but the first one was just stands apart as incredibly awesome. The first one is much more memorable for me than last year's despite making Top 4 there."
With various teammates and friends qualified over the years, did Utter-Leyton end up working with the same people every year or had it shifted with qualifications? "I've been basically working with everyone on ChannelFireball each year, and the people who I've been working with have changed since different people have qualified. I've worked with Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa and Luis Scott-Vargas before, for David Ochoa two years. This year it was Damo da Rosa, Tom Martell, Shahar Shahar, and Willy Edel. We're just all friends that play Magic together."
Does this mean the World Championship is becoming like just another event? "It's still an amazing, exciting event I feel so lucky to be a part of. I think it will never feel old hat and I certainly hope it never does. My goal every year is to qualify for this tournament: It's the thing in Magic I look forward to every year. If I didn't make it I'd feel disappointed."
Given the three locations for the World Championship, which stood out as Utter-Leyton's favorite? "Seattle was my favorite by a lot. The venue was really cool: private and cozy feeling. I felt very pampered there. We also had access to the Return to Ravnica party, which was held in the same place, and PAX. Getting to see that many people excited about a game was inspiring."
Duke. Watanabe. Utter-Leyton. Returning to the World Championship three times is an incredible feat, and all three have carved their names into the history of professional Magic. Could we ever expect any less from those that can earn the invitations so often?