A field of only 24 players and the largest prize pool yet offered at a Magic event makes the 2017 Magic: The Gathering World Championship a unique experience, even in the life of a seasoned pro. Add to the field and the money the elaborate sets, the frequent time under the camera, the constant time under the lights, and the experience becomes downright extraordinary.
Lucas Esper Berthoud, Christian Calcano, Kelvin Chew, Gerry Thompson, Javier Dominguez, Sebastian Pozzo, Donald Smith, and Ken Yukuhiro are all competing in their first World Championship this year. Their numbers include two Pro Tour champions, the season's Constructed Master, and five of the top Pro Point earners in 2016-17.
Donald Smith played in his first Grand Prix just two years ago, at Grand Prix Las Vegas, where he placed 22nd. His first Pro Tour came a few months later, with Battle for Zendikar in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The 2016-17 season was a surprising one for Smith, who climbed the player standings with one solid Pro Tour finish after another.
As Smith said, "It's the first for a lot of things this year."
Starting with Pro Tour Kaladesh, the only PT he was qualified for via his Silver Pro Club status, Smith chained together a set of finishes that led him to his first year as a Platinum pro and his first appearance at the World Championship via an at-large berth for top Pro Point earners. Smith's wild year doesn't end with the World Championship either, as he's in the middle of a move to Seattle, where he'll begin work in Magic R&D shortly after this tournament concludes.
Smith's expectations for the tournament are low, tempered by where he sees himself in relation to the rest of the field, so he's focusing on making an impression on a field of players he's seen on the Pro Tour and World Championship stages time and time again.
"Obviously I'm like, bottom three," Smith said. "I just want to have some sweet matches on camera or off camera. I want the pros over here to be like 'Whoa, Donald Smith's scary, that guy's got some chops.' I want to feel like, if I sit down at a draft table, people will look at my name and think it's a tough pod."
Whether it's at the Pro Tour or the World Championship, Smith said, "I just want to impress the people and have some good games."
Like Smith, Christian Calcano qualified for the World Championship via an at-large spot for top Pro Point earners. Though Calcano has been a long-time fixture on the Pro Tour and Grand Prix scene, where his hard work and dedication have made him a role model for many up-and-coming players, the scale of the World Championship isn't lost on him.
"It's this big spectacle, and there's only 24 of us," Calcano said. "All the work that goes into this, and being in a field with these guys, it's pretty cool."
At the World Championship, Calcano is focusing on what he's able to control, keeping his expectations focused on his own game play, rather than his results.
"I just want to play the best I can. That's all I can really do. That's what I can control, at the very least. That's it really. I just hope to play good Magic and see where I end up."
But for all its differences, Calcano can see in the World Championship a tournament like many others that he's played.
"There was a little bit of nerves as I was coming here this morning, but I've played against all these guys," Calcano said. "We're all just playing Magic."
Kelvin Chew, Ken Yukuhiro, and Javier Dominguez
Kelvin Chew, from Singapore, also had a year of firsts. He raised his first Grand Prix trophy in Beijing and, buoyed by that win and consistent Pro Tour finishes, hit Platinum for the first time as well.
Chew wasn't qualified for any Pro Tours this season until he made the Top 8 of Grand Prix Guangzhou. Following that, he chained together 11-5 finishes at one Pro Tour after another, always keeping himself qualified for the next one. A season later, he's practicing and playing with the best in the world.
Chew's philosophy that "if you put in enough hard work, anyone can reach the biggest stage" is reflected in his preparation for the tournament. He put in the work, practicing eight to ten hours a day for the past three weeks.
Ken Yukuhiro of Japan and Javier Dominguez of Spain round out the list of new World Championship players who qualified by being top pro point earners. Both are veterans of the Pro Tour scene, with Dominguez making his first PT appearance in 2003 and Yukuhiro in 2009. Yukuhiro is a mainstay of the Japanese Magic scene, and has three Pro Tour Top 8s to his name, including a recent third-place finish at Pro Tour Amonkhet.
Dominguez is a two-time Grand Prix champion, with two near-misses on Pro Tour Top 8s, coming in ninth at Pro Tours Battle for Zendikar and Hour of Devastation. Even though he's a full-time Magic pro, Dominguez feels like an underdog coming into the World Championship, and while he's working and hoping for the best, his goal is to finish the tournament with a winning record.
Gerry Thompson and Lucas Esper Berthoud
Gerry Thompson is another Pro Tour regular who counted himself happy to stay consistently qualified for Magic's top tournaments. Then his victory in Nashville, at Pro Tour Amonkhet, catapulted him into both Platinum player status and a spot in the World Championship. It's a surprise, but he's thrilled to be here.
"This is an honor and a privilege to be able to play in this tournament and something to cross off the bucket list," Thompson said. "If I do well, cool, but I'm not necessarily expecting anything."
Thompson prepped for the World Championship with Josh Utter-Leyton, Martin Jůza, and Sam Black.
"It's weird in that the field is so small and concentrated," Thompson said. "Normally when you're prepping for a Pro Tour or larger tournament, you have to try to beat basically all the decks in the metagame, and in this, you isolate it to what you think the field is going to try to play, and then things become really dangerous because if you misread that somehow and you think there's not going to be a lot of control or a lot of mono-red and there is, then you're in a lot of trouble."
Lucas Esper Berthoud is a lawyer with a busy work schedule, and his win at Pro Tour Aether Revolt changed his life. In a single match, he went from periodic Pro Tour player to Platinum pro qualified for the World Championship.
While Berthoud's qualification came as a surprise, the World Championship has fascinated him since he first heard about the game from Magic magazine The Duelist. The first issue Berthoud read included a feature about the 1996 World Championship tournament and title, and that drew Berthoud into the competitive Magic scene right from the start. In 2002, Carlos Romão won Worlds, and seeing another Brazilian player claim the title of World Champion further captured Berthoud's imagination.
Though the World Championship has played a big role in pulling Berthoud into competitive Magic, he's also realistic about the time he's able to commit to practicing. With a job he enjoys, Berthoud spends more hours than full-time pro players balancing a full schedule. For this event, he struck a balance that involved getting up at four in the morning to squeeze in a few hours of practice and adapting his testing regimen to try out more decks.
The early tournaments of Argentinian player Sebastian Pozzo's return to competitive Magic in 2014 were marked by reasonable Constructed records marred by bad draft after bad draft, but with help from other prominent South American players and members of DEX Army, Pozzo honed his Limited game and began the season with the goal of playing in every single Pro Tour.
Pozzo hit that goal, scraping together qualifications for Pro Tour Kaladesh and Aether Revolt that snowballed into his contention for the Standard Master spot. Pozzo had to edge out Pro Tour winner Shaun McLaren and five-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Lee Shi Tian for the title, but with a win in Round 15 of Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, Pozzo saw his season of hard work rewarded.
"Even though I'm dreaming about a super good finish, my goal is to play well and to not let the nerves make me play worse than I usually do," Pozzo said. "I will embrace any result that I get here, and I don't doubt that I will learn a lot after this tournament for the future Pro Tour season."
While these first-time competitors are keeping their expectations modest in the face of an accomplished and intimidating field, any player in the World Championship can't help but hope that they'll be the one to hoist the trophy at the end of it. It may be their first time here, but these World Championship newcomers are still veteran players with the talent and dedication to potentially pull it off.