I once had a dream. A dream so far out of reach. A dream is impossible to reach. I dreamt about winning a Pro Tour. Raising the trophy into the air under the spotlight after a highly intense and brilliantly maneuvered finals match. Triumphing over the field, being the last one standing. Exhausted. Relieved. Glowing.
I have had this dream since I first saw the Pro Tour Magic 2015 Finals Match between Ivan Floch and Jackson Cunningham. I was 17 years old. I just got back into Magic after a long hiatus distracting myself with the excitement of the teenage years and lots of video games. I did not know that there was a tournament circuit. I didn’t even know that you could play tournaments locally at your Game Store.
Watching that match I was in awe of the respect and professionalism these two players were bringing to the table. I did not understand most of the commentary, my English was quite poor, but I saw myself nonetheless drawn into the atmosphere by the trio of Brian-David Marshall, Rich Hagon, and Luis Scott-Vargas.
A completely new world opened up to me. Seeing Magic being played masterfully, with such intricacy. Instead of just playing your creatures without a strategy or plan, like me and my brothers mostly did, these players were prepared and invested. You felt the hard work and amount of time that went into their preparation for them to reach this stage of the tournament.
I knew I wanted to be one of them. I love playing with creatures, attacking and solving board states. I like the fantasy universe, the flavor, and the complexity. This was the game for me to thrive. I was going to be a Pro Tour Champion.
Many days later, many games later and many tournaments later I find myself accomplishing what I was longing for. Winning the Kaldheim Championship!
Yes, technically not a Pro Tour, but in terms of size and strength of the competition, I would consider this tournament equal to a Pro Tour. You can argue about this, but we won’t get into that here. By now it is slowly sinking in that this really happened and I did not just dream all along. It feels amazing to achieve what you have been working for so long.
On my path to this victory, I’ve had many moments where I was not sure if I would ever get there.
Last year I took a long break from the game, considering my life and where I want to go. The dream felt far away at times. I think this break was good for me. And soon later, in December my fire was burning again. The dream was alive. It did not take me long, to my surprise, to be qualified for the Championship. I failed a Qualifier in December playing Sultai Midrange but succeeded the month after with Jund Company in Historic. I still had it. I felt sharper and focused than ever before.
Preparation with Team
The preparation for this tournament was excellent. I joined Team 5%, a team consisting of all sorts of players. A mix of talented players from Europe and the USA. The team was pretty big, we were 17 players qualified for the Championship in addition to some amazing players who helped us even though they weren’t qualified.
We focused the last week mainly on Historic and the weeks prior mainly on Standard. We tried every deck in Standard. In the end, five of us played Naya Tokens, five played Dimir Rogues, 5 played Sultai Ultimatum, one played Gruul Adventures and one played Mono Red. The Standard format was fairly open, no one deck was dominating them all, so the players on our team just tuned their favorite decks to have the best shot at the tournament.
We were expecting Sultai to be the most played deck, followed by Temur and Rogues. Mono Red and Cycling were on the decline in the last week, performing weaker and weaker after people started to adjust to those strategies. I thought they would still stay unpopular and I was surprised to see them being played at such high numbers respectively. They took a meta share of 27% together.
I tried to make Temur work, playing versions with and without 《Obosh, the Preypiercer》. I also tried out 《Mythos of Illuna》 plus 《Esika’s Chariot》. We played a lot of games against Sultai Ultimatum, but in the end, the Temur deck just was not performing well enough. From the Sultai player’s perspective, they could play around your various counterspells knowing your decklist. They could just play a slow reactive game getting rid of your creatures. The mana also felt bad and cost us multiple games. In the end, we decided to discard it, as all the decks we were playing felt comfortable in the Temur matchup.
We probably made a mistake somewhere, Temur was surprisingly the best performing deck at the tournament. I am not sure what we missed, the configurations of cards that we tested with might not have been optimal, time was running out and perhaps the Temur deck just had a bad run in our testing. Variance can be a factor even if you play a lot of matches.
Sultai was the safe choice. Proactive and reactive game plans, powerful, consistent, high card quality, and the best removal and sweepers in the format. It was my choice for a long time during the testing. I played a lot with Sultai against my good friend Thoralf Severin on Rogues, and however I warped my deck, I always felt behind. We had a good plan against the rest of the format with the Sultai list we had, but how much of an edge will you get in the Sultai mirror when the other players most likely are well prepared too?
I felt like the odds of Mono Red being less played and especially at the later stages of the tournament being less represented at the top tables are higher than my odds of “coin-flipping” mirror matches with Sultai. That was the main reason to play Rogues for me.
Besides, it was convenient to play a deck that most people did not have on their radar. My match against Andrew Cuneo was fairly easy, he did not have any 《Polukranos, Unchained》 or any 《Mystical Dispute》 in his entire 95. Chris Botelho played Temur without any Escape Creatures in the Sideboard. These players decided that because Rogues was underperforming the weeks before, that they could scrap their sideboard hate against the deck. An edge you receive by playing an “underdog” deck.
In the swiss rounds, I won against Sultai three times, once against Gruul Food, and played 1-2 against Temur Adventures. I believe I could have played better and maybe get a win against one of the Temur players. I made an egregious mistake by not countering my opponents 《Lovestruck Beast》 to prevent them from being able to cast 《The Great Henge》. In the other Temur match I got rolled, never playing a fourth land in either of the games. I still think that Temur is behind against Rogues. The games are often decided on narrow margins and varying play skills can change the matchup by a lot for either side.
In Historic I played the Archenemy Jund Company for most of the duration of playtesting. It was obvious to everyone that Jund Company would be the deck to beat. I had my eyes on Azorius Control to do the job of triumphing over Jund. Another part of our testing team committed early on the Orzhov Auras deck. Led by John Guttman (@ginky_mtg) they built up hype around the deck fairly quickly, drawing in followers into their Spiritdancing Rituals daily.
When Austin Bursavich, an advocate for Control like none other, lost over and over again to the Boggles deck and jumped onto their side, I knew the deck had to be the real deal. I was nonetheless still convinced by Azorius Control. I liked my matchup against Jund Company.
What put me off playing Control, was the dominant performance of Jund Food on the SCG Qualifier weekend before the Kaldheim Championship. 《Trail of Crumbs》 was huge in the matchup, facing 2-3 《Binding the Old Gods》 to answer a 《Teferi, Hero of Dominaria》 did not feel good. I kept losing, no matter what I tried.
Most of the players on our team were already locked in on Auras. I trusted my teammates and just played Auras instead. The reasons to play Auras are the following: People are sideboarding poorly against you. They think you are a fast, explosive “all-in” type of Boggles deck, but in reality, you can grind very well. People are not expecting the deck in high numbers because of the preconception that the archetype does not perform well versus Jund variants. Less sideboard hate and less preparedness in terms of the matchup of their deck against Auras being tested.
Auras were “farming” basically every deck besides Jund Food or Company handily. Jund Company got closer and closer to 50/50 the more we tuned our deck to beat it. We put 《Hateful Eidolon》 in the main and a good amount of removal. The plan was to stifle their creature strategy in the early turns and win the long game. Don’t get me wrong, the matchup was still not favored for Auras, but at a point where we were satisfied with it.
Jund Food emerged in the last few days, we had David Inglis and Daniel Goetschel working on the deck on our team. They liked the deck, two of us ended up playing it. Food has an edge over Company and can defend itself better against hate like 《Grafdigger’s Cage》. 《Trail of Crumbs》 is a difficult card to interact with.
The matchup versus Auras was slightly better for Food than for Company too. Food is harder to interact with between middle-sized creatures, 《Trail of Crumbs》 and 《Korvold, Fae-Cursed King》. Our removal plan with Auras did not work as well against them as against Company, especially if they board out 《Gilded Goose》, which I believe is correct in some versions.
In hindsight, I would have played a higher number of 《Kaya’s Ghostform》 in the main-deck over some of the removals. Otherwise, I liked our list. The team did a fantastic job on the deck.
Back to the Big Stage
Now onto the tournament. I prepared myself for the time zone schedule: the tournament started at 5 pm my time, so I decided to go to sleep later the days before. Huge respect to the Japanese and Asian players who showed up in high numbers beginning to play at midnight into the morning. Three Japanese players have even made Top8. Incredible performance under such physical conditions.
The tournament began with three rounds of Standard. I was facing Sultai Ultimatum in the first two rounds followed up by Gruul Food piloted by Akio Matsuzaki. Could not have asked for better matchups, starting 3-0 I felt good going into Historic.
I faced Goblins and Bant Ramp next. Bant Ramp ended spectacularly with me having to find my two copies of 《Dead Weight》 left in the deck to get rid of my opponent’s 《Platinum Angel》 in Game 3. I found them in time and triumphed over the metallic angel.
Round 6 I got paired against Sultai Ultimatum in Historic. My opponent was not well equipped to deal with my creatures and 《Thoughtseize》 took away the Ultimatum on time. After that, I got paired versus ChannelFireball Abzan Midrange, which I perceived to be a good matchup. They have a very slow clock and 《Kaya’s Ghostform》 is exceptionally good in the matchup.
7-0 to start the tournament felt amazing. I was thankful for being able to play High-Stakes Magic against the very best yet again.
Most of my matches on Day2 were covered, you can watch them on Youtube or Twitch. Off Camera I faced Shahar Shenhar in Standard. I lost quickly, not playing the fourth land in either of the two games. Shota Yasooka showed me how strong he was in Round 13, Jund Food on Orzhov Auras, the match being decided in a long game three. I got defeated by the Japanese master. That did not stop me from making it to the Top8. With a 5-3 record on Day2, I advanced to the third stage of the tournament in 3rd place.
I had achieved the main goal, I was full of joy. Being able to play for the trophy was the cherry on top. Nonetheless no time for breaks, I had the rarest of opportunities to play for a Championship trophy, many say equal to the prestigious Pro Tour Trophy Ivan Floch won back when my spark ignited. I was lucky enough to be paired versus Gruul Food in the first round, maybe one of the best matchups in the entire tournament.
The upper semifinals saw me facing fellow Hareruya Pros Grzegorz Kowalski in a close match, where I lost game 1 against the one copy of 《Polukranos, Unchained》 in Greg’s main deck. Smart deckbuilding. I also could have played that game much better. I bounced back and won the second and third games.
Javier Dominguez on Temur was my opponent for the Upper finals. I drew well in game 1 and got lucky in game 2 to win the match. After that, I had a break of more than four hours to eat, watch the coverage and prepare myself for my potential opponents in the Grand Final. When the Grand Final started I was ready to battle. After three not-so-close games, the trophy was in reach. I was sweating, adrenaline flowing through my body. Pure intensity. This is what I wanted when I was a kid watching Cunningham vs Floch. A close fourth game, but my luck did not run out on me. I defeated Kowalski and won the tournament.
Winning the tournament is the greatest honor, and it is not something I take for granted. It was the combination of persistence and hard work that led me to where I am today. I encourage people to never give up on their goals, and take one step at a time towards it every day.
Imagine yourself being where you want to be and make practical plans to work towards it, and one day the dream that once seemed so far away will be just one step away.