Thoughts on the Challenger Gauntlet

This past weekend I was glued to the seat of my chair to watch a close friend of mine compete in one of the highest stakes Magic tournaments of all time, the Challenger Gauntlet. I’ve always been a skeptic of this Gauntlet concept. This skepticism dates back to when the MPL was announced, and many of us full-time Magic Pros were relieved that something looking like a well-paying pro system was becoming a reality. Prior to the MPL, being a Magic Pro was only sustained by content production. Winning a lot generally meant people wanted to learn from you, watch you, and support you


At first it seemed barbaric to have a tournament of people playing for their livelihoods and make it an awesome experience for spectators. While I still find this to be true, it’s more of a sensational idea of what these events can be, and my view was pessimistic, as I saw myself as a gladiator fighting to the death. In reality, it wasn’t the all-or-nothing situation I imagined. My understanding of what a Gauntlet would look like was likely coming from a place of fear



I see the appeal after watching the Challenger Gauntlet. It was the most exciting event I’ve seen since a good friend of mine, Paulo Vitor, won the World Championships before the pandemic. The production was a big difference in the events though. Worlds that year was held in beautiful Hawaii, in a closed studio, with all the bells and whistles. The Challenger Gauntlet was held online in the players’ bedrooms while streaming to private channels. While I admit the production had its technical hiccups, I overlooked them because of the stakes, which led to tons of emotion on screen, which had me cheering for certain players I’ve become attached to. 



While I was a fanboy of Arne Hushenbathe before it was cool, it’s impossible to not love this kid. He wears his heart on his sleeve, describes his emotions in interviews, and you feel everything along with him. You see my good friend Sam Pardee dance and cheer. Matti Kuisma pounds his chest and wipes his brow after a tense game in the middle of this Challenger Gauntlet. Sam Rolph sweated every draw step with his hand together praying to the shuffler gods. 


This emotion isn’t because there was money put into the show, it’s because they put money into the tournament prize pool. These players were playing for about $100,000 in equity. They wanted it badly. While I was obviously rooting for a close friend of mine, Sam Pardee, these players’ emotions running so deeply is what kept me watching the matches without Sam. I had originally intended to just watch a few of his matches and, if he did well, watch the rest, but his matches bled into others, and then I wanted to see the end of all their stories. 



This style of tournament is brutal in this fashion. Falling short is crushing. You invest so much time, energy, focus, and emotion to participate that you’re exhausted afterwards. I sympathize most with those who fell into the Rivals Gauntlet, as these players were asked to participate in this fashion, gave it their all, and while they accomplished a meaningful goal, they’re being asked to do it again in the Rivals Gauntlet in a few short weeks in an entirely new Historic format. If they succeed, then they’d do the same again at Worlds. It’s rough, but for these players who are passionate about competing, they will find the time and energy to perform. I myself will be playing the MPL Gauntlet soon, and I have to say, I was down on it and only motivated by the money. Now from watching these players compete, maintain their passion for the game through what’s been a hostile structure change in the OP system, I’ve got that fire back to win. I don’t remember the last time I felt like this, maybe years ago, but I’m going to try and put on a show. Despite the best efforts of everything this game has thrown at competitive players, I inexplicably love it too much. While they sank the ship for professional play, that doesn’t mean it needs to end for competitive play, yet. I’m ready to compete.


Breaking News 


Everything before this was written before news that the Gauntlets would be changed from a split of Historic and Standard to just Standard. While I find this comical and almost predictable, I can’t help but laugh at the irony that we in fact will be finishing what feels like three years of Bonecrusher Giant Standard with all Bonecrusher Giant Standard just days before it rotates

It’s unbelievable for the highest equity tournament I’ve ever played, but that said, I’ll just make sure I show up feeling great about playing


Despite another curveball, I will prepare full throttle, leave no stone unturned, and I expect every player in these events to do the same. While the format may be soggy, stale, rotten, or boring, the players themselves will be worth a watch. I’m excited to leave it all out on the field, as this may be the last event where I care about my results. While that’s sad, it’s also liberating and motivational. Let’s hope I finish with a bang


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