On May 11, the Magic Pro League embarked on its maiden voyage with the Spark Split. Over the next five weeks, 32 players fought for a prize unlike anything offered before in competitive Magic—automatic placement into the second day of a Mythic Championship.
So while 64 other players will be fighting tooth and nail to survive Day One's Swiss rounds and advance to the Top 16, Brad Nelson, Brian Braun-Duin, Rei Sato, and Ken Yukuhiro can kick up their feet and watch the carnage, content in knowing their Day Two tickets are already punched.
Earning that Day Two slot proved to be a big motivator for this foursome. Braun-Duin said he made it a priority to test a lot to be able to adapt to the changing metagame, and Yukuhiro mentioned how he wanted to prove himself in the MPL because he hadn't done well at Mythic Championships I and II. The lure of the division title hit Nelson after a strong start.
"Once I was 4-0 I started to think it was a serious possibility that I could win the whole thing," Nelson said. "The pressure was on, and I did everything in my power to get the most wins I possibly could."
Each of the four led their divisions going into the final week and closed with victories, trying to leave as little up to tiebreaks as possible. Expect each to take that "eyes on the prize" focus straight into MC III.
While all four players showed a mastery over Standard through the split, they went about it in different ways. Braun-Duin opted to stick with Esper Midrange for all five weeks, something he called the "safe" pick so he could focus his time to master one deck. Yukuhiro innovated in Week 1 and Week 3 before settling into Mono-Red for the last two weeks, teaming with Sato for that Week 3 innovation of Golgari Midrange. Sato played the maximum of four different decks over five weeks. And then there was Nelson, who played four builds across aggro, combo, and midrange archetypes to get him to 7-0 in a process that may have been more like pulling names out of a hat than careful metagame planning.
"My process was very chaotic, as three out of the four weeks I registered a deck that was not even on my radar three hours before decks were due," Nelson said. "I then spent the time between then and my matches to master the decks. Survivorship bias would say this process was good, but I found it extremely chaotic and random."
Yukuhiro has earned much of his reputation finding unique ways to attack a metagame that isn't entirely solved, so the timing of the MPL season being relatively long after War of the Spark came out didn't exactly play into his strengths.
"Usually, I am not so good at winning Standard later in the season," said Yukuhiro. "But currently, there are many decks that have a chance to win. I feel like I have a good chance!"
Yukuhiro believes that either a deck with Experimental Frenzy or a deck with Planeswalkers that have multiple ways to win will be "a winning deck" at MC III.
"[The current Standard metagame is] extremely exploitable by those who know what they're doing," said Nelson, adding that he wouldn't go any deeper than that. He wants to keep some of his secrets to himself.
Nelson and Braun-Duin have more in common than just recent dominance in Standard. They both moved across the country from Virginia to Washington in the last month and will be sharing a house. Upon reflection, both admitted that this choice may have not come at the best time.
"With one week remaining, paired against the opponent who would catch me if they beat me, I spent a few days packing up all my belongings and then another three hellishly long days driving across the continental US in a car," Braun-Duin lamented. "It wasn't smart, but then again, I can't say I've always made the best life decisions."
"It was insanity," admitted Nelson. "I was constantly asking myself questions like 'who's going to submit Mono-Red Aggro again' and 'should I get a gas or electric lawnmower' all at the same time."
Braun-Duin said he should be getting the rest of his belongings in the next week, and while he's far from feeling settled in, said it felt pretty good not to have the move "come back to bite me." Along with all the normal hassles of moving, Nelson also dealt with his cats developing "redirected aggression" (sounds like a 2R sorcery to me; get R&D on that stat!), and both he and his fiancée got sick. But he says everything's great now, and he can turn his attention toward Mythic Championship III.
For most high-level Magic tournaments, players don't offer up big predictions. A typical tabletop Mythic Championship is 400-plus players, and for a caste of players so accustomed to determining odds, "calling your shot" to win an event flies in the face of normal probabilities and variance.
But when you are automatically advanced to Day Two ... and there are only sixteen players left at that point ... and the structure is now a double-elimination bracket, putting you three match wins away from the Top 4 ... those odds suddenly change significantly. And so does the mindset of at least one of the MPL division winners.
"I'd rather be called a fool pointing toward the outfield fence than constantly be accurate about my shortcomings," Nelson said. "I'm winning this Mythic Championship."