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The Week That Was: The Secret, Parallel Roads to the Competitive Top

March 08, 2024
Corbin Hosler

Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor in Chicago last weekend was, simply put, amazing. It had a little bit of everything that makes a Pro Tour good, and a lot of what makes a Pro Tour great.

A deserving (two-time) champion. A breakout deck (Rakdos Vampires) that took the metagame by storm when CFB Ultimate Guard shocked the field with the innovation. Epic late-round matches between Hall of Famers like Reid Duke and Luis Scott-Vargas. Both the reigning World Champion (Jean-Emmanuel Depraz) and the reigning Player of the Year (Simon Nielsen) making it to the Sunday elimination rounds. Nielsen making his unmatched fourth Top Finish in a row.

It was the perfect start to the 2024 Pro Tour slate, and we've got two more in a relatively short span ahead of us in the coming months. With the Regional Championship circuit in full swing—there's several events happening this weekend—there's even more competitive Magic outside of the Pro Tour.

And that brings us back to Chicago, because it wasn't just the Pro Tour that featured high-level Magic play.

At MagicCon: Chicago, the $75,000 Standard Open and the Secret Lair Showdown series rewarded strong performances with exclusive printings of popular cards, including a one-of-four Dark Ritual. While the Pro Tour battled things out in Pioneer, competitors across the hall vied for big prizes in Standard and Modern.

And while there's no doubt that Rakdos Vampires was the breakout deck and story of the weekend, I saw almost as much buzz about the ridiculous 68-card Slogurk, the Overslime Standard deck that crushed the Standard Showdown Top 8. Heck, the head judge of the event pulled me over just to show off how cool it was because they knew we'd want to cover it. When a Standard event has the judges excited late into a convention, you know there's something special cooking.

And it came as no surprise that the groundbreaking Standard deck belonged to Rei "cftsoc" Zhang, accomplished tournament player and deckbuilder known for developing unheard-of combos. While Seth Manfield was putting Vein Ripper into play off a turn-three Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord, Zhang was dumping a dozen lands into play by the fourth or fifth turn a hundred feet away; Aftermath Analyst is a heck of a card alongside Splendid Reclamation, and all ramp roads lead to Atraxa, Grand Unifier.

Aftermath Analyst 414474 602726

Meanwhile in the Secret Lair Showdown, qualifiers were packed as the Day Two field began to populate. The Secret Lair event has become one of the premier events for players either not competing at the Pro Tour or falling out of it. With unique and desirable prizes and multiple chances to play and qualify for the elimination rounds, the event was ideal for tournament players of all levels and brought out many of the best players in the world.

So for Mae French, it's a monumental finish. The Indianapolis native first picked up Magic with Guilds of Ravnica and started to dip her toes into competitive play not long after that. After graduating from college in 2023, French finally had the opportunity to pursue competitive Magic, and the results have begun to accumulate.

Mae French, MagicCon: Chicago Secret Lair Showdown

"I went 0-2 drop in the Standard $75k in Chicago, but I had previously qualified for the Secret Showdown at MagicCon: Philadelphia last year, so I decided I would dedicate my weekend to qualifying for it again," she explained. "I had most of the four-color deck on me, and registered what I had on me; I got the 5-0 on the first try."

That was just the start for French, who stomped her way through the tournament. Soon, she had a major Top 8 to add to appearances at the last several U.S. Regional Championships.

"The Top 8 and Top 4 matches of the Showdown were the most stressful of my life," French recalled. "Nothing insane happened in them; my deck is pretty much all answers, and I ran pretty hot all weekend."

I described the success as monument for French—it's also the key that unlocks more Magic. The winnings will allow French to make the rounds on the U.S. competitive circuit, including the NRG Championship Series, SCG Cons, and future Regional Championships.

"I want to keep trying to grind Magic Online a lot more than I had been able to with so many events on back-to-back weekends," French explained. "The goal is to take every match and event one step at a time and put myself in winning situations as best as possible. I have a lot to improve on still in Magic, and I look forward to continuing the competitive grind."

French's opponent in the Secret Lair Showdown finals was another early-20s Magic player who has taken an interest in competitive play over the past few years. Connor Mackenzie (better known as "Cmack_" on Magic Online), has spent the last few years diving deep into high-level online play again, after first experimenting with the path to the Pro Tour when he played in Grand Prix Portland seven years ago—he went 8-0 on Day One and was hooked from that moment on. And when the Pro Tour officially returned last year, so too did his drive to make it there.

He qualified for every Regional Championship and broke through to qualify for Pro Tour Phyrexia, where he worked with Team Sewer Rats (the squad responsible for some of the highest Limited win rates).

Connor Mackenzie, MagicCon: Chicago Secret Lair Showdown

"Since then, I've really wanted to re-queue for the Pro Tour, so I've been playing a ton, usually on Magic Online," he explained. "I want to shout out my team that I test with (Team Odyssey MTG). The team is super organized and run very seriously by Noah Rabin, which separates it from the other groups I've worked with. Additionally, I've really enjoyed collaborating with all the great players from Andrew Elenbogen's Systemmagic group; the deck I played originated from a last-minute meeting I had with them at the Regional Championship in Denver."

Mackenzie's path back to the Pro Tour continues. As competitive play ramps up even more across the world, he recognizes how rare opportunities can be.

"My goal at Chicago was to re-qualify for the Pro Tour, so that is still my goal," he explained. "I'm also putting more effort into queuing for a [Magic Online Champions Showdown], but that could take a while. Competitive Magic keeps on getting more popular—and therefore more difficult—but I'm going to keep at it."

Looking Ahead

I mentioned the Regional Championship series at the top, and it returns to center stage this weekend with a huge slate of events across world. This weekend will conclude the current cycle of Regional Championships, with tournaments taking place for Australia and New Zealand, China, South East Asia, South America, and Chinese Taipei.

The last time we checked in on Modern and the Regional Championship circuit, we saw the rise of Leyline of the Guildpact plus Scion of Draco in Crashing Footfalls cascade decks. It's been a month since then, and the deck has become a key part of the new Modern metagame; so how players adapt at such crucial events this weekend will be key to watch. Past that, Pro Tour Thunder Junction in Seattle, Washington will bring the Pro Tour field back for Standard on April 26-28.

We'll be sure to cover it all here, and you can follow all the Regional Championship action this weekend on our social media.

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