The Rivals Gauntlet is a proving ground, the culmination of 24 players' year of testing, tournaments, trials, and triumphs. For the players who made it here from the Rivals League, like Christian Hauck and Miguel Simões, it's a chance to put the perfect crown on a solid but unassuming season. For challengers like David Inglis and João Moreira, it's their final shot at making the most of a year's worth of hard-won victories in qualifiers, set championships, and, most recently, the Challenger Gauntlet.
"The Challenger Gauntlet was not the easiest tournament for me," Inglis said. "I had a 1-5 stretch midway through the tournament, including two losses where I made a match-losing mistake on the final turn of game three. Somehow I managed to pull it together and win the tiebreaker round to make it into the final day, where I ended up one win shy of qualifying for worlds. I didn't have the best deck and could've played tighter in some spots, but overall I'm proud of the resiliency I showed across a grueling high-pressure weekend."
Moreira, on the other hand, felt the effect of the long, pressure-filled weekend. While he ultimately met his goal for the Challenger Gauntlet, it still didn't pan out the way he would have liked.
"My goal for the tournament was to make the Top 12," Moreira said. That Top 12 placing would lock invitation to the Rivals League for the 2021-22 season, as well as the Rivals Gauntlet with another shot at making both the MPL and World Championship. "So, overall, I am happy with my performance. On the other hand, unfortunately, my teammates didn't get there and that makes me feel sad about it. We misread the metagame a bit and our decklists were pretty bad. I think I had luck to survive the cut. ... This tournament was a rollercoaster of emotions and that had a huge impact on my decisions."
Rather than a single tournament, Hauck and Simões had the whole of the Rivals season to set and adjust their goals.
"My goal from the start was to avoid relegation [from the Rivals League], if things go even better it would be a nice bonus," Hauck said. "I started very strong and was in contention for the World Championship spots, but as soon as I had my first bad weekend when the pod play started I knew the direct worlds qualification was probably out of reach. So even though the season ended pretty disappointing considering my start, I was still ok with my performance as I achieved my goals in avoiding relegation."
Simões said that he was happy to qualify for the Rivals Gauntlet, but he had higher expectations about his performance. While his outcome didn't quite match his hopes, Simões appreciated that the Rivals League gave him a lot of experience playing intense games with a lot riding on the outcome. "I believe that it is really important to keep calm during all the games."
Hauck came to a similar conclusion over the course of the season, though for different reasons.
"In this talented field I always thought that my opponents would be better prepared or knew something I didn't. When I saw the metagame before a League Weekend and played my games
it turned out that this actually was not the case and that there was no point in stressing myself out."
Moreira trusted his abilities heading into the Challenger Gauntlet, but saw the even playing field as a potential pitfall for players trying to get one step ahead by out-metagaming each other, and for players who, in turn, failed to foresee what the competition might bring.
"I believe we came to similar conclusions during testing but we underestimate the ability of other players to think ahead and we end up falling into a trap," he said. "I learned how important it is to be versatile (play with any deck). For this tournament the type of decks I am used to playing were bad choices for this tournament and that was crucial in the end. I could've played Gruul Adventures but I felt that I wasn't playing it at its best."
After an exceedingly rocky set of Standard rounds in the Challenger Gauntlet, Inglis's takeaway from the tournament reflected the mindset that helped him succeed despite a rough start.
"The Challenger Gauntlet taught me the mindset I need to have when things don't go right," Inglis said. "For pretty much every Championship this year I came in with great decks and was able to ride that confidence all weekend. This time my Standard deck was not well positioned, and I needed to accept that I'd be playing from behind going into many of my matches. It would've been easy to tilt off after only winning one match with my Standard deck in the Swiss, but instead I kept composed and managed to rattle off wins in four straight elimination matches."
While all four competitors have good reason to be proud of their tournaments and seasons, it can still be difficult to leave a lackluster finish, or even a great finish that fell a little short, in the past. When that happens, the opportunity to learn from mistakes and come back better because of them is a familiar refrain amongst competitive players.
Hauck recognizes how “disappointing finishes are not something you can avoid completely even if you had the best deck or played the best Magic possible,” knowing that it might be the next tournament where you find success. After disappointing performances, Inglis is driven by the knowledge that he can always do something differently to give himself a better shot at winning. "Identifying those mistakes helps me come back stronger for the next event, while also giving me the closure I need to keep my confidence up."
Moreira, like Hauck, knows that bad finishes are the necessary flip side of good finishes, though his past year has seen much more of the good.
"In the end, I love the game," Moreira said. "And after a bad tournament comes a good one. However, since I came back playing Magic competitively in 2019 that I am running hot. Everything I touch turns into gold. I am happy with what I got so far but this is just the beginning—I still have a lot to learn but I believe I belong to this level."
Part of turning past mistakes into valuable lessons is the feedback that comes with working on a testing team ahead of a big tournament. As Simões said, "practice with the best players, that's the recipe for success." With so many of Magic's best players preparing for either the MPL or Rivals Gauntlet, there's no shortage of great teammates eager to play matches and bounce ideas off each other.
"I will be preparing for this tournament with the best team in the world," Moreira said. "I am testing with Márcio Carvalho, Javier Domínguez, Bernardo Santos and Luis Salvatto that will compete on the MPL Gauntlet and with Sebastián Pozzo and Miguel Simões that will compete with me on the Rivals Gauntlet. Also, we have other amazing people helping. I am really excited for this tournament and I am sure I will be prepared for it."
"My teammates Sam Rolph and Matti Kuisma qualified for the Rivals Gauntlet too, so we'll be working together again," Inglis said. "This time around we joined up with Austin Bursavich, Zach Kiihne, and a few other MPL Gauntlet players. I've worked with Austin and Zach before but the rest of them are new to me, so it'll be fun getting to know them and having some different perspectives for this event."
The Rivals Gauntlet is a daunting tournament. 24 stellar players are battling for a single seat at the World Championship and four spots in next season's MPL. As Inglis pointed out, "it's very possible to have a strong tournament but walk away with nothing."
Hauck has a similarly restrained set of expectations for the event.
"I won't be sad if I don't win the Gauntlet as I know it's very unlikely to happen but, if I somehow can pull it off it would be great to follow Arne [Huschenbeth] to the World Championship."
Moreira and Simões, on the other hand, are less guarded about their hopes.
"There aren't many opportunities like this one and I will try my best to make it true," Moreira said. "However, I will play this tournament way more relaxed. I will try to enjoy it and learn from it the most I can. Also, I am super confident at the moment. If I got here playing bad decks, imagine if I had good ones. That's my mindset."
"I am going to do my best to win the tournament," Simões said. "That's my only goal!"
Whether it's an uphill battle for emerging heroes or a final stretch of a hard-fought season, the Rivals Gauntlet is the final chance for all of them to make it through to Magic World Championship XXVII. Watch the battles unfold live, September 2–5 at twitch.tv/magic!