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The Week That Was: The Very Model of a Modern Major Series

September 02, 2022
Corbin Hosler

Magic players are a dedicated bunch.

Play the game, see the world. That was part of the Pro Tour pitch for decades, and in that time dedicated Magic players truly did see the world, from the corners of the globe in Sydney to the historic halls in Europe to sprawling extravagancies in the States. You name a tournament; Magic competitors will be there.

Stories of that dedication have become somewhat legendary over the years. Take, for example, the epic journey that Team Japan took to get to the first World Magic Cup in 2012—a 10-hour taxi ride to play in an international team event? You better believe they hopped into a taxi when their flight was canceled, and a $1,400 Uber ride (from Washington D.C. to Indianapolis, Indiana, roughly 550 miles or 900 kilometers) later they were on hand to compete in the inaugural event.

Even if you were around then you might have forgotten that story, but you probably remember this classic Bonfire of the Damned moment from the same event:

That tournament has always stood out for me, and not just for meme reasons. It was the first large event I ever traveled to, and we did what by today's standards would be known as "rogue coverage." Trying to figure out Twitter from an archaic phone, I watched the infamous Bonfire of the Damned from just offscreen (a recurring theme, it turns out!) And since they don't pay me by the word, I'm going to use this space to say that there's a lot of Magic history represented in that scene; not just the players like Brian Kibler and Luis Scott-Vargas, but the judge and event and coverage staff as well—including one Brian David-Marshall, the creator of The Week That Was (and a heck of a lot more).

Flash forward a few years, and the World Magic Cup was the first event I traveled internationally (to Nice, France) to cover for Wizards of the Coast. International events always deliver amazing stories, and this one was immortalized by Walking the Planes.

All of this is to get to this wise proverb that I think I may have heard somewhere before. "If you build it, Magic players will gather."

Enter Nerd Rage Gaming.

NRG Championship Series in Full Swing

"From the very beginning, my long-term goal was to grow beyond just a local gaming store and move into organizing tournaments. I felt it created sustainability for us and grows the community as a whole," explained NRG founder Norman Cohen. "The first year we did monthly $1Ks plus a $2,500 championship, so it was less than $15,000 for the entire season."

"And here we are seven years later, coming up to almost a quarter of a million dollars in prize pools," Cohen said. "We've gone from running events out of a 1,300 square foot store to last week in St. Louis, a 15,000 square feet convention center."

The NRG series is one of a handful of tabletop tournament circuits in North America, and it's growing fast. It's not just prize pools and event halls that have grown—the company has invested in streaming every event in an expanding calendar. They've invested in top-tier commentary talent and slowly expanded their Midwest reach. Top finishers can earn invites to Regional Championships as well as the season-ending NRG Championship.

They've built it. And the players have gathered.

"I feel like the NRG series is still a very small fish in a very elite pond," Cohen said. "That's how I look at it, and I'm very thankful to be in that pond. Companies like Star City Games and ChannelFireball and others have certainly laid out a roadmap for what success can potentially look like. That's the direction we'd like to go. We've been very happy to work with Dreamhack and have these tournaments as destination events with invites."

Even as the pandemic reshaped the world, NRG has found a way to grow their series. And with the increased attendance and attention has come prestige for those chasing their dreams of playing Magic at the highest levels all the way to the Pro Tour.

From NRG to the Regional Championship

That includes Jesse Robkin, a writer and filmmaker originally from Washington who has made a habit of Top 8'ing NRG events over the past year. It began with a Top 8 in a Modern tournament last December, and hasn't slowed down. Robkin's resume boasts five NRG Series Top 8 appearances, including a Team Trial victory. Throw in a Top 8 at a large SCGCON event and now a Regional Championship invite, and Robkin is the perfect example of the path made possible by the NRG Series among others filling the renewed demand for competitive Magic across the United States.

"I think the first Friday Night Magic I went to was a Mirrodin draft I tagged along to for my brother's birthday, but I didn't really get into Magic until Guilds of Ravnica released back in 2018 – my brother was visiting me in Chicago and we were looking for stuff to do, so I suggested we check out a cool-looking LGS by my house (Dice Dojo). We bought a box of Dominaria and built a couple decks; I was instantly hooked."

With Dominaria in the spotlight again, it's perhaps fitting that Robkin's career is taking another leap, in a major way. Five career NRG Top 8 appearances is impressive, but how about back-to-back finals appearances in a single weekend?

That's the feat Robkin pulled off last weekend in St. Louis, Missouri. Along with teammates Piper Powell and Zoe Riederman, Robkin cruised into Top 8 of the Team Constructed Showdown, and she followed that up with an astounding second Top 8 in the Modern tournament on Sunday. It's an unlikely feat, but one that doesn't necessarily come as a surprise for a player making the most of limited opportunities over the past few years.

"I didn't start competing at bigger tournaments until the fall of 2019, when I attended my SCG event in Indianapolis," Robkin recalled. "That tournament really lit my competitive fire, and I started making friends who went to these tournaments regularly – an important component of staying invested in the game. But right as I decided to grind the SCG Tour, Covid hit. So I played a ton of Magic Online and kept up with Modern in particular as new sets and bannings shaped it. But the whole time I was craving the experience of a paper Magic tournament again, so when the NRG Series announced its return, I was thrilled – a paper tournament series right in my backyard!"

Robkin never lacked for talent or ambition, only opportunities. With the return of paper tournaments she finally had an opportunity to put all the hard work into practice, and the result has been an incredible nine-month run capped off by a finals appearance with an innovative Underworld Breach combo deck that qualified her for the Regional Championship.

"Modern has been my favorite format for a long time now—I find the format really engaging and I love that the game really starts as early as the first turn—and this have been my favorite deck in the format by a large margin with a special place in my heart for about half a year now," she explained. "I Top 8'ed an SCG event with it back in March, and the deck guide I wrote for it pretty much single-handedly launched my Magic writing career."

Robkin's pet deck performed perfectly throughout the tournament, dropping only one round (to Eldrazi Tron, the deck's worst matchup according to Robkin). After a Saturday that involved playing well into the evening to complete the finals, the path to a second straight Top 8 would go through a familiar face for Robkin.

"My win-and-in was on camera in Round 7 against Maxx Kominowski, who was on the team that beat my team in the finals," Robkin explained. "He was playing Izzet Murktide, and the match really profiled the strength of the Izzet Breach deck. Both decks are quite similar in construction, but instead of playing countermagic and a big dragon finisher, my deck has a combo finish with Underworld Breach and Grinding Station, but I didn't combo in either of the games we played. In game one I overloaded his removal with threats, and in game two I won a long, drawn-out games thanks to Urza's Saga and Teferi, Time Raveler, as well as a very sturdy Emry, Lurker of the Loch carrying a Shadowspear.

"Between the two tournaments, I played 19 matches of Magic. At end of it all I was exhausted and slightly delirious, but I was qualified for the Regional Championship!"

Underworld Breach Grinding Station Emry, Lurker of the Loch Thassa's Oracle

When we say the journey is a marathon and not always a sprint, that's not exactly what we mean. But it works, and now Robkin's tale joins the same pantheon as some of those great moments from events past. Did you hear the one about the woman who made back-to-back NRG Top 8's and qualified for the Regional Championship?

"This finish, as well as my finish from the team tournament, mean a great deal to me," Robkin reflected. "I believe I'm the only player on the NRG circuit this year to have made consecutive finals in the same weekend, so to have pulled that off—and to qualify for the Regional Championship while doing it – feels wonderful. There are too many friends to give a shoutout to everybody, but I absolutely wouldn't be where am today as a player without all the testing and conversations I've had with my friend Mason Clark, the winner of Dreamhack Dallas. And I want to thank the three friends I rode down to St. Louis with. Skylar Warfield, Piper Powell and Zoe Riederman. I love you all, and I'm grateful to have you in my life."

"As for what's next? I guess the answer is pretty simple: I want to qualify for the Pro Tour."

Looking Ahead

The major news in the weeks ahead is the arrival of Dominaria United and Standard rotation arriving in the next few weeks. Between the rotating format and the new cards sure to shake up formats Standard and beyond, Frank Karsten and I will have plenty to watch.

There are a couple of places hosting large Modern events this weekend in the United States. That starts with PAX West in Seattle, where several qualifiers are being held. On the other side of the country, SCGCON is coming to Columbus, Ohio, and will feature a pair of large Modern tournaments.

Meanwhile, Dominaria United is coming to these tournaments as well as local stores near you, as players get their hands on the new cards for the first time at the Prerelease!

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