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30, Mar, 21

The History Behind Elite Spellbinder From Strixhaven: School of Mages

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We’re in the thick of spoiler season for Strixhaven: School of Mages, with awesome new cards being revealed every day. One of the coolest cards in this upcoming Standard-legal set is Elite Spellbinder. This white 3/1 flying creature for three mana boasts a powerful disruptive ability and will almost certainly see play in competitive Constructed formats. Even beyond its potential applications on the battlefield, Elite Spellbinder is a very special Magic card.

Read More: New Strixhaven: School of Mages Card Brings Hall of Famer Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa to Magic: The Gathering

Elite Spellbinder from Strixhaven: School of Mages

Most people who’ve seen it probably know that it features the likeness of current Magic: The Gathering World Champion and all-time great Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. PVDDR secured his immortalization on card stock after winning the 2019 World Championship in February 2020.

It’s also pretty common knowledge that this will be the second card on Magic: The Gathering Arena to feature a pro’s face. Previous World Champion Javier Dominguez lent his handsome visage to Throne of Eldraine card Fervent Champion after winning the most coveted title in Magic in 2018.

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But what you may not know is that Elite Spellbinder and Fervent Champion are part of a long tradition of Magic rewarding its greatest players with their very own cards. For a ten year period, players like Kai Budde, Jon Finkel, and Chris Pikula all featured on iconic creature cards after winning a now-defunct tournament called the Magic Invitational.

In honor of the impending release of Strixhaven: School of Mages, I’ll take a leaf out of the Lorehold College mage-students’ book. In this article, I’ll delve deep into MTG‘s past to uncover the history behind these Invitational cards and the quirky tournament that awarded this privilege.

Read More: Kaldheim Championship: Huschenbeth Handles Controversial Top 8

The Magic Invitational

The Magic Invitational was an annual tournament run by Wizards of the Coast from 1997-2007. It started out as the Duelist Invitational, named after the official Magic companion magazine the The Duelist, for which now-Head Designer Mark Rosewater was editor-in-chief. The Duelist is itself an important relic of the game’s past. It was first distributed at Gen Con in 1993 to accompany the Alpha set released that year. For a long time, it was the primary source of Magic strategy and game design content, and it even occasionally contained promo cards. It was published at regular intervals until the magazine folded in 1999 and was replaced by Magic‘s official website.

According to MaRo, he came up with the tournament in 1996 as a way to promote The Duelist and give it a special event to cover. Since the publication had a limited budget and couldn’t afford to pay pros prize money, MaRo came up with what turned out to be one of the most brilliant ideas in Magic‘s history: the winner of the Invitational would team up with WotC Research and Development to design their own card! The Invitational champion would submit their initial design, which would then be developed and tweaked like any other card and eventually printed in a Standard-legal set.

Dark Confidant is perhaps the most iconic example of an Invitational card. It features the likeness of Bob Maher, an elite old-school pro who won the event in 2004.

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Until the early 2000s and with the exception of the tournament’s final iteration in 2007, players competed using paper cards. The other Invitationals were run using Magic: The Gathering Online.

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The tournament invited the 16 best performing players that year. In MaRo’s own words, it was the “all-star game” of Magic. While the policy dictating who got an invite changed over the years, the winner of the previous year’s Invitational usually got a slot. Other ways to book a seat at the Invitational were to win a fan ballot, to finish the year with the most Pro Points under the old Organized Play system, or to be the top ranked member of the DCI according to composite rating (think ELO or MMR).

While the Invitational couldn’t afford to award prize money, Wizards made up for it by flying Magic‘s All-Stars to exciting locations to play in the event, including Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, Sydney, and Cape Town. The tournament was intended to be a relaxed affair; the first day of the inaugural 1997 Invitational was played in a hotel restaurant. According to Rosewater, the pros could even order food while they battled!

Quirky Formats

To reinforce this collegial atmosphere and to set it apart from the more businesslike Pro Tours, the Invitational’s tournament structure was wonderfully wacky. At its core, the event was a round-robin tournament with players all facing each other once, for a total of fifteen rounds. Each Invitational usually comprised five different formats that would change every three rounds. Tournament formats that readers might be more familiar with were Standard, Cube Draft, and whatever Limited format was played at competitive events at the time.

The Invitational also featured several off-the-wall formats, many of them invented by Mark Rosewater himself. For example, the “Auction of the People” format was one of the most played formats over the years. Here’s an incredibly grainy and enthusiastic MaRo explaining how the auction worked:

For readers without patience for 15 year old YouTube clips, the Auction of the People featured decks selected from among fan submissions. The 2007 Invitational Auction theme was the Alphabet. Each deck for auction contained 26 unique nonland cards whose names began with a different letter. Players could bid on these decks by giving up some combination of starting hand size and life total.

For example, if you really wanted the Alphabet Burn deck being offered at the auction, you could bid to start at 15 life with six cards in hand. If no one bid higher than you, you got the deck!

Another completely unique formats that we’ll probably never see the likes of again was Duplicate Sealed. All 16 players got the same Sealed pool had to figure out how the best way to build it. And if this doesn’t sound weird enough, there was an additional twist. The pool sometimes contained never-before-printed playtest cards created by Rosewater!

Auction of the People and Duplicate Sealed were just two of the fun formats that set the Invitational apart from the average Swiss tournament.

Invitational Champions

This list of Invitational Champions is a who’s who of elite Magic players of the late 90s and early 2000s. Many of the cards they cards they contributed to designing ended up seeing a lot of Constructed play. Readers who play older formats like Modern and who enjoy Cube drafting should be familiar with most of these Invitational cards.

  • 1997, Hong Kong: Olle Råde
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While Swedish player Olle Råde won the first Duelist Invitational in 1997 before he was even 20, he didn’t collaborate with WotC R&D to design a card until five years later. He left competitive Magic shortly after his win in Hong Kong. He returned to the pro scene in time for his Invitational card to be printed in Judgment in 2002. And so, the first Invitational Champion got his face on the fifth Invitational card!

  • 1998, Rio de Janeiro: Darwin Kastle
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  • 1999, Barcelona: Mike Long
RootwaterThief5BNE5D
  • 2000, Kuala Lumpur: Chris Pikula
MeddlingMage5BPS5D
  • 2001, Sydney: Jon Finkel
ShadowmageInfiltrator5BOD5D
  • 2002, Cape Town: Kai Budde
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The German Juggernaut Kai Budde has won the most Pro Tours in the history of Magic. He’s also the only Invitational Champion whose card art had to be recommissioned. The original printing of Voidmage Prodigy was so disliked by the Magic community–and by Budde himself, apparently–that Wizards of the Coast announced they would be giving away copies of Christopher Moeller’s improved take on the art through the mail, as part of the old Magic Player Rewards program.

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What went wrong with the original art? According to Magic‘s online archives, Budde’s face as it was immortalized on the original printing of Voidmage Prodigy was painted actually printed over another face. The first face went better with the art, but it didn’t look as much like the Invitational Champ.

The new and improved art eventually found its way to booster packs in 2006 with the release of Time Spiral‘s “futureshifted” card sheet.

Read More: Time Spiral Remastered: Best MTG Card Design Stories and References

  • 2003, Seattle: Jens Thoren
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  • 2004, Los Angeles: Bob Maher
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If anyone ever wondered why Magic “Boomers” insist on calling Dark Confidant Bob, look no further than the owner of the face that appears on the original art of this 2/1 from Ravnica: City of Guilds.

  • 2005, Los Angeles: Terry Soh
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A little digging revealed that there were actually two cards printed after the 2005 Invitational won by Terry Soh. During the event, the Magic website put up a poll where users could vote on their favorite design among those submitted by Invitational Competitors. The design submitted by Japanese pro Tsuyoshi Fujita won, and it eventually became the Legendary Land Gemstone Caverns. Funnily enough, 2021 features another callback to this period in Magic history besides Elite Spellbinder, with Caverns getting a reprint in Time Spiral Remastered!

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You can read more about the designs Invitational players submitted in 2005 here.

  • 2006, Los Angeles: Olivier Ruel
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  • 2007, Essen: Tiago Chan
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An End and a New Beginning

Unfortunately, 2007 was the last year the prestigious and colorful Magic Invitational took place. According to Mark Rosewater on his Blogatog, it was discontinued for several reasons, including a lack of funding and a shift to prioritize other events. In MaRo’s own words, “the people at Wizards…at the time didn’t really get the event. They didn’t understand why the players enjoyed it.”

When Portuguese player Tiago Chan’s Invitational card, Snapcaster Mage, was printed in Innistrad in 2011, everybody–including Wizards of the Coast, probably–thought that this would be the last time a player would get their face on a Magic card.

In an awesome turn of events, however, WotC decided to bring back this awesome way to commemorate elite players’ achievements in the form of Player Spotlight Cards, starting with Fervent Champion in Throne of Eldraine.

And that, in a little more than 1,500 words, is why Elite Spellbinder is such an important card for Magic‘s history. Just like when the Magic Invitational happened every year, the world’s best players can look forward not only to winning piles of cash, but to be immortalized forever in a piece of cardboard.

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