An Underdog's Tale: Samuel Ihlenfeldt's Journey to the Top 4

In early November, over six hundred of the world's best Magic: the Gathering players descended upon the Albuquerque Convention Center for Pro Tour Ixalan. Among those competing in the elite circuit were familiar, well-known names, such as Mike Sigrist, Luis Scott-Vargas, Pascal Maynard, and Seth Manfield, along with many other community staples. However, among the sea of Energy decks swarming the tournament, Tower Games' Samuel Ihlenfeldt, a graduate student relatively unknown to the greater Magic community, ran over the competition, making it to the semifinals with a Mardu Vehicles build.

Tower Games' Samuel Ihlenfeldt takes on Channel Fireball's Mike Sigrist in the Pro Tour Ixalan quarterfinals.

I caught up with Ihlenfeldt and spoke to him about his experience at the Pro Tour as well as his journey there. “I played a couple of Pro Tour Qualifiers while I was an undergrad, but, in general, I didn’t start traveling to tournaments until about a year ago,” he stated (side note: Ihlenfeldt's trip to his first Magic Grand Prix was featured in an article by Maria Bartholdi).

Sam's path to the Pro Tour proved fruitful. “[For] the Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier that I won to qualify me for the Regional Pro Tour Qualifier that qualified me for the Pro Tour, I played at a store called Lodestone Coffee and Games. I was [top] seed going into Top 8, which meant I knew I would be on the play every game,” recalled Ihlenfeldt. “I wanted to draft an aggressive deck, and pack-one/pick-one I opened Samut, Voice of Dissent. Pack two, I was passed an Insult // Injury and pack three, [I] was passed a Glorybringer. That was a spicy draft.”

Samuel Ihlenfeldt (pictured right) battles Mike Sigrist (pictured left) in Game Four of the Pro Tour Ixalan Quarterfinals.

“I really like red,” he continued. “Often it comes down to doing the math of how can I play to optimize my chances of putting [my opponent] to zero.”

A lot of thought and playtesting went into constructing a deck for the Pro Tour. “I was tempted to play Ramunap Red this weekend, but I thought the deck was more poorly positioned than Mardu,” he said. “We started with a stock version of the deck that had done well at previous tournaments, and then assessed which decks we thought we would be playing against. We actually did this for several decks, but settled on Mardu when one of the guys we were testing with discovered the power of Dusk // Dawn against Temur [Engergy], the deck we thought we would be facing the most.” Considering that about fifty percent of the Pro Tour brought some variant of an Energy build, Sam and his teammates' assessment proved spot on. 

I also inquired about the impact rotation had on the Mardu Vehicles build. “The deck is not the same deck as before, it just has the same colors and some of the same key cards,” replied Ihlenfeldt. “The deck went from being a Gideon deck to being a Hazoret deck, with an increased incentive to dump your hand as early as possible.”

Tower Games' extensive testing left many possible inclusions in the dust. “The process was very repetitive: try a card and play enough matches with it to get a sense of its power,” stated Ihlenfeldt “Many cards got tossed out along the way, such as Depala and Inventor’s Goggles, but the final build was a group effort after a long week of testing.”

Click here for Samuel Ihlenfeldt's Mardu Vehicles decklist.

Ihlenfeldt's team hails from Minnesota, which helped the squad's Magic development, especially in the winter. “Gigabit internet and the incentive to never go outside… yeah pretty perfect environment,” he said. “Also a really great Magic community with some of the best and friendliest players around.”

“Tower Games is a stellar little game shop in South Minneapolis. I have been a customer there for years, and the owner, Dylan Gauker, reached out to us as soon as he saw that six of his friends/customers had qualified for the Pro Tour. We stayed in a house for a week before the Pro Tour, testing match-ups for about ten hours a day. The team was made up of Alex Johnson, Scott Markeson, Daniel Weiser, Matt Sikkink-Johnson, Jackson Hicks, and myself. Additionally, Ian Birrell, Matt Stankey, Ray Huang, and Max McVety stayed and tested with us.”

At the Pro Tour, Ihlenfeldt eked into the Top 8 as the eighth seed. “I knew that the person I was competing with for eighth had significantly better breakers than I did going into the round, and some pretty wild stuff had to happen for me to sneak in,” he recollected. “He was also a Japanese player, which became relevant as soon as Marshall [Sutcliffe] announced that the eighth place player was from the [United States], and then on his first Pro Tour.”

Samuel Ihlenfeldt celebrates after hearing that he made the Top 8.

“I was in disbelief,” he continued. “I looked around as if someone had just played a joke on me, trying to find someone else who matched that description. As soon as he said my name, I was overjoyed. I gave John Rolf a huge high five (he was one of my previous opponents who had beaten me to make the Top 8).”

During Ihlenfeldt's matches on stream, Pro Tour commentators took notice of his smiling visage and positive attitude. “I think anyone would be as smiley as I was if they were in my shoes,” he offered. “It didn’t matter if I won or lost, I just wanted to play the game I loved with the best players in the world, surrounded by amazing friends.”

 Samuel Ihlenfeldt takes on Seth Mansfield in the Pro Tour Ixalan semifinals.

In the quarterfinals, Ihlenfeldt took out Mike Sigrist in a nail-biter series that spanned the entire five games before finally falling to the eventual Pro Tour Ixalan champion, Seth Mansfield, in the semifinals. “My parents were proud, and my brother started writing down all the best quotes from Riley’s coverage,” stated Ihlenfeldt. “My friends were excited for me, even if they didn’t all know exactly what was happening. The team all went out to dinner and celebrated.”

Besides grinding Magic tournaments, Ihlenfeldt also attends the University of Minnesota, where he studies quantitative methods in education as a graduate student. However, his academic obligations has not diminished his passion for Magic in the slightest. “Magic is the perfect procrastination tool,” he explained. “Sometimes I don’t have time but I play anyway.”

Ihlenfeldt's journey is proof that the competitive Magic circuit is not exclusive to full-time professionals, something that should encourage the Magic grinder who is working on completing a degree, or balancing work and family with their favorite hobby. Collegiate esports has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years, and Ihlenfeldt's top four finish at Pro Tour Ixalan is a welcome contribution to this trend.

I asked Ihlenfeldt if he intended to pursue professional Magic any further. “I hope so,” he answered. “You will at least see me playing in Bilbao and depending on how I do, Richmond or Minneapolis.”

“At the end of the day, Magic is still incredibly fun,” encouraged Ihlenfeldt. “Competition can make it more fun, or less fun, depending on how you like to play. There is no such thing as a wrong way to play, but if you haven’t tried it, I encourage you to head down to your local store and play in Friday Night Magic or the next Prerelease.”

Sam can be found on Twitter.

David Wise is an associate editor with the Collegiate StarLeague. His work has been published by Blizzard Entertainment, LiquidHearth, and ROOT Gaming. He can be found on Twitter.

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