2015 World Magic Cup Preview

Posted in Feature on December 7, 2015

By Rich Hagon

Rich Hagon combines a deep knowledge of the players of the Pro Tour with a passionate love of the game. He's a regular commentator for Pro Tour and Grand Prix live video coverage, and is the official Pro Tour Statistician. He has been covering Magic events since 2006.

It's not close—the World Magic Cup is my favorite event of the year. From the moment on Day Two of the first WMC in 2012 when Chinese Taipei knocked out Team USA with a topdecked Bonfire of the Damned before going on to win the whole thing, the WMC has been a cavalcade of astonishment. This year there will be 73 national teams arriving in Barcelona, Spain, ready to do battle, and they'll do so in a pair of formats—both in terms of cards that are legal and the structure of the tournament itself—that are almost guaranteed to provide drama every step of the way. Today, we'll walk through what we can expect from three magnificent days, and highlight some of the puzzles that the successful teams will be the best at solving.

This will serve as your guide to the WMC. Want an overview? Just keep on reading. If you have specific questions, click the links below to get whisked to the appropriate portion of the article.

Friday Morning | Friday Afternoon | Saturday Morning | Saturday Afternoon | Sunday

Nonstandard Standard | All About Limited | The Contenders

So, to business:

Friday Morning

Three rounds of Battle for Zendikar Team Sealed

Teams get twelve boosters of Battle for Zendikar and must build three 40-card (minimum) decks, with all the other cards in the pool assigned individually to the three decks to form the sideboards. Any three team members can play in these three rounds, with the fourth member of the team locked in to the Coach role. This player won't be allowed to play in any of the three Limited rounds, but sits with the team throughout both deck building and all of the matches, offering advice to anyone who wants it—and occasionally to teammates who don't!

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Friday Afternoon

Four rounds of Unified Standard

The easiest way to explain Unified Standard is to imagine a trade folder. In that folder are four copies of every card in Standard, and sitting beside the folder is a gigantic pile of basic lands. You have to build three complete 60-card decks (plus sideboards) for your team, using only the cards in that trade folder. We'll explore a little more about what that means later. Whichever member of the four-person team didn't play on Friday morning has to play on Friday afternoon, meaning that someone else rotates into the Coaching slot.

Throughout Day One, each team is treated as if they were a single player. Matches are played best two-out-of-three, and two individual wins means the team wins the round. So, if your team has Player A win 2-0, Player B lose 2-1, and Player C win 2-1, that's a match win for your team and you score three points. If two of your players win quickly, the last individual matchup is irrelevant (and will often not be played, although teams sometimes choose to play on just for the fun of the game). In total, there are seven match wins available on Day One. If your country is one of the Top 32 teams, they will advance to Day Two.

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Saturday Morning

Three rounds of pool play, using Battle for Zendikar Team Sealed

As far as the cards go, Saturday morning uses the same format as Friday morning. The remaining teams get a fresh set of twelve BFZ boosters and have 70 minutes to crack that puzzle. The big difference on Day Two is that we use pool play. A simple way of thinking of pool play is imagining a single table featuring four teams. During the morning, all four teams will play each of their potential opponents at the table, regardless of record. In order to advance, teams need to be one of the top two seeds in the group, so with only three matches to play, each one is vital. Even so, teams will often end up on the same record. For example, it's possible for three teams to each have two wins and one loss, and the fourth team to lose all three of their matches. At that point, you have a three-way tie for first place, with only two spots available to progress.

This is where you'll hear us frequently use the phrase "Seeding matters." Each of the eight groups on Saturday morning features a No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4 seed. If there's ever a tie, whoever has the highest seed wins the tiebreak. The eight groups are balanced according to finishing positions from Friday. So, for example, Group A will feature the teams that finished Friday in first, sixteenth, seventeenth, and 32nd place, while Group H will see the eighth-, ninth-, 24th-, and 25th-placed teams go at it. There are plenty of scenarios that can crop up within the group, but there are a couple of key things to remember:

  • If you're a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed in your group, a record of 2-1 will always be enough to advance.

The reason is that, with you having two wins in a group that features six total matches, it's impossible to get two other teams on to higher win counts, or with a better seeding within your group. That's a huge deal, knowing that you can afford to lose a match in your group, and it's a reason that the last couple of rounds on Friday are so important, even for those teams that have been comfortably into Day Two for a while.

  • If you're a No. 4 seed, only a 3-0 record guarantees you advance.

It's possible for a No. 4 seed to advance at 2-1, if the group splits out at 3-0, 2-1, 1-2, and 0-3. However, at 2-1, it's possible to have that three-way split we've already mentioned, and No. 4 seeds always lose out on tiebreaks. The moral: don't be a No. 4 seed.

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Saturday Afternoon

Three rounds of pool play, using Unified Standard

If you manage to emerge from the morning of pool play by being one of the top two finishers in your group of four, you get reseeded into another pool of four teams. Once again, teams get seeded, so the overall No. 1 team will be in Pool A with the teams that are placed eighth, ninth, and sixteenth out of the remaining sixteen teams. Pool B features the second, seventh, tenth, and fifteenth overall seeds, and so on. The same tiebreak rules apply, so once again, seeding matters. While the teams have to use the same three Unified Standard decks that they played with on Friday afternoon, they are allowed to allocate different players to the three seats.

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Top 8 elimination matches, featuring Unified Standard

The two top teams from each of the four pools on Saturday afternoon advance to Sunday, which functions remarkably like a typical Pro Tour Sunday. In other words, there are four quarterfinals, which we'll be showing one after another, then the two semifinals back-to-back, and eventually the final. Like every match all weekend long, it's the first team to win two out of the three matches that claims the victory and advances. Again, the three-person lineup for the teams on Sunday is allowed to change, but the decks for Unified Standard are not.

Phew. Okay, that was a lot of information to wade through, and I promise to give you some cool stuff to get your own brains whirring before we're done. But, since we're in Info Mode, here's when you can join us for all the action:

Event Date Time PT Time ET Time UTC Stream
Day 1 Video Coverage Friday, December 11 1 a.m. PT 4 a.m. ET 9 a.m. UTC Magic Twitch channel
Day 2 Video Coverage Saturday, December 12 1 a.m. PT 4 a.m. ET 9 a.m. UTC Magic Twitch channel
Day3 Video Coverage Sunday, December 13 12 a.m. PT 3 a.m. ET 8 a.m. UTC Magic Twitch channel

As usual, I'll be manning the news desk, ready to bring you all the scores and standings from across the tournament. Brian David-Marshall will be scouring the tournament floor for all the best stories, while our booth commentary team will be led by Marshall Sutcliffe, Ian Duke, and Randy Buehler. Tim Willoughby, Rashad Miller, Matej Zatlkaj, and Neil Rigby will be making sure everything runs smoothly in the feature match area, and bringing you key post-match interviews. You'll get the outstanding photography of Craig Gibson, and the analysis and insight of Tobi Henke, Neale Talbot, and Hall of Famer Frank Karsten on our text coverage. The creative brains behind Walking the Planes (Nate Holt and Shawn Kornhauser) will be on hand to document the quirkier side of what is always a fantastic showcase for the game. Basically, you'd be crazy to miss a second, so make sure you don't, and join us on Friday.

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Nonstandard Standard

All right, we've done the heavy dose of facts, so now it's time to turn our attention to opinion, speculation, imagining, and all that other good stuff that gets our creative Magic juices going. First off, let's talk about this whole Unified Standard thing. This turns out to be quite the puzzle, and it comes in two parts. First of all, there's the straightforward mathematical restriction of four copies of one card spread across three decks. Of course, many decks share no cards with another particular archetype (at the simplest level, imagine a red-green deck and an Esper control deck—there can't be many cards that exist in both decks). However, in Standard there are certain key cards that are going to be in high demand. Here are a few all-stars that are going to cause the four-of rule to be a major headache:

The observant amongst you (not to mention regular players of Standard) will not, I suspect, be unaware of the issue of fetch lands. It seems like every deck wants all of them, all the time (this is hyperbole, but less so than some of you might expect), and there simply aren't enough of them to go around. Trying to work out which decks can be diluted the least by shaving off a fetch land here or there could be critical to working out Unified Standard.

Let's assume for a moment that you solve this problem. You've successfully worked out where Jace and Gideon want to end up, and you've found the optimal configuration for your fetch lands. If you're smart, you've probably already read Frank Karsten's primer about this very subject, and you're comfortable that the three decks you've arrived at are, in fact, the "best" that are available in Unified Standard. Now it's time for part two of this particular puzzle.

How many other teams will have worked out what you have about the format? Bear in mind that there are multiple nations hooking up with each other in the weeks leading up to Barcelona, with the express purpose of cracking this problem. So, if plenty of other people have the same decks you do, are you destined for a succession of 50-50 edge-of-the-seat matchups? Or, do you attempt to "next level" the field, assume that everyone will have correctly identified the supposedly-optimal configuration, and then work out a quirky setup of your own that is strictly "worse" but lines up perfectly against your own analysis of the predicted metagame? Honestly, my head hurt just typing that last sentence, and how the teams arrive at their conclusions to the annual Unified Standard puzzle is anyone's guess. One thing is for sure—we'll have Frank on hand to tell us what the teams come up with and whether or not they followed his advice!

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All About Limited

Puzzle number two is all about Limited. In a sense, it's a mirror of Unified Standard. There, the problem comes with restrictions—all the cards are known, but you get access to less of them than you would at a regular tournament. After all, your PPTQ carload of grinders could all play Atarka Red, or Rally the Ancestors, if you wanted to. In Battle for Zendikar Team Limited, the problem is reversed. This time, you've got way more choices than usual. In a typical Sealed Deck tournament, you have six boosters to work with to create a single 40-card deck. At first glance, having to make three decks from twelve boosters sounds like a downgrade, but the reality is that having control over where your cards get assigned means that twelve boosters is vastly more powerful than two sets of six boosters. It's so much more powerful, in fact, that we can ask the teams to build three decks and expect all of them to be more powerful than a typical single-player Sealed deck. How much more powerful is the key question on Friday and Saturday morning at the WMC.

As is so often true with Limited play, synergy is a massive deal. For a super-quick, super-dirty definition, synergy is how well cards work together, rather than in isolation. Serene Steward lets you spend mana to put a +1+1 counter on a creature. Stone Haven Medic lets you tap to gain life. Serene Steward is a better card with Stone Haven Medic in play, and Stone Haven Medic is a better card with Serene Steward in play. That's synergy right there.

Battle for Zendikar is an enormously synergistic format. Indeed, Sealed Deck play is relatively weak for precisely that reason, because most players don't get a critical mass of the synergistic pieces that they can look to collect for themselves in a draft. Having twelve boosters to spread around the team radically increases the synergistic possibilities. Here are just two groups of cards that are potential big players in Barcelona, thanks to the joys of synergy:

Allies—An ability that is all about synergy, anyone who has played any amount of BFZ Draft knows how powerful some of the Ally triggers can be, whether that's double strike from Resolute Blademaster, +2+2 from Tajuru Warcaller, or menace from Firemantle Mage. In Team Sealed, there can often be a critical mass of Allies. And if you have a large group of cheap Allies, they can actually function as an aggro deck, not just a collection of suboptimal Ally triggers.

Tajuru Warcaller | Art by Anastasia Ovchinnikova

EldraziBane of Bala Ged and Ruin Processor, both seven mana. Breaker of Armies and Eldrazi Devastator, eight mana. Void Winnower, nine mana. Desolation Twin and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, both ten mana. That's a lot of mana for a lot of Eldrazi beef, and the more they cost, the less likely you are to have played against them in Limited games. In Team Sealed, however, two things are working in the Eldrazi's favor. First of all, green is widely regarded as the weakest color. An Ally deck will likely want two or three green cards (Tajuru Warcaller, Tajuru Stalwart, possibly Tajuru Beastmaster), but that's about it. That means that every piece of mana acceleration you have across twelve boosters can cram into a single deck. That's Lifespring Druid, Beastcaller Savant, Kozilek's Channeler, and every Eldrazi Scion maker out there.

The second thing going for the Eldrazi is the A-plus-B conundrum. In order for this plan to work, you need a critical mass of acceleration and a critical mass of Eldrazi. Usually, at least one of these is missing from a typical Sealed pool. Here in Team Sealed, somebody gets all of the Eldrazi, and if a turn-five Ruin Processor isn't enough to win the game, there's a good chance that a turn-six Eldrazi Devastator or turn-seven Void Winnower will.

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The Contenders

Okay, we've walked through the formats, we've looked at the challenges facing the teams, but you're probably wondering the big one: who's going to win?

Here's a baker's dozen of likely candidates:

Austria—Valentin Mackl (captain), Nikolaus Eigner, Christoph Aukenthaler, Sebastian Fiala-Ibitz

Mix two Grand Prix Champions, a captain with six trips to GP elimination rounds, and a "wild card" in Fiala-Ibitz (who Mackl rates highly), and you have a strong contender.

Belgium—Branco Neirynck (captain), Thomas Van Der Paelt, Johan Verhulst, Amand Dosimont

Belgium made an excellent run in 2013, before running into eventual champions France in the Top 8. One of a handful of teams that can boast a Grand Prix Top 8 for all four team members, and three GP Top 8s in 2015 indicate team captain Branco Neirynck is on the rise.

Canada—Shaun McLaren (captain), Alexander Hayne, Hunter Platt, Justin Richardson

A team featuring both McLaren and Hayne finished almost dead last in Nice 2014. Only one Day Two appearance at WMC—surely it can't go wrong that badly again?

Croatia—Stjepan Sučić (captain), Vjeran Horvat, Matija Vlahović, Filip Mrso

They finished a superb fifth place at WMC Indianapolis 2012, but were very disappointing last year. Vjeran Horvat and Filip Mrso return from the Nice squad, and Stjepan Sučić has one of the best win rates on the European GP scene. Day Two is a minimum goal.

Czech Republic—Ondřej Stráský (captain), Lukas Blohon, Dominik Mikolas, Tomas Kuchta

The Czech Republics had an outstanding third-place finish in 2013, and they have an outstanding front two in Ondřej Stráský and Lukas Blohon. They should comfortably make Day Two again, and then who knows?

Denmark—Martin Dang (captain), Daniel Lind, Martin Müller, Christoffer Larsen

Denmark are the defending champions, with a tremendous lineup featuring a Pro Tour Champion in Martin Dang, a WMC and GP champion in Martin Müller, and great support from Christoffer Larsen (who has three GP Top 8s). This team could go close to another "Daneblast" moment.

Hong Kong—Lee Shi Tian (captain), Lam Tsz Yeung, Chan Sze Hang, Steven Yuen

Hong Kong put up a solid Top 16 performance last year, and Steven Yuen and team captain Lee Shi Tian are returning from that team, joined by two players with five PT starts each. Solid numbers, solid experience, an outstanding captain in Lee Shi Tian; there are many reasons for optimism.

Hungary—Tamás Nagy (captain), László Kiss, Gábor Kocsis, Ákos Kenyeres

Hungary has a fabulous history of success with three Day Twos, and they were only a topdecked Rakdos's Return away from being 2013 Champions. Tamás Nagy and Gábor Kocsis have seven WMC starts between them, and they will expect at least another Day Two.

Japan—Yuuya Watanabe (captain), Ryoichi Tamada, Soyo You, Kenji Tsumura

Ridiculously, Japan has yet to reach Day Two in this competition. It would be a seismic surprise if that didn't change here, with Hall of Fame pro Kenji Tsumura, two-time Player of the Year Yuuya Watanabe, and Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar finalist Ryoichi Tamada on the team.

Malaysia—Raymond Tan (captain), Syed Zulkarnaen, Wee Pang Ming, Chin Wei Han

Malaysia has had outstanding performances to reach Day Two in all three WMCs so far. Captain Raymond Tan has one of the best Constructed records in the field (72%).

Serbia—Miodrag Kitanovic (captain), Aleksa Telarov, Milutin Kecojević, Milos Radulovic

Serbia finished in a tremendous sixth place last year in Nice, and both team captain Miodrag Kitanovic and all-time country Pro Points leader Aleksa Telarov are returning. They are among the dark horses for the title.

South Korea—Nam Sung Wook (captain), Oh Joo Hyun, Joon Soo Lee, Jun Young Park

South Korea finished in the Top 8 last year, and this squad is absolutely packed with experience and success. All four team members have Pro Tour experience, three have made the Top 8 of a GP, and two have GP titles. They're definitely a contender.

United States—Mike Sigrist (captain), Joel Sadowsky, Tom Martell, Neal Oliver

The US has made Day Two every time, and surely that will continue here. They're a superb team, and even the "fourth," Joel Sadowsky, has ten Grand Prix starts under his belt. Anything less than making the Top 8 will be a disappointment.

So, there you have it: 73 countries, Team Sealed, Unified Standard, pool play, captains, coaches, national pride, a ton of great Magic—and you'll get the whole thing delivered straight to your eyeballs right here at the home of Magic: The Gathering. See you on Friday.

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