It's no secret that the coming week is my favorite of the coverage year. Every Pro Tour is special—there's a new set to unveil in high-stakes Limited action, and we get to see what the best players in the world can do with all the new toys in a thoroughly revamped Standard. That Standard environment is frequently at its most "Wild West" during the Pro Tour, and once you throw in the type of marquee cross-continent matchups that only those four-times-a-year gatherings can provide, it's easy to see why the four Pro Tours are the cardinal points of our Magic year.
If pure excellence is your thing, then nothing beats the World Championship. Featuring exactly 24 of the most in-form, exceptional players on the planet, the World Championship is the definitive Magic pressure cooker, with Pro Tour finals-worthy matchups at every table, every round. When Brian Braun-Duin faced off against Márcio Carvalho in the World Championship final on the cavernous stage of the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, it showcased in a very physical way just how "alone" the game can be. There really is no hiding place; it's just you against the world.
The World Magic Cup is different. The World Magic Cup isn't about "me," it's about "us." The World Magic Cup isn't about representing yourself, or your friends, or your local game store, it's about representing an entire nation of Magic fans. The World Magic Cup certainly features some of the game's elite, but that's not all that it features. If you're an average competitive Magic player, the World Magic Cup is the premier event that gives you the best chance of making the start line. In the course of three-days, lifelong friendships are forged, national legends of topdecks great and small are created, and, in a carnival atmosphere, the game puts its best foot forward, demonstrating that cutthroat competition and a celebration of the best game ever made are by no means mutually exclusive.
It's high-octane, high-emotion, highlight stuff. And I love it.
If you're a regular watcher of the WMC, it's a good bet that you love it too. And if you're new to this very special event, you're in for quite the ride. In this article, I'll walk you through everything you can expect to see beaming straight to you around the world from Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Day One (Friday)
We begin on Friday morning with what is arguably the toughest test of teamwork in the whole weekend. All four team members sit together, and are given one of the ultimate puzzles in the game: twelve random boosters (featuring Kaladesh this time around). From these packs, they have to construct exactly three Limited decks, each with a minimum of 40 cards. That includes basic lands, of course, so you can expect each team to actually use somewhere between 66 and 70 cards from their boosters across the three decks.
You may be wondering at this point why only three decks, when there are four players on the team? Under the rules of the WMC, each set of matches requires three team members to be in the frontline, actually handling their deck weapons of choice. The fourth member sits out the session, but only as far as not having a "personal" deck to play. Instead, that fourth member moves between the rest of the team, offering all kinds of support, ranging from a kind word after a crushing defeat to words of inspiration ahead of a must-win matchup, and from strategic insight into the perfect line of play at a key moment, to, you know, doughnuts.
Okay, so back to this Team Sealed thingy. What makes it such a challenge is that the power level of cards that you've been playing with for six weeks now have a very different look to them. That's because twelve boosters is a lot—it's a lot of removal, it's a lot of mechanically-aligned synergies at common, it's a lot of artifacts, it's a lot of rares and mythic rares. All of that combines to give the teams a lot to think about. Just contemplating the rares alone, this is a very different activity than your normal Sealed Deck build. As a rule, you're going to be able to find a home for every decent rare you open. That's always been true for artifacts, but with three decks to choose from, it's highly unlikely that any given color rare won't have a deck that wants it if you build appropriately. There are exceptions, of course. A few of the gold (multicolor) rares, such as Depala, Pilot Exemplar, may be hard to place because you might not be able to generate a solid Vehicles and Dwarf-packed red-white deck. These cards are few and far between, meaning that the decks the teams end up with are likely to be highly synergistic, have a high power level, have strong and dedicated game plans, and are all-round likely to be much, much better than the average Day One deck at a Sealed Grand Prix.
Oh, and there's a time limit: 70 minutes for four people to make three decks from twelve boosters, with cards not in the starting main decks allocated to only one player's sideboard (meaning there will be three distinct sideboards, not one large shared one).
Once the teams do that, it's time to put their Sealed decks to the test with three matches against teams on a similar record (so a team on 2-0 will face another 2-0 team in Round 3). The matches themselves are comprised of three individual matchups. There's no weird seat-swapping mid-match and no choosing who you play. Whoever registers Deck A on both teams plays each other, and the Bs and Cs line up the same way. For an overall match win, two of your players need to claim victory in their own personal matchup. It doesn't matter if that's a comprehensive 2-0, a deciding game 2-1, or even an unlikely 1-0. However you get there, it counts as a single win to your team. As soon as two of you have your wins secured, that's match over, and the final match, if it's still playing, makes no difference. There's no advantage to losing by two matchups to one versus two matchups to none—it simply goes down as a loss in the win-loss column and you move on. That's not to say that we might not see some "irrelevant" match three action during the weekend; players in the last seat often choose to play out their matches, just for the fun of seeing what happens and for the honor of continuing to compete. It's one of the features that makes the WMC so unique and so appealing.
After a well-deserved lunch break, the teams will change gears, with the Limited decks destined for a souvenir shelf at home. Rucksacks will be ransacked for the 60-card decks that will determine the destiny of the 2016 title. From Round 4 onwards, it's Unified Modern that holds center stage. I'm guessing most of you are familiar with Modern. It's basically every card from Eighth Edition onward, with a reasonably short list of cards that are banned to keep things at least vaguely sane. The "Unified" bit simply means that any card, aside from basic lands, can only appear in a single decklist within each team. That may not sound like much of a restriction, but it's actually a huge deal. Many of the best decks in Modern rely on particular sets of non-basic lands to function at optimum efficiency, and if only one of your decks can play Stomping Ground, for example, that's actually causing some significant head-scratching amongst the teams.
To be fair, it's not only the teams that will be trying to work out the Unified Modern puzzle. Hall of Famer Frank Karsten has already had a data-driven stab at it, over on ChannelFireball (Part 1 and Part 2), and, conveniently enough, he'll be part of our coverage team in Rotterdam. Expect to see Dr. Frank at the news desk come Friday lunchtime, working through the permutations. That, though, is a pretty deep dive down the Unified Modern rabbit hole, and it's possible that some of you are still a little fuzzy about the kinds of decks that might be onscreen during the Modern rounds. Here is a dozen of the best around:
Named after a mechanic that is largely not actually used in the deck any more (!), Affinity (or Robots) uses a ton of artifact synergies to speedily dispatch opponents, most notably with a gargantuan amount of unfairness in the form of a certain Cranial Plating. Brutally efficient, brutally mathematical, this is a creature-heavy strategy for players who think in numbers.
Like Affinity, Dredge has a real hard focus, in this case breaking many of the fundamentals of the game through using (and abusing) the graveyard. Also like Affinity, everyone knows it exists, everyone knows the powerful sideboard cards that can disrupt it, and, as with Affinity, knowing this doesn't always help.
A relatively recent addition to Modern, the Eldrazi are just so powerful it was inevitable that Modern players would find a way to get them into the format successfully. The Eldrazi run all the way up the curve, from Eldrazi Skyspawner, Matter Reshaper, and Eldrazi Displacer at three mana, Thought-Knot Seer at four, Reality Smasher at five, and Drowner of Hope at six. Much like the Eldrazi themselves, these cards are not very nice to have to face down.
At Grand Prix Indianapolis earlier this year, Brandon Burton won the title in the following fashion:
That'll be a Burn deck, then.
It may be a so-called "fair" deck, because it rarely breaks all the rules, but Jund is a beast of a deck that turns efficiency into an art form. It boasts incredible creatures (Tarmogoyf and Dark Confidant), great planeswalkers (Liliana of the Veil), and a slew of lean and mean disruptive spells (Inquisition of Kozilek, Thoughtseize, Lightning Bolt, and Terminate). Make no mistake, Willy Edel and Reid Duke love Jund for a reason—it's fantastic.
Back to the single-minded strategies, in this case taking a single creature (a Glistener Elf, or maybe an Inkmoth Nexus) and turning it into a single-attack killing machine thanks to a dizzying array of pump spells—Mutagenic Growth, Become Immense, and Kaladesh newcomer Blossoming Defense amongst them.
This has some similarities to Jund, but because it has access to white it has access to standouts like Siege Rhino, Path to Exile, and the apparently-innocuous Lingering Souls. Like Jund, everything it does is ruthlessly efficient.
This archetype makes a mockery of the one land per turn rule by converting the three "Urza's" lands—Urza's Power Plant, Urza's Mine, and Urza's Tower—into seven mana. With that much acceleration, cards like Karn Liberated; Ugin, the Spirit Dragon; and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger are well within range, and they're all pretty devastating.
When little things get big, big things happen, and Merfolk has no fewer than twelve Lords—Merrow Reejerey, Lord of Atlantis, and Master of the Pearl Trident—to ensure that the little fish can swim successfully in a very big Modern pond.
The Elves deck features some Elves, some more Elves, some more Elves, some Elves, some ways to get more Elves, some Elves that let you keep generating mana to cast more Elves, some Elves that make Elves bigger, and, er, some Elves. Once it has enough, yes, Elves, it attacks for a lot. The end.
This delicious combo deck (no, I'm not at all biased about my favorite deck in Modern that is better than all the other decks ever) gets to five mana, casts Ad Nauseam, draws many cards, casts Angel's Grace to make sure unpleasant self-death doesn't occur, draws all of the other cards, and then uses Lightning Storm to kill their opponent by discarding all the lands drawn with the fateful Ad Nauseam. Shall I tell you all that again? This delicious combo deck...
You might not know that Jeskai means red, white, and blue cards. You probably do know that control means dealing with whatever threats the opposing deck creates. Jeskai Control is very, very good at making things dead, whether that's through a world-class suite of spot removal (Lightning Bolt, Lightning Helix, and Path to Exile), countermagic (Spell Snare, Remand, and Mana Leak) or full-on board sweepers (Supreme Verdict). Snapcaster Mage is the non-flashy way to win after threats are nullified. Nahiri, the Harbinger's ultimate plus Emrakul, the Aeons Torn—that's the fun way.
At that point, we draw breath. The list above is by no means the only decks we'll see in Rotterdam. Part of the fun of Modern is that it is simply vast, and has many, many decks that are realistically playable. Nonetheless, you can certainly expect Affinity, Dredge, Bant Eldrazi, and Naya Burn to be high on the metagame charts.
Four rounds of Unified Modern close out our Day One action. That's where we make the first cut, with teams finishing 49th and down (in our likely field of 73 nations) sitting out the rest of the weekend on the sidelines. Traditionally, the cut has been to the Top 32, rather than 48, and one interesting effect of this change is that, no matter how small the nation or MTG community, every team will feel that they have a legitimate shot at making Day Two. Speaking of which...
Day Two (Saturday)
Day Two begins with a single round of utter carnage. The 48 surviving teams from Day One get split into eight groups of six. For example, the No. 1 overall seed will be joined by Nos. 16, 17, 32, 33, and 48. The reward for being either the first or second seed within a group (the Top 16 from Day One overall) is to receive a bye for this first round of Day Two. The other four teams in the group go head to head (in our example, 17 faces 48, and 32 plays 33). The winners of this Unified Modern match advance—the losers are out.
That's right—sixteen straight knockout fights to start Day Two. Morning!
Once that slugfest is out of the way, there'll be four teams left standing in each group. Next up comes three rounds of group play. The top seed plays the bottom seed, with the middle two playing each other. From then on, it's result-dependent for who goes on to play who. The two winners face off, and the two losers do the same. In the winners' bracket, whichever team gets to 2-0 advances to the next stage of the competition, and has nothing to do in the final round of group play—they're just through. In the losers' bracket, it's back into desperation mode, with the winner staying alive and the loser (now at 0-2) heading for the exit. The two remaining teams in the group (both at 1-1), play each other in the final round of group play, to decide who joins the 2-0 team in the next phase, and who joins the 0-2 team in being shown the door.
All of that gets the field to just sixteen countries. They're again ranked 1–16 and put into another group. No. 1 joins Nos. 8, 9, and 16, while the No. 4 overall seed ends up in a group with Nos. 5, 12, and 13. Then it's a repeat of group play: get to two wins (either 2-0, or needing that final round shootout) and you're through. Reach two losses (either insta-elim at 0-2, or an agonizing final round shootout loss) and you're gone.
So, here's the summary so far:
Friday morning: 73 teams, three rounds of Team Sealed
Friday afternoon: 73 teams, four rounds of Unified Modern
Teams 49–73 eliminated.
Saturday morning: Unified Modern, one round, teams 17–48. Teams 1–16 get a bye.
16 losing teams eliminated. (32 remain)
Saturday morning (a little later): Unified Modern, three rounds, groups of four teams. Two wins to advance, two losses for elimination.
16 teams eliminated. (16 remain)
Saturday afternoon: Unified Modern, three rounds, groups of four teams. Two wins to advance, two losses for elimination.
8 teams eliminated. (8 remain)
Sunday Sunday Sunday
Phew, we're almost there! On Sunday, the remaining teams face off in a single-elimination bracket. All matches are best two-out-of-three, and, just like the rest of the tournament, two individual match wins gives your team the match overall. Incidentally, if you're worried about someone on the team not getting to play, there's no need. The rules specifically state that everyone has to play in at least one session per day. So, if someone is the coach during the Sealed portion on Day One, they have to be one of the three Modern pilots in the afternoon session. If someone doesn't play during the Top 32 stage, they will (assuming their team advances) play on Saturday afternoon in the Top 16.
On Sunday, however, there's only one team lineup. You choose your three players to pilot your Unified Modern decks, and the fourth member of the team works as the coach throughout the day. Incidentally, you can change who plays which deck in the Top 8. What you can't do, however, is switch which deck belongs in which seat. So, if your decks on Friday afternoon are Affinity in Seat A, Dredge in Seat B, and Bant Eldrazi in Seat C, those exact same decks will be in those exact same seats on Sunday.
As for which teams will be sitting there on the big stage on Sunday, my friend and colleague Brian David-Marshall has put together a handy guide for you all. For my part, I'll simply content myself by informing you that Slovakia will be winning the trophy this year, bringing to a magnificent end the pro career of Matej Zatlkaj. Once a Pro Tour finalist in Berlin 2008 and now a regular member of our global coverage team, Matej has a great lineup with him, headlined by Pro Tour Champion Ivan Floch. So, when Slovakia wins, just remember who told you so.
Matej won't be part of our coverage team at the WMC, but we've still got a Pro Tour Champion or two joining us in the booth. Luis Scott-Vargas beat Matej in that Pro Tour Berlin 2008 final, and, as for all our premier events this season, Luis will be with us throughout the event. He's joined in the expert chair by another Pro Tour Champion in Simon Görtzen, victorious in Pro Tour San Diego 2010. Our play-by-play team features Marshall Sutcliffe, Gaby Spartz, and Tim Willoughby. Organizing the feature match area will be Rashad Miller and Neil Rigby, while I'll be joined at the news desk as usual by my partner in crime, Brian David-Marshall. Our text team features Tobi Henke, Frank Karsten, and Chapman Sim, with a behind-the-scenes squad including editors Chris Gleeson and Mike Rosenberg, our man on social media Nate Price, and Executive Producer Greg Collins. As always, Craig Gibson will be the man seeing everything through his many lenses.
So who does the World Magic Cup appeal to? If you like national pride, it's for you. If you like excellence, it's for you. If you like powerful Limited decks, it's for you. If you like Modern, it's for you. If you like camaraderie, pressure, drama, teamwork, tension, laughter...
All right, look. Do you like Magic?
Then the World Magic Cup is for you.