I love the World Magic Cup. There is no other tournament like it during the Pro Tour season. The tournament field consists of the top professional Magic player from each of the more than 70 qualifying countries around the world plus three additional players from each country who have scratched and clawed their way in via the World Magic Cup Qualifiers. You end up with a mix of top pros, future stars, and players from smaller nations trying to fight their way onto the Pro Tour via a Top 8 finish at the WMC.
While there are certainly favorites and underdogs at the World Magic Cup, make no mistake—this is anyone's tournament. But with the tournament set to begin in a few short days, now is the perfect time to take a closer look at some of the teams to watch when the action kicks off.
When you say "top pros," the list does not go any higher than US National Champion Owen Turtenwald. Turtenwald had a tremendous season of Magic that began with him making the finals of the World Championship and saw him make the Top 8 of two more Pro Tours and get inducted into the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour Hall of Fame. He also won a WMCQ along the way, but when he surpassed Seth Manfield in the Player of the Year race, that also vaulted him into the captaincy of the US national team for the second time in three years.
While it might seem like the resulting open invite would pass down the end-of-season standings and put both Turtenwald and Manfield on the same team, the invite instead passes down to the person Turtenwald beat at the WMCQ. Months after losing to Turtenwald in the finals of the WMCQ, Paul Yeem found himself qualified to represent the United States at the WMC. Yeem, who has one Grand Prix Top 8 on his resume, is a member of Team East West Bowl and finished last season with 28 Pro Points to head into the current season as a Silver pro.
As he made his way through the qualifier tournament, Yeem braced himself to play against one of the most formidable opponents in the history of the game.
"I started thinking, 'Okay, I just need to play my best and hope for the best,'" recalled Yeem of facing Turtenwald. "Well, my finals opponent was also the best player and he handily won 2-0. I felt like I let the team down to make the finals and lose, but I was content with my finish."
He moved on from that event to the next one and did not think he would find himself playing with Turtenwald a few months later. But as Turtenwald steadily chased down Manfield, the possibility began to emerge that was exactly what could happen.
"Some people in the Bay Area Magic player Facebook chat mentioned that if x, y, and z happened, there was a chance I could compete in the WMC. I didn't really pay attention to that and dismissed it. But when the Top 8 of Pro Tour Eldritch Moon was determined, I realized that this was actually happening."
Even then, Yeem did not quite believe he was going to get the chance to represent his country at the World Magic Cup.
"After a while, Owen messaged me regarding the WMC, and I was like 'Holy cow! This is really happening,'" Yeem said before adding, "I'm still kind of like 'Wow! this is actually happening.'"
Rounding out the team are Lee Marino and Kevin Jones. Neither player has any notable finishes at the Grand Prix or Pro Tour level, but Jones is an accomplished player on the StarCityGames.com circuit as a member of Team MGG. He often plays tempo decks regardless of format—Legacy, Modern, or Standard. He won the Legacy Championship in 2015 playing Grixis Delver and has also won a Modern Open with many of the same cards. With Modern playing a big role in the results at the World Magic Cup, it would not be surprising to see Jones piloting something similar in the Team Constructed rounds.
The United States is the winningest country in the history of the World Team competition, but they have not won the title since 2007, when team play was a part of the old World Championships. Since the inception of the World Magic Cup, they have not won in any of the four previous seasons, although they did reach the Top 8 under Turtenwald's captaincy two seasons ago.
The Czech Republic has propelled many talented new players into the spotlight over the past couple of seasons, and if they are going to succeed at this level, they will need to do so again as three of the players on the team do not have a Grand Prix or Pro Tour Top 8 finish between them. Ondřej Straka, Alexander Rossijcenko, and Pavel Zuna will have a more than capable captain to guide them through the field.
It is a testament to the season that Turtenwald and Manfield had that Lukas Blohon finished in third place for the Player of the Year race with a whopping 81 Pro Points. It is hard to say that a Platinum pro and Pro Tour Champion is underrated, but according to his countrymate Martin Juza, that is exactly what he is.
When I spoke to Juza earlier this year, he explained that Blohon had always been preternaturally good at Magic and perhaps took success at the game for granted. Over the past couple of seasons, Blohon saw that there were tangible results that could be had from combining talent with hard work and has dedicated himself to being the best Magic player he can be. The benefits have certainly been borne out in his results over the past season. He won Pro Tour Eldritch Moon after finishing 9th at Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad. Throw in a Grand Prix win and another Top 8, and you have your Czech National Champion.
The Czech Republic has never won a World Team title. Blohon led the team to the Top 4 during the first year of the World Magic Cup, and Stanislav Cifka led the team to a Top 4 a year later. They reached the finals of the old team competition two decades ago, back when Jakob Slemr was the biggest name in Czech Magic.
There have already been many memorable moments in the short history of the World Magic Cup, but they are all vying for second place behind the Daneblast that propelled a relatively unknown Danish team to victory two year ago.
"It would mean a lot to win the WMC—both the qualifications but also the fact that I could justify committing more of my time to Magic," said an at-the-time-little-known Martin Müller before he and his team would go on to win the tournament. He has certainly justified the additional time, as he ended the last season in sixth place for Player of the Year and solidly Platinum headed into this one. He was also won the Danish captaincy in a runaway, with more than 20 points separating him from runner-up Martin Dang.
Joining Müller on the team is another member of that winning team. Not only was Simon Nielsen on that winning team, but he was actually the Daneblaster who wrested the win away from Greece in that fateful match. Nielsen, who is a member of Team EUreka with Müller and a friend going back to before their first WMC foray, comes into the Pro Tour season as a Gold pro after finishing Pro Tour Eldritch Moon in the Top 16 to end last season. There is a lot of Magic on the docket for Nielsen this season between all the Pro Tours, the WMC, and a qualification for the Magic Online Championship. That Top 16 finish at the end of last year did more than just give Nielsen exactly the amount of Pro Points he needed to reach Gold:
"Something has also changed with the way I view my own potential at Pro Tours. Before, whenever I imagined the Top 8 picture with me among them, it was always as if somebody cut out a random photo of me and glued it onto the real Top 8 group shot. But now that I've gotten so close, I can actually see myself making the Top 8 of a Pro Tour. So I would like to do that!" said Nielsen of his confidence level this season.
Balancing out the experience and confidence of Müller and Nielsen are relative unknowns Anders Gotfredsen and Asger Lundblad, but with any luck—and whatever the Kaladesh equivalent of a Duneblast is—they could find themselves in the same positions that Müller and Nielsen put themselves into off of their World Magic Cup win. It is worth noting that none of the teams that have won a World Magic Cup have repeated yet. Müller made a run at it last season when he and the Danish team made the Top 8 of the World Magic Cup, but they lost in the quarterfinals. After not playing on Sunday for two decades of team competition, the Danes will be looking for their third straight Top 8 and second victory. Other teams with returning Champions looking to repeat include France with Raphaël Lévy and last year's victors, Italy, led by Andrea Mengucci.
Platinum pro Joel Larsson leads the Swedish team into battle for the fourth time in the last four years, and he is still looking for his debut on the Sunday stage in World Magic Cup action. Despite captaining the team for four years running, it hasn't gotten any easier for Larsson to win the spot, with each of the four seasons' berths coming down to his finish at the last Pro Tour of the season. It took Larsson's second Top 16 of the season at Pro Tour Eldritch Moon to earn the spot this year. He credited Team EUreka—which also features Austrian captain Oliver Polak-Rottman and Danish team members Müller and Nielsen—with his success.
"The team is just getting better and better and I'm starting to think that there might not be a bar on how much we can improve," said Larsson. "I know that everybody believes for sure we're a force to be reckoned with days. It mostly comes down to having a very structured testing process where nothing gets left out and people have different but very important roles to fill to make a complete end product for the team."
(Side note: Do not be surprised to see Austria make a run in this tournament. Polak-Rottman has been great throughout the past two seasons, and the team is rounded out by Valentin Mackl.)
While his WMC teammates might not pack the star power of his Pro Tour testing team, Larsson was feeling very good about his squad and estimated that they were in the upper half of the portion of the field made up of WMCQ winners. But that was not the only source of his confidence.
"Pretty sweet" was how Larsson described the remainder of his team, which includes Per Nyström, Daniel "no relation" Larsson, and Alex Wahlquist. "I know all of the players personally, and a sense of camaraderie isn't free. Having fun together is key to success when it comes to team play."
One of the strengths of the team was that Larsson claimed he had played the least Modern out of anyone on his team. While he has played the format at Grand Prix and Pro Tours, he does not immerse himself in it like his teammates do.
"They all grind a lot online, locally and some at GPs. I think they are fairly certain about what's up in Modern," said Larsson regarding how his teammates could be even more of a resource during playtesting. "Having a knowledge of a large number of decks, how they operate, and especially how they will sideboard versus you is valuable in Modern. Also, there's a lot more Constructed at this WMC with only three rounds of Limited."
The nature of having the National Champion be the person with the most Pro Points from that country means that there are plenty of teams with big names on them. There will always be a Player of the Year competing at the event. There will often be a former Player of the Year or two knocking around on other teams as well—Jérémy Dezani on Team France, for example. But there is only one team to feature a pair of players who have won the Player of the Year trophy and have also been elected into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame.
Shota Yasooka is coming off of winning the second Pro Tour of his career at Pro Tour Kaladesh, which took place almost exactly one year after he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Joining him on the team after winning the last WMCQ is Hall of Famer Kenji Tsumura, who won the Player of the Year title in 2005. When Tsumura won that trophy, it fueled Yasooka's competitive spirit and he went out and won the title the next year.
While Kento Arita and Toru Takeshita don't have nearly the experience of the other half of the team—Takeshita has just one Grand Prix Top 8 from almost thirteen years ago, compared to 33 Top 8s between the two Hall of Famers—no other team in the field can put up two resumes as stacked as those of Tsumura and Yasooka.
Your Nation Here?
There are plenty of strong teams to focus on—I haven't even mentioned the formidable squad from Canada that features Alexander Hayne and Jacob Wilson—but if we have learned anything from the last four years of World Magic Cup action, it is that it is anyone's tournament. Teams like Greece, Scotland, and Guatemala that have come in with little expectation have showcased their country's Magic scene before a worldwide audience and given themselves a path onto the Pro Tour. And remember that Denmark and Chinese Taipei were not teams anyone was talking about going into the World Magic Cup each of the years they won it all.
Perhaps "World Magic Crucible" would be a better name for the tournament.
Be sure to tune in to twitch.tv/magic beginning at 10 a.m. local time (CET)/1 a.m. PT/4 a.m. ET/9 a.m. UTC on November 18 to catch all the action of this year's World Magic Cup!