The 2013–14 Magic season is slowly starting to rumble back to life. We have had a smattering of Grand Prix, Magic 2014 hits the shelves almost in tandem with the publication of this column, and there are two more warm-up events—GP Calgary (Standard) and GP Rimini (M14 Sealed)—before Worlds Week in Amsterdam, the first invitation-based event of the Pro Tour season. There will be two events, actually—both streamed live from Round 1 on Wednesday all the way through to the award ceremony on Sunday—with the sixteen-player World Championship and the World Magic Cup featuring teams from all over the world.
The World Magic Cup has changed slightly from last year's format, which saw players compete as individuals for the first leg of the event. Each team then dropped its lowest-scoring player and played as a three-person team. While there are still four-person teams this year, the team decides which player sits out by format for the first two days. Each player must play in at least one format each day. It may seem like cruel schoolyard rules that leave one player sad and waiting to get called, but since the sidelined player can coach and contribute to all the ongoing games for his or her team, there is some value in having one of your better players in that role.
"The bench thing is definitely a hard question," agreed Marijn Lybaert, a four-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor and Hall of Fame–eligible player. He won an WMCQ to join Vincent Lemoine on the Belgian squad, making them the National team that has the most PT Top 8s in the event, thanks to Lemoine's Sunday showing in Paris. "We have two experienced players (me and Vincent), and two people who don't have PT experience. We have talked about Vincent and me playing everything but I am not sure if that is the way to go. It might be better to switch Vincent and me constantly so there is always one of us sitting out to help the others."
Austrian National Champion Thomas Holzinger also felt that it was not as simple as simply bumping a player.
"That's a difficult question, since it depends on the format. Everyone of us has his skills and we will try to find the best solution for this case," Holzinger explained. "You could argue, for example, that the best Standard players should play the Standard deck they are familiar with, but the fourth guy has probably the biggest responsibility since he needs to know a lot about all the Standard decks we are playing."
Standard will be an even bigger challenge than it would normally be with an influx of new cards from Magic 2014. Teams are going to be playing Unified Standard, which means that the deck-construction limit of no more than four copies of a card is applied across all three decks that the players bring to the table. If you have two decks playing black and green you could give four copies of Abrupt Decay to one player and then try to find something that filled that role for the other deck, or you could split them. But there cannot be more than four copies of the card across all three decks. That also—and perhaps most importantly—applies to the nonbasic lands for the players. The only exception other than basic lands is, of course, Shadowborn Apostle. Frank Karsten joked on Twitter—at least I think he was joking—that he was hoping at least one team built three Shadowborn Apostle decks.
He also wrote a tremendous primer on the format and how he expects teams to solve the puzzle of Unified Standard. Karsten will be joining the text coverage team for Worlds Week and I cannot wait to see him dive into the decks of the format.
Someone who might have an edge in Unified Constructed is Brazilian National Champion Willy Edel, who made the finals of Pro Tour Charleston playing Unified Ravnica Block Constructed. "I think this change is amazing since it gives a lot of room to try to assemble the best set of decks that beat other people's deck with very specific sideboard options," said the four-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor who is Hall of Fame eligible. "It personally hurts me a lot because I can't play Naya, since it uses cards from every other deck. I have a few ideas for strategies to break it, but I will save it for Amsterdam."
Team Sealed has become a popular weapon in the Organized Play arsenal, and it really started rolling last year when it was a part of the World Magic Cup—although not everyone got to tackle a card pool. With individual play making up Day One last year, there was a cut before Team Sealed and many teams did not get to try their hand at it. This year, players will have to find their decks for the first three rounds of play hidden in the contents of twelve Magic 2014 packs.
Miguel Gatica is the Costa Rican National Champion thanks in no small part to his Top 16 finish at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. In the wake of that finish he has been traveling to more events and has picked up the experience to take a strong hand during the deck-construction process in Team Sealed.
"I have played three Team Sealed GPs, so I'll be the leader. With good feedback of my teammates. And second in charge is Fernando Solorzano," said Gatica, who expected it to be more straightforward than the Team Sealed on Day Two with Return to Ravnica Block that he hoped his team would still be around for. "I haven't played M14 Team Sealed yet, but I think is going to be easier since you just build two-color decks, etc. And in RTR you have to try to play each bomb, and you have to deal with lots of multicolor cards and mana fixing issues, besides putting together a reasonable shell for each one."
Willy Edel had his team thinking about Sealed in general but was also focused on the operational tasks of playing in a Team Sealed event, which can be tricky for players unfamiliar with the format. "I asked all them to play RGD and M14 Sealed as much as they can so they will be familiarized with the cards. We will probably try building some Sealed online to practice the archetypes. Once we get all together at Amsterdam we will do some testing so I can assign roles to everyone—who lists the pools, who separates playables from garbage, etc. Even though M14 is brand new, it's a core set, so I think RTR block will be trickier."
One of the more memorable moments from last year's World Magic Cup was the breakthrough finish for the Scottish team lead by Stephen Murray. There were modest expectations put on the team last year, but when they arrived outfitted in kilts it was clear that they meant business. They posted a Top 8 finish and are looking to surpass that in Amsterdam.
Murray has taken his leadership role very seriously and has spent his time building as many Team Sealed pools as he possibly can. He has also been thinking about the impact Magic 2014 will have on Unified Standard.
"Since we haven't had access to M14 knowledge for long, I've been making special effort to spend a lot of time testing fringe strategies that can hold their own, while not eating up the more typical popular cards. Now we can fully explore M14's impact," said the Scottish National Champion, who will be joining up with some other teams before the event to practice. "We are heading out a week in advance, where we will be testing with a few teams consistently, like England and Norway, and some people from other countries too. We will be running Team Sealed events against each other, and playing a LOT of Constructed Magic. Basically won't see much of the city at all!"
Murray was also happy knowing his team had a secret weapon at their disposal: "Being able to talk in English to each other, but still remain incomprehensible to non-Scots!"
After Day One is completed, the Top 32 teams will advance to Day Two and pool play. There will be eight pools of four teams that will compete within the pool and play three rounds—one against each other team in the pool. At the end of those three rounds, the top two teams from each pool will advance to four pools of four and repeat the process to yield the Top 8 teams. Pool play Part 1 will be Return to Ravnica Block Team Sealed with four booster packs of each set to build with. The sixteen remaining teams will then play Unified Standard again.
Raphael Levy is perhaps the most experienced player in the tournament. He has been playing on the Pro Tour nonstop since the 90s and is a Pro Tour Hall of Famer. He is also very excited about his team and is looking to make a deep run at the tournament. Interestingly, he would be willing to man the sidelines if that is what it took to get the French team deep into pool play on Saturday.
"I know I wouldn't have any problem sitting out for the Constructed portion. My teammates have been grinding the Standard PTQs and they know the format better than I do. I believe the least-confident player in a given format should sit out," said the Pro Tour Hall of Famer, who has a lot of confidence in the players who were churned to the top in the WMCQ process.
"I know Timothée and Stéphane fairly well," said Levy, who will be join Timothée and Stéphane in Amsterdam to prepare about a week before the tournament. "I've been testing with Tim (GP London 2013 winner) for all PTs in the past season. I played together with Stéphane in the last WMC (I've known him for a long time, too) and trust his skills. I don't know much about our fourth member, Yann Guthman, but I heard he's a good Constructed player and I'm looking forward to working with him.
"The fact that I know two of my teammates really well, that I trust them, and that they trust me is a huge advantage. Doubting your teammates is probably the worst thing you could do for your team. He or she will sense it, and feel less confident in his or her play and will end up making mistakes. That's what's so hard in this tournament, you don't get to choose your teammates! I'm happy with this team and I know we can do better than last year (we finished 10th)."
Player of the Year Josh Utter-Leyton is one of a small handful of players who will have to prepare for both the World Magic Cup and the World Championship, which will make for a very long week for the four-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor. While he obviously wants to do well in both tournaments, he has stated that being the World Champion is his priority, and that means he has not been able to playtest as much as he normally would for any one given events (although, if the legends of his playtesting stamina are even partially true, part-time Utter-Leyton playtesting is still probably more than what most people are up for.)
While most players I spoke to about Team Sealed felt that Magic 2014 would be more straightforward than Return to Ravnica Block, Utter-Leyton had a different take.
"I haven't played M14 Team Sealed at all, but I suspect that it is actually harder. The gold cards give you a lot of guidance on how to configure the three decks, and without them it's much harder to determine which colors belong together. So I think that is going to make deck building more challenging for M14," he explained.
The United States team is going to not only benefit from Utter-Leyton's vast experience, but if they can withstand Luis Scott-Vargas's, "groan-inducing puns," they have another voice of experience to provide coaching, even though he will not be playing. Something Utter-Leyton is considering doing himself.
"I'm volunteering to sit out for Standard. I'm going to be well prepared for the format and think I'll be able to effectively coach multiple matches from the bench. If someone can do the same for Team Sealed that would be ideal, though it is much harder to come into the middle of a Limited game than it is for Standard."
Utter-Leyton will have already played twelve rounds of the World Championship by the time the World Magic Cup kicks off and will be hoping to play more of both on Sunday. Will he get that chance? What about Hall of Famer Raphael Levy or four-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitors Willy Edel and Marijn Lybaert? Or perhaps it will be a chance for some of the smaller Magic countries to mount a breakthrough finish. Be sure to follow the live coverage all weekend long as we work our way in from the corners and solve the Sunday puzzle.