One of the personal highlights for me was getting the opportunity to do sideline interviews, which is one of the few aspects of coverage I have never experienced before. Ever since we added that component to coverage, I have been a gnat buzzing in the ear of Sheldon and Rashad, asking questions on top of their own questions, until finally someone got the hint and gave me a chance to ask the questions directly AND fill out my coverage bingo card.
During my time in the feature match area I had to chance to see how much the World Magic Cup mattered to the teams that were vying for it. And through several of the interviews it really crystallized how much the event meant for fans in each team's home country to have their national team playing on the game's biggest stage. Some nations saw their teams making their deepest runs at this level of competition; for others, it was a return to the Top 8 spotlight.
Hungary—again led by Tamás Nagy—finished one tier higher than their semifinal finish from a year ago. Nagy described the Magic scene in Hungary as being small but voracious, with close to two dozen players traveling to European Grand Prix and roving squads of Hungarians trying to win PTQs in nearby countries. He is seeing more of those players travel to Pro Tours with him with each passing event.
"During the last season there were Pro Tours with four or five Hungarian players, when it was max one in the past seasons," said Nagy. He played on every Pro Tour last season as a Gold Pro. He is Silver heading into this season, but with the qualification from his team's Top 4 finish he was optimistic about stringing together another full year of Pro Tours. "My plan is go to Hawaii by reaching the Gold level during the season!"
Despite having been on the Sunday stage the year before, Nagy was still overwhelmed by the support of Magic players back home in Hungary throughout the tournament.
"I have never seen—couldn't even imagine—the support we got," said the awed Hungarian National Champion who was greeted by more than 1,000 comments on their national message forum. "They commented on every second while watching the superb live coverage! Even players who don't play anymore watched it live and plan to come back to the game. We even got recognition outside the community from local radio and newspapers."
Nagy also forged a strong bond with his team that he plans to keep together through Pro Tour Theros in Dublin.
"We will stay in contact for sure; also, we just formed a good friendship with the very strong Austrian team, so our plan is to prepare together," he said—clearly their quarterfinal opponents harbored no ill will about their defeat at Nagy's hands.
All in all, it was an amazing week for Nagy, who got to share the experience with not only his teammates but his fiancée, which led to his two most memorable moments from the event. He listed them out as: "Hugging my friends after making it into the Top 8 and holding the trophy with my soon-to-be wife!"
While it may not have come as much of a surprise to see Hungary making it back to the Top 8 after getting there last year, it is pretty safe to say that Iceland shocked the world—including players back in Iceland—with their Top 4 finish and qualification for Pro Tour Theros. They were clearly a team having a great time throughout the event but also playing high-level Magic. Even National Champion Alvin Orri Gíslason was not looking for much more than a Top 32 finish for his team—which would have been higher than any previous finish by an Icelandic player at this level of competition.
"We didn't have as much time to test as we wanted but were hoping for a Top 32. We didn't think too much of it, though, we just wanted to play as much Magic as we could," said the captain of the team, who heaped praise upon the mental game of his teammates. "We really enjoy playing Magic and that's ultimately what we were doing in the tournament. Before each round we would say to ourselves, 'Let's just play a good game of Magic' and then sit down and do just that. What I learned about my teammates is that we are all relaxed and level headed, no matter the result of the matches."
Iceland may be a small Magic country but it was extremely loud in its support of the team.
"We have a MTG Facebook group in Iceland. I was reading through the comments there and it's a bit funny to see how the momentum builds," he recalled. "At first, we have a single comment on how we lost in the first round to Croatia and then, as the days progress, more and more people join in until everyone goes crazy over us playing in Top 8. After coming home, everyone has been congratulating us and the Game Day tournament last Sunday had the highest turnout for a midsummer Game Day tournament in a long time. Also, a lot of old players have been showing interest in the game again."
The last round of pool play as teams tried to lock up spots for Sunday was one of the tensest, most electric hours of Magic I can recall. Gíslason remembered precisely the moment when he felt that tension easing and the dream of playing as much Magic as possible becoming more real.
"In the win-and-in game for Top 8 vs. Greece I won my match quickly and asked my teammates how they were. Both were 1–0 up and with a good board position. I realized then that we made Top 8 and it was such a great feeling," he said. They would go on to win another match on Sunday and lock up their PT Theros invites, which means Gíslason will have a little more competition for the National Championship next year.
I really enjoyed following along with the progress of the Chilean and Irish teams throughout pool play and was sad to see both of them get eliminated in their final matches. I spoke to Irish team spokesman Sean Fitzgerald about their event, finishing 9th, and the upcoming Pro Tour in Dublin.
"The Magic scene in Ireland is currently thriving," said Fitzgerald. "It is an incredibly tight-knit community where everyone knows each other and gets along and in recent years that community has really started to grow at a much faster rate. We have four main 'hubs' of magic with Cork, Dublin, Galway, and Belfast. In the last three or four years Galway had really shrunk and started to fade away but has recently surged again, bringing a lot of new players to the game and the community. Belfast and Dublin keep going from strength to strength and show no signs of stopping while Cork continues to grow slowly and steadily."
There have been a handful of notable Irish players of the years, most prominently John Larkin and Stewart Shinkins. Larkin finished in the Top 8 of a Pro Tour twice in his day, and worked with some of the top European players, including Kai Budde, while Shinkins was considered one of the best Limited players in the game for a time. Fitzgerald offered a winking suggestion for the dearth of Irish names on the Pro Tour Top 8 pages of the record books.
"There is definitely a small factor in the Irish focusing more on the social aspect of Magic rather than the competitive. The 2002 World Championships being a prime example, Ireland led the field after Day One and had probably the best Constructed deck among the teams there. One Friday night later, however, and the wheels seemed to fall off. Luckily, Larkin still managed a Top 8 and the team finished in 14th, doing the country proud—being our highest finish until this year."
Still, Fitzgerald was optimistic about the fate of Irish and Northern Irish players heading into the hometown Pro Tour and singled out a couple of names to look out for, including the aforementioned Worlds Top 8 competitor.
"Well ,with Larkin playing, he is definitely one to look out for. Although he has been out of the Magic scene for a while I know he's taking the invite seriously and has started working with people in Ireland to make a good run at it. One of the people he will be working with is Alan Warnock, who qualified from the North. Alan was on the Northern Ireland team with us at the WMC (his third year in a row) and has a few PT qualifications under his belt. Although he hasn't broken through with a big finish yet, he is incredibly young and very talented. He helped us a lot going into the WMC and built my entire sideboard and sideboard plan. Considering I went 7–0 in Constructed with five Game 1 losses I think his sideboard was a lot better than my main deck!"
During a sideline interview with the team, Fitzgerald said that their phones were blowing up with messages of support. Even after they finished 9th the support never wavered—and why should it? It was the best team finish by an Irish squad in the country's history.
"The reaction was unbelievable. People were incredibly supportive and proud. We have players who had left the game coming back to have another go and the younger players being more driven than ever. Even when we came in 9th the support never waned. Finishing 9th actually caused quite a funny situation as I have a reputation for coming in 9th in Ireland—having four 9th-place finishes in Irish Nationals. So when I announced on our community's FB page that we were 9th and I felt partly responsible due to my 'curse' the reaction was hilarious. People focused far more on the funny side and at just how well we had done. Nobody expected that finish out of us, so the fact that we did that well, people only looked at the positive. People are still talking about it in an extremely positive light."
Fitzgerald talked about the team's modest goals for the event—he wanted to do better than last year's 66th-place finish.
"We all knew we were capable players who could easily do well but the fact that Ireland has not had much success as a team in Worlds, coupled with the fact that our entire team was made up of people with full-time jobs, meant we didn't feel as confident or prepared as we should have. Our expectation on Day 0 was 'Let's have fun; if we make Day Two, lovely; if not, what harm? Let's just try not to embarrass ourselves.' The Thursday evening Dave did point out however, 'There are seventy-one teams; I don't really think thirty-one are better than us,' so there was some signs of confidence all right. Finishing 1st after Day One and 3rd in the standings at the end of Day Two was completely out of the realm of our imaginations, though."
While many players will shy away from the spotlight, for the Irish team getting to win two feature matches on camera was something they expect to remember for a very long time.
"Obviously, winning is great, but to do so on camera when you know the world is watching, and more importantly your whole county is watching and analyzing every move you make, gives an incredible feeling that is hard to describe. I know it meant a lot to the people at home to see us win like that and for us as a team it was even cooler still that after each match we got to have a chat with you and express ourselves on air. To get that much positive attention for doing something you love is just... awesome! In the truest sense of the word."
Fitzgerald was not the National Champion this year but unexpectedly has his eye on that prize for next season—as well as a little good-humored revenge on Hannes Karem and the Estonian team that beat them multiple times and likely kept them from playing on Sunday.
"Originally, my plans were just the same as they always were: play a draft every week in the local shop, do any larger fun events that are nearby and travel to all the PTQs around the country. Suddenly, however, getting a large boost of Pro Points that puts me in the running for team captain next year has changed that a little. I am now looking for European GPs that are around dates I can get time off for, PTQs in the UK that are easy to get to, and I have actually started using my Magic Online account. Basically, I want to make a run at doing well this year, picking up a few more pro points, and most importantly improving on this year's result at next year's WMC. My teammates and I have also started looking at PTQ dates in Estonia. We haven't dropped that rivalry just yet!"