Posted in The Week That Was on December 11, 2009

By Brian David-Marshall

During the opening ceremonies of Worlds this year, as the captain of each National team marched down the center aisle of the magnificent auditorium in the Palazzi di Congressi, emcee Richard Hagon would read the country's name and then add a little tidbit about their team or team history. In some cases he would highlight a notable player on the team, as with Brazil's Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa or Germany's Sebastian Thaler. Other times he just had to get creative, as he did when announced the Chinese National Team. The three players were relatively unknown with 21 Pro Points between them—all coming in the 2009 season. Without any known stars to highlight, Rich instead looked back on past performances by the Chinese National Team, which included two Top 10 finishes at the last three World Championships. He announced them with the prophetic: "China: consistently punching above their weight."

Eighteen individual rounds, four team rounds, and two elimination matches later, the Chinese National team of Bo Li, Zhiyang Zhang, and Tong Wu had hit harder than the players on any other team and emerged at the 2009 Team World Champions. It was the first time any player from China won a premier event, and only the second time a Chinese player had stepped upon the Sunday stage at the Pro Tour—Ming Xu had previously made the Top 8 of Pro Tour–Kuala Lumpur. I wanted to get to know the Chinese team a little better, and with an assist from David Ong in the Wizards Asia-Pacific office, I was able to interview these three players, who have returned home to a far greater reception than they could have expected when they were planning their Roman holiday.

Bo Li was the captain of the team, and hails from Beijing. The 23-year-old recently graduated from college and is a shareholder in a boardgame café. He has been playing Magic since 2000, when the then–junior high school student was handed a Portal starter deck by a friend. His first taste of tournament action came at a Grand Prix Trial in a local card shop, but it was not until 2007 that the competitive bug bit.

"I became a regular in tournaments after 2007," said the Chinese team captain. "I think China became very competive at the second half of 2007. What attracts me the most about MTG is that it is a very outstanding TCG, but more important is the social aspect of the game. It provides a lot of human interaction and lets me make a lot of friends."

Zhiyang Zhang, also from Beijing, was the youngest member of the team at 20 years old and is still in school. A self-described "FNM drafter," he started playing during Ravnica block. His first competitive action was in 2007 when he took part in China Nationals. Earlier this season he finished 8th at Grand Prix–Bangkok with an 11-2-1 record through the Swiss rounds. Despite his success at two premier events this season Zhiyang explained that he "just play for fun."

The third member of the team was 28-year old Tong Wu, who works in television and, like his teammates, lives in Beijing. He has been playing Magic since he first encountered the game at the end of 1999 and made the leap into tournaments almost immediately.

"The first time I saw people playing MTG in a shop, I found it very interesting," recalled Wu whenI asked him what initially attracted him to Magic. "Then I bought some cards. I think I got interested because it is very complex. I started playing in tournaments right after I started playing around January 2000. The attraction is the feeling I get from tournaments: satistfaction of winning, and the things I learn from losing."

I have had the opportunity to see a lot of the world thanks to Magic, but mainland China is still on my to-do list and I asked the team members to describe the Magic community there, how the game is sold, and what types of tournaments are popular.

"We are mostly amateur," said Li. "We play in tournaments because we like the game and hope to better our skill. MTG provides an all new way of gaming, but it needs skill, [which] is very attractive. It is a great way to spend leisure time."

"I think there may be over 10,000 players in Beijing," said Wu, who went on to explain that much like here in North America only a small subsection of those players attend tournaments. "Regular players are about a few hundred."

"Every major city has a TCG shop, not just for MTG—but mostly MTG," added Li. "We usual play in the shop and sometimes McDonald's."

Only Zhang, with his GP Top 8, had experienced high level tournament success prior to making their National team and I wanted to know what their expectations were for the World Championships and how they prepared for the event. Especially when you consider that Li claimed to have never played a match of Legacy prior to sweeping through all six of his opponents with his Æther Vial–powered Fish deck.

Bo Li, China - Legacy

Download Arena Decklist
Instant (11)
4 Force of Will 2 Spell Snare 2 Stifle 3 Daze
Artifact (6)
2 Umezawa's Jitte 4 Aether Vial
Enchantment (4)
4 Standstill
Land (20)
4 Mutavault 4 Wasteland 12 Island
60 Cards

Not surprisingly the most experienced player had the loftiest goals. Zhang fully expected to make the Top 4 of the teams leg of Worlds coming in but that was not true of his two teammates. Wu was just hoping to do as well as some of the recent teams that China had sent to Worlds.

"I had very little expectation, I just hoped to make fewer mistakes," Wu said of his personal goals for the event. "As for team, I was hoping to be Top 8."

Li explained that the team's inexperience at high-level play led to them being somewhat underprepared for the event—a frightening thought for the rest of the world considering their result. Having Zhang, studying in Hangzhou, so far away from his teammates made preparation even more difficult. The team did not find themselves all in the same city until two days before their departure for Rome.

"We had almost no practice," lamented Li, who explained that Zhang had to borrow a Standard Jund deck for the individual competition and did not get to play with his Extended deck until that portion of the event. "My preparation was also not enough. After I used a Jund deck to win the third place in China Nationals, I only did alterations to my deck. I didn't put in a lot of thought and time. This caused me a 1-5 record in Standard. The reason I chose to play Legacy is because my other teammates had no idea how to play Legacy. All I had was my little understanding of how to use the Æther Vial deck. It is the truth that this is the first time I played Legacy; I was not not being boastful."

Wu, who posted the best individual finish among his teammates, put in whatever time he could find to prepare for the event.

"I had a lot of practice before the event," said Wu. "When the new set was released, I practiced 3-4 hours a day. During weekends and holidays, I played the whole day."

Li explained that the team's deck choice for Extended was based on Hunter Burton's Top 4 deck from PT–Austin. He added Umezawa's Jitte to the sideboard and picked up the tempo of the deck pretty quickly.

Zhiyang Zhang, China - Extended

Download Arena Decklist

For Standard, Li credited Wu's practice for the addition of Vampire Nighthawk in Jund, a card he felt was crucial in beating Lukas Blohon.

Tong Wu, China - Standard

Download Arena Decklist

During the team rounds I had the opportunity to watch Li playing Legacy against Sebastian Thaler. The German player opened Game 1 with an Ancient Tomb, Mox Diamond (discarding City of Traitors), and Trinisphere. Li had to read all of the cards that Sebastian played except for the Mox. He also read the Smokestack that came down a turn later, but he quickly put everything together and scooped it up and managed to win Games 2 and 3 thanks to Æther Vial and some heinously big Wake Thrashers. It was an impressive performance that did not see Li get flummoxed by the disparity in experience between himself and the former Rookie of the Year, or by not recognizing a staple Legacy card like Smokestack. What I found impressive was the rapidity with which Li understood what was going on, when he should not waste any more time playing a game that he was locked out of, and the fluidity of his sideboarding with little doubt—or consultation with his teammates.

"We didn't communicate very much," admitted Li. Once they started playing, each player took responsibility for his own match-up and format. "All we relied on was mutual respect and trust. In the format that I was not familiar with at all, I only knew about the most poplar Æther Vial decks. Goblins seemed to be very weak. Merfolk is blue so it is more balanced."

"Since this was my first time taking part in the World Championships, I had very little experience," Li continued, on the team's novice status and a close call that could have been calamitous. "I didn't know about the player meeting on the 18th and missed it. I didn't even know about the team tournament taking place right after the Standard individual tournament. We did not bring our Legacy deck at all. We hade to ask a friend who didn't play in Worlds to bring our Merfolk deck from our hotel room. We had to spend another €70 to build our main deck. I couldn't even find Relic of Progenitus, so I know I had no way to go against any graveyard deck. I just filled in two Mindbreak Trap and handed in the deck. I didn't have any confidence in the Legacy format as this was my first time playing it. I could not imagine myself going 6-0 in Legacy. I tried my best, I know I made some mistakes along the way. I must admit I got lucky in the team tournament."

The older format, which Li estimated less than two dozen players in all of China have had experience with before this year's Worlds, looked pretty daunting on the flight into Rome. But Li had a different perspective on the format six rounds later: "Legacy is actually very fun. It is not as crazy as I thought."

On camera they seemed quite reserved in victory, and I asked the players about their reaction to winning the Team Championship.

"The feeling was fantastic," said Zhang.

"I was very happy," said Wu. "I didn't look very excited because it was totally beyond my expectations."

"I am actually not as you saw me on the camera," said Li. "I am very excited. It is just that the three of us are very introverted and don't know how to express our feelings. This was not an easy accomplishment—a huge break for China—so we feel great. The most awesome feeling ever."

Zhang was surprised, and pleased, by the reaction the team win has had back at home.

"The local media all want to report on our winning the World Championship and they mentioned my name," said Zhang. "I will be in Shanghai soon—there is a reporter who wants to interview me there. Local players are very happy, friends have been congratulating me. Finally becoming a one-time star—cool."

"I have had many interviews with the media," said Wu of his victorious return. "Everyone is interested in MTG and wants to know how to play it well. Local players are very happy with our result. Some of them asked my advice on their deck, but most of the Beijing players have very high standards, so we discuss that most of the time."

"Well, my family cannot find any reason for me not to keep playing," laughed Li when asked about how he was greeted at home after his win. "Although they still hope that I don't spend so much money on MTG. In China, I hope everyone can use this opportunity to promote MTG. Maybe our Team Championship means nothing to Japan and America, but to China it is a big breakthrough, so I hope everyone can use this opportunity to promote MTG. I got many interviews. Many Chinese players are very excited. Some of them asked me to sign their cards when they see me. However, in my circle of good friends, they still treat me the same."

So what can we expect from this trio in the coming year? And from Chinese Magic in the coming seasons?

"I don't think I have the skill—or money—to take part in all the Pro Tours, but I will try my best to go," said Bo Li, who felt an important factor would involve not being the only Chinese player attending an event. "I believe one day, I will be in Top 8 like Ming Xu. I know it is hard but I will try and more Chinese players will try hard too."

Zhang was not certain that he would play in another Pro Tour this coming season, but did feel that we have not seen the last of China on the Sunday stage. Wu was hoping to attend next year's Pro Tour–San Diego and also felt that if opportunities present themselves, we will be seeing more Chinese players getting interviewed in this column in the coming years. He concluded the interview: "Chinese players have a very high standard of play but lack the opportunity."

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