Allan Christensen, Elias Watsfeldt, David Ochoa, and Willy Edel
Each team will be made up of four players, with three members coming from the qualifiers and one National Champion, who will be that country's player with the highest Pro Point standings at the conclusion of Pro Tour Avacyn Restored in Barcelona. If the champions were going to be determined today, the event would be the most star-studded team event in international Magic competition. Japan's Yuuya Watanabe, who just won his 5th Grand Prix this past weekend, is coasting along with a 12-point lead over Shuuhei Nakamura; Brian Kibler holds a narrow lead over both Josh Utter-Leyton and Luis Scott-Vargas in what will be a gripping race for the US National Championship down the stretch; and Paulo Vitor damo da Rosa is a mortal lock for Brazil's A seat.
The list goes on and on, with the likes of Italy's Samuele Estratti, Czech Republic's Martin Juza, Great Britain's Richard Bland, France's Raphael Levy, and Denmark's Allan Christensen all leading their country's standings with 30 or more Pro Points.
Allan Christensen with Janus Kofoed and Aik Petersen, Worlds 2012.
Okay, I am going to confess that I did not know much about Christensen before working on this column. But if there is one thing I have learned in my nearly two decades of Magic involvement, it is that if there is a person high up in the standings that you don't know anything about... you had best find out something. I caught up with the 29-year old software engineer/entrepreneur to find out more about his career, potentially winning back-to-back National Championships, and the state of Danish Magic.
His sporadic Pro Tour career goes back to a debut at Pro Tour Los Angeles 2001, where he finished 37th—which should be noted is pretty impressive—and he got back to the Pro Tour as a member of the Danish National Team for the 2001 Worlds in Sydney, Australia, where he had the chance to play a little "bonus Magic."
"After a heartbreaking loss in the finals at Nationals that year, I finished just outside the money individually, but with the team, we made it to a tie for 2nd place with Team USA," recalled Christensen. "As the team event plays to a finals, a decision was made to have a playoff match to determine which team got in the finals. Thus we had another draft against Team USA, and sadly they won it—deservingly, I might add; they out-drafted us—so we finished 3rd."
The following season, he made the Top 32 of Pro Tour Venice and found himself qualified for another Pro Tour by virtue of that finish. He was on the brink of having enough Pro Points to even be qualified for the World Championships that lay beyond Pro Tour Yokohama, but a family event and fear of the SARS virus meant he skipped the PT in Japan and his Magic career went into dormancy.
"After that, I played some PTQs and even a few PTs in the following years as I drifted on to other things. I did come back for a huge GP Madrid in '08, as I was on vacation in Spain at the time," Christensen reflected. "I Top 8ed that event, but my draft deck in the Top 8 was downright awful, and I was swiftly knocked out in the quarterfinal."
Christensen refers to past Danish Nationals as a "High School reunion sort of thing," since it was always a great way for old friends to get together and rekindle their shared passion for the game. Christensen began playing at PTQs to prepare for last year's Nationals. After fooling around with gimmicky combo decks for most of the season, he opted in on the "best deck" strategy and picked up Caw-Blade, which promptly carried him to the Top 8—and a proverbial blue envelope—in the last PTQ of the season. It led to a gripping final game for the title of 2011 Danish National Champion against Janus Kofoed—the closest pursuer of Christensen for the 2012 Championship.
"Well, let's not count out Janus entirely—he could still top me with a Top 8 finish in Barcelona!" cautioned Christensen. He who knows Kofoed would not mind a little revenge for the 2011 game, which saw Kofoed lose after the eventual champ mulled to four cards—FOUR—in their final game. Both players were on Caw-Blade and Christensen had to keep a hand with lands and Day of Judgment, which blunted the first assault he was under from Kofoed but did not offer much for him to work with. He found himself on his heels the whole game, taking damage from Kofoed's creatures, paying life to buy turns with Dismembers, and getting sicker and sicker from a Nexus. Things turned around with Christensen clinging to the game at 1 life.
"Janus (was) down to beating with his Inkmoth Nexus, which got me up to 8 poison, when I drew a Preordain, seeing Emeria Angel and Tectonic Edge," replayed Christensen. "I took the Angel and left the Edge on top. Then I played the Angel, and a land, but unfortunately, Janus's last two cards were a Dismember for my Angel and an Into the Roil for the Bird token, so the Nexus put me to 9 poison and I flipped my Tectonic Edge into play. The Edge got rid of his Nexus in his next combat phase, and now it was my turn for action: I came back with Jace Beleren, which finally drew me into my Hawks, and from there I was able to edge him out of the match, his last comment of the match being, 'Allan, please don't beat me like this...'"
Assuming for the moment that Janus Kofoed does not catch him, Christensen listed Kofoed, Michael Bonde, and GP Madrid 2008 winner Lasse Nørgaard as a handful of the talented players in his country he would love to see join him on this year's team. Christensen expected that the Qualifiers in his country would be quite large, although he had some concerns that older inactive players would not be able to jump back in as they might have under the old rating invites for Nationals.
"Whether this is good or bad I don't know, but it is a fact that if rating was still around, there would likely be more talented players in them," he said before qualifying the statement. "However, I may be overstating this, as it only takes 100 PWPs in Denmark, and that is quite reasonable."
With just three events between now and the end of the 2012–13 season, Christensen was hoping that he could find the necessary 10 points to reach Platinum status for next year. A strong finish in Barcelona would go a long way.
"I will certainly be playing with the awesome people in Aalborg to try and figure out the format, but I am talking to some other people as well about knowledge sharing," said Christensen. "With the big teams putting a lot of talent and hours into their preparation, they of course have an edge, but Block is not that deep, so hopefully Janus and I can keep up well enough in this one."
In Sweden, the new qualification threshold has worked well at incentivizing players to play in order to secure an invite for the three events. Kenny Öberg is in a five-horse race for the title of National Champion with Joel Larsson, Martin Berlin, Denniz Rachid, and Elias Watsfeldt, all within 5 points of his lead.
Elias Watsfeldt vs. Benjamin Leitner, Grand Prix Lille 2012.
"People have actually fought their way to 200 points without fear of losing any on the way," said Watsfeldt of the new ratings system. While he can't attend all three events in Sweden, he will be playing in the last two of the season—and hoping he can pass Öberg at the upcoming Pro Tour.
"I will not attend the first one," explained the young Swedish player on the rise, "due to it being too far away, with school and the oncoming Grand Prix and Pro Tour, but I will attend the other two, since then I have plenty of time. I regard them as 'a PTQ' feeding a Pro Tour I dearly want to qualify for."
Watsfeldt never paid much attention to previous incarnations of the team event at Worlds since it was such a small portion of the overall Championship weekend. With teams flying in from all over the World for this specific event, he expects that the World Magic Cup will be much bigger—and much tougher—than Worlds.
"The spot earned by being #1 in the Pro Points standings will make the field very strong, as that is also where the 'star power' is coming from. From my experience at Worlds 2011, and also what I've found Kenny Öberg's experience to be, is that Worlds was the easiest of the four big events per year, and that is due to the people qualifying via their Nationals," he explained. "I also think that the States will bring a very strong team, probably the strongest on paper, to the World Magic Cup."
One of the players from the United States who will be vying for one of the three open spots is David Ochoa, who was looking at his travel options while not completely discounting his ability to catch up and surpass current leader Brian Kibler.
David Ochoa vs. Phillip Bau, GP Portland 2010
"It's going to be difficult to pass up the Dragonmaster himself, who has a 10-point lead at the moment; it basically comes down to me needing to spike Pro Tour Avacyn Restored in Barcelona," said Ochoa—which would be a fine time for the former National team member to get his elusive first Pro Tour Top 8. "If Kibler manages to somehow hold on and fend off myself along with the rest of the ChannelFireball team, then I'll be looking forward to playing in the World Magic Cup National Qualifiers. I haven't decided on whether I'll fly out to St. Charles on June 2nd, but I'll definitely make the trip to Oakland on June 9th—I don't really have a good excuse because it's less than twenty miles from where I live. Assuming I fail there, I won't be able to make it out to compete in Baltimore because of a friend's wedding."
While the all-star nature of the team's captain should ensure a higher quality of play than we might have seen at previous team events, Ochoa thought there was a hidden factor that will make the event even more compelling to watch.
"The team competition at Worlds had always added to the incredibly busy preparation schedule that the individual competition required. One of the problems that often arose would be that one format would be left neglected, and that the person responsible for playing it would simply be handed a deck. With the Magic World Cup, there won't be another tournament going on simultaneously to create background noise, and it will allow the teams to dedicate their complete focus on the one event," explained the always-thoughtful Ochoa. "The competition should be good. I wouldn't expect to get very many free wins if I were playing, that's for sure. I would estimate that the skill level will be comparable to a Pro Tour. Most people will know what they're doing. There will be some pretty amazing players in attendance and some great Magic to play and watch."
One player who knows a thing or two about Team competition is Pro Tour Charleston finalist Willy Edel, who trails his teammate from that event, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, by an insurmountable 35 points for the lead in Brazil.
Willy Edel, GP Lincoln 2012.
"I will play the WCQ for sure, at least the one in my city, maybe the others if I find a cheap flight," said Edel. "WCQ are pretty much PTQs for a new kind of PT, but I'd rather play a team competition with my country's flag than playing at any PT—no doubt about it."
"Team Pro Tours are amazing, and it will be different from Worlds because the whole tournament will be team focused," said Edel, reinforcing what Ochoa had to say about preparation for the event. "I doubt the international teams will playtest as they did for Worlds. This time, LSV knows that he is facing Shuuhei, PV, and Juza for the title in a thirty-two-team competition after Day One."
He also raises an interesting wrinkle with the teammates Kibler, Nakamura, Da Rosa, and Juza all sitting atop their respective national standings. Which will be stronger—team alliances or national pride? I know I can't wait to find out!