The whole season has been a build-up to this weekend for the 24 Magic players competing in the World Championship at PAX Prime in Seattle. For some, it began at last year's World Championship, for others at the World Magic Cup. For almost everyone, it was a year-long process that played out over four Pro Tours and more than fifty Grand Prix tournaments, with precious Pro Points getting squirrelled away at every stop just to book a trip to Seattle for this exclusive tournament—a tournament that even the most experienced Hall of Fame pro would consider a crowning achievement to any Magic player's career.
With only 24 players competing in the event, the normal process of preparing for a tournament gets disrupted. In this era of large playtesting teams with specialized roles, players are lucky to have even one of those teammates qualified alongside them. There is also the matter of geographic disparity to factor in, and what happens in the end are some off-brand pairings as players look to maximize their chances and opportunities to prepare.
Reigning World Champion Shahar Shenhar is now a member of ChannelFireball's Team Pantheon, but has worked with Team ChannelFireball for most of his career. In the end, he decided to work with his old teammate and recent Hall of Fame-elect Eric Froehlich for the tournament. Shahar is the winningest player in the brief history of the tournament, winning the last two World Championships and admitting that he feels more pressure to win this year than he did last year. That may be in part due to the fact that he enjoyed the luxury of Platinum for each of the last two seasons immediately after winning each event. Remember those 54 Grand Prix we mentioned earlier? Well that week-in, week-out grind has not been a part of his last two Pro Tour seasons. Not winning this event would mean significantly more travel for Shenhar next season.
It is easy to understand the pairing with Froehlich, who has been having one of the best seasons of his Hall of Fame career—but the final outcome still left him wanting more. He came into the elimination rounds of the last Pro Tour of the season holding onto the Player of the Year lead and the captaincy of the United States, only to get unseated from both by the finals appearance of Mike Sigrist. While some of the teams for this event sported more internal manpower, Shenhar and Froehlich were able to avail themselves of the likes of Luis Scott-Vargas, Josh Utter-Leyton, and Paul Cheon to bounce around decklists for Constructed and help finalize pick orders for Limited.
The same weekend that World Champion Shahar Shenhar secured his invite to this tournament, another invite was being handed out to the captain of the winning World Magic Cup team.
Martin Müller was Danish National Champion and went on to work this season with the Scandinavian-based Team Thommo. The clubhouse for that squad is going to need to draft plans to shore up their mantle—to handle the weight of all the trophies they have won this year. Fortunately for Müller's playtesting plans, winning trophies has a high correlation with getting an invite to the World Championship. Joining him in preparation for this tournament were Magic Online Champion Magnus Lantto, Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir Champion Martin Dang, and Pro Tour Magic Origins Champion Joel Larsson.
While it is always great to add a player of Joel Larsson's pedigree to a playtesting team, they were just grateful for the extra body. With four different formats to prepare for and so many potential matchups to play out in the two Constructed formats, they were able to be much more productive than they would have been with just three playtesters. The team would have likely pitched to find a fourth player had Larsson not conveniently won the last Pro Tour.
The first Pro Tour trophy of the past season went to Ari Lax at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, when the world was introduced to the Abzan deck that has employed all manner of adjectives—agro, mid-range, control—over the ensuing season. Steve Rubin is credited as the team's Abzan guide, and he joins his Team Luxe teammate Lax in preparing for the event on the back of his ridiculously consistent Pro Tour season, which did not yield a PT Top 8 but carried him to an At-Large berth nonetheless. Their team also placed Seth Manfield into a Top 8 this season at Pro Tour Fate Reforged. It has been a while since former Player of the Year Brad Nelson has earned a PT Top 8, but he has been ludicrous in Standard at the GP level, and the team was looking to him as their Standard expert.
Although Magic Online was a resource that the team used to prepare for the event, they did want to make sure they got to play with physical cards as much as possible. This tournament is going to employ the Vancouver mulligan rule, which will become the norm for Magic come the Battle for Zendikar Prerelease—and as such is not currently used on Magic Online. It was crucial for Lax to playtest with the new rule, because he felt that extra consistency definitely impacted his deck choice in both Constructed formats.
The lone Pro Tour Champion we have not accounted for yet is Spain's Antonio Del Moral León, who won this year's Modern Pro Tour, Pro Tour Fate Reforged. Del Moral León was not comfortable working with a team that could have swelled to as many as five players with his presence, and opted to playtest alone on Magic Online. His methodology for preparing? How about 15 hours a day of MTGO practice, with his time split in thirds between the two Limited formats and Standard. He barely touched the Modern format, confidant in his ability to tune and play the Splinter Twin deck that already carried him to a title at the Pro Tour.
When I think back on the 2014-15 Pro Tour season, it is a story from the Grand Prix that stands out for me. The epic chase around the globe between Pascal Maynard and Alexander Hayne for the Grand Prix Player of the Year title was a joy to behold. Hayne finally won the invite at the very last GP of the season, and found himself preparing for this tournament with another title holder. Mike Sigrist earned an invite as the Player of the Year, and the two ChannelFireball/Face to Face games teammates were joined by At-Large invitees Owen Turtenwald and Jacob Wilson from The Pantheon.
The team preparation was mostly Turtenwald and Sigrist playing against each other on Magic Online—it should be noted that Turtenwald has played 12 hours a day on MTGO since the last Pro Tour, and is my pick to win the event—while Hayne and Wilson played face-to-face Magic against each other with an eye toward the Vancouver mulligan rule. Hayne also played in—and won—the first Canadian World Magic Cup Qualifier last weekend with his Standard Elf Rally deck.
Team Ultra Pro has posted ridiculous results this Pro Tour season, and while only Paul Rietzl and Sam Black are playing in the tournament, they will be able to avail themselves of the resources of the team. Hall of Fame pro Paul Rietzl has posted his outstanding season while working a full-time job—he was even working remotely during the early part of this week—and will have no mercy for any opponents. He joked that there had better not be a player in the tournament less prepared than him. He was not claiming to be unprepared mind you, just that there was no excuse for anyone being less prepared than him.
Ondřej Stráský has posted two Pro Tour Top 8s during this breakout season, and he found himself preparing for this tournament with Hall of Fame pro Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa and Thiago Saporito. At one point this team included Shenhar and Del Moral León, which would have made it the largest team in the field, but those two splintered off leaving the two Brazilians to work with the young player from the Czech Republic.
Talking to the players in the tournament about which player they would either least like to play against or most like to beat for bragging purposes, the name mentioned time and time again was Japan's Yuuya Watanabe. He is the only player to compete in this event all four years running, and the only non-Shenhar to ever win it. For this event, he teamed with countryman Kentaro Yamamoto, who—like Watanabe—played in the semifinals of this tournament last season.
That leaves two more lone wolves unaccounted for in their preparation for the event. Shaun McLaren treated this event the same way he does any Pro Tour, and just worked by himself on MTGO to get ready. Lee Shi Tian was also off on his own, but took advantage of the good players in the Hong Kong Magic community, who were preparing for the WMCQ last weekend, to their mutual benefit. The work led to former National Champion Lam Tzu Yeung nabbing an invite last weekend.
This tournament has not been friendly to Lee Shi Tian thus far, despite his Pro Tour success. He attributed his poor performance to deck selection. He usually likes to play combo decks, and did so last year for both Constructed formats. It is his contention that the process of revealing decklists to your opponent—something unique to this event—meant those decks would be poor choices. Not only would he not be able to catch an opponent off guard with his win condition, but he would also not be able to take advantage of the information himself since his deck was dedicated to the combo and lacked interaction. He promised decks with more play to them for this year's event.
The 2015 Magic: The Gathering World Championship continues with Day Two today, August 28. Coverage resumes on the Magic Twitch channel beginning at 9 a.m. local time (PT)/12 p.m. ET/4 p.m. UTC.
And don't forget to tune in to the Magic Twitch channel for the Battle for Zendikar Preview Show, which takes place Saturday, August 29, at 7:30 p.m. PT/10:30 p.m. ET/2:30 a.m. UTC!
Coverage of the Top 4 of the 2015 World Championship will begin on Sunday, August 30, right after the Battle for Zendikar Preview Show rerun.