FIRST TIMERS AT THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

Posted in 2014 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP - COVERAGE on December 3, 2014

By Josh Bennett

The World Championship as it is today is a young tournament. Started two years ago as The Players Championship, it crowns each Pro Tour season with a tournament unlike any other. A small field of the year's best players from across the globe come together to do battle across four formats and fourteen rounds with valuable Pro Points up for grabs in every single match. We say it's the tournament "Where Every Match is a Feature Match," and this year's elite field more than lives up to the spectacle of its predecessors.

It's larger than before, too, having been expanded to a roster of twenty-four. Between that and the tournament's short pedigree there are fourteen players this weekend experiencing their first taste of this prestigious event. I managed to catch some of them between rounds to find out their thoughts on the World Championship and what it means to them.

Raymond Perez, Jr.

Late in Day One I caught up with Rookie of the Year Raymond Perez, Jr, still as smiling and easy-going as ever despite five grueling rounds without a win in his pocket. I offered some small sympathy but he brushed it aside with a laugh. "I knew coming in that I'm the big underdog here. And even besides that, sometimes you're just not going to win. There's still a lot of tournament left." I asked him if he felt much pressure, not just as an underdog, but also as a player whose career is just starting and playing against serious veterans.

"Of course I want to do well, to play my best, I don't have huge expectations for myself. I thought I was ready for Vintage Masters, but when I looked at my deck is was just ughhh. Now I'm 0-2 in Modern, not great, but I'm not really a Modern player. I'm hoping to do well in Standard. The thing is, I've played these guys before, so there's not that intimidation. If I can get any edge at all it'll be that my opponents underestimate me. I'm not about to underestimate them, I know they're all great players, but they don't know me. I'm just the rookie. So maybe they don't play as hard against me and I get a small edge there."

Lars Dam

Next on my list was the other unknown quantity, Magic Online Champion Lars Dam. He, too, was reveling in this most elite of competitions. "It's just incredible. I think more than anything, it's just the coolest tournament. All these amazing players. It really means a lot to me that I get to play here." I asked him if he felt a pressure to perform. "Not really. For me it's just about the experience. I think if I had been here a few years ago when I was playing a lot more Magic I would really feel it, but to be honest I felt a lot more pressure trying to qualify for the Magic Online Championship Series. It sounds strange but I was so focused on that, getting there, I felt the pressure every round I played. Even when I was playing the MOCS itself it was easier."

Hall of Famer (16) Paul Rietzl

Even for players who have played for a long time at the top level, the World Championship is a cut above. Pro Tour Champion Paul Rietzl admitted to feeling unusually out of his depth. "It's weird for me, because usually for a tournament I have high expectations for myself but also don't feel much pressure. Here it's the opposite - modest expectations and lots of pressure. I don't even think I'm in the top half of the players here. You know, I'm not a professional anymore. I skipped a bunch of North American GPs this year. So even if I were the twentieth-best player in the world, seventeen of those guys better than me are here this weekend."

Hall of Famer Raphaël Lévy

Hall of Famer Raphaël Lévy was feeling the effects of playing against such a stacked field. "It's an incredible tournament, but it is so tough. You don't get any easy matches. You have to play your best round after round." For Lévy, too, the World Championship is special. "It's just a great tournament, you know? It's a really big deal."

(2) Jérémy Dezani

What about for someone like Jérémy Dezani, reigning Player of the Year? I asked him how he saw this event, having already accomplished so much in his career. Was this something he felt was the next big mountain for him to climb?

"You tell me," he said with a smile. "It's like this. Here I'm just one player out of twenty-four. Anybody can win this event. Maybe some have a better chance than others, but any player here could win it. The players are all so strong, what matters is who is at their best. Right now I think that's Ivan [Floch]."

(19) Patrick Chapin

Lastly I spoke with Pro Tour Journey into Nyx Champion Patrick Chapin, who famously said that what was important about his win was that it qualified him for this event.

"As long as I've been playing I've wanted to be the World Champion." In the past, the World Championship was much like a Pro Tour, easier to get to but still difficult to win. "Now that the event has changed, it's incredibly hard just to qualify for it. You have to be one of the very best. Last year I decided I would really dedicate myself to getting here, so my whole season was looking toward this."

It's hard to reconcile that passion and dedication with Chapin's demeanor this weekend. Not even putting up a perfect 7-0 Day One could crack his mellow focus. "There's still a lot of games to play. I'm just going to take them one at a time and play the best I can."

Chapin's attitude sums up three aspects of the World Championship that I think are what make it so special: First, the reverence the players give to the event and the title it conveys. To them, this is a tournament that means more than just prizes and Pro Points. Second, the collegial attitude the players bring. There is a strong mutual respect, a desire to play one's best, and an expectation of the best from the opposition. Lastly, it is the purity of competition. Every round the players shelve all distractions and focus on what they do best: Play Magic.

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