Fourteen rounds across four formats with twenty-four of the world's foremost mages is a tall order, even when you're numbered among the aforementioned. How do you prepare for that? Whom do you work with? Where do you focus your efforts? I picked the brains of some of our competitors about what they had done to give themselves the best shot at grabbing gold.
Rookie of the Year Raymond Perez Jr. admitted to feeling the pressure. "It's a big deal. Every match matters because of the Pro Points on the line. You know you're never going to get an easy opponent." Without a local crew to back him up, Perez put a lot of hours in on Magic Online. "It was really interesting to see how much Modern changed with Khans of Tarkir. I was playing a lot of Delver, but it had such a big target on it, I was running into a lot of brutal sideboards I wouldn't have expected. I decided I couldn't risk that."
Others went it alone too. Naturally the Lone Wolf, Shaun McLaren, was back in his private lab slaving away. I asked him if it was hard balancing this tournament with his responsibilities as captain of Team Canada. "Well there's some overlap," he replied. "Khans Limited. Unified Standard is a lot like regular Standard." It doesn't hurt that he's got a mighty squad behind him and he can be confident of their individual abilities.
Shaun McLaren has gone it alone with play-testing for the World Championship, much as he always does. However, when it comes to his strategy of solo preparation, he isn't alone.
A surprise singleton was Sam Black. "With a field this small, you get diminishing returns from team prep just because you're more likely to play them," he explained. "I decided I'd try it alone this time. There's no new formats so it's not like you have to break it."
On the flip side of things, the event's biggest team is a five-man squad of Shahar Shenhar, Josh Utter-Leyton, Tom Martell, Willy Edel, and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. Martell was aware of the hidden cost of team prep, but felt that the advantages far outweighed it. "Especially for me, it's been a really busy time work-wise so I didn't have the luxury of really focusing on Magic." Willy Edel agreed. "Even if you're comfortable in your decks, having people to talk to is important. I got a lot of really precious advice from my teammates."
So you've decided on your squad and it's time to test. Problem is, this is no ordinary event. Knowing that your opposition is going to be all strong players has to inform your preparation. I asked William Jensen, the Guan Yu of the Peach Garden Oath brothers, about his expectations for Vintage Masters draft in particular. "It's going to be very different than the 8-4s on Magic Online. Everyone's going to have a good idea of what they're doing. You can't expect cards to come as late as they do online. The problem is that you can't really know just how big a shift you're going to see. You can guess, but you can't really prepare."
Hall of Famer William "Huey" Jensen is well aware that this event isn't going to be like an 8-4 on Magic Online. Things you expect to get late in drafting online won't come around late at the World Championship.
A nearby Shahar Shenhar agreed. "One thing we assumed was that you wouldn't be seeing any late cycling lands, that everyone would be on board with how good they are."
Another wrinkle is the need to metagame against a small field. Many of the players I talked to had done some work trying to predict what the field would look like. Said Jacob Wilson, "You can look at it historically. Last year there was a strong preference toward Blue-White-Red Control in Modern. Maybe that means there will be a lot of people playing Blue-Black Control in Standard." Jensen, Turtenwald and Duke did up a list of their fellow players and their deck preferences. Tom Martell described the task as much bigger than it first seems. "It's not like at a GP where you can say, you know, 20% of the field will be this deck, you can expect these other archetypes to show up in big numbers. It's a bizarre kind of chess match. Everyone trying to out-think the field. For Modern I think the format is opened up even more because the Top 4 is Standard, you don't have to worry as much about winning post-board. Before, you couldn't play, say, Affinity, because it was easy for your opponent to have a big edge for a best-of-five."
McLaren took it a step further. "Standard being the format for the Top 4 is huge. Playing best three out of five means more sideboarded games. If you want to win the tournament, you're going to need to play a deck that sideboards well. That definitely went into my deck choice. Ultimately though, you just have to play a deck you feel good about and be ready to play it well."