Player of the Year. Host nation. Reigning World Magic Cup champions. For Team France, this year's World Magic Cup is both a place to celebrate their successes and demonstrate they're ready to repeat them. With team captain and Pro Tour Theros champion and second-ranked Jérémy Dezani at the helm, the clear goal was to repeat the success Hall of Famer Raphaël Lévy and company had earned last year.
But what sets the World Magic Cup up as so much more is how it focuses on and recognizes how global the game has become, and what it means to represent one's country against the rest of the world.
For the Russian Federation, those stakes—representing their compatriots—meant a lot. With an annual Grand Prix the past two years, three World Magic Cup qualifiers, and the successes of Magic OnlineChampionship champion Dmitriy Butakov, winning an event like this would raise the profile of the game in a country burgeoning with Magic.
Belova was quick to explain how much it meant to play this weekend. "This is the most important tournament for the players in Russia I think. It's the most exciting and most anticipated. Everyone is cheering."
"Even the new players that aren't interested in Pro play are cheering for our country," Alexey Isupov added.
Butakov compared it to other sports. "You have like football and other sports," he explained. "Russia's not known for that so we have Magic." They all grinned and shared a laugh.
"We want to do the best," Belova said, glancing around to her teammates.
Team Russia, captained by Dmitriy Butakov, gets set into their first match of the tournament.
Butakov reiterated it: "We don't want to fail our countryman's expectations."
Solving Team Sealed is always a tricky proposition, but Khans of Tarkir amplifies the issues thanks to the powerful multicolor cards, synergies in every color pair, and the potential for nonbasic lands that make it all happen.
France took an approach that scaled up in colors across the decks. Kevin Sauvageon packed a strictly green-blue deck with a little evasion in blue but plenty of end-game fatties and the tricky spells—Savage Punch, Awaken the Bear, Dragonscale Boon—that took advantage of them. Captain Jérémy Dezani was focused on an aggressive red-white deck, splashing a touch of black for the likes of Ponyback Brigade. Removal and tricks, like three copies of Feat of Resistance, meant he could both keep his creatures around and force through the last few points of damage.
Team France, captained by Jérémy Dezani, sought consistency among all else.
The final French deck was Yohan Dudognon's four-color option. Rooted in black, eight nonbasic lands highlighted his plan to cast Utter End, Villainous Wealth, Abzan Charm, and Necropolis Fiend all out of one deck. It was ambitious but obviously powerful.
The Russian Federation decided to share the colors and lands, each settled into a three-color clan deck. Butakov featured Temur with hits like Savage Knuckleblade, Surrak Dragonclaw, Snowhorn Riders, Avalanche Tusker, Bear's Companion, and more: it was split almost evenly between multicolor cards and mono-colored options. Belova, too, used plenty of multicolor in her Abzan deck, with Armament Corps, Ivorytusk Fortress, and mostly white and black creatures to lead the way.
Isupov fell into using the fewest number of multicolor cards, settling for consistency in mostly black choices for his Sultai deck. Necropolis Fiend, Incremental Growth, Kin-Tree Invocation, Death Frenzy, and three copies of Abomination of Gudul backed up by removal was a powerful plan on its own too thanks to the way the team had split their convenient sets of nonbasic lands.
With captain Butakov in a match to her right, it was the Russian Federation's Zoya Belova that was facing down France's captain Dezani in the center Seat B match.
"You have good decks?" Belova asked. Dezani just shrugged and started to answer that he didn't know as he fanned his hand backwards for the coverage spotter behind him.
Belova seemed incredulous. "You're the captain, no?"
Dezani nodded and smiled back.
"Good luck!" she said as the match started.
Dezani came out of the gate quick, with Monastery Swiftspear, Alabaster Kirin, Mardu Heart-Piercer, and Arrow Storm, all of which cleared away things on Belova's side like Armament Corps and a face-down Abzan Guide.
Dezani had one of his own, and used it to ensure Heart-Piercer could clear away a morphed Abzan Guide. Armament Corps was her follow up, providing a stiff ground defense alongside Chief of the Scale.
Zoya Belova seeks a solution to her opponent's aggressive start.
Feat of Resistance and a triggered Seeker of the Way let Dezani keep all his creatures, rise to 25 life, and put Belova down to just 7.
She attacked back the next turn and when she tapped down five mana, Dezani almost scooped up his creatures expecting End Hostilites.
"No, no! It's just this," Belova said. She added Ivorytusk Fortress, which untapped her Chief of the Scale, giving her three blockers to Dezani's army of six. She fell to 1 life despite all the blocks, and Dezani's fourth remaining creature was enough to overrun the next turn.
Dezani checked in down his team's line, and all three had emerged victorious in their played games. While Dudognon had started off with a logistical game loss (via a late deck registration sheet), the tables had turned to put them ahead halfway into the round.
As Belova and Dezani shuffled, Butakov and Sauvageon plowed ahead. Butakov's strong Icefeather Aven into Madru Heartpiercer into Master the Way killed both of Sauvageon's morphs in the first few turns of the game. Putting Sauvageon to 6 life, adding Savage Knuckleblade to the battlefield, and casting a timely Arc Lighting let Butakov tie up his games before Belova and Dezani could even start their next.
Dezani started that second game with just five cards. While Seeker of the Way threatened to gain Dezani life, Belova's steady stream of creatures and a timely Feat of Resistance kept her ahead on the race early. With plenty of flying – Alabaster Kirin and Sultai Scavenger – she continued to pressure the captain of France and kept his life total down despite his tricks: Act of Treason became a way to force Belova to trade her Mardu Hordemate in against her own Chief of the Scale, and leaning on Hordeling Outburst Dezani preserved his life on the next counterattack.
Dezani attempts to recover from a rough start in the second game.
Unmorphing Abzan Guide, however, Belova finally killed enough creatures Dezani had run out of time. In the end of that game, Dezani's Seeker of the Way had found nothing.
The first match to end was at Seat C. Isupov started strong with a 4/4 Elemental from Kin-Tree Invocation on the third turn, which opened him to making plenty of early attacks. Two Disowned Ancestors provided a powerful backstop to sit behind, and Abomination of Gudul was able to put in some work before meeting an Utter End. Dudognon had worked to stabilize though, eventually getting Sultai Scavenger and an Abomination of Gudul of his own online against just Isopov's two Ancestors. By the time Isopov had outlasted his Disowned Ancestor's large enough to begin racing back it was too late: France took the first point in the match.
Meanwile, Butakov and Sauvageon moved through their third game jockeying for position. Butakov had two morphs with Alpine Grizzly, but Sauvageon used Whirlwind Adept, Smoke Teller, and a morph of his own to fight. While Alpine Grizzly and Whirlwind Adept traded, Savage Knuckleblade hit the table hard for Butakov tipping the scales his way.
With the end of the Isopov-Dudognon match, there were three French players facing him down on the other side.
It was careful trading, Glacial Stalker, and Dragonscale Boon, Sauvageon found relative stability when the Belova-Dezani match began again with a flurry of removal. Abzan Guide for Belova slipped through the volley, and she unmorphed to give her a comfortable way to race. It forced Dezani to present a trade by blocking with all of his creatures. Feat of Resistance saved his Ainok Bond-Kin, but it still killed the Ponyback Brigade.
With a Feat of Resistance of her own, Belova attacked back and continued building up an array of troops from a Warrior token up through Sultai Scavenger. Dezani, without enough creatures or removal to slow the tide, fell to the larger Russian force. The trio looked over to see their captain picking his cards up as well.
"Did you win?" They asked with hesitation.
Butakov just nodded: After killing the Savage Knuckleblade and finding some stability, Sauvageon drew too many lands in a row which gave the Russian Federation captain time to push through for the last points of damage. The rest of the team pumped fists when they confirmed the win.
"We're off to a good start," Isupov declared.
Russian Federation defeated France, 2-1.