The World Magic Cup is one of the premier ways for as-of-yet unknown players to make a name for themselves. In years past, several nations had come out of nowhere and posted astonishing results. Maybe that's because smaller communities are more close-knit and allow for better teamwork. Or it could be that the World Magic Cup simply gives strong players who'd otherwise have to travel far for a Grand Prix or a Regional Pro Tour Qualifier a better chance to qualify for a major tournament in the first place.
Whatever the reason, there are various examples from the history of the World Magic Cup: Puerto Rico finished second in 2012, Iceland made it to the Top 4 in 2013, and Greece being the 2014 runners-up wasn't exactly expected either. Yesterday, two teams took everyone by surprise by going undefeated, ending the first day in first and second position, respectively: Belarus and Macedonia.
With a population of just above two million, Macedonia certainly was among the smallest countries to field a team at this event. And while Macedonia was new to the second day of the World Magic Cup, the members of that team were by no means new to Magic.
"A long time ago," said captain Vladimir Trajcevski when asked when they started playing. "I think it was with the release of Tempest," he said, shooting a glance at teammate Miro Popov. "Yes," said Popov. "That must have been, what, 1996? 1997?"
I didn't need to ask whether the players had known each other before forming this team. Popov and Trajcevski had both been on the Macedonian team in 2013, but they'd been friends long before that. In fact, their connection even predated Magic. "The two of us have actually been in primary school together." They'd been part of a group of four friends who started playing Magic together.
Team Macedonia, tackling their Team Sealed build for Day Two
Their third for today's Team Sealed portion, Miki Milevski, joined the Macedonian Magic community somewhat later with the release of Odyssey. But it is a small community, in a geographically small country too, and of course all three plus Martin Nanik had known each other for a long time. This also helped with the testing in preparation for the event.
"We did some work before flying here on Tuesday. Then we tested together with Serbia, Croatia, and Bulgaria," Popov said. "Or at least we had planned to." Troubled by various delays, already long flights turned into even longer days and not all members of south-eastern Europe's super-team arrived as scheduled.
But while they didn't have as much time as they would have liked, and they didn't all end up running the same configuration of Standard decks for example, they at least did get some testing done. Considering the well-documented troubled history of the Balkan states, it was certainly nice to see players from all of these countries working together. It may have been a factor in their unexpected Day One run too.
When asked whether they had had great expectations for this event Trajcevski made a face and replied, "Well, not like that! We were simply hoping for Day Two." He added, "We came very close the last time," referring to the World Magic Cup in Amsterdam two years ago when a team with Trajcevski and Popov fell short by one win and finished in 44th place.
Before that, in 2012, Macedonia had ended up in 58th place and last year Trajcevski had led the team to an equally disappointing 64th place. So, yes, suddenly finding themselves in second place indeed came as quite a surprise for the Macedonians.
What was the biggest difference between the past and the present, then?
In answering that, Trajcevski picked up the Sealed Deck they had just built and that he was now going to play over the next three rounds, shaking it for emphasis, and simply said, "Good pools."
Their Team Sealed pool yesterday had been great, he told me, allowing the Macedonians to start 3-0 into the tournament. And from what I had seen during deck construction their second pool didn't disappoint either. It may sound like an easy cop-out to blame it all on luck, or bad luck, when opening booster packs. However, Trajcevski was quick to add, "I mean, you can win with bad pools if you're good players. We need good pools."