The Old Guard

Posted in Event Coverage on August 29, 2015

By Marc Calderaro

For many players, just being in this venue is a feat. It's "big game" as some might say. Yesterday I talked to some of the twelve players who are here for the first time. But today I talked to some people who've been here more than twice, wondering how different their perspectives are. Does the view from the top change?

Only fifth-ranked Lee Shi Tian, tenth-ranked Owen Turtenwald, back-to-back World Champion Shahar Shenhar, and Pro Tour Hall of Fame member (and twenty-fourth-ranked) Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa are here for the third time. And the king of the mountain, the player widely considered the best player in the world right now, twelfth-ranked Yuuya Watanabe is the only one here for the fourth time. There hasn't been a year of the modern World Championship format that Watanabe hasn't witnessed first-hand.

There were some jitters and nervousness among the first timers, but for these four, that's a thing of the past. They've either prepared or they haven't. They either perform or they don't; they either hit those good draws, or they don't. So what is different, and how does the World Championship change from year to year?

The short answer is mostly everything changes. From the formats, to the players, to the lessons learned, even for these names, not only is the World Championship a unique tournament to itself, but each year of the tournament is unique. That doesn't mean there isn't advice to be gleaned and strong differences from the newbies to the vets.

The first major difference I saw was how testing felt for the veterans. Almost everyone yesterday discussed how overwhelming testing for the formats were, but among this group it barely even came up at all, unless the players were asked directly about it. Although some felt like that is a happenstance difference rather than something learned.

"These are all established formats, and it wasn't that way last year," Nine-time Pro Tour Top 8 finisher Damo da Rosa said. "Like, last year, we came with a new Modern deck." Paulo's testing team of Josh Utter-Leyton and Tom Martell came with the Jeskai Ascendancy Combo with Fatestitcher in it, upending the format for a little while. But this year, the state of all the formats was less in flux.

"This testing was more about identifying which decks you like the most," he continued. "People aren't bringing new decks to this tournament … at least, I hope they're not." The Brazilian said this after he had seen the Modern archetype breakdown, but not the Standard. He was hoping not to be surprised. [Spoiler Alert: He wasn't.]

Damo da Rosa's lack of testing concern was similar to Pro Tour Hall of Fame "mortal-lock" Yuuya Watanabe. To him, this four-format testing was a breeze compared to in years past. "Before, in France, there was also the World Magic Cup to worry about. So there were seven formats. Now, it's only four." Taken aback by the statement that preparing for Worlds was relatively easy, I asked him again. Perhaps there was some translation issues, as most of the interview was translated by the wonderful interpreter Kyoko Yoshida.

But when I asked again, Yuuya waved his hand, looked me in the eye, and said in English: "Only four? This is easy." He laughed heartily.

(left to right, all holding fingers up for the number of World Championships they have competed in) Yuuya Watanabe, Shahar Shenhar, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Lee Shi Tian.

But for some vets, the testing process can be hard to pin down because each year it changes, as do your testing partners. And even the emergence of no clear testing partners at all change things.

For literal Modern master Lee Shi Tian, it was the trend of testing groups that keeps him on his toes. Lee has been looking to improve on his past performances, and tried to learn from last year. Though Lee has already beat his total match wins from either previous year (he has five wins so far, topping his 2014 performance by one and his 2013 performance by two), he's still refining the best strategy.

"I thought my [bad performance] was because I was playing combo decks, and my opponents would see my combo before we played [because of the decklist exchange]." But now he's amended his tune. "The four-player teams changed the metagame too much for me. I hadn't considered that enough. Four players on one deck can change the whole meta."

Watanabe felt this too, but in a different way. "Last year in Modern I shared my list with two people, but because the field is so small it made for weird metagaming, so this year I didn't share my list at all," he explained. To him, the fewer mirror matches you have to think about, the better your sideboarding can be and the better your matches can be. Watanabe was happy with his results. "It worked out well. I think I'll do that in the future."

Though Lee recognized some problems from his previous performances, he's still trying to work out the kinks. "I am good at Modern because I can really read the metagame for larger fields," he thought. "If this tournament were bigger, I think I would do better." The World Championship has been tough on Lee; one of the most storied Modern players in the world is now 0-11 at the World Championship in Modern.

Double-dip World Champion Shahar Shenhar, who also experienced a disappointing run this week, had some sage-like advice when it came to another format: Limited.

"Limited is where you can have the most impact," he said. "If you rattle off a 3-0, that could mean everything." This is coming from the man who performed as poorly as you can in the format this time around. His logic was sound. "In Constructed [especially Standard] you can only get so much edge with all these maybe-55% decks. So if you go 6-0 in Limited, you just have to do 2-2 and 2-2 in Constructed. That means so much."

This is especially wise because talking to each player, it's clear that for the most part, Constructed prep took precedence over Limited. But to Shenhar, it's Limited that's the most important. Though things didn't break Shahar's way this year, just like Lee, he's analyzing each aspect to understand what happened. Like a veteran should do.

Things are always in flux, and sometimes the actual World Championship line-up changes so much, the whole feeling of the tournament shifts. That's how Damo da Rosa felt. "That first year," he said, "it was a smaller. It was only sixteen players, and a lot of the people there were my good friends." Even just knowing less people can take you out of your element. Damo da Rosa continued, "A lot of people here, I've never spoken to before [and] the tournament is a little more serious because of that, I think."

Interestingly, this is the exact opposite of what first-timer Ari Lax had said yesterday. To him, he felt much more comfortable with the vibe here than he was thinking he would. It seems this year's tournament more mirrors Lax's generation than Damo da Rosa's—even if the actual Magic ages are only slightly different.

But in Magic years, time is expounded and expanded. Damo da Rosa strongly noticed that change. "This time I prepared with Ondřej [Stráský] and Thiago [Saporito]. And for the first time, I'm the oldest, by a lot." In previous years, testing with people like Tom Martell and Josh Utter-Leyton also made for a different Worlds experience. Even for the people who should feel the most comfortable, things still aren't that lax.

While Damo da Rosa has been here before, it's the first time he prepared with Ondřej Stráský and Thiago Saporito.

Even Watanabe mourned some of the line-up changes. "All the players here are good, and I like them, but I'm the only one at four appearances, so it's a bit lonely." He gave a little frown. "I wish Josh Utter-Leyton and Reid Duke had made it. We played together for three years, and I miss them here. Please tell them I said that."

If there's been a trend among the veterans here, it's that almost nothing at the World Championship is guaranteed to stay the same. Three-timers are still trying to get and understanding of format metagames, and a multi-time winner is still trying to get a handle on draft, and a four-timer is getting lonely at the top.

But there is one thing that has stayed the same, as the top dog Yuuya Watanabe told me.

Each year he loves the consistent good feeling at World Championship because of how competitors treat each other, and the game. "The players are all very professional and courteous, and they are all looking to have a good time," he said. "Level of play doesn't matter. These players will tell you when you are about to miss something, like the Vancouver mulligan scry."

When I asked Watanabe what knowledge he would give to people seeking to understand what it's like at Worlds, he said, "The best advice I could give everyone if they're going to the World Championship, is to try to enjoy yourself and enjoy being here at the tournament." It truly is quite amazing.

The more things stay the same, the more things change, and vice versa and things. As of this writing, the last three-timer, Owen Turtenwald is just locking up his first-ever World Championship Top 4. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

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