"Don't be nervous; it'll be ok." These were Hall of Famer Paul Rietzl's broadcasted words to his feature draft pod before drafting began. Everyone got a good laugh, but some of that was nervous laughter. Two people in particular at the pod looked full of anxiety—fourth-ranked Seth Manfield, and eleventh-ranked Ondřej Stráský. This moment marked their first times competing at the World Championship.
Manfield told me later, "That was the best assembly of eight players I've ever sat down with." He said, "I already get nervous; I'm just a nervous person normally, but much more here." It's a harrowing feeling, but he was not alone, feeling uneasy in the room, not even close.
As the day got underway, Rietzl may have joked about it, but a number of players sitting at the draft feature table were understandably nervous in their first World Championship.
This weekend, exactly half the field is made up of players who've never been to the World Championship before. (7) Ari Lax, (15) Joel Larsson, Magnus Lantto, Martin Dang, Thiago Saporito, Martin Müller, (17) Steve Rubin, (9) Brad Nelson, Antonio Del Moral León, Stráský, Manfield, and even Player of the Year (2) Mike Sigrist are all sitting in the hallowed halls for the first time.
The tournament is a unique one with four formats and only 24 players. And the vast majority of those players have parentheses with a number in it preceding their names. This collection of 24 is about as close to a collection of the current Top 25–ranked players as you're going to get. It's unlike anything these newcomers have seen before. How does it feel to be in that hot seat? How does it feel to be here for the very first time?
First comes the insane preparation. "It's a really unique tournament," Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir winner Ari Lax said. "It's taxing to have to practice four formats." He continued that unlike with a Pro Tour, even the "big" teams here are only four players deep. So you have twice the amount of formats to prepare for, with roughly one-fourth the team members. "It's a lot of information to process."
"There's also weird metagame things you have to think about too," he said. Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir winner Martin Dang, and Magic Online Championship winner Magnus Lantto agreed. "There's a 'leveling game' to the Standard formats," Lantto said. Since everyone is a top player here (basically by definition), each player and team will try and one-up the field by saying, "So they'll think that I'm bringing this; so they'll bring this; so I'll bring this." Figuring out at what level to stop descending, lest you go too far down the rabbit hole is tough for veterans of this type of field, let alone the newbies.
"I mean, we almost talked until we fell asleep each night, and wanted to talk more," Dang said, as their team tried to figure out what the metagame would look like. And keep in mind that these are people who are already playing Magic all day preparing. There just aren't enough hours in the day.
Then once you think you have it figured out, it's not even 24 decks you play against, because as Lax said, "There're clusters…It's like 24 clusters." Because the teams of players will probably arrive at the same deck, it's not like the decks will be scattershot; it's more likely that there will be groups, and a group of only four or five can severely tilt a metagame that only has twelve matches each round.
Lax's cluster theory proved correct, as a quick glance at the Modern Metagame Breakdown will reveal. And though Dang didn't feel the uniqueness of the tournament format—as to him the Magic Online Championship was similar—he still felt the competition aspect. "I respect each and every one of these players here," he said. And you have to, or you won't get far.
Even if those three are fortunate enough to come back next year, they don't think much in the way of preparation would change. "It's still going to be manic; the preparation is still manic. I'd like to see one person here who's broken through that testing process," Lax said, in his characteristic emotional resolve.
As the North American Top Pro Point–getter Brad Nelson said, "This literally feels like testing for your first Pro Tour. You're deciding on decks and you've played like three of one matchup and like ten of another; you're changing sideboard cards on information that may or may not be any good at all."
"We're like Little League…it's T-Ball over here," Lax concluded.
World Championship first-timers (left to right): Steve Rubin, Seth Manfield, Brad Nelson, Ondřej Stráský, Ari Lax.
And that's just the preparation. That's before people have even gotten the site!
Once you sit down to play next to a grizzled vet, there's a host of other things swirling. Though seventeenth-ranked, super-dark-horse, quietly-killing-everyone, do-you-mean-Ben-Rubin Steve Rubin said that his first-time status didn't affect his preparation at all, he did say it affected his first match. A lot.
"It was my first ever [Pro-Tour-level] feature match," he said. That's how green Rubin is. "I don't usually get nervous," but in his first game, with a clear on-board kill and no possible tricks from his opponent, his nervousness took over. "It took me a whole minute and a half to actually attack for the win." It's not surprising that even though he won that game, he lost the next two to Pro Tour Magic Origins winner, fifteenth-ranked, and also World Champ–first-timer Joel Larsson.
Lantto understood completely. "It's the hardest tournament I've ever played. You have be on every turn of every round." He said that even at Pro Tours there are some easier matches that happen. And that you can make mistakes and still perform well. Here, he said, that's not the case at all. "And it's going to be like that the whole day, and all of tomorrow." He added, "I think the World Champion will be the person who makes the fewest mistakes all weekend."
Ironically, for Lax, the tournament feels quite a bit different. Perhaps it's his North American Magic upbringing, being surrounded by many of these players for years. "This feels like it's a Wednesday in the RIW Hobbies back room, and we're on our third Ravnica draft of the day. Everyone's making fun of everyone else's mistakes and stuff, and it feels really good." He finished, "It's both the most and least competitive tournament I've seen."
After things have settled and we're deep into the day, sometimes the hardest thing for new kids on the block is not doing poorly, but doing well. Pro Tour Fate Reforged Top 8 finisher Seth Manfield was one of three people here who finished the first three rounds 3-0. Though he was happy about it, he was also hesitant. "When you have momentum, in some ways you get more nervous." And this is after we've already established Manfield's general nervousness.
"When I played that Ulamog against Yuuya [to defeat the former World Champ, and go to 3-0], I just blanked. Really. I just…blanked." However he added, "But I get more and more comfortable after I've been there. I feel much better about Pro Tour Top 8s and stuff." So hopefully by the end of today he'll feel a bit better in the lights.
Despite any records and finishes, for some people, it's still just the whirlwind of it all. Steve Rubin is the obscure one here, despite two Grand Prix Top 8s in a season and a career Pro Tour win percentage of 63% (67% last season!). And here he is competing with the cream of the cream of the crop. Martin Dang said, "Everything's been so crazy since the Pro Tour. I was playing in PTQs not long ago, and now I'm at the World Championship!"
But he isn't too wrapped up in that. "I love playing against the best; I love beating the best; I hate losing to the best." Once you get here, he said, "You see that, you know, they're just human beings; we're all just Magic players."
Though this sentiment sums up the experience for most first timers, there's one guy in the room who seemed completely different than everyone else. Would it surprise anyone if I told you that was Player of the Year, Mike Sigrist?
He'll often act tough in matches, but he was walking about between rounds as jovial and vibrant as ever. "I just love playing Magic. This is really fun!" he said. He's just become a father (twice over) and become Player of the Year. "I mean, everything after that, is just fun, right?" Sigrist flashed a big smile.
"Don't be nervous; it'll be okay," were the words Paul Rietzl gave to his draft table. Though partially in jest, he's right. He, and other veterans names like Yuuya Watanabe, Samuel Black, Owen Turtenwald, Eric Froehlich, and two-time World Champ Shahar Shenhar, are just dudes. And like Lax said, the uniqueness of this tournament is so singular, and so challenging, no one has yet broken the system—in preparation or play. For everyone here, no win is a free win.
Really, the only thing that's happened today that should be intimidatingly important is that these twelve people are now those veterans too.