Bulgaria is a small country in southeastern Europe, home to a small but dedicated base of Magic players. With few large tournaments in the area, play is concentrated at the local store level, and without the resources of many of the larger countries, Bulgaria has traditionally struggled at the World Magic Cup. In fact, for the first several years of the event, the Bulgarians couldn't make it out of Day One.
Led by captain Hristiyan Ivanov, that all changed last year. Team Bulgaria not only made their first Day Two, but went on a deep run to finish all the way up the leaderboard to 12th place, and with that run came an unmistakable change back home.
"There has been a rise in Bulgarian players in tournaments after that, and people were very excited when we went home," Ivanov explained. "Last week we went to the team Grand Prix in Lyon before this event, and there was another team there that went from Bulgaria. That was a big surprise and shows how it's changed."
Ivanov has seen it all. He's been a member of the Bulgarian national team five times, and was a big part of why the squad broke through last year. It was the culmination of the hard work the community has put in, and even those disappointing experiences helped shape their eventual success.
"I've been through three failures before last year, and it was hard," he admitted. "To have that success last year completely changes things."
That would be why, after they opened a weak Team Sealed pool on Friday and struggled to 1-2, there was never a doubt. Ivanov huddled with teammates Nikola Rashkov and Angel Pastarmadzhiev, regrouped, and came back strong in Constructed, not dropping a match of Team Unified Standard as they repeated their Day Two appearance from a year ago.
And again, their country is taking notice.
"Everyone at home is delighted, not just Magic players, but our friends and family," Rashkov said. "They were playing the tournament at stores last night, and everyone at home is following along today."
Expectations are high, with most of the pressure coming from the trio themselves. Finishing 12th last year demonstrated that they were capable of competing with some of the world's top teams—and there are plenty of those still in contention here in Nice—and the Bulgarians teamed up with their neighbors to the west to prepare for the World Magic Cup.
"I want to give a shout out to our friends from Macedonia," Ivanov said. "Back home we go to their tournaments regularly and they come to ours. We worked with them for this event, and though they didn't make it to Day Two, we really see it as more of a team of six rather than a team of three. They were great to work with and helped us be ready for this."
That work paid off, and as the team battled to advance to the Top 16, they had their sights set on more.
"Honestly, the sky's the limit," Ivanov said proudly. "This is our best achievement in Magic so far, and we have a lot of people back home watching and cheering for us. We believe we can win the entire tournament."