Team Denmark and Team Italy are two of the six countries to have won a previous World Magic Cup, and they are the only two teams this year to field a returning winner.
For Italy, this was Andrea Mengucci, who was in his fifth World Magic Cup appearance. To return to the team once is already a display that you're one of the worthiest Magic players from your country, but to return five times means that you're truly standing out. And since Mengucci has managed to place first, third, and fourth at the World Magic Cup, many people have started to refer to the event as the "Mengucci Invitational."
Team Italy 2015: (left to right, top to bottom) Marco Cammilluzzi, Andrea Mengucci, Francesco Bifero, and William Pizzi
Mengucci's favorite Magic memory remains the moment when Italy won the trophy in 2015. Back then, national teams consisted of four players, with one of them taking the role of coach. As a result, Francisco Bifero managed to win the tournament while hardly playing any games of Magic, which is a funny anecdote that this year's Italian team shared with a hearty laugh. But more than anyone, Mengucci knows that it's a team effort in the end, and the 2015 World Magic Cup couldn't have gone better for Italy as a whole.
In the subsequent years, no country came close to the stunning consistency displayed by Italy. In 2016, the Italian team of Andrea Mengucci, Alessandro Casamenti, Mattia Rizzi, and Alessandro Portaro finished in the Top 4 once again. And in 2017, Andrea Mengucci, Mattia Rizzi and Adriano Moscato clinched yet another Top 4.
So what's their secret? When I spoke to Mengucci and his 2018 teammates Tian fa Mun and Mattia Basilico, two things stood out.
Team Italy 2018: (from left) Tian fa Mun, Mattia Basilico, and Andrea Mengucci
"Italy works way harder," was the first thing Mengucci told me. "I kind of use the same approach as I use for the PTs on the World Magic Cup, whereas many teams just have a vacation. We made a Facebook chat, we talked a lot, we playtested a lot, we discussed a lot. Here in Barcelona, we played a lot of Magic, and we know very well all our decks. So again, using the same approach as the Pro Tour at the World Magic Cup is the secret for Italy."
For Tian fa Mun and Mattia Basilico, both of whom are kind of new to the competitive scene, this testing process was a novel experience. "It was a nightmare," Mattia Basilico laughed when asked how it was like to play under Mengucci's strict regimen for four days in Barcelona.
"You can't leave the house," Basilico continued. "You have to play Magic all day. No breakfast, no lunch, only one dinner . . ." Yet even though this type of dedicated preparation may have felt uneasy at first, Basilico and Mun had a lot of respect for their captain and put their trust in him.
"I don't put the screws," Mengucci said to alleviate my worries, "but if you want to do well, it's all about playtesting. If you put the work into it, you have an edge. My teammates said they've never worked this hard for an event, so I'm really confident."
The other driver for Italy's success, besides testing hard, was how much national pride meant to the Italian Magic players. They have a Magic Facebook group in Italy, where posts with updates on Team Italy get hundreds of likes, and the support from their community gave them a big motivational boost.
And when the Italians play, they do so with fervor. I still remember how, after the conclusion of the 2015 finals, the Italian team excitedly burst out singing "Campioni del mondo!" while jubilantly hoisting the trophy. They celebrated their win with a passion that reminded the Italian fans at home of a soccer victory, and this patriotic drive of playing not only for yourself but also for your country has boosted Italy to repeated success at the World Magic Cup.
The Dream Was Still Alive
Yesterday, Team Italy advanced to Day Two without dropping a single match. Today, in the first stage of pool play, they found themselves in the Pool of Death along with powerhouses Denmark, Austria, and Portugal. Yet after losing a tough match to Portugal in the first round, they battled back by rattling off two straight wins to advance to the next stage.
So going into the second stage of pool play, Mengucci's dream to become the first-ever repeat victor of the World Magic Cup was still alive—but it wasn't so much for himself as it was for all of Italy.