Tournament report: World Magic Cup 2014-12-16
By: Neil T Stacey
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Worlds Week is without doubt the biggest event on the Magic calendar and it was a privilege just to be there in Nice, soaking it all in. The World Championship set the stage by pitting the game’s elite against each other in what must rank as the pinnacle of competitive play. Then the World Magic Cup brought together teams from 72 countries from every corner of the globe and put national pride on centre stage.
Team SA was captained by Keraan Chetty, who earned his spot courtesy of leading the Pro Points standings for the preceding year. His standing was the result of a Top 8 finish at Grand Prix Moscow, one of SA’s best showings on the international stage. Joining him were the winners of the three WMCQs: Leon Schlechter, Sinan Effendi and myself.
At the tournament itself we notched up a respectable top 32 finish. Considering South Africa’s isolation and our small player pool, that’s a solid finish and a positive sign for South African Magic. Simply getting to the tournament was a big achievement for me personally, considering that I only started playing Premier tournaments this year. However, Success is often tempered with disappointment, and falling agonisingly short of the top 16 certainly qualifies.
There are lessons to be learnt from every failure and there are plenty of things to think about, not only for me but also for our as-yet unknown team for next year. There were a few things that we could have done better in preparation for the tournament and I’m hoping that next year’s team can draw on that experience when the time comes. I personally made a few mistakes, so I have a lot to think about and a lot of work to do to fix some major flaws in my play.
I’ll give you a run-down of how the tournament went before I get into more detail on the take-away points of the experience.
Sealed build 1:
Surprisingly, I wound up with a Red-Green beatdown deck. This was an archetype that hadn’t come up in any of the countless practice builds we did in preparation for the tournament. I believe that’s over 30 builds or 90 decks (booster boxes courtesy of Dracoti.co.za) just between Keraan and I, so it was something of a shock for an unfamiliar archetype to come up as an obvious build. The deck was highly aggressive but light on finishers and lacking overall card quality, so I was bit nervous about its prospects. The plan was to get off to a quick start and sneak in some damage before finishing using barrage of boulders or act of treason to finish off with a big swing.
Sinan, meanwhile, was sleeving up a superb abzan deck highlighted by Sorin and Abzan Ascendancy. A handful of good removal and an array of quality outlast creatures made for a deck that we didn’t expect to drop many games.
I’m afraid I can’t call to mind the details of the deck Keraan was playing except that it was base green-blue and we had a tough time splitting the green creatures between his deck and mine. We eventually compromised by saddling him with Wetland Sambar and splitting up the Alpine Grizzlies.
Round 1: New Zealand (Team Sealed)
My opponent here was playing a defensive deck built around high-toughness blockers, while letting me build up a big board presence. The barrage of boulders plan got me two game wins without too much stress and Sinan closed out his match to get us off to a winning start.
Round 2: Slovak Republic (Team Sealed)
Surprised as I was that Red-Green even came up as a viable archetype in our pool, I certainly didn’t expect a mirror match, but that’s exactly what I ran into against the highly-rated Slovakian team. In game one I was behind on life and board position for the entire game, but managed to steal a win off the back of a bluff attack for a single point of damage with a token, followed a few turns later by an alpha strike for exactly nineteen. In Game Two I put up the best resistance I could from a mulligan to four and we were off to Game Three.
I kept a grip of one creature, one combat trick and five lands. In Sealed, I like to make my land-drops so a 5-lander with action is ordinarily a snap-keep for me. In hindsight, with a deck as aggressive as mine it might have been correct to mulligan there. As it turned out, I drew a few more lands and not much action to go with them and the final game wasn’t much of a contest. Keraan, meanwhile, had been edged out by Matej Zatlkaj (You may have heard of him), so we slipped to a 1-1 record.
Round 3: Peru (Team Sealed)
I don’t remember too much about this match except that Keraan won, I lost and Sinan made us all sweat by winning his match in the last turn of extra time.
Round 4: Venezuela (Standard)
Round 4 saw us switch to Standard. Leon was playing an Abzan Whip deck designed to go over the top of other midrange decks, while Keraan was on what turned out to be the most popular deck in the room, Mardu Midrange. Sinan was piloting Temur aggro and since it was the deck we had the least preparation with, the plan was that I would help him out since I’d gotten in a bit of testing with it.
Against Venezuela, the Temur did what it’s built to do. In both games, Sinan stuck a threat his opponent couldn’t deal with and rode it to victory. Mainboard Stubborn Denial proved to be an all-star, frustrating any attempts at removal.
Keraan picked up a quick win as well, so Leon, after sitting out the Sealed, would have a while to wait before he got an opportunity to play a full match of Magic. He was just about ready to shuffle up for game two when the match slip was signed.
Round 5: Switzerland (Standard)
Round 5 was almost an action replay of round 4. Nico Bohny’s Jeskai control deck was poorly-equipped to handle anything Sinan played and it wasn’t long before we turned our attention to watching Keraan take his match. Once again, Leon had barely gotten started. At this point, we were on a 4-1 record and a virtual lock for Day 2 (and a thousand dollars each), so we were feeling pretty good.
Round 6: Israel (Standard)
Leon’s hopes of getting in a full match were dimmed when the judges delayed his match to question his opponent about the incident that would lead to the disqualification of Portuguese player Marcio Carvalho. While Keraan ran over Shahar Shenhar (I hear he’s good) in a quick first game, Sinan couldn’t get a threat to stick against an interesting white/red deck using Heliod’s Pilgrim to fetch extra copies of Chained to the Rocks. When the judges finally let Leon get going, they took the opportunity to grab Keraan’s deck for a deck check. Unfortunately, we’d made a last-minute change to the Mardu list and in our haste had left an un-sleeved Stoke the Flames in the deckbox. The judges determined to their satisfaction that it was an honest mistake, and issued the minimum penalty; a game loss which put Keraan and Shenhar level at one game apiece. The pressure mounting as Sinan’s second game went the way of the first and Keraan found himself in a must-win battle with the World Champ. Sadly our winning streak came to an end here. Leon once again packed up after playing only one game.
Round 7: Mexico (Standard)
I don’t remember much about Keraan’s and Leon’s matches in this round. I was highly focused on what turned out to be a Temur Aggro mirror match. This was a matchup we hadn’t tested so we were in unfamiliar territory with a lot to figure out on the fly. Sinan lost the die roll and was on the back foot for the first game. We came up with a sideboard plan we felt pretty good about and were confident that game two would go Sinan’s way on the play. An early Knuckleblade was exactly the start we were looking for, but then a Hornet Nest left us scratching our heads. We never quite found a way around it and got clocked by an ashcloud phoenix.
If memory serves, Keraan won a Mardu Midrange mirror match, letting Leon get in his only full match of Magic the whole weekend, playing an Abzan mirror match that unfortunately didn’t go our way.
Sealed Build 2
It defies probability for particular archetype to not feature in every single one of our numerous test builds and then be an obvious build twice in a row when it matters. However, that’s how things turned out and I was back into the breach with Red-Green aggro. We would have loved to include some strong Temur cards like Snowhorn Rider and Bear’s Companion, but no matter how we looked at it, with no Red/Blue or Green/Blue dual lands, the mana simply couldn’t support the splash.
Regardless, the deck looked stronger than the last one, with two Monastery Swiftspears starting off an extremely aggressive curve that was topped off with Sarkhan. It’s possible that RG beatdown is a more viable archetype than we initially thought and that we missed it a few times in our preparation, or it might just have been a staggering coincidence. Either way, it left us in the somewhat regrettable of playing an unfamiliar archetype in both Sealed builds.
Keraan was playing a controlling Abzan build, with a ton of removal to support a long game plan revolving around outlast guys. Sinan was playing an excellent Mardu deck with Mardu Ascendancy and Wingmate Roc the highlights in an aggressive deck.
Rounds 8 and 9: Slovenia and Serbia (Team Sealed)
I’ve lumped these two matches together because I don’t remember either of them very clearly. We beat Slovenia and lost to Serbia, without anything too spectacular or memorable. I suppose my lack of recollection of these matches is related to the fact that I was mentally very fatigued at this stage, which would be telling in the decisive match against the Czech Republic.
Round 10: Czech Republic (Team Sealed)
My first game was unspectacular; I didn’t muster much pressure and lost to stronger cards. In the second game, I managed to come up with an unlikely win from a mulligan to five and we were off to a decisive third game. Sinan and Keraan moved over to watch the game so it became apparent that it was the decider for the whole match. To my great shame, fatigue and tension were getting to me by that stage and I made a basic error that hurt our chances quite badly. I used a Dragonscale Boon to pump a Monastery Swiftspear when I could have used it to untap an Alpine Grizzly that was tapped by a Singing Bell Strike. I lost what turned out to be a tight game and our tournament came to an end, leaving us out on the street in search of the nearest bar.
Lessons to be learnt
A few things went right to get us to the result we got. Firstly, Keraan was an excellent captain and deserves most of the credit for our success. He took control and responsibility without being overbearing and I can’t thank him enough for being the driving force behind an amazing experience.
Another stroke of luck was that as a group, we got along really well. When you throw together four strangers, dysfunctional is normally the best you can expect. With the disparate backgrounds and personalities in our group anything could have happened.
Fortunately, the relative inexperience of the rest of us proved to be a blessing in disguise. We were willing to acknowledge that Keraan knew what he was doing and to defer to him when necessary. In Magic it’s often more important to be decisive than to be correct so there is tremendous value in having a single guiding voice as opposed to having four prickly egos quibbling over every detail.
Endless discussion over which is the best plan is always worse than simply committing to a good plan, even if it’s not necessarily the absolute best. The time spent getting to the best plan often sets you back a long way, and the differences are often minor. This applies to Constructed deck selection and perhaps even more so to building for Team Sealed, where the time constraints leave little time for debates.
My strongest recommendation to future teams is to be willing to put aside your egos and be willing to get behind decisions you don’t necessarily agree with. That’s the only way to ensure preparation goes smoothly. I don’t mean to say that each person shouldn’t contribute, but rather that you should be willing to put your faith in your teammates.
Playing with a co-pilot sitting next to me was a new experience. It was something I had never done before arriving in Nice. In hindsight, it was crazy to show up at the most important tournament of my life with no experience of a major feature of that tournament. It’s not a big deal, and it does seem a bit silly, but I’d suggest that future teams make a point of practicing team play in advance of the tournament; to make sure you can make the best use of your resources and to make sure you work together smoothly.
For me personally, the World Magic Cup further highlighted an issue in my play that I have been aware of for a while. Mentally, I’m a sprinter. In most facets of my life I have a habit of relying on flashes of insight as opposed to long stretches of consistent productivity. That’s a fine attribute when building decks, where the occasional great idea goes a long way. It’s also a great asset during tournament preparation when figuring out the best approaches to each matchup comes down to finding creative solutions to problematic scenarios. It’s also great when I can figure out obscure interactions in advance of actually encountering them. In long tournaments, however, it can be a liability.
I’ve come to realise that over the course of a tournament you draw on a finite capacity every time you think through an unfamiliar scenario. That’s where thorough preparation comes in. Ideally, tournament preparation serves to do much more than equip you with the best possible deck. It lets you see as many game-states as possible, and figure them out beforehand, minimizing the unfamiliar situations you have to think through. Obviously, this improves your success rate by equipping you with the correct answers to a lot of the questions you face over the course of the tournament. More subtly, though, it preserves mental energy by letting you run on autopilot. This ensures that you have enough left in the tank when you inevitably run into difficult decisions.
At the World Magic Cup, I ended up playing an unfamiliar archetype in both segments of Team Sealed. In Standard we were sufficiently under-prepared with the Temur that I was looking at unfamiliar board-states in almost every game. Add to that the stress of travel and the tension of my first international tournament and it’s not surprising that I was running on empty at the business end of the tournament. Fatigue management is a big factor in my tournament performance and I didn’t do a great job of it in Nice. All I can do at this point is learn from it and do better in future.
Once a tournament is underway, most of what happens is out of your hands. All the random, uncontrollable elements of Magic just emphasise the importance of taking control where you can. That’s what preparation is all about.