The Eternal City of Rome hosts the Magic World Championships in just nine days time, and I’m here to mark your card. Next week, I’ll be exclusively revealing the identity of the 2009 Individual World Champion, and the Player of the Year, while this week I’m going to take you inside the team competition. Visas and travel arrangements permitting, there could be up to 67 countries represented when Round 1 begins. In this article, I’ll tell you who’s likely to be in the hunt, who’s looking to avoid being last, and — using my amazing skill and judgment — reveal to you who will be lifting the crown a week on Sunday. Don’t cry for me…
Argentina — Limited experience, with only Alejandro Zagalsky back for a second time. The Top 8 finishes from Sydney 2002 and Paris 2006 seem a long way off this time.
Australia — Although this is the second Worlds appearance for Hugh Glanville, he has two Grand Prix Top 8s, both on home soil. His teammates have no such track record, and it’s a massive stretch to suggest they can repeat the stellar performance of last year, only being bested by Team USA in the final.
Austria — Another country anchored by one experienced player, Austria has consistently done well in the team competition, with 4th place in Yokohama 2005, and the runners-up berth two years later in New York. That event featured the immortal ‘look at the time’ moment captured forever, as the about-to-lose Austrians were also about to become miss-their-flight Austrians. That team boasted Helmut Summersberger as a Pro heavyweight. This year, they have the much-decorated Benedikt Klauser, who has four Pro Tour Top 8s and a Grand Prix title (Florence 2000) to look back on. Plus, one of his PT Top 8s was at Worlds 2000 in Brussels, and this is his fourth team appearance. Inexperienced colleagues certainly shouldn’t freeze with Klauser alongside.
Belarus — No team, but Dmitriy Lipay comes here as National Champion.
Belgium — The mood music coming out of Belgium isn’t great. True, they have Berlin Pro Tour Top 8 man Jan Doise anchoring the team, but there are a lot of other big names absent, any of whom would probably have improved their chances. With three top 10 finishes to date, anything similar would be a major achievement.
Bolivia — Juan Carlos Jaillita Zeballos is here for the third time, but the team have never finished higher than 34th in their four attempts so far. A new high finish must be the goal this time.
Brazil — The first of the serious heavyweights, where multiple factors have come together. The squad is led by Top 8 machine Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa. His final tables now sit in double figures. Mixed Formats really seem to suit him, with him looking for a third Worlds Top 8 in four tries, having cracked it at Paris 2006 and in Memphis last year. Leave aside that he has yet to win either a GP or PT, and instead concentrate on the phenomenal consistency across the formats that is so necessary for success at Worlds.
Then you get to add a second string to the mix that is a former World Champion, in Carlos Romao. This is his third appearance on the team, and in addition to his title from 2002 in Sydney, he can boast three Grand Prix wins, spread across the last decade. Number three seed Aristides Camara has a lot to live up to, because they will need decent points from him to make the Top 4, but there’s a real sense of unfinished business from last year, where the team lost in the semi-finals. Add in the possibility of Paulo making a run for the Player of the Year, and you have a lot of aligning factors that make Brazil one of the strongest contenders for the championship.
Bulgaria — Here for the fifth time, the Bulgarian squad, all debutants, will be hoping to improve on a best of 34th from 2007.
Canada — Although I can’t quite see them making it to Sunday action, this team looks decent. It’s headed by Jay Elarar, a veteran who has a Pro Tour Top 8 as long ago as 2000 in Chicago. Jon Boutin is an unknown quantity, but British refugee Quentin Martin is a major bonus. Canada has been 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th in this competition previously, and another top 10 looks likely here.
Chile – 17th in 2007 was the best yet for Chile, and with three Worlds first-timers, that would be a massive achievement here. Beating last year’s 44th seems much more realistic.
China – Ming Xu became the first Chinese player to make a Pro Tour Top 8 in Kuala Lumpur last year. He doesn’t make the team, but the ‘non-names’ who have will look to build on the last few years, where China has consistently punched above its weight, finishing 9th, 10th and 17th on the last three attempts.
Taipei — An unremarkable record, with an unremarkable squad, should lead to an unremarkable result.
Colombia — Andres Higuera is back for a second year running, which is good, as Colombia put up their best performance in Memphis 2008, where they broke into the Top 10 for the first time, and were in contention for Sunday play deep into the late rounds. Anything remotely similar would be a good result.
Costa Rica — Only competing here for the fourth time, 13th place last year was their best to date, and that represents a high benchmark for this year’s team.
Croatia — One of the great stalwarts of Worlds is back again — Grgur Petric Maretic, making his fourth team berth. Surrounded by first time competitors, their first goal will be to improve on the dismal 50th place finish from last year.
Czech Republic — I don’t quite know what to make of the Czech team this year. There are so many good players in that part of the world right now that I’m tempted to assume that they have a good team, despite the fact that none of them have form. Before this year, Michal Hebky was unknown, yet his Top 8s at Grand Prix: Rotterdam and Pro Tour: Honolulu were hardly flukes. At almost every event, there seems to be someone from the Czech Republic who makes their Top 8 debut. That said, there are plenty of very good players — Hebky, Adam Koska, Arnost Zidek, and Martin Juza amongst them — who do have a proven track record, and none of them made the team. I think the 8th place from 2007 is going to be nearer the mark than the 26th from Memphis, but it takes a leap of faith to see them duplicate their previous best of 2nd, way back in 1996. And that team featured Jakub Slemr. This team doesn’t — I think — have a World Champion in waiting.
Denmark — Three debutants, but the Danes always seem to outperform their stats, having finished in the top 10 on four occasions, and ending a creditable 11th last year. Thomas Enevoldsen has Pro Tour experience, and the chances are they’ll be in the top half of the field once more.
Dominican Republic — Etienne Martinez will carry the flag as National Champion.
Ecuador — Yet to field a full team, Ecuador will have Jose Intriago Suarez as their lone representative.
Estonia — No team, but Champion Vahur-Peeter Liin is back for a third crack at Worlds, having played at Yokohama 2005 and Memphis last year. Hannes Kerem made it all the way to the semi-finals last year, making him the first Estonian to see Sunday play.
Finland — Given that they have a relatively small Magic community, Finland has a great tradition in the game, with names like Tommi Hovi (a multiple Pro Tour winner), Tomi Walamies and of course, the reigning World Champion Antti Malin. He’s back as part of the team, who will be looking to add to five Top 10 finishes. The last two years (20th in 2007, 30th in 2008, despite Malin) don’t bode well, however.
France — The three ‘M’s hold the hopes of France this year. Gilles Mongilardi is unproven at this level, but both his teammates have form. Antoine Menard comes back to Worlds exactly a decade after his last team appearance, while Guillaume Matignon (a former World Of Warcraft TCG World Champion) comes back for the second time in three years. The overall strength of French Magic seems to be declining. Consider this: In 2007, there were fifteen Top 8s at GP or PT level. In 2008, there were seventeen. In 2009, there have been five. Four of those have been victories (Gabriel Nassif at Grand Prix: Chicago and Pro Tour: Kyoto, Olivier Ruel at Grand Prix: Brighton, and Yann Massicard at Grand Prix: Seattle/Tacoma) but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s been a very disappointing year for the French. Six times the team has made the Top 10. That looks optimistic.
Germany – Another legitimate threat. Lino Burgold comes here as a Grand Prix winner earlier this year in Hanover. Sebastian Kuchenbecker is the unknown quantity, but that certainly doesn’t apply to the first seed, Sebastian Thaler. With a hole for Dredge opening up in the Austin metagame, it seemed to me that Thaler had a real opportunity to add to his pair of Pro Tour Top 8s (Yokohama 2007, Berlin 2008). Multiple Constructed drawn matches put paid to that, but the 2006 Rookie of the Year remains super-consistent, and seems to have no obvious weaknesses, a big plus in multi-format play. Twice winners (2002, 2004) and with a bucketload of history that includes four more Top 10 finishes, that kind of performance strikes me as the minimum to expect from the Germans this time around.
Great Britain — Sad to say, there’s not an awful lot that’s Great about Britain these days, in Magic at least. Matteo Orsini-Jones is pretty clearly the best player in the country at the moment, followed (arguably quite closely) by Mark Glenister, who came close to posting his first Pro Tour Top 8 in Honolulu earlier this year. Unfortunately, Chris Rossiter, who lost to Dan Gardner in the Final at GB Nats, lost his battle with cancer over the Summer, and so misses a competition he threw all his energies into qualifying for. He will be missed. Joining Gardner are Peter Mottram and Mick Edwards, making for a team that doesn’t look likely to improve on a record that isn’t exactly sparkling, with 9th as Great Britain and 6th as England the best to date.
Greece — Sometimes, you get to look back on past World Championships, and see the seeds of future success. Evangelos Papatsarouchas may have been a surprise component of the Pro Tour: Austin Top 8, but he’s been on the National team the past two years. Now the baton passes to a team who are all competing here for the first time. Sure, they may not be known now, but maybe Panagiotis Papadopoulos, Kostas Skounakis, and Constantine Vernikos will surprise us down the track. With Evangelos in the side, the Greeks managed a best of 7th place last year. Can’t see that this year, but what do I know?
Guatemala — By my reckoning, this will be the first time Guatemala have sent a team to Worlds, so good luck to Mariano Lemus Hernandez and his teammates. This is exactly what Worlds is all about — a chance to meet new faces from every corner of the globe. Fantastic.
Hong Kong — It’s probably about time we started taking Hong Kong seriously. In Shi Tian Lee, they have a Grand Prix winner from as recently as 2008, while Hon Fei Yeung was part of the team that finished 5th in 2007. Lee had a second Grand Prix Top 8 last year, suggesting that he’s at a legitimate Pro level. With another Top 10 finish last year in Memphis, it’s a good bet that they’ll be in the running again.
Hungary — 10th was the best finish for Hungary, and that happened at their first attempt in Toronto 2001. There’s clearly a small nucleus of decent players, since the same faces turn up over and over in Worlds teams. This year, Gabor Kocsis is back after a five year absence, while Tamas Nagy returns, having played in New York 2007. Experienced or not, it’s hard to imagine them making a dent on the leaderboard.
Iceland — Seven years after he competed in Sydney Worlds 2002, Halldor Kjartansson (with some bonus Scandinavian-style accents in his name, in a manner that’s utterly baffling my keyboard and its operator) returns to the fray.
Indonesia — Another lone entry, Reza Erlangga tries to become the first Indonesian to make a Premier event Top 8.
Ireland — Chris Black and Edward Kane may be newcomers, but third member of the squad David Kearney has been around forever. With a Grand Prix Top 8 in Como 1997, he’s appeared at Worlds in 1999 (Tokyo), 2000 (Brussels), Sydney (2002), and now for a fourth time in 2009. He’s part of a growing trend of older players who have taken time out from the game, and come back to find it’s still in great shape, and they’re still more than capable of mixing it with a younger generation. What price a return of John Larkin?
Israel — Only twenty different players have represented Israel at Worlds since its inception, making multiple starts the rule rather than the exception. There’s no place this time around for five-timer and 2007 World Champion Uri Peleg, with no Niv Shmuely, Eviatar Olpiner, or Asaf Shomer, there’s a completely new lineup for 2009. Chances are, it won’t be long before at least one of them is back.
Italy — All three Italians are new to Worlds team play, but that shouldn’t stop them doing better than a ghastly 48th that was posted in Memphis last year.
Japan — I genuinely don’t know where to start with this lot. How many ways are there to say they’ll be among the favorites just like every year? Let’s start with Shuhei Nakamura, who has thirteen Grand Prix and five Pro Tour Top 8s to his name. His victory in Grand Prix: Stuttgart 2007 began his 2008 campaign that led to him coming into Worlds as the defending Player of the Year, and still (at the time of writing) in with a chance of defending his crown. The current closest threat to his title is also a Worlds teammate. Yuuya Watanabe was Rookie of the Year in 2007, and promptly professed his goal of being Player of the Year in 2008. He may be a year later than planned, but he won’t lose for want of trying. In three years he’s already racked up eight Top 8 finishes, and would have an even healthier POY lead were it not for his quarter final exit at Pro Tour: Austin last month.
Third team member is Yuuta Shiota. Now he’s a newcomer, which might give some others hope, but the question must be asked: How did he qualify in the first place? Answer: by beating a ton of great Japanese players en route to finishing third at Nationals. In the last five years, Japan have never finished worse than 4th place. That’s a ridiculous record that makes them comfortably the most successful nation during that period (with their arch-rivals the USA having finished 1st, 2nd, 13th, 21st, and 24th in that time frame). It’s barely conceivable that Japan won’t make the cut again this year, and last year it took a very, very good U.S. Team to stop them. Your absolute banker for Sunday action.
Latvia — Filips Kamkins is the Champ without a team.
Lithuania — In only their third year of team competition, Lithuania will look to achieve a new high in the country table, which currently stands at 27th last year.
Luxembourg — Przemyslaw Nagadowski stands alone from the nation with more gas stations per capita than any other in the world. I think this is true, although that could be an urban myth. If Nagadowski takes the trophy back to Luxembourg, that’ll be an urban legend.
Macedonia — All three team members are back for a second bite of the Worlds cherry, but in four attempts, Macedonia has never placed higher than 36th. Hard to see that changing this year.
Malaysia — Leading the team is Joe Soh, brother of former Invitational winner Terry. Weng Sheng Wong was part of the team in 2007, while Bryan Chen gets his first taste of Worlds action. One of the unsung nations, much like Hong Kong, Malaysia consistently does well in this competition. They barely missed out on Sunday play last year, and have four Top 10 finishes. A similar result would be no surprise.
Malta — Jason Spiteri comes here as the flagbearer.
Mexico — Fernando Dominguez Roldan comes back to the fray, having played in San Francisco 2004. For the most part, Mexico has a persistent finish in the bottom half of the table, and often at the bottom part of that. Not great grounds for optimism this year either.
Netherlands — I’m in two minds about the Dutchies this year. For a while, the heady days of being a European powerhouse seem to have been receding. Two players — Frank Karsten and Kamiel Cornelissen — are being inducted into the Hall of Fame at Worlds this year, and either would grace the team. With five Grand Prix Top 8s and no Pro Tour Sundays this year, the Netherlands looks to be continuing the downswing in its global fortunes.
That said, I like the look of this year’s team very much. As National Champion, Kevin Grove impressed hugely during the Swiss rounds of Grand Prix: Brighton before running out of steam in the quarter finals. That’s not artistic license, by the way, he really did seem to be running on empty. In the vernacular, he was knackered. Joining him are Niels Noorlander and Tom van Lamoen. Noorlander made it to the Top 8 of the largest Grand Prix in history, Grand Prix: Paris 2008, while Lamoen has a solid reputation.
It’s tempting to dismiss the Netherlands as a yesterday’s powerhouse, but it’s worth remembering that in ten attempts, they’ve only fallen outside the Top 10 twice. That’s a strong reminder that they have strength in depth, whether Hall of Famers are on board or no. One of my outsiders for the title.
New Zealand — Three newcomers include Jason Chung, who has some big match experience courtesy of making the semi finals of Grand Prix: Auckland last year. Rarely disgracing themselves, New Zealand have never been in the mix, and there’s no reason to change that expectation here.
Norway — Andreas Nordahl was part of a mid-table group in 2007, but the days of Sigurd Eskeland in the late 1990s and the rampant dominance of Nicolai Herzog from 2003/4 seem a long time ago. 26Th, 26th, and 39th over the past three Worlds tell their own story.
Panama — 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009. Saul Alvarado seems to have an annual vacation booked (perhaps he was busy last year?). He comes here as National Champion, on the back of becoming the first Panamanian to crack a Premier Top 8, finishing 3rd at Grand Prix: Los Angeles earlier this year.
Peru — Very much among the also-rans, although there is some experience amongst the group.
Philippines — Both Ogie Jaro and James Porter played on the Paris 2006 team, while Ron Quiray is new to Worlds action. Porter joins Christopher Parrenas as Grand Prix winners from the Philippines, having taken Grand Prix: Manila in 2006, seven years after Parrenas won the same event.
Poland — Three debutants, and a run of results that mostly end in the lower 30s doesn’t suggest a strong showing here.
Portugal — Undoubted leader of the team is veteran Frederico Bastos. He was on Worlds teams a decade ago, and has two Pro Tour Top 8s to his name, at Tokyo 2001 and San Diego 2002. This is just the sort of guy that keeps Magic awesome. He still turns up to European Grand Prix, Pro Tours and so on, and seems just as enthusiastic about the game as when he was hitting the heights in ’99. Portugal have had a couple of strong finishes, 5th in Paris 2006 being the best, but for the most part subside towards the second tier rather than pushing upwards toward the elite. A finish in the teens seems most likely.
Puerto Rico — Only the second attempt at team action, so good luck on improving on the 49th place from Memphis. Yet another reason why Worlds is so great.
Romania — On two of the three previous occasions when Romania has entered team action, they’ve failed to put an entire team together. Being anchored to the bottom of the table then is as much to do with presence as play. Perhaps Messrs. Voda, Stoica, and Pricopoaea can change that.
Russia — One of the more surprising little nuggets of information tucked away in my database of doom is that Russia has a sum total of zero Pro Tour Top 8s, which I find extremely odd, since I regard Nicolay Potovin as one of the best, fiercest competitors out there. His Nationals record is a constant tale of making the Top 8 and then not making the team, and there’s no doubt they could use someone like him. Three first-timers will look to match their previous best, which was 10th in 2007. That would be a major achievement.
Serbia — Aleksa Telarov comes here for the third time, having been part of the teams that finished 14th in New York in 2007, and 16th last year in Memphis. That 14th in New York represents their best result, so it’s possible that they could continue their upward climb and break into the Top 10.
Singapore — Chapman Sim is back for the second year running, while teammate Aik Seng Khoo has a GP Top 8 to his name, from Grand Prix: Taipei 2005. Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that their one Top 10 finish to date will be added to this time around.
Slovak Republic — Zdenko Nouzovksy is on his second Worlds team, while Filip Valis is another Worlds specialist, having made the team for four straight years, a remarkable achievement, even within a small community. Few can doubt that their chances would have improved had Matej Zatlkaj made the team, rather than being the Alternate, and matching their best ever 6th place from Yokohama 2005 looks beyond them.
Slovenia — Just like Frederico Bastos for Portugal, Primoz Lavs was playing for his country at Worlds while some of his teammates were small children. Having played in Brussels 2000 and Toronto 2001, he returns after an eight year absence, looking to pull the team off the bottom of the table, where it’s been languishing for most of the intervening years.
South Africa — As a country, they have six Grand Prix Top 8s, and they were all at the same tournament. Can you guess? Why, yes you can, it was Grand Prix: Cape Town 2001. Since then, nothing. 12th last year, and with a best of 10th, you’re unlikely to be seeing them on Sunday.
South Korea — Kyoung-Soo Kim has been here before, but this team will do well to match the excellent 8th South Korea managed in Memphis.
Spain — Their best was 7th, but that was a long time ago, in Seattle 1998. Since then, Spain has been the very model of mid-table mediocrity, never utterly crashing in abject misery, and never troubling the leaderboard. Expect more of the same.
Sweden — Patrik Thor makes his third appearance in four years, and will be looking to make amends for the 35th place team finish from Memphis. The early years of team competition were good to the Swedes, who had five Top 10 finishes by 2002. And none since. The days of Jens Thoren and Olle Rade seem long gone.
Switzerland — And we’re done. You can stop trying to work out who’s going to win this year, because you’ve found them, and it’s Switzerland, for the second time in three years. Here’s the team: First we have Tommi Lindgren. Now Lindgren doesn’t always say much, but he has a strong career that includes two Grand Prix Top 8s, and this is his second team appearance, nine years after his first in Brussels 2000. Next up is Matthias Kunzler, a man with even more experience than Lindgren. Kunzler’s first Worlds team was Seattle in 1998, and he has three GP Top 8s to his name. The team is completed by Nico Bohny. This is his third Worlds team. He was part of the squad that finished 5th in 2004 in San Francisco, and is of course a team World Champion from New York in 2007. While Christoph Huber, Manuel Bucher, and Raphael Gennari were no slouches, I believe that this is possibly an even stronger team.
There are no out and out Superstars on this team, but that isn’t required at Worlds. What’s required is that there’s no weak link in the chain. What’s required is that the team is ego-free, and willing to quietly support each other. What’s required is that nobody goes 0-6 in a format. I believe all these pieces are firmly in place, and that you can, at the very least, expect to see the Swiss in the semi-finals come Worlds Sunday.
Thailand – 20th place is usually somewhere in the lower reaches of the top half. 20th place is the best-ever finish for Thailand. With three debutants, and no Grand Prix Top 8 for six years, it’s hard to imagine a better scenario than that 20th place.
Turkey — For the third time in four years, Berk Akbulut takes his place on the team, alongside Nedim Aytekin, who played in Memphis last year. Turkey has had mixed results down the years, but even the best sees them outside the Top 10.
Ukraine — Artem Kozachuk is another of those perennial attendees, with this his fourth trip to Worlds. The 2004 team, of which he was a member, posted a strong showing when finishing 9th, a performance equalled last year.
United States — USA have been team World Champions six times, and I’m going to come right out and say that I don’t see this year being number seven. I had the privilege of being at U.S. Nationals 2008, and there was a palpable sense of satisfaction around the building at the makeup of the National team. As we know, Messrs. Jacob, Black, and Cheon drove a stake through the heart of Japan in the semi-finals, and then took care of business against Australia in the final in Memphis. So who has to get there this time?
Charles Gindy arrives as the Champion. People forget that he had a string of Grand Prix Top 4s in team events long before he hit the global headlines at Pro Tour: Hollywood. Joining him is longtime mid-level Pro Adam Yurchick, who has two Grand Prix Top 8s behind him (Minneapolis 2005, Philadelphia 2008) and our very own Todd Anderson, for whom Nationals was a breakout performance. Gindy and Yurchick have the best part of 150 Pro Points between them, which is good, so part of the equation is whether Mr. Anderson can step up a gear. Whilst I’m sure he’ll acquit himself just fine, “just fine” may not be sufficient against some teams that have some real world-class power in their armory.
Uruguay — Juan Odriozola represents as the National Champion.
Venezuela — Daniel Fior is the experienced member of the team, having played previously in Berlin 2003 and San Francisco 2004. He’s also one of only two Venezuelans with a Grand Prix Top 8 to their name. Memphis last year was their best finish to date, but that was 29th, so little hope of a top finish here.
To my mind, there are eight teams that stand out from the rest. Most of them have question marks, and it’s likely to be the performances of the ‘third’ in the pecking order that determines which of them will get over the line. In an individual Pro Tour, sixteen rounds is considered enough to determine an elite group. At Worlds, that number becomes SIXTY before the team semi-finalists are determined. That’s pretty close to running four consecutive Pro Tours, and then seeing who’s best. It’s for that reason that I’ve given pretty short shrift to many of the less-favored teams, because, quite frankly, they have very, very little chance. Is it possible that one player will suddenly sprout wings and start destroying people? Sure. The chances of at least two of the three, none with GP Top 8s before, suddenly battering the best in the world at Standard? And Draft? And Extended? And Legacy? Statistically possible, but highly improbable.
Therefore, I’m down to just eight who potentially have the staying power to navigate those sixty rounds of Magic. Here they are:
Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa
Shi Tian Lee
Hong Fei Yeung
Long Kwan Huen
Tom van Lamoen
Despite having two amazing players onboard, I’m going to hazard a guess that Aristides Camara won’t quite be up to the task, leaving Brazil outside the Top 4. There are similar concerns about Jon Boutin for Canada and Sebastian Kuchenbecker for Germany, and I think they’ll be just a few points shy of Sunday action. Hong Kong, while consistent, has yet to get over the hump, and there are some hefty teams to get past if they’re going to manage it. I suspect they won’t quite.
Who knows how the seedings will look come Saturday night, but I take Switzerland and Japan to vanquish the Netherlands and team USA at the penultimate hurdle, leaving Switzerland to claim the title in a clean sweep over Japan.
There. Hardly seems worth bothering with the 3,000 or so matches that will actually determine the outcome, now that I’ve given you the result in advance, does it?
As ever, thanks for reading.