In some ways this is my favorite moment of the whole Worlds week, sitting on a near-deserted railway platform, waiting for the madness to commence. Worlds is a whirl of chat and laughter and hugs and parties and Magic Magic Magic. What it isn’t is quiet. Worlds squeezes you tight and doesn’t let go on the ultimate Magic thrill ride. Scunthorpe train station at ten to six on a freezing Tuesday morning is almost everything Worlds isn’t. And I love that deep breath moment of being able to marshal a few last-minute thoughts, take a final deep breath, and get the adventure underway.
As most of you know, I keep a series of record cards that have the details about literally thousands of players from the history of the game. If you’ve ever made the Top 8 of a Grand Prix, or a Pro Tour, or a major National Champs, I have you down. As the train rattles along, I get the chance to finish wading through the invite list for Worlds. Plenty of players won’t show up, since they’re in the Top 50 ranked players in their respective regions, and although they have an invite they don’t have a paid-for flight. Plus some are barely active in the game, or can’t find the time. Still others will fail to get the right documentation — this happens more than you might suppose, especially when it comes to the U.S., who can be pretty picky about who they let in. For Worlds last year, there were several teams that were always going to struggle with the immigration conversation. If I have trouble: ‘I’m a 36 year old married man with a six year old daughter at whose school I teach, which is just round the corner from the house I own in my stable democracy Special Relationship ally when I’m not looking after my mother who lives nearby,’ you can imagine that this is even more awkward: ‘Hi Mr. Immigration. I’m 17, own no property, have no job, live at home with my 32 impoverished brothers and sisters in my one bedroom squat, but I’m not going to stay here illegally and try to make a better life for myself. Promise.’ It will be interesting to see how many of the 67 nations that could theoretically have representatives here (plenty of countries just have their National Champion attending rather than a full team) make it to the start line.
You might not think there’s an obvious link between Worlds and Harry Potter, except for the magical themes of both, but bear with me. To me, Worlds is like the seventh book in the Harry Potter series. You wait for ages for it, and you’re so invested in the world that you’re desperate to know not only how everything turns out, but have your own ideas on how things should resolve themselves most satisfactorily. With each new plot twist, you judge it against your hopes and expectations, and then find yourself thrilled at the final outcome. Worlds is a gigantic novel packed full of twisting storylines that are so varied and interesting it’s almost impossible to keep track of. Just some of the storylines at this year’s event:
Shuuhei Nakamura versus the Chasing Four — Only four players can mathematically take the title away from the Japanese man who has led virtually the entire year. The most likely to do so is Frenchman Olivier Ruel, but even he needs to do something pretty extraordinary i.e. make the Top 8 as a baseline, regardless of Shuuhei’s performance. Realistically, even with a Team victory with Pierre Malherbaud and Christophe Peyronnel, Ruel will likely need a Final appearance to sneak the title at the death.
Rookie of the Year — Someone will have a good week, and that someone will walk away with this one.
Team — Good teams on paper don’t always translate to good teams on the scoreboard, but there was good reason last year to suppose the Swiss and Austrians would be at least reasonably high on the leaderboard, even if their Final confrontation was slightly unexpected. This time, there are three standout teams — the French, the USA and the Japanese. How many will deliver?
All the Levels — Everyone has their own story. For some players, they already have the Level they’ve aimed for, and anything else is a bonus. For others, making Level 7 represents a significant upgrade going into next year, and for a third set of players the gap between themselves and a guaranteed invite to all the Pro Tours next year determines quite how sweaty their palms are going to get across three days. Or ideally, four days.
All the Decks — With Pro Tour: Berlin so recently behind us, and Standard relatively stable, will we see much innovation? The big question in Extended is what people are going to do about Elves. The two basic answers appear to be ‘whatever needs doing about Elves’ and ‘not enough.’ Depending on the answers to those two questions, you get the question as to who will play Elves? Players needing 3 or 4 wins to make their next Level? Or players urgently needing a flat-out make or break 6-0? What does the shift towards an Elf-centric metagame do to other decks that couldn’t stand the heat in Berlin? And then on Thursday and Saturday we get the fun of seeing Legacy once again on a global stage.
One thing that never gets old is meeting players en route to the tournament. I’m not entirely sure why, but the simple fact that a ‘mere’ game can cause two people from utterly different countries, cultures and languages to meet in a third country on the way to a fourth brings me out in a huge grin every single time. I met Guillaume Wafo-Tapa in Paris before he went on to win Pro Tour: Yokohama later that week. This time around, I had one of the Judges as my companion from the start, and in Atlanta got my first Pro sighting of the week in Nicolay Potovin. The Russian told me that he’d made four Nationals Top 8s, and lost the quarter final every time. This is more than a simple hard luck story, however. Although by no means impossible, it isn’t easy to leave Russia. There are forms, and forms, and forms that have to be properly filled out, notarized, filed, authorized, leading to more forms… you get the idea. Potovin, who knows a thing or two about international travel, begged his Russian squad to get the paperwork done early. They didn’t, and as a result there would be no Russian team, since even with Potovin there were only two Russians coming to Worlds. Had any of the Team got their act together earlier, or dropped out, Potovin would have had the opportunity to get much-needed Pro Points. Now, he needed to make the Top 16 to reach Level 6. He wasn’t happy. On the plus side, it sounded as if he’d done plenty of testing, and came to the event ready to put up the numbers he needed.
Some folks love to travel just to say that they’re traveling. Me, I like the arriving bit the best. So now here I am in a very nice hotel room, thank you very much, with the Convention Center a mere skybridge away. One of the few strategic insights that I share with Mike Flores is that if God had wanted us to be outside, He wouldn’t have invented inside, and to me the skybridge directly linking the hotel and the tournament venue should be the industry standard. 22 hours after leaving home, I’m back home, Pro Tour style.
Paragraphs like this one often open with, ‘Sure, there’s a lot to do, but it’s not all work, work, work.’ Oh yes it is, as they say in panto. With the player party looming, plus assorted meetings later on, this morning is all about finalizing what I know about the players in Worlds. As I mentioned above, I maintain a card database for every Magic player who has ever made a noteworthy performance available via magicthegathering.com. While that means that I miss things like the quarter finalists in most National Championships, every Worlds Team member, every Grand Prix and Pro Tour Top 8, they’re all here. Of course, I could look up individual results online during the tournament, but I do it my way for a bunch of reasons. Partly it’s about internalising the data, so that I can just spew it out, either onto the audio podcast, or into Randy and BDM’s ears during the live webcast on Sunday. Partly, I like to give recognition to the players I’m dealing with. If I’m going to talk with the Israeli Team, I’d like them to know that I know what their accomplishments in the game are. Third, it centers me and puts me in the Pro Tour zone. I’m an incredibly focused person, who tends to exist thinking about just one thing, and this card shuffling, which takes many hours to find all the Worlds competitors and update etc, helps me leave the real world behind and become the Magic stat freak that I undoubtedly am. More on this later.
Although there’s a ton to do, it’s not all work, work, work. Before the Staff meeting, which is kind of the official Go signal for a Pro Tour, I got a chance to take the ancient trolley network on a tour of downtown Memphis. Public transport is an awesome way to see an unfamiliar city, since the driver probably knows where you’re headed even if you don’t, it’s as close to inside as outside gets, you get the flavor of assorted locals, and it features zero walking activity, which is always the correct amount. The more I see of the world, the more I come to understand that I’m actually not that fussed about Places, it’s People that engage me. Halfway round I meet Antti Malin and the Finnish Team. ‘Which one of you is Erkki Siira then?’ I ask. Once identified, I continue promptly, ‘congratulations, back again for the third year running, but you’re the alternate this year, right?’ I don’t care whether they’re impressed by this trivia regurgitation, but they do at least seem flattered that I care enough about them to have researched their accomplishments. Good to know all that research is getting put to good use! That said, Memphis seems fine, and the trolley itself was a veritable feast of nostalgia.
So, meetings galore have come and gone, as all the various departments that make up a Pro Tour weekend get together to go over all the last-minute details. Chatting with Mark Rosewater beforehand, we start exchanging Magic trivia, since we’re both running Game Shows during the weekend. This is an extremely uneven battle, since Mark has had a hand in roughly 25% of all Magic cards ever made, and I can’t remember the names of half of them. After toying with me briefly, he offers, ‘Which set is the only expansion in Magic history where the name of the expansion is also printed on a card in that same set?’ He says those last four words with emphasis, thus robbing me of my eureka ‘Coldsnap’ moment, since I know full well the card and the expansion don’t match. I call for help from fellow Coverage junkie Nate Price, and we flounder around for a while — Torment wasn’t in Torment, Visions wasn’t in Visions — and eventually our grinning tormentor puts us out of our misery — Conflux! If MR doesn’t make it back to the office, my alibi will be watertight, trust me.
Just back from the player party. If you ever get the chance to go to Graceland, you should, even though the sincere reverence of the place is a little jarring. Mother Teresa? Arguably. Gandhi? Yeah. Elvis? C’mon Everybody. (This marks the last point in the article where I will be making Elvish, sorry, Elvis ‘jokes’, since every single one of them will be unveiled in all their garish glory over on the mothership. Sensitive readers may now continue with confidence.)
Had a chat with Frank Karsten, who was surprised that I had him down as a Top 8 finisher. Other than medieval music and possibly Buffy, I have hitherto believed that Frank knows more than me about pretty much everything. Now I can add ‘Frank Karsten, Magic Player’ to the list where I hold the edge. By the time I’d finished explaining to him how he was ultra-consistent, the king of the Top 32 finish, superb across multiple formats, 6-0 in Draft last year, runner-up from Yokohama Worlds in 2005… so persuasive was I, even Frank was forced to agree that he was, after all, a good choice. Now, of course, I watch him 1-5 Day One, and look the proper fool. No change there then.
Oh yes, life rarely gets sweeter than this. I have had three magnificent honors bestowed upon me in the last hour. In ascending order of marvelousness: First, I have just hosted the Opening Ceremony, joining Scott Larabee to announce the teams, and BDM, who hosts the Hall of Fame Induction. No major mess-ups, and some nice smiles at the potted team biographies that accompanied their flags onto the stage. Second, the music in the background of the Opening Ceremony was written by yours truly, after Wizards very generously commissioned me to compose a semi-orchestral piece for the purpose. This already made it a very special and unique morning, but the memory to treasure was yet to come. Few who know me have genuinely accused me of being a true man of fashion and style. And yet, within the space of five minutes, I found myself acting as professional dresser to Hall of Famer Olivier Ruel and Player of the Year Elect, Shuuhei Nakamura. Turns out they know less about doing up a tie than I do about the Mirari’s Wake mirror-match sideboard. Documentary evidence exists on Facebook of me working my sartorial magic on Mr. Ruel, and I believe, if timed correctly, my wife may die of shock.
We’re a few rounds in now, and, as anticipated, I’ve spent some time with the Israelis. This is in part because Uri Peleg put them firmly on the Magic map by winning this event twelve months ago, but also because they have a Hot Deck on the go, which turns out to be Combo Elves, but in Standard. Versions of this have been floating around Pro circles, and the consensus was that the transition from Berlin Extended couldn’t be made successfully. Peleg and Co have other ideas, including Primal Command to do assorted very naughty things. (That’s my way of telling you that my eyes glazed over during the actual explanation.) I’ve never built even a half-decent deck in my life, and my natural response to winning in cool and interesting ways is generally along the lines of, ‘Fine. You win with a 0/1 Moose token with phasing. I’ll win with Masticore.’ Despite this, I really want the Israeli deck, and the Israelis themselves, to do well, although the early signs aren’t promising. While clearly competitive, it seems as if having a good time comes regardless of winning, not as a by-product of winning, which is a great attitude.
‘As [insert card name from recent set here] bestrode [insert current plane here] with his trusty [equipment] concealed by the [artifact] [other named card character] gave him during their [appropriate sorcery] following their fight with the [green Legend] and his army of , and , he realised he was part of the opening paragraph of every Magic novel since the dawn of time.’
Cards on the table time. I once ACTUALLY hit myself in the face one hundred times with a particular to-remain-nameless Magic novel, because I wanted definitive proof of what I had previously only suspected. Once the swelling had gone down, I was satisfied that — yes indeed — self-mutilation was more fun than reading beyond page 2. So traumatic was this experience that I entertained the idea of scooping my eyeballs out with hot rusty spoons, just in case I got the urge to try page 3. I don’t mind admitting that I quite like the whole eyesight concept, so it was with severe trepidation that I approached an advance copy of ‘Agents of Artifice’, the forthcoming Planeswalker novel by Ari Marmell.
Very deep breath.
It’s AWESOME. Fabulously deep, rounded, real characters, packed with details that instinctively feel right. A murky, passionate, adult, even sexy tale, where even the token small-minded, big-fisted thugs leap off the page as real people. Scary real people, but real nonetheless. It’s five pages before we get a straight up capital M Magic reference (‘Ravnica’), and that surpasses the previous self-restraint record by about 4.98 pages. But this isn’t a Ravnica that’s there like a cardboard cutout because somebody decided that was the world we need to plug this week. Instead, it begins on Ravnica because that’s where it needs to start. You know, for the Story, the Plot, the Arc, all those things that come in handy in, er, books. I’m reluctant to gush too much about ‘Agents’, because I do, as you know, work closely with Wizards, and I’d hate you to miss out just because you think I’m hard-selling you garbage. So I’ll offer you these two closing thoughts. First, I ask you to check it out. Second, I’m actively irritated to be writing this, because page 194 is waiting for me…
Having been on the ‘sitting through the night clicking refresh every five minutes’ end of the Coverage-Audience relationship, I understand that few things make fans of the game more irritated than the apparent tardiness between when a Round should be happening and when you get to hear about it. So, here’s how it works. I wait for Round Two to end. While this happens I’m looking for stories around the building, maybe editing a podcast, preparing for the Roundtable, one of a dozen different writing tasks. Then I go in search of who I need, in this case the Israeli Team. Then we chat, and I start to get a sense of where the piece is going. In this case, there’s an obvious punchline, their story about opening Commune With Nature (see the Thursday blog for the actual article.)
Especially when I don’t have many GP and PT Top 8s to talk about, it’s important to find out a bit about their individual backgrounds in the game. Round Three starts, and I have a video piece to record. That takes half of the round, and then I sit down to write up the interview. By the time that’s done, the round is done, apart from the extra turn stragglers. However, Craig Gibson our photographer was working for one of the other reporters while I was chatting with the Israelis, and since we’re now between rounds, they’ve scattered to the four winds. There’s no choice but to wait for the start of Round Four. When it does, Craig and I go and find the four players, Craig takes the shots, then it’s back to the coverage room. Craig uploads the photos, manipulates and tweaks them into a nice banner-style, and hands them off to me.
The writing plus pics package then goes into the queue for Kelly Digges, the Editor. We’re several places down the list, with Feature Matches coming in all the time, blog pieces, feature articles, BDM’s Friday column… When it makes it to the top of the list, Kelly will edit for content, grammar, punctuation, and spelling, plus anything that we refer to in a particular way — Magic Online replacing ‘MODO,’ for instance. The revised piece then gets sent to Seattle, where the online producer waits to make the updates. And this goes on for roughly 14 straight hours across each of the three days of Swiss competition. You can see how ‘live’ coverage takes a little bit longer than Right Now….
So the Standard is done, and the math has worked out correctly, with exactly five players beating the odds to a perfect record. That there are two Japanese players there comes as no surprise, and that one of them is the National Champion Masashi Oiso is outright thrilling. If you were going to pick a second nation who would have two undefeated players here on Day 1, chances are Australia wouldn’t be right at the top of your list. That’s not to say that they don’t have some pedigree. In particular, Aaron Nicastri has leapt to the forefront of the global scene, having won his National title and then vowed to travel the globe in search of Pro Points. That brought him here as the leader in the Rookie of the Year Race, and he’s currently ensuring that closest rival Tyler Mantey can’t touch him. Just another 15 individual and 4 team wins, and that’ll do it!
Of course the truth is that the absurdity of that statistic indicates just how far we’ve still got to travel. However, while you can’t win Worlds on Day 1, you can certainly lose it, and someone who falls into that category is a man who gets big marks from me for still smiling, and indeed still being in the building, Steve Sadin, who achieved the Detroit Lions-style perfection of 0-6.
I’ve just had soooo much fun, watching the first Team round of the weekend, featuring the USA against Mexico. The outcome doesn’t matter, but what was a spectacular success was the Format. Team day at Worlds last year was awkward, since every two rounds the Draft pods were redrawn, meaning some teams at the top end found themselves together twice or even three times. This time around, they’ve tinkered with the format to add in just the four dedicated Team Rounds, two today, and the other two to kick off Saturday. This means we won’t know either the Top 4 Teams or Top 8 Individual until closing time on Saturday, which from a storytelling and dramatic perspective makes a ton of sense. Also, the Format itself, where each member of the Team is responsible for either Standard, Extended, or Legacy, is just brilliant. Watching three matches simultaneously blending some of Magic’s greatest hits is fabulously entertaining, and as a division of labor, it emphasises individual responsibility within the Team. I can’t say enough about how good it is, and how much the Teams themselves have responded to it. There was a real holiday atmosphere to this round, with the 50+ national squads clearly delighted, and indeed honored, to be there. Good times.
Back from BBQ, a more or less compulsory carnivore experience, in the company of BDM, Josh Bennett, Nate Price, Kelly Digges, and Greg Collins. I spend a lot of time talking in life, and it was great to listen to the guys hold forth on a myriad of cultural good stuff. I believe North American types refer to this kind of thing as ‘shooting the breeze.’ I refer to it as ‘shutting up and learning stuff.’ More good times.
My record in Coverage Drafts is generally miserable, not least because I regularly seem to find Pro Tour winners to my left and right. Despite their undoubted skills, which outweigh mine considerably, BDM and Greg Collins have zero PT wins between them, and I felt vaguely hopeful I might squeeze out a win from somewhere. With Head Judge Toby Elliott making encouraging noises, I ended up with a very good Naya deck. Highlights included a double Resounding Roar victory over BDM, and a Turn 4 kill, thus:
1 — Forest, Wild Nacatl
2 — Plains, attack for 2 (18), Wild Nacatl
3 — Mountain, attack for 6, cast Sigil Blessing for 4 extra (8)
4 — Hell’s Thunder, attack for 10 (-2)
Good Game. Yet more good times.
And then it was time for bed. Next week ’twill be the Night Before Christmas. I’ll bring you the rest of my Worlds experience, and hopefully start chugging through a mountain of data coming out of the tournament. And to mark your card, on January 7th next year, I have a very special column brewing, for those of you who like the world of the Pros and the world of the numbers behind the Pros.
Until then, hoping you all enjoyed the coverage from Memphis, and, as ever, thanks for reading.