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The Return of Nationals

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I'll start off with a bold claim: most people have a strong sense of national pride.

You might or might not be one to feel proud while representing or defending your country in any way possible, but my experience is that few people have little to no feelings for their country of birth. This is even more prominent in Eastern Europe where I am from, since, well, there were quite a few wars in these parts of the world  lately and what better way to boost morale and motivate people to defend the land than by stoking the fires of national pride. These actions ripple through time and generations, so even the children who have never seen war still feel the effects and have a strong sense of loyalty to the country. Don't get me wrong, I think this is a good thing, loving your people and country should never be condemned, only celebrated, and we celebrate it in many ways - even in Magic.

Worlds, and later the World Magic Cup was always somewhat less prestigious and significant than a Pro Tour, both in terms of payout and personal achievement. The Pro Tour always had a higher concentration of top players, while Worlds/WMC has a far more colorful crowd, since many players who manage to qualify through WMCQs aren't the country's best, even if that country has enough pro players to fill out all the slots, which is not something all countries have. Despite this, Worlds/WMC was always a very important tournament for most players. I have talked with and read about many players that found playing for their national team a special thing, a peak of their career, even though some of those players certainly had more impressive individual successes, all due to the strong sense of pride born of the love for their homeland. This is also augmented by the fact that your non-magic friends, relatives or even parents can more easily relate and feel pride for you if you are part of a team that is representing your whole country.

My first relevant Magic success was winning Croatian Nationals in 2008. This was certainly an easier feat than it would be in most countries, especially in the USA, since Croatian Nationals merely had 80-ish participants at that time. While winning an 80+ player tournament at that time was a huge thing for young me, the fact that I was going to represent my country at Worlds (that was held in Memphis, Tennessee that year) completely overshadowed everything else. It was hard to describe how proud I was of the opportunity I earned. I was sure this was my one and only chance to represent our colors - I prepared well for the tournament and waved the Croatian flag as the team captain at the opening ceremony with much joy and fervor. The tournament itself didn't go so well, I barely made the top 200 and earned my first three pro points - but the experience was something I will never forget. I didn't drop out of the tournament even after we lost all chances of winning any prize money, still battling to the end to try and place Croatia as high on the leaderboard as I possibly could, and the other guys from the team did the same.

Since those ancient times, Worlds were restructured and renamed into what we now know as the World Magic Cup. The World Magic Cup puts even more accent on national pride than Worlds ever did, since Worlds was mainly an individual tournament, while the World Magic Cup is all about a battle of the nations. I was wrong about 2008 being my only chance of representing my country. Since then, my biggest Magic goal was to represent Croatia again and I managed to achieve that in 2010 for Worlds in Chiba, then 2012 when I qualified for the first WMC ever and then again in 2015 as the team captain. Each of these tournaments was very special for me and I will never forget any of them. I still remember each deck I played, all the interesting matches and anecdotes, even misplaying against the great Jon Finkel at Worlds nine years ago. While I attended more Pro Tours than Worlds, none of those were nearly as memorable or emotional for me as representing my country, and I was pretty torn last year when my job prevented me from trying to qualify for the WMC.

The Return of Nationals

I am telling you all this so you can have an idea how excited I was when I first read the title of a recent WOTC announcement: "The return of the Nationals and changes to Grand Prix". I didn't even care about the Grand Prix part of the title at all, even though I was calling for the changes in that tournament for quite some time. I don't know if you have ever participated in Nationals, but for me and many others it was a festival of Magic. All the competitive players from all parts of the country would battle for the four prestigious slots and for everyone it was the peak of the Magic year, something we all prepared for months in advance. The fact that Nationals are returning was met with a general roar of approval in the Magic community, especially in smaller countries. While I was, and still am, really hyped about the announcement, there are some other things that aren't great about it.

First of all - the team captain is still the top pro points player. While this is logical in some ways, ensuring that the tournament will be full of pro players and interesting to watch, it lessens the importance and prestige that Nationals had in the past. Not competing directly for the captaincy is somewhat disheartening and steals from the spirit of the tournament, but I guess this is not something that can be resolved in a good way for both the tournament and the players. My only idea is to maybe give all three slots to Nationals where the top pro directly gets a seat in the winner's bracket of the top 8? Or three byes? Nothing really seems like a perfect solution.

The other important issue that is somewhat connected to the first one is the fact that the national teams are now three players instead of four. This directly affects Nationals because they now qualify only two instead of four players like they did in the past, which makes them even less exciting than I thought at first. Wizards of the Coast (or their voice Helene Bergeot) explain that this change is due to the fact that the fourth player in the team often played very little Magic in the WMC, and that the issue often led to some dissent and arguments among team members.

Personally, I understand how this might be an issue. I have played  in the WMC team both as a captain and as a team member and I am well aware it is a hard choice to pick who will play what portion of the tournament. Sometimes everyone wants to play and participate, and sometimes no one wants to take the responsibility. When I was the captain, in 2015, I decided to take the responsibility myself and play both formats as well as decide on who else will play what. It was actually very stressful and even though I feel I made the most rational decision based on individual qualities of each of our players, I can't help but feel the blame for the fact our result was horrible. To make things worse, I haven't won a single match in that whole World Magic Cup where I was the team captain, which made me feel quite miserable. In the end, my teammates didn't really resent any of my decisions a lot, but it was still quite a stressful and frustrating experience for me. Just to be clear, the frustration mostly came from the fact that I failed in representing my country, especially as a captain.

Even though Wizards of the Coast is right saying that the fourth player might be a source of dissension in the team, I firmly believe these issues are very rare and isolated. Mostly it is up to the captain to arrange the team and carry the cross of leadership and stress that comes with it. I do believe that this was an important part of the tactic and bonding of the team, deciding who will play what and why. Losing the fourth player takes that away, and I think it will take away more good than bad. Other than that, what happens now when one of the team members falls ill? Has an accident? Gets lost? All of these things happened in the past, and teams played with three players instead of four. It is certainly unfortunate, but still, having three players is just fine in those situations. Having two players instead of three is just a crippling disadvantage. When I first heard of this, I thought that Wizards might even consider having a few pro players on site as 'backup' in case of emergency. It sounds like a pretty good idea until you consider someone might break a leg just to get Owen Turtenwald on their national team. That would be true dedication.

The third issue is maybe even a non-issue, but changing back to Standard from Modern for the WMC and Nationals makes Modern even more marginal as a format than before. It seems Wizards aren't really happy with the format and where it is going, so they are giving it the 'Legacy treatment', making it less and less prominent until we all forget that it even exists. Personally, I've been liking Modern better than Standard for quite a while now, but unified Modern really makes little sense at the WMC. With such huge card pools, it really makes little sense to play a 'unified' team format. Will Modern get back its Pro Tour then? Probably not. A very smooth move from Wizards to put a pillow over Modern's face while everybody is watching elsewhere.  Also - Modern Masters 2017 now feels like a pretty morbid case of profiteering on your famous dying cousin. Ok, I'm exaggerating.

What troubles me more than the fact that Nationals and very probably the WMC will be Standard, is the fact that there is no mention of draft at Nationals in the announcement. This was the best part of Nationals - it tested both constructed and limited skill, just like the WMC and the Pro Tour do, and it was something that is very important for members of the national team. I actually noticed that since the WMCQ system was implemented in 2012, we rarely see top limited players at the WMC. No offense to constructed players, but anyone can play Standard well, draft, on the other hand takes far more practice and experience. In the old nationals, which were two day affairs, there were three rounds of draft each day, and I always felt that those draft rounds really helped to separate the best, most complete players from the ones who needed more experience to play at Worlds. I really hope that when the complete detailed Nationals announcement arrives we will have at least three rounds of draft. I guess that is not too much to ask for.

If you have any ideas or suggestions concerning Nationals that might mitigate the problems I mentioned or problems you believe exist and I didn't mention, feel free to contact Wizards of the Coast via social media using @magicprotour. Let your voice be heard!

Magic Digital Next

In other news, there was another announcement from Wizards of the Coast that seemed important at first, but after I've read it I realized it pretty much says almost nothing. It is always good to know that WOTC is working on Magic Online and considering moving Magic to other platforms, but until I see some solid progress, I will just expect more of the bad stuff, since... well, you all tried Magic Online.

The only real piece of good news is actually the fact that Magic Online will receive a special treatment from now on, and get EARLY prereleases instead of the late ones. Thank you Nicol Bolas or whoever made this possible, now I have a real incentive to play the horrible Expected Value prerelease league sealeds. I am not even being sarcastic.

Good luck and have fun!

Stjepan Sučić
Stjepan Sucic

About Stjepan Sučić

Stjepan started his Magic career in 2003, and had some decent finishes over the years, including a World Magic Cup top 8, Pro Tour and Worlds top 32 finishes, and a GP top 8, with 61 pro points total.

During the summer months he is also a Magic Online grinder who you can easily find in the draft queues. Stjepan boasts a 74% win rate in his real life Magic career. When he is not playing Magic, Stjepan enjoys watching Starcraft and playing MOBA games.

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