'The most phenomenal year': The UK's Magic: The Gathering champions on their unforgettable 2017 and record-breaking World Cup
Still reeling from a triumphant Magic: The Gathering World Cup that saw all but one of the home nations make it to the second day of the international tournament – Scotland becoming the first-ever Magic side to do so in every competition – Wales place fifth overall, and both Scotland and Wales collect Spirit Awards for their creative displays of national pride, we talk to Scottish national champion Stephen Murray, Welsh captain Pip Griffiths and English national champion Autumn Burchett about leading the UK to glory on the world Magic stage
How and when did your national team form?
Murray: Our team was formed in two parts. First, Bradley became the team captain at the end of the summer, as he had accumulated the most Pro Points of any Scottish player at big events covering the last year. Secondly, the two finalists of the Scottish National Championship made up the rest of the team later in the year. We all knew each other already, which was nice, so it made it easy to start working as a team.
Griffiths: Our team was formed in October 2017 during the Magic: The Gathering National tournament. At this event, the top two players get to join the captain on the national team. Sam Rolph had moved to Wales from England recently and was eligible to compete for his new country. Sam and Aaron took down the tournament after preparing together, and therefore two of my oldest Magic friends were able to join me to travel to Nice for the World Magic Cup.
Burchett: Myself and Ross Broxup faced off in the finals of a 400-person tournament, England's 2017 Magic Nationals tournament, in mid-September. By getting so far in to the tournament we both qualified to represent England as part of the country's World Magic Cup team, and we joined our team captain Niels Molle who had qualified to lead the team this year by having the most successful previous 12 months on the Magic: The Gathering pro circuit of anyone in the country, earning more Pro Points than anyone else in England.
How did you first get involved in the professional Magic: The Gathering tournament scene?
Burchett: I started playing Magic four years ago, introduced to the game by a partner, and loved the game so much that within less than a year I was attending big tournaments hoping to one day make it on to the Pro Tour. Eventually I qualified to go to my first Pro Tour about a year and a half after starting to attend these big qualifier events.
Murray: I think I mostly became involved in bigger tournaments as a natural consequence of just loving going to local Magic tournaments! When I started going to events that qualified you for bigger and better events, I never really had any expectations of actually winning. But over time, I slowly got better at the game, and any taste of big tournaments I got made me hungry for more.
Griffiths: I previously played competitive Pokémon: TCG. At university, a friend showed me Magic and the associated professional scene. For years I practised until I won a pro tour qualifier – a tournament of over 100 participants – which led me to my first taste of professional play in 2013. Wales being a relatively small country, I was able to use this opportunity to become the captain of the Wales team in 2013. I’ve now been captain four times in total.
What was the tournament path you took to get to the 2017 World Cup?
Murray: In order to qualify for a National Championship, you need to have played in enough events throughout the year, allowing you to obtain the requisite points to be eligible. After that though, it was all down to the Scottish National Championship for all the marbles.
Burchett: In order to compete at the World Cup I had to get to the finals of the 400-person Nationals tournament held in Derby, England in mid-September. This was a weekend-long tournament that you could only compete in by earning enough Planeswalker Points at events in the previous year.
Griffiths: I had taken an early lead as captain of the team when I finished third at GP London in 2016. Although the race was close, an appearance at Pro Tour Aether Revolt meant that I retained his lead for the entire year and became the captain. National championships secured the place on the team for Aaron and Sam, however Sam almost couldn’t make it. Sam caught glandular fever the week before the tournament and was advised against travelling. Against better judgement and doctor’s orders, he managed to make it to the World Magic Cup. Apparently there was a 1% chance of his spleen bursting on landing in Nice! This was probably the scariest flight he had ever taken. We made sure he was topped up on orange juice and rested well.
What was your favourite moment of the World Cup?
Murray: My favourite was easily the feature match against Belgium in round three. We did end up losing, but we got to play some wonderful, exciting cards on camera and it was great fun. From what I'm told, the viewers at home enjoyed it as well.
Griffiths: While playing for the top eight we were paired against USA. I had lost my game and Aaron was drawn at 1-1. We gathered around to watch his match against a very skilled team. We were behind pretty much from the word go and it looked like a Cinderella story was about to be torn asunder. However, due to some very risky plays, some great calls from the team, and some missteps from both of us and the USA, we were able to keep control of one of their most important creatures, the Scarab God. We used the Scarab God not only to start resurrecting key creatures from the graveyard, but mainly to prevent our opponents from doing the same! After a long and grinding game we dispatched the gentlemanly Gerry Thompson of the USA, before Sam Rolph went on to beat Reid Duke in an exemplary game of Magic.
Burchett: Our first couple matches, against Malaysia and Turkey, were both a lot of fun. The sealed pool we opened to play in the first three rounds of the event was quite underpowered and we were all worried that this would lead to us having a rough start to the tournament, yet despite this we managed to rattle off two wins in a row with our teamwork and some small decisions we made during deckbuilding both paying off – in particular a Conqueror's Galleon we added last minute to my deck ended up winning me both my games against Malaysia.
How did the World Cup compare to past years – both for your team and as a whole?
Murray: Well, team Scotland has had higher finishes in the past, so from that side of things we were a little disappointed. However as a whole, the event is still fantastic. Wizards of the Coast are always listening to feedback on the format of the event, and it's a unique and memorable tournament every time. We stayed with the English team in a flat nearby and the whole experience has everyone involved eager to qualify again next time!
Burchett: None of our team members were at the previous World Cup, so it was a great experience for all of us and we were all happy with managing to come 20th place out of the 73 teams! This was a similar result to 2016’s English team, and though we were all happy with this finish I'm also left keen to re-qualify and do even better in the future.
Griffiths: For the entire team, 2017 was been the most phenomenal year. I realised that it was likely my final year as captain of the team. Life is getting busy due to the birth of my daughter and full-time career. As such, I asked the others if they wanted to help me fulfil my dream of attending as dragons! Luckily the team was really happy with this idea and the rest was history. This year was Wales’ best performance. We made the top eight, featured one of the best on-camera matches of the tournament and won the team Spirit Award. The whole experience was amazing for the entire team.
What was in your decks for the tournament?
Burchett: In the standard portion of the event I play a Green-Red-Blue mid-range deck that took advantage of the format's energy-theme cards, my teammate Ross played a mono-red aggressive deck that looked to defeat opponents early in the game before they could get their gameplan going and Niels played a White-Blue combo deck that looked to bring huge creatures back from the graveyard repeatedly as fast as possible to try and overwhelm opponents.
Murray: For the Team Standard portion there were three decks. We had a Temur (Red Green Blue) deck featuring many cards using the energy mechanic for Kaladesh and Aether Revolt. We also had a Mardu (White Red Black) aggressive deck using cheap creatures that work with Artifacts such as Vehicles like Heart of Kiran, and a Blue-White deck featuring God-Pharaoh's Gift from Hour of Devastation with the goal of quickly reanimating a legion of angels.
Griffiths: We tried to analyse the metagame, by which we mean work out what decks each team would bring. This year it was relatively straightforward as there are two very popular decks. We decided that almost every team would play the two top decks – an energy based deck and a mono red deck – and then they would likely also have someone playing a blue-white deck. There are two big blue-white decks at the moment, which revolve around the cards God Pharaoh’s Gift or Approach of the Second Sun. As such, we tried to make sure all three of our decks were geared towards this metagame.
What’s your favourite Magic card to use at the moment?
Murray: Easily my favourite card at the moment is Torment of Scarabs. While perhaps not the best card in the world for high-level events, it always finds its way into my Friday Night Magic decks somehow, without fail!
Griffiths: My favourite card is obviously the Kaledesh Dragon, ‘Glory Bringer’, but it is closely followed by the little robot who could, Bomat Courrier.
Burchett: My favourite card in standard to play with is Chandra, Torch of Defiance. She gives mid-range decks a very different angle of attack, and she has so many different abilities that can lead down such different paths and gameplans that figuring out how to use her abilities when she is on the battlefield is always interesting and rewarding.
What tips would you give to Magic players hoping to take their skill to a national level?
Murray: I think the biggest thing is to always be trying to learn. Figure out what went wrong in a game where you lost, whether it was a gameplay mistake, or a weakness in your deck. Even in games where you win, think if there was anything to be improved. Related to that, don't be afraid to ask more experienced players for advice, and if there aren't any nearby, you can watch videos from excellent players online from big websites such as ChannelFireball. Not that more experienced players are always right of course, sometimes a fresh perspective can help!
Burchett: If you're looking to improve your play it's important to learn to be able to recognise when you lose due to decisions you made and when you lost just due to bad luck, and to then take accountability for the times you made bad decisions. Early on in to playing competitively many players either blame far too much on bad luck and fail to recognise the ways they could have played the game better, or alternatively recognise that they played poorly but dismiss it as irrelevant for whatever reason, but being able to recognise what mistakes you made and become accountable for those mistakes is very important to working those mistakes out of your game.
Griffiths: The biggest thing that we found was trust. We were on a team where we trusted each other enough to make the right plays – and to ask each other when we were in doubt. However, to do well in any tournament, practice is key. You need to know your deck, know the decks that you expect to face, and make sure that you always have a plan.
What are your competitive plans for 2018?
Murray: I think I'll be at all the biggest tournaments being held in the UK for sure, such as GP London and Axion Now's Mega Weekend events. Beyond that, I have no firm plans at the moment, but the better finishes I have, the more I'll attend!
Griffiths: Off the back of the World Magic Cup, we are all qualified for the upcoming Pro Tour in Bilboa. This is Modern format and we hope to work together again to make some day two appearances at this event. We will also all be at the open even, Grand Prix London, at the end of January.
Burchett: With the World Magic Cup now past us I now have enough Pro Points to be a Bronze-level pro. My main aim over the coming few months is to try and amass enough Pro Points to become Silver-level so that I can get back on to the Pro Tour. I would also like to top-eight a Grand Prix in the coming months, a goal I've been coming increasingly closer to accomplishing.