World Championship XXVI: Dreams Do Come True

Legendary Brazilian Hall-of-Famer Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa piloted his unforgiving Azorius Control to the fabulous grand prize against Márcio Carvalho in a tense final that had Portuguese as its first language. A victory that puts a highly coveted bow on an extraordinary career.

The World Championship has been the culmination of the Magic year since the very beginning of organized play, all the way back to Zak Dolan's victory in 1994. Fast forward 26 years, and now the winner isn't just presented with a trophy and some boosters anymore, they got a whopping $300,000 out of a pool that touched the unprecedented, astronomical amount of one million dollars.

2020 was also the year that saw the World Championship proceedings take place almost entirely on MTG Arena. Only the Draft portion of the Limited rounds was executed via good old paper cards, largely due to Arena not being able to handle eight-person-pod human drafting yet. Use of the digital platform resulted in a live audience that at times surpassed one hundred thousand viewers, all following the games on Twitch.

All of this despite the complications of an event format that could sometimes feel exceedingly byzantine, with double eliminations, upper and lower brackets, and triple best-of-3 matches in lieu of more traditional best-of-5 matches. The limitations of the underlying software showed, which is nice and flashy, but still very much in development. The occasional viewer might have also felt lost while trying to understand what exactly was riding on each of the featured matches, and the commentary not always helped with that. This was especially true during the first day, inexplicably devoid of any on-screen visual aid to point out what was coming to pass in the tournament at large.

World Champion PVDDR
The new World Champion: Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa

But enough with the grievances over technicalities. What did actually transpire over the course of the last weekend in Honolulu? Has Theros Beyond Death Standard been shaken to its foundations?

Well, there wasn't really any risk of that happening to begin with. The 16 players qualified for the World Championship — the previous World Champion; the winners of the seven Mythic Championships; the four top players from the Magic Pro League; the four players with the most Mythic Points outside the MPL — were more focused on pulling off a good performance at such a critical juncture in their professional careers than they were on reinventing the metagame.

After two rounds of Theros Beyond Death draft mainly designed to divide the players into two hierarchies, the Standard battle took over. To that end, each of the contenders registered one of five already solidly established tier one decks, all of which you can find here. The breakdown is pretty straightforward, the players almost evenly split across four archetypes, with only one outlier.

  • 4 Jeskai Fires (Márcio Carvalho, Javier Domínguez, Raphaël Lévy, Gabriel Nassif)
  • 4 Monored Aggro (Eli Loveman, Seth Manfield, Andrea Mengucci, Sebastián Pozzo)
  • 4 Temur Reclamation (Autumn Burchett, Jean-Emmanuel Depraz, Chris Kvartek, Matias Leveratto)
  • 3 Azorius Control (Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Thoralf Severin, Ondřej Stráský)
  • 1 Jund Sacrifice (Piotr Głogowski)

Aside from Głogowski, who trusted the list that had earned him the first place at the last Mythic Championship in December, the four-pronged distribution describes a reasonably varied and balanced field, encompassing all the Magic fundamentals of aggro, control and (sort of) combo. A common theme seems to be the engineering of one big turn where the player may be able to bring the opponent from 20 to 0 in a single gesture, either via Expansion // Explosion or by launching a lethal assault fueled by Embercleave or Cavalier of Flame.

The fourth major archetype is trying to stop all of this from taking place. That archetype, Azorius Control, finished on top of everyone else, but not in virtue of any inherent superiority, as all of the decks in competition had decent matchups against each other. Yes, post-Oko Standard is kind of healthy, for once. In fact, Day 1 ended up eliminating one player each of the four main archetypes, simultaneously marking the fall of a few fan favorites and/or safe bets, like reigning World Champion Javier Domínguez, Mythic Invitational winner Andrea Mengucci, dark horse MCIII revelation Matias Leveratto, and eternal boy wonder Ondřej Stráský.

dream trawler

Color-wise, things feel more uneven. Black suffered a major setback, with only one deck running black cards at all. Green was not much happier, counting no more than five decks to its name and a grand total of four copies of Nissa, Who Shakes the World in the entire tournament, courtesy of Chris Kvartek's attempt at crafting a more versatile Temur Reclamation list. More so, outside of the lone Jund deck and in addition to Kvartek's Nissas, the only monogreen cards brought to Hawaii were the four playsets of Wilderness Reclamation in their namesake lists, two copies of Nightpack Ambusher in Autumn Burchett's sideboard … and that's it. How far have the mighty trees fallen. Once Upon a Time indeed.

To throw even more salt on the Golgari wounds, the Top 4 players who made their way into the Day 3 stage all completely eschewed both black and green cards. It was a Jeskai affair, with the combination represented either as a whole (two Fires decks) or broken down into its components (one White-Blue Control and one Monored Aggro). Let's take a look at each main grouping and its protagonists.

Excellent Timing

teferi, time raveler absorb

Brazilian hall-of-famer Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa was already a living and breathing legend as the holder of several records: youngest player to reach 300 lifetime Pro Points; all-time second for most Pro Tour Top 8s; all-time first for total money prizes earned — a ranking in which he has further distanced himself from the competition now. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012, was Player of the Year for the 2016–2017 season, won two Pro Tours. And yet, as he lamented himself several times, to the non-initiated, none of these accomplishments sound as immediately clear and awe-inducing as saying, "I'm the World Champion." It was the title that escaped him, the one he very fervently pursued.

He finally earned those bragging rights, after first defeating Matias Leveratto and Eli Loveman in Draft, then Chris Kvartek, Gabriel Nassif, and Seth Manfield in Constructed. The latter three represent Temur, Jeskai, and Monored respectively, pretty much the entire range of possible opponents, give or take Głogowski's undying cats. Damo da Rosa managed to steer clear of the mirror, but had to face Márcio Carvalho's Fires of Invention deck in the upper bracket finals, then again in the grand finals, and the Portuguese champion was the only player able to beat PVDDR during the weekend.

Their showdown started easily enough for the Brazilian, who won the upper bracket match. But Carvalho came back to the grand finals reinvigorated by his success against Seth Manfield. This boost of confidence resulted in an exhausting yet exhilarating quadruple confrontation where Carvalho had to win three matches in order to take home the prize as opposed to his opponent's two. Carvalho almost managed to throw Damo da Rosa into despair when the latter's initial match win didn't bear the expected fruit and was averted twice by Carvalho's back-to-back recoveries. After more than two hours of game play, though, the fourth and final match took the trophy away from Europe and sent it to South America. Someone had to end the day feeling saudade, but it wasn't going to be Damo da Rosa.

The four archetypes that composed the vast majority of the Worlds metagame were all strengthened to some extent by the release of Theros Beyond Death, but none as much as Azorius Control. In fact, before the arrival of the latest set, the prince of control decks had no choice but to decline itself in Esper colors for its Standard incarnation. Enter Shatter the Sky as an acceptable replacement for Kaya's Wrath that contributes to the de-taxing of the mana base, at the same time while Temple of Enlightenment ensures a more thorough dual-land support for the white-blue combination. But the array of improvements that came from Theros is vast. PVDDR's list runs a total of 25 cards bearing the symbol of the Greek-flavored set, basic lands excluded: Banishing Light and Elspeth Conquers Death are reliable pieces of removal; Omen of the Sea and Thirst for Meaning give card selection; The Birth of Meletis adds consistency and protection against aggro; and last but not least, there's a couple of amazing new finishers like Dream Trawler and even more so Archon of Sun's Grace — this deck stealthily takes the form of a constellation build without even trying.

Archon of Sun's Grace

The other two Azorius players weren't as successful as Damo da Rosa. In his preliminary analysis, Reid Duke was indeed very skeptical of the deck's chances. Ondřej Stráský, who was running the same list as the future World Champion, left the event at the end of Day 1, losing the mirror to Thoralf Severin. The German player, for his part, was relying more on Dream Trawler and spiced things up with Emergency Powers coming out of the sideboard to combo with Narset, Parter of Veils, while The Wanderer was his defense of choice against Temur Reclamation. Severin took Andrea Mengucci's Monored out of the tournament, made it to Day 2, then was sent home by another Monored.

Fight Fire with Fires

fires of invention cavalier of flame

Limited specialist Márcio Carvalho was already a runner-up for World Champion in 2016, when he was defeated by Brian Braun-Duin. He also lost the 2016–2017 Player of the Year run to the very same Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa who's now become his bona fide nemesis. Hopefully the day will come for this outstanding player to finally score one of the major achievements that keep eluding him.

The other archetype running a full playset of Teferi, Time Raveler, Jeskai Fires came into the World Championship well-positioned to attain a favorable result, being capable as it is of slowing down and overpowering aggro. Most notably, Carvalho defeated Monored three times during his tournament run, with Seth Manfield succumbing twice to his firepower. At the same time, the deck is fully equipped to go toe to toe with control, especially after some sideboard intervention come game two.

Of the four main archetypes, it's the one that changed the least with Theros Beyond Death, merely adding hard-to-kill Dream Trawler as another potential specimen in its menagerie of finishers. And that's not even a given: Carvalho had two copies of the nifty Sphinx, and so did Domínguez, who was running the same list as his Iberian colleague. On the other hand, Gabriel Nassif's version of the deck, shared with the other seasoned Frenchman, Raphaël Lévy, omitted the life-gaining, card-drawing flier in favor of some copies of Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft to shore up the early game. Their main deck had Omen of the Sea as the only Theros card, while a full set of Robber of the Rich was the most eye-catching tech to come off of the sideboard. Nassif successfully piloted the list to Day 3. His match versus Autumn Burchett was one of the finest duels in the entire event, and he finished fourth overall, reinforcing the archetype's credentials in the current metagame.

Thank the Demigod

anax, hardened in the forge robber of the rich

Seth Manfield was the only other former World Champion competing in Honolulu, having won the title in 2015. He came close to equal Shahar Shenhar's double distinction, but had to stop at a third place, still worth $100,000 — as much as the previous two World Champions had gotten for their feats — as well as virtual supremacy over all the other Monored builds in the event.

Monored received just one relevant new card from Theros Beyond Death, but boy was it ever crucial. Anax, Hardened in the Forge single-handedly rescued the color from Cavalcade of Calamity purgatory, shredding the enchantment and all the bad enablers it entailed, and reigniting the archetype's potential for an explosive, punishing curve. Anax gives Monored a much-needed insurance against sweepers, while acting as an unparalleled carrier for Embercleave, unlocking one-shot kills that the previous incarnation of the deck would only achieve in awkward, telegraphed ways, like Cavalcade-triggering a Chandra's Spitfire.

The core of the deck still lies in Throne of Eldraine cards, and the sideboard contains two key pieces of color hate in Redcap Melee and Unchained Berserker. For a veritable master class in red wizardry, look no further than the mirror match between Manfield and Sebastián Pozzo.

Wrath of the Elements

uro, titan of nature's wrath storm's wrath

So three of the four main archetypes in the event took the first three places in strict order. What about the fourth? Alas, it looks like Temur Reclamation was the only real loser at Worlds, because it couldn't get beyond a couple of Top 8 finishes, thanks to Mythic Championship winner Autumn Burchett and Pro Tour champion Jean-Emmanuel Depraz.

Temur Reclamation is an old archetype, its signature card dating back to Ravnica Allegiance. In its prime, it could count on Search for Azcanta / Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin to take over the game. Nowadays it's more of a ramp deck that aims to overcharge Expansion // Explosion for a lethal amount, or at least enough to refuel the hand and string more Explosions together, thus achieving some degree of inevitability. Theros Beyond Death supplied some tools to enrich and diversify this game plan: Thassa's Intervention as an instant-speed digger — which is crucial when your mana engine only kicks in during one's end step — that doubles as a counterspell; Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath as early ramp and life total stabilizer that later comes in handy as a plan-B threat.

Of course the deck has Teferi as its main bogeyman, but also tends to struggle against fast aggro openings, so the importance of now having a 4-mana sweeper in Storm's Wrath shouldn't be underestimated. Chris Kvartek, perhaps fatally, chose to skip the red Wrath in his build, in order to run a set of Nissa, Who Shakes the World and foster a less predictable line of attack. It didn't entirely pay off, as a sweeper-less Kvartek had terrible matchups against Seth Manfield and Sebastián Pozzo's Monored decks, and was then cast out of the competition by Gabriel Nassif in Day 2. The fourth Temur player, Matias Leveratto, did even worse, exiting on Day 1, but at least his main-deck Niv-Mizzet, Parun made for an interesting, kind of old-school alternative win condition.

Return of the Returning Cat

cauldron familiar witch's oven

Here it is, the only "rogue" deck in the World Championship. Quotation marks required, because this was actually a tier one list just a few weeks ago, and still very much is. However, none of the Worlds players had faith in it, except for Polish champion and all-around joker Piotr Głogowski, who took his Cats and Devils into Day 2, then lost to Chris Kvartek's Temur Reclamation and Raphaël Lévy's Jeskai Fires in quick succession.

Did Theros Beyond Death provide anything of consequence for the Cat-Oven combo? In Głogowski's opinion, it's mainly all-purpose disruptor Agonizing Remorse, which took the place of the much more expensive Casualties of War. This change in turn made Beanstalk Giant // Fertile Footsteps less desirable, creating room for more thematic one-ofs like God-Eternal Bontu and Liliana, Dreadhorde General.

Agonizing Remorse art

So what does all this mean for Standard? Of course it's easy to dismiss the whole thing as a very special episode, whose restricted scope and impossibly high stakes set it apart from the everyday routine of the Standard metagame. What happens in Worlds stays in Worlds?

To a degree. The visibility of an event of this magnitude is bound to have some form of impact, at least in the next few weeks. Which may just translate into an increased popularity for the already pretty fashionable decks featured in Honolulu, at the expense of those that were neglected: solid tier two competitors like the still powerful Simic Ramp, the unfading Simic Flash, the once-hot adventure decks, the up-and-coming devotion decks, the resurgent Monowhite Aggro, all the other Embercleave decks (Rakdos, Gruul) as well as the Esper enchantment builds that are going to be ousted by the Azorius triumph. A grim destiny, the latter, that was probably portended.
doom foretold

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1 Comment

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RJGiel(24.02.2020 16:51)

Thanks for this very well written summary! Didn't have time to watch most of the coverage so it was a good read on how standard evolved the past months!

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