Four terrific weeks of gameplay across four talent-packed divisions have brought us to this, the first Week 5 of the inaugural Magic Pro League. With all four division titles still up for grabs, with the precious prize to the winners of an automatic pass through to Day Two of Mythic Championship III in Las Vegas later this month, the competition is going to be tighter and tougher than ever. Here's what's coming our way this weekend.
Pearl Is Clean and Straightforward
Pearl is the division where the tiebreaks are super-straightforward. Brian Braun-Duin leads the Division at 5-1, ahead of three players—Eric Froehlich, Andrew Cuneo, and Javier Dominguez—all at 4-2. This week, BBD and Efro go toe to toe, and the winner (here it comes) wins the division. That's all you actually need to know. If BBD wins, BBD wins. If Efro wins, Efro wins. Because of the tiebreaks, Cuneo and Dominguez are out even if everyone ends up at 5-2.
I had the chance to chat with both players ahead of this massive matchup. First, Hall of Famer Eric Froehlich:
Rich: You've played at almost every period of the game, and almost every form of tournament structure devised. Given the level of competition, how much satisfaction would coming out on top of this first MPL division split give you?
Efro: It's hard to express what winning the division would mean to me, and I feel like the level of "fire" I currently have going has definitely been reignited with MPL play. I felt more intense joy winning my first match of MPL weekly play than I remember feeling the last time I made a Pro Tour Top 8, and while they are nowhere near the same level, it just speaks to where I'm at in the game right now. I've been doing a lot of losing lately and coming out on top of a division of eight of the best players in the world, not to mention giving myself the best chance at winning a Mythic Championship, would mean a lot.
Rich: Azorius Aggro, Bant Midrange, Sultai Dreadhorde, Gruul Midrange—you've certainly moved around the metagame. What was your process for choosing the right deck each week?
Efro: In the end, the MPL weekly matches are a show. I considered playing Mono-Red or Esper every week, and if I felt that they were both the strongest option and people wouldn't be as prepared for them, I certainly would have gone that route, but I didn't. Outside of Lee Sharpe, there are maybe four people who want to watch me play Mono-Red every week, so I tried to mix it up with "spicier" decks.
Rich: Unlike previous weeks, you know the matchup ahead of time. Brian Braun-Duin has taken a very different approach to you, since he's been on Esper Midrange every week. Tell us a bit about the matchup—as viewers and fans, what should we be watching out for?
Efro: Esper Midrange is a strong deck and BBD might be the world's strongest pilot of it. The game plans can go in a number of different directions, either focusing on Hero of Precinct One, the flying creatures, the creatures that act as removal spells, the planeswalkers, etc. His removal options are also numerous. My hope is that his three-color mana base can stumble a little bit, which would allow my aggressive draws to punish him, or for him to have the wrong answers at the wrong times. An early Llanowar Elves and being on the play are pretty critical for me as it allows me to get out in front. His deck is extremely strong at playing from ahead and good at stabilizing so he can pull ahead, so I need to stay out in front or it will spiral quickly (as it tends to do against Teferi, Hero of Dominaria).
So how does the man Froehlich describes as possibly the world's best Esper Midrange player approach the division decider? Brian Braun-Duin shared some of his thoughts right before his big match.
Rich: BBD, you go into Week 5 knowing that a win over Eric Froehlich will give you the division victory. When you won the World Championship in Seattle, you were among the clear underdogs. How did you see yourself coming into the MPL?
BBD: I don't think it's possible to consider myself the underdog anymore, even if it's a convenient storyline to fall back on. That, however, doesn't mean that I'm a favorite in the MPL either. It would be unreasonable to have an expectation of success, so I went into the MPL the same way I go into most tournaments—or at least I try—which is to just play my best, enjoy the process, and not worry about whether the results follow.
Rich: You've played Esper Midrange every week. Is this the most comfortable and settled you've ever been with an archetype?
BBD: It's probably the most comfortable and enjoyable archetype in Standard for me since Green-White Tokens back in the Shadows over Innistrad era. I really like this deck, I think it's good, and I think I play it well—a deadly combination, and I'm fortunate that this has been the case.
Rich: We know that Gruul Midrange is your final week matchup. Tell us a bit about what to expect. What are the key things for viewers and fans to watch out for?
BBD: The die roll is pretty important in Game 1. If the Gruul deck curves out early with Llanowar Elves, it can be tough to come back from. Efro's version plays lots of The Immortal Sun, which can lock out a chunk of my deck. From his perspective, he's trying to put pressure on me in as many ways as he can, via a variety of hard-to-deal-with creatures, haste, and The Immortal Sun, and I'm trying to weather the storm and take over the long game with my planeswalkers. The Gruul deck is more powerful but far less consistent, and I have a lot of cheap answers to trade up in value or catch up if I'm behind. He's trying to exploit me having the wrong answers or me being too slow to properly deal with his stuff, and I'm trying to exploit his deck's tendency to flood out or draw ineffective cards late game. It's a high-variance matchup.
Rich: Anyone who follows you on twitter (@BraunDuinIt) knows you've been spending the last few days driving across America, with you saying this: "Time to start the next chapter of my life." So, what is that next chapter?
BBD: I've lived in various places in Virginia nearly my entire life. My family moved there when I was three years old, and I never left. I like Virginia, but I also felt that a change was in order and that I ultimately wasn't as happy as I wanted to be living there. Starting anew doesn't bring happiness on its own, but it can certainly offer new opportunities and possibilities. When Brad Nelson and his fiancée, Amber, asked me if I would move to Seattle with them, initially, I was skeptical, but, ultimately, I decided that this might be exactly the thing I needed. Moving in with friends, in a new place, where I already know a lot of old friends who have migrated out here for one reason or another over the past few years seemed like an excellent idea the more I thought about it. It's a huge change of scenery for me, but I'm excited to see where it goes.
The Pearl Division is all set up for a tremendous finale. Make sure you tune in on Friday to see who claims the title.
Two for Japan?
This could be a wonderful week for Japanese Magic. Ken Yukuhiro (Ruby) and Rei Sato (Sapphire) could wind up on top of the heap in their respective divisions. That would represent a brilliant performance for the Japanese contingent, with only Shota Yasooka (currently 2-4 in Emerald) missing out. To do that, here's what needs to happen:
For Yukuhiro, it's pretty simple. He leads the division at 5-1, and faces Savjz in his last match. Win that, and he wins the division outright. William Jensen, meanwhile, needs some help. He's at 4-1 with a game in hand coming into this last week. If he also ends up at 6-1, Yukuhiro will still edge the division victory. A Yukuhiro loss, coupled with two wins for Jensen, will see the Hall of Famer claim the Day Two pass for Las Vegas. If they both end up at 5-2, Jensen needs Yukuhiro to lose 0-2 against Savjz. Lucas Esper Berthoud, meanwhile, who could end the Split with an excellent 5-2 record, can't win the tiebreak shuffle.
Over in Sapphire, Sato's last match is against the mighty Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. For him, it's the same story as for Yukuhiro—win this last match, and he's the division champion. For PV, it's not just a question of beating Sato, he has to beat him 2-0. That would see him tied with Sato at 5-2, and with the tiebreak edge. That still might not be enough, however. The fly in the ointment? Piotr Głogowski, who starts the final week at 3-2 due to early rescheduled matches. With matches against Jean-Emmanuel Depraz (3-3) and Márcio Carvalho (1-4), it's perfectly plausible that Głogowski can win back-to-back matches this week and hurl himself into the tiebreak scrum. Bottom line: mathematicians everywhere are praying for a clean Sato victory!
One Short Day in the Emerald City
The Emerald Division has been terrific. Brad Nelson is at 6-0, with Seth Manfield and Martin Jůza both at 5-1. We'll get to Nelson in a minute, but first, there's the matter of Manfield and Jůza's Week 5 fixture list. Here it is:
Seth Manfield (5-1) versus Martin Juza (5-1)
Gulp. It doesn't get any easier for Manfield, who suffered his first loss last week to Nelson. As for Jůza, he's been A Bit Clever™. Bear in mind, our MPL players don't know who they're playing each week, until, of course, the final match in their division. For the first three weeks, players could submit any deck they liked. In Week 4, however, they locked in their chosen deck for the last two weeks. Here's what Manfield and Jůza have been playing:
- Manfield – Week 1, Mono-Red Aggro; Week 2, Mono-Red Aggro; Week 3, Mono-Red Aggro
- Jůza – Week 1, Mono-Red Aggro; Week 2, Mono-Red Aggro; Week 3, Mono-Red Aggro
Jůza knew there was a very good chance he might face Mono-Red Aggro sometime in his last two matches. So, he took a metagame gamble and put his faith in Jeskai Walkers and its good matchup against Mono-Red. He also tweaked his list to improve his chances against the red menace. So far, this shift has paid off perfectly, since his Week 4 opponent, Grzegorz Kowalski, moved away from previous midrange and control decks to Mono-Red. And now, Jůza needs that metagame call to pay off once again, because Manfield has stayed put on Mono-Red Aggro.
If Jeskai Walkers delivers, Jůza could find himself a division winner. Except . . . except Brad Nelson. He's the last of the 32 to still be undefeated, and he'll look to complete the split sweep against Grzegorz Kowalski on Mono-Red Aggro. Brad's deck of choice? Esper Midrange.
So, we'll see Seth Manfield versus Martin Jůza on Saturday, and then the winner will have to hope that Kowalski can do what no one in the Spark Split has done—take two games away from Brad Nelson.
Other Matches That Matter
All of them, actually. We've been focusing on the Spark Split over the last few weeks here, but remember that each and every match has MPL points on the line. At the end of the year, there are four slots at the World Championship available to those MPL members with the highest Mythic Points total (accrued both from MPL play and performances at Mythic Championships).
It's still early in the season, but by the time Core Split MPL weekly play kicks off, we'll have seen Mythic Championship III in Las Vegas and Mythic Championship IV in Barcelona. Among the MPL, Autumn Burchett (MC Cleveland Champion) and Javier Dominguez (2018 World Champion) are already qualified for the World Championship, but behind them in the standings are Alexander Hayne, Reid Duke, Seth Manfield, and Andrea Mengucci. So, whether an MPLer is at 5-1, 3-3, or 2-4, the 2 Mythic Points up for grabs this week could yet be pivotal to their hopes of making it to the World Championship.
And so, that wraps our final preview for the Spark Split. Right now, we know none of our division winners. By the end of our show on Friday—yes, that's Friday, being the day before Saturday—we'll have the answers. And then, because our show is on Friday this week, you can go to your Modern Horizons Prerelease on Saturday! Join us on twitch.tv/magic at 12 p.m. PT/3 p.m. ET/7 p.m. UTC on FRIDAY for the exciting conclusion to the Spark Split.