Finals: Pressure and Skill

Posted in Event Coverage on October 22, 2006

By Scott Johns

The cameras, reporters, flashing lights, and crowd of onlookers all told the same story. After three grueling days of intense play we were down to one final match, a match with over sixty thousand dollars on the line, and that's before getting into all the side benefits like the Pro Players Club. That's a lot to play for, something any competitive Magic player dreams of, and right now these two guys were going to do just that.

Game 1

Germany's Jan-Moritz Merkel and Brazil's Willy Edel play for all the marbles.

When the time came, both players began this match with early suspend cards, as has so often been the case at the upper tables lately. For Brazil's Willy Edel, it was Search for Tomorrow, a card that makes his double splash for one Plains and one Swamp even possible, while Germany's Jan-Moritz Merkel (playing first) had a second turn-Coral Trickster followed by a suspended Errant Ephemeron. Merkel had double-mulliganed for this one but managed a solid start regardless, playing a Coral Trickster followed by several morphs.

Edel played Thallid Shell-Dweller and an Ironclaw Buzzardiers, but his draw seemed to sputter a bit from there. However, he had a great turn a bit later when he was able to play Strangling Soot on one of the morphs, then Grapeshot away the Coral Trickster and a new Looter il-Kor. Merkel was cruising along, though, particularly with the help of a Fathom Seer to make up for the mulligans. Edel soon had his own card advantage play, dropping out an end-of-turn Crookclaw Transmuter targeting the 0/5 defender, but Edel was able to use a Thrill of the Hunt to save the defender.

Unfortunately for Edel, the bigger problem was air defense, because now Merkel was able to untap, bring in his Ephemeron, and swing for 7 in the air. The Crookclaw went down to a flashed back Strangling Soot, but Edel still hadn't found an answer to the 4/4 flier. Drawing one last time, with eight land in play, he turned his hand over in frustration, revealing three more land and nothing else, sending it to Game 2.

Merkel 1 - Edel 0

Game 2

Edel plays with intensity.

On the play this time, Edel had Thallid Shell-Dweller, Search For Tomorrow, and then Sporesower Thallid. His opponent looked even better, playing Call of the Herd followed by a Temporal Eddy on the Sporesower. The Sporesower came back down, followed by a Cockatrice, and suddenly Merkel was having trouble getting in, something he needed to do before the Sporesower fungus generation got completely out of hand.

Now with a Clockwork Hydra in play, he summoned a Looter il-Kor and flashed back his Call of the Herd, mustering the forces, but the Looter went down next turn to Thallid Germinator plus Grapeshot, killing the shadow creature and threatening even more fungus craziness. Playing two more morphs, Merkel shook his head, unable to get in on the ground at all for now. However, at the end of the next turn, once the Cockatrice had come in, Merkel flipped up a Coral Merfolk to tap the Sporesower, then sent in the team and used the Hydra's ability to ping away a Saproling. A total of three new saps joined the table, one of them buffed up thanks to the ping victim getting sacrificed with the Germinator's ability. Everybody but the trickster was blocked, but a Brine Elemental was flipped up. All of the Saproling tokens as well as an Elephant token headed to the graveyard and it was now Merkel 14, Edel 18.

Having survived the alpha strike with almost his starting life total, Edel didn't look too worried. Playing a land and using his last four mana, he went ahead and suspended a Nantuko Shaman, clearly feeling comfortable with the board position and preferring the extra card next turn to a blocker now. Merkel sent his team again, pinging Edel with the Hydra. Everything ended up getting blocked, the Trickster and any remaining Saprolings headed to the graveyard, and Merkel just threw in the towel and conceded, clearly feeling he wouldn't have another chance to get through the ground clog before it was too late - an uncharacteristically early concession for a Pro Tour finals.

Merkel finally smiles, albeit ruefully.

Perhaps thinking something like that, Merkel muttered something here to Edel with a grin. I couldn't hear it, but I think it amounted to something like "No way I wanted to have to slog through that any more."

Merkel 1 - Edel 1

Game 3

This one was a complete stomping, plain and simple. Merkel led out with a nicely curved attack, playing Spinneret Sliver and a morph against a hardcast Nantuko Shaman. Merkel sent in his team, the Shaman and morph went to the graveyard, and the morph was revealed to be Coral Trickster. Edel went for a Sporesower to stabilize the board, but a Mystic Snake put the kibosh on that. Now Merkel was able to send his creatures in against an undefended Edel, and cemented his lead with the often-overlooked Mwonvuli Acid-Moss. Wiping out Edel's only non-Forest and going up a land himself in the process, it was the second two-for-one in a row for him. Playing a fourth Forest, the obviously crippled Edel had to just pass the turn. Down came Prodigal Sorcerer and Scryb Ranger, and after peeking at his next card, Edel conceded and sent it to Game 4.

Merkel 2 - Edel 1

At this point Merkel sideboarded his two Acid-Moss back out, a crafty play with the plan of bringing them back in for Game 5 if needed, when he'd be back on the play and the card would be at its best.

Game 4

This time it was Edel on the play and Merkel looking to break serve. So far only the player going first had gotten the win, but if Merkel could make it happen here he'd be going home Pro Tour Champion.

Merkel keeps up the pressure.

Edel had Search for Tomorrow on the second turn, which his opponent answered with an Ashcoat Bear, getting a turn up on creature tempo. He followed up with the obligatory morph. Edel's first creature was a Sporesower Thallid, but when it came to Merkel's turn, the German just passed it back with open. Either not willing to play around it or not caring in the first place, Edel ran out Sporesower #2, and it did indeed run into a Mystic Snake.

From here Merkel kept up the pressure, sending in with his team and following up with a second morph. Now way behind, Edel played a Shell-Dweller and suspended Nantuko Shaman. Morph 3 came down and also turned out to be a Trickster. When the attack was done, Edel was down to a precarious 6 life against his opponent's 20 and way down on the board as well.

But it wasn't going to be that easy for Merkel. Bringing his suspended Shaman into play, Edel drew a card, played Verdant Embrace on it and then played Grapeshot to take out the Trickster and the remaining morph, which turned out to be Slipstream Serpent. Attacking for 5, he shipped the turn with a Saproling token in hand for Merkel's upkeep, thanks to his newly Embraced bug.

Merkel: "Nice turn."

Merkel played yet another morph, then revealed it to be Fathom Seer, probably to look for some answers. Whether he found it there or already had it, he next played Temporal Eddy on the Shaman, a crucial answer right when needed most.

Now the board was stable, but Sporesower was doing its thing. Merkel needed a way to get those last points of damage in, and soon. He tried for a Looter il-Kor and Call of the Herd, but Shell-Dweller #2 clogged up the ground, and an accompanying Grapeshot (with a second spell I didn't catch) burned down the Looter and Snake.

Time was running out for Merkel. Now Edel was getting five spore counters per turn, between his Sporesower and double Shell-Dweller defenses. Playing first the Hydra and later a final morph and flashbacked Call of the Herd, Merkel was trying hard but looking frustrated every upkeep during all the spore accounting.

What a mess!

At this point, a Wormwood Dryad threatened to be a problem for Merkel. In a key moment, Merkel decided to buy himself some time by sending the Hydra in, killing the Dryad before it could get active. The hydra ended up torn apart by a crowd of Saprolings, but it had done its job of buying Merkel more time to find a way to get those critical last points through. A Phantom Wurm joined Merkel's team, and he had to pass the turn.

This is about where things got really weird. Unable to get through for any more damage, Merkel had to keep passing the turn, making creatures as he got them. Edel wasn't able to attack either yet, but his mass of Saprolings and spore counters was growing rapidly. A Drifter il-Dal from Merkel threatened to get through, but Edel had a Strangling Soot to put it out. Merkel tried again, this time with a flashed Scryb Ranger, getting in for one more before the Soot was flashed back to take it out.

At this point Edel was down to 5 but very close to swarming past Merkel for an alpha strike to put it away. But, Merkel had a real threat, playing out a hardcast Ephemeron! Edel spent a long time thinking on this one and eventually decided he needed to go for it. Playing out a Thallid Germinator that presumably he'd just drawn, he swarmed in with his whole non-defender team, including eleven Saprolings. But Merkel handled the charge correctly, blocking all the non-Saproling creatures and letting the tokens through to keep the Germinator from killing him off. The life totals were 14-5 before the attack, and after some tokens were sacced to save the other important creatures, 8 ended up getting through, making it Merkel 6, Edel 5. Edel sent the Ephemeron in, knocking Edel to 1, then put the match and the title away by flipping over the final morph:

Brine Elemental

Unable to untap, there was no way for Edel to do enough damage to finish Merkel, and also no way to defend against the Ephemeron. Just like that, the match was over and Merkel had snatched the victory.

The alpha strike proved fatal, but not for Edel's opponent.

Interestingly, it seems at least possible (if not likely) that Edel could have won this one instead, sending it to Game 5. Had he waited one more turn for his big attack, he would have had enough tokens and counters to attack for lethal damage and then some. Asked just after the game why he hadn't waited, he mentioned being worried about Crookclaw coming out as well. However, as Randy Buehler and BDM also pointed out on the webcast, Edel should have known that the final morph was Brine Elemental, because all of the other morphs in Merkel's deck had already been revealed by that point in the game! Knowing the morph was Brine Elemental would have meant he'd know not to make the attack too early, and in fact the play he went for wouldn't have saved him from Crookclaw anyway.

With the title on the line, Edel just missed the right line of play, but anyone that's watched many Top 8s knows it happens. Between days and days of competition, time zone changes, nerves, and plenty of other factors, players are often exhausted physically and mentally by the time they get to this point. Screwy mistakes are no stranger to Top 8 matches, but not everybody makes them.

In addition to that, this wasn't just about Edel's play. Merkel played a fantastic game in the fourth, getting every point in that he could, buying himself time wherever possible, and just generally finding ways to generate opportunities and then be in position to capitalize on those opportunities. This time Merkel played the better game, and he's going home with the trophy, the title, and forty thousand dollars because of it. Congratulations to the Pro Tour's newest champion, Jan-Moritz Merkel.

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