Chikara Nakajima had exploded out of his quarterfinal with some outrageous opening hands from his mono-red Affinity deck, leaving Max Sjöblom bruised and battered in his quarter-final despite having made a strong start. Sjöblom had been playing the Blue-Red Pyromancer Ascension combo, and Nakajima faced a similar opponent in his semi-final matchup against Splinter Twin.
Samuele Estratti was in his first Pro Tour Sunday but had excelled under the light to brush past Andrejs Prost in his quarterfinal. Despite being a relative unknown in his first Pro Tour Sunday, Samuele Estratti had the best Modern record of any of the players in the Top 8 and had played superbly across all three days of the Pro Tour. He would not be an easy opponent for the veteran Japanese player.
Launching the semifinal into life, Samuele Estratti began digging through his deck with the familiar blend of blue cantrips: Preordain on the first turn, then Ponder and Sleight of Hand on his second. Across the table, the Affinity madness of Chikara Nakajima made a slow but steady start, turning a Vault Skirge on the first turn into a Springleaf Drum and Arcbound Ravager, with the added Infect threat of an Inkmoth Nexus on hand.
The threat from the Splinter Twin combination was clear, but Nakajima had a reply. Sacrificing all his artifacts to the Arcbound Ravager to make it a 4/4, he activated his Inkmoth Nexus, then cast Fling, hurling the Arcbound Ravager across the table to kill the Deceiver Exarch. The Ravager left play, and its modular +1/+1 counters moved onto Nakajima's Inkmoth Nexus. The beefed-up land nipped into the red zone to put Estratti up to five poison counters, and halfway dead!
Estratti needed an answer, and he found one. As Nakajima activated his Inkmoth Nexus on the following turn the Italian responded by casting another Deceiver Exarch, tapping down the deadly land before it could attack. The Japanese player followed up with a Memnite, but that was only two artifacts, so Nakajima's Galvanic Blast would not be big enough to kill the Deceiver Exarch if Estratti could find a Splinter Twin to staple to it! Passing the turn, Nakajima hoped for the best.
The Italian didn't immediately cast Splinter Twin, and it looked like Nakajima had another chance to win the game. Estratti cast two Ponder, leaving himself with only three lands untapped, then passed the turn back to Nakajima.
It was all a repeat of the last turn, but this time Estratti had the Splinter Twin ready. As Estratti enchanted his Deceiver Exarch with the deadly Aura, Chikara Nakajima knew the game was up and conceded defeat.
Estratti 1, Nakajima 0
Sideboarding would help both players in this matchup. Estratti had a whole host of removal to move in, with Spellskites to block, Dismember, Ancient Grudge, Lightning Bolt, and Engineered Explosives; Nakajima could add in a trio of Torpor Orbs to shut Estratti's combo down entirely. Estratti's deck would be moving in more cards, but the Nakajima's Torpor Orbs were high-impact additions.
Taking the first turn after Estratti was forced to mulligan, Nakajima began his fightback by spewing forth a Memnite, Ornithopter, and Signal Pest. It was a faster opening than the lonely Vault Skirge in the first game, although the Skirge did join the party on Nakajima's second turn. The Japanese player attacked, reducing Estratti to 16 life, but missed a second land drop and passed the turn.
Estratti began whittling down Nakajima's offense, playing a Preordain then zapping the Signal Pest with a Lightning Bolt. Back to Nakajima, and without his Signal Pest the Japanese player's assault was stalling. A second attack only put Estratti down to 14, although Nakajima found a second land and was able to cast his Torpor Orb. The Orb would eventually disrupt the Italian's combo, but did little to help Nakajima reduce Estratti to 0 life any time soon.
Estratti deployed a Spellskite as a blocker, but Nakajima immediately burnt it away with a Galvanic Blast and attacked again. Nakajima whittled Estratti down to 12, then added a Frogmite to the assault.
Estratti hid behind a second Spellskite, but there was no sign of the Italian breaking out with his combo just yet—or even of being able to shatter the Torpor Orb across the table. A second Galvanic Blast toasted the Spellskite and Nakajima attacked once again! Estratti scrapped the Frogmite with an Ancient Grudge but took another round of damage, dropping to 8.
Estratti went for it. He crushed the Torpor Orb with Ancient Grudge, responded to Nakajima's attack with the Deceiver Exarch, and then untapped to cast the inevitable Splinter Twin to the roar of his supporters. Deflating slightly, Chikara Nakajima scooped up his permanents for a second time.
Estratti 2, Nakajima 0
If ever Chikara Nakajima needed a repeat of the incredible draws he had produced to win his quarterfinal, it was now. Unfortunately for the Japanese player the best he could manage was a lonely Signal Pest. The Affinity offense added more muscle on the second turn, however, with a Springleaf Drum beating out a tune to produce an Arcbound Ravager, and the Ravager brought along a Frogmite to the party.
Pondering through his first turn, Samuele Estratti dropped the 0/4 body of a Spellskite between himself and the artifact hordes, but it wasn't enough to deter Nakajima from attacking. Animating his Inkmoth Nexus, Nakajima sent his whole team into the Red Zone, with Signal Pest, Arcbound Ravager, Frogmite, and Inkmoth Nexus all attacking. Estratti blocked the Frogmite with his Spellskite while Nakajima smashed up his Darksteel Citadel and Springleaf Drum to add +1/+1 counters to his Arcbound Ravager.
Samuele Estratti played a third land and mutely passed the turn back. The Torpor Orb shut down any Pestermite or Deceiver Exarch trickery, but the Italian was still hanging onto his lone Spellskite as defense.
Nakajima played a second Springleaf Drum and attacked, sending his Inkmoth Nexus into the fray. Samuele Estratti counted the artifacts Nakajima had available and deduced that the Japanese player had enough that he could sacrifice everything to add +1/+1 counters to his Arcbound Ravager, then sacrifice the Ravager to move those to the Inkmoth Nexus and win the game with a single high-impact infect attack. The Italian cast a Deceiver Exarch and blocked as best he could, but every movement of the Italian's body was selling the story that he believed he was about to lose: he blocked with a resigned "it doesn't matter" air, and then moved his hands to his cards, poised to scoop them up and begin shuffling for the next game.
It was all an elaborate act, of course, and Estratti was trying to sell Nakajima on the idea that he could win that turn. Samuele Estratti still had his Spellskite, and would be able to intercept the killing blow to move all the +1/+1 counters from Arcbound Ravager onto his own Spellskite instead of Nakajima's Inkmoth Nexus! It was worth a try, but Chikara Nakajima was far too old a wolf to fall for a trick like that. Ignoring the Italian's mind games, he simply allowed combat damage to resolve normally, dealing 5 damage and two poison counters to his opponent.
The Italian added a Splinter Twin to his Deceiver Exarch on the next turn, but so long as the Torpor Orb was out there, his combo was worthless. Passing the turn back, Estratti was tapped out and seemingly helpless, still vainly trying to sell Nakajima on his vulnerability. Nakajima still wasn't interesting in buying anything, and for a second turn the Japanese player attacked and allowed everything to happen normally. That attack dropped Estratti to 4 life and 6 counters before Nakajima added a Vault Skirge to his force.
Estratti cast a Kiki-Jiki, the Mirror Breaker, but even the Akki Goblin couldn't help the Italian now. Chikara Nakajima untapped, cast a Cranial Plating, and struck back to take his first game!
Estratti 2, Nakajima 1
Samuele Estratti began the fourth game of the semifinal with a Preordain, as we've come to expect from blue-red combo decks, while across the table Chikara Nakajima's Affinity deck spewed out Inkmoth Nexus, Mox Opal, Memnite, Signal Pest and Springleaf Drum. The Japanese player added the game-breaking Torpor Orb to the table on his second turn.
Ramping up his Inkmoth and Blinkmoth Nexuses on his third turn, Nakajima returned to the red zone although this time Estratti was waiting for him. Casting a Vendilion Clique, the Italian blocked the Inkmoth Nexus, then he untapped and swept the board clean with a Firespout.
The Firespout had broken the first wave of Nakajima's assault, and Estratti was still sitting comfortably on 14 life after that exchange. His main objective remained the removal of Nakajima's Torpor Orb, though, as Estratti simply couldn't win with that artifact on the table!
Nakajima resumed the attack with a lonely Atog, but it was slow going against the Italian's life total. A second attack saw the Atog blocked by a Pestermite, Nakajima having to sacrifice his Mox Opal to keep the Antiquities creature alive, although a freshly minted Memnite still nipped past to deal a point of damage. Estratti was down to 12, and dying a death of a thousand cuts while he searched for some way of destroying the Torpor Orb!
Yet another attack from Chikara Nakajima reduced Estratti to 10, and the Japanese player added an Arcbound Ravager that threatened to accelerate the clock on his opponent. Estratti reacted by casting a second Pestermite at the end of Nakajima's turn, then enchanting it with Splinter Twin. The Torpor Orb had once again destroyed his combo win, but the Splinter Twin could still generate tokens to block with, buying the Italian time.
Nakajima attacked again, dragging his troops back into the red zone. Estratti produced a Pestermite token and blocked the Atog, dropping to 7 life. The Italian desperately needed to find an Ancient Grudge or Engineered Explosives in order to smash the Orb, or this slow grind would surely hand Nakajima another victory.
Samuele Estratti untapped and drew a Ponder, casting it straight away the Italian knew that any one of the cards he saw on top of his deck could be Ancient Grudge... they weren't, but Estratti did find a Firespout. He reset Nakajima's offense for a second time, although the Japanese player was able to move two +1/+1 counters onto his Blinkmoth Nexus, which survived the firestorm thanks to good old flying.
Back to square one, Nakajima began rebuilding with another Atog. Estratti drew... another Ponder that revealed another three cards that weren't Ancient Grudge. The Italian played a Deceiver Exarch as another blocker, and braced to defend himself once again.
Playing cards from the top of his deck as he drew them, Chikara Nakajima added a Springleaf Drum to his team and attacked again, but made no headway at all against the Deceiver Exarch and Pestermite's splintered twin. Estratti was down to just 7 life, but Nakajima was now bashing his head against a brick wall, and was surely running out of time.
Pulling up a Cranial Plating on his next turn, Chikara Nakajima was still unable to get around Estratti's blockers. He needed more creatures, not ways of making his current team attack for more damage, because they were just smashing fruitlessly into Estratti's tokens.
Another turn had passed without Estratti getting any closer to death, and now time had run out for Chikara Nakajima.
Finally drawing an Ancient Grudge, Samuele Estratti smashed his opponent's Torpor Orb into a thousand shards. All the pieces of Estratti's combo were already on the battlefield, and with the Orb gone there was nothing standing in his way. A dejected Chikara Nakajima offered his hand in congratulations, while a very relieved Samuele Estratti advanced into the Final of Pro Tour Philadelphia!
Samuele Estratti defeats Chikara Nakajima 3-1 and advances to the finals!