Alvin Orri Gislason, Captain of Team Iceland, was walking on sunshine. After shocking the world by making it out of the first round of pool play, they had defeated Israel and now were just one match win away from a place in Sunday's Top 8. If they could defeat France, one of the heavy favorites this weekend, they would be a lock. If not, they still had a second chance in the final round of the day!
Contrast that with Team France. Anything less than Top 16 would have been a disappointment for them, and then they'd dropped their first round against Greece and had their backs against the wall. A loss here, and they would spend their Sunday on the sidelines.
Iceland is having fun this weekend, excited at their performance. France, led by Hall of Famer Raphaël Lévy, had other goals in mind. They needed to win the next two rounds to secure a Top 8 finish. Would Iceland stop them from seeing the Sunday stage?
The match was held a few minutes because rockstar French captain (and Hall of Famer) Raphaël Lévy was being filmed in a Deck Tech segment on his Mono-Green deck.
Things kicked off oddly, with Lévy having to mulligan to five and Gislason keeping an awkward six. Lévy's draw developed and Gislason's did not, and suddenly France had scored first blood.
Iceland's Hedinn Haraldsson (Blue-White-Red Flash) and France's Yann Guthmann (Blue-White Control) were methodically doing what their two decks do: draw cards and play out lands.
On the other end of the table, Timothée Simonot's Jund was gaining an edge on Ragnar Sigurdsson and his Junk Aristocrats deck. Two copies of Bonfire of the Damned took out the first few creatures, and then Sigurdsson's deck decided he wanted land instead of action. France had their second game win.
It was hard to know who was ahead in the control match. Haraldsson had a couple extra land thanks to finding all four of his Think Twice, but Guthmann had Runechanter's Pike out, making any creature a significant threat.
Lévy and Gislason both went down to six cards. They both opened with Elvish Mystics, and Gislason went for a second-turn Bonfire of the Damned for one, hoping that Lévy was tight on mana. Unfortunately for him, Lévy had more land in hand, and his Scavenging Ooze entered play unopposed. It began to grow and slowly took over the board.
France's cards continued to work through Iceland's forces.
Haraldsson had decided that he would go to the face with burn, racing against Guthmann's Pike. Guthmann brought himself back up to a comfortable life total with an Azorius Charm to gain 7!
Lévy's Ooze grew and grew. Gislason dealt with other creatures with Ghor-Clan Rampager on offence, but Lévy never risked the Ooze until it was gigantic. with Strangleroot Geist and Predator Ooze holding the fort at home, it wasn't long before Gislason was forced to concede.
Iceland found themselves down a match, and in need of a miracle to come back.
France 1 - Iceland 0
Lévy looked at the control match, saw how snarled it was, but then turned back to look at Simonot vs Sigurdsson, and smiled. Sigurdsson had dealt with Olivia, but he was out of cards and Simonot had Thragtusk and Kessig Wolf Run. A turn later, France had taken the match and all before the control mirror had finished a single game. Guthmann and Haraldsson seemed disappointed that their match wouldn't matter, but all the players shook hands and wished each other good luck in the deciding round.
France 2 - Iceland 0
Even in defeat Iceland were irrepressible. "We only wanted to make Top 32," said Ragnar Sigurdsson, smiling from ear to ear, "You know, we are just little Iceland, so Top 16 is incredible for us." Teammate Orri Omarsson agreed. "We are having so much fun!"
I asked how their tournament had gone, to bring them within striking distance of a Top 8 finish. They started off Day 1 at 4-1. Looking at the standings, they decided to take an intentional draw with Australia to guarantee they would achieve their goal of making it to pool play. "We didn't want to lose and then get paired down and lose again and finish 33rd." They almost couldn't believe it when they beat Australia in Return to Ravnica block Team Sealed.
The turning point came against Slovenia. In a crucial game, it looked like Iceland was nearing a loss. Slovenia had the ground locked up and they were at 6. They used Hands of Binding to freeze Beetleform Mage, then ciphered the spell onto a 1/1 flying Bird token (their only flier) and attacked to freeze another creature. Iceland untapped, then played Savage Surge to untap the Mage, pumped it and flew in for exactly lethal. Just as the winning attack went through, the loudspeaker boomed out time in the round, as if signaling Iceland's arrival in the Top 16.
I took a minute to talk to Raphaël Lévy. He greeted me with a wink and a smile, but he was all business. "We had to win this round, and now we have to win next round." Then he went off to see how pool-mate Israel was faring.