As he looked through decklists in preparation for the final match of Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, Yuuya Watanabe appear to be in his element. Marshall Sutcliffe had jokingly suggested that Watanabe should seriously consider moving to Seattle. He'd won the Magic Players Championship here in Seattle, and is now in the final of the Pro Tour here as well. Between the two, he has already locked up Platinum status, and if he is able to navigate his way to just one more win, then he will achieve just about the only thing left to cap off a fantastic Magic career: a Pro Tour win.
Winning just one match... how hard can that be? Well, up against Stanislav Cifka of the Czech Republic, Watanabe has quite the challenge on his hands. Watanabe played Cifka in round 14 of the Pro Tour, and found that his Jund deck was not particularly well placed against the Second Breakfast deck. Cifka's deck, a very consistent combo deck, typically goes off around turn four, though it can do so faster if needed. That gives Jund little opportunity to interact, and much of what the Jund deck does is attacking on the wrong axis to make life difficult for combo.
Speaking to Watanabe before the match, he was very happy to be in a Pro Tour final, but knew he had to get a little bit lucky to be in good position for the match. For game 1, it would be important to get Deathrite Shaman on the first turn, so that he could potentially accelerate out Liliana, or use Thoughtseize/Inquisition of Kozilek to disrupt things as much as possible. In subsequent games, a key concern was Cifka not having Leyline of Sanctity. The white leyline shuts off many of the options that Watanabe has to interact.
Having finished top of the swiss, Cifka was on the play for the match, yet another advantage he held for the best of five set. However, on a mulligan, his first turn was not super exciting, with just a Hallowed Fountain and Chromatic Star. Watanabe began with a fetch land to find Stomping Ground along with Deathrite Shaman. So far, so good. If needed, Deathrite Shaman could be used to exile the likes of Second Sunrise from Cifka's graveyard, but more importantly it would help accelerate him to threats.
Cifka's second turn was just a land and Conjurer's Bauble. Watanabe was able to use another fetch land to find Blood Crypt on the second turn. He was unconcerned about his life total in this matchup as it was more or less binary... at any given point, Watanabe would either be alive, or very much dead, given the fact that the Second Sunrise combo can deal an unbounded amount of damage.
The Kitchen Finks Watanabe played did take him up to 16 life, but the important thing was that he had a 3/2 threat on the second turn. He didn't want to give Cifka any more time to go off than he had to.
On the third turn, Cifka cast Reshape, sacrificing Chromatic Star, in order to fetch Lotus Bloom. Conjurer's Bauble then put the spell on the bottom of his deck before a small Second Sunrise, getting back a fetch land, the bauble, the Chromatic Star and Lotus Bloom. Using the Scalding Tarn again after having used Conjurer's Bauble to put Second Sunrise on the bottom of his deck ensured that Cifka would have the best chance of re-drawing the powerful Mirrodin instant. Cifka was far from done though. He had another Reshape, turning Chromatic Star into Lotus Bloom again.
Cifka gets the engine running for his Second Breakfast combo deck.
Tapped out, Watanabe could only look on and laugh as Cifka cast Sleight of Hand followed by Faith's Reward, getting back a pair of Lotus Blooms, Chromatic Star, Conjurer's Bauble and Scalding Tarn. Watanabe likely suspected that the game was over for him, but wanted to see it, which is fair enough in the finals of a Pro Tour.
Elsewhere Flask from Cifka drew him a card, and he had another Reshape. That same Chromatic Star turned into yet another Lotus Bloom. Watanabe, noticing that Cifka was out of mana floating, picked up some of Cifka's dice for counting mana, and started rolling them playfully. Were this a match outside the Top 8, at least he'd have had the chance to be on the play in game one. As it was, based on the fact that Cifka had dominated the swiss part of the tournament, he was always going to have the option on the first game of a match.
To keep himself entertained, Watanabe offered to keep track of Stanislav's mana for him, ticking up blue and white dice as required. Soon enough, he found something bizarre happening. Cifka passed. He'd not drawn into another Second Sunrise effect and had to pass the turn back.
"You master..." remarked Cifka, who had barely failed to go off all weekend.
Cifka had ended the turn with three cards in hand, and while Watanabe could cast Bloodbraid Elf into Dark Confidant, he wasn't able to kill Cifka, meaning the Czech player would have a second chance at a Second Sunrise kill.
A fetch land took Cifka to 8, and he used Serum Visions to dig as best he could. From the look on his face, it did not seem that he had an obvious path to victory, but chess master Stanislave Cifka was well used to finding the less obvious means of winning too. The scry from Serum Visions left both cards on top. Chromatic Sphere found him one of them, and a Reshape for one got him a Conjurer's Bauble.
This in turn meant that he would be able to draw more cards, and maybe get something going. Watanabe was now sat up, quietly revelling in the sighs of his opponent. Conjurer's Bauble put Reshape on the bottom of Cifka's deck. Then Faith's Reward got back elsewhere Flask, Chromatic Sphere, a fetch land and Lotus Bloom. Most of the Lotus Blooms in Cifka's deck were now in his graveyard rather than anywhere else, which would make going off a little trickier, but with his back against the wall he had to try.
Chromatic Sphere dug Cifka deeper, and he ruefully cast Second Sunrise to get back a fetch land, Elsewhere Flask, Conjurer's Bauble and Lotus Bloom, hoping it would be enough to keep going. Serum Visions came next, with both cards going on the bottom. Cifka was drawing thin, but still going. Conjurer's Bauble drew him another card. He had two blue mana in pool and just a Lotus Bloom left to make more mana. A Faith's Reward! The chain of card drawing continued, with each iteration of running through the combo being hampered by having just one Lotus Bloom to work with.
Ultimately, Cifka shrugged. He could not quite get there.
Wait, I WON that one? How did that happen?!
Watanabe laughed. He had said before the match that he would need a little luck. Now he had it. Would he be able to win two more after sideboarding?
Stanislav Cifka 0, Yuuya Watanabe 1
Cifka smiled and shook his head as he reconstructed the game in his head while sideboarding. It didn't seem as if anyone had expected the first game to go that way. As he shuffled, he dropped a Leyline of Sanctity on the table by accident. Both players couldn't help but laugh. They both knew it had the potential to be pivotal in the games that would follow.
Sideboarding after game one went as follows.
-1 Gitaxian Probe
-1 Pyrite Spellbomb
-1 Sleight of Hand
+4 Leyline of Sanctity
-1 Kitchen Finks
-4 Lightning Bolt
-2 Victim of Night
+1 Abrupt Decay
+2 Ancient Grudge
+1 Jund Charm
+3 Slaughter Games
Watanabe knew he had a relatively small number of ways of interacting and would need to do so quickly. As such he had comparatively specific mulligan rules for post-sideboarded games. He was quick to send back his seven card hand, and then his six. There was to be no relying on Cifka's deck failing to go off a second time... Watanabe wanted to make sure that he gave himself the best chance possible.
The five card hand became a four. At some point, he would have to keep a hand simply because much lower would risk not getting sufficient lands. With a intake of breath he looked at his four, winced and declared his intention to keep.
Cifka had the turn zero Leyline of Sanctity, and indeed a Lotus Bloom to suspend on the first turn. A Serum Visions improved his hand a little, and continued to threaten a quick kill. Watanabe had Dark Confidant, which revealed another Dark Confidant on the first flip. This was a wacky damage race where Watanabe controlled all the damage sources. A Deathrite Shaman came from the Japanese pro, who looked on to the turn where Cifka would be able to potentially square the match.
Lotus Bloom resolved. It was sat alongside two copies of Chromatic Star and Elsewhere Flask. The first star got cycled for blue mana, which was spent on Serum Visions. A sphere came and went again, making blue mana for Sleight of Hand. Reshape turned Elsewhere Flask into Lotus Bloom. , and Cifka showed hand with one Second Sunrise and two copies of Faith's Reward. He was now happy to play with his hand face up, just in case Watanabe wanted to speed things along by scooping up his cards.
Watanabe seemed quite content to watch Cifka go off. He was loving being in a Pro Tour top 8 enough that he wasn't going to make things go faster just because he wasn't winning. Ultimately Watanabe conceded, to which Cifka showed Watanabe his deck, not wanting the Japanese pro to have felt that in conceding he had got less information than by making the Czech player play the game out. Crucially, this meant that Watanabe now knew that Grapeshot had been the kill of choice in game 2.
Watanabe, gracious in defeat for the second game, let Cifka know that his mulligans hadn't been so tactical after all, as he'd simply not seen lands in his first few hands.
Stanislav Cifka 1, Yuuya Watanabe 1
Cifka smiled to himself. That was more like it. He went to his sideboard, not wanting to give the game away entirely as to his win condition of choice for the third game. As it happened he had not changed his choice to go with a Grapeshot kill, but he didn't want Watanabe to know that.
On the play in game 3, Watanabe chose to keep, while Cifka had a mulligan.
"No leyline," he smiled as he shuffled prior to drawing a six card grip.
The six card hand didn't have a Leyline of Sanctity either, but clearly had something going for it, as the Czech player did not want to go down a further card in hand for another roll of the dice. A turn one Deathrite Shaman came from Watanabe, while Cifka had a Lotus Bloom to suspend, along with Conjurer's Bauble.
Watanabe didn't have a use for his Deathrite Shaman beyond attacking on turn two, but did have its twin to help build his board. Watanabe shuffled the cards around in his hand with an audible "snap". He had a play to make, but it required a little thought. He rolled his head around, stretching out his neck as he considered what was next. With a sharp intake of breath he made his choice. Liliana of the Veil. The planeswalker gained a loyalty counter, and each player had to discard a card. Watanabe knew what his was, but from the look on Stanislav's face, it didn't seem that there was any card he wanted to lose to the planeswalker. Watanabe lost another Liliana, while Cifka discarded Sleight of Hand.
Cifka was rattled enough by the situation that he missed his trigger on Lotus Bloom to remove a suspend counter. He gave himself a little slap in the face to wake up.
A complicated combo deck can have its effect on a player's ability to keep track of everything.
Cifka would not necessarily have time to wait for his extra suspended Lotus Bloom. He used three Ghost Quarters in succession on his own Island after tapping it, eventually getting up to four blue mana. Reshape let him find a Lotus Bloom. He had a Second Sunrise, and a Faith's Reward, but few ways to draw cards. He would need to hope that Elsewhere Flasks and Conjurer's Baubles would get him far enough. He drew into one more Chromatic Sphere, which found another. The train was still just about rolling.
Faith's Reward. He now effectively had five card drawing effects to keep things going. That with each sunrise effect he was thinning a great many lands from his deck thanks to Ghost Quarter meant that he was drawing very much live, but that didn't mean he wasn't about to knock on his deck as he drew. He found another Faith's Reward. Chromatic Stars rained out of Cifka's hand, and he drew into Grapeshot. It was clear he was going to be able to get to enough storm, and Watanabe packed in his cards. In spite of what had looked like a good start, Cifka had eked out a win to take the lead in the match.
Stanislav Cifka 2, Yuuya Watanabe 1
Now Watanabe needed to win two games straight if he was to walk away holding the Pro Tour champion trophy sat on one side of the table from him. While it was close enough that he could touch it, he had much to do if he wanted it to be his own.
There was a slight adjustment to sideboarding from Cifka for game 4. He took out a Sleight of Hand for that Pyrite Spellbomb. Now with two win conditions in his deck, he would be marginally more resistant to Slaughter Games. In point of fact, this was largely moot, as Cifka had the turn zero Leyline of Sanctity in order to pre-emptively ward off much of Watanabe's disruption, but when it comes to winning a Pro Tour, it's better safe than sorry.
Watanabe had a turn one Deathrite Shaman, while Cifka's first play of regular turns was Sleight of Hand. There was nothing at all from Watanabe on the second turn beyond a land, including any attacks from Deathrite Shaman.
More Serum Visions came from Cifka, who was merrily sculpting a hand to go off in future turns. Sleight of Hand was also played in such an effort, and at end of turn Watanabe used Deathrite Shaman to get rid of one Serum Visions, dealing Cifka 2 damage in the process, as the ability does not target a player. Turn three from Watanabe saw Bloodbraid Elf into Dark Confidant. Time to put some pressure on. He had Liliana of the Veil as a draw off Dark Confidant, and before getting stuck in for attacks, used Ancient Grudge to take out Elsewhere Flask and Conjurer's Bauble.
Cifka was on 9, and had to go off soon, if he was to do so at all. The Czech surveyed his hand with a grim look on his face and shrugged. A Chromatic Star was played and sacrificed for red mana. Cifka played Pyrite Spellbomb and used it to kill off Deathrite Shaman, before playing Conjurer's Bauble and passing. Watanabe determinedly got stuck in on his turn, and cast Liliana of the Veil, forcing each player to discard.
On 2 life, Cifka had to go for it. He used Ghost Quarter to turn an Island into a Plains after tapping it for mana. He used Conjurer's Bauble to draw a card, and then had to try and make something happen with Faith's Reward, getting back just Conjurer's Bauble, Island and Ghost Quarter. With only one extra card draw, he didn't find the card that he needed, and was soon scooping up his cards.
Stansilav Cifka 2, 2 Yuuya Watanabe 2
There was to be one final game to decide the Pro Tour, which met a weary laugh from Cifka.
Cifka was now slumped in his chair, while Watanabe seemed re-energised by the win that took him just one game away from his first Pro Tour title. As Cifka stewed in what had happened, Watanabe took a quick break to go to the bathroom. While some players would remain stuck in place in that time, Cifka had a different plan. He stood up, stretched his limbs, and paced the feature match area, getting the blood flowing and his brain whirring. Cifka prepared mentally and physically for what would be the last game of Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, and was sat down alert and shuffling by the time Watanabe was back at his seat.
On the play, Cifka kept his opener, an interesting one with Leyline of Sanctity, two copies of Lotus Bloom, but no lands. He did not have a land on his second turn either, while Watanabe was beginning with Deathrite Shaman on turn one, and a turn two Thoughtseize targeting himself, to discard Slaughter Games and reveal a hand with another, along with Ancient Grudge and Inquisition of Kozilek. While Watanabe had answers, they were not answers ones that would work in this game.
Cifka had his first land of the game on turn three. An Island allowed him to cast Serum Visions, which was soon removed by Deathrite Shaman. On turn four, the real action came. Lotus Bloom #1 resolved. In response to Lotus Bloom #2, Ancient Grudge destroyed the first one. That was three less mana that Cifka would have to work with on what could in theory be the last turn of the Pro Tour. Watanabe would have to hope that would be enough to slow him down.
Ghost Quarter came down for Cifka, who cycled one Island into another. He cast a Chromatic Sphere, which was cycled for Blue mana. Lotus Bloom powered out Faith's Reward. Cifka now had mana to work with, but did he have card drawing? He cast Elsewhere Flask, suspended a Lotus Bloom, and passed. This would not be the last turn of the Pro Tour.
At the end of this turn, Watanabe played Ancient Grudge with flashback to destroy Chromatic Star. He did not want Cifka to have card drawing, as it seemed he already had plenty of mana. Watanabe attacked Cifka with his Deathrite Shaman and cast Tarmogoyf.
An Elsewhere Flask came from Cifka, who passed back. Every turn felt like a gift for Watanabe at this point, as he came ever closer to lifting a Pro Tour trophy for the first time. Cifka was at 15 life, and Watanabe's Tarmogoyf would be able to attack in three point increments as things stood. Watanabe cast Inquisition of Kozilek targeting himself in order to discard Kitchen Finks. This made Tarmogoyf bigger, and let the Japanese pro attack Cifka down to 13. 13 became 11 from a Deathrite Shaman activation, and soon became 7, as Cifka again passed without going off.
Watanabe was the one playing with his hand face up now, after that Inquisition of Kozilek. He had a Bloodbraid Elf in hand that could be problematic for Cifka too. One way or another, the game, and the Pro Tour would have to be over soon.
Cifka used Reshape to find himself a Conjurer's Bauble, desperately trying to draw cards, as mana was not an issue for him. He used Ghost Quarter on his Island to cycle it for another. Another Reshape found another copy of Conjurer's Bauble. Could Cifka draw into everything he needed? Another Chromatic Sphere. Second Sunrise.
Now there were a whole mess of permanents for Cifka, and he showed another Second Sunrise in hand. He had six card drawing effects between Elsewhere Flask and various chromatic trinkets, as well as deck thinning with Ghost Quarter. His first draws were Conjurer's Bauble and Sleight of Hand. It seemed likely he'd get there on his draws, but nothing could be guaranteed, as we'd already seen in this finals match.
Cifka cast Serum Visions, followed by Conjurer's Bauble and Chromatic Sphere. He found another Faith's Reward and Elsewhere Flask. At this point it was almost guaranteed that his deck would get there, and ultimately he was just looking for that Grapeshot. Storm thus far was thirteen, and Second Sunrise got him a lot of extra draws.
Cifka's deck was getting thin, but he still hadn't found the Grapeshot. Surely he'd get there. There it was! He cast Grapeshot for exactly Watanabe's life total. Watanabe gained 2 with Deathrite Shaman.
Even with this slight misplay, it seemed unlikely to matter. Cifka's engine was still going, and he could just keep drawing through his library until he got to Conjurer's Bauble the Grapeshot back in and draw it. Alternatively, he could just use Pyrite Spellbomb which was also in there to end things.
Either way was enough for Watanabe, who extended his hand with a smile, the first person to congratulate the Pro Tour Return to Ravnica champion, Stanislav Cifka!