Within any competitive community, there are some lists that you don't want to be on. You don't want Mark Reynolds's record for most strikeouts in a season. You don't want Rasheed Wallace's record for most technical fouls in professional basketball (BALL DON'T LIE). And you don't want to be considered one of the best players in Magic to have never made a Pro Tour Top 8.
Fortunately, there are two players who have long been considered on that list that no longer have that to worry about: Gerry Thompson and Owen Turtenwald. In a Top 8 of incredible stories and wonderful firsts, it is nice to see a player the caliber of Owen Turtenwald finally get that monkey off of his back. We're talking about a former Player of the Year who has been playing at the upper levels of the game for quite some time now. It's almost hard to believe that he hadn't cracked it by this point. Now that he has, he's finally getting to experience the spectacle, and the pressure, that comes from the lights and cameras on Magic's biggest stage.
His opponent, Eric Froehlich, is no stranger to the lights and pressure of intense situations. As a long time professional Magic player with a multiple Pro Tour Top 8 finishes, and as someone with a successful career as a professional poker player, Froelich has been gaming against the best the world has to offer, under the most extreme circumstances, for some time now. Still, the normally sarcastic, subdued, almost blasé exterior that he exudes cracked yesterday as he won his final match in a win-and-in to make Top 8 here in Montreal. With eyes that betrayed a tremendous upwelling of emotion, he thanked all of the people important to him, from his family to the large number of friends he has made the world over thanks to Magic. "This is why I play the game," he said, and the emotion of the moment was felt by everyone, as a man who has had success at the highest level reflected the very essence of why we all love this game.
Eric Froehlich, a man who loves Magic and the memories and friends it has brought him, squares off against Owen Turtenwald, a former Player of the Year who finally found his way on the Sunday stage.
"I'm surprised you didn't get a feature match yesterday," Froehlich laughed as Turtenwald took his seat across from him. "Don't they want the new GQ Owen?"
"New GQ Owen," Turtenwald repeated with a wry smile. "I look very good. Much better than sweatpants over there," nodding towards teammate Ben Stark behind him.
"Those are much worse than sweatpants," Froehlich corrected him.
Turtenwald started off with an untapped Stomping Grounds and an Arbor Elf. He used them both to cast a second-turn Farseek before adding a fourth mana source to his side of the table. Froehlich, meanwhile, did what Froehlich's deck does best: spewed creatures onto the table. Burning-Tree Emissary allowed him to afford an accompanying Flinthoof Boar, giving him five power of creatures on the table on the second turn of the game.
Turtenwald had spent most of his hand getting ahead in mana, casting two more Farseeks to get up to six lands in play before Froehlich had three. He was going to need every scrap of mana he could muster if he was going to deal with the seemingly-endless stream of creatures that Froehlich's deck was capable of delivering. The stream became even more inevitable when Froehlich added a Domri Rade to his side, immediately giving him a new Burning-Tree Emissary, primed for either another big turn or a fast recovery after a Bonfire of the Damned.
Froehlich works his way onto the board, as Domri Rade loads up his hand in case his opponent has a way to defeat his army.
Turtenwald drew his card and began to ponder his circumstances. Turtenwald used the first three of his mana to cast a Liliana of the Veil, immediately using it to pare away the Emissary on Froehlich's side. He followed that up with a Huntmaster of the Fells, giving him a way to protect his planeswalker, and attacked his Arbor Elf into the Domri, keeping him at his initial three loyalty. Froehlich destroyed most of this defensive setup in one fell swoop, however, recruiting a Burning-Tree Emissary into a Boros Reckoner. Domri Rade allowed the Reckoner to fight the Hutmaster of the Fells, allowing the damage mirror to kill the Wolf as well. Things got even worse when Turtenwald activated Liliana to force a discard, trying to open up another sacrifice on the following turn. Froehlich had a Loxodon Smiter, and Turtenwald's planeswalker gave it a free ticket to the board. Now faced with overwhelming odds, Turtenwald had to rely on a miracle Bonfire of the Damned or a Mizzium Mortars to save him. When neither arrived, he conceded the first game to Froehlich.
Froehlich 1, Turtenwald 0
Turtenwald had a slower start to the second game of the match, with nary a Farseek to be seen. Froehlich followed suit, starting his first turns with tapped Stomping Grounds. He broke the plane on his third turn with a Boros Reckoner, but it was immediately dispatched with a Murder. Not under any immediate pressure, Turtenwald made a Huntmaster of the Fells, a wonderful tool for holding off creature assaults. Froehlich needed to get some sort of pressure on the table, and a second Boros Reckoner was a perfect way to negate the inherent advantage of Turtenwald's Huntmaster. Still, Turtenwald could simply pass the turn and transform his Huntmaster, which he did, raising the bar yet again.
Just as in the first game, Froehlich tried to deal with the Huntmaster with a Domri Rade. After choosing his targets, Forehlich was slightly dismayed to see that Turtenwald had an Abrupt Decay to keep his Huntmaster alive. This also put him in the unfortunate spot of having to cast a second spell, a Flinthoof Boar, to get something onto the table. This allowed Turtenwald to re-transform the Ravager of the Fells, gaining more life and another 2/2 Wolf in the process. When Turtenwald used a freshly-cast Liliana of the Veil to clear away Froelich's blockers on the following turn, things began to look even grimmer for Froehlich. Turtenwald's attack cleared away Domri Rade, leaving Froehlich with nothing but lands in play.
Turtenwald's Jund deck is very good at clearing away creatures.
Froehlich made an effort to create some business with a Hellrider, but an Ultimate Price once again reduced him to nothing. Turtenwald's 2/2 army took him to 10, giving him a mere two turns to live. Fortunately, when Turtenwald tried to prime his Liliana for another sacrifice by forcing a discard, Froehlich was able to slam a Loxodon Smiter onto the table, giving him something to hold things down with momentarily. Turtenwald had one card in his hand to Froehlich's two, but he had a significant lead on the board. Froehlich thought for a moment before attacking his Smiter into Turtenwald's Liliana. Turtenwald had only an untapped Arbor Elf in play, and it took one for the team, keeping the planeswalker around to potentially deal with the Smiter that it had helped get into play. After combat, Froehlich tried to make a Domri Rade and fight the Smiter against the Hutmaster, but Turtenwald flipped the Tragic Slip he held, his last card, to destroy the Smiter before it could kill the Huntmaster. From there, finishing the match was elementary.
Froehlich 1, Turtenwald 1
"When was your first Top 8?" Turtenwald quizzed Froehlich as they collected their cards.
"Pro Tour San Diego 2002. Odyssey Rochester Draft," Froehlich responded with little delay.
"You lost in the first round, right?" Turtenwald wondered. "Who beat you?"
"Jens Thoren. Solemn Simulacrum," Froehlich smoothly replied.
"Heh, 'Solemn Simulacrum. Have you heard of him?' Were you nervous?" Turtenwald asked.
Froehlich actually thought for a minute about this question. "Not really. I was definitely cocky."
"You're significantly less cocky now," Turtenwald deadpanned perfectly.
In the third game of the match, Froehlich had a slightly faster start than his last. Gyre Sage, despite its activated mana ability, is often more favored as a Tarmogoyf substitute, a creature that can get up to a fairly ridiculous size for a mere two mana. Respecting this, and realizing the lack of exceptional targets, Turtenwald killed the Sage with an Ultimate Price. When Froehlich replayed one on the following turn, Turtenwald used a Liliana to kill it.
Undeterred, Froehlich mad a Garruk Relentless, eternal nemesis to Liliana. The planeswalker's ability to create a never-ending stream of creatures is ideal against the attrition-based strategy of Jund. Froehlich made a Wolf token and passed the turn. Turtenwald thought heavily about his play before using Liliana to force a discard. After being burned twice by Loxodon Smiter, he was understandably wary of enabling a beefy attacker. When Froehlich simply discarded a land, Turtenwald knew he had the chance to finish Froehlich's hand off, using Rakdos's Return for two to clear Froehlich's hand and putting Garruk to 1. Froehlich drew a Flinthoof Boar, which immediately crashed down, dropping Turtenwald to 15.
A Bonfire of the Damned of the following turn was strong enough to kill Froehlich's token creatures and Garruk, but not enough to kill the 3/3 Boar. When a second Boar joined the fight on the following turn, Turtenwald was in danger of losing a game that he appeared to be getting back into. A Thragtusk bolstered his life back up to 14, but he was still under assault. A new Garruk Relentless gave Froehlich a new source of creatures, and he was able to trade away a Boar for the Thragtusk, leaving just a Beast behind. Turtenwald was able to get an Olivia Voldaren into play on his turn, but Garruk was able to fight her, leaving Turtenwald with just an Arbor Elf and 3/3 Beast in play. Fortunately, the Thragtusk had done its job. All Froehlich had to match was a 2/3 Gyre Sage and a 2/2 Wolf token, the obvious advantage currently resting with Turtenwald.
Turtenwald works to maintain an advantage on the battlefield.
Still, Froehlich had some monstrous potential draws. A Hellrider found an opportunity to hit home, doing massive damage over the next couple of turns until Turtenwald was able to trade off all of his creatures and deal the final blow with a Liliana of the Veil. Neither player had creatures, but Froehlich had dropped Turtenwald to a mere 3 life. With no cards in hand and facing a potentially growing Liliana, Froehlich needed an answer soon. While a Thundermaw Hellkite would have certainly ended things, Domri Rade was more than enough to ensure that Froehlich would find the cards he needed to finish Turtenwald off. Over the next two turns, the little planeswalker allowed him to get two extra cards, overwhelming the last-ditch defenses Turtenwald erected, taking a 2-1 lead in the match.
Froehlich 2, Turtenwald 1
"I can't believe I did that," Turtenwald said with his head in his hands. At a very crucial turn, with a slight advantage on the board, Turtenwald had tapped down to one mana to play Arbor Elf and Olivia Voldaren. With a Garruk Relentless on three loyalty on the other side of the table, Turtenwald immediately lost his Olivia to the planeswalker, a crushing blow. Had he simply left the Arbor Elf in his hand, he would have had the second mana needed to activate Olivia, pushing her out of range for Garruk to kill her, potentially winning himself the game.
"I should have just left two mana up for my Olivia. Then I don't lose it to Garruk," Turtenwald sighed, clearly dejected after his mistake.
Once again with a slow start, Froehlich didn't make a contribution to the board until his third-turn Domri Rade. Domri whiffed on an activation before getting Abruptly Decayed, setting the board back to empty. Froehlich replaced it with a new, Abrupt Decay-proof planeswalker, Garruk Relentless, and it immediately set about making Wolves. Turtenwald went bigger, making a Thragtusk on his turn, but it's massive power was soon dwarfed by Froehlich's growing army. Add in a Boros Reckoner, and things looked very bad for Turtenwald to start the fourth game.
Liliana of the Veil came down and forced a discard, for the third time netting Froehlich a 4/4 Loxodon Smiter. Turtenwald's hole had just gotten deeper. He followed with a Farseek to go to six mana and passed the turn. Once again, it seemed to need a miracle Bonfire or Mizzium Mortars to get him back ahead.
Froehlich fights on for an early lead.
Still, Froehlich was tentative. He used his Garruk Relentless to kill the Thragtusk, following that with a Mizzium Mortars on the Beast token, clearing the board on Turtenwald's side. He then sent his team, taking care to send the Smiter in to kill Liliana, and Turtenwald dropped to 18. Froehlich added a second Reckoner to his side and passed the turn. Now, even if Turtenwald found a sweeper, he was going to take massive damage from the Reckoners' abilities.
But he didn't have a sweeper. All Turtenwald had was a Huntmaster of the Fells to stave off the onslaught, an onslaught that became lethal when Froehlich added an Aurelia, the Warleader to his side. All Turtenwald could do was nod in acceptance as Froehlich's creatures turned sideways twice to secure him a spot in the Semifinals.
Nerves clearly played a part in Turtenwald's first Pro Tour Top 8, as his conversation with Froehlich served to at times calm him, but at other times worsened the nerves of playing a difficult game, at the highest level, in front of the entire Magic world, with an incredible amount on the line. Magic is not an easy game, but Turtenwald will undoubtedly be able to use this experience to his advantage, and I expect to see a more reserved Owen Turtenwald the next time he sits under the harsh Sunday lights.
Eric Froehlich wins 3-1 and advances to the Semifinals!