Fourteen rounds, three formats, two days, eight teams left. So much has happened in this weekend of Magic, from crushing defeats to narrow escapes. Both France and Belgium have had their fair share of both as they made their way through the varied rounds of the tournament. Sneaking into Day Two by the skin of their teeth, Belgium found themselves paired up in the same first pool as France, who had demonstrated a far more dominating show on Day One, only dropping a single match all day. Both teams featured a strong lineup, with France led by Hall of Famer Raphaël Lévy and Belgium chaired by the twin threats of Vincent Lemoine and Marijn Lybaert. Both squads utterly dominated their pool, securing advancement to the second stage of Day Two before they sat down to their final match.
From there, however, the tone changed. France lost its first match against Greece, while Belgium drew with eventual Top 8 competitors Austria. Both teams bounced back with wins in the second round, but it was the final round that held the real fireworks. France escaped with a victory over Israel, with Raphaël Lévy defeating World Championship Top 4 competitor Shahar Shenhar to secure his team's berth in the Top 8. Belgium's match against Willy Edel and Brazil came down to the last turn, literally. With time expiring, Belgium's second and third matches went to time, meaning that the one match win they picked up was good enough to give them the victory and their own spot in the Top 8.
While Belgium is looking to make up for last year's performance, France has its eyes on the only title the country has not claimed in Magic history.
Raphaël Lévy (Mono-Green) vs. Marijn Lybaert (Gruul Aggro)
After playing through the course of Day One, Marijn Lybaert and his teammate Emannuel Delvigne opted to swap decks, giving Lybaert the reins of Gruul Aggro, while Delvigne picked up the more controlling Golgari deck. This swap ended up having major implications for this match, as they decided to keep the change in effect for the Top 8.
Lévy jumped out into an incredibly fast lead in the match by virtue of a fast mana start. His Elvish Mystic and Elvish Archdruid helped him power out a pair of Wolfir Silverhearts, completely outclassing Lybaert's side of the table. To make matters worse, Lybaert couldn't find a third land to help him at least try to race. When Delvigne inquired as to how the game went from across the feature match area, Lybaert deadpanned, "It was a very close game."
The second game went fairly similarly, though Lévy used slightly different tools to accomplish his goal. The first major change was his reliance on an early Druid's Familiar, Wolfir Silverheart light, which Luis Scott-Vargas referred to as "digging deep."
Belgium's Marijn Lybaert attempts to navigate a difficult matchup.
Lybaert began with a much better start than the previous game, using an early mana elf to Bonfire of the Damned away Lévy's first mana critter, an essential start in this matchup. It also allowed him to follow that with a third-turn Hellrider, fighting in for a quick burst of damage. He even had a Mizzium Mortars for the Druid's Familiar, giving him yet one more free attack. Yet with all of this early damage and control, Lybaert still found himself on the losing end of a Wolfir Silverheart, a card that is incredibly difficult for this Gruul Aggro deck to deal with.
"This match is a race," Lévy said after the match. "I think I have the edge in it. It's especially good for me if I'm on the play."
Timothée Simonot (Jund Midrange) vs. Emmanuel Delvigne (Golgari Midrange)
Remember the good ol' days, back when Thragtusk was the best card in Standard and completely defined the format? Watching the first game of this match brought flashbacks of the worst moments of that dark time in Magic history flooding into my memory.
It began with a peek into Emmanuel Delvigne's opening hand. Against Lévy's deck, this hand would have been virtually unkeepable. Four lands and three Thragtusks sat calmly awaiting their turn to thunder onto the table. Against Simonot's Jund deck, it was just a matter of time. Simonot began with a fairly good start of his own, running a Farseek into a Huntmaster of the Fells and a Thragtusk of his own. Yet, as good as those cards were, they paled in comparison to the four consecutive Thragtusks dropped by Delvigne. That's right, he drew the fourth one.
"Le quatrième," Simonot laughed as the final one hit the table. Even he recognized the incredulity of the situation. While three would likely have been enough to run away with it, the fourth iced the game, sending it into a tight second affair.
Team France looks to maintain momentum from Lévy's win.
In this second game, Delvigne gave a sign of how the game would go fairly early into it. On the first turn, Simonot aimed a Duress at Delvigne's hand, knocking the incredibly potent Primeval Bounty from it. Later in the game, after a string of Lifebane Zombies from Delvigne, the powerful enchantment finally hit the table. From this point out, every single turn brought more advantage to Delvigne, incredibly important against the attrition game plan that Jund tends to utilize to win. Beasts hit play, grew, and life was gained, turn after turn. Just before the curtain fell to even the match at one apiece...
Yann Guthmann (UW Flash) vs. Vincent Lemoine (UWR Flash)
It was over in a flash.
France's unorthodox decision to run a very old-school version of UW Flash, harkening back to the early days of Snapcaster's time in Standard, proved to be instrumental in deciding this match. The first game of the match showcased one of the major differences between the old and new versions of Flash. In the original version, Thought Scour and Runechanter's Pike gave the deck more targets for Snapcaster Mage, as well as an incredibly fast clock when paired with an Augur of Bolas or a Moorland Haunt. That's exactly how Guthmann took his first game against Lemoine. His second turn was spent dropping a Runechanter's Pike into play, and when it found itself onto an Augur of Bolas a few turns later, it turned into a four turn clock. Guthmann sealed the deal with a massive Sphinx's Revelation, giving him the permission he needed to protect his clock.
The second game was far more intense. There was a great deal of jockeying for early positioning, using Augurs to set up hands and carefully assessing spells cast to determine what got through, not wanting to let anything major hit, but not wasting permission if something greater could follow. The key turn came about a dozen turns into the game, when Lemoine found a chance to attempt a Sphinx's Revelation at the end of Guthmann's turn. Guthmann only had two Islands untapped, and he used one of them to Dispel the powerful instant. Lemoine thought for a minute before letting the Revelation go. He then untapped and attempted an Ætherling, clearly the spell he wanted to resolve. This is when Guthmann shot back, using his last blue source to power an Essence Scatter, but Lemoine was ready with the Negate that he had so brilliantly set up.
Even more brilliant, though, was what happened next. Though he was tapped out of blue mana, Guthmann did have a Ghost Quarter up, using it to destroy his own Plains to search out an Island, allowing him to have the mana he needed to Negate right back. Lemoine sighed slightly and shrugged, putting the Negate and the Aertherling into the graveyard.
At this point, Guthmann relied on luck over the skill he had used in that last exchange. Two Thought Scours in a row drew him into key cards, the first gaining a Runechanter's Pike, and the second a Tamiyo, the Moon Sage. Between these two cards, he gained the offense he needed to try and close the game out. And it was essential that he got them when he did, as Lemoine untapped and added an Ætherling to his side. The race was on, and it was close, but a Moorland Haunt Spirit token and a timely Sphinx's Revelation was enough to push him one turn ahead, locking the match up for France just before Belgium was able to even things up.
This victory puts France one match closer to the only major Magic title they haven't taken home. They have a Pro Tour Champion, Grand Prix Champion, World Champion, Player of the Year, and Rookie of the Year, but they've never had the World Team Champions. With the best player in French history guiding them along the path, they find themselves two rounds away from changing that.