Two greats of the game. Two world champions. One semifinals match with the World Championship on the line.
Even in a tournament full of Hall of Famers, Pro Tour Champions, and highly-ranked players all around, it doesn't get any better than that.
One of these two would advance to the finals and have a chance to become a repeat champion. Ninth-ranked Yuuya Watanabe was crowned the champion in 2012, while fourteenth-ranked Shahar Shenhar won the World Championship a year ago and was looking for a repeat in Nice.
No matter whether fourteenth-ranked Shahar Shenhar or ninth-ranked Yuuya Watanabe win in the semifinals, it was a guarantee that someone would be playing in the finals for a second World Championship title.
Standard was considered to be a fairly explored format at this point, but Watanabe flipped that idea on its head when he showed up with an innovative and streamlined Jeskai Tokens deck. The first variant to include Jeskai Ascendancy but no combo pieces, the powerful enchantment is instead an engine used to craft a perfect hand and fuel Treasure Cruise while also making the army of tokens.
Shenhar was on another deck that saw a resurgence in France: Sidisi Whip. Taking advantage of this deck's namesake Sidisi, Brood Tyrant as well as Whip of Erebos, the deck can grind out every deck in the format thanks to resilient (and Whip-able) threats like Sidisi and Hornet Queen.
A mulligan to six cards meant that Shenhar had to take a calculated risk, and he did exactly that keeping a hand with only one land but a Thoughtseize for the first turn and Sylvan Caryatid and Satyr Wayfinder to keep him going should he find a second land.
He missed on his first draw step but had better luck on the second, finding an Opulent Palace. The comes-into-play-tapped land slowed the defending world champion down a turn, but it was still a welcome draw to the alternative.
Watanabe had no such issues, and opened the action with a Goblin Rabblemaster on the third turn, drawing first blood as the token knocked Shenhar to 19 life.
Shenhar responded by casting his Wayfinder and finding a land amongst the revealed cards. He played the land and passed the turn, but used it and the discarded cards from the Wayfinder to power a Murderous Cut on the Rabblemaster on Watanabe's next turn.
That bought Shenhar some time to set up, and a Sylvan Caryatid led to a Whip of Erebos while a second Murderous Cut removed another Goblin Rabblemaster. Watanabe fought back with a Chandra, Pyromaster, but it would be an uphill fight against the now-online Whip of Erebos.
Watanabe had a few different angles of attack outside of token beatdown.
Still, Chandra was determined to match the card advantage provided by the Whip. Her second ability provided Watanabe the chance to cast a Hordeling Outburst and then a Jeskai Charm to buy some time, though Shenhar's Doomwake Giant eventually found the board and cleared out the tokens, allowing Shenhar to kill the Chandra in the attack step.
A second Pyromaster replaced the first, but Shenhar finally deployed his deck's namesake, first bringing a Sidisi, Brood Tyrant back from the graveyard with the Whip (making a zombie), then attacking with it (and making another zombie), and finally casting one from his hand (and making another zombie). A follow-up Hornet Queen on the next turn was enough to elicit a laugh from Watanabe and move the pair into Game 2.
Shenhar 1 - Watanabe 0
Watanabe didn't invent the Jeskai Ascendancy deck, but he certainly reinvigorated it when he showed up to the World Championship with a combo-less version. The tokens deck was the talk of the tournament and had a huge impact on the World Magic Cup that followed.
And Game 2 would display exactly why his list was so powerful. An early Goblin Rabblemaster met a removal spell, but the Jeskai Ascendancy Watanabe followed up with resolved. Another followed, and even though one was destroyed by a Sultai Charm, Watanabe was able to begin making use of the "loot" ability on the card.
Despite having an answer for one Jeskai Ascendancy, Shenhar still needed to fend off the other.
That allowed him to find a Chandra to get ahead on the board, picking off Shenhar's Satyr Wayfinder and starting work on his life total as well. A Hero's Downfall did away Chandra but that seemed to only clear the way for Elspeth, Sun's Champion.
But Shenhar was ready. A Dig Through Time set up his next turn, and he began first by using another Downfall on the Sun's Champion and then landing Doomwake Giant to clear away the remaining soldiers.
Thanks to his Ascendancy, Watanabe's graveyard was fully stocked with cards, which made his follow-up Treasure Cruise cost just one mana, doing its best Ancestral Recall impression. A Raise the Alarm rebuilt his board, and with the Ascendancy online any instant-speed spell could turn them into formidable blockers.
But Watanabe's graveyard wasn't the only one full. The Soul of Innistrad resided in Shenhar's, and he activated its ability to return a trio of creatures to his hand. One of those was Courser of Kruphix, which triggered the Doomwake Giant to again clear Watanabe's board. A desperation End Hostilities allowed Watanabe to survive at 1 life and a Goblin Rabblemaster offered him a way back into the game, but Shenhar used the window to cast a freshly-drawn Whip of Erebos and bring back an attacker for the win.
Shenhar 2 - Watanabe 0
A second-turn Thoughtseize in the third game from Shenhar revealed a Goblin Rabblemaster, Treasure Cruise, Disdainful Stroke and Lightning Strike from Watanabe. In other words, plenty of gas to play the long game. Shenhar removed the Rabblemaster from Watanabe's hand and both players settled in a game of draw-go.
Watanabe broke serve first, casting a Raise the Alarm two turns later to begin pecking away at Shenhar's life total. After several turns of soldier attacks brought Shenhar to 11 life he elected to burn a Hero's Downfall on one of them to slow the bleeding.
And it did. Watanabe was only able to attack for one damage a turn after that. The problem was that Shenhar, who had drawn a combination of pain-lands and Mana Confluence, was hurting himself every time he tried to cast a spell or activate Pharika, God of Affliction.
And note the emphasis on "try". Shenhar took damage from his lands to cast a Sidisi, only to have Watanabe counter it. That play cost Shenhar 2 more of his suddenly-precious life points, and a Goblin Rabblemaster from Watanabe pressured it further.
You can never count Watanabe out of a match.
Facing down the Rabblemater and in need of a big play, Shenhar again pinged himself, this time down to 1 life, to cast Sidisi. A Disdainful Stroke from Watanabe was enough to take the game and get on the board in the best-of-five.
Shenhar 2 - Watanabe 1
You can't ever count Watanabe out of match, and after getting his first win he was still fully confident he could complete the comeback.
But Watanabe was not the only world champion at the table. Shenhar turned in a perfect game, curving Thoughtseize (taking away Watanabe's removal spell) into Courser of Kruphix into Sidisi, Brood Tyrant. A steady stream of Zombies began, and though Watanabe was able to pick off the first Sidisi a second soon replaced it.
But all was not lost. His life total was under pressure, but an End Hostilities off the top of the deck would quickly reset parity. Watanabe drew for his turn and didn't find it, though the Goblin Rabblemaster he deployed did buy him another chance.
Watanabe took the hit from the growing zombie army, and drew the next card in his deck. He looked over it, counted his mana... and extended his hand to wish Shenhar luck in the finals of the World Championship.
Shahar Shenhar defeats Yuuya Watanabe 3-1 and advances to the finals!