QUARTERFINALS: UNITED STATES VS. SLOVAK REPUBLIC

Posted in 2014 WORLD MAGIC CUP on December 7, 2014

By Blake Rasmussen

Blake is the content manager for DailyMTG.com, making him the one you should email if you have thoughts on the website, good or less good (or not good). He's a longtime coverage reporter and hasn't turned down a game of Magic in any format ever.

In some ways, it almost feels a bit early for this match. Like pitting the Yankees versus the Red Sox in the divisional round, or Manchester City and Bayern Munich meeting in the first knockout round of the UEFA cup. It would have been a fitting championship match, a clash of titans.

These two teams had not only the hopes and expectations of entire nations behind them—most teams did, after all—but also simply looked like two of the juggernauts on paper. Both teams were trendy picks to reach the finals, and rightfully so.

The Slovak Republic, collectively, has five Pro Tour Top 8s spread out across three players, and an additional six Grand Prix Top 8s. Captain Ivan Floch is a control master and also a Pro Tour Champion. Coach Matej Zatlkaj is a two-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor, and his role advising the team adds an interesting dimension to the Slovak Republic team. By putting one of their strongest players in the coach role, they hope to squeeze every drop out of the already monumental talent at their disposal.

The United States team's stats don't look quite as good as the Slovak Republic—two Pro Tour Top 8s are entirely wrapped up in team captain Owen Turtenwald—but any team that boasts the number one player in the world (Turtenwald) and the winner of the largest Grand Prix ever held (Neil Oliver in Las Vegas) has plenty of talent. Both of Team USA's other players also have Grand Prix Top 8s, meaning there's plenty of high-level experience on the side of the stars and stripes.

Intriguingly, these teams have already met once in the Swiss, a match the Slovak Republic would like to forget as Team USA used that victory to catapult onto the Sunday stage.

Team Slovak Republic and the United States squared off yesterday, and the Slovak Republic sought a second chance at a win in the quarterfinals.

The Decks

To get a sense of how this match-up plays out, you don't have to look very far. In the second-to-last round of pool play, the United States took down their quarterfinals opponent in what very well could have been a preview of this playoff match.

For Turtenwald, who is playing against Michal Guldan in a Black-Green Constellation mirror match, his advantage primarily comes from his knowledge of the deck and his play-skill. Both teams acknowledged that the Slovak Republic was disadvantaged facing the top ranked player in the world. The Slovak team adjusted their sideboard plan and played a ton of mirrors to try and compensate, but both teams expected Turtenwald would likely succeed, barring poor draws.

In the Andrew Baeckstrom vs. Jan Tomcani match, it looked to favor the United States. Baeckstrom prevailed in Round 12, and both teams felt his White-Blue Heroic deck was advantaged over the Jeskai Aggro deck Tomcani was sporting. The Slovak Republic player had just one Magma Spray in his sideboard, meaning there wasn't much they could do to improve the match-up. However, the match was deemed close enough that neither team felt it was decidedly in one player's corner.

That left Pro Tour Champion versus Floch, very likely the linchpin of the match-up. Floch and his Blue Black Control deck soundly defeated Neal Oliver's Jeskai tokens list in pool play, and both teams thought it was a pretty typical result for this match-up. Oliver himself only put his odds at about 30-35 percent. However, in some ways, this match is the key to the entire round.

"If I win, I think we'll win the round," Oliver said. "I have faith in my teammates."

Baeckstrom vs. Tomcani

A generally fast match-up, it wasn't much of a surprise when Baeckstrom and Tomcani finished their Jeskai versus White-Blue Heroic match quickly—in fact, they finished before the mirror match in the middle could even finish a game.

To start the first, both players took quick mulligans, and the game was just as quick with Baeckstrom finding an early Aqueous Form and Tomcani unable to interact with an unblockable heroic creature in any meaningful fashion. A few spells, a few cantrips, and the first game was over in a flash.

Baeckstrom and Tomcani's blistering fast match was expected to finish before the middle match even completed a game.

The second game played out similarly, with a Lagonna-Band Trailblazer picking up Aqueous Form and attacking for large chunks fairly early. Baeckstrom did have to navigate a Goblin Rabblemaster for five turns, but it wasn't nearly enough. Eventually a 9/13 unblockable Trailblazer dealt the final blow, even as a crew of Goblin Rabblemaster tokens stared forlornly at their master, wondering why five of them weren't enough to pull out a victory.

Guldan vs. Turtenwald

Speaking of that middle mirror match, while the United States had proved victorious in the first match, things were going sideways for their captain.

Turtenwald jumped to an early lead with a Doomwake Giant, but he wasn't making much headway against a pair of Courser of Kruphix. And when Guldan found Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, he began to catch up.

The board quickly became cluttered, as this match-up often does, since both players found Whip of Erebos and Coursers. However, Guldan, with Matej Zadlkaj perched on his shoulder, was quickly gaining an advantage with the only Pharika, God of Affliction in play. With Nykthos powering up his mana, Guldan's board position began to improve almost exponentially.

Guldan, along with coach Matej Zatlkaj, look for the best way to maintain their edge over Turtenwald of the USA.

But Turtenwald is ranked number one in the world for a reason. He managed Guldan's board with Doomwake Giant, including with tokens granted to him by Guldan's Pharika. In fact, it looked like Turtenwald might be able to scrape and claw his way to an advantage despite falling significantly behind—until Guldan was able to start utilizing his own Doomwake Giant through Whip of Erebos.

Life totals jumped and dipped, rose and fell, often in large chunks. Guldan's Pharika was preventing Turtenwald from doing anything too powerful, but Whip of Erebos kept him from losing entirely. It took quite a while, but eventually Guldan wore Turtenwald down and took the first game.

While all of that was going on in the first game in the middle, their neighbors were finishing up.

Floch vs. Oliver

Things started so well for the Slovaks...

Floch managed Oliver's early plays with a Bile Blight, then stole Chandra, Pyromaster out of Oliver's grip with Thoughtseize. He had an opportunity to take Jeskai Ascendancy, but declined—a decision which would prove fateful.

However, Floch was still in excellent shape to start. Dissolve handled Goblin Rabblemaster, and a pair of Dismal Backwater plus a Radiant Fountain kept his lift total high. It was, in essence, exactly how Floch wanted the match to start.

Oliver and his team knew his match-up against Slovak juggernaut Ivan Floch was going to be an uphill battle.

However, that Jeskai Ascendancy.

Oliver eventually gained some ground with a Seeker of the Way and Jeskai Ascendancy, but by that time Floch had enough mana to flash in Pearl Lake Ancient. Jeskai Charm sent it into hiding for a turn, but without better ways to attack around it, Oliver would still have to come up with a plan.

Thankfully, Ascendancy was good at digging for a new plan.

Raise the Alarm gave Oliver extra attackers and another looting effect. A second Jeskai Charm let Oliver attack through a second time, this time forcing Floch to consider picking up some lands to open up his draw step. Lightning Strike sent another round of triggers to the stack and—with enough triggers and Floch without cards in hand—Oliver took Floch from 14 to zero in a single turn.

And just like that the U.S. was up a game in its worst match-up, with one match already under its belt.

In the second game, Floch once again managed Oliver's early plays with Bile Blight, but was unable to stop Jeskai Ascendancy from entering the battlefield on the third turn. The enchantment that had proved so key in the first game would allow Oliver to sculpt his hand just the way he wanted it.

Still, Floch was pretty good at sculpting his hand as well, as Drown in Sorrow both cleared the board and allowed him to scry.

This was when Oliver revealed his true plan, throwing a Stoke the Flames at Floch to begin the burn trail, then following up the following turn with a Treasure Cruise to refill his grip. For a bad match-up, Oliver sure was navigating the pitfalls effectively. He had Floch down to 14 before the Slovak captain resolved his first Dig Through Time. Dig dug up another Drown in Sorrow and Jace's Ingenuity, but the play that could have turned the match followed.

Floch looks for the prime times to cast his spells, not wanting to sequence his plays out of order.

Oliver had resolved a Goblin Rabblemaster and gotten in for a single damage when Floch was presented with a choice. Floch had the option to simply cast the Hero's Downfall on the Rabblemaster or try to kill both it and its single token with Drown in Sorrow. Gambling that that Oliver wouldn't have an instant to keep the Rabblemaster alive, Floch chose the latter.

The gamble, however, might have cost him.

Oliver did have the instant—the perfect Lightning Strike—and saved his Rabblemaster. That, in turn, forced Flock to use Hero's Downfall on Goblin Rabblemaster, tapping him out for the turn. That cleared the way for Oliver to resolve both a second Jeskai Ascendancy and a Treasure Cruise as he began to truly pull ahead. Somehow Oliver was winning the card advantage fight hands down, despite his pre-match insistence that that was not their best plan against a deck that had so many more opportunities to draw cards.

Floch was clearly on the back foot, and his draws off Jace's Ingenuity were of no help. Thoughtseize stole a card, but it wasn't enough. The Jeskai Ascendancys churned through Oliver's deck and turned up Stoke the Flames and Jeskai Charm—exactly enough damage to down Floch, whose Thoughtseize had taken him to 8 life.

And, just like that, the United States was moving on to the Top 4 of the World Magic Cup.

Meanwhile on the middle table, Turtenwald, apprised of his team's success, looked relieved in the middle of another tight game two.

"Dude I was going to lose anyway."

But not this round. This round belonged to Team USA.