It was a tale of three games, three matches, three players, a tale of luck and fortune, a tale of skill and guile. It was a tale full of drama and suspense.
It was David versus Goliath, the Yankees versus the Twins, it was the biggest kid on the block against one of its smallest.
It was Greece versus the United States.
And oh what a match it was. After four days, nearly 30 rounds, and dozens of matches played, I can safely say it was one of the most dramatic, the most back and forth, and, yes, the most stomach churning matches I have ever seen. I can only do it so much justice sitting at my keyboard, still starry-eyed from the slugfest these two teams put forth, but we will certainly try.
So prepare yourself, gentle reader, for a different experience, an article bound not by the confines of each match, but by the first game for all, the second game for all, and the third deciding round of games, containing every bit of drama you could plug into a World Magic Cup semifinals, a boxing match where the last man standing over a certainly weary opponent would be declared victor.
Team Greece would have to overcome juggernaut Team United States in order to keep the dream of taking the trophies home alive.
Before us was an intriguing match-up, with vastly different decks up and down the line.
There was the A seat, featuring Socrates Rozakeas and his Mardu Midrange deck against Andrew Baeckstrom and White-Blue Heroic. The Mardu deck was strong, and featured a plethora of removal—and the very important Crackling Doom—but the Heroic list was sleek, low to the ground, and punishing to stumbling.
In the B seat sat possibly the best player in the world, No. 1-ranked Owen Turtenwald, helming Black-Green Constellation. His opponent, Bill Chronopoulos, sported a Temur Midrange deck that could pile up the damage in the mid-game—precisely where the Constellation deck lived.
And in the C seat sat Neal Oliver, packing the breakout deck of the tournament Jeskai Tokens, facing down Panagiotis Savvidis and Sidisi Whip.
No clear edge existed, no room to relax. The Greeks had come to game, and the United States would certainly oblige.
The first to fall was the best of them.
Turtenwald, seemingly steadied in themed-game with a Hornet Queen, had fallen too far behind, taken too much damage. The Temur deck could deal damage in bunches, and even hiding behind a wall of deathtouchers, the No. 1 player in the world couldn't keep his life total out of range. With no Whip to send life totals skyward, Chronopoulos claimed first blood.
The next to taste defeat was Baeckstrom, with his back against the wall early. Both players flooded the board early, but Rozakeas broke Baeckstrom's back early with a Stoke the Flames convoked entirely off creatures to steal a combat phase from the Heroic deck, where every combat step was precious.
Team Greece's Rozakeas bought time at a crucial point in Game 1 against his opponent.
With Baeckstrom low on tricks due to a creature-heavy draw, Rosakeas was able to use his removal effectively and efficiently, without much fear of reprisal. He stalled out for a time, unable to break through the gathering of small white creatures cluttering Baeckstrom's board, but a Goblin Rabblemaster gave him enough to finally break through and to get enough reach to put Baeckstrom in range. With no tricks from the American and Rosakeas' life total shifting north of 30 thanks to Seeker of the Way, it was only a matter of time before the tokens overwhelmed the play space.
That put Oliver's feet to the fire as his two teammates had already dropped the first two games. Unfortunately for him, he hadn't fared much better.
Oliver was able to get aggressive early, curving Seeker of the Way into another Seeker of the Way followed by a Goblin Rabblemaster, immediately placing Savvidis in a bind. However, a Sultai Charm followed closely by a Sidisi flipped the script.
Now with plenty of blockers and no Rabblemaster to concern himself with, Savvidis sealed the deal—and the first round of games—with a very large, very much in charge Doomwake Giant.
First round to Greece. Enter the drama.
Something had shifted for the second set of games. You could tell almost right away.
At table A, Rozakeas mulliganned to five. He wasn't long for the world.
At table C, Oliver looked to be in trouble. He had tried to go on the offensive with a pair of Raise the Alarm, but Drown in Sorrow quickly ended those dreams. The players had sideboarded into sets of reactive cards, which seemed to settle the game down for a bit, as each player played draw go, looking for a threat.
Savvidis looked like he might be the first to do so, resolving a Whip of Erebos with a stocked graveyard. However, doing so had tapped him out—Negate was necessary to defend against Disdainful Stroke—but one activation was likely all it would take to shift the game in his direct.
But, again, fortune favored the U.S. Or, maybe more accurately, fortune favored extending this match.
With help from Jeskai Ascendancy and a few spells, Oliver spit out his entire hand and lightning struck—literally. Jeskai Charm took Savvidis to 7, Stoke the Flames took him to 3, and Lightning Strike? Well, it did the rest.
That left Turtenwald still battling to even up the score. But he had a tough road to do so. You see, Chronopoulos had access to the powerful Back to Nature in the sideboard, a card that could decimate an advantaged board position for the Constellation player.
However, what they couldn't do was handle Arbor Colossus, a pair of which forced Chronopoulos to react rather than blow on by.
Team USA's Turtenwald battles through a brutal Back to Nature, undaunted.
Reduced to using full-cost Crater's Claws to remove the 6/6, Turtenwald was able to maneuver his way to a strong advantage. Chronopoulos was not set up to play a truly reactive game—the Temur wanted to be bashing with monsters, of course—so when he found himself reacting rather than attacking, the writing was on the wall. Turtenwald finished Chronopoulos off with a healthy hand size to the Greek's empty grip and evened the match at one game per player, per side.
That left a round of three games, two of which would decide who fought for the team title—and who was left to think about what could have been.
The energy palpably shifted as all three players moved into their final games of the match. You could see the teams leaning on one another more, asking for advice more readily, consulting one another more freely. They were nervous, unsure, feeling the weight of the moment.
We started with Seat C, where Oliver and Savvidis were trading haymakers in the early stages. Raise the Alarm allowed Oliver to chip away at Savvidis early, and a Lightning Strike prevented Sidisi, Blood Tyrant from bringing any zombies along for the ride. Oliver was trying to stay aggressive, to push through early to secure his team's future later.
There was no Whip of Erebos.
Instead, Oliver was able to switch gears once again, chaining Treasure cruises together and out-muscling even Doomwake Giant, as Savvidis struggled to find relevant spells. Eventually, a pair of Raise the Alarm and Jeskai Ascendancy forced Savvidis to use his one-for-one removal spells on Raise the Alarm tokens—exactly where he didn't want to be. A few spells, a whole host of triggers, and several burn spells thrown directly at Savvidis later, and Oliver had put the U.S. up.
Like dominoes falling in a row, the next seat to be decided was B, where Chronopoulos and Turtenwald were duking it out. Chronopoulos, now drawing fewer reactive cards, came on heavy, with Stormbreath Dragon doing the bulk of the work. Under pressure long before he could set up, the No. 1 player in the world was crushed under the claws of the monstrosity called Stormbreath.
And that's where it was when we joined Rozakeas against Baeckstrom. It all came down to this. One game for a trip to the finals. One game for a shot at glory. One game to avoid becoming a footnote in someone else's story.
The result between Greece and the United States all came down to the final game between Socrates Rozakeas and Andrew Baeckstrom.
Early on, Rozakeas was tight on mana, missing his third land drop for a turn before righting the ship. He had a grip full of business and removal, and he was clearly not afraid to use it. Removal spell by removal spell he kept himself in the game, defended, at times, by only a token or two.
The relentless removal parade exhausted Baeckstrom to the point where he felt it necessary—with the advice of Turtenwald coming from his right—to suit up a Heliod's Pilgrim with Ordeal of Heliod. It was only able to attack in once before Rozakeas—playing around Stubborn Denial at every turn—dropped the hammer with End Hostilities.
Clearly, ending all of the board's various hostilities in search of a moment's peace had been Rozakeas' plan all along. With the board clear, Baeckstrom out of gas, and both teams huddled around the game, Rozakeas and the entire Greek team went for the throat.
Baeckstrom, his own team huddled around him, could only stare at the Stubborn Denials in his hand. Defiant Strike cycled on the Butcher of the Horde, and another Heliod's Pilgrim picked up a Stratus Walk, but that was all the American squad could musters, a 1/2 in the face of a Demon, the embodiment of Mardu terror.
The first attack dropped the U.S. to 11 life, the second to 4. Then, carefully, methodically, and with the precision of a man who knew the game was all but one, Rosakeas surveyed the board, Baeckstrom's hand, and everything he could. He took it all in.
And cast a lethal Stoke the Flames.
The Greek team erupted. Three matches, nine games, and one of the tournament favorites later, and Greece was advancing to the finals for its shot at the World Magic Cup title.
Greece 2 – United States 1