The Austrians were no strangers to playing in the elimination rounds of a big tournament, sharing ten Grand Prix Top 8s and two trophies between them. Nikolaus Eigner even had previous experience with high-level team play, reaching the Top 4 of the team competition at the 2005 World Championships. Guatemala, on the other hand, was somewhat of a wild card.
They had made it to the Top 8 largely on the back of their strong Limited game, only going 3-2-2 in Standard, compared to Team Austria's Standard record of 5-0-2. Nevertheless, with their performance so far, Guatemala had proven to be good for a surprise already, and another surprise in the form of a quarterfinal victory was definitely in the cards here.
In fact, the Austrian team captain, Valentin Mackl, told me that he didn't like their chances in these matchups. "I think I'll win easily enough, but the other two don't look good," he said. Indeed it appeared as if his version of Bant Megamorph had exactly the right tools, in recurring Deathmist Raptors and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, to defeat Jose Andrés's slow Esper Control. "He can't even go on offense with Dragons," Mackl said. "And if he's under pressure, my Disdainful Strokes will be golden."
But Mackl was worried about the match between his teammate Sebastian Fiala-Ibitz and Wilfredo Bojorquez, both playing similar decks in Mardu Midrange and Black-Red Dragons, respectively. "The other deck has a way better end game," Mackl explained.
Nikolaus Eigner said he didn't expect to win the first game with his Esper Dragons against Christopher Virula's Red-Green Landfall. "We tested the matchup and pre-board I only managed to win once, in somewhat of a freak accident," he said, adding, "At least we all get to play first, which should give us a huge advantage, something like 10 percent across the board."
While Austria's team captain felt his matchup was in his favor, he had concerns that his teammates were mismatched with the decks they had. Would Guatemala's impressive run continue?
Seat A: Valentin Mackl (Bant Megamorph) vs. Jose Andrés (Esper Control)
After a mulligan, Andrés had to work with Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, Utter End, two lands, and two copies of Dig Through Time as his opening hand. Mackl, in contrast, was able to make use of his Silkwrap to remove Jace on sight, while beating down with Hangarback Walker, a Knight token Gideon, Ally of Zendikar left behind after facing Utter End, and Wingmate Roc plus mate.
In the second game, one Narset Transcendent was literally the only spell Andrés cast. "He just didn't do anything," Mackl said, summing up the match.
Valentin Mackl 2 - Jose Andrés 0
Seat C: Nikolaus Eigner (Esper Dragons) vs. Christopher Virula (R/G Landfall)
After two mulligans, Eigner found an acceptable hand in two lands, two Foul-Tongue Invocations, and one Duress. When his Duress missed on Virula's opening six (four lands, Monastery Swiftspear, Snapping Gnarlid) he had effectively gone to four. But with two perfect answers for Virula's only two threats, things actually didn't look bad.
Unfortunately, Eigner never drew a third land. A turn three Jace which quickly turned into Jace, Telepath Unbound, and two copies of Ultimate Price kept him in the game longer than expected, but eventually a pair of Den Protectors and an Abbot of Keral Keep gave Virula enough business to take the game.
"I believe I would have won this if only I had drawn a third land at some point," Eigner told me later.
The second game went much better for Eigner. He survived the early game with the help of Surge of Righteousness and, eventually, with Jace, Telepath Unbound already in play, wiped the board with Crux of Fate. Virula used the opportunity to resolve Outpost Siege, but Eigner easily trumped this by casting Dragonlord Ojutai. Foul-Tongue Invocation and Arashin Cleric followed, bringing Eigner back to healthy 11 life.
Nikolaus Eigner navigates his way back into an even score against Christopher Virula.
"I won Game 2," he called over to teammate Sebastian Fiala-Ibitz who was himself down a game at this point. The actual win came a couple of turns later.
Virula started slowly into the final game, casting just a Den Protector over the course of the first four turns. In fact, Virula had boarded into a somewhat slower deck with Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker and multiple copies of Outpost Siege. This was interesting, but proved ultimately fruitless. For instance, Eigner cast Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and kept mana up for Negate, while Virula spent his full turn five running the aforementioned Planeswalker into the counterspell. And when Virula made a second creature and resolved Outpost Siege, Eigner had Ultimate Price and Dig Through Time at end of turn, with Dragonlord Ojutai following on his own turn.
Even after a second Outpost Siege, Eigner's two cards per turn, one selected via Ojutai, were simply better than the three random cards Virula got off the top of his library every turn.
"People think that Outpost Siege is so great against Esper Dragons, but it's not," said Eigner after the match. "Realistically, they only get half a real card per turn anyway, and that's not close to enough for a four mana enchantment. They can try to play that game, but Dragonlord Ojutai is just better at it."
Nikolaus Eigner 2 - Christopher Virula 1
Seat B: Sebastian Fiala-Ibitz (Mardu) vs. Wilfredo Bojorquez (B/R Dragons)
This was a brutal war of attrition, with various Hangarback Walkers and Planeswalkers and copies of Pia and Kiran Nalaar on both sides. For a while it appeared as if Fiala-Ibitz would be able to gain the upper hand, as Bojorquez was stuck on three lands. But when Bojorquez finally found further lands to go along with his full grip of spells, the blowback was only more severe.
After sideboarding, Fiala-Ibitz's chances increased noticeably. He took multiple heavy hitters like Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker and Outpost Siege out of Bojorquez's hand via Transgress the Mind and he drew some cards via Painful Truths. Bojorquez had more, first Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury, and then Ob Nixilis Reignited. However, eventually Fiala-Ibitz was able to get rid of both and while all other creatures were dying, either one by one or in droves due to Bojorquez's Radiant Flames, Fiala-Ibitz's 4/4 Hangarback Walker stuck around.
Before Sebastian Fiala-Ibitz and Wilfredo Bojorquez could complete their match, Austria had clinched the team victory as handshakes get offered between opponents.
After a long and hard-fought battle the Austrian was able to even the score. It ended up being irrelevant, as both of his teammates had won their own matches, and this one remained undecided at 1-1.
Austria defeats Guatemala 2-0 and advances to the semifinals!