"I don't even know how I'm here."
It might be an off-putting sentence to hear from a World Championship competitor in the abstract, but from Pro Tour Hall of Fame member and third-ranked Paul Rietzl, it was a playful answer. "You beat me on your way to Top 8, right?" Rietzl said to his opponent, eleventh-ranked Ondřej Stráský who had indeed defeated Rietzl before going on to Top 8 Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir.
"I'm just 11-5 at every Pro Tour. I'd love to go 12-4 or, actually, 12-3-1," Rietzl continued opining, referring to the records that sometimes squeeze into Top 8. "I don't know how I'm here. I never win a match."
Stráský appreciated Rietzl's humor as other competitors in the feature match area were pulled in. The young competitor from the Czech Republic was known for playing Merfolk in Legacy—which fed his Modern choice today—before rising through the competitive levels to Platinum off his third place finish at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir. Through working with long-time players like Pro Tour Hall of Member Frank Karsten and Martin Jůza leading up to earning Platinum, Stráský was among the young vanguard looking to keep players like Rietzl from winning.
Paul Rietzl and Ondřej Stráský have a history that ended well for the young Czech player. Can Rietzl even up the lifetime scores a bit?
"Merfolk made me give up on a lot of decks," Rietzl said, continuing their table banter as he and Stráský reviewed decklists.
"I wanted to play Zoo. Couldn't bear Merfolk. I wanted to play Splinter Twin. Couldn't beat Merfolk," Rietzl said. "I got sick of playing Merfolk because I could never win unless I drew an Æther Vial."
"Æther Vial is very good," Stráský admitted.
Stráský, of course, was playing the Merfolk he was famous for. The typical turns of early Cursecatchers and Silvergill Adepts were backed up with Lord of Atlantis and Master of the Pearl Trident to pump up the army, Dismember to keep the path clear, and a sideboard of counterspells and answers for a variety of Modern decks. Æther Vial was a critical piece of the Merfolk plan, allowing it to both put creatures onto the battlefield faster and fight through walls of counterspells.
Rietzl's deck was a venerable staple of every Modern tournament: Affinity. Built to explode onto the battlefield with cards like Mox Opal and Springleaf Drum dumping opening hands over the first few turns, Cranial Plating on a flying threat like Inkmoth Nexus or Vault Skirge or even Ornithopter ended games in a combo-like fashion. Affinity was an aggressive puzzle, and pilots like Rietzl were experts at solving a simple question: "How do I kill you this turn?"
"Our match won't take long," Rietzl predicted. Stráský just nodded in agreement.
"After trying mudskippers for an afternoon, Scratch decided that crickcarp made the best noise," Rietzl said, holding up one of the two cards he had promised to play on this first turn.
"That's got to be Springleaf Drum," Stráský said.
"Of course it is! I said I'd play two cards and no creatures on my first turn."
Glimmervoid and Springleaf Drum did indeed start Rietzl's first turn, followed by Mox Opal, Steel Overseer, Blinkmoth Nexus, and Arcbound Ravager on the second. Cursecatcher and Tidebinder Mage were all Stráský had.
Stráský's draw falls a bit flat compared to his opponent's opener.
Blinkmoth Nexus suited up a Cranial Plating and Stráský didn't block Rietzl's attack: Activating Steel Overseer put +1/+1 counters across the board and dealt 8 damage. Spreading Seas answered the Blinkmoth Nexus, but Stráský was tapped out to do it.
Both players counted the potential artifacts in play for Rietzl.
Rietzl attacked again, this time with both his Ravager and Overseer. The Plating jumped onto the Overseer when Stráský blocked the Ravager, putting him down to 3 life. Not defeated, but precarious at best.
Stráský didn't find what he needed on his next turn.
Stráský stalled out on two lands, and used his two to cast Master of the Pearl Trident. Rietzl was similarly on two lands, both Citadels, but looked to win the damage race with an army of flying, lifelink Vault Skirges. Dismember cleared out Rietzl's Signal Pest, but Etched Champion joined the fray after combat.
Rietzl has more than a little familiarity with Arcbound Ravager and its friends.
Lord of Atlantis firmly took the damage race back to Stráský's control, now wielding multiple creatures at least 3/3 in size. This time Rietzl used Ornithopter to block. Untapping into Thoughtcast, he drew the Cranial Plating he needed.
Stráský had the math set before Rietzl could finish equipping for the now lethal counterattack.
"This field is not very good for me," Stráský said after extending his hand.
"Who do want to play all the time? Splinter Twin?" Rietzl asked.
"Twin. Collected Company is good for me too," Stráský said before pausing. "Good luck."
"You too." Rietzl said.
Rietzl 2 – Stráský 0