The 2015 World Championship Top 4 was a surprise for eighth-ranked Samuel Black. Defeating Owen Turtenwald in the final round of Swiss to enter the tiebreaker showdown, Black was the last to be announced in the Friday ceremony. His elation and joy was obvious as he grinned, sprinting up to join the other three ahead of him. As a player that's poured a lifetime of effort into the game—not just the past several weeks of intense preparation—earning the World Championship title would be among the greatest of lifetime achievements.
He wasn't the only one seeking the top with all his heart.
For fourth-ranked Seth Manfield, his pursuit of a World Championship win was intensely personal for a different reason. As a player, he always enjoyed the life of travel and competition the game's highest levels required. Now, as a new father, the urgency for success took on a more important purpose. Earning the best Swiss record ever in the World Championship, Manfield crushed the field and decisively took top of the standings to become the first lock in the Sunday playoff. Winning would put him well on his way to Platinum status for another year as well as ensure his appearance in the next World Championship.
The status and prestige would continue to help him balance the Magic and family lives he was now living.
Seth Manfield is seeking a win to kickstart his family life, while Samuel Black was just happy to break through with some shaky tiebreakers. Now the two face off in the first semifinal match of the day.
Manfield's Standard deck went undefeated with him though the Standard rounds of Swiss. Abzan Control was a venerable and known option entering the tournament, but even without the element of surprise it delivered above expectations. The powerful mix of removal spells—Ultimate Price, Abzan Charm, Hero's Downfall and Languish among others—with ways to go over the top of opponents—headlined by Siege Rhino and Elspeth, Sun's Champion—was as powerful here as it had been in the weeks of Standard leading up.
According to both Black and Manfield's testing during the Saturday break, it was the favored of the two decks in the semifinals.
Black's choice of deck, White Devotion, came from a roundabout recommendation. Justin Heilig had created the deck originally in concert with Craig Wescoe, who took it to the Top 8 appearance at the Unites States World Magic Cup qualifier the weekend prior. Wescoe wasn't one to convince others to take up a deck, but shared it and its testing group with Black for the tournament. A mix of fast aggression—Soldier of the Pantheon; Kytheon, Hero of Akros, Knight of the White Orchid, Brimaz, King of Oreskos—and long-game capability—Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, Archangel of Tithes, Wingmate Roc, Mastery of the Unseen—gave Black the most unexpected Standard deck of the tournament.
But making it through an Abzan-filled Top 4 would be a challenge when the best players in the world were now ready for it.
"I get to choose if I go first, right?" Manfield asked as the two sat down to duel.
"You didn't remember you were first seed?" Black said incredulously.
Manfield cracked an unexpected smile. Going nearly undefeated had its perks after all.
Manfield's Sunday jitters were clear, even if he remained focused on the match.
Soldier of the Pantheon led off for Black as his devotion deck looked to overrun Manfield before the shields could be put into place. Thoughtseize revealed options like Archangel of Tithes, Wingmate Roc, another Solider, and Valorous Stance—the Angel went away in the end before Black could get his chance to attack.
Nissa, Vastwood Seer was Manfield's first opportunity to trade, also ensuring he'd have no issues with a land drop on the following turn, but Black's freshly drawn Mastery of the Unseen was the bigger issue.
That assumed Black would find the mana needed to activate it. He was stuck on three lands.
Manfield's Courser of Kruphix met a Valorous Stance, but it helped ensure the sixth turn was Elspeth, Sun's Champion. Banishing Light took out the Planeswalker immediately, but the pressure was off Manfield: Black still hadn't found his fourth land.
Siege Rhino let Manfield begin to send in his Soldier tokens, but a second Banishing Light cleared away the four-drop. The fourth land finally appeared for Black, but Manfield had the big play: unmorphing Den Protector to get back Nissa, Vastwood Seer, then found a Forest to play and transform her into Nissa, Sage Animist, ending the sequence to draw a card, the revealed Abzan Charm.
Making a manifest seemed small in comparison for Black.
Attacking Nissa with his manifest, Black forced Manfield to trade away two Soldier tokens before Wingmate Roc appeared. Manfield attacked back with his Den Protector. Languish was the reason, clearing the battlefield before Nissa made her 4/4 legendary creature token and Manfield cast his second Siege Rhino. Black had fallen to 7 life.
A second Thoughtseize took a second Mastery of the Unseen from Black's hand before Manfield's attack. Black chump blocked with a manfiest for a turn, hanging on at 3 life. While Manfield spent up his Nissa making another Elemental token—a mistake he missed until it was too late to back up—it didn't matter.
Manfield may have made a mistake, but he regained composure and refocused.
"You got this," Black said on his next turn, picking up his cards. They each began to shuffle through their sideboards.
"I knew I'd figure out a way to make a fool of myself," Manfield said, referring to missing the legendary type of the token Nissa created.
"Me too," Black said.
Manfield didn't understand. "How so?"
"The misplay with the Soldier," Black thought he missed gaining a life when Manfield cast his second Siege Rhino of the game.
"Oh, that's good then!" Black said. "That's a lot of pushups I saved." The running challenge of delivering pushups for making mistakes in games wasn't a gag among players: tt incentivized both playing as well as possible and having better overall physical fitness.
When asked how that was working out for him Black had a simple reply: "Well, I'm here."
In the second game Black had a second turn Mastery of the Unseen, the best card he could offer against Manfield's deck. Manfield led off with Nissa, Vastwood Seer. Knight of the White Orchid into Hangarback Walker with one +1/+1 counter meant Black now had two angles to consider threatening Manfield with: the Mastery, or an ever-growing Walker.
Black was unwilling to give up despite being an underdog in the match.
Black sent his Walker in to attack, and Manfield double-blocked to create Black's Thopter token before Wingmate Roc appeared. Tragic Arrogance undid much of Black's work as Manfield kept both his creatures thanks to Courser of Kruphix's enchantment type.
Elspeth, Sun's Champion followed and Manfield looked to be far ahead of Black's ability to catch up. Black cast a second Mastery of the Unseen before Manfield could untap and aim Atarka's Command. A flurry of responses happened: Black made a manifest, then turned face-up a Kytheon, Hero of Akros that trigged both the enchantments' life-gain. It put Black up to 23 life.
Siege Rhino was the end of Manfield's turn but all Black could do is keep Elspeth from getting bigger by hitting her every turn with a Thopter token.
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx needed more white permanents in play for Black to make significant mana with it. However, with eight lands he could make two manifests at the end of the turn to try and claw back into the dominant position.
Ultimate Price took out Soldier of the Pantheon, and Manfield used a Windswept Heath to reshuffle his deck. Languish was now on top of his library, and a face-down Den Protector sat back from Manfield's all-in attack. The Protector turned face-up for Dromoka's Command when Black tapped out making manifests.
That put Black down to 3 life, and without his critical enchantment to gain life. On his next turn, Black revealed the sea of Plains that Mastery of the Unseen had manifested throughout the final turns.
Black presses on even when the odds of turning the game around look grim.
There was no talk over the table this time as both players were focused solely on the critical third game. Soldier of the Pantheon led the way for Black, followed by Mastery of the Unseen on his second turn. If the enchantment could stick around long enough for Black to amass enough lands he'd have a chance to try and overrun Manfield.
Glare of Heresy from Manfield's sideboard ensured it wouldn't go to Black's Mastery plan.
Knight of the White Orchid put Black ahead on land drops as Manfield used Abzan Charm's draw mode to try and find a fourth land. He missed, and Black's next attack dropped Manfield to 9 life. It was the closest Black had come so far.
Manfield's Ultimate Price was crossed by Valorous Stance, and Black added Wingmate Roc to pressure Manfield into one specific sequence: a land that entered the battlefield untapped into casting Languish.
Manfield drew for his turn and scooped up his three lands. Black was finally on the scoreboard.
The fourth started with Manfield choosing to draw, and he looked to Black to see what would come down on the first turn. Black had again taken a mulligan and didn't have a first turn creature. Hangarback Walker with one counter on the second would have to do, but Mastery of the Unseen on the third turn was among Black's stronger sequences to open with.
Courser of Kruphix provided a backstop that the Walker ran into, and Wingmate Roc joined the two Thopter tokens the block caused. When Manfield attacked with his Courser, the Languish was the clear telegraph.
Back to a battlefield of lands and Mastery of the Unseen, Black settled to try the manifest plan instead. Manfield continued to increase his land count thanks to Nissa, Vastwood Seer and a replacement Courser of Kruphix. While Black did make a manifest at the end of the turn, he instead found another Wingmate Roc off the top to threaten with after untapping for his turn.
Double Abzan Charms cleared both halves of Black's Roc before Manfield attacked, then transformed Nissa from her Seer to Sage side. A 4/4 Elemental appeared, then Unravel the Æther on the following turn.
Black was running out of time and options. He had two manifests in play but the Mastery was no more. When Manfield drew with Abzan Charm at the end of Black's turn, double Tragic Arrogance was revealed.
Black chuckled looking at the impressive sweepers that filled Manfield's hand. With one card in his own, and a full grip for Manfield, it was too much for Black. After drawing for his turn and facing down the impressive board there was one final play.
"Good luck in the finals," he said, extending his hand to Manfield. While Black's quest came to a close for this year, the new father was now one match from becoming a new World Champion too.
Seth Manfield defeats Samuel Black, 3-1, and advances to the finals of the 2015 World Championship!