With the other semifinals between Thailand and France already over, three teams remained in the running for the fame and the fortune, the title and the trophy. Joining Thailand in the finals would be either the Austrian team headed by six-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor Valentin Mackl, or the Italians with their captain, Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir quarterfinalist Marco Cammilluzzi.
I had already talked to the Austrians after their quarterfinal, and as soon as they learned they would be facing Italy next, they worked out each player's matchup. The verdict wasn't good. Playing Bant Megamorph, Mackl had beat Esper, sans Dragons, in the quarterfinals, but knew that Andrea Mengucci's Esper Dragons would be quite a different story.
Likewise, Sebastian Fiala-Ibitz and his Mardu Midrange would have a hard time against Temur Megamorph piloted by William Pizzi. "The deck generates so much card advantage, and it is aggressive to boot!" Mackl complained.
Meanwhile, the Austrians own Esper Dragons player, Nikolaus Eigner, wasn't looking forward to the match against Italian captain Marco Cammilluzzi on Atarka Red either. "This is even harder for me than the Red-Green Landfall deck in the quarterfinals. And we're going to be on the draw too," Eigner said. "He has to stumble pretty badly. I mean, he can always mulligan to five and stuff, but otherwise I don't think I have a chance pre-board."
Marco Cammilluzzi agreed with the Austrians' assessment and felt good about his team's chances. "I like my matchup," he said. "You know we've been testing with the Americans, Canadians, and Brazilians," he said. (All teams in that group were running a version of Esper Dragons themselves.) "So I know this matchup pretty well."
Austria and Italy has similar expectations on how the match should go, but there's a reason the games are played. Would Austria defy their expectations?
Seat A: Valentin Mackl (Bant Megamorph) vs. Andrea Mengucci (Esper Dragons)
Mengucci kept a somewhat risky hand in five lands plus double Silumgar's Scorn. He first drew into Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, and then Duress. Immediately afterward, and just in time, Mackl ripped Silkwrap to exile Jace. Meanwhile, he also put the pressure on Mengucci with a Hangarback Walker, which eventually grew to 3/3 alongside Nissa, Vastwood Seer and Deathmist Raptor. All of them died to Languish, but three Thopter tokens remained and were joined by Wingmate Roc and its mate. That was enough for Mengucci.
In the second game, Mackl managed to stick Mastery of the Unseen and kept it safe from Utter End via Disdainful Stroke. However, all of that took resources away from developing an actual offense and Mengucci was able to simply race Mackl with Dragonlord Ojutai. It certainly didn't help that the Austrian was stuck with three Silkwraps in hand, which he felt he needed against an early Jace (and possibly as insurance against the unlikely scenario of Mengucci bringing in Monastery Mentors).
Andrea Mengucci plays as two of his teammates look on.
Two copies of Warden of the First Tree came in for some early damage in the third game, but ultimately both paid the Ultimate Price. Once again, Mastery of the Unseen resolved and stuck around, and once again Mengucci summoned the mighty Dragonlord Ojutai. Mackl swung in with his manifest creature and summoned his own five mana flier in Wingmate Roc. Mengucci had Crux of Fate though, and Mackl lost all of his creatures.
"Top-deck?" he asked, pointing at the black card. "Of course," said a happy Mengucci. "Any card would have been fine but this," Mackl complained. "Languish, anything. But you had to have Crux."
Over the next couple of turns, Dragonlord Ojutai attacked and was joined by Dragonlord Silumgar, while Mackl rebuilt his board with a morph and a manifest, along with Nissa, Vastwood Seer and Ashaya. He was even able to return Deathmist Raptor from his graveyard and gained 4 life via Mastery of the Unseen, when he unmorphed Den Protector. But in the end, he only got Mengucci to 3 before his Dragonlords flew to victory.
Valentin Mackl 1 - Andrea Mengucci 2
Seat C: Nikolaus Eigner (Esper Dragons) vs. Marco Cammilluzzi (Atarka Red)
Nikolaus Eigner drew an opening seven of Prairie Stream, Plains, Island, Dig Through Time, Dragonlord Silumgar, Dragonlord Ojutai, and Silumgar's Scorn. After a short discussion with the team's fourth player, Christoph Aukenthaler, he sent it back. "This would have been an easy keep in any other matchup," he told Marco Cammilluzzi.
"I cannot beat this draw," he said. "At least, not in the first game."
It was time for Cammilluzzi to take a mulligan and he kept a six-card hand with one land. After losing his first creature to Foul-Tongue Invocation, Cammilluzzi only got an offense going when he already faced one Arashin Cleric and one Dragonlord Ojutai. He did get rid of the Dragon when he made one of his attackers Become Immense, but Eigner had a replacement. Soon the board was six Goblins against two Arashin Clerics plus Ojutai, Cammilluzzi without cards in hand. Naturally, that didn't end well.
After going down in a quick and expected first game, Nikolaus Eigner fights back as best as he can.
Both players had expected this matchup to be problematic for Eigner, but their decks seemed determined to prove otherwise. Eigner kept an opening hand with two lands, Dig Through Time, his singleton Virulent Plague, and three Foul-Tongue Invocations. His next two draws were Ultimate Price and land, and suddenly it was Cammilluzzi who was in a pickle.
Cammilluzzi did his best. He really did. When his opponent tapped out for Dragonlord Ojutai, he cast Zurgo Bellstriker with dash. That was blocked by Arashin Cleric and subsequently targeted by Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage to put Eigner at 2. Eigner attacked with Ojutai and Zurgo was dashed again. Eigner cast Foul-Tongue Invocation and Cammilluzzi responded with a lethal Wild Slash, but Eigner in turn had Dispel. It had been surprisingly close game, considering Eigner's draw, but Cammilluzzi could only do so much.
Nikolaus Eigner 2 – Marco Cammilluzzi 1
Seat B: Sebastian Fiala-Ibitz (Mardu) vs. William Pizzi (Temur Megamorph)
Despite a suboptimal start, with a turn three Heir of the Wilds as his first creature, Pizzi was able to out-tempo Fiala-Ibitz at every turn. First he had a Bounding Krasis, then another, then found a third with Collected Company. After some trades, with Fiala-Ibitz dangerously low on life, the game was coming to a close. Pizzi passed his turn with two creatures on the battlefield to Fiala-Ibitz's zero. The latter tried for Pia and Kiran Nalaar, but Pizzi had Disdainful Stroke, and that was that.
The second game was the complete opposite of the first. Things began slowly, took forever, and were decided on card advantage. Fiala-Ibitz was able to kill off all of Pizzi's early creatures one-by-one with Kolaghan's Command, Crackling Doom, Self-Inflicted Wound, and Crackling Doom. He eventually overwhelmed Pizzi with the creatures Mastery of the Unseen manifested. But not for a long, long time, both because of the threat of Pizzi's flash creatures as well as the reality of his Radiant Flames. In fact, Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker needed to get involved to make this game actually end.
It was back to tempo for the final game. Pizzi, playing first, led with Rattleclaw Mystic on turn two, whereas Fiala-Ibitz played a pair of Nomad Outposts and had to wait for turn three to cast his first spell. He later hit an uncastable Kolaghan's Command with Abbot of Keral Keep, while Pizzi gained further tempo advantage by killing the blocker with Fiery Impulse. At this point, Rattleclaw Mystic, Bounding Krasis, and Lumbering Falls had already taken Fiala-Ibitz down to 8.
The Austrian tried to stem the tide with Pia and Kiran Nalaar, but after Den Protector unmorphed to retrieve Fiery Impulse, only Thopter tokens remained. Bounding Krasis came in for another 3 points of damage before it died to Crackling Doom. Fiala-Ibitz didn't have a blocker for Den Protector and fell to 2. When Surrak Dragonclaw moved from Pizzi's hand to the battlefield in response to Fiala-Ibitz's Transgress the Mind, it was all over.
One to go, Team Italy.
Sebastian Fiala-Ibitz 1 – William Pizzi 2
Italy defeats Austria 2-1 and advances to the finals!