For American Ben Stark—Pro Tour Hall of Famer, Pro Tour Paris Champion, famous content writer, often in the conversation for "best Limited player in the world"—the Top 4 appearance at the World Championship seems almost overdue. Stark has been dominating in the game for so long, has never really lost a step, and keeps putting up results. He netted his fifth Pro Tour Top 8 this season.
And as is often his style, he showed up to this tournament with a meta-tuned Mono-Red Aggro deck designed to go underneath the Red-black Aggro decks he expected from over half the field. (He expected exactly right.) In a world where red-black goes bigger and bigger to break the mirror match, Stark looked to sneak in where they least expected it, sending a Rigging Runner right to the belly and cleaning up with a Wizard's Lightning or two to the face. This is basically what he did all weekend. He saw no reason not to continue that strategy here.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Stark was Poland's Grzegorz Kowalski. Nary a Pro Tour 8 to his name, only achieving Platinum for the first time this season, and remaining relatively unknown outside the European Magic community, Kowalski's success on the World Championship stage in his first attendance surprised even him. He had said that he just hoped that maybe he could finish in the Top 8, which was more than he could expect for his first time. He did not clarify whether he knew the tournament cut to four players rather than eight, or that he did not aim to make the cut.
But Kowalski has been silently putting up consistent results for a few years now, and after captaining Team Poland to a World Magic Cup finals appearance last year, for many, the secret of Grzegorz was out. And if it wasn't out then, it's surely out now, as he navigated a field of the best players in the world with his mirror-match-tuned Red-black Aggro and finished at the top of the standings after the first day of competition.
His deck's matchup against Ben Stark will come down to draws, because he'll need a little bit of the help. Though the best one-two-three draws from red-black are almost unbeatable for any Standard player, the more middling ones will be pounced on by the aggression of Stark's deck. Usual standouts like Bomat Courier are functional blanks against Stark's 1/2s and first strikers, and once Kowalski is at 10 life or below he has to worry about being in burn range, as Stark's deck plays much more burn than his own deck, which doesn't really care much about board presence.
Stark was on the draw in Game 1, which didn't bode well for him. He was also behind the eight ball because he kept a one-land hand. It was a very good one-lander—two 2-toughness one-drop creatures, two one-mana removal spells, and a Hazoret the Fervent—but he was still at the mercy of the top of his deck.
Stark put the first points of damage on the board with Ghitu Lavarunner and Rigging Runner—lots of running going on really—and neither creature died to Goblin Chainwhirler, so when Grzegorz Kowalski slammed one down turn three, its reverberations on the battlefield went unfelt. Kowalski wisely declined to use the creature to crew his Heart of Kiran and held his board back to block. Just one more land from Stark could provide a ton more pressure.
But when Stark got his fourth turn back, he still had only one Mountain to show for it. He remained stone-faced as the advantage bar swung wildly away from him. If his facial expression changed, I don't think anyone could notice.
Ben Stark (right) considers his options down early against Grzegorz Kowalski in the semifinals of the 2018 World Championship.
But the stoic expression turned to a smirk when Kowalski cast his own Hazoret the Fervant, and Stark quickly scooped up his cards. He was way too behind to come back from one of the strongest creatures in Standard while still awaiting his second land from his library. He laughed a bit about it and shuffled up for the next battle.
In the second game, Stark began without a first-turn play, and his turn-two Earthshaker Khenra ran headlong into some Magma Spray from the Polish player. When Kowalski used a second burn spell on Stark's Goblin Chainwhirler, Kowalski was sitting pretty, staring at an empty board.
His job as Red-black Aggro in the matchup is to stay high enough in life that Stark's deck can't burn him out after his small creatures become irrelevant. And when he laid a Chandra and Scrapheap Scrounger facing down nothing from Stark on the fourth turn, while still at 20 life, it must have felt pretty good.
After Stark cleared off Kowalski's permanents, he had Hazoret the Fervent and two burn spells left in his hands. The Hall of Famer still had some reach left, but he'd have to manage when Kowalski's deck really started turning up the gas—which came in the form of two fiery Rekindling Phoenix.
Stark emptied his hand, unloading both burn spells at a Phoenix (to keep it from recurring) and swinging with his 5/4 indestructible beatstick, taking the first points of damage from Kowalski—the tallies 16-15 in Stark's favor. He was going for a race, but he'd have to draw well to win it.
Kowalski kept up pressure with a Pia Nalaar and Heart of Kirin, which made Stark emit the first sounds of the game—a heavy sigh. He saw what was coming. He wasn't going to win this race anymore.
Kowalski reanimated his Scrapheap Scrounger, used it to crew Heart of Kirin, then swung for the fences. Though Stark's final card was a removal spell to temporarily bury the Phoenix and stay at 6 life, after an unhelpful draw step Stark packed up his cards again.
And now, a deck specifically metagamed to take down his opponent's selection was heading into the sideboarded games down 0-2. Stark's master metagame plan had got him to the Top 4, but was failing him in the Semifinals.
In the third game, Stark's draws looked remarkably like the first. He again gambled on a one-land hand, and again, just needed the top of his library to help out. But just like the previous game, he was severely punished by not drawing the second land until, well, ever.
Kowalski had kept a solid hand, and though Stark's one-mana removal was able to keep the Polish pro slower out of the gate, make no mistake—as Stark drew for his fourth turn and didn't see a land, he had lost the game and the match.
Grzegorz Kowalski (left) shakes hands with Ben Stark after securing the victory.
Grzegorz Kowalski defeats Ben Stark 3-0 to earn his spot in the 2018 World Championship finals!