"I redeemed myself."
For fifth-ranked Reid Duke, Platinum player, Pro Tour Top 8 contender, Grand Prix champion, and three-peat World Championship competitor, the pun 'Reidemption' had been used to great effect in the past. What makes it compelling isn't the story about Reid Duke the underdog, which hasn't been true for a couple years now, but how he carries himself as the constant challenger.
Without fail, Duke is looking forward and battling. At the World Championship, Duke started Day 2 with a disappointing series of losses. By the end, he flagged me down to tell me precisely what he fought hard to do. "I redeemed myself. I won five in a row."
The grin Duke wore was half the tale. "I felt good at the end of the tournament," he said. "Naturally, 7-7 is not what I was hoping for going in. It's amazing how the same record can feel so different whenever you have a weak start and a strong finish or a strong start and a weak finish. My performance at Worlds wouldn't have changed my drive for the rest of the year: Unless I had gotten first, my thought was to get right back to Worlds again. A Top 8 here would be the first step on my chance for qualifying again."
It was a succinct and bold goal, and one Duke was already familiar with. Though competing in the World Championship is "a typical" goal for one player, just making it to the Pro Tour is an altogether more common hurdle. That's the pair of shoes Jason Kim wanted to fill. Setting this year as his line in the sand for qualifying for the Pro Tour, he was at the same record at Duke but with a much more immediate need in mind.
"This is my last tournament," Kim said, with a bit of dramatic flair. "I said if I didn't qualify for the Pro Tour by the end of 2014 I'd step away."
"Regardless of what happens, you're a great player," Duke said, ever the considerate opponent.
"Thanks. It's an honor to play you."
Both players were gentlemen, but only one would emerge remaining in Top 8 contention.
Duke had delved into Temur mixed with Sultai for his second draft. Bear's Companion and Crater's Claws were a strong combination of Temur cards, but Rakshasa Vizier, Sultai Charm, and Dead Drop highlighted the power Sultai brought to the mix. Two copies of Jeskai Elder meant his early tricks and removal could double into the card selection and graveyard-filling his deck would want most.
Kim's deck was straightforwardly Sultai, featuring his own copy of Dead Drop alongside Mystic of the Hidden Way and Sultai Soothsayer. His twist was a Ghostfire Blade, ready to turn humble morphs into game-winning attackers. With ways to win in the long game, and Ghostfire Blade available for early pressure, it was a powerful combo for Draft.
Duke struck in early for the quick first game, getting in several hits with Jeskai Elder and an unmorphed Pine Walker. Forced into a Bitter Revelation to find green mana for the spells in his hand, Kim was bowled over by the one-two of Winterflame into Savage Punch that emptied out his battlefield on the next turn.
The second game started with an early Ghostfire Blade for Kim, but just a Sultai Banner on the followup turn: The morph and equip sequence came on the next. Duke began assembling a team of morphs on his side. Kim cast Throttle but wasn't sure which morph to hit.
"I guess that's why you're call a pro," Kim said. "You've got a stone face."
Eventually, Kim chose the first morph Duke played which was revealed to be a Sidisi's Pet.
"I wanted Pine Walker," Kim lamented.
"How do you know that's not my best one?" Duke asked, cracking a smile.
Pine Walker indeed was Duke's other morph, and it umorphed after running through uncontested on the next turn. Kim fell to 14 life.
Rakshasa's Secret forced Duke to discard down half of his hand, sending Icy Blast and a second Wetland Sambar away. When Duke used Savage Punch to hit Kim's morph, it was revealed to be Ruthless Ripper as Kim shared his Dead Drop to unmorph it. After resolving Bitter Revelation, Kim used the Drop to clear out Duke's battlefield.
After passing on blocking Duke's follow up Tusked Colossodon, Kim revealed his Ghostfire Blade-equipped morph was a Pine Walker of his own. The life totals shifted, putting Duke to 10 and Kim at 11. Colossodon attacked into the 7/7 Walker, and Kim blocked despite knowing that had to be a trick: Throttle was Duke's answer, leaving him with the lone fatty on board. Archer's Parapet and another morph-with-Blade reloaded to oppose, this time a Dragon's Eye Savant to become a 2/8 blocker for Kim.
Duke couldn't help but smile at the tenacity on display.
Jeskai Windscout came down and the Blade shifted to Archer's Parapet after the Savants attacked. Duke slipped through with Jeskai Elder on his next turn, looting into Sultai Banner which become another card. The Blade moved to Jeskai Windscout and put Duke down to just 4 life.
He was short on turns, but far from down for the count.
Duke attacked and killed one of Kim's three creatures, then played a Dead Drop of his own. Kim paused to figure out how to use the Force Away in his hand. He saved his Jeskai Windscout and put Duke to 3 life with the Parapet before it went away. The Windscout reappeared and picked the Blade up again.
"You're at 3 and I'm at 10?" Kim confirmed.
Duke nodded. "I need a good draw here," he said.
"Trigger," Duke said, pointing to his Jeskai Elder.
"That was a good draw," Kim said as he extended his hand.
As Duke rallied to begin his quest for a fourth World Championship qualification, Kim's Pro Tour dream fell away.
"Whatever happens I wish you the best. I hope we play again someday," Duke said. Kim smiled as he stood up to leave.
Reid Duke defeated Jason Kim, 2-0.