Madison, Wisconsin native Samuel Black is one of the most recognizable names in the Magic community. His innovative deck building, play style, fourteen Grand Prix Top 8s (and winning a car) have helped him build this stature. He's so known that you'd be forgiven if you thought Black had more than just two Pro Tour Top 8s before yesterday, but with this decisive Sunday finish piloting Ramunap Red, Black further solidified his already-standout resume, and he's not looking to stop here. If he wins this match, he would clinch not only Platinum Pro Player status for the next year, but also a spot at the World Championship. Of course, as usually the case for Black, you wouldn't know it by looking at his stone face.
On the other side of the table was a distinctly different feel from Sam's trademark stoicism. Singapore's Felix Leong showed up to the quarterfinals dressed loudly in a Japanese kimono. He said while sightseeing with his friends this week, they visited a famous temple. They all love the culture, and while there, bought the kimonos and prayed for good fortune in the Pro Tour. They made a pact that if any of them made the Top 8, they would wear the kimono as a reminder of their great experience and as thanks to the fortune that got them there. So, Leong showed up with red cards and a kimono.
This weekend's finish has been a whirlwind for Leong, a lifelong Mono-Red spellslinger who twelve years ago finished 9th at Pro Tour Los Angeles piloting the same style of deck. Though the mirror match can look like a coin flip, Black was confident that his sideboard was much better equipped, thinking Games 3 through 5 were in his favor. But never discount the swingy nature of Hazoret the Fervent. The capricious God was represented in both players' decks, and she can both slam her fist through a coffin, or rip wins from the jaws of defeat.
Samuel Black and Felix Leong went at it in the third red versus red matchup of Sunday.
Leong had a rocky start, going to five cards, but we just saw Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa win his own Ramunap Red mirror match off three straight mulligans to five, so Leong had hope. He was on the draw, as Black was the higher seed and chose to play; the extra card could prove quite relevant in mitigating the drawback.
Black led with an aggressive set of creatures in Bomat Courier, Village Messenger, and a promptly exerted Ahn-Crop Crasher. Leong quickly found himself on the back foot, and a few cards down, but he resiliently returned fire with a Crasher and Messenger of his own, along Kari Zev, Skyship Raider (and the always dependable Ragavan, that cheeky monkey).
This strong retaliation even put Black was behind in life 11-12 when the American got his turn back.
Black took a long time considering his lines. With a Collective Defiance in his hand, options became exponentially larger. Black had been hoping to draw his fourth land and slam down Hazoret the Fervent. The indestructible God was key to getting in those last points of damage, but without the land to cast it, he had to hold Leong off. Eventually he swung with his two 1/1s and killed Leong's Crasher before passing his turn back at 10-10.
Black kept calm under the pressure of what he was playing for in his quarterfinal match.
And on Leong's next turn, he found an Earthshaker Khenra to add to the board and took Black down 5. If Black didn't draw a land this turn, his route to victory would be tough.
He paused only a moment before ripping of the top card, and he put down the Mountain, tapped everything, put the red God on the battlefield and just turned everything sideways. With Ahn-Crop Crasher preventing the only blocker available for Leong, Black decisively took the game.
The second game was all about early trades…and some monkeys. The first few creatures for each player were burned away. But after Black became stuck on two lands, Leong's Kari Zev was able to survive (and kept bringing back Ragavan, that cheeky monkey).
Black's board development was severely hindered by his low land count, and in the meantime, Leong was going for the kill. Kari Zev and Ahn-Crop Crasher, with in tow Ragavan kept Leong out it front early, and looked firmly in control.
As Black's deck refused to provide him more land, that status never changed. Collective Defiance cleared the way for Leong to even up the score.
Black was back on the play; Leong was down one card thanks to a mulligan; and Leong had three Ramunap Ruins in his hand as his only sources of red mana. It would be an uphill battle for the Singaporean.
Black's start was far from aggressive, but successfully kept Leong's board clean while developing Black's, and made a horde of cards under Bomat Courier.
After more than pulling its weight, the Courier cashed in its cache and Black refreshed his hand—netting a Glorybringer which knocked Leong to single digits.
Wearing the kimono he got days earlier, Leong was right at home playing with red cards.
But Leong was hoping for a reversal of fortune with his Collective Defiance. Fully escalated, it killed the dragon, pinged Black, and attempted to draw Leong out of his predicament. Though it seemed to work, Leong was sitting at 9 life. He would have to work quickly to top the Ramunap Ruins–fueled Desert Fest 2k17.
Sadly for Leong, it looked as if there was nothing he could do to stop Black's version of Burning Man. On successive turns, twice Black cast a burn spell and sacrificed a Desert to the Ruins—exactly enough to seal the deal. The Bomat Courier had been vital, not just for the early damage, but also allowing the steady stream of land and burn spells that closed the game.
In the fourth meeting, Black kept a hand of all burn spells. He knew on the draw it could be a war of attrition, and adjusted his battle plan accordingly. He kept both the early creatures off the board from Leong, while trying to draw into some aggression of his own. But Black had to hope that the answers in his hand were the right ones to the questions Leong would present. The worst question would be the Hazoret the Fervent.
Leong dealt consistent packets of damage in the meantime, getting Black to 13, before passing the turn again with an empty board. Though that total was not impressive on its own, when Leong top-decked Hazoret the Fervent, 13 looked downright tiny.
Neither player had a solid way to deal with this angry God in their decks, so the only choice was race it. Black's multiple answers looked like they were for the wrong test. Shocks were no use here.
The Fervent took Black's 13 to 8, then with a Collective Defiance as back-up, it became 0.
In this final game, we would see how much Black's higher seeding would help him. Each game so far had been won by the player going first. Since Black had choice in the first game, he was on the play again in the last. Leong would have break serve for the first time to make it to the semifinals.
This game was huge for Black. And he was uncharacteristically nervous. You could see he felt the weight of both his Worlds and Platinum status hanging over this game.
Both players flurried creatures on the battlefield, but after Black dealt with Leong's first wave, the kimono-clad warrior had just Shocks and land in his hand.
Black uttered a sigh of relief as he added creatures to the board, finishing with the God of this Sunday, Hazoret. Her army mercilessly stole all Leong's life, and Black clinched the victory.
As he shook Leong's hand, Black had a gigantic smile on his face, and the weight was lifted from his shoulders. For Black, the rest of the Top 8 was all gravy.
Congratulations to Samuel Black, as he moves on to the semifinals as both Platinum Pro and locked for the World Championship.
Samuel Black defeats Felix Leong 3-2 and advances to the semifinals!