Though it's always a slog to cover nine to ten matches in the last round, and start writing as everyone else is leaving the venue, there's something amazing about following all the pros and all-around fantastic players who are fighting for their lives at the end of a Pro Tour first day. It's a reminder of just difficult this game can be. We often cover the people who are undefeated and running the tables (don't worry, I'll get to them too). But what about the people who have run the table plenty of times in the past, but are now backed against the wall?—figuratively, and in this case literally, where Platinum pro and Hall-of-Fame contender Martin Juza was against the Constructed walls of the play area, bumping his elbows against the curtains facing elimination from the tournament.
Just some of the names who were 3-4 going into the final round, looking for the necessary win to be invited back tomorrow were Matt Sperling, Pat Cox, (9) Eric Froelich, Frank Karsten, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Jon Stern, (12) Josh Utter-Leyton, (15) Jacob Wilson, Shota Yasooka, and the aforementioned wall-backed Martin Juza.
Some players dashed out of the arena so fast that I couldn't find out what play turned it around for them. Jacob Wilson grabbed his bag and hustled out after emerging triumphant against Marcelino Freeman of Mexico. On the opposite end, Shota Yasooka and his Sidisi Whip deck fell to Gil Medeiros, and he ushered himself out of the arena avoiding the eyes of onlookers. But some others didn't run quite so fast and I got a few words about how the round went and just what it feels like to be in that position.
"It's been a long climb to mediocrity," Eric Froelich said as he sighed after a tight victory against Giuseppe Reale of Italy. Running the Jeskai Ascendancy combo, he has a tough match-up against Jeskai Aggro as it is. "He went Seeker of the Way into Goblin Rabblemaster into burn. I had to go off way before I was ready." Though Froehlich did completely deck his opponent using Altar of the Brood, through land and untapped creatures, Reale could just win on his upkeep by burning Froehlich, on two life, on his upkeep before dying to an empty library.
"I thought, well I guess I lose anyway. I counted his graveyard and saw 15 burn spells. I needed the sixteenth to be Jeskai Charm, but all four of them were in his graveyard." He had resigned defeat, until he just won. "I guess he was only playing 15 burn spells." Must've been nice. Froehlich, who started 1-4 has battled back to earn a spot tomorrow.
Hall of Famers Paulo Vito Damo da Rosa and Kenji Tsumura
He was joined in the winner's circle by both Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa and Josh Utter-Leyton. Both players had won their matches too. Kenji Tsumura is a tough opponent for anyone, even a Hall-of-Famer like PV, but he was able to convert with Jeskai Ascendancy. Tsumura was on a version of the Sidisi Whip deck which "just wasn't interactive enough," Damo da Rosa said. "In the second game I didn't have Sylvan Caryatid to go off and he killed me, but I still got him." Josh Utter-Leyton took down another Italian, Daniel Ingallinera, with the proving-increasingly-resilient Jeskai Aggro deck. Froehlich, Wrapter, and PV were all smiling as they walked off into the Hawaiian sunset.
Dan Musser and Matt Sperling
I checked in on Matt Sperling, and all I saw was his opponent Dan Musser scooping up his cards and say, "That was . . . a lot of burn." Talking to Sperling he verified that he'd have been saying the same thing if he were him. "Abzan's not really a great match-up [for Jeskai Ascendancy], so I sided out most of the creatures—the Seekers and the Rabbles." The plan worked out great, and his opponent died with both Drown in Sorrow and Hero's Downfall useless in his hand.
But it's not all sunshine and roses for the Jeskai decks. Canadian Jon Stern took a tough three games from Jeskai Ascendancy by just keeping the pressure on with his Abzan deck. "In Game 1, he combo'd out on turn three on the play," he said of Javier Dominguez. And even though Dominguez had a turn-three Ascendancy in the third game, he couldn't stick a creature to pair with it, and Stern killed him with the nefarious enchantment in play. Both Sperling and Stern will have to set their alarms for tomorrow.
As do Martin Juza and Matej Zatlkaj, but by the skin of their teeth. In the last game, Zatlkaj's opponent, Jeremy Gagne, stuck Liliana Vess on an empty board, while Big Z was without a hand. Eager to end the game, Gagne used the Planewalker's minus ability to search up an Elspeth, Sun's Champion. Big Z found a Wingmate Roc top-deck and promptly smashed face. "If he'd searched up an End Hostilities, then the Elspeth, I was dead." And when Juza was facing down two Hornet Queens (with the requisite infi-bees), "I thought about my outs and realized I had none." But regardless of his impending death, he drew for his last turn and saw his main-decked Duneblast staring him in the face. "I was like, 'Oh yeah.'" Understatement of the day. Juza swept the board and eventually overcame Zachary Prado. Both Juza and Zatlkaj will be back tomorrow.
Hall of Famer Frank Karsten and Lyu Li-Ciang
Sadly, the same cannot be said for the other bubbled member of the Cabin Crew. Hall of Famer Frank Karsten was one of the last matches to finish, and it was a slog. His opponent Lyu Li-Ciang had overwhelming board advantage and a constantly active Whip of Erebos. Recurring Rhinos was the only thing that kept Li-Chiang in it. Karsten drew and played multiple Duneblast, but it wasn't enough to overcome the Whip and Elspeths. Frank Karsten will have to cheer his teammates from the sidelines.
So for the bubble matches, Martin Juza, Matej Zatlkaj, Jon Stern, Matt Sperling, Josh Utter-Leyton, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Eric Froehlich and Jacob Wilson are all in, and Frank Karsten and Shota Yasooka are out.
I was so enthralled by these bubbles, I almost forgot about the two matches in the feature match area. Long-time King of the Hill, Toni Portolan was up against Yuuya Watanabe. I ran to the area just into to catch Yuuya triumphantly waltzing away. He gave me a big thumbs up. I caught up with Portolan; it seemed his Green Devotion deck stumbled slightly, and Watanabe just kept casting Mantis Rider on turn three every game. Over and over again. Seems good.
And Mike Sigrist, who was undefeated was paired down against Alex Sittner, who was 6-1. Sigrist's Abzan Aggro overcame some interesting hurdles. In the first game, Sigrist bestowed a Herald of Torment on a Sorin, Solemn Visitor–created token. Though it eventual hit the dust, it created enough flight advantage to win the game. And in the last game, a turn-one Thoughtseize revealed Sittner's hand to have three, count 'em, three, End Hostilities. But just having that knowledge was enough to force one-for-ones with strong creatures like Rakshasa Deathdealer and Siege Rhino to overcome a triple-boardsweep hand against his aggro deck.
And the end of the first day, the two undefeated players are Yuuya Watanabe and Mike Sigrist. Which is an incredible feat, even for someone so familiar to the Pro Tour as Watanabe.
I hope I captured a fraction of the awesome things that bubble just under the surface of the top tables at Pro Tours. And there's so much more gaming tomorrow. I can't wait. Goodnight, everyone!