Two Red Aggro players. Two Pro Tour mainstays. Two players who, despite that experience, admitted their nerves to each other before the match began.
Only one would advance to the semifinals.
Stephen Neal had cut through Swiss rounds of the tournament, securing his Top 8 berth early, and the Madison native had his sights set on more than just his first Pro Tour Top 8 appearance. Across from him sat Joel Larsson, a Swede who was making his second Pro Tour Top 8 after last making it to the elimination rounds at Pro Tour Gatecrash, where he finished second. Of course, Larsson was well-used to do-or-die Magic after facing a win-and-in for his final match on Saturday. While finishing as highly as possible in Top 8 was obviously Larsson's goal, the real prize came if he could win this quarterfinal and secure Platinum status for the season.
Both players were piloting Red Aggro, one of the most successful decks of the tournament. Its array of aggressive creatures and plethora of burn spells to finish off opponents had sent three players into the Top 8 and posted one of the best win rates of the tournament.
Not that these players were on identical lists. Larsson's was undoubtedly the more aggressive of the pair, running a full 14 1-drop creatures to apply pressure early. While his Eidolon of the Great Revels were relegated to the sideboard in favor of the explosive-but-risky Firedrinker Satyr, Neal opted to play them in the main deck alongside Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh. With Thunderbreak Regent and Outpost Siege in the sideboard, Neal had the ability to go bigger than Larsson, provided he could withstand the early rush.
For Neal, this first Pro Tour Top 8 meant a major milestone. For Larsson, this Pro Tour Top 8 was more of a sweat, as he needs a win in this match to secure Platinum in the Pro Tour Players Club for next season.
A flurry of small creatures and burn spells followed, with both players trading attacks and removal spells, all while keeping near-perfect pace with each other. Before long, the life total stood at 10-9 in Neal's favor, thanks in large part to the 5 damage Larsson had been forced to take from his own Satyrs.
Another turn and burn spell knocked Neal to 4 life, but the advantages were piling up for the American as he removed Larsson's last creature and attacked him down to 3 life while still keeping a creature back on defense to protect against a hasty threat from Larsson.
Down to his last card, the Platinum hopeful needed the perfect draw to win the game. Without hesitation, he slammed the top card of his deck over, revealing the Stoke the Flames he needed to steal away the first game.
Neal sweats an intense first game, where Larsson plays to the top of his deck.
It was a dramatic and disappointing way for Neal to drop the first game, and things didn't look any better when he was forced to mulligan in the second game and watched Larsson drop a Lightning Berserker and then an Eidolon of the Great Revel. Still, Searing Blood helped him stabilize the board and clear the way for a follow-up Abbot of Keral Keep. While the monk missed on giving Neal his third land of the game, it did allow him to trade with one of Larsson's creatures.
A third land came on the next turn, and it allowed Neal to pull ahead on the battlefield against a mana-heavy Larsson, who fell to 7 life when another Searing Blood removed Zurgo Bellstriker. That was low enough for double Stoke the Flames to send the pair into the decider.
Opting to draw first in the final game, Larsson made full use of the extra card, removing Neal's first-turn play and dropping the American to 14 life with Searing Blood and Eidolon of the Great Revel.
Larsson's Platinum hopes all came down to one last game.
Fighting to stabilize, Neal removed the Eidolon only to have a second follow immediately after. Rather than take damage to remove the pesky threat, Neal decided to go over the top instead, casting Thunderbreak Regent and then Outpost Siege to both dodge the Eidolon trigger and set up card advantage in the long game.
Larsson, meanwhile, doubled down on the small guys, dashing Lightning Berserker two turns in a row and taking damage from his own Eidolon to do so. But as small as the Berserker may start, the extra mana Larsson had meant that it could trade with the Dragon if Neal went for the block. Not wanting to lose his wall, Neal took the first hit from the Berserker and fell to 7 life.
With the European at 13 life, Neal was losing the life race but winning the race in cards, and he decided the time was right to kill the Eidolon, falling to 5 life to do so. Another removal spell on the Berserker followed, and Neal was in perfect position to squeeze out the game if he could survive another two turns.
With no cards in hand and fighting an uphill battle, Larsson again looked toward the top of his deck to reward him. Abbott of Keral Keep to reveal Stoke the Flames and drop Neal to 1 life was a good start, but the attack meant that Larsson was again down to one draw step to win the game.
That draw? Wild Slash.
A huge sigh of relief escaped Larsson, as he pumped his fist and his friends in the crowd screamed out. A few congratulatory words and a handshake between the players, and Larsson was into the semifinals.
"Finally, Platinum," he exclaimed as he left the table and ran to the waiting arms of his friends.
Joel Larsson defeats Stephen Neal 2-1 and advances to the semifinals!
[please put decklists here from the Top 8 decklists for both players, Joel first and then Stephen.]