To those who have followed Magic for some time, Makihito Mihara needs no introduction. The 2006 World Champion had Dragonstormed his way to victory, proving his love of Blue-Red combo decks. Now, in a format where Dragonstrom was very much legal, Mihara had opted to play another combo deck of the same colors with Pestermite (or Kiki-Exarch, or whatever permutation works at the given moment).
His opponent, Sveinung Bjᴓrnerud is no stranger to the Pro Tour, having moneyed in Nagoya and made a Grand Prix Top 8. He had opted for the consistency of a Naya-colored Zoo deck that eschewed the blue and Tribal Flames package others had played for a better mana base and the Punishing Fire combo.
Both decks had their respective game plans, but they could also be a little more "punishing" if they wanted to be.
"I'll go first. The team will go first," Mihara said, earning the right to claim it based on Japan's higher standing coming into the finals. The former world champion clearly spoke for his talented team.
He also quickly put Japan up a game when he opened on, essentially, his deck's nut draw. Bjørnerud played some creatures, including a Qasali Pridemage, but Spellskite into Deceiver Exarch into Splinter Twin, even with a Gitaxian Probe to make sure the way was clear, gave him a million attackers five minutes into the finals.
Mihara 1, Bjørnerud 0
After sideboards, Bjørnerud would have a significant leg up from his deck's poor position in the first game. Post board he was able to add two extra Qasali Pridemages, Ancient Grudge for Spellskite ,and two Combusts.
On his end, Mihara gained access to nearly his entire sideboard. Engineered Explosives, Firespout, Relic of Progenitus (for Punishing Fire), Threads of Disloyalty, Blood Moon and an extra Spellskite could all come in.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, the difference in sideboarding didn't show. Mihara was able to resolve only two Spellskites and two Slight of Hands while Bjørnerud assembled a Noble Hierarch, Qasali Pridemage and a Knight of the Reliquary to take large chunks out of Mihara's life total. Two Ancient Grudges killed the Spellskites and Mihara ended the game with several Splinter Twins in hand, but not a single Exarch or Pestermite to be seen. Bjørnerud even ended the game with a Combust waiting patiently in his hand for any attempted combo.
Mihara 1, Bjørnerud 1
If games one and two were the appetizers, game three was the main course, desert, and the post dinner burrito you really shouldn't have had but couldn't resist anyway.
I swear that analogy made sense in my head. Suffice to say, game three was an epic way to decide the title of Team World Champions.
Mihara started on a Slight of Hand while Bjørnerud opened with a Wild Nacatl and a Noble Hierarch. Normal stuff.
Then, on turn-three, Mihara had a choice. He could hold up three mana and attempt to combo on the next turn, since he was holding a fourth land, Deceiver Exarch, and Splinter Twin, or he could blow up Bjørnerud's board with Engineered Explosives and slow himself down but play around any number of hate cards.
Mihara opted to play it safe destroyed both of Bjørnerud's one-drops.
The move proved prophetic as Bjørnerud had a third land and Qasali Pridemage. He wouldn't have been able to combo around the Pridemage and two untapped mana sources, including the Hiearch, the next turn.
Instead, the pair settled into a match only a math major could love. Both players had Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows. Mihara had two Groves, but only one Fire, while Bjørnerud had two Punishing Fires, but only one Grove of the Burnwillows.
Bjørnerud sacrificed a Knight of the Reliquary to the Fires/Grove combo, but began to make headway on Mihara's life total soon thereafter. And since the Japanese player was at 9 life to start with, Bjørnerud had a bit of a head start.
But there's a reason Mihara has been able to stay at the top of the international scene for so long. He used a Relic of Progenitus to permanently exile one of Bjørnerud's Punishing Fires and started to pull ahead, only to fall behind again when his opponent plucked a second Grove of the Burnwillows from the top of his deck.
Who's up for a fiery game of tennis?
Now with a mess of mana in play and sensing that he couldn't simply win the Fires race, Mihara played out Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker to attack in order to draw out two points of Punishing Fire damage, which also conveniently gained him a life.
Meanwhile, Mihara was slowly chipping away at Bjørnerud's life with his own Punishing Fire, and the life totals stood at 9-5 in the Norse player's favor.
Mihara drew his second Relic of Progenitus, which would have protected him if Bjørnerud hadn't drawn Ancient Grudge to keep his Groves/Fire engine going. Another Kiki-Jiki was a lightning rod for Punishing Fire, but Bjørnerud found his third Grove of the Burnwillows to kick his machine gun into overdrive.
The this point, life totals stood at 9-7 for Bjørnerud.
Mihara played Deceiver Exarch, either hoping to draw two Fires or to add another point of damage to his clock, but Bjørnerud sent it on a Path to Exile, which Mihara greeted with a knowing smile.
The two continued to trade tiny Punishing Fire jabs until Mihara drew his second Spellskite and played out both. Ancient Grudge killed one, but the other one was able to keep Mihara alive, barely, at three life for at least one turn. Any more and he'd likely lose.
Makihito Mihara didn't start the fire, but he certainly finished with it.
But he had managed to take Bjørnerud down to 4 in the meantime, and that meant one turn was all he needed. Redirecting two points of damage to his Spellskite kept him alive for a crucial turn, and on his turn he untapped and regrew Punishing Fires for two pings before sending the final two points of damage at Bjørnerud.
Mahara 2, Bjørnerud 1