an-Moritz Merkel, having made the Top 8 of his very first Pro Tour, squares off against Japan's own Tomoharu Saito. Merkel's draft had wandered around a bit after his first-pick Call of the Herd, but he settled into a strong green-blue deck on the back of some great late picks - Mystic Snake, Fathom Seer, and his second Errant Ephemeron.
Speak no evil, hear no evil.
Saito, meanwhile, went for the consistency of mono-black with Tendrils of Corruption and Bad Moon, but he had to include some apparent filler like Magus of the Mirror and Drudge Reavers to do it.
Saito began the match with his customary, "Good luck!"
"Thank you," said Merkel.
Saito led with a suspended Mindstab, while Merkel had only two Forests after turn two. Saito answered with two Swamps; the monocolor game favored Saito heavily. Merkel was only feigning color-screw, though, flashing an Ashcoat Bear at the end of Saito's turn and attacking. After some thought, Saito hit it with Feebleness. An Errant Ephemeron hit the suspend zone post-combat.
Saito played Faceless Devourer to Merkel's nothing, as both suspenders click down. Merkel took 2 from Faceless Devourer, and Saito dropped a Swamp and an Undead Warchief, letting the question mark of Merkel's hang in the air. Merkel failed to Cancel, to which Saito said, "Cool."
Merkel had a different response in mind, dropping Scryb Ranger and Ashcoat Bear at the end of the turn. He then attacked and dropped Clockwork Hydra.
Mindstab took only a Thornscape Battlemage (a.k.a. Gray Ogre, at the moment) from Merkel's hand, and Premature Burial dropped the Hydra. Saito attacked with the Warchief and Faceless Devourer, and Merkel used Scryb Ranger to untap the Bear. The Bear traded with the Warchief, and Merkel took 2. Trespasser il-Vec hit the table on Saito's side.
Merkel played the Forest back down, hellbent, and attacked for 1 with Scryb Ranger. The Errant Ephemeron was still helpless with one suspend counter. Merkel dejectedly passed the turn.
Discarding a Swamp to shadow up the Trespasser, Saito attacked with it and Faceless Butcher. Merkel played Crookclaw Transmuter, switching down to 3 damage.
On his turn, Merkel removed the last counter from Errant Ephemeron. "Your upkeep…" said Saito. Merkel put the counter back on. "No, no, play after," clarified Saito.
The counter came back off Errant Ephemeron, and Dark Withering came on. Merkel looked at it for a moment before binning the flier, and consoled himself by attacking for 4 in the air with Crookclaw Transmuter and Scryb Ranger.
Saito came back for 2 shadow damage with the Devourer, leaving the Trespasser back and playing Phyrexian Negator with three mana up. Merkel again came in for 4, played a morph, and passed the turn. Saito made a man out of Phyrexian Totem, gave the Trespasser il-Vec shadow (discarding Drudge Reavers), and attacked with everything with no cards in hand. Merkel was at 11, also with no cards in hand.
Merkel held his head in his hands for a moment then returned a Forest to untap the Crookclaw Transmuter and triple-blocked the Totem, flipping a Fathom Seer before damage. Merkel drew two, took 5, and untapped with only three lands in play. Saito, meanwhile, was down to one Swamp and the Totem for mana, having made the necessary sacrifices.
Merkel played Prodigal Sorcerer and passed the turn, and Saito binned another Reavers to attack for 5 shadow. Merkel tapped, untapped, and tapped the Prodigal Sorcerer to kill both shadow guys and attacked for 1, down to a precarious 1 life himself. Saito's life ticked down from Faerie beatings and Merkel had a full grip. He played a morph and passed. Saito scooped, and Merkel showed him Brine Elemental.
Merkel 1 - Saito 0
Saito slapped himself and sideboarded, while Merkel grew visibly more confident. Saito shuffled with his peculiar fluid side-shuffle, reviewed his sideboard once more, and kept shuffling, grimacing as if in pain. "Play," he said.
Both players kept, and Saito suspended Corpulent Corpse. Merkel spent a while on his second turn then played a Coral Trickster face-up. Saito answered with dropped Phyrexian Totem. Merkel dropped Saito to 18 and played a morph. Saito just played a Swamp and passed, suggesting trouble ahead for one player or the other. Merkel attacked in, not bothering to move his creatures up. Saito played Drudge Reavers, moving his opponent's creatures into the red zone himself.
"Block okay?" he asked.
The Reavers blocked the Trickster and regenerated, while Merkel got a warning (second offense) to keep his hands above the table. One more and that's a game loss, he is told. Saito took 2.
Saito attacked with Drudge Reavers. Merkel played Crookclaw to block, targeting itself with its ability, but it ate Tendrils of Corruption in response. Saito suspended a Corpulent Corpse, playing for the long game (and suggesting that neither of his two remaining cards were Swamps). Merkel attacked with the Crookclaw Transmuter and played Clockwork Hydra.
The first Corpse jumped onto the table, not feeling especially corpulent across from the 4/4 Hydra. Saito counted his mana, paused, and attacked with Drudge Reavers and Corpulent Corpse. Merkel blocked the Corpse with the Hydra, forcing the Reavers to regenerate with the Hydra's damage trigger. Clockwork Hydra and Corpulent Corpse hit their owners' respective graveyards, and Merkel took no damage. Saito played Urborg Syphon-Mage and passed.
With three cards, six mana, and only a morph on the table, Merkel started to look worried - but had nothing to show for his turn. Saito attacked with the Reavers, taking Merkel to 16, and played Magus of the Mirror. Merkel dropped a seventh land and an Ephemeron, but Saito trumped with Premature Burial.
Saito activated the Totem and attacked with it, the Magus, the Syphon-Mage, and the Reavers - and Merkel, though still at 16, scooped to a preponderance of force. The morph was a Slipstream Serpent.
Merkel 1 - Saito 1
Saito was looking for back-to-back PT wins.
Saito performed his smooth inside-to-outside pile shuffle in silence and presented.
Merkel, on the play, grimaced at his hand, went to ship it, hesitated, and ended up putting it away. He then went to five, smiling ruefully. "Sometimes… you win," he said.
He presented, and Saito, as if grasping a dead fish, eschewed his usual side-shuffle and made one small cut.
Saito led with Pit Keeper. He attacked in the next turn, and it traded with an Ashcoat Bear. Merkel played a morph. Saito dropped Mana Skimmer, threatening serious mana troubles for the German rookie. He passed the turn, with his five cards still in hand seeming like a million to Merkel's two.
Merkel played no fourth land and a Prodigal Sorcerer and passed, losing his only Island to Mana Skimmer lockdown. He then attacked with the morph, played Scryb Ranger, and tap-untap-tapped the Sorcerer to kill the Skimmer.
Saito, meanwhile, had six Swamps, a Totem, and his four-card hand. He hardcast Dark Withering on the Sorcerer. Merkel picked up a Forest to get one last use out of it, and on his turn attacked for 3 and played Call of the Herd.
"Token please," said Saito, and an Elephant token was provided. Saito then laid yet another Swamp and Magus of the Mirror.
Merkel attacked with everything and flashed back Call of the Herd, sending Saito down to 8 with Merkel at a healthy 18 - but Magus of the Mirror threatened some strange calculus.
Premature Burial took down the younger power pachyderm, and Saito passed with five swamps, a totem, and the Magus untapped and two cards in hand. Merkel, finally up to five land, played Clockwork Hydra and passed, not even coming in with the flyer. Saito played an end-of-turn Drudge Reavers and started doing some math. He played a Swamp and an Undead Warchief, passing with no cards in hand.
Merkel attacked with the Ranger this time, after both players were told to play a little faster. He then played Phantom Wurm - not a bad drop by any means.
Saito end-of-turn mana-burned himself down to 2… and switched life totals on his upkeep. I considered physically turning the table, but it seemed Saito had done the job.
Playing out attacking and blocking scenarios, he still could not see a way through. He played Cyclopean Giant and passed.
With the ground now thoroughly gummed, Scryb Ranger had a very long job ahead of it. Saito was content to keep drawing, knowing there were plenty of ways his deck could tip the balance.
Finally, Saito slammed down a Triskelavus triumphantly, with Merkel at 3. Merkel looked at his hand, peeked one last time at each of his morphs, and scooped.
Saito 2 - Merkel 1
Saito side-shuffled, piled, and presented, and a judge told him that he had to riffle at least three times after a pile shuffle. After a lot of translation, it became clear that though the deck was randomized and ending on a pile is allowed, the judges would much prefer riffles or side-shuffles before presenting.
Merkel was on the play, and both players stayed at seven. Merkel played Chromatic Star and suspended an Errant Ephemeron, cracking the Star. Saito suspended a second-turn Mindstab, but Merkel played Call of the Herd to keep the pressure on.
The pace of play started increasing practically faster than I could follow, both players visibly antsy with the judges who had spoken with them about slow play and shuffling issues still watching.
Saito played Syphon-Mage and took an Elephant to the face, going to 17. Merkel gave the Elephant a buddy, and Saito passed on turn four with nothing new.
Merkel played Looter il-Kor and a morph, while Saito played down Drudge Reavers and the Elephants kept marching in. The Errant Ephemeron joined Merkel's team, and everything came in.
Saito double-blocked an Elephant with Drudge Reavers and Urborg Syphon-Mage, using the Mage before damage. Merkel played another morph and binned a Herd Gnarr to Mindstab. Saito, at 2, looked at his card for the turn and scooped. Where's a Magus of the Mirror when you need one?
Saito 2 - Merkel 2
Having left their decks alone for two games, both players went to their sideboards. Merkel spoke to a judge and boarded in a glass of water, a fine play in a match that was going long.
The judge brought both players water, which they sipped in silence for a strange moment of armistice.
Saito kept seven on the play, but Merkel shook his head. "Mully-gan," he said unhappily. "Three times, and none for you."
A judge informed Saito that both of the other Japanese players had lost, and Saito slapped his face and exclaimed in Japanese. The judge translated for me: "No, no, I am the last! I must win!"
Was the pressure getting to Jan-Moritz?
If the pace of play had been fast before, now it was frenetic. Merkel suspended an Errant Ephemeron and Saito laid a Trespasser il-Vec before I could catch up. Merkel answered with Prodigal Sorcerer - seems okay.
Saito attacked for 3 and considered his turn-four play carefully - an Undead Warchief. Merkel killed the Trespasser on his own turn and played Spinneret Sliver, with the Ephemeron launching in T-minus-two.
Saito thought even harder on turn five, slapping himself. Merkel smiled, shook his head, and slapped himself, too.
Saito played a Totem, and Merkel flashed an Ashcoat Bear. Temporal Eddy on the Warchief was a huge tempo play, as the Bear and Sliver took Saito to 16 with no creatures.
Saito answered with a hardcast Mindstab, and Merkel pitched a Looter and an Island. Saito put down a Swamp and passed.
Errant Ephemeron and the bears (figuratively speaking) swung in, sending Saito to 7. Merkel was on 17. Merkel cracked a Chromatic Star to go look for more to seal the deal, but ended up burning for 1.
Saito played the Warchief back down and passed, having drawn a total of 5 non-lands, one of which was the Phyrexian Totem - and that's assuming he wasn't holding another Swamp.
Merkel attacked with all 3, and Saito blocked with the Warchief and Big Negs, binning 3 swamps. Life totals now Saito 2, Merkel 16. Merkel passed with four mana up.
Saito drew his card, slapped himself, and passed. Merkel flashed Crookclaw Transmuter, but an upkeep Tendrils of Corruption killed the Ephemeron and sent Saito to 6. The Transmuter hit for 3, and Merkel flashed back Call of the Herd. Saito looked at his card and packed up.
Merkel 3 - Saito 2
"Good luck!" said Saito, standing up, smiling, and shaking Merkel's hand - a fine display of sportsmanship from one of Japan's most interesting personalities.