Jon Finkel (W/U Aggro)
Shouta Yasooka (U/R/G Control)
I know this is the Magic Players Championship, where every single match has an epic and historic feel to it, but this is absurd, like something cooked up in a lab to personify the perfect pairing.
On one hand you have Jon Finkel, who maybe has more gushing words written about his storied Magic career than anyone in the history of the game.
His return to the Pro Tour in 2008 at Kuala Lumpur was a sharp reminder as to just how good the man himself really is, capping a four year absence with a Pro Tour win, as if he had never left. Since then, he has Top 8'd two more Pro Tours (giving him a record fourteen total) in 2012 and earned his spot at the Players Championship despite playing and traveling far less than some of the other players here this week.
On the other side of the table, you have Shouta Yasooka, who, before all is said and done, might have started wriggling his way into the conversation of best ever with his performance this weekend. Not only did he go 11-1 against literally the best players in the world, cruised through Modern with a unique deck of his own design, and clinched a Top 4 berth with a quarter of the tournament still to be played, but he did so while leaving some of the other players in attendance positively wowed over his skill and technical play.
While watching Yasooka finish off his 11-1 record in the final round, Martin Juza, for instance, remarked how fast and flawless Yasooka plays. And it says something when Yasooka was the overwhelming choice of other pros to win the tournament, even though he was paired against Jonny Magic himself.
But it was more than that, and one particular moment summed up all of the gushing I could possibly do. During his final match before the Top 4, Yasooka cast Serum Visions and drew his card. He quickly considered his hand for no more than a few seconds before placing it face down on the table and picking up the top two cards of his library to Scry. He glanced at the top two cards, then set them face down on the table to pick up his hand again.
He looked at his hand for maybe five seconds, set it down and then placed one card of the two on the bottom of his library and one on the top without looking at the cards again. He had so much awareness of himself, his cards and the game state that he didn't even need to check what order he had placed the two cards on the table. He just knew.
All told, that entire transaction took maybe twenty seconds total.
Finkel had a masterful moment of his own near the end of the tournament. Playing against Jun'ya Iyanaga, Finkel played a Mana Leak into what looked like three open mana, though one of the lands was an Arid Mesa. Figuring his Mana Leak would soon be dead anyway and believing Iyanaga might actually be out of targets, as he had missed once before, Finkel made a calculated call that looked positively brilliant when it checked out.
Jon Finkel is aiming to get a win against Shouta Yasooka, the Japanese pro who had been steamrolling his competition with his Æther Vial deck all weekend.
I could go on and on and on, but chances are the best of five set ahead will speak for itself.
As the high seed, Yasooka chose to play, and both players kept seven card hands they were pleased with. The White-Blue Aggro versus Vial Control match could be complex, but so far Yasooka had shown his mastery of it, defeating both Brian Kibler and Finkel 2-0.
"It felt like three games to zero, though," Finkel said.
Yasooka led with his signature Æther Vial, a card that he had leaned on heavily throughout the course of the tournament and that gave him a strong mana advantage in this matchup . He followed up with a Serum Visions and a Vendilion Clique before Finkel cast a single spell.
Dismember removed the Clique, but not before it peeked at a hand of Path to Exile, Vendilion Clique, Kitchen Finks, Cryptic Command, and two lands. Yasooka may have had more early action, but Finkel's hand was clearly stacked.
Yasooka sent the Clique to the bottom of Finkel's library, so Finkel played his other three drop, Kitchen Finks, on his next turn.
Finkel looks at a grip full of action.
Digging for more action, Yasooka Vialed in Snapcaster Mage to reuse Serum Visions before playing out a second Æther Vial.
The Snapcaster Mage traded with Kitchen Finks on the next turn, having already served its purpose.
Now hitting four mana, both players started passing with their mana up and ready. In the game of "who blinks first," the man with the Æther Vial was at a marked advantage.
Kitchen Finks dropped Yasooka to 14, but had no other play as Yasooka Vialed in Vendilion Clique. Finkel attempted to send it on a Path to Exile in response, but Yasooka tried to save it with Vapor Snag. In response, Finkel cast Remand targeting his Path to Exile, retrieving it from the stack and casting it a second time to exile the legendary faerie.
The Clique's trigger revealed two lands, Mana Leak, and Cryptic Command, sending Mana Leak to the bottom. Yasooka finished off that series of spells with a Lightning Bolt to remove the bothersome Kitchen Finks.
The board was clear, but one of white-blue's main advantages, its man lands, started to make their presence known. Finkel attempted to attack with a Celestial Colonnade, but Yasooka sent it back to his hand with Cryptic Command, drawing a card for his troubles.
Finkel tried the same attack the next turn, but Æther Vial brought in Snapcaster Mage to help pull the same Cryptic Command trick a second time. Now with a presence on the board, Yasooka started putting a dent in Finkel's life total.
In return, Finkel started putting a dent in Yasooka's mana base, using two Tectonic Edges to destroy both a Steam Vents and Breeding Pool. In response, Yasooka played Thirst for Knowledge with some of the mana, pitching both an Eternal Witness and Lightning Bolt. Bolt wasn't at its best in this matchup, but discarding Eternal Witness signaled a strong hand.
Or it simply signaled a second Eternal Witness, which Yasooka Vialed in to grab the first Witness back from the graveyard.
Now with a pair of two-power attackers in play, Yasooka started working Finkel's life total, dropping him to 12 on the next attack. When Finkel attempted to stem the bleeding with Snapcaster Mage, Yasooka had a Spell Snare ready.
The face of terror for fifteen players this weekend.
Finkel fogged for a turn with Cryptic Command, then followed up with Geist of Saint Traft. But Yasooka had all the answers. Mana Leak into three open lands looked odd, until Yasooka simply played the second when Finkel paid, countering the Geist and leaving Finkel defenseless.
Then Yasooka showed just how sweet his deck and his game plan both were. With Finkel tapped out, Yasooka Vialed in Eternal Witness, which returned Snapcaster Mage to his hand. With his second Æther Vial, he brought in the Snapcaster Mage, flashing back his Lightning Bolt. With 8 power on the table and Finkel at 11 life before the Bolt, that represented exactly lethal.
Finkel 0, Yasooka 1
There was no Æther Vial on turn one this time, a good sign for Finkel, but Yasooka did start with Serum Visions to start setting up his draws.
Finkel tried a Kitchen Finks turn three, but Remand sent it back and set up Yasooka to resolve Æther Vial again.
The Hall of Famer missed his fourth land drop, but attempted a Vendilion Clique in Yasooka's draw step. It met Remand, but even with the extra card, Yasooka missed his own as well.
Given that, Finkel targeted himself with Vendilion Clique to cycle a Path to Exile on his main phase, but he too missed on his fourth land. But at least he had some pressure on the board. And without access to any red mana or Lightning Bolts, Yasooka couldn't remove it just yet.
What he could do is make up for his mana deficiency with a second Æther Vial. He then used the first to flash in Snapcaster Mage and Remand the Kitchen Finks once again.
Tarmogoyf and Vendilion Clique launch an all-out assault on Finkel's finger.
His Vials on three and one now, Yasooka brought in his own Vendilion Clique on Finkel's next turn, revealing a hand of two Kitchen Finks, Phantasmal Image, two Path to Exile, Dismember, Snapcaster Mage and Restoration Angel. A stacked hand for sure, but Yasooka had shown a propensity for dismantling even the most advantageous positions.
Restoration Angel went to the bottom, and Finkel followed up with Kitchen Finks to try and regain his hold on the board. Yasooka, however, had Cryptic Command to keep the way clear for his Snapcaster Mage.
It wasn't clear for long, however, as Dismember destroyed the 2/1, dropping Finkel to 13 in the process.
Finkel simply passed his next turn rather than attempting a Kitchen Finks again, and Yasooka used that opening to Vial in both a Tarmogoyf and an Eternal Witness, returning Vendilion Clique.
Path to Exile took care of the Tarmogoyf, but Eternal Witness took another two points out of Finkel's life total. Yasooka countered Snapcaster Mage with Spell Snare to stay ahead, and even saved his Eternal Witness from a Path to Exile with a Cryptic Command, bouncing it and drawing a card.
Not done yet (does he ever run out of action?) Yasooka used that opportunity to Vendilion Clique again on Finkel's turn courtesy of Æther Vial. Phantasmal Image, Spell Snare, Restoration Angel, and Kitchen Finks were his options, but Yasooka chose to protect his Vendilion Clique by taking the Image.
The draw off Vendilion Clique gave Finkel a Geist of Saint Traft, but Yasooka just kept going bigger, Vialing in Tarmogoyf to attack for 7 on the next turn.
When the Geist attacked the following turn, Yasooka vialed in Eternal Witness to try and get back Cryptic Command. In response, Finkel flashed in his own 2/1, trying to resolve Snapcaster Mage. But, naturally, Yasooka Vialed in his own Snapcaster Mage to flash back Cryptic Command.
In the end, all of Yasooka's spells resolved while none of Finkel's did. And when Yasooka countered Kitchen Finks with that regrown Cryptic Command, Finkel conceded to lethal damage.
Finkel 0, Yasooka 2
Once again, both players kept their initial seven cards, and once again Yasooka led with Serum Visions. It wasn't the crowd pleaser that Æther Vial was quickly becoming, but it was certainly one of the key cogs in Yasooka's machinery.
Then Yasooka did his thing, which he's been doing all week, where he played his land on the second turn before even looking at the card he drew. It was supposed to signal Mana Leak or Remand, but Finkel didn't play into it anyway.
Instead, both players traded Vendilion Cliques as Finkel cast his first on Yasooka's turn. Yasooka sent a second copy of Vendilion Clique to the bottom after spying a hand full of counters and removal.
Yasooka's own hand was Snapcaster Mage, Cryptic Command, Remand, and Thirst for Knowledge plus two lands, finally giving Finkel a peek under the hood of Yasooka's terrifying RUG deck. Finkel selected the Thirst for Knowledge, then resolved a Sword of War and Peace on his next turn.
Then, when Yasooka moved to crack his Misty Rainforest, Finkel tried to get Snapcaster Mage onto the board, but was stymied by a Spell Snare Yasooka had drawn since Vendilion Clique last revealed his hand.
Yasooka then tried his own Snapcaster Mage, but Finkel paid him back in kind for the previous turn with his own Spell Snare.
During all of this, Finkel had come to possess two Tectonic Edges and used them both to trim Yasooka's mana base back to three lands. Without missing a beat though, Yasooka simply played a fourth and a fifth. If anything, he was a bit flooded and the Tectonic Edges actually worked in his favor.
Snapcaster Mage from Yasooka regrew Serum Visions and gave him an open avenue to start attacking for the first time this game.
And while Finkel passed yet again, Yasooka burned a Cryptic Command to bounce Sword of War and Peace and draw a card.
And the card was certainly a good draw, as Yasooka finally played and resolved an Æther Vial. And when Finkel cast Vendilion Clique on his end step, Yasooka was ready with the Mana Leak. He even had the second Mana Leak for the follow-up Geist of Saint Traft.
In other words, things were kind of going his way.
Dismember targeting Snapcaster Mage took Finkel to nine life, a costly chunk of life when Yasooka responded with Remand...twice.
Remand can be a headache for the opponent, especially if it's targeting Dismember.
Just like that, Finkel went from 13 life to 3.
Finkel tried a desperation Baneslayer Angel, but Cryptic Command bounced it and cleared the way to send Finkel to just 1 life. And when Eternal Witness returned Cryptic Command to Yasooka's hand, Finkel could only smile as the door was effectively shut on him.
With no more outs and no way to stay alive, Finkel offered his hand to the man who was tearing his way straight to the finals.
Finkel offers the handshake, giving the match win to Yasooka and his brutal blue-red-green control deck.
Shouta Yasooka wins 3-0 and advances to the finals!
After the match, Finkel was reflective, but ultimately realized he was working from behind the whole time.
"I thought I was disadvantaged, but it wasn't that bad," he said, indicating his testing had put the match a bit closer than it appeared on camera.
"The first game I thought maybe I could have won, but in the second and third I had no chance."
Finkel pointed to Yasooka's better long game and his own inability to put any pressure on the control player. Without any way to constrain Yasooka's early turns, he was able to do things like loop Cryptic Command with Eternal Witness multiple times.
"He has a little bit of a better long term game than I do, so I have to put some pressure on. And I wasn't really able to do that," Finkel said.
One of the more interesting choices Finkel made was to leave his Stony Silences in the sideboard.
"I decided not to fight over the Vials," he said. "It just didn't seem like the fight I wanted to fight. I thought I had a pretty good shot against his no-Vial draws, so I didn't want to hurt myself in those games."
Instead, Finkel said, he decided to fight the creatures and try to put pressure on with cheap removal and early pressure. Plus, Stony Silence and Sword of War and Peace aren't really a combo.
And while many watching at home saw what looked like a trouncing, Finkel thought he could have possibly won game 1 if things had gone a bit differently.
"It just felt like one of those games where, for example, maybe I used Tectonic Edges before I attack ... I'm not sure it was even right or wrong, but the decisions always seemed not to work out."
He also knew he was in trouble in the third game when he had to play his Dismember into a Remand.
"In the third game, I felt like I had no shot. I knew he had the Remand, but I thought, okay, I could bait it out of him," he said. ""It was an obviously long shot, but ... I didn't have anything going on, so I needed to take a risk and get my Baneslayer Angel to stick."
But the sequence of plays most viewers will recall is the flurry of action that ended the first game, when Mana Leak tapped Finkel out, a second countered Geist, then Vialed-in Eternal Witness returned Snapcaster Mage to Yasooka's hand before being Vialed in itself to flash back Lightning Bolt ... setting up exactly lethal damage.
Yasooka's take on it?
"It was as planned," he said.
Yasooka said that, though he didn't playtest the matchup, he knew the key interactions in the matchup were between Æther Vial and Snapcaster Mage and Æther Vial and Eternal Witness.
And while Yasooka dispatched Finkel fairly easily, he was still wary of the Jund and Zoo decks waiting for him in the other bracket.
"Paulo's deck is very fast, so without Lighting Bolt, I will just end up losing," he said. "Jund is closer to 50/50."
Though, the way Yasooka is playing, it almost seems as if no one can stand in his way.
2012 Players Championship Top 4, Modern
2012 Players Championship Top 4, Modern