As the final day of the Gauntlets began, it was a familiar name sitting atop the leaderboard: Kai Budde, the legendary German Juggernaut who has more premier-event titles than anyone else in the history of the game.
Thanks to a perfect 9-0 run on Day 1 on Friday, Budde was already locked for the Top 8 and would have his chance to play for the final remaining invitation to Magic World Championship XXVII. But the other seven spots were up for grabs with three more rounds of Standard play to determine the cutoff.
One of the players who excelled early in that race was Greece's Matty Kuisma. He was playing the breakout deck of the weekend in Jeskai Mutate, and rode the brew all the way to the Top 8.
They were joined by a handful of the biggest names in the game, and the Top 8 looked like this:
- Kai Budde (Izzet Control)
- Lee Shi Tian (Mono-Green Aggro)
- Jan Merkel (Izzet Control)
- Shota Yasooka (Naya Adventures)
- Shintaro Ishimura (Dimir Rogues)
- Gavin Thompson (Gruul Adventures)
- Matti Kuisma (Jeskai Mutate)
- Louis-Samuel Deltour (Dimir Rogues)
Jeskai Mutate had been the clear best deck in Saturday's MPL Gauntlet Top 8, but would it hold up in this diverse field of six different Standard decks, most of which function on very different gameplans?
It was a Top 8 filled with a perfect mix of young challengers and the game's all-time greatest, and it ended with Jan Merkel avenging an earlier loss to Gavin Thompson in the finals to secure the final seat at the World Championship.
Congratulations to @jmmtgo, winner of the #RivalsGauntlet!— Magic Esports (@MagicEsports) September 6, 2021
Piloting Izzet Control, Merkel defeated some of the best players in the game, and of all time, to secure the last seat in this year's #MTGWorlds
Congrats again, Jan! pic.twitter.com/7RdAPC9SrP
Here's how we got there.
Thompson Dominates Upper Bracket en route to Qualifier Match
Before the Gauntlet, longtime player Gavin Thompson said the tournament meant everything to him, and he played like it as Top 8 play began. In the most dominant stretch seen across either Gauntlet this weekend, Thompson simply cruised through a list of star-studded opponents.
Thompson was playing a tried-and-true piece of the Standard format: Gruul Adventures, and he sliced and Embercleaved his way though first Shintaro Ishimura's Dimir Rogues, then Louis-Samnuel Deltour's Rogues and finally Jan Merkel's Izzet Control - three blue opponents, three victories for the Gruul player.
This wasn't supposed to be Thompson's Top 8 - the favorite was undoubtedly the legendary Kai Budde, whose championship career fueled the mantra "Kai doesn't lose on Sunday." And taking up the Izzet Control deck that Noriyuke Mori popularized with his dominant run through the Challenger Gauntlet two weeks ago, Budde looked every bit his unstoppable self coming into the Top 8.
But it wasn't meant to be in the first round, as fellow Hall of Famer Lee Shi Tian narrowly edged out Budde with a three-game victory with Mono-Green Aggro. That sent Lee Shi Tian up against Izzet Control twice in a row when Jan Merkel outlasted Shota Yasooka's Naya Adventures deck in three games.
Things didn't go as well the second time around, as Merkel was able to control Lee Shi Tian's board effectively through two games to advance to the upper bracket final.
With Merkel and Thompson set to square off in the upper bracket final, sights shifted to the lower bracket, where the rest of the Top 8 was still alive and fighting for their chance to get back to the qualifier.
Two Old-School Pros Run the Table in the Lower Bracket
Things started out with a matchup for the ages, as exciting today as it would have been in Magic's early days: Kai Budde vs. Shota Yasooka. It was Budde who won the Hall of Fame matchup and kept his tournament - and chance to qualify for his first-ever small-field World Championship - hopes alive.
And soon the rematch became inevitable - after Lee Shi Tian defeated Budde in the opening Top 8 round, he then beat Shintaro Ishimura to find himself up once again against Budde, who had finished off Louis-Samuel Deltour in the previous round.
Would things be different this time around? While Lee Shi Tian's Mono-Green Aggro deck had managed to outlast Budde in the opener, would the experience in the matchup help the German Juggernaut adjust the second time around?
This time, there was never any doubt - Budde cleanly defeated Lee Shi Tian in two games to advance to the lower bracket final, where he would face his countrymate Jan Merkel, who had lost to Gavin Thompson in the Upper Bracket final.
It was a disappointing end for the Hall of Famer Lee Shi Tian, but his Top 4 finish did guarantee him a spot in the MPL next year even if it came short of the Worlds invite.
Top 4 rival gauntlet and stay in mpl next year— Lee Shi Tian (@leearson) September 5, 2021
Big thanks to @rex51515 and lucozade (someone tell me where can I get sponsor by it 🥺)
Now I will need some time to wait the effect to pass though 🤪
Also @CCalcano told me not to give up when I was 1-4☝️#HareruyaPros pic.twitter.com/xeHVEL6mNf
With Thompson waiting in the qualifier match, Budde was now just one match away from completing the unlikely run through the lower bracket to advance to the qualifier. But he would have to go through Jan Merkel in the mirror. And while Budde may be the most accomplished Sunday player of all time, Merkel is himself a champion - he won Pro Tour Kobe in 2006 and earlier this season won the Magic Online Showcase Season Three Championship.
The match that followed was a classic as players traded countermagic, bounce spells and complicated combat math, until Merkel locked up the match with a huge
The Finals: World Championship Qualification Match
That brought it down to the championship match: the unstoppable Gavin Thompson - he was 6-0 in games played on Sunday - against the former Pro Tour champion Jan Merkel trying to avenge his loss to Thompson two rounds prior.
The stakes were clear: the loser would still earn a spot in the MPL next season, but only the winner of the best-of-three matches would grab the coveted final seat at Magic World Championship XXVII.
It was here than Thompson's fantasy run came to an abrupt end. He struggled with his mana over two games in the opening match, and Merkel was able to ride some timely
Thompson knew it was an uphill matchup for his Gruul Adventures deck against Izzet Control, but he wasn't out of it. Refusing to give up even after Merkel quickly took the first game and put himself just a win away from Worlds, Thompson bounced back with one of the most impressive games of the entire Gauntlet.
It's easy to get discouraged after dropping three straight games in the most important match of your life, but Thompson proved how resilient he was in the next game - even after taking a mulligan down to just five cards he kept the faith and was able to ride
And so it went to the third game, where everything hinged on a calculated risk.
Thompson's opening hand was sent back, and his mulligan was short a way to make green mana - but was otherwise strong. Already down a card and playing on the draw, Thompson made the strategic decision to keep the hand that only needed a Forest to unlock. Unfortunately for the American, this weekend belonged to Jan Merkel, and when Thompson's draws failed to find the mana he needed, it was the former Pro Tour champ Merkel earning the final spot at the World Championship.
I qualified to WORLDS! It will take a while for me to stop smiling. Thanks to everybody who helped me get here and rooted for me ❤️ #RivalsGauntlet— Jan-Moritz Merkel (@jmmtgo) September 6, 2021
Looking Ahead to the World Championship
With Merkel's victory, Magic World Championship XXVII is now full.The four previous qualifiers were joined by Gauntlet winners Yoshihiko Ikawa, Rei Sato, Jean-Emmanuel Depraz and now Jan Merkel.
That's two league seasons, numerous set championships, and three intense Gauntlets behind us. Up ahead is Worlds.
This October, the pinnacle of Magic competition comes to @MTGArena.— Magic Esports (@MagicEsports) September 6, 2021
Sixteen of the most accomplished players in the world will compete for their share of $250,000 and the title of Magic World Champion.
It's #MTGWorlds, October 8–10, 2021! pic.twitter.com/Kz0Yw4bJAK