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Strixhaven Championship Top 8 Highlights

June 07, 2021
Corbin Hosler and Elizabeth Rice

250 players started at the Strixhaven Championship, and 15 rounds of Standard and Historic play over two days yielded a stacked Top 8. The final eight returned Sunday to battle through a double-elimination bracket on the way to the title match.

It was a group littered with famous names, but also a trio of challengers who broke through. From Hall of Famers Raphaël Lévy and Seth Manfield to strong challengers such as John Girardot, Matti Kuisma, and David Inglis, the Top 8 was a collection of the best players on the weekend, and a pairing of two tournament-dominating decks.

Road to the Championship Match

The Top 8 played out in Historic, a format shaken up repeatedly in this month with the release of Historic Anthology 5, that settled for this weekend on two clear-cut top decks: Jeskai Turns and Izzet Phoenix. Those two archetypes represented seven of the eight decks, with Manfield's Jeskai Control the only outlier in some ways; he only played three Brainstorms so there were 31 out of a possible 32 in the Top 8.

However, the day belonged to Jeskai Turns. Things started with a mirror match between Logan Nettles and Sam Pardee, both making their fourth career Top Finish. With such an explosive deck that could run out a fast Magma Opus or combo off with Velomachus Lorehold, it was no surprise to see Pardee’s deck pop off to perfection to move him forward.

Another quarterfinal played out between the legend Lévy and first-time Top Finisher (and no stranger to high-end competition) Inglis. Better known as the MTG Arena all-star tangrams, Inglis was part of the team of Izzet Phoenix players who had squared off against Jeskai Turns all weekend and held their own.

He and Lévy played three tight games, but in the end it was Chandra, Torch of Defiance that hit the board before the matchup-breaking Nezahal, Primal Tide turned the tide to Inglis.

Matti Kuisma was the other Izzet Phoenix representative, and he rolled through Manfield’s Jeskai Control in straight games while Matt Sperling and John Girardot went deep into three games in another Taking Turns mirror. Again it was the newcomer eking out a victory, and that set up an upper semifinal match between Girardot and Kuisma in the Phoenix-Turns matchup.

Matti Kuisma

John Girardot

Kuisma took down the first game with his birds, but the second game showcased one of the biggest strengths of the Jeskai Turns deck: its flexibility with its powerful spells. Girardot pitched a Magma Opus on the second turn to get a Treasure token, and then used that to cash in a Mizzix's Mastery to cast the Opus on turn three.

That easily overpowered Kuisma’s Sprite Dragon, and carried Girardot to a third and deciding game. In With the upper bracket finals on the line, Kuisma was able to bring Girardot down to just 3 life but was unable to close to the door as Memory Lapse and Blink of an Eye protection allowed the French challenger to claim victory.

All that was left was to see who would join Girardot in the upper finals, and that meant that Inglis’s Phoenix deck would have to knock off another Turns player, this time Sam Pardee. But the Phoenix fire would flame out in his second try, as Pardee slowly but surely navigated through two tight games and punched his own ticket to the upper finals.

As the lower bracket filled in, Pardee and Girardot geared up for an epic Turns mirror match that would send the victor to the Grand Finals and the loser to the lower bracket final for a second shot.

As the mirrors tended to be, the games and match were drawn-out, featuring plenty of haymakers and firepower along the way. Sideboard plans became key, and both players spent time looking to get ahead on board with tokens from Shark Typhoon or Commence the Endgame. It was those two cards that carried Pardee to victory in the third and deciding game, as his Sharks flew over Girardot’s Zombie Army on consecutive Time Warp-fueled turns.

The Lower Bracket Rise

But Girardot wasn’t out of it yet. He would await the winner of the lower bracket with a shot in the finals still on the line. As play in the elimination rounds got off to a quick start, as both Nettles and Sperling cruised to 2-0 victories over Lévy and Manfield, respectively.

Manfield’s loss brought the Top 8 field down to just two decks: it would either be the inevitability of the Turns deck or the explosiveness of the Phoenix deck that would win the Strixhaven Championship. And the next round would pit those decks against each other, as Nettles squared off against Kuisma and Sperling met Inglis. The Izzet Phoenix players had felt confident about their deck choice for the weekend, but could they knock off two of the best Turns players when it really counted?

Matti Kuisma

David Inglis

Kuisma gave it the first try. He learned on his air force of Sprite Dragon and Stormwing Entity to try and control the skies, but there was no entity big enough to slow Nettle’s Nezahal, Primal Tide. Backed up by Magma Opus as removal, the Dinosaur was simply unanswerable as the four-time Top Finisher eliminated Kuisma.

Inglis put up more of a fight. He took a clean first game off of Sperling, and had the former Pro Tour finalist fully up against the ropes as Chandra, Torch of Defiance ticked up to drag Sperling all the way down to 1 life. But then came one of the best series of topdecks in the entire tournament.

Rinse, Nezahal, Repeat. Just like that, we were down to four Jeskai Turns decks to slug it out for the title.

The following lower bracket match was another heavyweight bout, with Nettles meeting Sperling in a matchup of players with eight Top Finishes between them. And just like the mirror matches that came before, there was one Dinosaur to rule them all: Sperling landed Nezahal and never looked back.

A quick 2-0 victory advanced him to the lower bracket finals, where he faced a rematch with Girardot, the man who defeated him in the opening match of the Top 8.

Sam Pardee awaited the winner in the championship match, as Sperling settled in to fight for another shot at a championship title.

Girardot took the opener, though, and as the second game carried on both players began to fill their board with tokens. Sperling took to the air with three Sharks, while Girardot tried to race with his own Zombie Army token courtesy of Commence the Endgame. Sperling looked like he might have the upper hand given enough time, but then Girardot used the “hidden mode” of Commence the Endgame: casting one on endstep and then a second in the middle of his combat to quickly pump his token to lethal proportions. Sperling may have had a hand of countermagic, but it was of no use against the man who had his number today.

Like that, the finals were set: John Girardot would advance to face Sam Pardee in the championship match.

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