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Title Match of the New Capenna Championship

May 23, 2022
Corbin Hosler

When Top 8 play began on Sunday, some of the players in the field knew they would be in the World Championship later this year while others were playing for one of the six seats available. But by the time Jan Merkel met Simon Nielsen in the best-of-three matches showdown for the trophy at the New Capenna Championship, all of that had been decided and there was something much more pressing on hand.

Would Jan Merkel win the second Pro Tour level event of his career, 16 years after winning Pro Tour Kobe in his first Top Finish? Or would Simon Nielsen pull off winning a Championship to add to his World Championship seat he had set out to earn at the start of the season?

Jan Merkel

Simon Nielsen

Both players are longtime accomplished European tournament circuit regulars, but their paths to the Title Match had been different. Merkel was enjoying a career renaissance since the advent of online play, while Nielsen too was finding his way after a Magic career thus far defined by his success at the Grand Prix level and an extremely memorable World Magic Cup victory in 2014.

Both players have the World Championship to look forward to, but only one would go as the winner of the New Capenna Championship.

As the match kicked off, players spent their early turns setting up in what would become a familiar pattern. Essentially a matchup between two midrange decks, the games were all about finding small advantages—at least until Hinata, Dawn-Crowned arrived to go over the top literally and figuratively.

The first game of the Title Match was emblematic of the rest of the series: the player who could afford to play the most patiently would win, and it was the player who could accumulate the most early advantages was who could accord that patience. For Nielsen, that meant establishing an early threat like Luminarch Aspirant or Wedding Announcement, while Merkel would look to preserve his life total with cheap removal while accumulating cards with Expressive Iteration.

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Merkel defeated Nielsen earlier in the day, so both players understood this dynamic. And to win the first game, Merkel took that to the extreme: waiting until truly the last moment to deploy Hinata, Dawn-Crowned and Magma Opus.

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In short order, Merkel had taken the early lead.

The next game started off more promising for Nielsen, who had a pair of Wedding Announcements to generate creatures and cards. For his part, Merkel had a hand full of interaction but was light on lands. So while Nielsen was able to poke at Merkel's life total, he could never establish a large enough threat to truly threaten lethal. After Merkel peeled the land he needed to keep the stream of removal flowing, the time to deploy Hinata arrived.

Where Hinata goes, Magma Opus soon follows.

Going back to their earlier match, that was two in a row for the Jeskai Hinata brew over Esper Midrange. It was clear that Merkel felt comfortable in the matchup, and Nielsen needed to find a way to break through the grind of the board to keep up pressure.

That's what he was able to do in the next round, moving quickly to pick up a game one victory behind an aggressive draw. But it was actually his patience in the next game that allowed him to turn the tides of the match.

As both players sat behind reactive spells, Nielsen slowed his own gameplan down to ensure that Merkel didn't resolve his gamebreaking spells uncontested. And though it seemed contrary to slow down in a deck featuring Luminarch Aspirant—"Who's the Beatdown?" when you're the more aggressive deck seems obvious to answer—the approach allowed Nielsen to keep the huge turn from happening while slowly building his own board.

The downside to this was that it opened a window for Merkel to resolve Goldspan Dragon, and even protect it a turn later with Valorous Stance. But all the positioning over the Dragon had cost him: Merkle had no protection left when his Magma Opus was countered by Nielsen. With a follow-up The Wandering Emperor, Nielsen took down a second game in a row and evened the Title Match at one round apiece.

Nielsen's two quick victories had immediately altered the flow of the match, and now he could shake off the past losses if he could find a way to win one more.

While Nielsen had found success in the second match by being patient, he saw the other end of the spectrum in the opener. He had a hand of The Meathook Massacre and Vanishing Verse along with a Raffine, but none of that was particularly effective against the pair of 4/4 Elemental tokens Merkel was able to create with a run of Magma Opus.

That was the power of Hinata: it made Nielsen respect its combo-like power while not being necessary for Merkel's value-oriented deck to grind out a win anyway.

After the first game going decisively the way of Merkel, Nielsen was forced to take a double mulligan in the next game. The path began to clear for Merkel and the reality of him joining some truly elite company became more and more apparent in his play.

In addition to the mulligans, Nielsen was again stuck with a hand that consisted mainly of lands and reactive spells. He was practically all-in on a quick Luminarch Aspirant, but when Merkel was able to find a removal spell for that, it became a slow march to an inevitable conclusion.

The familiar flying duo of Hinata, Dawn-Crowned and Goldspan Dragon followed for Merkel, and a few short attack steps and one more Magma Opus for the ages later, Merkel earned hisl second title by winning the New Capenna Chamionship.

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