It really feels like someone is testing me.
I internally wince as I see the hand.
A quick glance upward reveals my situation: Michael Miller sits before me, is going to be on the play by virtue of his higher seed, and has kept his hand. I know my game 1 against Sultai Control is a bit rough, as I have a number of semi-dead cards in my deck, like Wild Slash and Lightning Strike, that don't do very much against it. He has the full set of Bile Blights and is much more prepared for the pre-sideboard matchup than I am.
This is not really how I'd like to start my finals match.
I've already had to send a number of hands back in this top 8, which is something I'm not afraid to do, but this one was right on the cusp. At first glance, it's easy to feel like this hand is a trap. It is a common mantra that Temples result in a lot of bad keeps because it feels like the scry will get you there, but this hand is different for a few reasons.
Like most one-land hands, this hand is all gas, but it goes deeper than that. Not only is my hand extremely spell-heavy and resistant to removal spells and Thoughtseize, but all of the spells are exactly what I want in the matchup. My goal is to pressure him with my two-drops early and force him to burn his removal, and then finish the job with Goblin Rabblemaster and Outpost Siege before he can really set up. The cards I don't want in the matchup like Wild Slash and Lightning Strike are nowhere to be seen, and if I can draw at least one land in a reasonable timeframe, this hand will line up really well against him. His deck is not going to kill me fast, so even if I stumble I should still have a chance to get back into it if I draw a few lands.
I am also on the draw, and will therefore have three full chances of seeing a land without actually missing a land drop - my first draw step, my scry, and if that fails, my second draw step. Seeing as how I am around 43% to have a land on top of my deck each time, those are pretty good odds.
This hand is a keep.
That still doesn't make it easy. I know what I'm playing for here, and while I've pretty much locked up my Players' Championship bid, my fire to win has not lessened at all. While this hand is a keeper, and a reasonable one that will pan out a majority of the time, about 15% of the time I am going to brick off horribly, never cast a spell, and lose game 1 of the finals without really doing much of anything. That's a tough pill to swallow, but nobody said that winning was easy. Consider it an occupational hazard.
Michael opens with a fetchland for a Thoughtsieze, and things seem to be going according to plan. I hand him my hand and wait for the room and the world to see him fan it out and reveal my predicament. Once he does, he is a bit surprised, as not only have I kept a one-lander, but he really doesn't have a good card to Thoughtseize.
"Would you have kept?" I ask him.
He mutters a bit more about how there's no real good card to take, and after I jokingly put the Temple of Triumph in the graveyard he decides on Soulfire Grand Master. He then passes.
I draw my card for the turn.
Not really what we are looking for, but we've still got two more good shots at it. I'm not even that upset if I miss next turn but draw it for turn 3, as my hand is still quite good. I play Temple of Triumph and scry.
I peek at an Outpost Siege, and it is clearly going to the bottom. I take a moment, however, as there is no reason to let Michael stop thinking that perhaps I had drawn a land on my draw step. I bottom it and pass the turn.
The moment of truth:
I've made my bed, it's time to get comfortable in it.
I ship the turn back.
Michael draws, attacks for one with his Satyr Wayfinder, plays a tapland, and simply passes. I note that he either doesn't have an untapped land to play, or likely doesn't have Hero's Downfall or Sultai Charm, and has Bile Blight instead.
I draw for my turn:
I fluff the pillow a bit and flip it over to the cool side.
With eight cards in my hand, my options are to discard or to just cast my Wild Slash, and I opt to do so targeting him. He is at fourteen life, and all I've done so far is cast a Shock, so there's always that. I pass the turn.
Again Michael draws, attacks for one, plays a tapland, and passes. This time he has three mana open for removal, and I really have to hope his hand is air to really have a shot.
Come on dealer!
I think it's time to snuggle up and go to sleep.
I discard a Valorous Stance and pass the turn.
Michael draws for his turn, attacks for one, and plays a Kiora, the Crashing Wave. While normally an anemic card against me, Kiora is quite good when your opponent isn't doing anything. He draws a card off Kiora, plays two lands, and passes.
I draw for my turn:
I'd probably be better off just going back to sleep.
The game would continue for a few turns, as I would try to get in any damage possible in hopes for a longshot burn out, but I was simply too far behind.
"I'd keep it again," I say as I pick up my cards.
Michael seems surprised, but I reiterate as we shuffle up for game 2.
I know after sideboarding my matchup gets much better, and I get to work:
Out go all of the irrelevant burn spells, and in come an impressive mix of difficult-to-answer threats and Disdainful Strokes. While Michael will be getting a few more tools in Drown in Sorrow and Pharika's Cure, having his list makes me much more comfortable since I know what is coming.
Unfazed, I begin to shuffle up for game 2.
We draw our openers, and this one requires less deliberation. I mulligan, and Michael joins me.
Our six-card hand is not the best, but I am not willing to go to five cards on the play. Outpost Siege is one of our best ways to get it all back, and with two I will likely be able to stick one. Sometimes you just need to trust your deck will cooperate a bit, and while it didn't last game, I have a ton of live draws to give me an early threat.
For my turn 2, I draw my card:
I play my Plains and pass. Drawing Rabblemaster is perfect, as threatening a Rabblemaster into his mulligan will likely allow me to stick one of my Outpost Sieges.
Michael draws, plays an Island, and plays a Satyr Wayfinder finding another Temple of Malady. This is definitely relevant, as it gives him a guaranteed second black source for Bile Blight, Hero's Downfall, Pharika's Cure, and Drown in Sorrow, albeit a slow one. It is very possible he may have no answer to my Rabblemaster next turn. He passes back.
I draw a Battlefield Forge for the turn, which isn't that bad since it is my fourth land for a turn 4 Outpost Siege. I play my Goblin Rabblemaster. Michael decides to trade his Satyr Wayfinder for my goblin token, and I pass back.
Michael draws his card for the turn and then lays a Swamp. It seems likely that he just drew the Swamp, because if he had it the prior turn, it makes sense to play it to allow himself the mana for Bile Blight/Pharika's Cure the following turn when he plays his tapland. It is also possible, however, he has neither of those and wants to have the mana open for a Disdainful Stroke.
I draw my card for the turn, a Brimaz, King of Oreskos, and immediately move to combat. When Michael says okay, I am so stunned I almost don't attack with Goblin Rabblemaster after making a token. How could he keep a hand with no play on turn 3 and no answer to my Rabblemaster? I attack for four, and post-combat, play my Battlefield Forge.
I now have a choice to make: At this point the only reasonable card I can see Michael having is a Disdainful Stroke. If I play my Outpost Siege into his Stroke, I am giving up a huge amount of tempo, and because he did not kill my Rabblemaster, I can be reasonably certain he is light on removal. I decide to play my Brimaz instead, as it is a threat that can't fall to a Drown in Sorrow or Disdainful Stroke and presents a similar problem as Goblin Rabblemaster. Crux of Fate is far too slow to make a difference on the board of Rabblemaster and Brimaz, so I am really forcing him to have some significant answers.
Michael draws his card, plays a Temple of Malady, and scrys to the bottom. He then simply passes the turn.
As we enter my turn 5, I am feeling pretty good about the game. I feel like I have a good handle on what Michael has in his hand, I think he is in trouble with his scry to the bottom, and I've got an active Goblin Rabblemaster in play and a hand of two Outpost Siege and a Stoke the Flames in waiting.
I draw a Mystic Monastery and immediately move to combat. So much of each turn with a Rabblemaster in play hinges on what your opponent is going to do before you get your token, and in this case he decides to use another Hero's Downfall on it. This of course means that his Disdainful Stroke shields are down, and after getting in for one with the token I play my Mystic Monastery and my first Outpost Siege on Khans. While Michael is still at a reasonable fifteen life, things feel good. I am in good shape to go long. I pass.
Michael draws his card for the turn and plays another Satyr Wayfinder, hitting
a Temple of Mystery. He plays it, scrys to the top, and passes the turn.
Feeling great to untap with Outpost Siege in play, I reveal my card for it: a Seeker of the Way. I then draw Flooded Strand for the turn. After my goblin token trades with his Satyr Wayfinder, I have some difficult choices to make.
With six mana available, it is pretty clear I want to play my Seeker of the Way off of the Outpost Siege. The real question is what to do with the remaining four. I have a second Outpost Siege in hand along with a Stoke the Flames, and I am reasonably convinced that Michael has a Disdainful Stroke. He has three tapped lands and two untapped, again representing it.
I decide that because I am already pretty ahead on the board, and I would much rather not let him get good value out of these two unused mana and force him into the awkward spot of having to leave Disdainful Stroke up again for another turn. I also can force the issue with an end of turn Stoke the Flames, which would knock him down to eleven life. After playing Seeker of the Way and the Flooded Strand, I pass the turn.
Michael draws his card for the turn, plays his sixth land in Opulent Palace, and just passes right back. Again his hand is screaming Disdainful Stroke, maybe an expensive planeswalker or two, and maybe some air. I go for the end of turn Stoke the Flames, and he lets it resolve falling to eleven life.
On my turn, I untap, reveal Mantis Rider to Outpost Siege, and draw a Battlefield Forge. I am now in a fairly similar situation as I was last turn. I have a creature threat I am definitely going to play off of my Outpost Siege, and then I have four mana left over to play another Outpost Siege into his likely Disdainful Stroke if I so choose.
As attacking and seeing what he does is the first step, I play my Mantis Rider and attack with the Rider and Seeker of the Way. Michael quickly okays it and falls to six life. My read of Disdainful Stroke + expensive planeswalker + air from last turn has not really changed at all, and I decide to hold off on my Outpost Siege. I don't want to give him free range to Disdainful Stroke it, and I want to make things as awkward as possible for him.
I play my land and pass the turn.
Michael draws his card, plays his seventh land, and goes for Crux of Fate with that maddening two mana still open. He then passes the turn.
I untap, reveal Shivan Reef, and draw Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker for my turn. How awkward. I'd really have liked to draw any card in my deck that I could cast alongside my Outpost Siege as I could use the Siege as bait for Disdainful Stroke. I also have to be wary of Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, as he has had a few cards in hand for a bit, and I would not be surprised if Ugin was one of them.
If he has Disdainful Stroke, this clears the path for Sarkhan the following turn.
If he has an Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, he will be compelled to cast it and use the -X on four to remove my two Outpost Siege. Even if he has the Stroke for my Siege, he is likely to just play Ugin to remove my remaining one.
As a follow up to him having Ugin, my Sarkhan attack will either finish off Ugin, or put him to two life and require him to have a Hero's Downfall or die on the spot.
He has already played two Hero's Downfall, and even if he does have it, I will be drawing very live with him at two life.
After deliberating, I play my Shivan Reef (which is my eighth land) and play Outpost Siege. To my surprise it resolves, and I choose Khans. This means he likely has Ugin, and this game is about to get very interesting.
I pass the turn with Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker as the only card in my hand.
Michael untaps, draws for his turn, and plays a Polluted Delta. He cracks it, goes to five life, and down comes Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. As expected, he -4s Ugin, which removes both of my Outpost Sieges and leaves Ugin at three loyalty and him at five life.
I untap, draw a Shivan Reef, and am again at the mercy of a very difficult choice. I am playing Sarkhan, do I kill off Ugin and leave Michael at five life? Or do I push the issue and attack him to one?
If I attack and kill Ugin, it becomes Sarkhan versus the world with him at five life. I have no other resources at all except the top of my deck, and he still has a pair of cards in hand with many powerful draws. He has two turns to produce an answer to Sarkhan, and many cards in his deck will give him redraws at answers like Dig Through Time and Sultai Charm. Five life is just above the reach of many of my good topdecks, and we are really pressed to draw some gas.
If I attack him and leave Ugin in play at three loyalty, he goes down to a precarious one life and must immediately produce an answer to Sarkhan or die on the spot. Because he has already used two Hero's Downfalls and clearly doesn't have a Dig Through Time or similar effect at the ready, it seems fairly unlikely he currently has an answer. His only answers are his remaining two Hero's Downfall and his singleton Garruk, Apex Predator, nothing else will do. If he does actually have the Hero's Downfall, then he is still at one life, and I am drawing extremely live for the next few turns.
I decide it is best to make him have it, as even if he does I am still drawing very live.
I play my Sarkhan, and much to his surprise I attack him down to one life.
Michael untaps, draws, and starts fiddling with his lands. He plays a Temple of Deceit and scrys to the bottom. He plusses Ugin to five loyalty and fiddles more with his lands. The moment is rather tense, until…
It is unfortunate, but I still have many backdoor outs. It is now a race to see if I can draw out of this before Ugin goes ultimate and puts the game away.
I take a deep breath, untap, and draw my card for the turn.
Jeez… where have you been all game?
I pass the turn.
Michael draws his card, plusses Ugin to seven, and ships back.
Once again, I take a deep breath and draw my card. And once again:
I pass the turn.
Michael draws his card, plusses Ugin to nine, and ships back.
I draw for my turn:
Essentially a blank. I play it and pass.
Michael draws his card, plusses Ugin to eleven to kill Seeker of the way, and ships back.
One last turn for another chance at a trophy. I draw my card:
I perk up in my seat a bit. There really are no other options. I jam it and swing.
The case Hero's Downfall takes it down, Ugin goes ultimate, and that's all she wrote. I play it out, but it is pretty clear it is all over. When Ugin does the final three points of damage, I extend my hand and congratulate Michael.
He never had it.