After watching Nicolai Herzog select during the first draft and talking to him about some of the decisions he had to face, it was time to see how the deck fared - and how the other decks he'd be facing had come together.
For Round 7, Nicolai was matched up against Tiago Chan of Portugal, an up-and-comer who has put in some solid finishes lately. For his opening hand Herzog opened up five land, Elves of Deep Shadow, and Bathe in Light. After just a brief moment of consideration he tossed it back, peeking at the next three cards, which turned out to be an unimpressive Plains, Elves of Deep Shadow No. 2, and Last Gasp.Mulligans plagued Nico in Round 7.
The next one turned out to be good enough to use. He was able to Last Gasp Chan's Selesnya Evangel, but didn't have anything for the second one that followed it up, and the Watchwolf that came next made for an impressive board and a ground force that Nicolai wouldn't be getting through anytime soon. When the Watchwolf hit play, Nico laughed. "That went all the way around the table?"
Chan flashed him a grin. "That's pretty sick." Chan just nodded.
After an initial struggle Nico at last found his white mana, but his opponent was pumping out creatures and tokens at an alarming rate, powering out a Guardian of Vitu-Ghazi on turn 5. Low on mana but needing defense, the best Herzog could do was play a Votary of the Conclave with regeneration mana up for the guardian. Seeds of Strength took out his Centaur Safeguard next turn (keeping Watchwolf alive), but Veteran Armorer was able to join the team and shore up the defenses, again leaving up regen mana.
Each turn Nicolai continued to draw reasonable threats, but he was so far behind on the board that he had to keep three mana up each turn to regenerate his Votary, while his opponent was able to continue flooding the board with beaters. Eventually Nicolai was able to get an Evangel out, but by that time his opponent had 11 creatures in play and would be able to overwhelm him through sheer brute force.
Or so it looked…Nicolai took a turn to tap out to get Bramble Elemental on the board, bringing his team to 7, enough to keep the opposing beaters back thanks to Veteran Armorer. Just the Guardian smashed in, hammering Nico to 8. A new Screeching Griffon fell to a Transluminant token with the help of a Gaze of the Gorgon, but Herzog had a Divebomber Griffon to replace it on the front lines. A team block took out the Guardian, but his opponent had another to replace it.
Nicolai was down to 6, with just 6 creatures to his opponent's 13. He tapped out to play Root-Kin Ally and his opponent ominously counted up the number of creatures on each side. An end-of-turn Scatter the Seeds was cast, and Nicolai was picking up his cards before the tokens ever hit play. This was one of those tough games where Nicolai had never really been in it, but had come close enough several times to have hoped he might pull it out. All in all, it was a brutal 25 minutes that he would need to shake off.
His second game started with one land, six spells, and a quick pitch back to the deck. With a sigh, Nico said "I always lose Round 1 of Day Two, I don't know why. Occasionally I pull it off, but it's very rare."
The second hand was two land and some spells, but with no land on turn two Nicolai looked very concerned. Fortunately he got the land he needed the next turn, right on schedule. He spent some time deliberating Centaur Safeguard vs. Congregation at Dawn and decided to go with the Centaur and hopefully give himself some more time to find mana. A fourth land showed up for turn four and it was time for an end of turn Congregation for Evangel, Evangel, Armorer that looked devastating in this green-white mirror. His opponent, on a slowish draw of Benevolent Ancestor and Centaur Safeguard, looked deeply concerned.
On Nicolai's next turn he drew the first Evangel, to which we joked that it was quite a topdeck. A much more comfortable Nicolai smiled easily.
"Yes, I was very happy with it."
The centaurs traded, and his opponent, with five open mana, just passed the turn. Nicolai was incredulous.
"My turn? Really?" It turned out to be an end-of-turn Scatter the Seeds, but with two Evangels online backed up by Veteran Armorer this wasn't a very threatening play. Nicolai was more alert, sitting up higher in his chair and looking much more confident, but then Hour of Reckoning hit, evening the board at three tokens each. Nicolai gave a big sigh and sent his pile of creatures off to the graveyard.
"I thought that might be coming, but there just weren't any other outs to work around it," he said. But, with eight land open, his opponent said go after just laying a Skysweeper!
For those that would say Chan was just lucky and sporting a better deck, he next uncorked a very sophisticated play. Swinging in with a Skysweeper to trade with a token, he got Nicolai to play out the Divebomber Griffon he had been holding. Trophy Hunter came out next turn and wrecked the bird, to which Nicolai sighed "nice topdeck" … except that it hadn't been. His opponent pointed he'd held it for just this situation.
"I know your deck has some fliers, so I hoped to lure one out by trading off the Skysweeper," Chan said. "I've had this since the opening hand, and since I knew I'd be wrathing the board I just needed to wait for the right time."
Nicolai was impressed. "Okay, really nice plan then. Wow."
But Nicolai wasn't done yet. He had Chorus of the Conclave next, followed by an enormous 7/8 Courier Hawk and a 6/6 Elves of Deep Shadow. After a hit with Courier Hawk, Nicolai was able to Bathe in Light the Congregation for Protection from Green, and his giant team of fat swung in for a massive killing strike thanks to Radiance.
Nicolai turned to me with a grin during the shuffling.
"They keep telling me what they're up to," he said, referring to the last match Wednesday that I had watched, where his opponent had inexplicably shown a second Pyroclasm he had drawn against Nico's Boros aggro deck after getting the first one from Peer Through Depths. "Not as bad this time though, and it was a good play."
But it was time for the decider. Nicolai had faced better cards, had to mulligan in both games, was squared off against a superior deck, and arguably had been outplayed as well. Yet here he was in Game 3, looking to put away a coveted win to put him at a powerful 6-1 record.
This time he had an opening keeper at last, playing Elves of Deep Shadow, Courier Hawk, and then Screeching Griffon. His opponent again had turn-two Evangel, followed by Transluminant and a Courier Hawk of his own. Nico swung in with the Griffin and though his opponent had open, no combat trick took down his flier, so things were looking up.
A Bramble Elemental shored up the ground, and his opponent decided to sac his Transluminant to get more defense in the air. Nicolai began to get some advantage with Crown of Convergence, but the table was clogged enough that he needed to keep committing to the board, possibly walking into a devastating Hour of Reckoning, but there was no avoiding it.
His opponent passed the turn, and the crown revealed a Divebomber Griffon, pumping his fliers for an attack. His opponent gang-blocked one flier and lost both of his own, possibly because he thought the Crown affected his creatures as well. Nicolai noticed that no Grifter's Blade was actually in hand though his opponent had swung into his forces several times as if he had it or Seeds of Strength.
"Very nice bluffing, I thought you had a trick.," he said.
Next turn a Gaze of the Gorgon showed up, but a Voyager's Staff foiled it. Unfortunately for Nicolai, the Hour did show up, wiping his team off the board and leaving six tokens on the opposing side. After 55 minutes of battling, Nicolai was behind on life and creatures, and had only a Centaur Safeguard to play out, and it wasn't enough to stay alive.
Nicolai spent some time wondering if he could have played around the Hour better, but just couldn't find a way to pull it off. He asked his opponent if he'd had any gas left and Chan showed several cards, including a Netherborn Phalanx. Unfortunately for Nicolai, it turned out that, this first round of the pod, he'd probably faced (and lost to) the best deck at the table. But, at 5-2, two more checks in the win column would keep him in the running for Top 8.
For round 8, Herzog was matched up against "blisterguy", a.k.a. Ray Walkinshaw. I spent most of this match finishing up the draft piece from earlier in the day, partly because by the time I got out to watch them blisterguy had already dropped his first game to poor mana. He was armed with a solid looking red/white deck that threatened to wreck Nicolai with the Blazing Archon he had passed in favor of Carven Caryatid.
Game 1 was a rapid affair as the deck just didn't show up to play, sputtering on mana, and Game 2 didn't go much better. Again blisterguy got stuck on too few lands and Nicolai's aggressive beaters were able to put it away before his opponent could try to draw out of his predicament.
That brings us to Round 9 and Tomoharu Saito. Saito was above Nicolai at 6-1-1 after a 1-0-1 start with his draft deck, so a win here for Nicolai would drop one of the table's leaders below him.Nico faced a tough opponent in Tomoharu Saito in Round 9.
Nicolai's deck showed up to this match with a vengeance. He began on the play with Evangel, Veteran Armorer, and then a convoked Root-Kin Ally. Stuck on three lands for a couple turns, this was nonetheless a very strong start while his opponent had a very slow opening developing his mana with a Signet and Spectral Searchlight.
Over the next couple turns Saito's creatures were much less impressive: Wizened Snitches, Goblin Spelunkers, and Ordruun Commando. A Wojek Embermage on top of Saito's deck may have been a nightmare, but with Veteran Armorer in play Nicolai looked to have all the answers. Saito transmuted a Drift of Phantasms for Galvanic Arc with an eye toward taking out the Armorer, but Herzog's Voyager Staff cancelled it out, a versatile little card that has been good for him on several occasions on the day. Saito put up a fight for a few more turns, but he'd never really been in it thanks to the early Root-Kin Ally.
Remembering our conversation from earlier, Nico turned to me during the shuffling period. "Apparently the card pool really was weak at our table. I saw a match last round that had two more really weak decks from our pod. But I'm surprised to see the colors of my neighbors. It seemed like I was fighting for colors, but I guess the packs were just funny that way."
For Game 2, Saito chose to draw, something I haven't seen much in this format, and Nico's deck punished him for the choice by throwing out a perfectly curved start of Voyager Staff, Courier Hawk, Carven Caryatid, and the dreaded Root-Kin Ally. His opponent? He had a Spectral Searchlight in play at that point. Well, and some land. Wizened Snitches is all he had next, and Nicolai got to play out his Crown of Convergence. Knowing the top card was an Elves of Deep Shadow thanks to the Snitches, he smashed in with Root-Kin Ally for a total of 6. The Japanese player had to resort to Stasis Cell on the Root-Kin Ally, but again Herzog's Voyager Staff cancelled his opponent's removal spell, putting the Japanese player fatally behind on tempo.
Desperate, Saito transmuted for Galvanic Arc on Root-Kin Ally, but when Herzog didn't move it to the graveyard Saito looked surprised. Then his eye caught the Crown of Convergence, and next the Transluminant on the top of Herzog's deck. One embarrassed look later, it was time to extend the hand. Herzog had pulled out the 2-1 pod despite his loss to open the day, putting him in a tie for third place and a great shot at moving even higher if he could stay on pace.