Even in this modern era of super-sized Grand Prix, there's no guarantee of an easy road to start the day. Take this match. On one side, hometown hero and 2008 Canadian National Champion Dan Lanthier, an odds-on favorite to do his country proud at this event. On the other, 14th Ranked Player Sam Black, for whom this event is just one stop on a road that ends at the World Championships in December.
The match started inauspiciously for Lanthier, who went down to five cards and missed his second land drop. He found land soon after, but his development was stunted. Black, meanwhile, played out a small army off just plains, two morphs and a 4/3 Abzan Battle Priest. It looked like he would run away with the game.
A fourth land for Lanthier let him summon the mighty High Sentinels of Arashin to go with his unexciting Gurmag Swiftwing. He had to take still more damage rather than risk it in combat when Black swung in with his Priest and a very suspicious morph. Lanthier untapped and prepared to meet Black's attack with mana untapped. Black sent the same two creatures. Lanthier pushed his High Sentinels in front of the morph. Black flipped up Ruthless Ripper, revealing Bitter Revelation. Lanthier took it down with a Murderous Cut. Still, he was low in the single digits.
Black hand some goodies in hand, but couldn't cast them with just plains. Timely Hordemate for Lanthier brought back the Skullhunter to steal another card. Black's deck served up a nice one - Rush of Battle - and he swung all out, but Lanthier refused to go quietly. His last card in hand was Take Up Arms, trio of surprise blockers to save his bacon. He survived and stablized the board, but just then Black found Scoured Barrens, unlocking his Bitter Revelation and subsequently the rest of his hand. Soon he had rebuilt his army and cast Incremental Growth, taking the first game.
Black 1 - Lanthier 0
In the second game Lanthier came off the blocks fast with Mardu Hateblade into Mardu Skullhunter, but Black had low drops to stop his life total spiralling out of control. Both players stalled on three mana, slowly developing their boards. Lanthier flew overhead with Gurmag Swiftclaw, soon joined by an unmorphed Watcher of the Roost. His fourth land enabled a very Timely Hordemate, bringing back his Skullhunter to poach another card from Black.
Black was just a half-step behind, building up his defences. He fell to twelve from the fliers then summoned Sultai Scavenger to hold the air. The Bellowing Brute that Lanthier had made in the meantime knocked Black to eight, and was joined by the mighty High Sentinels. Once again, Black's deck delivered the goods in a timely manner: Rush of battle. He turned all his creatures sideways: Chief of the Edge, Sultai Scavenger, Kin-Tree Warden, and Tuskguard Captain with two +1/+1 counters. All warriors.
"Seems like enough power that I can just see what happens," said Black with a laugh.
Yes, it feels like relaxing on Easy Street when you have that much surprise Lifelink. Lanthier blocked as best he could, keeping his Bellowing Brute, Gurmag Swiftwing and High Sentinels, but falling to four. Black was left with Tuskguard Captain and Sultai Scavenger.
"So you gain..." Lanthier counted it out on the board, "twenty-two."
He untapped and added a morph to his board. Black swung in with just his Tuskguard Captain. Lanthier did a quick gut-check and put his morph in front, then flipped up Ruthless Ripper, leaving him poised to take three trample. It succeeded. Black summoned Alabaster Kirin and passed. This gave Lanthier a chance to play the card he had shown: Sorin, Solemn Visitor. He upped his loyalty but decided to hang back on his creatures. It looked like the beginning of a miraculous comeback.
Black shot that dream down with his next draw: Siege Rhino.
Sam Black defeats Dan Lanthier 2-0
After the handshake the two discussed the first game, and in particular an error that Lanthier had made on the final attack and whether it mattered. They concluded that it didn't, but Black did think an alternate line was called for earlier.
"I think what you needed to do was block my morph with your 3/4 flier and your 1/2 flying first strike. That way if I have the deathtouch guy, I can't flip it up. I mean I had four mana, but what could I really have." Lanthier agreed that it was low-risk and he should've gone for it.
I bent Sam Black's ear briefly to ask him about what it's like coming to this Grand Prix with World Championships just around the corner.
"Um, stupid?" was his immediate response.
He's actually on something of a whirlwind tour, heading back from this event to cram more testing in before early Thanksgiving with his family. Early, because he needs to fly out on Friday in order to land in Strassbourg on Saturday in time to make his sleep-in-special at the Grand Prix. Immediately after that event ends, he flies to Nice.
Interestingly, he's chosen to prepare for the World Championship on his own. With so many of his teammates joining him as competitors, there's diminished returns on working with a large group. I asked him what it's been like. "A lot of hours on Magic Online. You know, without a big group you can't really test all the decks, so I'm just trying to focus on a few and pick the one that performs best. So, try a deck out, if it doesn't perform, toss it. If it does, keep testing it. If it's halfway there, get hooked into testing it more and run out of time to try other decks, and wind up audibling to something crazy at the last minute. Not the most efficient way to prepare."
He feels pretty confident on the Limited side of things. "Well I had already done a hundred and two Vintage Masters drafts, so I did my one hundred and third to get reacquainted. I can also sort of pretend that this event is practice for Khans Limited? Actually there's real value in playing live matches in a high-stakes event to get ready. It's very different, and you need that practice."