Semifinals: The Best Limited Player Alive

Posted in Event Coverage on February 17, 2008

By Zac Hill

Zac is a former game designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast and was the lead developer for Dragon's Maze. His articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Believer, and on Currently he serves as the chief operating officer of The Future Project, a nonprofit education initiative, and holds a position as a research affiliate in the MIT Game Lab.

It's hard to believe that Jon Finkel could make more history. The one-time unquestionable best player in the world had done it all by the time he walked off the stage at his last Top 8 in 2003. With a resume like his, a Hall of Fame spot was inevitable, his induction nearly unanimous. But with poor performances in Prague and a no-show in Kobe, many people felt that Jonny Magic had lost his touch.

Jon Finkel employs The Stare.The New York Magic community, however, knew otherwise. "He's the best Limited player alive," declared Pro Tour up-and-comer Steve Sadin, a regular at the legendary "Finkel drafts" that Jon would host at his downtown Manhattan apartment. No one listened. Without results, without finishes, Finkel's name seemed relegated to the dustbin of forgotten history—a legend, certainly, but a legend whose time had passed.

Enter Kuala Lumpur. Now, shuffling up his deck in the semifinals, Jon Finkel's name will once again be etched into stone as the first "retired" Hall of Famer to make the Top 8 of a Pro Tour after being inducted, and another championship is well within his grasp. His relentless Kithkin deck, featuring a mana curve that would warm Dave Price's heart and a host of card drawing that would embarrass most 60-card control decks, is a testament to his knowledge of the format. This trip across the globe wasn't a passing errand, a casual trip to visit friends and sling cards in the tropics. Jon Finkel came to play.

Of course, Marcio Carvalho doesn't care about the legend. All the record books in the world won't change the fact that his streamlined Treefolk deck is a machine, filled to the brim with large creatures, tutor effects, and efficient removal—not to mentioned the brutal Leaf-Crowned Elder, a Mind's Desire on legs whose massive toughness could prove difficult for Finkel's smaller Kithkin to breach. All of that is to say nothing of the pilot, Marcio himself, whose World Championship Top 8 came long after Finkel fell off the face of the earth, and whose consistent Grand Prix record reveals a contemporary knowledge of how Magic works today. If Finkel advances, it won't be easy.

Both players shuffled up briskly and kept their seven-card hands. As Finkel presented his deck, he remarked to Scott Johns about the lack of official table judges at Top 8 matches.

"Are you a judge?" he asked me as he looked around for other people in bright-colored floral shirts. I responded in the negative, and Finkel looked confused.

"It's a different world than when we played, Jon," Scott replied with a knowing nod. "The players are responsible now." The parallel between the old and new guard could hardly resonate more, as Finkel readied himself for an epic contest against a player of a different generation. He appeared uncomfortable at first, but a shrug of his shoulders and a shake of his head signaled that, whatever generation gap may or may exist, Jon Finkel was ready to play.

Game 1

Finkel won the die roll and came out of the gates strong with a Kithkin Greatheart. An awkward second-turn Kithkin Harbinger from Carvalho fetched a Bosk Banneret, but a Kinsbaile Skirmisher from Finkel allowed his Greatheart to get in past the Harbinger for three. He missed his third land drop, however, and could only pass the turn. Carvalho capitalized on the opening with the Banneret he had just searched up, and another Skirmisher again allowed the Greatheart to deliver three points to Carvalho's dome. The life totals stood 14 – 20 in favor of Finkel, but as he missed yet another land drop his head sank ever so slightly in frustration. A Leaf-Crowned Elder from Carvalho only emphasized the hiccup, and the army of Treefolk threatened to gum up the ground until Carvalho's inevitability prevailed.

With nigh a land drop to be had, Finkel could do nothing but send in the team. Carvalho elected not to block with his Elder, perhaps fearing a Coordinated Barrage from Finkel, and instead blocked the Greatheart with a Harbinger. Finkel's Surge of Thoughtweft cleared out the Harbinger and pushed through even more damage—Carvalho was at 8 after the combat—but Finkel still had yet to find a third land even after the draw from the Surge. Carvalho, seeing Finkel tapped out, took the opportunity to attack with his Elder before playing an Everbark Shaman.

Finkel took a deep breath, surveyed the field, studied his options. Provided he didn't get buried under the card and tempo advantage of the Leaf-Crowned Elder, Finkel's full hand would ensure that he had action once he started to draw lands. He finally decided to play a Weight of Conscience on the Elder and remove it from the game by tapping a Kithkin Greatheart and a Kinsbaile Skirmisher. He passed the turn.

Carvalho continued to up the pressure by attacking with Everbark Shaman and adding a Cloudcrown Oak to the table, threatening to neuter Finkel's fliers even if Finkel could find lands. Unfortunately for Carvalho, Finkel finally found a third land and played Preeminent Captain—a one-card answer to his mana problems, provided that it survived. A simple pass of the turn from Carvalho signaled a shift in momentum, and the tide appeared to be turning in Finkel's favor.

Marcio Carvalho stares right back.Finkel, though, neglected to attack and simply passed the turn. Carvalho, finding an opening, announced a Thorntooth Witch for five mana, courtesy of an Everbark Shaman activation on Finkel's end step, a Banneret, and a newly played Fertile Ground that provided the missing black mana. He passed. Finkel tapped Carvalho's Cloudcrown Oak on his end step with a Pestermite, and sent in the team.

Carvalho considered his options carefully. Finkel put a Kinsbaile Balloonist into play with the Captain, and so Carvalho faced ten points of attacking damage. Carvalho blocked Preeminent Captain and Kithin Greatheart with his Treefolk and fell to 2. A Coordinated Barrage finished off the Witch, and Finkel made a Goldmeadow Harrier. Carvalho attempted to stabilize with an Oblivion Ring and a Nameless Inversion—and fell to 1 from mana burn, forgetting that Bosk Banneret reduces the cost of the Inversion—but he could find no answers to Finkel's Mulldrifter the following turn.

Finkel 1, Carvalho 0

Between rounds it became clear that Finkel's mind games were getting to Marcio. Finkel stared straight ahead, attempting to meet Carvalho's eyes, but Carvalho merely looked down at his deck and shuffled. "Mind just looking up when you shuffle me?" Finkel asked once they exchanged decks, and Carvalho had no idea what to do with his eyes. Gazing off into the distance he announced his intention to play, and the players were on to Game 2 of the semifinals.

Game 2

Carvalho led with a Gilt-Leaf Palace, while Finkel blazed out of the gates with a Goldmeadow Stalwart, revealing Kithkin Greatheart. Carvalho developed his board with a Fertile Ground while Finkel made a Greatheart and attacked for 2. A third-turn Cloudcrown Oak from Carvalho halted Finkel's offense, and even though Finkel had the Disperse to press his tempo advantage he missed his third land drop. Carvalho deployed a Forest, replayed his Oak, and passed the turn at a comparatively comfortable 14 life.

Finkel's Kithkin Zephyrnaut waited outside the Red Zone with the rest of his team as he shipped the turn, and Carvalho pressed his advantage with a Thorntooth Witch. Carvalho's sizable grip meant that, unanswered, the Witch would start going to work on Finkel's army if he was allowed to untap with it. Finkel drew and attacked with all of his creatures. Carvalho blocked with the Oak, and Finkel took it down with a Surge of Thoughtweft and a reinforced Mosquito Guard. Carvalho fell to 8, but managed to untap with his Thorntooth Witch still intact.

A Weed-Pruner Poplar from Carvalho took care of the Zephyrnaut along with his reinforcements, and all Finkel could manage in response were a Wizened Cenn and a Preeminent Captain—powerful cards, but awkward ones with an active Witch in play. Carvalho targeted the Greatheart with his Weed-Pruner, and a Skeletal Changeling took down both the Cenn and the Greatheart thanks to a hearty serving of Witch's brew. Even a Mulldrifter from Finkel's side couldn't get him back in the game. Carvalho attacked for 10, putting Finkel at 10, and Finkel scooped his cards once a Bog-Strider Ash offed his Drifter.

Carvalho 1, Finkel 1

Game 3

Finkel elected to play first and led off with a turn two Kinsbaile Skirmisher. Carvalho's lack of turn-two plays let Finkel capitalize on his tempo advantage, and a precombat Wizened Cenn left Carvalho at 17, his empty board facing down 5 power worth of Kithkin.

Be my guest.A Plains from Carvalho allowed him to Oblivion Ring Finkel's Wizened Cenn, and Finkel could only attack for two on his next turn. Carvalho fell to 15. For the first time in the series Finkel hit four land drops in a row, and his Latchkey Faerie put Carvalho on a quick evasive clock even without the prowl. Carvalho's fourth-turn Leaf-Crowned Elder threatened to gum up the ground, but a Disperse plus a Kinsbaile Skirmisher from Finkel left Carvalho at 9 and an empty board once again.

Electing not to recast his Elder, Carvalho played an Elvish Harbinger and searched up Nameless Inversion. The attack back from Finkel all but necessitated a block, but Carvalho's Fistful of Force ensured his Harbinger would live to fight another day. Finkel kept his clash of Goldmeadow Harrier, Carvalho kept the Nameless Inversion and fell to 4. Finkel matched Carvalho's Harbinger with one of the Kithkin variety, beckoning forth a Kinsbaile Balloonist, and passed the turn.

Carvalho yet again summoned the Leaf-Crowned Elder and passed the turn. Finkel cracked back in the air for 3, putting Carvalho to 1, and cast his freshly-drawn Balloonist. It met a Nameless Inversion on Finkel's end step.

On his upkeep, Carvalho played a Gilt-Leaf Ambush to dig for an answer to Latchkey Faerie, and found one in Lys Alana Bowmaster. The Bowmaster traded with the Latchkey Faerie on Finkel's turn, and a Distant Melody drew him into a Mulldrifter that attacked for lethal before Carvalho could muster anything beyond a Black Poplar Shaman.

Finkel 2, Carvalho 1

Between games, nothing was clearer than the fact that this isn't the Finkel of Prague. The man wants a victory. Carvalho said something which Finkel didn't understand, backpedaled when pressed about it, and fell silent. Tension hung thick in the air as both players kept their hands.

Game 4

Carvalho leads off with a Treefolk Harbinger, but after shuffling and presenting a judge instructed him to further randomize his deck. Finkel obliged and performed the operations himself before matching the Harbinger with a Goldmeadow Stalwart. A Bosk Banneret from Carvalho could do nothing about Finkel's incoming Skirmisher pump, and Carvalho fell to 17.

For two games in a row Carvalho had an early Leaf-Crowned Elder, and a swing from the Banneret left Finkel at a comfortable 19. Finkel's Weight of Conscience took care of the Elder, but afforded Carvalho four damage and a bit of room to breathe. Carvalho capitalized on the extra room with a Seedguide Ash, but Finkel answered with a Balloonist and Carvalho couldn't muster up any evasion. An attack from Seedguide Ash put Finkel at 15, but Carvalho could only produce a Black Poplar Shaman as a followup. Finkel's attack put Carvalho to 13, and a Kithkin Harbinger brought a Wizened Cenn to the top of his deck. Carvalho could only attack back and pass the turn. Finkel summoned the Cenn and took Carvalho to 7, and a Pestermite on Carvaho's end step was enough to take the game and match.

In the first three games, Carvalho's removal managed to at least contain if not fully control Finkel's air force, but without Cloudcrown Oaks and Lys Alana Bowmasters for Finkel's Faeries and Balloonists, Carvalho was ill-equipped for a race.

Finkel 3, Carvalho 1

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