Semifinals: Gadiel Szleifer vs. Steve Wolfman ($5,000): Looking for the Lockdown

Posted in Event Coverage on May 8, 2005

By Ted Knutson

That's a lot less hair since last we saw Gadiel in the Top 8.

Before this tournament, Gadiel asked the coverage staff to make two things clear. He first explained that he's tired of not getting credit for being a "small child." He just turned 16 on April 30, received his driver's license a week later, and is now in his second Pro Tour Top 8. He also wanted to make it clear that he's not one of the bad boys of Magic as he has been previously portrayed. He was only 14 when he wrote a tournament report about Pro Tour-New Orleans (his first), slagging numerous opponents including Nicholas Labarre and his "giant forehead."

Kids grow up, right? Since then he's worked on reforming his image by donating money to worthy causes, helping old ladies cross the street, and completely refraining from kicking puppies or clubbing baby seals. He even recently went through a large image makeover, turning into a normal, semi-preppy teenager instead of his previously scruffy, unkempt-looking self.

However, none of that has anything to do with the real story playing out here at the Pro Tour. Szleifer bypassed Jeff Novekoff in the quarterfinals in what was the shortest match by far in that round when Novekoff's deck simply refused to cough up the goods for Games 2 and 3, and assuring the teenager of his best finish thus far on the Tour.

Szleifer's opponent this round, old-school Canadian Steve "The Wolf" Wolfman, had a much tougher route here. He quickly fell behind 0-2 in his match against German Andre Mueller in the quarters, but was the fortunate recipient of a gift mistake in Game 5, and managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, while earning a place in the semifinals.

The deck matchup here clearly favors Szleifer's Gifts Ungiven Control deck, since it has Cranial Extractions and the Hana Kami/Ethereal Haze recursion right from the start. In order to win, Wolfman figured he would need a fast draw with some solid fat early and then hope Szleifer was a little bit unlucky with his removal draws in the later games.

Game 1

The first game started out like so many others this tournament. Early Sensei's Divining Top for both players plus Sakura-Tribe Elders and Kodama's Reached. In case you missed the memo in this weekend's coverage, the format is all about mana development, and the expulsion of the only two real aggro decks on Sunday during the quarterfinals further confirms the theory that the control decks appear to have a pretty big leg up in this format.

The players were all smiles at the start.

The first real spell of the game came from Wolfman when he cast a turn-five Yosei, which Gadiel responded to with a Gifts Ungiven for Cranial Extraction, Ethereal Haze, Hana Kami and Soulless Revival. Wolfman chose to send the Kami and the Extraction to the grumper, putting the other two cards in Gadiel's hand. Kodama's Reach splicing Soulless Revival put the Hana Kami in Gadiel's hand and gave him more mana, but he had to discard Meloku at the end of the turn, indicating to Wolfman just how loaded Gadiel's hand actually was.

Wolf tried to take advantage of Gadiel's mana situation by casting Hokori, but Sickening Shoal removing Kokusho made sure that plan went nowhere. Cranial Extraction for the rest of Wolfman's Yoseis came up big, stealing one from his hand and two more from his deck, while Gadiel had the Extraction loop fully online -- all he had to do at this point is get rid of the Yosei on the board to lock things up, but recur-able Ethereal Haze meant he was in no hurry. Another Extraction loop from Gadiel got rid of Myojin of Cleansing Fire, and Wolfman's kill conditions were slowly disappearing. Yosei got in for five, dropping Gadiel to 9, but the Haze loop meant that even an appearance from Meloku on Wolfman's board meant little for his ability to win.

"I'm just going to deck you with Cranial Extraction," was Gadiel's reply to Patron of the Kitsune, showing that attacking and life totals officially had nothing more to do with the this game. A few more turns and Wolfman agreed that his cause was hopeless, sending the match to Game 2.

Szleifer 1, Wolfman 0

Game 2

Yawn. Land, Top for both players to start Game 2 -- you've seen it all before, folks. Wolfman kicked things off with a pair of Elders, while Gadiel had just one, place him in an interesting position. His hand held two Horobi's Whisper and a Wear Away, while he had one each of Island, Forest, and Swamp on the board -- what land do you get?

The players didn't wilt under the hot lights.

Time of Need from Wolfman found Yosei, the Morning Star and Gadiel sacrificed his snake to grab a second Swamp from his deck and then passed his turn with no action. Wolfman continued to build his land advantage with Kodama's Reach, always leaving up mana for Hisoka's Defiance to prevent Szleifer from taking away his Extraction defense.

One Steve got to a position where he could cast Yosei and still have counterspell mana, that's exactly what the Wolf did. Gadiel had a spicy play of his own the next turn, putting a very threatening Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni into play on his side of the board, ready to steal any hot hits that might find their way to Wolfman's graveyard.

Horobi's Whisper downed the Orochi Sustainer that Wolfman left on defense, and Ink-Eyes smacked back for five, evening the life totals at fifteen a piece while stealing a Sakura-Tribe Elder from the Canadian's grumper. Another hit from Yosei changed that, but Gadiel was able to cast Gifts Ungiven at the end of Wolf's turn for Meloku, Stir the Grave, Soulless Revival, and Hana Kami, possibly tilting the scales heavily in the teenager's favor.

Defiance countered an Extraction, but that left Wolfman open to an attack by Ink-Eyes and Wear Away on Wolfman's Top splicing Horobi's Whisper targeting Yosei, all before damage was declared. Wolfman thought about it for a while before casting his second Hisoka's Defiance to counter that one, but the final Whisper accomplished the task, giving Gadiel an untapped dragon plus the ninja queen and leaving Wolfman with 10 life and only a single card in hand to deal with the situation.

Another Yosei from Wolfman left Gadiel tapped out and unable to untap for two turns, but Wolfman was locked under a Yosei turn of his own.

Yosei, the Morning Star

Luckily for Steve, his Top managed to find one of his remaining outs in Myojin of the Cleansing Fire, which got rid of Ink-Eyes and put him on the offensive with a 4/6 in play to Szleifer's nothing. Stir the Grave from Szleifer brought Meloku into play and once again put the Wolf under the gun with fewer and fewer options available to him.

Time of Need for a Meloku of his own got rid of the foppish Moonfolk Wizard, but he left behind a couple of illusions in his place, while Szleifer still had a righteous amount of firepower left in hand. Gadiel went all Guns n' Roses at this point, using his illusions one, two, and three to go aggro before beginning his Hana Kami loop again by casting another Kodama's Reach splicing Soulless Revival to bring the little spirit that could back to his hand. Meloku joined Wolf's Myojin, and again the tide seemed to turn in this titanic game.

Fortunately, having cards in hand is good, and Gadiel used Horobi's Whisper splicing Soulless Revival and another Whisper to get rid of Wolfman's legends and leave him with four illusions to Gadiel's three.

Amazingly, Wolfman's was able to keep his own hits coming, casting Kodama of the North Tree on the very next turn -- don't these guys ever run out of gas? Apparently not, as Wolfman was then able to find yet another Hisoka's Defiance on the top of his deck (he'd been keeping it there the whole time) to counter another Cranial Extraction.

Hokori, Dust Drinker from Wolfman looked to lock it up after Szleifer had Hazed away Steve's first attack, but Sickening Shoal removing Horobi's Whisper foiled that plan as well, and Gadiel finished things by attacking with his illusions on the next turn and then returning Ink-Eyes to his hand with Soulless Revival and ninja-ing her into play, dealing the last seven damage and putting Wolfman in another 0-2 hole, this time via one of the more incredible back-and-forth technical games of the tournament.

"I'd say I'm in good shape, but I know what happened last round," quipped the Chicago teenager.

Wolfman was helped by a top-decked Hisoka's Defiance.

"I needed that Defiance a turn earlier to have a chance, but I probably would have lost anyway -- your hand was full the whole game," Wolfman admitted.

Szleifer 2, Wolfman 0

Game 3

"Bleagh,"said Wolfman, looking at his opening seven. He chose to keep it though, while Szleifer shipped his no-land hand and wound up with one land plus Top, Elder, Kodama's Reach, but no green mana.

Wolfman came out much hotter and heavier on his side of the battle with a first-turn Genju of the Cedars and, second-turn Umezawa's Jitte, and third-turn Reach, taking an early lead that Meloku simply furthered. Then Gadiel clawed his way right back in things by finding some land, casting a Reach of his own, and then using Sickening Shoal removing Ink-Eyes to shut down Meloku before she even got started. Hokori from Wolfman shifted the pressure back to Gadiel in yet another crushing blow for this titanic ebb-and-flow match.

Orochi Sustainer tapped Wolfman out, signaling the way was clear for Szleifer to get rid of the legend with a Whisper and earn a real untap step again. Double Gifts, double Sickening Shoal resided in the teenager's hand after resolving another Reach, and he passed the turn waiting to see what Wolfman would do next.

The Canadian chose to swing with his Genju and drop another Hokori onto the table, hoping that just once the white boy target would survive for a turn or two and give the Wolf his first game win this match. Unfortunately for him, once again Gadiel had the answer, this time removing Sickening Shoal to cast Sickening Shoal and then casting Gifts Ungiven for Stir the Grave, Cranial Extraction, Soulless Revival and Hana Kami. The two revival spells went to Gadiel's hand, and the whirring of the thinking gears began.

With a three-counter Jitte on the board plus two men, Gadiel desperately needed help to survive the next turn. Cranial Extraction from the top of his deck was nice, but he needed a way to live through the next turn before ensuring that Wolfman couldn't disrupt the Haze loop.

Sending his Top to the top of his deck gave him a Horobi's Whisper, and he then sprang into action. Gadiel Extracted Hisoka's Defiance first and then simply passed the turn, content to know he would not die for at least one more turn thanks to his Whisper. Wolfman sent both of his men into the fray but chose not to use the Jitte at all, dropping Gadiel to 3 with the attack. Gifts Ungiven during Szleifer's next mainphase gave Wolfman the choice of Ethereal Haze, Cranial Extraction, Sickening Shoal, and Horobi's Whisper, basically giving him the option of death or death, should Szleifer's plan succeed.

Gifts Ungiven

Hana Kami marked the first play, and then Szleifer passed the turn. Wolfman activated his Genju and again pushed both of his men into the red zone. Shoal removing Whisper, splicing two Whispers dispatched the attack force, and suddenly Szleifer had the Haze lock in place if he wanted it. Cranial Extraction got rid of Yosei, the Morning Star, Stir the Grave put Hana Kami into play and that was all she wrote. America's kinder and gentler teenager moves on to the finals.

"I really thought I was going to lose that last game there," Gadiel said. "I had some incredibly lucky removal draws with the Top, but somehow my deck provided just what I needed."

Gadiel Szleifer sweeps Steve Wolfman 3-0, depositing a $5,000 chunk of cash into his bank account and earning him a seat in the Philadelphia finals.

Gadiel Szleifer

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Steven Wolfman

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