Here at the quarterfinals of the U.S. National Championships Brandon Nelson sat down ready to square off against Luis Scott-Vargas. In some respects this best of five match would be the most important of all the matches for the players in the top 8. The winner would at least become the alternate National Team member, while the loser would have to content themselves with the prize and Pro Points, but no Worlds invite. That Luis Scott-Vargas already has an invite did not dampen his desire to win in the slightest. For Brandon Nelson, a win would qualify the Midwest grinder for Worlds, and put him in a nice spot Pro Points-wise to be able to make a run on the latter portions of the season.
It would be Brandon Nelson going first in this match, thanks to his position within the Swiss part of the event.
Neither player had a mulligan, and while Brandon started on a series of dual-lands, Luis was content with a Beta Island and a Beta Plains. Each player was cagey about running much out there too soon – resolving that first Squadron Hawk can be quite important if you are ever to form a flock. A Tectonic Edge from Brandon took out Celestial Colonnade from Luis, and soon after there was more Tectonic Edge action, as each player went after more man-lands.
The first real spell of the game, barring a Preordain or two, was a Sword of Feast and Famine from Luis, who thanks to Tectonic Edge activations was down to just three basic lands. It was hit by a Spell Pierce, and this gave Brandon the opportunity to get a Squadron Hawk on the board. A second Sword of Feast and Famine did stick for Luis, but he could only look on as Brandon cast a Gideon Jura, and immediately used its +2 ability.
Luis, slightly on the back foot due to his mana issues, cast a Timely Reinforcements, for 6 life and three tokens (represented by the rather spiffy 'Ancestral LSV' tokens that ChannelFireball debuted at Gencon Indianapolis 2011. Brandon fired right back with one of his own, and thanks to another Gideon Jura +2, he was able to force many of the tokens to trade off.
Both players had more than the 20 life they had started with, and it was Brandon who had threats on the board to go about changing that. Luis used a Mana Leak to stop extra Squadron Hawk woes, but had no answer to Nelson's own Mana Leak when it stopped Emeria Angel. Brandon looked to press his advantage, casting a Jace Beleren to draw a card (with the -1 abililty) and then attacking with his team, including Gideon, to put Luis to 13. Still more Tectonic Edges from Brandon set Luis back down to three lands, and left the ChannelFireball pro in rough shape to get back in the game.
In a desperation move, Luis used two copies of Dismember in an attempt to off Gideon. They were successful, but attacks left LSV on just two life. He'd need a Day of Judgment to stay in the game, and when it didn't come, he packed in his cards.
Brandon Nelson 1 – 0 Luis Scott-Vargas
Game Two began much as game 1 had, without early plays from either competitor, barring Tectonic Edge activations to take down multi-lands. Luis got a few swings in with Inkmoth Nexus, but was content to hold back from casting actual spells. He played out a second Nexus, and in spite of the potential for Celestial Colonnade's ability to animate and block, he was happy to attack with one. Brandon didn't bite, going to three poison.
For Nelson's turn, he played an Inkmoth Nexus of his own. Would this end LSV's poisonous onslaught? Luis did have a different plan, casting Gideon Jura as his first spell of the game, with three lands up to cast spells to protect it. The planeswalker resolved, and immediately gained a couple of loyalty.
The answer from Nelson was not a counterspell, but an Oblivion Ring on his turn, which resolved without incident. Each player now had so many lands that the bulk of the countermagic that either might present would be hard pressed to achieve much. Nelson resolved a Sword of Feast and Famine. Luis' response was to fire back with Into the Roil on that Oblivion Ring, and to follow up with an Emeria Angel. It took two copies of Mana Leak to stop the angel. Two more that Luis would not need to worry about.
Oblivion Ring came back to deal with Gideon, the one non-land permanent that LSV controlled. Inkmoth Nexus then got animated and equipped to deal 3 poison to LSV, and force him to discard a Day of Judgment. Brandon passed confidently with all his lands untapped. The only play from Luis was a tapped Celestial Colonnade, and when Nelson cast Squadron Hawk, it was able to fetch three more copies without incident.
Luis went for the haymaker; Consecrated Sphinx. With three mana up and five more cards left in hand, he seemed confident in his play, which Brandon only had one Mana Leak for. What Brandon also had though was an Into the Roil with kicker. No cards for Luis just yet.
Sensing a good spot to get stuck in, Brandon animated his Celestial Colonnade, and attacked with it and an equipped Squadron Hawk. The first real damage of the game, it put LSV to 12, from the 19 he'd been at thanks to an Arid Mesa early in the game.
As quickly as Brandon filled the board with copies of Squadron Hawk, Luis cleared it with a Day of Judgement. The fourth hawk came along, and got equipped. There was enough mana left over, that Nelson could even cast Deprive on Consecrated Sphinx when LSV tried again to get the big flyer into play.
Brandon swung with an equipped Squadron Hawk, and Inkmoth Nexus, putting LSV to 9 life and 4 poison. A second Consecrated Sphinx got hit by another Into the Roil, keeping Luis very much on the back foot. More attacks put LSV at 6 life and 5 poison. A post-combat Gideon Jura from Nelson looked as though it could lock the whole game up. Luis finally got to resolve his Sphinx, and draw some more cards, but on low life it was unclear if he'd have the luxury of time to get back in the game even if he had the cards to do it.
Brandon Nelson 2 – 0 Luis Scott-Vargas
If this were a match anywhere outside the top 8 of this competition, it would all be over. However, in this top 8, with best of five matches, there was still the potential for Luis to get right back in the match, by rattling off three straight wins. He would be on the play again for game 3, ready to start his fight back.
LSV had a lot of copies of Celestial Colonnade to begin game three, and an early Sword of Feast and Famine, which resolved. Next up was an Emeria Angel, which met a a Mana Leak. Luis had perhaps been a little greedy in casting the angel before playing his Beta Island, as it left him without the mana required to Leak back. That said, it seemed likely that the game would go on for long enough that he would get other targets for it, and had the Angel resolved, immediately getting value from it could have been a deciding factor in the game.
Luis was aggressive in throwing out questions to Nelson, having a Jace Beleren next, whose -1 ability drew LSV a card. The following turn it drew both players a card, before another Emeria Angel came down, this time resolving without incident. It died to a Dismember, but not before giving Luis a bird token.
A Timely Reinforcements from Nelson brought his life total back up again, and allowed Nelson to get a bit of board presence. None of those soldiers could block an equipped bird token though, forcing Nelson to discard a Preordain, and allowing LSV to untap his lands. He slammed down a second Sword of Feast and Famine, which got hit by Deprive, not that Scott-Vargas really seemed to mind.
Nelson kept Jace in check a little with attacks, while Luis went for it with an Azure Mage. In combination with a Sword of Feast and Famine attacker, this had the potential to allow LSV to draw well ahead in the race to draw a lot of cards, and forced Brandon to chump block a 3/3 bird with an Inkmoth Nexus. He tried for Into the Roil on the sword, to finish off that bird token, but was thwarted by a Spell Pierce.
Nelson finally killed Jace off, but was faced with different ways in which Luis could draw cards. An Oblivion Ring took out Sword of Feast and Famine, and at end of turn, LSV drew his first extra card with Azure Mage. A Gideon Jura with +2 looked set to lock up the red zone for Brandon for a while, and Nelson did everything he could to swiftly deal with the planeswalker, animating an Inkmoth Nexus and casting a Squadron Hawk to add to his team. Luis simply kept using the +2 ability, and passed with lands up to draw more cards.
Nelson's attacks only got Gideon to 1 loyalty, as LSV was willing to throw out an Inkmoth Nexus to block. At end of turn he used Into the Roil with kicker on Oblivion Ring, to get back his sword, and drew a card with Azure Mage. Now was the time to get aggressive. Luis equipped his Azure Mage, cast a few copies of Squadron Hawk, and got stuck in. He had just enough mana up to Mana Leak an attempted Into the Roil on Azure Mage, meaning that his attacks connected, and he could cast Jace Beleren, draw a card with him, +2 Gideon, and pass with five mana up. Brandon was at 15 still, but did not seem excited about the position he was in.
Luis traded off Squadron Hawks with most of Nelson's board, and simply nodded as Oblivion Ring again took out Sword of Feast and Famine. He had Jace Beleren, Azure Mage, and soon made it a trifecta of card drawing options with a Consecrated Sphinx. Two out of three of these died to a Day of Judgment, after which Nelson tapped out for Sword of Feast and Famine.
Luis' deck was looking quite thin at this point, but this did not stop him from casting Preordain. He resolved another Conundrum Sphinx to dig further, before sending Gideon to attack, taking Nelson to 9 life. While Brandon did have a Consecrated Sphinx of his own, he'd tapped down low enough to cast it that he couldn't stop an Into the Roil clearing the way for a lethal attack.
Brandon Nelson 2 – 1 Luis Scott-Vargas
Both players kept for game four, and again neither player launched into casting spells until they had quite a bit of land in play. Tectonic Edge from Luis took out a Celestial Colonnade, but in terms of honest to goodness spells, there was just a turn 3 Preordain from Luis before a turn 7 Squadron Hawk from Scott Vargas, with three lands up. Once one hawk landed, it seemed to Nelson a good time to deploy one of his own.
A Jace Beleren from LSV met a Spell Pierce, which LSV could pay for while still having mana up to cast Preordain. Tapped out, Luis traded hawks with Nelson when Nelson went for Jace, and looked on as another Hawk entered the battlefield for his opponent. He had two of his own, ready to protect Jace.
Hawks gradually traded off, and the additional card drawing from LSV started to kick in, as he was able to hit all his land drops in a way that his opponent was not. Given the way that counterspells function in this matchup, with most being conditional counters, that extra mana would prove very valuable. A Sword of Feast and Famine from Luis let him be a little more aggressive, though Nelson did have the Into the Roil to keep things honest for a while.
Jace finally succumbed, but by this point LSV had Azure Mage to keep his grip full. With 7 lands to his opponent's four, he had the luxury of options. Azure Mage fell to a Dismember, but Luis still had plenty of action. He equipped his hawk and got stuck in. An Into the Roil on the sword meant that Nelson only took 1, going to 15.
Nelson played a land and passed, looking on as Gideon Jura with a +2 joined LSV's side of the team. LSV had the Mana Leak ready when an end of turn Into the Roil with kicker tried to bounce the planeswalker, and a Spell Pierce for the Mana Leak that Nelson held.
Now that LSV was tapped out, Nelson took the time to land a Consecrated Sphinx. However, in upkeep LSV had an Into the Roil to stop Nelson drawing any cards. The Sphinx that LSV landed both drew him cards, and was enough to put the game away attacking alongside Gideon.
Brandon Nelson 2 – 2 Luis Scott Vargas
In more normal circumstances, each of these 2-0 runs would have been a match. Here at U.S. nationals, with a best of five top eight, there would be one more game, to decide it all.
"Maybe we'll see a turn 2 Hawk for the first time this match" joked LSV, of the fact that most games the 'Caw' noises didn't break out until turn 5 or later. He seemed buoyed by having clawed back from an 0-2 start. Just one game to go.
For that deciding game, Luis was on a mulligan, and looked on at a turn one (!) Preordain from Nelson. There was the turn two hawk as well, which LSV could match. The beats would be a little faster this game.
The first hawks traded, but there were plenty more to come. What there weren't more of for LSV though were lands, as he missed his third land drop.
With Brandon getting up to five lands in play before LSV had found his third, it was a despondent face that Luis presented as watched Hawks and a Jace Beleren come down for Nelson. He eventually got an Inkmoth Nexus as a third land, but by this time there was a Gideon Jura staring him down.
An Into the Roil bounced Gideon, after a small counterspell scuffle where a Spell Pierce from Nelson was stopped by Mental Misstep. As Nelson continued to lay lands, and recast Gideon, Scott-Vargas' leg began to jiggle. He was in deep, and he knew it. An Azure Mage from Luis was killed off by Dismember, and Nelson started applying the beats with both Gideon and two Inkmoth Nexus. Luis used this opportunity to send two Nexus of his own at Jace, but took a huge hit as Nelson played a sword, equipped to Gideon and swung.
Nelson had a Mana Leak in hand, and that was enough to stop any last defence that LSV might have. Luis, gracious in defeat, extended his hand.
Brandon Nelson defeats Luis Scott-Vargas 3-2, advancing to the semi-finals.