So this match-up is a big deal. I mean, sure there's a difference between the winner of Nationals and the Runner-Up – every time there's a card disagreement when planning for Worlds, the winner can just say, "I forgot, which one of us is the National Champion again? Oh, it's not you? I thought not." But between the third member on the team and the alternate is a different story. And that's not even mentioning that Worlds is on America's turf this year, so there's even more riding on the line.
Brandon Nelson knows about line-riding, coming so close to the train multiple times. This weekend marks the second time he had to make the Finals to get enough points for the next Pro level, and this is the second time he's finished Top 4. The saving grace is that he's completely psyched to represent Team USA. The Minnesota native has rocked this convention hall all weekend and he just needs to rock it a little more.
Here to crush his pitiful optimistic Rocky-like dreams is Texas' Haibing Hu. A long-time circuit player, Hu made his big-stage debut all the way back in Pro Tour—Nice in 2002. He has a fantastic story from that trip about German customs officers and emergency passports shipped from America. Ask him sometime. Luckily, since Worlds in on the home front, there should be less customs troubles this time around. Hu, in his Top 8 profile declared on a scale of 1 to 10, representing America was "maybe a 7." A 7?! For that, Hu, I'm openly rooting for Nelson. Whatcha going to do about it, America-hater? Haibing Hu? More like Haibing Boo!
The two shuffled up for the first game.
Hu won the die roll, and added to his card disadvantage by going down to six. He thought hard about his one-land hand before electing to keep. Brandon Nelson's less-suspect grip was Preordain, Mana Leak, Timely Reinforcements, Consecrated Sphinx, and three land. He kept in short order.
Like a total boss, Hu ripped an Island off the top to play a Squadron Hawk and act like it was never an issue. While, Nelson, for whom it actually never was an issue, passed the turn right back. Hu, failing to continue his boss-like land-drawing activities, spent the next few turns attacking for one, then discarding – first a Timely Reinforcements, then a Squadron Hawk. Speaking of the Reinforcements, Nelson made the totals 20-24 when he cast his own, backed by a Spell Pierce to answer Hu's.
Nelson sat on a Sphinx and three Mana Leak, while Hu had three of his own, though with an Oblivion Ring, Day of Judgment and another Hawk instead of the Sphinx. Hu hit his fourth land and threw Hawks at Hawks. It was 16-23, and it looked like Hu had drawn out of his land troubles, though he still didn't have the excess to pay for Mana Leaks the way Nelson had.
One Mana Leak down for Nelson on a Timely Reinforcements, but he declined on Hu's Day of Judgment to clear the board. Beware, Nelson! As Camus might say, "Don't wait for the Last Judgment; it happens every day." However, Nelson calmly followed up with a Gideon Jura and paid for Hu's insuing Mana Leak, so perhaps the Minnesota Magic player knows better than some old, dead French existentialist. Though the Planeswalker was promptly Ringed into Oblivion, Nelson paid nine mana for his Sphinx + Mana Leak the next turn and began drawing many, many cards.
Haibing Hu used his last Leak, his last card, to make Brandon Nelson pay extra to cast and equip his Sword of Feast and Famine. But for this game, those three Mana Leaks needed to be more effective than "Pay 3 more for your spells." Hu drew for his turn, saw Brandon was holding back six cards, and scooped up his own.
Brandon Nelson 1 – 0 Haibing Hu
I bet if we made Brandon score his excitement about Nationals on a 1-to-10 scale, he would say something like, "807," and stuff. You hear that Hu?! 807!
Nelson's keeper was Revoke Existence, Squadron Hawk, Spell Pierce, Day of Judgment, Timely Reinforcements and land. Whereas Hu's was Jace Beleren, Gideon Jura, Mana Leak and double Hawk. They jockeyed for position – Nelson casting Hawk after Hawk, Hu drawing off Jace the Smaller and using some 1/1 fliers of his own – until the scores were 15-20 in Nelson's favor.
It was now Nelson who was land-light, and making him pay two more for his Timely Reinforcements with a Spell Pierce allowed Hu to comfortably cast his Gideon Jura, make the Hawk and three 1/1s attack his new Planeswalker, and still leave two mana open. Nelson resolved a Sword of Feast and Famine but declined to equip it, leaving two mana up for Hu's turn. Hu finally gave Nelson a Revoke target in a Sword of his own. The two Pierced each other, then Hu equipped the sword to his only creature – the last Squadron Hawk not sitting in a graveyard. He made the totals 13-11 with a nine-point attack (Gideon hopped into the fray), cycled an Into the Roil on the opposing Sword, used Tectonic Edge on Nelson's, and passed the turn.
Nelson's soldiers took two loyalty counters off Gideon and the Revoke took down the Sword. The Minnesotan tried to Mana Leak Hu's Emeria Angel, but the last card in the Texan's hand was a Leak of his own. Nelson chuckled and the scores soon became 13-6.
Nelson still had the Day of Judgment and finally used it with Hu in top-deck mode. Nelson's two-card grip had that Sword and an Into the Roil. His off-the-top Gideon Jura was answered by Hu's off-the-top Consecrated Sphinx. The big flyer drew two for Hu before going back to his hand with the Roil. Hu took 8 and it was 7-6.
Nelson continued his board presence with Sun Titan returning Jace Beleren and drawing a card; Hu's Sphinx was appearing less and less awesome. Gideon, Titan and a Celestial Colonnade attacked, and Hu was forced to concede.
Brandon Nelson 2 – 0 Haibing Hu
Ok, Hu's still evil or whatever, but I think my allegiance is changing. I like rooting for the underdog. So I've ditched my whole "America-yeah" thing, because isn't rooting for the guy who's down 0-2 even more American, especially when that guy's from Texas? If you think about, I'm sure you'll see I'm right. Go, Haibing! Texans unite!
They both kept and would you believe Preordains and Hawks dominated the early game? Hu's three ruled the skies, because though Nelson Preordained twice, he was stuck without Land #4. He cast a defensive Hawk and passed with seven awesome cards in his hand, discarding yet another awesome card – Consecrated Sphinx.
The two continued like this until the graveyard was full with just about every Hawk. Hu, keeping up the land-pressure, Tectonic Edged his opponent as soon as he hit four mana and attacked until the scores were 13-20. After combat he cast an Emeria Angel, and when it was Mana Leaked with Nelson's last two mana, he thought for a bit about how to respond. He cracked his two fetches and used his own Almost-a-Counterspell with Mana Leak.
Nelson wasn't concerned. He tapped out for Gideon, forcing the Angel and Hawk to attack it, then on the following turn, made his Planewalker go down to two counters and assassinated the 3/3 token-maker. Hu made the scores 13 up when he tried to Dismember a fresh Hawk, and though it was Deprived, he had the Deprive of his own to make -5/-5 a reality. His Hawk and bird token took the last two counters off Gideon. Nelson cast his Sword then sunk to 11.
With a Mana Leak, Revoke and Oblivion still left in his grip, he animated the Celestial Colonnade, only to have it Dismembered. It was 9-9, and Hu attacked for two a turn with his flying 1/1s. Into the Roil and Timely Reinforcements were waiting in the wings. 7-9, 5-9, O-Ring removes Nelson's Jura and Mana Leak saves it from Into the Roil, 3-9, 1-9….
Brandon Nelson drew off the top. It was the last turn he had to find an answer.
He didn't find it.
Brandon Nelson 2 – 1 Haibing Hu
See? Rootin' for the underdog. Oh yeah.
Tectonic Edge, Emeria Angel, Mana Leak and land was good enough for Hu, but Nelson had higher aspirations, so he went down to six. He was happy to Preordain into two lands immediately after keeping a hand with only one, and the first four turns passed without significance.
Hu's first play was a Squadron Hawk, which was Mana Leaked, which was Mana Leaked, which was Spell Pierced. The white creature went to the bin. His next play of Emeria Angel at least made a token before having her limbs torn off by a Dismember.
Hu eventually got his Hawk wish, and Spell Pierced the kicked Into the Roil that tried to make his token disappear. Nelson trailed 13-19, but had Timely Reinforcements after Hu's Jace that evened the battlefield and the score. Hu then traded two Hawks and a bird token for three soldier tokens. Soon it was a Hawk and a Jace versus Nelson's shiny new Gideon with eight counters.
Brandon had five land so he would have to tap out to Swords up his Gideon Jura. The remainder of his hand was a Day of Judgment, a Dismember and an Oblivion Ring. He kept all five land open and attacked Jace with his 'walker. Hu Dismembered the attacker down to a 1/1 so it only brought the blue dude to two counters.
Hu had nine land, including two Celestial Colonnades, one of which attacked into the 7-loyalty Gideon. Nelson returned the Dismembering favor, but he was able to actually kill his target. It was 14-11 and Gideon took up the Sword and attacked Hu's face. The last Hawk gladly jumped to the rescue, as Hu's last three cards in hand were just more land. Thankfully, he drew a Gideon off the top to clear the other one, and his Jace was looking stronger than a creature-less Sword.
The extra cards drew him into a Consecrated Sphinx and then those extra cards drew him into the Mana Leak to protect it from Day of Judgment, as Nelson still had only six land and was unable to pay the extra cost. Two Swords came down and Haibing Hu makes his opponent go to a last game. This game had been all about land draws. Well, land draws and some timely non-land ones.
Brandon Nelson 2 – 2 Haibing Hu
Ok, so now Hu is no longer the underdog, so my allegiance has switched yet again. This time, it's for America. Whoever wins this game, it's a win for America! USA! USA! USA!
They both kept their openers to make for an honest rubber game. Hu's opening Colonnade left a nook for Squadron Hawk to fill for Nelson's second turn. And hey, what do you know, the next turns consist of land-drops, trading Squadron Hawks, and making better draws with Preordain.
Counter battles and Hawks attacks made the score 16-15, with Nelson ahead in life but behind on board. He tried to at least get a hold of the battlefield with a Timely Reinforcements, but a kicked Into the Roil by Hu on his own Hawk, backed up by a Mana Leak on a Mana Leak denied any creature change.
Hu got no extra cards from his new Consecrated Sphinx with an upkeep-step Into the Roil. Nelson tried to Deprive the biggie on the way back down, but Hu had the Spell Pierce. Nelson had drawn into another Into the Roil, so he was able to delay the 4/5 while cycling through his deck, but he was getting frustrated. When his Mana Leak tried to take out the Sphinx on its third time down, Hu's defensive leak made Brandon all-out mad. Did Hu draw every single counterspell?!
"Attack." Nelson sent in the 1/1 Flyer into the 4/5.
Hu chuckled. "No blocks." It was 13-13 when Nelson's Day of Judgment cleared the board.
Nelson had two cards to Hu's six, and he was watching his 2-0 lead, and a spot on the Nationals team slipping away. His Hawk looked sickly compared to Hu's hawk with a big ol' Sword attached. It had been a long weekend, a long match, and a long game. The graveyards were almost as tall as the libraries, and there were still both above 10 life and the largest creature on the board was a base 1/1.
He held his breath.
It resolved. He picked himself up and drew two cards on his opponent's draw step. Hu activated one of his three Celestial Colonnades, tried to equip the Sword to it, and still had mana left over to Spell Pierce Nelson's Dismember. Nelson sunk to 2, discarded his last card, and drew off the top, hanging his head again.
It was an Island. He laid it, representing enough to activate one of his two Colonnades, and passed back to Hu. Hu again activated the land, but equipped the Sword to the Hawk and swung with both. This is when a judge decision came that affected the entire match.
It was ruled that Hu had waited too long after Nelson placed his animated his Colonnade and Nexus in front of his attackers, to have any responses before blocks. The judge asked Hu to make it clear in the future when he was or was not prepared to enter the next step in combat. This meant that both his creatures were blocked when he Dismembered the Colonnade to save his Hawk. Neither player was sure of it, but this play changed the outcome of the match. Nelson drew cards, still at two life, and on Hu's next attack, animated his second Colonnade.
"Let me think about that," Hu clearly stated, and then he said, "Go ahead."
2-5. Nelson had drawn so many extra cards from the Sphinx it was ridiculous, and facing down two Colonnades and the suited Hawk, and way too close for comfort, drew a Jace into an Inkmoth Nexus. Hu passed without attacking; his two Colonnades were susceptible to the two Tectonic Edges of Nelson. Nelson now had so many cards he was back to discarding. Before doing so he played a Swords and Hu's two Colonnades bit the dust. It was a Hawk with a Sword against a Sphinx with a Sword (and a Jace).
This game was getting ridiculous. Nelson had somehow, some way, clawed back into it and after drawing land after land with his extra Sphinx cards, he finally started drawing gobs of goodies. We'd entered the stage where both players constantly counted libraries and graveyards. Nelson had eleven cards left to draw. This would be the last turn of the match.
On Nelson's attack step, Hu cast Divine Offering on the Swords, then took the damage. It was now 2-4. Nelson lost his possible blocker for the last Hawk when Hu sacrificed Tectonic Edge to kill Inkmoth Nexus. Nelson had an Into the Roil, Spell Pierce, and Mana Leak all sitting in his hand. He used the Nexus mana on an Into the Roil for the attacker. And when Hu Mana Leaked, Nelson counted his opponent's graveyard and considered his options for the last three mana – whether to tap out and save the other counters, or to use one and keep some land untapped.
He thought, re-counted graveyards, saw there were no more Spell Pierces nor Mana Leaks left in Hu's deck. Every single one of them had been spent. He counted again to be sure. Yup, three Pierces, four Mana Leaks. Hu was all out of counters!
Nelson confidently tapped out to pay for the Mana Leak.
He immediately regretted it.
Faster than a Sudden Shock, Hu tapped two mana and slammed the one card Nelson forgot. The only card that could make his play the wrong one. Hu lifted his hand from the table, revealing to all the onlookers just what he was so excited about. A huge gasp fell across the room. It was Deprive. The one-of Deprive.
Nelson was in shock. After this whole weekend, how could it come down to forgetting about one measly sideboard card in a match-up he had started at 2-0? When he composed himself, he extended his hand and one of the most tense CawBlade mirrors ever played, finished in style.
Haibing Hu 3 – 2 Brandon Nelson
And we have a Texan on the U.S. Nationals team. Congratulations to both players! An outstanding match to cap off an outstanding weekend.