by Randy Buehler
Two of the best players in the history of the game. The consensus best player in the world versus the consensus most hated player in the world. Last year's player of the Year versus last year's Invitational winner. It may be the case that every match at this tournament is a feature match, but this one was a little bit more special. This one was Jon Finkel against Mike Long.
Both players were 3-2 yesterday and each needed a win to stay solidly in contention. Mike was also trying to 3-0 this format with a black/blue control deck that was designed by Brian Schneider near the end of the Rath block PTQ season. Jon was running the Living Death deck that he used to great effect early in that season, effectively defining the format. Finkel had to mulligan game 1 and he failed to top-deck the land he needed in order to Lobotomy Mike before Mike was able to counter it. Mike also had trouble drawing land, but he did have Forbid with buyback running to prevent Jon from doing anything useful.
Mike drew his one token Scroll rack and used it to establish pretty solid control of the game until Finkel drew his Volrath's Stronghold. Finkel proceeded to work Mike by putting Thrull Surgeon on top of his library every turn and stripping all the permission out of Mike's hand. Mike saw this coming as soon as the Stronghold hit the table and he rapidly went into beatdown mode, activating 2 Stalking Stones and killing Jon's creatures in combat. If Jon could get off just one Living Death, the game would be over. Jon took the last counter out of Mike's hand and then cast the Living Death. Mike activated Scroll rack, looking at just two new cards, but one of them was the Counterspell he needed! That allowed him to attack one more time before Finkel could cast the other Death in his hand and that one last attack phase was just enough to win the game.
One of Mike's greatest strengths as a player is his ability to play both control decks and beatdown decks. More importantly, he often chooses to run decks that can be played in either fashion. Hit knack for seeing exactly when to "go beatdown" and when to play control is uncanny and is responsible for much of his success.
Game 2 showed the power of mana acceleration. Finkel's Mox Diamond, coupled with the fact that he was going first, allowed him to play both Survival of the Fittest and Recurring Nightmare before Mike got his second land onto the table. Mike did get to Lobotomy away Finkel's Recurring nightmares, but it didn't matter, Finkel's fast Verdant and then an oath of Ghouls were way too much for Mike to recover from.
Long got to go first in game 3 and Finkel didn't have a Mox Diamond. That gave the game a totally different pace. Long had up 2 blue before Finkel could cast any threats and Long Mana Leaked Finkel's turn 2 Hermit Druid. Finkel then played Volrath's Stronghold -- the card that almost won him game 1. Long played a Scroll Rack and came up with a Wasteland to blow it up before Finkel could use it more than once. Jon then played a 2nd Stronghold, but Mike Intuitioned for his other three Wastelands and destroyed it too. The Intuition even reshuffled his library, thus refreshing his Scroll Rack.
Jon managed to get a Hermit Druid and a Survival of the Fittest into play while all this was going on, but once Long used Scroll rack to defend his permission from Thrull Surgeon and countered Jon's Oath of Ghouls, Finkel was left without any way to abuse Survival or Hermit Druid. Mike played extremely carefully throughout the game and never tapped himself out. He even let Jon have an active Tradewind Rider for half a dozen turns while he used Scroll Rack to dig for a Capsize and always left up the ability to cast two counters on any given turn.
Eventually Mike bounced the Tradewind and stabilized the board while at four life. Jon now had to unload his hand and try to force something through Mike's accumulated permission. Jon started with Boil (which Mike countered) and then untapped and recast that Tradewind -- Long cast Forbid with buyback. Finkel then cast Living Death and Long used a Counterspell on it. Finkel only had 2 mana left and no 2-mana threats so he had to start over. Two turns later he went for another Boil, which Long Dismissed (leaving Mike with Forbid, mana Leak, and Dominating Licid in hand). Finkel untapped and played Tradewind Rider. Mike thought long and hard and decided to say OK because he could use his Licid to at least shut it down. On Jon's next turn he cast a Cloudchaser Eagle, hoping to fly over for the last 4 points of damage. Mike thought long and hard about this too and thought he could use his own Volrath's Stronghold to bring back another Dominating Licid and shut down the Eagle so he said "ok." This left him with two permission spells in hand, but he miscalculated. The active Tradewind Rider prevented him from taking control of the Eagle for 2 turns. Oops. It had been a really close game, but it turns out Finkel only had one more threat in his hand -- a lone Living Death. Long read Finkel for more than one threat and thus felt he couldn't afford to counter either the Eagle or the Tradewind. If he had used one counter on either of those and then his last counter on the Death the players would have been in top-deck mode with the game entirely up in the air. But what actually happen is that Finkel flew over twice with Cloudchaser eagle and Mike ran out of life.
Finkel - 2 (now 4-2, tied for 3rd)
Long - 1 (now 3-3, tied for 5th-11th)