Though they share the same colors, the two decks featured in this Quarterfinals match could not be any different. Finland's Anssi Alkio made his way to his first Top 8 on the back of a 9-0-1 record in the Modern rounds of the tournament, choosing to run an updated version of U/R Twin, a very potent combo deck capable of an immense amount of disruption, as well as the potential for an explosive final turn. Opposite him is Lee Shi Tian from Hong Kong playing an innovative UR Blood Moon-based control deck called Blue Moon. The deck is designed to take advantage of most Modern decks' reliance on nonbasic lands for their mana base.
"I think this match is about fifty/fifty," Alkio told me before the match, "especially because I am not on the play. I don't want to see Vedalken Shackles. It is very difficult for this deck to beat."
Lee agreed that things were going to be close, feeling that he held at least the early edge.
"I believe I have the advantage for the first game," he said, "but things get more difficult after sideboarding, when he gets to bring in Ancient Grudge."
The first game of the match opened with a quickly sacrificed Scalding Tarn from Alkio.
"Island?" Lee asked with a smile.
Blood Moon was certainly on the forefront of both players' minds early into this match. Alkio's deck is better suited than most to operating under the suffocation grasp of the powerful enchantment, as his deck has five basic Islands, which is more than twice the number of any deck but Lee's.
The third turn brought bad tidings for Alkio, as Lee tapped all of his lands. This could mean only one of two things, and neither of them were particularly good. Alkio only had one Island in play, so a Blood Moon would significantly impair his ability to sift through his deck. Still, it would be the lesser of two evils. Unfortunately for him, it was the other three mana card: Vedalken Shackles. Alkio mentioned that it was the one card that he couldn't beat, and he was facing it down early in the game. To make matters even worse, Lee managed to find his only other copy of the powerful artifact on the second turn, essentially locking Alkio out of the first game fairly early into it.
This was a devastating turn of events for Alkio, as it meant that he would now need multiple Deceiver Exarchs/Pestermites to go off. It also meant that he was going to be hard pressed to find a window to cast Splinter Twin, as he simply can't cast it while Lee has mana untapped. Even Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, falls thrall to the Shackles. It was a nearly impossible situation for Alkio to be in, yet he soldiered on, looking for some way out of his predicament.
Alkio did have some things going for him, as he looked for a way out. He held multiple copies of Cryptic Command in his hand, allowing him the potential to bounce the Shackles and create a window to go off. He also held two Exarchs and a Pestermite, further aiding his efforts. With a copy of Splinter Twin in hand, he might have all of the cards needed to put together the perfect series.
Well into the game, Lee resolved a Blood Moon, forcing Alkio to sacrifice all of his Scalding Tarns and Misty Rainforests to exchange them for his many basic Islands. It was deep enough into the game that the enchantment wasn't as devastating as it could be, though it did restrict Alkio to five blue mana. The fact that the Blood Moon was played so deep into the game, allowing Alkio access to his full complement of basic Islands, would prove to be incredibly important as the turns slowly passed.
A few turns after Blood Moon resolved, Lee found himself with enough lands in play to feel comfortable making his move, and the true fireworks began. He led with a Master of Waves, recruiting a lone Elemental to fight beside him, leaving himself seven mana available. During Lee's end step, Alkio played a Deceiver Exarch, a perfect defender to the Master that would force Lee to react. Happy to oblige, Lee tapped two of his seven lands to steal it with one of his Shackles. When Alkio tried for a second one, Lee let it resolve. Alkio chose to tap the second of the Shackles, forcing Lee steal the second Exarch. With the last of his blue mana, Alkio chose to use a Cryptic Command to bounce one of the Shackles, returning control of the Exarch to Alkio and setting himself up for a potential win. Refusing to allow this to happen, Lee used a Vapor Snag to return the Exarch to Alkio's hand, denying him the ability to simply play Splinter Twin and win. It was an intense set of plays, as Alkio nearly managed to maneuver his way into a victory. Instead, he was forced to draw his card for the turn and pass it back to Lee, letting him untap.
Lee replayed the Shackles, and Alkio chose not to Command or Remand it, content to attempt for another turn like the last. Before he made his move, he took a Peek at Lee's hand, seeing a Batterskull, Blood Moon, and two very important Snapcaster Mages. Access to the Vapor Snag and Remand in his graveyard was yet another important layer of protection for the young player from Hong Kong.
After much thought on the new information, Alkio attempted to once again make a play. His Deceiver Exarch returned, again forcing Lee to steal it with his Shackles. A third Exarch forced Lee to play a Snapcaster Mage to Remand it, limiting Lee's defensive measures. Alkio was whittling him out of options, and was dangerously close to being able to finally strike. Still, Lee had him down to 13 and was representing a load of damage.
Lee muddled the information a bit on his next turn, casting a pair of Serum Visions, picking up another Remand and a potentially important Threads of Disloyalty. If he could make it to his next turn, he could untap one of his Shackles and use the Threads to re-steal the creature, giving him a way to deal with the third Exarch in Alkio's hand.
Like clockwork, Alkio again made an Exarch during Lee's end step. This time, rather than pressing for more, Lee let it resolve, giving Alkio his first chance to untap with an Exarch in play. After untapping, Alkio went for it, playing Splinter Twin on his Exarch. He had a pair of Remands and a Cryptic Command to back it up, and set about carefully deciding on how to play it. Being restricted to five blue mana made the Command a bit awkward, yet he used it to attempt to force the Twin past Lee's Remand. Lee tried to disrupt the combo with a Snapcaster Mage on Vapor Snag, but Alkio had the exact mana left to Remand it. It took absolutely every card played at the appropriate time and without error, but Alkio was able to steal the first game from Lee after what is potentially the worst opposing start imaginable.
The key moment in the last game was actually the speed of the Blood Moon's arrival. A card that is seemingly less effective in this match due to both the large number of Islands in Alkio's deck and the fact that he's playing red, an earlier Blood Moon would actually have proven quite important in restricting the number of things that Alkio was able to do in a turn. Being able to get all of his Islands into play allowed him to cast Cryptic Command and two other blue spells each turn, without which there was no way he would have won. Add to that the fact that he had been able to craft the absolute perfect hand from which to go off, while Lee's draw tapered off during the middle part of the game, and you get tight, but well-deserved, victory for the Finn in his first Pro Tour Top 8 game.
Both players got a bit more disruption out of the second game, bringing in Vendilion Cliques, Ancient Grudges, Batterskulls, and Vandalblasts. Lee was the first to hit, his Vendilion Clique revealing that Alkio also held one, alongside Flame Slash, Kiki-Jiki, Batterskull, and three lands. Alkio also managed to use an Electrolyze before the Cliques ability resolved, ensuring that the 3/1 flier wouldn't be able to stick around and make short work of Alkio. Lee thought carefully before selecting to wash away the Batterskull, turning it into a Splinter Twin. Lee followed that with a Spreading Seas on Alkio's Mountain, attempting to keep him as far from Kiki-Jiki mana as possible.
Alkio was not being aggressive, choosing to hold his Clique in hand to be used as a form of disruption rather than a source of offense. After seeing him draw into the Splinter Twin, it became clear that he did not side out the combo, something Lee had figured that he might decide to try. As in the last game, there was no early appearance from Blood Moon, though it was actually quite likely that Lee had sided them out. Despite how important it would have been in the previous game, Blood Moon is not as effective against Alkio's deck than it is against the majority of the Modern field.
With no combo in sight, Alkio finally decided to play his Clique to see what he was up against, revealing a pair of Lightning Bolts, Vandalblast, Snapcaster Mage, Cryptic Command, and Serum Visions. Alkio washed away the Cryptic Command, turning it into a Mountain, before losing his Clique to one of the Lightning Bolts. Upon reaching enough mana, Alkio played a Batterskull, careful to leave three mana up to protect it from Lee's Vandalblast.
Between fetch land damage and Snapcaster Mage, Lee had reduced Alkio to 14, a number that was sure to go up if the Batterskull stuck. When Alkio tried to replay it Lee revealed that he had drawn a Cryptic Command, forcing Alkio to Remand his own Batterskull, netting himself an important Deceiver Exarch. Another attempt at the Batterskull yielded a similar result, as a pair of Snapcaster Mages allowed Lee and Alkio to return Cryptic Command and Remand respectively, resulting in a resolved Batterskull and a virtually defenseless Lee. A third Snapcaster Mage allowed Lee to Vandalblast the Batterskull, tapping down to one mana. He then cast Threads of Disloyalty to steal Alkio's Snapcaster Mage, giving him a lethal attack on the following turn.
Unfortunately for him, it was not to be. Thanks to his Remands earlier, Alkio had already drawn into the Deceiver Exarch he needed to go off. With only one land untapped, Lee could do nothing as Alkio used his Deceiver Exarch during his own draw step to tap down Lee's only remaining land, preventing him from being able to Lightning Bolt Kiki-Jiki. With no more chance to resist, Lee just waited until Alkio had played the Kiki-Jiki that he knew was in Alkio's hand before scooping up his cards.
"He played perfectly that first game," Lee complimented Alkio. "I also made a key mistake, I think. The first time he tapped my Shackles, I had no choice but to take his Exarch. But when he let me untap on the next turn, I should have untapped my Shackles and left it to be used defensively. I believe that if I had done that, I would likely have won that game."
"If he had done that," Alkio began, "I would have had made it much more difficult for me to win. I would have had to use my Deceiver Exarch to try and untap one of them and then used my Cryptic Command to bounce the other, but there is no guarantee that I would have won. Also I don't know if siding out the Blood Moons was the correct play, especially on the play. True, I have more basic Islands than most, but if he were to land it early, it would be difficult for me to win unless I managed to open with two fetch lands. It was an incredibly close match, and I feel fortunate to have won after facing down those two early Shackles."
Anssi Alkio defeats Lee Shi Tian 2-0 and advances to the Semifinals!