Playing in his first Grand Prix Top 8 ever, Tyler Blum has been playing incredibly well thus far this weekend. While this might have been his first Grand Prix Top 8, he is no stranger to difficult competition, having been a member of the 2005 Canadian National team that finished third at Worlds. His opponent, Yuta Takahashi, is another incredible player. With multiple Grand Prix Top 8s under his belt, including two wins, as well as a Pro Tour Finals appearance, Takahashi is the most decorated player in this Top 8.
Both players are playing Black Devotion, no frills, bells, or whistles. Black Devotion had been on a bit of a slide recently, but the presence of five Black Devotion decks here in the Top 8 of Grand Prix Chicago speaks to the resurging power of the deck. In addition to the incredibly powerful Pack Rat, the deck boasts a host of disruption and removal spells, such as Thoughtseize, Hero's Downfall, and Bile Blight, all supplied by a stream of cards from Underworld Connections. If Pack Rat doesn't get the job done, Gray Merchant of Asphodel can often be counted on to reverse fortunes and pull a win out of a defeat.
It may be hard to believe, but the first game of this Black Devotion mirror match was determined by none other than Pack Rat. On the play, Blum was able to get his Rat into play on the second turn, but Takahashi held the clutch Devour Flesh to make sure that it never got to make a token. After untapping, Takahashi made a Pack Rat of his own. Unfortunately for Blum, Takahashi's Pack Rat was able to begin spawning, making a total of four tokens over the next few turns. Blum was able to get a second copy of his own into play very shortly after Takahashi's got online, but the damage was done. There are few cards in the game that are capable of snowballing out of control quite like Pack Rat, and Takahashi never relinquished the lead once he got it.
Takahashi aggressively kept a one-land hand to begin the second game, hoping that he could draw a second in time to play the Pack Rat in his hand. In the meantime, he was going to be able to slow Blum down with a Thoughtseize and Duress. The first stripped a Pack Rat the turn before it hit play, revealing a hand with Bile Blight, Underworld Connections, and Erebos, God of the Dead. When he in fact drew his Mutavault to allow him to cast Pack Rat, he opted to wait a turn so that he could Duress the Connections out of Blum's hand, but when he got to look at the card he'd had drawn, he saw a second copy of Connections staring back at him.
"Yeah, better lucky, right," Blum shrugged?
"Nice life," Takahashi said with a smile.
"Heh, thanks," Blum laughed back.
Thanks to that second Underworld Connections, Blum was able to begin drawing extra cards to put himself far ahead. As important as that was, Blum was certainly aided by Takahashi's inability to draw a third land to cast either Underworld Connections or activate his Pack Rat. After Blum resolved Erebos, God of the Dead, Takahashi chose not to continue.
In the final game, Takahashi once again opened with discard, aiming a Duress to strip a Thoughtseize from a hand of Gray Merchant of Asphodel, Bile Blight, and Hero's Downfall. He also saw that Blum would have a Mutavault to begin attacking soon. A second Thoughtseize stripped the Gray Merchant of Asphodel, leaving Blum with just a Mutavault to attack. When Blum cast Duress and saw that Takahashi was just holding three Swamps, he quipped, "I guess it's the first to draw Connections then, huh?"
Little did he know how prophetic that statement would prove to be, as Takahashi drew into not one, but two copies of the powerful engine over the next few turns. Between the Connections and assaults from Mutavault, Takahashi's life fell away, but Gray Merchant of Asphodel put him up from 4 to 10. Blum finally found a Connections of his own the following turn, but control of the match had slipped away from him. Still, with his own Connections online, he began to slowly inch back into a lead, and a Gray Merchant of his own helped cement that. At 3, Takahashi was forced to cast Devour Flesh on his own Gray Merchant to gain four life, trading that in for more cards soon after. He drew enough removal spells to get rid of everything but one Mutavault on Blum's side, but he was perilously low on life.
One turn from defeat, Takahashi used all three of his Underworld Connections to dig for a Gray Merchant, and the final activation delivered, giving him a boost up to 11 life and dropping Blum to 4 in the process. Following a pair of his own activations, Blum found a Gray Merchant to reverse the situation. At this point, a Gray Merchant for either player was lethal, and Takahashi had the first chance to dig. He dipped three cards into his deck, dropping to 2 and didn't find one. He just played a Nightveil Specter and Erebos, God of the Dead, and passed the turn. Blum used his Connections on his turn and came up blank as well. Both players were holding their breath with each card drawn by an opponent, and life totals were just about spent for both players, with Takahashi at 2 and Blum at 4 and even on the board.
Takahashi drew his last card with Connections. A mere Temple of Malice. Erebos attacked, trying to end the game on his own. This forced Blum to chump with his Gray Merchant. A second Erebos came down to replace the tapped original, as well as a second Nightveil Specter.
Blum knocked on his deck and drew his card. No Merchant. He drew a second, dropping to 3. No Merchant. He drew one more card, dropping to 2. No Merchant. He passed the turn. It was Takahashi's turn to knock. Again, no Merchant came to the door. With one extra Nightveil Specter and Blum at 2 life, Takahashi thought seriously about attacking. Blum had a handful of cards that weren't Gray Merchants, and a Pack Rat in play. He was dead soon unless he made a move, so he turned all of his creatures sideways and attacked. Blum showed the Bile Blight to kill both of the Specters, allowing him to survive the attack. Takahashi knew he was beat and shook Blum's hand.