How do you introduce arguably the biggest faceoff in the Top 8 of Grand Prix Baltimore?
On one side sat twentieth-ranked Josh Utter-Leyton, former Player of the Year, multiple Pro Tour Top 8 competitor, World Championship competitor and all-around nice guy. With years of experience and an excellent run through the Draft rounds leading up to the Top 8, Utter-Leyton had only one phrase for what he planned: "I've got this."
On the other side sat twenty-second-ranked Ben Stark, Pro Tour Hall of Fame member, Pro Tour winner, Grand Prix champion, and renown Limited specialist. His knowledge was oft-referred to among players, and his skill kept him among the elite class of Platinum players.
The winner of this match would be taking home more than a shot at the trophy: between teammates and friends it was a story they'd remember: For Stark, Utter-Leyton was the first opponent he would play a second time in a Grand Prix Top 8. That time, Stark got the better of the two.
Could Utter-Leyton even the score here, or would the Limited master march onward again?
Ainok Bond-Kin and Jeskai Student led the way for Stark, though Utter-Leyton's Tuskgaurd Captain was a promising start to defend. With four mana Stark revealed one of his trumps: High Sentinels of Arashin. Undaunted, Utter-Leyton struck back with Mardu Warshrieker into Bloodfire Expert, promising a powerful counterattack, at least until Stark's Debilitating Injury took the latter out.
With Hooting Mandrills and an outlast activation, Utter-Leyton's army was quickly outsizing Stark's but the aggression had done its damage: Utter-Leyton was down to 8 life. Completing Rite of the Serpent, Stark slammed the last 8 damage in before Utter-Leyton could finish stabilizing.
The second game was a similar affair, Stark leading Disowned Ancestor, Seeker of the Way (trading with Utter-Leyton's Bloodfire Expert), and High Sentinels of Arashin. Longshot Squad with two +1/+1 counters kept the Sentinels at bay, though it was a close call: Stark debated the attack for some time.
"So close!" Utter-Leyton said after Stark elected to not attack.
"What? You don't think I have something?" Stark was quick to quip back as they shared a laugh. They were competing for a title, but they were still teammates and friends first.
Take Up Arms arrived to give Stark some bodies as Utter-Leyton continued to build his forces wider with another Bloodfire Expert and Mardu Warshrieker. Utter-Leyton used Burn Away to kill off the High Sentinels but Sorin, Solemn Visitor was Stark's second baddie of the match, giving his creatures power and lifelink to even the lifetotals out at 15 to 17. Raider's Spoils and Chief of the Scale beefed up Stark's Warriors further and gave him plenty of triggers to draw cards.
"I've never fired off that ultimate before," Stark admitted as he removed six loyalty counters from Sorin.
Utter-Leyton, without any creatures to Starks impressive army, extended his hand. "You've got it."
"This is one of the best decks I've ever had in the format." Stark was confident in how his draft worked out. Utter-Leyton would have to wait to take Top 8 vengeance.
Ben Stark defeated Josh Utter-Leyton, 2-0, and advanced to the semifinals!