Posted in GRAND PRIX BALTIMORE 2015 - WELCOME on December 14, 2014

By Peter Rawlings

Neal Oliver arrived in Baltimore Thursday straight from a whirlwind two weeks of testing, traveling and competing in Nice, France, where he helped lead Team USA to a Top 4 finish in the 2014 World Magic Cup. In stark contrast to that event, for which Oliver and his teammates met up well in advance to prepare, here at the Grand Prix he would be relying solely on his accrued experience with the now several-months-old Khans of Tarkir Limited format.

In preparing for the Cup, Oliver and teammates No. 1 Owen Turtenwald, Andrew Baeckstrom and Isaac Sears met up in France well in advance of the competition to begin practicing and testing decks for the Unified Standard format. The team was originally planning to play a Mardu-based deck, in addition to White-Blue Heroic and Black-Green builds. However, when No. 6 Yuuya Watanabe made waves in the Magic World Championships with a tokens-based deck designed to abuse Jeskai Ascendancy, Team USA decided to audible to Watanabe's build, said Oliver.

"The issue at first was that the Ascendancy deck shared a lot of cards with Heroic," which placed a serious constraint on the number of available cards, given the Unified Standard format's restrictions, Oliver said. But by fiddling with the numbers, moving Seeker of the Way to the Jeskai Ascendancy deck, and adding Lagonna-Band Trailblazer to the other, they were able to make the decks work.

Of course, switching things up at the eleventh hour was not without hurdles once the matches started either. Oliver had time to play only two or three test games with the deck before the Cup was underway, leading to the occasional awkward interaction, such as casting a Treasure Cruise and looting from an Ascendancy trigger, but then leaving it up to his opponent to remind him that he still got to draw three cards.

After going 3-0 in the final Constructed rounds of the Cup, Oliver and Team USA managed to eke their way into the Top 8, where they had a rematch against the Slovak Republic. In his earlier showdown against No. 2 Ivan Floch and his Blue-Black Control, Oliver had swapped out his Lightning Strikes for Disdainful Stroke, but this time the burn spell stayed put.

"We found out you can't actually out-grind the Blue-Black deck so I was just on the burn plan, which turned out to be super important." That proved enough for him to take down Floch and Team USA the Slovak Republic, but their run was ended in the next round by the team from Greece.

Back in the States, Oliver was off to a strong start, with a 4-0 record heading into Round 5 of Grand Prix Baltimore and a match against the similarly undefeated Shaheen Soorani.

The Decks

It was to be a Sultai-on-Sultai showdown, with both players decks based around the graveyard-themed wedge. Soorani had several of the delve mechanic's greatest hits, with two Murderous Cut and a Treasure Cruise, along with multiple enablers in two Bitter Revelation and a Scout the Borders. Oliver, who had left all the rares in his pool in the sideboard, had added a splash of white to give his Blue-Black-Green deck a touch more removal in the form of Suspension Field.

Game 1

Oliver won the roll and chose to draw, keeping a hand with two Forests, Island, Monastery Flock, Longshot Squad, Krumar Bond-Kin, and Suspension Field. The players exchanged land drops for the first few turns, with the morphed Bond-Kin trading for Soorani's first play, an Alpine Grizzly.

On Soorani's turn he cast Scout the Borders, with a Treasure Cruise and a handful of other spells heading to the graveyard and indicating that Soorani's deck would be leaning heavily on the delve mechanic. His follow-up play, a Rakshasa Vizier, confirmed this.

Soorani pushes his advantage as Oliver misses land drops.

Meanwhile Oliver, who was stuck on four lands with no sources of black mana in sight, had summoned a Monastery Flock, which would hopefully hold off the Cat Demon's attacks long enough for him to draw a Swamp. However after another block on the Vizier, Soorani was able to finish off the gaggle of birds with a Debilitating Injury, leaving Oliver's defenses downss.

Still unable to draw fifth land, Oliver laid another morph and prepared to battened down the hatches. Soorani attacked yet again with his Vizier and Oliver unmorphed revealing another Monastery Flock, which picked up where its partner left off, and blocked.

"Flock City," said Soorani.

"Flock City," agreed Oliver.

But the flock city would soon crumble as Oliver continued to be choked on mana and Soorani assembled an army of two morphs, the Vizier, an Heir of the Wilds and a Kheru Bloodsucker. When Soorani drew a Murderous Cut for one of Oliver's last blockers a few turns later, they were off to Game 2.

Soorani 1 – Oliver 0

Oliver chose to draw first yet again in Game 2, and after he mulliganed down to six cards, they were off.

Soorani got quickly on the board with a turn-two Temur Charger, followed by a Jeskai Windscout. After Oliver's morph traded with the Charger, Soorani followed up with a morphed Abomination of Gudul. Oliver countered with a morph of his own, flipping it up to reveal—what else—a Monastery Flock, which held off the Windscout.

Oliver puts up a gate around "Flock City."

During Soorani's next attack, Oliver attempted to eat the morphed Abomination by casting Dragonscale Boon on his defender, but a Force Away from Soorani scattered the Flock and allowed him to keep attacking in. A Rite of the Serpent from Oliver destroyed a freshly cast Vizier, but Oliver was now perilously low on life. He still had five cards in hand, but was running out of time with which to cast them.

After falling to four life, he cast a Bitter Revelation—more bitter than usual as it dropped him to two, and left him facing down the morphed Abomination and the Windscout with just a Monastery Flock back on defense. He cast a Temur Charger which could, for now, block the morph, but a Debilitating Injury from Soorani sealed the Charger's, and Oliver's, fate.

Soorani 2 – Oliver 0