More than 2,000 players showed up to compete at Grand Prix Dallas, in the largest event Texas has ever seen. Of those 2,019, only seven contenders would finish unbeaten at the top of the standings at 9-0. With the margin for error razor-thin, there was plenty on the line when they sat down for the final round of the day.
The top tables were littered with some of the best players in the room, including world champion Brian Braun-Duin, Neal Oliver, Jon Stern and Corey Burkhart. Joining them for a shot at an unblemished record was a mix of Grand Prix regulars and local ringers.
Experience won out in the feature match area, as Braun-Duin quickly dispatched his opponent, using a flurry of creatures from his Dredge deck to flood the board and securely advance to 9-0.
This was the first time Braun-Duin was piloting Dredge at a Grand Prix, but had more than enough practice to play to perfection. Multiple times throughout the day, he hardcast a giant Golgari Grave-Troll to beat the graveyard hate.
“Sometimes casting Trolls and Stinkweed Imps are how you get there,” he said.
Not long after Neal Oliver knocked off Logan Taylor in the Bant Eldrazi mirror. Burkhart joined them by wrapping up his feature match with a victory for Grixis Control, a stunning achievement in a field that many deemed hostile to Cryptic Command decks.
“It's a return to form, and I just went with it and registered four Cryptic Commands,” he explained with a small shrug.
This worked to Burkhart's advantage, and as he said after the match, often that's part of how you succeed in Modern. It's about playing to your strengths.
“Familiarity and knowing yourself,” Burkhart said. “I like making my opponents miserable,” he added. “My deck is not good, and I don't recommend anyone else play it,” but it's his deck. So he can do well with it.
However, Neal Oliver talked about how that's not always the case. “That's the opposite of how BBD [Braun-Duin] approaches Grand Prix. He says, ‘Well, if that decks the best, I'm going to play it.'” Which is a tried and true method for sure, but Oliver jumped back a bit and qualified it by saying, “But I think BBD's tested for the Grand Prix for over 300 hours.” He shrugged.
And Oliver just credits his success to taking “The Ben Weitz Challenge.” When asked what that was he said, “Ben Weitz gives me a deck, and I play it.”
It took another undefeated player, Canadian Jon Stern, to formulate the final hypothesis. He said, if you put in that many hours, there is edge to be gained, as Braun-Duin has shown, but it's just not worth keeping up on a format that doesn't change very often, and only has three to four Grand Prix a year.
Of course, he said that when piloting what many think is one of the best decks in the room.
On the other side of the hall, Stern was lighting the lantern. Piloting Lantern Control at a Grand Prix for the first time in nearly a year, Stern admitted he fumbled a bit with the mechanics of physically operating the tricky deck full of artifacts. But while his motions may have been a bit rusty, his play was as crisp as ever, and he knocked off Eric Garcia's Jeskai Nahiri deck to join his peers among the ranks of the undefeated.
Next to him a pair of Tarmogoyf provided the beatdown for Michael Sellers, squaring off against Charles League's Abzan Company. As the llurgoyfs turned sideways in a giant attack, League opted to not block, counting on falling to one and using his Scavenging Ooze to gain a bunch of life when he untapped. But a surprise Path to Exile from Sellers threw off that plan, and with it he took down the match and locked 9-0.
Sellers is coming from Seattle and has been going to Grand Prix for about a year and a half. “I've Day 2'ed all but one of them; I've played in about seven,” he said. But this is his first 9-0. He just finished high school, and is excited for the possibility of the Pro Tour to open up some other options for him post-school while he figures out what he wants to do. “It's just the next step—it just opens doors,” he said.
Meanwhile, Kyle Skelton was locked in a deep grind with his Jund deck against Jim Logsdon's Goryo's Vengeance. After the combo deck stole the second game with a well-timed Through the Breach for Worldspine Wurm, Skelton fought back in the decider. After tearing apart Logsdon's hand with discard spells and resolving Liliana of the Veil, Skelton just needed to hold on long enough for his planeswalker and Tarmogoyf to finish off the game.
His luck held for a few turns, and Liliana was able to ultimate, significantly knocking Logsdon off of mana. As Tarmogoyf neared the finish line, Skelton needed to survive one more turn to finish things off.
Logsdon drew for his turn and found Faithless Looting. As he passed the turn after resolving the Looting, his chance at victory all depended on the card that rested alongside Simian Spirit Guide in his hand, with Goryo's Vengeance representing a win. Tarmogoyf attacked, and Logsdon revealed Simian Spirit Guide… and Lightning Bolt. Good cards, but not enough to take down the game.
The 25-year-old Houstonian Skelton only goes to about three or four Grand Prix a year, and only started playing the game two years ago, after his younger brother started playing. On what's starting to bring him success in Modern he says, “I stopped playing bad Snapcaster Mage decks. And I realized you just can't play Remand in Modern.”
They all joined Zach Voss—who had used his Titanshift deck to knock off Evart Moughon in lightning-quick fashion. Voss's name has been on people's minds lately, as he finished in the finals of the SCG Open in Indianapolis, which was the first Kaladesh Standard tournament before Pro Tour Kaladesh.
The St. Louis native has just really started his competitive journey. “I got first at Regionals this January, and I put the money aside and said, ‘This is for travel.'” He put effort into traveling to more events and qualified himself for Pro Tour Eldritch Moon in Sydney, Australia via an RPTQ.
Though he starting to see success, this is his first Grand Prix Day 2, and his third GP overall. With that 9-0, he'll be waltzing into the hall tomorrow in style.
After the first nine rounds, those are all the players at the top of the standings. They'll be coming back bright and early tomorrow to try and covert this perfect day into a perfect weekend. Only time will tell.