Mark Jacobson, a member of East West Bowl, blazed a trail through the opening rounds of Grand Prix Houston with Hardened Scales, the tournament's breakout deck, and remained undefeated until Round 16. He arrived in the Top 8 as the tournament's first seeded player and dispatched his quarterfinals opponent to meet Andrew Cuneo in the semifinals.
Cuneo, a member of The Pantheon known for his talent for deck building and playing control, is playing an updated version of Dark Jeskai that includes multiple copies of Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and a suite of efficient removal spells.
According to Cuneo, the match is an unfavorable one for him because the Hardened Scales deck's best draws are simply too explosive for him to beat. His deck is packed with removal, however, and some Hardened Scales players suspect that a lot of removal is the deck's Achilles Heel.
As the two players scanned their opponent's deck list and shuffle their decks, they chattted about the differences between the two coasts they lived on, Jacobson grumbling about how long it takes to get anywhere in California. He chose the play in Game 1 and took a look at his opening seven.
“Whew, that's a hot hand,” Jacobson said. “I'm gonna throw it back though.”
He took a mulligan, kept his six-card hand, scrying his top card to the bottom.
A turn three Abzan Falconer from Jacobson took Cuneo's position from precarious to downright dire, as the Khans of Tarkir uncommon allowed nearly all of Jacobson's creatures to attack in the air.
“Cards in hand?” Cuneo asked.
“Two. Rakshasa's Secret, targeting me?” Jacobson joked.
“I don't think that's a good way for me to win,” Cuneo replied.
A few turns later, Cuneo traded a Mantis Rider with the flying Avatar of the Resolute and added a Kalitas to the battlefield on the following turn. But with the Mantis Rider gone, the skies were undefended and Cuneo took 7 damage in the air, putting him to 4.
Cuneo added nothing to the board and left Kalitas back on defense. Jacobson read the signs and played another copy of Abzan Falconer before attacking in the air for lethal, but a Crackling Doom from Cuneo confirmed Jacobson's suspicions and forced him to sacrifice the larger of the two Falconers. His attack only put Cuneo to 1, and that final point of damage would prove more and more elusive for Jacobson as the game progressed.
Jacobson once again attacked Cuneo down to 1 and played another Avatar of the Resolute, which came in with an incredible four counters on it thanks a copy of Hardened Scales, two Servant of the Scales, and the Abzan Falconer in play. But a second Crackling Doom from Cuneo once again took down the Avatar, this time gaining Cuneo 2 life in the process thanks to the Soulfire Grand Master.
Cuneo attacked with Kalitas to put Jacobson to 1, transformed his Jace, and secured enough of an advantage to make Jacobson scoop up his cards and prepare for Game 2.
“I feel like I faded a lot of draws,” Cuneo told Jacobson as the two players begin sideboarding for their second game.
In the second game Jacobson, on the play, once again shipped back his opening hand. One mulligan wasn't enough to find him a passable hand, and he took a second.
“Not like last Top 4!” he entreated. “Grand Prix Toronto,” he clarified.
“I think I did horrible at that one,” Cuneo replied.
Jacobson kept his five-card hand, scried to the top, and opened with an Endless One with one lonely counter on it. He followed up on his next turn with another 4/3 Avatar of the Resolute, which Cuneo Roasted on his turn.
Turn three brought a Nissa, Voice of Zendikar from Jacobson, and Nissa proceeded to stick around for the next few turns, making 0/1 plant tokens each time. While the Nissa stuck, Jacobson's creatures weren't so lucky, as an Endless One and a Managorger Hydra both died to Cuneo's removal.
Though Cuneo had a Tasigur, the Golden Fang in play, Nissa was able to tick all the way up to seven. Jacobson took a moment, agonizing over the decision, then cashed in his Planeswalker for 4 life and four cards.
For a while, it appeared as though Jacobson's extra cards might stabilize the game, as he was able to Silkwrap Cuneo's Jace, and, with the help of three copies of Hardened Scales, play a 4/4 Endless One, a 7/6 Avatar, and a Dromoka's Command that killed Kalitas and put four counters on a formerly diminuative plant that was then able to attack for 4.
The Dromoka's Command was Jacobson's last card, however, and Cuneo still had a handful of cards and a Tasigur in play.
Sure enough, a pair of Crackling Dooms handled Jacobson's largest threats, and an Exert Influence on the 4/5 plant left Jacboson without resources in hand or on board and Cuneo with an overwhelming advantage that carried him to victory.