As I arrived to the table, Brandon "sandydogmtg" Burton, a 22-year-old Magic player from Illinois, was already there, as he had been the first to win his semifinals. Together with his mother Elizabeth, they are seen as the best team at Magic tournaments. Since Burton travels in a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, he has trouble reaching the table when he plays, so Elizabeth acts as an extension of her son, manipulating the cards as Burton announces the moves. If you want to learn more about this team, check out this article. Burton is not new to the competitive scene, as he achieved a Top 32 at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar. But he had yet to claim a trophy at a premier event.
This weekend, as usual, Burton was on Naya Burn—the deck that aims to get in some early damage with a one-drop creature like Goblin Guide and eventually finishes the opponent with a flurry of burn spells. "Burn is my favorite deck. I always play it and it just feels good." Especially in Modern, persistence in deck choice can pay off, and Burton's prowess with red decks has gained him respect from some of the best players in the game.
A few minutes later, Rob Pisano sat down on the other side of the table. Like Burton, the 32-year-old software developer from Las Vegas also found himself in his first Grand Prix Top 8. Moreover, he had made the Top 32 at a Pro Tour before (at Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad) but this was his first breakout finish at a Grand Prix.
The deck that Pisano chose for the tournament was Red-Green Valakut: "I wanted a simple deck since I knew I'd only have an hour of sleep on the plane coming in Saturday." The aim of his deck was, indeed, simple: ramp into a turn-four Primeval Titan. Thanks to Search for Tomorrow, Sakura-Tribe Elder, and Farseek, he could get the requisite amount of mana early on, and thanks to Oath of Nissa and Summoner's Pact, he could find the 6/6 reliably. He even had Through the Breach to get Primeval Titan triggers even faster. Those triggers, in turn, would find Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, which would turn all of Pisano's Mountains into Lightning Bolts.
Given that both decks aimed to deal damage mostly in increments of 3, the matchup between the two decks looked roughly even. "It's close," Burton told me before the match started. "But it matters that I'm on the play."
As decks were being shuffled, Burton made some friendly conversation.
"Anything interesting happen to you this tournament?" Brandon asked.
"Pretty standard. You?" Pisano replied.
"Pretty standard as well." Brandon said.
It was as if a finals appearance were just another day for these two players. Nevertheless, they had put almost 2,000 competitors behind them.
Before the match started, Elizabeth made sure everything was in order for her son. "All set? Wanna check your sideboard? You don't trust me, do you?" she asked with a smile and an understanding that revealed how far they had come together.
After Burton verified that the sideboard cards Elizabeth fanned out in front of him were correct, the players wished each other good luck and the match got underway!
Pretty ideal start on both sides.
On turn three, Burton attacked with all his creatures including Grim Lavamancer, indicating that he was willing to trade his 1/1 for his opponent's Sakura Tribe-Elder. Pisano, however, recognized that it was more important to protect his life total and ramp his mana, so he chump-blocked a Wild Nacatl and fetched a Mountain before damage.
That extra mana allowed Pisano to play a turn-three Pia and Kiran Nalaar, but he was already down to a dangerously low life total. What's more, Burton had developed his board with Eidolon of the Great Revel and Goblin Guide in the meantime. An all-out attack and a Grim Lavamancer activation yielded lethal damage on turn four.
Brandon Burton 1 – Rob Pisano 0
While the players were sideboarding—Pisano had access to Anger of the Gods to handle creature swarms, while Burton could add Path to Exile and Deflecting Palm to contain Primeval Titan—an actual thunderstorm raged over the venue. It would bode well for the Lightning Bolt player in the finals, if not for the fact that both had Lightning Bolt in their decks. But Burton had more.
Pisano, on the play this game, started with two copies of Search for Tomorrow over the first two turns. Although this enabled large mana counts early on, he was taking a lot of damage in the process: Burton had Goblin Guide on turn one and double Lava Spike on turn two!
Adding the damage from Pisano's own mana base, Pisano found himself down to 7 life as early as turn two.
That's not a safe position to be in against a burn deck.
Indeed it wasn't. As thunder raged in the background, Burton set the feature match area ablaze. "Bolt you. Bolt you. Bolt you!" he excitedly said, as he ripped the cards out of Elizabeth's hand.
Brandon Burton 2 – Rob Pisano 0
As the head judge announced the winner, a massive cheer went through the hallway. Tears of joy were cried, not least of which by his mother Elizabeth, but it was ultimately Brandon Burton who got to hold his well-deserved Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix trophy.