Aggressive decks are in a good place right now in the Modern format, so it was appropriate that the final of Grand Prix Lille would be fought between two of the fastest decks in the format: Death's Shadow Aggro and Infect.
Thomas Hendriks was the most accomplished player in the Top 8. The Dutch player has made the Top 8 of a Grand Prix before. He also has a Pro Tour Top 8 to his name after reaching the quarterfinals of PT Dragons of Tarkir in Brussels last year. A member of Team EUreka, Hendriks was running the Death's Shadow Aggro deck that EUreka have championed ever since PT Oath of the Gatewatch earlier this year.
His opponent, Meciek Berger from Poland, might not have the same experience on the GP or PT circuit, but has been a regular on the Bazaar of Moxen circuit playing Legacy. He returned to the game a couple of years ago and was purely a Legacy player up until about a year ago. The final would be a perfect opportunity to establish his credentials in the Modern format as well.
I asked Berger why he'd chosen to run Infect.
“Because I wanted a deck with Elves inside,” he told me, probably not entirely seriously.
Rather more seriously, he let on that he'd been grinding the deck for the past month on Magic Online, so was likely very proficient with his deck of choice.
This matchup is an odd one. Death's Shadow Aggro can be risky in the amount of damage it does to itself, but the Infect deck (usually!) doesn't try to win through damage, instead aiming to plant ten lethal poison counters on an opponent.
They'd previously played in Round 8, with Hendriks getting the better of Berger on his way to posting an undefeated Day 1 record.
Normally, when covering matches, we provide a summary of the action. This matchup is a little different. The games are usually very short in the number of turns, but a lot of action takes place in each of those turns. Because of this I thought it might be interesting to give a turn-by-turn account of the action and better showcase how each deck operates.
Hendriks, by virtue of placing highest in the Swiss, had the advantage of going first.
On his first turn the Dutchman led off with Mishra's Bauble, looking at the top card of his own library. He didn't like it, so he cleared it away by using Bloodstained Mire (19 life) to fetch Godless Shrine (17). After cycling Street Wraith (15), he summoned a Steppe Lynx and passed the turn.
Life totals: Hendriks 15, Berger 18.
Hendriks had a busy turn two. He cycled one Street Wraith (13) into a second Street Wraith (11). A Verdant Catacombs went and fetched Stomping Ground (8), triggering landfall twice on Steppe Lynx in the process. He summoned a Swiftspear and used Thoughtseize (triggering prowess on the hasty Monk) to see what Berger was up to (6).
The Thoughtseize revealed Wooded Foothills, Inkmoth Nexus, Vines of Vastwood, Blighted Agent, Might of Old Krosa, and Groundswell.
Now, normally the obvious choice would be to take the source of poison counters, but Hendriks had done so much damage to himself with his own deck, he was actually in danger of being killed through normal damage by the Hierarch. This forced him to take the Might of Old Krosa. Rather than play defensively and eventually lose to the Blighted Agent, he attacked with both Lynx and Swiftspear to drop Berger to 12.
Life totals: Hendriks 6, Berger 12.
Oh, that was on turn two. What are we playing here? Vintage?
Berger 1-0 Hendriks
The second game was blighted by mulligans. Hendriks went down to six cards, while Berger went all the way down to four.
Berger drew and played Dryad Arbor, which was rather unfortunate given that the Arbor's summoning sickness meant it was a fairly shabby opening land. That's the problem of only having four cards to work with.
Hendriks's turn two was Monastery Swiftspear followed by a Gitaxian Probe (15) to confirm the Arbor was Berger's only green source. The Probe revealed the rest of his hand wasn't too bad for four cards—Inkmoth Nexus, Glistener Elf, Noble Hierarch, Might of Old Krosa. Hendriks then cracked a Bloodstained Mire for a Sacred Foundry (12), summoned the second Swiftspear he'd drawn off the Gitaxian Probe, and bashed in for 6 damage.
Life totals: Hendriks 12, Berger 14.
Turn three, further than we'd gotten in the first game, saw Hendriks play a Godless Shrine untapped (10), but suspiciously do nothing with it before attacking with both Monks and the Nacatl. Berger decided not to take any chances and threw the Elf to the Cat. It was the correct call, as Hendriks had both Lightning Bolt and Temur Battle Rage in hand. Hendriks was 1 damage short of killing Berger, so he aimed the Bolt at the Hierarch and still used the Battle Rage to leave Berger at 4 life with no creatures.
Berger drew, saw it wasn't going to help, and conceded.
We still hadn't seen a turn four.
Berger 1-1 Hendriks.
Hendriks repeated the Bauble-as-scry trick. This time he liked what was on top of his library and drew it after using Gitaxian Probe (18) to reveal Berger's hand of Apostle's Blessing, Windswept Heath, Vines of Vastwood, Become Immense, and Blighted Agent. He followed up with a Blood Crypt (16) and Thoughtseize (14) to take Berger's only infect creature.
All this self-inflicted pain had left Hendriks vulnerable to a loss through normal damage again. When Berger pumped a Dryad Arbor in his main phase with Might of Old Krosa, Hendriks showed no hesitation in throwing the Nacatl under it.
Then the game switched gears into a much more cagey affair. Hendriks played fetch lands over three subsequent turns and passed without cracking them or attacking with his solitary Death's Shadow. Berger widened his board with first one and then a second Glistener Elf.
We went past turn four for the first time in the match.
Hendriks summoned a Wild Nacatl to go alongside his Shadow on his fifth turn, but still couldn't safely attack.
Turn six ended up being the critical turn, as Berger threw both Glistener Elves and the Dryad Arbor into combat. Hendriks thought about his blocks. It didn't matter which one he let through as both normal and infect damage would kill him at this point.
A Glistener Elf was left unblocked. Become Immense...resolved. Vines of Vastwood...
Path to Exile in response!
But remember the hand that was revealed on turn one...
Berger slammed the Apostle's Blessing onto the table to make sure his Glistener Elf delivered 11 poison counters unscathed and give the match a conclusion that looked more dramatic than it actually was.
As Martin Dang had told me earlier in the tournament: Games involving Death's Shadow Aggro might not last many turns, but a lot took place in those turns.
Congratulations to Meciek Berger. He defeated Dutch Gold pro Thomas Hendriks 2-1 to become the champion of Grand Prix Lille 2016!