Posted in GRAND PRIX MANILA 2015 on January 4, 2015

By Chapman Sim

Ten Grand Prix Top 8s later, Tzu Ching Kuo finds himself at a bittersweet juncture. If his Abzan Midrange deck triumphs in this final match, he will attain his very first Grand Prix victory. It is rare that a player of his stature has not won a Grand Prix yet.

Prior to this weekend, he is tied with Eric Froehlich as the player with the most Grand Prix Top 8s without a win. If he loses this match, that would make 11 Grand Prix Top 8s without a win, bumping Froehlich to second. This is a statistic where you really don't exactly want to come in first place.

Joseph Sclauzero's achievements dwarf in comparison to the World Magic Cup Champion. But let's give him some credit. It's his very first Grand Prix and his very first Grand Prix Top 8, an impressive feat for a relative amateur. His Mardu Midrange deck was cooperating with him all weekend, as evidenced by his excellent topdecks and results.

As the day comes to a close, the tensest match of the evening will soon determine who goes home with the Champion trophy.

Game 1

Kuo was first to play and cast Thoughtseize to remove Seeker of the Way before Sclauzero could deploy it. Sclauzero used Sorin, Solemn Visitor to generate a pair of Vampire tokens, before using a second copy to grant his army +1/+0 and lifelink. Kuo had Hero's Downfall to deal with the Planeswalker and recruited Siege Rhino to cushion his life total a little.

Using Liliana Vess to tutor End Hostilities, Kuo was forced to reveal it to his opponent because of the Courser of Kruphix in play. This discouraged Sclauzero from adding more creatures to the board.

Sclauzero pointed Lightning Strike at his opponent's life total and a second Lightning Strike to kill Liliana Vess. He certainly did not want Kuo tutoring up Siege Rhinos.

At a precarious 4 life, Kuo tread carefully. He decided to summon only Fleecemane Lion while keeping up three mana. This turned out to be a wise move, since the card lying at the top of Sclauzero's deck turned out to be Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker.

Thereafter, Kuo topdecked Siege Rhino, bringing his life back to a safer range. Still, at 7 life, Kuo could still fall if he wasn't careful. Sclauzero utilized Crackling Doom to deal with Siege Rhino and bring Kuo down to 5 life, before chaining Fleecemane Lion to the rocks.

The battlefield was reduced to nothing but land, and both players were clearly operating on topdeck mode.

Sclauzero's Wingmate Roc (ignoring Raid) would end the game in just two turns, and Kuo had to budge. Elspeth, Sun's Champion was not a solution and Kuo would need to peel something else to stay alive. Thankfully for Kuo, Utter End showed up in time to exile Wingmate Roc, while Bile Blight snuffed out Goblin Rabblemaster.

Sclauzero's next card Hordeling Outburst might seem innocuous, but this made Butcher of the Horde a "live topdeck", in addition to Crackling Doom, Lightning Strike and Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker. Kuo's position was precarious indeed, but Elspeth, Sun's Champion was about to go ultimate if he managed to survive one more turn.

"Do you win?", Kuo asked.

Sclauzero revealed Temple of Silence from the top of his deck, turning Kuo's question into a rhetoric.

Tzu Ching Kuo manages to stay alive and turn the tables.

Tzu Ching Kuo 1 – Joseph Sclauzero 0

Game 2

Sclauzero drew first blood with Goblin Rabblemaster, but Kuo wiped the pair of Goblins away with Drown in Sorrow. Sorin, Solemn Visitor was the replacement to keep up the pressure, even though it wasn't very much.

Kuo used the breathing room to summon Courser of Kruphix (revealing Siege Rhino). Sclauzero made the decision to exile the centaur with Utter End, since it was the only creature which could pressure his Planeswalker this turn.

As expected, Siege Rhino entered the battlefield and that was destroyed with Murderous Cut. Sclauzero's Butcher of the Horde forced Kuo to summon Elspeth, Sun's Champion. Using her second ability, the demon hit the bin but she had to fall to the existing Vampire token.

Now that Sorin was getting out of hand, Kuo used Liliana Vess to find Hero's Downfall. It was finished off by a freshly peeled Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker and Kuo was forced to expend another Hero's Downfall, the final bullet in his chamber.

The grindy attrition war eventually boiled down to who could topdeck better, apparently. Despite having Read the Bones, Kuo's opponent was the one with the more relevant card. I've heard that Elspeth, Sun's Champion can end games quickly on her own.

Joseph Sclauzero forces the rubber game with a timely Elspeth.

Tzu Ching Kuo 1 – Joseph Sclauzero 1

Game 3

One last game. One last shot. One winner. Off we go...

Both players put down Scrylands on their first turn, and I don't think Kuo was very happy when he cast Thoughtseize.

Sclauzero's hand consisted Goblin Rabblemaster, Hordeling Outburst, Utter End, Chained to the Rocks and two lands which gave Sclauzero all his three colors. While Kuo's grip of double Thoughtseize, Courser of Kruphix and Hero's Downfall was not too shabby, it seemed to be slightly weaker in comparison.

Not wanting to risk a premature death, Kuo opted to pitch Goblin Rabblemaster this time and used a second copy of Thoughtseize to extract Hordeling Outburst. Abzan Charm was Kuo's solution to Butcher of the Horde.

When Kuo made a token with Sorin, Solemn Visitor, Sclauzero dealt with both permanents with another freshly drawn Crackling Doom. Hordeling Outburst and Goblin Rabblemaster created four tokens, only to be held back by Kuo's Courser of Kruphix. That was quickly dealt with by the Chained to the Rocks we saw at the beginning of the game.

The Goblins whittled away at Kuo's life totals. It seemed like the horde of angry men would get there slowly, but surely. In a last-ditch attempt to draw something relevant, Kuo's Abzan Charm brought him down to a single life. Siege Rhino would not do the trick. Kuo knew that Sclauzero's last card in hand was the Utter End.

Tzu Ching Kuo 1 – Joseph Sclauzero 2

Joseph Sclauzero defeats Tzu Ching Kuo and becomes the Grand Prix Manila 2014 Champion! Hearty congratulations to Joseph!