For a “Limited Specialist” and Hall of Fame member like number 22-ranked Ben Stark, his fifteenth Grand Prix Top 8 was a nice nudge for him. Adding to his Constructed Grand Prix records, he noted that his Constructed-Limited balance of Top 8 appearances was significantly better than fellow Top 8 competitor and Floridian Chris Fennell’s: It was Fennell’s first was wasn’t Limited.
Stark wanted to keep the Constructed success rolling.
Steve Rubin, one of the Abzan Control ringleaders for the event, had proven himself capable in dispatching it in a mirror showdown during his successful quarterfinal match. With his first Grand Prix Top 8 at Chicago last year, Rubin had advanced beyond his previous best, and ready to take another shot at White-Red with an Abzan deck of his own.
Soulfire Grand Master was one of the cards Stark couldn’t stop stressing about in his deck. “I want to gain a lot of life!” he emphasized before the semifinal showdown. With four copies paired up with four Outpost Sieges, Stark’s vision of the White-Red deck had evolved past the straightforward aggressive roots it took from its Jeskai origins. After cleaving a path through one Abzan Control deck, Stark looked to repeat his Top 8 advancement again.
Rubin was named as one of the originators of the Fleecemane Lion sideboard gambit, rising from testing with fellow semifinalist Brad Nelson and other in the leadup to this weekend. Bearing all the powerful control elements the piles of removal Abzan promised, bringing in the Lions took opponents by surprise throughout. Here, with decklists revealed, the Cats were out of the bag but that wouldn’t diminish the commanding power the archetype overall.
Stark led off with Seeker of the Way and Goblin Rabblemaster, piling on the pressure for Rubin to answer. Abzan Charm handled the Rabblemaster soon thereafter, but the repeated attacks had done their work: Stark’s Soulfire Grand Master followed by Stoke the Flames was too much for Rubin to hold back.
Steve Rubin was under fast pressure from Ben Stark in every game they played.
The second game featured the Fleecemane Lion plan as Rubin cast one on his second turn. Lightning Strike was there for Stark just as Hero's Downfall was for Rubin when Rabblemaster appeared. Liliana Vess was the big try for Rubin, but Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker struck right back for Stark.
The game bounced between the two as they fought.
Liliana was cashed in for Hero's Downfall to nail Sarkhan, but Outpost Siege followed for Stark. It was the card he wanted here, beginning to “draw” extra options. In Rubin’s hand however were parked plenty of removal.
Outpost Siege, one of Ben Stark’s most critical cards, came through for him in the second game.
A second Fleecemane Lion became indestructible as Stark used his burn and Stormbreath Dragon to race ahead. Thanks to buying Stoke the Flames back with Soulfire Grand Master, Stark unleashed back-to-back-to-back Stoke the Flames over three turns, and Rubin fell before his Lions could come through for him.
Ben Stark defeated Steve Rubin, 2-0, and advanced to the finals of Grand Prix Memphis!