Simply getting to the Top 8 of a Grand Prix is an accomplishment most Magic players dream of, though few accomplish it. Actually winning the Grand Prix after advancing to that Top 8 is even more rare, and even seasoned pros with multiple Top 8 appearances may not find themselves holding the trophy at the end of it.
That's not a problem for the two players left standing at the end of Grand Prix Mexico City.
On one side set longtime player Tomoharu Saito, who notched his incredible 22nd Grand Prix Top 8 with his run to the elimination rounds in Mexico City. Across from him sat 17th-ranked Fabrizio Anteri, who had made seven previous Grand Prix Top 8s and converted three of those into titles. For the largest-ever Grand Prix held in Mexico (787 players), it was no surprise to see the two veteran pros squaring off at the end of the weekend.
Not that trophies and titles were all that were on the line in the finals. Both players were neck-and-neck in the hunt for the title of 2016 Grand Prix Master — and the World Magic Championship invite that came with it. Both trailed Reid Duke entering the tournament, but with Duke's absence in advance of next week's Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, the Top 8 appearance had thrust the two into first and second place. Saito held a four-point lead over Anteri entering the weekend and would hold that lead regardless, though a victory for Anteri would award him eight Pro Points compared to Saito's six and cut the gap in half.
Anteri would play first, though both players mulliganned to six to start. The pair traded removal on Anteri's side for creatures on Saito's side early, but was able to make up much ground in the red zone.
The problem — for Anteri at least — is that the game wasn't being decided in the red zone. While Saito had assembled all three of the colors he needed in his black-red-green deck, Anteri couldn't find an Island to go along with his Mountains, leaving much of his hand stranded.
Saito finally pulled ahead with a Kozilek's Translator, and a series of attacks left Anteri at 9 life as he tried to find the Island needed to unlock his hand. Though none was forthcoming, a pair of Cinder Hellion did slow the assault from Saito.
Though Saito had plenty of mana, not to mention access to colorless should he need it, the one thing he was missing was a second Swamp for Grip of Desolation. That meant that when Anteri finally did find an Island and play Jori En, Ruin Diver into a second spell to draw a card, Saito's lead was in full danger of slipping away.
The Japanese pro couldn't find a second Swamp, but he did land an Essence Depleter, which alongside Kozilek's Translator began draining Anteri for one every turn. The cycle continued for the next several turns as Anteri sought an answer to the “combo.” He finally found it in Outnumber, but when a timely Unnatural Endurance from Saito saved his Depleter the pair were off into the second game with Saito in the lead.
Tomoharu Saito's three-color deck was high on power level, provided he could find the right colors
The second game saw Saito again have all three color of mana on the third turn, though his hand was fairly pedestrian. It was a slow start for both players, as Saito curved managed both Maw of Kozilek and Translator while Anteri's first foray onto the board was a Cinder Hellion on the fifth turn.
The slow pace suited both players perfectly. Anteri played Jori En, Ruin Diver and began to chain spells together to keep drawing cards. Saito, meanwhile, had Valakut Invoker on the board and was building toward eight mana to begin shooting down Anteri's creatures. Playing toward that end, Saito used a pair of Nissa's Judgment to clear away Anteri's scarier threats but keeping his team back on defense rather than try and race.
As the game progressed through several turns of stalemate, it was Anteri who eventually broke it with Jwar Isle Avenger. The flier began pecking away at Saito's life total, even as he began to take control of things on the ground. But while things looked like they would go Saito's way if the game went long enough, he had to find a way to get there.
That meant an eighth land to begin activating Invoker, but three straight turns of neither land nor removal spell meant that the Avenger was able to finish off Saito and send the finals into a decider.
As the players shuffled up for the third and final game, Anteri let out a long and audible sigh, keenly aware of exactly how close he was to losing control — and the tournament — in the second game. Saito calmly picked up his cards and began to sideboard, though his patented “Saito slaps” betrayed his nerves.
No. 17 Fabrizio Anteri squeaked out a narrow victory in the second game, barely keeping his title hopes alive.
The pair traded removal spells early in the third game, but it was Anteri who drew first blood, using the power of the Surge mechanic to chain Expedite into Jwar Isle Avenger on the fourth turn. The flier began to chip away at Saito's life total for the second game in a row.
Having lost the last game due in part to being too passive, Saito opted for an aggressive route in the third game, attacking with Valakut Invoker and Kozilek's Translator before playing Flayer Drone and holding up Kozilek's Return should Anteri flood the board with small creatures.
Instead Anteri had Jori En again, and began to draw a card every turn just as his hyper-efficient blue-red deck was meant to do. In the end, as the players traded blows back and forth, Saito was forced to use the Return to take out a lowly Zada's Commando, far from the blowout he had hoped for.
As both players neared precariously low life totals, Saito found a seventh land, which along with Kozilek's Translator allowed him to activate Valakut Invoker. That took care of Jwar Isle Avenger and Jori En, but it also contributed to Saito falling to a dangerously low life total of 4 after Cinder Hellion resolved for Anteri. Still, with the long game firmly in his favor, all Saito needed to do was buy a few turns.
Anteri had other plans, and the Slip Through Space he had been saving the whole game provided exactly the reach he needed to make the Hellion unblockable and complete his comeback to knock off Saito and claim the 2016 Grand Prix Mexico City title at the same time.