“I like your style,” Duke informed Ben Rubin as he perused his extremely unusual 64-card decklist before the match began. Besides being a statistical anomaly, Rubin's unique decklist had puzzled all his previous opponents in the Top 8. But there was no question that it had worked. And when you're a hall of famer with a resume as deep as Rubin's, the rest of learn not to ask such questions.
With his run to the finals, Duke had already secured himself a tie with Tomoharu Saito at 25 Pro Points in the race for the title of Grand Prix Master and the World Championship invite that came with it. If he could knock off Rubin in the finals, he would break that tie and move into sole possession of first place.
Rubin was chasing something of his own. In this case, history. His hall of fame career stretched back 19 years, but his last Grand Prix Top 8 came in 2004. In fact, it came in Oakland, the very city in which he was now competing.
That tournament had ended in the quarterfinals. This time around, Rubin hoped to go all the way.
Duke was the lone survivor with the Top 8's most populous deck: Rally the Ancestors takes advantage of a glut of small creatures that synergize incredibly well. Nantuko Husk, Catacomb Sifter, Grim Haruspex were the heavy hitters of the deck, but a host of small, value creatures like Elvish Visionary, Sidisi's Faithful and Zulaport Cutthroat allowed the deck to get into the mid and late game where returning the team with the deck's namesake would create an insurmountable amount of beneficial triggers.
The Abzan deck that Rubin was piloting looked much like the deck that had been floating around Standard for more than a year, but in reality the hall of famer's deck was much different. He pushed his mana base as far as it would go, splashing blue in order to take advantage of a few critical cards: Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Stubborn Denial. Both were stellar for Rubin all weekend, with Stubborn Denial being the key gamechanger that won him his quarterfinal match. Against Duke's Rally the Ancestors deck, the one-mana counterspell could be particularly devastating.
The crowd gathered expected a great match from the pair, and they delivered with a classic in the first game.
Rubin began the beatdown early, with Warden of the First Tree teaming up with a third-turn Anafenza, the Foremost to both put pressure on Duke's life total while also shutting off his graveyard-based shenanigans. With Plan A out the window, Duke fell back on assembling his creatures the hard way.
Well, maybe not that hard. Over the chess match that followed — revolving around Duke protecting a flipped Jace, Vryn's Prodigy from an army of Siege Rhinos with a Nantuko Husk and enough creatures to feed it — he drew and cast all four Collected Company in his deck. As both boards grew, the steady stream of creatures kept Rubin from attacking for long enough for Duke to activate the final ability on Jace, Telepath Unbound.
That was the spark that set things into motion. A pair of spells brought Rubin down to 29 cards in his library, and if he couldn't break the stall soon he was in real danger of losing to decking. Forced into attacking, Rubin's first foray left his Warden of the First Tree dead to a Nantuko Husk, though a morphed Den Protector provided him a glimmer of hope.
As Duke threatened to mill Rubin out of the game, he clung to his last hope: a fully souped-up Warden of the First Tree. Already loaded up with counters, the Warden attacked and Duke blocked with a Nantuko Husk that could threaten to grow very big.
Big, yes, but not bigger than the Warden, which became a 13/13 after Rubin activated its final ability again. When Duke went to pump his Husk, Rubin responded by casting the Dromoka's Command his Den Protector returned to fight the Husk before it grow to monstrous proportions. That was enough to enough to end a marathon first game and send the pair into a second.
Both players took a few deep breaths to unwind from a mentally draining first game, and Duke first broke the silence as they shuffled for the second.
“Still 64?” He asked to a laugh from the hall of famer.
Rubin's opener had exactly what he needed against Duke: a pair of Anafenza, the Foremost would stop Rally the Ancestors in its tracks. The only problem? He lacked the green mana needed to actually cast the legend. After a lengthy trip to the tank, Rubin opted to keep the hand.
His deck did not reward him. While he put up a fight with a pair of morphed Den Protectors — both were killed before flipping — he didn't find green mana in time, and Duke evened the finals at one game apiece.
With things going to a final match for all the marbles, Rubin was forced to mulligan to six but ended up with a much better start. This time, the two Anafenza in his hand were castable, and he did just that on the third turn.
With the roadblock to his plan in place, Duke tried to fight back with Merciless Executioner, sacrificing an Elvish Visionary but forcing Rubin to give up Anafenza. When the second one followed, Duke burned Sidisi's Faithful to bounce his own Executioner and replay it to take out the second Anafenza.
With both players burning resources on the fight over the graveyard, it was Rubin who took the offensive first, resolving Siege Rhino to swing life totals to 20-16 in his favor. A Murderous Cut took it down, and Collected Company put Duke ahead on the board with Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Catacomb Sifter.
In need of a comeback play, Rubin found it in a face-down Den Protector and a Warden of the First Tree. With the ability to return Anafenza to his hand on the next turn, Rubin had devised a path back into control of the game.
But that meant first giving Duke a turn. He flipped his Jace and used it to recast Murderous Cut to take out the Den Protector, cutting off the Anafenza threat before it could be deployed. Another Collected Company followed, and Duke's board began to grow. Grim Haruspex and Nantuko Husk joined Catacomb Sifter, and all Rubin could do was play his own Jace and pass.
Duke took the opportunity to pull further ahead, deploying Zulaport Cutthroat and coming within just a few life points of taking down the match.
It all came down to Rubin's last turn. He drew Anafenza and flipped his own Jace, giving himself the opportunity to survive another attack and find a way to close out the game. Instead, Duke untapped and cast his deck's namesake card for the first time in the match, prompting the handshake from Rubin and sending Duke to his first individual Grand Prix title since 2013.