Round 8 Feature Match: Matt Sperling vs. Neal Oliver

Posted in GRAND PRIX OMAHA 2015 on January 11, 2015

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

Matt Sperling was coming off a great weekend, ending an excellent run of finalist at Grand Prix Denver the weekend prior. Adding a Top 8 with Pro Tour Magic 2015 as well as another at Grand Prix Vancouver, Sperling was again a rising player on the Premier play circuit. (And with friends like Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Paul Rietzl is no surprise at all.) Winning this match would ensure he’d have his chance to do it again on Day 2 here.

Neal Oliver, champion of the mammoth Grand Prix Law Vegas in 2013, had recently finished his world tour as one of the members of the US World Magic Cup team. Assisting in their rise to fourth, alongside captain and first-ranked Owen Turtenwald, Oliver was a formidable player in his own right: His only other Grand Prix Top 8s were both finalist finishes, at Oakland in 2013 and Ottowa in 2014.

In fact, Oliver was a player that commanded plenty of respect from Sperling.

“I spend every day telling everyone you’re the most under-rated player,” Sperling said, “and now I have to beat you.”

“Like at Sacramento where I went 6-0 then 0-3?” Oliver laughed. “Let’s just try and both make Day 2.”

Sperling wasn’t done however. “Excited to defend your title in Vegas?” he asked. Here, Oliver couldn’t help but grin ear to ear.

“I’m preregistered and everything.”

The Decks

Both players were using the powerful Blue-Red Delver deck. As one of the newer pillars of Modern, The Blue-Red Delver deck is built to handle games in multiple ways. On the surface, it’s a tempo deck that uses its namesake Delver of Secrets, Snapcaster Mage, and Young Pyromancer to make the most of a bevy of instants. While Lightning Bolt, Spell Snare, and Remand are typical of how the deck stays ahead of opponents, Gitaxian Probe, Serum Visions, and Thought Scour support quickly building up to Treasure Cruise-as-Ancestral Recall to refill the options.

In longer games, the ability to stymie combos and fight back against control means it can bide its time and set up an unanswerable sequence of plays. With so many cheap spells and threats, it’s a deck with surprising resilience and power over time. Playing the mirror, as in this case, amplified the depth of what the deck could do.

The Games

Sperling was on the board before Oliver even took his first turn, thanks to Steam vents and Monastery Swiftspear. Though Oliver was quick to kill it with Pillar of Flame on his turn, Sperling tred Young Pyromancer soon thereafter. Remand was waiting for Oliver, and Sperling’s Gitaxian Probe revealed even more removal and countermagic on the other side.

Oliver returned the Monastery Swiftspear favor, and Sperling had Lightning Bolt in kind. Gitaxian Probe from Oliver revealed a similar hand for Sperling, and the two went back to facing off in relative parity.

“Thanks to Gitaxian Probe, Matt Sperling kept careful track of what Neal Oliver had used.”

Things finally broke when Sperling drew a Treasure Cruise for his turn and it resolved, refilling his hand.

“That’s pretty good,” Oliver said.

Serum Visions helped Oliver find his own copy of Cruise, but Sperling won the resulting counter war over that. Sperling killed Oliver’s lonely Snapcaster Mage before casting another Treasure Cruise. With a full grip Sperling took control of the game.

Young Pyromancer was Sperling’s first move, and they traded instants over it. The net result was Sperling casting multiple Lightning Bolts to put Oliver at 6 life with three 1/1 Elemental creature tokens in play to continue battling with.

Oliver’s Vapor Snag answered one of the tokens, but that wasn’t enough. Two turns later and they moved to the second game.

“You got it.” Oliver said.

The second game initially looked to favor Oliver. While Sperling was the first to land Young Pyromancer and a few Elementals, it was Oliver that flipped his Delver of Secrets into Insectile Aberration and made even more tokens with his own Pyromancer.

But it wasn’t to be.

Then Sperling unleashed an entire hand of removal to wipe away Oliver’s side and leave five Elemental tokens behind. Monastery Swiftspear and Lightning Bolt joined the fray as Oliver defended his second Young Pyromancer of the match. The attack still dropped Oliver to just 6 life.

“Neal Oliver worked hard to keep pace with Sperling in every game.”

There was a moment in between the exchanges, however, when Sperling knew Oliver had Thought Scour but still left Treasure Cruise on top of his library with Serum Visions. Oliver didn’t know what it was, but Sperling grimaced when the Scour milled it away.

Forked Bolt cleared away the remaining defenses Oliver had.

“It stings,” Oliver said as he fell to 1 life.

Pyroclasm was Oliver’s last effort to stay alive but Sperling had the natural follow up: Monastery Swiftspear for the last point needed. Oliver extended his hand.

“I really misplayed in this match,” Sperling said.

“Why do you think that?” Oliver asked.

Sperling related the Treasure Cruise-Thought Scour situation above. “I was warned about the Scour games specifically,” Sperling said. “I just forgot.”

Neal Oliver – Blue-Red Delver

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Matt Sperling – Blue-Red Delver

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