As the day has moved on here in Orlando, hundreds of players have drifted into the Convention Center, taking advantage of their Sleep-In Special priviliges to stay firmly ensconced in their hotel room during the earliest skirmishes of this two-day slogathon towards the Top 8 summit. Now, as morning turns to afternoon, a few of the true elite remain to take the deckbuilding challenge. 84 cards, 30 minutes, go.
In truth, we could have selected anyone from this final table of the day to be our Mystery Pro (we don't want to put them at a disadvantage by revealing exactly who they are and what they're playing, ready for prospective opponents to read). At the table were multiple Pro Tour Champions, Pro Tour finalists, repeat Grand Prix winners, Hall of Famers...all seven were household names, but one in particular will remain anonymous here – our Mystery Pro. Here's what happened:
Some things never change. Our Pro began by sorting his cards by color. Two piles emerged for each of the five colors – a top row of genuine high-ranking, appealing cards, and a second row of lesser, but still eminently playable cards. In green, there was Heir of the Wilds and the mythic See the Unwritter. Red had removal in Arrow Storm and Bring Low. Black saw Debilitating Injury next to Necropolis Fiend, a truly potent weapon. Blue was desperately short of excitement, with only the 2/1 flying Prowess Jeskai Windscout in the 'yes please' pile, while white was headlined by a pair of premium two drops in Ainok Bond-Kin.
At this point our Pro left his gold cards alone, barely glancing at them dismissively before turning his attention to his mana. Two fetchlands in Flooded Strand and Windswept Heath; one tri-land in Opulent Palace; and three 'gain-lands' in Wind-Scarred Crag, Bloodfell Caves, and Thornwood Falls. As he said afterwards, 'The mana was very disappointing. I only had those six non-basic lands, and that's definitely not enough to play some kind of five color deck. That left me the choice of playing a straightforward three color deck, and if you want to play your good gold cards, there are only really five of those decks.'
Using the trusty weapon of the pen and paper system, he matched up the five clans, listing his access to fixing for each, and the gold cards that he wanted to play. Almost immediately his choice became stark, since the clans featuring blue were obviously weak. The battle lines were drawn – a straight showdown between WBG for the Abzan, and RWB for the Mardu. With the likes of Ride Down, Highspire Mantis, Mardu Charm, Mardu Roughrider, Abzan Charm, and Abzan Guide, which way would he go?
His initial Mardu deck sported 17 creatures and 7 spells, matched identically by his first take on the Abzan. With barely more than five minutes remaining in the deckbuild, all seven of these standout Pros were in desperate clock trouble. None had settled on their final build, and none had firmly established a manabase, so critical to Khans Limited.
For our Mystery Pro, the green cards went away, returning him to Mardu. Once the dust had settled, he explained some of his thought process behind this final deck:
"There's a real balance between power versus consistency" he explained. "It very much depends how good your individual cards are. If you have a lot of bombs plus removal, ensuring you can win in the late game, then I'm inclined to go for power. Unfortunately, I didn't really have those cards, so no matter how I would build the deck I was afraid that my opponents would overpower me in the late game, especially if they run a 4 or 5 color deck with good mana, and access to all their powerful spells."
"So I think that the best way to get a good record with the deck is to build aggressively, and try to beat them before they can fix their mana. I was afraid that the Abzan deck didn't have enough to punch through, apart from the two literal punches of the Savage variety. The Mardu deck gave me those 'punch through' kind of cards, like Jeering Instigator, Arrow Storm, and Mardu Roughrider. I also had access to a couple of additional flyers that could help with my aggressive plan."
"I very much wanted to play white, as I want a good mana curve, and white was pretty much the only color with reasonable two drops, the pair of Ainok Bond-Kin. Missing the curve would be especially problematic if I didn't have a late game. So I went Mardu over Abzan. I was a bit sad that I wasn't able to play Necropolis Fiend. No matter how I would build with black as the main color, the overall deck would have been weaker. I had to play enough sources of white and red, so I just didn't have enough space to get the double black. Incidentally, the fetchlands are not just to thin the deck – they also help with Delve."
One of his fellow builders asked, "are you happy?" His reply was swift.
"No. I think the question for me tomorrow is Sea World, or Disney World."
Then again, this isn't your average Grand Prix player...