Though Abzan Control might be a deck you’d expect to see this deep in a 1,500-player Grand Prix, Abzan Constellation might not. Yet, here was Pro Tour Hall of Fame member, eighth-ranked Paul Rietzl—sitting across from Brazilian Artur Villela—and Rietzl must have been thinking the same thing.
Artur Villela was on a version of Constellation that looked a lot like the original black-green builds, just adding a Starfield of Nyx and Herald of the Pantheon. Though all weekend, the flashier, newer Green-White Constellations build was getting all the limelight, it was Villela’s deck that proved more resilient (and best at avoiding his bad matchups, as he told me).
Paul Rietzl was playing his good friend (20) Matt Sperling’s deck from the Top 8 of Pro Tour Magic Origins last week. Honestly, it was their deck, Sperling just got a little farther with it. The deck aimed to take control of the board with the best spells green, black, and white could offer, then win with whatever it wanted. Rietzl often won with a Dragonlord Dromoka.
This match-up would be all about attrition. And after two long days of Magic, both these players were worn down. Before the match, the two talked about how tired they were—this game between two grindy decks was a perfect metaphor for the mental states of both players.
Whoever had more tenacity in the final push would be the victor.
Paul Rietzl started with a Nissa, Vastwood Seer and got in there to tussle when he could. He was going to try to draw more and more spells and bully his way into a better board presence. Though Artur Villela had Herald of the Pantheon and a Doomwake Giant, Rietzl had more than enough removal to hold off any aggressive inklings. Additionally, Rietzl had both Elspeth, Sun's Champion and Dragonlord Dromoka, so he was playing bully fairly well.
But Villela had an attrition plan. He had a Starfield of Nyx. And after relieving Rietzl of the rest of his hand, thanks to two Brain Maggots, all the enchantments were online, and the shoe went to the other foot. Villela had the now-2/2 Brain Maggots, the Starfield, a 3/3 Banishing Light, a 5/5 Doomwake Giant, and a 4/4 Eidolon of Blossoms. After killing Rietzl’s Nissa, Sage Animist, Villela left Rietzl with the dragon, a Legendary 4/4, a Tasigur, the Golden Fang, and a Courser of Kruphix. The scores were 12-11 in Rietzl’s favor.
Villela didn’t have a great way to get through, and he was watching a dragon attack him from the skies. With both players set up for card advantage—Eidolon and a Tasigur—these two were stalling up the board.
After a few turns, the board’s permanents were multiplying, and so was Rietzl’s life, thanks to the Dromoka. Given a turn or two more of this it would be over. But Villela was drawing a bunch of cards, and was trying to draw out of his hole.
It had been a long match already, and the game ended with an odd twist. To break the ground stall, and to stop Villela from drawing cards, Rietzl pointed a Bile Blight at two Eidolon of Blossoms—but thanks to Starfield of Nyx, they were 4/4s. This might usually be looked at as a blunder, but Villela also behaved as if they were 2/2s and scooped up his cards.
This would be a game of attrition; and that was apparently already in the first game.
As the two sideboarded, looking at each others’ lists, Rietzl exclaimed, “Infinite Obliteration—What is that? Is that real? Is that a made up card?” It is not a made up card, Paul. But no, it’s not coming in against your deck.
In the second game, Villela led with a first-turn Thoughtseize, following with a Brain Maggot. This set Rietzl back severely, as his hand was only Elspeth, Sun's Champion, Languish, and a bunch of lands.
“I gotta cast the spells in my deck,” Rietzl said.
So Villela’s first two cards took everything Rietzl had, and a follow-up removal spell cleaned up the stuff off the top. This game was coming up Villela.
After the commanding early game, Villela resolved a Pharika, God of Afflictions and an Eidolon of Blossoms setting up the draw engine. Though, he had to fight off more Elspeths from Rietzl, he had the removal waiting, and so started the card party.
However Villela still wasn’t doing any damage. And the various Elspeth remnants—six Soldier tokens—were momentarily holding things down. Villela had a Doomwake Giant in hand to kill them all, but he bided his time, just drawing more cards and hanging out. Then Rietzl went for a big move.
He cast a Tragic Arrogance to wipe the board almost clean. Villela thought for a moment and used his Pharika to make a 1/1 enchantment creature Snake token to draw more cards, but that could’ve proven to be a fatal mistake.
Rietzl pointed to the Snake twice and said, “That’s your creature, and that’s your enchantment.” Villela had to sacrifice everything but his lowly 1/1. A Brain Maggot died, and Rietzl recast his recently returned Elspeth and immediately made three tokens. Could this be Rietzl’s return?
It only took a few swings to go to the third game.
Rietzl held up the Starfield and said, “I don’t know exactly what this does, but I’m taking it,” and the five-mana enchantment went into the bin.
Unlike in either of the first two games, no one had a clear lead early on. The two jockeyed for position going one-for-one on removal back and forth. Sometimes it was Hero's Downfall, sometimes Unravel the Æther, but there was always something leaving the battlefield somehow.
But in as the game progressed, this trading benefitted Villela. Villela’s card-draw engine is insane if left alone. Kruphix's Insight was particularly crazy. With no real pressure presented from either player, the back and forth advanced each time Villela. It was like a tug-of-war. Though there didn’t look like much change, Rietzl was moving closer and closer to the mudpit—not to be confused with Mudhole.
Finally, Rietzl cast the last card in his hand and Villela was somehow still at five cards. Now it was clear who was ahead. Rietzl tried desperately to stay in it. And though the top of his deck was often kind to him, every time he got something going, Villela would just swat it down.
Though without any apparent aggression, casting durdle-y creature after durdle-y creature got there for Villela.
The Brazilian had outlasted the American, and would be meeting Michael Majors and his Sphinx's Tutelage deck in the finals.