The undefeated team against the reigning city champions. It’s a story ripped right out of tales and stories across time, except here it was all too real. It’s matches like this that leap to mind when looking over an event.
Pro Tour Hall of Fame player Luis Scott Vargas, Paul Cheon, and No. 12-ranked Eric Froehlich had marched without losing a match all weekend. Despite self-professed deck issues, and with a some misfortune from previous opponents, the trio had taken a commanding lead in the standings. Winning another round would almost assure them a spot in the Top 4, and the ability to take losses or draws as it suited them. Luxury like that is rare at Grand Prix these days.
Across from them sat a familiar threesome for fans of events in San Jose. In 2012 the same team of David Williams, Matt Sperling, and No. 21-ranked Paul Rietzl earned a team Grand Prix win. Playing together at team events since haven’t yielded the same success, but climbing into the Top 4 would give them another chance.
Moving ahead another round of victory was what both teams needed most.
Rietzl faced the type of problem teammate Sperling was presenting opponents, facing down back-to-back Sandsteppe Outcasts from Cheon, again playing a white-black deck. Rietzl used Aven Surveyors to slow down Cheon’s progress with the life totals at 16 to 22 in Cheon’s favor.
The game turned into attrition as Rietzl and Cheon jockeyed for better board position, trading blocks and removal to set up an edge. Neither got very far for long until Reitzl’s Valorous Stance outmuscled Cheon’s Harsh Sustenance. That was the final push Rietzl needed to win.
The second game featured an aggressive start by Rietzl’s Jeskai deck: Sandsteppe Outcast, Seeker of the Way, Jeskai Student, and Dragon Bell Monk piled into Cheon, who was stuck on three Swamps in play and discarding for his turns, including a Butcher of the Horde.
It didn’t take long for Rietzl to earn the first point of the match.
Paul Cheon was under pressure throughout his battle against Paul Rietzl. Scott-Vargas and Eric Froehlich fared better.
In the center seats, Savage Knuckleblade and Mardu scout led the way for Williams, piling in early damage against Scott-Vargas’ empty battlefield. It was hardly a contest before Williams bowled the Hall of Fame player over for the first game. In the second game Williams asked Rietzl if he should keep a one land opening hand on the draw with plenty of two-drops.
“You’re asking the wrong person,” Rietzl declared. “I’d never mulligan that hand in a million years.”
Willaims kept it and was rewarded with the land he needed, starting with War Name Aspirant into Arc Lightning for value. However, the risky start showed its colors as the lands Williams drew left him unable to add his Mardu Scouts to the battlefield permanently for a few turns. Scott-Vargas used the opening to finish Williams off before he could catch up completely.
Their third game featured a slow start from Williams, and Scott-Vargas used the time to set up Avalanche Tusker and other large creatures. Arrow Volley handled the Tusker, and Mardu Scouts’ power was big enough to make a dent. Scott-Vargas took to the skies to pressure Williams, holding back Wisk Away to ensure the tempo advantage.
Eventually, that advantage became the edge Scott-Vargas used to claim a match for his team.
In the third seats, Sperling put early pressure on Froehlich’s Abzan deck, adding tokens with Mardu Strike Leader and battering in with creatures before the larger options across the way gummed things up. Sperling set up a turn where Orc Sureshot shrunk down a 4/4 Longshot Squad into a manageable size to attack into, but after the Feat of Resistance-and-more dust settled Sperling and Froehlich missed the dash trigger at the end of the turn. Realizing it too late, and confirming with the head judge that Froehlich chose whether the trigger would happen or not as Froehlich had drawn for his turn before he could jump in, Sperling could only watch as Froehlich untapped into a board-wiping Death Frenzy.
Sperling rebuilt his side, stealing the Longshot Squad with Shifting Loyalties and started chipping away with Marang River Prowler. A Feral Krushok with eight +1/+1 counters forced Sperling in an awkward position but Froehlich had no choice but to use End Hostilities to reset the battlefield against the unblockable menace. With another black creature in hand Sperling was right back at it to finish Froehlich before the defenses could recover.
The second game ramped into a flurry of creatures dying. Orc Sureshot went to work for Sperling again even as Froehlich used the mighty Dromoka, the Eternal to dominate the skies. Shifting Loyalties took the Dragon from Froehlich, who was forced to kill it to stay afloat.
Marang River Prowlers were Sperling primary offense, and he used Treasure Cruise to pick up even more to work with. Using Death Frenzy to keep the life totals in his favor, Froehlich didn’t mind trading pin pricks of damage for the huge chunks his creatures were dishing out. Sperling finally fell to an oversized Feral Krushok as he couldn’t get ahead of the damage race in time.
Matt Sperling (left) was focused on finding ways to win against Eric Froehlich. Teammate David Williams (center) was less successful, but Paul Rietzl found his way to a win.
The entire showdown hinged on the third game between Froehlich and Sperling. Froehlich led with Ainok Guide into a Forest.
“What’s double green?” Sperling asked his teammates.
“Temur Sabertooth,” Rietzl offered.
“He played that game one.”
Sure enough, one was in Froehlich’s hand, and he cast it on turn four. Marang River Prowler was Sperling’s less impressive start, and he took damage to dig down with Bitter Revelation. Froehlich took command of the damage race, putting Sperling to 11 life as Froehlich bounced and replayed his Ainok Guide for another land.
“Cards in hand?” Froehlich asked.
“I have eight.” Sperling had options but no lands to play on his turn, stuck on four. Douse in Gloom for the Guide helped buy time, and Froehlich couldn’t replace his cheap creature. Going up even higher in life off Shamanistic Revelation, Marang River Prowler alone wouldn’t do it for Sperling against Froehlich. Sperling fell to 6 life as Froehlich held back Feat of Resistance and added Tuskgaurd Captain to his side.
Treasure Cruise was Sperling’s final effort to find a way out of his situation. Typhoid Rats was the last line of defense, but Savage Punch with Feat of Resistance was exactly what Froehlich needed to finish off a tapped-out Sperling.
Cheon, Scott-Vargas, and Froehlich advanced to a perfect 12-0, nearly ensuring their Top 4 appearance.