Semifinals: Matt Sperling, (21) Paul Rietzl, and David Williams vs. (10) Ari Lax, Chris Fennell, and (24) Craig Wescoe

Posted in Event Coverage on February 2, 2015

By Marc Calderaro

After the players were finished team drafting, Chris Fennell immediately called “table.” If you’ve never casually team drafted before, saying “table” before the last pack is drafted allows that team to stay where they drafted and construct their deck at the drafting table. The other team are relegated to finding some other surface to construct their deck—be it another table, a floor, or a bed to draft on.

Fennell, as with all the combatants here, are very familiar with six-player team drafts, so Fennell’s joke fell on receptive ears.

Then Head Judge Toby Elliott came in and ruined the whole party, saying, “We’re going to do this playground rules style; the higher seed gets to stay.”

This set up a collective, joking grown from Ari Lax, Chris Fennell, and Craig Wescoe—the lower-ranked team. “But we called ‘table’!” they decried.

So, this is a learning experience for everyone: the rules of the hotel lobby are not in effect at the Top 4 of a Grand Prix. This casual-team-draft demeanor though, would remain throughout the match. These pros have played against each other in lobbies, airports, and social gatherings for years, and the banter back and forth often harkened to those less-money-on-the-line settings.

(10) Ari Lax vs. (21) Paul Rietzl

The first match went very quickly. Ari Lax was playing a fast Red-Green Beatdown deck with multiple Goblin Heelcutters, and Paul Rietzl was a Black-Green double-splash Control deck.

Lax opened with an Alesha, Who Smiles at Death into a Goblin Heelcutter to kick off the party. While Rietzl and Sperling discussed fairly complex enters-the-battlefield-tapped dual-land drops (Rietzl had seven dual lands). Rietzl was able to get set up, because Lax hadn’t played any two-drops, and got a Gurmag Angler, Whisperer of the Wilds, and an Alpine Grizzly to stabilize at a decent life total.

“Decent” until Lax unmorphed a Jeering Instigator and stole the Gurmag Angler to swing for a veritable crap-ton of damage. But Rietzl stopped Lax in his attack step and took a Sultai Charm to the Goblin Heelcutter that would’ve stopped all reasonable blocking. Rietzl still took major damage on the attack, but got his Angler back unthreatened with an unexpected demise.

This let Rietzl untap and halt all of Lax’s forward progress with a Meandering Towershell. And if it were possible for Lax to be a 5/9, he wasn’t able to after Rietzl assembled his first Crux of Fate combo.

Rietzl attacked with the Towershell, exiling it for the turn, then swept away everything else with his Crux of Fate. The Towershell came back right on time, hitting Lax for 5, and the Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir Champion was never able to recover.

Between the games, Rietzl asked a judge off to the side what would happen if Jeering Instigator took a Meandering Towershell. “I think I know the answer, and it’s bad for me, but I wanted to make sure.” In case you don’t know, the way Towershell is worded, if stolen then exiled via an attack, the Townshell would stay controlled by Lax for the rest of the game. It was indeed bad for Rietzl.

Regardless, Lax started off game two with a two-drop, threatening to attack a little faster this time. He had Alesha again, and a few more supporters as Rietzl played his tap lands and some quick defense with Smoke Teller and Typhoid Rats. These creatures, along with an Abzan Ascendancy that pumped Rietzl’s team, forced Lax had to commit heavily to the board.

Sadly, this was just what Rietzl wanted. Enter Crux of Fate synergy #2: Abzan Ascendancy.

Rietzl swept the board, while netting three spirit tokens for his trouble. From another match, Craig Wescoe leaned over and said, “Oh, I passed a Crux of Fate. Forgot to tell you.” He laughed. Lax did not laugh. He couldn’t; it’s hard to laugh when you’re dead.

The Spirit tokens took the game home for Paul Rietzl and his team went up a quick 1-0.

(24) Craig Wescoe vs. Matt Sperling

The second match was also fast-paced. Craig Wescoe opened and said, “Plains, white creature. Go figure.” It was a Firehoof Cavalry. “And what a creature it is,” Rietzl chided from across the table.

But don’t count the little guy out. Craig Wescoe has made his career off casting his white friends and attacking. Though other pros don’t give white weenies much respect, Wescoe proves people wrong again and again. Adding further potential insult, he also followed with another much-maligned creature, Valley Dasher.

Matt Sperling, who was on Jeskai, cast a Cloudform and a Sandsteppe Outcast to keep up. You could do worse, I’m sure, than two of the better cards in Fate Reforged.

At this point, Dave Williams looked over from the third match against Chris Fennell, saw Wescoe’s colors and exclaimed, “Oh, I did it again! I hooked ‘em! I still got it!” He was talking about the old-school team-drafting method of purposefully passing a certain color combination or archetype to get your neighbor to commit—only to yank it out from under them and completely cut them off, taking everything remotely playable in the colors you forced them to draft. It’s called “hooking.” Williams stared at the board and said, “If he plays an Island, I’m going to lose it!” At the sight of Wescoe dropping a Mystic Monastery, Williams nearly exploded.

Perhaps this “hooking” wasn’t as large a feat as Williams thought—it was clear to about 80% of the Magic community that Wescoe was going to force white, and probably white-red—but all six of players got a good laugh out of the boisterous display.

Knowing what your opponent is drafting can often hurt, as Wescoe soon learned. Sperling had built his deck with a “pre-sideboarded” Siegecraft maindeck. Usually a bad-to-mediocre card, that aura in this match-up might just be game.

Then Sperling stuck a Siegecraft. Though he still had to actually kill Wescoe, a Vaultbreaker would suffice just fine. Wescoe started well enough, but the low mid-to-late game quality of the cards started to show, as Sperling beatdown with the ‘breaker and a Siegecrafted-up dude. It was over quickly after that.

During sideboarding, Sperling turned to Rietzl and showed him an Embodiment of Spring. “Am I crazy to want this on the draw?” Rietzl simply replied: “Yes.” And Sperling was on to the second game, sans the 0/3.

Well, what you could call a second game anyway. Sperling stumbled on his third land, and Wescoe’s unassuming aggro guys were unremorseful. Another turn-one Firehoof Cavalry lead the charge and Sperling scooped them up. Perhaps a 0/3 wall that could find a land would have helped.

The last game started with Wescoe saying to Sperling, “Take a guess.” Sperling knew what was coming. For the third game in a row, the Firehoof Cavalry got in there on the first turn, cast off a Plains. Wescoe curved out perfectly this game, going Seeker of the Way, then Bloodfire Expert.

Sperling had some early defense, and a Feat of Resistance, Suspension Field, and Waterwhirl in his hand. All he had to do was buy some time and the game was his.

But time was not on his side. Wescoe followed his first three turns with more creatures, including the high-powered Gore Swine (“high-powered” in the literal sense, of course). But Sperling had Sandsteppe Outcast and a manifested creature off Soul Summons to block, and Wescoe was down to one card. It looked like Sperling could get there.

At that point, Fennell said to everyone within earshot, “I advocate for you casting the last card in your hand, Craig.” After a few seconds, he doubled-down. “Cast the Pyrotechnics, and go 2-1-1, please.” He then went back to his own match. It’s not like Wescoe was actually thinking about the play, but something about broadcasting it added inevitability to the board-altering move.

Though the gargantuan red sorcery didn’t get the full 3-for-1, as Rietzl saved a creature with Feat of Resistance, it was more than enough to completely ruin Sperling’s defenses. Wescoe had five creatures to Sperling’s one, and he was far ahead on life. Turning the creatures sideways for the rest of the game was elementary—though it didn’t last all that long.

Craig Wescoe has once again proven the naysayers wrong—attacking with little dudes is still the bees knees. Craig Wescoe defeats Matt Sperling 2-1, and the series is tied one a piece. It’s down to the last match.

Chris Fennell vs. David Williams

Chris Fennell was on a big Blue-Black Control deck, similar in style to the decks he’d been playing all weekend. His marquee card, Palace Siege, was ready to lay waste to Dave Williams’ Jeskai deck. Williams had some good cards, including a Mantis Rider, and a bevy of removal, but it didn’t look quite as solid as Fennell’s build.

The first game was all Fennell. He made an early defense grid with Disowned Ancestor and a Ruthless Ripper. Williams was able to get a few early point off Fennell in the air with a Jeskai Windscout, but it wasn’t long for the world, and the ground was so far a lost cause.

The game went for a long while with both players adding ground pounders to the battlefield. When Fennell dropped a Typhoid Rats, basically a second Ruthless Ripper, Williams’ progress stopped. He had plenty of outlast cards like Abzan Battle Priest, Salt Road Patrol, and Abzan Falconer (which, surprise didn’t live very long either), but they weren’t breaking through.

Williams was holding Smite the Monstrous and Jeskai Charm for any card that started to actually threaten his life total. That card was a Swarm of Bloodflies. It grew a couple times before the Charm tried to finish it off. But Fennell had a Rite of Undoing ready to save his would-be finisher. Then, after the swarm came back down, Fennell at the Disdainful Stroke to counter a Smite the Monstrous. Williams was out of answers.

Fennell simply swung away with his insects and rats to take the game.

The second game did not go so smoothly for Fennell. He started all right, with a Hooded Assassin, Ruthless Ripper, Bellowing Saddlebrute, Sultai Scavenger, and a Disdainful Stroke to mute early progress from Williams.  But the early progress became midgame progress, and Fennell was still without a fifth land. He had survived this long, but now all the five drops in his hand were stacking up—including the game-ending Palace Siege. Williams had an Abzan Falconer, and was able to use it to full effect to make his team a flying team.

Next, Williams used a Smite the Monstrous and a mid-combat Honor's Reward to take out the Saddlebrute and Scavenger. With that, the look of the board changed. More flying power from Williams kept taking big chunks of Fennell’s life total.

On the last turn with the fifth land found, Fennell scooped, rather than show his Siege to Williams in a game he was sure to lose.

The whole Semifinals came down to the game three. All the players were huddled over their teammates, seeing if they would be the three to reach the finals.

Williams kept a very risky hand. Though he would have a guaranteed turn-two Jeskai Elder, the rest of his cards had white mana symbols and there were no Plains to be found—just one Island and one Mountain.

But it was only scary for a moment. Like a true mise, Williams nabbed the Plains exactly when he needed it. Jeskai Elder into Mantis Rider, into Watcher of the Roost was a pretty incredible start.

Fennell tried to catch up. He had a Jeskai Windscout and a Bellowing Saddlebrute, but this game was Williams’. The old pro had a Smite the Monstrous ready and waiting for the 4/5 black creature. The Fennell’s life fell from 14 to 4 in short order. And Fennell’s last ditch Aven Surveyor was answered by one from Williams. This completely cleared the skies for Williams’ flyers, and Fennell’s goose was cooked.

After a back-and-forth matchup, Matt Sperling, David Williams, and (21) Paul Rietzl have defeated (24) Craig Wescoe, Chris Fennell, and (10) Ari Lax. They will be meeting (12) Eric Froehlich, Luis Scott-Vargas, and Paul Cheon in the finals.

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