Brandon Nelson was in the Grand Prix finals, the same one who had famously beat Luis Scott-Vargas to knock him off the US Nationals team in 2011. In fact, it was so famous that he listed it as his proudest Magic accomplishment, even though he'd also Top 8'ed Grand Prix Kansas City in 2013.
While waiting to start the finals, Brandon entered into a long tradition of Magic players: calling their airline company from the Top 8 arena to change their flight to Monday morning. Nelson would have some explaining to do for his job, showing up late tomorrow, but it's kind of a Magic rite of passage. You undershot your own potential, and now you have to say, "Yup, I've done this. I've earned this."
LSV came out of the booth to help teach the airline and job routine, and Nelson successfully changed his flight and felt better about work. It was a good thing LSV didn't hold a grudge about that whole "Nationals" thing.
Nelson sat down next to his opponent, Sam Bataseh. Sam has played this game for years, all the way back to 1996; and has sprinkled in some Top 8 berths in 2001 and 2008. He's an auditor from the great state of Utah—and people from Utah are called "Utahns" in case your did not know. He had smashed Hall-of-Fame elect member Paul Rietzl in the quarterfinals and was ready to go.
Both players hunkered down in their chairs. Neither had seen a Grand Prix final before, and one of them was about to walk away a champion.
Nelson got the start we all hope for: Selfless Cathar into double Soulmender, into a turn-three Triplicate Spirits. Gross. Triple gross, even. Batarseh's deck was good, but now we would see just how good.
Well, kinda. A turn later revealed that Nelson was actually stuck on the three Plains with no Mountain in sight. So it was a bit less of a platonic ideal than it originally seemed.
A Scrapyard Mongrel, Goblin Roughrider, and Venom Sliver all battled against the white tides with the aid of a Sacred Armory. Nelson took some heavy breaths and moved his little guys back and forth figuring out how best to block. A bunch of creatures hit the bin, and after the dust settled it was 12-14 in Batarseh's favor. The creatures that remained for him were unimpressive, but Sacred Armory and an Inferno Fist really brought things up to snuff.
The next attack brought Nelson to 5. And though he finally found his Mountain, it seemed way too late for such things. The 7/3, trampling Scrapyard Mongrel (with firebreathing thanks to the Armory) was just bad news bears. Batarseh attacked in, and Nelson thought for a time, then slowly, unsurely, put all three Spirits and the Selfless Cathar helplessly in front of it.
Nelson hemmed and hawed about whether or not he should pass priority after each activation of Sacred Armory. He moved cards around, leaned back in his seat. With one potential activation (or an Inferno throw) left for Batarseh, I saw the Crowd's Favor in Nelson's hand. He had the out the whole time, and was trying to reel Batarseh in to use all his mana. He had me fooled.
Batarseh took the bait and gave Nelson priority back when he sacrificed the Inferno Fist to kill a Soulmender (Nelson had even fooled with the creature to draw attention to it) and Nelson sacrificed his Cathar to pump his spirits to 2/2s, then cast the Crowd's Favor to make a 3/2 first strike that took out the giant dog before he could even gnash his scrapyard teeth.
After that surprising turn of events, Nelson found the last mana he was waiting for and cast a Resolute Archangel to go all the way back to 20. It's the tiny little daggers, isn't it? The only thing still alive for Nelson were the spirits, but he didn't need anything else. Looking at Batarseh's life total changes, they read from 20, to 17, to 14, to 12, to 9, to 6. Large swaths of threes.
Brandon Nelson took the first game, and he'd earned it.
Brandon Nelson 1 – 0 Sam Batarseh
Nelson wasn't sure if he should keep his opening seven. It was Plains, Plains, Crowd's Favor, Crowd's Favor, Belligerent Sliver, Paragon of New Dawns, and Divine Favor. If he drew the Mountain, he'd be set, but without it he was dead in the water.
He eventually kept the hand and started out with a Midnight Guard on turn three. Luckily for him Batarseh didn't have a fast opening himself, and Nelson was able to establish his game plan. A drawn Heliod's Pilgrim fetched the previously unseen Spectra Ward, then Crowd's Favor helped the pilgrim take out a Borderland Marauder. Nelson was out to an early lead in life, 20-13, lead on the board, and a presumed lead in his hand—I mean, c'mon, it's Spectra Ward.
Sam Batarseh, on the other hand, was stuck on three land. And though he used Rummaging Goblin to aid his search for the fourth, it was to no avail. This predicament put Batarseh in a tough spot. He was behind on the board, so had to use the mana to catch back up and not die, but if he did, he would leave himself open to the Spectra Ward and most likely die.
Once Nelson saw this weakness, he pounced. When Batarseh tapped out, the Ward slammed down onto a Paragon of New Dawns and it was all downhill from there.
The Utahn drew cards for a few more turns, but he just couldn't come back.
Brandon Nelson made the final swing in, and Sam Batarseh extended his hand.
Brandon Nelson 2 – 0 Sam Batarseh
Brandon Nelson is your Grand Prix Salt Lake City champion! Congratulations, Brandon!