The table next to them, where sat Grand Prix Top 8 first-timers Robert Lombardi and Doug Potter laughing and joking boisterously while they enjoyed their run to the top, by contrast the side with Jon Stern and Oliver Tiu was quiet and deadly serious. It was Tiu's second Grand Prix Top 8, while Stern was making his sixth trip to the elimination rounds.
It had been somewhat of a redemption weekend for Stern. With his teammates from Face to Face Games rooting him on, he was looking for a Top 8 berth to regain his spot on the Pro Tour. Teammate and reigning Player of the Year Mike Sigrist said that Stern is the glue that holds the team together and the goal for the weekend was to get Stern back to the Pro Tour.
His run to the Top 8 — including a victory on the last possible turn in Round 15 — had done just that. Now all that remained was a title.
In his way stood Oliver Tiu, making the second Grand Prix Top 8 appearance of his career. The stoic player had advanced with calculated efficiency through the tournament and the 18-year-old now found himself just one match short of the finals.
It was Green-White Tokens — as played to a Pro Tour Shadows Over Innistrad victory by Steve Rubin last week — that was the most popular deck in the room in Toronto, and that's what Stern came prepared with. The core of Nissa, Voice of Zendikar and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar along with Secure the Wastes provides a steady stream of tokens for both Gideon and Nissa's abilities that pump the team, and tokens also feed Westvale Abbey extremely well. All in all, the deck is the most resilient in Standard and has become the defining deck of the format.
Tiu came prepared to beat that deck. Streams of removal — both for the hand with Transgress the Mind or the board with more traditional options — allowed him to stabilize before Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet came down to end things.
Game 1 started out strong for Tiu as he used a string of removal spells along Kalitas to take control, but things were undone when he cracked an Evolving Wilds, found a Duress that rightfully belonged in his sideboard, and promptly called a judge to remedy the error. That resulted in an unfortunate game loss for Tiu, and the pair quickly moved on to the next game.
That game evolved exactly the way Tiu wanted it to. Transgress the Mind into Read the Bones into Goblin Dark-Dwellers to recast Read the Bones left him far up on cards as Stern struggled to land a resilient threat. With little to stop him, Tiu began to attack with Dark-Dwellers while removing Avacyn and then her angelic brethren in Sigarda, Heron's Grace. Kalitas then joined the board for Tiu, and alongside Dark-Dwellers sent the two into a decider.
While the first two games ended somewhat anticlimactically, the third delivered. Duress revealed a pair of Nissa and a Gideon for Stern, and while Gideon hit the bin courtesy of the discard spell Nissa landed and began to go to work. Alternating between making tokens and pumping those same tokens, the planeswalker built Stern's board all by herself.
Fortunately, he did. Dromoka's Command helped a plant take down Jace and a clutch Declaration in Stone removed Kalitas. With his board dismantled, Tiu was in need of a haymaker of his own to get back in the game.
He decided that haymaker was Dragonlord Silumgar. Stealing Nissa and making a token of his own. And it would have been enough, if not for an even more clutch second Declaration of Stone to clear away the Dragonlord and take Nissa back. That was enough to enable a lethal attack and propel Stern into the finals.