Four Americans and four Canadians entered the Top 8 of GP Vancouver, but just one player from each country remained at the end of the day. The American was Channel Fireball mainstay Josh Utter-Leyton, who found himself back on the Pro Tour after a brief hiatus. The Canadian was popular streamer Jonathon “Nikachu” Zaczek, who’s made a name for himself perfecting Modern Merfolk.
Merfolk wasn’t popular this weekend, but we’ve seen it over-perform at Grand Prix before. Last May, Simon Slutsky’s school swam to victory at Grand Prix Los Angeles, thanks to a timely Spreading Seas. Merfolk’s come-from-behind wins make for great stories, but Zaczek found himself up against a world-class opponent playing the deck of the moment: Death’s Shadow Jund. Utter-Leyton ran the tables this weekend along with teammates Gerry Thompson and Sam Black, and he was looking to lock up one last win in the finals. Zaczek seemed up to the challenge, having dispatched his Mono-Blue mentor Black in the semis.
“How many Grand Prix wins do you have?" the charismatic Canadian asked as they shuffled up for Game 1.
“Zero!" Utter-Leyton replied.
“Me too!" said Zaczek. “It’ll be the first time for one of us!"
Utter-Leyton’s game plan involved inflicting large chunks of damage to himself, while Zaczek’s relied on Spreading Seas to create enormous, evasive creatures, so the finals promised to be brief. Game 1 was indeed a quick one, as Zaczek took a mulligan and kept a less-than-ideal one-lander. He quickly fell behind as Utter-Leyton got to work deploying 5/5 Death’s Shadows. Utter-Leyton attacked for ten damage on turn three before casting Traverse the Ulvenwald to find a third copy of his hallmark creature, and Zaczek quickly scooped up his cards. For someone who spends his time navigating the seas, he appeared to be a bit out of his depth.
“How many Merfolk have you beat today?" Zaczek asked during sideboarding.
“Zero," the stoic Utter-Leyton said again.
“Well, there’s a first time for everything."
Their second game was much more interactive – Utter-Leyton had ample removal for Zaczek’s creatures, and Zaczek was able to start picking away at Utter-Leyton’s graveyard with a Relic of Progenitus. The Relic had no effect on Death’s Shadow, however, and Utter-Leyton had enough assorted cards in his graveyard that he could tutor for one with Traverse the Ulvenwald. Utter-Leyton deployed the threat, but a Harbinger of Tides returned it to his hand on his end step.
Zaczek found a Spreading Seas, and the game began to turn around. He transformed Utter-Leyton’s Blood Crypt into an Island, preventing the American pro from casting multiple spells in a turn and putting him substantially behind. He built out his board with a Master of the Pearl Trident and a Lord of Atlantis, but Utter-Leyton replayed the Death’s Shadow, now an 8/8.
Zaczek was at sixteen, making removal and a Temur Battle Rage a lethal combination, but Utter-Leyton never found the spell he needed. Instead, he found himself taking massive hits from Zaczek’s Merfolk, and barely stabilized at four after firing off a Collective Brutality to drain two life from Zaczek and take out a Master of the Pearl Trident. Zaczek top-decked a Lord of Atlantis and attacked for a lethal four damage. These are the kinds of comebacks only Merfolk can make.
Things were looking up for Zaczek, but he found himself on the back foot once again early on in the third game. He’d kept another one-lander, but it seemed promising, with a Silvergill Adept to provide an extra draw and an Æther Vial to help get his creatures onto the battlefield. This time, he didn’t miss a land drop, but his Silvergill Adept and Merrow Reejerey didn’t quite compare to Utter-Leyton’s Tarmogoyf and Death’s Shadows. “Ergh!" he exclaimed as Utter-Leyton put two 4/4 Shadows onto the battlefield.
On turn four, Utter-Leyton was jamming in with three four-power creatures, and Zaczek seemed utterly defenseless. “Block this thing," he said carelessly, pushing his Silvergill Adept in front of a hulking avatar. Utter-Leyton Tarfired the Reejerey before damage and made his Tarmogoyf two points stronger. Zaczek fell to a precarious six life.
The Merfolk master tried to rebuild on the next turn, deploying another Silvergill Adept and a Harbinger of Tides on the next turn, sending the 6/7 Tarmogoyf back to Utter-Leyton’s hand. Still, he seemed pessimistic: “I see a lot of ways I could lose this," he remarked as Utter-Leyton pushed his Death’s Shadows back into the red zone. He assigned the second Adept as yet another chump-blocker, and Utter-Leyton cycled a Street Wraith to lose two life and make the unblocked Death’s Shadow lethal.
Congratulations to Josh Utter-Leyton, winner of Grand Prix Vancouver!