"Are mulligans on camera too?" Jesse Hampton asked as he shipped his first hand back into his deck. He was assured they were not. "Good. I don't want to be criticized by the masses." He smiled. Hampton was fine with his six cards, and Justin Cohen kept his original seven.
As the two waited a minute for the camera crew, Hampton asked Cohen, "How'd you qualify for this?"
"PTQ," Cohen replied, proudly. Hampton said he was basically in the same boat. Neither of them had often traveled to Grand Prix, so they were both grateful for being invited here, despite Hampton spiking Grand Prix Nashville seemingly out of nowhere.
"So you weren't qualified for Brussels already?" Cohen asked about Pro Tour Dragons of Karkir. "So we're both doing well for ourselves." Hampton nodded, both players were wearing smiles.
Both Justin Cohen and Jesse Hampton, not players you typically see each week on the Grand Prix circuit, have put up impressive showings. While returning to the next Pro Tour was a nice bonus, the trophy was just two matches away.
The match-up would be an uphill battle for Hampton. The water cooler talk from the pros and the players who were testing the night before said Cohen's deck was favored pretty strong. If Amulet Bloom gets a fast start, the train could become just like that Denzel Washington movie—Unstoppable.
Justin Cohen kept a hand with Amulet of Vigor, Primeval Titan, and Serum Visions, which dug him into a Summer Bloom. The Bloom was quickly nabbed by Hampton's first-turn Inquisition of Kozilek, bringing Cohen's sky-high hand back to earth.
Cohen was miffed, saying that lots of Abzan players will keep hands against him with first-turn discard if they don't know what he's playing. "Why do you think I had to mulligan?" Hampton said.
Over the course of a few turns, Cohen wasn't pressured, so he set up his board. He laid lands, found and transmuted Tolaria West to get a Pact of Negation, and readied for his Titan. Only when Hampton cast Lingering Souls (twice) and started attacking in with four Spirits and a Siege Rhino, did Cohen have to enact his strategy. But he would have to play catch-up.
By this time he cast the first Primeval Titan, he had two more in his hand. He tried to protect it by transmuting for a Pact of Negation, but an Inquisition of Kozilek stripped it away. Maelstrom Pulse took out the first Primeval Titan, and the Rhino and Spirits to Cohen to 5. Hampton was close to taking a first game that was not in his favor.
Hampton bucks the trends of his testing and looks to steal victory in the first game of a tough match-up.
Cohen laid his second Titan, used Slayers' Stronghold to allow it to attack, stay back to block, and find him two more lands. He passed with two blockers. But it only took some simple removal spells to change that to number from "two" to "zero" as Hampton's squad swung for the kill.
"I can't believe I won that game; I drew Lingering Souls," Hampton said. "In testing, every game I drew it, I lost." I think he was pretty happy to break that streak.
In the second game, both players' openers were keepers and they right started in.
Jesse Hampton's second-turn Inquisition of Kozilek then Thoughtseize revealed Hornet Queen, Slaughter Pact, Primeval Titan, Amulet of Vigor, Summer Bloom, and Summoner's Pact. After a lot of thought, Hampton took the Slaughter Pact, then the Prime Time.
He had toiled long enough on this decision that the judge had to nudge him to make a play. He was trying decide how proactive he could be. The Summer Bloom or Amulet could be explosive, but would require a bounce-land Cohen's hand didn't have. Hampton decided he had to be proactive. And if his Tarmogoyf could die for zero mana, his hand wasn't going to win.
While Hampton had some disruption, Cohen's deck was still capable of going from few permanents to many off of a big Summer Bloom.
But leaving the cards he did allowed every top-deck to have incredible potential energy. A couple turns later, Cohen found a Selesnya Sanctuary, and the energy became kinetic. He cast Amulet of Vigor, laid the Sanctuary, cast Summer Bloom, then made six mana's worth of Selesnya Sanctuary. Then Summoner's Pact found a Primeval Titan. Boros Garrison and Slayers' Stronghold came out, untapped from the Vigor.
At this point Hampton interjected, "I think I'm losing this one," then he started talking to himself. "Guess I should've taken the Summoner's Pact." As Cohen shuffled, Hampton went back to that discard turn in his head and talked himself through the steps again.
Back on the battlefield, there was a Simic Growth Chamber and a Gemstone Mine added on the attack step. Cohen ended his big run with a Tolaria West to find another Summoner's Pact. Just in case he couldn't win from here.
He didn't need the Pact. We needed a final game.
The third game started before the first turn. Cohen had a Leyline of Sanctity in his opening and started with it on the battlefield. Hampton had been agonizing over a hand he had to mulligan, but upon seeing the Leyline he said, "I'm really glad I took that mulligan now." Cohen laughed. On turn three Hampton took out the enchantment with a Maelstrom Pulse.
"A one-of? C'mon, I was using that." Cohen really liked his Leyline, but was still doing all right. He untapped and cast Azusa, Lost but Seeking, which accelerated him into two bounce-lands (Simic Growth Chamber and Boros Garrison). He readied his mana for the next turn. But now that the shields were down, Hampton attacked Cohen's hand with a Thoughtseize.
"It was better when it was safe," Cohen remarked, alluding to that Maelstrom Pulse the turn early. He was relieved when Hampton had no follow-up discard to take his Pact as well.
The next turn he just used the Pact to find a Hornet Queen, but had a slight mana miscalculation and had to wait a turn. Each land in Amulet Bloom does something very different, and keeping track is a mess sometimes. Missing something as small as a Tendo Ice Bridge one time could spell certain doom. Cohen dug in for the long haul, transmuting Tolaria West for a second Summoner's Pact.
With all the removal that could come from Hampton, this would be a safe route, if he could fend off Hampton's assault. Hampton attacked with Siege Rhino and Treetop Village, then made a Tasigur, the Golden Fang. The Fate Reforged 4/5 earned Hampton some extra cards over a few turns. With a Treetop Village and a Stirring Wildwood at the ready, Cohen was on the back foot, even with a Hornet Queen and a new Primeval Titan.
That changed when he resolved the Titan trigger, getting a Ghost Quarter and a Simic Growth Chamber, to put it into play untapped. Cohen began to rest easier, and went for a Summoner's Pact with Hampton at only one card. But once you let your guard down is when bad things happen. Hampton's last card was Aven Mindcensor.
Cohen put up the shields in the third game, but shields can still be broken.
On this play, Cohen started to slightly shake. The new pro had gone all tournament long acting like nothing phased him. The first-time Pro Tour competitor had cruised through two days and the quarterfinals like it wasn't anything at all. But now, sitting in the third game of the semifinals match at 6 life, right after the coffin nail he was hammering in popped out, after a mana miscalculation, the nerves were beginning to show.
The board had stalemated, and there were any number of cards that could topple Cohen's house of cards. His hands were twitching as they moved the cards. The stack triggers were getting exceedingly complex—between the ability to animate lands, Tasigur milling and returning, a new Liliana of the Veil, Abrupt Decay on Azusa in response to the untapping trigger from an Amulet of Vigor (but before a land-bounce had resolved)—there was a lot to do. It was like trench warfare, as each correct step would only inch you closer, but any wrong step would spell immediate decimation.
It was the Liliana that eventually forced the game out of the stalemate, as Cohen would slowly lose his board. He attacked in with the Titan, hoping his new Khalni Garden token could help hold the ground against the Abrupt Decay Tasigur was recurring (which had been rusting insect tokens away).
On his next attack, Hampton tried to bait Cohen into double-blocking his Siege Rhino with the last two flying creatures. Hampton had a second Mindcensor in hand, and could set up a flying kill the next turn. But Cohen didn't bite.
Cohen had to press. At this point it was only inertia propelling him. He attacked with his Siege Rhino. The land-search ability triggered, but because of Aven Mindcensor, Cohen would only see four cards off his library. Hampton within striking distance, barely. And only if he hit the land he needed.
Hampton looked on, trying to read Cohen to get a glimmer of what the four top cards were.
In the top four were exactly what Cohen was looking for. Slayers' Stronghold and a Vesuva. As quietly and calmly as he could, Cohen put the lands in play (the Vesuva copying an untapped Boros Garrison), and untapped them both with the Amulet of Vigor.
Hampton threw what he could in front of the Titan—the Tasigur and the Mindcensor—but it was for naught. Cohen used both Garrisons to activate both the Stronghold and the Sunhome. This made his Titan an 8/6 double-striking trampler. That meant 10 damage would make it through to Hampton—just enough for the win.
Cohen, completely full of nervous, excited energy, only let it escape through his invigorated handshake with Hampton and his wide, wide smile.
Justin Cohen was going to the finals.
Justin Cohen defeated Jesse Hampton 2-1 to advance to the finals!