Earning his invitation from a Regional Pro Tour Qualifier, Ben Hull found himself in his first Top 8 at his first Pro Tour. From the outside, it appeared like a dream: Visit an exotic locale and climb to the top of the standings among the world's best Magic competitors. His humble beginnings as a youth learning the game during Antiquities to picking up the game competitively with Avacyn Restored weren't part of his more immediate struggle leading up to Pro Tour Kaladesh.
"I played literally zero games of this Standard format before the Pro Tour," Hull said. "I was busy with work and ended up putting off the Standard testing until I got into Hawaii. Then I got food poisoning, and was in no shape to do much of anything. My 'Standard testing' consisted entirely of watching Chris VanMeter stream the deck."
Arriving on Friday still feeling ill, Hull powered through Day 1 to set up his Day 2 run, delighting fellow Canadians excited to see their countryman make the Top 8 and proving aggressive Vehicles decks were still among the best in the format.
His journey through the rest of the Top 8 would require him to continue defeating experienced opponents, beginning with Lee Shi Tian. Hailing from Hong Kong, Lee had already established himself as one of the APAC region's greatest players. Starting with Pro Tour Return to Ravnica in 2012, Lee rattled off three more Pro Tour Top 8s over the following three years. Adding his fifth this weekend, continuing his streak into a fourth year as well, Lee underscored his standing as one of the greatest active players approaching Pro Tour Hall of Fame eligibility.
Winning this Pro Tour would be a crowning achievement in his already incredible career, one he desperately sought.
Pro Tour first-timer Ben Hull faced off against Hong Kong's Lee Shi Tian, who looked to make his fifth Pro Tour Top 8 the one that he wins.
Red-White Vehicles was the most visible deck leading up to Pro Tour Kaladesh. Hull's version of Vehicles was virtually unchanged from the popular incarnation that first appeared. Selfless Spirit and Smuggler's Copter worked in concert to attack opponents and keep a crew on the battlefield. Pia Nalaar could, temporarily, clear away pesky blockers and pump any artifacts—Vehicles and Thopter tokens—that would crash in.
It was a fast deck that quickly overwhelmed opponents unprepared for it, and punished those who failed to find the right ways to slow the pace.
Lee wasn't content with what the base model Vehicles deck offered. Testing and tweaking with Tomoharu Saito and others, Lee's version of the deck dipped into more colors for more power. While tagged Mardu, it was actually a full four colors counting the sideboard options. In the main deck, Scrapheap Scrounger was one way to keep a crew handy for vehicles, and it was big enough to pilot Cultivator's Caravan. The Caravan was another departure from other Vehicles decks, fixing the additional two colors Lee's deck used and serving as a giant body to send attacking in lieu of Skysovereign, Consul's Flagship, or Fleetwheel Cruiser.
Unlicensed Disintegration was another addition, ensuring an ultimate and instant answer to almost any creature while dinging an opponent with bonus damage. Out of the sideboard, the four copies of Ceremonious Rejection were an exotic tool. Helpful against things like Aetherworks Marvel, Metalwork Colossus, and even Eldrazi, playing around a one mana counterspell against an already aggressive deck was a tough feat for opponents. Tricks like that let Lee race around in ways other Vehicles decks couldn't.
"I did not practice Standard," admitted Hull as he and Lee chatted up before their first game.
"Just a StarCityGames list?" Lee asked, a bit incredulous at a straight decklist pickup that led to a Pro Tour Top 8.
"I took the list Chris VanMeter streamed and didn't update it," Hull said. "I think I got pretty lucky, but it seems good."
"I'm surprised this list can have good results on the Pro Tour," Lee agreed.
"I was looking for an aggressive deck. I was unhappy three copies made the SCG Top 8 and that everyone would be gunning for it," Hull said. "I guess not."
"I've been so sick I don't even feel nervous," Hull added. "I'm so miserable I can't feel anything else. It's almost an advantage. You must not feel nervous having been here a million times."
It was true Lee had been to many Pro Tour Top 8s, but he didn't feel that way about things. "I've lost three quarterfinals and one semifinal match," Lee said. "My record in the Top 8 is very bad."
"Maybe today is your day?"
"Hopefully!" Lee laughed. "I like my deck."
Smuggler's Copter and an untapped Inspector looked to stop Hull's obvious flying attack, but his own Inspector and second Selfless Spirit put the pressure back on Lee. Crewing his Copter, Lee attacked anyway and Hull took first damage.
Cultivator's Caravan put the biggest "creature" on the battlefield under Lee's control. Hull attacked in at the otherwise open Lee, putting him down to 15 before Pia Nalaar and another Thraben Inspector arrived.
Hull buys his time and waits for the mana to cast his biggest Vehicles.
Hull was going wide as Lee went big.
Depala, Pilot Exemplar and a second Smuggler's Copter appeared for Lee, who again held back an attack to present blocks. Hull's Declaration in Stone exiled Depala, but she phantom crewed a Copter before leaving.
Hull declined to attack, so Lee spent his next turn casting Gideon, Ally of Zendikar to create a Knight Ally token. Hull crewed his Copter, alongside his Thopter token, to take Gideon out. Lee powered up one of his Copters to block. Selfless Spirit protected Hull's Copter, and Pia pumped her Thopter twice to put Gideon down to one loyalty.
Veteran Motorist gave Lee an even larger Cultivator's Caravan, joined by Gideon making an attack back. Hull chump blocked the Caravan, dropping to 12 life, before he used his Thopter to crew his Copter and attack Gideon again. Harnessed Lightning killed Lee's Copter before it could try and block, so Gideon fell.
Lee struck back, sending in Cultivator's Caravan—which was chump blocked again—and a Knight Ally to put Hull to 10. Another Gideon and Knight Ally rounded out Lee's turn, but Hull wasted no time putting his flying to work clearing out the second copy of the Planeswalker. Veteran Motorist would turn into a chump blocker against Lee's next attack as Hull dropped to 6 life.
However, before the Caravan became just an artifact again, Hull's Harnessed Lightning dealt lethal damage. After Declaration in Stone cleared away the Knight Ally tokens, Lee had little left to work with. Skysovereign, Consul's Flagship arrived for the Canadian and his airships quickly soared to victory.
For the second game, Toolcraft Exemplar without an artifact on the second turn put Lee in a slower start than Hull, who led off Thraben Inspector into Smuggler's Copter. A second Toolcraft Exemplar for Lee promised plenty of damage, if he could find an artifact.
Harnessed Lightning killed Hull's Motorist before Lee untapped and played Inventor's Apprentice, again without an artifact in sight. Hull pressed his advantage, but Unlicensed Disintegration killed the Copter off. Lee fell to 13 from the opposing Exemplar.
Lee looks on with the intensity you expect out of one of the Pro Tour's most passionate opponents.
Attacking with his 1/1s, Hull was at 18 when Gideon, Ally of Zendikar arrived to make a Knight Ally token. Harnessed Lightning killed the token creature, then Hull answered in kind by casting Fleetwheel Cruiser to answer Gideon. The rest of Hull's creatures put Lee down to 9 life.
Another Gideon and Knight Ally token followed for Lee, who looked to stabilize. Casting and using Smuggler's Copter, Hull sent the nested Vehicles and everything at Gideon to again try and clear the planeswalker away. Lee presented blocks where everything would trade, but Harness Lightning kept the Cruiser around.
That was enough for Hull to speed away to victory again.
With sideboards coming into play, both players entered the third game with more tools meant for their opponent. Toolcraft Exemplar led the way again for Lee, and Scrapheap Scrounger to follow set him up to hit hard early. Hull played a second land without a creature, but used Harnessed Lighting to send the Scrounger away. A second Toolcraft Exemplar, without an artifact appearing as well, set Lee's pace back.
Weaver of Lightning from Hull's sideboard was exactly the backstop he needed to slow things down. Lee attacked anyway, and when Hull tried to crew his Copter to block, an Unlicensed Disintegration ensured Lee's creatures came through unhindered.
Hull was low on life and blockers, and that was enough for Lee to take his first game of the match.
The fourth game was another run to find ways to deal more damage. Hull's Smuggler's Copter faced off against Lee's own copy of the Vehicle, joined by an Inventor's Apprentice that started swinging in. Veteran Motorist after Thraben Inspector, which crewed Hull's Copter, put Hull on track to pull ahead in the race.
Depala, Pilot Exemplar notched Lee's Copter +1/+1 bigger, but Harnessed Lightning from Hull did away with the Dwarf. Veteran Motorist stood in for her on Lee's next turn, but another Harnessed Lighting from Hull killed the crewmember post combat.
Hull cast Gideon, Ally of Zendikar to add a Knight Ally token to the battlefield, and his Copter continued to press in through the air. Untapping at 8 life, and without any creatures on the battlefield, Lee paused to find his way out. He simply played a land and passed back to Hull, who used Fragmentize to destroy Lee's Copter.
Ticking Gideon up and attacking with everything, Lee used Harnessed Lightning to kill Hull's Copter. It prevented match-winning damage, but the attack still dropped Lee to just 1 life.
Lee exhaled and drew his card for the turn, then extended his hand to Hull.
"I'm sorry for knocking you out," Hull said. "You deserved it."
"Gideon was the worst draw for me in Games 1 and 2," Lee replied. "I never drew my small creatures."
Lee's quest for a Pro Tour victory fell short yet again as Hull's incredible run continued to Stage 2 of the quarterfinals.
Ben Hull defeats Lee Shi Tian 3-1 to advance to Stage 2 of the quarterfinals!