Ari Lax looked drained of energy. He slowly approached the table, sighed, took his decks and dice and hit them on the table, then sat down in silence. This was, of course, a ploy. Just an hour earlier, Lax was completely excited about his pretty crazy draft deck. His team, TCGPlayer, had developed a strategy that was apparently paying off.
Though a deck tech is likely soon, a quick primer on the deck is take Trail of Mystery over everything, then lands. Lastly, gobble up every great three-color card and good morph in the world.
The deck has many benefits. Just to mention three of them, you take all the lands and good cards from everyone else, making their decks worse; you get to play those spells; and lastly, no one knows just what you have, because it could be anything.
11th-ranked Yuuya Watanabe at least has that third part under control. He was able to watch Ari Lax's last match, so some of the surprise cards, including Flying Crane Technique, Savage Knuckleblade, and Zurgo Helmsmasher were at least known entities.
"I guess it's fair; he got to watch my last match; I got to watch his whole draft." Lax said. He was referring to the live coverage of the draft streamed for all of y'all's benefit. Watanbe's aggressive Red-White-based deck had been splayed on the internet for all to see.
Both Ari Lax and Yuuya Watanabe had a thorough understanding of each others decks.
Lax called over a judge and asked when "in-game" began for the purposes of taking in-game notes. As you cannot bring in outside notes to consult with during a game, but taking them over the course of the match is fine. The judge clarified it's once you've kept your opening hand. Lax thanked him, then after he kept his hand, he called the judge back over to reassure that he could begin taking notes now.
"It would be a terrible time to get a penalty for that," he said. After assurances, he picked up his pen and began scribbling furiously on the a scratch pad.
Watanabe was unfazed. He didn't get here by some sort of chance or because his secret tech was hidden. His Mardu-splashed deck was an aggressive machine. It's mostly red, supported by white, and with three Ponyback Riders and a Mardu Charm. Even if you knew what was coming, it would only help so much. Easy game.
After the in-game notes were finished, the two started up.
Lax started the first game and traded his early morphs for as much of Watanabe's aggression as he could. A face-down Monastery Flock traded with a Mardu Hateblade, and a Snowhorn Rider traded with a Leaping Master. Lax's deck was looking to take over the long game. All he had to do was survive the short game. And surviving the short game against Mardu is already difficult—especially if the pilot is Yuuya Watanabe.
Lax continued trading one-for-one, using a Throttle on a face-down Horde Ambusher. But Watanabe cast Ponyback Rider with three Goblins in tow, making one-for-one trading a losing proposition. At this point the American had three more face-down cards (with 5th, 6th, and 7th marked on them, showing he'd been doing this for a while). Watanabe sent in the Ponyback Rider and the Leaping Master. Lax traded his Rattleclaw Mystic for the Rider, and forced Watanabe to flip up his Jeering Instigator once a Grim Haruspex flipped up mid-combat. Watanabe took Lax to 15 and drew a card off the borrowed Haruspex.
The three 1/1 tokens were still hanging back, thwarting a straight damage race from his opponent. And Lax continued to take damage from the all-red crew on the Japanese player's side—including two Leaping Masters, the flipped-up Jeering Instigator, a Bloodfire Expert, and the three tokens. Watanabe swung for the warning track, leaving just a Master back. Lax was forced to use Flying Crane Technique to save his scant board of an Efreet Weaponmaster and the Haruspex, taking down a few dudes in the process. Watanabe saw the six mana open, and surely considered the possibility, but he had to get the damage in or the morph monsters would take the game over. Lax kept sinking though, and the scores became 6-13.
Both decks were jam-packed with some powerful cards and synergies.
But Lax had to go on the aggressive and sent his creatures in; he had to take the damage where he could. After no blockers were declared, the scores became tied at 6-6. Watanabe untapped against a board of a fresh Bloodfire Mentor, and started doing damage calculations, tapping and untapping his creatures, rapping the table with his fingers to represent damage, eventually apologized for how long he was taking, then finally attacked with a lone, leapt Master.
Leaping Master was the only card that could fly over the board, on either side of the battlefield. Nothing else dared to enter. It came in for turn after turn. You'd think with Lax at six, "turn after turn" is only three turns, but with Tranquil Cove and Rugged Highlands Lax staved off death for a bit.
Lax kept looting with his Bloodfire Mentor, but kept finding more land—nothing to stop a dinky 2/1 with an expensive activation cost. He had so many great cards—there must be something to stop a 2/1. Lax drew and drew, and then he died. There was nothing that could stop the master from a'leaping.
Lax 0 – Watanabe 1
"I was really hoping to lose the last round so I wouldn't have to play against your deck," Lax to Watanabe. "Well, against you in general too, but mostly the deck." The five-color needed to time set up, and the Mardu deck would give Lax no time at all.
In Game 2, Lax was on the play, and stuck his turn-two windmill slam—Trail of Mystery. This is the engine that fuels his machine. With Watanabe only responding with a Leaping Master and a morph, Lax could get the morph machine up and running.
The secret that Yuuya didn't know, was that Lax had barely anything else in his hand. A Crackling Doom was good for sure, but the rest was just land. He would have to push start to the engine.
Yuuya mounted a decent, but unspectacular offense, but the killer turn came with a Dazzling Ramparts. Lax's 0/7 would be pretty hard to overcome, and bought the crucial time necessary to find something proactive.
When you've got a ton of mana fixing like Lax, all cards are possibilities.
The proactive turn came when Rattleclaw Mystic flipped up mid-combat, after blockers were declared from Watanabe. The Mystic was boosted by Trail of Mystery, and Lax used the mana to flip up an attacking Efreet Weaponmaster, also pumping the Rattleclaw Mystic. Everything Watanabe used to block died and everything of Lax's stayed. That turn, aided by the time from Dazzling Ramparts blew any tempo Watanabe had out of the water.
Lax was heavily favored on the board, but the two Ponyback Riders from Watanabe still allowed him an army of Goblins with which to play. He attacked to leave two Goblins back (after Dazzling Rampart would tap his new Salt Road Patrol).
There was a slowing stalemate brewing as Lax's initial spurt lacked a big follow-up. Lax's Efreet Weaponmaster was the only creature that could really attack, but Watanabe just had to sacrifice a Goblin to it each turn and could still do something relevant. But Lax had other plans. His morphs just kept on coming, and the Trail of Mystery would allow the usually 2/2s to attack with impunity. Lax's deck was thinning with each passing turn, so he would likely draw better than Watanabe. And that he did.
The big follow-up might have come a touch later than planned, but Lax drew for his turn, tapped mana, dropped a card and threw up his hands in the air.
Zurgo Helmsmasher hit like a ton of bricks, all the creatures bashed in. Lax backed away from the board, leaning in his chair. He pretty sure he had it won. He did.
Lax 1 – Watanabe 1
Watanabe played first and had no turn two play.
"Well, that's step one," Lax said.
Apparently, step two was to morph up a Rattleclaw Shaman and use the mana fixing and acceleration to power out a Savage Knuckleblade.
Watanabe had an Arrowstorm, an Act of Treason, and a Jeering Instigator. So his two-step plan was likely, burn a clear path, then smash Lax's face with his own Knuckleblade. He took out the defensive Mystic with a hail of arrows, and pressed in with his two morph attackers. Next turn the Instigator took the Knuckleblade to take Lax to 11.
It was 11-9 for Lax and he had a tapped "Knucky Thompson" and an untapped morph. Watanabe's board looks significantly less impressive—just an unmorphed Instigator and a Bloodfire Expert, but the Act of Treason could be crucial. He had to sneak in 11 damage without somehow taking 9 before that. He decided to try for the Act of Treason on the morph, to sneak in unopposed. Lax gave him a big surprise. Before the Act of Treason resolved, he unmorphed the creature before the sorcery resolved and it was an 0/5 Monastery Flock. It would had literally nothing to the damage calculation. Only more removal would get him out of this now.
Watanabe's deck is all business, with few things that could be labeled as too cute.
Watanabe took Lax to 5, but was about out of options. Lax held back Knucky to pair up with the Flock. The shields were up. He was basically daring Watanabe to get in for the last five points. This was really close. Another 0/5 Bloodfire Mentor from Lax just added to the pressure. Lax had Dr. Zurgo in his hand, ready to perform some reckless surgery on Watanabe's face, but Lax had no Plains.
Each turn when Watanabe drew, Lax crossed his fingers, hoping his opponent didn't draw the Arrow Storm, that could kill him regardless. Once a Burn Away clipped the Knuckleblade, Watanabe could ease up, as Lax had no more attackers. Yet.
The game, which started as a smash-fest, turned into a grind—each playing pinging for a point or two where the could. It was 4-5 when Watanabe cast the Highspire Mantis. Combined with his game-one all-star Leaping Master, it could play flying spoiler to Lax's defenses, but a Throttle stopped that plan right quick.
Watanabe needed to find the right time to Mardu Charm in a way that could win, but he had to manufacture it in his favor.
And then Lax drew again. Using his drawn Windswept Heath ticked him even closer to the dreaded 0 life, but it didn't matter. When it fetched up a Plains and the Dr. Zurgo Helmsmasher, M.D. was paged to the battlefield, he left Watanabe's board a bloody mess. Watanabe's life total looked about the same.
Knucky Thompson and Dr. Zurgo Save the Day. I sense a buddy comedy.
Lax 2 – Watanabe 1
Lax, despite his best efforts to lose the last round to not face Watanabe can't seem to stop winning.