Jeremy Dezani inches closer, round by round, to becoming a Player of the Year title, a garnish on a tremendous year of Magic accomplishment for the quiet French player. His opponent, Baltimore's Ben Friedman, looks to break into the Top 25 with a strong Day 2. As both players entered Day 2 with just a single loss, the dream of taking down the tournament was still vividly alive.
Dezani won the roll, and opened with an Island and a Mountain into a Bronze Sable, against an Elvish Mystic and a Swamp and Forest for Friedman. Living Totem briefly gave Friedman a board lead, but Dezani showed off exactly the flavor of Blue-Red he was playing on turn four when Ensoul Artifact upgraded Bronze Sable to a 5/5. The next turn brought a Will-Forged Golem, and when the giant artifact creatures got into the red zone on the following turn, a Lightning Strike turned Friedman's double block into a 2-for-1 that left him with an empty board and a rapidly dwindling life total. Flesh to Dust on the giant Bronze Sable looked to staunch the bleeding, but when the French player showed an Inferno Fist, Friedman sighed and gathered up his cards.
After a quiet period of sideboarding, it was Friedman's turn to play first, and Friedman's turn to show off the power of his archetype. The first play of the game was a Necromancer's Assistant, a card whose self-mill ability is an important part of powering the Green-Black graveyard-recursion deck's engine. This time, it plunked a Netcaster Spider and a Hunt the Weak into the 'yard. The following turn, Friedman bounced the 3/1 with Invasive Species, and Dezani had seen enough: Statue of Denial countered the Necromancer's Assistant. Dezani made a Master of Predicaments, which failed to survive an encounter with Flesh to Dust, won some small-creature combat with Crowd's Favor, and after a restock with Divination, must have been feeling pretty okay about his army of Goblin Roughrider and Bronze Sable against his opponent's empty board.
Then Friedman played Soul of Innistrad.
Dezani sighed and took some time to formulate a plan. Ensoul Artifact on Darksteel Citadel meant that he had a combat answer to the 6/6 deathtouching monster, and Phyrexian Revoker appeared to be just the Pithing Needle he was looking at to stop the graveyard engine before it started, but Friedman was more than satisfied with spending a second Flesh to Dust on the Revoker. The engine wasn't in full gear yet, but you could almost hear it spinning up.
Both players had defensive armies that kept life totals from dropping, but Friedman was drawing cards from both his library and his graveyard. After a few turns, his turns were generally going something like: attack with Child of Night, Necromancer's Apprentice, and Living Totem. Lose both in combat, gaining two life in the process, then fetch them back from the graveyard with Soul of Innistrad and replay them, building up his blockers with Living Totem and hunting for more goodies with the Apprentice. For Dezani's part, he was managing to build up his board, but mostly he was watching Friedman build out a pile of creatures.
When Necromancer's Apprentice milled Restock and Endless Obedience, Friedman saw that it was time to help himself to better creatures than Child of Night and Living Totem. A Restock in hand fetched back both of the freshly-milled sorcery cards, and Master of Predicaments took up a position alongside Soul of Innistrad and close to a dozen other creatures. Dezani was able to push it back into his graveyard with a chump blocker and a Lightning Strike, but on the following turn a swarm of 11 creatures came barreling in at the Player of the Year frontrunner. After blocks, he found himself on a perilous 3 life, and Friedman quickly slammed a Covenant of Blood on the table to end the epic Game 2 and even up the match.
With 15 minutes on the clock at the end of Game 2, both players needed to avoid another massive stall in order to find a win for the round. Dezani's fliers and big artifacts were well-suited to that goal, but whether Friedman could find a quick win was an open question. However, the power of the Soul cycle and Friedman's strong black removal certainly left the door open to punish any slow start by the French player.
Both players had to mulligan to six cards, and Dezani led with Darksteel Citadel. Friedman's second turn Satyr Wayfinder found a Swamp, but declined to step in when Dezani played Ensoul Artifact on the Citadel and attacked for 5. Friedman dropped a Necromancer's Assistant, milling Typhoid Rats and Endless Obedience, and again chose not to block the indestructible 5/5. Living Totem promoted the Assistant to a 4/2 and after attacks by both players, the life totals stood at 14-5 in Dezani's favor. His Goblin Roughrider hoped to trade the board down while the 5/5 picked off chump blockers, but Friedman was content to continue the race. He played Crippling Blight on the Goblin and charged in for 7.
When Dezani played a fifth land and paused, the swing in mood was evident. "That's not a Lava Axe..." quipped the American player, and he was right: it was an attack with the Goblin Roughrider (dropping Friedman to 3) and a Bronze Sable. Friedman had a Satyr Wayfinder and a Netcaster Spider, and now it was tough to see how Dezani might punch through the last few points of damage any time soon. He made some motions towards combat, stepped away from the table for some rules questions with a judge, but in the end, could only summon a Glacial Crasher and pass the turn.
With the clock nearly expired, Friedman counted and re-counted the creatures on each side of the board. Finally, he pushed all of his creatures into the red zone, where most of them would meet their doom at the much bigger creatures on Dezani's board. But three of them managed to inch past, and Friedman's top-decked Covenant of Blood was exactly enough damage to end the match with a couple minutes to spare.
Jeremy Dezani 1 - Ben Friedman 2
After the match, I asked Friedman if he'd drafted the same archetype on Friday. "Of course!" he exclaimed, and immediately pointed me to his teammate Andrea Mengucci, peering in from the edge of the feature match area, as the inspiration for the strategy.
The graveyard strategy, in their opinion, has all the hallmarks of a sideways strategy, capitalizing on an environment where green is under-drafted and where their pick order dodges conventional wisdom on power levels. Over the course of roughly 20 drafts on Magic Online, Mengucci established that he could have success picking unloved cards early and often: Covenant of Blood over best-uncommon-in-the-set Cone of Flame, Gravedigger over Stab Wound, and Satyr Wayfinder over Elvish Mystic. While the team focused on Constructed testing, Mengucci won draft over draft, and eventually prepared a 45-card pick order list. Clearly, the list is working, and I expect that the shape of the draft environment will be shifting rapidly to accommodate the new archetype.