Jiachen Tao, or "JC" is a drafter. Always has been. Twice now he's qualified for a Pro Tour and had to learn the Constructed formats from scratch. Perhaps that's how he broke Modern. Rather than approaching the format with jaded eyes and preconceived notions, he attacked it with possibilities. When I saw JC at the beginning of the weekend and said his deck was totally "him," he replied, "Yeah, of course. It's full of good draft cards," referencing his suite of Vile Aggregate, Eldrazi Skyspawner, and Drowner of Hope.
Once a drafter, always a drafter.
Tao put half the Blue-Red Eldrazi players into the Top 8—himself and Andrew Brown, both from Team East West Bowl. And in the first day, his deck plowed through the Constructed rounds 19-1. Tao's only Constructed loss on the weekend came at the hands of Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Shuhei Nakamura in the Swiss rounds, and JC already sailed past him in the quarterfinals.
In fact, JC has systematically eliminated all but one of the Channel-Fireball and Face-to-Face Games collaboration in the Top 8. After Shuhei Nakamura, he beat Hall of Famer Luis Scott-Vargas. Now, in the finals, he's trying to go three-for-three.
If Jiachen Tao could win this, he would be fulfilling the fantasy many of us have had since we were sitting in the back of the classroom, dreaming about Magic. "If I could construct the perfect deck, I could win the Pro Tour. I could take down everyone, no matter how good, no matter how famous, because I knew something they didn't."
But he'd have to beat Pro Tour Magic 2015 Champion, and 2010 Team World Champion, Slovakian Ivan Floch to do it.
Unlike Tao, Floch has been here before, multiple times. One of the latest gets for team Face-to-Face Games, Floch has brought his European prowess to a North American team. It's already paid dividends for him, as he's now in his second Pro Tour finals appearance.
Noting the advantage the Blue-Red Eldrazi deck has over his and his team's colorless version, Floch said, "This is going to be tough." Tao asked Floch whether he adopted the deck early in testing, or was a late addition. Floch replied, "I'm usually in the position of trying to prove wrong peoples' new ideas. I tried it this time, but I failed miserably."
It was an unfavorable match-up to be sure. Blue-Red was a bit faster and Drowner of Hope and Eldrazi Obligator played spoilers to most of Floch's creatures. But Floch had four main deck Ghost Quarter. This powerful utility land could take out the faux-Ancient Tombs on the other side, hampering any development Tao attempted.
Jiachen "JC" Tao knocked down one giant after another, until only one behemoth of the professional Magic community stood in his way: Ivan Floch.
Nakamura had beaten this deck before, and perhaps Floch could do it now. And the eighth-seed Tao was on the draw in the first game. Could he break serve again against Colorless Eldrazi? Could he beat the entire Top 8 super-team himself?
Some would argue Tao already broke serve by getting a Gemstone Caverns into play before the first turn of the first game.
"Oh, Caverns," Floch chuckled. "Great."
"And I'm guessing you have another one?" he asked, as Tao exiled an Eye of Ugin for his fast land.
Floch, though he had to mulligan, had kept a triple-Reality Smasher hand. And with a Ghost Quarter to boot, the second Eye of Ugin from Tao hit the bin before any Eldrazi shenanigans. That Ghost Quarter play could end up the one that decided the first game. Floch landed an Eldrazi Mimic shortly after, ensuring that once he hit the requisite mana, it would be smooth sailing.
However, after missing a land drop, compiled by the loss of the sacrificed Ghost Quarter, Floch watched Tao hit his Smasher first. And Floch's next-turn Thought-Knot Seer caused him to widen his eyes when he saw a second Smasher and a Drowner of Hope in Tao's grip. He removed the Drowner and figured that if he could find a land, he would even the Smasher war. But he had to find it.
Calm and composed under the lights of the finals, Floch was familiar with the setting, and he was not about to give up under pressure.
And on the next draw step, that he did. Tao had wisely left his latest Smasher back to block, but thanks to one additional copy in-hand and the Eldrazi Mimic, not only did the Slovakian even the war, he gained Smasher superiority. Tao had already lost life from the Mimic previously, and kept his 5/5 hasters back to block. But the Smashers kept smashing, and Tao had to submit.
Ivan Floch had won the first game.
In the second game, Floch started with two Eldrazi Temple. When he tapped them both, Tao almost splayed his hand, anticipating the dreaded second-turn Thought-Knot Seer. It was only a Matter Reshaper.
"Not that good," Floch laughed.
"You scared me pretty good," Tao said as he breathed a sigh of relief.
After that scare, the game was all Tao. It happened in an instant. Floch's hand had the land, but not the follow-through.
Tao played out two Vile Aggregate, Eldrazi Skyspawner, Thought-Knot Seer (taking Reality Smasher), and just when Floch tried to stabilize with Oblivion Sower, Tao stole it with Eldrazi Obligator and swung from 21 damage. It happened in the blink of an eye. Floch had to pause and make sure he knew what just happened. He paused, and then scooped up his cards.
I'm glad Tao got scared on turn two, because he had no fear otherwise that game.
After mulligans, the third game began with double-lands on both sides. Though Floch had gone to five cards, his two-Reality Smasher hand was set to make more use of the extra mana than Tao could. Tao had a more even start, going turn one Eldrazi Mimic into turn two Eldrazi Skyspawner. He was stuck on just Eye of Ugin and Island on the battlefield, with a second copy of the legendary land waiting in his hand. Tao stared at Floch's Ghost Quarter, baiting him to kill his Eye so he could play the second.
Floch didn't, but Tao was making the most of it, and even sacrificed his Skyspawner-created Eldrazi Scion to make a Thought-Knot Seer. He was eking out damage and had begun to pull ahead. But as he noted, at any moment Floch was "one top-deck away" from blowing Tao out of the water.
Finally, Tao found an Eldrazi Temple and pressed on full steam ahead. Less constricted on mana, Tao yanked the board further in his favor.
In Tao's next draw step, Floch held and spun his Ghost Quarter around his finger. He almost sacrificed it before saying, "Wait, you might have another Eye." He thought for another few seconds before deciding against it. Tao had been waiting for this moment the whole game. But again, Floch declined.
Tao had the advantage, and he had the right deck. Now, he just needed cards to fall in the right order to secure the trophy.
However in the end, it didn't matter. Floch was far behind, had lost his Reality Smashers, and needed to top-deck something to stave off the tiny Eldrazi onslaught. But Flock drew an uncastable card, and Tao's Mini-drazi marched over for the victory.
"I have no idea what to do with Ghost Quarter in this game," Floch said. "Last game, in the early turns I needed the extra mana. But later, if you had another Eye I would just lose mana, and maybe I need that to draw a Sower or something."
Tao followed along, but didn't lead on that he did indeed have another Eye in his hand the whole time. "I don't know, just talking through it," Floch said. Tao was there, but he was somewhere else entirely while shuffling for the fourth game. He was one game away from victory.
One more game.
This game, the fourth game, would be the last. Jiachen Tao of Northern California is right now living out every brewer's fantasy. He walked into the room with a deck no one expected—because it was his creation. He became the talk of the room, destroying name player after name player on his march to the top. Then, in the Top 8, he took down multiple Hall of Famers and Pro Tour champions on his inexorable quest to slay the big-team dragon.
No amount of scouting, no amount of preparation, no amount of experience could help the pros against this moment. This was his moment. Before this weekend, no one knew the name Jiachen Tao. And now, he will be known to everyone as "JC"—the man who walked in a brewer, and walked out a champion.
In the fourth game, JC used Gemstone Caverns to power out Limited standouts like Eldrazi Skyspawner and Vile Aggregate, and Johnny dreams like Eldrazi Mimic. Once a drafter, always a drafter. By turn three he had knocked Ivan Floch, Pro Tour champion, into single digits, and the Slovakian was chump blocking to live just one more turn.
Nothing would stop JC. Nothing.
He was fastidious. He thought about every way he could possibly lose this game. And after he took the last relevant card from Floch's hand, he realized there was none.
He turned his rag-tag group of draft warriors sideways and slayed the final dragon.
As his team, East West Bowl, hooted and hollered and joined him on the stage, JC The Giant Killer finally let out a huge smile. He knew this was his moment, and he wouldn't let it go to waste.
Jiachen Tao is your Pro Tour Oath of Gatewatch champion, defeating Ivan Floch 3-1.