Fitting that on a Hall of Fame induction weekend, there should be a quarterfinal match with such strong Hall of Fame implications. One of the most hotly debated topics during the Hall of Fame voting last year surrounded Makihito Mihara, and whether or not his resume warranted selection. With four Pro Tour Top 8s and a World Champion title, Mihara made an incredibly strong case for himself, though he was hurt by a lack of travel outside of Japan for anything other than Pro Tours. In addition, he was hurt by a very strong class with some incredible names on the ballot. With this Top 8, his second consecutive, he appears to have shuttled his name to the top of the list for next year.
But he isn't the only player in the Top 8 with a worthy resume. He isn't the only one in this match with a Hall of Fame worthy history. One of the longest tenured American players, Paul Rietzl was cutting his teeth and fleecing opponents who judged his skill by his age since the days of the Junior Super Series. Already a top player in the game, he was forced to take some time off of Magic for college, but, once finished, he stormed back, seemingly stronger than ever. He has three prior Pro Tour Top 8s, a win, and a slew of top Grand Prix performances. He has been in consideration in previous years, but he, like Mihara, was hurt on last year's ballot by the presence of such a strong class. This year, especially after this event, he has also stamped his ticket to the forefront of the conversation.
This match was slated to be an epic brawl, and it certainly lived up to expectations. Mihara's Colossal Gruul deck was one of the shining stars of the weekend, a very blatant stain against a sea of blue. It has given us some of the most impressive turns of the event, all powered by the powerful new land from Theros, Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. In Mihara's deck, Nykthos functions much like Tolarian Academy or Gaea's Cradle, enabling an absurd amount of mana that can be used to power a Polukranos, World Eater, or land an early Garruk, Caller of Beasts. There were stories circulating this weekend about games where Mihara was able to make upwards of fifteen mana on turn four.
Rietzl's Orzhov Midrange deck is well-equipped to deal with Nykthos, though, as it simply attempts to kill everything. With an immense amount of spot removal, Rietzl was able to keep the board relatively free of creatures all weekend long, which is a sever hindrance for decks relying on devotion, as Mihara's certainly can. The one problem that Rietzl could have from Mihara's deck is the presence of so many powerful planeswalkers, especially after sideboarding. Though he has Thoughtseize and Hero's Downfall, an early Planeswalker could easily spell defeat for Rietzl.
Makihito Mihara's Colossal Gruul deck has stomped through the Standard portion all weekend, but Paul Rietzl's Orzhov deck has also made an impressive showing in all ten Constructed rounds.
Rietzl began the match with a play for information. His Thoughtseize revealed a very powerful, yet restricted hand for Mihara.
Domri Rade, Nylea, God of the Hunt, Garruk, Caller of Beasts, Sylvan Caryatid, Scavenging Ooze, Stomping Ground
Before the match, Patrick Chapin, the deck's designer, told me that the hardest part of this match-up happens to be dealing with the planeswalkers in Mihara's deck.
"This matchup can go poorly for Paul if Mihara he has both Garruk, Caller of Beasts, and Nykthos," Chapin explained. "It isn't the creatures that beat him, it's the planeswalkers."
As such it was surprising that Rietzl opted to stymie Mihara's development by taking the Sylvan Caryatid in his hand, looking to strand him on two mana. Two turns later, when Mihara dropped a Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, into play, Reitzl grimaced a little, knowing that it had come from the top of Mihara's deck. With his third land, Mihara was able to begin filling his board with cards, beginning with Domri Rade and Polukranos, World Eater. Combined with all of the other threats Mihara had access to, like Domri's fighting, Nykthos's need for devotion, and the Nylea, God of the Hunt, in his hand, Polukranos was the beginning of a very large problem.
Mihara's Gruul deck is one best known for capitalizing well on Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx mana.
Rietzl had a pair of Desecration Demons over the next couple of turns to try and by himself some defense or the potential for a quick kill, but Mihara was able to use the Nykthos to power out a board full of creatures. This allowed him to generate enough mana to make his Polukranos even larger, as well as providing fodder to tap the Desecration Demons, clearing the path to victory.
In the second game, Rietzl once again set about stifling Mihara's development, using Thoughtseize to steal a Voyaging Satyr, locking Mihara on two lands and stranding Domri Rade, Polukranos, World Eater and two sideboarded copies of Chandra, Pyromaster, in his hand. Mihara drew a Stomping Ground off the top, allowing him to slide Domri Rade into play, which would hopefully help him to draw out of this situation. A Lifebane Zombie from Rietzl's sideboard stripped Mihara of his Polukranos, leaving him with nothing but uncastable planeswalkers in his hand. Behind as he was, Mihara was unable to use Domri Rade to fight off the Lifebane Zombie, leaving it vulnerable to the Zombie's attacks. Over two turns, the Zombie finished Mihara's first planeswalker off.
When Rietzl added a Desecration Demon to his team, things swung heavily in his favor. The massive flying clock put Mihara up against a wall, and without a Xenagos, the Reveler, to act as a constant fog for it, he would rapidly find himself dying. A second Thoughtseize confirmed that Mihara had drawn another Domri Rade during his search for lands, giving him a hand containing nothing but planeswalkers. Rietzl deliberated before snapping up the Domri, leaving Mihara with two Chandras and a Garruk that he couldn't cast. Two turns later, still holding a hand of cards that he couldn't cast, Mihara conceded.
Mihara had been fairly lucky to draw into the Nykthos that had enabled him to explode as he had in Game 1, and it looked in the second game like he might continue that trend. Both games, Rietzl had seen Mihara's mana-light hands and opted to strip him of his mana producers as opposed to taking the powerful planeswalkers he held. His attempts to exacerbate Mihara's mana issues hadn't paid off in the first game, but worked brilliantly in the second, mostly due to his ability to follow it up immediately with a massive threat.
Rietzl's disruption is the perfect Achilles heel.
Mihara led off with an explosive start in the third game, playing Elvish Mystic before running Burning-Tree Emissary into Sylvan Caryatid on the next. Rietzl slowed him down some with a Doom Blade on the Mystic, but Mihara still had enough mana to cast a Polukranos to continue his aggression. Rietzl once again had the spot removal, killing it with a Hero's Downfall.
A Thoughtseize revealed two copies of Garruk, Caller of Beasts, causing Rietzl to laugh and sigh at his luck. On five lands, Mihara's top card was a Stomping Ground, allowing him to get the other copy into play and immediately use it to draw some cards. Unfortunately, Garruk only snagged Mihara a pair of mana critters, hardly the ideal cards under the given situation. Still, considering Rietzl followed that with a Desecration Demon, the mana critters would at least have some potential impact on the board. Rietzl refused to give Mihara the chance at a better Garruk activation, killing it with Hero's Downfall, leaving Mihara with nothing in hand.
Having dealt with Mihara's powerful planeswalker, Rietzl made one of his own: Elspeth, Sun's Champion. She began to work immediately, raising an army to protect Rietzl's growing lead. Mihara was fortunate enough to draw a third Garruk from the top of his deck, but he still wasn't able to get much out of it. With Elspeth growing his defene, Rietzl didn't even care about the larger creatures, like Arbor Colossus, that Mihara drew, choosing instead to focus on keeping the board clear of Voyaging Satyrs. This paid dividends a couple of turns later, when Mihara added a Nykthos to his mana base.
With his stupidly large army of Soldiers and an Obzedat, Ghost Council, that Rietzl had kept back to play around Mizzium Mortars, there was no way that Mihara was getting at Elspeth before Rietzl could go ultimate. In a flash, his army of Soldiers took to the skies, soaring over Mihara's team to give Rietzl the 2-1 advantage in the match.
Against the wall, Mihara was yet to begin with a truly impressive opening draw. All of his keeps had been very good, but very fragile in the face of Rietzl's Thoughtseizes. That wasn't the case in the fourth game of this match. Rietzl once again had the early Thoughtseize, but Mihara's had had no obvious vulnerabilities.
Mihara's mana producers were nigh unkillable, making his two-land hand considerably less risky. Rietzl opted to take Polukranos over Domri Rade, a selection that would turn out to be quite fateful. Without a removal spell for Polukranos, Rietzl was afraid of simply losing if the Hydra hit play. He had a Lifebane Zombie in his hand, so he would be able to get around any possible blockers that Mihara might have, enabling him to kill the Domri unabated. Unfortunately for Rietzl, things didn't work out that way. Domri provided Mihara with a stream of creatures that he was able to add to the board, and Rietzl was unable to cast Lifebane Zombie while Domri continued to tick up.
When Lifebane Zombie hit the table for Rietzl, it revealed a hand of epic proportions. Chandra, Pyromaster, and Garruk, Caller of Beasts, sat waiting for their chance to get into the game. The Chandra was especially bad news, as it allowed Mihara to clear Rietzl's Zombie off just as he was ticking up his Domri Rade to an important seven loyalty. Rietzl had absolutely nothing he could do. When Mihara made his Domri emblem on the following turn and attacked in with an Arbor Colossus with enough abilities to even get a nod of approval from Akroma, he conceded.
"Yep, yep," he said. "I'm dead by a lot."
The final game saw Rietzl continue to employ a strategy that had worked reasonably well for him thus far in this match: aggressively attacking Mihara's mana base, which had proven to be his weakness in all of the prior games. A pair of Doom Blades at both of Mihara's early mana producers, but they hadn't entered play alone. Mihara managed a two copies of Burning-Tree Emissary on the second turn, and they were just devastating. Rietzl had no removal to deal with them if he intended to deal with the mana creatures, so they had free reign over the board. Rietzl's only contribution to the board was a Pithing Needle which he used to hedge against a future Garruk, Caller of Beasts. When Mihara instead played a Xenagos, the Reveler, Rietzl just laughed. One turn and two Satyrs later, Rietzl was dead.
"Is it too late to change that Needle to Xenagos," Rietzl joked after the match? "Yes? Alright. Good match."