"A pair of Midwestern mages, once teammates, now rivals, locked in a battle for 3-0."
That was how Adrian Sullivan introduced his own match, in an authoritative voice-over.
A strong 2013 performance—featuring three Grand Prix Top 8s and including a win—put No. 5 Ranked Player Ari Lax on the short list of "Strongest Players Without a Pro Tour Top 8". This season, he crossed his name off with authority, taking gold in his first Top 8 at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir. He'd drafted a solid green-blue deck and liked his chances at 3-0.
Adrian Sullivan is one of Magic's true veterans. He wears many hats, not only as a player, but also as a writer, theorist and ambassador. Few can match his passion for the game. His interest in top-level play has rekindled itself lately, and as part of the newly minted Team Ultra Pro, he's hoping to put up his first marquee finish. He was on white-black, and felt it was probably the strongest deck at the table.
Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir champion Ari Lax squares off against fellow Midwestern Magic player Adrian Sullivan.
Lax was on the play, but it was Sullivan who hit the ground running. He led out with Dragon Hunter into Sultai Emissary, while Lax rolled out his first three lands without plays. Lax got a small reprieve when Sullivan failed to find a third land.
"I thought I was just dead when you played a 1-drop, and I didn't have a two or a three."
Lax put down a Lotus Path Djinn and hoped it would serve as a stop sign. No such luck. Sullivan swung in again. Lax pushed his Djinn in front of the 2/1. Coat with Venom turned the combat in Sullivan's favor. Worse for Lax, Sullivan had also drawn land number three.
The Summons came back for an encore. Lax hit for 2 and stole the morph with Illusory Gains. Finally, he had stemmed the tide of attackers. Sullivan played an Ukud Cobra, passing it over and getting his morph back. Lax sent his two Djinns overhead for 4 more damage and dropped Stampeding Elk Herd. Sullivan played a fifth land and passed with all his mana open. Lax was unwilling to risk an attack into it. He summoned Zephyr Scribe and passed, watching as Sullivan unmorphed a deadly Aven Sunstriker, a 3/5 flying double striker thanks to the Aegis.
Lax attempts to stabilize against a stumbling opponent.
He was content to build up his board through Lax's Illusory Gains, so he played out Sunscorch Regent for Lax and held back. Lax looted with his Scribe and sent in his borrowed Regent. Of course, Sullivan still had Dragon Hunter in play, and it was all too happy to blunt the attack. Sullivan returned fire with his Sunstriker and put Lax on a perilously low life total. Then he summoned Sidisi, Undead Vizier, and that's when things got complicated.
The Vizier entered play and two abilities triggered—Sidisi's exploit trigger and the Illusory Gains trigger. Active player's ability goes onto the stack first, so Illusory Gains's ability ended up on top and resolved first, switching Sidisi's controller. Next, the exploit trigger resolved. Sullivan sacrificed his Sultai Emissary to get a manifest and swap Sidisi back to his side.
Here is Lax interrupted him.
"Since you exploited.... I think that means I get to tutor." They confirmed with a judge. It was as he said. Sidisi's second ability triggers when she exploits, regardless of who controls her.
"Oh no...that was really bad," said Suillivan.
"Yeah, 'Oh no, that was really bad' was what I was hoping for."
"I did NOT know that's how that card worked. Really?"
Sullivan decided to double-check with the head judge. Coincidentally the video coverage had just stopped by for a live look-in. While the spotter relayed the absurd situation to the booth, Ari Lax hummed a bit of 'Enter the Gladiators'.
Sometimes, exploiting can lead to dangerous consequences.
In the end, Lax wound up tutoring up a card and Sullivan manifested a 2/2 to swap for his Sidisi. In the face of Sullivan's forces, Lax decided to go for the jugular. He dropped the Sunscorch Regent with Return to the Earth, and boosted his Stampeding Elk Herd with Taigam's Strike. It swung in with one of the Djinn tokens and brought Sullivan low. Lax had his hopes riding that the rebounded strike would prove sufficient.
Sullivan untapped, counted things out, and then turned his army sideways. Lax lined up a pair of blockers and let 4 damage through. Sullivan made it lethal with Artful Maneuver.
"I think Sidisi's the best rare in the set. Best rare, not mythic rare," said Lax.
"I'm not sure I agree with that."
"Have you got better in your deck?"
"I've got some cards. I do have some cards. Are you confident in your Standard deck?"
"Are you kidding? I have Brad and BBD [Brian Braun-Duin] on my team. He's only something ridiculous like 70% in standard matches."
Sullivan led with Myth Realized, but had no turn two play. They matched morphs. Lax hit for 2 and added Mistfire Adept. Sullivan brought down Sandcrafter Mage to upgrade his morph to a 3/3, then added Glaring Aegis and hit for 4. Lax hit back with both his creatures, trading his morph for the Sandcrafter. He added Jeskai Sage and Qarsi Deceiver to his board, and passed.
5 mana for Sullivan let him unmorph, and again it was the deadly Aven Sunstriker. This time, it was a 4/6 and dropped Lax to 8 life in a single hit. Lax hit back again, then put out a lowly morph.
Sullivan looked at the board and then turned his Sunstriker sideways. "Try to kill you?"
Lax flipped up Ainok Survivalist. "Destroy your Aegis."
It left him alive, but barely. Sullivan brought out Sandsteppe Outcast and his spirit friend to hold down his defenses. He survived Lax's next attack, and Lax pinned his hopes on Lotus Path Djinn to keep him in the game. Sullivan showed him Pressure Point, and took the match.
Lax 0 – Sullivan 2
Lax admitted that Sullivan had the better deck, but he was hardly despondent about his 2-1 performance. "I went 2-1, losing to a deck that it's very reasonable to lose to, and against a player I could very easily lose to," he said. "No complaints."
I asked him how the draft had gone for him. "The draft felt really good," he explained. "I'd keep getting packs where there'd be a good green card, and no other green cards, but it's obvious nobody took a green card ahead of me, and then 4 red cards and two white cards."
Lax was not only receiving strong signals, but sending them as well. I asked if that was typical in this format. "Absolutely," he said. "Signalling is very important. You need to create open lanes so you'll get passed the powerful cards. In this format, all the dorks trade and the powerful cards don't."
Naturally, Sullivan was pleased with running the table, and he wasn't surprised to have run into Lax in the last round. "I feel like I have a good handle on the format, and definitely felt good about this deck. I thought it was somewhere between a 2-1 and a 3-0, but I didn't know which way it would fall."