Battle of the Brains
While the Pro Tour in Philadelphia this weekend featured several engaging matches throughout the course of the weekend, one of the most interesting and impactful games came in the Semi Finals of Sunday’s Top Eight.
Magic Hall of Famer Reid Duke, playing Indomitable Creativity, squared off with Derrick Davis, playing Enigmatic Fires in his first Pro Tour, in the first Semi Final match, and while Duke took home the match 3-1 in a best of five, game two in particular featured intricate decision points from both players.
Game two was the most back and forth game of the match, with both players taking deliberate lines in the fight for victory. Duke had resolved two Big Scores to dig for Indomitable Creativity to try and win the game, but he wasn’t able to find a copy in the top half of his library, while Davis was playing around Make Disappear and not playing anything.
Eventually, Davis was able to resolve an Elesh Norn, making his deck’s potential all the more dangerous, though the card does not shut off Duke’s combo. When faced with a Bitter Reunion on the stack and with him flooding out, Duke decided the optimum play was to point three burn spells at Elesh Norn, in order to take Davis off some consistency and get the blocker out of the way. WIth Norn out of the way, Duke was able to start attacking with his Mutavault to start pressuring Davis’s life total, or as Play by Play broadcaster Marshall Sutcliffe deemed it, “the Mutavault portion.”
Continuing the pressure, Duke channeled Sokkenzan, Crucible of Defiance in order to bring his damage output to four, placing Davis, who was at 16 life, on a four turn clock. But Duke was still struggling to find his combo, holding only two Make Disappears and a land, while Davis had a Yorion, Fires of Invention, Leyline Binding, then drawing a Moon-Blessed Cleric for turn.
As Davis tried to slam Yorion in order to blink his Bitter Reunion and two Nylea’s Presences, Duke made the heads up play of casting a Make Disappear with Casualty, putting Davis in a predicament of paying the four mana, exactly how much he had, to keep Yorion alive, or keeping his Leyline Binding up as to not die to the combo. Duke on the other hand knew the importance of Davis potentially going shields down, as he knew going in what the most important card in the matchup was.
“I would say the single most important card in the matchup is Leyline Binding,” Duke said in his postgame interview. “Derrick can cast that for one mana to stop my combo. If he wins that battle, it’s really hard for me to recover and try again.”
Davis stuck firm to the disciplined choice, allowing Yorion to be countered and keeping the long game going, and Duke’s game plan hit another wrinkle.
Duke drew his copy of Xenagos, God of Revels for turn, which while normally disastrous was not in this case, as it gave him some additional pressure. Duke saw the only road in front of him and hard cast his Xenagos, using one of the four treasures he had from the Big Score. Davis used the only Leyline Binding he had in his hand to attempt to exile Xenagos, but it was met with Duke’s second Casualty-cost Make Disappear. Just like that, Xenagos was live, with Duke using his Mutavault to get Davis down to eight life.
Davis followed this up with a Moon-Blessed Cleric, which he used to put Enigmatic Incarnation on the top of his library, and after using the Cleric to chump block the Mutavault, Davis played his copy of Fires of Invention along with Enigmatic, which led to the penultimate play of the game. Using Enigmatic to sacrifice Fires, Davis fetched his copy of Cavalier of Dawn from the deck. Using Cavalier’s first trigger, Davis pointed the destruction ability at his own Cavalier, putting the previously countered Leyline Binding back in his hand, giving Davis the pivotal interaction he still needed to fight off the potential Creativity for one that Duke could have used to win the game.
Like Duke, Davis was well aware of the importance of Leyline Binding in this matchup, knowing Duke would be playing around it, making it all the more important for him to get a copy into his hands by any means necessary.
“I think Reid has to play around Leyline Binding as much as possible,” Davis told PlayingMTG. “I really wanted to tutor Leyline Binding because I had no interaction at the time, but that tells him he has to commit the combo immediately because I am guaranteed to have one more piece of interaction. Instead, I wanted to disguise it with something that looked like I was just trying to pull ahead, but Reid can win through a turn or two of Enigmatic, so he does not necessarily have to combo immediately. Being able to stick an Enigmatic to have a chance to pull ahead, put pressure on the table, and have the Leyline Binding to protect against the combo more just put me firmly in the driver’s seat for the rest of that match.”
Davis subsequently used Binding on Xenagos, then on his next turn, sacrificed the Binding to Enigmatic, giving Duke his Xenagos back, but used the Enigmatic to get Agent of Treachery, not only denying Duke his Xenagos once again, but giving it to Davis, compounding with making Duke’s combo useless and giving himself a beater, as Davis had the necessary Devotion to make Xenagos a creature. A few turns later, while firmly in control, Davis drew Kenrith, the Returned King and was able to put game two on ice, knotting up the best of five at one game a piece.
While Duke acknowledged Enigmatic Fires was not a matchup he prepared for a lot in testing, he knew Binding was the key card, and knew that after sideboarding, the matchup got easier. As the match was a best of five, sideboarding was first allowed after game two, so games three and four, both of which went to Duke, he knew he had a much better chance.
“In game one I don’t have a whole lot of counterplay, so I have to pick my spot and go for it, which worked out in one of the games,” said Duke. “After sideboarding, things can go a little longer and I have more weapons and I have the classic blue player advantage of him having to operate at sorcery speed while I have a lot of instants and card advantage that take the game in the direction I want it to and I wa able to do that in the sideboard games.”
Games Three and Four
And games three and four not only went to Duke, but they played about as well as they could have for one of the all time greats. With Duke sideboarding into more of a control deck able to play a longer game, he used those draw spells and interactive spells to his advantage, forcing Davis between a rock and a hard place of either running out cards and putting his shields down, or holding up interaction of his own, but without the ability to pressure Duke’s life total.
Duke was able to dispatch an early Archon of Emeria and Davis never found himself in the position to play another threat. And while he did find a Nylea’s Presence to make his Leyling Binding cost one mana, Duke fired off Big Scores on back to back turns with Davis fearing the combo kill.
“Post board, I do need to be a bit more proactive because of cards like Negate and Disdainful Stroke making it harder to play the long game,” said Davis. “On top of that, I had been missing land drops, which means the longer I sit on my spells, the more value Reid gets with his setup cards like Big Score and Fable. I had to start doing something, which ultimately opened me up to the combo more than I wanted.”
In the end, Duke was able to generate too much card advantage thanks to the Big Scores and a copy of Dig Through Time. With Davis deciding it was pertinent to get pressure on board, he opted to play his Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, leaving only three lands open with a Mystical Dispute and a Leyline Binding in hand to try and stop him. While those two cards make for a formidable backup plan, Duke was able to resolve his Creativity with two Negates, a Spell Pierce, and a Mystical Dispute of his own to ensure the game three win.
Duke was able to wrap up game four in a more timely fashion, as Davis could not find the lands or Nylea’s Presence to make Leyline Binding cost one mana, and Duke used that to his advantage, firing off Creativity with a Spell Pierce back up, securing the match in his favor.
Duke to the Finals
At the end of the tournament, Duke walked away with his first Pro Tour Championship, defeating Benton Madsen’s GW Auras in the finals. Madsen had served as one of the biggest stories of the weekend, and despite the fact Madsen had beaten Duke in the swiss rounds, Duke was able to avenge the earlier loss. Prior to that finals match, Duke was just happy to be around.
“I’m still playing, which is the best part,” said Duke.
Meanwhile, Davis’ masterful run at Pro Tour Philadelphia came to an end, and while he was not able to win the whole thing, ending in the top four of an event like that is an accomplishment in it’s own right, and even in defeat, Davis said his run felt like the culmination of a recent string of success he’s had, while thanking his testing team for helping him get to this point.
“Getting to Top 4 in my first PT appearance feels unbelievable,” Davis told PlayingMTG in an interview after the game. “It makes the work that the groups I had tested with put into this feel all the more rewarding on top of having excuses to spend quality time with friends. And even better, I have the opportunity to live the dream every magic player has of not only playing in a Pro Tour, but being a mainstay on it for at least some time on top of the chance to play in Worlds this year. It all means so much to me, and I am only looking forward to having the chance to impress people more and more this year.”