Welcome to a new column here on ChannelFireball.com! In Game Analysis, I’ll select a single game from the video coverage of a tournament, and dissect the decisions, stellar plays, and fatal mistakes. I won’t be writing a Game Analysis every week, only when I stumble upon a single game that’s compelling enough to deserve a full article.
Today I’m going to cover game 1 of the finals of Grand Prix Oakland, played by Yours Truly, piloting 4-Color Rally the Ancestors, and Hall-of-Famer Ben Rubin, piloting his own build of Abzan Blue. I’ll be analyzing the game from my perspective.
Rally the Ancestors vs. Abzan is a close matchup. Anafenza, the Foremost is the most important card, since it prevents the Rally player from triggering “dies” abilities and from setting up a Rally the Ancestors combo. If the Abzan player has a good draw with Anafenza, the Foremost, they’re a substantial favorite to win, especially in game 1. If they don’t have Anafenza, then the Rally deck is pretty good at locking up the ground, and buying enough time to combo off. If they have Anafenza but a slow draw, the Rally player can set up a turn where they bounce her using Sidisi’s Faithful (or now, Reflector Mage), and then do what they can to take over the game.
Ben’s Abzan Blue deck adds another wrinkle to the equation with his four main-deck copies of Stubborn Denial. A well-placed Stubborn Denial to counter a Collected Company or Rally the Ancestors could also spell game over.
The Early Turns
We have access to one another’s deck lists, so there are no surprises. I’m on the play and neither player mulligans. I lay a turn-2 Zulaport Cutthroat, and on turn 3 I draw Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and play it, but miss my land drop. Ben has a great start with a turn-1 Warden of the First Tree, levels it turn 2, and then plays turn-3 Anafenza, the Foremost.
The fun begins on turn 4. I activate Jace and have a hand of Sunken Hollow, Rally the Ancestors, Rally the Ancestors, Collected Company, Sidisi’s Faithful, Zulaport Cutthroat, and Nantuko Husk. Any creature I discard will be exiled due to Anafenza, so I discard my second copy of Rally the Ancestors. It’s going to be hard enough to set up a single Rally in the face of Anafenza, and the prospect of playing a long game with two Rallys as bricks in my hand seems bad. It also adds a card to the graveyard to get me one step closer to transforming Jace.
With access to only 2 mana, I can either cast Zulaport Cutthroat—basically a 1/1 with no abilities in the face of Anafenza—or Sidisi’s Faithful. I decide that I need to cast Faithful to earn some breathing room, and save Cutthroat to possibly discard to Jace on a future turn. I exploit to bounce Anafenza, even though she’s likely to just get recast on the following turn. Unsummon effects are powerful in the early turns of the game, when the opponent has a full hand. Yes, Ben can recast Anafenza on his fourth turn, but at least that means a Siege Rhino or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar isn’t being added to the board. I sacrifice Zulaport Cutthroat and keep the Faithful in play because it can block the 3/3 Warden, plus it might be useful later in the game if I can somehow get it into my graveyard or my hand.
On turn 6, I cast Collect Company. I do so on my own main phase because I don’t want Ben to untap, play a blue-producing land, and threaten Stubborn Denial. It also puts a fourth card in my graveyard in case I want to transform Jace. (I wound up not doing so, but if I had drawn a land off of Elvish Visionary or the Jace activation, I might have).
My Overall Strategy
By the time turn 7 rolls around, it’s becoming clear that I won’t be able to beat Ben in a fair fight. His Anafenza is making it nearly impossible to amass creatures in my graveyard—even if I can bounce her, Ben’s life total is going to be much too high to win with one or even two Zulaport Cutthroats. Also, if he ever finds a Stubborn Denial, or maybe even a simple spot removal spell, there’s no way I’ll be able to combo off anyway. Consequently, my plan becomes to stall the ground, transform Jace, and try to make an emblem. It’s a long-shot, but Jace’s emblem does win surprisingly fast. There’s even a special technique, which is to cast Sidisi’s Faithful, exploit another creature, bounce the Faithful itself, and recast it. With an emblem, that can mill the opponent out in only a turn or two.
Turn 7 is what I believe to be the crucial turn of the game. When Ben taps out to level his Warden, I cast Collected Company. I suspect that his willingness to tap out means that he doesn’t have Stubborn Denial, but I could be mistaken, or he might draw it on his turn. I hit Elvish Visionary and Sidisi’s Faithful. What to do with Sidisi’s Faithful is the most important and challenging decision that I have in this game.
One possibility raised by Owen Turtenwald is that I could bounce my own Sidisi’s Faithful to have it in my hand for later in the game. I could use it to bounce Anafenza and set up a Rally, I could use it to bounce a fully-leveled Warden of the First Tree, or I could use it for the Jace emblem trick. Unfortunately, I think this play would simply put me too far behind in terms of toughness on the board, and I’d likely be decimated or killed in combat the next turn.
The best play I could’ve made was one suggested by Jarvis Yu. I should’ve done just what I did—sacrifice Elvish Visionary to bounce Anafenza—but when Ben went to recast Anafenza the following turn, I should’ve sacrificed a Sidisi’s Faithful to Nantuko Husk in response so that I would have it in the graveyard for later. Making the Husk a 4/4 still makes attacking difficult for Ben on that turn. Having the Faithful in the graveyard (remember, I’ve had Rally the Ancestors in my hand for the whole game) gives me access to all of the same options as Owen’s suggestion, except that I can also do it at instant speed! At this point in the game, it’s clear that the biggest threat is Ben making giant Wardens, so being able to answer one at instant speed could easily determine the game.
As things turned out, I think that Ben’s pressure was enough that I couldn’t have kept myself alive long enough to win the game, had I made this play. Yet, I believe that the number of possibilities that result in a win from here are greater if I put the Faithful in the graveyard than if I leave it in play.
On turn 8, Ben makes his first big attack. I suspect that he doesn’t have a removal spell because he probably could’ve made profitable attacks earlier in the game if he’d had one. I’m also far enough behind that I can’t afford to play around removal, so I make beating his board my priority. I block before casting Collected Company because I want to make him commit his mana with as little information as possible. If he levels his Warden and I hit an instant-speed Sidisi’s Faithful, it can be a tremendous tempo swing.
Turn 9, again, I decide that I can’t afford to play around much at all, which is why I wait until combat to cast my Collected Company. Again, I want the possibility of hitting instant-speed Sidisi’s Faithful. I still want to make Ben commit attackers with as little information as possible. This time, with my resources running low, I cast it before I block, with the goal of killing some of Ben’s creatures and getting a bit of breathing room.
Finally, on the last turn of the game, I ultimate my Jace, Telepath Unbound, even though there’s a good chance of it dying on the following turn. The Jace emblem had been my plan all game, and by this point I couldn’t win without it. Things were also only going to get worse with each turn that passed, since Ben could just sink more and more mana into his Wardens.
To hope that a player like Ben Rubin would make a mistake or miss an on-board kill is a terrible proposition. But it’s still better—much better—than conceding, or taking a line of play with zero chance to win. If I ultimate Jace, then I can at least hope that I miscounted combat damage and have a chance to survive. I can also hope that Ben miscounts combat damage and doesn’t make an aggressive attack. Unfortunately, neither of those things happened and Ben killed me.
It was a long, complicated, and interesting game. Many of my decisions were fairly easy (for example: cast Collected Company on every turn you have the mana for it!). Others, like the question of the second Sidisi’s Faithful, were a lot more challenging, and I didn’t make them all correctly. It’s important to strive for perfection, but it’s okay not to beat yourself up when you fall short. The best thing to do is to take lessons from games like this one, and try to improve on your performance in the future.