"When I looked over the Top 8 matchups, I picked myself not to get coverage."
Josh Rider made that remark to this reporter early on Sunday, but in that, as in many other things, he was selling himself short. The talented Ontario magician, playing out of a Toronto suburb called Thornhill, had finally had his breakout tournament- finishing first in the Swiss with 28 points. The quarterfinal match pitted Rider, or JoshR as he is commonly known in internet circles, against red-hot grinder Guillaume Cardin.
Cardin, a hometown boy from Montreal with everything to gain and nothing to lose in this Top 8, was so sparkling fresh out of nowhere that the scoreboard for his quarterfinal didn't even have a name placard for him that was anything more than a hastily scribbled placeholder. Sitting down to cover the match, I was nonetheless struck with the feeling that Guillaume's relative obscurity wouldn't hold him down a bit. He looked competent and ready for action.
For this contest, Josh was armed with a black-green deck with lots of mana acceleration, removal and disruption. The sideboard for the deck is a toolbox, built to interact with his maindeck Living Wishes. Creatures like Stronghold Assassin and Ravenous Baloth promised to give Cardin trouble should they make constant appearances. On the other side of the table, the French-Canadian's blue-green deck was the same blazing fast aggro-control conglomeration we've come to know and love. In ballsy defiance of recent changes that many U/G players have made in light of the decline of R/G, Cardin's deck featured Aquamoeba to compliment Wild Mongrel as a madness outlet, eschewing Merfolk Looter entirely. Another card of interest was the maindeck Upheaval, a reset button that reportedly won a number of games for the blue-green deck while the matchup was being fleshed out by Rider's playtest team the night before.
Following some brief words from head judge Marc Hernandez, it was on- and the banter while both players did their shuffling was ominous for Guillame.
Josh: "So I was on the internet yesterday...everyone says I'm supposed to destroy you."
His counterpart was unfazed. "Lower starts?" Cardin asked, holding a die and requesting permission to flip-flop the conventional method of determining play draw. JoshR would have none of it.
Josh: "Higher. Gotta be higher."
Guillaume was lucky enough to win the roll and decided to play first (obviously), but his first hand of cards was a mulligan. With as many as five games ahead of him, the Montreal-native was able to keep a smile on his face while shuffling up and drawing six, but his good humor was stabbed in the groin when the six card hand was likewise unacceptable. Josh Rider's opening hand was fine, and it was trouble for the blue-green player- even keeping his five card draw, he would have to win this game starting three cards down, an unenviable task to say the least.
Josh: "I'm glad I lost the die roll."
The game opened with Cardin laying an unimpressive island and passing the turn. Josh returned fire with swamp, Cabal Therapy, choosing to mine for Aquamoebas. As it happened, it was a hit- an Aquamoeba went to the bin while Cardin revealed a less than stellar hand of island, Unsummon and Arrogant Wurm. His hand going nowhere fast, the Quebecer ripped Careful Study and tried to find some action, discarding the Unsummon and Arrogant Wurm that Josh had already seen (and written down). He passed the turn, his cards in hand a mystery for the time being.
Josh Rider's turn was "Forest, Bird, go." Guillame Cardin countered with the slightly less busty "Forest, go." When JoshR tried a Wirewood Herald on his next turn, threatening to shoehorn further card economy out of his Cabal Therapy, Cardin countered with Circular Logic. Rider finished up his turn with an Elf and passed it back. The French-Canadian could only draw, think for a moment, and then say "À toi" ("To you.") when it came time for him to act.
Thornhill's favorite son went for the jugular on his next turn, opening up with a Cabal Therapy for Circular Logic. It hit only air, but that in itself was good news- not only did it reveal Cardin's goshawful hand of Arrogant Wurm and Wonder, but confirmed that the coast was clear for Living Wish. Though Guillame joking requested that Rider retrieve his sideboarded Mindslicer, it was Braids, Cabal Minion that was called into active duty. The future turns were going to be ugly if the U/G player couldn't find some action.
Guillame: "Land, Wonder. Go."
Perhaps not the best action in the world, but better than nothing. Marginally. JoshR's response to the raw dogged incarnation was to cast a THIRD Cabal Therapy out of his hand, dropping a dime on the pesky Arrogant Wurm, and follow it up with Braids. Now, all he had to do was lean on Cardin's staggering, mulligan-addled board and wait for him to fall over, one permanent at a time.
Indeed, Cardin could only sacrifice his Wonder, play a land and send it back. Things went from bad to worse when Josh took his turn, tapping a Birds for a mana before sacrificing it to Braids, then casting an upkeep Caller of The Claw, netting himself a bear (which was stylishly represented in play by a trading card of the mutant Sabretooth).
Guillame sacrificed land, played land, looked at his board, saw land. The B/G player swung in for 7. And when Guillame did peel a lonely Mongrel, JoshR had Faceless Butcher at the ready. The upstart Montreal native could only scoop in the face of an impossible board position.
Rider 1, Cardin 0
Guillame: "I sure hope you won't play Braids every game."
Josh: "No promises."
The 2nd game started on the same note as the first- with a French-Canadian mulligan, hot and fresh from the oven. Josh Rider was fine with his seven carder, and Guillame opened with a strong first turn of Careful Study, discard Wonder and Rootwalla with madness. His plans were stymied, however, when Rider's 1st turn Cabal Therapy nailed the Mongrel, turning Cardin's formerly strong hand from prince to toad in the blink of an eye. The U/G player was left with just an Arrogant Wurm and land in his grip, and on his turn he could only bash in for three and pass the turn back.
JoshR decided to start building for the future with a second-turn Living Wish for Faceless Butcher. His reasons for this choice would become apparent when, after absorbing another three damage (and watching as Cardin dropped a second Rootwalla) the Toronto-area magician tapped three lands for Stronghold Assassin. The interaction between Butcher and Stronghold Assassin is a robust one, to be sure.
Guillame looked thoughtful on his turn and elected to send for only two damage, keeping three mana open and obviously representing Circular Logic. With the French-Canadian on his heels, it was up to JoshR to decide how best to apply pressure while still keeping his line of play from being dismantled by countermagic. He couldn't simply pass and give Guillame time to rip a Phantom Centaur. He could only go forward.
Rider did just that, keeping the Butcher in hand and playing out a Llanowar Elf, content to trade one for one with the creatures of the U/G player while developing his board position. Guillame knew that this was trouble, and countered the Elf. Josh dropped an elbow by throwing down a second assassin with his prey completely tapped out. When the turn was passed back, Guillame could only draw and swing. When JoshR declined to block (Wonder made it impossible in any case), the attacker pumped a Rootwalla, only to see it hit the bin, offed by the sacrifice of the summoning sick assassin to the one that was already on duty.
JoshR drew, attacked for two with his lone remaining assassin, and passed the turn, still holding the Butcher that he had Living Wished for. No sense using it with only one enemy creature on the table. The Rootwalla plinked back for one and again Guillame passed the turn with three mana open, representing a second Logic. In fact, this back and forth was appealing enough to both players that it repeated itself twice before Rider broke the monotony by laying his 7th land and playing Wirewood Herald into the Circular Logic. The method behind his madness was clear- Cardin had only five cards in his graveyard. Rather than burning the counter, or allowing the Herald to resolve with Assassin still in play, Cardin responded with Unsummon on the black creature. Alas, it came immediately back into play, and now the French Canadian was staring down the barrel of a creature-killing, card searching juggernaut.
Guillame would only cast Careful Study on his own turn, discarding two Arrogant Wurms and paying for one. His board was Rootwalla and Arrogant Wurm against JoshR's Stronghold Assassin and Wirewood Herald. Rider took his turn and slammed the door shut on the game by playing the Faceless Butcher, putting the "remove target creature from the game" effect on the stack, and sacrificing the Butcher to the Stronghold Assassin to kill the Basking Rootwalla.
End result? Arrogant Wurm removed from the game, Basking Rootwalla dead, Guillame Cardin in dire straits. A Ravenous Baloth from the Ontario player seemed to seal the deal. Even Guillaume's subsequent Equilibrium, which seemed to offer a glimmer of hope was no match for the black-green machine- Rider smashed in for eight and showed Guillame a Living Wish for Nantuko Vigilante. The blue-green player could only scoop.
Rider 2, Cardin 0
The third game was more fair, at least in the beginning- Guillame was pleasantly surprised when he drew his first seven and didn't have to take a mulligan. Josh Rider continued his trend of solid opening hands by likewise keeping, and the game was on.
The U/G staggered slightly off the blocks with a Careful Study that shipped Wonder and a second Study to the bin. Still, it was clear that Cardin was geared up for a second turn that might actually feature the appearance of Wild Mongrel for the first time in three games. Rider put a stop to those burgeoning shenanigans with a Cabal Therapy naming "Wild Mongrel", taking the dog and leaving Guillame with two Circular Logics and, more importantly, the alternative 2nd turn madness outlet in Aquamoeba. The full ridiculousness of Cabal Therapy was revealed when, after the Aquamoeba had been played and the turn passed back, Rider dropped a Llanowar Elves and flashed the Therapy back, taking both copies of Circular Logic and leaving Cardin with only a Forest in his grip.
The cosmos, perhaps deeming the mulligan-plagued French-Canadian worthy of a little luck, portioned some out to him when he untapped and ripped Arrogant Wurm, sending JoshR to 17 life and putting a lot of pressure on the board.
Josh: "Come on, how do you draw Arrogant Wurm there?"
Guillame: "I'm good."
Josh could only answer the Onslaught with an Engineered Plague for "Beasts", meaning the Aquamoeba was little better than a 0/2 wall. The Arrogant Wurm crashed in again for four, bringing Josh to 13, but when Guillame passed the turn, Josh fired down a clock of his own with Phantom Centaur. It was going to be close. Cardin bashed in again for four. Josh returned fire for five and dropped Phantom Centaur number two. It seemed the 0/2 Aquamoeba would be called into blocking duty much sooner than expected.
Guillame had no fear of the reaper, however. He attacked for four more points (dropping JoshR to 5) and passed it back with a number of cards in hand and all of his mana open for surprises. It was on the subsequent turn that, by his own admission, Rider erred and cost himself the game.
With Living Wish in hand, he could have taken Withered Wretch from his sideboard and dropped it into play before deciding whether to commit his Centaurs to another attack. Instead, he sent in the 5/3 beaters with plans to take care of the Wonder after combat if necessary, and his game plan was crushed by the appearance of a further Arrogant Wurm during the combat phase. Staring down two Arrogant Wurms with only a Birds of Paradise for defense, even Withered Wretch and the removal of Wonder from the game couldn't change the math.
5 life, 3 toughness, 8 trample damage. Game to Guillame Cardin.
Rider 2, Cardin 1
Both players kept their hands for Game 4, and they looked busty. Rider opened up with Forest, Bird. Cardin countered with Study, Rootwalla, discard Deep Analysis. Rider came back over the top with Stronghold Assassin, but Cardin bashed in (dealing only one) and then dropped the Assassin-resistant Wild Mongrel.
In the face of that, what else could Josh Rider do but slam down a land and Faceless Butcher on turn three, playing stack tricks to obliterate the opposing board? Poor Guillame could only shake his head and flashback his Deep Analysis, falling to 17. On the following turn, Josh Rider of Thornhill, Ontario cranked up the sickness even further by not only playing a second Assassin, but casting Living Wish for a second Faceless Butcher.
The French-Canadian, seemingly at a loss of answers, raw dogged a Wonder before passing the turn back to Rider. A Baloth joined the B/G side as things went from bad to worse. It was painfully obvious that only one thing could save Guillame Cardin, the hometown boy from Montreal, and that one thing was Phantom Centaur, preferably in multiples. Fast.
So Cardin drew and...played Phantom Centaur! Despite Josh having five creatures on the board compared to Guillaume's one (and a Faceless Butcher in hand!) there was really no attack he could make that would be fruitful. He had to content himself with Withered Wretch, and you could almost see him physically settle in for a long battle of attrition, plinking in with an Elf for one damage that wasn't worth a Phantom Centaur counter to prevent.
The staredown got a lot more interesting when Cardin ripped and played a second Centaur two turns later. His defenses were solid, but as the board was set, no creature without Protection from Black would survive even a microsecond. Wonder had long since been assassinated (and eaten by Wretch, of course) and the same fate seemed to await any other creature that the French-Canadian might play. He tried to deplete Rider's supply of Elves and other fodder by playing out his gang (luckily, Josh hadn't drawn a Wirewood Herald) but things weren't looking too hot until the unthinkable happened and Guillame drew and cast Equilibrium with a flourish!
Guillame: "I love that card so much. That card, oh man."
Josh (with less enthusiasm): "He loves the card."
Then Guillame said something that really captured the essence of the game state better than this reporter could have, so I'd be remiss in not relating it here.
Guillame: "It's a new game now."
He was right. From that point on, ever creature he drew was an Unsummon. Every instant speed Rootwalla could make a Stronghold Assassin activation look foolish, every new body off the top could send a Phantom Centaur home to refill on counters, or knock a potential blocker out of the way.
Meanwhile, Josh had been drawing enough irrelevant junk to make a full house (City Of Brass full of Forests) and it was starting to show in is board position. The Ontarian's creature count, once busty, was flagging badly in the face of repeated Assassin activations and no fresh troops.
It got ugly in a hurry for Josh. Making effective use of his creatures and spells with Equilibrium on the table was impossible, and Guillame seemed to have an iron-fisted reign over every combat phase. Finally, Josh ran out of green creatures.
The Centaurs smashed in for eight (hampered slightly by an Engineered Plague) and Josh tried to play a Baloth, but it was Circular Logic'd for two, forcing him to pay with his many City of Brass, a further two damage. Josh took a third point to play a Birds Of Paradise and suddenly he was at one, but with a Baloth in the way to keep him alive for at least one turn.
Of course, with Equilibrium in play it meant little. An Arrogant Wurm bounced his Baloth, which he had to sacrifice, and the Centaurs came in again. Rider chumped with his Bird, but facing down two Phantom Centaurs and an Arrogant Wurm with only a Stronghold Assassin on the table, he had no outs. Game to Cardin by way of Equilibrium.
Rider 2, Cardin 2
So it all came down to one game. Josh Rider kept his opening hand, and Guillame Cardin mulliganed his and stayed on six, and that was of poor portent for the French-Canadian. Of the first four games, the U/G deck had won the non-mulligan games and been dismantled in the mulligan games. If things were true to form for the final contest, then Cardin was going down.
Josh opened with Forest, Bird and passed the turn. Guillame returned fire with a first turn Rootwalla off a forest. Josh went for the throat with Cabal Therapy for Mongrel on his own turn, but saw only Aquamoeba, Wonder and lands. He followed that up with an Elf, a Bird, and the flashing back of the Therapy to take Cardin's all-important turn 2 madness outlet, the Aquamoeba. Once again, the Therapy had succeeded in turning a fair hand into garbage.
On his own turn, the Montreal native showed he had the skills to make Top 8 by ripping another Aquamoeba, and down it came. Rider came back with a 3rd turn Phantom Centaur, which looked very big indeed compared to the stealthy but fragile team of Cardin. It looked like the U/G player would need a Centaur of his own to race, or at least a chump blocker or perhaps the elbow dropping Equilibrium, but when his turn rolled around and none of those things appeared, he was in trouble.
A Smother from Rider, who had accelerated his mana almost to the point of breaking, took a close race and turned it into a joke. When JoshR untapped and fired down another Centaur, there was pretty much nothing that could stop him, certainly not one measly Rootwalla. The Centaur and an Elf bashed in for six, leaving Cardin at 14. Again Guillame drew something non-helpful and served for three, but Josh wasn't in danger.
Rider bashed in for eleven (two Phantom Centaurs and an Elf) and though Cardin's Unsummon saved him five damage, the Centaur just came back down after he'd fallen to a scant eight life with only a Rootwalla standing between him and the almighty. Could one draw phase turn it all around?
Not this time. With no outs, the Cinderella story could only end for Guillame Cardin, and he had to extend the hand to Ontario's Josh Rider.
Final Result: Josh Rider wins 3-2 and advances to face the winner of Richard Hoaen and Steve Wolfman.