Arcane Teachings – Under the Radar in Extended

Read Tom LaPille every Tuesday... at StarCityGames.com!
Tuesday, March 4th – In his first Premium article, Tom LaPille examines the nature of being “under the radar” in the current Extended metagame. With so many options, and a plethora of powerful decks, how can we leverage our deck choice into those vital wins? Can we capitalize on the size of the format in order to run through the rounds without facing hate? Maybe we can… and Tom shows us how. [Editor’s Note: Adrian Sullivan will now run later in the week… so stay tuned!]

Hello folks. I have been promoted to Premium, which is an exciting opportunity for me. I’m honored to have received the 2007 StarCityGames.com award for Most Promising Newcomer, and I will endeavor to keep bringing you compelling content in my new Tuesday slot. I’ve appreciated the feedback you all have given me in the forums so far, so please keep that up and hopefully we’ll all have a good time and help each other get better at Magic.

My article on the free side last week was a bewildered rant about how I did poorly at Grand Prix: Vancouver for reasons that were unclear to me at the time. I’ve had a little bit of time now to digest what happened to me and what has happened to the format, and what it means for the PTQ world. This article is my take on that.

Perhaps the most important thing is that Counterbalance itself is now very poorly positioned. I don’t mean that it is bad in the abstract, because the combination of it and Sensei’s Divining Top is obviously fine and has been good enough to win many a PTQ this season. The problem is that the rest of the decks in the format have become much more developed. Early in the season, there were (generally speaking) two kinds of decks: decks that the card Counterbalance was awesome against, and decks that didn’t care about it. The first category included midrange-ish decks like Doran and Loam and most homebrews that people brought, and the second category includes decks like Enduring Ideal, Affinity, and Dredge, that simply don’t care about a Counterbalance because they play spells that cost a lot of mana or no mana at all. Now that everyone has had more time to learn about the format, the “decks that Counterbalance is awesome against” category has been largely replaced with the “decks that Counterbalance is far too slow against most of the time” category in the form of Goblins, Red Deck, and Domain Zoo, while the decks that don’t care about Counterbalance are still around. All the decks that Counterbalance is usually good against are gone, so no one seems interested in playing a deck that is warped to fit it. Expect those players who would previously have played Counterbalance to move down to Previous Level Blue.

It’s also significant that Dredge put up a frankly pathetic showing at Vancouver. A full sixteenth of the field was playing the deck, and only one copy of the deck made the second day. I don’t really understand why this happened; the deck is still awesome and is completely capable of fighting surprisingly large amounts of hate, but for whatever reason it appears to have stopped winning. This means that people will scale back somewhat on their graveyard hate.

The combination of these factors means that soon decks that are dead to a Counterbalance and decks that use the graveyard extensively can come back to some degree. I specifically have Aggro-Loam in mind as a deck that these developments are good for, and I’ll talk about this in more detail later. It was one of the best decks in the format at Grand Prix: Dallas in 2007. I tried the deck again during the buildup to Pro Tour: Valencia and it was still awesome in game 1, but at the time everyone was afraid of Dredge and therefore was sideboarding tons of Leyline of the Void, Tormod’s Crypt, and other similar cards. It wasn’t even that I couldn’t beat those cards with Loam, because I could. However, I eventually came to the conclusion that I couldn’t beat graveyard hate often enough for it to be right to play the deck. This continued to be the case well into this PTQ season, but before Vancouver a number of good players I know were all chattering about the idea of not sideboarding anything for Dredge. Now that the Grand Prix results are in, I suspect that this idea may spread to the general populace. Of course, you could also use the opportunity to just play Dredge. The deck is still awesome and never stopped being awesome; it’s just that in Canada everyone came prepared. If you don’t think that that will be the case at your tournament, then feel completely free to start flipping your deck over.

The reason that all of this is important is something that I’m not sure I fully understood before the Grand Prix and I’m not certain I completely understand now, but I’m going to take a crack at saying it anyway. Extended is gigantic. One effect of this is that there are tons of decks in it that have been good enough to win tournaments in the past, but are currently out of favor for whatever reason. Another is that there are very very strong specific answer cards to just about anything that one can do. If you play a deck that people are thinking about a lot, you’re going to run headlong into the answer cards that are awesome against you. However, if you play a deck that is really good and also off the radar completely, you won’t run into your answers. This is a big part of the reason why Blue-Green Tron was so good for Ben and Zack in Canada: everyone and their mother had Ancient Grudges to beat Vedalken Shackles out of little Blue decks, but there were a total of four decks containing Destructive Flows in the entire tournament. Which Blue deck would you rather be in that world?

It still never ceases to surprise me how the instinct of the average PTQ player is to try to beat the perceived best deck as opposed to finding and playing it. I’m not at all qualified to talk about why this is, but I’ve played in a decent amount of PTQs and that’s the pattern I’ve seen. All that I heard anyone talk about on Sunday in Vancouver was Gaddock Teeg, Blood Moon, and Destructive Flow, and my associates reported back to me that the PTQs in Tennessee and Iowa this past Saturday was infested with those cards. Of course, sometimes your deck is so awesome that this doesn’t matter; Daniel Neeley won in Nashville with Blue-Green Tron, and his Top 8 matches were Flow Aggro, Flow Beasts, and Goblins with seven Blood Moons, in that order. However, it’s hard to survive that kind of hate consistently.

The dream is, of course, to find an awesome deck that no one is talking about, play it, and slice through everyone without hitting any hate. I can only assume that was a big deal for Ben and Zack, as well as for the pair of TEPS players who made the Top 8 in Vancouver. I’ve always heard people say that you want to be “two weeks ahead” of the field so you can beat all the other people who are “one week ahead,” which doesn’t really make much sense to me. I think now that in big formats like Extended you do want to be two weeks ahead, but only so that no one is hating on you.

This is one example of a deck that may or may not be two weeks ahead of the world:

Mike Patnik is the name on this list, but Guillaume Wafo-Tapa placed in the Top 16 at Pro Tour: Valencia with a very similar list. This deck is a little bit more of a known quantity, but it is currently not the subject of much hate and it has an interesting position that could be very good for it. Older versions of the Heartbeat deck depended heavily on the graveyard through Nostalgic Dreams, often playing four copies of it and using that card to create completely absurd storm counts that made Mind’s Desire itself seem superfluous. This list, however, is much more of an actual Mind’s Desire deck, and only plays a single Dreams and Revive to make Gifts Ungiven work. That gives you surprising resilience to graveyard hate. This deck also functions in a very similar way to the Blue-Green Tron deck in that it uses Moment’s Peace and cards like Remand to stall until it can get a lot of mana and do impressive things, but this deck has the distinct advantage that it does this without nonbasic lands. This allows you to laugh at people who try to use Destructive Flow and Blood Moon to attack big mana decks like Tron, TEPS, and Ideal. Gaddock Teeg is still rough for you, but a few bounce spells in the sideboard can solve that problem fairly handily. I’ve also seen people sideboard Pongify on Magic Online before for that purpose.

Two weeks ago, you would have been ahead of the game with this next deck, but there’s still time to use it to catch people unprepared:

This is, quite obviously, a burn deck. The deck originally showed up in some Apprentice-based online Magic leagues, and has been growing popularity since then. It also put four people into the Top 64 at Vancouver. The beautiful thing about this deck is that despite the fact that everyone knows it exists, very few players I know actually have a clue how good it is, and most of the really good ones are completely convinced that it’s a pile of trash. Also, most of those same good players are completely unwilling to play a deck like this because it doesn’t give them much in the way of options, so the world hasn’t seen what it is capable of in the hands of a true master. No one is currently sideboarding much of anything specifically to beat this, so the potential rewards for showing the world that this deck is the real deal are very high if it is actually awesome.

Another deck that I believe has a great chance to make a comeback now is Aggro-Loam. This list is my own; it’s still fairly young but I like where it is right now.

The details on the maindeck are pretty different from the things I’ve seen other people do lately with this deck. Most Loam decks have moved from attacking people’s hands to attacking their mana exclusively instead with cards like Molten Rain and Blood Moon, and I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’ve found that those cards are great against midrange multicolor Green decks like Doran, but not so good against Tron, Ideal, and TEPS. In those matchups, I would much rather have cards like Cabal Therapy and Duress, and Cabal Therapy is hardly out of place if you’re already rocking Birds and Walls. Dark Confidant used to be standard in lists that played Black, but I’m not particularly interested in warping my manabase to get Black on turn 2. That would mean three damage if I didn’t start on Birds of Paradise, and I feel that the aggressive decks in the format are just too punishing to let you get away with that. I’m also entirely happy with the number of extra cards I get to see thanks to the Life From the Loam engine, so he’s gone.

I’m also playing more lands than most people do. The main reason for this is that I utterly despise playing cycling lands as lands. Doing this is painfully slow and almost always costs me turns, so I just play lots of real lands to try to avoid having to do that. This also allows me to play some Ghost Quarters in the maindeck, which are my replacement for Blood Moon and Molten Rain. I’m boarding up to four because of how sick they are with Loam against the same decks that other Loam decks aim their Blood Moons at. Those decks may be able to survive with red mana, but they can’t really survive well with no mana. The Ancient Grudges in the sideboard also help with this by taking care of Lotus Blooms and Pentad Prisms.

Some problems with the list as it is presented here are that it completely concedes the Dredge matchup due to space considerations, and it has trouble against straight Red decks, both those that contain creatures and those that do not. I started the sideboard with a full set of Ravenous Baloths, which are great when you have time for them but too expensive for it to be easy to use two of them. I chose to split them two and two with Spike Feeders just for curve considerations, although it’s possible that the right split is three Baloths and one Feeder. Even with that, I’m still not enthusiastic about playing against Mountains. I can sometimes race the true burn decks, but it’s really hard for me to beat a Blistering Firecat that connects.

I offer all of these ideas with a very important caveat: no matter how off the radar your deck is, it is still more important that it be good. This is why most of the time people win with known decks. However, if you think you know something that the rest of the world doesn’t, by all means don’t be afraid to prove it.

Happy PTQing!

Tom LaPille

Quote of the week…

Doug Linn: Man, I totally want to be “old money.” All I am missing is the money. I want to insult people for having logos on their luxury goods.