Behind The Curtain – Extend It

Valeriy gives you one of the first looks at Extended since M12, the format for the upcoming Pro Tour in Philadelphia. He also provides insight into how to approach new formats such as this and where to begin testing.

Today is the first day of US Nationals, so any article about Standard is a little bit late, and I‘m going to focus on the next relevant format—Extended. My teammate recently won a PTQ, so it’s time to start preparations for PT Philadelphia. Two sets were released since the last PTQ Nagoya season, and approximately zero tournaments were held, so Extended is like a brand new format. In this article, I’ll speak about actual Extended decks and how to approach the investigation of a new format.

It’s hard to determine everything that is good or bad in the new format, even if some baseline exists (latest Block Constructed season for new Standard or previous seasons for deeper formats), so we need a methodology to quickly boil strategies down to a manageable bunch. The four cornerstones of each new format are:

  1. Unfair combos, preferably one-card (Scapeshift, Hypergenesis, Necropotence) or two-card (Dark Depths plus Vampire Hexmage, Splinter Twin plus Deceiver Exarch). More complicated combos are for later consideration, while simple combos should be relatively fast.
  2. Advantage engines. Here lie card advantage engines (Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Dark Confidant, Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows) and tempo advantage engines (Stoneforge Mystic, a pair of Mistbind Clique).
  3. Fast mana production allowing for something degenerate (Urzatron, Twelvepost).
  4. The fastest aggressive deck (assuming it can compete with the aforementioned combo decks).

Your eventual deck may even eschew all these cornerstones, but it helps to check your ideas against them to see if they are even competitive. Any aggressive deck, which is at least a turn slower than a cornerstone aggro deck, must have a set of other important advantages (probably extra resiliency or an improved disruption suite). Any combo deck, which is slower or more complicated than the cornerstone, should have similar extra advantages—like being invulnerable to common hate spells (for example, your deck is based on enchantments while the cornerstone deck is based on artifacts, and everyone uses Divine Offering instead of Nature’s Claim to hate on that combo).

More complicated decks are probably left for a better-established format. Sometimes it’s right to build a rogue deck with a specific angle of attack, but you must be successful in predicting the format’s precise state, which is a complicated task. This strategy is more risky, but more rewarding, and in this case you must understand the cornerstones of the format and their weaknesses even better. So, let’s look at current Extended cornerstones, from last to first.

The Aggressive Deck

The fastest aggressive deck is, surprisingly, not Mono Red. Tempered Steel gained many interesting cards in New Phyrexia, including Vault Skirge, Dispatch, and Spellskite. The Extended version enhances the Standard one with a better mana base (because of Springleaf Drum and Mystic Gate, which enters the battlefield untapped) and more pumping effects (Master of Etherium is also a great finisher), which leads to greater resiliency. There were three-colored versions this winter, but I think that Dispatch is just superior to Thoughtseize as the way to deal with threats, so the test version of Extended Tempered Steel is as follows:

This build of the deck looks like a speed extremum. There are other versions available (mostly with black for Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas and some discard), but they are slower, while undeniably more powerful. Tempered Steel will obviously suffer some splash damage from the hate aimed at Stoneforge Mystic, but if no one plays Creeping Corrosion or Fracturing Gust, it has a good chance to be a real deck.

Ethersworn Canonist is an attempt to punish other aggressive decks (mostly Bloodbraid Elf-based). Aside from this slot, there is nothing really new in the deck, so it’s time to move on to the next point: fast mana.

The Fast Mana Deck

The two most interesting examples of the “fast mana” engines in recent history are Urzatron and Twelvepost (Urza’s Mine, Urza’s Power Plant, Urza’s Tower; and Cloudpost, Glimmerpost, Vesuva). The first saw a lot of Standard play, some Extended play, and was never seen in Legacy. The second is played even in formats with Wasteland, Tectonic Edge, and Ghost Quarter. Why? The main quality of a good engine is its reliability, and Twelvepost’s is just better, so it’s the reason why Urzatron will be outclassed in Modern and Overextended. How powerful are these engines? Both can land a turn-three Karn Liberated, and Twelvepost can even make a turn-three Sundering Titan without Signets or a turn-three Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre with Everflowing Chalice.

Fortunately, current Extended has no degenerate fast mana engines, and the fastest mana available is courtesy of Lotus Cobra (with the promising help of Knight of the Reliquary and Noble Hierarch). It is a little bit strange that the deck with the fastest mana in the format is aggro, and not control or ramp. But Mythic-style decks became too fragile after the release of Dismember (Path to Exile was, obviously, far worse at preventing fast mana), so I don’t expect such a deck to be the cornerstone of the format. But a deck exploiting Lotus Cobra can be very good. I think it would resemble a deck used by Maxim Zrelov to win a PTQ in Russia—RUG Good Stuff / Splinter Twin.

The most important new card for the deck is Dismember, far better than Lightning Bolt in many cases. I don’t want to play four maindeck because it’s bad to cascade into Dismember when your opponent has no creatures (but Jund never actually minded cascading into dead Terminates, so mise). Such a situation seems to be rare in the format, but as a starting point, I prefer a split. Anyway, you can always engineer your own cascade via Jace’s Brainstorm ability.

The deck also gained the ability to play Deceiver Exarch, but Pestermite is far more aggressive by herself (she has flying and larger power), so she is better, despite being more vulnerable to removal. This deck is not a “Splinter Twin combo” deck, so we run only two enchantments without many search effects. Each creature is a good target for Splinter Twin (okay, Vendilion Clique is a bad target), while the combo just gives us some free wins and forces your opponents to play more cautiously. I believe that this is better than having a dedicated combo because it’s far more difficult to hate out—it’s just a regular tempo deck with some sweet additions and a ton of card advantage.

The Advantage Engine Deck

The RUG advantage engine is good, but the actual best advantage engine in this format was recently banned from Standard. My friends and I considered different versions of the deck and came to the following: Faerie-Blade.

I think that this deck is just superior to the any sort of Bitterblossom Faeries, while “Squadron Hawk or Spellstutter Sprite” is still up in the air. More precisely, Mutavault can be not-so-good because of its lack of evasion (while Inkmoth Nexus has flying), and a chain of Hawks may be necessary to survive before we side in Timely Reinforcements.

The rest of the deck is somehow obvious (at least for the first sketch). Sun Titan became better with Oblivion Ring and works against the predicted hate for our swords such as the fearsome Qasali Pridemage. Mental Misstep will be necessary against fast aggro such as Tempered Steel. Four Mana Leaks may be excessive, and you can safely shave one.

Finally, we come to the most contradictory point: I dislike Cryptic Command in Caw-Blade. There are decks that can win before even giving us a chance to play Cryptic Command, so I would prefer additional Vendilion Cliques, cheap counterspells, and removal.

Another important point is that I expect most successful American players to concentrate on Caw-Blade and the mirror match. The deck was too popular in Standard before the bannings, and it’s far more popular than it deserves now, so there is nothing to suppress Caw-Blade’s dominance in Philly. So, if you don’t want to play mirrors against giant human-like robots such as Gerry T, I’d advise you to avoid Caw-Blade variations and to concentrate on hating them instead.

The Combo Deck

And finally, some unfair decks. The main combos for Extended are Scapeshift and Splinter Twin with both his friends, Pestermite and Deceiver Exarch. There are also Soul Sisters and Melira, Sylvok Outcast, but they are both complicated and fragile. Magic is, unluckily, a sport for rude men, not sophisticated ladies. [You never know what can happen! —LL]

Valakut has the ability to kill on turn four and has up to twelve one-card combos inside the deck, while with Splinter Twin you must find two pieces. Valakut’s combos also require different hate from the opponent, so let’s assume R/G Scapeshift to be our cornerstone combo deck (but don’t forget about the existence of U/G/x combo-control versions as well). The list is simple: twenty-eight lands, twelve combo cards, some mana acceleration, and some support spells.

If I were to play a PT tomorrow (oh, hopes, hopes…), I’d play this seventy-five. The deck is like Valakut in Standard but far more consistent. Lightning Bolt over sweepers maindeck is because of Stoneforge Mystic. Reverberate is great in the mirror and against Cryptic Command. Avenger of Zendikar and Primal Command are against Leyline of Sanctity / Runed Halo. Combust is great against the occasional Faeries or Mythic, not only against Splinter Twin. The first game is all about your and your opponent’s speed (this deck is as fast as Tempered Steel, according to my testing); while post-board it’s possible to play in just about any fashion, as control or all-in combo.

So, with four cornerstones of the upcoming format determined, it is possible to look at other decks that may be playable. I don’t think that any control deck will be as successful as Caw-Blade, but I can easily imagine Patrick Chapin playing Cruel Ultimatum, and there are always some Faerie players with Bitterblossoms in their decks. Aggressive strategies can still provide us a Mythic-like deck or something else with four Knight of the Reliquary and four Qasali Pridemage (in any of four possible color combinations—G/W, Naya, Bant, or G/W/B). I’d bet on creature-heavy Vengevine Naya, but I still nave no good and tested decklist, so I don’t want to speculate right now and leave more detailed study of the format for upcoming articles.

Currently we are in an awkward off-season in competitive Constructed besides SCG Opens, so I want to ask my readers if they are interested in insight on other formats—Extended (deeper and closer look), Modern (which will be relevant soon, according to WotC), Overextended (I still haven’t had a chance to study Gavin’s pet format), or even Pauper / Legacy / something else. Standard, of course, remains the main goal of investigation.

And last, but not least: good luck at US Nationals for everyone attending, and special support for all StarCityGames.com authors!

Valeriy Shunkov

@amartology in Twitter

valeriy dot shunkov at gmail dot com—feel free to ask everything you want if you hate the new Facebook comment system.

P.S. Bonus short story from the semifinals of recent Legacy MOCS.

Zenith777 played against the eventual winner Toffel and cast Exhume with Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur in his graveyard and Phyrexian Metamorph in the graveyard of his opponent. Exhume resolved and… Phyrexian Metamorph successfully copied the Praetor, winning the game and the match for Toffel.

It’s very sad to encounter such a bug in the elimination rounds of the tournament with a Worlds invitation as a first prize. Hope that Yuri (Zenith777) will soon win his own MOCS. Keep winning!