Everybody namedrops music. We scramble and publish playlists like newly-christened grails, testaments to our unique and discerning tastes. Many other arts, though, never get to enjoy the limelight. So I don’t feel bad when I allude, in the title, to my favorite short story, Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a revealing and perceptive testament to the depth of seemingly-superficial human relationships. A previously-unpublished draft, untainted by the overzealous shears of cut-happy editor Gordon Lish, recently appeared in The New Yorker, and I strongly urge any fan of short fiction to check it out.
I’ve become a fan of linear strategies this season. Extended has traditionally gone very well for me, but most of the time I succeed it’s because I’ve pursued one particular type of strategy. Across the history of the format, there has been one thing per season that is so objectively powerful that it warps the metagame around it. This thing isn’t necessarily a particular deck; usually, it’s the exploitation of one particular type of resource. Several years ago that resource was Urza’s Block mana artifacts, and my weapon of choice was a White Weenie concoction with four main deck Serenities, two Seal of Cleansings, and four Armageddons. Then the season came to revolve around cheap multi-card combinations and RDW, and I transitioned to Trinity Green with Chalice of the Void. Two seasons ago Life from the Loam began to dominate, and my trump for the mirror was Haunting Echoes because you had that kind of time and because Ichorid didnâ€˜t really like to see that one either. Last year gave me Chalice of the Void for Gifts Tron and later Blood Moon in the main deck of R/G Scryb and Force, both of which shut down entire strategies while still allowing you to do plenty of objectively powerful things.
Naturally, then, what first popped into my mind this season was an idea: what are you waiting for, find the card!
The dependant variable just isn’t there this year. Most decks don’t share one constant and principal factor that you can exploit with a narrowly-defined but powerful strategy. You can’t just hose nonbasic lands, because Ichorid/Goblins/Turtenwald RDW don’t need them and a lot of other strategies play a fair number of basics. You can’t just go for Chalice because Tron, Rock and Nail, plain Rock, Ichorid, Junk, and Affinity can all get around it without jumping through hoops. You can’t just hose the graveyard because outside of Ichorid, Breakfast, and Loam, very few decks need it.
Chapin says that he wants to put Counterbalance/Top in every deck because it’s one of the most objectively powerful things you can be doing for a minimum of investment. Even still, though, there are plenty of decks–Tron most notably but also Rock variants, Rock and Nail, Affinity, and Ichorid–that just don’t care a lot about a Counterbalance that stops one-and-two casting cost spells. In fact, it’s Counterbalance that inspired me to write this article.
See, a lot of people are afraid of linear strategies – and I’m talking here about principally Affinity and Dredge for this format – because they get “hosed” too easily. Because they don’t let you “play enough Magic.” The truth is, though, that in this format almost every major archetype gets “trumped” somehow. What you need to be considering is not how easily can someone “trump” me, not how many silver bullets there are that throw a wrench into your plans. The question on your mind – what you think about when you think about Extended – is whether you’ve got a plan for all the trumps you’re likely to see.
That’s probably a lot of information loaded into a single sentence, so let me explain for a moment what I mean. Everybody talks about how playing Affinity sucks because “Living Wish for Kataki, GG” or “they board in four Ancient Grudge” or whatever. There are clearly-defined hosers that are extremely bad for a given deck. For Ichorid there is Tormod’s Crypt, Yixlid Jailer, and Leyline of the Void – Leyline oddly being the worst of the three for Ichorid – that can reasonably come out of the sideboards of a huge portion of the field. These are the “hosers” that everybody understands. Now I’m not trying to say that these hosers somehow aren’t bad for the types of decks they hose. What I’m suggesting is that everybody needs to look beyond the surface-level “derf killing artifacts is bad for artifact decks derf” and realize that some form of trump exists for almost all major archetypes.
When you play a deck like Zoo, for example, or PT Junk, you’re giving your opponent a “hoser” in Counterbalance/Top. You’re making a willful choice to play a deck full of ones, twos, and threes. You’re not dead, sure, but neither is any reasonable Affinity deck dead to a Kataki. You just, you know, can’t cast many spells. Ever. Oh, and your opponent gets to (basically) Demonic Tutor every turn. That’s awesome.
Or, say you’re running a standard Gifts Rock deck from Valencia. I literally think the chances of winning are greater for a Dredge deck that faces down turn 2 Yixlid Jailer every game than they are for a normal Gifts Rock deck to beat Rock and Nail. In that matchup, the “hoser” is Sundering Titan, and the reality that there’s very little a normal Rock deck can do to disrupt Coffers/Urborg. Ditto many of the more control-oriented Remi-style decks (or Rock and Nail for that matter) versus Tron, where the fact that they run DI big spells and actual countermagic means that their “hoser” is Decree of Justice or Mindslaver or what have you, whichever spell they resolve that Counterbalance doesn’t touch. With Tron versus Rock and Nail, for example, their trump is the UrzaTron itself. Their Sundering Titans blow up my lands, but I sure can’t touch theirs (sans Urborg).
I could go on with the examples. Some are more widely-played than others, but the fact remains that even with a comparatively resilient archetype like Enduring Ideal someone always could be holding an Aven Mindcensor and keeping three mana untapped. Ever tried to beat that? It’s real awkward. For other matchups, like Tron versus Zoo, there aren’t many ways to answer a Gaddock Teeg without doing something loose – Repulse? – to the decklist.
What’s the point of my saying all of this, you may ask? Well, there are several. The first is simply to point out how many hateful cards you can play at present if you’re really interested in hosing a particular deck. Even Boil is pretty good against that Mono Blue list, and wow is Boil not a card that should be making Extended sideboards. But there are two much, much more important lessons to be garnered from this.
First of all, don’t go around making ignorant deck choices. There’s nothing I hate more than a warped metagame, one where people aren’t willing to exploit their most powerful options because they’re afraid something bad is going to happen. I abhor fairness. I was so excited when Stuart Wright made the finals of Nationals with Dredge because it meant someone was bold enough to brave a bunch of largely-overhyped hate. I feel like it’s very important to keep people honest. Of course, there are a lot of ways to go about doing this. Last season I did it by casting 8/8 trampling creatures on turn 3 because almost everyone’s removal was limited to Smother or Engineered Explosives. Similarly, when dumb midrange creatures are positively dominating tournaments, and people are casting Profane Command in Extended, people aren’t exploring their options enough. Richard and I have a build of Dredge we’re testing that is absolutely flooring PT Junk even after side boarding, and Bill Stark Affinity list I’ve thrown through waves and waves of Katakis. There are scores of decks that don’t particularly care about any size Tarmogoyf or Doran you throw in their direction.
I’m not saying that Junk is bad. It’s an incredibly well-constructed, incredibly-powerful deck. But I urge designers everywhere not to have the fear when an environment gets too fair. I’m not talking just about entirely-linear strategies, either. Break out those Tron lands, and be ready when it’s time for CAL/Aggro Loam to make a comeback. It sure is hard to steal a Terravore with a Vedalken Shackles, I can tell you that.
The second, and probably more important, lesson is this: any deck can overcome hate. Any one of them. If you’ve got a deck that you’re absolutely resigning, that absolutely cannot beat one single “hoser,” it’s extremely likely that it’s misbuilt or that you’re playing it wrong. I lost to a Red Deck player in Valencia who broke through two Hierarchs and two Collective Restraints on my side of the table without breaking a sweat. My Survival-Threshold deck at Worlds tromped Moats, Counterbalances, and even 8-Blood-Moon-Chalice-Crucible-Trinisphere.dec. So don’t sit around and rely on your three Gaddock Teegs to beat Enduring Ideal, or whatever. Don’t assume that because you have a Mogg Fanatic in play your opponent’s Dredge deck cannot win! It can! It’s not even that difficult!
While I’m talking about the “hoser game,” I might as well address one more issue. Not only should you understand that chances are, if someone knows what they are doing, they can probably trump your hate cards. You also need to make sure that you’re hating with the right cards in the first place. Kami of Ancient Law, for example, is a terribly awkward card to sideboard in against Enduring Ideal because they’re already running Pyroclasm to kill Teegs and Meddling Mages. Now, it’s still fine to play as a Disenchant that can get around Dovescape, but it’s really important to remember not to just run it out there on turn 2 all the time thinking that “Harrumph, I got this.” Also, don’t forget what your opponent’s “hosers” are against you. I can’t tell you how many people are entirely unprepared for Enduring Ideal to just rawdog out a Solitary Confinement on turn 2 or 3 and win that way. Or, if you’re playing Chapin’s or Remi’s list, remember to keep three-mana spells on top of your deck for as long as possible to guard against Krosan Grip after side boarding. Even more embarrassing, don’t needlessly activate your only Divining Top and to have it Disenchanted or Putrefied in response. Sure, you gained card advantage. That’s important, I promise.
I know that a lot of this is obvious on a surface level. But in asking a lot of my friends about their lists for the upcoming season, I hear a lot of silly answers about why a person has chosen to run such-and-such archetype. Don’t be afraid of sideboard Gaddock Teegs if you’re running an option that instead is basically kold to maindeck Counterbalances.
Be smart, y’all.