Constructed Criticism – Grinding The Gauntlet: Five Decks For The Grand Prix

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Monday, February 8th – With tournament results flowing in unlike any other time in Magic history (due to Magic Online results), we are given constant updates on archetypes, card changes, and trends on what particular decks are popular or dying in popularity. As of right now, there are plenty of viable archetypes, so finding the right one for you is the real problem.

Grand Prix: Oakland. I’m attending, and it is going to be a blast. I literally have the best wife ever, who is letting me fly to Oakland around Valentine’s Day, and then continue my journey to Pro Tour: San Diego a week later (as I try to LCQ). We got a pretty big tax refund from the government, otherwise I don’t think I could really afford to go on this trip. I love you Kali! This is my first Grand Prix in a while, and I fully expect to make Day 2, and will be very disappointed in myself if I don’t make the money. I’ve been grinding PTQ’s constantly with a variety of decks in Extended, each one offering different angles of attack and defense. I’m in love with Extended, and today we’ll be going over a variety of decks and potential decklists for each in order to help you prepare for the upcoming Grand Prix, or just your local PTQ.

With tournament results flowing in unlike any other time in Magic history (due to Magic Online results), we are given constant updates on archetypes, card changes, and trends on what particular decks are popular or dying in popularity. As of right now, there are plenty of viable archetypes, so finding the right one for you is the real problem. I have always advocated in open formats that playing the deck you know best is the right way to go, simply because your play-skill and knowledge of the deck/format should help you a lot in that respect, and you lose a lot fewer games due to mistakes. Knowing your deck’s nuances and tricks will generate lots of value for you over the course of a long tournament such as a Grand Prix or Pro Tour. This Grand Prix will be featuring a host of new cards due to the release of Worldwake this past weekend, but I am not entirely sold that many of the cards will affect the metagame. With that said, it is likely that people will be more inclined to play new cards just for the sake of being new, such as Abyssal Persecutor or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. However, I don’t think either of those cards really have a place in Extended (yet), and definitely should not be thrown into already existing archetypes just because they “feel good,” or look good on paper.

The format’s best decks will continue to be the best decks, and probably only get better because people will attempt to try new things that just end up being a bust. I am not knocking on creativity, don’t get me wrong. I just think that in a format as wide open as Extended is, it is just bad idea to approach it with something brand new when there are so many powerful tools already at your disposal. This approach could be very beneficial at Pro Tour: San Diego, because adding a new set to the mix is much more relevant in such a smaller pool of cards like Standard. However, Extended’s pool of cards is so vast, that adding a few cards that may or may not be mediocre at best.

Worldwake has a few interesting cards in it, but I think that talking about them too much might make me lose focus on the task at hand. Today’s metagame is diverse and hostile, and each deck can come at you from a variety of angles, most of which are very difficult to defend against. The “best” deck in the format attacks you with two different combos, both needing completely different ways to defend against. Thopter Foundry and Dark Depths share only a few cards that can answer both, but knowing those could be your key to victory. Last week I talked all about cards like Damping Matrix, Bant Charm, and even Celestial Purge as potential answers, and the response I got was fantastic. However, Damping Matrix might not be enough anymore. Thopter Depths is already evolving to combat such cards by maindecking Repeal, giving them more outs to Blood Moon effects and Damping Matrix. Here is my current list for Thopter Depths:

Now, a few of the changes to the maindeck are probably necessary, since Repeal is pretty good against such an aggressive format. Having Repeal as a stall spell against Zoo could be invaluable for buying you just enough time to find your combo. Additionally, it acts as a way for you to deal with Damping Matrix or Blood Moon for a turn, giving you the time you need to make a 20/20 or a bunch of Thopters. You can sometimes even catch the Damping Matrix in their hand with a Thoughtseize or Duress after bouncing it. While I would like to have at least one more Repeal in the maindeck, you are already having to cut some of your draw or tutors in order to find room.

This deck is the deck you should be trying to beat, but don’t forget about everything else. Most of the better players will be playing this deck, since it rewards good play skill and good decision making. It also has some of the most raw power in the format, giving you auto wins out of nowhere. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve won because of Turn 1 Thoughtseize and Turn 2 Marit Lage. Urborg makes your deck run so well, and there is never any reason not to run 4 of them when you are playing Thirst for Knowledge.

Last week, I talked about my Zoo deck and how I thought it was really good against Dark Depths. I think this still holds true, but a few more changes need to be made before the Grand Prix. I think that Loam Lion functions as an additional one-drop that the deck really needed, giving you more aggressive starts against the combo decks of the format. I’ve already discussed in great detail my dislike for Steppe Lynx, and that is still the case. Loam Lion is more consistent, and provides the extra power you need in the early game in order to be aggressive against such a fast format.

Here is my current list for Bant Zoo:

The Umezawa’s Jitte was cut from the maindeck due to the fact that it is literally a dead card against most of the decks in the format. In the mirror, often it will be a tempo black hole, since most people are now playing Bant Charm in addition to the multitude of other removal spells. Last year, Umezawa’s Jitte was really good because Lightning Bolt didn’t exist yet, but now that it does Jitte becomes much worse, since they have that many more cards that destroy you as far as spending mana is concerned. You will rarely have creatures that survive longer than a few turns anyway, until sideboarding.

The Loam Lions replace the mostly-dead Jittes, as well as one of the Qasali Pridemages. I found myself drawing them a little too much against the decks where he didn’t shine so well, and found three to eventually be the correct number. Loam Lion is just another dork but he is just as good as Kird Ape at providing a clock. He also helps you get the “nut” draw of having three one-drops in play by the second turn. Loam Lion is a bit easier to cast than Kird Ape, allowing you to easily play your Meddling Mages post-board while still having all of your colors. Additionally, Loam Lion is another threat for the mirror, which you were running light on (20 creatures in last week’s deck).

Lightning Helix stays because it can help race, and it also provides you with another burn spell so that you could potentially burn your opponent out from 6 life or so. If you get lucky, you could sometimes hit them for 9 over the course of a turn or two, and keeps people off balance when trying to decide whether or not they should take the damage from the creatures attacking you, or build towards their endgame. Since you are playing Bant Charm instead of Tribal Flames now, it is important that you still keep some of this reach. I have cut Lightning Helix in the past, but at the moment I just don’t think you can afford to.

While Zoo is the best aggressive deck by a mile, there is one other combo deck that has fallen off the radar:

The biggest change of this deck is removing the Condescends for more pro-active Repeals. Repeal gives you additional ways to deal with opposing 20/20’s, or bounce annoying Thopter Foundries or the like. This will allow you to eventually counter them, or just buy enough time to kill them with Scapeshift. Cryptic Command is the second best card in the deck, and adding a fourth was not difficult. This version is pretty similar to an older version I played, but the changes were pretty significant in my opinion. Repeal has become a new staple for Blue decks, since it deal with both aggro decks and Marit Lage tokens.

The sideboard is built with the idea that people are going to use Extirpate and Thought Hemorrhage against you. Luckily, Shadow of Doubt can even counter the latter of those two, but Extirpate on your Scapeshifts is still an annoying problem. Against Dark Depths, I recommend siding in Meloku and Rude Awakening to give you outs in case of this. Against Dark Depths, you have a lot of problems after sideboarding, but your Game 1 percentage is very high. Your disruptive spells gain you a lot of time to build your combo, and their only out after that is Muddle the Mixture. However, they will rarely have enough blue mana to cast Muddle the Mixture twice, so Remand becomes very good at winning the counter war.

If you plan on playing Scapeshift, make sure you know everything about it. It is very difficult to play perfectly, but it is very hard to beat when you do. There are new combos on the block, but this is an oldie that isn’t affected by cards like Damping Matrix. You are still in trouble if they resolve an unmolested Blood Moon, but often you can get out of it with Cryptic Command or Repeal (considering you have a ton of ways to get your three islands out of the deck).

A few fringe decks I would like to talk about are Dredge and Mystical Teachings. Cedric Phillips has been battling a lot with Dredge over the last few weeks, and it is very powerful. I don’t think it is the best deck by any means, but powerful decks that people have forgotten about could give you an advantage on such a large field such as a Grand Prix. Most Zoo decks (including myself) have begun to forego such cards as Tormod’s Crypt and Ravenous Trap in order to have more sideboard cards against the popular combo decks. While cards like Tormod’s Crypt are narrow and only help out in one matchup, Negate and Meddling Mage help out in a variety of matchups, so the choice is not very difficult. This could be primetime for Dredge to make a resurgence, so if you plan on playing an off-the-radar deck, Dredge could be your best decision. Here is Cedric’s list from a Daily event a few days ago:

While I cannot endorse this list entirely, I can give a bit of reasoning why he chose the cards he did (or at least I think so). Most noticeably absent from this list is Flame-kin Zealot, which was replaced with the 2nd Iona, Shield of Emeria. I can only imagine this change because Cedric felt that resolving Iona with Dread Return won many more games than resolving Flame-kin Zealot. I would not be opposed to running more Iona, since she can be incredibly potent in the early game, and even outright winning against decks like Burn. If you take into consideration that most decks have very few outs to Iona, and also that Iona can just name that color, you will see just how good she can be, and how many more times she will win the game than Flame-kin Zealot when played early on.

His sideboard seems a bit weird, but very diverse in terms of what it can achieve. Against Thopter Depths, you have Ancient Grudge and Thoughtseize, and potentially even Echoing Truth, but that might be diluting your deck just a bit too much. I am assuming that Echoing Truth is really only there against decks packing Leyline of the Void, or as a way to bounce opposing Tormod’s Crypts before you try to “go off.” Dredge isn’t as much of a combo deck as it was in previous years, but I still think it is very power and can win as early as Turn 2 with just a bit of luck. Your nut draws are nigh unbeatable, because they usually involve making 10+ zombies and getting an Iona into play. Good times.

Dredge is a very strange animal, but you should know that when people don’t come prepared for it, they will usually get beaten by it. I think that most Dredge players over the last few weeks have had “the fear,” since everyone knows Dredge is good and usually packs 3-6 sideboard cards that “handle” them. However, Cedric hasn’t had “the fear,” and has been bashing people left and right on Magic Online with this deck.

The last deck I’d like to talk about today is a Mystical Teachings deck originally created by Guillaume Wafo-Tapa. He’s done relatively well with it on Magic Online over the last few weeks, and has pretty good game against most decks in the format. This deck acts as a tool box, finding the answers to your opponent’s strategy with Mystical Teachings. Teferi acts as the “trump” in the deck, locking out suspend spells and counterspells alike. He also lets you tutor for creatures via Mystical Teachings while in play, since those creatures have Flash at that point. Your main win conditions are Crovax, Ascendant Hero and Baneslayer Angel, but you can also just win by attacking with Teferi over the course of a few turns. The deck is very interesting, and I’ve played with it a bit myself. Here is my current list:

Some of the cards may seem a bit random, but just like Dark Depths, they are there for a reason, and can be searched out via tutors. The biggest card in the deck that I would never have thought of is Logic Knot. With fetchlands, this card is often just Counterspell, and can be searched for with Mystical Teachings in a pinch to shut out a combo in the late-game. The singletons in the maindeck are all there to give you plenty of options when casting Mystical Teachings, and sometimes just gaining you incredible value. Esper Charm is one of the best spells in the deck, giving you a way to kill Bitterblossoms against Faeries, as well as a solid draw spell at instant speed. There are very few of those in Extended that don’t require you to play a ton of artifacts, and Esper Charm is diverse enough to allow you multiple options other than drawing cards.

The linchpin of the deck is Crovax, since he can singlehandedly shut down the entire Thopter Depths deck, and is very difficult to kill. His bounce ability can make him a liability against cards like Thoughtseize, but the ability to lock out your opponent while having a 4/4 in play is pretty solid, honestly. I have seriously considered adding a few new win conditions to the deck, since it can play out pretty slow sometimes. Urza’s Factory might make an appearance, since I have always found that card to be amazing in conjunction with Teferi-style control decks, but it makes casting Esper Charm very difficult.

The sideboard is set up to give you a variety of tools to handle different decks. Your biggest weakness is Zoo, and the Deathmarks and Kitchen Finks show up in multiples to help combat this strategy. If you can wipe away their early threats and set up a board position containing Teferi, it is very difficult to lose. Eventually you will just out-card them, use enough removal to wipe their guys away, and finish them with Baneslayer Angel or Crovax.

Shadow of Doubt, Vendilion Clique, Extirpate, and Pact of Negation are there to combat control and combo strategies. Shadow of Doubt is just amazing against Scapeshift, and double as solid against Dark Depths since they use tutors to find a lot of their combo pieces. Pulse of the Fields is obviously for burn, but can come in against Zoo to help buy you enough time to stabilize. They have a tough time dealing with removal and life gain, so that should be your plan in the early game.

Ravenous Trap is obviously for Dredge, and can be tutored up via Mystical Teachings in response to a big Dread Return. If you can catch them off guard, you will often take the game shortly after. Dredge is a fairly difficult matchup for you, but nothing that can’t be won with perfect play and good timing. The Fracturing Gust comes in against any deck packing tons of artifacts (or enchantments), including Thopter Depths, Affinity, or other Thopter Variants. The Crovax in the board is an additional way for you to cripple Thopter Depths, since they will occasionally make you discard the original with a Thoughtseize. He is also amazing against Faeries, which is a big plus.

While there are a multitude of different archetypes you will surely face, these are the five archetypes you should consider playing the most. While they all have their weaknesses, they have incredible raw power and synergy. One thing you need to bring to the table in Extended is strength, since you will often not know what your opponent is playing. Having a few draws that just give you free wins can give you a large advantage in a tournament like a Grand Prix, where you can afford a few losses from mulligans or mistakes. If you are planning on attending the Grand Prix, come talk to me. I like meeting new people and enjoy hearing people who like my work. I’ll probably be picking one of these five decks for the tournament, and you probably should too. Thanks for reading.