Constructed Criticism – More Close Calls

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Monday, January 18th – As most of you know, I’ve advocated Zoo as one of the best decks in Extended since I think it is both versatile and aggressive. These two qualities combine to apply a ton of pressure to the sluggish combo and control decks of the format, forcing them to attempt to go off too early, or find answers before you nail the coffin shut.

Hello again, and welcome back! Last week I talked all about the Atlanta PTQ where I got 2nd place, and many of you followed the forums as I rolled through the competition in an online PTQ last Tuesday, only to fall just short at 2nd place once again, after a very generous Brad Nelson scooped to me in the semifinals. He is already qualified, and he knows how much qualifying for a PT means to me (he made the finals of the PTQ the following Thursday with an almost identical decklist). As most of you know, I’ve advocated Zoo as one of the best decks in Extended since I think it is both versatile and aggressive. These two qualities combine to apply a ton of pressure to the sluggish combo and control decks of the format, forcing them to attempt to go off too early, or find answers before you nail the coffin shut. This pressure, combined with some stellar sideboard options (seeing as you can play as many colors as you want), give you the ability to take out dead cards against combo and control decks for bombs they may not be able to handle.

Last week, I talked all about my Zoo deck, as well as why I chose each card I played. My updated list is a bit different, but I think the changes are very solid. Here is the list I played in the Online PTQ last Tuesday to a finals finish:

This list was primarily set up to handle Zoo mirrors in the first game, since Ranger of Eos really shines against other aggressive decks, and specifically those playing Path to Exile. He lets you have somewhat of an end-game, even though that plan doesn’t work too well against counterspells. Tribal Flames can take care of pretty much any threat in the book, or just wipe the floor with a down and out opponent. Burning my opponent out from 10 was something that happened on a regular basis, and the early beats only helped in this endeavor. While I talked a ton about the deck last week, I’d mostly just like to point out the changes. Now, I had discovered after the tournament last week that I just hated Figure of Destiny. Rarely did I have excess mana to spend, and the format is so fast that I was never able to Ranger of Eos for it, then pump it up past 2/2 status. This led me to just cutting it for the 4th Lightning Helix, which is my originally planned list before the Saturday PTQ. This reversion back to the original list was especially acceptable for the Online PTQ, since the online metagame is much more full of Mono Red Burn decks, specifically because it is very cheap to build (while still being decent), and Lightning Helix is what you need.

The sideboard has been changed a decent amount, but mostly because I almost never play against Dredge decks. I also feel like with Meddling Mage, Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender, and Gaddock Teeg the Dredge decks have a hard enough time winning that I don’t need any dedicated hate for them. The match will usually be a race, but if you have any of your troublesome creatures, they are playing a much weaker version of the deck, since Dread Return is the deck’s backbone. If you lock down Dread Return, they are stuck trying to kill you with Narcomoeba’s, Bloodghasts, and Stinkweed Imps, which is not a promising prospect for them. Sometimes they can still overwhelm you with Bridge from Below, but usually not quickly enough before you burn them out with Tribal Flames.

Aven Mindcensor was a guy I really grew to like over the last week, as he is invaluable against many of the format’s control and combo decks. When the field is largely populated by decks that constantly tutor and search their decks for land, Aven Mindcensor can be a backbreaker. Often he would come in against any deck with Gifts Ungiven, Scapeshift, or an excess amount of fetchlands (as long as it wasn’t an aggro deck), and I found myself wanting to maindeck him more and more. However, his stats just aren’t up to par with anyone else’s in the maindeck, so he just waits for dead cards to come out so he can pounce on the opponent. Meddling Mage plays a similar role against the control and combo decks, keeping combo decks in check, as well as the mass removal or spot removal from control decks from slowing me down. While he is not the greatest threat in the world, he is diverse enough to bring in against decks where you should have plenty of weak or dead cards. Negate is a potential substitution for Meddling Mage, since it can counter many of the format’s backbreaking cards, but I prefer aggressive answers most of the time.

Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender really earns his slot online, since (like I said earlier) the early rounds of the tournament are heavily populated with burn. Additionally, he offers a different type of strategy against Scapeshift decks, since their primary way of killing your Gaddock Teegs and Meddling Mages is Firespout (and sometimes Magma Jet). If you can protect your beaters from Firespout, your disruption creatures should apply enough pressure to roll them. Aven Mindcensor plays backup, as you will often sit on your guys in play, and try to surprise them with a timely Aven Mindcensor in response to a fetchland, Sakura-Triber Elder, or even Scapeshift if they are getting desperate.

Bant Charm, in my opinion, is the biggest upgrade to the deck. It is versatile enough to maindeck, but I have a hard time removing any of the burn spells, since they work so well together. But, in matchups where particular spells are weak or bad, Bant Charm almost always shows up to counter a removal spell, kill a Baneslayer Angel, or even destroy a Thopter Foundry. Bant Charm seriously deserves maindeck consideration, and I would likely run it in any variant of Zoo I was playing that didn’t have Tribal Flames. Bant Charm is currently my favorite card in Extended, and I’ve tried everything to put it into the maindeck, but it always leaves me feeling like I need more burn or more creatures in its stead. The Big Zoo decks that play Noble Hierarch will usually run Bant Charm (otherwise known as Saito Zoo), since they are less burn-oriented and more about solving problems they can’t normally handle. My version is fairly reliant on clocking the opponent, so Bant Charm is obviously less good than a burn spell, or at least as far as Game 1 is concerned.

Bant Charm is also very good against Dark Depths, acting as a Counterspell, way to deal with Chalice of the Void, and even an answer to the Marit Lage token created by their combo, since it puts the creature on the bottom of the deck (as opposed to destroying it). Ghost Quarter rounds out the sideboard to give you more answers to Dark Depths, as well as other problematic lands like Emeria the Sky Ruin, or Academy Ruins. Dark Depths is very good at figuring out how to beat you and play around the hate, so throwing too much at them is not something that is possible. Dark Depths is every aggro deck’s worst nightmare, since Chalice of the Void combined with other disruption and a fast combo is very difficult for an aggro deck to handle. Dark Depths is what defeated me at the PTQ in Atlanta, and it has since still been a very difficult matchup, even with Bant Charm and Ghost Quarter out of the board.

Since the Online PTQ’s have begun, they’re generally run about twice a week. Luckily for me, after losing in the finals on Tuesday’s PTQ, I learned that there was another one on Thursday, and even again on Sunday. On Thursday I played a similar Zoo list in the PTQ, but lost in Round 7 when I was 5-1 (there were 8 round of swiss), which basically knocked me out of contention due to my poor tiebreakers. I lost to a very interesting Teferi and Baneslayer Angel deck that had a ton of countermagic and removal. I couldn’t fight through all of it, and eventually fell to the 5/5 Bane-ofmyexistence. She was also the reason for my finals loss on Tuesday, seeing as I was playing against Saito Zoo with Bant Charm and Baneslayer Angel, and got completely rolled when I couldn’t draw the 5th color of mana for Tribal Flames, or even a 3rd land to play more than a single spell per turn. Game 2 I mulliganed to 5, but had a solid hand and almost triumphed. However, I ended the game with 2 lands in play and 2 Bant Charms in hand facing off against a Knight of the Reliquary and Baneslayer Angel.

With another crushing loss, I figured I needed to find a different strategy. When playing in the Quarterfinals of the PTQ on Tuesday, I barely managed to defeat to a very solid version of Scapeshift played by a respectable Magician, simply due to his inability to draw Scapeshift in Game 3 of our match. He was able to fight through all of my disruption, and would have won had he drawn anything but blanks for the last three turns of the game, and I was lucky to escape. Maybe if everyone is playing Zoo and slow control decks, this was the deck to play! I have played Scapeshift before, and his list seems better than any I’ve seen in a while, including the newer aggressive versions that are only Green and Red.

Fast forward past the close call on Thursday, all the way to Sunday’s event: After brewing and contemplating my options, I decided to audible into a Scapeshift variant that is seeing less and less play as of late, specifically the GRU version that should have beaten me on Tuesday. Many Scapeshift players have been moving away from the traditional GRU version into a more aggressive GR version playing cards like Umezawa’s Jitte, Bloodbraid Elf, and Kitchen Finks. This version also plays burn spells like Lightning Bolt and Punishing Fire (combined with Grove of the Burnwillows), and has a pretty solid game-ending spell in Scapeshift. While the deck is less consistent as far as comboing out is concerned, it has a really decent Plan B against the majority of control and combo decks. It can race you pretty easily with Tarmogoyfs and the like, while also maintaining the ability to kill you out of nowhere when they reach 7-mana. While I recognize this list as good, I choose not to play it because I think it is inferior to the combo-oriented version. The ability to play Blue is invaluable to the deck, as it lets you search through your deck, draw cards, and even counter opposing spells that could hinder your gameplan or kill you outright. This is something the GR version cannot boast, and I prefer to play decks (or versions of decks) that give you the best chance to outplay your opponent. Blue in the deck allows for this to happen often. I am also from the school of thought that says if you are going to play combo, do it right by playing cards that give you maximum redundancy.

Here is the list I ended up playing for Scapeshift:

As of writing this, I have one loss going into the 8th Round, with 9 Rounds of swiss total, and three rounds of Top 8 to go. I’ll let you guys know in the forums how I end up.

One thing I missed out on in the last version of Scapeshift I played was Magma Jet. This card is unreal, and deals with the problematic creatures like Gaddock Teeg and Meddling Mage. It also deals 2 damage to the opponent so that you only need 7 lands to Scapeshift kill them at 18 life. If you have 7 lands in play, Scapeshift can only deal 18 damage, which is usually fine considering the amount of damage people usually take from Ravnica Duals and Fetchlands. However, there are a few decks where you desperately need to deal them 2 damage, which buys you a turn by not having to have an additional land in play. You also get to Scry 2, which is virtually drawing two cards, since it only matters that you have the combo, and not how many cards you actually draw.

Cryptic Command is another fine addition to the deck, helping to counter opposing threats or disruption, as well as bouncing things in play. Sometimes it is even enough to Fog and draw a card against Zoo, giving you the precious time you need to draw Scapeshift or get that last land into play. Remand and Condescend are just bonkers, keeping your opponent from doing anything while still digging you closer to their death. Older versions played Coiling Oracle, but he just seemed really unacceptable to me. Most of the time you needed to hit a land off him, and if you failed you would just feel miserable. However, Search for Tomorrow is much more consistent, and allows for maximum acceleration as well as something to do on turn 1 with Suspend.

The sideboard has tools to help combat a variety of threats, including Dredge with the Relics of Progenitus and Ravenous Traps. However, Dredge will often have the plan to mill you with Hedron Crab and Glimpse the unthinkable, so be sure you leave in Magma Jets against them, and sometimes even bring in Firespout. I would like to have a better plan against Dredge, but it is very difficult for them to mill enough cards from your library before you can combo off. If they aren’t actively killing you, then you can usually buy enough time with Remands and Condescend to kill them on turn 5 or so.

Boseiju and Gigadrowse are incredible weapons against control decks, giving you the ability to tap them out or lock them out. Gigadrowse gives you another out to counterspells, and keeps them from being reactive towards disrupting your plan. If they want to be passive and sit on counterspells, they will lose very quickly. However, you have real trouble with multiple Thoughtseizes and Vendilion Cliques backed by counterspells, making Faeries a very difficult matchup. Hopefully they’ll give you enough time to set up, but often that is not the case. You must not keep weak hands, and try to really protect your Scapeshifts with Scry and counterspells.

Shadow of Doubt is mostly for the mirror, but doubles as a solid way to disrupt Dark Depths. They have a ton of Transmute spells, and you can’t counter those other than using a Trickbind effect, or Shadow of Doubt. Drawing a card is icing on the cake, and will often buy you just enough time to combo them out before kill you. I wouldn’t mind having a few Ghost Quarters in the sideboard, but Dark Depths really isn’t popular enough for you to warrant too many sideboard cards. For Zoo it is different, because most of the cards in your sideboard for Dark Depths (namely Bant Charm) are good against multiple matchups. With Scapeshift, have to have cards for you bad matchups, or they will most certainly become impossible matchups.

Firespout and the 4th Magma Jet give you plenty of ways to deal with Meddling Mage and Gaddock Teeg, which are the two primary weapons Zoo uses to disrupt the combo. Aven Mindcensor is good, but not a lot of people play him, so I wouldn’t be expecting it too much from the Zoo decks. You should definitely not run headfirst into it, but don’t give your opponent an extra turn or two if it is going to mean you die from attacks or burn spells. Giving Zoo more time only shortens your life-span. Picking up a read here could be invaluable, since the Flash on Aven Mindcensor makes it especially dangerous.

While I’m unsure as to what the outright best deck in Extended is, I do know that the format is very skill-intensive. Proof of this comes from the fact that no two decks have won Online PTQ’s. This leads for interesting games and matches, which should really be something to strive for in tournament Magic. I am completely uninspired by Standard as of late, and would much rather plan an Extended $5K than a Standard one. There is a Standard $5K this weekend in Atlanta, but I’m not even sure if I really want to go. I don’t have a good deck, and I don’t feel inspired by these mediocre mid-rangey aggro and control decks. The format is really stale, and I’m desperately looking forward to Worldwake coming out and shaking things up. Hopefully I will not be disappointed.

Thanks for reading.

Todd Anderson
strong sad on MTGO