Deconstructing Constructed – Metagaming the Extended Field

Read Josh Silvestri every Tuesday... at StarCityGames.com!
Going into an Extended PTQ with a true plan in mind is one of the more daunting tasks I’ve seen in recent memory, thanks to the wide range of strategies and brokenness being employed. On some level this is ironic, since I remember a number of writers (including myself) whining about how difficult it was to metagame, as there were approximately more viable decks than Lasagna Cat videos last year. That said, there are some basic tenets you can follow, and certain assumptions you can make.

Going into an Extended PTQ with a true plan in mind is one of the more daunting tasks I’ve seen in recent memory, thanks to the wide range of strategies and brokenness being employed. On some level this is ironic, since I remember a number of writers (including myself) whining about how difficult it was to metagame, as there were approximately more viable decks than Lasagna Cat videos last year. That said, there are some basic tenets you can follow, and certain assumptions you can make.

The first and most obvious question is one that has likely been asked before almost any serious Magic preparation ever held*. Or at least some variation, I prefer using Feldman’s description because it’s better than, “wuts the best deck guys?.”

* The most uttered phrase (I assume) would be the classic, “You do have the (Beer / Carbonated Drink / Tea Flavored Tea), right?’

What are the Tier 1 decks, and what kind of players are going to play them?
I could break this down into ranges of decks, but I’ll just be a cheatyface and go with decks that have won or made Top 8 as a general idea of ‘Tier 1′ decks. Right now we can likely classify the follows decks as top tier: Doran, Red Deck Wins, Shackles Blue, and Dredge.

Defining who exactly will be playing them is much more of a crapshoot, considering the wide range of players historically playing these types of decks. Consider the B/G decks that have had even a modicum of winning to their name, and see how popular they became. Now we have a legitimate B/G/W beatdown deck that’s close enough in stature to Rock that many of the players simply switched over from their usual midrange roots. Besides, it has Profane Command… Close enough to midrange B/G/X, right? So a large number of these players will have some experience with similar types of decks, even if this particular version is far more aggressive than Gifts Rock.

Red decks can get everyone from little Timmy to those that have optimized their Red deck to the 75th card and don’t blame every single loss on not ripping a burn spell. The former can be as deadly as the latter, but the latter is more likely to take advantage of the balance his deck structure provides by striking at you in ways opponents’ decks have limited prospects of handling. Chucking burn at the other guy’s dome for two or three turns is one such example, as few decks have the sort of Counterbalance / Top or Martyr of Sands type of engine to simply shut off that angle of attack at a whim. Instead they can damage it to some extent with cards like Cabal Therapy, but they can’t simply ignore it. In this aspect, almost all of the Red players have an inherent worry about the deck matches simply because of the ‘unwinnable’ aspect of playing against certain decks, like combo, or specific hoser cards.

The other thing to expect is when you see these players using Red decks at the top tables, the more likely the Red deck has some surprise card to leverage because of the focus the deck has. For example, many opponents were thrown off guard for the first few weeks by the use of Terminate in RDW and Goblin maindeck / sideboards. The card hasn’t seen play in a while and doesn’t really fit in aggressive decks such as Domain Zoo or Doran, as they lean on the utility of Vindicate. Instead the Red deck simply wants its creatures to get one more attack, meaning that the narrower card can be used with success. Another example is the use of Magus of the Moon, which was covered last week. Again, it’s a very narrow application, one simply to disrupt the mana of the opponent and buy some time despite easily being killed off by the same cards that deal with the rest of the deck. But when the opponent doesn’t see it coming they can be blindsided by it and give the Red deck strategy just a little more time.

Meanwhile we have the Blue miscreants, and we can typically assume the type of opponent that would be willing to bring a Blue deck into such an open environment is highly experienced and has put some real thought into the deck plan. More than likely they don’t care what you’ve brought to the table, and likely they will be prepared for it already (barring a complete rogue creation). These are also the type of players that seem to be quite underestimated, as I’ve talked to a number of players who simply are relying on Ancient Grudge, Boseiju, or a similar styled one or two cards that trump the main Blue game plan and essentially win the game for them. Although it seems that everyone would be equally prepared for these decks and opponents, I’ve found many simply lack the experience necessary to assess threats from the Blue player in the match-up.

Dredge is going to be played by two types of players. The first type includes players that are simply playing the deck because it’s broken, who simply want to hear the dice go clickity-clack every round and try to win off the good hands the deck provides. The remainder realizes that Dredge is, in many senses, a statistical proposition practically every game. Although we’ve summed it up with “Dredge wins game 1 and loses games 2 and 3 to hate,’ you rarely hear the thought expounded upon past that basic logical assumption.

A number of things have been taken into account when choosing to play Dredge, which include but aren’t limited to:

The relative amount of games you win when facing down hate.
The number of opponents that won’t be running any relevant hate and simply hope to duck the match.
Those that haven’t tested the match enough to sideboard and play optimally even with the proper hate cards in the sideboard.
All the games lost by default to mulligans into oblivion.

That’s probably the most interesting aspect of playing Dredge in the post-board games… knowing when to just keep ‘the good hands’ versus mulliganing, or keeping hands with answers in them but limited broken potential. For the most part you can expect your Dredge opponents to know what they’re doing, to the point that they can beat you if everything is a level playing field. If you can skew some of the odds in your direction, then you can definitely create opportunities to beat Dredge where you shouldn’t be able to.

Now you have to ask yourself when picking a deck for a PTQ, what does it actually do in these matches? And similarly, how do I plan on dealing with them if the deck’s main plan isn’t actively winning the game against them? Nearly every PTQ Top 8 or win by Dredge or Affinity this season will be traced back to a streak of opponents that either don’t bother asking this question, or shirk it off with tedious statement of, “I’ll draw X card and just win from there.”

Honestly, that has to be one of my favorite phrases of all time. “I’ll just draw Leyline of the Void and win from there,” or “if I don’t have it in my opener I’ll mulligan until I hit one.” “I have Loxodon Hierarch, why would I ever care about a significant burn presence from decks? We all know they can’t beat life-gain plus creatures!”

Ben Kowal once talked about hate cards, and why many of them had no place near the maindeck of most control decks, but the logic could be applied to nearly any deck when referencing a single card being a ‘plan.’ Basically, what you’re saying when referring to one card as a win is that you hope the following chain of events happens:

1) Lucksack the hate card in to your hand.
Remember, it’s roughly 40% to see the card in your opener. For cards like Leyline of the Void and Tormod’s Crypt, where you play them early or get killed, this is especially relevant.

2) Lucksack the hate card in to play.
Let’s say you do have a hate card and you see it early. If it’s a splash color, you have to be able to easily access it and cast the hate card in a timely interval or it doesn’t really matter.

3) Have your opponent draw nothing relevant to answer or trump the hate card.

4) Your opponent actually gets being crippled by it.
One of my favorite examples is MUC mulliganing down to 5-6 constantly looking for Hurkyll’s Recall to blow out the Affinity opponent. The problem was the hate card itself provided the false sense of illusion that the automatic blowout that happened when it was cast actually ended the game. In actuality, the card loss and mana issues caused by the mulligans usually gave Affinity a small window to end the game either via Shrapnel Blast, or by simply relaying an Arcbound Ravager or Atog and trying for one last alpha strike.

One of my favorite examples is actually from a game on MTGO. I was testing a G/W/B Doran build against Dredge. In this particular game I managed a Leyline of the Void on turn 0 and Yixlid Jailer on turn 2. I pretty much can’t lose, right? I proceeded to miss my next few land drops and got beat to death by multiple Narcmeoba and Stinkweed Imp. Another good one is seeing a resolved Blood Moon in play and the next turn the opponent plays a basic land; or even better, a Sakura-Tribe Elder off the Forest they hand in play already.

Remember, the key is to have a deck that can accomplish the goal of winning the game before the opponent. In some cases this can mean relying on a select batch of cards or a niche plan, but often it means adapting the deck itself to the match-up versus basically playing a mini-deck inside of what amounts to a useless shell. Instead of only having a few relevant cards, try just using cards that interact well in general.

Part of the problem is that Extended has set a high standard of benchmarks for what can and can’t see play at the moment. For creatures, you’ll constantly see creatures that you would expect to populate a Top 100 list. Meanwhile the ones that don’t either serve very specific purposes (Indrik Stomphowler to trump Counterbalance and Ideal comes to mind) or are simply very efficient (Blistering Firecat being seven damage for four mana).

However, that isn’t to say slower creatures don’t have utility uses that outweigh the slightly higher mana costs or slightly less impressive power-to-toughness ratios. Mystic Enforcer is a crusher in the Doran mirror, and can serve its master well in any match where the Doran deck could be expected to get into an attrition war. Troll Ascetic isn’t bad in the aggro or control match, but only truly shines against Shackles or in conjunction with equipment. Nimble Mongoose blows compared to every other one-drop that sees common play in Extended, but in the Threshold deck the card can actually show off its utility purposes by quickly becoming a solid blocker and attacker that will likely require certain opponents going out of their way to handle.

The same can be said for spells. Insidious DreamsErratic ExplosionDraco can just crush most aggro decks, and it only takes up six or so slots. Instead of being a true concern for the hyper aggressive and dual-reliant manabases shown by almost every aggro deck in the format, the combo is only seen in a few niche decks. It’s simply because people don’t want to run mini-plans in this format, instead taking over-arching ideas and then slowly spreading a cover to take care of any eventualities that come up. Exceptions to this rule seem to be every deck except Affinity / Blue decks against Dredge, and every deck against Ideal. Otherwise there simply seems to be no room for mini-combos unless they happen involve the usage of Counterbalance — Top. How quaint.

Just last week, Flores made reference to Doran losing to really strong cards that don’t require any set-up other than mana itself. His example was Upheaval, but the basic point should strike a chord with many. At the moment people are all trying to get as cheap and streamlined as possible with their decks, unless it’s a proven type of flashy card like Profane Command. If you want to make a serious impact on people, you may want to take a look at involving a mini-combo or a single overly strong effect that you can draw into when the game begins to leave the phase where you planned dominance. A slower deck like Tron would be ridiculous at the moment, considering the amount of abuse it can pull with Sundering Titan, Gifts Ungiven, and Decree of Justice. I’m not saying the deck is spectacular or anything like that, but it has the potential to simply end the game at a certain mana flash-point.

Moving on with the Tron example, it has one of the few good ways to beat Dredge I’ve seen. It simply establishes an early defense with Moment’s Peace, Engineered Explosives, and Tormod’s Crypt, at which point it can translate over into its natural game plan of ending the game with one or two gigantic flashy effects. A simple sideboarding plan could just be building on top of the groundwork that’s already there. A few extra Crypt or EE, maybe throw in another Academy Ruins, and you’ve now established a solid early defense that isn’t beaten by Chain of Vapor and can translate a Gifts Ungiven into a soft-lock that would take a huge amount of luck for Dredge to break.

Remember to think about why and how you plan on beating decks and always be willing to challenge some of your assumptions from “established plans,” especially in fields this wide open.

As for the obligatory decklist…

I’ve been working on variations of Balancing Tings for some time now, but ever since the Morningtide spoiler came out I stopped bothering with the pre-tide builds for the most part. Countryside Crusher is simply too appealing to miss out on, and requires a basic overhaul of the build on which I based the framework of this deck. So instead I’ll share the last listing. The deck looks like a mish-mash of strategies and goals, but between Top — Burning Wish and Insidious Dreams you’ll almost be able to flow into either plan A or plan B. Probably the biggest issue was with Dredge and Affinity, which is why I’ve crossed it off the list as anything but a last second audible as I expect quite a bit of both at my local PTQ. Against fairer decks you have the tutoring options to consistently find what you need, and the good hands simply crush whatever the opponent can do. It also has quite a bit of “off the top” potential, which is important considering the number of Cabal Therapies flying around.

As always, best of luck to those with PTQ’s this weekend, and I’ll see you next week.

Josh Silvestri
Team Reflection
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom

PS – Morningtide is fun, and Diviner’s Wand and Swell of Courage are ridiculously good in Limited.