Deep Analysis – Bringing the Beats in Extended

Read Richard Feldman every Thursday... at StarCityGames.com!
Pro Tour: Valencia looms large in the schedules, and Extended is the format that all the cool kids love to play. Today’s Deep Analysis begins what promises to be an exciting series — in preparation for the PT, Zac Hill and Richard Feldman promise to share their testing process to a degree never before seen. Richard begins this week with a look at the Aggro decks in the format… and, in particular, the impact on the metagame of a certain Little Lhurgoyf That Could.

I didn’t qualify for Valencia. That’s a bummer, but what’s more of a bummer is that nearly all of my friends did, and wanted me to come along. I’m in no kind of financial position to cop a plane ticket just to hang out, so it looks like it’s Standard time once again.

…Or is it?

The other day, ZHill asked me if I would have time to help him test for Valencia. I replied that I only have time for one Magic format these days, and while I would love to help him test, an article series that consisted of “this week I worked on Pro Tour stuff that I can’t talk about. See you next week!” over and over would be almost as big an embarrassment as a “legitimate” series on my pick orders in draft.

After a quick conversation, I agreed to help him test — and forge some new territory at the same time.

See, as far as I know, there’s never been a real article series on preparing for the Pro Tour. Sure, people will walk you through their testing after the fact — after all, secret tech is hardly secret anymore when you publish it to the Internet for all to see — but that misses out on the whole process. The whole exciting part about preparing for a PT is that you have no idea what everyone else is testing. It’s not like a PTQ season where you can watch the top decklists evolve from week to week…it’s just one tournament. Your concepts of what’s good, of what beats what, of what could be nuts if only you could get it to overcome that one hurdle — all of these things can change on a daily basis, and it’s tough to look back and make sense of them after the tournament’s over and all you can focus on is “What was I thinking?” Honestly, I think it’s a fascinating process that should make for a great learning experience no matter what your level of play.

So here’s the deal. I’m going to write about our testing process, decklists and all, as we traverse these few weeks to Valencia. I will not spoil the decklists of our friends and contacts; if someone ships us a list and asks us to keep it quiet, I’m going to honor that request to the fullest. But as far as our in-house battling goes, anything is fair game. The only thing I plan to conceal about our testing process is what deck Zac (and whoever else) ultimately chooses to take to the tournament. I don’t see any harm in waiting an extra week to reveal that, and giving preemptive scouting information to all of Zac’s opponents who read StarCityGames.com is hardly in his best interest.

The Constructed Pro Tour

For non-PT regulars, the PT is most similar to States and Regionals than anything else. At recurring tournaments like PTQs, GPTs, and FNMs, you get snapshots of the metagame and can watch it evolve as the season progresses. At most GPs, you can look to the PTQs that lead right up to the day of the tournament, and Nationals usually plays with the same legal sets as the preceding Regionals did. At Prereleases, there’s such little preparation and such a laid-back feel that there’s no real parallel to the PT. (If you are practicing for prereleases like you would for a Pro Tour, seek help.)

Like States and Regionals, the PT is interesting in that it is the first large tournament to showcase a new set for a format. At States this year, for example, Lorwyn will come in and boot Ravnica out of Standard; no one will know what the TSP-PC-FS-LOR-10th metagame looks like prior to States, because there will be maybe one or two large-scale independent tournaments with Top 8 lists to digest. While States 2007 ushered in Time Spiral, Regionals — the largest sanctioned Standard tournament of the year — had added both Planar Chaos and Future Sight to the mix.

Pro Tour: Valencia will be the first large-scale Extended tournament to incorporate both Future Sight and Tenth Edition. We have one tournament worth of decklists: the GenCon $1k Extended Tournament Top 8. I’m not going to go into too much detail on the various decks of the format and how they are impacted by the introduction of the new sets, simply because it seems fellow writers Chapin and Flores will be voicing their own opinions on Extended in the upcoming weeks. As I’m focusing mainly on the testing aspect of PT preparation, I’ll leave the Big Picture stuff in their capable hands.

Well, okay, maybe not quite. When it comes to Future Sight and Extended, there’s an elephant in the room, and I really can’t continue without giving it its due.

Tarmogoyf in Extended

Everyone but TEPS plays Fetchlands, so Tarmogoyf will essentially always be 1/2. Most of the decks play Sorceries — be they Firebolt, Duress, Wrath of God, Tribal Flames, Cabal Therapy, or Life from the Loam. That’s 2/3. Every deck plays Instants, so that’s 3/4. Most decks that will play Tarmogoyf will play other creatures as well, whose deaths will contribute to the Lhurgoyf’s size. Some of those decks will also include dredgers, and even if yours doesn’t, there’s a significant chance that your opponent’s will.

The bottom line is, you expect Tarmogoyf to hit 4/5 early in most games, are excited to see him reach 5/6, and are generally upset if he is still a 3/4 on turns 4-5. If Quirion Dryad were Ancestral Visions, Tarmogoyf would be Brainstorm. Ancestral has the potential to be unbelievably powerful, while Brainstorm is “merely” nuts every time.

Patrick Chapin was not kidding when he put the Goyf in his Affinity list. Sure, Myr Enforcer can cost zero, but realistically you usually end up paying two or three mana to play him when you want to. Tarmogoyf never costs more than two, and has an extra point of toughness. If anything will keep him out of Affinity lists, it will be the fact that playing non-Artifacts slows down the rest of the deck too much — but at a glance, I’d predict that cost-benefit analysis will ends up the in Goyf’s favor.

The frustrating part about this beater is that he’s not just good for aggro decks. The midrange Destructive Flow decks can upgrade Troll Ascetic to a cheaper model that is better at both attacking and blocking, and Loam can finally play a Werebear that bulks up to useful proportions in time to matter. We’re even investigating a Psychatog deck that splashes Green for Tarmogoyf; every time I drop a turn 3 4/5 against a board of Kird Ape and Mogg Fanatic, with Dr. Teeth in hand, it feels like cheating.

So what does this guy do to Extended?

At his simplest, he gives the beatdown decks a faster early clock and better topdecks. That’s bad news for any deck taking a control posture against aggro, but not so awful for combo. TEPS, for instance, is often Tarmogoyf-retardant; unless they have to crack a Star or Egg early, they can generally keep their own graveyard free of contributions to the Goyf’s size until the turn they go off.

The bigger deal is that he puts a monster in every creature deck. Myr Enforcer can’t hold down the fort anymore, Loxodon Hierarch is no longer a trump card, and Devastating Dreams is not quite the Wrath of God it once was. He’s an exception to several rules that throws a wrench into all sorts of best-laid plans of trumps and answers.

Sligh-Style Beatdown

The practical side of today’s article is a look at what Patrick Chapin called “Typical Aggro” decks. I prefer to think of them as Sligh-style beatdown, as what they all share is a strategy of aiming undercosted creatures and burn at the opponent’s dome. While they contain synergies — from the simple Grim Lavamancer plus fetchlands to Domain Zoo’s off-color dual lands powering up Gaea’s Might — the focus of these decks is consistency above “nuts draws.” After all, a Gaea’s Might for three on a Kird Ape still knocks TEPS’s life total down just as well as an Incinerate to the dome.

At this point my testing with these decks has not been very structured — mainly some updating of lists and mashing them against one another — but one theme has made itself very clear: Tarmogoyf advantage in the beatdown mirror is huge. A threat that eats two of your opponent’s best burn spells at worst, and plows through his life total as you burn away his blockers at best, is one of the most brutishly effective ways to gain an advantage there is.

But enough about Tarmogoyf. Let’s start the decklist parade with a throwback:

Back before Extended’s most recent rotation, a common theme among Red Deck Wins lists was the inclusion of 4 Jackal Pup, 4 Mogg Fanatic, 4 Grim Lavamancer, and 4 Blistering Firecat. Most also played four copies of either Pillage or Molten Rain, and eschewed more expensive burn spells like Char for Firebolts, Lava Darts, and the like. As Owen’s list is the one that won the GenCon tournament, it’s clear that Tenth Edition’s contributions of Mogg Fanatic and Incinerate have put that strategy back in the running.

This RDW update splashes Green for Tarmogoyf, Ancient Grudge, and Kird Ape pumps, and Black for sideboarded Smothers. Smother hasn’t been a card worth splashing for in the past, but with Tarmogoyf being what he is, I can absolutely get behind the idea of sneaking in a Blood Crypt to fit them in the board.

From the perspective of the aggro mirror match, Boros has traditionally held a twofold advantage over traditional Red Deck Wins: Lightning Helix and pro-Red guys. Jeroen Remie had a Boros list splashing Green for Kird Ape and some sideboard cards last year, which can easily be customized to include Tarmogoyf for the Valencia gauntlet. That list would look something like this:

Once upon a time, there was a debate between the utility burn spell of Magma Jet in Red Deck Wins versus the beefier damage spell of Volcanic Hammer. The modern equivalent of this choice is Sudden Shock versus Incinerate. (Oh, how the Red decks have grown.) Jeroen didn’t have access to Incinerate last year, but given the choice, I’m not sure how many players will opt for utility over damage anymore. I chose Incinerate over Sudden Shock for this version because of Silver Knight and Tarmogoyf. (For the record, while there were no Sudden Shocks in the GenCon Top 8, it would be reckless to extrapolate that label across all the Valencia mages.)

Knight is desirable in that he scraps with Goyf — and wins — provided you have a three-point burn spell to go with him. Soltari Priest can attack past a defending Tarmogoyf without a burn spell backing him up, but can do nothing to defend against an incoming 4/5. I think Knight’s ability to alternately dominate a (non-Goyf) board on defense, evasively attack past (non-Goyf) defenders, and beat up an actual Goyf when coupled with a Helix or Incinerate, means that Priest is the one headed for the door to make room for the obligatory set of green guys.

Goblin Legionnaire is another selling point of Boros, as he can be both a two-for-one in the mirror and a source of bonus damage against control and combo strategies. Kataki for Affinity is not such a big selling point when RDW with a Green splash can fit Ancient Grudge anyway, but Armadillo Cloak for the mirror and Ichorid matchups are very strong.

Next up is the most off-beat of the Sligh-style contenders:

A Dark Boros list made Top 8 at GenCon, but it would make a poor list for a gauntlet because it was littered with off-beat one-ofs that cannot be expected from the average PT competitor.

The two original big reasons to add Black to Boros are Vindicate and Duress, and Smother has recently joined the list. Vindicate is strong in that it packs the disruptive punch of Pillage against TEPS, Tron, and Loam, yet it can also eliminate all manner of problem threats from other creature decks. Duress helps bolster the combo and control matchups, without being as clunky of a draw against beatdown as was Orim’s Chant, a briefly popular anti-combo and anti-control measure for Boros decks last year.

I have a tough time endorsing Dark Boros as the aggro deck of choice for Valencia, simply because it does not play Tarmogoyf. The protection from Red guys can be situationally better or worse than an actual Goyf in the Red Deck mirror, but everywhere else, they are simply random 2/2 beaters where Tarmogoyf is a monster. That loss is substantial, and I do not think that the additions of Vindicate and Duress to the Boros arsenal justify it.

Finally, we have the late-blooming aggro superstar of last year’s PTQ season:

I question the inclusion of Mishra’s Bauble and Reckless Charge in a gauntlet list – though I would be absolutely on board with the Charge if I were playing the deck in the PT — but I will use Patrick Chapin’s updated build here for the sake of consistency among writers.

In the second of his two consecutive Grand Prix wins with this deck, Raphael Levy maindecked a singleton Umezawa’s Jitte and Armadillo Cloak. Cloak’s power level has increased dramatically with the advent of Tarmogoyf, because bashing with a 6/7 trampler and gaining six life is like having the opponent mull to four in the aggro mirror. My gauntlet build includes a pair of those roughly where Patrick has Baubles and Levy had one Cloak and one Jitte, but I can agree that Patrick’s Seals of Fire will be reasonable maindeck choices because they feed Tarmogoyf by being enchantments.

As powerful as it was, this deck got even better with Future Sight in the mix. While Boros decks scramble to combo into Silver Knight plus burn to kill a Tarmogoyf, Domain Zoo can just aim a Tribal Flames at it, or pump a fighter into unreasonable proportions with Gaea’s Might. In addition to having a full payload of Tarmogoyfs itself, this deck actually maindecks eight different cards that can one-for-one the beast. Even better, its manabase supports the possibility of Smother from the board.

For my money, this is still the premier beatdown deck in Extended. Not only does it have an unprecedented quantity of edges in the mirror, it also dishes out the most damage against the rest of the format. Between Tribal Flames and Gaea’s Might (without Swiftblade), Domain Zoo offers more skull-crushing power than even Red Deck Wins’s Blistering Firecats, and that’s not to mention the random Swiftblade combo kills.


With Tarmogoyf being what it is, Domain Zoo seems to be the beatdown Deck To Beat. Not only does it abuse the hell out of the newcomer, it has the manabase to control it with sideboarded Smothers, and more maindeck ways to one-for-one with it than any other Sligh-style archetype.

This hardly means that the other aggro decks are not worth testing against. As I stated last week, proper metagaming takes into account the conclusions that everyone else will come to, and many of the Valencia competitors will disagree with my view that Domain Zoo is the way to go with this strategy. All this means is that we will put a higher priority on testing Domain Zoo, as both a Deck To Beat and a potential Deck To Play, in the weeks to come.

If simple aggro is not your style, you’ll like next week much better. After all, there’s much more to Extended than just beats and burn.

Stay tuned!

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]