Fundamentally, one of the best ways to get an edge on your opponents at a PTQ season is to figure out something about the environment they all don’t know. When everyone else thinks a certain deck is only a minor threat, but you find a way to make it a big threat, you catch the whole room by surprise and can capitalize before the metagame has a chance to adjust.
Last season, before it was big, Luis Scott-Vargas and his partners in crime discovered that the Aggro-Loam deck on MTGO was far more powerful than anyone was giving it credit for. They tuned it up, posted some Top 8s with it, and watched it explode across the Magic-playing world. Last weekend, many players dismissed Patrick Chapin Next Level Blue deck as a mere variation on Chase Rare.dec and did not bother to test against it because they had already tested against Fortier’s deck. They did so at their own peril.
At his PTQ on Saturday, Patrick Chapin knew that Vedalken Shackles was nuts. He’d tested his list backwards and forwards, and knew just how tough it was for most decks to slip out of a Shackles lock. Based on the results of PTQs around the country this weekend, it appears that those who did test Pat’s deck learned pretty quickly how good the Shackles were, and those that had not learned about it in the middle of the match as they were being wrecked by it.
Sometimes, though, learning something everyone else does not know comes from exploring dangerous territory. Dangerous in the sense that exploring it comes with certain risks – testing Dredge against a field that is aware of its presence carries with it the risk that all the testing will be for naught if the competitors arrive bursting at the seams with Leylines, Crypts, Jailers, and Extirpates. It’s dangerous to explore Dredge because you know people will pack hate, but you can never tell quite how much.
Given how many people defend their choice to avoid playing Dredge, the most powerful deck in the format, by saying “I don’t want to run into Leylines all day,” it is entirely reasonable to ask a simple follow-up question: “How bad is it if you do run into Leylines all day?”
We act like Pierre Canali cruised through PT: Columbus with Affinity because everyone depended upon everyone else to bring Energy Flux to beat the few madmen brave enough to bring Affinity to PT: Energy Flux, but it wasn’t just his lack of Energy Flux pairings that carried him to victory. He beat Energy Fluxes, too. While naive Affinity lists were crumpling to the enchantment left and right, Canali’s build used Ancient Den and Aether Vial to power out Kami of Ancient Law and Meddling Mage. Sometimes, too, he was just Affinity and beat a resolved Flux by dumping everything on a Ravager for an eleventh hour alpha strike kill.
Really, though, it’s not about what card you win or lose to – it’s about what your chances are of winning or losing. If I bring in 4 Leyline of the Void and Dredge brings in 4 Chain of Vapor, or if I bring in 4 Crypt and Dredge brings in 4 Pithing Needle, how good are my chances? I probably lose if I don’t have a hoser of some sort, but I still might lose if I do have it and the opponent has both an answer and an adequately fast hand to capitalize on my missing trump card. I might be the favorite post-board, but by how much? 70-30? 60-40? If Dredge is the 80-20 favorite in game 1 because I’m doing nothing they care about, am I really okay with having merely a “favorable” game 2 and game 3?
People are afraid to play Affinity because someone might Kataki or Grudge them, and Dredge because someone might Leyline or Crypt them. Yet people made Top 8 and won PTQs with Dredge last weekend. Those people lacked what Dan Paskins famously dubbed The Fear, and that Fearlessness served them well. They took the risk of investing time in testing a much-hated archetype, learned that they could beat the hate when everyone else assumed they couldn’t, and earned top finishes from their efforts.
The Big Four: Junk, Shackles, Red Aggro, and Dredge
Speaking of Dredge, it was one of the four most common archetypes of last week’s Top 8s. It wasn’t the most successful, as some pundits predicted it would be, but the most popular choices among Top 8 players were definitely decks playing Doran, decks playing Mogg Fanatic, decks playing Vedalken Shackles, and decks playing Putrid Imp. Tron, Ideal, and Gifts Rock each had token appearances, but nothing to write home about.
Each of these decks exhibited some noteworthy trends themselves.
For years and years and years and years I have said that the best thing a Rock deck can do is to trip the opponent up with early disruption (Duress, Therapy, Deed), then kick him to death while he’s down before he can topdeck his way into a recovery. I’ve maintained that any late game involving a Genesis plan (a.k.a. recurring Gravedigger without the 2/2 body) is just handing the opponent the opportunity to do something actually unfair and steal a win despite the fact that you were ahead before you started doing Genesis tricks. I guess you could call me a proponent of Fast Finish Rock.
Also for years and years, Rock has not had much of a quick finisher suite to go with its early disruption; Ravenous Baloth was about as efficient as the beaters got. Between Doran and Tarmogoyf, those days are well over. Apparently the deck’s name has changed in the process; I seem to recall the original PT Junk was more in the realm of a midrange beatdown deck than a full-on midrange deck, but I’ll go along with the trend and call Luis Scott Vargas’s Doran/Profane Command deck PT Junk if that’s what everyone else wants to do. At any rate, when I think of how I’d like to build a Fast Finish Rock deck, this PT Junk deck is pretty much it. It’s even got Fireball!
Structurally, the many Doran decks were strikingly similar. Birds, Doran, Confidant, Goyf, Vindicate, Witness, Hierarch, Therapy, and Profane Command made appearances in all of their maindecks, and mixes of Smother, Jitte, Mortify, Putrefy, Duress, Thoughtseize, and extra Witnesses could be seen filling out maindecks across the board.
As they tend to be at PTQs, the sideboards were all over the place. Leylines, Deeds, Teegs, Katakis, Extirpates, extra discard or Jittes, and even some out-of-left-field stuff like Okiba-Gang Shinobi were spotted in PT Junk sideboards last weekend. As we all know, PTQ sideboards are often influenced by local metagames and… shall we say, “time constraints” (read: throwing them together at the last minute), so I wouldn’t expect this trend to change much over the course of the season. Decks with specific vulnerabilities tend to have more predictable boards, but Junk builds its career around having very few vulnerabilities in the metagame, so the sideboard is largely comprised of cards to improve certain matchups rather than plugging holes in the strategy.
Based on this week’s trends, I suspect a substantial increase in Junk’s popularity next week, and that the most successful of those decks will incorporate a solid plan for the mirror.
If the Junk maindecks were the consistent side of the spectrum the Shackles decks were the utterly chaotic side. I group the Shackles decks together because, for most decks, that artifact will be biggest threat. The few decks that don’t care about Shackles – Enduring Ideal, Tron, and Dredge – are certainly in the minority of decks this season, and most decks that do care about Shackles are absolutely ruined by it.
Provided you keep a counter handy to defend against Vindicate, Shackles lets you put the opponent in an impossible position the minute you steal one of his guys. Does he attack with his remaining dudes and let you block, shrinking the size of his team by one and letting you untap the Shackles to do it again next turn? Or does he build up his forces, hope you don’t have counters, and really hope you don’t have Engineered Explosives?
Besides the Shackles themselves, the strategies of these decks vary considerably. Some follow the example of Patrick Chapin Next Level Blue and run a minimal set of creatures in order to take a more controlling stance. Others, like Jeremy Muir’s finalist list from Boston, include a swath of creatures. Jeremy’s list has a full 21 warm bodies in it, and every one of them is a Wizard. I believe 2nd place at a PTQ is the highest finish to date of the Patron Wizard soft lock, so congratulations to Jeremy for breaking the record.
Two of the St. Louis Shackle decks had identical 61-card maindecks, and were two of the three Shackles decks to include Spire Golem, the current frontrunner in my list of Awful Yet Popular Innovations so far. It’s a little early in the season for me to put on my Grumpy Hat, given the lack of Solemn Simulacrums in these Top 8s, but here I go anyway. Now I’m no Math major, but two mana for a vanilla 2/4 Flyer on turn 4 seems awesome in Limited, passable in Block Constructed, and embarrassingly underpowered in an Extended control or aggro-control deck. Until you have more than four Islands, it’s worse on several levels than Serra Avenger, and these decks can do better than that. By the time you have six Islands and it’s free, you have enough mana to back up your two-mana Tarmogoyf with a pair of Counterspells or Cryptic Command, and if the problem is that there aren’t enough Goyfs in the deck to finish up when you get to that position, a vanilla 2/4 Flyer is not what the doctor ordered. I don’t care how cheap it is; Ornithopter’s not what the doctor ordered either, and he’s free on turn 1.
Then again, I haven’t played in a PTQ yet this season, much less Top 8ed one, so what do I know? Maybe Spire Golem is one of those Role Player cards and I’m just missing his irreplaceable value as a shrunken Phyrexian Ironfoot on turn 3.
Again, if this past crop of Top 8s is any indication, about half the Red decks so far this season prefer maindeck Molten Rain to Vindicate. This could be one reason the Shackles decks have been doing so well; there’s quite a difference between turn 3 Shackles, turn 4 activate it and waiting until turn 5 to play it so they can keep Counterspell mana open…to say nothing of the times when they just don’t have Counterspell and can’t defend the ace from Vindication.
A few decks resurrected Blistering Firecat from the Red Deck Wins lists of old. Two of three Gaea’s Might lists omitted Boros Swiftblade, as I suggested a few weeks back, but Jotun Grunt’s role as Tarmogoyfs number five and six seems to have been replaced by Doran. Red decks running three-mana 5/5s…what hath Lorwyn wrought?
An interesting trend between both the Red decks and the Doran decks was the extreme popularity of Gaddock Teeg…in the sideboard. His role in Extended seems to be roughly akin to that of to Meddling Mage in prior years. He’s only worthy of the maindeck in a few decks; the rest of the time, he sits in the board until the pairing where he’s good.
Why does this make sense? Well, if PTQ Swiss rounds look anything like these first couple Top 8s, it makes a ton of sense. Gaddock Teeg stops Cryptic Command from the Shackles decks, Profane Command from Doran, and Dread Return from Dredge. Though the latter is actually significant, nearly every Dredge list from this past weekend had Upkeep Darkblast ready and waiting for Mr. Teeg.
Speaking of Dredge, The Boogeyman has taken home two Blue Envelopes so far, and if it gets eight more by the end of the season, Mike Flores has to karaoke for two hours on a table in Neutral Ground, to the songs of Josh Ravitz choosing. Let’s make it happen, okay, America?
(Note: this is a lie, except for the part where Josh predicted ten Dredge victories and Mike predicted zero. Also the part about the karaoke was true. No, I’m kidding. Except I’m not. Seriously, though.)
As I said, the first noteworthy trend among the Dredge decks was the prevalence of Darkblast, presumably as an answer to Red decks’ Mogg Fanatics and Gaddock Teegs. You can also theoretically dredge it up in anticipation of a Wished-for Yixlid Jailer, but that seems like a bit of a pipe dream.
The number of Ichorids varied from two to four, but three seemed to be the most popular number. Wonder was more popular than it was at Valencia’s Day 2, but the days of packing mirror match hate along the lines of Rasmus Sibast four maindeck Leylines on Valencia’s Day 2 are long gone. Land counts ranged from 14 to 16, and Pithing Needle was a surprisingly uncommon sideboard choice.
For the most part, though, Dredge is what it was before Valencia. Lots of dredgers, lots of discard outlets, lots of very fast kills, and lots of frowns when Leyline of the Void is in play.
The first weekend of PTQs has been surprisingly informative this season. I expected a wide variety of decks, but four of the contenders vastly outperformed the rest of the pack. Dredge did not see much change since Valencia, some Red decks have started using Blistering Firecat and Molten Rain again, PT Junk is going to have to start thinking about the mirror match, and I expect Shackles decks will find a more common core to build around; right now they can’t seem to agree on that.
One way or another, we now know which decks are the most important to be able to beat, and what kind of tools they’ll be bringing to the fight. If there’s one thing new PTQ Top 8 decklists cause, it’s netdecking, which only makes the fight easier for the rest of us.
See you next week!