Deep Analysis — Graveyard Decks: Beat ‘Em or Join ‘Em

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Richard continues his Pro Tour Preparation series with a look at, unsurprisingly, the Extended Graveyard decks. However, instead of bringing us fresh lists that utilize the power of the ‘yard, instead it’s the turn to showcase a few decks that attempt to bring down the dredge-based menace. Domain Zoo, Affinity, and a promising Wizards build, all built with the graveyard in mind. Will strategies such as these grace the final day of Pro Tour: Valencia?

In case the articles from earlier in the week have not made it clear, Extended is becoming increasingly polarized towards two camps: those who exploit the graveyard, and those who seek to defeat them. The acceptability of leaving all one’s graveyard hate in the sideboard is becoming more and more a pipe dream for the fairer decks, and the graveyard decks are starting to build with the expectation of facing Leylines and Yixlid Jailers in more and more post-board games.

Before moving on to the new stuff, I’m going to take a quick look at where the two camps stand.

Team Graveyard

There are two cards to build a Dredge deck around in Extended: Life from the Loam and Golgari Grave-Troll. (Craig Jones did both back in Pro Tour: Los Angeles, but since then most strategies have focused in on one card or the other.) The only other Graveyard-reliant strategy on the market is Cephalid Breakfast, unless you count Psychatog — which I do not.

In PTQ seasons past, Aggro-Loam, CAL, and Dredge-A-Tog have represented Life from the Loam, while Ichorid has been the sole representative of the Grave-Troll. All of these are theoretical candidates for Valencia, as are the newcomer, Turbo Dredge and the resurgent (and Dredge-free) Cephalid Breakfast.

Turbo Dredge is a deck that most people who are testing for Valencia have toyed around with. It inevitably evokes memories of Ichorid, except that it packs 4 Bridge from Below, 4 Narcomoeba, and some amount of Dread Return action. The flashback spell targets either Flame-Kin Zealot to hasten up a mass of 3/3 Zombies, or Sutured Ghoul for an uppercut finish which powers through Mogg Fanatic. The advantage over Ichorid is that it has the potential to kill even faster – as early as turn 2, in some builds – and the downside is that its win condition is the fragile Bridge from Below. Patrick Chapin offered a list on Monday:

Of those on the list, Dredge-A-Tog is the most dated. DAT, if you will, has not been seen since Julien Nuijten took down GP: Copenhagen with it two years ago. What has changed since those days? For one, Counterbalance has been printed. That card’s counterpart, Sensei’s Divining Top, interacts quite nicely with Life from the Loam. For another, Tarmogoyf has been printed, and he’s never happier than when dredging is taking place.

There are two problems with this deck in 2007. For one, the graveyard is under attack much more than it was in 2005, and for another, there is not much room in that list for the exciting newcomers. Can a deck that already sports the cumbersome Loam/Cycling Lands package realistically fit the Counterbalance combo as well? Is it worth it to try this strategy out, given the preponderance of Crypts, Leylines, and Jailers running about these days? Honestly, my intuition is that the answer will be “no,” so I’m not going to delve any further into the archetype.

Aggro Loam and CAL look more promising. Adrian Sullivan covered this deck on Tuesday, and it’s worth noting that although Aggro-Loam has strong matchups against much of the field, it has very few ways to disrupt Ichorid and Turbo Dredge from doing their thing.

CAL, with its Solitary Confinement and Burning Wish for Morningtide, has a better shot at those matchups. In exchange, it loses some of the aggressive component and backbreaking Devastating Dreams draws that Aggro-Loam sports in the main, and suffers the extra damage and loss of mana consistency associated with squeezing in a fourth color. However, Confinement is a welcome addition against the aggressive decks that now have Tarmogoyfs with which to survive Devastating Dreams. It’s a trade-off that looks a lot more enticing for this season than it did in the last one.

Kyle Sanchez did a piece on Cephalid Breakfast this Monday. When built for speed, this deck has the fastest goldfish in the format. It can win on the first turn with a double-Mox draw, and turn 2 kills are hardly out of the question when all it takes is turn 1 Shuko, turn 2 Illusionist. However, this all comes crashing to pieces when the opponent opens with a Mogg Fanatic. Kyle’s list had the Counterbalance/Divining Top combination built in, which slows the combo down in exchange for some degree of resistance to non-Fanatic problems such as Smother and burn spells.

Team Anti-Graveyard

Sadly, most of Extended’s answers to the graveyard decks come from the sideboard. Leyline of the Void, Tormod’s Crypt, and Yixlid Jailer are the frontrunners, and as everyone is happy to mention, you can’t always win both post-board game on the strength of these cards alone.

Many decks are taking the fight to the maindeck. Both Tron decks with Tolaria West and Trinket Mage decks of all shapes and sizes are rallying behind maindeck Tormod’s Crypt, and even Raphael Levy’s (second) GP-winning Domain Zoo list from the end of last season featured maindeck Jotun Grunt. I would not be surprised to see a number of Boros decks following suit.

The tricky part about the Anti-Graveyard decks is that they have to worry about both the graveyard decks and Tarmogoyf. You’ll notice that, of the graveyard decks, only Aggro-Loam really had to worry about Goyf, and then only because it resists Devastating Dreams.

So how do you deal with both?

I’ve crossed Tron off my list of decks I am interested in because of pressure from both Dredge and Tarmogoyf. Tolaria West is a nice addition to Tron’s arsenal, but having your Wraths kicked in the shins by the existence of Goyf and having Ichorid-style decks be popular instead of fringe…it’s a whole different ballgame.

Psychatog shows more promise, as it can actually disrupt Dredge beginning on turn 1, via the long-forgotten Force Spike and my favorite cantrip, Cremate. Force Spike on someone’s only Dredge outlet can be fatal in a surprising number of games.

Balancing Tings can easily deal with Tarmogoyf — it’s still a permanent, right? — but is historically all thumbs when it comes to graveyard interaction. Insidious Dreams into Tormod’s Crypt is hardly exciting, but bold players might build in an escape hatch of Dreams into Solitary Confinement stacked on top of Squee. It’s ugly, but if you live long enough to cast it (and if the opponent has no maindeck enchantment removal), you can beat dredge and beatdown via decking in game 1.

TEPS is best off of all these decks when it comes to Goyf, but frowns at Dredge’s Cabal Therapies and ability to race its combo. To be honest, I’m surprised at how little press TEPS has gotten this season; it seems like a few tweaks could position it for success in this environment.

Three Graveyard-Conscious Decklists

Having arrived at these conclusions by mashing gauntlet decks together, it’s time to experiment with some new ideas. I was all set to focus on where we were headed with the Graveyard Decks this week (the Join ‘em approach, if you will), when basically every StarCityGames.com writer on the planet decided to tackle graveyard decks this week as well. Rather than overdo that trend, or extend our long-running discussion of gauntlet decks even further, I audibled to a look at the freshly-brewed non-graveyard decks I plan to put through their paces in the upcoming week.

For my money, Domain Zoo does the best job of fighting the Tarmogoyf front while standing a chance at racing Dredge; the question is how to update it based on this knowledge. Thanks to Dredge, I am more interested in Mogg Fanatic for this deck than ever before, and Jotun Grunt is an even spicier meat-a-ball against them. Grunt plays nearly well with Reckless Charge as does Boros Swiftblade, and sometimes even better than a fledgling Tarmogoyf does. If I were beating down at Valencia, I would beat down roughly as follows.

For my money, Armadillo Cloak’s stock value has risen immeasurably since the previous PTQ season. A Cloaked Tarmogoyf is generally a 6/7 trampler with lifelink; one attack can end a beatdown mirror. Roughly the same has always been true of Boros Swiftblade, to be fair, but Goyf is a lot harder to burn out in response. It’s also one mana cheaper than Jitte (counting the activation cost), which makes it eligible for turning around dredge matchups by itself.

I am not sure about 2 Leyline of the Void being the correct count for the board, but I do like that they let me make the following point:

Leyline of the Void is just like any other sideboard card.

Yes, you want to draw them in your opening hand. That does not mean you have to play four.

If you board in one Leyline, you have a 12% chance of seeing it in your opening seven.

If you board in two Leylines, you have a 22% chance of seeing one in your opening seven.

If you board in three Leylines, you have a 32% chance of seeing one in your opening seven.

If you board in four Leylines, you have a 40% chance of seeing one in your opening seven.

A lot of people I talk to have the impression that you must sideboard four Leylines, because you “want to see it in your opening hand every game.” That kind of reasoning makes sense for the Legend Rule — where you are actively punished for drawing multiple copies, and can thus reasonably adjust your ratios with that in mind — but it doesn’t work the other way around. You are not docked life points if you do not start each game with a Leyline in play; the only downside to playing fewer than four copies of Leyline is that you have a lesser chance of drawing one, just like it is with any old card in Magic.

Speaking of sub-four Leyline counts…

This is based off the list that Top 8ed a California PTQ awhile back. You can see it featured at the end of this article. Make no mistake; this is no Wizards “theme” deck — it is a Patron Wizard deck. That innocuous Gray Ogre is one of the most devastating lockdown cards in Extended, whose power is tempered only by the fact that you have to fill your deck with Wizards (and arrive at a stable board position) to tap into it.

If I have three Wizards out, and one of them is Patron Wizard, you are effectively down three lands. If you have two copies of Lightning Helix in your hand, and four lands out, you will resolve neither. Say you cast the first one. I Force Spike it with Patron, you pay, I Spike again, you pay again, and I Spike a third time to counter the spell now that you are tapped out. Now back it up. Say you cast Lightning Helix and I Spike it with Patron. Seeing the writing on the wall, you do not pay. Instead you let it get countered and tap out for your second Helix. Naturally, I tap another Wizard and counter it.

With 28 Wizards in this deck, 4 of which are Dark Confidant, it is hardly out of the question that I will get out so many Wizards that you can no longer play spells. Beyond the Patron Wizard interaction, the deck plays out in typical aggro-control fashion, with Voidmage Prodigy and Martyr of Frost replacing usual suspects like Counterspell and Mana Leak. Now that Goblins seems to be falling off everyone’s radar, and Engineered Plague with it, I think this is an excellent time to revisit this strategy.

I made a number of changes to update the list for post-Future Sight Extended, as well as some personal tweaks that the original designer may or may not agree with. (I couldn’t bring myself to play Sage of Epityr just to keep the one-drop Wizard count at 10 instead of 8, for example.)

First off, Red is out and White is in. For my money, Fire/Ice, Grim Lavamancer, and Shadow Guildmage do not compare favorably to Jotun Grunt, Stormscape Apprentice (whose notable targets include Tarmogoyf, Psychatog, and Sutured Ghoul) and the mighty Meddling Mage. I hardly think there will be enough Tron at Valencia for Dwarven Blastminer to pull his weight in the sideboard, and there’s always the chance that Vindicate will pull enough weight in the land destruction department to compensate.

Second, I don’t think Shackles has as much value in an 18-land deck when Tarmogoyf is in everyone’s maindeck and Ancient Grudge is an automatic sideboard include for many deckbuilders. Threads of Disloyalty, on the other hand, targets Tarmogoyf quite nicely and dodges Ancient Grudge altogether. It’s not half the man Shackles is against a Psychatog or Terravore, but then again, 18 lands worth of manliness is not much against those targets either. Against the decks where Shackles’s ability to cash in multiple chumps from the opponent’s side would be relevant, I am reasonably sure I would rather have the cheaper of the two cards in order to preserve my life total — especially when those are precisely the decks that will be boarding in Ancient Grudge against me.

Third, I took out Counterspell for Yixlid Jailer and Sage of Epityr for Martyr of Frost. With a healthy 24 Blue cards in the deck, I expect the Martyr will do a fine Counterspell impersonation a lot of the time, while working much better with Patron Wizard and Umezawa’s Jitte. Since I removed both Lavamancer and Shadow Guildmage from the one-drop slot, and replaced them with only Stormscape Apprentices, adding Martyrs also brings my one-drop Wizard count up to eight, just shy of the original quota of ten.

The Spell Snares in the board offer extra turn 1 plays, as well as some additional outs to cards like Devastating Dreams, Isochron Scepter, Smother, and Burning Wish (in both TEPS and Loam). Vindicate is a Swiss Army knife, removing Tron pieces, creatures, Seismic Assaults, and even Isochron Scepter if I have a Matryr or Voidmage down to stop the Chant for a turn. Meloku is for matchups against midrange beatdown decks (which, in Extended, means decks that like to play Troll Ascetic) where a little something extra is needed to break open attrition wars.

Finally we come to a bizarre Affinity list I thought up while discussing the archetype with Adrian Sullivan.

I had four Tarmogoyf in the main as a reflex, but realized that he is a very slow draw (for this deck) in matchups where racing is key. When I am brawling against another beatdown deck, or trying to outlast a control deck’s Wrath effects (or Devastating Dreams, as the case may be), I clearly want four, but even the first copy is one of my weaker draws against TEPS, Dredge, Cephalid Breakfast, and Balancing Tings.

It’s subtle, so you might miss it if you’re used to breezing over Affinity lists that all look the same, but that’s four Tormod’s Crypt in the maindeck there. If there is one deck where that card contributes to the maindeck in non-graveyard matchups, it’s Affinity. Besides being a pump for Ravager and Plating, and a Mox for Frogmite, Enforcer, and Thoughtcast, Crypt has various subtler uses against a lot of the format. It is extremely strong against Tron’s Gifts Ungiven piles, blanks Sins of the Past from TEPS, and can neuter a Psychatog or Grim Lavamancer here and there as well.

Might of Old Krosa represents my desire to have Shrapnel Blast against the combo and control decks, and also a more effective way to win the Tarmogoyf war against the beatdown decks. As most Goyf decks come up with Land, Creature, Sorcery, and Instant on their own, most any Shrapnel Blasts I aim at a 4/5 Tarmogoyf will find its target a 5/6 on resolution, thanks to the artifact I just sacrificed to pay its casting cost. Might of Old Krosa, however, will let one of my own Lhurgoyfs win a fight against an opposing twin, or take a 4/4 Myr Enforcer up to the required 6/6 to tangle with, and defeat, the 5/6 Goyfs I expect to face.

When my opponent offers no creatures for me to scrap with, I can simply main phase the Might for an extra four to the dome. That’s one shy of Shrapnel Blast’s five, to be sure, but I get to keep an artifact and halve my mana cost. (Unfortunately, I can’t use it to get myself out of a Chant lock as I could with Blast, but that only worked when I could find enough Blasts before the opponent found a Teferi.)

The sideboard for this deck is full of juice. I get both Meddling Mage and Orim’s Chant against TEPS, Tings, and Tron, Jotun Grunts to compliment my Crypts against the graveyard decks, and Grunts, Welding Jars, and the fourth Goyf against beatdown. I had Armadillo Cloaks in there in place of the Jars at first, on the happy thought that “What the hell beats Arcbound Ravager wearing Armadillo Cloak?” I promptly replaced them with Jars when I realized the answer to that question was “Ancient Grudge, duh,” and that I probably wanted a more productive zero-cost accelerant than Crypt against those decks besides.

I’m excited to start trying these decks out. Depending on how things go, I may have more to talk about on these “Beat ‘Em” decks next week, or else a brand-new discussion of what is in store for our “Join ‘Em” Graveyard-ful strategies. (Which is to say, Goblin Lore may or may not be involved in next week’s article.)

See you then!

Richard Feldman
Team :S
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