The SWOT analysis (short for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats), typically used in a business setting and ported to Magic by Michael J. Flores, is a fantastic way to analyze the decks in a new metagame from several different angles. As Pro Tour: Berlin and Worlds are the only two data points we have available coming into Extended season, no one (myself included) has comprehensively tested the format out yet. To help add some structure and perspective to your first testing sessions, today’s article will take a SWOT at Extended as we know it so far.
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Wirewood Symbiote
- 4 Wirewood Hivemaster
- 1 Viridian Shaman
- 4 Birchlore Rangers
- 4 Heritage Druid
- 4 Nettle Sentinel
- 1 Regal Force
- 1 Predator Dragon
- 4 Elvish Visionary
Strengths: The fastest combo in the format. Elves! can kill on turn 2 or turn 3, and does so while packing Viridian Shamans (and Summoner’s Pact) for common hosers such as Chalice of the Void and Trinisphere.
Weaknesses: Like most blisteringly fast combo decks, Elves! suffers from a keen vulnerability to specific hosers such as Night of Souls’ Betrayal and Goblin Sharpshooter (though, conveniently, the deck usually kills before turn 4 if otherwise unhindered) and, to a lesser extent, artifact hosers like Chalice of the Void and Trinisphere.
Opportunities: At this early stage, the deck’s biggest opportunity is that it will be underestimated. After Pro Tour: Berlin, it had a huge target painted on its forehead, and the notion that people would underestimate it would be a joke. Now that the results are in from Worlds, and it had a decidedly mediocre showing, an unreasonable number of players will write it off as “just another deck.” They will pack a hoser or two and call it a day, while I predict the savvy Elves! players will adapt to the hosers and capture some early PTQ wins before people start to take the deck seriously enough again.
Threats: Hate and Blue decks, really. In the Top 8 Player Profiles from Berlin, most of the six Elves! players were full of swagger, boasting that their worst matchup was the mirror, and other such hogwash. LSV had the most sobering comment, opining that he was a real underdog in his quarterfinals matchup against Kenny Oberg and his Tezzerator list. Blue decks heavy on countermagic – and particularly those like Tezzerator, which also pack a hearty helping of anti-Elves! hosers – present a serious challenge for this combo deck, and as Faeries and Wizards are among the most popular decks of this early format, they represent a very serious threat.
Strengths: A control deck with a combo finish that includes combo pieces that help control the board as well. What’s not to like? Every Chain of Plasma drawn can be used to take out a Sculler or whatnot if it is deemed too threatening (or if the Chain is your second copy), and every Swan can be deployed to go on defense (or, heck, on offense if you can afford to mainphase that much mana) while drawing you into combo pieces whenever you damage it. As to the rest of the control suite, Firespouts (which are also Concentrates with a Swan out) mop up most creatures in the format, Blood Moon shuts down several opponents by itself, and the card draw and countermagic are both in solid supply. Countermagic (in particular Spell Snare – if Zac Hill were watching over my shoulder, I bet he would note “that card is Man Oh Man”) is strong right now, as is Blood Moon, and ladled on top of those two sterling attributes is the most hate-resistant (if expensive) combo in the format.
Weaknesses: As a control deck, Swans is susceptible to some clunky combo piece draws. While far from dead on average, there is ample opportunity for cards like Swans, Chain of Plasma, and Conflagrate to be dangerously suboptimal when drawn without their combo counterparts. There are also awkward situations where you have one Swans and one Chain, but only four mana, and you are up against a deck that can punish you for tapping out for Swans (Oblivion Ring, Damnation, Sower, etc.) but the fact that the two combo pieces impose a “double mulligan” while you are holding them makes it harder to hang on long enough to hit six mana. Deciding to run it out there when it turns out they have the answer, or committing to hold onto it when you really can’t afford to, can easily lose you the game.
Opportunities: Blood Moon is a savage blow to decks like Zoo, Faeries, Affinity, and Tron. Countermagic and Firespout are both big against Elves!, and the combo finish (provided they lack an answer like O-Ring) is a fantastic way to end the game after slowing down a beatdown deck’s early offense. Things get trickier against the other Blue decks, but Swans has Blood Moon (for some of them, at least) and countermagic of its own to help force through the combo.
Threats: I have not tested the matchup between Swans and decks like Faeries and Mono-Blue Wizards yet, but I am betting they are rough. Any combo deck with expensive, Sorcery-speed things to resolve (you really need six mana to go off properly, or else face the consequences of a Sower next turn) is best backed up by discard spells in the turns leading up to “going for it”, but Swans has countermagic instead. Like other Blue decks, Swans also has a few very excellent answers to All-In Red’s early fatties (Mana Leak, Condescend, sometimes Explosives), but almost nothing beyond that.
- 19 Mountain
Strengths: The fastest fat in the format. At Pro Tour: Berlin, Rashad Miller defeated Owen Turtenwald in a feature match by summoning a turn 1 Deus of Calamity in game 1 and a turn 2 Demigod of Revenge in game two. The deck functions similarly to the Reanimator decks of old, betting the farm on the raw power of a huge fatty on the first or second turn of the game. Like Reanimator, this deck has a backup disruption plan: Blood Moon and Magus of the Moon. Unlike Reanimator’s Duresses and Cabal Therapies (but, interestingly enough, similar to the original Benzo deck’s Contamination), these disruption spells are more hosers than ways to force through or protect the fatties to come. In some matchups, they can be alternate win conditions – turn 1 Mountain, Simian Spirit Guide, Desperate Ritual, Blood Moon versus Faeries? – or at least can hold the opponent off by themselves for long enough to dig up the required mana to drop another fatty.
Weaknesses: You are… hmm, how to put this… if only there were a poker term I could use… ah, yes! You are all in on that first business spell. If the opponent leads with Island, Mox, go, you pretty much have to go for it and hope he is not holding Mana Leak. (Same thing if you’re on the draw, can’t go off on turn 1, and he just plays out two lands.) Even if the fatty resolves, you are praying the opponent doesn’t have a timely answer for it. AIR is so low on threats, if the first one doesn’t do the trick, the second one may be the only other business spell you play for the rest of the game.
Opportunities: Very few decks are packing the answers this deck is afraid of. Bizarrely, the most vulnerable Big Spell you can play early is Empty the Warrens, because Engineered Explosives is more prevalent than things like Terror, Slaughter Pact (which Demigod is conveniently immune to, besides), Putrefy, and even things like Echoing Truth – if someone wants an early bounce spell, it’s going to be Repeal. If you stick a big fatty, the most common answers to it will probably not come until turn 3 or 4, in the form of things like Wrath/Damnation, Cryptic Command, and Sower of Temptation. By that time, you will likely have either won the game, or found your second wind in the form of Magus, Blood Moon, or another threat.
Threats: The two most glaring threats to this archetype, as I see them, are Elves! and countermagic decks. Any deck that is on the play with a Mana Leak in hand is going to put AIR in a tight spot, and Elves! can just take three hits from Demigod and then combo off. Petras Ratkevicius went 6-0 at Worlds with a build of AIR that featured Trinisphere in the main, but only two copies and no ways to search them up… good luck with that Elves! matchup on the back of those. (In fairness, the 3 Chalice of the Void and 4 Martyr of Ashes in the board might turn things around.)
Strengths: The most explosive beatdown deck in the history of the game. Master of Etherium had his shot, but failed to deliver at Worlds (though I suspect he may see a PTQ Top 8 or two across the season), meaning the terrifying pair of Atog and Fatal Frenzy are back in vogue. When the pieces come together, this deck dishes out damage faster than anything short of a pure combo deck.
Weaknesses: Artifact hate, plus combo decks that can outrace it. Back when Red decks had things like Grim Lavamancer, Cursed Scroll, and Pillage to put up a “fair” fight, they could actually stand toe-to-toe with the artifact menace, but these days it’s pretty much just the Ancient Grudges and Shattering Sprees that give Ravager fits.
Opportunities: Affinity absolutely has the tools to dismantle just about any deck that doesn’t pack (or draw) hate for it. Really, it comes down to the opponent’s preparation and draws more than your own, but any given opponent can fall prey to this.
Threats: Unfortunately, people have gotten the memo on Affinity. Like Elves!, some people may lose track of the deck and will not pack hate for it until they get smashed by it in their first PTQ, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. Hate, plus the superior goldfishing power of Elves!, are Affinity’s biggest troubles.
Strengths: Undercosted creatures and burn just never gets old, does it? Between Tarmogoyf, Wild Nacatl, and Kird Ape, Zoo is creeping up on Affinity’s Arcbound Ravagers, Masters of Etherium, and Myr Enforcers in terms of cheap fat. (It may overtake Affinity if they print “Yarmogoyf” to enable eight-Goyf absurdity.) Zoo can put a ton of power on the board in a hurry, and can back it up with high-quality burn like Tribal Flames and Lightning Helix. Whenever the opponent stumbles and fails to execute according to plan, Zoo punishes it quickly and decisively.
Weaknesses: Zoo has always struggled to squeeze disruptive elements in for the matchups where full-throttle beatdown comes up short, and this season is no exception. Unlike the Zoo of years past, modern Zoo typically eschews land destruction altogether in favor of catch-all answers like Sculler, Oblivion Ring, Umezawa’s Jitte, and even Shadow Guildmage. This is a good indicator of how much things have changed; whereas before Zoo was happy to put an opponent back on a land drop through Vindicate or Molten Rain, today all the Blue decks that would have once fallen victim to such a strategy have lowered their curves and added Chrome Mox. Thus, Zoo has moved these slots to address the more pressing concerns of the day – namely, decks like Elves! and Swans, and cards like Bitterblossom. (If you thought Blossom did a good job playing Forcefield in Standard, wait ’til you see it against a frustrated 4/5 Tarmogoyf.) Without edging into the Threats section too much, Zoo has a general problem interacting in meaningful ways with opponents that do not care about its beatdown plus burn strategy.
Opportunities: Beyond its usual capacity to pounce on suboptimal draws from the opponent, Zoo’s main strength in this environment is that it can generate overpowering beatdown draws while still applying a small amount of token disruption. Turn 1 Nacatl, turn 2 Sculler is a vicious sequence, and one which can reduce the opponent to seven life on the third turn (not to mention down a key card in hand) if followed up by Tribal Flames. With such redundant, consistent beaters in the form of the Big Three (Nacatl, Kird Ape, Tarmogoyf), every Sculler-fueled setback puts the opponent far closer to death than with nearly any other deck in the format.
Threats: As Zoo is far too slow to outrace Elves! or even Swans in a fair fight, its only chance is to try to level the playing field with these disruption spells. The other big threat is (embarrassingly, since this is a Red beatdown deck) Blood Moon. Most of the deck becomes uncastable with a Moon out, and Apes and Nacatls instantly shrink. Because it has applications against both Zoo and Faeries (among several others), this is a card that more and more decks are turning to as a hoser.
Strengths – This list marries Vedalken Shackles, arguably the most powerful card in Extended, to the Wizards/Riptide Laboratory package, the most successful control core of the new format. By eliminating the requirement for no-Blue mana (the duals are only there to power up Engineered Explosives), Mono-Blue can play four Mutavault, three Riptide Laboratory, and an Academy Ruins and still have one of the most consistent manabases in Extended. Between Shackles, Wizards, and a functionally single-color manabase, there are an awful lot of top-shelf components in this deck.
Weaknesses – The lack of board control elements make this list more vulnerable than most control decks to fast beatdown draws. Only the 3 Repeal, 2 Engineered Explosives, and 1 Cryptic Command can answer a resolved turn 1 threat on the opponent’s end step, and main-phase answers such as Threads of Disloyalty and Vedalken Shackles leave the opponent free to resolve something bigger (or an answer to your Shackles or Threads) while you are dealing with their original threat.
Opportunities – With so many counters, small utility creatures, and Jittes, matchups like Elves! and Swans must be absolute dream pairings for this deck. With the counters, card advantage, and Shackles, I can imagine the same would be said for any midrange matchup like Death Cloud or Rock as well. Assuming it can overcome Bitterblossom, the Faeries matchup also seems to bode well; between Shackles, an extra Riptide Lab, Threads for Dark Confidant, and fewer dead removal spells, Mono-Blue’s support suite appears to outclass the Faeries equivalent by a large enough margin to give it a real edge.
Threats – My greatest concerns would be that Zoo, Affinity, and All-In Red could resolve large threats too quickly for this deck to handle, and could ride that advantage to victory before Mono-Blue can stabilize. Also, though I have not tested the matchup, I can imagine that if I were given the choice between playing the Wizards mirror with or without Bitterblossom, I would much rather be the guy packing it. While Mono-Blue’s suite of reactive spells seems to be superior to that of Faeries, I can see an awful lot of games being stolen by turn 2 Blossom.
I wanted to include Death Cloud on this list, but I know almost nothing about the deck and would rather reserve judgment on it until I do.
Until next week, I hope this has been a useful overview of Extended. If anyone has had playtesting experiences that clash with my statements here, sound off in the forums and set the record straight!