For the fourth or fifth consecutive Extended PTQ season in a row, we find ourselves headed into a wide-open field. The Top 8 of Valencia was Rock, Gifts Rock, Enduring Ideal, ChaseRare.dec (not “Chase Rare Control” – if that’s a control deck, I’m an iguana), Tenacious Tron, Dark Boros, Affinity, and traditional U/W Tron. In addition to the decks from the Top 8, I’d expect to face Dredge, Scepter-Chant, Domain Zoo, and Loam at any given PTQ. We might even see some TEPS, Destructive Flow decks, Cephalid Breakfast, and Psychatog from time to time.
This is old news, but it bears repeating: you will not beat all of these decks at once. Whatever you play, unless you’re the Second Coming of Magic experts, you’re going to have some bad matchups in such a large pool. (And – let’s be honest – if you really could outplay everyone so devastatingly at every turn, you wouldn’t be PTQing.) You’re also going to be paired against things you didn’t test against over the course of a tournament, some of which may not have even been mentioned above. How do you beat them anyway? What do you do to give yourself a shot at winning your bad matchups, and how do you expect to defeat the things you did not have time to test against?
Stealing Wins in This Extended Environment
As the underdog in a matchup, you must win a game by stealing it out from the opponent’s nose. Obviously if the matchup goes the way it’s supposed to go, you lose – so in order to win, something improbable has to happen in your favor. As Magic is full of improbable events, setting yourself up to win when luck is on your side is lot better than drawing dead no matter what happens.
Sometimes the improbable event will simply be the opponent getting screwed; he’ll keep missing land drops, or will draw virtually no business spells, or will mulligan a lot, and you’ll successfully steal the win despite being the underdog on paper. Unfortunately, you have very little control over how screwed your opponent gets in a given game. By wielding a powerful deck, however, you can introduce new improbable scenarios that will allow you to burgle victory from the jaws of defeat.
Powerful decks can compensate for an awful lot of deficiencies by doing something broken that the opponent happens to be unequipped to answer with his current draw. Affinity can power through an Ancient Grudge draw if it starts chaining Thoughtcasts together and dropping so many fatties on the table, it doesn’t matter how many of them get shot down. Enduring Ideal can get its hand ripped to shreds, its Divining Top Needled, and its life total ravaged by a Tarmogoyf… and rip the game-winning Sorcery off the top. It is comparably much harder for fair decks to overcome a bad matchup, because their only real path to victory is hoping the opponent gets screwed.
Although the most powerful deck in a format is certainly not necessarily the best one to play, when you’re heading into an open environment like this – where there are so many decks and so many matchups you won’t have had time to test thoroughly – it is of tremendous value to bring a deck that will give you a real shot at powering through undesirable pairings, rather than relying on good fortune in matchups to carry you through the tournament.
So what are the most powerful decks in Extended? The tricky part about that question is that the power level in Extended is about as high as it gets in PTQ formats. How do you decide what’s powerful relative to the rest of the format, when the overall power level is so high?
As far as I know, there has never been any kind of metric used to rank the comparative power levels of decks. It’s easy to say that Enduring Ideal is more powerful than Boros, for example, but is ChaseRare.dec more powerful than Scepter-Chant? Is Boros more powerful than Rock? How would you even go about answering these questions?
As there is a lot to be learned from the exercise, I spent some time thinking about a consistent way to rank the most powerful decks in Extended, and came up with the following: a deck’s ability to recover from a mulligan to five (against an opponent with the full seven cards) is a reasonable indicator of its power level. It’s not the only indicator, certainly, and there are clear exceptions (TEPS is powerful but does not mulligan well), but the consensus among the writers I spoke to about this method was that it was a good place to start.
Why the mulligan to five? Essentially, it is a solid indicator of a deck’s ability to steal games through power. If you are playing a fair deck and mull to five, pretty much the only way you will steal a win is if the opponent gets screwed somehow: he stumbles on mana, gets horribly flooded, draws the wrong mix of spells, etc.
Powerful decks, though they have the same overall shot at winning because the opponent was screwed, also steal games by doing broken things. When such a direct route to victory presents itself that the lost card advantage doesn’t even matter, the powerful deck can steal a win even though the opponent wasn’t screwed. It stands to reason, then, that the decks with the highest concentration of broken cards and/or interactions will have the best chance of assembling something busted against a seven-card hand and pulling the game out through pure power. This is why a deck’s ability to win off a mull to five is often indicative of its power level compared to the rest of the environment.
Compare Domain Zoo (alias Gaea’s Might Get There) to Boros splash Goyf. Which of those would you rather be piloting in a mulligan to five situation? While Boros is brimming with cards that deal two or three damage, Domain Zoo rocks eight cards that can deal five on their own, and the Swiftblade-Might interaction connects for up to twelve. With an opening hand of Swiftblade, Gaea’s Might, and three fetchlands, you can get the opponent to eight life with your third turn’s attack – and even lower if he’s taken pain from lands. A second topdecked Might gives you a turn 3 kill.
No two-card (or three-card) combination from Boros can boast twelve damage on turn 3. No matter what combination of five cards I draw as a Boros player, it’s going to take me quite a few turns to put my opponent away. Unfortunately, the more turns I give him to interact with me using his larger grip of cards, the less likely I am to steal a win. This is exactly why I’d rather have Domain Zoo in a mull to five: while Domain Zoo can combine a small number of very broken cards to put the opponent away before he can reap the benefits of my card disadvantage, Boros’s most powerful interactions are “fair” enough to leave him well in the game.
It’s tougher to see this when comparing seven-card openers to seven-card openers. When Boros gets the benefit of a normal starting hand, strengths like mana consistency and the ability to dodge two-for-ones start to come into play. While Domain Zoo is a full three colors – splashing a fourth and a fifth, â€˜cause mise – Boros is two colors, splashing a third. This will tend to make Domain Zoo’s seven-card openers more likely to exhibit color screw, or at the very least a comparably painful set of initial turns. When Domain Zoo goes for a Might on a Swiftblade, it opens itself up to a two-for-one if the opponent has a removal spell at the ready; Boros does not need to rely on such tricks.
However, these differences are what allow fair decks to compete with powerful ones – and what we’re trying to measure here is power, not overall quality. When the chips are down, you’ve got five and your opponent’s got seven, consistency is far less of an issue. If you get a “consistent” draw and your opponent doesn’t get screwed, you’re still a big underdog because he’s up two cards on turn 0. Even if your deck does crap out on you because of its inconsistent elements, you’ve only lost a game you were likely to lose anyway.
When you lose the fair game by default, you don’t want a consistent draw, you want a broken one – the type of draw that asks the question, “got the answer?” with the kind of devilish grin that comes with the knowledge that the opponent is dead to the underdog if he doesn’t have it.
Let’s put this into practice and see what we get. I went through the Tier 1 and Tier 2 decks in Extended (as I see them), and ranked them according to this metric; when comparing any two decks, the only question I asked was, “Which would I rather have in a mull to five?” Without further ado, I give you:
The 20 Extended Decks That Best Survive a Mulligan to Five
No surprise here. Dredge doesn’t much care how many cards are in the opening grip, so long as they are the correct ones. You need a discard outlet, mana to pay for it, and a card with Dredge; anything beyond that is pretty much gravy. Dredge barely cares about the lost card advantage at all, and mainly dislikes a mull to five because it decreases the chance of seeing the correct mix of dredgers, enablers, and mana.
Ideal can go off on turn 4 with a two-card hand, so long as both cards are Lotus Bloom and it topdecks a land and an Enduring Ideal right away. Much like Dredge, Enduring Ideal requires only a small number of cards to be very powerful – so long as they are the correct mix of cards.
As I understand it, a lot of TEPS players switched to Enduring Ideal once the list was out, simply because it was a similar strategy that required fewer components to assemble and was more difficult to disrupt. I recall that many people did not take Ideal as seriously as they might have in the weeks leading up to Valencia, but there can be no question that the deck is powerful. It plays a seven-mana game-ender in a format with Lotus Bloom, Invasion sac lands, Seething Song, and Pentad Prism. Seven mana is not a tall order when you have that kind of weaponry, and finding the deck’s namesake is not hard with Burning Wish and Divining Top on hand. Now, given that the deck can power out Ideals quickly and consistently, there are other challenges to the deck’s claims to quality – how well it can withstand discard spells and countermagic, and so on – but in any case, the power is there.
It didn’t make much of a splash at Valencia, but man can this deck ever recover from a mulligan. A big part of the reason Loam was the consensus best deck at the end of last season was that it was so incredibly powerful against the average PTQ foe.
4. Balancing Tings
Nothing evens the odds after a double-mulligan quite like a pair of Ancient Springs and a Balancing Act. Though difficult to pilot correctly, this deck can fire off its combo far more easily than most. The only thing keeping it from rising higher on this list is the fact that executing its combo does not directly translate into a win. In fact, it is unnervingly common to do nothing but reset the board after a big turn – and while this new board generally puts the Tings deck at an advantage, that is hardly the same as a guarantee of victory.
5. Tenacious Tron
This is one position higher than traditional U/W simply because of Chalice of the Void and Gifts Ungiven. These two cards are capable of trumping entire strategies on their own, and they simply are not present in traditional U/W Tron. (I’ll talk about the Tron strategy next.)
6. Traditional U/W Tron
Compared to Tenacious Tron, the one card I’d miss being able to have in a mulligan to five is Exalted Angel. Tron is as high as it is because of the Urzatron and because of the card draw. In speaking to Adrian Sullivan about the “mull to five” metric, he pointed out that many powerful decks run a lot of card draw to find their most broken effects – which, conveniently, helps out in a mulligan to five by doing exactly that. Tron not only has the “oops, I drew Tron” draw, but also lots of cantrips to help find that draw quickly even in a mull to five. Remand, Condescend, Repeal, Thirst for Knowledge… with all this card-drawing weaponry, the odds are even higher of assembling Big Mana in the first couple turns.
There’s a substantial drop-off between the first five decks and Affinity, but I put the artifact deck as high as I do because of cards like Cranial Plating and, to a lesser extent, Thoughtcast and Arcbound Ravager. A five-card hand of Arcbound Worker, Frogmite, Cranial Plating, and at least two artifact lands attacks for a minimum of seven damage on turn 3. Thoughtcast erases half of the mull to five’s effect for a single Blue mana, while dodging Counterbalance and Chalice of the Void. Shrapnel Blast is arguably the most savage burn spell in the format, and this is essentially the only deck that can play it.
People forget about how busted Affinity is because of Ancient Grudge., but Ancient Grudge isn’t nearly the powerhouse it used to be. While a year ago the Grudge was a successful foil to a whole host of the format’s top decks, Affinity and Scepter-Chant are the only decks on this list that need fear it any more.
8. Domain Zoo
The individual powerhouses here are Tarmogoyf, Gaea’s Might, and Tribal Flames, each of which are good for 4+ damage – even when you’re stuck on two lands because you mulled to five. Raphael Levy crushed two consecutive GPs with this beast, and despite missing the elimination rounds at Venice, it remains an explosive contender.
9. Rock and Nail
This Zac Hill / me / Marijn Lybaert / Bill Stark concoction is on a whole different power level from Gifts Rock and traditional Rock, simply because “and Nail” packs a lot more punch than “Gifts” or ” “. This deck survives mulligans to five by using Rock-like disruption to slow the game down, then supercharging its mana supply by assembling two lands: Cabal Coffers and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. Rock and Nail’s “nuts draw” isn’t anywhere near as explosive as those of the decks above it on this list, but it makes a stake for itself at #9 by requiring only five lands — one of which is Urborg and one of which is Coffers — to do something stupid. That’s not something you’ll see in the early game, generally, and as far as Big Mana effects go, this is slow even by the standards of Tron’s nuts draw, but game-ending power as early as the 4th or 5th turn is a lot better than waiting around for Genesis.
This deck has several individually powerful cards, but has only one powerful interaction – Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top. It’s interesting that Fortier’s team chose to play Counterbalance as a two-of late-game finisher, when so many previous Counterbalance decks had maxed out on it, suffering some clunky opening hands in order to play up its role as an early-game mise.
When the two Counterbalances and three Tops don’t come together for this deck, its remaining broken cards are Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, and the pair of Jittes. Threads of Disloyalty in the main is hit-or-miss, obviously; it will probably be insane if it has a target, but will frequently be a mulligan simply because it has no target. The rest of the deck is merely solid cards; Counterspell, Thirst for Knowledge, Engineered Explosives – these are all fine cards, but none of these are expected to break games wide open by themselves. The board is not much different, bringing in some more reasonable cards but offering no new broken interactions.
If I had to pick a deck to mull to five with, I would easily prefer any of the above to looking at five cards and asking “Scepter plus Chant or no?”, but the fact that those two cards in the opening grip have a reasonable chance of beating the opponent on their own puts it at eleventh – even if the rest of the deck’s ability to recover from a double-mull is unremarkable. Scepter-Chant’s suite of card drawing would be a lot more impressive if it drew the pilot into more broken cards, but by and large you’re just digging for a Scepter. Fact or Fiction into a plate of fair cards doesn’t do nearly as much damage as it does when Tron pieces and Mindslavers are involved.
12. Dark Boros
Takayuki Koike’s version of this, from the Valencia Top 8, sports Tribal Flames (I believe Patrick Chapin suggested this for his build of Dark Boros awhile back), but I put ChaseRare.dec and Scepter-Chant ahead of this because it’s missing the Gaea’s Mights and Boros Swiftblades of Domain Zoo. To me, the loss of nearly half the game-breakers that make Domain Zoo so powerful – Tarmogoyf, Tribal Flames, Gaea’s Might, and (to a lesser extent) Boros Swiftblade – drops this deck’s comparative power level below that of the above two.
13. Gifts Rock
This is higher than traditional Rock for similar reasons that Tenacious Tron is higher than traditional Tron. In this deck, simply resolving a Gifts Ungiven can not only solve the on-board problems, it can also serve up inevitability (from a five-card hand, no less!) via Genesis. In the case of Tine Rus’s deck from the Top 8, Gifts Rock also includes Collective Restraint, which is savagely busted in the aggro matchups and can steal victory all by itself.
14. Midrange Flow
Much like Scepter-Chant, when this deck mulls to five it’s often a “Turn 2 Flow Or No?” deck. It can claw its way out of a bad draw against creature decks by Jitte advantage, but there aren’t a whole lot of decks in Extended that fold to an active Jitte anymore. These days, if they’re vulnerable to Umezawa’s Cheater Knife, they are also packing Knives of their own, Engineered Explosives, Vindicates, or something similar. The rest of Midrange flow is just a bunch of decent support cards: Troll Ascetic, Duress and Therapy, Dark Confidant (who suffers from a similar problem in this deck as Fact or Fiction does in Scepter-Chant), and so on.
15. Cephalid Breakfast
This deck can cast its entire combo – tutors included – with two mana, and can even kill on the second turn of the game off a two-land hand. If it had more redundant copies of those cards (as opposed to tutors), I would probably put it ahead of Dredge in terms of consistency. However, the main reason this potent combo is this low is because… well, because Mogg Fanatic, that’s why.
I would hate to mulligan to five with a deck where the tiniest Mogg Fanatic, the slightest Smother, the faintest Engineered Explosives… turns me into a three-card combo with Duress or a bounce spell. In a format where Cephalid Illusionist had a strong chance of surviving long enough to do his damage, I’d put Breakfast a lot higher than I did, but that’s simply not the format we’re looking at.
16. Traditional Rock
Now we’re getting into the really fair decks. Rock’s got Pernicious Deed to create blowouts, and then some Elephants in case of Red deck. None of it is especially impressive; its only redeeming quality is that it can get some two-for-ones (the poor man’s substitute for real power) to help compensate for the mulligans.
There are a lot of Tog decks out there, but their power levels are all roughly comparable. Tog is a tragically fair deck these days – which really tells you something about how Extended has grown – and Fact or Fiction is about the only way this deck has to recover from a mulligan to five. Sadly, there’s no riding a rawdogged Psychatog to victory with so few cards in hand, which has been one of Psychatog’s best opportunities for stealing a win. This is one of two decks that is unfairly judged by the “mull to five” metric, the other being…
This is where the ranking system fails outright. In terms of pure power, TEPS should probably be up around the #3 or #4 slot, but part of the point of this exercise is to see where the “mull to five” rule breaks down. This is pretty much the definitive case, and I haven’t been able to think of a modification to the rule that catches this exception.
I hope it’s not too much trouble to remember that if I had a Magical Power-O-Meter with which to accurately measure a deck’s power level, I’m sure TEPS would be far, far higher on this list than it is.
Mike Flores designed a number of Green midrange decks last year, designed to prey upon very specific metagames. I wouldn’t necessarily expect Mike to advocate playing these decks in the upcoming Extended season, as the environment has shifted considerably since he initially recommended them, but I would expect updated versions to see some carryover play from players who ran them at the end of last season.
I chose Bests because it was the most modern of these decks, after Haterator and “Flores Rocks.” Bests is #19 on this list because it has no identifiable Nuts Draw, and relies instead on hosers to steal wins. This is much more difficult to do in an open environment; Dwarven Blastminer was far more effective against TEPS and unprepared Tron specifically than it would be today against Enduring Ideal and Engineered Explosives-filled Tron sideboards. It’s not surprising that a targeted metagame deck is lacking in overall power, but such is the downside of playing a deck that must be “well-positioned” to win.
20. U/G Opposition
This deck has a “nuts draw,” in a sense – some number of quick creatures into Opposition, hopefully accelerated out on turn 3, possibly followed by Beacon of Creation – but this nuts draw is full of holes and may still be the deck’s only substantial chance at victory after a mulligan to five. Engineered Explosives (to remove Beacon tokens), Krosan Grip, and Pithing Needle can sneak through the Opposition wall with ease, and the deck is overflowing with fair cards when it doesn’t draw its namesake. There’s always the mised equipment win with Jitte or Sword of Fire and Ice, but several of the decks higher up on this list boast those exact draws and better ways to steal victory without them.
First, two disclaimers to guide forum responses. One, remember that this is an ordering of power, not of overall quality. Fair decks can beat the tar out of powerful decks in the right circumstances, but ranking decks based on quality is a far more complicated endeavor; that was not at all my goal here. Two, while I welcome arguments that claim certain rankings of mine were way off, I don’t think it’s productive to debate rankings that are especially close to one another. Sure, Midrange Flow (#14) might be more powerful than Gifts Rock (#13), but if you agree that they’re comparable in power level, I doubt you’ll learn anything significant from figuring out which is slightly more powerful than the other.
This list paints an interesting picture of the format’s most powerful decks. It seems tougher and tougher to find a powerful control deck in this metagame; the only real success story seems to be Tron. Not many Counterbalance-Top decks do anything broken besides assembling those two cards, and Scepter-Chant is a similar one-trick pony (okay, maybe one-and-a-half tricks, given the other instants that do something when Imprinted). My good friend Psychatog just isn’t what he used to be on the power scale now that Tarmogoyf is in the picture, and while Gifts Rock might intuitively “feel” like a powerful midrange control deck – it practically oozes with inevitability, what with all the Genesis tricks – it turns out there are a fat stack of decks in this Extended environment that completely overpower it.
The biggest takeaway from this exercise is to realize what you are getting yourself into when you get behind one of these decks. If you’re playing a deck that is really not all that powerful compared to the rest of the environment, are you sure the rewards you’re getting from that deck’s interactions outweigh the lack of overall power?
It’s absolutely possible that they are, but remember that by playing a comparably fair deck, you’ll be conceding a certain percentage of games to the opponent’s unstoppable Nuts Draw without stealing a percentage back for yourself. Affinity players have been steamrolling through valleys of artifact hate for years because their opponents failed to recognize this principle, so if you’re going to PTQ with a fair deck – whatever you do – make sure the rewards outweigh the risks.
Until next time!
Bonus Section: ITOG is open to the public!
Several months ago I ended an article with a plug for the website I started, www.IsThatOneGood.com (itog.com for short). At the time, we were in closed beta, and things were… not so polished, shall we say.
The site is now truly impressive. We’ve streamlined the whole process, we’ve added all sorts of new features, we’ve opened to the public, and we’re looking to start spreading. Our goal is to get to 1,000 users by New Years; we’re at a little over 625 at the moment, and need all the help we can get!
For those of you who don’t know what ITOG is, here’s how the site works.
1) You rate things. Films, books, restaurants, games (you can rate Magic and MTGO separately, for those of you who love the one and hate the other), cities, beverages, comics, etc. — there are over 200,000 different things you can rate, that span 27 different categories.
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3) Discuss all sorts of topics, vote on polls, read reviews (or write your own) of just about anything on the site. There’s plenty of room for more Magic-related discussions, for example, and there aren’t nearly enough gamers on the site if you ask me. You can also check out your percent similarity in taste to a reviewer to see if you should trust it or not.
4) Share your opinions with your friends. You can add people as friends (including yours truly), see how similar your tastes are to theirs, view their ratings and ITOG’s predictions for them, see what they’ve been up to on the discussion boards, and so on.
In short, I’d really appreciate it if you took a second to check the site out. (I’d super-appreciate it if you liked the site and told all your friends about it, but I’ll take what I can get!)
As always, thanks for reading.