Deep Analysis – Three Flavors of Los Angeles

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Thursday, January 22nd – To the casual observer, the Top 8 of Grand Prix: Los Angeles should have been overflowing with Blue Wizards, Elves, and Zoo… of course, while the Blue Wizards made their mark, both Affinity and U/R Storm rocked the final table. Today, Richard Feldman looks at the three archetypes, and proposes a direction for the ongoing PTQ metagame…

You know who is in charge of Top 8 Sunday lately? StarCityGames.com own Luis Scott-Vargas, that’s who. Big ups to the man!

It seems like only yesterday we had Zoo and Faeries/Wizards at the top of the heap in Extended. Arcbound who? Tendrils of what?

Zoo didn’t even grace the Top 8 of Los Angeles, and the different builds of Affinity, Blue, and Storm that did make an appearance are sure to be the groundwork on which these archetypes will appear in the upcoming PTQ season.

For that reason, I’m going to kick off the post-LA Extended season with a look at just how the big three “flavors” of this Top 8 (Blue, Affinity, and Storm Combo) break down.

Flavor 1: Blue Creature Control

The two Wizards maindecks, compared here, are different by nicks and cuts. Here’s the short version:

• Herberholz played two more Chrome Moxen and one fewer land.
• Marr had a fetchland-based manabase to allow splashes, and a second Academy Ruins instead of a fourth Riptide Laboratory.
• Herberholz played Thirst for Knowledge over Ancestral.
• Marr ran a third Archmage and a Firespout instead of two Trinket Mage and a Repeal.
• Heezy mained a Threads and boarded his third Shackles.

The theme here is that Herberholz favors consistency over power, and is more concerned with making it through the early game. Heezy has two more Moxen, Thirst for Knowledge over the often-sluggish Ancestral, a Threads main instead of a Shackles, and the duo of Trinket Mage and Repeal over the more expensive Archmage and Firespout.

Not to dig on Marr or anything, but this is a pattern we see pretty consistently from masters of the game like Herberholz: they cut powerful spells in order to play more lands and focus on the early game, because they know that as long as the game drags out, their odds of winning it approach 100%.

When it comes to the sideboards, we see Marr’s splash in action. Goblin Sharpshooter is the most potent anti-Elves! card in either player’s deck, and Firespout the most potent anti-Zoo. (Ancient Grudge goes without saying these days.) In comparison, Herberholz has Annul, Sower of Temptation, and Threads of Disloyalty. It’s debatable if Threads or Firespout is better against Zoo, but Firespout has to be better against Affinity, and it’s no contest as to which is more effective, Ancient Grudge or Annul. Overall, these seem like substantive upgrades; I’d say he made good use of his splash.

Post-board, both decks have access to three graveyard removal spells: two Trinket Mage and Tormod’s Crypt in the Herberholz brew, with three Relic of Progenitus for Marr. Note that, thanks to Trinket Mage, Mark was able to save some sideboard space by including only a single anti-graveyard hate card while having a post-board concentration of “three.” Since anti-graveyard measures are basically for one major archetype (G/B Loam) plus some endangered species (e.g. Dredge), it is of considerable value to be able to shrink the amount of board real estate dedicated to these uncommon matchups.

Oh, and although Herberholz did not board any specific hate for Storm combo, Marr had three Stifles. Make of that what you will; it could just as easily be that Heezy did not expect Storm combo as that he felt he could defeat it without the aid of a bullet.

The really cool part about what separates these two decks is that their most interesting elements are not mutually exclusive. You could absolutely take Marr’s Red and Green splash (reminds me a lot of the once-U/B Counterbalance Psychatog decks of two years ago that someone – GerryT, if I recall – upgraded with Ancient Grudge via Stomping Ground) and apply it to Herberholz’s early game-focused build. Assuming a stronger early game is what you’re looking for, you might want to take a look at a hybrid of the two:

Hybrid Wizards

1 Breeding Pool
2 Steam Vents
5 Snow-Covered Island
4 Mutavault
4 Riptide Laboratory
4 Polluted Delta
3 Flooded Strand
2 Glen Elendra Archmage
2 Venser, Shaper Savant
4 Spellstutter Sprite
3 Vendilion Clique
2 Trinket Mage
3 Umezawa’s Jitte
4 Spell Snare
2 Engineered Explosives
2 Vedalken Shackles
3 Chrome Mox
1 Firespout
4 Mana Leak
1 Repeal
4 Thirst for Knowledge

1 Glen Elendra Archmage
1 Vedalken Shackles
2 Firespout
1 Academy Ruins
2 Flashfreeze
2 Negate
2 Sower of Temptation
3 Ancient Grudge
1 Tormod’s Crypt

If you’re feeling especially adventurous with the concept of putting your mana to work for you, check out the Patrick Chapin-powered decklist in Zac Hill article this week. ZHill won a GPT with it in short order.

In a similar vein, but different archetype, we have Saul Alvarado’s Next Level Blue build. Tarmogoyf and Blue spells have not hung out much this Extended season, but this finish might change that.

For something truly unusual, I’m now going to compare Saul’s NLU maindeck against that of Mat Marr Wizards. Check it out:

• Mat has Mutavault and Riptide Lab instead of color-producers, and one Chrome Mox worth of additional mana sources.
• Saul has Cryptic Command and Repeal over Venser and Spellstutter Sprite.
• Mat has three Glen Elendra Archmage in place of Saul’s Tarmogoyfs and singleton Rude Awakening.
• Saul includes non-Blue standouts Arashi and Kitchen Finks in the board, on top of the expected Ancient Grudges, while Mat has only Goblin Sharpshooter and Blue stuff.
• Mat has an extra Jitte and Thirst for Knowledge, while Saul has an extra Thirst for Knowledge.

The last point is a minor quibble, but the others are pretty interesting. In a nutshell, the differences between the two decks boil down to “Wizards or Goodstuff?” Mat plays Riptide Lab and Mutavault to support the Wizard cards, while Saul plays more green producers so he can afford double-green sideboard cards like Arashi and Kitchen Finks. Mat plays Spellstutter Sprite and Venser, while Saul plays the more abstractly powerful Cryptic Command and Repeal. Mat has Glen Elendra, Saul has Tarmogoyf.

When it comes to the core cards like Shackles, Jitte, Vendilion Clique, Mana Leak, card draw (they both chose Ancestral in this case, though either could have gone with Thirst)—there’s not much difference between the two. Even the deviant cards fill similar roles—2 Repeal instead of 2 Venser, and 4 Cryptic instead of 4 Spellstutter (more of a stretch, granted, but both counterspells).

By now we are all aware of how powerful the Wizards package is. Since there’s no such thing as Engineered Plague anymore – or, really, any other kind of hoser that would discourage you from playing Wizards any more than it would discourage you from playing Blue in general – when you have a Blue Deck whose core is as similar as these two decks, the situation begs the question of whether your deviance from the Wizard theme in favor of “good stuff” is worth it.

Goyf, Cryptic, Repeal, Rude, and Finks have all seen their Extended successes (and I’m willing to give Arashi the benefit of the doubt – it’s probably nuts against Faeries and Wizards), but taken together, are they better than Wizards as a whole?

My intuition is that they are not. I can see the uncounterable Cloudthresher effect being nuts in “the mirror,” and I can see Goyf and Finks doing a lot for the Red matchups, but I can’t find the card that compensates for the loss of Riptide Laboratory, let alone Mutavault. Is it supposed to be Cryptic Command? I hope not, because – at least in Extended – Cryptic does not hold a candle to the soul-crushing late game inevitability of the Lab. Every matchup slips when you ditch the Lab; the question is how much. My money is on “too much.”

If I were to battle with one of these decks, it would probably be the hybrid Herberholz-Marr build I listed above.

Flavor 2: Affinity

To me, Affinity’s role in the Extended metagame is this sort of bizarre, recurring stock market bubble. When its matchups work out and there isn’t too much hate, its worth starts to explode overnight. Then it becomes popular, and everyone starts hating on it, and its worth implodes overnight. Then, because it is worthless, people stop hating on it, and (assuming the matchups still work out) it becomes good again – meaning its worth starts to explode overnight…

We’re on the uptick at the moment, so expect Affinity to be a decent choice for at least the next week or three while sideboards adjust.

The maindeck differences in the comparison between the two Affinity builds in this Top 8 are not profound. Three Master of Etherium versus four, three Thoughtcast versus four, cut the Soul’s Fire and trim a Myr Enforcer to fit two Atog. Move along, nothing to see here.

The sideboards, however, have some interesting differences. Four Thoughtseize is a constant, as is a minimum of four dedicated anti-Elves! hosers in the form of Krark-Clan Shaman or Darkblast, but the builds diverge from there. Carl Hendrix opted for some extra defense against Elves! and Storm combo in the form of three Ethersworn Canonist, forfeiting Ancient Grudge in the process by cutting Tree of Tales for Ancient Den. I would expect Terror was for a mixture of AIR, Swans, and maybe even Elves!, and I would strongly suspect less Elf-hate in the weeks to come.

Then we have three Relic of Progenitus. You have to have a specific reason to play Relic in Affinity when Tormod’s Crypt is available, as zero-cost artifacts lead to more broken draws faster, and Affinity is not a deck that likes to leave one mana open to activate things at the right time.

One explanation is that it’s more for the long haul than a one-shot hit in the short term, but playing for the long haul would make no sense in an aggressive deck like Affinity. The more plausible explanation is that it’s Expensive Tormod’s Crypt With Cantrip – for two extra mana, you can kill Loam without costing yourself a card in the process, and avoid a dead draw if they don’t see a Loam in the first place. I can’t say I’m fully sold on this idea at first blush, but I can think of a few arguments and playtesting results that could convince me pretty quickly.

Finally we have Delay. There are at least four reasons to play Delay over Mana Leak. One is card availability, and given that Mat Marr had Rune Snag over Leak for just that reason (which he mentions in the coverage), it shouldn’t be casually ruled out. Another reason would be that you think the opponent can pay the three mana, but I suspect that has less to do with it than the third reason: you don’t want the countered spell to end up in the graveyard.

Ancient Grudge is powerful because it kills not one, but two artifacts. Mana Leak it and you still pay two mana to stop their two-mana spell while leaving them with an Oxidize to play from the graveyard. Delay it, on the other hand, and you buy yourself three turns of full reprieve. Ditto for Life from the Loam.

The fourth reason would be to neuter an X-spell. Mana Leak is plenty effective against Death Cloud either way, but I’m thinking more of Explosives. An Explosives for two, with three mana open, can be stopped for a turn with Mana Leak, but for three turns with a Delay – and then it comes down with Sunburst zero, which probably will not hurt you much.

All things considered, I would guess this comes in against Damnation decks and decks packing Ancient Grudge and Explosives. In both cases it has multiple juicy targets, and it seems like a solid tool for stopping the scary cards.

Artifact or no, Relic of Progenitus does not seem to do as much damage against the Loam deck as a whole than Delay would, and is a lot more versatile against the other decks against which it could come in. I’d keep that from Hendrix’s sideboard, and though the jury is still out for me on Canonist versus Terror (I would lean toward Canonist given the expected spike in Storm combo deck popularity after this tournament), I love the Krark-Clan Shaman over Darkblast.

Imagine you are an Elves! player trying to go off with that thing on the board. It really doesn’t matter how quickly you chug along, or how far ahead you are – as soon as you go for that Regal Force, or Orzhov Pontiff, or start getting close to a lethal Grapeshot count, your entire board is going to be wiped in an instant. As the Affinity player, you get to put the opponent in this position without even leaving one mana open. You can just lay the Goblin on the table like Seal of Pyroclasm and go about your business, daring the Elves! player to try and go off and get obliterated. Awesome.

Flavor 3: Storm

As a quick comparison reveals, these decks differ chiefly in their win conditions. Asher wormed a Gigadrowse into his main, and LSV had the dark horse Electrolyze, but the real meat of the difference was Tendrils of Agony versus Grapeshot and Pyromancer’s Swath.

Even the sideboards look similar, with Asher packing three Gigadrowse instead of two, as well as a two-two split of Chain of Vapor and Echoing Truth instead of just three copies of Truth. The biggest difference in the boards is that LSV had two Ad Nauseam and two Shattering Spree instead of three Relic of Progenitus, and three Pact of Negation for the mirror instead of two Trickbind and one Pact.

I like LSV’s board better, but if I were a betting man, I would put my money on Asher’s as the more popular model for this season. Trickbind (or at least Stifle) is what most players first think of when they think “beat the mirror,” and most players don’t put enough time or energy into their boards to determine if more Pact action might work better overall. Likewise, Relic of Progenitus is a fairly straightforward way to fight Loam, whereas I don’t think as many players will be apt to sleeve up Ad Nauseam alongside their six-mana Mind’s Desires.

Back to the win conditions. An immediate upside to the Grapeshot version of the deck is that, well, you get to have Grapeshots. When you draw a Grapeshot and can’t go off, you can always use it to hold off some pressure – or, far more critically, kill a Canonist or Sculler that is impeding your Mind’s Desire – whereas hardcasting a Tendrils will buy you a full turn only if you’re extremely lucky. That said, the Tendrils approach has a far lower incidence of dead draws. Swath doesn’t help you get started going off, it just helps you finish.

Some quick math:

• If you have only a Grapeshot, you pay two mana to deal damage equal to the Storm count. You will often need a Storm count of 16-20 to kill with it.
• If you have two Grapeshot, you pay four mana to deal damage equal to double the Storm count, plus one. You will often need a Storm count of 8-10 to kill with it.
• If you have Tendrils, you pay four mana to deal damage equal to double the Storm count. You will often need a Storm count of 8-10 to kill with it.
• If you have Swath plus Grapeshot, you pay five mana (and two cards) to deal damage equal to triple the Storm count. You will often need a Storm count of 6-7 to kill with it.

Obviously your general preference would be to go off with Swath plus Grapeshot every time if you could, and failing that, to go off with Tendrils, and failing that, to go off with two Grapeshots, and failing that, to go off with one Grapeshot.

In other words, the only way it can be easier to go off with the Grapeshot version is specifically if you have Swath out.

Now, Swath plus Grapeshot costs five mana. Tendrils plus Sleight of Hand (Sleight is what LSV has in place of Pyromancer’s Swath) also costs five mana. So really, for the same amount of mana, the combo of Swath plus Grapeshot means you can typically go off after having played 1-3 fewer spells that turn. Except – oops! Sleight of hand gives you a new card in hand to help you keep going off, which we can count as an extra point of Storm.

So really really, the Swath plus Grapeshot combo only saves you 0-2 extra cards when you pull it off. This is to say nothing of the times when you draw Grapeshot and not Swath, and need – quite literally – to come up with double the amount of Storm as if you’d had a Tendrils.

The other problem, of course, is that Swath doesn’t help you get going. If you have five spells in hand, and one of them is Swath, even if another one is Grapeshot, you often cannot go off. If that Swath were a Sleight of Hand, though, it could be digging you to Mind’s Desire and victory as we speak.

It is this fairly basic calculation that leads me to think Tendrils makes more sense as a maindeck win condition. (Obviously post-board you can get into as much Brain Freeze tomfoolery as you like.) I don’t think the number of times you Grapeshot something important out of the way will outnumber the times you lose because you couldn’t get a storm brewing.

As mentioned earlier, I also like LSV’s sideboard best. Ad Nauseam seems fantastic, especially against Raven’s Crime. They can empty your hand, but unless they have some quick pressure or a timely Death Cloud to go with it, it’s only a matter of time before you draw the Nauseam – and then it’s all over.

So there you have it! It’s the dawn of a whole new season, the metagame’s a-shifting, and I am already pumped about attacking the question of how to break it.

Next week we’ll see how these decks start doing in the playtest arena!

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]