Extended: A Tale of Two Formats

Zvi examines why there are two different Extended formats being played right now, tells you what decks you should and should not be playing, and requests that all of you Rock players out there stop bringing sticks to gun fights. The Mad Scientist also addresses your forum feedback and a variety of community issues all in one fell articulate swoop.

I’ve got to try writing my own titles from now on. That last reference of Ted’s was far too arcane. This week’s main theme is a tale of two Extended formats: The one the top players are playing, and the one played by everyone else. It’s a lot like Vintage, except that card access isn’t as big a factor in the split.

Extended of the People

In the beginning, before the rise of The Dojo, there were many versions of every format. Each play group, each city and each region had its own view of what was good and what was bad. There are stories of master traders who regularly made mints buying up cards cheaply in an area where they got no respect and driving them to another where they were solid gold. The earliest such stories date back to prior to Alpha and early testers like Skaff Elias. With the rise of the internet and exchanges of Magic strategy, things became steadily more standardized. There would still be regional metagames, but everyone tends to agree on the basic concepts of each format. The biggest differences often come from innovations that have yet to spread out to a wider area, or the warping impact of the preferences of the small group that represents an area’s best players. For example, when I was in Denver the top players had a personal dislike of Affinity and that held down its numbers even though they knew it was an error without my needing to tell them.

The reason I bring this up is that this Extended season hasn’t worked that way. Part of that is that we have a ton of decks, perhaps as many as twenty or thirty, that have a decent shot at winning a PTQ in the hands of a good player and even more that can make the Top 8 and with a little luck even take home a blue envelope. There could be five of the top ten decks missing from the metagame, and it would still be a healthy and stable mix. Because there are so many targets, there aren’t many decks that have to worry too much about hate or even splash damage. The few decks that need hate to keep them in check seem to get that hate even if they aren’t that popular, and because of Vampiric Tutor and Cunning Wish often it only takes one or two sideboard slots.

Players are playing what they like to play, both in general concept and in the specific cards, and it’s hard to point to their choices and call them unplayable. Allow me to do it anyway. A lot of what is being played is unplayable, because it’s just not on the same level as the top decks, but with so many decks out there it becomes hard to see that. The bulk of the field still believes in playing Magic “the way it was meant to be played” with decks that at their heart are fair. As I’ve said many times before, that’s crazy talk! Never ever EVER play fair when you have a choice, and if there is one thing you have in Extended right now it is a choice. With that choice, players are using decks like Rock and Red Deck Wins as some of their most popular choices. They’re attacking for two. I have nothing against attacking for two (or drafting the booster), but neither will give you strategies as strong as combination decks can be when they’re working properly.

Extended of the Pros

The top players know better. Look at the Top 8 of Grand Prix: Boston. Daniel OMS, who was an old friend of mine, made a comeback attacking for two. Dempsey attacked for two as part of his plan, but his strategy was never about attacking and I think it owed a lot of its success to innovation and surprise, as did Keith McLaughin and his Reanimator deck, which no one would accuse of trying to play fair. Then there were five true combination decks, and it could be argued that Keith’s deck comes close. This was not an accident. BDM chronicled the decks of a PTQ this past week. Four combination decks made the Top 8: Life, Aluren and two Mind’s Desire decks. Such decks had one of the eight winless decks, five of twenty-five with at most one win, twelve of eighty-four decks in the tournament (fourteen if you count two rogue combos).

Those results are a little misleading because the decks aren’t just doing better. They’re falling into the hands of better players. If someone shows up with Rock, I lose respect for their Constructed skills. If they run Mind’s Desire, you can at least give them credit for a good decision and having enough faith in their own skills to run the deck. I’m not saying that Mind’s Desire, Aluren or Life is any harder or easier to run than Rock, Goblins or RDW, but it functions that way in terms of deck decisions. Players who feel up to the challenge do well, and those that consider the whole concept alien or not for them pay for it in their results. I see no reason to expect this to change.

Playing to Win

If you’re playing to win, you play to win the tournament. There have been tournaments I’ve entered to have fun, and had no intention of winning, but those events don’t count. There are those who are after the amateur prize and don’t think they have what it takes to qualify, but that’s no way to live. You have to play to win the PTQ, or at a Grand Prix get at least far enough to get an invite. That’s where the money and the glory are. Most of the time, there’s little or no difference between the deck that is best for getting to the top eight and the deck best at winning once you get there, but that’s because the popular decks are all about as strong as each other. Now we have a situation where that is not true. It is predictable that you will face creature decks in the early rounds and then combination decks late. It is that second test that will determine your fate, assuming you are worthy of such a test. You have to be willing to prepare for the endgame, and choose your deck and sideboard accordingly. If you lose along the way, so be it. That doesn’t mean you can leave yourself unable to defeat the other decks, because they start out strong and often sneak into the later rounds on sheer numbers, but it does mean not running a deck that would be upset about having to go through Aluren and Mind’s Desire to get the invite. Life is the perfect trap deck – it might get you to the dance, but you’re going home alone if you meet any real resistance.

I’d also like to note that Keith’s deck from the Grand Prix looks highly dangerous, has been tearing up a storm out west and if you choose that as your house, I can see that being a good choice as well.

Mad Scientist Cross stitch

Build a House

The scariest part of playing decks that don’t play a normal game is when they face each other. The matchups that result are often bizarre, especially true mirrors. What happens when two Aluren decks face each other? If you’ve never considered playing Aluren, there’s a good chance that you have no idea. These matchups can often be dominated by the player who knows them. For someone who decides to concede to reality and play the best deck, these problems can mean that they have to play their games on the road. When you know your matchups inside and out, you’re at home: They are in your house. I’ll likely expand on this in the future, but in Extended it is true more than ever. There’s a huge inertia in such a huge format, because there is so much to learn about each deck. You can switch decks once or twice in these two months, but more than that and you’ll be going on the road. It’s not easy to build a house even for the more basic decks, and players who have experience with the combination decks start out with a huge edge. That edge is then compounded over time, because they gain more experience while those who keep tuning the creature decks get stuck learning more about those decks instead. Even if it’s bad for you in the short term, you need to be willing to cross over, because at least until the rotation that’s going to be how you win. I’ll try and expand on this later, because this should be an article in itself.

The Limits of the Limits of Interactivity

It’s now time to address the issues raised by Flores in his recent article, The Limits of Interactivity. In general I have a severe dislike for decks that are based around having an answer to each opponent. I don’t mind using a sideboard, or having cards to Tutor for against various decks, but when you make that your primary method of winning you’re doing it because you’re trying to play fair and they are not. Never play fair. It is even worse right now, because you have those forty decks to worry about. You never know what is going to pop out of your opponents’ deck these days, and the next Grand Prix will probably feature another two or three breakout performances. For that reason, a silver bullet approach to Extended is doomed to fail now more than ever.

That’s the surface answer. The more interesting question here is what it means to force interactivity. Upon reflection, to me interaction means attempting to have a fundamental turn that is not the turn you win. Mind’s Desire wins the game by winning, so its fundamental turn will always be the same as its goldfish turn. For RDW, you start messing with your opponents’ head faster than that. At least, that’s your goal. You need to stop your opponent first because you have little hope of winning a race otherwise.

That is why RDW is a very bad example of a principle of “when forced to interact by a faster clock.” The key term here is faster clock, and RDW is not faster. It also isn’t the most important thing in those faster clocks, which is single minded. The decks that stopped High Tide, or at least put up a show of trying, did it by pulling out all the stops. Forbiddian is about establishing advantage and taking control in the most basic and fast way you can think of, with a minimum of other cards of any kind. Suicide Black with Sphere of Resistance is about getting down power and throwing up resistance… and nothing else. Oath back then was all about doing whatever you have to do in each matchup, and doing it no matter what. All these decks had only the bare minimum of cards devoted to other purposes.

Interactivity is also highly dangerous on principle because you’re counting on your opponent to care. He might not care, and if he doesn’t you are dead. The more diverse the field, the more it will reward those who don’t bother interacting. The narrower the field, the more you can pinpoint the right interactions that matter to enough of your opponents. Right now, interacting is silly. It brings all sorts of elements of your opponents’ deck into play, often rewarding them for cards they have no business playing. By ignoring them, you force them to rely only on their clock and on the few things that can stop or slow you down. Force them to play your game. When there are lots of games, what’s the chance they’re prepared to play yours?

Next Week

Among other things, my take on Grand Prix: Seattle, with decklist analysis, metagame analysis and anything else that seems like a good idea at the time.

So To Make Sure Everyone Gets It

If you want to qualify, you want to be on one of the most powerful decks in the format. Affinity was my initial guess for most powerful, but it has let me down, so I’m forced to go on to the real threats. Choose one of the combination decks, likely Mind’s Desire but you can also choose Aluren. Don’t choose Life. I still hate Life unless you want to parlay it with Cephalid Breakfast, in which case that list is such a mish mash that I have no idea how good it is. At any rate, choose one, learn it inside out and ride it to the end of March. That is your best shot, and if you are no good at such decks or simply refuse to tolerate such nonsense, then at least don’t try to attack for two. For next time, stop playing in a dome where they can’t legally sell beer. You’ll never make it to the big game. Speaking of beer…

Weight Loss and You

For those who don’t know, I’ve lost a lot of weight. A lot. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, but it wasn’t easy. My solutions won’t work for everyone, and I know in some ways they’re not ideal. I don’t want to get into the details without a lot of explanation, because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but I do want to say one thing. Get off your encounter suited butt and do something! Eat less, exercise more, or at least do one or the other. It really is that simple, whether you follow the rest of what Ben recommends or not. The things I want to emphasize the most are to cut out that junk food and to start drinking water – they were vital parts of my strategy and without them all hope would have been lost. Outside of meals, make it water only. No exceptions. This means you!

Not Peanut Butter and Chocolate, but they still belong together

Synergy and Anti-Synergy: Ire of Kaminari and Horobi’s Whisper

You can bet that I spent a lot of time thinking carefully about the dangers of putting these two cards into the same deck. What I did not do was explain that, which on reflection was unwise. The issue is how big a deal this is, and whether it should force you to choose one side or the other. My conclusion was that it would be worthwhile. Horobi’s Whisper is the more important effect for your deck concept, so it goes in first. You’re going to fuel your engine with Dampen Thoughts, which means that there is going to be at least some cards that aren’t arcane going into your graveyard. You can also get a large Ire off by delaying the Whisper for a turn or two when you need to get the damage out, since Ire doesn’t take that much fuel to start becoming rather sick, and Ire acts as a guarantee that you can deal with large black creatures. Eventually you won’t need Whisper all that often, and you can start building up to a huge Ire. With both in your deck, you can be assured that Dampen Thoughts will be worth your time – even if one isn’t drawn or is bad, the other is there for you, and after sideboarding one of the two can come out depending on what you face.

This decision happens often during deck construction. You set up a situation where you have access to a certain resource, in this case a graveyard full of arcane cards, and you have a need to take advantage of it. Alternatively, you need to make sure that you get something quickly. That leaves you with more than one thing that fuels off of the same resource. It’s the classic question of how many of something you play when you don’t need more than one. Wild Mongrel is better than Aquameoba, but you play both because you can’t count on Wild Mongrel showing up often enough for the deck. Even the use of lands of a splash color can be considered anti-synergistic in a sense, since drawing both together is awful. It is a necessary evil.

Genju of the Fields: Now With Extra Spirit Linky Goodness

I am pleasantly surprised to notice the multiple activation trick, which I, like so many others, overlooked when reading the spoiler list. That was a good catch, and of course it makes the card better. It is now very good at letting you turn excess Plains and mana into life. It is not however the best Genju, because the Red one still does something I want more, but I would no longer hesitate to call this part of a complete White control deck if I was convinced such a beast was playable. I’m willing to be convinced but it hasn’t happened yet.

Survivor: Palau (If you don’t think it belongs, don’t get mad – just skip ahead)

While I chose not to talk about the strategy of Survivor here (free Apprentice 3 tip: I think Alex is the favorite against the field), there is one note I would like to share with everyone. There was a contestant by the name of Wanda. She did the most preparation of anyone for Survivor, ever, with the possible exception of Rob C. She had the “Four STs.” She had the “Four Es.” She worked hard on interpersonal skills, on listening, on leadership, on asking questions to get to know people. She composed Survivor songs to sing during the competition. And then when the time came to pick people for tribes, they realized she probably had little physical strength, didn’t want to hear her sing, and didn’t pick her. She went home before the first vote. The moral of the story is: Preparation is good, but don’t forget the obvious. There are some things no amount of expertise can overcome. Also, tuning and making everything exactly right is great but if the basic concept is awful… you’re still going to lose.

Shameless Plug

I have an article up right now at magicthegathering.com, and I spent far too long on it and so did Scott Johns as the editor, so if you’re interested please read it. Compare and contrast it with Ben’s similarly themed article here on Star City and let us know what you think. The cards he’s biggest on compared to my list are Mindslaver, the artifact lands, Tangle Wire, Null Rod (at #22, the first card on his list to not make mine, and it was close), Isochron Scepter (as was this), Goblin Charbelcher, Chalice of the Void, Trinisphere, Sundering Titan, Defense Grid (another bubble card), Scroll Rack, Smokestack, Tormod’s Crypt, Ankh of Mishra (bubble), Fluctuator (oh even more sweet irony) and Crucible of Worlds.

There’s a good chance he’s right about Null Rod and Isochron Scepter, although I doubt they’re quite that high. Chaos Orb doesn’t count since I excluded it as a banned card. My list of hits that he didn’t quite agree with are Sol Ring, Black Vise, Lotus Petal, Cranial Plating, Jayemdae Tome, Mirror Universe, Ivory Tower (his first snub from my list, at #27), Howling Mine, Serrated Arrows, Chimeric Idol, Darksteel Colossus, Steel Golem, Illusionary Mask, Jester’s Cap, Gauntlet of Might and Time Vault. The lists look a lot alike, and neither of us saw the other’s in any way while we were making our choices. The major difference is that my list leans more old school and his discounts the cards from Magic’s first three years to make room for new arrivals. If I were to adjust that bias, the lists would become scarily close indeed.

Whatever Happened to Cyberpunk?

For those who don’t know, I moved out to Denver over a year ago to be the lead developer of the collectable card game Cyberpunk. It is a very cool game, and I’m proud of the job I did as developer. I think I helped deliver a quality product that is well worth the time for those who want another such game and don’t mind doing a bit of math. I didn’t put the math there, but I did approve of it. We did a great job of capturing the atmosphere and flavor of Cyberpunk and the game proved to be balanced. I was feeling very good about deciding to come work on my own game (if not my own design) rather than go to San Diego and work on Marvel. Alas, while we were off to a great start, we simply ran out of money before we could create a big enough fan base to pay for our fixed costs. I designed and developed an expansion for the game that’s ready to go to the printers but might never get there, a sad commentary on the similarly fated Netrunner expansion Silent Impact. I hope that the game can be passed on to someone who can save it, but I know how unlikely that is. I’d love to get another shot and I think that I would be great, but whether or not Wizards ever comes calling I consider myself lucky. How many people get even one shot at something like this?

Magic Invitational: Japan and the Writer’s Ballot

For the Japanese vote, I may not be the most qualified to judge, but my vote has to go to Tsuyoshi Fujita for all of his innovations and for being an all around great guy and class act every time I’ve met him, but I have nothing against anyone on this list. For the writers’ ballot, I’m not supposed to be telling you this, but I voted for… HEY! Where’s my writers’ ballot? Why don’t I get a ballot? What a bad beat. I think I’m going to go into the corner and sulk *sulks*.

I’m sure I’ll be feeling better by next week. Until then,

Zvi Mowshowitz