Feature Article – The Post-LA Extended Metagame

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Friday, January 23rd – The Extended PTQ season continues apace, and everyone is hunting for the information to earn them a precious blue envelope. David Irvine investigates the lessons taught by the recent Grand Prix results, and what they mean for the key strategies in the metagame.

As you may have read from the coverage of Grand Prix: Los Angeles, the format has shifted again, heading away from the metagame when Pro Tour: Berlin gave us our first decklists. Back in Germany, the top tier decks were Elves, Zoo, and Faeries (of both the Mono-Blue and Blue/Black varieties). Other decks simply couldn’t compete with the explosive power of Elves. In Day 2 of play, these three decks made up over 60% of the field. Skip ahead to Worlds in Memphis where there were only six rounds of Extended. There, the most popular decks were Faeries and Zoo by far, making up over 45%. The thing to note here was how popular Faeries have become. They went from about 15% in Berlin to 26% in Worlds, while almost all other archetypes went down in popularity.

There could be a few reasons for the deck breakdown at Worlds. For example, many players prefer to play control once the format has been established, or because the Faeries deck has a very good matchup against Elves. Some players also chose their deck based on the average record they thought it would get them. Either way, the Extended format became more pronounced. There was hardly a new deck that could come in and sweep away the rest of the field. A few PTQs came along and showed that Martyr of Proclamation (and even Lightning Angel) could win in Extended. But Faeries still remained a contender with frequent Top 8 showings, and Elves seems to have dropped out as a commonly-played deck. Then along comes Grand Prix: Los Angeles.

Affinity is the #2 played deck in the Day 2 field? This happened because of two things: 1) Affinity has a pretty good matchup against Faeries and 2) Elves simply aren’t being played as much as before. Affinity’s creatures, for the most part, get around the counters in the Faeries deck, while Viridian Shaman and Wirewood Symbiote take apart anything in the Affinity deck. Out of the 128 decks in Day 2, there were 29 Faeries decks and 7 Elves decks. Sounds like good tournament for Affinity. If you play Affinity, I recommend playing both Master of Etherium and Fatal Frenzy in the main deck, as well as 4 Thoughtseize in the sideboard. I’m also not sure if people will play Kataki, War’s Wage again, but it can’t be long before that happens. With Affinity back on the radar, it seems like it will have a more difficult time winning through the hate. I was intrigued by the sideboarded Delays in Carl Hendrix’s Affinity deck. Being able to hold off an Ancient Grudge for a few turns goes a long way towards winning the game. One remaining problem is Shattering Spree in some sideboards of Burn and Mind’s Desire decks.

Death Cloud/Green-Black decks, with their Raven’s Crime and Life From The Loam engine, are able to tear apart most Blue decks while playing threats that are harder than normal to handle. While it takes them a few turns to get started, these decks are still vulnerable to a quick combo deck unless they can Thoughtseize a key part of the combo by turn 2 or 3. Green/Black decks made up 16 of the 128 decks in Day 2 of Los Angeles, with only Michael Jacob making Top 8.

Look at the main deck: its so anti-Faeries that I almost can’t believe it. Four Darkblast main to handle the annoying Spellstutter Sprites and Vendilion Cliques, the Raven’s Crime/Life From The Loam engine, and even its own Umezawa’s Jittes and Bitterblossoms instead of Damnations and Death Clouds. The Chokes probably didn’t hurt either. This deck has found a niche now that Faerie decks are so popular. Affinity put a stop to Jacobs in the quarterfinals, but with a few modifications you could make this more resilient towards a good Affinity draw. Against a fast Mind’s Desire start, only Thoughtseize, a quick few Raven’s Crimes, and Extirpates can hope to save you. If Faeries remains as popular as it is now, expect this deck to stick around until the end of the PTQ season.

In LA, Desire decks came in two forms: the variety with Tendrils of Agony with which LSV won the whole thing, and the version that uses Pyromancer’s Swath and Grapeshot. Together, the two versions made up 12 of the 128 decks in Day 2, with two of them making Top 8. That has to say something good about Desire decks right now. While comparing the decklists of Luis and Asher Hecht from the Top 8, there are only six spells different in the main deck. The core of the deck is solid. Asher could deal with Gaddock Teeg by killing it with Grapeshot and Pyromancer’s Swath, while Luis had Electrolyze to handle the two problem creatures for the deck: Gaddock Teeg and Ethersworn Canonist. It can also be used against Elves to buy you an extra turn to try and win first. This combo deck was faster than most decks in the field, and probably even than Affinity (depending on who got to go first). As a Faeries player in LA, you also had to deal with the sideboard package of Gigadrowse, Pact of Negation, and Brain Freeze. This deck seems to have found its place in the current environment. But back around Berlin, this deck would not have been able to compete with the speed of Elves. They could combo on turn 2 or 3 almost every time: a turn faster than Desire decks. Remember Nassif’s 23rd place Mono-Blue Faeries deck from Berlin? It had four Stifles main. Does anyone even play that card anymore? Well, not many people played it in LA. Desire is good now. Another GP win for Luis… can’t argue with those results.

Some people I’ve been talking to are quite interested in Saul Alvarado’s Next Level Blue deck. I bet most people weren’t planning on seeing a deck with four Cryptic Commands and Rude Awakening to make the Top 8 of a Grand Prix. Mark Herberholz admitted his deck could never beat a deck that contained those cards.

I don’t think this deck would have been able to survive in the field in Berlin, but this deck got better as the format changed. In fact, I’m not quite sure how he beats combo or the Raven’s Crime / Life From The Loam Engine without a Vendilion Clique, but he did make it all the way to the Top 4 of the Grand Prix, so you can see just how well a deck can do when its playing powerful cards. I dare say it’s the mix of the best cards in Blue and Green within Extended, but with many outcomes of games decided by turn 4, you have to have drawn the right ones to stay in the game. Saul also plays a single Miren, the Moaning Well to go along with his Vedalken Shackles. That’s something we haven’t seen since the last Extended season. He also had a neat sideboard card: Arashi, the Sky Asunder. It kills fliers, and it kills them good. You can’t counter the channel ability unless you have a Stifle. Everything else is pretty standard for what you’d expect a UG control deck to have. This is a reasonable deck when you know that you’re going to play a great variety of decks. Tarmogoyf, Vendilion Clique, and Cryptic Command can go a long way to winning some games.

Overall, the format has become a giant melting pot of decks. Almost anything is viable right now. In Berlin, there were a few main decks that seemed to crush everything else. Worlds saw a relaxing of the format, where more decks were able to win. Now after LA, Elves are practically extinct in the metagame, leaving room for more archetypes to exist. If you are trying to decide on what deck to play in an upcoming PTQ, I would recommend a deck that has a more proactive game plan. Desire, Affinity, and Elves all win on their own speed and power. All three are combo decks. Affinity is just Arcbound Ravager or Cranial Plating and artifacts, sometimes involving Fatal Frenzy. Decks like Faeries, Death Cloud, and Martyr Proclamation disrupt the game to a point where they are able to turn the tide in their favor and then win. Zoo tries to play both sides by winning with damage and trying to disrupt the opponent with Tidehollow Sculler, Blightning, Gaddock Teeg, or Thoughtseize. I think that Elves is still the best deck in Extended, but until the number of Faeries decks decreases, Elves will remain a lesser-played deck. Until that time, Mind’s Desire is probably the best deck to play, with favorable matchups to the current builds of Affinity, Faeries, and Black-Green decks.

Affinity can have a shot beating Desire decks to the punch if it has Atog and Fatal Frenzy. As an Affinity player, you also have to deal with more Ancient Grudges and Shattering Sprees. I can assure you, getting Shattering Spreed for all your permanents makes the game a little less fun.

Faeries will have a much better game 1 if they start playing Stifle in the main deck again. You might also want to put Ancient Grudge and an extra Academy Ruins in your sideboard. The Academy Ruins is a nice little addition for the mirror (to win the Umezawa’s Jitte war), and against Desire decks that sideboard into the Brain Freeze plan. Remember, you can’t deck yourself with it in play!

If you fancy Elves for the PTQ season, I would play the Weird Harvest version, since it’s usually faster, and you shouldn’t need the Wirewood Hivemasters and Chord of Callings to bring out an Orzhov Pontiff for the mirror match. Just make sure to have the Thoughtseizes and Viridian Shamans ready in the board. Do watch out for Brain Freezes as you are going off games 2 and 3 against Desire. They can deck you in response to a Glimpse of Nature trigger.

If you plan on playing Mind’s Desire, just know that you probably can beat almost anything except for Elves, but be prepared to handle a landslide of hate cards in people’s sideboards.

With everything I’ve said, the most important thing is that you should play decks you know well and have tested with. To see people lose to their own Summoner’s Pact or to missed triggers from Dark Confidant is awful. Seeing people counter the wrong card when playing against Desire is also aggravating. Play the decks, and play the matchups. Because as of right now, many people have tested for Berlin, Worlds, and Grand Prix: Los Angeles, and the same card pool has been available for all three tournaments. I know it’s expensive to build decks and test on Magic Online, but it’s the closest thing you can find to a real tournament because you won’t know what exactly is in your opponent’s deck. Try testing some of these decks and matchups with a friend without knowing their entire 75. You might be surprised.

David Irvine
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