Flores Friday — Extended: Finding a Baseline

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Pro Tour: Valencia is just around the corner, and Mike is getting back into the Extended swing. Today’s Flores Friday sees Mike throw out three novel and exciting Extended decks, and run us through some games on Magic Online. While, in their current incarnations, they may not be PT winners, they’re certainly decks to watch. And with Nike’s deckbuilding pedigree, who knows? Maybe one will make a Sunday slot after all…

I didn’t realize that the upcoming Pro Tour: Valencia is going to use all in print sets, or that it is coming up so soon… but apparently it is, and it is. I have not been into Magic at all since U.S. Nationals, skipping three PTQs and not even attending a Grand Prix where I was in the same building 48 hours before it started, despite the fact that I was conveniently across the country that week. Nevertheless, my friend Steve Sadin asked me to work with him over dinner at Plataforma last week. It was not that great / epic a dinner. For some reason I had cashews at about 6pm and Steve is all “I eat five small meals a day,” but Plataforma is still Plataforma, even on a Wednesday.

I made some pretty good mid-range Green decks for Extended last year that were able to win a couple of PTQs, and the upcoming format is pretty similar… But I haven’t played Extended in months. In order to prepare, I looked at Frank Karsten’s Extended primer and just started playing on Magic Online.

The first deck I made was an Orzhov Aggro deck called “Who is Safe?”

I made this deck 100% because of one card: Ghost Council of Orzhova. As long as you can get past the Ghost Council’s prohibitive mana cost of BBWW, it is probably the strongest four mana creature in the history of the game… Okay, maybe it’s not better than Masticore, but Ghost Council is awfully good. I was not a fan whatsoever of the various Orzhov decks that were played – and quite heavily – in Standard last year, but Extended is a different format. I think that even though mid-range aggressive strategies are not that common, they are actually better in Extended than they are in smaller formats. For example, my group positioned multiple Call of the Herd decks in Extended that, again, were able to score in PTQs, but we won’t play Call of the Herd in Block, let alone Standard. Part of the reason is that in Standard and Block, the board control decks are very powerful (think Standard Angel Fire, or Block Teachings), and those decks are poison to Call of the Herd. In Extended, no one plays dedicated board control. Instead they play really good creature decks like Gaea’s Might Get There, Affinity, and Boros Deck Wins, and those decks are very easy to beat with a correctly built mid-range creature deck. On the other end of the spectrum are broken combo decks. Those decks are traditionally difficult for less-than-the-fastest creature decks to race, but Extended is such a wide format that the mid-range creature decks can play any number of tools to slow the broken decks down and beat them the majority of the time. The good Counterspell control decks are another story, and usually you have to position very specific cards to beat them (more on that later).

All that said, a lot of the cards in this deck (early version) are placeholders. I will go over them presently:

4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Windswept Heath
1 Stomping Ground

Extended is the land of the Onslaught dual. The cool thing about playing enemy colors is that you have eight lands that go and get Godless Shrine… and either of them can get the one Stomping Ground. Who is safe? Certainly not Affinity.

1 Eiganjo Castle
1 Shizo, Death’s Storehouse

Playing just two colors gives you the room to play lands like these. I win on Shizo + Ghost Council all the damn time.

4 Godless Shrine
3 Plains
6 Swamp

Reasonable and customary, &c.

4 Dark Confidant
A lot of people think this is one of the best Black creatures of all time. You pretty much have to play it in this strategy, but I must say that I lost a lot of matches because I had it in my deck. Bob is quite poor in a lot of matchups, and is actually a gigantic liability against big mana.

4 Ghost Council of Orzhova
This card is single-handedly the reason I wanted to try this strategy.

4 Hand of Cruelty
I think this is actually the best Black two-drop in Extended. BB is harder to hit than B1, but Hand of Cruelty does a lot. It eats Kird Ape, Watchwolf, and Boros Swiftblade all day. No Lightning Helix can breach his bushido.

4 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
4 Savannah Lions

Good men. Good price.

4 Mortify
4 Smother

This part of the deck is pretty awesome. Smother is just awesome in this format. I obviously considered Vindicate, but Mortify really does have its virtues, even in Extended. Mortify is much better against beatdown, though Vindicate is loads better against big mana (see below).

4 Umezawa’s Jitte
Man, this card is good. It’s been a while so I forgot just how unbeatable it can be in creature-on-creature.

4 Withered Wretch
This is the quintessential placeholder. He’s actually been medium good against big mana and Tarmogoyf decks, but not so good that he can’t get cut.

Who is safe?

You’ll notice the Stomping Ground. That can only mean one thing: Ancient Grudge! In Orzhov! This deck can also cast a Leyline of the Void, not just cheat it into play before the first turn. I haven’t been playing this Extended the longest but I am pretty sure that I would be a little scared of playing a linear themed deck.

Some games…

I started out against Gaea’s Might Get There. He had an absolutely great draw and I was stuck on Black. I baited him into going for it with Swifty, and got a two-for-one on Smother, acing both of his signature cards and saving myself 10 life. I ripped Hand of Cruelty and crossed my fingers. Nope. No Tribal Flames. Now his early Kird Apes were just crashing against my 3/3. Okay, sometimes it was a Watchwolf. I’m taking some damage but buying a lot of time. Eventually I draw White and can play the Mortifies I am holding. He’s spent and I stabilize on six, conveniently out of Tribal Flames range, with Ghost Council. It’s over in three.

The second game he draws Jitte, but I draw two Jittes. Bwahahahahaha. Eventually it’s Ghost Council and Jitte on my side, but Dark Confidant is there to keep the game exciting. I am floating around two or three the whole time but the Jitte keeps me around. I crash my Ghost into two Wolves, and a Kird Ape. I pump to eight, kill the Wolves, and finish off both the Ape and a grim Lavamancer; he is out and I topdeck consecutive 2/2 Jitte bearers. This is a good card, Jitte.

The next couple of matches were against ‘Tron decks.

The first one was U/R and it was very close. I haven’t played with Jitte in a long time and made a subtle pre-combat mistake. I could have pumped a guy and moved the Jitte but instead I just swung and his bounce spell worked over my Jitte. I’m not sure if I would have won or not… he was on four.

The second game I drew two Ancient Grudges and a lot of land, but the Grudges carried.

The last game was another close one. He drew multiple Threads of Disloyalty but they didn’t really matter because of my Mortifies. Eventually he got me with artifact recursion.

I decided to upgrade my Red sideboard component to Dwarven Blastminer

Conveniently the next match was against U/G ‘Tron, similar to Ben Lundquist deck from the end of the last season.

The first game I was ahead the entire time but lost to my two Bobs. It is so embarrassing, this card. I had Bob and Withered Wretch, and U/G can’t really beat utility creatures, so I was able to hold down all of his Moment’s Peace flashbacks, as well as artifact recursion while staying way ahead the whole time. He ripped Mindslaver and it just so happened that I drew a Bloodstained Mire on my turn so he could zing me for three before passing. Even then I would win if I didn’t flip Mortify or Ghost Council… and there was Mortify. Great. I actually thought I outplayed him really well this game… the small margin end game seemed quite random, but then again you know how I feel about Confidant. Chapin actually thinks that Divining Top is right in this deck (check out Heezy’s deck from the Top 8 of GP: Dallas).

Game 2 I didn’t lose to my own Confidants, and drew plenty of good cards.

Game 3 I lost the exact same way. He was able to manage my mana on the Blastminer with Remands. Maybe I shouldn’t have been playing it at all… One Stomping Ground is a lot of pressure not just on that sideboard card but even just one Ancient Grudge… You can’t play both sides in one turn ever. I was ahead, had Withered Wretch, he randomly ripped Mindslaver and I happened to have a Windswept Heath when he took control, then flipped Mortify to die on upkeep (again).

I think that something has to be done about big mana. Dwarven Blastminer is not a good fit in this deck. I am currently toying around with a different build with Rain of Tears and Vindicate main, kind of like a B/W take on Tsuyoshi.dec. Same model, just moving around some maindeck slots, giving back all the free wins against Swiftblade and Ravager on Mortify, but giving the deck a better capability against big mana Blue control.

Cloudpost Elf Honden…

I won.


He drew a Jitte in the first, but only a Hound of Konda for guys. I drew a Hound and got him with whoever else.

He could have won the second… He opened on Lightning Helix on my Maher, then followed up with Paladin en-Vec. The bigger problem was that I was flooded. We’ll never know because MTGO crashed. Is Paladin enough of a concern to actually start thinking about slots?

A couple of days went by and Steve came over to test. He hasn’t played any Extended either and just watched over my shoulder for the next couple of games. Understandably, he asked about the B/W deck, because we hated any and all lamer mid-range aggressive B/W decks last year. I explained to him that I think all linears are the same. Affinity and Dredge and Goblins and Beasts are exactly the same power level. The metagame itself says so. All these strategies have teams, but the ones that are really sexy have Leylines or Katakis they have to deal with and others skate by. You can get a lot of value by playing a linear, and picking one that has no enemy allows you to keep that value whereas many times even the best Affinity decks will lose to one Grudge, and often have no chance whatsoever against a Kataki on the draw. Many times, graveyard decks are even harder pressed. No one was aiming at Beasts last year; really who has Ghost Council and friends on their Extended radar? Standard radar for that matter?

Gaea’s Might Get There again… Easy again; Smother your Goyf. Smother is very good.

TEPS got us. This was an interesting one. We were way ahead on discard and knew his only cards in hand were two Cabal Therapies. We had Lion with Jitte and two counters. Lotus was coming in next turn. Lion with the Jitte kills in maybe two swings. No other guy, though. We decided to stick. Lotus warped in, we responded with Ancient Grudge. That’s Storm +2… frown. He ripped Burning Wish, cracked land for Red and Black (and Blue from somewhere) flipped a Mind’s Desire on his Mind’s Desire. I blame Steve. I wanted to flash Therapy. He insisted “we try to win in two turns.” This is how you win a Grand Prix and win a segment at U.S. Nationals? Come on!

We played a few more matches…

Affinity is quite easy for this deck, as is Gaea’s Herald Might Get There. Tog though… We had no chance against Dr. Teeth. I don’t actually know how to solve this matchup. A few years ago, Raphael Levy played a B/G aggressive deck that was near-automatic against all manner of Psychatog decks. This year, though, the Tog decks have Damnation (possibly) and Counterbalance / Top (almost always)… Eliminating Psychatogs in the middle turns is a lot harder when they have such a powerful defense. That said, I blame Steve, again. I think we could have gotten Game 1. He insisted we tap for Ghost Council when the other guy didn’t have any mana up… Bam! Damnation. Waiting one turn (assuming it stuck), I think would have been winner winner. That said, Counterbalance / Top / Tog is just so strong against mid-range. Come to think of it… What is that one not strong against?

I remember my first time in the booth, when Pierre Canali won the Extended Pro Tour. Randy asked if it was really so difficult to believe that the best deck in Standard might port to the best deck in Extended. Inspired, I threw together a Lightning Angel deck reminiscent of Nassif’s Exalted Angel deck:

Lightning Angel seems better than Exalted Angel to me in this style of a deck. For one thing, four mana is far more common than six in Extended, so there is the Counterbalance hookup. I think they are comparable in terms of board presence. Lightning Angel is a card that, like Call of the Herd, does better in Extended than in its first run. In Block and Standard with Invasion, there was the constant threat of Flametongue Kavu… Even though Flametongue Kavu is playable in Extended, no one actually plays with it.

The only card I think I wish I had is Pyrite Spellbomb. A few games went needlessly long and I could have finished them with Trinket Mage for Shock.

First I played against Tooth and Nail. This seems like an odd matchup. It’s not very interactive main deck. Basically they are trying to goldfish you, and you are flying over to hit them in the face in the hopes of burning them out; sometimes you can lock them on Counterbalance before they get to a million mana. I ran a Meddling Mage on Tooth and Nail. He hard cast Sundering Titan and then Triskelion.

For the second game, I side in Pillage and Boom / Bust. I draw one of each (Flagstones), then ride a fast Angel to an easy win.

The third game was a back-and-forth contest of inches. I guess it only felt like that to me. This is not an interactive matchup. Anyway, I played just well enough with spot disruption and some Fire / Ice tapping to run the naughty side of Boom / Bust. It stuck.

I split some more games with Lightning Angel. It seemed okay (other than mmyoung exposing my ignorance of Pyrite Spellbomb). I had seen a sort of Miracle Grow deck list on the MotherShip and decided to try my own hand at that kind of a deck. I based my design on the LA deck that Prof, Siron, &c. played a few years back, but updated to the new options, knowing what we know today (when Prof went undefeated in that LA, we didn’t really know the extent of how good some of the cards were, or which ones). Here is what I tried out:

This deck can get some quick positional draws. For example a first turn Mental Note, second turn Tarmogoyf would yield a sick Lhurgoyf. On the other hand, Chapin estimates that 40% of the Pro Tour will have some kind of Tarmogoyf deck, so pseudo-symmetrical threshing does not necessarily imply superior position. There has been more than one deck based on Psychatog + Grave-Troll so I won’t bore you with that plan. Darkblast is very good in this strategy; I think it should probably be stock in decks like these. Not only is it a randomly good card that can kill Cephalid Illusionist or Birds of Paradise quickly and get the Dredge engine going, but you really want a way to win Tarmogoyf fights, and this is one of the best options because it is reusable. You can easily set up a Darkblast with Mental Note and Top mid-combat. The one regret I have is playing with only three Tombstalkers. They are kind of like extra Tarmogoyfs. When you fight against actual Tarmogoyfs, be sure to eat the correct graveyard bits. It’s subtle, but can be effective when racing.

Cutting Wild Mongrel for Tarmogoyf necessitated a shift in disruption. You don’t really want Circular Logic with only Psychatog as an enabler, so I played Cabal Therapy starting in that slot. Cabal Therapy is synergistic with Dredge and actually better against combo. I think your beatdown matchup is… interesting. These kinds of decks are actually pretty good against traditional, at least non-Affinity, Extended beatdown decks but now that everyone has access to Tarmogoyf, you don’t have any kind of fatty moral high ground. It’s almost fighting fair… Though Darkblast should still be relevant, and can kill Lavamancers, Lions, Fanatics, &c. outright.

This deck, even in its less tuned initial format, did quite well out of the gates. Most of my losing was just due to my being a dummy. I tossed a match where my opponent swung, and I blocked, and I accidentally Darkblasted my own Tarmogoyf. Or once I was winning an attrition game and my opponent had been sandbagging two Jotun Grunts. I figured beating one Grunt would be easy, but mis-counted my mana and ended up giving one Grunt -3/-3… when he has four toughness. Stupid stuff like that.

Owen Turtenwald insisted on being mentioned in this Flores Friday, and I played a couple of games against him. Owen was playing a Gruul deck (Lavamancer, Tarmogoyf, &c. with Molten Rain and Pulse of the Forge) with Terminate as the unique element. To make a long story short, he got me three times. I think the B/U/G matchup favors his deck (he beat me 2-0/4-1 I believe) but my draws were actually kind of bad. The first time I kept two Thickets into a Top and my third land was a Treetop Village on turn 5. Another time he just started with Leyline of the Void on the first turn of a sideboarded game, and I remembered why I dislike these kinds of linear decks and never play them even though I actually love and respect them in the abstract; no chance.

I decided I wanted to win and switched back to Orzhov. I got Game 1 with a surprising mid-combat Mortify (that’s why that card is there over Vindicate… Though I think I am coming around on the classic due to big mana), and cleaned up with Jitte. Owen burned me out perfectly in Game 2, very close… But I actually threw that one. I drew two or three copies of a super secret sideboard card but remembered that Steve asked me not to show it online only after siding it in; self-imposed mulligan… of my best card. Game 3 I just got stuck on two and Owen’s deck worked like clockwork, per all our matches.

I assume his deck was similar to the one posted here, but he was testing Genju of the Spires over Blistering Firecat, and like I said, had Terminate. Terminate was a deciding factor especially in the B/U/G matchup where Psychatog is usually game over. I don’t think any of mine lived, except once when he started with a Leyline anyway. Genju seemed miserable to me, though.

At this point I don’t really love any of the decks, mine or otherwise, though I think the Orzhov has potential (no idea how to beat decks like Psychatog with Counterbalance, though); it seems more like a good GP deck than a bonzer PT one, though. Given all of this, I was talking to Steve the other night and asked him the almost inevitable question…

“What about Threshold?”

“There is no way I am playing the least powerful graveyard reliant strategy. Guess what, guys? If everything goes according to plan, I can get a 4/4 on turn 3! Just no.”

This week I was just trying to get back into Extended mode and finding a pulse on the format. We’re probably going to move to more serious archetype testing next.

Have a great weekend. My sister is moving in with me on Sunday… Should be interesting. She lived in London for two years and is coming back into the city and doesn’t have an apartment yet. I have a pretty decent sized condo for New York standards, but four people already live there… as I said, should be interesting.