This article is a continuation of last week’s SWOT analysis of last year’s Extended decks various, plus another Standard eye on the new Lorwyn cards revealed on MagictheGathering.com and other official spoilers this week.
Extended Part (long)
Aggro Flow is a great deck to help illustrate the difference between (for the most part) last week’s Extended decks and this week’s. The opening lines in the “strengths” sections last week were “Aggro Loam is arguably the strongest deck in the format,” “… Boros… is the realization of everything that good creatures and great burn spells have been moving towards since [ever],” “… impossible to beat,” and “awesome.” Most of the decks this week don’t have strengths like that. Aggro Flow is a serviceable offensive deck; that’s it. It has some good cards, decent enough creatures, Jitte, and Sword; just “showing up for work” means it can therefore win many creature matchups on the strength of equipment. Aggro Flow’s strongest asset, though, is its disruption. Aggro Flow has tons of main deck disruption: 6-8 point discard spells, and of course the reason anyone would play the deck: Destructive Flow.
Most of the incentive to this style of deck is invested in Destructive Flow, which is a dual edged sword. Of course if Destructive Flow is good – and Aggro Flow can often deploy on the second turn – it is pretty great in Extended. However, matchups where Destructive Flow is not great are themselves generally not great. A subtle related weakness is this deck’s manabase. Nineteen lands is slim by any measuring stick. On top of that, this is a three-color deck that – due to tuning specifically towards Destructive Flow – can’t really break the Ravnica dual land cycle; Aggro Flow is more reliant on Onslaught dual lands. While this deck’s curve is not high, it would be silly to discount the potential liabilities involved in a nineteen land (eleven mana-producing land) / three Chrome Mox primary manabase.
The incentive to many of this week’s Extended decks lies not in strengths but opportunities. Aggro Flow has a giant opportunity, nearly the size of the Extended metagame. Second turn Destructive Flow is nothing to sneeze at. Most – not “many” – decks in this format fold right there. A lot of the cards in Aggro Flow are underwhelming given the options in Extended, but when Destructive Flow is good, much more powerful strategies never get off the ground; subtly, this card allows Aggro Flow to win attrition wars over time with many types of opponents while biding time with creatures and equipment.
There are not a lot of specific, direct, threats to Aggro Flow; it’s weaknesses are largely internal, literally weaknesses rather than threats. Aggro Flow is low on the power level for Extended (barring Destructive Flow itself if appropriately positioned), and will therefore be out-performed on the merits on a consistent basis. For example a rival creature deck like Haterator or Beasts will consistently beat Aggro Flow provided it can ignore Destructive Flow itself (usually a safe bet). Even Boros with one Mountain and 1-2 Plains will be able to operate at a minimum level; from there, it’s just about not losing to Jitte and Sword.
The biggest asset this deck has is its ability to lock out the game as early as turn 2 with Isochron Scepter + Orim’s Chant, obviously no joke. Versions with Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir can lock the game out entirely, taking the opportunity for action completely out of the opponent’s hand.
NO Stick has access to the full array of U/r/W control cards (if it wants them)… Exalted Angel for offense and life gaining, Wrath of God for major sweep, card drawing and selection from Blue, even Dwarven Blastminer (sometimes main deck!) for the mirror, big mana, and various other nonbasic land-reliant archetypes.
In addition, NO Stick can race anything with Isochron Scepter + Lightning Helix, out-draw most Counterspell opponents with Isochron Scepter + Fire / Ice, etc.
All together, NO Stick is one of Magic’s most able decks at attacking – and defending – from multiple angles. While the deck does have structural inefficiencies that can be exploited, it can often come back to win in another way. For example, you can pin the artifacts, generate time and card advantage, and still lose to Exalted Angel… just because it is Exalted Angel.
At its core, NO Stick is a gimmick deck. A lot of the deck’s incentive is bound up in the Isochron Scepter; answer that, and it is just a poor U/W deck (but still a U/W deck). Even if it can theoretically operate if Isochron Scepter has been answered, No Stick is still weaker on the fundamentals than other Counterspell control decks in the format. Everything is invested… Chrome Moxes, Isochron Scepter itself… so the efficacy of point removal is amplified.
The Thirst for Knowledge engine that most NO Stick decks utilize makes Seat of the Synod and often additional Artifact Lands necessary components. With the wrong mana draw, that is Chrome Moxes or just multiple Artifact Lands, NO Stick will often be unable to post any kind of basic development due to opposing removal.
Artifacts and Artifact Land tuning can make board positions awkward for NO Stick, for example there have been successful versions playing Kataki, War’s Wage for Affinity… Quite a non-bo with NO Stick’s own permanents.
NO Stick can beat anything. There are a wide array of decks, often specifically combo decks, which just can’t beat it. If opponents are not armed with the right cards, NO Stick will usually win the attrition war… Tons of card drawing (Fact or Fiction plus Cunning Wish plus recurring Fire / Ice plus Thirst for Knowledge) will do that. That said, NO Stick’s opportunities are not specific; it was originally (and even early in last season) attractive more for its strengths.
There is one giant threat facing NO Stick; it might not necessarily beat the deck outright, but it’s the kind of thing many or even most decks can play, and when part of an overall strategy, spells doom: Ancient Grudge. Point removal is twice as good against NO Stick as it is against most decks, just because of all the Imprint cards… Ancient Grudge can potentially do quadruple duty!
There are many cards that can spoil NO Stick’s fun… Blinkmoth Well can crack Teferi + Isochron’s Scepter + Orim’s Chant. Trinisphere will slow the deck to a crawl. A big one – and an increasingly common foe – is Counterbalance. There are versions that won PTQs last year that basically can’t beat a Counterbalance.
U/W Post, U/W ‘Tron, Tenacious ‘Tron et al… “Big Mana”
I am lumping all these decks together because, while different, they share the same core strength: big mana advantage plus Blue and White control cards. Big mana is, well, big. It allows these decks to loop Mindslavers or create dozens of Soldier or even Angel tokens. The top-down effects in U/W big mana are strong enough to allow the deck to play essentially non-interactively with a wide variety of decks.
Specific versions of big mana have specific additional strengths. Tenacious ‘Tron can Gifts Ungiven into Crucible of Worlds and multiple ‘Tron pieces. Sirtroni can play Mindslaver after Mindslaver thanks to its card drawing. with or without Academy Ruins.
The mana capability of these decks allows them to run powerful threats that are basically unheard of outside the archetype.
These U/W decks tend to be heavily compromised. The have Blue and White control cards, but are often inconsistent in deploying them… sometimes because they just don’t have four copies of a key spell. The most glaring shortcoming among most of these decks is their collective permission makeup. Condescend and Remand can be good, especially when the opponent is not as wealthy on the lands as big mana, but they aren’t hard counters. Having twelve or even thirteen colorless lands soaks up a lot of big mana’s available land slots… Often these decks will not have available room to play Flooded Strand.
This strategy’s matchup against beatdown is a mixed bag; I have heard everything… bye to even to unwinnable. On balance, this deck is generally quite good against Loam. It doesn’t have a lot of defined prey in general, though. An interesting side benefit of having such expensive threats… Loam is largely immune to Counterbalance.
The attractiveness of a deck like U/W big mana is the kind of thing that makes a deck like Aggro Flow playable. Big mana is vulnerable to Dwarven Blastminer, too; it is not particularly good at answering utility creatures like Dark Confidant. Worst of all, while this deck is not an artifact deck like Affinity or even NO Stick, it has just enough artifacts to make it a legitimate target for Ancient Grudge. Richard Feldman claimed that Tenacious ‘Tron could be positioned to be “resilient” against Ancient Grudge, but that doesn’t seem to me the kind of thing that is under your control. Even when you are sideboarding to minimize that card’s damage, you are inevitably walking into two-for-ones on your mana that might prevent you from being able to hit your minimum game, let alone play Gifts Ungiven.
Affinity – at least at the height of its powers – was the strongest aggressive deck in the history of the game. Today, with no Aether Vial, and no Disciple of the Void, Affinity is just a regular fast aggro deck on power level… but with some uniquely crippling shortcomings (see threats).
Affinity can be tuned as a pure attack deck, an Erayo deck, to utilize Dark Confidant, and certainly to puzzle in Tarmogoyf (just like everybody else). There are pros and cons to running any or none of these options… Tarmogoyf gives the deck a legitimate threat that dodges all possible artifact have; on balance players from Frank Karsten to Mike Clair (back when he was a Regionals Top 8 player and New York State Champion with Affinity) have written about not playing colored cards in this archetype, even when they are artifact stamped.
Affinity has few if any real internal weaknesses. In fact, it is so strong that it has been repeatedly neutered by bannings… and can still perform at a high level, especially in game 1. One thing I always keep in mind when playing against Affinity is whether or not the other guy has Shrapnel Blast (that is not a universally played card). Without Shrapnel Blast, Affinity in the post-Disciple of the Vault era tends to have no way to win outside of the Red Zone.
Affinity has long been considered one of the best anti-Psychatog decks ever built. Even today, less powerful than in years past, its fours and sevens allow Affinity to largely shrug off Counterbalance; many of its key threats are Smother resistant. In a fair fight (especially any game 1 you will probably see at this Pro Tour) Affinity is a heavy favorite when fighting against most other attack decks because of its ability to deploy many more cards more quickly, giving it the initiative, plus it will win attrition wars thanks to Thoughtcast (other beatdown decks have no card drawing). Subtly, Affinity can play cards like Pithing Needle and Tormod’s Crypt – even main deck! – and profit; those cards are quite good against specific enemies, but Affinity can simultaneously internalize them as Llanowar Elves.
At this point in history the onetime strongest aggressive deck of all time is no longer on the top of the metagame mountain. Part of that is internal (it no longer has Disciple of the Vault) but part of that is also external. There was no Kataki when Affinity was ruling Mirrodin Block; a fast Kataki is almost unbeatable for this deck. More potent is Ancient Grudge. It’s not that Ancient Grudge is better against Affinity (it’s probably not), it’s that Ancient Grudge is so good in so many places that tons of people will play it. That helps to create a hostile environment for poor Affinity that is awfully hard to weather.
In the abstract, Haterator has no real strengths. It’s a slightly above average creature deck, but by no means the fastest creature deck. Troll / Worship is pretty good in some matchups, as is (in some versions) Centaur / Armadillo Cloak. Neither one is good everywhere. Besides some Jitte play, Haterator is thin on legitimate strength.
Haterator has no real predators. Its main weakness is simply being outperformed by a good deck; NO Stick and U/W “big mana” are two examples of decks that can beat Haterator on the merits.
This part of the equation is highly customizable. When I unleashed this archetype last season, the main deck had Troll / Worship supplemented by Gilded Light. The actually winning deck had Orim’s Chant for the U/W decks and TEPS. Haterator can beat decks with a focused plan [that can be attacked directly]. It is ahead on the merits against Aggro Flow, and most other mid-range creature decks, and actually pretty resistant to interaction from those kinds of decks. With the right tools, Haterator can beat essentially any deck… It’s a big question if it can beat lots of different decks in one big tournament.
The threats to this deck are few. It really suffers by being behind against decks with card drawing in games that it is unable to close quickly enough. Haterator’s worst matchups tend to be decks like Tooth and Nail or U/W big mana where nothing it does matters.
This deck has a pretty quick kill. At the time it came out, it was probably novel in the sense that a lot of different people had no idea how to beat it. Given sufficient mana, it’s also hard to beat two Brain Freezes; the version that won a PTQ last year had four.
This deck also has a fairly robust “get out of jail free card” in Artificer’s Intuition for Engineered Explosives or Chalice of the Void.
Locket Combo is an interesting case. It has a low count and fragile mana base. In terms of overall card consistency and power; it is vulnerable to many of the same strategies as the Cephalid Breakfast version of Dredge… but is slower.
In terms of overall speed and consistency, this combo deck runs two copies of Steel Wall. Overall, this Locket is a single-minded combo deck; it can’t really win any other way but to set up infinite Sensei’s Divining Top and then Brain Freeze for the kill, which makes it rather slow and predictable (can only win on the main phase)… and not particularly hard to fight. It is heavily reliant on both the ability to recourse the Top and the presumption that Artificer’s Intuition showed up and wasn’t answered.
Especially when it first won a PTQ, I would guess that most opponents had no idea how this deck won… Until it was too late. Being surprising or unknown isn’t really a strength; it allows the Locket player to exploit opponents who are not playing very well.
Subtly, this deck can beat a Counterbalance plus Divining Top using Artificer’s Intuition for Engineered Explosives, and over-paying to, say, five… but staying within two colors of mana. This will cost the deck its Artificer’s Intuition, but that might be okay provided it is no longer locked completely out of being able to play.
The threats to this deck are numerous. It is vulnerable to all the same things that can beat graveyard decks and its manabase has problems with Ancient Grudge and to a lesser extent Kataki. Pithing Needle is a real problem, and Pithing Needle in multiples can become almost unanswerable. Locket’s upside is low compared to other combo decks and it has almost the same liabilities; I would be surprised if the deck appeared at the Pro Tour without a radical re-tooling.
Tooth and Nail has the strongest end game of all the big mana decks; that is, unlike any of the other Cloudpost or UrzaTron decks, it actually locks out or wins the game once it reaches critical mana. Subtly, Tooth and Nail can out-last more controlling decks with two-for-ones and dodge them entirely with Boseiju, Who Shelters All. Tooth can drag out a game for a long time with Moment’s Peace or play a million Mindslavers with Eternal Witness recursion (though unlike the Blue big mana decks, this does not imply a decking win via Academy Ruins). There is a reason this was the dominant Standard deck not that long ago. Its mana ramp and early game selection are superb for a non-Blue deck.
Any deck that actually needs to get to nine mana has inherent issues. Despite its resource ramping capabilities, Tooth can lose before it ever gets to its flash point. Additionally, because Tooth has a widely varied curve, its cards have to be played in a certain order, making it more mulligan prone; unlike Blue big mana decks, Tooth can’t fix its hand with Thirst for Knowledge. While it’s undeniably a powerful strategy, Tooth and Nail is probably lower on the net than a Blue analogue.
Tooth and Nail can go completely over the top of essentially any deck not tuned to interact with or hose it specifically. It’s one of those “you go ahead and cycle and make you’re little two drops… If I’m here on turn 5 you’re dead” situations. The presence of Boseiju, Who Shelters All threatening an eventual kill sorcery is a serious problem for Blue Counterspell and Counterbalance decks. Beatdown decks without mana control can find themselves quite frustrated by Wall of Roots and Moment’s Peace buying time. While Tooth and Nail isn’t a true predator for any block of decks, its high power level and ability to crush in attrition wars due to two-for-ones and Sensei’s Divining Top can be a real downer for disruption aficionados… You wouldn’t think it, but this deck is pretty hard to beat with, say, a Duress.
All big mana decks are vulnerable to clock + mana denial, but Tooth and Nail is even more vulnerable to cards like Molten Rain, Boom / Bust, and Vindicate (given a threat or two in play) than its Blue counterparts, who can happily Remand and then follow up with a Thirst for Knowledge two-for-one into a Wrath of God. Tooth doesn’t have many proactive business spells that function in the middle turns… It’s mostly setup cards, stall cards, a little card advantage, then end game, so keeping the deck outside the trump zone is basically the same as locking it in pre-fundamental turn land. It does stuff, but none of that stuff is likely to kill you. Disruption and permission can also serve here, but as previously noted, Tooth has a lot of play against those kinds of strategies, presuming its mana keeps hitting; not so from a crippled land base.
Because the deck is Green, it is more highly vulnerable to a Dwarven Blastminer than many other decks also vulnerable to a Blastminer. A fast Destructive Flow can be problematic, especially as Aggro Flow as an archetype has a lot of follow-up aggression that doesn’t require a ton of mana, turns or setup. It goes without saying that this deck can be raced, and easily, by TEPS, Dredge / Breakfast, Locket Combo etc, as it can present very little interaction against combo decks beyond the obvious artifacts (which it has no staple way to find).
Next up are some new decks. I’m going to talk about those more loosely than the established ones.
Once upon a time there was the true Miracle Grow, followed by Super Grow, or sickestever.dec. That deck really was the sickest ever. It presented a fast clock of Werebear or Quirion Dryad, then simultaneously controlled the board with Winter Orb, countered spells for free, and drew extra cards (while resetting lands) with Gush. Awesome clock, interactivity negating mana control element on two, free counters, free card drawing, great, un-fun, borderline, and broken respectively.
The new Miracle Grow doesn’t have quite the same chops. I have tried a couple of models of this kind of deck, based on Internet versions, MadTog2020, and the European Golgari Grave-Troll deck from Antoine Ruel PTLA. I have found the deck lacking from a couple of different perspectives. Obviously it is awesome to go first turn Mental Note, second turn 4/5. That’s just great from a “strengths” perspective in the abstract… However, in a world where almost everyone has Tarmogoyfs, you can look at the same and question if it is really the kind of thing that you want to do. The permission of the new Miracle Grow decks is much less exciting than the interlocking synergistic free counters of the past (Daze into Foil working with Winter Orb); I have found them to be largely inconsistent. Obviously Psychatog is awesome in this kind of a deck, so from a purely theoretical perspective, the deck, while not the same as literally the sickest ever aggro control, should be a serviceable choice with a lot of room for tuning and customization.
The big question mark for me is Miracle Grow’s vulnerability to Leyline of the Void. This deck is nearly as neutered by specific hate cards as a true Dredge (which is not surprising given that it also plays Darkblast, Golgari Grave Troll, etc), but lacks the upside of a turn 2 kill. If I were going to expose myself to fast, almost unstoppable resistance, I think I would pick the fastest possible “broken” or “unfair” deck from a pure strengths perspective… Miracle Grow is not that deck. That said, the fact that it can actually fight, sideboard Jittes, and so on gives this deck some room that might not be present for more single-minded graveyard-reliant options.
By Popular Demand… Dredge
There are at least three different routes that you can take this strategy. They are:
Friggorid – Discard Dredge cards early via Putrid Imp or [Chapin’s] Tireless Tribe, start drawing from downstairs, never play a real spell, attack relentlessly with Ichorids, protecting your offense with Cabal Therapy Flashback.
“Standard” Dredge – Set up Bridge from Below + Flame-Kin Zealot, winning on Dread Return Flashback.
Cephalid Breakfast – Likely the fastest combo in Extended, this one is Cephalid Illusionist + Shuko, backed up by an en-Kor. Mill your own deck, play Dread Return Flashback via Narcomoeba, setting up Sutured Ghoul. The incentives to this deck are heavy for two-and-a-half reasons: 1) It’s fast, as I said, possibly the fastest; with two Chrome Moxes you can theoretically win on turn 1 (Chrome Mox + Imprint + Chrome Mox + Imprint + Land + Cephalid Illusionist + Shuko is exactly seven cards and three mana). 2) This version makes good use of Tarmogoyf as both Ghoul fodder and a possible backup plan, leading us to 2.5) Tarmogoyf + Shuko is, Patrick Chapin tells me, “a beating.” Subtly this last one is a good way for a non-interactive deck playing interactively to win the inevitable Tarmogoyf wars.
Pepper with Cephalid Sages.
What should be obvious is that you can play more than one of these strategies in the same deck. You can start off fighting Friggorid, for instance, then find yourself attacked by a combo or focused Reanimator strategy in the middle.
Any of these strategies, alone or in concert, can be considered “powerful.” Ichorid is unyielding. It was never the strongest “combo deck” in Extended, nor the fastest, but when it was on top in the pre-Leyline of the Void Extended, it just attacked Attacked ATTACKED resisting removal and flustering defense with Therapy, got in with random Zombie tokens, stole one or two or four or six points with Putrid Imp, threatened to kill from nowhere with Psychatog. “Standard” Dredge was the first or second most powerful available strategy in Future Sight Standard (strength)… what made it a bad deck was exterior (threats), specifically the commonality of Leyline of the Void (most common sideboard card), Tormod’s Crypt, and Extirpate (tied for second). Cephalid Breakfast is the fastest combo.
The question is, can a deck based on one or more of these strategies realistically win the Pro Tour?
If a sufficient amount of Pro Tour participants act rationally, I would guess no.
I think that Pierre Canali taught the world its lesson in Columbus. If you look back at the last two Extended Pro Tours, neither one was won by an offensively “broken” or “unfair” deck. Both tournaments were won by known – if powerful – gap strategies that snuck past insufficient resistance come Day 2 and won their Top 8s on a combination of factors, not the least of which was market inefficiency. I know that it is strange to talk about Psychatog or Affinity with Disciple of the Vault in vanilla terms, but neither one was considered the most powerful available strategy at the time. Pierre’s Top 8 had Oiso on Mind’s Desire.
Osyp told me that TOGIT failed in Columbus when they realized how to beat Affinity, decided that everyone would come to the same conclusions, then took the bulk of their anti-Affinity cards out relying on splash damage (follow the corollaries logically). Lots of people relying on Pernicious Deeds to kill artifact lands (The Rock was the most common deck in Columbus) and Black decks assuming that one Energy Flux was enough to carry a matchup created sufficient space for Pierre to succeed. Josh Ravitz (on TOGIT at the time) said the team would have done better if they never realized what they could do with their Vampiric Tutors.
Antoine’s victory in LA is very similar. Most teams came to the same conclusions going into LA: Psychatog was a dog faced with Affinity. Tsuyoshi Fujita lost to Ruel in the LA Top 8; he told me after that he under-prepared for Psychatog following metagame conclusions… Affinity was good, Affinity was one of the best level one decks, Affinity had just won the previous Pro Tour, Affinity would be common; Psychatog could not beat Affinity. His bet served through most of the tournament, but Antoine snuck through thanks in large part to the efforts of players like Fujita who hunted the underrepresented Affinity decks. This helped to create a gap for Antoine’s win.
Dredge strategies, collectively, are the 800-pound gorilla of the format. Everyone knows they can win quickly, that they are powerful, that once they start going, they can defend their offenses with Cabal Therapy Flashback. At the same time, you can Mind Twist entire decks on the first turn with cards like Leyline of the Void. That’s the trade-off. While it would be silly to say that any one Dredge deck can’t beat a Leyline (or a Crypt, or whatever), slogging through an entire informed Pro Tour that didn’t forget Pierre is another story entirely. The tools are there, and essentially free.
Great players consistently make their legends in Extended. We see the Tsumuras, the Buehlers, Mahers, Buddes, and Finkels all rising out of this format’s Pro Tours. The best players thrive in interactive formats, where they can play long games and set traps, even when utilizing overpowered routes to card advantage. In recent years we have seen many interactive decks, mid-range aggressive decks, burn decks, “fair” decks doing well in Extended, and I think the reason is that in this format, the most powerful (“strength”) strategies have so many foils (“threats”), and that the market is unwilling to not utilize the cheap ones that protect against the “unfair” decks before they can get their minimum games in play.
Doing specific SWOT style analysis on these decks the past couple of weeks has taught me a lot about how I view the game, and given me a more concrete understanding of how certain others who often disagree with me view the game. I think that there is a segment who choose their decks primarily on strength, but astute metagaming is largely a process of measuring opportunities and threats (maybe I am short-sighted, but I don’t know anyone who picks according to weakness). That leaves three major paradigms: “I don’t care what your deck can do… Look what my deck can do!” (Zvi Mowshowitz before about 2004-2005); “I know what the format looks like, and I am going to smash it,” (Mark Herberholz); and “I know what the format looks like, and no one is going to bother me.” (Luis Scott-Vargas). The best decks probably draw from more than one of these areas of knowledge, minimizing weakness.
Standard Part (short)
The New Goblins
I decided to group Mad Auntie, Knucklebone Witch, Tarfire, and Wort, Boggart Auntie for the purpose of this roundup. In short, play them; play them together.
Nath of the Gilt-Leaf
This is an interesting card, offering an interesting new view on how you might want to structure the late game. You can Stupor a bunch to get Nath into play, which is fine (Stupor is synergistic with Nath), but then you are losing a lot of Nath’s long game power; on balance you don’t want to jam Nath down in the hopes of scoring on discard following… They’re just going to kill him. Probably works best against reactive decks, preventing them from rebuilding from discard, while clocking.
This seems like a fun card, mostly.
This seems like it would be a superb role player… Not sure where, yet, but it is extremely flexible, if color cost prohibitive. As Tsuyoshi once told me while rubbing his chin, “Depends on the metagame.”
See Swimming With Sharks.
This one seems medium awesome. Maybe I’m too old school but I just don’t cotton to tapping out for nothing on turn 4. The life gain ability is painfully annoying and the Avatar ability is not too shabby, either.
On one hand, this is the best Planeswalker. I mean, it’s Blue. Also it costs only three mana, meaning you can get away with jamming it down there early. On the other hand, his abilities aren’t as impressive as some of the other Planeswalkers. The first thing I thought was some sort of Owling Mine implementation, though just drawing a couple of extra cards might be fine.
That’s all for now.