Flow of Ideas – How to Prepare for an Extended PTQ

Read Gavin Verhey every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Friday, February 20th– In the arduous quest for a Pro Tour invitation, PTQs are the most common trial that upcoming Magic stars have to wade through. They are long tournaments with only the winner taking home an invitation. So, how do you obtain that advantage in a format like Extended, where the number of viable archetypes outnumber the number of simians found in a barrel of monkeys?

In the arduous quest for a Pro Tour invitation, PTQs are the most common trial that upcoming Magic stars have to wade through. They are long tournaments with only the winner taking home an invitation. When asked how you can win a PTQ, Tim Aten said it best:

Basically, there are two ways to win a PTQ:

1) It’s just “your day”… you’re an at least reasonable player and you just happen to bring you’re A-Game that day, little bit of luck, etc.

2) You just outpower the field by so much between your playskill and deck choice that it’d be hard for you to lose.

Barring a hefty supply of four-leaf clovers, option one is uncontrollable. So what does it take to obtain the second? Furthermore, how do you obtain that advantage in a format like Extended where the number of viable archetypes outnumber the number of simians found in a barrel of monkeys?

“Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival.”
W. Edwards Deming

The first thing you need to do when you approach any format is to learn about it. Magic is a game of knowledge. There is an inherently immense power found in knowing 50+ cards of your opponent’s deck after they make their first land drop. If you want to win a PTQ, you need to know what decks to expect and how to quickly identify them. Let’s see how well you can distinguish decks by their first land drops with a few quick examples. Try not to spend more than a minute on each one. Assume they went land, go and kept a seven card hand unless noted otherwise.

1. Mountain
2. Tapped Overgrown Tomb on a mulligan to six
3. Ghost Quarter
4. Forbidden Orchard
5. Contested Cliffs

Okay, let’s review.

The immediate reaction on seeing a Mountain is to think Mono Red Burn. It’s easy to be on autopilot in a tournament and just assume they’re going to be slinging fire across the table. The problem with that assumption is that you’re probably wrong. Look at what just happened. They opted to do nothing on their first turn. Mono Red Burn contains Lava Spike, Spark Elemental, Mogg Fanatic, and Rift Bolt with some versions running Seal of Fire. The odds of them keeping a seven card hand without any one drops is very low. I would actually guess they’re playing All-In Red and have an explosive second turn lined up for you. Might I recommend casting Tidehollow Sculler instead of Kird Ape and Wild Nacatl this turn?

Similar to the last example, the first reaction on an Overgrown Tomb is to think B/G Loam. This is a correct assumption to make, but there’s that nagging fact that it’s on a mulligan to six. Don’t take five damage to Thoughtseize quite yet, though! If you were a zoo player, you’d probably keep a six card hand that had two lands (one of which is an Overgrown Tomb), Dark Confidant, Tarmogoyf, Tidehollow Sculler, and a burn spell.

Ghost Quarter is more straightforward. It probably means they’re playing a Martyr of Sands or Life from the Loam deck.

Forbidden Orchard is seldom seen in Extended, which means you have to figure out the cards’ role for yourself. Why are they playing Forbidden Orchard, and what does it tell you about their deck? Forbidden Orchard means two things: their strategy really needs mana fixing and they don’t care about you receiving free 1/1’s. Based on that knowledge you should prepare for some sort of combo deck, likely a Mind’s Desire variant or Protean Hulk combo.

Contested Cliffs is kind of a trick question. Yes, they’re playing a beasts deck. And if we had to guess what it looked like, it’d probably be close to Kyle Sanchez Beasts deck. Okay. Can you recall what’s in Kyle Sanchez Beasts deck? Yes, there are going to be some Ravenous Baloths. But what else? If you just assume they’re an Onslaught-era Beasts deck, you’re certainly going to be in for a surprise when they cast Thornscape Battlemage or Persecute

Look past the obvious answers and into the intricacies of the available decks. It’s easy to automatically sort all of the decks available into a few categories, but there’s much more to it than that. Which brings me to my next point…

“In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment”
Charles Darwin

At an Extended PTQ, you need to be prepared for the strategies people are using on that particular week. A lot of people go into a Constructed PTQ with experience that just consists of stock deck J playing against stock deck Q. They conclude that Q is a 70% favorite in your testing, so it will usually beat J. That’s not actually how games in a PTQ play out. People innovate with their decks.

Let me put it this way. When you discover you have a bad matchup against a deck, what are you going to do? You’re going to try and fix it. Let’s say you’re playing Faeries circa January, and you sit across from your Death Cloud opponent. You think the matchup is in your favor. You even win game one. Game two is starting smoothly, and you cast a Vendilion Clique to nab the Life from the Loam he just dredged back.

Then he casts Darkblast.

Your face slowly twists in horror, and you end up losing the match because you cannot effectively deal with Darkblast. See what happened there? The Death Cloud player had evolved to beat the faeries player. He ends up winning that PTQ, and at the PTQ next week everybody has Darkblast and is smugly confidant they can easily beat Faeries on the back of it.

Then you show up to the PTQ with Extirpate in your sideboard.

That is how decks evolve. It’s very important to keep your ear to the floor of Magic technology by looking through PTQ decklists and reading up-to-the-date articles like the ones on this very website, or you’re going to find yourself on the wrong end of a Darkblast. Let me give you an example that’s applicable for the PTQ’s this weekend and that you can track over the rest of the season.

When Gabriel Nassif list of mono blue Faeries played by Paul Cheon and several other top players broke out at Worlds, it contained Vedalken Shackles and no fetchlands. Shackles dominated the faeries mirror match. It was extremely difficult to remove and allowed its owner to snatch the crucial creatures of the matchup, namely Glen Elendra Archmage. As the weeks continued and the PTQ season began, smart Faeries players realized the importance of Shackles and began to adopt fetchlands to splash Ancient Grudge in the sideboard. For a few weeks the Faeries players who had Grudge dispatched those that didn’t.

Then Faeries evolved yet again.

Choke and Boil had become popular anti-Faeries measures, and they were potent because of Faeries’ reliance on islands for Shackles. Simultaneously, Shackles was becoming worse in the mirror as more players begun to pack Ancient Grudge. Because of these two elements coming together, many players cut their Shackles in favor of Sower of Temptation and swapped out islands for cards like Secluded Glen. (Which ironically harkens back to the Japanese Faeries deck used at Worlds.) Yet, in talking to people this week, several of them still seem fixated on destroying Shackles in the mirror. In reality, the players who are attuned to the metagame (such as the players you’re going to have to beat in the later rounds) will be on a Sower plan or a plan which doesn’t involve creatures at all, like Future Sight. While Ancient Grudge is still a good sideboard card for the Affinity matchup and for those stragglers that still have Shackles, you can’t rely on Archmage because of the prevalence of Sower this week.

It’s one thing to play against the stock lists everybody is playing against and another to playtest against what you predict the metagame will actually look like. Evolve with the format. Know what their trump cards are, and play strategies which can fight them. Don’t be the guy who comes to a PTQ ready to beat decks from two months ago.

“It’s choice — not chance — that determines your destiny.”
Jean Nidetch

Once you feel as though know the format and some important methods to track the shifting strategies of Extended, you come to the most common struggle at the PTQ level: picking a deck. There is one very crucial element to factor into your deck choice at a PTQ which tons of people constantly miss. It’s very simple. If your goal is to go to the Pro Tour, there are two places you can get at a PTQ: first, and tied for dead last. Only one place gets the invitation.

The application of this is equally simple: if a deck is likely incapable of winning the tournament, don’t play it. Let me be clear: To win a PTQ, you can typically only afford to take one loss the entire event. You can’t play a deck which is susceptible to commonalities present in a PTQ environment. Look at a deck like All-In Red. If your goal is to win a PTQ, why would you ever play it is beyond me. The deck will win its fair share of matches off its potentially ridiculous draws, but the chances of consistently drawing that well through 11 rounds with no interference is extremely unlikely.

Let me try a less obvious example. We’ll say I created a deck which always beat every deck that isn’t Faeries. Sounds awesome, right? Actually, despite having a ridiculous overall win ratio, this deck is a terrible PTQ choice. The chance of playing against Faeries twice in a PTQ is fairly high. Even if you magically dodge it in the swiss, it’s extremely likely at least one Faeries deck (and probably more) will make the elimination rounds. Many of the best players in the room are going to be playing Faeries, and you will have to beat them if you want to win the tournament. Make sure your deck can actually win a PTQ before you choose it.

Aside from the above, my advice is to pilot a deck you can play well against everything. And I mean everything. Because of the potential to innovate, especially in Extended, people will play all kinds of decks, and you have to have the technical skill to know how to play your archetype against them. It’s one thing to know all of the stock lists of decks and what cards are important in which matchups, but when you Thoughtseize someone round one and see a hand of Sacred Foundry, Polluted Delta, Temple Garden, Lightning Helix, Kitchen Finks, Trinket Mage, and Elspeth, Knight-Errant, you can’t just type in “I said serious extended decks only” and disconnect. You actually have to figure out what to take based on how your deck fundamentally plays. You are probably not going to win if you are playing a deck and making a ton of mistakes; your mistakes are going to catch up to you in the later rounds.

Obviously you want to playtest a lot, but I’m not going to be the first person to tell you that. A more commonly understated detail is making sure you figure out what you are actually learning from playtesting. Use playtesting to find out which cards matter in each matchup, especially in the mirror match. Learn to fight the wars over the cards you need to fight over while you pretend to lose the wars over cards your opponent (incorrectly) thinks are important. Don’t just play the matchup the same way twenty times waiting for the matchup to miraculously become better; try out different ways to approach the matchup so you can discover the best method to use.

“A goal without a plan is just a wish”
Larry Elder

A good sideboard plan is crucial in Extended. There are so many cards available and the mana fixing is so good that there are a ton of options available. You can beat any deck you want if you dedicate enough sideboard slots to it, and that’s not an exaggeration. Here’s a reference list to use for Extended sideboarding if you find yourself having trouble against a particular deck. It’s not remotely all inclusive, but it’s handy to keep around while working on your sideboard.

Against Faeries:
Arashi, the Sky Asunder
Choke (Keep in mind both Boil and Choke are becoming worse now that Faeries is cutting down on islands)
Dwarven Blastminer
Future Sight
Sulfuric Vortex
Sword of Fire and Ice
Vexing Shusher
Gigadrowse (to force through a combo)
Pact of Negation (to force through a combo)

Against Zoo:
Blood Moon
Chalice of the Void
Dark Heart Sliver
Firespout (or any kind of Wrath effect)
Kitchen Finks
Loxodon Hierarch
Ravenous Baloth
Threads of Disloyalty
Umezawa’s Jitte

Against Affinity:
Ancient Grudge
Akroma’s Vengeance
Austere Command
Hurkyl’s Recall
Kataki, War’s Wage
Shattering Spree
Sower of Temptation
Any kind of Wrath effect
Any kind of Shatter effect

Against Life from the Loam decks:
Chalice of the Void
Cranial Extraction
Future Sight
Glen Elendra Archmage
Jund Charm
Pyrostatic Pillar
Relic of Progenitus
Sulfuric Vortex
Tormod’s Crypt
Fecundity (Against B/G Loam)
Quagnoth (against B/G Loam)
Wilt-Leaf Liege (against B/G Loam)

Against Mono-Red Burn:
Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender
Circle of Protection: Red
Dark Heart of the Wood
Kitchen Finks
Loxodon Hierarch
Ravenous Baloth
Sun Droplet
Umezawa’s Jitte

Against TEPS:
Chalice of the Void
Ethersworn Canonist
Gaddock Teeg
Persecute (when you can play it on turn 3; otherwise sorceries that cost 4+ are too slow)
Pyrostatic Pillar
Rule of Law
Trinisphere (Can be Gigadrowsed though, so watch out!)

Against Elves:
Brain Freeze
Chalice of the Void
Ethersworn Canonist
Firespout (or any kind of wrath effect — don’t lean on these in this matchup though)
Goblin Sharpshooter
Grand Arbiter Augustin IV
Jund Charm
Krark-Clan Shaman
Martyr of Ashes
Night of Souls’ Betrayal
Pyrostatic Pillar
Rule of Law
Slice and Dice
Umezawa’s Jitte

Against ‘Tron:
Ancient Grudge
Blood Moon
Dwarven Blastminer
Gaddock Teeg
Ghost Quarter
Glen Elendra Archmage

Some of those cards have to be played in certain decks (you don’t want to sideboard Electrolyze if you’re zoo, for example), but it’s a good list to reference back to. Some cards which are good but just not the first card I’d sideboard for that matchup, like Stifle in the Faeries mirror, aren’t on there but are still applicable if you have them in your sideboard for other reasons. (Like TEPS.) If you have a bad matchup in Extended, you can fix it with enough sideboarding. With that said, sideboard only as what you need to in order to have an advantage in the matchup. You don’t need to bring in six cards for a matchup which is already in your favor; three of those six cards could easily be allocated to a different matchup.

Moreover, make sure you actually have enough cards to take out to bring in your sideboard cards. You want the cards you bring in to be a significant upgrade from the cards you’re taking out; if they’re just slightly better your sideboard slots could be used more efficiently. Earlier in the season I was working with a player who brought Flashfreeze in while taking out Mana Leak. In last year’s Lorwyn-Shadowmoor block season, I knew of multiple people who were taking out Nameless Inversion and bringing in Peppersmoke. You are accomplishing very little with that kind of tradeoff. It’s like paying more for brand name jeans instead of buying the same ones without the brand name on them: you are getting something only marginally better than the other, but paying a significantly higher price for it. Especially in Extended, make sure every sideboard slot counts and does something which really hampers the opposing strategy.

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”

After choosing a deck, the last step (and often the most overlooked) is to make sure it plays to the balance of luck and skill you feel you’re going to need in order to win the tournament. I’m only going to go over this briefly because I wrote about this topic in my last article, but the general application of this to a PTQ is that if you feel you’re worse than the average PTQ player you should be taking more risks. You’re not going to be able to outplay most of your opponents, so you need to make sure you can get luckier and outdraw them. This means playing less lands so you can overpower your opponent by having more spells and playing cards which are always going to be good for you instead of ones that require more finesse.

On the other side of the situation, if you’re a better player you should be playing more lands as well as cards and strategies which allow you to outplay your opponents. I almost always play more lands than everybody else in my decks: just look at the decks I played this season! I played a full twenty-eight lands (two above the norm of twenty-six) in my Death Cloud decklist and twenty-six in the Faeries decklist I used to make top 16 at Grand Prix Los Angeles (one above the norm of twenty-five). Your playskill is less relevant in games where you’re unable to play spells; you want consistency, allowing you to interact so you can make the game go longer and wrest it into a favorable position.

The last thing you can do to overpower them on deck is to experiment based on metagame predictions. In last years Lorwyn-Shadowmoor block format, there was a period of time when some sly Faeries players began to maindeck Peppersmoke to gain an edge in the first game of the mirror. Remarkably enough, those decks began to rise to the top of PTQ’s because they had a weapon the others didn’t. Why does this matter in Extended? History, especially in Magic, has a tendency to repeat itself. Some clever Magic Online players have begun to play maindeck Electrolyze or Thoughtseize and always seem to have a huge advantage in the mirror…

“If you’re not practicing, somebody else is, somewhere, and he’ll be ready to take your job.”
Brooks Robinson

I’m going to end this overview of how to succeed in Extended with some scenarios to think about which you could encounter in any given PTQ. Chew on these in the forums, and if there’s a lot of interesting discussion I’ll go over some of them next week.

• You’re playing game one of the Faeries mirror match and neither of you have any Mutavaults or nonland permanents. Their Ancestral Vision is on the stack, and they currently have five cards in their hand. Your hand is Spellstutter Sprite, Vendilion Clique, Venser, Shaper Savant, Sower of Temptation, and two lands. You each have four islands untapped. What do you do?

• You’re playing Zoo and cast a turn one Wild Nacatl. On your opponent’s turn, he Ponders off an Island and chooses to shuffle. On your second turn, you play a Tidehollow Sculler and see Peer through Depths, Mind’s Desire, Mind’s Desire, Seething Song, Rite of Flame, Manamorphose, Flooded Strand, Dreadship Reef. Which do you take?

• You’re playing G/B Loam with Death Cloud. Your opponent mulligans once and leads off with Bloodstained Mire fetching Blood Crypt into Kird Ape. After drawing for your first turn, your hand is Overgrown Tomb, Tranquil Thicket, Windswept Heath, Engineered Explosives, Raven’s Crime, Putrefy, Kitchen Finks, Death Cloud. What do you do?

• You’re at a PTQ when, in a Kyle Sanchez-like fashion, you realize you left your deck in the bathroom and it’s nowhere to be found. Like a man looking for someone to jumpstart his car so he can pick up his date, you immediately run around the tournament site and talk to everybody you know trying to find an extra deck. Eventually you find a friend who has a Swans deck. It’s only 54 cards, has a few suspect choices he was using for playtesting purposes, and doesn’t have a sideboard, but at least it’s a deck you can use. He tells you its bad matchups game one are Faeries, G/B Loam, TEPS, and Martyr, and its good matchups are Zoo, Mono Red Burn, ‘Tron, Affinity, and Elves. You can find any cards you need, but you have no internet connection to find a better build and only 10 minutes before you have to submit a decklist. What changes do you make to this deck and what sideboard do you build for it?

1 Breeding Pool
1 Cascade Bluffs
4 Flooded Strand
2 Polluted Delta
3 Steam Vents
3 Snow-covered Island
2 Island
3 Dreadship Reef

4 Swans of Bryn Argoll
1 Meloku the Clouded Mirror

4 Chrome Mox
2 Engineered Explosives
4 Blood Moon
4 Chain of Plasma
4 Condescend
4 Thirst For Knowledge
1 Starstorm
3 Firespout
4 Ponder

Thanks for reading, and —

“You’ve incessantly talked about Faeries in Extended throughout this article and used it in almost every example. C’mon now, ship a decklist.”
Posters in the forums

Alright, alright, I can meet your demands. I’m already qualified for Honolulu and can’t PTQ anymore, but I’ve been staying abreast of the shifts in the format enough to say that if I was in the hunt for a Pro Tour slot this weekend I would play something like this:

4 Mutavault
3 Riptide Laboratory
4 Flooded Strand
4 Polluted Delta
2 Steam Vents
1 Breeding Pool
1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
1 Oboro, Palace in the Clouds
2 River of Tears
4 Island

4 Spellstutter Sprite
4 Vendilion Clique
3 Sower of Temptation
1 Venser, Shaper Savant

4 Ancestral Vision
4 Mana Leak
4 Spell Snare
4 Engineered Explosives
3 Umezawa’s Jitte
3 Stifle

4 Firespout
4 Relic of Progenitus
3 Ancient Grudge
2 Krosan Grip
1 Trickbind
1 Future Sight

I haven’t played enough with the black version or the Electrolyze version to recommend either in good faith, although they both seem like the next step to take the deck. This version of the deck is going to be weaker against G/B Loam because of the lack of Glen Elendra Archmage, but Archmage is a liability against the next generation version of Faeries with Sower instead of Shackles. The Krosan Grips in the sideboard look strange, but you don’t really need a fourth Ancient Grudge and Krosan Grip deals with the enchantment trumps the mirror match uses, such as Bitterblossom and Future Sight, while also destroying Shackles and Jitte if they have them after sideboarding. Additionally, you can bring them in against Mono Red Burn and peg their Sulfuric Vortex.

Now, for real this time, thanks for reading and I’ll see you next week. Hopefully what I’ve detailed here helps in your quest for a Pro Tour qualification.

Oh, by the way… I’m Gavin. Hi.

Gavin Verhey
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else.