Flow of Ideas – Welcome Back to Extended

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Thursday, December 31st – We stand on the precipice of a fresh season. As brown leaves covered with snow turn to the January sun of a new decade, we shed our sealed deck skins and move toward our sixty card future. Breathe in. Breathe out. Can you smell it? Can you taste it? The feeling of change is on the horizon. It’s the scent of Extended. And it’s about time.

We stand on the precipice of a fresh season. As brown leaves covered with snow turn to the January sun of a new decade, we shed our sealed deck skins and move toward our sixty card future.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Can you smell it? Can you taste it? The feeling of change is on the horizon.

It’s the scent of Extended. And it’s about time.

This Saturday, many of you will embark in the first Extended PTQs of the season. Thanks to the magic of Magic Online, the doors are open for anyone. From clever homebrew to established archetype, you can find success with just about anything in Extended if you work at it hard enough.

What you’re trying to figure out is where the format has changed from last season, and I’m sure you have turned to the “recent” Extended tournaments of Pro Tour: Austin and Worlds. I’m not going to recount for you what happened there; if you want to know then you can check the coverage for the common perspective. Rubin Zoo blah blah, Dark Depths yada yada, Scapeshift this Scapeshift that, and so on.

But here’s the thing. You don’t want to just know what everybody else knows. You want the knowledge which is going to push you further toward PTQ victory.

Ironically, some of the most important details to know are the very details which occur in the Extended metagame over and over, from year to year, then are forgotten about by the time the next Extended season rolls around, like reality fading into legend.

Let me tell you a few things you may have forgotten about Extended.

This is the very first thing you need to remember: Mono Red Burn is a real deck. It is not some whimsical figment of a new player’s imagination. Every season for the past two years, this deck has been out in force early on. You might think it’s the deck of “bad players,” but you’re flat out wrong. Many local players I greatly respect have gamed with the Burn deck. Even Jon Finkel — yes, that Jon Finkel — brought a full set of Lava Spikes into battle with him at 2008 Worlds. The deck has a consistent kill around turn 5, and this year it has picked up Goblin Guide and Teetering Peaks to sneak even more damage in. Too many of my friends have fell at the hands of the Burn deck, and then complained about losing to such a ridiculous archetype.

But Burn isn’t ridiculous. It isn’t dumb. It’s not some “little kid, bad player” deck. It’s very much a real archetype with its own strengths.

Dan Hanson uttered one of the most important maxims I have heard in regards to Magic early in 2009. We were playtesting, and it had degenerated into talking about why we might want to consider playing Mono Red Burn. I was staunchly against the idea of playing such a no-skill deck when Dan shut me up with a single comment. He asked, “Is your goal in Magic to prove how much smarter you are than your opponent, or is it to win?”

Few things are truer in this game. There are no bonus points for creativity. A win is a win, and if burn has the best all around matchups or properly fits into your deck choice factors then it’s certainly a reasonable deck to play.

Flash forward to today.

We just stopped playing Zendikar Sealed. We had the holiday season nibbling at our time like a woodpecker to a tree. Magic Online queues aren’t firing. There hasn’t exactly had a bevy of opportunities for playtesting. Money might be a little tight. Do you honestly think the PTQ majority are going to pick up a deck like Tezzeret, a deck which playing correctly eludes even the games’ best?

Sometimes, you just gotta torch ‘em.

Fortunately, there’s a secret about Mono Red Burn: it’s not very resilient to hate. It’s actually one of the least resilient combo decks (would you really classify it as a beatdown deck?) in the history of competitive Magic. When every card needs to deal three damage, there is no room for the burn deck to throw damage away with hit-or-miss sideboard cards. If the average player just showed the courage to fly in the face of their pride and sideboard four dedicated cards for the Burn deck, it would be difficult for the Bolt-slinging players to win tournaments.

Instead, few players do. They don’t respect the Burn deck enough. So the Burn deck does what any combo deck will do if you don’t bring in a way to interact: beat you.

Burn is like the Todd Anderson of deck choices: everybody hates on him in the forums, but that doesn’t stop him from smashing you at tournaments.

If you don’t want to lose to the plethora of Burn decks in the field, then sideboard cards for them. My new rule is this: if you lost to Burn, and you didn’t sideboard any cards for that matchup, then you can’t complain when you lose to them.

Okay, that’s 550 words on the Mono Red Deck. Next!

Let me ask you a question. What’s your combo? No, really. What is it?

Three years ago I was playing in a Standard FNM and was paired down against (appropriately enough) some poorly constructed Mono Red deck piloted by a new player. As we sat down, he asked, “So, what’s your combo? Every good deck I’ve played against has a combo.” At the time I laughed it off and chalked it up to his loss to Project X the previous round.

Today that statement is actually true in regard to Extended

This format is fast. And the problem is it’s not one kind of fast. Whether it’s the zombies of dredge or angels of Hypergenesis nipping at your heels, the decks in this format can conjure up wins in a verisimilitude of different ways. It’s difficult to hate out multiple angles of attack with one subset of cards, making slower strategies difficult to win with. Even variants on the Faeries deck of the previous season — the boogeyman throughout the entirety of last year —are crippled to the point of extinction, and it isn’t just because Riptide Lab is gone.

The first response to the speed of the format was to just kick it up a notch and bash with Wild Nacatls. While the “combo” of Wild Nacatl plus Mountain plus Plains is still a fine one, the control decks have slowly figured out that they have to be able to set up a way to immediately lock the game out of their opponent’s reach like how traditional combo decks can.

Last year, the Swans of Bryn Argoll / Chain of Plasma deck showed success in the hands of those that played it, and one of its defining strengths was its ability to just win games out of nowhere. You would be losing, losing, losing, and then you could either set up a win in a traditional control manner or, BANG, you’re dead from my two-card combo.

Deck construction in a manner like last season’s Swans decks is where you need to be this season.

Though the Swans-Chain combo is no longer legal, it has bred some strange offspring. The first iteration of recent control decks like these were the Dark Depths decks from Austin, which fashioned a two-card combo alongside a control package. Since the Dark Depths breakout deck, the Sword of the Meek plus Thopter Foundry decks and Scapeshift decks have risen to the top as non-beatdown non-traditional combo routes to victory.

If you’re trying to just port your Faeries deck from last season over, it’s not going to work as well as it might have at one point.

But that’s not to say you don’t have options.

The Extended cardpool is as deep as an Alaskan crevice. There are answers to everything, and with enough sideboarding you can pretty much alter your deck to defeat any given strategy. Of course, with great depth comes a vaster collection of deck cores. As opposed to Block or Standard where you just hit an option roadblock at some point, if you can call the metagame then you can adjust your sideboard and maindeck with an arsenal of weapons which leans victory heavily in your favor.

But that’s for later in the season.

Everyone is coming out of Extended hibernation, remembering the way it once was and modifying the decks they know to cope with the decks they think will exist. But the start of a season is not like the end of a season. At the end of last season, we all knew what existed and what we were gunning for. We all knew the ins and outs of every archetype. We all knew which decks were viable options to win a PTQ and which ones were poor choices.

You aren’t going to have that luxury.

I would be ready to face down anything from the known enemies, like Zoo, Dark Depths, Tezzeret, and so on, to new breeds of old decks like Faeries, Elves, and Death Cloud.
How can you face the unknown? Just play the most consistent deck possible, with sideboard options that are aggressive, as opposed to narrow, defensive options. If you play a control deck, it’s important you have a combo so you can proactively be working towards a goal and have the capacity to steal games against anything. For many of you, the deck that fits all of your criteria is going to be Zoo or Burn. For some of you who have tested a lot, it could be a good, yet fairly stock version of Tezzeret with sideboard cards like Baneslayer Angel or something like Dark Depths. For people who know their deck backwards and forwards from last season but haven’t tested much, that deck very well might be the deck to play.

Playtest with what you’re comfortable with. See if it can still win. And, well, if that doesn’t work, maybe it’s time to send in some burn spells or Wild Nacatls.

I’m excited to see how this format unfolds! Extended is always an exciting format, and it’s going to be quite a journey to watch it evolve. It’s not the same format it was last year, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less interesting.

Let me know what you’re thinking about playing and how your tournaments go. I’m always up for working on Extended; it is a format full of possibilities and new ideas just waiting to be pushed into sixty-card form. You can post either in the forums or contact me via e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com, and if you’re at the Seattle PTQ this weekend, I’ll see you there. Hopefully you won’t lose to burn.

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