Innovations – Analyzing Grand Prix: Oakland

SCG Open Richmond!

Tuesday, February 16th – Grand Prix: Oakland proved that the Extended format is versatile, intriguing, and fun. A massive seven distinct archetypes rocked the Top 8, including two decks that truly define innovation. Patrick Chapin discusses the strategies, and suggests how the format may evolve…

The results are in, and Grand Prix Oakland leaves us with a picture of Extended that is slightly more interesting that recent Magic Online results would have us believe (Magic Online- Inbred? No!).

While Zoo and Thopter/Depths continue to be the most popular decks by far, the format actually appears to be quite diverse, with a large variety of decks capable of holding their own. Also, the lack of consensus between top Pros says a lot about the true variety of the viable archetypes.

Let’s take a look at the Top 8 decks and see what they are doing differently, why they made the choices they did, why they succeeded, and what trends they might reflect. Grand Prix: Oakland is probably going to have more of an impact of the next couple of weeks of PTQs than anything else. As such, it is advisable to adjust your gauntlet to include most or all of these decks, as they will all surely increase in popularity as a result of their recent success, or at the very least become the more commonly used versions of each of these archetypes.

First, the champion of Grand Prix Oakland, Matt Nass armed with Elves.

Elves has experienced a little renaissance lately, as Cloudstone Curio has provided an additional engine, helping pick up the slack from Wirewood Symbiote’s rotation. To its credit, it is still blisteringly fast and takes advantage of a format no longer nearly as hateful as last season. The downside? This deck really just isn’t beating a good Blue Control deck regularly.

Fortunately, Nass correctly predicted a decline in Faeries and traditional Blue Control decks, helping pave the wave for his victory. One thing I particularly like about his build is the abandonment of Blood Moon out of the sideboard. I guess the theory was that you can’t beat a Blue Control deck, so you just hope they can’t beat a Blood Moon. That seems suspect as all get out, as not all Blue Control decks fold to Blood Moon, and it is a lot of sideboard space for little effect.

Nass has instead opted for a more durable resilient “beatdown” plan, with both Rangers and Jittes giving him a real plan that doesn’t need to combo, as well as an inherent strength against Zoo. The overload on Dark Depths hate is a good call in the current format, and it is not surprising that when the champion showed up with a sideboard where almost every single card was good against Zoo or Thopter/Depths, it would pay off in a field of 42% Zoo and Thopter/Depths, especially since many of the cards are flexible enough that they can go in against anyone.

While this is probably going to be the most common build of Elves next week, I would not be surprised if an increase in the amount of Blue Control decks stifles the success a little. That said, the format is more and more being stretched between hyper-aggressive Zoo decks and exceptionally dangerous Thopter-Depths decks. This is relevant because the cards that are good against one are generally the exact opposite of the ones that are good against the other. This can put a strain on a Control player. As long as this continues to hinder Control players, I think we are going to keep seeing various combo decks each taking a turn, though Elves is probably the best combo deck (outside of Thopter-Depths), as it is not so easily hated out as Scapeshift.

A factor that holds Elves back is actually that it is a surprisingly difficult deck to pilot; the majority of PTQers that pick it up do not get the results in testing they want, so they don’t run it. In fact, I would say a relatively large percentage of Elves players seem to be players that haven’t tested much, just seeing how great it looks on paper. They “haven’t tested enough to think it’s bad because of failing with it in playtesting.” The fact that Elves continues to do well, despite how difficult it appears to be for most that try picking it up, makes me think it might actually be a great deck for one that is proficient at it. One of the biggest skills is knowing how much to commit to the board versus how much to hold back. This is a case where it is very important to develop a game plan that doesn’t just follow a script. Another big skill is learning to play around the hate. Some of the hate can be very frustrating, but there is actually quite a bit you can do to play around most of it, such as knowing when to lead with Nettle Sentinel and when to lead with Elvish Visionary. How often to commit enough to the board that you get wrecked by a sweeper, but win next turn if they don’t have it, is an important sense to develop.

I think a number of cards will increase in value these next couple of weeks, at least partially to combat Elves among other decks. One such card is Night of Souls’ Betrayal. This card is obviously a stone cold killer versus Elves, very nearly winning the game outright. Once you consider that Elves is more or less a turn 4 kill deck, these days, it is easy to see the value of such a plan. In addition to hosing Elves, Night of Souls’ Betrayal destroys Thotper-Depths, not only locking out tokens, but also ensuring no Dark Confidants, Hexmages, or Vendilion Cliques are possible. Of course, Adam Yurchick, Grand Prix: Oakland runner-up had some sick technology to help combat this, which I’ll get to in a moment, but nevertheless, it can still be an exceptional weapon against them. Who doesn’t Night of Souls’ Betrayal hose? It is fantastic against Martyr, is particularly good against Landfall Zoo, and even hoses Sakura-Tribe Elder, Zektar Shrines, and Aven Mindcensors. The trick, as always, is finding a deck in which to play it that doesn’t get wrecked by it.

Some other cards that are particularly effective against Elves include Punishing Fire, Volcanic Fallout, Engineered Explosives, Cunning Sparkmage, Jund Charm, Spell Burst, Crovax Ascendant Hero, and of course Chalice of the Void.

Perennial bridesmaid, Adam Yurchick put up another great finish with a version of GerryT’s Thopter-Depths deck. It basically tries to put you away fast with Marit Lage, and if that fails, it resorts to the Thopter-Sword combo to try to get out of any sticky situation in which it may find itself.

Pay special attention to Yurchick’s sideboard, as he certainly is one to bring a little filth. Adam has cut the added Thopter-Sword parts that most people put in the board, instead opting for multiple added victory conditions in Oona, Queen of the Fae and Sphinx of Jwar-Isle. These two finishers are both very powerful closers that each have their own advantages. They are durable, can take a game over by themselves, and ensure that some hater with Extirpate or Cranial Extraction can’t just punk him out.

In addition to excellent transformational powers, Yurchick has access to Phyrexian Arena, a nice new way to fight control and other combo decks, especially since game 2’s tend to slow down for his deck. Leyline of the Void is another sweet one right now, a card that many have beenforgotten as Dredge has all but disappeared. It is actually a killer way to beat other Thopter-Sword decks, Martyr, and the surprising upstart Living End.

One more comment on Yurchick’s sideboard (as his main deck is fairly standard): I love Deathmark in this format. It is one of the most versatile sideboard cards, and it’s exactly what you want against so many people. It is a perfect answer to Wild Nacatl, Llanowar Elves, Tarmogoyf, Noble Hierarch, Knight of Reliquary, Steppe Lynx, and more. It looks like a modest one-for-one, but in reality, it is generally a one-mana answer to the BEST card in many of the decks. Generally these are the decks that are faster than you, so having such a sweet tempo boost when answering their best opening? Well, that is exactly what you want.

Conley Woods, a man after my own heart! Conley has taken it upon himself to begin the Jace, the Mind Sculptor revolution. This is a vital deck to watch, as this will help pave the way for what is sure to be a bit of a shift in the metagame to take into consideration the option of Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

Conley Woods is a brewer’s brewer, with technology so disgusting that even Ben Rubin has grimaced in pain from imagining the look on an opponent’s face when they are hit with technology that just seems dirty and wrong. Merieke Ri Beret? Fifteen Planeswalkers? Mannequin Caldera Hellion? Ziggurat? Violent Ultimatum? Conley Woods is one of the most fun deck builders to study!

This weekend, Conley had a variety of new tricks besides just Jace (…Just …Jace). Aven Mindcensor is a savage one. Aside from his widely-publicized job as a Scapeshift and Gifts Ungiven spoiler, he is a stone cold killer versus Thopter-Depths, and everyone has fetch lands to try to hit. Besides, someone has to fight Vendilion Cliques and Confidants, and it is always nice to have an instant speed flier that can pick up a Jitte, Spellstutter style.

Conley has also pushed towards all Bant Charm all the time, much like the Bant Jace deck I discussed last week. I am behind this 100%. It is a great time for Plows, a great time to counter Instants, and a great time to have answers to artifacts that aren’t dead versus the rest of the field.

The one Stoneforge Mystic is a little wild, from my perspective. Is it really worth it with just one Jitte? Is it really better than just running a second copy so you can Legend rule some people? Still, I guess he is another man to carry it, and I will certainly try it Woods’ way before just dismissing it, as he is a master.

The sideboard Rhox War Monks are no big surprise, and I actually prefer them out of the board than main. The Samurai of the Pale Curtains will catch a lot of people sleeping, as he beats Thopter-Sword (among other qualities), but he also fight very well, so you can bring him in against Zoo.

Conley’s deck is definitely my favorite of the tournament, and the one that I will be starting with next week after the Pro Tour concludes. I wonder if there is any way to incorporate Knight of Reliquary?

Living End is an upstart rogue deck that seems to be proving that it actually has legitimate game, not just surprise value. The Night of Souls’ Betrayal’s are a nice touch, as they can just hose a lot of people like we discussed above. Michael Jacob played a similar deck, but had Leyline of the Void instead. He had a bad showing, but I guess he talked with Travis and Travis agreed that the Leylines seemed particularly interesting, since they not only hose Thopter-Sword, but combo especially well with Living End. It’s hard to say which way to go, but it is fun to think of playing the Living End mirror with Leyline of the Void in your deck…

This deck has a lot more power than it looks, since it can often create “won board states” by turn 3 or 4, though it has a far better backup plan than Hypergenesis. Still, I think it is worth considering and at the very least, it is an important deck to test some games against and get a handle on the pace of. It looks vulnerable to combo decks, but it can actually have a surprisingly effective way of combating them in unusual ways.

For instance, against Hypergenesis, you have some many expensive monsters, you can usually present a lethal board whenever they cast Hypergenesis, plus you have Living End, which can kill any of their guys including Progenitus. Against Elves, you can actually often “Damnation” turn 3 with Living End, then cast Night of Souls’ Betrayal. Dark Depths is tough, but at least you have Violent Outburst into Living End which can kill Marit Lage.

Living End’s biggest weakness is actually its lack of flexibility. It has Fulminator Mages, Ingot Chewers, Shriekmaws, and Living Ends, but for the most part, if you can play problematic permanents, such as Canonist, Meddling Mage, Chalice, and so on, you can give them a hard time. Permission is actually quite effective since you only really need to counter four spells, but you need to have some way to close out the game before they get you with the “Back-Up Plan.” Rating? This deck will increase in popularity as it is fun, unusual, and deceptively decent.

Saito Style Zoo has merged with Fast Zoo, and Loam Lion was the missing link to reduce some of the inconsistency of Steppe Lynx. As I said, Bant Charm is just awesome right now. Dampening Matrix shows just how much of an influence Thopter-Depths has had on the metagame.

There is not a lot new to report with these Zoo decks, but suffice it to say, Zoo is going to continue to be one of the most popular decks in the format and probably will continue to be the entire lifespan of Wild Nacatl, a creature I think has earned that number 3 all time spot behind the two big two-drops.

A surprising new hybrid of Burn and Zoo, this Boros Deck Wins build was the talk of the tournament in Oakland (MJ described it as the deck of the weekend). It uses the most explosive elements of Fast Zoo to try to add as much damage as fast as possible and uses Flagstones to power out surprising Zektar Shrines out of nowhere.

Think about this opening hand:

Steppe Lynx, Zektar Shrine, Lightning Helix, Arid Mesa, Flagstones, Ghost Quarter

That is a turn 3!

This deck is explosively fast… so fast, in fact, that many of the traditional ways to combat Red decks are just too slow, such as Thopter-Sword, Baneslayer, sometimes even Kitchen Finks! The key to beating this deck is having quick answers to his deadly creatures. Getting hit by a Steppe Lynx from this deck is very difficult to shrug off.

Searing Blaze is an excellent new weapon, as it allows him to kill Wild Nacatl with more value than just about any other way possible. The vast majority of decks these days have targets, and against those that don’t he has plenty of suitable replacement cards out of the board. Lash Out hitting was always such a nice feeling, and Searing Blaze is a Lash Out that always hits.

Some people have asked me if the Shard Volleys would just be better as Lava Spikes. I haven’t got to test the deck yet, but I suspect that Petr is the kind of guy that tried Lava Spike. You don’t want to Spike turn 1 with this deck anyway, and by the time you would actually want to, it is no different than Shard Volley, except Shard Volley is an instant… and it is super sick with his Flagstones, making his Steppe Lynxs and Geopedes consistently bigger than even Knight of the Reliquary.

I may like Conley’s deck best, but I have to hand it to Petr (what a sicko)… this deck is freaking scary. I am not even sure how all the decks are going to have to adjust, but I fully expect Brozek Boros to be at least 8% of the field next week, maybe more. This deck is really exciting. I mean, he even has 4 Ghost Quarters main, as well as Path to Exiles, meaning tons of outs to Dark Depths, as well as an absolutely absurd ability to generate Landfall. My hat is off to you, Petr! As much as I love Conley’s deck, I don’t know how it is going to reliably defend fast enough, so I am going to be exploring technology for defending against such a ruthless assault.

Saito, one of the absolute best in the business, made yet another Top 8, this time with a nice update to Hypergenesis. His Terastodons should not be a big surprise, as they are basically a lethal threat by themselves, but have the back-up option of solving problematic permanents or providing some land destruction elements.

Oblivion Ring is clever replacement for Bant Charm or Putrefy. It solves problems like Meddling Mage and Chalice, but also combos with Hypergenesis, with tempo, as well as providing some possibilities for interaction with Terastodon. If you Hypergenesis Terastodon with Oblivion Ring, you can stack the triggers so that the creature is gone forever. It might not come up often, but it is a nice trick to know. You just put the O-Ring trigger on the stack first, then the Terastodon destroys your own O-Ring. The Terastodon trigger resolves, giving you an extra 3/3 and destroying the Ring. Then the exile trigger removes the creature forever. Could matter…

Ricochet Trap is also a sweet upgrade over Toils of Night and Day, in my opinion. It is generally going to serve as Red Elemental Blast, but without messing up your cascades. I think that this new trick is subtlety powerful, and I fully expect Living End decks to adapt it as well, especially if Blue decks gain in popularity. Ricochet Trap is a very powerful card in the format, as it creates a powerful effect for only one mana, a recipe for some really great Extended cards (Spell Snare, Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile, Thoughtseize, Noble Hierarch, Wild Nacatl, Martyr of Sands).

Sure, you might be saying that those are just good one-drops, but the point is that the best-one drops are actually very important for defining such a fast format. There is no shortage of great two-, three-, and four-drops; however, there are only so many truly great one-drops, so whenever a one-drop has the potential to make such a big impact, one should sit up and take notice. Just look how many different cards people play at other spots on the curve. Gifts, Cryptic, Jace, Teachings, Glen Elendra, etc. How many one-drop spells really see that much play besides the one-drop creatures in Zoo and Elves?

Personally, I think it is probably not a good time to play Hypergenesis, and that it is still a metagame surprise deck, but I cannot deny that Saito has enough new tricks to get me to give it another shot.

I gotta get back into the lab with Rubin, Nassif, Kibler and company. We’ve gotta tear apart this secret Japanese ally deck real quick…

See ya next week!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”