Innovations – Analyzing Grand Prix: Yokohama

Visit the StarCityGames.com booth at Grand Prix Houston!
Monday, March 22nd – The current Extended season is continually shifting, with the strongest decks adapting to the freshest metagame trends. Patrick “The Innovator” Chapin takes a look at the Top 8 decks from Grand Prix: Yokohama, and suggests a control build based on a deck from Kenji Tsumura.

An exciting Grand Prix in Yokohama this past weekend demonstrated just how alive and well the Extended format is, where despite the existence of a “best deck” and the fact that it won, we saw a Top 8 with six different archetypes, a very healthy Day 2 breakdown, and some pretty awesome variety of strategies. For reference:

Day 2 Metagame
24% – Zoo
12% – Dark Depths
11% – Scapeshift
8% – Faeries
7% – Dredge
6% – Boros Deck Wins
5% – Mono-Red Burn
3% – Elves
2% – Hypergenesis
2% – Doran
20% – Other

As you can see, the field is actually incredibly diverse, and the supposed bogeyman of the format has even fallen to very reasonable numbers as people have had a chance to re-adjust (such as just about every Zoo deck incorporating Bant Charm or Blood Moon). Wild Nacatl is back to the top spot by far, but realistically speaking, it is very likely this will be the case most of the time for as long as Sacred Foundry is in the format.

Another interesting deck, Brozek’s new Boros build, was very much a potential wildcard going into the event. Was it going to take over and shake up the tier 1? Was it a flash in the pan that would dry up? When all was said and done, it had a reasonable percentage of the field and did alright, but certainly did not seem particularly dominant. Its niche seems to be its location half way between the Lava Spike deck and Zoo, strategically.

One trend that I can’t help but notice is the near total disappearance of control decks. Among the 80% of decks that were piloted by 3 or more players we see:

Combo- 40%
Aggro- 32%
Control- 8% (and that is only if you count Faeries)

That is wild, when you think about it. This field is basically half combo decks and half aggro. In fact, it is only because I counted Mono-Red Burn as a combo deck that the numbers are slanted this way. I think of Mono-Red Burn is more of a combo deck than an aggro deck, but even if you flip it the other way, you end up with 35% combo and 37% aggro (not to mention how many of the 20% other decks were Hive Mind or Bant Aggro or whatever).

What does this mean? On the surface, it means that control decks are certainly a rogue entity in Extended right now, but why? I think this can be attributed to a few factors:

1) The large variety of powerful combo decks that attack from different directions makes it difficult to react properly to all potential assaults. The nice thing about playing an aggro deck against most combo decks is that reducing your opponent’s life total to zero is a winning formula, regardless of what they are playing.

2) Wild Nacatl. It is obviously much more than just Wild Nacatl, but the fact that Zoo can come out so hard so fast makes it tough for people to play enough reactive, anti-combo cards in their control decks.

3) The best kill in Extended often seems to be a combo kill. Just like how often in Vintage it seems like even the control decks are combo decks, so it is in Extended. There are a variety of “slow combo decks” in 1.x that do use some reactive cards to “not die,” but rather than actually establish control over the game, they strike at an opportune moment and try to do something degenerate.

4) Finally, these days, the control decks have to adjust every single week because if they cannot correctly anticipate the upcoming week’s field, they will get crushed. It is fine to be a week behind when you netdeck Zoo, Thopter-Depths, or Scapeshift, as you are still doing pretty busted straightforward things. When you copy Wafo’s Teachings list or a Gifts deck from Worlds, but make no changes, you are falling dangerously behind. It is not just that you are missing new technology that has been uncovered, it is that you are using cards designed to fight opponents that no longer exist (or no longer exist in such numbers).

Ever notice how aggro stays popular throughout the season, control decks do best at the beginning (when you can usually just metagame against Zoo and the most popular combo decks) and the end (if the format stabilizes), and combo decks cycle throughout the season (usually) as players continue to try to pick a combo deck that is either a little slower or much faster than the other combo decks they are expecting, as well as attempting to dodge the expected hate.

Can a control deck work? I think it can, and that is not just because of my predilection for them. The key is to brew one week into the future. I have some ideas, but first, let’s examine the top finishing decks in Japan (ah, Japan…)

Mori is armed with the general consensus best deck, Thopter-Depths. The Thopter-Depths advocates are usually quick to point out that Marit Lage and Thopter-Sword are much better kills than a random Teferi or Glen Elendra, so why try so hard to take control? This is an excellent build that features a number of cutting edge pieces of technology, including some that push it a little closer towards being an actual control deck.

First of all, Mori has adopted Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I have already said more than a few words on this guy, but suffice it to say, I am on board 100%. New Jace is good in Standard, but only on account of his raw power being absolutely through the roof. He is actually somewhat poorly positioned, as the format is “hostile.”

The higher powered formats actually feature more and more decks that cannot adequately fight Planeswalkers the higher you go. This is interesting, because while the curve is much steeper for how good a card has to be to be played, when a Planeswalker is good, it ends up gaining quite a nice advantage compared to what it would have in Standard, since it usually doesn’t die nearly as often.

Jace’s abilities are great in powered formats, and he is not only a great card drawer and problem solver, he is an excellent backup victory condition. Mori continues the Jace push after boarding, as Jace is a fantastic way to beat people who load up on Dark Depths or Thopter-Sword hate. GerryT was telling me about boarding with Thopter-Depths these days and described Jace in the board in much the same way as Baneslayer Angel in Standard. Who do you board it in against? Everyone, but that doesn’t mean you play them maindeck.

Something else I like about this build is the lack of Chalice of the Void. At this point, people’s decks have adjusted enough that a Chalice on one is just not the killer it used to be. Mori has replaced the Chalices with a greater selection of reactive elements, including more bounce and more creature removal. He has also abandoned Beseech the Queen, moving the deck further away from combo, instead packing added raw card draw (Compulsive Research and Jace).

The sideboard actually completes the transformation into a control deck, allowing Mori not only more Jace as a backup win condition, but Sphinx of Jwar Isle, so as to hit from another direction entirely. A Gatekeeper and Dark Confidants ensure that there are plenty of potential incidental roads to victory available as well, even if Mori moves away from either or both combos after board. This deck is a stone cold killer, and I expect it to actually gain a little popularity in the next couple of weeks.

Saito-style Hypergenesis is the real deal, and the innovations of Terastodon and Oblivion Ring have helped push it back into the upper part of the metagame (I would consider Zoo and Thopter-Depths to be the top, with Hypergenesis and Scapeshift, maybe Dredge, following).

There is not too much new and crazy with this build, but it is amusing that a lot of people are circulating the wrong list and the Wizards webpage has Kuroda using 3 Fungal Behemoths instead of Fungal Reaches. It is unlikely that anyone that thinks about Fungal Behemoth for even a moment or two will think it is anything other than a typo, but I wonder how many people will just cut them for more spells?

Doran, Doran, Doran. The very definition of a deck that is seemingly ever present, but that I never like. This build is a fairly straightforward Junk deck (which I, for one, am thrilled that people are finally realizing is not the same as Rock). Min-su uses a fairly light amount of disruption compared to most, instead packing more of the best creatures in the format. Tarmogoyf; Knight of the Reliquary; Noble Hierarch; Doran, the Siege Tower; Baneslayer Angel; Kitchen Finks and more. Talk about a bunch of fine men! A fairly typical removal package and some Thoughtseizes compliment the big monster beats, but it should not be overlooked that Stoneforger Mystic continues to exert an influence on deckbuilding.

While Min-su uses only one copy (fetching either Sword or Jitte), I would not be surprised if in the future people use two. The tricky part is that unlike in Standard, there are no shortage of unbelievable two-drops in Extended, making for very tough competition. Many will be surprised to find no Dark Confidants in his 75, but when you consider the shortage of support spells, Dark Confidant loses a little of its appeal. One final advantage to a deck like this is that it is highly customizable, as there are a lot of really great sideboard options available to you; all you have to do is decide who you want the extra edge against.

You have to love a deck with nine Mountains and no Red cards, heh. Scapeshift continues to put up solid numbers, existing as a sort of “better Tooth and Nail.” It is a classic “one-card combo deck” that is consistent, full of quality cards, and fundamentally sound. Its weaknesses? It is a little slow and can be vulnerable to disruption, as it doesn’t have as many plans as Thopter-Depths.

Takashi has tried to compensate for this with a variety of creatures in the board as well as the Rude Awakening kill. Not surprisingly, if I were to experiment with Scapeshift, I would try building around Jace, the Mind Sculptor, if not game 1, then at least after boarding.

The best way to fight Scapeshift is generally a proactive disruptive plan. For instance, Thopter-Depths putting Dark Confidant on the board and using Thoughtseize and Muddle to defend against the combo kill, while quickly assembling its own combo is a tough battle for Scapeshift. Personally, I would not want to play a deck that has trouble with Thopter-Depths, but that is just me.

While I listed Mono-Red Burn above as being 5% of the field, it should be noted that this does not include AIR (All In Red). Wizards coverage teams seem to always want to lump AIR and Lava Spike into the same category, but that is about as accurate as saying that Ponza and Goblins are the same archetype.

Only two players made Day 2 with AIR, which is not uncommon as it is not the most popular strategy, although it is interesting that AIR seems to get a disproportionate number of big finishes. This is not to say that its win percentage is abnormally high, but rather that for a deck that generally does not have that high of a win percentage, AIR seems to hit that lucky home run more often than other decks with a comparable batting average, the Rob Deer of Magic decks if you will. This is in stark contrast to the Lava Spike deck, which is generally more popular than AIR and more consistent, but nearly never Top 8s the event. If your goal is to win the event and you doubt your skill with anything other than Mono-Red, perhaps AIR is a better choice than Lava Spike, even if Lava Spike often has a better average. Magic is a top-heavy game that rewards the outliers, the exceptional finishers.

AIR’s biggest weakness? Decks that don’t fold to Blood Moon. Not a surprise.

Honnami has an interesting take on the same sort of Bloodbraid Elf/Blood Moon Zoo deck that real American Hero, Kyle Boggemes won a PTQ with the week before San Diego. While Honnami has moved the Boom/Bust action to the sideboard, the threat of it is still a very potent weapon. For those that do not know, when you Cascade into Boom/Bust, you can play either half. In addition, combining Boom/Bust with a Fetchland can make a sort of Sinkhole (albeit one that takes three land in play to do).

I love the Temporal Isolations in here, as you cannot afford to Path to Exile people that you are hosing with Blood Moon. Honnami also has a sideboard that only a miser could love. Don’t get me wrong, those are all great cards and I think it is sweet that he has some many awesome options in his range, but one has to wonder how effective his anti-Hypergenesis plan (Sure, he has more Blood Moons, but really, 1 Ethersworn Canonist? Out of curiosity, why? Aren’t they boarding in Firespouts anyway?) and anti-Dredge plan (1 Bog and 1 Relic? I guess Worship is the plan, right?)

Still, I am not trying to take anything away from Honnami, as I would much rather see a filth-monger win than the same 75 week in and week out. It is very interesting to see the decks slow down a little all across the board. Dark Depths is moving towards Jace, reactive cards, and draw instead of tutoring. Zoo decks are more and more putting down the Steppe Lynx and picking up the mid-range creatures. Scapeshift is more popular than Hypergenesis. Will this trend continue? I will go a step further and actually predict a small uprising of control (albeit a short-lived one), preying on the slightly slower field, meaning more time for a control deck to find the answers it is looking for.

Here is one place I would start looking:

Legendary superstar Kenji Tsumura returns to the game with an exciting new Planeswalker control deck. Obviously Jace, the Mind Sculptor is awesome way to gain an advantage and Thirst for Knowledge, Compulsive Research, Remand, Repeal, Cruel Ultimatum, and more Planeswalkers provide card draw that even Wafo-tapa would respect (though I am not sure Wafo has ever cast a Chrome Mox in his life).

This build has a few similar themes to Gavin’s Ultimecia article, though Kenji has abandoned the Blood Moon element and focused on making his deck more of an actual control deck, rather than just a pure hate deck. The artifact mana is especially potent in Kenji’s deck, as he has a huge number of ways to gain the card advantage back, and the ability to Cruel Ultimatum on turn 5 or 6 is very exciting.

There are a number of exciting points to consider with Kenji’s list. For instance, look at his manabase. Seven filter lands? That is unheard of in Extended… yet, why not? Having such a lower reliance of shocklands as well as few one-drops makes it much more realistic to employ such a tactic. I do wonder about the shortage of fetchlands with Jace. Personally, I really like to be able to shuffle cards away.

The Negate plus Thoughtseize sideboard plan looks great, as this build of Grixis has a number of dead cards against non-creature decks. However, I question the use of seven (!) anti-graveyard cards. Is there really nothing you want against Zoo? What about Deathmark?

It sounds kind of funny, but I think I would actually like to try Mulldrifter in here. Obviously it makes the Cruel Ultimatums much better, but I kind of like the body anyway. Thirst being an instant is nice and all, but this deck doesn’t really feature that much in the way of countermagic, nor does it even have that many counterspells.

Here is what I plan on trying this week:

That’s it for me for this week. Make sure to check out the 420 page expanded Next Level Magic full-color paperback that is on sale now! See you next week!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”