Innovations – Extended Evolution With Jace, The Mind Sculptor

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Monday, January 8th – With Grand Prix: Oakland this coming weekend, Patrick Chapin investigates a some interesting approaches to the format, powered by the planeswalker of the moment: Jace, the Mind Sculptor! With New Jace set to kick Standard into the stratosphere, will he do the same to Extended? Read on to find out!


Almost immediately after the security guard shouted, the entire region of the airport was silent, motionless, “frozen.” I looked around and saw almost a dozen airport security people running through the airport, with everyone else frozen in their tracks. The security guards communicated with one another without radios or stopping to catch their breath. With the entire airport silent, it didn’t seem difficult.

This sight was totally surreal. In the span of just seconds, the entire airport had gone from busy, buzzing, and loud to a scene from Clockstoppers. I looked to see the people they were presumably chasing, but saw no one. About 20 seconds later came the “all clear,” and almost immediately the airport sprang back to life. I travel quite a lot, so the fact that I had never seen this before left me wondering, which lead to asking one of the security guards what was going on.

“That was just a drill, we are testing out a new procedure to help resolve certain emergency situations.”

I had noticed that there were something like twice as many security personnel as usual in LA X, but to see them make a hand gesture and a loud but simple vocal command with such an effective result was interesting. Their message was spread extraordinarily rapidly, as the information that this was what was going on spread almost instantaneously, which was followed by a large number of individuals focused on silencing their local area, using a combination of hand gesture and command. The cumulative effect them doing this at once lead to an atmosphere of “emergency,” where one cannot help but stop and figure out what is going on.

The practical upside is obvious, as a “frozen” airport would greatly assist security personnel trying to catch someone that is trying to evade them, but the interesting thing to me was the system for spreading information so rapidly and efficiently. In a matter of about two seconds, the entire airport was silent and still. That is remarkable, considering the vast majority of people were not “in on it,” and even those that were did not know when it would occur.

While this did occur on my way to the Magic Cruise that set sail out of Ft. Lauderdale this past weekend, it has more to do with Magic than just that. Look at how information is currently spread in Magic. It is pretty remarkable how fast “tech” and “metagames” spread compared to ten years ago, but it is still hardly hyper-efficient. It would seem that there are still ways to be “ahead of the curve” on information, and incentives to find out what are the most effective channels for this information.

For instance, if you consistently read material from someone that makes claims that turn out false, that disincentives you to put much weight into their words on the next set. On the flip side, if someone takes strong positions and they pan out, you remember that, that’s useful. One place that information spreads rapidly and efficiently, possibly the most rapid and most efficient, is that of Magic Online.

Magic Online is an incredibly powerful resource that I think is only beginning to be understood, and the potential to understand the physics of Magic it makes is quite remarkable. For instance, looking at how frequently cards were the first pick of a 3-0 deck in Magic Queues basically spelled out the proper pick order for Zendikar (albeit with a skew from rarity). You can read here for more on that particular data breakdown, but the gist of it was that the data from every single Magic Online event had been scraped, and it was revealed that the single most commonly picked first card for 3-0 decks was Hideous End over Burst Lightning at second.

It should be remembered that this is slanted by rarity, as you are going to open roughly three times as many Hideous Ends as Vampire Nighthawks, so it is not surprising that Hideous End should show up more. That said, it is kind of mindblowing to consider that Vampire Nighthawk was actually number 3 on the list, despite being uncommon. Also, Malakir Bloodwitch cracked the top 10 despite being rare!

Still, as far as cards of the same rarity goes, this list showed us that when it comes to going 3-0 in a draft on Magic Online, Hideous End wins more than Burst Lightning, Vampire Nighthawk wins more than Trusty Machete, and Malakir Bloodwitch wins more than Hellkite Charger. This was actually quite eye-opening to me, as I initially just assumed that I (and popular wisdom) was right that Burst Lightning was the best common, and that the stats were not the most accurate way of gauging “best.”

However, as I thought about it more and more, I eventually realized that this stat actually measured the exact thing that I wanted, and that while it’s possible that Hideous End is somehow “easier” to play with than Burst Lightning, the truth is, it probably just does lead to more 3-0 decks, hence the statistic. I switched to picking Hideous End over Burst Lightning as a default (it would depend on the texture of the rest of the pack), and have never regretted it.

The sort of data that is possible with Magic Online is pretty remarkable. For instance, if you took every deck from Shadowmoor Block drafts and found the win percentages of every deck that had Ballyknock Cohort, and compared that to the win percentage of every deck that had Burn Trail and so on, you can learn some kind of crazy stuff. For instance, what do you suppose was the card with the best win percentage in that format?

Be careful, because remember, even bad players know Burn Trail is good, and good players certainly use it even when they lose.

The card with the best win percentage was actually…

Dawnglow Infusion!

How can this be? What does this tell us? I would speculate that the primary reason for this is that the only people who put Dawnglow Infusion in their decks are people that mean it, people that are actually making a great choice, not a bad one. You can accidentally end up with Burn Trail in your U/W Aggro deck and lose. No one “accidentally” sticks Dawnglow Infusion in their deck, you can be sure.

This is amusing, and possibly slightly even useful, but what are those of us that don’t have access to all of the Magic Online data supposed to do to “take advantage of it?” Watching what wins on Magic Online is sort of like watching a parallel universe, an alternate reality where time moves four times as fast as it does in real life. Some players are critical of MTGO decks and metagames for being inbred, or similarly unrealistic for some other reason, but the truth is, they have just evolved very rapidly. The people who are doing well on MTGO are often the people who are one step ahead of the rest of the players, which can often mean anticipating how many steps ahead everyone else will try to be.

It is true that Magic Online can be warped by card availability issues or combos not working right, but we can still look at the trends that emerge and read between the lines. This is not to say that we should be copying MTGO decks and running them in real life and calling it a day. No, what I am saying is that Magic Online can show us a reality that could have been. It shows us a reality where the format is allowed to run its course naturally for what seems like a long time to us.

That “reality” is a lot like ours would become if we tried to play the format that much ourselves. As such, it is like a snapshot into what our future could be like. That may be what our future metagame could have looked like, but it probably won’t turn out like that because we know too much about the “future.”

When the Magic Online was evolving naturally, it had to find out that Scapeshift was as good as it was naturally. The real life metagame got to shortcut this a bit and just skipped straight to Scapeshift by the second week of the PTQ season. The key is to look at MTGO results and ask yourself what are they telling you? What are the conditions that have to be met for this to come about?

We are at a point right now where each week of PTQ seems to be at least 50% warped around the previous week’s Magic Online results. In order to be a step ahead of everyone, we want to try to beat what won on MTGO the previous week, not just play it on account of it beating everyone else. So many people are playing Magic Online net decks now, we have to try to beat them even more than PTQ decks. It is almost as if the real life metagame hardly even impacts things that much anymore and that the MTGO metagame just keeps warping the real life one further and further ahead, not giving it time to evolve naturally. The strange thing, though is that this leaves half the PTQ fighting with futuristic decks and half fighting with yesteryear’s decks. The consequence is that to play a hateful strategy in this PTQ season seems loose, as it is too likely that you will be playing against 11 different decks since people are so splintered.

This is why GerryT’s Thopter-Depths deck has struck such a chord with players. Aside from Gerry’s charisma and the deck being good, it is a proactive deck, and, regardless of what others are doing, they are generally going to have to respect 20/20 flying indestructible creatures on turn 2 and the relentless stream of Thopter tokens. This is also why I have abandoned the Protect the Queen strategy and gone back to Thopter tokens (and Punishing Fire). I think we have to be more proactive, as the format is too wide open to just react. You gotta do something unfair.

As I said, I am setting sail on the Magic Cruise and as such will be unable to attend the unfortunately-timed Grand Prix: Oakland, but if I could go, I would probably rock something like this:

As you can see, I have returned to a style similar to what I played in Austin and Rome, but with updates based on the evolution of the format as well as the new cards from Worldwake. Let’s start with the Worldwake cards.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor is totally unbelievable, and we have no shortage of shufflers to fully take advantage of him. We are victory condition light, so he offers an alternative route to victory that is mostly immune to crazy stuff like Elves gaining a trillion life or any sort of Martyr of Sands nonsense. He is another card advantage engine, an answer to Dark Depths (primarily when you can Punishing Fires the Hexmage on their turn, forcing them to activate it), and his fateseal ability is actually much appreciated in such a counter-light deck, since we often find ourselves in situations where we have the advantage but just hope our opponent doesn’t draw one of his “outs.” On top of all of this, a lot more people in Extended can’t attack Planeswalkers, so he is less vulnerable than in Standard (though not as powerful relative to the rest of the cards).

It is very possible that we should just be playing three or four New-Jaces and just have our deck revolve around him, but I have been focusing mostly on Standard and have not gotten much chance to see how far we can push him in Extended. I would not be surprised if he becomes a three- or four-of in a major archetype by the end of the season.

I don’t have more currently because I still have so many other four-drops and have had enough testing time to know for sure that New-Jace can handle all of the heavy lifting, but I will talk about some possibilities for Mind Sculptor decks in a moment. Sick of hearing about Jace, the Mind Sculptor yet? I got bad news for you…

I have also added a Celestial Colonnade, but I am less sure of this. It is far more powerful than Gargoyle Castle, but Castle works with Crucible. Its added value as a dual land is much appreciated, though entering the battlefield tapped is twice the price in Extended. All in all, I think it is probably worth it, however, as the opportunity cost is so little. It is crazy how much people underestimate these new manlands. Every single one of the them is on the Treetop Village curve, seriously. The thing holding so many people back is that they don’t fully appreciate the dual land aspect at the same time as the manland aspect. If they were not manlands, they would almost be good enough. If they were not dual lands, they might still be good enough.

This seemingly so-so value of both leaves people misevaluating the card much the same way people misevaluated Cryptic Command. A four mana Counterspell? A four mana Fog? Boomerang? Cantrip? People knew it was good, since you get both, but they did not fully appreciate how valuable this flexibility would be and how good it was to get the best of each world at will.

The manlands give you the best of both worlds at will. First, they fix your mana very well. Second, they let you play more colorless lands in your two-color deck, should you want them. Third, they ensure you have no shortage of victory conditions. Finally, they let you play more than 23-26 lands in your deck without such a risk of flood.

Remember when everyone realized that Zendikar draft decks should have 18-19 land, not 16-17? I think the day will come when people realize that Standard decks should have a few more land than people think right now.

Short on mana? They fix it. Flooded? They provide very real value. These cards are just awesome and people are so historically bad at evaluating things that do two effects simultaneously, they are missing the fact that there are FIVE MUTAVAULTS in this set (and they happen to also be FIVE DUAL LANDS).

End Rant

Returning to Gifts, let’s look at the updates. First of all, my creature base in currently two Glen Elendras and a Teferi, which is based on the lessons I learned from my Protect the Queen decks. I have really been liking Glen Elendra as additional insurance policy against unfair decks and she helps seal games away. The incremental damage in certainly worth something as well, now that I am on the Punishing Fires plan again.

Teferi has been a great tool for closing out a game, and I love him as an additional answer to manlands. It is nice to have an instant speed threat against Blue decks and, like Glen Elendra, it is very difficult for someone to kill him without losing value (Teferi can usually block someone before he is “targetable.”)

I have dropped to 3 Thirst and only 2 Gifts, as I know have the added card draw power of a Mind Sculptor and a Mystical Teachings. The Mind Sculptor makes up for the raw card draw of Thirst (actually even more than that), and the Teachings is nice way to still “sort of have 3 Gifts” while getting stuck with multiple Gifts less often. In addition, it helps make Extirpate a better main deck card (which I love right now), and it helps make my Gifts that much spicier, since it makes a great Gifts target.

The Extirpate main deck is a necessary concession to Thopter-Sword decks, but obviously has a lot of applications in other match-ups, such as Martyr, Scapeshift, and Dredge, as well as occasionally hitting a Punishing Fire.

I have moved away from Loam and towards Crucible for two reasons. First, the addition of Watery Grave has me never wanted to fetch up a Breeding Pool. Second of all, I want Crucible outside of Gifts piles more than I want Loam. It is an artifact to discard to Ruins (and get back), but it is also just a good solid card draw engine, and I like it with Castle, Ghost Quarter, Celestial Colonnade, Fetchlands, Thirst, Gifts, and Shackles. One other point that is very important to consider is that an awful lot of people realize how good Extirpate is in the current format. Loam loses to that card, whereas Crucible does not.

In the sideboard, you will notice that I have moved away from the ultra anticipated Baneslayer-Finks plan the total opposite way, towards full on embracing Thopter-Sword. A lot of aggro decks have so much trouble with the combo, and the vast majority of them are going to keep in Path to Exile against you anyway, maybe even board in more creature kill.

The other factor is that the Baneslayer kill may be great against a lot of fair decks, but these days, everyone is doing unfair stuff and Thopter-Sword is a natural foil to most unfair strategies. It gives you an anti-burn plan, an anti-Dark Depths plan, a way to go big enough to beat Martyr, a way to kill Bridges, and more. Are you vulnerable to Extirpate yourself? Sure, but at least you have a nice variety of other ways to gain an advantage and close out the game.

The only other surprising choices in my board are the Into the Roil and Echoing Truth. The primary reason for these cards is the need for more protection against Blood Moon. This deck is certainly vulnerable to Blood Moon, and it is important to avoid being ahead in five areas but losing to “manascrew.” On the topic of Blood Moon, here’s something to consider if you are playing against Elves and they have you locked out with a Blood Moon: often your best shot will be to ride their Essence Warden to victory.

Essence Warden is not optional, and for once in my life I am thrilled about it. You can lock out all of their other creatures with Punishing Fires, and every time they play a new creature, kill it, leaving them with just a single Essence Warden to try to win with. At that point, if you can just get a single Island, you can often defend yourself with a Glen Elendra Archmage and buy yourself time to find a way out of the Blood Moon. Obviously we cannot count on our opponents playing an Essence Warden for us, so we have added bounce for protection, but it is something to watch for. Into the Roil and Echoing Truth are also quite potent weapons against Thopter-Sword, as they beat Dark Depths without getting stopped by a Chalice on one.

All in all, I think that Punishing Gifts is a great choice for this weekend, as it crushes Dark Depths and is naturally strong against Blue decks and unfair combo decks. Its primary vulnerability is to aggro decks. It certainly has fine fighting chances, but Zoo can be a bit tougher than you’d like. A big part of the reason to play a deck like this is that you are gambling that enough other people will try to do something unfair, giving you plenty of free wins. The other big draw is how unreal good the Dark Depths (and Thopter-Depths) match-up is (which few other decks actually beat at all).

You have Spell Snares, Punishing Fires, Firespout, and Paths to help ensure they get no free Confidant wins. In fact, Punishing Fires basically guarantees that they are going to have to combo you out, since it locks out Vendillion Clique and Dark Confidant, while putting them on a clock.

As far as Dark Depths goes, you have Paths, Cryptics, New-Jace, Ghost Quarter, Teachings, Gifts, and your own Thopter-Sword to beat it, not to mention Into the Roil and Echoing Truth in the board. If they try to Thopter-Sword you, they will quickly fall apart as they have little to protect them from Extirpate (which you have plenty of ways to find). In addition, you have Explosives, Ruins, Ghost Quarter, and permission to help fight the combo, with Cranial, Extirpate, Grudge and more in the board. I anticipate a lot of Thopter-Depths this week, and I know of no better way to beat them.

When it comes to fighting aggro, it’s going to be tough no matter how you slice it. You have the tools, but there is no single hoser you can play to gain massive percentage. I currently recommend just shoving all in on the Thopter-combo, but you are going to have to pay for all the rounds you get to beat up combo decks by taking your lumps against Wild Nacatls.

Before I go, I want to share a little brainstorming I am working on involving more new Worldwake cards in Extended. Here are two untested brews that demonstrate the type of stuff I am imagining in the extended to come.

As you can see, I am serious about Treasure Hunt with Halimar Depths/Ponder/Jace. I am also serious when I say that the Mind Sculptor is a card drawer with enough power to support its own archetypes. New Jace is the real deal, and while it takes a powerful four-drop to be good enough for Extended, there is little doubt in my mind that Jace is up to the task.

Personally, I can’t wait to start regularly pumping my Goyfs up to 6/7 or 7/8. Treasure Hunt is a great way to provide the Sorcery and New Jace has Planeswalker covered. Goyf will be better than ever now that he is always just bigger than Baneslayer. He will often be able to actually race Knight of Reliquary, a feat in and of itself.

Grand Prix: Oakland is shaping up to be an exciting tournament and I envy the first Blue Mages that get a chance to Jace their way to victory. Is Extended yet another place for Jace, the Mind Sculptor?

If it isn’t yet, it will be…

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”