Innovations – Extended Gauntlet From Extremes

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Monday, December 21st – The Extended PTQ season is fast approaching, and prudent Mages are preparing their gauntlet decks for some hot holiday spellslinging. Patrick Chapin presents his own gauntlet decks, categorized by the extremes of their attack, before moving on to discussing a certain new planeswalker from Worldwake… [Warning: Contains Spoilers!]

This week’s article is going to be divided into two parts. The first half of the article is designed to be a resource for building your gauntlet for the Extended season to come. I am not going to be presenting any groundbreaking revolutionary decks, but rather gathering in one place what I consider to be the premier decks going into the beginning of the PTQ season. The second half will break down my argument for why I think a recently spoiled card from Worldwake has the potential to be revolutionary, one of the 10 best cards in Standard.

When we look to build a gauntlet for an upcoming PTQ season, I always go back to the method that Michael J. Flores taught me:

Look for the extremes in the format.

This is especially important when you are dealing with a format as wide open as Extended, where you can’t possibly test against every single deck. The idea is to find what is the fastest creature/burn deck, the fastest combo, the coldest control deck, the best “fair” deck (such as The Rock), the best linear aggro deck, and so on.

Once you have identified the extremes of the format, you figure out how your decks fare against them and thusly determine weaknesses and strengths. For instance, if you can keep up with the very fastest red aggro decks, than you generally have an idea that you will be okay against a slightly slower build. If you are weak to the coldest control deck, you can figure out how to shore up those weaknesses and will probably improve most of your match-ups against slightly warmer control decks.

One last note before we begin: I have not included Worldwake cards in these decks on account of not knowing that many new cards, yet, and also because the season will begin before Worldwake, so we need to be ready to play the format as it is. In addition, since none of these decks are totally new, I will not be going too far into discussing the actual strategy of the decks, but rather will discuss why I think they are the best example of a particular extreme in the format to come.

Up first, the “Best Deck in the Format.”

This deck is not just extreme in that it is extremely good (though it is), it is also the best anti-aggro aggro deck that is set up to beat fair decks while still having chances against unfair decks. I have selected Michael Jacob update, as he went 6-0 at Worlds with it, and it has evolved the deck to take into consideration the now very real possibility of multiple mirror matches.

Whereas Rubin, Kibler, Sperling, and MJ used Meddling Mage (and Hallowed Fountain) in Austin to combat Hypergenesis and Dredge, this build has moved towards Black primarily for Deathmark, as it is just absolutely incredible in a mirror that revolves almost entirely around Baneslayer Angel, Knight of the Reliquary, and Tarmogoyf. The percentage against Dredge is recouped with actual dedicated graveyard hate, and the Hypergenesis match-up is worse (but fairly rare these days).

If this deck seems at all like it might be your style, I highly recommend it, as it is not only the “best” deck in the format, it is also a good deck with which to qualify. It has enough skill to reward you for practicing with it, but is not too hard for most people to learn. In addition, it is customizable depending on how the format evolves, and it beats up on bad decks, which you will surely face many times at a PTQ. There is a very good chance I will be playing something similar next month.

Will you face other builds that are not Rubin-style? No question, but I think this one is much better, and what you learn from testing against this one will tend to carry over. A few games against Juza-style from Austin or Kibler/Rubin from Worlds can be instructional, but you will face traditional Rubin Zoo more than any other deck this season, and you need to be ready.

You might be asking why I rank this deck so highly. Isn’t the buzz dying down? Well, the fact of the matter is that Dark Depths was one of the best performing archetypes in Austin, and while it was somewhat hated on in Rome, is a strong deck and makes a convincing claim to the title of best “Combo-Control” or “Slow Combo Deck.”

To call this deck slow is a little silly, of course, as it can easily produce a 20/20 on turn 2. However, it is not a suicidal combo deck that just rushes to do its thing. It has a lot of card draw, disruption, and interaction to try to force its combo through successfully.

There has not really been that much innovation with this archetype lately, but I would like to note that I like PV’s build better than the Thopter-Sword versions.

This deck is (in my opinion) the best “fast combo deck.” Whereas the Dark Depths deck has a lot of selection and disruption and interaction and so on, this deck is blisteringly fast and almost impossible to stop without graveyard hate (a true Dredge deck…).

Personally, I am not a fan of playing Dredge in formats where it is known and expected, but I can’t fault someone for selecting this as their weapon of choice. I will say, if you are play testing with it, make sure you play most of your test games post sideboard. If you are not playing it, you still need to log some games in against it, as it is a match-up with a lot of bizarre tactics. Plus, you need to decide how much graveyard hate, if any, to play.

You might guess that the Rock occupies the best “fair deck” spot, but this time, it turns out that it is actually more of a lock deck than anything. I think the best “fair deck” is probably U/W Control (unless you count Rubin Zoo). This “Rock deck” is actually a glorified Martyr deck that is built around Gifs Ungiven fetching up Life from the Loam, Emeria, Miren, and Yosei (presumably you have a Fetchland already).

I think this deck might be an interesting one to explore, since it will be under most people’s radars and it is quite strong, attacking from a different angle than many decks. I think it is a good deck to test against, particularly if you are playing an aggressive deck, since it is probably the best Loxodon Hierarch deck I know of (despite only have one copy), and traditional Rock is garbage right now.

Some people would argue that Bant, or possibly Faeries, is the best “fair deck.” My good friend Manuel Bucher did very well with Bant in Rome last month, but personally I tend to think the deck is below average and certainly not the most extreme anything.

Personally, I would be embarrassed to show up with Faeries these days. If you are into that sort of thing, you might as well play Dark Depths or one of the control decks to follow. What is the best control deck? I will list three alternatives, as it is too hard to tell right now, since the control deck’s success will rely heavily on correctly anticipating the field.

I piloted the Punishing Gifts deck to a respectable finish in the extended portion of Worlds and I was pretty happy with it, though I want to work with the U/W Control list I posted, since it is essentially the deck I usually sideboard into. I have listed LSV and Webb’s deck (and whomever else built it) since it has some similarities, but is brewed completely independently of mine. As such, it offers some insight into what elements other good deck builders liked, versus the ones on which they differed from me. Personally, I am not a huge fan of the Tezz builds and do not think he adds enough, but the deck is definitely solid.

I would also like to add that Guillaume Wafo-Tapa and Guillaume Matignon have turned me onto Crucible of Worlds in U/W Control, and I think it is an interesting option that should be considered as an additional source of card advantage, particularly if you end up using any man-lands from the new set.

Finally, the best “bad deck.”

It should be noted that Bant Charm has been gaining in popularity (and rightly so) and the new trend is to add one or more basic land, so as to help combat Blood Moon or Ghost Quarter. Personally, I think you should somewhat slant your Hypergenesis gauntlet deck to actually be able to fight back against the hate you are playing. It is all well and good to smash your gauntlet deck with Blood Moon, but I promise you, some people have basics and you will want to have some experience against those decks.

I highly, highly recommend against Hypergenesis. If you must play Hypergenesis, the Greek style, with Firespouts, Thirst for Knowledges, maybe Bant Charms, is the way to do it, but you shouldn’t want to play it in the first place. This deck consistently performs poorly, is heavily hated out, is inconsistent, doesn’t reward your skill as much as you might like, and is not well positioned in this metagame. It is possible that an opening is created for it, but I would sooner play All In Red than Hypergenesis (and I don’t advise that either).

I list it here because it is important to test against it, to get a feel for the match-up, since simply playing 10 or 15 playtest games against it can make all the difference in the world come PTQ time.

Okay, before I take off, I want to spend a few minutes talking about what is sure to be one of the more hyped cards in Worldwake: Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

Warning: Spoiler Alert!

Last week, Wizards of the Coast essentially “slow-spoiled” what is sure to be one of the more hyped cards in Worldwake by cutting a Jace the Mind Sculptor into eight pieces and spreading them out all over earth in the “Planeswalker Chase” event. When all was said and done, the new Jace was revealed to be:

New Jace

Obviously the first thing that jumps out at you is that New Jace is the first Planeswalker to feature four abilities. Still, the question remains, just how good is New Jace? He is a Planeswalker, so you know he will at least be decent, but are we talking more of a Chandra or Liliana or more of an Elspeth or Ajani Vengeant? Is he even better than Old Jace?

It is very tempted to look at New Jace and his four “cool” abilities and want him to be good, but that doesn’t make it so. However, I have already seen plenty of people saying that he is merely “okay” which to me seems like a little bit of a hedge. He is a Planeswalker; of course he is at least “okay.”

I am going to go out on a limb and say that I think New Jace is the real deal. I think he will be one of the best cards in the set, and has the potential to be one of the stronger cards in Standard, depending on what the metagame looks like after Worldwake. For all I know, there might be 5 cards in Worldwake that are better. I doubt it, since I don’t think there are necessarily 5 cards in all of Standard that are currently better (Baneslayer Angel, Bloodbraid Elf, Ajani Vengeant, Lightning Bolt, and…?)

Why do I think this? Well, it is tempting to dismiss the card on account of being Blue, but that is not only unfair (since Worldwake might have several good Blue cards and, if not, you know Blue will be good again someday), but also inaccurate now that Blue is enjoying a little bit of a comeback on the backs of all these U/W and U/W/R decks, not to mention Grixis and Five-Color Control putting up a few respectable finishes.

The reason I am so psyched about New Jace is actually just on intrinsic power level. The card seems totally amazing to me. Let’s break it down for a minute compared to Old Jace, a card that I think we can all agree is inherently strong and one of the better Blue cards in the format.

First of all, the most important ability on Old Jace is “-1: Draw a card.” Let’s compared that to “0: Brainstorm.” Obviously Brainstorming is better than drawing a card, and 0 > -1… but how much better? I think Brainstorm is at least as strong as drawing a card and a half, probably more than that on the average. You can combine it with Cascade or fetchlands or Knight of the White Orchid or anything else, but you can also combine it with New Jace’s +2 ability, ensuring that you rapidly solve any problem you encounter.

The fact that this doesn’t cost any loyalty is far from trivial, since it means you can just do this every turn, whereas Old-Jace had to recharge the opponent a little every so often. Brainstorm giving you an extra .5 to .75 of a card in value every turn and then every third turn not having to let your opponent draw a card? To me that is already at least worth a mana. Don’t get me wrong, the difference between 3 and 4 is huge, but the difference in those abilities is also huge, and assuming the other abilities were of similar power to Old Jace, I would already give the edge to New Jace.

Up next, we have the +2 ability. The Mind Sculptor’s ability to Scry 1 or Fateseal 1 is worth at least half a card in my book. It is basically Looting to do it to yourself (especially when combined with Brainstorm), and the ability to do it to an opponent is potentially the best part of the card. Once you get ahead with the Mind Sculptor, you just check them every turn and make sure they don’t draw an out while you accumulate a huge amount of loyalty.

Old Jace’s ability, on the other hand, is probably not worth a half a card, unless you are playing a Jacerator style deck. Giving your opponent a card is often the last thing you want to be doing. Head to head, I think New Jace comes out the winner here.

How about the Ultimates? The truth is, both Ultimates are somewhat trivial. It is nice that they both have ways to lead to a win, but you and I both know that is not why we are generally playing them, and it would be fine whatever they did. Obviously, New Jace’s ability is stronger, but Old Jace’s ability might be more relevant more often. Either way, I rate this as a tie, since neither is that important.

Finally we come to their fourth abilities. New Jace has the ability to Unsummon, creating a powerful impact on the board immediately, whereas Old Jace has no fourth ability (and two of his abilities are actually very similar). This added dimension of New Jace is invaluable, and often the mere threat of the ability will be more important than actually activating it. There are going to be games where you bump the Mind Sculptor’s loyalty, then Unsummon every turn and tempo the opponent right out.

All of this adds up to what I believe as the makings of a Tier 1 premier tournament card. Since it is a Mythic and (contrary to some rumors) does not appear in a precon, this card will be hard to acquire and worth a pretty penny. I hear people talking about it starting at $25 and settling around $15. For what it is worth, I suspect it will end up going for more than $25. Again, I gotta see what the rest of the set is like, but I know power… and my friends, this card has it. I don’t think it would be crazy to see this card end up with Elspeth pricing by the time all is said and done. I know I will be getting as many as I can quickly, though I am sure that like Ajani Goldmane, Garruk Wildspeaker, and others, the context will determine when the card is worth a ton and when it is merely a decent card.

There are so many possibilities with this guy, and it is hard to know where to start. The one that screams out to be tried is him in conjunction with Cascade, but I think the real ticket is just using him with shufflers as the centerpiece, or as a primary avenue of advantage for just about every Blue deck. Just as Ajani Vengeant or Elspeth or Garruk or Ajani Goldmane have all offered various mages a new dimension to their game, I think New Jace is the Planeswalker that Blue mages have been waiting for. Whereas Old Jace was little more than a glorified Divination, and Tezz is a somewhat specialized weapon, New Jace is so versatile and so strong, I see it being played as a three- or four-of in a ton of different decks, and being one of the primary reasons to play Blue.

I have no doubt that there will be a surge of people in the forums that disagree, and that’s cool, as we need to talk about these things and figure out how to best use them, but we should all remember to not become polarized. When new cards come out, there is real risk of deciding what one thinks of a card, then fighting for that position to the death rather than just trying to understand what Is. I think it is possible that New Jace turns out to be contextually wrong for the new Standard. However, my intuition is that this card will be – in the words of Tom LaPille – very, very strong.

See you next week, when I expand on a Christmas tradition by delivering an unlikely present (that some might not want, heh, but others will surely appreciate).

Merry Christmas!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”