Innovations – Introducing Next Level Blue

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Fresh from his sterling performance at Worlds 2007, Patrick “The Innovator” Chapin has decided to give us our Christmas gift a little early this year! Today’s Innovations sees the Constructed master turn his eye towards Extended, bringing us the “Next Level in Blue Deck Technology.” Intrigued? Then read on!

MichaelJ: Write about something else!
PChapin: Why? This is my best Extended deck. It is really good.
MichaelJ: Yeah, but do you really want everyone to know about it?
PChapin: That is sort of the point, Michael J.

I have been working on Extended pretty much since the day after Worlds, primarily with teammate Paul Nicolo. Paul was able to provide a great deal of insight on Threshold when I was testing Legacy recently, and seemed to have a knack for the kinds of Blue decks I like to build in higher powered formats. Seeing as I began from the perspective that I wanted to build the next level of Blue decks, he seemed the natural recruit for my think tank.

We also worked with Josh Wludyka, whose expertise lies in offering the beatdown player’s perspective. He helped remind us of what the opponent would be up to, and how they would adapt to fight us.

Throughout most of testing for Valencia, I favored a Counterbalance deck remarkably similar to the eventual winner’s build. Now that the metagame is better defined, I am still of the opinion that Counterbalance Top is the best thing you can do in this format (and pretty much every format it is legal, save Vintage). The experiment I wanted to try was to build a Mono-Blue version.

After some testing, it quickly became apparent that there was literally no reason to not play Tarmogoyf. After adding it, I found myself enjoying a fair bit of success, but arrived at the slightly awkward position of having lots of good match-ups, but a few terrible ones. What to do?

I showed the deck to secret deck building genius of yesteryear, Efro, and he was immediately intrigued. Efro and William Jensen, both legends of the game who are mounting comebacks, played around with it and liked what they saw. They suggested some sort of Wish package to shore up weaknesses.

I knew as soon as the idea was brought to the table that Living Wish was what we were looking for. Efro wondered if perhaps Cunning Wish was what we wanted, but we already had too many three-drops and wanted to add two-drops anyway. Besides, Kataki and Jailer!

I brainstormed with Nicolo what this new list would like with. Then, after some serious playtesting, adjusted numbers until we arrived at:

The maindeck is Mono-Blue, save the Wishes and Tarmogoyfs, who is consistently 5/6 or 6/7 in this deck. He is just such a great blocker on defense, while serving as an incredibly efficient win condition when it is time to win. There are so many times where you will have a soft lock, like Counterbalance Top, and you just throw out a Goyf and kill in 3 or 4 hits before opponent has time to break free. In addition, he requires such a small commitment of mana that you don’t have to tap out to play him, i.e. you can protect him with Counterspell, Command, or Repeal easily.

Speaking of Repeal, it is a key tool available to you. Aside from being an all-purpose defensive card slowing everything from Kird Ape to Jitte to Counterbalance to Gaea’s Might, it is also central to some excellent tactical options. When you have Counterbalance Top against Domain Zoo, often they are stuck trying to win with the first couple of cards they played. Engineered Explosives is often the best for taking care of their one-mana guys, but you need a way to deal with two’s without blowing up your Counterbalance. Enter Repeal. They can’t even replay their guy, due to your Counterbalance.

In addition, it is the perfect answer to Chrome Mox, an Ornithopter with Plating or +1/+1 counters, or even some troublesome permanent you weren’t expecting, like Destructive Flow. Finally, be aware of the “Top Trick.” You can tap your Top to draw a card, then Repeal it in response. The Top will return to your hand, you will draw a card for Repeal, then you will draw a card from Top. It will cost you one to replay your Top, but you will have essentially spent 2U to draw two cards at instant speed. It is very nice to be able to turn your Repeals into card draw against control or midrange decks like The Rock.

Thirst from Knowledge is nice, but not relied on too heavily. There is a decent concentration of artifacts, giving Thirst a lot of value, but you will be spending all your mana every turn, most of the time, so it can sometimes be tricky to find an opening. Top, Ponder, Command, Repeal, Wish, and Shackles all provide card advantage/selection, so maxing on Thirsts isn’t necessary, and a three-drop had to go for mana curve concerns. Nicolo’s view is that perhaps we should cut a Shackles for the fourth Thirst, but so far most of the time I draw the fourth Shackles, I am glad it has been Shackles, not Thirst.

Shackles is incredible in the current format and is central to our anti-creature plans. So many decks are just kold to active Shackles. It seems a little slow, but remember, it is only three plus two to start the Control Magic effects, and then once you get it operational, it is very cheap to generate a powerful effect.

Counterspell is fairly self-explanatory, and important for fighting opponents with big plans, such as Ideal and Tron. Cryptic Command provides a bit of additional defense, also serving as another tool to solve problems. It can provide card advantage, tempo, outs to tough problems and more. Whether it is Capsize with buyback, Dismiss, Moment’s Peace, or Turnabout, Command just gets the job done if you use your imagination. It is often imprinted on a Mox, mostly due to its high cost, but late in the game it is your best draw.

I have been asked about Ponder, but it is very simple, you play four Ponder because they won’t let you play five. It may not be Brainstorm, but it is not too far off. I mean, there is a reason I play four in Vintage, four in Legacy, and so on. Ponder is absolutely incredible in any format that includes Flooded Strand and Polluted Delta.

You get to take the best of four cards (three on Top or shuffle), then shuffle your library when good cards stop coming. It is stronger than Impulse, a formerly vintage quality card, but at half the cost. It is crazy not to play this card, my friends. It gives you so much selection and manipulation, much the way Brainstorm has been giving to everyone wise enough to arm themselves with it.

Sensei’s Divining Top is the same principle. It lets you Ponder every turn. Top plus fetchlands is just insane. Add in Counterbalance? Best card in the deck. Opening hand of Top, Ponder, and five land? That is an auto win! I could write an entire article on the science and the art of Topping. If I had to sum it up in this paragraph though, I would say practice, practice, practice. Also, focus on locking people with Counterbalance and on developing your mana.

Counterbalance is, as I have said before, the best thing you can do in any supported format involving Sensei’s Divining Top and it, save for Vintage. It is not the most powerful combination, the cheapest combo, the hardest lock, or anything. It is just the best, the best combination of all of these. It has so much natural synergy and both cards are incredible in their own right.

In addition, it preys on spells that cost one or two mana. Because of the primary game constraint of Magic, the development of mana, good spells in Magic tend to cost one or two. Counterbalance is breathtakingly powerful against these spells. Against Ideal, they can never Chant you or Fire/Ice your Meddling Mage. Against U/g Tron, they can’t Moment’s Peace or Life from the Loam. Against Domain Zoo they can’t play anything at all!

Finally, we come to the Wish package. This was added to attack weak points in our strategy. We already had several creatures in our board and realized that it would be so very useful to have access to them game 1. The Katakis in the board always helped against Affinity, but now that we have access to Wish, Affinity went from being a 20-80 bad match up for us, to a 60-40 in our favor. We get to sideboard in 2 Kataki, keeping one in board to Wish for. We also get to sideboard in Stomphowler and Loxodon if we want.

Versus Dredge, we were originally just kold game 1, like many people. Now we have a legitimate plan of getting Jailer and protecting. In addition, we have some Crypts and a Trinket Mage in board, as well as another Ruins, to help try to set up Ruins plus Crypt combo.

Versus Domain Zoo, we have a Loxodon, just to try to make Wishes worth something. It can certainly be right to sideboard out the Wishes (and a Thirst or Command) versus them, bringing in Loxodon, Trinket Mage, and two Threads.

Versus Ideal, TEPS, or other combo decks, we have access to Meddling Mage, which is especially potent when backed up by Counterbalance. Meddling Mage is our primary anti-Boseiju plan, although Nicolo suggests considering Aven Mindcensor as an additional tool. In my experience, though, the Ideal match up is easy enough that this is not warranted, unless we decide we need it for Gifts decks, or something.

Versus Chase Rare, we have access to a variety of excellent weapons, though Trinket Mage and Stomphowler are the usuals. There is talk of adding a Meloku, but I couldn’t make room yet. They have some very strong weapons against us, like Confidant, Counterbalance, etc. As such we sideboard in Threads and Grips. It is important to have tools against them, as they have so much the same as us, it will always be a close match up.

Versus Tron, we had talked of adding Steam Vents to access Blastminer, but we had to draw the line somewhere. So instead, we just try to draw cards and set up Counterbalance. Also, sometimes a quick Goyf is the right play versus them. Interestingly, U/g Tron is relatively close, as Counterbalance is so good versus them. Unfortunately, U/w Tron is not as close, as they have weapons like Decree, plus more robots and awkward casting costs.

Rock isn’t our best match-up either, but we can hang with them on card quality. If their deck is more in line with a Doran Junk strategy, Counterbalance will kold them. If they have more of a Gifts shell, we will just focus on keeping them off Gifts, hoping to tempo them out with Goyf and Shackles. If they are just straight B/G, we will usually just overpower them on quality and Counterbalance. If they are Flow, get them on Shackles (remember to get basics, also make a Living Wish into a Green Mox to ensure you have Green mana when they have Flow) and Goyf beats.

Against random control decks, you will usually want to cash in Wish for Academy Ruins or Trinket Mage, although the situation may call for improvising.

Loam decks can be fought with Jailer, though it is conceivable that you would want a Trinket Mage later.

Tooth and Nail and Balancing Tings are both comboesque enough to usually warrant Meddling Mage as the Wish Target.

No Stick isn’t popular enough to warrant a bullet, but if it did gain popularity, I would consider a Blinkmoth Well in the board. As it is, they are just wrecked by Counterbalance. Also, you have Repeal and Command to break free of their lock.

As far as the manabase goes, the deck is obviously just set up to power the Shackles, shuffle for Top, and fix colors for sideboard and explosives. The Temple Garden is primarily for Affinity, as it allows you to fetch up a land that can both Wish for Kataki turn 2, and play it turn 3, when you have only one fetch.

The Academy Ruins just adds enough value to warrant a non-Island slot. It combos so well with Explosives and Crypt. Also, you can make sure they can’t effectively Grip your Top, which is central to your plans. Finally, it helps keep the Tron player off the inevitable position of Sundering Titan every turn. With a Counterbalance in play, you can keep him from being able to get his Ruins back.

Tormod’s Crypt, Threads of Disloyalty, and Krosan Grip are not your only sideboard cards. Remember to consider boarding out Living Wish against anyone not hosed by it. There is no shame in boarding in a Loxodon or a Stomphowler or a Trinket Mage. Even Meddling Mage is a fine man in his own right.

Anyone interested in qualifying for Pro Tour: Hollywood would do well to consider Next Level Blue, both to play with and when you will eventually have to play against it. Next Level Blue is pretty much defined by Counterbalance plus Goyf plus Shackles plus Living Wish. Each adds an element that provides a robust strategy that is capable of handling a wide open field, like Extended is these days. Do not be fooled into thinking that it is just another Counterbalance deck. This is not ChaseRare.dec. It is the next level of Blue decks.

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”