Insider Trading – The State of Extended, and Jace vs. Chandra ’08!

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Thursday, November 6th – Pro Tour: Berlin just came and went, and Elf Combo decks stomp(ied) all over the format. What does this mean for the upcoming PTQ season, and the value of cards in Extended? PLUS: Jace vs. Chandra releases this week, and it is chock full of goodies… but did WOTC miss the marketing boat on this fabulous product?

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Insider Trading! In this week’s column, we’ll take a look at the results of Pro Tour: Berlin, and see how it will affect the value of cards in Extended.

No wait, scratch that.

I call do-over on my introduction!

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Insider Trading! In this week’s column, I’m going to give you a little history lesson, and tell you why you can essentially disregard the results of Pro Tour: Berlin and expect a do-over on the format come Worlds in Memphis. And when I’m done with that, I’m going to talk about a huge marketing opportunity that Wizards missed with the Jace vs. Chandra decks.

First, Extended. Is there any doubt the Elf-Combo put in the most dominant performance at a Constructed Pro Tour in years? 71 Players started with Elves on Day 1. 38 of those players (over 50%!) made Day 2, and six of the Top 8 decks (and four of the Top 4) were Elf Combo decks. These are insane numbers, and deeply troubling for the format. Let me take you back a few years:

The scene: Pro Tour: New Orleans, 2003 (October 31st-November 2nd). The culprit? Tinker – Seven of the Top 8 decks (including four of the top four) decks were Tinker-based decks, though there were three variants: Metalworker Combo, George W. Bosh (Bosh, Iron Golem), and Goblin Charbelcher/Mana Severance Combo. Either way, Tinker decks completely warped the format, and drastic action was needed – and by December 1st, the following cards were banned in Extended:

Ancient Tomb, Goblin Recruiter, Grim Monolith, Hermit Druid, Oath of Druids, and TInker.

Three of these six cards were part of the degenerate Tinker deck, and the other three would have led to other degenerate combo decks – basically a cavalcade of pre-emptive restrictions. The bannings didn’t go into effect until January 1st, allowing for half the public PTQ season to be with Tinker legal (leading to a near-record low U.S. GP turnout at SoCal Gen Con in 2003), and the other half with Tinker banned.

The Tinker decks in New Orleans and the Elf Combo decks in Berlin have many similarities – completely dominating performances, nearly all of the Top 8 (and all of the Top 4) spots, frequent, and hard-to-disrupt turn 2 or 3 kills, and very little player interactivity. The reaction to New Orleans: Ban the format to playability. As I see it, Wizards has one of three choices:

1) Do nothing, and hope that players will pack enough hate to disrupt the Elf decks. To me, this is the worst of the three choices I’m outlining in this article. I’ve heard enough players say “this Elf deck is stupid and I don’t want to play Extended” to know that leaving the Elf deck, unmolested, in the format will just keep people from attending the upcoming PTQ Extended season. The deck is so dominant that even main-decking solutions (Pyroclasm?) might not be enough to disrupt the deck (which will turn to running Wirewood Heralds main for resiliency). Plus, you can’t cast Pyroclasm if you’re on the draw and your opponent kills you on turn 1.

2) Unban Sensei’s Divining Top. Counterbalance/Top would help to keep this deck in check – if you lead with Sensei’s Divining Top and then cast Counterbalance, in the worst case scenario you can return Top to the “top” of your library to counter half of the Elf cards coming at you (Glimpse of Nature, Heritage Druid, Llanowar Elves, Birchlore Rangers, etc). However, Wizards restricted Sensei’s Divining Top for a reason – and while unbanning the Top will help keep the Elf deck more honest, I don’t think this is the way that Wizards will want to usher the format either.

3) Ban parts of the Elf deck. I think this is what’s most likely to happen, so don’t go out and buy those Elf pieces yet. I think there is a very, very slim chance of the Elf deck hitting the public PTQ season in January without losing at least one card from the deck. Likely, I believe Wizards will hit two cards with the banhammer, to make it loud and clear that they don’t want the Elf deck to be a viable, hard-to-disrupt turn 2 kill. These cards will likely be Heritage Druid and Glimpse of Nature. I don’t know which needs to go more, but my gut tells me Glimpse of Nature, since it’s the part of the engine that keeps the rest of the deck from running out of fuel (though Heritage Druid is the mana engine) – but it’s kind of like asking if you want to ban a reusable Dark Ritual or a one-mana Yawgmoth’s Bargain. Either way, both cards are broken in this deck.

Wizards expects Extended to be a format with fast and powerful decks (or slow and powerful, for control), but the hallmark of Extended has been variety – be it Mind’s Desire, Affinity, The Rock, Goblins, Urzatron, Next Level Blue, Solitary Confinement, Enduring Ideal, Dredge, or Zoo decks, any given deck, with enough tweaks and a good enough player, has a chance to win at any given PTQ. With the Elf deck in the format, it’s pretty much “play Elves, or play a build specifically to beat Elves, or lose”, which flies against everything Extended has become over the years. In short, I expect Wizards to scorch the earth on December 1st, ban both the Druid and Glimpse, and start the format over with a more open metagame.

Therefore, please don’t invest too heavily in the Elf Combo deck right now – even if it doesn’t get banned, you’ll still be able to pick up the pieces for the same price on December 1st (if I’m wrong), since they are at a frenzied-buying high right now. And if (when) Elf Combo is banned out of the format, I’ll come back and do another article about what this means for the value of the other cards in Extended – because honestly, if it isn’t banned, my answer is “play Combo Elves, and figure out the best anti-hate cards in the format, because it’s clearly the only deck to play at this point.”

Jace vs. Chandra Duel Decks releases this week, and it looks like a great deal – Jace, Chandra, Fact or Fiction, Counterspells, Flametongue Kavu, Incinerate, Seal of Fire (both with new art), Demonfire, Ancestral Vision, and tons of other highly-playable Red and Blue greatest hits for only $14.99 (our price – $19.99 MSRP). Yes, I’m advertising the deck in this article, but just like with Elves vs. Goblins – you’re getting a really good value on the decks just as singles for the price, even if you don’t intend to keep the decks together.

However, Wizards of the Coast missed an absolutely golden advertising campaign with these decks. The decks were unceremoniously announced on the MTG.com website – and months later, previews were given of the alternate art cards. Then, on Monday, Wizards released the entire contents of the deck in a ‘behind the scenes look at how the decks were made.’ And while I’ve been totally stoked about Jace vs. Chandra for a while (because these decks are well made, and are worth the money – and one day I’ll talk about the loss of the old gold-bordered World Championship decks), there was a much better way to build excitement about this product.

Okay, imagine this: Monday, October 20th. You log onto MagicTheGathering.com’s Daily Content site, and see that Wizards is spoiling the cards from Jace vs. Chandra one-by-one! The first two cards – alternate art Counterspell versus alternate art Incinerate. Exciting stuff! But these cards aren’t just presented in the flesh. There’s a poll – you have to choose which card you think is cooler – Counterspell or Incinerate.

On Tuesday, October 21st, there’s another vote: Man-o’-War versus Fireblast. Two staple cards from Visions that have been player favorites for years (both command a premium on the secondary market, even to this day). This repeats itself daily for the next two weeks, until Tuesday, November 4th. On the 4th, Jace vs. Chandra is released worldwide (instead of the current Friday, November 7th release date).

You log onto MTG.com – and there are the results. Two weeks of voting for Jace vs. Chandra – or, as we like to call it, the Blue deck versus the Red deck.

Election Day in the United States. The whole world is watching. Red versus Blue. But in Magic – there are no politics involved. This isn’t about Republican versus Democrat – this is about Fire Mage versus Illusion Mage. Burn deck versus control deck. Jace vs. Chandra.

Red vs. Blue, with Wizards tallying up the votes, determined by the players.

That, my friends, would have been one hell of a way to give the product a send-off.

See you in seven days when I conclude my discussion about the state of Promo cards – ugly-side up.

Ben Bleiweiss