Levelling Up – Pro Tour: Valencia Extended Preview

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Tiago is currently bunkered up in Valencia, cracking fetchlands and preparing for Extended onslaught. Today’s Levelling Up takes us through his playtesting regime and shares his opinions on the format going in. He brings us an excellent overview of the metagame as he sees it, with sample decklists for all the major players. Will his testing translate into a Top 8 performance?

As I’m writing this, I am still clueless about what deck I’ll be playing at PT: Valencia. I am submitting this on Monday, and by the time you read this, PT: Valencia is just hours away. When I say I have no idea about my deck, I really mean I have no idea (as opposed to the people that say they’ve no idea, but in fact are actually saying “I am in a secret and restricted playtest group and I can’t reveal anything about the format.”

So, I’m still undecided. How does this happen? A combination of factors lead me here…

* Valencia is just an hour away by plane, so it didn’t make any sense flying to another location beforehand to test. If the PT was held in a distant land, I could fly to a place near the destination to join a testing, or (like I did for Yokohama) fly to Amsterdam in advance and then fly to Japan. Since there are no direct flights from Lisbon to anywhere, I always need to make a stopover.

* I like real-life play more than online testing. It’s more productive, and it’s fun.

* There were many talented Portuguese players qualified, so despite some ego clashes we tried to put a group together for Valencia testing.

Our first big casualty was André Coimbra, who decided to join the Americans. His playtest group is so secretive he didn’t even reveal to us who his partners are, other than Steve Sadin.

With André’s departure, Paulo Carvalho (who lives in the same city as him) became “isolated,” since everyone else lived in Lisbon. This confined Paulo’s real life playtest sessions with his friends at the local store who were not qualified.

The main core in Lisbon was soon shattered because at some point it split into those who wanted to do the majority of our playtest in real life, like me, and those who wanted to do it on Magic Online. They claimed it had some advantages, such as playing from your own home, the easy shuffles, the fast deckbuilding, etc. I agree it’s a valuable playtesting tool, but at some point you will have to abandon it and playtest in real life. It’s easier to discuss ideas about anything, and both the games and time management are more productive. Eventually, if you find a winning idea you don’t want to be leaked, you have to be secretive about it.

We all agreed the Online metagame is ahead of the real life equivalent. Most of the time, yes… but not always, at least not with Pro Tour formats. What usually happens is that after a Pro Tour the real life metagame either slows down or completely stops, while the Online one keeps moving. The Top 8 and successful decklists from the Pro Tour are just a starting point, and soon new metagame decks, or new ideas, evolve from there, and the Online metagame is way ahead the real life one. Before the Pro Tour, when the qualified players need to play that format again, they catch up with the evolution in the Online world, and start testing it in reality to avoid leaks, and they are again ahead of what’s seen playing Online. Until the Po Tour is over, and the cycle repeats. Some Magic Online players who qualified for Valencia did not understand this, and they still think that if it’s not seen on MTGO Online Premier Events, then it does not exist.

After a while some other players become irrelevant for the group, since they were not adding anything… or even worse, they were sabotaging our testing. There were players who did not have a single deck built, and just showed up to borrow one of our decks and play some games, and when asked the results, their answers were always along the lines of, “I think I’m winning… I don’t know.” Then there were those who manipulated results, or those who refused to play sideboarded games just because they were lazy and stubborn. End result, what was supposed to be a unified Portuguese group ended up being me and my friend Tiago Fonseca playing in real life, receiving some feedback from the Online playtest group, and Paulo Carvalho from his group.

Some time ago, a known Pro Player asked me: “Would you let your friends interfere with your job?”. My answer right now would be, “not anymore.” André Coimbra had a better opportunity even before our playtest group became fully organized, and he took it. With the way things went, I would’ve done the same, and abandoned ship midway if I had the opportunity. Imagine you are responsible for a building project, and you are working with your friends. You realize your friends are not capable of doing a decent job. Your final product will have less quality than was expected, and that will hurt you. You either try to correct them or, if that fails, you have to take measures. I am clearly not satisfied with how things worked out… and that may be a lesson for me (and perhaps for you) about how to conduct playtest sessions in the future.

Still, my friend and I managed to try many decks and play many matchups, and it’s those impressions that I am now going to share with you. Sample decklists are collected from Online Tech’s deck-o-pedia, therefore available to everyone and seen by everyone interested in Extended or qualified for PT: Valencia.

This is the most successful deck in the Online World, according to Frank Karsten’s last article and Mike Flores first. It was one of the decks I played the most: plenty of versions, three colors and four colors, with and without Togs, Tombstalker, Dark Confidants, Chrome Moxes, countermagic.

This deck used to be popular because it has an excellent matchup against Aggro-Loam, which was everywhere. The deck still has good game against aggro decks… it was 50% against Boros pre board, up to 66% after sideboard. Versus RDW it was worse, since they have fewer one-drops therefore Explosives doesn’t cripple them so much, and Blistering Firecat flew past Counterbalance and Spell Snare (and also avoided Smother). Other aggro decks like Aggro-Flow-Rock were also at a winning percentage. The deck had some trouble game 1 versus Dredge, since Trinket Mage into Tormod’s Crypt could be too slow sometimes while other you wouldn’t even draw it.

Overall, this is a deck I like, and that I would feel comfortable playing it a Pro Tour. A player from a different playtest group was told by two different people that I would be playing this deck at the Pro Tour. That was probably just a guess, but it was a good guess since it’s a Tier 1 deck with strong numbers online, and I like it. The problem is, after trying many configurations, I still haven’t found a decklist I like.

This deck already existed the last time Extended was played at the highest level in real life, and it has gained Tarmogoyf. Back then, when it was a top choice, I didn’t felt attracted to the deck, and the feeling remains. It’s still fueled by a strong engine, and it gained another powerful creature, but the matchup against Counterbalance / Top hasn’t improved… it’s still very tough. With that being the most played deck online, and with all the graveyard hate because of the Dredge menace, I don’t think Aggro-Loam is a good choice despite having some good matchups against Aggro.

Dredge is one of those decks that’s so boring to test, since no one ever wants to play against it and be the goldfish. This ten-land version might be too extreme. I felt the need to have Cabal Therapies in the deck, and more lands. Some other Pro Players suggest the correct number to be fourteen. Dredge will certainly be a popular deck, and a strong choice. Although I’m not happy with this list, I think it’s a fine choice whose success will depend on the amount of hate you’ll face, and of course on your draws.

I still don’t have a Plan A deck, but this is my backup plan for the Pro Tour in case everything goes wrong. I think this is the most solid pure aggro deck in the format. I tested intensively the matchup against Boros, and it had a winning percentage of 66% against it. Paulo Carvalho’s group tested this deck a lot and they claim it has winning percentage against Counterbalance Tog because of the Blistering Firecats, and against every beatdown deck in the format because it takes less damage from the manabase… and the only thing lacking in those matchups is Lightning Helix. The weak points are against combo decks, since it has very little disruption to stop them, and doesn’t kill fast enough. Just Mogg Fanatic usually is not enough against Dredge. I never dealt more than four damage with Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author], so perhaps that could be switched to another wildcard choice. The sideboard seems a little unbalanced, with 4 Sulfuric Vortex and 4 Pyrostatic Pillar. 4 Ancient Grudges might also be too much, since there are fewer artifacts than in the old metagame. Other than some minor changes in the sideboard and the main deck, this is a very solid chance for anyone without a deck, or anyone who loves the Red aggro deck’s philosophy.

This Goblins version is from Jim Davis who Top 8’d GP: Dallas. I lost to him during Day 2, and tasted the power of the little Red men. It is, however, somehow old, since GP: Dallas was in January. Mogg Fanatic seems a replacement for Goblin Sledder, and I’ve seen versions playing with Burning Wish, or splashing other colors thanks to Stomping Ground or Blood Crypt. I don’t know which version works better. I do know that at some point Goblins was posting really good results in the Online Premier events, and in our testing. Some players are considering running it (mostly the Online section of my group, but metagames shift so fast for them that perhaps that’s not true anymore). I do know that I won’t be playing this deck despite posting decent numbers. I hate playing with so many creatures. Nothing sees me more depressed than playing a Sealed Deck where I can’t choose my card pool, and looking at my opening hand to see three lands and four creatures and declare to keep. When I grab the Goblins deck to play, all my opening hands were lands and creatures, of which almost all were 1/1… this made me sick. The deck is also quite dependent on Goblin Warchief to perform, but according to the numbers and results it’s a fine choice. I would prefer RDW or Boros since these Red aggro decks at least have 50% of their non-land spells as non-creatures.

When the last real life Extended season ended, I think this was the best deck of the format along with Domain Zoo, although Act was somehow a hidden gem overshadowed by the GP wins of Raphael Levy. This was one of the decks I played the most during playtesting, and I like it so it’s still a possibility that I’ll run it. What I really like about it is that it can easily support the Draco Explosion combo for the win, since everyone easily takes damage from their manabase. The deck obtained close winning percentages against most of the decks, after we merged Kurihara’s decklist with Olivier Ruel list from the same Grand Prix. Counterbalance was a hard card to beat, but not impossible. We thought Boros would be a bad matchup because of the fast and cheap creatures plus Molten Rain, but most of the time they would die to the Draco Explosion combo. What improved many of those bad matchups (or hate cards like Destructive Flow) were the Lotus Bloom and the Quickens from Oli’s decklist. There is, however, a matchup you can’t win. You blew up the world, and they only have a land as a permanent, and they won’t be paying for a spell until the rest of the game. You need in the sideboard a multi-combination of hate cards to have a chance against Dredge. That’s why I probably won’t be playing it.

For some time, this was my Plan B deck, but now I believe I like Red Deck Wins a little more. Boros is always a popular and fine choice, as seen at the past World Championships, where it was by far the most popular deck. I played it myself. This deck gains more two-power creatures for one mana, which allow for more ridiculous starts against control and combo, and Lightning Helix over Incinerate for aggro matchups at the expense of some life points to adjust the manabase. I don’t think four copies of Helix and Incinerate are compatible, since you want to distribute the mana costs of your burn spells because of Counterbalance, and because many times in the early game you want to kill a creature for just one mana and not two in order to play another threat.

This was one of the first decks we tried. It was popular around the PTQ season for Yokohama, and I remember many of my friends playing it. Since then, it gained Tarmogoyf, like every other Green deck, so things were looking up. The fact is, Aggro Flow didn’t post a winning record against any deck except Balancing Act. I credit that to three reasons: one logical, one personal, and one irrational. The logic reason is that Destructive Flow is not what it used to be back when Tron decks were Tier 1. The personal reason is that I think the deck needs to draw a certain portion of the deck to beat control and combo, and the exact opposite to defeat beatdown. Draw the wrong half in the wrong matchup and you lose. I also think Sword of Fire and Ice is very mana intensive and should go; not only is slow, but it can lead to situations where you have equipment but no creatures. The irrational reason is because Black and Green are maybe the two colors I dislike the most, and their combination is clearly the one I hate, since I can never win with it (mostly in draft).

I had the same problem with Gifts Rock that I had with Counterbalance Tog. There are too many options on how to build the deck, and I couldn’t find a decklist with which I was happy. Also, the many one-ofs make the deck a little inconsistent, and in order to beat the aggro decks, the disruption the deck packs seems to be too slow. I love playing with Gifts Ungiven, but it probably won’t be this time.

This is a deck I believe might show up a lot more than people are expecting. Its appearance on Magic Online is relatively low because of the high price of cards, and back in the old Extended season in real life there were many Tron decks – a bad matchup for Scepter Chant. There was also a lot of Artifact hate, with cards from the a new set called Time Spiral like Ancient Grudge and Krosan Grip. Despite still being played, right now the main hate is pointed at graveyards and not artifacts. I played a couple games with it, and found it too slow for my taste. I don’t like taking draws in big tournaments. I built a different twist into Scepter Chant, playing with the Draco Explosion combo and Insidious Dreams to steal wins when my opponent was at 16 life. It also played Trinket Mage for Sensei’s Divining Top to have the Counterbalance lock. It was one of my pet decks, so I shipped it to Tiago Fonseca to test… I believe I was busy at the time finishing some articles. His words were, “it’s not good enough,” and against such a convincing argument, I let it go. I still want to believe it’s better than people here think, but I don’t have time for much testing before the Pro Tour.

Here in Portugal, people suspect decks made by Portuguese players, no matter who the person is. But if I say I have a deck given to me by Kenji, Olivier, or any foreign Pro they will go crazy about it. Even worse, if they see a deck on the Internet, attributed to an unknown American/French/Dutch name, they will assume it’s good even if it’s just a deck who Top 8’d an “ordinary” tournament. The feeling is that whatever’s foreign is good, while whatever’s national is horrible. It’s the same with our singers, industry, movies, etc. That’s why we rarely come up with innovative stuff.

The Others

My playtesting had many flaws, so there were many decks I did not try. Some were very important, but I knew I wouldn’t be playing them and I did not have the time to play against them (there was only two of us, after all)… decks like TEPS. Others include Domain Zoo, Enduring Ideal, Green/White Haterator, Tron, Tooth and Nail, Cephalid Breakfast, Trinket Angel, and Affinity.

Briefly, I think Affinity is the only deck that can support multiple Tormod’s Crypt main, but it wasn’t posting very good results. Recently I saw a Goyf Affinity version by the Cak that I would’ve tried if I’d seen it earlier.

Trinket Angel is probably very good, and it’s a deck I will focus on a little more in the coming days. Green/White Haterator seems underpowered to me, but it can definitely win. Domain Zoo seems to be matched in power now that Boros and RDW have Goyf. Tron and Tooth and Nail seems too slow, and the combo decks are easily disrupted except for TEPS. I think that might be a good choice, but I never tried it since I know I won’t be playing it.

For Pro Tour: Valencia, with no new sets coming out, all the information is laid on the table ready to be worked. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do my homework completely, although I did put in some effort. There will probably be new tech from the powerful teams, tech that’s kept secret until the Pro Tour. I’m not committed to such a team, so this is my view on the information available on the format as it stands. We’ll see how it develops this weekend. I’ve never felt so mentally sick and tired of Magic in my life as I’ve felt this week. My heads hurts from the simple act of cracking a Fetchland, searching for the exact land you need, and shuffling the deck over and over and over again.

My hopes for the event aren’t very high, but I’m excited to compete and to see the new decks from the powerful teams.

Thank you for reading!