Magical Hack – Communing With Nature

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In our continuing adventures delving into the Extended format, we’ve had a chance to look at a variety of aggressive decks while working on a Psychatog deck or two. Getting a feel for the modern Extended format is a very important part of building an effective deck, and seeing just what Tarmogoyf can do is another good way for learning how to play the format. After all, if Tarmogoyf can save otherwise terrible archetypes by carrying them on his broad shoulders, it’s the kind of thing you’d need to know about when preparing for the Pro Tour in Valencia.

In our continuing adventures delving into the Extended format, we’ve had a chance to look at a variety of aggressive decks while working on a Psychatog deck or two. Getting a feel for the modern Extended format is a very important part of building an effective deck, and seeing just what Tarmogoyf can do is another good way for learning how to play the format. After all, if Tarmogoyf can save otherwise terrible archetypes by carrying them on his broad shoulders, it’s the kind of thing you’d need to know about when preparing for the Pro Tour in Valencia. We’re already assuming he can go in any deck if you really want to stretch him into it… Patrick “The Innovator” Chapin threw Tarmogoyf into Affinity, and some have jokingly asked whether it would be making it into U/W Tron as well after they saw a build of that deck in his recent article.

Having already looked at the polychromatic beatdown deck, then, let’s have a look at polychromatic aggro-control:

This list is somewhat different than the current “leading” version of the deck posted online in any form, which is being fervently discussed in the Extended Forums thread here and was recently discussed in Frank Karsten’s Online Tech as well.

I find it hard to not be overly critical of this deck, because of its weird numbers. Working again with the assumption that 4’s are by default the best number to choose (… and next week’s article is going to use the break waiting for Lorwyn to finally get here by exploring that leap of faith…) because a well-designed deck wants to do the same thing over and over again, seeing one Street Wraith and one Bauble and some Tutor targets that you can’t actually, um, Tutor for, well… to me, that’s suspicious. This deck broke onto the MTGO scene a few weeks back, after 10th Edition came online, and was initially popular but has since faded into obscurity.

Let’s take PS2GF’s cards and break them down into numbers, then figure out what if anything to do from there as far as choosing it as a potentially viable archetype:

Lands: 19
Instants: 15
Sorceries: 7
Creatures: 15
Artifacts: 4

Aggression: 14 (Street Wraith fills a slot, not “attacks”).
Control Elements: 17 (Jitte, Duress, Ghastly Demise, Needle, Explosives, Stifle, Extirpate).
Draw / Cantrips: 15.

What I had been aiming for in my version of the deck was to create synergy and card overlap, with Mental Note helping at “grows Tarmogoyf” as well as “provides Threshold” and “enhances Divining Tops” while also filling the role of a “dig” card that happens to also sometimes provide selection or some other benefits. Predict fills a similar use, working with Tops and Counterbalance and filling the quota for Instants and card-draw. More importantly, I aimed for a more cohesive game-plan… one Needle and one Explosives just doesn’t do it for me, no matter what argumentation you present about the selection abilities of the instant card-draw. After all, what works in Vintage with tutors, or in Legacy with more powerful selection spells like Brainstorm, does not work with Baubles, Street Wraiths, and Mental Notes. Instead of trying to balance the perfect assortment of card-draw into powerful spells like Stifle or Extirpate (but only when you need them), we’re choosing a solid game-plan that isn’t reliant on drawing the right two-of or one-of thanks to twiddling our thumbs with card selection. And like we’ve seen elsewhere recently, that means the Counterbalance/Top plan.

For disruption as large Green two-drops eat your opponents’ face, we have Meddling Mage, Spell Snare, and Counterbalance, plus Engineered Explosives if for example we need to sweep the board against the powerful aggressive decks in the format or fall behind in the Tarmogoyf war. One must be honest about one thing when playing non-Red ‘Goyf decks against Red Goyf decks, their Goyfs are better because they win in a fight. Blue Goyf decks have an odd advantage, however, since they draw more Goyfs… and after sideboarding can have cards that say —1 Tarmogoyf to your opponent, +1 Tarmogoyf for you.

Our concoction above has a strong card selection suite working for it, with cheap cantrips working to improve your draw. Here we have four each of Sensei’s Divining Top, Mental Note, and Serum Visions, with two copies of Predict added for good measure… while potent, thanks to its ability to draw two cards for two mana, it does cost two mana. This is actually just below the level seen in the existing list, but some of those were really stretching it anyway so we’ll live without hitting its exact numbers. For aggression we have a slightly higher count, totaling 16; these double as disruption, instead of doubling as card drawing, because Meddling Mage is just that good. And for control elements, we have 14 pieces: Mages, Counterbalance, Explosives, and Spell Snare. In sheer numbers they are fewer than in the above deck by PS2GF, but we don’t have to trick ourselves into thinking that two Stifles and one Pithing Needle really well and truly count as “control elements,” and assembling Counterbalance with Sensei’s Divining Top is powerful enough that the numbers are deceptively low when in fact the control element here is actually stronger.

Putting this all together and playing it, I was quite impressed with the finished results… it had powerful beatdown draws with good synergy between the different elements, what with each fetch-land counting double for Vinelasher Kudzu and helping to ensure we draw only good cards when we have Sensei’s Divining Top out. Threshold was easy to achieve for the Mongeese, who hit awfully hard for a one-drop and are surprising pests with that untargetability thing they have going on, and achieving threshold also made for large Tarmogoyfs as well. The draw suite all work well with each other as well as with Counterbalance, and help to ensure we draw both Counterbalance and Divining Top thanks to increasing card selection as you cantrip into cantrips and get to thin the deck of lands, all while spinning a Divining Top as soon as you find one. I’d actually worried that the deck would feel slow, and might need Chrome Mox, but realistically speaking this deck is very inexpensive and revs up quickly to fighting speed. Playing against the “big decks” of concern, it falls a little behind on the first two turns against Domain Aggro then overpowers it from turn 3 onward, with Spell Snare and Counterbalance working wonders to clip its aggressive speed. The greatest concern actually was obtaining good mana without taking three damage per land drop, which is part and parcel of why there are basic lands of each variety to be searched up because you can’t always afford to make those sacrifices of life.

Playing against another Counterbalance deck, specifically Trinket-Tog, well… you can imagine what generally happens when aggro-control “Fish” decks square off against more dedicated control decks. In this case, the key trump effects were Nimble Mongoose to win the game with and Engineered Explosives, which can be cast for more mana than the number of counters you need to gain, letting you resolve around Spell Snare or Counterbalance/Top without losing its functionality. Meddling Mage cleared the way of their key removal spell by naming Smother, while Kudzu and Goyf grew large but ultimately failed to finish the opponent off in a battle of large undercosted creatures and removal spells… thus the lowly mongoose gained Threshold, and slipped past defenses thanks to his untargetability.

Playing combo is tricksy game one, but it’s not too hard to intelligently lock up the game with Meddling Mage and either a second Mage or Spell Snare for Burning Wish. Counterbalance/Top is a solid lock-down engine for constraining their mana but doesn’t really stop the “business” spells of combo decks once they start rolling in, depending on which variant of the Storm combo deck you’re playing against. Constraining their unfair mana development’s more than good enough for me, but by no means a “hard lock” like it can be against other decks out there in the environment… after all, you can stop the rituals that cost one or two, but you’ll note that no cards in this deck cost three, so if we’re talking Heartbeat of Spring and Early Harvest instead of Cabal Ritual and friends, Counterbalance can’t really help. Sideboarding into Cabal Therapy and the option of graveyard hate improves combo matchups remarkably, regardless of their means of building a lethal Storm count.

I certainly didn’t miss the odd numbers, though, and found I was quite pleased with a more streamlined approach to the Gro archetype… and also didn’t feel that the heavy Black component for Psychatog and Tombstalker was necessary. Vinelasher Kudzu was a good fill-in for the flying 5/5, while Meddling Mage felt more powerful than the Black disruption elements and Engineered Explosives in greater numbers made up for the shortfall of Smothers. All in all, I was very pleased by the U/G/W with Cabal Therapy post-board design, rather than the U/G/B design of the previous “leading” MTGO version of the deck.

I just liked the Green men, and they felt like an overall stronger choice than the full-on polychromatic spread. And that’s why this week’s article is Communing With Nature, not Dances With Atogs; we’re looking at a heavily Green bias to the deck here, rather than the stronger Black commitment, and this nature-loving approach is a much happier way to live life. Let’s take a look at a game walkthrough, playing Grow against its aggressive polychromatic cousin, Gaea’s Might Get There, using last week’s decklist for the deck after slight modification and improvement to streamline effective Tarmogoyf growth.

We start off on the back foot by losing the die roll, but have a strong opening hand: Flooded Strand and Windswept Heath for lands, Spell Snare and Mental Note for turn 1 plays, Meddling Mage and Tarmogoyf for threats, and Counterbalance. Our opponent unsurprisingly cracks a fetchland for Stomping Ground and plays Kird Ape, and for our turn we draw Serum Visions and play Flooded Strand. The opponent attacks with his Ape (us: 18) and casts Watchwolf, to which we respond with cracking our fetchland (us: 17) for basic Island and casting Spell Snare. This results in a land, creature, and instant in the graveyard so far, for that Tarmogoyf we’re minding. For our turn 2 we draw Breeding Pool, and now have to choose a plan of action. We really want to grow and protect that Tarmogoyf in our hand, and have a couple of options for doing just that. The plan I’m most in favor of is to play Meddling Mage and ban Tribal Flames, as that’s the card best able to take on Tarmogoyf, but we have room for a trickier play that perhaps protects it better… casting Counterbalance this turn, which we can follow up next turn with Serum Visions to set the Counterbalance up and our man the Goyf. We don’t want to fall behind on mana or lose access to colors, so that Breeding Pool comes into play untapped this turn (us: 15) and Counterbalance comes down.

Our opponent now has a lot to think about. They play a third fetchland and complete the Domain, with R/G, W/U, and B/G available. An attack brings us to 13, while Grim Lavamancer tests the state of the top of our deck and finds with 20 one-drops in the deck it is a Divining Top that we have on top… bad news for Grim Lavamancer, but good news for Boros Swiftblade, who resolves. They have two cards left in hand and have used their mana very aggressively, and we’re even technically winning, thirteen to eleven. This could change if those cards are quite good. For our turn we draw that Divining Top, and start finding basic Plains to go with our Island and IslandForest, so the shuffle effect doesn’t screw with our efforts of setting up the Counterbalance. This puts us down to twelve, technically still winning but behind on the board. Serum Visions draws Polluted Delta, which gives us four mana for next turn to completely lock things down, then lets us scry Godless Shrine to the bottom and put a second copy of Tarmogoyf on top of our deck… while also providing a Sorcery to grow him to 4/5. Our remaining two mana is spent on Tarmogoyf, and it’s the opponent’s turn.

If they were suspicious of things with Counterbalance before, as it was destined to muck with their one-drop plus two-drop play on turn 3, here things are downright fishy. They think briefly before attacking with both Swiftblade and Kird Ape, which is either a confident sign that they have Gaea’s Might: either you die or they kill your Tarmogoyf, either of which they’d find acceptable. Tarmogoyf blocks Swiftblade and Gaea’s Might is in fact cast, dropping us to ten after the attack… and we choose not to reveal the top card, which if nothing else proves it’s not a one-drop. They follow up with Savannah Lion, who’s let in, leaving two cards in hand… and since they weren’t one-drops, that makes them two’s or lands.

For our turn we go to nine off that Delta, and can’t afford to dip further so it’s the second Island we nab. Plains casts Sensei’s Divining Top and we have up basic Island after casting Tarmogoyf, with Mental Note and Meddling Mage in hand. Our opponent starts the turn by revealing one of their leftover cards, Tribal Flames, and we have two options: one, dig for a two-drop with the Divining Top, or two, draw a card with Divining Top and use Mental Note to give us an artifact, growing to 5/6. With the latter plan we’ll end up either trading Tarmogoyf for the his creature or going to three, unless that blind Counterbalance turns up another two… not the most likely, with fifteen of 45 cards left, exactly one in three. With the former plan we can just look for that one in three and select it, meaning we might just have a dead Tarmogoyf, but we will be in an amazing position if we hit. Spinning the Top finds a Vinelasher Kudzu, countering Tribal Flames, and the opponent can attack us down to five but lose his best creature, and have to defend himself and his eleven life plus two cards (all but certainly controlled by Counterbalance + Top) from Tarmogoyf and whatever else I can muster. No time like the present, however, and Ape, Swiftblade and Lion crash in, with the Swiftblade dying and us going to five.

We start our turn by spinning the Top again, choosing to draw a fresh Breeding Pool and leave Vinelasher Kudzu on top with Windswept Heath beneath it; Kudzu is best served sitting where he is rather than being drawn as a spell. Meddling Mage comes down and names Sudden Shock, the only spell in his deck we can’t respond to with Counterbalance/Top, while Breeding Pool is played tapped. Tarmogoyf stays home, maybe he’ll be ready to attack next turn. Our opponent now has even less reason to attack, as we won’t even take two, and he plays a fresh fetchland as his draw for the turn… his hope is to overwhelm the Counterbalance/Top with spells of a variety of costs, but it doesn’t look promising. He doesn’t exactly have a variety of costs in his deck, to begin with. Our spinning of the Top at end of turn (… after all, his damage-dealing instant has been named) puts a fresh copy of Sensei’s Divining Top on top, with Vinelasher and Heath underneath. We draw Top and attack with Tarmogoyf to get things underway. The opponent doesn’t block, of course, and using Divining Top draws us Kudzu while milling Top and Windswept Heath. We draw Flooded Strand off of the cantrip, and the opponent takes 5, dropping to 6 and stranding his fetchland if he wants to take another ‘Goyf swing before perishing. We follow up with Sensei’s Divining Top #2 and Vinelasher Kudzu with Breeding Pool up, then play Flooded Strand for a +1/+1 counter.

Quite literally, this game is over. The opponent is trapped, showing Tribal Flames and Seal of Fire as his last two cards, but they at least try to cast Tribal Flames at us first to see what happens… which is of course absolutely nothing, thanks to Counterbalance and Divining Top. Just in case, our Top put Engineered Explosives within reach, putting the opponent away next turn.

Hard-fought, and with a few timely draws… after all, playing that Counterbalance turn 2 was crucial to winning the game instead of losing ground with substandard play after substandard play as we tried to defend our Tarmogoyf on the draw from Tribal Flames, and he didn’t draw a Tarmogoyf of his own, “just” Boros Swiftblade. We recovered the board with five life and didn’t have to give him forever to try and recover, since he lost basically half his life getting his aggressive press underway. We’d have been very comfortable with this game on the play, but on the draw we barely got out of it alive. Five life is greater than zero, though, and a win is a win, even if a bit of luck with Counterbalance gave us a good plan instead of having to choose from a much worse decision tree.

Looking at that game for lessons about the deck, you’ll note that despite having only 20 lands in the deck, it’s very easy to hit your first four or five land-drops very consistently… and with the number of fetchlands in the deck, this can make Vinelasher Kudzu on turn 2 or 3 into a 3/3 on the third turn, 5/5 on the fourth, and 7/7 on the fifth. It easily outpaces Tarmogoyfs for size, if it can survive a turn or two despite its initial weakness. As an extra creature to match the power of Tarmogoyf, it does okay… but is far worse later in the game. Replace Counterbalance in that game, like in the “MTGO” deck floating around, and you’re stuck hoping you get a good opportunity to Stifle the opponent’s fetch-land to buy a turn, which would have been acceptable… if that one- or two-of was in fact the Stifle, and not that one Pithing Needle or Extirpate. Effectively, if you have the option of using such a powerful card that works in a synergistic fashion with the rest of your deck, why wouldn’t you use it? More copies of better cards is better than fewer copies of good cards, it’s a simple concept, and if the best cards for a true aggro-control strategy happen to be Engineered Explosives and Counterbalance, where’s the harm?

I suspect, having adventured with the deck in a variety of settings, that you could reasonably shave a land from the deck without really hurting your early draws and the ability to hit your first few land-drops, and that Vinelasher Kudzu’s applicability to the deck could be highly metagame-dependent. Clearly fitting in with the rest of the design, it’s better than the also-traditional Quirion Dryad, as the creatures are predominantly Green and the spells trend towards the Artifact as well… but its early vulnerability to small burn spells is a dangerous trade-off against a Red-heavy metagame on a creature that can quickly grow larger than Tarmogoyf. The sideboard as listed clearly includes seven good cards and eight questionable ones, as I saw excellent reason to be happy with Threads of Disloyalty and Cabal Therapy (at least in concept, against combo decks) but more or less packed the deck with Tormod’s Crypts and Kataki’s to face off against the more powerful linear strategies in the format. For the most part I found the deck has little need or reason to sideboard, and can live without a sideboard specifically intended to beat “bad” decks thanks to its own good strategy… but having not actually tested much against Affinity or Dredge-based archetypes in my travels this past week, I can’t accurately judge at this point before Valencia just how large of a following they will have.

As far as a strong deck that feeds Tarmogoyfs well… this is definitely a solid choice to think about, and not one that is innately vulnerable to any of the main decks I have seen in the metagame. It’s true that the cards that are really good against “decks in general” in this format (Spell Snare, Smother, Engineered Explosives, and Counterbalance) are also good against this deck… but what are you going to do, stop playing two-drops and hope your deck isn’t too slow? Admittedly this is something of a reason to consider Tron-based decks, if indeed the format is skewing towards the two-mana decks versus answers-two-mana decks, but “playing a powerful strategy” and “playing those cards yourself” seems like a good idea.

Sean McKeown
smckeown @ livejournal.com