Magical Hack – Extended Midseason Catch-Up

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Friday, March 13th – This week we’re going to look at the recent state of Extended, and see what the season looks like with just about a month left to play, and an intensive PTQ schedule still on my calendar to give me plenty of chances at seeing the new girlfriend in a bikini on a beach in Hawaii. Let’s be honest, our motivations are what our motivations are, and if you can alter your motivations a bit to give yourself even more desire to bash someone’s brains with your deck at a PTQ, how can that be a bad thing?

With last week having been dedicated to running with numbers as we looked at the Pro Tour: Kyoto results, it was clear to me that I would not be following up on Standard this week as I have nothing new to add on that format that I haven’t already said with statistics. Following up on this weekend, though, I have two reasonable choices: to look at Legacy, or to do a mid-season analysis of the state of Extended and see where that takes me. Everybody and their mother on this site seems to be using this week as “Legacy Theme Week”… I mean, it’s Timmy Week, get the theme right guys… so running at the end of the week like I do, and not having attended Grand Prix: Chicago like most of the rest of our writer staff, it seemed prudent to pay attention to the format of relevance in which I have plenty of experience, not the format we’re less likely to see in competitive play soon, and which the last time I played a sanctioned match of I did so with Basking Rootwallas and Survival of the Fittest. Which was awesome, by the way, but hardly the point.

This week we’re going to look at the recent state of Extended, and see what the season looks like with just about a month left to play, and an intensive PTQ schedule still on my calendar to give me plenty of chances at seeing the new girlfriend in a bikini on a beach in Hawaii. Let’s be honest, our motivations are what our motivations are, and if you can alter your motivations a bit to give yourself even more desire to bash someone’s brains with your deck at a PTQ, how can that be a bad thing? My results in the last two PTQs have been pretty impressive as far as I’m concerned, with twelve wins, two draws, and only three losses out of my last seventeen matches… any extra motivation to play the game tighter, well, I’ll take it.

The last two weekends of results, combined together, give us the following archetype breakdown:

U/W Faeries
U/B Faeries
Mono-Blue Faeries
Domain Zoo
Domain Zoo
Naya Zoo
Jacobs B/G Loam
Swans Combo

Out of 9 results, we see three wins for Faeries, three wins for Wild Nacatl, and one win each for Life from the Loam, Swans of Bryn Argoll, and Heritage Druid. Seems like the best plan at the moment is to be summoning Wild Nacatl, or casting Ancestral Vision. But that’s just the winners, for one week… surely the metagame can’t be as unhealthy as that. Let’s break down all nine of the Top 8s we see available on Wizards’ page for tracking PTQ results, and see where the metagame stands.

Control Archetypes:
Faeries – 3 Wins, 12 Total Top 8s
Next Level Blue – 3 Total Top 8s
B/G Rock – 3 Total Top 8s
Jacobs B/G Loam – 1 Win, 1 Total Top 8
Astral Slide – 1 Total Top 8

4 / 9 Wins (44%), 20 Total Top 8s (27.8%)

Aggro-Control Archetypes:
Bant Aggro – 7 Total Top 8s
“Dark” Bant Aggro – 2 Total Top 8s
B/G Discard – 1 Total Top 8

0 / 9 Wins (0%), 10 Total Top 8s (13.9%)

Aggro Archetypes:
Domain Zoo – 2 Wins, 7 Total Top 8s
Naya Zoo – 1 Win, 13 Total Top 8s
Mono-Red Burn – 2 Total Top 8s
Affinity – 1 Total Top 8
Domain Aggro – 1 Total Top 8

3 / 9 Wins (33%), 24 Total Top 8s (33.3%)

Combo Archetypes:
Elves – 1 Win, 8 Total Top 8s
Swans Combo – 1 Win, 1 Total Top 8
Storm Combo – 7 Total Top 8s
Stuffy Doll Combo – 1 Total Top 8
Goblins Combo – 1 Total Top 8

2 / 9 Wins (22%), 18 Total Top 8s (25.0%)

Based on this breakdown – which you can either agree with or totally disagree with depending on how you ‘rate’ the different archetypes we see in Extended today – controlling strategies have the best win percentage in recent Top 8s, converting a Top 8 berth into a Blue Envelope with a considerably higher rate than the aggro or combo archetypes we see today in Extended can. If you disagree about some of the placement, and think things like the B/G decks are aggro-control decks rather than actual control decks, they convert even better… but that was not a detail I wanted to niggle here, as if it had Life from the Loam and Raven’s Crime and seemed to want to destroy the opponent’s hand and kill all their creatures, I called it a control deck. Combo slightly disappointed, as it had proportionally fewer wins than the other deck archetypes based on its Top 8 attendance, but it is a slight effect. Aggro broke even, a Top 8 into a win exactly one time for each eight appearances, and Aggro-Control just didn’t have a good week as we see beatdown plus Spell Snare decks not breaking through the Zoo-and-Faeries metagame we find towards the topmost tier.

In heartening news, we see seventeen distinctly different archetypes represented over what basically amounts to one week’s results (plus one PTQ from last weekend), showing that we have a reasonably healthy metagame even if there is a strong preponderance for Zoo and Faeries. But breaking down things for recent trends, you’ll note something else interesting: we have exactly one Affinity deck making the Top Eight, out of 72 possible slots… rather a distinct change from just a few weeks ago when it seemed like we were getting ready to greet our robotic overlords. The reason for this may be pretty simple: look at some of those Bant and Naya decks, and you’ll see stuff like main-deck Kataki, and even the Faeries are packing Kataki a reasonable percentage of the time. Everyone’s ready, so this is a bad week to be Affinity… next week people will see Affinity has been beaten, take their hateful cards back out, and Affinity will be able to work again. But right now? Not a great time to be Affinity.

Compare the results strictly within the Aggro archetype, and you’ll see Kird Ape and Wild Nacatl figure very heavily. (One player skipped them entirely to play Birds and Hierarchs as their one-drops, with more threes than you can shake a stick at.) But between the two decks, Naya was the most plentiful but also converted appearances into wins fairly poorly, while the more powerful but more masochistic Domain Zoo archetype made just about half as many appearances but claimed twice as many spots. Naya Zoo is supposed to be the version, between the two, that is better-able to beat Faeries… but with just 12 / 72 or about 15% of the Top 8 attendance being that matchup, it seems that Domain Zoo fares much better against the other 85% of the metagame, since it doesn’t outright lose to Storm Combo and it seems pretty well-positioned to fight the Zoo matchup… Domain Zoo decks were more likely to adopt Kitchen Finks main-deck and to play Path to Exile, both of which (I imagine) help significantly in the mirror match even if Domain Zoo does take more damage from its lands overall.

So here it seems like you are playing Spellstutter Sprite, you are playing Tarmogoyf, or you are skipping out on creatures that aren’t combo pieces entirely. Case in point: the only decks that were playing creatures that weren’t combo engines (Swans of Bryn Argoll, Stuffy Doll, Nettle Sentinel/Heritage Druid) were the following outliers:

Mono-Red Burn – 2 Total Top 8s
Astral Slide – 1 Total Top 8
Affinity – 1 Total Top 8
Domain Aggro – 1 Total Top 8

Five out of 72 is pretty impressive. Broadening our exceptions, to look at all decks playing neither Spellstutter Sprite nor Tarmogoyf, we get:

Elves – 1 Win, 8 Total Top 8s
Swans Combo – 1 Win, 1 Total Top 8
Storm Combo – 7 Total Top 8s
Mono-Red Burn – 2 Total Top 8s
Astral Slide – 1 Total Top 8
Affinity – 1 Total Top 8
Domain Aggro – 1 Total Top 8
Stuffy Doll Combo – 1 Total Top 8
Goblins Combo – 1 Total Top 8

23 out of 72, where most of these are looking to combo off somehow. It seems pretty clear, then, that Tarmogoyf is the best two-drop in the format, but if you can play the Wizard/Faerie linear to the hilt, you can actually get away with not playing Tarmogoyf and still have a potent deck to attack the metagame. Thinking on this, then, I got to wondering on something… after all, the Bant Aggro deck is pretty successful at least conceptually, having jumped from entirely off the radar to having a distinct presence in the metagame in a very short time, and that means it must be doing something right. The main difference between “Next Level Blue” and the ‘regular’ Faeries archetype is switching out Spellstutter Sprite recursion for Tarmogoyf, and usually you see Vendilion Clique and even Kitchen Finks in their lists to fill out the creature curve. What happens if you try to meld some of the lessons of the Faeries archetype to the less-successful Bant Aggro and Next Level Blue archetypes? Essentially, trade Spellstutter Sprite for Tarmogoyf like everyone else does… and find room for Rhox War Monk?

We all know I love Rhox War Monk, as my article on Five-Color Control can attest… I identified something I liked and wanted, didn’t think through further because I wasn’t invested in the format, and thus didn’t ever push to reach the same Plumeveil + Wall of Reverence ‘solution’ that Patrick Chapin et al. did to win the Pro Tour in the capable hands of Gabriel Nassif. So if I can push some to get Rhox War Monk in a list, I’m going to play around with it. Doing so, I got the following:

Strategy-wise this is a little peculiar, as in my observations the Canonists aren’t even there really to focus on combo hate (which admittedly they do an admirable job at!) but because I’ve found that it sets the rules enough in your favor that suddenly you can overcome Life from the Loam decks with surprising consistency… they can use Loam once per turn, but they can’t really go crazy with it, and they certainly can’t strip your hand with Raven’s Crime like they want to. Against aggressive decks, you have Goyf and War Monk on your side of the table, carrying Jitte… and a variety of headaches like Shackles and Jitte they have to deal with, Path to Exile for the worst offenders that slip through countermagic, and all backed up at the top-end by Cryptic Command which is some unfair in a deck with Tarmogoyf, let me tell you. Sideboard tunes things to taste:

Faeries / Next Level Blue –
Versus Next Level Blue versions:
-2 Rhox War Monk, +1 Engineered Explosives, +1 Vedalken Shackles.
Versus Bitterblossom versions:
-1 Path to Exile, -1 Vendilion Clique, +1 Vedalken Shackles, +1 Engineered Explosives.
Versus non-Black actual Faeries decks:
-2 Engineered Explosives, +1 Vedalken Shackles, +1 Path to Exile.

Naya / Domain Zoo –
Based on how much Ancient Grudge you expect to see. If you expect to see enough Grudges that Shackles become undependable:
-2 Vedalken Shackles, -2 Umezawa’s Jitte, +2 Threads of Disloyalty, +1 Engineered Explosives, +1 Path to Exile.
If you don’t expect to face significant artifact hate:
-2 Vendilion Clique, -2 Cryptic Command, -1 Thirst for Knowledge, +1 Path to Exile, +1 Engineered Explosives, +1 Vedalken Shackles, +2 Threads of Disloyalty.

B/G Loam/Rock –
-1 Rhox War Monk, -2 Spell Snare, -2 Umezawa’s Jitte, -2 Engineered Explosives, +4 Aethersworn Canonist, +3 Relic of Progenitus. Flavor to taste against Ancient Grudges and how many two-drops you see; Engineered Explosives is worth keeping in against the Jacobs version with Tarmogoyf plus Bitterblossom, but poor against the other B/G versions we’ve seen lately with few cheap permanents and spells like Death Cloud or Crime/Punishment. I like to switch things up and sideboard in a Threads or two against the Jacobs version, as you can have an amazing tempo swing by stealing their Tarmogoyf even if that is all the spell can ever potentially do, and if I see Ancient Grudges in a base such as that deck has, I will take out Shackles for Threads without hesitation.

Sullivan Red / Mono-Red Burn –
-2 Vedalken Shackles, -2 Engineered Explosives, -2 Cryptic Command, +3 Kataki, War’s Wage, +1 Path to Exile, +2 Threads of Disloyalty.
The strategy here is basically to try and slow them down for their heavy use of Artifact lands and Chrome Moxes, cut the cards that are of little relevance against them, and hope the rest of your deck works well enough to pull you through the match. Prioritize the basic Plains against Sullivan Red with their Magus of the Moon effects so you still have access to Path to Exile, and stick and protect a War Monk if you can. Against Mono-Red Burn you can cut the Paths if you see a creature-light version, but with Keldon Marauders and Hellspark Elemental in the mix I tend to figure it’s good enough even if it’s situational. In both cases, Cryptic Command is too slow… Sullivan Red will try to Stone Rain you so you can’t ever play it, while Mono-Red Burn should have you on the ropes before you can really capitalize on it.

Affinity –
-2 Vedalken Shackles, -2 Vendilion Clique, -1 Thirst for Knowledge (on the draw), -1 Chrome Mox (on the play), +1 Path to Exile, +1 Engineered Explosives, +3 Kataki, War’s Wage.
Shackles is frequently ineffective against Affinity, while Explosives at least contains the most dangerous threats (Ravager and Plating). Path to Exile plus Kataki should make them very unhappy indeed when working together, and it’s not like the rest of the deck is suddenly unsound against them.

Storm Combo –
-3 Path to Exile, -2 Vedalken Shackles, +4 Ethersworn Canonist, +1 Engineered Explosives. Engineered Explosives at least deals with surprises like Empty the Warrens or can kill a Lotus Bloom coming in off suspend… Shackles and Path to Exile are well and truly dead cards. You can also swap out Jittes and these Explosives for Relic of Progenitus, which at least says ‘draw a card,’ but that’s a decision you have to make and whether I do depends on if I’m on the play or on the draw… Explosives for Bloom is pretty terrible on the draw, since that basically taps you out, and Jitte is actually not-terrible on the play when you have eight two-drops. Watch how you crack your fetchlands for mana, because if you use them, you can’t play around Gigadrowse with them.

Elves Combo –
-2 Vedalken Shackles, -2 Umezawa’s Jitte, -2 Cryptic Command, +1 Path to Exile, +1 Engineered Explosives, +4 Ethersworn Canonist. Pretty straightforward.

Swans Combo –
-2 Umezawa’s Jitte, -2 Rhox War Monk, -2 Engineered Explosives, +4 Ethersworn Canonist, +1 Path to Exile, +1 Vedalken Shackles. Put a high priority on fetching your basic Plains with one of your eight White fetchlands, to play around Blood Moon effects, and just play the controlling role. You’ll probably end up with a Green card on a Chrome Mox at some point if you want to cast the bulk of your creatures, and you’ve just got to live with that… in fact, that’s where you should be expecting your two remaining War Monks to end up. Ethersworn Canonist makes it impossible for them to protect their combo pieces, and effectively neuters any plans that involved Pact of Negation which is frequently their sideboard action against control decks. You are their nightmare match-up, just live up to that nightmare.

One significant consideration I am putting to mind is that overall you might expect to see fewer Ancient Grudges sideboarded in against you when you are trying to catch people with Ethersworn Canonist if you played Sower of Temptation over Vedalken Shackles, and so you might have more ‘surprise value’ against stuff like B/G Loam if you surprise them with Canonists when they didn’t see enough artifacts main-deck to bring in Grudges or other artifact hate. But Sowers make me want Labs, which make me want Spellstutter Sprites and which make Rhox War Monk unrealistic to play in the deck, so in all likelihood there’s no great benefit to “being tricksy” and trying to catch people by surprise to get your incidentally-good Ethersworn Canonists to be even better in just one sideboarded game. (They’ll never get it wrong both sideboarded games running.) Is Shackles too good to cut for a theoretical maybe? I imagine so… Shackles is one of the best game-one strategies against creature decks in the format, even if it is pretty much relegated to the sideboard for subsequent games in many matches. It frequently trumps in the Blue-on-Blue mirror thanks to its repeating effect, where Sower of Temptation without Riptide Laboratory would be harder to capitalize on.

We’ve seen innovation and synthesis have good effects over this season so far, and I have every confidence in the fact that where I first thought the metagame was stagnant and unmoving, we now see a flowing and dynamic metagame. It’s still pretty dominated by a few cards (Tarmogoyf, to name one) but that’s only to be expected in a format where everyone relies on hyper-efficient spells and creatures. New cards and concepts are beginning to filter into the format… Path to Exile is a great support spell in the format, and we’ve officially seen our first Ancient Ziggurats in the Top 8 recently, helping to splash Doran into the Bant Aggro base much like we saw make the Top 8 at PT Kyoto in Standard that same weekend. While there are some things that will never change, like how incredibly efficient and economic Tarmogoyf is, much of the rest of the format is dynamically changing and learning from the other decks in the format, which is why I expect “Next Level Bant” might be profitable to explore.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com