Magical Hack – Extended Tomfoolery

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With the Extended PTQ season right around the corner, the time is nigh to look into figuring out what you want to do in the format and how it plays out. First appearances can be deceiving, after all, and if you start with “just” decks like the Enduring Ideal deck or a turbo-Dredge strategy then you will generally fail to see the bigger picture. I certainly did – after all, the first thought I had when I saw the popularity and success of the Enduring Ideal deck was “I’ll just play a beatdown deck that doesn’t normally have countermagic and toss in Remands, they’ll never see it coming!”

With the Extended PTQ season right around the corner, the time is nigh to look into figuring out what you want to do in the format and how it plays out. First appearances can be deceiving, after all, and if you start with “just” decks like the Enduring Ideal deck or a turbo-Dredge strategy then you will generally fail to see the bigger picture. I certainly did — after all, the first thought I had when I saw the popularity and success of the Enduring Ideal deck was “I’ll just play a beatdown deck that doesn’t normally have countermagic and toss in Remands, they’ll never see it coming!”. Thankfully I’m reasonably aware of the fact that this is a naïve statement and one that I frequently make, as might be apparent if I thought back long enough to remember what I played in States or perhaps Regionals a decade or so ago:

Mana Leak.
Memory Lapse.

Back when we were all considering playing Suicide Black, I was adding Blue to commit suicide even more seriously… on my win percentage, I’m sure. So I have a well-known habit of thinking, “Toss in a few counters, they’re like Time Walks, it’ll be great”. This way of thinking is remarkably out of date, after all now the ‘Fish’ archetype is pretty well-explored and developed, not like “back in the day” when Fish decks actually had Fish in them and the best example of a counter-based aggro-control strategy was called “Monkey May I?”

As you can imagine, I caught onto the fact that my Gaea’s Might Get There half-breed with Remands stapled to it was telling me that it didn’t want those stupid Blue cards in it, when it kept trying to do its thing and I kept not having a good opportunity to hunt up a Blue source, or a good reason to want to keep two mana up, or, or, or… a thousand ways, it told me “you’re an idiot.” Thankfully this is why we play the game, as that would have been one very expensive “PTQ Playtesting Session.” What did become apparent quickly, however, was that there is a lot of room to play around in this Extended format… there’s degenerate stuff but you can force them to play Magic with you, and for the most part they aren’t very good at doing that, they function best setting their opponent on “Ignore.” There’s a wide variety of options and only a little bit of ‘stunting’, in that Tarmogoyf really is the best two-drop ever printed, Dark Confidant really is the bee’s knees, and Counterbalance/Top is pretty sick. Little wonder, then, that the deck that won Valencia played all of these things.

In deciding what I wanted to play for the format, I started by trying to choose an “Old Faithful.” And I wanted to play it in the new format, instead of thinking about it in its previous context, which led to me deciding upon slaughtering a sacred cow or two… I was finding that the one-drop I most wanted next to my Hounds and Apes was not Grim Lavamancer but Mogg Fanatic, mostly because I never once got to do something meaningful with a Lavamancer, they never lived to a convenient activation time. I’d started by jamming Remands into the deck, which was pretty obviously a poor fit… but further poking and prodding was informing me of what I did want in the deck. A week’s worth of testing and pulling Remands out while ridiculing my own foolishness led to the following deck:

I was impressed to note that a six-card hand of the right three lands, Kird Ape, Boros Swiftblade, and Doran the Siege Tower was by itself a turn 4 kill. Doran had the advantage of being absolutely humongous for three mana, and happening to increase the damage potential of the Apes, Goyfs, and Swiftblades… Swiftblades especially, since a single point of power increase naturally doubles thanks to their nifty ability. Some of the choices are a little weird, and some perhaps might make reasonable sense. I’d found I wanted more two-drops and fewer one-drops against other aggro decks, because the deck with the somewhat bigger men “wins,” and I wasn’t quite enamored of the Dark Confidant / Vindicate builds others were suggesting… Confidant, like Lavamancer, is unhappy in a world of Mogg Fanatics. While I have unpleasant memories of awful decks I played ten years ago, none of those decklists started with “4x Mogg Fanatic.” Those were all good ones, and I was convinced very early on that Fanatic was the ‘better’ Lavamancer for my purposes… the big question was really whether I wanted both on the team, and they made their way out for larger men when I learned that I could never ever fire off a Lavamancer activation that mattered or even just felt meaningful.

As to the “bigger men,” I’d went with those four Lavamancer slots replaced with two each of a pair of Lorwyn legends. Their Legendary status interferes with thinking of them as four-ofs, but there are other issues as well. Gaddock Teeg is great when he’s doing a job but a tad small for this deck’s two-drop curve, as he only deals two damage a turn for the whopping investment of two mana, for which I can get a 4/5 or maybe just go absolutely crazy with Gaea’s Might for 12. When he’s hurting the opponent’s deck he’s pretty sick, but you don’t really need to hold an opponent’s deck down when you could just race and smash them mightily instead, and thus his home was initially given to Jotun Grunt due to being twice his size. Doran is a three-drop that is patently ridiculous but, well, cost three. Doran is quite, quite good though… cranking with power (five of ‘em!) even on his lonesome, he possesses an extra bit of added synergy by making some pretty noteworthy members of the team deal more damage as well.

The next thing to figure out was the spells, and I was willing to get creative with a few of them to see what I really wanted… the only real requirement I had was that I wanted a decently even split of instants and sorceries, plus if I could staple other card types on to cards in my graveyard at effectively no cost I would. For that reason I picked Seal of Fire over Firebolt, especially when it became apparent that I would almost never have a chance to flash back a Firebolt because a twenty-land burn deck does not wait around long enough to really eke that second use out before a) winning, or b) dying. While it does happen often enough that it was worth considering a year ago, I feel the benefits of having a potentially unique card type in the graveyard for your Tarmogoyfs to be a more meaningful benefit.

Gaea’s Might and Tribal Flames were obvious to include, and with both those and Seal of Fire as “fours” we had four each of Instant, Sorcery, and Enchantment to work with for the Goyf. Admittedly “Enchantment” was going to stop there, as no other good cheap enchantments fit the theme, and we weren’t even going to touch “Artifact” by thinking of things such as Pyrite Spellbomb. For more Instants, Incinerate would have felt at home once again sitting next to its old buddy Mogg Fanatic, high power and a potent damage ratio, but Lightning Helix is just better if you can cast it. Now, where to look for Sorceries? I could of course just welcome back a few Firebolts to fit the curve and the need, but then I thought of something exciting.

The card that really excited me is Reckless Charge. Yes, Gaea’s Might on a Swiftblade equals twelve damage instead of two, an amazing exchange for a one-mana card with just a little bit of setup… but openings of Ape, Ape-Hound, Swiftblade-CHARGE! tended to be messily fatal to the average opponent who was also paying life to get their mana working. It seemed a high-octane move, especially coming “out of nowhere” as it seemed to, and finished games… mostly to the tune of “opponent disconnects,” but what have you. I’m still slightly torn… I’m not sure I need another Sorcery because the Goyfs are already often big enough and the card I think I want most just to sprinkle to taste is actually an Instant, not a Sorcery. That would be Wax/Wane, a cheap utility card that still equals damage on a Swiftblade, gets in for two on anyone else, wins Tarmogoyf wars just like any other Giant Growth should, and happens to also have the benefit of being able to knock out a Counterbalance, Threads of Disloyalty, or buy that critical turn against the Epic deck by “countering” Enduring Ideal enough to get the extra turn needed to kill them. Kind of like the Remands I wanted in function, but without being awful in fact.

Poking and prodding at opponents with each of these things, I was content with settling for the moment on the Reckless Charges, due to liking the card type and the potentially explosive damage ratio. It wasn’t something I wanted four of, but I only really had room for two things anyway, in the slots its progenitor originally held for the one Brute Force and the one Armadillo Cloak. Its explosiveness convinced me despite its reliance on working with a creature to deal any damage at all… after all it’s not “just” three damage for one mana, it can also be extra damage equal to the fresh creature’s power, which can be quite large indeed with men like Tarmogoyf, and dear God help you if you crack with Charge on a Swiftblade. Just don’t Charge your Doran, as those two cards each as two-of’s are something of a “non-bo.”

For sideboarding, then, I wanted a utility card that wasn’t dead if I didn’t need the answer at the time, which led me to usher home Wax/Wane as “the real Remand” in the matchups I’d originally wanted to have access to the interactive ‘disruption’ spell, such as and the Enduring Ideal decks… kudos as mentioned above for being good against numerous aspects of the deck that just won the Pro Tour in this format, so long as you aren’t completely locked under Counterbalance/Top yet. I also wanted Lava Darts to prey on the one-toughness men that are so vital to burn, be they Dark Confidants or Cephalid Illusionists, again as a multi-spectrum “answer” to a wide variety of decks with very similar vulnerabilities to point at. I’d tried Umezawa’s Jitte there but found it suspect in the deck, as I was happier to try and hold onto momentum instead of letting them start to stabilize then trying to attack their position with the ‘trump’ of the legendary dinner fork.

Meddling Mage and Ancient Grudge are, again, obvious… each are devastating against the right opponent, and with a reasonable variety of applications. With Gaddock Teeg from the new set to play the role of main-deck Meddling Mage against a broad spectrum of threats, we have effective access to six “Meddling Mage” after sideboarding instead of just the four actually showing Chris Pikula grinning mug. More disruption is better when you want disruption, and with six you’re reasonably likely to have one in time, stopping the key spell like Dread Return or Enduring Ideal… or, if it’s Teeg, shutting down 80% of the spells in some Tron decks.

Having started with a vastly incorrect assumption (“I want Remand in my Zoo deck!”), I was pleased to see the final build had the right kinds of disruption, and that I’d effectively found my “Remand” against the decks I really wanted something of that sort for. More importantly to me, I’d figured out some of what makes the format tick, at least in the creature-wars matchup, enough to figure out that I really wanted access to Lava Darts somewhere and the full four Fanatics, because you should never suffer a Lavamancer or a Confidant to live. With that being “the rule,” I was content to leave those cards out of my deck because more or less everyone is following “the rule,” and the people who could afford not to follow it pretty much didn’t care… as good as the Lavamancer is I was happier without him.

A week of testing later, I still get a smile every time I play a creature and cast Reckless Charge on it, especially if I drop two dudes on turn 2 and Charge my two-drop turn 3. I imagine thinking of Wax/Wane gives Zac Hill sweats, just as one of those good-anywhere types of cards that can stop a Collective Restraint or Pernicious Deed for practically nothing and won’t even be stranded as a dead card if you don’t have an enchantment. And I do like the deck… I just wanted to play with other things is all.

There were, however, two other things I wanted to play with. One was trying to peek at the Legacy “Dragon Stompy” deck, due to it wreaking havoc on people’s manabases and besides I know a person or two out there in the real world gets really, really excited at the idea of Seething Song into Arc-Slogger… it’s pretty exciting, after all. The other was to see if you could have a more nearly mono-Blue Tron deck and support Counterbalance/Top in it, which also led me to thinking about trying Tron with a light Red splash for Fire/Ice over other color options. After all, Ice can be an early-game Time Walk just like Remand, and Fire can solve the ubiquitous Teeg problem while also being nuts (again) against the Dark Confidants of the format and also interacting with Cephalid Illusionists or turbo-Dredge strategies that happen to have Narcomoebas but no Bridges from Below.

Working on a conceptual basis, I pulled up the following deck:

In case you’re curious, the Blood Crypt is to crank Explosives to three; there’d be a Steam Vents or Sacred Foundry if I thought I really had any need to get it to four.

Testing the deck was surprisingly successful… after all, it seems that there are very few decks in the Extended metagame are really able to function under a Blood Moon effect. The conceptual nugget is the “Dragon Stompy” Legacy deck, brought out from obscurity two weeks ago in the Worlds coverage (… though Legacy fanatics will say they knew about it months ago), as a Red deck. Translating it to Extended is hard… after all, you lose your two-mana lands, which have a rather large impact on just how fast you can do things with this deck. Without the fast mana to abuse, and outside of the context of Extended, the Trinisphere / Chalice disruption package first made famous in ‘Stax’ decks in Vintage is not quite as potent even as it is in Legacy. Just poking around, it seemed as if there was some good stuff going on here, though I couldn’t tell if I really would have wanted the Chalices… it’s much greater in impact in a format dominated by Brainstorms.

The most important changes to the style of the deck were to make the deck more of a Red deck and less of a “Stax” deck, which is where the Fanatics and Magma Jets came in. I’d wanted to add Tarmogoyf because, well, it’s amazing, figuring it was an acceptable replacement for the Gathan Raiders (… though I love me a Gathan Raider more than many, Goyf should be bigger!) so I didn’t consider the creature base to be sacrosanct. Rakdos Pit Dragon is quite large and can be thoroughly in charge, but… better than being able to interact in the early game with Mogg Fanatic? It’s hard to say: you can take the literal translation as far as you want, but either way it’s a different format so you have a whole lot of new things to figure out regardless of whether you “got it right” by translating only as faithfully as the format finds appropriate.

Plenty of games were won on the back of a fast Magus of the Moon, and I was generally quite happy with the board-controlling Engineered Explosives to handle the fat, juicy two-drop that is so important to the format. I’d been happy to have the draw-fixing, early-game-affecting Magma Jet, but couldn’t help but think that the deck might really appreciate the Sensei’s Divining Tops that would bring it closer in style to the “Kuroda-style Red” that worked so well with these fine Sloggers and Jets in the past.

While I wouldn’t take it to a PTQ this weekend, early play did suggest that there was at least some reason to test further, with opponents just scooping up their cards to a Magus of the Moon. It ran out of cards quickly and had little effectively to do with a late-game mana accelerant, which is why I say that the deck is trying to compromise between two extreme positions: all acceleration all the time, and late-game dead draws. I can see now why Seething Songs had started working their way out of the Legacy list, present in Ruel’s copy as a three-of; the deck can really suffer when it draws too many Chrome Moxes and Seething Songs.

And in case you’re curious, Gemstone Caverns performed reasonably well… a part of the deck’s focus is in being able to deploy Blood Moon effects very early in the game to cripple an unprepared opponent, and every once in a while the Cavern aided in that by acting like a Chrome Mox without being terrible like a Chrome Mox in the late game. With a bit more fiddling, to figure out how many Explosives is the “right” number and to figure out what would work in the Songs / Rorix slot to improve the deck’s flow, I’ll hopefully be able to present a more thoroughly developed list next week.

The second curiosity was “Counterbalance-Tron”… an attempt to weld two disparate things together, the Counterbalance/Top lockdown engine and the big-mana Blue-based Tron strategy. Generally it’s considered that there isn’t quite enough Blue mana to support the double-Blue Counterbalance, and I was curious whether any of that could be played around with enough to find a new Tron concept.

This is another bit of an odd one… and unlike the prior deck, there’s an actual bit of reason or logic behind why you have the one odd random dual to search for. Not actually any use for it besides getting Engineered Explosives up to 3, but if you flash a Breeding Pool and a Steam Vents in the control mirror they might expect to see Ancient Grudge after sideboarding… especially when you present no other main-deck, obvious use for the Green mana. Conceptually it’s early-game board control with card-draw or Scry fitted onto it, drawing cards to complete the Tron… or the Top/Counterbalance combo.

As a pure board-control deck it leaves something to be desired. Oblivion Stone is a fair bit slower than Wrath of God, requiring two turns to use unless you have the Tron active. That said, it’s another controlling answer to a Gaddock Teeg, who seems to be popping his little head up in the strangest of places nowadays in Extended as an honest concern to be addressed. Main-deck, Teeg shuts down exactly one spell (Condescend), and thus can basically be ignored while the deck goes about its business of locking the board, wiping it, or just dropping a fast Sundering Titan to close the game.

The deck clearly felt powerful… but as a first pass through the concept, surely some of the choices and plans still need work. While I can feel reasonably confident in the quality of the “final work” for the Domain Zoo list, that’s because it is a known quantity and a beatdown deck, which are far easier to design to follow a game-plan with confidence that your choices are either correct or, at the very least, reasonable. In a deck that can spend a lot more mana, and potentially argue for several different colors of splash instead of the light hint of Red for Fire, it’s nearly impossible to figure out an acceptable configuration without bashing into other decks first.

From my playing so far, at least, one matchup seems quite positive enough to warrant further attention… as I didn’t meet a Rock deck I couldn’t knock over. Against an opponent who’s not doing things especially fast, the deck does pull together a significant locking mechanism, limiting the opponent in just what they can get past the counter-wall, bleeding the cards out of their hand if they want to actually resolve anything and then bleeding their mana-base with Sundering Titan. One thing at least lent me towards favoring the Red splash in general, there… Detritivore is a vicious, vicious beating in a Tron deck, or at least so I’ve believed since they printed it, and here we are in a format where the average opponent has fewer basic lands than you can count on one hand.

Between the two new creations to explore, well… the Blue one feels more powerful, and more worth developing to see whether I’m just making up crazy theories by cutting the two Valencia Top 8 Tron decks to ribbons and slapping together something to suit a desire to try out the de rigeur Counterbalance lock-down element. To win a control deck fight it’s an interesting avenue to explore… Tron decks can pack some powerful tools, and Counterbalance decks are pretty powerful, so I figure this half-cocked little number is deserving enough of further testing to warrant some more work.

With just one more week of deck building and testing time before we have to start seriously choosing a weapon for the Week 1 PTQs, hopefully I’ll have something more developed after I see where chasing this particular fancy takes me.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com