Magical Hack – Lessons Learned

Read Sean McKeown every Friday... at StarCityGames.com!
Often, I pride myself on my ability to figure out what is important to a Constructed format, and build around that in a complicated dance of design and re-design. I seek to find a deck that I am comfortable with that I believe will do well. Usually this works… often enough that, among other things, it got me a weekly column, back in the Stone Age of the Internet when our caveman forebears sent each other stone tablets carved with Uck Norris jokes.

Often, I pride myself on my ability to figure out what is important to a Constructed format, and build around that in a complicated dance of design and re-design. I seek to find a deck that I am comfortable with that I believe will do well. Usually this works… often enough that, among other things, it got me a weekly column, back in the Stone Age of the Internet when our caveman forebears sent each other stone tablets carved with Uck Norris jokes. But sometimes you really just need a good solid first encounter with the enemy to teach you how they work and what is significant. This week’s past PTQ taught me that lesson, though I sat most of it out while things happened around me as I learned it.

I’ve been working on several decks lately, a few of which I would even go so far as to call “promising.” In particular, I’ve liked a Counterbalance-toting Tron deck (though it no longer has the “Tron” in it at this point), and an update of the Perilous Storm deck. In hindsight I still find the Tron deck promising, as its approach to “what matters” in the metagame is highly relevant, and its plan of action is both meaningful and potent. One of these two decks is good against Rock decks. The other… not so much, as I learned when we changed the “playtest session” from active testing to “rating on the line.” As good as I thought the deck was against a wide-open metagame, I didn’t play against a wide-open metagame, and the number of times you can get Cabal Therapied and still win the game before the opponent kills you is apparently less than four times per game.

As you will note from the results that should have winged their way onto the ‘Net by now, six of the eight decks to make the cut to elimination in New York City were Rock decks. This was not the right tournament to have a known weakness to excessive applications of Duress and friends. I didn’t do well, and firmly believe that the deck is still viable. I have, however, learned that the format will have to change away from its current roots before I will get to pick it up again in a profitable fashion.

Observing instead of playing, though, taught me quite a bit about why six of the eight decks at the cut to elimination “got there.” Believe it or not, right now the format is all about Green cards. Shocking, I know… but it remains true that the format favors low mana costs, and two of the most brutally efficient creatures in the format are Tarmogoyf and Doran, the Siege Tower. One by itself can mould neatly into decks of a wide variety of colors… I have after all in the past called Tarmogoyf “the best Blue card ever printed.” Conceptually at least I stand by that assessment because Blue doesn’t have to work very hard at all to maximize a Tarmogoyf while the other colors have to at least break a sweat. The reason its border is not Blue, after all, is because then you would be able to pitch Tarmogoyf to cast Force of Will, and it will not let you do that because it would be the wrong play. Doran, however, can get no such whimsical treatment. Green, Black, and White is pretty specific, and you can fudge one of the colors pretty easily in Extended but have a hard time fudging two (or worse yet all three) in the deckbuilding process.

How you win in Extended depends pretty heavily on these cost-based drivers of the metagame, as you’ll see just watching things play out. The biggest monster rules the table, after all, as foretold back in antiquity by the followers of the Church of Wakefield. It is difficult to argue with minimal mana investments that yield five or more power… it’s been said that creatures are in general “bad,” but this has not yet been said after two-mana 5/6s started seeing print. Aggressive decks have to be equipped to deal with literally titanic creatures squared off against their early aggressive lineup or fail. Unsurprisingly, since titanic creatures are sort of hard to deal with, you run into a situation where Kird Ape and friends are very rapidly obsoleted as the larger Green creatures start to take the field. You can’t even really expect to close the game with your cards designed to do that because the opponent’s investment was not just meaningful but fast, and you’re trying to figure out how to reach the end-game with your opponent stabilizing on 15, not 5.

Affinity has a similar problem as the aggressive Kird Ape decks, because you’re deploying 4/4s as your baseline strategy and they are deploying 5/5s as their baseline strategy, if not worse. Add in the fact that the opponent can attack you with hosers because your deck is all artifacts and we start to get very unhappy very fast. The aggressive decks have to start trying to take you from double digits before succumbing to fat Green men instead of having a fighting chance of racing a mage who, say, paid four or five mana for these nightmarish monsters. When honest-to-gosh Green decks actually have the biggest men at the best price, life can be very difficult for the aggressive deck relying on creatures that are smaller than a Baloth.

As much as we’ve seen it laughed at, that Extended is a format where casting Profane Command out of every option printed since Invasion might be right, there is actually a pretty good reason that aggressive Rock decks might just be the best deck in the format at present. They are already well poised against controlling and combo oriented decks with their discard spells, and with cheap but potent threats they have a compelling reason to be said to have the advantage against aggressive creature decks. Profane Command gets laughed at because it seems to take a huge mana investment to make it work, when actually just four mana does something meaningful (kill a guy, give two guys fear) while buying back a spent Tarmogoyf. Which is why it’s worth noting that sometimes you just have to say “if you can’t beat them, join them,” and I have turned my eye for unholy marriages between different deck archetypes towards figuring out how to meld things in such a way as to gain advantage in the “Rock” mirror.

To figure out what bells and whistles we could weld onto the “Rock” frame, we’d first have to see a basic “standard” Doran Rock build before we try to fiddle with it. We’re starting to see a lot of these such decks in the Top 8s this week, all based at least to some degree on the Doran Rock list that made Top 8 at the Hollywood qualifier at Worlds. That deck was notoriously unbalanced, with a one of this and a one of that, with neither rhyme nor reason to these choices. One Watchwolf? What for? Presuming that these decks are starting to crowd the metagame enough that you don’t actually need eight to ten Duresses, it’s not hard to fit everything you want cleanly into a list in what seems like the “right” quantities:

Sample Doran Rock:

4 Birds of Paradise
4 Dark Confidant
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Doran, the Siege Tower
3 Eternal Witness
3 Loxodon Hierarch
4 Cabal Therapy
4 Smother
4 Vindicate
2 Umezawa’s Jitte
2 Profane Command
4 Windswept Heath
4 Bloodstained Mire
3 Treetop Village
2 Overgrown Tomb
2 Temple Garden
2 Forest
1 Godless Shrine
1 Plains
1 Swamp
1 Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

In actuality, however, people have been shaving to fit more Duresses – or as we call them nowadays, Thoughtseizes – into their list. The fourth Doran and the fourth Vindicate are among the things people look at cutting first, and for the land-base it’s worth noting that some Chrome Mox action has been seen going on as well, often at the expense of a fetchland or a basic (or perhaps just adding one as a ‘land,’ #23). Seeing this played out, to get a feel for the numbers and the mana-curve of the deck as well as what the potent game-ending bombs are (Jitte and Command, to run away with things in the mirror), gives us at least a basic framework to begin deviating from. It never hurts to try and mimic the mana curve if you start going away from your roots, or the approximate creature count if you want to maintain the same basic aggressive potential.

One such concept has been done before, as it is generally a variant of the “Gifts Rock” deck played by Tine Rus to a Top 8 at Valencia. However, looking at Rus’s deck wasn’t actually profitable, because the need for space is pretty extreme and so you’ll see things flying off left and right as we do crazy things like cut Sakura-Tribe Elder for Tarmogoyf. Likewise, I wanted to add something of a potent tool to the deck by way of switching three lands about and adding another one-of; if Gifts Ungiven for Life from the Loam and cycling lands is among the most powerful card drawing engines in the format, I find myself willing to switch things around a little to try and include it, if I can, as yet another means to overwhelm the mirror match. Voila: Counterbalance Rock.

For something more straightforward than trying to build a complex Gifts Ungiven deck, I also wondered if we could exploit a Green three-drop bigger than Doran, or even most Tarmogoyfs, and go back to the “old school” Aggro Loam design a little but with a “Rock” attitude in there somewhere, and toss Terravore and Devastating Dreams into a Rock deck. After all, if the best thing to have is Profane Command, he who has the most Profane Commands has the best Profane Commands, and Burning Wish lets you play Profane Commands at four-of access without having to justify it at four-of utility with that bulky mana cost.

For the first decklist, we just have to take PT: Valencia Top 8 player Tine Rus’s deck and pretend it isn’t the paragon of “Gifts Rock” in Extended. Adding Dark Confidant, Tarmogoyf, and Counterbalance to the deck actually makes it sound a little bit more like the winning “Chase Rare Control” deck than Rus’s Rock deck, but there are some things we need to do in the name of science and deckbuilding. Sometimes, great cards make their way onto the cutting-room floor, and sometimes you can’t make yourself play Sakura-Tribe Elder when you can have Tarmogoyf instead.

Note first and foremost a few Lorwyn additions that change just what the deck can do. Shriekmaw/Genesis is a potent plan to overwhelm the opponent’s board, while Profane Command is a potent spell that neatly gives us another effective Eternal Witness to put in our Gifts piles instead of Living Wish, and thus freeing up the sideboard if we want to use more of it. The one thing that makes me truly sad is that to fit in Counterbalance plus Top plus Gifts plus stuff into this list, your secondary fattie (Doran) goes away… as do the Smothers, which may be critical even if you do have some functional equivalents in there to prevent the opponent’s Dark Confidants from getting too out of control.

It is quite possible that the kernel of the deck without Counterbalance/Top is solid, as it is the mid-game Rock deck that most out-mid-games the other Rock decks by setting up recursive engines or just going nuts with Loam and cycling lands. However, I’m strongly worried that the Top/Counterbalance portion might come at too great of an expense to the deck’s performance in the early game, as “defensive deck speed” is at this point a credible term and thus something to keep an eye on. You can do all of these beautiful things, set up these complex traps for your opponent, but what good are the cards in your hand when you are already dead? Looking at this through the lens of the Rock mirror, again, where it is not things coming into play but Dark Confidant staying in play that is the greatest concern… I’m honestly concerned about consistently staying alive against opposing Dorans and Goyfs. Simply put, it sounds like a losing proposition if they have Smothers and you, um, don’t. So the “Gifts Rock” version of the deck needs an honest comparison to the “Counter-Top Gifts Rock” and both need an honest comparison to the “vanilla” B/G/W Rock deck. Cutting back from the truly extreme “what can I get away with” concept above, then, yields the following Gifts Rock list:

The difference in functionality is actually pretty large, but I think the question needs to be asked just how much the Counterbalance/Divining Top combo brings to the deck. I haven’t quite enough time to playtest thoroughly enough before the due date for this article to give any definitive statements about the changes. I will note, however, that I feel nervous trying to stabilize against attacking Dorans and Tarmogoyfs while Dark Confidant gives the opponent fresh cards when the opponent has four each of Smother and Vindicate plus some Commands and Jittes to “win the war” and I’m running the first of these two Gifts Rock lists. It’s all well and good to have a wonderful end-game and powerful card-drawing engine, but you have to deploy their benefits before you die if they are to do anything meaningful besides clog your hand.

Conceptually, both are strong starting points for winning the Rock war. We just need to figure out whether you can trade that much early-game removal for Counterbalance/Top and go from there. Suffice it to say that with a PTQ on Sunday at which I intend to debut my choice of Rock-mirror-winning Rock decks, I have a lot of playtesting to do between now and then to be confident in which of these is truly the best choice. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that the main-deck lists play 55 of the same 60 cards. Unfortunately, due to the article schedule, it lies outside of the scope of my powers to have the answer to that question for you this week for Friday’s article. My first chunk of large playtest time isn’t due to hit until Saturday afternoon, which is timely enough for the PTQ in Maryland but about three days too late for you this week, dear reader. I do intend to answer these questions, but at the moment I come to you with ideas and innovations, not firm answers.

With Rock being touted as the best “fair deck” strategy, the new goal at least conceptually is to shrug off some of that “fair deck” nonsense reputation and put some brute-force power into the deck. If I had to change nothing else about Tine Rus’s deck, I’d settle for swapping three lands for Cycling lands and finding one card to cut for Life from the Loam to at least give it some unfair potential. That goal, an ‘unfair’ Rock deck, is the shiny Grail that draws me onward like a beacon in the night, placing me in peril and threatening the danger of spankings from a whole convent of nubile young women with nothing better to do all day than dressing, and undressing, and re-dressing, and re-undressing…

Much like that process of ambiguously uncertain Schrodinger’s nudity, there’s a lot of back and forth going on in my head and with the playtesting to figure out what works and what just leads to my accidental rescue by Sir Lancelot taking me out of most enjoyable peril as the experiment falls flat on its face. Building a sideboard for a Gifts deck is always a pain, as we well know, but it’s possible this one might be even more of a pain than usual because of the fact that Life from the Loam adds even more elements to consider because of easy recursion potential. Ghost Quarter recursion can break up Tron decks pretty thoroughly, making it worthy of inclusion at least somewhere. Also worthy of inclusion is one Academy Ruins to enable infinite Engineered Explosives and a truly relentlessly indestructible Jitte coming in out of the sideboard. We’d want Explosives and Jitte anyway, what’s one more slot?

On that note, what are the Sensei’s Divining Tops doing still in the deck that is really interesting and special, when we could use their room to increase our potential with, say, moving Ghost Quarter and Engineered Explosives into the main-deck? Having started part of this thought-experiment by lambasting the one lone Divining Top in the deck that Top 8’d the Hollywood PTQ at Worlds, can I honestly say that my Divining Tops are actually doing anything more just because I have twice as many of them? Are they actually helping anything, or just a sign that I haven’t fully explored my options yet when I can cut them for things I want to have, increasing the deck’s Game 1 potency as well as its overall options as I get two sideboard slots back? And so it goes with every card you could just throw in the main-deck or sideboard. Everything in the sideboard is a bullet, after all, except for those that are making their way in to help stabilize much-needed numbers: the remaining Restraints and the extra Hierarch, to give the deck extra consistency in the early game against aggro decks, and the Duress effects that make up for the game 1 shortcomings of having ‘just’ four Therapies as discard against decks that don’t really care if I pack myself to the gills with creature removal.

One thing I find very attractive is that in addition to powerful recursive stuff like power-drawing with Life from the Loam and Genesis enabling Shriekmaw with buyback, you can fit simple cards that trump the trumps in your opponent’s deck. Jitte is bad for you but ultimately survivable until you can Deed or Vindicate it away (.. and quickly, I hope; that situation devolves rapidly from what I’ve seen). The stall-breaker and thus game-ender in the mirror is often Profane Command, giving the team Fear and Fireballing the face. Collective Restraint prevents it from doing much of anything “game-ending,” but even that can be Vindicated. That one Moment’s Peace in the sideboard is a Gifts target that you can just throw in there whenever that can disable the next Profane Command by at least nerfing the attack-phase portion of the card. There are definitely a lot of reasons to like the complex Gifts-based Rock deck, whether we take it to the fullest extreme and run with Counterbalance in there as well or not.

Second in my list of unholy weddings came Doran Rock plus Aggro Loam, just to see what happens. Unfortunately the answer is “I’m not sure,” other than that it greatly increases the “blowout” potential of the deck because Devastating Dreams is an absolutely crippling card when its in-play symmetry is broken. Your average Terravore is pretty comparable next to Doran and can get quite out of hand when you stop playing fair, so you don’t trade much by dropping White… until you note that Vindicate is gone and thus your ability to kill an opposing Dark Confidant in the mirror is at reduced strength.

The Engineered Explosives are present because you’ll note this version of the deck sits more heavily on the two-drop than any of the predecessors, and thus some effective answer to Counterbalance is required. This one happens to also serve as crowd control in the off case you need it, making it especially effective in a variety of matchups, but it’s not like we really need an explanation nowadays that Engineered Explosives is good when it’s one of the top twenty or so format-defining cards in modern Extended. The spare Baloth is to steady the early-game against beatdown decks, to make sure the deck plays out as advantageously in that matchup as it can when you just quickly line up the monsters and, well, yours are bigger. After all, that trend I’d noted of Rock versus other aggressive decks only works if you actually play enough copies of the cards to draw them reasonably often. The more Ravenous Baloths you have the more likely you are to have one when you want one. Jittes come in for where those are good, presumably the mirror and a few other places as well, while everything else is a Burning Wish target. Some of them at least a little clever, I’d hope, as I am excited by Burning Wish for Buried Alive for Genesis, Shriekmaw, and… does it really matter at that point?

All that said, I greatly enjoy playing the deck out against a varied field, but that is the mistake I made last week when I foolishly assumed that a ‘varied field’ is what I could be expecting to play against when more or less everyone brought Domain Zoo, Affinity, or Rock to the tables. More importantly, though… if you are going to have to pay attention to a creature brawl, the ‘eminently fair’ Doran Rock deck is probably the deck you should be testing against in my experience so far, if you want to get a reasonable measure of how you stand up against creatures. Trying to protect against cheap but large men, or attack through them, will tell you a lot more nowadays than trying to resist the same from Kird Ape and friends.

Playing the deck out, it sadly fell flat of my expectations, at least in comparison to the Gifts-based Rock deck. The competing variants of Gifts-based decks were just more powerful, and the ‘tricksy’ Devastating Dreams were hard to effectively deploy against fellow decks with Duress, Thoughtseize and Cabal Therapy, all of which make it rather hard to assemble a) Dreams in hand, b) sufficient other ‘disposable’ cards, and c) an on-board advantage after the Dreams resolved. After all, Tarmogoyfs are damnably resilient, and thus often has six or so toughness when Devastating Dreams resolves… that Lhurgoyf is built to be a survivor. As wonderful as the plan was against the field in general, these supposed ‘improvements’ were hard to leverage effectively in the Rock-esque semi-mirror matches that are likely to be growing in popularity rather than waning this week, making it a beautiful thought experiment but not this week’s PTQ solution.

Presuming I am correct in my belief that “creatures are good and size matters” is one of the key tenets of PTQ-format Extended, so far it has only taken me one week to grasp those basic tenets of the format, and bounce back from first-pass theorizing like we’ve seen in the past few weeks here on Magical Hack to strike out at the PTQ season with a better candidate of a deck for seasoned combat. With a better baseline on the format and some interesting ideas, I’m off to do battle once again and see where that takes me… but I’ve got some strenuous testing to crunch between ‘now’ and now when you are reading this article, so feel free to poke around in the Forums to see what I’ve learned in the intervening days if you are so inclined.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com