With the first week of open Extended gaming upon us, I wanted to step back a little from the churning of deck concepts to have a look at the “why” of doing things in this format. Conceptually, it’s a busy format with a wide metagame, but there are certainly trends that deserve attention when we try to pick a deck (or design a new one) to run through a PTQ. In a format where you can arguably play anything, with five colors of mana at your disposal, big mana available with just a bit of work to get it, there are two competing factors: the fact that any deck can be potent, and the fact that any new strategy has to compete heavily for “room” at the Extended table. One pulls the format open to the point where any decent list of 60 cards becomes a reasonable deck for the PTQ season, while the other pushes it closed into stagnation as only ‘the best of the best’ can survive.
Working on decks for the format, new and old alike, starts to hammer this point home pretty quickly. My initial explorations went through a variety of approaches, from the most dedicated beatdown strategies to aggressive disruption decks all the way to ‘new’ combo decks… and every time I tried to build a deck, there was an initial phase of “this is pretty cool!” as I tried it out and found it to be competitive, quickly followed by noting that changing three or four cards around from ‘cute’ to ‘powerful’ basically amped the deck’s power up and brought it halfway around to a more established archetype. With a wide variety of decks even among the narrowly-focused band of the metagame at any part of its spectrum, you don’t necessarily have to conform to deck-design pressures… after all, Affinity and Domain Zoo have a similar beatdown theme but could not be more different if they tried.
Or could they?
Thinking about how we think about Extended, I found that a lot of concepts that worked were chasing a linear concept. Some weren’t obvious – after all, working on “Dragon Stompy” hardly seems to be ‘honing a linear’ – but if you think of taking “what your deck does” and approaching it as a linear concept can suggest improvements to hone in on that ephemeral concept and do it better. The obvious linears were among the best decks in the format, even if they were cleverly disguised as non-linear decks… Affinity is an obvious linear (and made Top 8 at Valencia even before adding Springleaf Drum in Lorwyn to potentially re-vivify the archetype) but “high power low cost card synergy” isn’t an obvious linear to chase but it does pretty neatly describe the “Chase Rare Control” Counterbalance-Fish deck that won in Valencia. You can point to Goblin Warchief and say “Goblins Matter,” but you can also look at some defining statement about each deck out there and by honing carefully along that line of thinking you can improve or accept as “perfect” or maybe just “good enough” by chasing the linear. After all, Rock decks always look like a mismatched assembly of solid cards not following anything even approaching a broken plan, but you can also label it “Midgame Matters” and chase that linear by finding a balance between the cards that get you to the midgame and the cards that are great once you get there… you can point to the growing trend for Profane Commands in Extended and explain its growth, if you look at it that way, instead of just scratching your head and wondering why it’s happening besides “this card is a first-pick in Draft.”
If everything can be a ‘linear,’ that suggests that the natural linears should deserve more attention – as you’ll note with sudden coincidental motions to wonder if perhaps this week Elves can matter or Wizards can matter as we drink deeply from the ‘linear’ sets to chase the next great thing. My developing decks along a variety of linears then brought to light the difference between linears even as they run parallel to each other… after all, thematically “Goblins Matters” and “Elves Matters” decks should play out similarly, but the differences in what these strategies enable make a great deal of a difference. Even the very near archetypes play to very different strengths, and not just because of hoser cards that happen to exist in the format. Goblins clearly focus on aggression and don’t have much durability if you let the opponent develop, outside of a few cards like Goblin Sharpshooter that can provide for a combo-kill finish… and so it focuses on an aggro-combo approach as you design the linear, letting the deck follow its strengths. Elves, however, do provide an ever-growing pool of resources as the game goes longer… and so it focuses on an aggro-control approach, where you’ll see Blue enchantments like Opposition or Counterbalance creep their way in to overpower the opponent with potent “slow-down” effects. With one neighbor in the metagame band able to recover from the kinds of things that would cripple the ‘better’ deck, there is good reason that we can look at “Epic” decks as the inheritors of the “The Extended Perfect Storm” metagame share despite their massive differences in their victory condition.
Interestingly enough, as the metagame develops this means that it may be worthwhile to play a ‘worse’ deck within that metagame band (presuming it’s not a better idea overall to jump to a different part of the spectrum) if that ‘worse’ deck happens to play better against the decks that are good against the ‘better deck.’ For example, the “Epic” deck recovers better from pinpoint discard and disruption than the “TEPS” deck, as it does not require a Storm turn in order to swerve the game massively in its favor… if it can just play its mana onto the table, the top card of the deck might just win the game for you by itself, something a deck based around Mind’s Desire and Tendrils of Agony cannot do. This fact seems to give the format a lot of play as the metagame dances around the different poles of the format, as there is a lot of room for creativity if you can accurately define what the opposition will try to do as their game-plans. If you know how many people will play Rock decks, after all, you can decide for or against an opposing “mid-game” strategy, and thus know whether you can safely choose or should run away from Flores’ “Gold” deck… overall solid as a “Gold Matters” linear, reasonably well designed, but with a tendency to get “out mid-gamed” by Rock decks. Metagame predictions are thus key at succeeding in the format – as is accurate metagame information about what the main decks do, to know their strengths and weaknesses.
This concept is somewhat heartening… after all, it suggests that there is an inevitable turn to the metagame as options grow weaker or stronger as the rest of the format twirls around it, as you can move sideways on the metagame axis and not just gravitate to the newly apparent “Best Decks.” Instead of having the metagame narrow as the most dominant strategies create a sort of whirlpool of inevitability that drags the format down into stagnant waters, there is always new blood to take up the mantle of the old as the format is explored and new angles of attack yield profitable rewards to the careful metagamer. After all, with a wide variety of decks even within such narrow spectrums such as “disruptive aggressive deck” (such as, say, the ‘Dark Boros’ Zoo deck, Just Us Goyfs, Aggro Rock, or Aggro Flow to choose from) available and viable, the failure of one can be a lesson for the others and might suggest good reasons to pick a neighboring strategy… after all, if the fundamental concept of that position in the metagame is sounds but there are factors in the metagame that are leaving it weak in actual play (vulnerability to Spell Snare, Counterbalance, and Engineered Explosives, for example), a similar deck with a different ‘soft spot’ might succeed where the other falters.
In actual play, this has led me to look at some unusual decks as ‘viable’ in the format. It is very well known that there are some potent hoser cards available to most anyone who wants to stretch for it and can fit their deck around it, and it’s one of those peculiar facts about PTQs as a whole that they pay more attention to ‘hate’ strategies than they do to overall-sound strategies. Because of this, making any efforts to follow a true “linear” (“Artifacts Matter”, meet Kataki; “Graveyards Matter”, meet Tormod’s Crypt) instead of a conceptual “linear” (“Low-cost good cards matter” is hard to hose as a side strategy, requiring some main focus to put Counterbalance or Chalice of the Void into good effect) can have certain deleterious effects. You may, after all, win or lose the PTQ based on the coin-flip of an all too fickle Fate; if Dredge, do you face Crypts and Jailers all day… if Affinity, is today the day everyone has Kataki? With such potent discouragement chasing away the obvious and true linears of the format, there is cause to look at everything for that rush of power, which is why more than a few people might do a word search on “Elf” in Gatherer at more or less the same time.
Because you can find these “linears” plentifully across the years of Magic sets that make up Extended, be they actual or imagined in the terms of the game and its mechanics, there’s a ton of decks you can think of just by chasing these threads of power. Determining new strengths and weaknesses, and comparing these against the trends developing in the format as a whole across a broad spectrum of decks your opponents might bring to the table, is a rich area for development in the format. This has led to the most promising of the deck nuggets I’ve been working on these past few weeks being one of the more surprising ones to me, as it was a conceptual throwaway on the way to another deck instead of something I was actively pursuing intentionally. As much as I would like to believe that the re-conceptualized “Tron” deck had the greatest potential for the PTQ season, it is instead this deck that I have found to be a diamond in the rough:
I had tossed this along the wayside when searching for the five-color “shortened” version of the deck a la a design brought forward by Billy Moreno half a year ago for Regionals. And when I was disappointed with the deck, when it proved to be too difficult to correctly navigate and prone to mulliganing to death, I poked around the concept enough to find the “original” and unadulterated version to be surprisingly resilient in the face of discard and lock-down elements… and shockingly consistent at performing a turn 4 kill, just like all the rest of the ‘stable’ combo decks in the format. And as good of a linear as “casting spells matter” is, it’s also not one currently under attack save for with pinpoint discard, which a deck with such powerful card-draw is naturally resistant to.
What an interesting format… may the PTQ season prove as interesting as its potential suggests it could be.
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