Magical Hack – The Day After The Earth Stood Still

Buy, Sell and Trade with StarCityGames.com at Grand Prix Los Angeles!
Friday, December 19th – While there are some few PTQs left featuring Sealed Deck and Draft as their key component, getting an advanced look at the upcoming Extended format is the attraction of the hour, as we ponder whether there will be a banning or if everything we need to know about the next PTQ format is already right in front of us.

Worlds has come and gone, a days-long frenetic binge of cardboard slung across four different formats on four different days that puts the tale of the 2008 Pro Tour Season to bed. While there are some few PTQs left featuring Sealed Deck and Draft as their key component, getting an advanced look at the upcoming Extended format is the attraction of the hour, as we ponder whether there will be a banning or if everything we need to know about the next PTQ format is already right in front of us. The question was asked, “are Elves too good,” and by all appearances the answer to that was ‘no.’ While the Elves put in some reasonable showings, only six of the decks went 4-2 or better; initial reports noted thirty copies overall on Day 3, so we can’t even go and say that they did better than average at doing better than average. With another event under our belts, we can clearly say that it’s not time to cry “format dominance” like we did in Berlin.

Almost certainly, Wizards of the Coast will relax the ban-hammer in this case, seeing Elves as a reasonably powerful deck but one that the format can build around and accommodate for. “Quite good” or even “Ridiculously Good” is still not “Too Good.” While the Extended GP and PTQ season may yet have something to say about the Little Green Men(ace), and I wouldn’t call Glimpse of Nature “safe” yet: it’s the most likely card to be banned out of that deck if a banning does eventually prove necessary. It didn’t run away with the football so much that we need to teach it to play nice, and we see some interesting decks unfolding in a metagame that is responding to its existence without jumping through that many hoops.

I worry that Elves are a little too good, personally, especially since in reading the Teams coverage we saw a lot more Elves at play percentage-wise than we saw in individual play, and in the few Teams matches we saw, the Elves were 2-0’ing their designed-to-beat-Elves metagame U/B Tron decks and all other comers. But butterflies in my stomach do not a banning make, so we can look at Extended as a whole right now and expect it to look like this for the next three months.

Extended is an interesting format, and one that I would overall define as being static in nature. Conceptually, this means that there’s a small number of Things That Really Matter, and focusing on these things will lead to more match wins, because while there may be a generally large number of decks played in the format, realistically there is a small and very potent set of best decks: Elves, Zoo, and Blue Control. While there’s a lot of disagreement in just how each of these decks should look, conceptually these are the big three, and everything else revolves around that stated assumption to try and attack them from an angle rather than being as powerful as they are. In addition to the analysis I intend to perform today, for additional reading I’d suggest Richard Feldman SWOT: An Analysis Of The New Extended, to see how the different decks played out and what you can expect in Extended going into the format today.

Looking at the 6-0 decklists, we see things like All-In Red or Death Cloud that cause us to suspect the format may be wider than it seems to be, that there is yet some dynamic fluidity to Extended that we have not yet seen out of the format. But what we don’t know is where those 6-0 lists started; if you 6-0 in the 3-9 bracket, we congratulate you for your stubbornness at remaining in the tournament translating into a merely mediocre 9-9 finish at the end of eighteen rounds of play, but we don’t give it the same credit we do when we see someone 6-0 their way into the Top 8.

Feeling somewhat the jerk after that particular statement, I checked the starting records of everyone who went 6-0 in Extended as reported at the end of Day Three’s coverage. Petras Ratkevicius, who 6-0’d with the All-In Red deck, did in fact start with nine match points going into the thirteenth round of play, putting egg all over my face and making me feel like an insensitive jerk. But hey, it’s almost funny that I look like such a jerk, so I’m leaving it in… we do need to memorialize such things for their humor value alone, after all. Luis Scott-Vargas had 21 points to his name after twelve rounds, and so started his 6-0 with Swans Combo from the 7-5 bracket. Sebastian Thaler had eighteen points, and took Zoo to 6-0 from the 6-6 bracket, as did Paul Cheon navigating to 5-0-1 with an American take on the Japanese Mono-Blue Faeries deck. Masaya Kitayama had fifteen points, taking his Japanese Mono-Blue Faeries deck to 6-0 from 5-7 originally. (Kenji Tsumura pulled an effective 6-0, drawing to 5-0-1 with a similar Faeries deck, with 27 points initially. His list, then, of a similar archetype, is likely to be favored.) And looking at the other ‘odd’ deck that stands away from the Extended metagame as we’ve come to think of it, Asaf Shomer’s Death Cloud Rock started from a reasonable 18 points after twelve rounds, so it’s just the irony that the first deck on the list of undefeated decks just happened to match the exact derogatory example I made warming us up to the fact that there’s a difference in player quality in the different brackets.

Frank Karsten may not have 6-0’ed, after all, but he did 4-0-2 his way into the Top 8, so while his deck isn’t listed in the 6-0 pile, it’s at least as important to be aware of if not more important to note: it did what it needed to do, to get him where he wanted to go, and he didn’t need to 6-0 and be all flashy to get his Top 8 out of the deck. Death Cloud is a deck that can hardly even be considered a realistic contender, in a world where Zoo and Elves are two of the three best decks in the format, because Death Cloud is slow and inconsistent against fast, explosive strategies. Does seeing a Death Cloud deck go 6-0 at Worlds make us want to play Death Cloud at a Grand Prix next month? It’s likely there’s a reason that we see a goodly number of Blue-based Faeries decks leading the top of the charts at the end of the day, and plenty of Elves at the top of the pile too (even if it’s a mere 20% of the Elf decks that went 4-2 or better in the format). It’s also likely that Death Cloud Rock doing as well as it did is a little bit of a fluke rather than having to restructure our reality to accept its potential format dominance; I’ll file it away in my mental notebook of interesting oddities to watch for in the future, sure, but not something I’ll decide is critical to the understanding of the metagame. Likewise the 6-0 from the 3-9 bracket with All-In Red; it’s just not going to be a popular deck choice, due to the fact that it is wildly inconsistent even if it is wildly powerful when it works.

But living in a static metagame, rather than a truly dynamic one where really any strategy will ultimately lead to success if you simply work on it and hone it enough (such as Standard), does not mean there is no room for innovation. It merely means you have to target your innovation very carefully to have it be fruitful, which is how we can have two very different-looking decklists performing well in the format without any one being ‘inferior’ or ‘wrong.’ For example:

Mono-Blue Faeries by Masaya Kitayama, 6-0 at 2008 Worlds in Extended

9 Island
1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
4 Mutavault
1 Oboro, Palace in the Clouds
2 Riptide Laboratory
3 River of Tears
4 Secluded Glen

4 Glen Elendra Archmage
4 Sower of Temptation
4 Spellstutter Sprite
4 Vendilion Clique

4 Ancestral Vision
4 Mana Leak
4 Spell Snare
3 Stifle
3 Threads of Disloyalty
2 Umezawa’s Jitte

3 Bitterblossom
3 Engineered Explosives
3 Negate
2 Annul
2 Hurkyl’s Recall
1 Stifle
1 Threads of Disloyalty

Kenji Tsumura also played a streamlined ‘Japanese Faeries’ deck that was different than Kitayama’s on a few key notes, running fewer basic lands and playing his Engineered Explosives in the main. Kenji went 5-0-1 in Extended with his Explosives main, while Kitayama went 6-0; Kenji started in a harder and thus ‘more competitive’ bracket, and simply due to the fact that it’s Kenji, the reasonable and realistic explanation coming out of Worlds is that more people will copy Kenji’s Japanese Faeries deck than will copy Kitayama’s. It’s Kenji. Whether anyone will pick the Japanese list over the American list is up for debate, and is just one of those metagame questions that will require a lot of time to figure out as we let the format play itself out in the next few months.

Like it or not, to some degree at least the Faerie Menace is present in Extended as well; it’s a credible two-color deck, and a credible mono-Blue-splash-Bitterblossom deck, and happens to have grown very nicely into a key deck in the format. It’s also interesting that we are nowhere close to a unified deck design even amongst people that were very likely talking to each other and working together before the event, as Kenji’s deck is quite different from the deck Kitayama played even as it looks so very similar. There are plenty of disagreements yet to be resolved: Thirst for Knowledge versus Ancestral Vision, mono-Blue versus Blue-Black, but the awesomeness of Spellstutter Sprite in a format full of one-drops cannot be denied and it’s never been a better day for Riptide Laboratory than it is today. “Counterspell with Buyback” is the theme of that particular little cute combo, and because of the questions yet to be answered we still see a lot of room for growth in the archetype. We also see Tezzerator Control as one more axis on this metagame wheel of Blue control decks using some similar elements, it just happens to be that at the moment it uses different elements even while it reaches for some of the same key points:

Riptide Lab plus Trinket Mage as the noteworthy Wizard in Tezzerator does get us starting to wonder “what if”? What if we lost some of the Faerie focus from the U/B Faerie deck to gain back some of the Wizard focus, and put Trinket Mage and Spellstutter Sprite both in the same deck that tries to abuse Riptide Laboratory, pinning us neatly into the “Thirst for Knowledge” camp for the card-drawing spell of choice but giving us access to repeating Engineered Explosives off the Trinket Mage repetitions but also a one-of Chalice of the Void to hose one-drop-heavy Elves and Zoo? Can we just run a “best of” hybrid blend of these three decks and see where it goes?

Hybrid Theory 1:

4 Trinket Mage
4 Spellstutter Sprite
4 Sower of Temptation
3 Vendilion Clique

4 Mana Leak
4 Spell Snare
4 Bitterblossom
3 Thirst for Knowledge
3 Engineered Explosives
3 Chrome Mox
2 Umezawa’s Jitte
1 Chalice of the Void

4 River of Tears
4 Secluded Glen
4 Mutavault
3 Island
3 Riptide Laboratory
1 Vault of Whispers
1 Seat of the Synod
1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge

1 Academy Ruins
1 Pithing Needle
1 Aether Spellbomb
1 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Engineered Explosives
1 Umezawa’s Jitte
2 Glen Elendra Archmage
3 Chalice of the Void
4 Threads of Disloyalty

Of course, this is changing too much from any one list to note whether the change is good or not; we have the Japanese list, minus Stifle, minus main-deck Threads (that some had and others did not), minus Glen Elendra Archmage, swapping draw engines, plus Bitterblossom, plus Chrome Moxes over some basic lands, plus Trinket Mage and a Trinket Mage package, plus an extra Riptide Lab to focus on… to really get a sense of where this list is going, we’d need to start by testing both the American and Japanese versions of Faeries in the format, then introducing small and individual changes to see how we like them before we go on to the radical effects that all these changes at once produce. After all, the Japanese players swore by Stifle but the Americans had none to be found anywhere between deck and sideboard; ultimately all these decks reached towards similar goals, but did so in very different ways, and just making a list out of thin air and assuming it’s good is the height of personal hubris. Hopefully I can be forgiven for the fact that with so little time between Worlds and today’s writing of this article I clearly haven’t had a chance to test much of anything at all, and merely find that Extended gets my ideas brewing as I see the results come in.

Zoo also has some interesting growth to it, as seen in the 6-0 decklist of Sebastian Thaler but also in quite a few other Zoo decks besides: Shadow Guildmage as a utility one-drop. With the Guildmage’s ability to increase the deck’s quantity of Elves mown down is something I’m pleased to see happening… after all he’s been a beloved card of mine since we got to play him in Mirage Block Constructed, and he can do a reasonably good Goblin Sharpshooter impression. While not as ridiculous as the Sharpshooter when Sharpshooter is online killing multiple key Elves, Shadow Guildmage does something Sharpshooter doesn’t: he starts the massacre as early as turn 2 even if he can’t kill multiples each turn. Also interesting to me is the anti-Zoo-deck Zoo deck, as played by Mike Thompson to a 4-2 finish in Extended:

I’d want to consider both advancements in technology side-by-side, with Shadow Guildmages and Rhox War Monks, but hey that’s just my greed for technological improvement showing itself again… I want to play Tezzerator Japanese-American Faeries, and Thompson Hybrid Blend Zoo, figuring you can move the narrow but excellent Threads of Disloyalty to the sideboard as an anti-Zoo tool and find room for some Shadow Guildmage action as yet another awesome one-drop in Mike Thompson’s one-drop-heavy Zoo deck, complete with multiple Seals of Fire alongside the full (read: “correct”) number of Mogg Fanatics.

Even as we look at the individual archetypes, we see a lot of dissent about card choices… personal tweaks or slightly different positioning, a hallmark of a static but not unmoving format such as I attempted to define it two weeks ago when I tried a ‘pure theory’ piece with Static Versus Dynamic. Extended has a lot of play to it still, as Worlds proves somewhat effectively, even if all of the proposed new archetypes haven’t quite fit themselves into the mix just yet as we all look at the Elves deck and perform the metagame shuffle. We’ll be looking back in at Worlds and Extended after the New Year and some intensive playtesting… for the moment at least, that’s all the intelligent opinions I’ve got to offer as we switch gears to think about Extended competitively, and if you want my less-than-intelligent opinions, that’s what blogging is for.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com