Magical Hack: The Extended Learning Curve

Read Sean McKeown... every Friday at
StarCityGames.com!Coming out of Worlds, we have a reasonably defined Extended metagame, identifying a few “best” decks and about a dozen different deck strategies that are actually worth playing. What is interesting, however, is how this format will change between the World Championships and the subsequent PTQ season, as the matchups are tested out extensively and ideas are brought forward for improving upon the small stable of decks that are worth honest consideration.

Coming out of Worlds, we have a reasonably defined Extended metagame, identifying a few “best” decks and about a dozen different deck strategies that are actually worth playing. What is interesting, however, is how this format will change between the World Championships and the subsequent PTQ season, as the matchups are tested out extensively and ideas are brought forward for improving upon the small stable of decks that are worth honest consideration. The metagame in motion is always an interesting thing to watch, as the ebb and flow of data and results shows a strong regional bias for specific decks in your area, but on average the metagame seems to progress very naturally. But for the first week of a PTQ season, or even the first two or three, the format looks very much like the decks that “seeded” the format in the first place, which in this case will be the high-finishing World Championships decks.

There is, however, one very interesting fact… the fact that one can predict the metagame shifts from one deck to the next with startling accuracy at PTQ seasons, or even as we drift from State Championships to World Championships. There is an incredibly potent, amazingly powerful metagame-predictor tool available to everyone with Internet access… and that tool is known as Magic Online. It seems that Paper Magic just moves too slow, hindered by the speed of “real life,” while Electronic Magic moves at the speed of a metagame on crack as each individual player tries to squeeze every last bit of advantage out of their decks. Because only a small portion of real-life players actually play and test on Magic Online, and a larger (but still small) percentage of real-life players track the metagame via articles such as Magical Hack, Online Tech, Magic Online Musings, and Swimming With Sharks, the real-life metagame has a habit of trailing weeks behind the ebb and flow of the electronic metagame.

Perhaps this is because the prevailing feeling is that testing Constructed in real life feels like homework, while drafting with your friends instead feels like skipping class… so sayeth the Hoaen about preparing for Worlds (well, um, maybe he said it… so sayeth Tiago). Playing Draft on Magic Online is awfully fun… after all, I took advantage of the “Nix Tix” weekend and played about 20 drafts over Thanksgiving break, pretty much just lazing around the house doing nothing but playing MTGO and eating turkey (when required by the family, not because I care for it). But playing Constructed on MTGO gives you more options than just playing one matchup ten times over and over again… and even if that’s what you want to do, you’re still playing a video game on the computer, so the feel of testing is more like “slacking off” than “going to work.” If you want to battle randomly, go to the Tournament Practice room. If you want to seriously spar and feel like you’re doing something, go to the Constructed 8-Man queues. And if you’ve honed your weapon and are ready to joust… well, that’s what the big events are for.

But they have big events a lot more often than you see in any one local-area metagame, so the network effect of having a “PTQ” as it were every night of the week can really influence the metagame a lot faster than your in-real-life (IRL, obv.) metagame evolves in the same amount of time. And it’s not that the players on MTGO are cleverer, as some of their online names can attest, and the impressive sub-1500 ratings can likewise speak volumes. They’re about as clever as everyone else in the world, though admittedly you’ll find a higher density of professional-caliber players running an 8-man queue or in a large event than you are likely to run into in any but the most nightmarish of PTQs. They have one advantage, and one advantage only, over the real-life players: they’re testing all the time, twenty-five hours a day (they invented a new one just for Chuck Norris jokes… duh), seven days a week in one form or another. The cast and crew playing at any given moment will change, but someone, somewhere is testing the format.

Frankly, testing on MTGO is more fun and more readily accessible at any given hour than real-life testing. This consequently means more testing gets done, and the metagame moves faster because the same kinds of people as you play at home have the same ideas and opinions and make the same kinds of decisions. They just have them, well, faster, so their metagame advances more quickly.

And since the Worlds metagame is so two weeks ago, the MTGO Extended metagame is going to be more highly representative of “the pulse of the metagame” come PTQ-time than Worlds could ever be. Worlds is too much information to digest fully, in one large chunk, full of innovations but also full of repetition… it suggests the starting point, but after that everyone’s got to soldier it out from there. And your PTQ metagame will be starting on Week 1, while the MTGO metagame has already advanced more fully beyond that first iteration that it will be miles ahead of where the real-life metagame is going… and both will go to the same terminus regardless. The online metagame in the last year or so has begun to dictate reality, because we have passed the watershed point where enough players and enough focus are dedicated to MTGO push it forward faster than “paper Magic” can go.

What this means, then, is that instead of following up on last week’s column on the statistics of Extended decks at Worlds, we’ll be looking at the Extended metagame of online Magic to see where it suggests the progression forward goes. And if you looked at Worlds Extended you’d see a slight hint of Storm-based combo, be it Goblinstorm or Sunny Side Up or Heartbeat Desire or Ritual Desire (or, as some like to call it, “The Extended Perfect Storm,” which is a stupid name, and this is abbreviated to TEPS, which is merely the abbreviation of a stupid name). You’d also see a lot of U/W Tron decks (but as we’d said, overall they failed to perform in the Boros-centric metagame, despite individual blips on the radar… in fact ninth-place competitor Shaheen Sooriani accidentally drew himself out of the Top 8 when he chose an ID over the risky Boros matchup he thought he was facing) and a large, large number of Boros Deck Wins, and you’d think that Boros Deck Wins is not only the most populous but also the best deck in the metagame.

But actually playing things out and seeing what’s good tells you that Storm-based combo is good enough and resilient enough to face down Boros, more or less making that matchup work out as “whoever goes first basically wins.” This means that while Boros is prevalent, Ritual Desire is able to face the heat, while the kinds of decks that it itself would be vulnerable to are not currently present in any great quantity… perhaps because Boros decks have burned them out of the metagame, because everyone makes these tricksy and clever decks that don’t actually beat Boros, then lose and just play Boros. (See example: my Loamatog deck from last week, note: “tricksy,” note: “clever,” note: “doesn’t actually beat Boros.”) But the turning of the metagame wheel suggests that a deck that can beat both Boros and Storm-based combo is going to do well, and the first-pass of the spinning metagame wheel says that it is Scepter-Chant that can fit that niche, now with Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir to complete the hard lock and avoid the “just get burned out at end of turn” problem that had previously been evident.

As the metagame trickles onward, ever onward in a rushing river of digital information, Scepter-Chant becomes a known target that has to be faced, and we go from a realistically two-deck metagame to a realistically three-deck metagame, and the deck that can beat Scepter-Chant, Boros, and Ritual Desire becomes the best deck… though some will settle for two out of three, so long as one of the two it beats is the new kid on the block. Or, the best version of Scepter-Chant tuned for the mirror wins instead… and the question becomes “what kind of tools win the mirror match?”

The answer to that question might just prove humorous, as the key to the mirror match may come down to being able to deal with a resolved Teferi without casting a spell, so Snow basic lands plus Mouth of Ronom become de rigeur, as you can now lose a fight over end-of-turn Teferi (which realistically can only be defended with four Counterspell) and not be completely shut out of the game entirely. Or perhaps some other innovation becomes appropriate, like using Decree of Justice to make tokens in order to win around the lock, or just adding more and better countermagic to the deck in order to improve your chances of doing that to the opponent while minimizing their chances of doing that to you.

Looking at this week’s Online Tech by Frank Karsten, you’ll see a massive 17% share of Top 8s claimed by Boros decks, which is actually down from last week but still high and likely to remain so. Ritual-based Storm decks have climbed to second place in the standings practically out of nowhere, which lends to the solid proposition that Week 1 of the PTQ circuit will be all about Ritual Desire and Boros Deck Wins, with U/W Urzatron just kind of hanging out sometimes, not really impressive but at least it’s earned a spot as one of the better decks to play. You can see Red/Green Beats shrinking off, especially as “Fetch up a Stomping Ground, Kird Ape, go” becomes the potential opener of Boros Deck Wins, not Gruul Deck Wins. (Though any trained monkey knows that you want to lead with Sacred Foundry, then use your second fetchland to get Temple Garden and attack for 2, following up with a pro-Red guy. Duh.) And you can see growing on the horizon is a wave of Scepter-Chant decks, moving in to prey upon Ritual Desire and Boros Deck Wins, both of which are reasonably strong matchups for Scepter-Chant. The rest of the Worlds pack are represented as well, it’s true, but it’s Boros plus Ritual Desire plus a hint of Scepter-Chant that is “defining” the Week 1 metagame.

Small changes can make a big difference, however; imagine if you could get the same qualities out of the land base, without having to give up anything considerable, but squeeze in the extra advantage of having Mouth of Ronom for potential mirror-matches. For a “starter” Scepter-Chant deck, we’ll use the list provided in “Online Tech” this week and accredited to Roel van Heeswijk:

The manabase has the following characteristics:

Basic lands: 4
Counts as an artifact: 7
(Excluding Chrome Mox) Can be used to provide Red mana: 8
(Excluding Chrome Mox) Can be used to provide White mana: 13
(Excluding Chrome Mox) Can be used to provide Blue mana: 18

With a little manipulation, however, you can get a better-suited manabase that is more focused on providing exactly what you need, and squeezing in two Mouths of Ronom as well. If you have 23 lands, two of which are Mouth of Ronom, no more than three such lands can not tap for Blue mana, which is pretty clearly defined as the two Plains plus a Sacred Foundry. (Whether you have four Seats of the Synod, or three and one Ancient Den, does not seem the most important fact in the world in most games.) By that same token of logic, no more than ten total land can not provide White mana, two of which are clearly the Mouths of Ronom, and some will be basic Islands, some Seats of the Synod, perhaps the one Shivan Reef and some Steam Vents. It seems pretty clear by inference, then, that you can’t have both Mouth of Ronom and Academy Ruins, which can be a slight difficulty when facing off against decks that have Disenchant effects, especially ones you can’t counter… but by including Teferi in the lock components, this specific ability seems to be less useful overall than it could be except possibly for “buying back” copies of Isochron Scepter that failed to win Counterspell battles.

Fortunately, as we are getting squeezed for numbers on lands, we can realize that you have access to more than just the four Flooded Strand as sac-lands, and can use any land that can get a Mountain in order to pull out your choice of Sacred Foundry or Steam Vents, allowing either Wooded Foothills or Bloodstained Mire to serve as a faux-Flooded Strand… it can’t ever get specifically both Blue and White mana, but it can get you your choice of either. We have hard requirements so far for the following:

4 Flooded Strand
4 Seat of the Synod
2 Wooded Foothills
2 Snow-Covered Island
2 Snow-Covered Plains
2 Mouth of Ronom
2 Adarkar Wastes
2 Hallowed Fountain
2 Steam Vents
1 Sacred Foundry

21 lands, and so far we have met the following requirements:

Basic lands: 4
Counts as an artifact: 7
(Excluding Chrome Mox) Can be used to provide Red mana: 9
(Excluding Chrome Mox) Can be used to provide White mana: 13
(Excluding Chrome Mox) Can be used to provide Blue mana: 18

So, we’ve cut the number of colored lands by one, and lost the access we had to the legendary Academy Ruins in order to favor Mouth of Ronom. Altogether we have ten lands that are able to provide or fetch Snow mana, being the basic lands plus Flooded Strand, or the two Mouths themselves… while actually using the Mouth requires drawing a second source of Snow, and actually using it for such. A reasonable proposition, after all… you can tap for Snow more easily than you can tap for Red, unless you are always imprinting Fire / Ice on your Chrome Mox.

Careful color-balancing and an eye for what you want your manabase to accomplish can go a long way towards impacting a change; your special lands are very important, and here we effectively lost two Legendary lands (Academy Ruins and Minamo, School at Water’s Edge) to provide two other faux-spell effects, specifically “kill target Teferi” in the mirror match. Along the way we’ve slightly changed the manabase to provide more Flooded Strand-type effects and fewer pain-lands, and only two of your fetch-lands require you fetching out a Ravnica-block dual land instead of getting your choice of Plains or Island untapped right now. Against aggressive decks, there’s the possibility of noticing a change, but then there’s also a slight dab more Red mana to cast Fire with, and fewer lands that ask for life each time to provide colored mana if you need to cast Teferi or pay the kicker on Orim’s Chant off a Scepter. Essentially, you’ve made the trade-off and it’s something you can live with, so long as you specifically want the Mouths of Ronom instead of the functionality of Minamo untapping Teferi to block, or gaining the use of Volrath’s Stronghold for artifacts.

Twisting and turning and tuning the rest of the deck, there are other manipulations you can make: if Boros is everywhere, Lightning Helix on a Scepter is a pretty impressive play, and perhaps a more impressive one than Force Spike, which many criticize the use of entirely on the simple premise of “seeming random as a two-of,” regardless of how many hours of testing may have gone into the careful whittling of each and every number present in this deck. (At least my butchering the land-base to remove Academy Ruins is only a light butchering, to change what match-ups you are seeking to gain an advantage in, respecting the game-warping effects of a resolved Teferi.)

Of course, if one listened to “random bitching on the Internet” for the source of all their deck technology, MiseTings.com’s “T[ime] S[piral] Extended Thread” would teach the entire population of Magic players to play “I Hate BillKing.dec,” which I am told “probably has Armadillo Cloaks main-deck.” But listening to criticism in assorted Forums can actually be useful, because dissenting opinions are often the key source for deck evolution. In a mixed metagame, Fact or Fiction is a ridiculously powerful card… but in a metagame where your opponent is either trying to attack you to death right now with Lions and Apes and Knights until you die!!!!1!, wants to combo-kill you turn 4, or can respond to you tapping low for Fact or Fiction with, um, Teferi… well, “ridiculously powerful” doesn’t always suit the purpose one needs a card to fill when you’re trying to actually see a deck play out.

If nothing else, one can look at the infrequently-drawn cards and figure out a) how often they are going to be drawn early enough to have relevance (I’m looking at you, Force Spike), b) how well they play with the deck’s early-game plan or late-game plan (depending on how many you play), and c) how readily they can be replaced with other cards. Essentially, looking at the list above we can see that the one-ofs and two-ofs can potentially be considered “soft” numbers, cards that could be replaced with other cards to more narrowly hone the deck’s game-plan. Deckbuilders will be looking at those spots in particular when they are honing in on what they can change, and at least in the case of this version of Scepter-Chant that is because the other choices are clearly already streamlined at or near the point of optimization. Those slots, and the sideboard, are what players pick on specifically to make modifications.

I haven’t honestly played the deck enough yet to have an honest criticism; Exalted Angel is a nice card, but its key relevance as itself isn’t something I’m solid on. I agree that the two Force Spikes might be better off as other cards, and lean in the general direction of either Mana Leak or Lightning Helix… the latter of which might be the subconscious reason I snuck an extra point of Red mana into the manabase. And I have to say that I do give some credence to the idea that Fact or Fiction doesn’t do the right thing against the match-ups that are currently problematic, because four mana is more than you can be certain you can afford to spend. My own leanings tell me that as much as I respect Fact or Fiction in the right matchups, you can perform admirably just with Wishing for Fact or Fiction in those matchups and getting something else in others, or honing in on what kind of matchups are “the right matchup” for Fact or Fiction and exploiting your deck’s strength against them with a card that acts quicker. I’ll listen to arguments suggesting the fourth Wish instead of the second Fact, without assuming the person talking to me is a complete and total idiot, and nagging thoughts in my own mind will be telling me to watch my Fact or Fictions very, very carefully as I playtest to see how good they are when they’re really good and how bad they are when they’re really bad (i.e., do I die in response to casting it?). Aware that there are some doubts in my mind, I’d want to come back later with this experience in mind and decide whether an arbitrarily amazing card (Fact or Fiction) is also the right card (who knows?).

And that’s just looking for subtle ways to jump on the Week 1 bandwagon, aiming for the first bit of advantage and honing in on what can be changed in order to “improve” a deck. (-2 Force Spike, -1 Exalted Angel, -2 Fact of Fiction for +1 Teferi, +1 Cunning Wish, +3 Lightning Helix? At least I won’t laugh you out of the room for suggesting it. No promises for anyone else though.) Playing the Boros versus Ritual Desire match-up (or, more accurately, sitting next to it for an hour or so while Evil Don Lim and Jim Halter duke it out) can teach you simply that neither deck ever breaks serve, whoever goes first wins turn 4. It’s this very fact to begin with that can make Ritual Desire a solid choice, because you can tune it to beat Boros or at least have the best possible chance of winning on turn 4 despite one Molten Rain’s worth of disruption. But can you teach either deck to break serve? That particular feat might be difficult… but not impossible.

Consider: Boros Deck Wins already plays enough fetch-lands to realistically consider Green-mana cards like Armadillo Cloak out of the sideboard for the mirror, despite having no Green cards in the main. Without being completely unreasonable, then, one can posit for testing a simple suggestion: add in one each of Blood Crypt and Godless Shrine, and test the matchup with Duress out of the sideboard to see if you can ever get Boros to beat Ritual Desire while Desire is on the play. Maybe Duress plus Pyrostatic Pillar is enough to win the game, and maybe the other seven sideboard slots can face the mirror match and Scepter Chant, or perhaps even just be solid enough cards to have a potentially applicable use against everything. (Ancient Grudge might be solid against Scepter-Chant, for example, while also dealing with Jitte.)

So for crazy variability, you might take your “standard issue” Boros listing and tune it into the following:

Of course, this starts with the most solid main-deck list for facing the mirror and sacrifices some of the now well-known sideboard plans, specifically dropping a Jitte and three Armadillo Cloaks for four Cabal Therapy. If everyone is on the same page on what the “best” list of Boros is to win the mirror, you may have a problem… or you may win the tournament by beating decks that fold to your Therapy plus Boros clock plan, where they might have failed to win because they have the Boros plan but no Therapy. (Who knows?) It’s also quite possible the proper sideboard card is not Therapy at all but Duress, or that this is all wrong and there’s a secret hidden card that actually beats any of these plans. (Switch Pyrostatic Pillar for Rule of Law, and get those Black lands out of there. Who knows?)

As the Extended format has now been specifically fine-tuned and honed to a razor’s edge, and that razor is named Boros Deck Wins, the wheat and the chaff are separating themselves every night of the week on MTGO. Watch the trends and see how they develop… and remember, the real-life metagame will follow a similar flux, so it’s keep up or be left behind. The people who go to the first PTQ only aware of the World Championships results are going to be victimized by those who are also aware of the changes becoming prevalent on MTGO as the metagame marches onward, as we have seen time and again throughout the summer’s National Championships season, and again lastly at Worlds… in both Standard and Extended.

Sean McKeown
smckeown @ livejournal.com

So it’s better this way, I said,
Having seen this place before…
Where everything we said and did,
Hurts us all the more.
Sarah McLachlan, “Full of Grace”