Owning the Extended PTQs

In what may be the most influential article of the Extended season thus far, Chad teaches you the crucial skills necessary to own your Extended PTQs and provides a heaping helping of sideboard and maindeck tech for anyone hoping to make earn a slot in Philadelphia. This is a must-read article for any serious Magic player.

Extended is like Rock. Nothing beats it.

It was an Extended PTQ that sent me to my first Pro Tour and, happily, my first PT money finish. But more than that, Extended is perhaps the richest format in Magic. The vast cardpool allows for deck innovation as well as extensive fine-tuning of established archetypes. (On the last point, look at the recent series of RDW articles, including an entire article dedicated to the question of which two-mana burn spell is best?)

Extended PTQs tend to have an incredibly wide variety of decks. There will be White Weenie and Jank, regardless of whether they are any good, there will be RDW, which is always good even when it’s bad. There will be Rock and Living Death, there will be combo (primarily Life and Desire, but others will show up as well) and there will be beatdown and aggro-control in various forms.

The best way to win one of these PTQs is fairly straightforward. First, you play one of the best decks. Most decks are simply outclassed by one of the known decks, and unless your playtesting absolutely convinces you that you’ve found a missing component of the metagame, don’t go rogue.

Next, go rogue in the details. This may seem odd, but it isn’t. Playing a second-best deck is a massive handicap, and it’s rare that the misplay-factor will overcome the deck’s weaker overall power, especially after the first few rounds. Playing unusual sideboard cards often doesn’t require any power sacrifice at all, but even more importantly the better players are more likely to misplay against you (or at least not be prepared) because they assume you’re on “the plan” for that matchup. Thus, the value of the rogue factor actually goes up in later rounds (adjusted for scouting, of course).

A perfect example of this comes from my own experience playing Counter-Sliver back when things like Force of Will and dual lands were legal. I often avoided the normal sideboard plan of Worship in favor of Honorable Passage, winning games off of my opponent’s Price of Progress while he held Anarchy in hand. Heroes’ Reunion let me lure opponents into trading board position for damage under the mistaken impression that my life total was much lower than it really was.

Another important factor is that the sideboard metagame in particular is often a bit out of date. Most players undertest sideboard matches and many operate under the default assumption that the “Top 8” sideboards are about right. After all, the Pros built them, didn’t they? Well, yes… but they did so for a different metagame.

With that in mind, here are some under-the-radar cards that players should consider testing for their main decks or (in most cases) sideboards.

Seal of Removal

Recent RDW articles have done an excellent job of explaining why Seal of Fire is Red’s beat one-mana burn spell. The main reason is that it sits there waiting to do its job, allowing you to tap out at leisure. Seal of Removal has the same advantage. Let’s look at what it does to some of the big boys:

RDW: sends Jackal Pup or Blistering Firecat back home, buying you a turn or simply time to untap.

Scepter-Chant and other decks with Meddling Mage: gets rid of the Mage long enough for you to play your key spell.

Affinity: prevents all-in maneuvers with Ravager or Atog. Combines extremely well with Energy Flux to send back whatever they pay to keep.

U/G Madness: buys you a full turn against many starts or kills a Roar token.

Dark Desire: at least fizzles a Snap; at best buys you a full turn by bouncing Nightscape Familiar.

Reanimator: nullifies their main game plan unless they can discard and animate twice, in which case it still bought you a full turn. And once it’s in play it can’t be Duressed or Therapied away.

Cephalid Breakfast: Sadly they can Exhume up (or play) Kami of Ancient Law, so turn 1 Seal isn’t “good game” but at the worst it buys you a turn against a fast combo deck.

False Cure

Like many decks, Reanimator loses to the Life combo if it goes off. Disruption is well and good, but Life has a lot of redundancy and tutoring, so it isn’t easy to prevent with Duress and Therapy. But Vampiric Tutor for False Cure and your opponent may not even consider the prospect that his own combo will kill him provided you have BB open. Unless he thought to board in Orim’s Chant, one slot in your sideboard wins the game.

Is this better than Cranial Extraction? After all, The Rock can still win against an infinite life total by getting rid of Test of Endurance, Living Wish and finally Serra Avatar (if any), and then decking the Life player. But not all decks can do this… and anyone playing Life knows that the Rock can! I don’t know what the typical Life deck’s answer will be – perhaps splashing Black for its own Cranial Extractions? In any case, False Cure may get around those answers, as well as providing a nifty solution for heavy-Black decks.

Sun Droplet

We all remember this from Mirrodin Limited, but can it really compete in a Constructed format, let alone Extended? I believe it can, and that it may even be a top contender for best sideboard surprise against RDW, especially for mirror match.

As Mike Flores noted, RDW mirrors ultimately come down to Cursed Scrolls. Creatures get burned away, and unless a Blistering Firecat hits (unlikely but possible), Scroll superiority rules the day. The matchup shifts from beatdown-on-beatdown to control-on-control, with games taking plenty of time and life totals dropping two at a time.

There are two ways to answer this: bring in creatures that step above the Scroll (e.g. Dragons or Chimeric Idol) or else set up to win the Scroll wars. Part of Mike’s preference for Magma Jet over Volcanic Hammer is precisely that it helps win the Scroll wars, by shoving non-Scroll spells out of the way when all you want is another Scroll and/or the land to run it.

My take is somewhat different. I think you run Volcanic Hammer precisely because you want to make sure the battle is about Scrolls and not Dragons. A Hammer in hand and a Scroll on the board is enough to kill any 5-toughness flyer that happens to hit play. And meanwhile, unless your opponent has boarded in Sulfuric Vortex, each of your Sun Droplets invalidates an enemy Scroll. (Get out two and you can start gaining life!)

Sun Droplet could also be good sideboard tech for control decks facing RDW, depending on how fearful you are of Sulfuric Vortex. Many of those matchups come down to two races: the resource attrition battle the control deck wins and the life battle RDW wins. With Sun Droplet on the table the life battle slows down substantially. Moreover, most RDW decks are built (including their sideboard) to withstand Chill, so don’t play the remedy they’re prepared for.

Noetic Scales

Reanimator decks are going to name Ensnaring Bridge with Cabal Therapy, but that’s not the only thing the Scales have going for them. Since they actually bounce Akroma (or whatever Fattie is in play), the Reanimator player can’t just deal with the Bridge – she needs to discard and reanimate her fattie again, after she gets rid of it.

Another nice point to the Scales is that they may be good against U/G, at least for some decks. Roar tokens certainly won’t by flying over with a Scales in play, and even keeping Arrogant Wurm in play will be difficult. And if you’ve got your own Eternal Witnesses…

Engineered Explosives

Extended is all about cheap permanents, so this is a natural place to look. So far the Explosives has been overshadowed by its older brother Powder Keg, and with good reason. Powder Keg requires no mana to activate, so once you put it out there you can use it and still keep mana up for permission or card-drawing. Control players love that feeling, and aggro players want to tap out on their own turn while knowing they can still Keg for two in response to Snap on Cloud of Faeries. Powder Keg can build up counters, giving it added flexibility. It kills man-lands. But Engineered Explosives has one very important advantage: it’s faster, especially when you want to blow up the world of one.

Say you’re on the draw against Affinity, and he leads with Aether Vial. If Powder Keg is your answer, and you don’t happen to have a Chrome Mox in hand, you’re screwed. You play a land and say go (or do whatever it is you do on turn one). On his turn he plays land, Worker, Thoughtcast for one. You play a Keg; he vials out a Disciple of the Vault during your EOT. He attacks for two and puts out a Ravager and an Enforcer. On your turn you can still Keg away three permanents, but two of them become three +1/+1 counters on the Ravager, you lose three life from the Disciple (plus its attack and any lands that have been sacrificed to the Ravager), and you’re now facing at least a 4/4 Ravager and a 4/4 Enforcer.

Now compare Engineered Explosives. Turn 1 you play the Explosives. What does he do on turn 2? The Worker/Disciple/Thoughtcast plan is pretty much shot, since you’ll just Explode the Worker and Vial without lifeloss or Ravager counters and he’ll have to cast the Disciple with actual mana. Probably he just adds a counter to the Vial and plays Ravager. An explosive start has turned far more manageable…and if you have a second set of Explosives you can set to two, you’ll be able to clear off most of his most dangerous permanents.

Of course, I recognize that different possible hands will play out more or less favorably to the Explosives. The point remains that turn 1 Explosives is a very annoying answer to turn 1 Vial, and turn 1 Vial is one of the scariest leads in Extended at the moment. More generally, Explosives gets rid of a lot of Affinity’s key permanents.

Then there’s RDW. Those that know are telling Slith Firewalker to sit this season out, since (as was pointed out in the forums) he only does more total damage than a Jackal Pup on his fourth hit, and it’s simply not realistic to expect a two-drop to hit four times in Extended. In any case, if we look at the recent recommended lists for RDW, how many permanents survive an Explosives set to one?

Just the kitty-cat.

Against RDW, you will almost certainly kill multiple permanents with one Explosives, or else slow them down substantially. Here the fact that you can play and blow the Explosives in one turn can be quite significant. Play your Sapphire Medallion on turn 2 and then on turn 3 just Explode for one. Or when they drop Ensnaring Bridge and hope to burn you out, get rid of their Scroll and Lavamancer in one easy step.

Or Desire. Whether Dark or White desire, the deck depends on a lot of permanents that cost two mana in order to generate mana and spells for the Desire. Cloud of Faeries wants to live long enough to be snapped, and familiars and Medallions help make the Faeries and Snaps generate mana. An Explosives set to two can take out some key permanents at instant-speed, and once again you can blow up the world of two a turn faster than you can with Powder Keg.

If you’re on the draw with Powder Keg, you’re forcing Desire to go off by turn 4 or else you’ll have your Keg set to two. That’s well within the deck’s power. With Explosives you force them to go off on turn 3. That’s not impossible, but it is a lot harder to do.

Engineered Explosives can do it all. Scepter-Chant? Explosives for two takes care of their best permanents. (And a mix of Explosives and Kegs will stop them from shutting you out with a single Meddling Mage.) U/G Madness? For zero we take out Moxen and Roar tokens and for two we take out madness outlets that happen to swing pretty hard.

Finally, Engineered Explosives takes out enchantments, too. PTQs are a bit more rogue than PTs, and you will face decks like Enchantress from time to time.

On a more mundane level, a lot of top decks are running Chrome Mox at the moment. Taking out Chrome Mox with Explosives isn’t perfect, since they’ll get to use the mana for a turn or two and you’ll have to spend mana blowing up the Explosives, but it is a two-for-one and early mana denial. There are worse things in life.

Chalice of the Void

Again, Extended is all about cheap permanents and cheap spells, and a lot of the best decks are built around broken spells with a mana cost of one. A turn 2 Chalice set for one will counter most of what’s left in the RDW player’s deck, as well as making it harder for him to activate any Scrolls or Lavamancers already in play. That sounds a lot better than Chill or even Sun Droplet, provided you aren’t full of one-mana spells of your own.

That last sentence hints at what you must consider before putting Chalice in your sideboard: what does your curve look like? It’s not much good interdicting one-mana spells if your own game depends on them. However, a Mind’s Desire deck like Masashi Oiso has only Brainstorm and a couple of Vampiric Tutors costing one.

If he has one in hand, he can cast it (including, of course, burning the Vampiric to find the Chalice!) and then play the Chalice on turn 2. Or if he was lucky enough to draw Chalice and Chrome Mox in his opening hand, he could shut out most of RDW’s deck with his first turn. (The special irony would be imprinting his own one-mana spell on the Mox!) Beauty of beauties, there’s a decent chance that the RDW player has followed the traditional advice of boarding out his Pillages because they are too expensive to cast in view of the anticipated Chills!

Same story against Gadiel Szleifer Reanimator. A two-mana Chalice shuts out Duress, Cabal Therapy, Vampiric Tutor, Putrid Imp, Careful Study, Brainstorm and Reanimate. In short, it stops almost all of his discard outlets, all of his disruption and all of his search. He’s left with just Sickening Dreams/Exhume and Show and Tell as his ways to get something into play. (Okay, he could also just say “go” on his first turn and discard a fattie and then go Land, Mox, Exhume on turn 2. But come on, how much can you ask out of one sideboard card? And he still has to kill you before you go off or Snap his fattie back to his hand because he can’t Duress or Therapy you. So stop complaining.)

In light of that, any deck with relatively few one-mana spells that also runs Chrome Mox (and if your deck has few one-mana spells and doesn’t run Chrome Mox, shouldn’t it?) will probably gain more from Chalice of the Void than from Chill. Not only is Chalice probably better against RDW than Chill, those same sideboard slots give you a great weapon against Reanimator as well as any random decks full of 1cc spells.

Slith Firewalker

In general I buy the arguments for choosing one-mana beaters over Firewalker. The major drawback I see is detailed above; two cards that brutalize decks for having their entire mana curve at one (in addition to the normal Powder Keg). Right now the “normal” RDW mana curve is a big laser-tagged target that is going around handing out smart missiles to anyone that wants them.


Again, the common wisdom seems to be that Pulverize is the anti-Affinity card of choice. Meltdown costs mana, making it potentially hard to cast under Chill, and isn’t likely to kill Frogmites, let alone Myr Enforcers. Pulverize kills everything for zero mana cost. Is the conventional wisdom wrong? Yes and no.

For the Affinity matchup, Pulverize is probably the way to go. But is Meltdown really so much worse?

First, there’s the Chill question. Assuming they board in Chill, they still have to cast it. A typical Affinity deck will have 7-8 sources of Blue mana plus Chromatic Sphere. That’s not bad, but hardly a guarantee. Then they need two mana free. If you’re on the play, they won’t have two mana on turn 2 if you drew Wasteland or Port unless you’re convinced you’ve got something better to do, like playing out Grim Lavamancer and Seal of Fire to keep your Jackal Pup company.

Now suppose they drop the turn 2 Chill – the nightmare scenario. Again, if you’re on the play you drop a third land and cast Armageddon, targeting them. Your Seal takes out whatever they cast on turn 1, your Pup swings again with Lavamancer by his side.

So while Pulverize is much better against Affinity, you still have game with Meltdown, even if they board in Chill, draw it and have access to Blue mana. And don’t forget, the PT-winning Affinity deck also had Cabal Therapy. In the event that Affinity casts Therapy on a RDW player with two Mountains out, what do you think he’ll name first?

Next, are there other matchups where you might board in Meltdown? Given the rising popularity of Chrome Mox, and its importance for decks like Desire and Scepter-Chant, I would argue yes – although I should point out that this is purely conceptual and I haven’t playtested the matchup. Those decks depend on speed and are unlikely to board in Chill because their sideboard slots are in heavy demand from Cunning Wish.

So the choice of Meltdown vs. Pulverize isn’t so clear-cut and may depend on your local metagame and the extent to which you value surprise.

And as one final thought, if your Mind’s Desire opponent read this article and leads off after boarding with land, Chrome Mox, Chalice of the Void for 1, you’ll be feeling pretty good about the Meltdown in your hand, even if you have to wait for turn 2 to blow up his world.

Hugs ’til next time,