Something interesting is happening right now. There’s about to be a PTQ season for a Pro Tour I’m interested in attending (and won’t conflict with my new-found love for college), and there isn’t a deck that I’m heart-set on playing. In nearly every Constructed format, I know what I’ll be playing months before the thing actually happens. Even when I don’t truly know ahead of time what I’ll be doing, I settle on a deck that I see in action and I go from there. Part of this is pet-deck syndrome, and part of this is getting lucky with my fast picks. This time around, though, nothing really jumps out at me.
My roommate and testing partner, Steve Nagy, is pretty much dead-set on playing Zoo, which is exactly where I used to be (when Jackal Pup and Cursed Scroll were a mortal lock for making my deck), and this works out very nicely for everyone: Steve gets to play against a wide variety of decks, which is good prep for the PTQs, and I get to put anything I’m interested in through the litmus test.
- 3 Mogg Fanatic
- 3 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
- 4 Kird Ape
- 4 Grim Lavamancer
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 2 Gaddock Teeg
There are two big bodies of information that I went over when looking for decks to try out for future PTQs… Pro Tour: Valencia coverage and the Hollywood PTQ Top 8 that took place at Worlds. I picked out my “favorite” deck from each event, which ended up handing me Rock and Nail and Mono-Blue Control. When I made these choices, I didn’t know much about them other than that I thought they looked cool and that I thought they would give me a fair bit of information about the world of Extended.
Zac Hill wrote a piece on his deck a few weeks ago, and I made sure that I’d read it a few times before I brought the deck to a ten-game set against Zoo. Unfortunately for me, the ten game set left things nearly breaking even, with Rock and Nail coming out with only six games in the win column.
My problem was that I really only had one way to win the game. Deeds and Restraints held the ground down, sure, but the amount of burn I was looking at each game was dizzying. Worse, I couldn’t always raw-dog a Pernicious Deed on turn 3 because of Vindicate, and I couldn’t rely on a fast Collective Restraint for the same reason. My singleton Moment’s Peace and Loxodon Hierarch were all-stars, but they only showed up every now and again, and they could only do so much. Platinum Angel is obviously good, but it’s no safer against Vindicate than the rest of the deck, and it also has to worry about Tribal Flames and random burn + Grim Lavamancer. In the end, everything came down to Sundering Titan. Casting the Titan was always insane, because the Zoo manabase and Urborg mean that you’re almost always getting every one of their lands and zero or one of your own. The problem is that you only have five Titans, and you’d better get there fast.
Yes, the deck plays out better than that makes it sound. You have Tribe-Elders and Search for Tomorrows that bring you up to speed, and you have Living Wishes that can go find the land you’re missing or the Elephant you need to stall the game. Even when your Collective Restraint gets hit by Vindicate, you’ve still bought yourself a turn (or more), and with that, time to find your Titans. And yes, I did win more games than I lost, but I felt like I wasn’t winning by enough to feel safe. I kept thinking about what I would do after boarding, and it never felt good. Zac’s Valencia sideboard only has four cards in it that I would actually like more than cards in the maindeck (three Loxodon Hierarch and one Moment’s Peace), but what do I board out? The problem, in my mind, is that my best win condition could become a huge liability after boarding. Here’s what I’m thinking: one Titan trigger wipes out your opponent’s lands, but the second one usually gets two of your own. If four Titan triggers go on the stack, am I going to have any lands left in play? Am I willing to lose to Ancient Grudge?
I don’t know how many people would bring in the Grudge against the Rock, but the thing is that my best win condition gets hammered by it. I don’t know whether I should be boarding out Tooths and/or Titans, or if I should be boarding out Duresses. I don’t know if I can continue to win games if I don’t have Titans, and I don’t know if I can continue to win games if I have them and my opponent has Ancient Grudge. This isn’t to say that the deck should be instantly dismissed, but it does mean that I wasn’t instantly enamored with it either. So I moved on.
I brought Mono-Blue deck to the fight next, though I have to say that I’m honestly baffled about some of the cards included in this deck. There are only twenty-four lands to work with, and so many of them are spent on strange non-Island cards like Riptide Laboratory and Tolaria West, and yet the deck is sitting on Spire Golems and Vedalken Shackles. I realize that you can completely contain a resolved Enduring Ideal with Venser and the Laboratory, but I also know how terrible it is to be looking at hands that can’t cast Counterspell on turn 2 or Spire Golem on turn 3 (or even turn 4).
However, I hate to change cards in decklists until I’ve played with the deck some. Just because the choices don’t make sense to me doesn’t mean anything; I didn’t build the deck and I haven’t played with it, so what do I know? So I battled on with the listed seventy-five cards, and after the standard ten games, the Blue deck won a surprising seven.
The strange thing to me was that I felt like I had a whole lot more to do to my opponent than I did with the Rock and Nail deck. I was worse at cleaning up what slipped through the cracks, but Stifle, Spell Snare, Counterspell, and Engineered Explosives could all actually do things in the first two turns of the game.
The games basically played out in two ways. There were the ones where I could effectively use my Spell Snares and Counterspells to make it to turn 4 or so with a reasonable life total. At this point, I could either start making life annoying with Trinket Mage, Venser, and Spire Golem, or I could try to hold on for another turn or two and win with Meloku or Vedalken Shackles. These games were almost always effectively won within the first two turns; I could only get to the middle turns if Steve didn’t resolve Kird Ape/Isamaru and then Tarmogoyf/Dark Confidant. On the draw, this meant that I needed some bad draws on Steve’s part, a Spell Snare, or a Stifle that connected on turn 2. On the play, Counterspell could also play a part.
There were also the games that I could just never ever win. The ones that felt the worst were the games that involved Stifles on the draw, where I would take two and then watch Steve play a non-fetchland and drop Gaddock Teeg, Tarmogoyf, or even just two more one-drops. I could try to claw my way back into it with Trinket Mage and Venser, but the fact of the matter is that this particular Blue deck only has one way to actually do anything about six power on turn 2, and missing that draw means that you’re dead. Worse, that one card happens to be completely crushed by Gaddock Teeg, and the only way you can dig yourself out of that hole is to take the man with Shackles and then block with him. Luckily, though, the large number of ways to avoid this situation mean that it only came up three times out of ten.
As with the Rock and Nail deck, I live in fear of Ancient Grudge. Spire Golem and Vedalken Shackles are the two obvious targets, but even a Pithing Needle naming Grim Lavamancer or a naked Engineered Explosives can be devastating to lose. However, I have some obviously juicy things to bring in, in the set of Force Spikes lurking in the sideboard. More importantly, though, I feel like I’ve actually learned about the lands and the Trinket Mage targets, as well as what I’d want my sideboard to look like.
First of all, the cute lands just have to go. Either that, or the Island-reliant cards need to go, but the fact of the matter is that they’re some of the best cards you have, so it’s time to cut the Riptide Laboratory, the Tolaria West, and the Urza’s Factory. Perhaps I’m putting my foot in my mouth here, but I just do not believe that I would ever have time to activate any of the extra abilities on these lands, and as such they are just worse than a basic Island. Second, the deck needs more than a single Explosives to clean up after its messes. I don’t really know what that is (it might be another copy of the Explosives and it might be something completely different), but it needs something. Third, and this was just a spur-of-the-moment brainstorm, I think that Sunbeam Spellbomb is a card I’d like to play with. It would mean that the Steam Vents would have to be a Hallowed Fountain, but that’s irrelevant. On the other hand, it would mean that your Trinket Mages could play Hierarch against Red decks, and at least play Striped Bears against control decks. I can also envision myself in some twisted scenario where Academy Ruins would regrow it, but maybe it would never come to that.
I also think that the Sideboard deserves looking at. Steve has said that he believes that the early decklists for a given format usually have decent maindecks and poor sideboards, and I think that he’s mostly right. For instance, Sower of Temptation is pretty mind-boggling to me, since its inclusion is essentially a statement that you’d rather have a 2/2 flyer than Vedalken Shackles in matchups where you want to steal a guy. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure that the Shackles are stronger than something that dies to Firebolt, and one-mana burn spells are particularly scary for this deck. Maybe Ancient Grudge is so scary that you don’t want to be bringing in more and more artifacts, but I’d want to make sure that Threads of Disloyalty wasn’t the right call before I settled on Sower of Temptation. Time will tell.
The thing that has struck me most of all during the first leg of our testing is that Extended is not at all what I thought it was. Zoo and Enduring Ideal can both win on the fourth turn pretty regularly given normal goldfish draws, and that’s why I’m happy with the idea of using Zoo as a litmus test. On the other hand, decks like the two I’ve just tried out can’t really come close to that sort of speed. However, this doesn’t mean that Extended requires you to play a deck that wins on turn 3, it just requires you to play a deck that can do things on turns 1 and 2. Force Spike and Spell Snare might not be as scary as Kird Ape or Lotus Bloom, but they go a long way towards slowing games down.
The format, in addition to being less about breakneck speeds than I thought, also seems to be healthier than I thought. I don’t usually like formats where there isn’t a clear best deck, because it means that I don’t know what to expect right off the bat. It also usually means that I feel like I can’t adequately prepare for all of the decks that I might face. This Extended format, though, feels like I just need to make my deck the best that it can be, and then I can thrive. This is not to say that you need to play the “best deck,” but that you need to play the best version of whatever deck you decide on. People have been doing well on Magic Online with cards like Profane Command; if you can win a Premiere Event by casting a 5BB spell the fair way, then you can clearly get away with a lot more than you might think if you only looked at Dredge decks.
As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me in the forums, via email, or on AIM.
ben at mundy dot net
SlickPeebles on AIM