As I head for Manchester Airport, and ultimately for Valencia, I truly believe that some version of Dredge will win the Pro Tour this weekend. While simple probability means that I’m likely to be wrong – it’s hard to imagine more than 200 Dredge decks filling the graveyard – I’m going to share my reasoning with you, since it illuminates a bunch of (hopefully) useful stuff about reading a metagame correctly.
First, the disclaimers. I haven’t been part of a large test group for Valencia, so my observations about relative power levels between decks is based much more on “ear to the ground” than “nose to the grindstone.” Therefore, I’m going to make a bunch of assumptions, any of which may have been destroyed by one of the many testing teams around the globe. Nevertheless, when it comes time for you to make your metagame choice for a Constructed Pro Tour, you’ll have to make assumptions too, so their accuracy is in many ways moot.
Mike Flores is not stupid. Yes, I know you already know that, and I know that he already knows that, and yes I know he writes for the home team here at StarCityGames.com. However, any right-thinking magician couldn’t fail to love the two-part quality goodness that was MF’s SWOT analysis on the Extended metagame. I’ve read Mike’s book “Deckade” cover to cover, and this pair of monsters is Mike at his finest. If you’ve not read them yet, get yourself Premium and marvel. Truly awesome analysis. Still, let’s assume you can’t access premium. Never fear, here are some highlights of the metagame right now:
Control decks – most Control decks are no longer your traditional land-go affairs, where Wrath of God and a well-timed Fact Or Fiction equalled Game Over. Nowadays in Extended, Control decks seem to function much closer to a Combo deck – they have a pro-active strategy that they implement as soon as they can, and then look to ride it to victory. NoStick, or Scepter Chant if you prefer, is a prime example of this. It has any number of Control elements, but the wet dream version involves turn 1 Chrome Mox + Imprint, land, Isochron Scepter plus imprint Orim’s Chant. Pray for one turn, and then thank your opponent for the game. As you may have spotted, Ancient Grudge is quite the value against Scepter-Chant, and as a result may not be the best metagame choice. The probable dominant Control deck at the moment is Counterbalance Top, which really takes control of the game when it gets down Counterbalance and proceeds to counterspell lots of spells for free courtesy of library manipulation with Sensei’s Divining Top (and what a fantastic spell that’s turned out to be). Pinpoint and mass removal deal with anything that gets through the Blue “no” line, and Psychatog deals with the small matter of actually winning.
Aggro Decks – It’s not hard to see that with Tarmogoyf floating around, Aggro decks got a sweet addition to the ranks. Pure Boros (R/W) decks are likely to be virtually non-existent on Valencia, since the upside to the Green beater is so large, and the options for mana so varied. Raphael Levy is a Hall of Famer and this year’s Road Warrior for the Invitational, but even someone that good needs a decent deck behind them. Gaea’s Might Get There, one of the better-named concoctions of recent times, features the most efficient monsters known to man – Kird Ape; Isamaru, Hound Of Konda; Grim Lavamancer and the like – plus a couple of truly unfair interactions, including five damage for two mana in the shape of Tribal Flames, and the potentially absurd eponymous Gaea’s Might, which, when coupled with an unblocked Boros Swiftblade, deals twelve damage for one mana. You read that right. Twelve damage. For one mana.
Elsewhere, in one of the more interesting metagame possibilities, rumor has it that Goblins is making a return, in part because of the threat of Dredge. With Skirk Prospectors, Mogg Fanatics, and sometimes Goblin Sledders, the ability for the Red decks to get guys in the bin at will is substantial, something that no Bridge From Below player wants to see. Warchief into double Piledriver is great, Ringleader into bunches of Mogg War Marshal tokens makes the Driver close the deal. Add in quality nonsense like Goblin Sharpshooter and even Siege-Gang Commander, and even without Patriarch’s Bidding, the little Red men just keep on coming.
One of the more intriguing Aggro decks involves Life From The Loam coupled with Seismic Assault. As Mike F points out, this deck only has seven “business” monsters, but Tarmogoyf and Terravore are savage beaters. Bob and BoP add cards and mana respectively, and then the Loam engine does its thing. The big problem with this deck is that it runs foul of most of the stuff that deals with Dredge. It’s not quite a case of Friendly Fire, but who wants to be cast in the role of Collateral Damage?
Needless to say, there will be umpteen variations on Man-Swing in Valencia, which could range from R/B Dark Confidant-inspired beats via single-minded Affinity all the way through to Madness decks, which in my limited testing turned out to be pretty decent. What is certain though, is that there isn’t an Aggro deck alive that consistently wins before turn 4 when left to its own devices. And that brings us to….
When the cardpool is as powerful as Extended, the temptation to unleash one of the many sick Combos available is overwhelming for many mages. Scattered amongst the Spanish metagame, I wouldn’t be surprised to see decks like Charbelcher (activate my Goblin Charbelcher, oh look I only have one Mountain left in my deck, kill you) and Heartbeat (generate buckets of Green mana, make a bit of Black mana, cast Maga, Traitor To Mortals, good game.) More realistically, there are three Combo decks we can expect to see.
Enduring Ideal is a wacky affair that relies on the Epic nature of the spell that spawns the name. Get to seven mana via assorted Rituals, Blooms, Moxen, and artifact acceleration, then unleash your one spell of the game that actually matters. Go fetch Solitary Confinement, that enough? Next turn, go fetch Dovescape, effectively countering every spell (as opposed to creature). Still not done? How about Phyrexian Arena to fuel the Confinement and power the Dovescape. Or how about Form Of The Dragon? That probably does it. Ideal is a deck that doesn’t really need to show you how it wins – you just need to count to seven, and know that it has.
Next up is TEPS, or The Extended Perfect Storm or, more helpfully, Mind’s Desire.dec. As a player not averse to the odd Combo moment, I love this deck. Left in peace it almost guarantees a win turn 4 via assorted accelerations and tutors into absurd Storm counts, closing out with Tendrils Of Agony. It’s quite possible for TEPS to win with just one land in play, and sometimes none, thanks to Lotus Bloom (what a card).
And so to Dredge. Three versions are around. Friggorid seems quite staid these days, using recurring Ichorids to grind down opponents and keeping their plans from fruition with Cabal Therapy. NarcoBridge uses Bridge From Below and Narcomoebas to generate lots of Zombies, and then Dread Return puts Flame-Kin Zealot into play (wow, a four-mana Limited staple from Ravnica block a cornerstone of Extended!), and eleven sideways motions later you’ve taken 33 to the head. Finally, we have Cephalid Breakfast, a deck with the vile capacity to kill you on turn 1 with the perfect draw of 2 Chrome Mox, a land, two things to imprint, a Cephalid Illusionist, and Shuko. Everything hits the bin, and Sutured Ghoul batters for hasty wins.
And that, Urzatron decks notwithstanding, is a thumbnail guide to the field. So why do I think Dredge will win?
Time for another assumption. Dredge in one form or another is the Best Deck. A potted guide to justifying this assumption goes something like this: Dredge races Aggro in a fair fight. Recursion makes Counterspells less optimal. Dredge does its thing extremely efficiently, and only does its thing, thus concentrating its power. If two decks are equally consistent and fail to interact, the quicker deck wins. The quicker deck is generally Dredge. Ah, but people know how to beat Dredge. Actually, no they don’t. Or more accurately, a few people know how to beat Dredge, and most of them will like the answer to that quandary sufficiently to play Dredge themselves! How do you beat Dredge? You play four Leyline Of The Void maindeck, and have 4 Extirpate and 4 Tormod’s Crypt and 4 Yixlid Jailer in the sideboard. You will beat Dredge enough of the time to say you beat Dredge all the time. (Almost any deck gets screwed eventually.) This is clearly overkill, especially when it comes to the maindeck Leylines. Yes, without them many decks will fold game 1. But how many Dredge players do there have to be in the building before maindeck Leyline becomes a smart choice? A lot. Really a lot. Like “half the field” a lot. It is more likely that I will be running around Scunthorpe naked than that there will be 200 Dredge decks. Apart from some minor incidental irritations towards TEPS, Leyline does nothing against everybody else. It’s a hideous maindeck choice outside a ridiculously warped metagame, and we probably don’t have that. So now we’re looking at Leylines in the board, plus, let us say, 4 Tormod’s Crypt. Is that enough to beat Dredge time after time? Possibly it is, even probably it is. So let’s check. Suppose Dredge is 20% of the field (I believe that may be a generous figure). Are you truly going to devote just over half your sideboard to a single deck that you are likely to meet twice at most on Day 1? Not if you’re rational. So then the question becomes, are four Leyline of the Void enough to beat Dredge games 2 and 3? More often than not, yes, but more often than not isn’t enough. To beat Dredge time after time, you want a post-sideboard figure round about 80%, because even that figure leaves you a winner only 2/3rds of the time.
In summary, there are not enough sideboard slots available to dedicate exclusively to the beating of Dredge. Ancient Grudge does all sorts of duty for all sorts of decks, whether it’s killing maindeck Isochron Scepters or sideboarded Chalice Of The Void, Engineered Explosion, Pithing Needle and the like. Not so Leylines and Co., although they could be fine if Loam is popular (Loam is the Collateral Damage candidate of Dredge, as Scepter-Chant is of Affinity).
We now have three core pieces of information.
Dredge is the best deck.
There will not be enough Dredge decks to justify maindeck Leylines in all but a very few cases.
Not enough people can afford the sideboard space to beat Dredge reliably.
Coming back to Mr. Flores, to paraphrase his SWOT analysis, “I think the Pro Tour learned its lesson with Canali in Columbus.” Notice his italics. Like me, Mike can see how Dredge can slip through the cracks just as Pierre Canali did with Affinity in 2005. The parallels are all there. Everyone knows how to beat Dredge, therefore logically you can’t play Dredge, therefore logically Pros will not play Dredge, therefore hating Dredge is unnecessary.
Dredge will win this Pro Tour, and I’ll even give you a name. Oyvind Andersen.
Of course, I may be well wide of the mark. Eight Control decks may make up the Sunday showdown, and that’s fine. What you should bear in mind is that as I write this, 400 or so players are doing exactly this kind of analysis and making exactly these kind of assumptions. The conclusions they come to shouldn’t blind us to the importance of the process that leads to these conclusions. Even if Dredge gets destroyed, the above will stand. After all, I can either tell you why I was right, or I can tell you what went wrong. I win either way, and that’s more than all but one of the Pros can say!
What a strange day. The rumor mill always goes into overdrive as the players arrive at the venue in dribs and drabs, the pace accelerating towards the eve-of-PT Players Party and registration for the event itself. If you remember to close your mouth and open your ears, something that plenty of Magic players can’t seem to manage, you can pretty quickly get a feel for what the metagame is doing. Not this time. First out of the gates in the rumors for hire camp was that Affinity was on the up. Sure, Disciple of the Vault had gone, but Cranial Plating was still going to do unfair things come Friday. Next up to strut its credentials was Goblins. Turn 1 Prospector, turn 2 Goblin Warchief, turn 3 Mogg War Marshal, Goblin Piledriver, Goblin Piledriver, kill you. The way it was being sold, you’d think this was happening every game. Meanwhile, the big shift was all about Combo. Everyone knew that some version of Dredge was the strongest deck, at least in the abstract. Everyone also knew how much hate was available. What nobody knew for sure was just how much hate would get run. As a result, many Combo players were looking for an alternative that didn’t care about irritating Leylines, Crypts, or Jailers. Step forward Enduring Ideal, a deck championed by the German super-test group, and also heavily favored by certain Dutchies. The trouble is, many of the players still want to play Dredge. They want to play the strongest deck. They want to believe that the hate will be only in the sideboard, and that it will not be enough. What they want is omniscience, and they’re not going to get it, at least until it’s too late.
In 20 years time, Pro Tour : Valencia will be the answer to the following trivia question:
Which PT had the largest number of undefeated players after Day 1?
Of course, if there are supplementary points up for grabs, you might want to mention that there were more than 400 undefeated players – for the first time in history, a day at the PT was lost to the weather. The freak storm that had already enveloped a local shopping mall by 10pm last night continued with astounding ferocity, and by 3am the unprecedented announcement was up on MagictheGathering.com. I’ve spent the morning at the venue, which was under a foot of water less than twelve hours ago. I’ve turned hundreds of players away, with no more to give them than that Wizards are trying everything humanly possible to make sure this event exists at all. Believe me when I say it’s in serious doubt. Also believe me when I say that the phrase “round the clock” has rarely been better applied than to the Herculean efforts of the staff here to get the job done.
We’re saved! If God exists, he clearly watches the PT, as getting the venue in a fit state for an abbreviated two-day PT special is nothing short of miraculous. We’re going to run ten rounds of Swiss on Saturday, and then three more on Sunday morning before the Top 8. That means that in total we only lose three rounds of Swiss, and it also means that relatively few players will be involved in the Sunday morning carve-up. This, it turns out, is a pretty essential part of the calculations, as many players have their flights booked for Sunday, and would normally only change them if they were in to the Top 8. Having been privileged to sit in on many of the discussions that determined the outcome of this logistical nightmare, I cannot emphasise enough how good at their jobs these people are. The Pro Tour is an absolute monolith of organisational necessity, and it’s in the best hands imaginable.
As I look out from the Coverage Room, hundreds of players are streaming back into the venue for an evening of Super Friday Night Magic and assorted drafting goodness. Incredible. It’s enough to make you think about cards again.
Well, that was quite a day. Ten rounds of Swiss seem to have made a proper difference to people. Although Grand Prix days go very long, most of the Pros have byes, so generally don’t start playing in earnest until 1-2pm. Here, they started at 9am, and were facing the elimination shootout matches through much of the afternoon and long into the evening. This schedule tended to favor the non-interactive decks that attempted to do their thing in as much isolation as they could, often generating quick “free” wins with their “oops, I’ve found a Shuko” or “oops, double Piledriver” or even “oops, triple Lotus Bloom resolves.” Meanwhile, the players who had decided to be “fair” in their deck choice, like the Gifts Rock cohort, were engaged in genuine Magical duels throughout the day. On the plus side, this meant that they were almost guaranteed to be able to influence the outcome of the match at some stage, and if you don’t like feeling helpless, that’s a good thing. On a stamina front however, it’s not so clever, and as a coverage team we saw things on the back end of play today that we really wouldn’t expect. Amongst the highlights was the player who managed to rearrange the top of his library with Sensei’s Divining Top to set up his Erratic Explosion kill, only to take sixteen damage when his Dark Confidant revealed Draco. Oops.
It’s unclear at this stage whether the revised schedule is likely to change the quality of the Top 8, but it is apparent that the players at the top of the Player of the Year race have had a hideous day at the office. Tomaharu Saitou – out. Kenji Tsumura – out. Shingou Kurihara – out, in the most comprehensive 0-4 fashion. Raphael Levy – out. Only Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, sneaking in on 7-3, made it to Day 2 of the top five. This leaves the way open tomorrow for someone from further down the field, say a Paul Cheon or Shuuhei Nakamura, to cash in on a massive 25 points that would catapult them back into the heart of the race.
Meanwhile, highlight of the weekend so far occurred about an hour ago. I’m out for dinner with Head Developer Devin Low, Pro Tour Historian Brian David-Marshall, and European Grand Prix Coverage man Dave Sutcliffe. We have no Spanish, and our Spanish waiter has no English. Still, the restaurant clearly caters for Brits, because we’re given an English menu. Nice. We decide to order four appetiser platters – the cheese board, the meat board, the smoked salmon, and the pate platter. About half an hour later a prawn cocktail arrives and a small plate of cheese, plus roughly a third of a baguette. We look puzzled, and decide there must be some Spanish custom where you get the things basically one at a time, so we demolish the meagre fare and wait expectantly. And wait. And wait. Eventually, the waiter returns and clears everything away. Now we’re really puzzled. The manager is called. We explain that we ordered 4 items, and as BDM puts it, got 1.3 of them. She shrugs and says that he doesn’t understand English but that we only ordered two items. This is of course untrue, and BDM explains that we didn’t just say what we wanted, we pointed at everything too and he wrote it all down.
BDM: “Doesn’t he understand pointing?”
Manager: “No, he not understand pointing.”
Time for a McDonalds.
So we have one of the youngest Pro Tour champions, Remi Fortier from France. He’s sixteen and a sweet guy. The pressure was threatening to flatten him during the Top 8, but he managed to hold it together just enough to get himself over the line. Andre Mueller, a man I have a great deal of time for due to his talkative nature, lost precisely once all weekend before the finals. His Enduring Ideal deck was ultimately the Combo deck of choice, the German testing machine narrowly beating the Norwegians led by Oyvind Andersen with their Cephalid Breakfast/Life deck, more of which in next week’s instalment. The Top 8 field was varied enough for anyone’s taste, with Affinity against Ideal, Gifts Rock decks, UW Tron, Red Deck Wins, plus plenty more archetypes beyond the live show. It’s been a memorable weekend in more ways than one here in what eventually became Sunny Spain. Now it’s time to head for the airport along with sixteen of the biggest names in Magic, and start preparing for the Magic Invitational, coming your way from Wednesday through to Sunday next week.
Thanks for reading,