The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Extended Decks For Grand Prix: Oakland

SCG Open Richmond!

Friday, February 12th – With both Grand Prix and Pro Tour tournaments looming large, testing time has been split across multiple formats. Even so, Brian Kibler is doing his best to bring down strong results at both events. Today, he shares his thoughts on the Extended metagame going into the Grand Prix, and suggests some powerful builds of established archetypes.

I have been quite busy gaming over the past few weeks, as both Pro Tour: San Diego and Grand Prix: Oakland are fast approaching. In fact, by the time most of you will read this, I’ll be on the road to NorCal to try to start this PT season off with a bang. While most of my playtesting has been focused on Standard for the upcoming Pro Tour, I have paid close attention to the results of the PTQs this season to try to get a handle on what to expect at the Grand Prix. Today I’m going to go through my thoughts on the most popular decks in the field, as well as my process for selecting decks in situations such as this when most of my playtesting time is devoted elsewhere.

Even before the new set entered the format, Extended underwent tremendous change since PT: Austin and the World Championships. In Austin, by far the most important deck in the field was Zoo. Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past few months, you know that the most popular and successful deck in the current metagame is the hybrid Thopter-Depths combo deck.

Originally developed by Gerry Thompson, this deck merges the two most powerful combos in the Extended format in one powerful and highly disruptive shell. While decks focusing on either the Dark Depths combo or Thopter-Sword had been successful in the past, each angle of attack was susceptible to particular answers that could easily shut it down. Ghost Quarter or Path to Exile alone was often enough to put an end to a thawed Marit Lage, while Extirpate could easily shut down Sword of the Meek. With both combos in the same deck, however, it becomes much more difficult for opponents to shut down both angles of attack, and with a plethora of discard, card drawing, and tutor effects, it’s easy enough to identify what direction you need to go and find the pieces necessary to get there.

While this deck has been tremendously successful, it is not a strict upgrade from the Austin era Dark Depths combo decks. The slots taken up by the additional combo pieces and card drawing have to come from somewhere, and in this case they have replaced many of the anti-beatdown cards in the deck. This new version has only a single copy of Engineered Explosives and Chalice of the Void, both crucial cards against the hyper aggressive Zoo decks that defined the field at PT: Austin. While the deck obviously has ways to search for these two artifacts, it seems unlikely that transmuting Tolaria West to find Engineered Explosives is anywhere near fast enough against a deck as aggressive as Tribal Zoo. If the results from Antoine Ruel and ManuB are to be believed, this shift to a slower, more controlling deck virtually cripples Dark Depths in the matchup against Zoo.

Between a shaky Zoo matchup and being the top dog coming into Oakland, this doesn’t look like the sort of deck I’m interested in playing at the Grand Prix. I like the fact that the deck has both raw power and a lot of flexibility, but I hate playing the deck that is touted to be the best in a given format. This isn’t due to any kind of deep desire to “Go Rogue” or anything of the sort, but rather because most of the time beating the top deck is firmly in the sights of anyone who shows up to a tournament. Sometimes the top deck is just that much better than everything else, but usually there are big enough chinks in any deck’s armor to bring it down. In just the past few weeks, I’ve heard everything from Damping Matrix to Night of Souls’ Betrayal to Crovax, Ascendant Hero tossed about as potential hate cards against Thopter Depths, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see every one of them show up at the Grand Prix. I’m sure Thopter Depths can find ways to beat these hate cards — after all, it’s a combo deck that is capable of assembling its pieces as quickly as turn 2, and it packs tons of disruption — but even so, I’d far prefer finding a deck that won’t be trying to dig out from under a mountain of hate every match.

The next obvious deck to look at is Zoo. Tribal Zoo has been only third most represented deck in PTQs, though I’m willing to bet the reason for that has a lot to do with how much of the current PTQ data comes from MTGO, where the manabase of a Zoo deck alone costs some exorbitant number of tickets to buy. Add to this the number of various ways to classify Zoo decks — Tribal Zoo, Saito Zoo, Rubin Zoo, etc — and just looking at a spreadsheet of results gives a somewhat skewed perspective of just how many people are attacking with Wild Nacatl this PTQ season.

All three of these lists won PTQs, and while they share a number of common cards, they’re fundamentally very different. This goes to show that the Zoo shell of Wild Nacatl and friends can be adapted successfully to a variety of strategies, from all out aggressive to midrange aggro-control, simply because it includes so many powerful cards that can play multiple roles. We first stumbled on the idea for the PT Austin deck in large part because we couldn’t find a better way to block a Wild Nacatl than a Wild Nacatl of our own.

Looking at both these lists and the metagame at large, I think it seems like the time for Baneslayer Angel is over. Not only has the field shifted somewhat away from Zoo and more toward combo decks like Thopter Depths against which Baneslayer is too slow and clunky, but even the Zoo decks are typically packing more than just Path to Exile to handle big creatures. The idea behind Baneslayers was that you would exhaust your opponent’s removal with Tarmogoyfs and Knight of the Reliquary, which would leave Baneslayer around to clean things up unhindered. With so many Zoo decks packing both Path and Bant Charm, or even Path, Charm, and Tribal Flames, the dream of the unanswered Baneslayer is that much less likely, and you’ll quite often either be stuck sitting with an awkwardly expensive Angel as your opponent goes off in your face, or finally get to five mana and just have the queen put on the bottom of your deck for UWG, or Tribal Flames’d out of the sky.

Zoo is definitely a deck I could see myself playing in this field. It’s a deck that has a lot of raw power and is consistently underestimated. People like to play tricky, complex decks like Thopter Depths or Mystical Teachings and the like, and often go extremely light on their anti-beatdown components, as we saw with the single Engineered Explosives in the list above. As Ben Rubin said when we were testing for Austin, this is a format in which not only do the beatdown decks have the advantage of speed and consistency over the control decks, but they actually get to play with the most powerful cards as well. Wild Nacatl, Tarmogoyf, Lightning Bolt, and Path to Exile are all cards that see play in some of the best decks in Legacy… how could they not be part of a dominant force in Extended, especially if people don’t pay them the proper respect?

If I were to play Zoo, this is roughly what I think my deck would look like:

This is only a rough sketch, since I haven’t really had a chance to playtest all of the choices here. The maindeck should be well set up for the mirror match, with the full set of Path, Charm, and Flames to remove troublesome big creatures, as well as Ranger of Eos to reload in an attrition fight. After Worlds, I became much less of a fan of Steppe Lynx in a land-light Zoo deck. It can certainly speed up your clock, but often it just makes your best draws better and your worse draws virtually unplayable. I’m not sold on switching to Loam Lion over Kird Ape, since Kird Ape plays so well with Stomping Ground, which is the land you almost universally want to fetch first to turn on Wild Nacatl and your Red spells anyway. Loam Lion also dies to Deathmark, which is non-trivial since so many people are sideboarding that card nowadays and you don’t want to give them the option of removing your Kird Ape clone on turn 1 if they happen to have it.

The sideboard here is, again, untested and untuned, but has most of the elements of what I’d want in a sideboard for this sort of deck. I still think Meddling Mage is an excellent sideboard card, in particular backed by Negate to protect it. Damping Matrix is obviously very powerful against Thopter Depths, but it’s exceptionally narrow, as well as expensive. I feel like the natural pressure from Zoo backed up by the disruption of Meddling Mage and Negate ought to be able to keep Thopter Depths on the backfoot without resorting to a full set of Matrix. Additionally, the Negates give you extra help against Threads of Disloyalty, Damnation, or whatever else they might bring in, while Matrix just looks stupid if they kill you with your own Tarmogoyf. But hey, at least they didn’t go off! One Matrix to keep them honest seems like enough alongside the rest of the package.

The next “top” deck I’m going to look at is Scapeshift. Frankly, it seems to me that Scapeshift just isn’t a very good deck. If you look at the PTQ results summary here, you’ll see that Scapeshift is the second most popular deck type reported (third, if you combine the Zoo decks), and yet has only taken home a single invitation. Now, this data isn’t easy to interpret, because it is based only on those decks that finished well enough to show up in the final results, and is also heavily weighted toward the Magic Online qualifier results, which have tremendous bias toward decks that are cheap to build online like Scapeshift and Burn. But one thing we can see from these results is that the average reported finish of Scapeshift decks is significantly worse than the other top decks. In fact, it has the worst reported average finish of all of the decks that are typically considered top contenders, with only Burn, Bant, Doran, and All-In Red posting worse finishes (of decks that anyone even talks about).

While I can understand the allure of Scapeshift, I would never play it, at least in any of the incarnations I’ve seen. On the face of it, the deck is a one-card combo — just cast Scapeshift and win — but that one card requires a shell built around it that includes any number of underpowered and narrow cards. Wood Elves? Coiling Oracle? Really? The G/R version is an anemic beatdown deck with a combo kill. I mean, I can get behind playing Punishing Fire, Tarmogoyf, and Grove in the same deck, but Bloodbraid Elf just doesn’t seem like the sort of card that competes the rest of the Extended format very well. It seems like a perfectly fine deck to beat Zoo, what with Kitchen Finks and the ability to just win with Scapeshift once the game is stalled (though even Zoo is packing Negate nowadays!), but Dredge? Dark Depths? Anything else? I’m just not buying it. There isn’t a chance you’ll catch me playing Scapeshift in Oakland, and I’d advise you stay away as well.

One combo deck that I do feel has some real potential that has been criminally overlooked is Elves. Most people assumed that the loss of Wirewood Symbiote and Birchlore Rangers meant that Elves was dead after the recent rotation, but it has returned with a vengeance. Do the names Jacob Van Lunen, Billy Moreno, and Chris Lachmann mean anything to you? They should, because they’re three former gravy trainers who staked their chances to get back on the tour on Elves. When so many top players are all leaning toward the same fringe deck — and having so much success with it (Jacob won a PTQ, Billy got 2nd, and Lachmann lost in Top 8) — it often means there’s something worth paying attention to.

I actually think a big part of why this deck hasn’t gotten much press is the fact that looping combo decks like this one are so nightmarish to play on Magic Online. It’s stressful to go through so many clicks on every combo cycle while watching the clock, and I’m certain that anyone who has played this deck in a PTQ has lost to either misclicking trying to get through their combo or timing out because they couldn’t go off fast enough. Live tournaments, thankfully, don’t have such restrictions, and Elves seems positioned to do well at GP: Oakland. It’s sufficiently under the radar that people are unlikely to have dedicated hate, although you may run into splash damage from things like Night of Souls’ Betrayal that people are packing against Thopter Depths. This is generally not the sort of deck I like to play, but it’s powerful enough and seems very well positioned given how well it’s managed to remain under the radar despite posting excellent results.

As for the sort of deck I do like to play…

Now this is a deck I can get behind. I don’t like all of the specific card choices or all of the numbers, but the basic concept is something I can appreciate. Smallpox is a card I’ve tried to get to work many, many times, but it’s rare that a format is as well suited for it as this one is now. Smallpox is extremely powerful against Zoo, putting pressure on their tight manabase and killing their creatures all in one, while also providing an excellent disruptive tool against the top combo deck in the format. Add to this Dark Confidant, one of the best card drawing engines in the format, and an array of solid creatures and disruption, and you have the sort of deck that I love. I qualified for Honolulu last year with Aggro Loam, and this feels very reminiscent of that deck for me.

The deck has a lot of powerful tools on top of Smallpox and Confidant. Thoughtseize has gotten much better as disruption since Hypergenesis and Dredge started to wane in popularity, since the combo decks in the format actually have key cards they need to keep in their hands to win, and Eternal Witness gives you that many more chances to pick your opponent’s grip apart — or anything else you might need to do again. Extirpate is just one of the best sideboard cards available right now.

I’m going to proxy this bad boy up and take it for a spin. I already have some ideas for changes — four Bloodghasts just seems like far too many, and I’m not even sure if I want the card at all despite its obvious synergies with Smallpox. Extended is a format where many of your cards need to be able to fill multiple roles, and Bloodghast is pretty single-minded in attacking (and being sacrificed to Smallpox, but that’s really narrow). I’m certainly going to try adding Knight of the Reliquary, since it seems like a fairly easy and natural fit that gives the deck some extra power, but it’s not clear if it’s better than anything else at the three-slot, and I don’t know if the deck would rather have Knight rather than one of the other three-drops. I’m sure I’ll be tinkering with it Friday night in Oakland, so if you’re looking for a battle I’ll be ready and willing.

If that fails, Wild Nacatl and I will be back for a reunion tour. Hope to see you there…

Until next time…