The Dragonmaster’s Lair – My Grand Prix: Oakland Report

SCG Open Richmond!

Friday, February 19th – The recent Extended Grand Prix in Oakland showcased that the format is incredibly healthy. Brian Kibler, winner of the Extended Pro Tour in Austin, picked the Zoo strategy once more, but found that the format had evolved in response to the menacing menagerie. Today, he shares his thoughts on the strategy going forward, along with a report on his performance…

This past weekend was Grand Prix: Oakland, and while my performance there was lackluster at best, playing in the event left me excited for upcoming Extended tournaments. Despite the supposed dominance of Thopter Depths going into the event, the Top 8 had a remarkable seven different decks, with only Zoo fielding more than one representative in the elimination rounds. Yes, four of the seven were combo decks of some kind, but that just goes to show that Extended is a format in which there’s all kinds of cool things you can do.

For my own part, I played Zoo, after a failed attempt to make the B/G Smallpox deck I mentioned in my last article run quite how I wanted. The B/G deck just felt underpowered. Smallpox was powerful in certain draws, but it was often actually too slow against Zoo if they played first and had multiple one-drops. The rest of the deck was somewhat slow and clunky and didn’t really feel like it had the same kind of inevitability that the G/B decks from last season had thanks to Life from the Loam. If your opponent killed your Dark Confidants, you didn’t really have an effective card drawing engine, so you could easily fall behind even when it seemed like you had a good handle on the game. With Knight of the Reliquary a staple in Zoo, G/B doesn’t even have a board-dominating creature, since Tarmogoyf is no longer the biggest body on the block. Ultimately, I gave up on the deck fairly quickly upon arriving in Oakland, and turned my attention toward finding the right build of Zoo.

My goal for Zoo was finding a build that performed well in the mirror and against Thopter Depths. I was tempted to just play my Pro Tour: Austin deck again, but I think Bant Charm is just too good not to play right now. Every mode of that card is not only relevant but extremely good in the current Extended metagame, and the popularity of the 4 Path, 4 Bant Charm Zoo build is enough to make Baneslayer Angel no longer a pure trump in the mirror, so I decided to leave my Punishing Fires at home and stick to only a single Angel in my sideboard.

I still needed to find a way to win the mirror, however, even if it wasn’t the queen herself. There are two stages to any Zoo-on-Zoo matchup. There is the early game, where Wild Nacatl rules and Kird Apes and Loam Lions can still have impact on the game, and then there is the mid-late game, in which everything is defined by big creatures. The struggle is to find the balance between winning each of these stages of the game. The fastest versions of Zoo try to close the game before the big creatures can take over. They use a high count of both one-drops and burn spells to pressure the opponent’s life total, so they often only need one removal spell for a Tarmogoyf or Knight of the Reliquary to force enough damage through.

The other approach to Zoo-on-Zoo action is to go bigger, meaning that your plan is to play more individually powerful cards and try to slow the game down so they can take over. Generally speaking, if one player’s draw isn’t drastically better than the other, games between Zoo decks come to something of a standstill when the big creatures start coming down. The big Zoo decks try to have more cards that are relevant during this stage of the game, which typically means just having more big creatures. Anyone who knows anything about my Magic career can probably guess that this is the approach that I decided to take in Oakland.

After some discussion with Brad Nelson and a few hours spent playing games and discussing the format with Ben Stark in the conference room of our hotel, this is the list I ended up playing (with the Damping Matrixes courtesy of Jason, who I met the night before the event in the conference room. If you’re reading this Jason — I couldn’t find you on Sunday to give your cards back, so get in touch with me and let me know how I can get them to you. Thanks again!)

The decklist is fairly straightforward. I went with Woolly Thoctars as the compromise between speed and size. Thoctar is big enough to compete with Tarmogoyf in combat and fast enough so as not to be embarrassing against combo decks. The two maindeck Negates are a nod to just how combo-heavy the format is, and they can win games that would be otherwise impossible against Scapeshift, Hypergenesis, etc. Interestingly, based on the way that Zoo mirrors often work, they’re actually not terrible in that matchup, since protecting a fatty from Path or Bant Charm can easily make the difference in the later stage of the game.

With my attention focused on Standard with the Pro Tour coming up in that format, I didn’t do a tremendous amount of Extended testing, so my sideboard in particular was a bit off from what I would have liked in retrospect. I didn’t have enough room to go up to four Negates against pretty much any deck, so I could have made space for another sideboard card there. It’s not clear to me whether Baneslayer is the best sideboard card for the Zoo mirror because it can easily be answered by a single removal spell, whereas Ranger of Eos can help grind out an attrition war. I played Baneslayer at the GP more because I felt like playing with Baneslayer than anything else, and it was certainly good, but I’m not convinced it’s the best choice.

My tournament experience was relatively uneventful. In the first round after my byes I faced Todd Anderson, who was also playing Zoo. In the first game I kept a hand with two Knight of the Reliquary and only one fetch land and didn’t draw another in my first two draw steps, so I decided to hold off on playing a Boltable Knight. I played out Elspeth on my fourth turn, which traded with two burn spells, which meant the coast was clear for my Knights to come down. The first one I was able to protect from Path with a Negate, but Todd had a Bant Charm, and then another for my second Knight. I failed to draw any more spells for the rest of the game and died an embarrassing death to a Kird Ape. The second game was similarly awkward, as I only had a Marsh Flats to fetch and had to get Temple Garden to play Wild Nacatl and my Noble Hierarchs. I didn’t draw another fetch land or Red source until the last turn of the game, when I died with Todd at one life after beats from my undersized Nacatl.

In the fifth round, I played against a Bant deck, and my Woolly Thoctars outsized his Rhox War Monks and took the match. I lost my next match to a Dark Depths player who literally had the nut draw both games — Urborg, Thoughtsieze, Dark Depths, Vampire Hexmage. In the second game I was able to muster a Meddling Mage to slow him down for a turn and force him to Deathmark it, but otherwise I didn’t interact with him in any way and just ate the business end of a Marit Lage two games straight.

In round 7 I played against a B/W brew sporting Stoneforge Mystic. We played an incredibly long first game in which I fought back from a slow start but eventually died to an awkward mistake on my part. I was going to attack for the win the following turn but was relatively low in life and had a few blockers left up, but I tapped out including my Noble Hierarch to cast a Qasali Pridemage I had drawn. This left me with only white creatures available to block and my opponent drew a Sword of Light and Shadow, which was able to give one of his creatures evasion against my team to get in and kill me. I’d already seen a Sword out of him in the match, so I should have thought to play around it and leave up a non-white creature to chump block, especially since adding the Pridemage to the board did absolutely nothing. I won game 2 fairly convincingly, and we only had about four minutes left for game 3. Neither of us wanted a draw, so we were playing at absolutely lightning speed, announcing our fetch land targets and spells and passing the turn before we’d even put down our deck from searching. I managed to squeak it out without even going into extra turn on the back of a Jitte.

In the eighth round I played against another Zoo deck. In the first game my opponent triple mulliganed and obviously couldn’t put up much of a fight, but in the second game he got a fast draw with a Wild Nacatl and Qasali Pridemage putting a hurting on me quickly. I had a quick Woolly Thoctar, and debated blocking on his second attack, but decided to keep my fatty around since the rest of my hand . This turned out to be a poor judgment call, since my opponent’s hand had a pair of Tribal Flames that finished me off. In the third game it was my opponent’s turn to make a miscalculation, when he attacked his Wild Nacatl and Qasali Pridemage into my land-only Tarmogoyf. I Bant Charmed the incoming Nacatl and blocked the Pridemage, getting a quick two-for-one and clearing the board. Despite that, the game was still close, but I managed to pull it out, once again, thanks to Jitte.

This left the ninth and final round of day 1, in which I found myself paired against none other than Brian Kowal. When I saw my fellow BK walking up to the pairings board, I gave him the bad news — not only did we have to play for day 2, but we weren’t even featured! A travesty of justice if there ever was one. I knew that Kowal was playing essentially my PT Austin deck, since we’d talked about our lists going into the tournament. I felt the matchup was probably somewhat in my favor, since Bant Charm can win the big creature fight better than Punishing Fire can, but the advantage was slight if anything. The first game was going very much my way, as I came out quickly with a Wild Nacatl and Woolly Thoctar and was able to remove Kowal’s first few creatures, and I had an essentially insurmountable force in play with him at five life with no board. I knew he was playing a single maindeck Baneslayer Angel, and I was able to put him in a position that no other card could possibly win him the game, and sure enough there it is — the queen turned traitor on me! I couldn’t find a Bant Charm or Path, and Kowal’s deck served up a lot of action, with two Paths and a Jitte that teamed up with the Baneslayer to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

I think my sideboarding decisions for this match were somewhat interesting. In game 2, I sideboarded out all of my Lightning Bolts in addition to the usual anti-Zoo sideboard and brought in Meddling Mages. I felt like Lightning Bolt only really matters against a fast Wild Nacatl draw, and especially when I’m on the play that’s not really a threat. Meddling Mage can name Punishing Fire and hamstring what is essentially that version of the deck’s main weapon in the matchup, and while it can be easily removed by the other removal spells in the deck, it can force awkward plays and protect my other creatures in the meantime.

Sure enough, in game 2 I was able to get out some early creatures and a Meddling Mage to protect them from Punishing Fire. I got a lot of early damage in before Kowal drew a Lightning Bolt to remove my Meddling Mage, and then at that point I was the one in a bad position. He had a Grove and two Punishing Fires and a ton of mana, so every turn I had to figure out ways to try to sneak damage in or force the use of his mana suboptimally by pressuring him with attacks. Amusingly enough, what ultimately broke through the Punishing Fire recursion was when I drew my own singleton Baneslayer that was out of reach of double Fire. One attack — backed by Elspeth — closed the game out.

After those two games, the third was sadly rather anticlimactic. Kowal got a fast draw with Wild Nacatl and multiple Tarmogoyfs, while I was only able to muster a single fatty, which he killed, and an Elspeth, which couldn’t defend either herself or me well enough to keep us in the game. Just like that my Grand Prix was over. Thankfully, Kowal managed to parlay beating me into a Top 16 finish, qualifying him for San Juan. I’m glad if I had to lose it could be to someone who needs to qualify and really deserves it.

Ultimately I liked my deck, but I think going bigger might not really be the answer anymore. With Bant Charm now a staple in Zoo, you just don’t get the same edge out of having big creatures. The Wild Nacatl into Loam Lion plus Kird Ape draw backed up with removal for your fatty beats up on Woolly Thoctar and Baneslayer Angel alike. Additionally, the one-drops versions are better against combo decks since they can put a ton of pressure on very quickly and finish them off with burn. I think if I were to play Zoo again, I’d probably go back to something more like the list I posted in my article last week, probably with both Kird Ape and Loam Lion plus Ranger of Eos to win the attrition war in the mirror while preserving the chance for the super aggressive blowout draws.

There’s a lot of other options out there for Extended besides Zoo, and I certainly saw a number of decks at the Grand Prix that got me very excited about the prospect of playing more of the format. I’m considering attending some of the upcoming Asian Grands Prix, depending on my results at PT: San Diego, so I’m sure I’ll be doing some brewing in the upcoming weeks. Speaking of the Pro Tour — as of the writing of this, I still don’t know exactly what I’m playing and the PT is mere days away, so I need to get back to my playtesting. To give you a taste of what to expect to see this weekend — Jace is the real deal, Jund is still the sickness (in part because of how well it can fight Jace), and I’m terrified of the rumors I’ve heard about some kind of bonkers Ally deck that the Japanese have allegedly put together. We shall see. Wish me luck!

Until next time.