Pro Tour: Houston is the first major event to be affected by the November 1st Extended Rotation, and the first time that pro-level players would demonstrate how the changes to the environment influenced their deck building in the most savage of arenas.
The results offer us insight into the upcoming Extended qualifier season and the evolving metagame.
There were two major changes to the Extended format – which I’ll explain on the off chance that someone reading this doesn’t follow Extended. While players are used to cards rotating out of Standard at a predictable and constant rate, the changes to Extended were very major… And for many people, came completely out of the blue.
The loss of dual lands has more of an effect than just making multiple colours a bit less playable: As has been well-documented, specific land type effects such as Tithe or Land Grant can search for the dual lands with the respective basic land type those spells call for. No other lands have been (or likely) will be printed with these capabilities. Their loss destroys a number of major decks that were a force in the earlier incarnation of Extended.
Extended also lost the equivalent of an entire standard block in this rotation: Two full blocks and a basic set, 5th Edition – which was the last main set to print the trample and protection abilities, as well as the longtime favourites Incinerate, Winter Orb, and other power cards. Ice age block and Mirage block both took with their share of cards – from the format-defining Force of Will to the humble Granger Guildmage, most of the”top” decks were cut out.
Almost exactly a year ago Kai Budde won over Tomi Walamies at Pro Tour: New Orleans using the modernised, post-banning Trix deck. Darwin Kastle also top eight’d in that Pro tour. Onward to the modern day.
The top eight of Pro Tour: Houston contains several interesting decks. It’s saddening to note that Onslaught seems to have had little effect on the actual make up of those decks, with its primary additions being the Fetchlands and Wirewood Savage, which bumped up the power of the Aluren-based decks. This is a far cry from Odyssey – which many might say was the weaker overall set, but had powerful Flashback and Threshold mechanics.
Nevertheless, here are the top eight decks:
Number One – Justin Gary with Turbo-Oath
Number Two – Robert Dougherty with Mono black Reanimator
Number Three – Darwin Kastle with The Rock
Number Four – John Larkin with U/B Reanimator
Number Five – Peter Myrvig with Psychatog
Number Six – Jorstedt Matthias with Aluren
Number Seven – Bob Maher Jr. with Angry Ghoul
Number Eight – Jeroen Remie with The Rock
There’s a lot of variety in that listing: With seven different decks showing up in the top eight you can be encouraged that the New Extended is a lively enough format. It’s worth noting that there are three Reanimator decks up there – a deck that many said was the best in the format and met a field full of hate.
All three decks, though, carry out very different plans.
So what can we glean from the Top Eight decks? Who cares? There’s more decks than just those eight, and having sorted out, stared at, and generally gone over the top 32, there’s a lot more to the format than you will get from just the Top eight. But just for your notes, the top eight looks like this to me:
Aggro decks: None
Aggro-Control decks: I’ve heard of The Rock defined as a”Mid-ranged control deck based around card advantage.” While most people define Aggro control as a deck that puts a threat on the board and then controls the board while the threat deals out the pain, I think the Rock probably still sits in this group. That makes for two decks – both the Rock.
Control decks: Two (Psychatog and Oath)
Combo decks: Four – one Aluren and three variations on Reanimator. (I’m not really sure whether or not to put Reanimator decks as combo decks: Given, however, that Reanimator uses various Tutors to”assemble it’s pieces” and then puts its opponent on a short clock through them, it does feel pretty Comboish to me. Others may disagree – but then, where else would you put it?)
If you look at the top eight, you see a format dominated by decks that either win through rapidfire combos or win through various forms of card advantage over long games. You would probably assume that Sligh, Suicide Black, and other Aggro decks, didn’t do very well and won’t show up in the Pro Tours which will follow:
And then you look at the Top 32 decks. The picture changes pretty fast.
Number Nine – Kyle Rose with Psychatog
Number Ten – Nicolas Labarre with Suicide Black
Number Eleven – Matthew Ranks with Sligh
Number Twelve – Akira Asahara with Aluren
Number Thirteen – Jun Ishihara with The Rock
Number Fourteen – Dario Minieri with Suicide Black
Number Fifeteen – Eivind Nitter with Psychatog
Number Sixteen – Ruud Warmenhoven with Turbo Oath
Number Seventeen – Alex Bakopoulos with the Rock
Number Eighteen – Itaru Ishida with Psychatog
Number Nineteen – Markus Bell with U/B Reanimator
Number Twenty – Kamiel Cornelissen with Angry Ghoul
Number Twenty-One – Tomas Krejsa with The Rock
Number Twenty-Two – Rui Mariani with The Rock
Number Twenty-Three – Dirk Baberowski with U/B Reanimator
Number Twenty-Four – Jinpei Hassaku with Draco Explosion
Number Twenty-Five – Markus Joebstl with U/B Reanimator
Number Twenty-Six – Jeff Cunningham with U/G Madness
Number Twenty-Seven – Tuomas Kotiranta with Suicide Black
Number Twenty-Eight – Gab Tsang with The Rock
Number Twenty-Nine – Matt Linde with Psychatog
Number Thirty – Craig Stevenson with Sligh
Number Thirty-One – Mike Hron with Enchantress
Number Thirty-Two – Gabriel Carleton-Barnes with Psychatog
Read over the list, look at the decks, think on them for yourselves. Or you can just keep reading this article, which if you clicked on it, was probably your intention in the first place.
The first thing that springs to one’s mind is that Doctor Teeth sure didn’t stay down long. Well, he stayed down for… Well, not at all. Seemingly transferred from the now weak Standard blue right into the strong Extended blue, you can see an impact on the format by the plucky little devil. At six Psychatog decks in the top 32, Psychatog places second in the number of players who took him up there. Second only to the well-known Rock deck, which saw play in the previous extended qualifiers extensively.
The other thing you might notice is the presence of so much reanimation in the format. Reanimation gets a pretty big boost with the loss of Swords to Plowshares… But with the amount of hate in the format, you might not have expected Reanimator to do so well. The answer may simply be raw numbers, or it might be that the deck simply is very strong even in the face of Sligh decks packing Gilded Drake and so on.
So if you look over the top 32, you get a slightly different, but nevertheless lopsided picture (unless you consider Reanimator an Aggro deck, of course):
- Aggro: 5 (Suicide Black, Sligh)
- Aggro-Control: 8 (The Rock, U/G madness)
- Control: 8 (Psychatog, Oath)
- Combo: 11 (Reanimator, Angry Ghoul, Aluren, Enchantress, Draco Explosion)
However, if you take things differently, it all changes. For example, if you consider modern Enchantress more of an Aggro deck, and MonoB and U/B Reanimator an Aggro deck, the format looks more like this:
- Aggro: 11
- Aggro-Control: 8
- Control: 8
- Combo: 5
That depends on your viewpoints and how they relate to the workings of Reanimator decks, as well as Enchantress. The concept of a combo deck is usually”a deck which ends the game in one turn.” While sometimes this game ending motion can take a turn or two, most combo decks rotate around a rapid succession of action leading to victory.
Regardless of how you stand on that issue, the format is actually fairly divided between different deck types… And even within those decks, there is a lot of variety in the deckbuilding. Let’s take a look at those differences in the major archetypes.
As the most-played deck in the top 32, you’re going to be seeing a lot of The Rock in the coming weeks of qualifiers. The most expensive card in the deck is likely Spiritmonger – which, at about eight bucks at StarCity, isn’t even all that pricey. While there is a fair number of rares in most builds, only a few of them really go nuts in the rare department. This makes the Rock a fairly economical choice, with only Vampiric Tutor being expensive and out of play for a while. The Tutor is listed as more expensive than the ‘monger, but you can probably get them off people who quit a bit back or whatever.
Darwin Kastle’s deck is the highest-placed Rock deck. The build shows a lot of flexibility, running a couple of one-ofs: Dust Bowl, Chainer’s Edict, and Naturalize. Chainer’s Edict is likely there to add an additional edict effect against Reanimator, and Naturalize a call against Aluren combo decks. He also runs a single Living Wish, which allows him to access his sideboard when he needs it. There are five targets: Ravenous Baloth, Stronghold Taskmaster, Faceless Butcher, Masticore, Genesis, and Spiritmonger.
Once you look at Jeroen Remie version you can see an immediate difference between the two Rock decks. Remie uses fewer Tutors but another Wish, making it both more and less flexible. Remie also uses more creatures but drops the Diabolic Edicts, instead gaining access to Wall of Blossoms and Spike Feeder. His deck would seem to be more focused on defensive measures in the early game, and less about dealing with the Reanimator threat. Unlike Kastle’s deck, though, he has three (not one) Planar Void in his sideboard. He can also wish for Visara the Dreadful and Uktabi Orangutan.
There’s a lot of flexibility innate in the Rock’s make up. If you’re facing a field with a lot of aggro, you can add Spike Weaver, Spike Feeder, and Ravenous Baloth. Against Reanimator/tog decks, you can boost your Edict kill to a full eight, or your discard to include Duress and Cabal Therapy, while some players even so far as to add Mesmeric Fiends to the deck. You’re offered the ability to use living wish and a Wishable board, plus tutors, meaning even a small change of one card can be felt as long as you draw tutors / wishes. But the basic frame is usually as such:
1 Dust Bowl (a Tutor target, I imagine)
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Yavimaya Elder
2+ Vampiric Tutor
Remember, if you’re building Rock for qualifiers: There is generally more beatdown than control or combo at lower skill levels, so you may want to focus a touch more on kill/defense than the Pros did, and set up your sideboard to go after those decks in game two and three.
The cunning ‘Tog has endured almost a full year of Standard, spending most of the time as the deck to beat or the deck you absolutely have to beat. The ‘Tog itself is a frustrating creature, capable of pounding you to death in one hit with unerring certainty. Extended offers all but the very best of blue’s card drawing (lacking only Ancestral Recall).
Talking about Psychatog strategy is generally pointless – to be quite frank, Tog decks have been running around in Standard for the last year, and we all know them from playing against and with them quite a lot.
The deck is enhanced by the additions of some pretty scary cards. Accumulated Knowledge/Intuition is seen in a fair number of decks, and represents a fairly well-known combo utilised in last year’s Trix deck. In addition, a number of players discovered you could use Gush with Tog; this represents a +6.5 /+6.5 bonus to the tog, assuming you consume all cards added to your hand and placed in your graveyard. While that looks pretty powerful, Peter Myrvig did not utilise that combo. The next highest-placed Tog deck, however, did use three Gush.
Myrvig’s deck does not use main deck Diabolic Edicts or creature-specific bounce. His only true creature control cards are three Boomerangs (which also work against combo decks), and the ability to use Cunning Wish for Hibernation and Edict. This is a bit of a shift from what you’d expect; the man didn’t even run Duress!
There are three variants of Reanimator found in the top 32, and there are in fact several more sprinkled out over the pro tour. Most likely people will take their clues from the top eight, which actually does contain all three major variants. I list Reanimator, however, as a basic archetype regardless of which one it is.
Almost all Reanimator decks are based off the primary core of the deck:
4 Vampiric Tutor
That’s two reanimate effects, one disruption, and two tutors. All these cards are cheap and extremely powerful, if carrying with them a drawback. There is some variation in this core – for example, Bob Maher chose to run only two Reanimates. However, generally these decks run those twenty cards.
And then the variety hits. Of all the Reanimator decks, very few of them ran the same Reanimator targets. Verdant Force remains a favourite, likely because its ability thwarts the usage of Edicts to remove the Force. Multani shows up in a lot of decks, being (normally) the largest untargetable creature in the game. Other favourites seem to be Phantom Nishoba, Thrashing Wumpus, Visara, Wonder, and Symbiotic Wurm. None of these are all that surprising, they’re all very good at what they do.
The Angry Ghoul deck is based around Sutured Ghoul, Hermit Druid, and Anger, which makes its creature mix somewhat different than otherwise. Because it uses Hermit Druid, it runs Avatar of Woe over Visara, the Dreadful. This makes sense, since it’s pretty easy to get ten creatures in the graveyard when you’re packing Druid and only one basic land. So you can sometimes cast her as well as reanimate her.
In case you don’t know the combo, Angry Ghoul is capable of killing you on turn two by dropping a Mox Diamond and a land, then activating the Hermit Druid to mill all of your library (hence the ridiculous lands). Once you’ve got the mountain in play, Anger becomes active if it’s in your yard. You then Reanimate/Exhume a Sutured Ghoul, combine the pieces of your dead creature Voltron-style, and hopefully swing for the win. Because you already have a Hermit out, generally your opponent can’t Edict to stave off the Ghoul.
Mono black and Blue/Black Reanimator differ in colour, obviously. The blue lends Brainstorm and Careful Study, both of which help to get creatures in your hand you can’t hard cast other places that they can be cast from. Rob Dougherty mono black build, however, has additional disruption in the form of Last Rites and Cabal Therapy. The Last Rites obviously takes the place of the Careful Study (discarding fatties you didn’t want to draw), while Cabal Therapy may simply be meant to be used with Nether Spirit or Verdant Force’s Saproling tokens. When Therapy doesn’t cost you an another card to use, it’s so damn good.
Well, it’s so damn good to begin with.
Reanimator was heralded by many as the top deck in the format – and even with all the hate directed upon it by the masses of players, it still did place three players in the top eight – and took second place. That might be simply a matter of number of players wielding it, or maybe it really is all it’s cracked up to be. Expect to see a fair amount of it when you go to qualify, and have hate ready in your board at the very least.
Anyone who played during tempest era will remember Suicide Black either fondly or full of ire. Black weenie and its variants saw little success last year. People said that Black wasn’t playable without Dark Ritual, that it would always suck. Some people tried it; perhaps it won a qualifier or two, I don’t know.
There are three Suicide Black decks in the top 32. That doesn’t compare to the raw numbers of Reanimator, Tog, or Rock decks – but it doesn’t make Suicide Black look that bad this year, does it? Also, all three Suicide Black decks are fairly different in card makeup, although the basic theory is much the same.
Nicolas Labarre’s deck seems almost totally based around threats that don’t work too well when facing other beatdown decks, but work really well against everyone else. With only a single Shadow creature, he may simply not have expected to face much in the way of creature-on-creature battles. The deck is testament to disruption, though – four Duress, four Cabal Therapy, four Mesmeric Fiend, four Diabolic Edicts and a single Unmask makes for some pretty nasty monkey wrench throwing. The deck’s other creatures are generally the most efficient power/toughness for mana cost that black has to offer: Phyrexian Negator, Flesh Reaver, Carnophage, and Sarcomancy. He also runs Twisted Experiment, which is a strong bonus… But exactly why would someone run this over Sinister Strength? Twisted Experiment can kill Hermit Druid, which has some solid effects against Angry Ghoul decks.
The other two Suicide black decks cause Nantuko Shade, more Shadow creatures, and Skittering Skirge to appear. Mineri’s deck runs a full complement of Unmasks, with one less Cabal Therapy, while Kotiranta’s deck has less disruption with no Unmask and only 2 therapy. On the other hand, he does run Cursed Scroll main deck, which is surprising as a lot of people have said this card is too slow. I guess it isn’t anymore.
Both decks use Snuff Out, which is a good way of dealing with non-black fatties like Verdant Force or Phantom Nishoba. Better to take four damage once than to take a hit from either of those beasts. Snuff Out, however, is generally useless against The Rock, except for removing to Unmask.
Problem is, The Rock (to me) looks like Suicide Black’s worst matchup. From Pernicious Deed to Feeder to Baloth and so on, you get a lot of cards which slow up aggro decks, forcing them into a late game that Suicide Black just can’t be expected to consistently win. If both decks go into top deck mode, a Baloth or ‘Monger trumps just about everything Sui can play, and both of those will show up.
But, if you’re thinking your qualifier field presents a majority of Oath, Reanimator, and similar decks, Suicide Black has tons of disruption and a number of very solid creatures. Three in the top thirty-two is better than Sligh; heck, it’s actually better than Oath in that regard! *winks*
Sligh shows up at almost every event in almost any format. Red weenies plus burn is a long time standard since some guy showed up with Ironclaw Orcs in his deck and smashed face with it. There are two Sligh decks in the top 32 – however, one of them really doesn’t scream Sligh to me.
Matthew Ranks placed 11th with a Sligh deck that possesses a dedicated anti-Reanimator weapon: His deck splashes blue for Gilded Drake and Annul, which is likely for use against Aluren and Enchantress decks. He also runs maindeck Tangle Wire, which is one of the few remaining solid mana denial cards after the loss of Winter Orb. This is a direct change in Sligh theory, which was more or less”use all your mana, every turn.”
Craig Stevenson, on the other hand, plays a very standard Sligh deck. Sixteen one-drops, sixteen burn spells, Blistering Firecats and a lot of land, with the addition of fetchlands to smooth out late game draws. What is interesting is probably the sideboard, with its Ensnaring Bridges.
Sligh is a standardised deck archetype with long, old roots in the game. People will always try to use it in every environment that is produced – some times meeting with success, sometimes not. At qualifiers, of course, you will see a lot more Sligh than they did at the Pro Tour, and Sligh’s standings show that it can win… Which may spur a lot of players into playing it.
The Aluren deck is based around combining several creatures with mana cost 3 or less and Aluren to set off a massive, deck search/infinite recursion combo. There are multiple combos utilised to win with Aluren decks, providing some variety between those decks you might face.
The modern version of Aluren bounces a Cavern Harpy through its gating ability in and out of play. As Cavern Harpy is a beast, Wirewood Savage provides free card drawing. The Harpy returns to hand through its gating ability, meaning the three-card combo will allow an Aluren deck to draw through their deck easily. From there on, there are a pair of win conditions that Aluren uses:
Mattias Jorstedt’s Aluren deck gathers infinite mana by bouncing Cloud of Faeries with Cavern Harpy once it has Soul Warden on the table. Each time the Faeries enter play, they untap two lands. Then the deck uses its infinite mana to stroke the opponent out. If the opponent removes the Stroke, the deck can wish for Maggot Carrier and use that.
Maggot Carrier is the”normal” combo seen in Aluren decks. By recurring Maggot carrier and Cavern Harpy with Soul Warden on the table, you continue to gain life while your opponent slowly dies to the Maggot Carrier.
Akira Asahara used a third, also classic, win condition based around bouncing Rishadan Cutpurse to strip his opponent of permanents.
Aluren decks however, beyond their myriad of win conditions, do see a pretty firm amount of variety. While Mattias Jorstedt’s deck is more or less blue/green/black and uses Brainstorm and Intuition to dig deeper into his deck to find the combo components, Akira Asahara’s deck is green/white/black, using two tutor effects – Academy Rector and Eladamri’s Call.
The two Top 32 Aluren decks are actually radically different from each other, which makes it difficult to set out a core to the deck. Essentially, though, but both decks run:
3+ Cavern Harpy
3+ Wirewood Savage
1 Soul Warden
4 Cabal Therapy
Constructing an Aluren deck seems to be a matter of choosing which tutor effects and which win condition to use, and then filling in the rest of the deck in with disruption and defense to protect you while the combo goes off. The deck can, with the ideal draw, go off on turn 2. Since the deck will have no free mana to do so, it is not possible to tutor up such a draw – you have to actually pull the three-card combo in your hand, as well as the Hickory Woodlot.
Aluren provides a lot of options, though, so expect players to attempt other combinations in the future. The two decks that placed in the top 32 used very different tutors and disruption, decks you see during the qualifier season may be quite different from these.
Modernised Oath is a counter-spell, card-drawing-heavy deck which relies upon putting down a single horrifyingly mighty creature and then protecting that creature while it wins the game. While Oath looks a lot like Reanimator in that aspect, the makeup of the deck couldn’t be more different. Oath players don’t have to go through a song and dance to get to their fatty, they have cards to spare protecting the deck.
Two Oath decks made it to the Top 32; as is well known, Justin Gary won the whole deal with this deck. Given its limited penetration of the field, the fact that an Oath deck won will go a long way in a lot of people’s minds to redeem the mind trap that without Gaea’s Blessing, the deck can not win. This obviously isn’t true.
Those two Oath decks have difference in design, though: Justin Gary’s deck splashes black for Pernicious Deed, and uses Cognivore for his win condition. Cognivore is essentially immune to the effects of Pernicious Deed at eight mana, making it a solid card that needs only be protected from Snuff Out, Gilded Drake, and the Edicts. (Well, and Visara.) On the other hand, Ruud Warmenhoven runs two copies of two different creatures – two Phantom Nishobas and two Battlefield Scroungers. The Nishoba is a smaller and easier-to-disrupt win condition – but it’s also Spirit Linked, which can make it harder for a creature deck to race against. (Unless the Cognivore is straight-up 20/20.) Ruud chose not to run Pernicious Deed, instead going for three Powder Kegs maindeck.
Turbo Oath decks are a solid choice against creature decks, generally getting out a fatty through oath while being able to control the board through tremendous amounts of easy counter spells. This has been true for a very long time, though, so it’s nothing I should really bother to say.
Note that Justin Gary’s deck is another one that utilizes Living Wish. There’s a lot of Living Wishes being played at this tournament.
Remaining Archetypes And The Dominance Of Black
There are a number of other noteable decks in the top 32: An Enchantress deck, Draco-Explosion… But seeing as this article has gone on long enough and I don’t have multiple tournament-topping builds to compare, I’m not going to go into them right now.
A lot of people are going to complain about Houston’s deck lists. While it shows a lot of variety and interesting ideas, it also shows a lot of Duress, Cabal Therapy, and Vampiric Tutors… Which is to say that it shows a lot of black.
Black is going to naturally dominate in a format like this. It has speed, but above all it has the ability to effectively neutralise combo decks by performing pinpoint removal both on combo pieces in hand and in play. Disruption is king, and black isn’t the only colour to have disruption… But it’s so damn good at it.
As you build and test for the upcoming qualifiers, remember that. No matter how fast your deck is, if you can disrupt your opponent’s plan and force him to play on your battlefield, you’ll probably be able to win. Cards like Duress, Force Spike, Snuff Out, Diabolic Edict, or even Seal of Removal will be the kind of cards that dominate this format for a while to come – until the next”Miracle-Gro” deck arrives to warp the format. Remember, while the Pros may be some of the best deck builders out there, they don’t represent all the creativity and finesse of every Magic player on the planet. Someone will find something newer or better to take on this format’s weaknesses. The format is defined by disruption, and that presents just as much a strength to some decks as it does a weakness.
What I’m trying to say here is, while the format is currently defined by one colour, that colour is hopefully not going to define the format by the end of the season. It’s quite possible we’ll see changes and advancement. You might even be the one to break the format. All the people who mutter about how hopeless the format is and how they need to ban three to twelve cards are just not interested in winning… There were seven different decks in the top eight. Seven! That’s a lot of variety, and it shows health in the format, even though it was said it would be all combo.
Look at the top 32. Was it all combo? Was it even mostly combo?
One last, final note: The success of Your Move Games shouldn’t surprise anyone – and if it does, you’ve missed out on a fundamental point of Magic. You need a team and you need to practise. If you want to win qualifiers, and if you want to do well on the Pro Tour, you must test, practise, and understand the format. They did, obviously, and they won it all. What other conclusion is there to make from that?
Hopefully you’re looking forward to the qualifier season as much as I am,
Iain Telfer (Taeme)