This is the fourth in a series of articles looking at Extended seasons past. All Extended seasons are, at least initially, defined by the previous season. This season, however, was close to starting anew, since Wizards had announced a set rotation and cards critical to almost all the previous Tier one decks were no longer legal. It also means that most of the decks that premiered this season are still being played.
A quick Summary of the Season
Legal sets: Tempest block through Onslaught (ROTATION!!)
Pro Tour Kick-off: Pro Tour Houston, Nov. 2002
The Defining Decks: Oath, Psychatog, U/G Madness, Reanimator, Red Deck Wins 2k2, Goblins
New for the Season:: almost everything
The Season Begins
Pro Tour Houston had, because of the rotation, very few holdover decks, but some of the power cards were still viable. Oath of Druids was (and is) brutal against any creature-based deck. Entomb was good again, since Phyrexian Furnace had rotated out. Duress was still Duress, and Pernicious Deed was still the best board sweeper around. Beyond that, however, the format was unclear.
Justin Gary won the Pro Tour with an Oath of Druids deck. Since Gaea’s Blessing had rotated out the deck could no longer shuffle its graveyard back into its library, but Oath still cheated mana costs to get a fat creature into play quickly. In this case, Gary opted to put a Cognivore into play, which made all the other cards that were milled away relevant. In addition to the Cognivore, the deck ran the expected mix of counterspells, card drawing and Pernicious Deeds. Some Treetop Villages provided an alternative path to victory. Although Turbo Oath did win the Pro Tour, it never had as much success on the PTQ circuit, at least not once players started running bounce.
With Phyrexian Furnace and Swords to Plowshares gone, Team Your Move Games once again* worked on Reanimator decks running Entomb. The ability to put the fattie of your choice into the graveyard turn one and bring it into play on turn two is always potent. The addition of cards like Faceless Butcher provided creature removal, and Petradon ensured that mana screwed opponents could not recover. The Reanimator decks remained strong until Entomb was eventually banned. John Larkin also made T8 with a similar deck, but one playing Blue for Careful Study. Later in the season, the Blue versions found Rushing River to be important as a method of bouncing problematic permanents, such as Ensnaring Bridge or Worship.
When the rotation was announced, many Rock players, including me, questioned whether the Rock could survive the loss of Wall of Roots and Bayous. The sets introduced after the rotation, however, were very kind to the archetype. Llanowar Wastes replaced Bayous, and Cabal Therapy plus the various Edicts provided enough control elements for a depleted creature suite, together with Treetop Villages, to remain viable. Living Wish, Haunting Echoes, Ravenous Baloth, Naturalize and Genesis all found places in the deck; indeed, the Rock got more gifts from the new sets than most other archetypes could dream of. Both Darwin Kastle and Jeroen Remie took slightly different versions of The Rock to the T8.
Pro Tour: Houston marked the first time that Psychatog was legal in a major Extended tourney, and Dr. Teeth showed what he could do in taking a Top 8 slot. This early version looks fairly similar to everything played since, excepting only those ‘Tog decks that splashed Red for Fire / Ice. The deck is also missing Smother at this point (since it predates other ‘Tog and U/G Madness decks), and doesn’t have “tech” cards like Shadow Rift and Corpse Dance, but other ‘Tog decks were playing the Cunning Wish / Corpse Dance / “surprise, you’re dead” combo at the PT.
Aluren was another archetype that has been around for a couple years, but lost some critical pieces in the rotation. It no longer had the ability to generate infinite mana by bouncing Wall of Roots, so it did it using Cavern Harpy and Cloud of Fairies. The new sets had also been good to Aluren, adding Wirewood Savage (Cavern Harpy is a Beast), Cabal Therapy, Living Wish, fetchlands and Grand Coliseum. With Aluren in play, Cavern Harpy and Wirewood Savage can draw the deck, gain infinite life with Soul Warden, get infinite mana with Cloud of Fairies and then win with Stroke of Genius. Cabal Therapy strips out any answers before attempting the Stroke. If Stroke isn’t working, the deck can also cast and gate Maggot Carrier 20 times, killing the opponent.
Bob Maher, Jr., made Top 8 with a deck he was given, quite literally, the night before. Some Dutch players offered it to him in return for a prize split which paid off for them all. Angry Ghoul uses both traditional Reanimator techniques and Hermit Druid to mill the entire library, then Exhume a Hasty Sutured Ghoul (Haste because Anger is in the graveyard) which is generally at least a 20/20 trampler. The deck does this, quite often, on turn 2. This deck also spawned one of the all-time great “Welcome to the Pro Tour” stories. Bob Maher was paired up against a first time PT player, and Bob opened with Swamp, Entomb Verdant Force, Mox Diamond, Reanimate, go. How would you like to begin your first Pro Tour against The Great One with a Verdant Force in play – all before you even begin your first turn?
The Season Develops:
Usually the beginning of the PTQ season looks a lot like the Pro Tour, but this season was a bit different. The season kicked off with GP: Reims, which had a very different set of decks. Reims features a lot of small, fast creatures. Goblins arrived, along with Psychatog, Blue/White Weenie featuring Meddling Mage, Suicide Black, Red Deck Wins 2k2 and U/G Madness. The Reanimator, Rock and Oath decks that defined the Pro Tour did not show well. Draco-Explosion had been laughed off in Pro Tour coverage, but it actually made T8 at Reims, and very occasionally at a PTQ thereafter.
The classic Red strategy is to beat with cheap, fast creatures, then Fireblast for the win. Well, the deck didn’t have Fireblast anymore, but it had Reckless Abandon and even more great creatures. Goblin Lackey, Goblin Piledriver, lots more goblins and a bit of burn was still powerful. Goblin Piledriver is also pro-Blue, making Cognivores and Morphlings less exciting. Ensnaring Bridge was tech against Reanimator then and now.
In addition to the traditional Red Goblins approach, a new Red deck was making inroads. Red Deck Wins 2k2 introduced the concept of using fetchlands to thin the deck, and – more importantly – to fuel Grim Lavamancer. Coupling that with cheap, fast creatures and plenty of burn makes for a very fast deck, then and now. (Note: I’m not going to say much about this deck. I’m not a Red mage. Dan Paskins is, and he has written about Red Deck Wins recently. Read him – he’s the expert.)
Suicide Black did make Top 8, but this was not the T8 that the pilot would have chosen. Suicide Black (which has to rely on Phyrexian Negator) has almost no chance against burn decks. That problem dogged the deck throughout the qualifiers: it had game against everything except red, and red was common enough that the deck just couldn’t get it done. I’m also not sure why this version didn’t have Nantuko Shades.
As in the previous season, White Weenie with Meddling Mage and Brainstorm made an occasional showing at PTQs and GPs. Topple was pretty good against Reanimator and Oath – as is Meddling Mage. White Weenie had a bit more problem against Rock, since Pernicious Deed pretty much wiped it out. ‘Tog could also be a problem, since nothing in the deck prevents Upheaval, except for a Meddling Mage naming Upheaval and living, or killing the ‘Tog player first. Note however, the Seals of Removal in the sideboard. A lot of decks were beginning to run cheap bounce, which really hurt the Reanimator decks. Gilded Drake is also anti-Reanimator tech – and could occasionally steal a Spiritmonger as well.
Okay, here’s Draco Explosion. The combo is pretty easy to resolve quickly, and a lot of decks took enough painland damage to make it lethal, or lethal with a Fire/Ice to the dome. However, the deck was never as solid as even combo decks like Mind’s Desire, much less Trix. Moreover, if you pulled and swapped some of the strange painlands, and traded the Dracos for Psychatogs and Explosions for real cards, you got a better deck.
The Fiends deck was a metagame call, but a pretty good one. Meddling Mage is good against every deck, provided you know the metagame. The same is true of Cabal Therapy, and Duress is fine against everything except maybe Goblins. Phyrexian Negator is bad against burn, but solid in a metagame with a lot of control. Spectral Lynx is a beating against Rock, provided the opponent doesn’t have Smother. I never had any success testing this deck, but it did qualify people here and there.
Okay, now we move on to a real powerhouse deck. Psychatog was a defining element of the metagame from the Pro Tour onwards. The deck came on two different versions: straight U/B and a version splashing red for Fire/Ice and maybe FTK sideboard. Mike Pustilink made T8 at GP: New Orleans with a version that ran Pyroclasm maindeck to handle Red decks and White Weenie. This U/B version does have all the sideboard options, including Shadow Rift to provide evasion and Corpse Dance in case the a Tog was countered or destroyed.
2 Coffin Purge
1 Corpse Dance
2 Deep Analysis
1 Dust Bowl
3 Engineered Plague
1 Fact or Fiction
1 Mana Short
1 Mystical Tutor
1 Shadow Rift
Grand Prix: New Orleans was a return to a more “normal,” or at least more expected, environment. By that point, the metagame was shaping up around five decks: RDW2k2, Rock, Tog, Oath (either Gary Oath or with Phantom Nishoba and Battlefield Scrounger) and U/G Madness. New Orleans saw 60 different archetypes played, with the main ones breaking down as follows:
1) The Rock (68)
2) U/G Madness (60)
3) Psychatog (37)
4) Oath (33)
5) Red Deck Wins (22)
6) Aluren (10)
6) Benzo (10)
8) U/G Opposition (9)
9) Ghoul Burst (8) (Academy Rector / Phyrexian Ghoul – see last article)
10) Draco/Explosion (7)
10) Suicide Black (7)
10) White Weenie (7)
13) Angry Hermit Part Two (6)
13) Counterburn (6)
13) Fiends (6)
13) Sligh (6)
and on and on. The Top 8 had eight different decks, including Three Color Tog, U/G Madness, Tinker ( throwback to 2000), Angry Hermit (v2.0), Red Deck Wins 2k2, and a U/B Tog deck. Zvi won the GP with an updated version of Turboland (a deck that no one but Zvi had much success with), while fans of creature beatdown decks could play around with Diego Ostrovich’s Elves!!
The final GP of the season occurred in Hiroshima, Japan. It featured a fairly stock Aluren deck and two Red Deck Wins variants. The other decks included a throwback to the Masters and a rogue archetype that has appeared, in various versions, year after year.
The throwback is a relatively typical pre-Mirrodin Tinker deck. It can generate obscene amounts of mana using Metalworker and Voltaic Key, or Key with Grim Monoliths and Thran Dynamos. The deck also had lots of answers to Tinker for, like Mishra’s Helix to lock up lands, Crumbling Sanctuary against beatdown decks and Phyrexian Processor to create large attackers. Upheaval and Stroke are both pretty brutal in a deck that can generate this kind of mana advantage. Bob Maher had used a similar deck to win the Masters, prior to the season, so it was hardly a secret, but it didn’t have a lot of success. It did win a few PTQs here and there.
4 Voltaic Key
4 Grim Monolith
4 Thran Dynamo
3 Stroke of Genius
3 Tangle Wire
1 Crumbling Sanctuary
1 Mishra’s Helix
1 Planar Portal
1 Phyrexian Processor
The next deck, Two Deuce, was named after the old Three Deuce designs of past seasons, but it didn’t really have that much in common. Three Deuce was more disruptive and controlish. Two Deuce was really Red Deck Wins with a splash of Green for some good creatures (River Boa and Treetop Village against Blue, FTK against Rock, Baloth against RDW and ‘Tog), and Naturalize against Oath. Although Dan Paskins preaches against polluting RDW with other colors, it might be worth looking at this archetype for the current season. It definitely dodges some sideboard hate, like CoP: Red and Chill. It is an open question, however, as to whether you can find sideboard room for stuff like Pyrostatic Pillar against Desire or Sulfuric Vortex against Life in a two-color build.
The next deck in the GP T8, and the deck which won the tournament, was an Enchantress variant. I have not mentioned Enchantress much, but it has hovered around the edges of the format ever since Argothian Enchantress appeared in Saga block. Mike Hron made T32 at the Pro Tour with an Auratog-based Enchantress. JJ Stors wrote about Enchantress a lot, and made several PTQ T8 – and eventually qualified – with Enchantress builds. There are, however, at least five different ways of building Enchantress, and it is probably worth an article in itself. For now, I’ll just include the GP decklist. This one wins either by bouncing all of an opponent’s permanents (using Words of Wind while bouncing something like Exploration and Serra’s Sanctum) or by generating obscene amounts of mana by bouncing and recasting Cloud of Fairies to untap a land like Serra’s Sanctum or one enchanted with Fertile Ground / Wild Growth, and then milling the opponent with Ambassador Laquatus.
The final deck of the GP T8 was a modified Reanimator deck that splashed Green for Pernicious Deed and Call of the Herd. It also had a piece of tech that was fairly brutal against a number of decks – the Nether Spirit / Contamination lock. Entombing a Nether Spirit was often a good turn 1 play. It let you flash back Cabal Therapy as early as turn 2, could lock out an opponent’s mana with Contamination, and provided a perpetual blocker, if necessary. Pernicious Deed was also quite good against the decks that dominated Reims – Goblins, RDW2k2, Fiends and suicide black. Deed could even kill a ‘Tog, provided they didn’t Upheaval.
End of Season
The qualifier season ended with a lot of fast decks, but nothing completely insane. Red decks were powerful. U/G Madness and Tog decks were winning. Rock had Pernicious Deed and a lot of discard, which really hammered decks like Enchantress, but Rock had a tough matchup against some of the others. Oath was still brutal against any deck relying on creatures that lived longer than the end of turn.
The format survived until Worlds. Worlds, however, introduced a series of insanely fast combo decks. Randy Buehler described the format as “Win by turn 3 or mulligan until you can.” The DCI had to take action, and it banned Entomb, Goblin Lackey and Frantic Search. It did not ban Tinker. That lead to the insanity that was Pro Tour Tinker, but that is the topic for the next article.
* See the previous articles on past years for other Entomb-based decks.