Thirst for Knowledge – Extended: The Home Stretch

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Wednesday, March 31st – At this time last year, I was fairly disappointed to see the Extended season come to an end. This year, however, I feel almost relieved. It isn’t that I actually enjoy Standard that much more at present, but rather that one can only see so many Wild Nacatls and 20/20s before he wants to hang himself.

At this time last year, I was fairly disappointed to see the Extended season come to an end. This year, however, I feel almost relieved. It isn’t that I actually enjoy Standard that much more at present, but rather that one can only see so many Wild Nacatls and 20/20s before he wants to hang himself. Now, sure — the same thing could be said for Bloodbraid Elf and Sprouting Thrinax, but with Rise of the Eldrazi just around the corner I feel like Standard will be quite a bit more interesting for the PTQ season this summer.

That being said, we can’t give up on Extended just yet. There are still two weeks of PTQs left, and it’s crunch time — what deck should you play, and how should you go about doing it? Rather than focus on a specific archetype this week, I’m going to suggest the small handful of decks that I would personally consider playing for the last leg of the season.

If you’ve been paying any attention to the format at all, you know that Extended is dominated by two distinct decks: Zoo decks and Thopter/Depths decks. Thopter/Depths more or less obsoletes most styles of play in Extended, as playing a deck that can’t beat its combo means you’ll stand little to no chance at any given PTQ. The Zoo deck, while having a positive match-up with most Depths decks, also gives lots of traditionally-powerful strategies (such as Faeries) a hard enough time that they too become poor choices to play. So what can you do if you don’t want to pilot either of the decks? Are there enough alternatives that actually work that could give you any sort of valid reason to play something other than one of these two decks?

The short answer is no, sadly. While there are lots of different styles of Zoo decks (and to some extent, lots of different lists for Depths), in the end they all share similar match-up percentages and function as a Zoo deck. The goal? Find which is the best against what you’re expecting, and tune it. To get a better understanding of this, let’s look at some Zoo decks, shall we?

This is a pretty stock “Bloodbraidless” Zoo deck from the Top 4 of a recent MTGO PTQ. Just like last season, it took us all season to include Woolly Thoctar in our lists, but he finally has started to make appearances and he’s just as huge as he was last year. These lists are more or less a style of “Rubin Zoo,” as they mostly eschew the lower curve in favor of bigger beaters and an overall higher threat density. Also surprisingly missing from these lists is Lightning Bolt, a card I am willing to bet no one would ever guess would be cut from any Red aggro deck in the Extended format. The bottom line, though, is that Helix is miles better in the mirror, and Bolt is primarily only “great” in the mirror in the first place. Bant Charm is a necessary evil that is required to have any kind of a shot against 20/20s and those pesky artifacts like Thopter Foundry and Umezawa’s Jitte.

The strengths of this particular list are rooted primarily in the fact that it is very consistent. In nearly every game you play, you’re going to execute the same plan and play the same creatures (though in some games you’ll play a Thoctar, whereas on others it’ll be a Knight). For an aggressive strategy, this is very desirable.

However, even when taking that into consideration, I don’t think this is the best way to play Zoo. Kyle Boggemes brewed up a powerful Boom/Bust version of the deck about a month ago or so for a PTQ, and he easily took it down. Kyle’s deck has been getting lots of play since then, and I personally would play it over any other aggressive strategy in the format. Here’s a recent list from MTGO:

Much has already been said about this style of Zoo, but I’m here to reinforce the fact that this deck is sick. Honnami moved Boom/Bust to his sideboard when he piloted this deck in Yokohama, but I’m of the belief that that is working a little backward. The best reason to sling Wild Nacatls in this manner is to kick the enemy while he is down, as combining an intense mana denial plan with the blistering speed of Zoo is simply too powerful to downplay. The two best decks in the format — Zoo and Dark Depths — rely very heavily on their manabase, and both Blood Moon and Bust make it exceedingly difficult for those decks to last very long against Zoo’s clock. Granted, by being the Zoo deck packing the Blood Moons itself, you lose a bit of luxury in that you can’t as reliably cast something like Lightning Helix (hence why Bolt takes the four-of slot in the maindeck), but the trade-off is more than worth it I feel.

Personally, this Zoo deck feels much more like a Haterator deck than a Zoo deck, but perhaps that is the best part about it — it does more than just turn guys sideways, and it is very difficult to beat if you’re the control deck. It’s bad enough that Zoo has 4/5s for two and 3/3s for one, but now they can randomly play 3/2 haste guys with a bonus Armageddon tagged on. I mean, think about that for a moment: the White Weenie decks of old used to play Armageddon to simply shut control decks out, and this deck can do the same thing except with a 3/2 hasted body! Granted, there is no way to ensure this outcome (as Bloodbraid is indeed random), but the potential value is insane.

The sideboard is my favorite part, though, but not because of the cards that are in it in this example but rather because of the sheer number of possibilities. I know that that is kind of a “well duh” statement, but remember what our maindeck looks like for a second: when your maindeck is designed to attack the metagame, just imagine what your sideboard can do! Herein lies the true power of this “archetype”: unlike the other “streamlined” Zoo decks, you don’t have to shift into a hate deck after sideboard. Instead, you can shift from an aggressive hate deck into a far more specialized hate deck after sideboarding. The little consistency that you give up in the maindeck in order to run Blood Moon and Boom/Bust is merely an afterthought when you consider the monster that you can make after game 1.

Do you want to totally obliterate Dark Depths? Leyline of the Void, Damping Matrix, Path, Ancient Grudge, etc will all allow you to do so. Want more for the mirror? Kitchen Finks, Wrath of God, Loxodon Hierarch, Jitte are only a thought away. You might not have the flexibility of playing Blue or Black cards like the Bant Charm versions do, but in the end I think completely denying Dark Depths of its game plan is more than worth it.

The third type of Zoo deck, Fast Zoo, isn’t really necessary to discuss in my opinion. Steppe Lynx, Kird Ape, and Loam Lion are all fine cards, but the speed just isn’t as good as Armageddon, Bant Charm, or Woolly Thoctar. After all, Engineered Explosives is still a card in this format until next year, and I for one don’t really want to keep losing to it (you can only slowroll so many one-drops before you give up the speed advantage that you sought in the first place). I think Jon Loucks came up with a really powerful deck when he added Scapeshift to this “Fast Zoo” shell, but even then I’m not sure that I’d rather have that then Boom/Bust or Bant Charm. I got opinions from lots of third parties on that deck, as I didn’t get to spend much time with it myself, but from what I can gather most players just went back to the other forms of Zoo instead. Still, I think that deck is pretty absurd if you play it well, and even more so if you forgo Valakut and just use Scapeshift as a Lynx/Geopede booster for the kill. I know I’m personally going to try that out for the rest of the week and see if it’s really better than Armageddon. I doubt it, though. Armageddon is pretty good.

Alright, so am I suggesting that you play Zoo? Yes, basically. I’m still going to talk about Dark Depths, but in the end if I had to give you my honest advice I’d say to just play Zoo. Thopter/Depths players may say that they have “great numbers” against Zoo, but in reality 95% of the time they don’t. Zoo is still going to be the favorite in almost every case, and that is personally too much evidence for me: why not play Zoo?

For starters, aggro isn’t for everyone. I’m not very good at it, for example, and as a result I always try to find ways around having to play it. That being said, if you’ve got a set of Dark Depths (lucky you), then you definitely should consider playing it. You certainly don’t just fold to Zoo, but it’s slightly awkward for you. I mean, they’re going to be gunning for you, and more often than not they’re going to have the hate cards for you, but you have an ace in the hole: your deck is degenerate and absurdly powerful. You’ve got the best and most consistent combo in the format, and you can literally play any card that you need to.

Here’s the list that won Grand Prix: Yokohama…

Ah, the final evolution of the Thopter/Depths archetype. We see a move toward Jace, more varied card-drawing, and a more stable manabase that can at least hope to stand a chance against Blood Moon. This may sound a bit awkward, but if you want to play this deck I strongly recommend that you just play this list. Yes, the exact 75. The metagame is literally the same as it was for Yokohama, and this deck has every single tool that it could want or need for the last two weekends of PTQs. The only realistic change to Mori’s deck is really making the one-ofs in the sideboard (Arena, Sphinx, or Gatekeeper) into other cards, or combine them into more copies of one of them. Gatekeeper has been seeing a lot of play lately, actually, and I think it’s not only good against Zoo but also obviously a good way to deal with pesky 20/20s that sneak out onto the battlefield prematurely. If anything, I’d want another Jace and a Duress over anything else, particularly over the Arena.

Whatever you do with this deck, if you plan on piloting it be sure that you can best the following cards in game 2: Boom/Bust, Blood Moon, Night of Souls’ Betrayal, Damping Matrix, Extirpate, Jace, Leyline of the Void, and Ancient Grudge. Echoing Truth actually handles a lot of those fairly well, but it will hardly always be enough. Cards such as Night of Souls’ Betrayal are especially hard to beat, as Blue and Black are powerless against enchantments, but those are the games where you’ll need to employ Jace in order to stand any sort of chance. I would prepare to stare down Night quite often, so be sure to board those Jaces in!

Now, there are other decks in Extended, but I don’t think playing them is a great idea. If you’re very good with Dredge, though, you really should play it. However, if you’re not, you definitely shouldn’t. That advice also probably seems obvious, but the difference here is that with only two weeks left of the season there just isn’t enough time to master the deck. If one could, though, I don’t think there’s a better choice than that deck — Dredge is still probably the most powerful deck in terms of raw ability, but it’s too hard to be exceptional with (which it demands). Hypergenesis is also still a viable deck, although like Thopter/Depths there isn’t much to say about it in an article. If you want to play Hypergenesis, play Aven Mindcensor and be prepared to overcome Chalice of the Void and company. You know the drill.

Decks I wouldn’t play:

Scapeshift: Not because the deck is bad, but because it has a hard time beating the Boom/Bust version of Zoo. Oh, and Blood Moon. It can be very resilient, but I wouldn’t feel too comfortable with it given how slow it can be.

All-In Red: I don’t need to say it, do I? You have to win 8+ rounds to win a PTQ, and I’ve never felt like this was a 6-2 type of deck.

Elves: Gavin will disagree, but I just don’t think this deck does enough against the field. The Zoo match-up is hardly exceptional, and you still pretty much fold to a Night of Souls’ Betrayal. Awkward.

Faeries: I hate to say it, but despite last week’s MTGO PTQ results, I think Faeries is a poor choice for a PTQ right now. It can’t beat Zoo very easily, and even a “good” match-up like Thopter Depths is losable if you fumble. Oh, and it loses to… Night of Souls’ Betrayal.

The moral of this story? Night of Souls’ Betrayal is very, very good. I strongly recommend playing it somehow, as it’s probably one of the best tech cards in the format right now. How to go about it? Try Kenji’s Grixis deck, or Gavin’s Ultimecia list — or better yet, sideboard out your Thopter Combo in Thopter/Depths mirror and bring in Jaces and Night. That sounds pretty interesting, actually…

Good luck everyone, and enjoy the last two!

Until next time…

Chris Jobin
Team RIW
Shinjutsei on MTGO