Thirst for Knowledge – Looking Toward Amsterdam

Wednesday, August 18th – Between MTGO and Magic League, we have a reasonable amount of data about Wizards’ fledgling format. Bloodbraid Elf is as good as one would expect, and Jace is pulling his weight.

In the last two weeks, I’ve said more or less all I have to say about Standard. U.S. Nationals is on the horizon, and until next week there isn’t a whole lot I can say beyond what I’ve already said. This issue is only worsened when you consider that Day 2 of Chinese Nationals was sadly (and rightfully) postponed, and the results were not released at the time of this writing, so instead of talking more about Standard, I thought I’d focus on the next important format: Extended.

Between MTGO and Magic League, we already have a reasonable amount of data about Wizards’ fledgling format. It’s easy to see the trends in New Extended: Bloodbraid Elf is as good as one would expect, and Jace is pulling his weight. Faeries is popular but certainly not dominating, and Punishing Fire is absolutely everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I mean it quite seriously. Even the Five Color Control lists are packing 3-4 copies.

Why? The answer is incredibly simple: it keeps Faeries in check. When the announcement for the changes to Extended was made, everyone thought the same thing: Wizards tailor-made the format for Faeries to devour. However, most of us forgot about Punishing Fire, as that combo wasn’t around when we were playing Bitterblossoms in Standard. The reality of the situation is that Punishing Fire is so good against Bitterblossom that I’m not actually 100% sure anymore that Faeries will take down Amsterdam, while I was a month or so ago. No longer can Faeries afford to play one-for-one and out-tempo other decks. No, these days Punishing Fire makes it impossible for Faeries to ever really gain any sort of advantage in the long term, acting like a Cunning Sparkmage/Fledging Mawcor on steroids.

So if Faeries isn’t the top dog, what is? While I wouldn’t say it’s “top dog,” I’d say that one of the strongest decks moving into Amsterdam is UGr Junk. Take a look:

The early tournaments for Extended were totally dominated by this archetype. And with a little closer inspection, it’s not hard to see why — the deck does pretty much everything you could ask for. It has efficient creatures, Jace, countermagic, Ancestral Vision (free off Bloodbraid, obviously), and the Punishing Fire combo. In short, it’s an insanely well-tuned deck that can play aggressively or controlling, as flexible as Faeries. Granted, its ability to do this is due largely in part to having access to Punishing Fire, but considering that this deck is only relevant for Amsterdam, that’s all it needs.

The sideboard I chose to showcase is a pretty common one for the deck, and you can quickly see that it is on a strict mission to beat Faeries. After all, bringing in eight pinpoint hate cards is downright cruel, and it becomes nearly impossible to lose games 2 and 3 against Bitterblossom decks. Fighting through Bloodbraid Elf, Kitchen Finks, Punishing Fire, Volcanic Fallout, and Great Sable Stag is a war Faeries simply cannot win, and that’s more or less why I feel as though Fae doesn’t stand much of a chance at winning Pro Tour: Amsterdam as easily as I had imagined before. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Faeries isn’t the best deck for the Pro Tour. It just means that it has its work cut out for it (as always). After all, does anyone really think that PV won’t be playing Bitterblossoms for that tournament?

Jokes aside, before I get to Faeries, it’s a good idea to be aware of the other deck hating on it: its old archenemy, Mono-Red.

I’m about as far from Patrick Sullivan as you can get, but I actually really like Extended’s Red deck. It’s quite beautiful, really, and it’s probably the fastest Red-based aggressive deck the game’s ever seen (aside from the Eternal formats). Everything from the monstrous size of Geopede to the awesomeness that is Rift Bolt plus Lightning Bolt plus Smoldering Spires plus “swing with Kiln Fiend” is just very difficult for any control or midrange deck to overcome. The best part? The maindeck, as spicy as it is, isn’t even the scariest thing. In reality, the scary part is the sideboard, complete with “the boogeyman” Magus of the Moon and Volcanic Fallouts. Manabarbs is also a common card found in RDW’s sideboards, though it’s hard to say how much Five Color Control will see play in Amsterdam (not that it’s bad against Faeries or anything, just that it’s a lot worse than Fallout against that particular deck).

The quality of Red’s creatures is simply at an all-time high, and this version of the Red deck really beats it into your head. This is the first time I’ve considered playing a Red deck for a PTQ season before, so that must mean something. After all, the only card that rotates after the Pro Tour is Rift Bolt, as Magus of the Moon is more or less a tool to help balance the fact that Faeries has Vision and Damnation. Is this the deck to play at the PT? That’s very possible, actually. The only deck I’d be worried about when piloting this beast is the RG Scapeshift deck, but beyond that you have some serious authority in the metagame. Kitchen Finks is just as annoying as it ever was, but at least Tarmogoyf will be gone soon, and it’ll alleviate some of the headaches caused by opposing fatties.

The only other truly aggressive decks in Extended are the fringe White Weenie decks, but they are so few and far between (and I personally think they aren’t all that good anyway) that it’s not a large concern. I suppose if your opponent boards in a set of Firewalkers and Kitchen Finks along with their maindeck Brave the Elements you might be in a bind, but you won’t feel too bad when you’re steamrolling Faeries players and people fumbling to resolve Jaces and whatnot.

Yet again, before I get to Faeries, we need to look at the “new kid on the block”:

While certainly not as good as the UG iteration of Scapeshift from last year’s Extended season, this deck is a fine adaptation of the RG version. The same usual culprits are present for the creaturebase: Tarmogoyf, Finks, and Bloodbraid Elf (clearly the best creatures in the format, if you didn’t guess already). Also, Punishing Fire is here as well, and the manabase even has Treetop Village. The gameplan is fairly simple: apply pressure, ramp up, and cast Scapeshift to lethal your opponent with Valakut. The deck is good against Faeries because it has a great sideboard (again, Stag and Fallout), the same powerful creatures that you’ve come to expect, the Punishing Fire combo, and it has a combo finish. Normally a combo deck with one key card to resolve is weak against a deck like Faeries, but since this deck has about an infinite amount of other things going on it’s basically a moot point.

Last season I beat four of the RG Scapeshift decks with UB Faeries, but literally every match I won I did so on the back of Umezawa’s Jitte. Without that card, Faeries has so much work cut out for it that I’m just not sure if it can come out on top against any of the Red decks. And, ultimately, I think that’s the trouble with the new format as it stands: Red is just far too good, and to a lesser extend so is Green. Even in a format that was just last year defined by Blue cards like Jace, now we find ourselves at the mercy of Red and Green spells. Awkward.

Still, Faeries is a deck, and here is my favorite list I’ve seen so far:

Todd played this not that long ago in a MTGO Daily, and so far it’s the best list I’ve seen in the current metagame. I especially like the inclusion of Tectonic Edge as a means to fight Tar Pits in the mirror and Grove of the Burnwillows against the Green decks. Beyond that, this is a fairly standard Faeries list. Faeries never really did a lot of innovative things, but that’s mostly because it never had to. Turn 1 Vision, turn 2 Bitterblossom wins enough games all on its own that normally you don’t need much more help beyond that. However, if your opponents are slinging Stags, Fallouts, and Punishing Fires at you, things can get really rough really quick.

As I said, I don’t feel like Fae is a total dog or anything, but it’s got a huge uphill battle ahead of it. The format’s premier aggro deck is almost unwinnable (Red deck), the “most popular” deck, Scapeshift, is a tough match-up, and even UGr is a challenge. Todd wasn’t playing Damnation in his sideboard, and the reason for that was probably because it actually is just too slow to really matter a whole lot, and that’s quite scary. You’re literally better off trying to win before Stag kills you, which is nearly undoable if they are killing your tokens with Fallouts, Punishing Fire, and Lightning Bolts all the while threatening to just play Scapeshift and win. Mistbind Clique has a lot of ground to cover, no?

The remaining decks in Extended are the fringe combo decks like Pyromancer’s Ascension, Elves, and Living End, though I hesitate to call Living End “fringe.” Yes, Elves is playing Tajuru Preserver, and most decks have some copies of Relic of Progenitus, but much like Dredge in every format ever, that’s ALL the hate there is. 3-4 cards per sideboard. Sounds to me like Living End has a fairly easy road to walk, doesn’t it? Elves is another deck, though, that is gaining popularity. It’s a tad slower than Living End most of the time, but it’s really good against every deck that isn’t Faeries (and I suppose the Red deck if they get a boatload of burn, which clearly isn’t that unlikely). It’s very hard to pilot as always, but leaves a lot of room for you to outplay the opponent. Recent lists are also playing Fauna Shaman and even Emrakul, so that archetype likely still has even more of an evolution to undergo before long.

Lastly, there are a few Reveillark builds, and the Red aggro decks splashing Green for Bloodbraid Elf and Tarmogoyf. I personally love me some Reveillark, but while Living End is in the format I’d like to avoid using my graveyard for anything but binning my dudes and Punishing Fire (which is another reason to pack Relics, by the way). A Merfolk deck went 3-1 in a Daily last week also, including maindeck Spreading Seas for Grove of the Burnwillows, but that deck is ultimately just as weak to Fallout as Faeries is (if not more, since most of them are just Mono-Blue and don’t have Harm’s Way). If you want to play creatures alongside your Mana Leaks, just play Faeries. I think it’s just that simple.

All things considered, the format is fairly easy to get a feel for. The bottom line at present is that Red is much too good, but some of that will be cut down when Punishing Fire goes back to being a crappy burn spell. I personally feel that Leyline of Sanctity might be a reasonable card for this PT, since both Scapeshift and RDW are affected by it much more than they have been in the past (well, by Ivory Mask effects, anyway). Other than that, I’d recommend staying away from playing a deck weak to Fallout and Stag unless you’re a master or know something everyone else doesn’t. As I said, I think the Red deck is literally good enough to win the PT, but Scapeshift is also a fairly safe bet. More specifically, a Scapeshift deck built to win the mirror seems really powerful. I’m not sure right now how to go about that, but that’s where I’d start.

As far as for post-rotation Extended, it’s anyone’s guess. Without Punishing Fire, Faeries has a much bigger shot at being a force, and that’s even without Vision. I think Jace Beleren would be a fine replacement, just as it was in Standard, as it’s just too hard to imagine Jace, the Mind Sculptor being the deck’s main source of card advantage: Faeries needs to play a lot of other spells on turn 4, not Jace. Beleren comes down a turn earlier, and even if you ARE giving them cards it’s not as though you’re giving them Punishing Fires at that point.

On the other hand, though, if Faeries ever gets too good, then you’ll start seeing decklists like these:

4 Putrid Leech
4 Bloodbraid Elf
4 Kitchen Finks
4 Great Sable Stag
4 Vengevine
4 Volcanic Fallout

And, from there, you can do the math. I’d imagine that, barring anything from Scars of Mirrodin, Extended will be a fine balancing act between decks like Faeries and its enemies. I’m also pretty sure Anathemancer will be a key player in that format, as well as Cruel Ultimatum decks like Five Color. That is, of course, if Scapeshift doesn’t just get better with Scars or something. Further, I’m not sure how much worse RDW can honestly get, as I’m sure we’ll see a new burn spell to replace Rift Bolt anyway (or we’ll just use Burst Lightning). The future is scary.

That about does it for this week. Extended is very Red- and Green-based right now, surely, but it’s still very engaging and skill-intensive. Pro Tour: Amsterdam is only a few weeks away, so I hope this look at the format helped to get some of your testing off the ground.

Until next time…

Chris Jobin
Team RIW
Shinjutsei on MTGO