Thirst for Knowledge – Post-Austin Extended

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Tuesday, October 20th – A short while back, Matt Elias wrote a wonderful and entertaining article called “Your Format Sucks,” which slapped each format in the face one-by-one. Though clearly aiming at humor in the long run, Matt’s analysis of the formats was more or less spot-on: especially his take on Extended.

A short while back, Matt Elias wrote a wonderful and entertaining article called “Your Format Sucks,” which slapped each format in the face one-by-one. Though clearly aiming at humor in the long run, Matt’s analysis of the formats was more or less spot-on: especially his take on Extended. In that article, Matt stated that nobody gives a hoot about the format unless it’s in season — and, though it should come as no surprise, he’s certainly right about that. Extended is only played in the first place because it is a qualifying format and also the featured format for one Pro Tour a year.

Still, it’s not too often you’ll hear a player say that he or she doesn’t like Extended. I’ve seen at least ten Facebook comments this week alone gushing about how “Extended is going to be sick!” or that “I can’t wait to play Zoo!” The truth of it all is this: despite being a format that rarely matters, the pool for deck construction is nearly perfect. Extended is quite a bit larger than Standard, but limited enough to not become as structured and concrete as Legacy. For players like me, Extended also has another appeal: it gives us a reason to play with old Standard favorites once again. I didn’t start playing Standard on a true competitive level until a few years ago, and so for me it’s simply awesome to cast Umezawa’s Jitte and equip it to my Kird Ape.

That being said, Extended looks to be even more exciting this year than it was last year. Pro Tour Austin put a ton of viable decks on display, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the obvious: combo was everywhere. I mean, Extended has always had a definitive combo deck (Elves, TEPS, Ideal, Tooth, etc), but this time around it seems like we’ll be battling against a plethora of them. Zoo may have been far-and-away the most popular deck, but the Top 8 of the Pro Tour featured all three of the format’s premiere combo decks. That’s actually very impressive if you think about it, as traditionally at least one or two of those decks drop out of contention in the Top 16. Hypergenesis was the combo deck that everyone has known about for a while now, and Dredge’s return was easily foreseen by anyone who has ever played with Hedron Crab in Limited. It is the Hexmage Depths, however, that caught most people off guard at the Tour. The interesting part? It’s not like it was a secret. The list:

Most of the Hexmage Depths decks up until this past weekend were far less streamlined than this list was, and I think that had a lot to do with making this deck another “worst kept secret” like Elves before it. This take on the deck is far more consistent, and by mixing in a fair amount of control aspects the deck can hold its own against much of the format while maintaining its explosiveness. Luis Scott-Vargas said that the strongest appeal of the build was that it had lots of tools to fend off the format (Thoughtseize, Chalice of the Void, Repeal, and Engineered Explosives) but could also just have “nut draws” and win in three turns. The most common and effective solutions to this deck, which would be Repeal and Path to Exile, are both totally shut down by Chalice. Often it is enough to turn 2 a Chalice of the Void and then play Hexmage on 3 to combo off. This can also be done on turn 1 with a Chrome Mox and Urborg into a turn 2 Hexmage and Dark Depths, though that requires quite a bit of luck to pull off. Venser is probably still the deck’s biggest enemy, as it has little way to deal with that card. It would seem that if this deck is to have any sort of staying power, it will need to find a more efficient way to deal with Blue control decks. Faeries in particular, especially those packing Bitterblossom, seems like just an awful match-up. Bitterblossom from this deck’s sideboard is pretty good against those decks, actually, but I think more disruption is probably in order: maybe Duress in addition to Thoughtseize?

In any case, Hexmage Depths proved itself last weekend. It also managed to prove that even awful cards can be worth $25 (seriously, go look at the price of a Dark Depths), which is slightly distressing given that Dark Depths was worth about a dollar as of a week ago. Still, the deck does a far better job of breaking even on card advantage than Dreadtill decks do in Legacy given that the combo pieces aren’t totally worthless on their own (well, one is, but it’s also a “land” as long as Urborg is in play). This combo’s popularity in the coming qualifying season will ultimately be dependent on two things: the number of Blue control decks in the metagame and the number of Ghost Quarters seeing play. It’s hard to say where this deck goes to from here, but regardless the deck looks powerful and very exciting to play.

Now, I myself am traditionally not a very big fan of combo decks. It’s not that I think I’m “too unlucky” or something absurd, but rather that I don’t really feel the “rush” that some players have described to me when playing combination decks. I mean, I’ll certainly play what’s best, even if it’s combo, but I’d much prefer to go the control or aggro route. I’m a little put off by the early Extended format, as three powerful combo decks dominating the format is fairly daunting. Combo is usually a very important piece of the tripod in most Constructed formats, but this is a little awkward. I suppose maybe the problem was that most of pros who typically like to sleeve up control decks opted to instead play the powerful and explosives combo decks that could take players by surprise, which is a very real possibility. On the other hand, it’s also reasonable that the control decks just weren’t beating the combo decks for one reason or another — I don’t think this is all that likely, but combo decks do have the ability to “just win,” which is basically why basing all of one’s assumptions on single tournament is usually a bad idea. The other possible reason for the stark absence of control in the Top 8 might have been due to the sheer number of Zoo decks that showed up. Now, last season the Faeries decks had a tough time taking on the Zoo decks because Volcanic Fallout truly was “the sick beats.” This year, though, the card is nowhere to be found. I would like to believe that a Blue-based control deck – be it Next Level Blue, Faeries, or Tron — would have a reasonable shot at beating a Zoo deck in this format, and so it puzzles me as to how four Zoo decks made it to Top 8 and yet control wasn’t even represented with a single list. I haven’t given the format much thought up to this point (as until this event was over it was mostly just guesswork for those unqualified), and so maybe I’m just way off base on this, but I think if the Top 8 of Austin is going to be the starting place for the new format then blue could easily fall heavily into favor.

Musings on Blue control decks aside, let’s look at Public Enemy #1, Zoo:

Now, I’m a longtime fan of Brian’s, and to see him come back to Magic and then win a Pro Tour has been fantastic. Before I talk about his deck, I just want to offer my congratulations to him, as he’s been an inspiration to me for a long while now. Great job, Kibler, and also to Watanabe for Top 8ing his FIFTH large event in a row. You guys are insane.

Brian’s deck was designed by Ben Rubin, who also did very well with it. This is easily going to be the definitive Zoo deck, as it really clears up a lot of the weaknesses that Zoo had in the first place. Sure, you can take the landfall approach, or the Ranger of Eos package — maybe even Spectral Procession. But there’s a reason that Kibler won the Pro Tour, and not all of it was because of his tight play. Punishing Fire itself is absolutely superb at dealing with creatures, and all without expending any real resources. You can deal a crazy amount of damage to on-board threats with that card you’ll never have to forfeit any kind of card advantage — all you have to do is give your opponent some life. And what’s a little bit of life to your opponent when you’re giving it to them so that you can clear the way for your men to swing in? Ikeda’s Zoo deck that Kibler faced in the finals was packing Spectral Procession, a card that was used against the heavy Hexmage field. It’s also fairly decent in the mirror if you’re in a defensive position, so naturally it seems like a logical call to assume that the three blockers would come in handy against Kibler. However, Brian used Punishing Fire to totally neutralize any kind of advantage that Procession could have offered Ikeda, and I think therein lies the beauty of Rubin’s deck: giving Zoo a card advantage engine based in a burn spell is just ridiculous.

Even more wonderful, Rubin’s design also accounted for the inclusion of Baneslayer Angel. In Extended. Now, Baneslayer Angel is a pretty great creature, but paying five for a guy in Extended is a very tall order. However, if you play enough lands and you throw some Noble Hierarchs in there, it’s more than doable. In Rubin’s deck, Baneslayer Angel was accompanied by six exalted creatures, which not only helped it to win Tarmogoyf wars but also to make Baneslayer even larger. If you think turning one of those sideways in Standard is disgusting, give it a try against an Extended deck, specifically Zoo. Literally if they don’t have the Path…they just lose. On the other hand, I can’t think of too many decks in Extended that can beat a deck attacking with Baneslayer. She’s out of range of nearly all the removal played in Extended (save for Path, as I said), too, which is probably the best part. Sure, she costs five, but she can’t be Bolted, Helixed, Threads’d, Shackled, etc. And, besides, she flies well over the heads of most of the format. Heck, Kibler outraced Progenitus in the Top 8. Progenitus. That guy’s a 10/10. I’m just saying.

The bottom line here is that Rubin’s list packs the most vicious creatures (okay, so maybe not Noble Hierarch) and burn spells alongside a renewable card advantage engine (one that creates basically infinite removal spells) to wind up with what will likely remain the marquee deck in Extended for some time. Great match-ups, strong sideboard options (Meddling Mage, anyone?), and Baneslayer Angel. Does it get better? I think the one change I’d want to make moving forward would be to fit in a second Elspeth. Watching Brian play in the Top 8, it seemed like every game where he resolved her he just couldn’t lose. The Zoo decks have simply no way to stop an Outpost, and pumping Baneslayer or making a Tarmogoyf/Knight fly will literally decide heap of games. It’s a wonder that she didn’t see any play last year, as she becomes incredibly hard to manage once she’s pumped out a guy or two. It’s nearly impossible to point burn her way as it would be a tremendous waste of cards, and even when the 1/1s she makes are being offed with Jitte counters you can’t really feel too bad since those counters aren’t adding to the opponent’s life total, reducing yours, or taking down your actual cards. In short, I love me some Elspeth. Yes, I think I’ll take two of those in my Rubin Zoo list, thank you very much.

So, what next? Extended is shaping up to be a very engaging format for this winter, albeit a little combo-heavy. The blue-based control decks will likely play a larger role in the future if the combo decks remain so popular, although considering that Next Level Blue actually was the third most-played deck I’m not so sure it really even matters. I would expect to see a great deal of Ravenous Traps and Trinket Mages tutoring for Tormod’s Crypts this season, but even more copies of Knight of the Reliquary. Zoo will probably be the most popular deck all season, as Faeries was last year. After all, it was the most popular deck at the Pro Tour…and it hadn’t won it yet. I can only imagine the first few PTQs once the season starts. I’d wager that anyone who took a deck that could just annihilate Zoo to a PTQ could fairly easily make it to Top 8, and perhaps even win. That is, if he or she makes accommodations for those pesky combo decks. I hear those were good, too.

Beyond Zoo, Blue control, and the aforementioned combo decks, there’s also the fourth combo deck (yes, fourth), Thopter Foundry, as well as midrange decks like Doran and Bant. The Thopter deck suffers from being very bad against Engineered Explosives, but it excels against aggressive decks like Zoo. Bant and Doran share the same awkward “trading one-for-one” problem, and the remaining decks just don’t seem to be that appealing in light of what we saw do well at the Pro Tour. The Punishing Fire/Gifts Ungiven deck that some players were playing seemed to be really strong, and I’d love to get a list of that to work with (if there is one available that I have not seen, please post it in the forums). Punishing Fire was clearly the breakout card from this Pro Tour, and there are so many ways to approach using it. Rubin built a deck that utilized it by combining it with an aggressive strategy, and others (I say “others” because I really don’t know who designed the Gifts deck) played it in a more controllish deck. I think that there is a lot of room to explore with that card, and there will likely be many PTQs won on the back of “Fire you for two.”

Extended gets a bad reputation, but I for one am really excited to jump into testing. I probably won’t be dedicating much time or article space to Extended for a while, but you never know. Given that I don’t want to write about Limited, I’ll likely find myself wanting to talk about Extended decks since the only relevant Standard tournament until the end of the year is States in December. Besides, if we get to cast Baneslayer Angel in Extended… how could I stay away for too long?

Until next time…

Chris Jobin
Team RIW
Shinjutsei on MTGO and everywhere else