Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #177 – The Ultimate Extended Tourney: Finding the Meaning Behind the Results

The Ultimate Extended Tourney was a trial by fire of 32 of the top Extended decks of all time. It’s over, and we have a winner. That’s nice, but the winner in a format that never existed is not really relevant. Examining how and why decks did well in this format is relevant to anyone building decks for a new format, including Legacy for Grand Prix: Columbus, or Time Spiral Block Constructed for the PTQs.

The Ultimate Extended Tourney was a trial by fire of 32 of the top Extended decks of all time. It’s over, and we have a winner. That’s nice, but the winner in a format that never existed is not really relevant. Examining how and why decks did well in this format is relevant to anyone building decks for a new format, including Legacy for Grand Prix: Columbus, or Time Spiral Block Constructed for the PTQs.

The Results

I’ll cover the match, briefly, at the end. GB Survival beat SuperGro. More specifically, when I played GB Survival, against all comers (and a few games playing both decks myself), Survival won. Some of that may be familiarity with the deck – I have played three to four hundred games in this tournament, and several dozen of those were with Survival. However, it is also because GB Survival, in a long game, has better tutoring, better card drawing, and more answers than SuperGro. Survival does not fold to SuperGro’s big threats, while SuperGro does not fold to Survival either. Unless it draws really well, the games will go long, and Survival wins in the long run.

I’ll discuss that below. What’s more important is to consider why some decks did well, and some did not. To refresh memories, here’s how the event played out. Match by match coverage is in my last few articles.

Enchantress Enchantress Trix Trix Supergro
UW Tron
Trix Trix
Twiddle / Desire
Stasis Stasis High Tide
GobVantage High Tide
High Tide
Maher Oath Maher Oath Maher Oath Supergro
Angry Ghoul
Turboland Beat Stick
Beat Stick
Benzo The Clock Supergro
The Clock
SuperGro SuperGro
Legion Land Loss Legion Land Loss Jar Grim and PT Junk Jar Grim and PT Junk Survival
Jar Grim Both, see above
PT Junk
RDW2k RDW2K Academy
Aggro Loam
Academy Academy
Cephalid Life
Gaea’s Might Get There Pandeburst Counterslivers  
Counterslivers Counterslivers
Free Spell Necro Balancing Tings Survival (yes, Survival)
Balancing Tings
George W. Bosh Survival

How Decks Win

I had some trouble titling this section. I want to talk about how and why these decks win matches in general, and how and why they won these matches. But that’s not really what’s important. First of all, none of these decks “won” the game. The comprehensive rules for Magic do not include specific rules for winning the game. A few cards, e.g. Coalition Victory or Battle of Wits, do make you “win the game,” but none of these decks played those cards.

These decks all won by making their opponents lose the game. Some reduced life totals to zero, while others decked the opponent. The point is that the decks made the opponent lose.

I’m not just being cute. The point is that these decks were interacting. People have played decks that are non-interactive: decks that just try to establish an “I win” condition quickly without regard to their opponents. They don’t do well. People have played Battle of Wits and Coalition Slivers at major events, but the decks almost never win.

A few decks also tried for a very non-interactive kill-the-opponent strategy. They simply – maybe simplistically – devoted all their resources to achieving their kill. Gaea’s Might Get There was the ultimate fast beats machine, while TEPS was close to a totally non-interactive combo deck (the only interactive cards in TEPS are in the sideboard.) Both of these decks lost in round 1, and both would / do lose to most of the other decks in the tournament.

As I’ve said before, Magic is not solitaire. It is a multiplayer game (with at least two players.) Both players are doing their very best to make their opponent lose. Therefore, Magic has to be played interactively: you have to try to make your plan succeed while not allowing your opponent to succeed with his / her plan.

The decks that were not interactive failed. A few decks took the opposite extreme: going for totally interactive. These decks sought to prevent the opponent from doing anything, then won almost as an afterthought. Legion Land Loss is an example – it sought to kill all an opponent’s land, then win, often enough, with elf beatdown. Stasis was similar: it had a ton of counters, plus the Stasis lock. It won with Morphling, but usually by beating with Morphling as if it were a Hill Giant. Even combo Enchantress, which would bounce all the opponent’s permanents and then win, has to be considered a highly-interactive control deck.

All of those decks lost in round 2.

What all the best decks did was to play enough disruption to interfere with the opponent’s plans just enough to complete their own plans. This meant combining a reasonably fast clock with the right amount of disruption. This disruption came in three main flavors: disrupting the opponent’s mana, their hand, or their spells. (Creatures, creature removal, and combat tricks are also involved, but that’s a subject for another article.)

Disrupting Mana:

With the exception of Legion Land Loss, the decks did not attempt serious land destruction. Instead, many of the decks played just enough land destruction to create color screw and mana stumbles for the opponent. That was often all it took.

The most potent method of creating these problems was Wasteland. Wasteland rotated out with Tempest block, so it was not available to maybe half the decks in the UET. It is also colorless mana, so several multi-colored decks, such as Counterslivers, could not squeeze it in. However, eight of the rest did. It is the main reason GB Survival is two colors, as opposed to the Five Color Green Survival builds: GB Survival can pack a full playset of Wastelands and not get color screwed. Wasteland was good enough to justify limiting the deck to two colors. Looking over my notes for this tournament, Wasteland was critical in a huge number of games. In GB, I think I cast Vampiric Tutor for Wasteland more often than I did for either Survival of the Fittest or Duress.

A few decks ran additional Wasteland clones, including Rishadan Port and Dustbowl. Both of these are solid options, but neither of these can permanently destroy a land for just the cost of a land drop. At best, these were played as additional Wastelands, but they never replaced it. Spell-based versions of land destruction, e.g. Stone Rain or Thermokarst, were useless outside of Legion Land Loss.

One other mana denial card did have a big impact: Winter Orb. Winter Orb has had a brutal effect on mana whenever it hits play. I know, I have played Orb in my best Five-Color decks for years. The only answers to the Orb are artifact mana, creature mana or running on almost no mana. (Check out the match coverage of Maher Oath versus SuperGro for an example of just why Winter Orb wins games.) SuperGro was designed to function perfectly under the Orb, and to beat decks that could not. In terms of interfering with your opponent’s ability to execute their plan, few cards are as effect as Winter Orb. Winter Orb is Blood Moon on steroids.

Disrupting the Hand:

The most commonly played discard spell was Duress – the one mana answer to both combo decks and counters. It not only sets back your opponent, it also lets you check their hand for answers before committing to something. Practically every deck that ran Black ran Duress, at least in the sideboard. (JarGrim was a notable exception.)

The only alternatives to Duress that decks ran were Cabal Therapy and Unmask. Cabal Therapy was used, primarily, in decks that dumped their library into the graveyard (e.g. Angry Ghoul and Benzo), ran Entomb or and in some newer, creature-based decks. Unmask was played in the mono-Black Necro deck.

What is important, here, is that the decks almost never ran any discard that cost more than one mana. Cards like Stupor, Distress and Coercion were all available, but never made the cut. The only exception was my GB Survival deck, which ran a single Thrull Surgeon in the sideboard as a tutor target for use in very limited circumstances. However, I only ran that because I could recur it indefinitely, sort of like Nightmare Void. And because Cabal Therapy hadn’t been printed.

Surprisingly, another meaningful method of disrupting hands were the symmetrical draw seven cards. In the Trix verses High Tide match, Trix would work to assemble a good hand, only to have High Tide cast Time Spiral and have to start assembling that hand all over again. Letting the opponent draw seven new cards is scary, but it was often better than letting them keep the seven they had – especially after they had tutored, or drew twelve cards and kept the best seven.

Disrupting Spells:

These come in two flavors – counterspells and preventatives. Counterspells counter a spell once cast. Preventatives stop the spell from being played.

The main preventative was Meddling Mage. Meddling Mage is so very potent at stopping decks that rely on single spells, or a narrow range of spells. SuperGro beat Trix primarily on the back of Chris Pikula invitational card. In the final round, the games might have been quite different if the Meddling Mages had hit play a turn earlier, or if Survival had not had quite so many different ways of killing them.

The less common preventatives were Abeyance and Orim’s Chant. Both of these prevent a player from playing spells for a turn. Abeyance was played in combo decks – mainly JarGrim – as a means of stopping countermagic and other interference. Orim’s Chant can also shut down the combat phase, so it had a wider appeal (not to mention that Abeyance rotated out early on.) These spells only disrupt an opponent for one turn, but that is often enough. Alternatively, you can imprint them on Isochron Scepter, but that is clunky enough that even dedicated Scepter Chant decks have alternative strategies (something to ponder when you are wondering about Regionals and the Oriss / Grandeur decks.)

The most popular counterspell, by far, was Force of Will. It was played in over half the decks that could play it, and in all but two of the decks at the top of the field. (The exceptions were PT Junk and GB Survival.) A no mana counter was – and is – very potent. Note, however, that Force of Will was often cast on turns 1 through 3, and that you never had to pay in the future for Force of Will today. In other words, Pact of Negation isn’t the return of Force of Will. Pact is more akin to Foil – another free counterspell played by the number two deck in this tournament. Foil is really good in a deck that can play around its disadvantage. Ditto Pact.

The second most powerful counterspells, in this tournament, were the Pyroblasts and Red Elemental Blasts. It’s not that these were more flexible than pure counters, although being able to kill Blue permanents was nice. On the flip side, they cannot stop Duress or a host of other non-Blue spells. What made them so powerful was that they cost just one mana. The format was fast, and mana was a very tight. Zero mana was nice, but a hard counter that cost half the mana of Counterspell without costing an additional card was, in some cases, even better.

A number of decks played two mana counters. Counterspell saw a lot of play, of course, and Remand, Arcane Denial and others also made some decks. So did situational counters, like Disrupt and Force Spike. The simple fact, however, was that these spells were never as significant as the one and no mana hard counters.

Exactly one three mana counter – Forbid – saw play, and it was irrelevant. Similarly, Counterbalance, coupled with Sensei’s Divining Top, also saw some play, but was rarely strong enough to decide anything. However, the Top / Counterbalance combo was good, mainly because Top = card drawing = good on its own.

Card Drawing

The disruption was important in controlling the opponents. However, being able to draw or tutor for that disruption was what separated the good and bad decks. Like disruption, decks ran the gamut from no card drawing to card drawing that was eventually banned from the format. The same is true of tutors.

The decks that ran no card drawing included Legion Land Loss, RDW2k and Gaea’s Might Get There. These decks substituted card drawing with a very high degree of consistency. LLL, for example, ran 12 one mana accelerators and twelve land destruction spells, to maximize the chances of killing a land on turn 2. However, these just-draw-once-a-turn decks did not fare well. The land destruction elements, and matchups against decks with fragile mana bases, carried LLL and RDW2k through the first round, but that was it.

The next tier of decks were those with “modern” card drawing. These were decks that played cards like Compulsive Research, Thirst for Knowledge and Thoughtcast: cards that netted a card or two when cast. These were mainly sorcery speed spells, and not exciting.

The next step up were the decks that had solid, instant speed card drawing, like Gush (up a tier from Compulsive Research because it was played in decks that stopped untaps via Stasis or Winter Orb), and Fact or Fiction. Sylvan Library and Abundance meant drawing three cards per turn, but the combo was expensive, difficult to assemble and vulnerable. Nonetheless, decks that had better card drawing – even Sylvan / Abundance – had a significant advantage.

Brainstorm probably fits in here somewhere. It is good on its own, great when hiding cards from Duress and similar discard spells, and totally nutz when combined with fetchlands.

The next level up for card drawing was Necropotence. Necro converted cards to life – and when that was combined with meaningful life gain, you could draw cards like a maniac. Mono-Black Necro used Drain Life and Corrupt both to kill the opponent and fuel Necro-driven card drawing, but it still could not outdraw Trix. Illusions of Grandeur gave Trix, in effect, an extra twenty cards. Very good, and later banned.

Next up the ladder was probably Time Spiral. The symmetrical draw seven effect was not broken, in and of itself, but the ability to generate extra mana to play those new seven certainly was. Like Necro, Time Spiral was soon banned in Extended.

I’m not going to mention the most broken, eventually banned card drawing mechanism here, but, because it is half tutor and half card draw, I’ll list it with the tutors.


Like card drawing and disruption, decks ran everything from no tutoring to a totally broken level of tutoring. The most successful decks generally had the most powerful tutors.

The decks that had no tutoring, like U/W Tron, Legion Land Loss, Affinity and so forth, did badly. Even with decent card drawing, the format was too fast to let those decks just draw into their answers.

The bottom tier of tutors, at least in this tournament, were probably Burning and Cunning Wish. These tutors worked, and let decks find Sliver Bullets, but they were relatively expensive. The format rarely let decks get several mana free to tutor. Merchant Scroll would have also sunk into this category, but High Tide is generally an exception to the my-mana-is-limited rule.

The one mana Tutors were more powerful. At the bottom end were Mystical Tutor and Enlightened Tutor. Both are good, albeit limited in what they can fetch. Vampiric Tutor is more powerful, but even it has the drawback of leaving the card on top of the library. You can Vamp for anything, but you have to wait until you draw it.

The next step up in tutor power is Demonic Consultation. Consult gets what you need, when you need it, and for just one Black mana. Yes, you can accidentally deck yourself when you reveal all copies of the card you need in the top six (the cards you don’t get), but the odds of that happening are slim. Five decks ran Consult, and they finished third, fourth and fifth – and another, Pandeburst, would have finished higher but it lost to Counterslivers when Slivers Consulted for the win. Consult was the first of the tutors to be banned.

The next tutor to be banned was Tinker. Tinker is broken, in that it not only gets an artifact, it cheats that artifact into play. That’s insane – but the fact it only works with artifacts, at sorcery speed, limits its power. When your opponent aims a lethal spell at your head, Consult will fetch a Counterspell or Misdirection, but Tinker won’t save you. Nonetheless, PT Tinker showed that Tinker had to be banned.

I’m not sure whether Tinker – another broken, ultimately-banned tutor – is a step above or a step below Consult. They are close – and different. I am sure, however, what the most powerful tutor in the event was. No, not Entomb – which gets at best an honorable mention. I’m talking about Survival of the Fittest.

It’s not just that Survival is a tutor: it that’s it’s a reusable tutor that puts the card in your hand. With Krovikan Horror and Squee, Goblin Nabob, you can tutor two cards into your hand each turn, every turn. It’s even better with Oath of Ghouls, with Survival making sure you have more creatures in your graveyard than anyone else. Against SuperGro, in one game I had both Oath and Survival going, and was drawing four cards a turn – three of those being selected in advance.

It has taken me a lot of years to admit it, but Survival was pretty broken, and banning it was not unreasonable.

Ranking the Decks

I developed a power ranking system and rated the decks. They were scored on clock speed, card drawing, and card tutoring, and received additional points for having potent disruption, like Duress, Wasteland, Force of Will and Meddling Mage. They also scored additional points for having other counterspells, other land denial and so forth. Having less than four of something, or having the cards in the sideboard, earned partial points.

Clock Speed was partly decided on the gold fish speed, and partly on how fast a deck could win once it had control. Speed ranged from zero (Stasis, LLL) to three (JarGrim, Gobvantage.)

Card drawing also ranged from zero to three. Zero points meant no card drawing, decks got one point for Thirst or Compulsive Research, two points for Fact or Fiction level cards, plus other card drawing, and a three meant a lot of draw, and / or banned and broken stuff.

Tutoring also went from zero (LLL, Gaea’s Might Get There) to Wishes to a couple Consults / Tinkers to multiple tutors and banned stuff.

Deck Rating Wins
Trix 12 3
Academy 10.5 2
Pandeburst 10.5 1
High Tide 9.5 2
Jar Grim 9.5 3
Maher Oath 9 2
SuperGro 9 4
Survival 9 5
Twiddle / Desire 8.5 0
Free Spell Necro 8 0
The Clock 7.5 1
Angry Ghoul 7 0
CMU Gun 7 0
Counterslivers 7 2
Benzo 6.5 0
Cephalid Life 6.5 0
PT Junk 6.5 3
Aggro Loam 6 0
TEPS 6 0
Turboland 6 0
GobVantage 5.5 0
Psychatog 5.5 0
Affinity 5 0
Balancing Tings 5 1
George W. Bosh 5 0
UW Tron 5 0
Beat Stick 4.5 1
Stasis 4.5 1
Enchantress 4 1
RDW2k 4 1
Gaea’s Might Get There 3 0
Legion Land Loss 2 1

This table reveals a couple things. First of all, matchups matter. Pandeburst was a very powerful deck and could have destroyed half the field. Counterslivers is one of the few decks that could beat it – and Pandeburst was matched up against Slivers early.

Second, there’s a reason we play tournaments out. Sometimes decks really do both mulligan to five, then one deck gets a god draw and destroys the other (see, for example, Trix versus SuperGro, game one.) And sometimes toolbox decks with fast clocks and serious power tools (e.g. Survival, PT Junk) can cut the rug out from under powerful combo decks just often enough to take the match.

And sometimes they can’t.

Hulk Flash in Legacy

I was going to write a whole bunch of examples, but deadlines loom, this is already long and I still have to proofread the damn thing. I’ll just look at one example: Hulk Flash. It seems appropriate, since GP: Columbus is fast approaching.

Ben Bleiweiss first wrote about the combo here. He had a very basic list, which basically got the combo* out on turns 0 to 2 consistently. His deck works. It is fast and reliable.

However, Ben put his deck out there simply to show what was possible. He didn’t claim it was tuned. In fact, it was all goldfish and almost completely non-interactive. He had Force of Will and a singleton Chain of Vapor. That version was not tuned to compete with a real opponent. SuperGro would eat it for lunch.

Yesterday, Nick Eisel added a couple other versions – decklists that went a step beyond Ben’s. Nick applied the lessons of Trix and Pandeburst: splash for Duress and the best tutors your can get. In this case, the best tutor isn’t Consult (which isn’t legal), but Lim-Dul’s Vault. He also offers some other kills generated by a Flashed Protean Hulk.

The result is a fast, scary, consistent combo deck. It looks a whole lot like Trix. Trix was the highest rated deck in the tournament, with other combo decks like Pandeburst and JarGrim were a step behind – and might also be a step behind Hulk Flash as well.

Note, however, that those decks did not win. SuperGro and Survival and Counterslivers beat the combo decks.

Counterslivers was viable only because of Consult, which is banned. Survival and SuperGro are legal, however. My Survival deck is still circa 2000, but the Threshold decks in the StarCityGames.com deck database look a lot like SuperGro – without the clunky Grasslands and Flood Plains.

Threshold runs Meddling Mage. A Meddling Mage naming Flash will shut down Hulk Flash. Nick Eisel versions cannot realistically cast Protean Hulk – and even if it did, it cannot kill it, so the combo won’t work. Stopping Flash should be enough to let Threshold win, even if it has to beat down with Meddling Mage. Meddling Mage has another advantage: Hulk Flash may have a Duress on turn 1, to set up a turn 2 Flash – but Duress cannot take a Meddling Mage.

I have seen some comments from people arguing that Meddling Mage just dies to Massacre. That’s true – and eventually Hulk Smash will draw the Massacre and kill the Mage, or draw the Chain of Vapor. So what? The purpose of the Meddling Mage is not to stop Hulk Smash indefinitely. It is to stop Hulk Smash for a couple turns – during which you kill them with the Mage, a Mongoose or two, and anything else that turns sideways to deal damage. More importantly, the time the Mage buys will also allow you extra time to find a counterspell or Swords to Plowshares to stop the combo. (Flash now creates a triggered ability – pay or sacrifice. That means you can Swords the P-Hulk while that ability is on the stack, and since a Swords-ed creature does not go into the graveyard, no combo.)

Another lesson from the UET – while combo decks can, in theory, bring in all kinds of defensive cards, like Massacre, they don’t have room. JarGrim was a perfect example: it could bring In Force of Will and Abeyance and Perish – all in addition to Defense Grid – but the deck tended to fizzle as a result. Same deal here – you can have a ton of hate, but it may just mean the deck becomes too slow and too inconsistent.

In short, although Hulk Flash looks like the kind of stupid combo deck I hate (namely one built around a strange rule interaction, like Mask Naught and Worldgorger Dragon), it does not look to be (completely) broken. I think the deck can be beaten. The only question is whether the deck can be beaten by decks that don’t just fold to Goblins or some other deck. If not, we may have a Rock-Paper-Scissors metagame. More likely, at least from where I sit, we may have a balanced metagame, which would be just fine.

We’ll know in a couple weeks.

The UET Finals

I should conclude with a recap of the finals between SuperGro and Survival. I won’t do complete play-by-plays, however; at least not this week. The games went long – generally twenty turns or more if unless one deck crapped out completely. Even my abbreviated notes cover pages.

Anyway, here are the decklists.

Ben Rubin, Fourth — GP: Houston, 2002

4 Tropical Island
4 Tundra
4 Flood Plain
1 Grasslands
2 Island
1 Savannah
4 Meddling Mage
4 Werebear
4 Merfolk Looter
4 Quirion Dryad
3 Mystic Enforcer
4 Land Grant
4 Force of Will
4 Brainstorm
4 Gush
4 Swords to Plowshares
2 Foil
3 Winter Orb

1 Winter Orb
2 Mind Harness
3 Legacy’s Allure
3 Annul
2 Wax / Wane
3 Hidden Gibbons
1 Submerge


GB Survival
Pete Jahn, PTQ Qualifiers, Jan. 2000.

4 Bayou
4 Wasteland
5 Swamp
10 Forest
4 Duress
4 Survival of the Fittest
2 Vampiric Tutor
2 Recurring Nightmare
1 Oath of Ghouls
4 Wall of Roots
4 Birds of Paradise
1 Quirion Ranger
1 Squee, Goblin Nabob
1 Krovikan Horror
1 Phyrexian Plaguelord
1 Phyrexian Negator
1 Masticore
1 Deranged Hermit
2 Spike Feeder
2 Spike Weaver
1 Bone Shredder
1 Elvish Lyrist
1 Uktabi Orangutan
1 Yavimaya Ants
1 Cartographer

3 Emerald Charm
2 Ebony Charm
1 Oath of Ghouls
1 Thrull Surgeon
1 Carrion Beetles
1 Woodripper
1 Uktabi Orangutan
1 Dust Bowl
1 Simian Grunts
1 Bone Shredder
1 Elvish Lyrist
1 Living Death

Before sideboarding, SuperGro has no means of bouncing a Survival once it hits. It has six counterspells and Meddling Mages to stop Survival – and it also has to use those to stop some other nasty spells. Survival has four Duresses to nab the counters, and Bone Shredder, Masticore, Krovikan Horror, and Phyrexian Plaguelord to kill the Mages. Recurring Nightmare and Oath of Ghouls allow Survival to reuse those removal spells.

SuperGro has Winter Orb, but Survival has Birds of Paradise and Wall of Roots – both of which allow the deck to function under the Orb. It also has Uktabi Orangutan to kill the Orb. In one game, thanks to Oath of Ghouls, it recast that Uktabi four times.

SuperGro has one card that Survival cannot remove: Mystic Enforcer. However, Survival can keep the Enforcer from doing damage via Spike Weavers – and Spike Weavers plus Recurring Nightmare or Oath of Ghouls mean that Survival can fog forever (unless SuperGro can catch the deck tapped out and Swords the Weaver – twice.)

Survival, on the other hand, can smash through SuperGro’s defenders with cards like Yavimaya Ants (with Spike counters, if necessary), or kill those defenders. It can also create a swarm of creatures by recurring Deranged Hermit, then run around the defenders. In the event, it did all of those things.

After sideboarding, SuperGro gets Annuls, and Wax / Wane, and Legacy’s Allure, and even Submerge – but only the Winter Orbs can really be removed without impacting the rest of its game. Survival also has an embarrassment of riches. It wants to bring in the extra Oath of Ghouls, the Living Death (an answer to Mystic Enforcer and Meddling Mage), the extra Bone Shredder and the Simian Grunts (which have ambushed Meddling Mages in the past). It can even bring in Carrion Beetles as a threshold preventative – albeit a painful one. Survival only really does not want the Phyrexian Negator – and even that can be worth playing in some cases.

In short, it’s not what comes in, it’s how much can you take out?

You can argue about this one, but in my hands, GB Survival took both unsideboarded games, then won the first sideboarded game – in just under three hours.

If you disagree, see me. I’ll be carrying around a copy of my GB Survival deck for the next few weeks, and I’ll play anyone who wants a game or match. I’ll even have a proxied-up version of SuperGro.

Or, alternatively, we can play something from this century.


“one million words” on MODO

pete {dot} jahn {at} Verizon {dot} net

* Flash puts Protean Hulk into play, Hulk dies because the deck does not pay the extra mana, Hulk fetches four Disciples of the Vault and a bunch of 0/0 artifact creatures that also die, triggering the Disciples’ life loss 20+ times.