Extended season is upon us. We are seeing results from two different sources: PTQ Top 8 lists and the Top 8 of online Premier Events. Both of these use the same card pools, and none of the critical cards are bugged online. Nonetheless, the results of PTQs and those of online PEs vary significantly. I’ll examine — or at least speculate on — why, and include a compilation of the results from a couple weeks of play in both formats.
I’ll start with the results from the PTQs. These are trickling in slowly. Neither Wizards site nor StarCityGames.com has results more recent than January 13th, as I write this. I have compiled the results shown, plus a few random finishes I have picked up in other places. (e.g. Cedric Philips wrote a report about winning a PTQ, so I added that result even though the other decklists are not available.)
Here’s the data:
PTQ Decks that made Top 8, January 1, 2008 through Jan 13, 2008:
Next Level Blue: 4
Countertop Goyf: 2
Flow Rock: 2
Others (all one shots): 7
For comparison, here is a list of decks that made Top 8s online. I’m indebted to the folks at PureMTGO.com for the data.
Decks that made Top 8 in PEs, January 1, 2008 to January 13, 2008:
Next Level Blue: 11
Doran the Explorer: 8
Red Deck Wins: 8
Gifts Rock: 5
Counter-Top Goyf: 3
Flow Rock: 3
Tooth and Nail: 2
Mono-blue Control: 2
Red Green Aggro: 2
Others (all one shots): 8
Here’s a list of the winning decks. For online, where the players split in the finals, I credited each with .5 of a win. For PTQs, I show the person credited as placing first. I don’t know if that is first after Swiss or winner — TOs vary in how they report these results.
Counter-Top Goyf: 3.5
Flow Rock: 1
Next Level Blue: 1
Next Level Blue: 1
Flow Rock: 1
Loam Assault: 1
What does this data say? Well, first, it says that the format is pretty wide open. A lot of different decks are being played. However, there is a hierarchy, with Doran, Dredge, and Counterbalance decks being Tier 1 (that’s assuming nothing in Morningtide proves completely broken, which seems a passably safe assumption). That said, the two metagames show strikingly different results. In the paper world, Doran accounts for 30% of the Top 8 slots, Dredge 13% and on down. Online Dredge has about the same percentage, but Doran has far fewer showing. The Counterbalance decks rule the online world. What factors might affect this: price, card availability, popularity? Let’s look at each.
(Note: I’m giving this a last minute read-through before shipping it off. Deadline looms. However, the articles and info I have read this morning seems to indicate that Next Level Blue and other CounterTop Goyf decks are beginning to have some success in PTQs. This could be a lag effect — the data I can get my hands on is at least a week old. If that’s all true, it probably means that MTGO leads PTQ results by ten days or so. Maybe, maybe not. If Wizards would ever get around to posting the decklists, we might find out.)
Price / Cost of the Decks:
The first thought that crosses my mind, when looking at online Extended, is that the metagame is skewed by price. Simply put, the archetypes relying on high end Invasion block cards are hard to assemble, and thus underplayed. This is true, but none of the decks on the Tier 1 list are cheap, in paper or online.
I went through some of the PTQ Top 8 decklists and priced out the cards both online and in paper. I used MTGOTraders and StarCityGames as price guides. I ignored any commons and uncommons that cost less than $2.00, and used SP prices for paper cards. The exact values don’t matter too much — the rough / comparative values do.
This is the four color deck, running Loxodon Hierarch and one Steam Vents, but not Dark Confidant. Online this deck will cost you about $ 530. In paper, it runs about $600. The most expensive card is the Tarmogoyf, which runs over $30 online and $50 in paper. Online, the next most expensive card is Vedalken Shackles, which has now spiked to about $25. (Popularity matters: I bought my pair for $2 each a year ago.) Engineered Explosives has also shot up in price. The manabases for these decks, including the Chrome Moxen, cost about $200 online and $230 in paper.
Not cheap, but if you were playing during Mirrodin block and kept your cards, then you probably own most of your deck. Until recently, none of these cards were hard to find. Currently, however, finding some of the chase cards is tougher, unless you are willing to pay a premium.
Dredge is the cheapest of the Tier 1 decks, and a lot of players run it online. I see it in the practice room a fair amount. It is also a lot easier to play online, since the program keeps track of all the triggers and sorts cards automatically. It also runs very few hard-to-find cards from older sets — the fetchlands, Ichorids, Cabal Therapy, and Coliseums are about the only cards not using the new card frames.
Online, Dredge costs about $270, with about half of that cost being the manabase. In paper, it runs about $330, with the manabase accounting for about $150 of that. It is cheap, available, and reasonably easy to pick up. It has downsides, of course — but since I spent a couple hours playtesting Dredge versus Doran the other night, I don’t want to think about them anymore.
Doran the Explorer:
When I first started running the numbers, Doran did not look that bad. Then I realized I had a bug in the spreadsheet, and it wasn’t adding in the sideboard costs. With that fixed, Doran the Explorer stood out as the most expensive deck in the format. It costs almost the exact same amount online and in paper — the sums differed by $0.30, as of late last week. Either way, the deck will cost you about $900 to buy outright. The manabases are only a small portion of that – $140 and $190 online and in paper. Online, the big costs are Vindicate ($60+) and Pernicious Deed ($55+). In paper, the big costs are Goyf and Ca$h$eize, with Vindicate bringing up the rear.
I would love to be able to play Doran online, but I will never have the cash to do so. I may get Vindicates and Deeds after the rotation — if they drop enough in price. I can’t justify buying them online at over $200 a playset.
Red Deck Wins:
A fair number of people are playing RDW online, and in PTQs. It has a couple advantages. First, it is fast, and can really punish bad draws. Second, Molten Rain can steal games against some of the unstable manabases out there. Equally importantly online, it is relatively cheap. Online it costs about $350, in paper about $500. The big cost, in both formats, is Tarmogoyf. The manabases are $115 and $195, online and paper, and the cards are readily available.
I see more Affinity appearing randomly in the tournament practice area than any other deck. That’s not surprising — anyone playing Standard in recent years may well have the cards, and the deck only has two expensive cards. Tarmogoyf, of course, plus Arcbound Ravager. Ravagers had dropped to under $10 last year, but have jumped back up to around $20 at the moment. The deck can even be played without Goyfs — look at the Toronto list. If you already own Blinkmoth Nexus and the Ravagers, you could assemble the entire deck for a buck or two, plus the cost of the Leylines.
Other Cheap decks:
Personally I have a couple decks I play online — but not in tournaments. I have a playset of Intruder Alarms and the Ravnica duals, so I can easily build the Elf Alarm deck. Breeding Pools aside, that entire deck costs almost nothing. I also have most of the Mono-Blue Control deck, although I had to replace the Stifles with Force Spikes, and I play just two Explosives. Finally, I have built a pretty close approximation of the Threshold deck from St. Louis. It does not beat decks with Engineered Explosives and Shackles, but I can play around with it.
Of course, I don’t enter PEs or 8-man queues with these decks. If I had the tickets to throw away, I would first use them to build complete decks.
Other Differences between PTQs and PEs:
The cost of decks is not the only difference between the PTQ and PE environment. A couple other significant factors make for differences – and I don’t just mean physical verses virtual here. The difference between online and paper play goes beyond the effects of cost.
One big difference between PEs and PTQs is that PEs happen much more frequently. During that period, I found results from 8 or so PTQs, and over a dozen PEs. PEs happen pretty much daily — and you can play Extended at any time, if you want to play in 8-man events. (PTQs are a weekend only thing, and happen once a month or so — unless you want to do a Tom LaPille and drive a couple hundred miles every weekend.) The once-a-month verses once-a-day thing makes a difference, in terms of playtesting, gathering/borrowing cards, the social aspects etc, but I don’t have any hard evidence as to the results of those differences. You all can speculate on the impacts as well as I can.
If you play in a PTQ, you can win an invite to the Pro Tour.
If you play in an online PE, you can win a “handful” of virtual booster packs.
That’s a significant difference.
Typically, an Extended PE costs 6 tickets to enter, and pays 12 packs to the winner and 9 to second place. Fifth through eighth place get 3 packs apiece — although a large percentage of the PEs pay double prizes. Even if the packs are worth $4 each, you have to win a lot of events to justify an investment of $900 for a Doran deck, not to mention the hours spent actually playing in those events.
I attend PTQs partly because I want to qualify, and partly because I look on PTQs as entertainment. I figure I am spending my $30 bucks (by the time you include lunch, it is at least that, even for Constructed) for 8 hours of entertainment. It’s cheaper than a movie. I play online PEs mainly because I want packs — and often play sealed PEs as a way to liquidate packs I don’t want to just randomly open.
All that means that the casual players in online PEs have less incentive to assemble Tier 1 decks for an event — although those with the cards are likely to play those decks and do well.
Depth of the Player Base:
One huge difference between PTQs and PEs is the number of players participating. The PTQ numbers generally range from 150-200 players. The PEs participant numbers range from 30-55. Online, the same player names keep appearing, both in the events and in the Top 8. Sure, that happens in PTQs, too — but aside from Tom LaPille and Cedric Philips, there are not many. Even fewer can hit more than a handful of the PTQs in their part of the world, much less all. Online, however, the same players could conceivably play in all of the PEs — and some appear to have participated in most of them.
The numbers mean something else — online PEs are generally 5-6 rounds, meaning you have to win 4 rounds, then draw in. PTQs are more generally 7-8, which makes decks that can just lose to bad draws, etc., far more likely to self-destruct enough to miss Top 8. Fewer rounds also makes it easier for a deck like Dredge to dodge the hate.
Level and Availability of Hate:
I have been reviewing some random PE Top 8 games, and have noticed some interesting things. First, I have been seeing a lot of Goblins and other small beaters, like Kird Apes. In paper, I don’t see these working — in my paper testing, I usually crush these decks. Of course, my paper decks tend to have cards like Pernicious Deed. Online, as I noted above, Deeds are rare and expensive.
I’m not the only one noting this. I heard tales of Sam Black online goblins deck, which went twenty-something and one in 8-man events. Sam took it to a PTQ, where he faced Deeds, and failed to Top 8.
For that matter, I have often played my Elf Alarm and Threshold decks in the practice rooms, and have rarely lost to Deed. That is certainly not because Deed does not wreck the decks — it is because I simply don’t often see opponents with Deeds.
I’ll probably be playing in a PTQ in two weeks, and I have no idea what to play. More playtesting probably won’t change that. (Getting a couple Tarmogoyfs, on the other hand…)
Online testing of Extended decks — at least on MTGO — is often going to be more random than testing in paper. Online decks are less likely to have access to tech cards, or powerful hosers. Of course, this depends on your playtest partners: if your paper playtest partners stink, the fact that they can play proxies will not save you.
“one million words” on MTGO