So, States has come and gone, and as the stories filter in the trend I seem to be hearing over and over again tends toward the control side of things, seeming to invalidate the initial belief that the format was going to be defined by White Weenie. At least in part, the starting point of the White Weenie deck does in fact lead you to a control-oriented metagame as the pieces appear to be assembling themselves as the dust settles, but mostly because the beatdown deck comes across as toothless in the face of a dedicated control strategy that is prepared to face it. It seems that is exactly what developed across most areas, with board control decks like Blue/Red Wildfire serving up a win for Adrian Sullivan and the tried-and-true Flores Blue leading to a second-place finish for that particular Star City Games columnist, losing to someone from his testing pool playing the exact same deck.
My personal finish was disappointing, struck low by White Weenie twice in a row when I thought I beat them fairly soundly, dropping games to their sideboard cards, Hokori, Dust Drinker and Pithing Needle. After early advocacy of the Needle in beatdown decks for this format, it had not occurred to me that it might serve a place in that deck when compared with other options, and so did not consider my weakness to it. Losing two post-sideboarded games to it in a row changed my opinion of that, as favorable as the matchup is otherwise. Watching the tournament progress made it seem oddly ironic that Ravnica's name in development was "Control Block", as the format in motion seems to be defined by control decks and exploiting the powerful cards available to Standard. I'm fairly confident that this will be discussed more in upcoming articles by Flores, as the most agnostically eloquent way of putting it was his argument and not mine, but suffice it to say that of the top five or ten cards in the format, only one of them truly suits a beatdown deck, and that's Umezawa's Jitte. The rest of the most powerful toys do not help the small men attacking, save perhaps for the beatdown-friendly Dark Confidant, which has not at the moment been accurately exploited.
While my interest is in the meantime extending to the Legacy format in time for a Grand Prix not so very far from my home, I think Standard still merits some discussion... but not until decklists and results start to trickle in to pick at and pore over. This week however seems like an excellent opportunity to stop over and look at Extended, just before the upcoming Pro Tour in that format, to get a sense of what can and cannot be done when playing with the format, and what is likely to prove worthwhile.
The recent bannings took out last year's Extended PT winner, Affinity, by taking out some of its most powerful cards, Aether Vial and Disciple of the Vault. While the deck will likely remain quite solid without those cards, it ultimately becomes a fair deck again, as does the Goblin deck without Aether Vial... or at least mostly fair. But the greatest change by far comes with four little cards, and an entire format's rotation, throwing out the old and bringing in a blank slate to work with. The four little cards that I am thinking of are ones I've talked about as format-defining before, in Standard.
These are some of the cards that give Extended a new lease on life, because it is a wonderful land of good mana backed up by the Onslaught fetchlands, allowing a two-color deck that has had the good luck to see its dual land printed in Ravnica instead of waiting for later expansions to have access to up to an awful lot of true dual lands if they are willing to commit to the pain, which can be reasonably affordable if you can accept a dual land coming into play tapped sometimes. (If you can't, you can always get a basic land of the proper colors in the meantime.)
Goblins and Red Deck Wins seem to be the key winners, at least as far as having the right to access White mana if they want to is concerned, letting the Bloodstained Mires and Wooded Foothills step in as Plateaus if that serves a use for them. Without Disenchant, this may not serve a great purpose for them, but it's interesting to note that they can play cards like Sphere of Law against other Red decks, or Rule of Law against combo decks if they don't think Pyrostatic Pillar is punishing enough. Sacred Foundry seems to be the "loser" dual land in this particular format, unless you think that White Weenie is good enough thanks to a splash for burn to face the usually quite powerful Extended metagame, or wish to build Good Form. A Red/White/Blue "Star Spangled Slaughter" deck revisiting that particular Invasion Block deck is of course possible, with good mana thanks to fetch-lands, Plateaus and painlands as needed, but this doesn't mean the deck is equipped to face the metagame, regardless of their Silver Knights and Meddling Mages.
Temple Garden doesn't seem like so much of a much initially, but we're at the part where things get crazy, because Pro Tour Junk has proven viable in the past, was mostly based on quality cards that did not rotate out of Extended like Pernicious Deed, Gerrard's Verdict and Vindicate, and which gets access to the replacements of Bayou and Savannah with Onslaught fetchlands to boot. A creature-based, anti-creature-deck strategy with cards flexible enough to apply to other matchups as well can also recoup the dangerous losses for using fetch lands and Ravnica duals with the life-gain of Umezawa's Jitte if they have to, which by the way I'm told is "a good card". A first-pass deck of this type could look like the following:
1 Krosan Verge
1 Wooded Foothills
1 Exalted Angel
1 Grave-Shell Scarab
1 Nantuko Vigilante
1 Kagemaro, First to Suffer
1 Nezumi Graverobber
1 Laquatus' Champion
4 Engineered Plague
2 Aura Mutation
Krosan Verge is a sleeper card that is quite nutty with these sorts of dual lands, letting you put two dual lands into play, and may be the sleeper hit in decks of this sort, replacing Tithe for pure card advantage and color-fixing if not matching it in speed. There's definitely something to be said for Troll Ascetic wearing a Jitte, and regenerators plus Pernicious Deed.
With so much in favor of the fair-but-still-nutty Goblin tribe in Extended, it serves as the starting point for building up the metagame, much like WW/r did for the past Standard metagame. Unlike there, however, I suspect that the sheer power of the Goblin tribe, which is in a fairly similar form in Legacy and dominating the format, will stand up to the rest of the metagame thanks to the power and synergy of its cards. A first pass at the Goblin tribe is not necessarily the best pass, but still a useful starting point at least for the purpose of discussing the other decks I'm going to put forward as potential players in the Extended metagame. Knowing full well that this is just a starting point, look to the following:
4 Cabal Therapy
4 Gempalm Incinerator
4 Goblin Warchief
4 Goblin Ringleader
4 Goblin Matron
4 Goblin Piledriver
4 Skirk Prospector
2 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror-Breaker
2 Siege-Gang Commander
1 Goblin Sharpshooter
1 Goblin King
1 Goblin Pyromancer
Facing off against the Goblin deck, you get solid board control out of the PT Junk deck, but slightly slow and/or painful mana development and dead Duresses. This is made up for by the dominance of Jitte and Pernicious Deed, and a sideboard that includes the full four no-fooling-around Engineered Plagues. Exalted Angel wearing a Jitte is pretty hard to race, I'm told. However, there are two more Pernicious Deed-based decks that may prove better, overall, and after I cover the other two big beneficiaries of good mana cheap I'll start poking around at the other decks, notably the combo decks. (Or else Aura Mutation will look silly in the sideboard, rather than possibly good against Heartbeat of Spring decks and Enduring Ideal.)
Going into Black/Green, you are again looking at a Rock-like deck, as is only to be expected. There are two different kinds of Rock, however, the beatdown version ("Macey Rock") and the more controllish deck based on Pernicious Deed control, good old Rock. While unspectacular against anything in particular, it's also not bad against anything in particular, featuring moderately good matchups against everything you can throw at it. The Rock is Extended's faithful wife, maybe not as exciting as the latest model but always there to be depended on through thick and through thin. Having some ludicrous number of Overgrown Tombs if you want them can't hurt either.
4 Overgrown Tomb
4 Windswept Heath
4 Polluted Delta
4 Birds of Paradise
3 Llanowar Elves
4 Mesmeric Fiend
4 Wild Mongrel
4 Troll Ascetic
3 Eternal Witness
4 Cabal Therapy
4 Umezawa's Jitte
4 Call of the Herd
3 Sword of Fire and Ice
1 Bloodstained Mire
1 Eternal Witness
1 Meloku the Clouded Mirror
1 Kagemaro, First to Suffer
1 Withered Wretch
1 Nantuko Vigilante
1 Ravenous Baloth
1 Visara the Dreadful
4 Engineered Plague
2 Haunting Echoes
Yay! Sixteen copies of Cabal Therapy in four decks, with basic Mountain, Plains, Forest, Swamp and Island all represented! Welcome to Extended! Green/Black decks with Fact or Fiction! Isn't that great? Good mana comes free when you can use dual lands, fetchlands, Sakura-Tribe Elder, and even Living Wish (for a fetchland, duh!) to get perfect mana every time.
I don't really think the beatdown Rock deck does anything special, but I said the same thing last year in the middle of the Extended PTQ season with much the same head-scratching motion involved. If you want to beat down, why wouldn't you play one of the three greatly preferential beatdown decks (Affinity, Goblins, U/G Madness) instead? Two of the three even play Cabal Therapy, if they want to! (Scarily, it could be three for three if it wanted to!) That said, it's a deck that worked last year in a fairly diverse metagame, and so it could work again if the situation develops properly... but my suspicion strongly favors it not winning in the face of more powerful cards. The control deck, however, is chock full of power cards backed up by excellent mana, the vicious disruption power of Duress and Cabal Therapy, and recursion on all of these things with Eternal Witness. Haven't you always wanted to play Troll Ascetic and Fact or Fiction in the same deck? Living Wish packs an awful lot of punch, between cards like Meloku, Visara and Kagemaro, has great utility thanks to the other problem-solving creatures, and fixes your mana besides! It may even do windows.
Effectively this is the descendant of the French Rock decks, which used Intuition as a splash without mana nearly as good as this and in a format with Wasteland, Dust Bowl and Rishadan Port besides. There, it was used to dig for the right card and break the mirror match, or maybe just prove truly ridiculous with Cabal Therapy. Intuition isn't around anymore, thank goodness, but Fact or Fiction can serve the same purpose while providing actual card advantage besides. Part of the point here is that this deck is not one that will lead to easy Fact or Fiction splits, and between the absurdly high card quality and the card advantage things should be smooth sailing once you live past the first four or five turns. [How sick would Volrath's Stronghold be with a Gifts engine behind it? What's that? Eternal Witness exists? Go figure... - Knut]
Slipping into the last "guild" in Extended, as it were, brings us to Black/Blue, the color of Psychatog. Psychatog has had great success in Extended as both a straight Black/Blue deck and splashing Green for Pernicious Deed, as well as splashing Red for things like Burning Wish and Fire / Ice, but without a Black/Red or Blue/Red dual land at the immediate moment it looks like the bleed from Dimir into Golgari may have to be sufficient. Admittedly, you can find Sacred Foundry with Flooded Strand and Mountain with Bloodstained Mire, if that's what you want, but my intuition tells me that Pernicious Deed may be the proper splash card. Psychatog is traditionally an excellent control deck, occasionally able to kill out of the blue with a flurry of card advantage spells, and there does not seem to be any clear reason to think this is any less true at the moment. While it's currently hard for me to think of Psychatog as a good control deck, that's probably due to my recent focus on Legacy in addition to Standard for States, and Psychatog is at the disadvantage there thanks to being a Blue creature in a metagame requiring eight Pyroblasts out of the Goblin deck. A few advancements in what the Tog deck should be playing can't hurt either, thanks to a few of my odd theories.
For the most part, I'm pretty sure this is the only "pure" control deck, as the other pure-control options are just worse than a Blue deck of this variety. The marriage of Black and Blue allows for heavy creature-kill, and thanks to Pernicious Deed there isn't a strategy based on nonland permanents that is safe from the 'Tog deck's destroying ways. Sensei's Divining Top is an odd fit, but if it's good enough to dominate Standard with land-shuffle effects, why can't it do the same in a deck full of fetchlands? Fact or Fiction conveniently clears the Top to see new cards as well, for what that's worth, and without Brainstorm around anymore this is the best way you've got to keep a card safe from discard but still accessible if you need it. Some of these sideboard cards may be a little "cute", like having one Brain Freeze, but that's kind of the point of having a Wish-board anyway, to have the most powerful set of answers on-hand when you need them. Try responding to Mind's Desire that way, it's funny.
There is also a Blue/White control deck, but it's not a "pure" control deck, and oftentimes it seems like a combo deck. That would be the Mirari's Wake deck, which I'm not even going to attempt to face here, as it is a painful nightmare requiring careful and exacting tuning to design properly, and that's without accounting for the mana. Like the PT Junk deck above, though, it can take advantage of the fetchlands to get all three colors of mana, with Flooded Strand able to search for basic Island, basic Plains, and Temple Garden. That Flooded Strand can do this is highly relevant, as it does have one more effect in a corner case, that being Blue/Green Madness. Madness often has one slight problem, mana inconsistency, to which Mike Flores once wrote the article "Single Forest, Double Island" about the difficulty of getting good mana in a beatdown Blue/Green deck. It had been common already for U/G to play fetchlands to thin out its mana base and draw better over a longer period of time, but there's even the possibility of getting one of your Green lands from an otherwise Blue source, thanks to Temple Garden. Match that with Chrome Mox's ability to tap for either color sometimes if you want to use it, if not actually count as an Island for the purposes of using Wonder, and things are looking way more consistent than they used to be. Nothing else really changes for the Blue/Green deck, except that it loses Daze and has to consider alternate disruption spells for in the meantime, which leaves your choice of Mana Leak, Counterspell, and Remand without leaving the realm of affordable countermagic.
This, of course, is without cheating on the mana and getting stupid with things, because with both Blue and Green sharing the Golgari guild, you don't have to play fair if you don't want to. I'm following up Psychatog with Blue/Green Madness for a reason, after all, and like I said, even Blue/Green Madness could play Cabal Therapy if you wanted it to. Imagine starting off your first turn with Careful Study, discarding Basking Rootwalla and Cabal Therapy. You draw two cards, discard two, and use those two to Therapy your opponent... not bad, for starters, and definitely not bad for a single Blue mana invested. This bears quite a bit of looking into, because it brings with it the impossible dream of beating down with a Psychatog + Wonder combination, and even helps you fit more Madness outlets into the deck! That's crazy-talk!
The theme I'm trying to show off here is that Extended is a place where anything can happen, often does, and it usually involves a careful balance of expensive lands and probably attempts to cast Cabal Therapy out of pretty much any deck that can support it. (Hint: Any deck can support it if it tries hard enough.) With as much color bleed as there is in Extended, thanks to an expanding wave of good mana for oddball deck strategies, the core cards will rise to the top... and those cards will be the least expensive, most powerful, and most synergistic cards in the format, like Cabal Therapy, Psychatog and Pernicious Deed. Some sacrifices can be made, like cutting Deed and Psychatog to play the entire Goblin tribe, but the high level of power and synergy is still a requirement.
For other unusual and interesting decks, an article was recently posted on the Mind's Desire deck in Extended, here on Star City Games (and it wasn't even Premium!). While it is a long read that details a long journey for the deck, I didn't disagree with its overall movement from early playtesting towards a tuned deck, and find it hard to argue with a deck running a vicious configuration powered by Gifts Ungiven. As with U/G Threshold, I suspect the deck should be taking advantage of Flooded Strand's ability to find a Forest through Temple Garden, and so his mana base should be short one Forest and two Polluted Deltas for the other two Flooded Strands and a Temple Garden. Having worked extensively on U/G Early Harvest combo in Standard, with four Yavimaya Coasts, to no complaint about my nonbasic Lands not untapping, my assumption would likewise be that turning four Flooded Strands into dual lands more than justifies the inclusion of the one nonbasic land.
My only critical belief is that I'd want to have more than just one copy of Mind's Desire in the deck, wanting at least a second copy to work with, and I'd suggest taking a look at it. Note that with as many copies of Cabal Therapy in the decks I've listed so far, one would think this might not be the friendliest time for the combo deck. For this reason if no other, I'd give serious consideration to running countermagic in the deck, and Remand may be just the card the deck is looking for: good against control decks, to save your countered threats to an advantage, great for tempo, and pretty juicy on a flashed-back Cabal Therapy. His solution of loading up on the ridiculously powerful Regrowth effects is a pretty good solution, though. Like the Mirari's Wake deck it generates a lot of mana and a massive advantage, but unlike the Mirari's Wake deck it doesn't play fair or pretend to be a control deck, pretty much ever. This is probably to its advantage, so long as nothing gums up the works too seriously.
Another potentially interesting combo deck should prove to be the Good Form deck, thanks to a metric boatload of incredible mana meshed with powerful mana acceleration effects. Like the Mirari's Wake deck, I suspect I am completely incapable of looking at the deck in as short a time as I'd have to get to you before the Pro Tour, as you have a very large number of sets to work with and a fair number of cards your opponent just can't answer, plus Burning Wish to work with your Enduring Ideals and effectively play seven copies instead of three. Continuing into the land of Red/White, and a deck besides Goblins that might be interested in playing Sacred Foundry, consider the following laughable but not immediately dismissable idea. Sneak Attack decks using Blazing Shoal used double-striking Dragons effectively to end the game in one hit, last Extended season. Over the past year in Standard, "the impossible dream" decks were occasionally played around with, the ultimate goal being to magically find a Mountain, Raging Goblin, two Burning Shoals, and two Myojin of Infinite Rage in one's opening hand, on the play. It's within the realm of consideration to see that these decks might be fused, based on their shared usage of Blazing Shoal, if such a strategy might prove profitable.
Yes, by the way, I did in fact just go there: the first Extended deck you've seen so far to play at least one copy each of the four Ravnica dual lands. Both Flooded Strand and Wooded Foothills find Sacred Foundry, and so you've got twelve Plateaus already. Flooded Strand also finds Watery Grave, being one half of the token Black splash... five Black sources off one off-color land. Wooded Foothills can find Temple Garden, allowing for an extra Plains in there from the four "Mountain" fetchlands. And Wooded Foothills can find Overgrown Tomb, providing the other five Black sources off just one land. Two slots "wasted" on splash lands allows for a total of ten mana sources of that color, which is about as many Forests as the Mono-Green Tooth and Nail deck played. On the one hand, this is less combo-liciously explosive than the Sneak Attack deck from last year, because it is missing all the juicy fast mana and extra acceleration, and, well, Sneak Attacks. To make up for that, you can always Just Win, getting the turn 1 Swiftblade hand and connecting with Blazing Shoal removing Dragon Tyrant. My thinking is that it can't be dismissed out of hand, and showcases the danger Boros Swiftblade presents by being the cheapest creature with Double-strike ever printed. (Bushi Tenderfoot doesn't count.)
Seeing the nonsense you can do if you really try hard enough, you'll see why it is I say that it's the lands that revolutionize what you can do in Extended far more than any other factor. So far, my top three sets for defining the Extended metagame are:
That's a really hard list, since there are a lot of important movers and shakers at work in the metagame, but Onslaught clearly wins for its half of the mana-enabling duo that is underpinning the very basic rules of what you can and cannot do in Extended, and it has a few Goblins plus Exalted Angel too. Ravnica is merely contributing the other half of the dual land equation... and will be outdated once the other six duals start rolling in anyway. Judgment sneaks between the two on the strength of the Wishes, and the strength of Cabal Therapy, even though it would like to be remembered for other cards.
I hope this has been an interesting preview of what is to come for us spectators this weekend, and a very simple first base for talking about Extended. Next week, I plan on talking a bit more about Legacy just before the Grand Prix of that format, but I'll mostly be using the time to compile statistics and peck away madly at a database of the Extended Pro Tour to meet you back here two weeks from now for a definitive, statistical look at the Extended format for the upcoming qualifier season. Hopefully this brief foray has been both interesting and potentially informative.
-- Sean McKeown
"And the world is drawn into your hands
And the world is etched upon your heart
And the world so hard to understand
Is the world you can't live without
And I knew the silence of the world..."
-- the Smashing Pumpkins, "Muzzle"