My favorite Magic format of all time was the briefly infamous Extended environment following Pro Tour: New Orleans (also known as Pro Tour: Tinker) last season.
That format was crazy. Vastly undercosted artifacts and Tinkers were everywhere. Entire games were decided by turn 3 or 4. Kai Budde lost a game in the Pro Tour to a turn 1 combo kill.
While most pundits were decrying the brokenness and utter stupidity of the format, I was having the time of my life. Although games were often over by turn four, they were the most intense four turns you've ever played. It was Magic Deathmatch, man!
"Tinker for Mindslaver, take your next turn!"
Degenerate, it was indeed... but man, was it fun to watch!
In any case, that environment is not what I'm here to talk about today. No, today I've come to discuss an even more degenerate tournament: Pro Tour: Philadelphia.
Say what, son?
You heard me. It hasn't been hyped as much as Pro Tour: Tinker was - mainly because of the lack of turn 3 kills - but the Kamigawa environment established by the PT is a good deal more degenerate than that Extended format was. Consider the following.
If you were in the Top 16 at Pro Tour Tinker, you played one of the following decks.
- A Blue/X deck with 4 copies of Tinker in it. (10 of 16 decks)
- A Psychatog deck. (2 of 16 decks)
- A mono-Red deck. (2 of 16 decks)
- An Oath of Druids deck. (1 of 16 decks)
- An Angry Hermit deck. (1 of 16 decks)
If you were in the Top 16 at Pro Tour Kodama's Reach, you played one of the following decks.
That's diversity, folks.
Yes, it would appear that once again, we have a broken format. Except instead of being fast-and-flashy broken like post-New Orleans Extended was, this one is slow-and-excruciating broken. But I have good news!
I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance!
Just kidding. Anyway, the real good news is that we can use our knowledge of how the Tinker format progressed to better prepare ourselves for the upcoming Kamigawa format. Sadly (for me, at least), the Tinker format was only around long enough for one Grand Prix before the DCI banned the hell out of it. That means we'll start and end by taking a look at the Top 16 composition of that GP.
If you were in the Top 16 at GP: Anaheim, you played one of the following decks.
- Red Deck Wins. (5 of 16 decks)
- Psychatog. (3 of 16 decks)
- Twiddle Desire. (2 of 16 decks)
- Rock. (2 of 16 decks)
- Tinker. (2 of 16 decks)
- Angry Hermit. (1 of 16 decks)
- Dump Truck. (1 of 16 decks)
Looks like Big Tinks took a bit of a dive, didn't it?
While the deck certainly did not get any less powerful since the Pro Tour ended, a number of factors gave it a higher chance of success at the PT than at the qualifying seasons that followed it.
The first noteworthy factor is the propensity for "merely" powerful decks to do well in an undefined environment like a Pro Tour. Decks that win only by generating broken effects like Tinker did can be foiled by metagame decks that come prepared to beat their strategy, but these decks will be nowhere to found at the top tables of the Pro Tour itself because such a strategy is suicide in an undefined environment.
If you brought a Reach-hating Ponza deck to Pro Tour: Philadelphia, for example, you probably would have done fine... had you made it to the Top 16. In order to get to the Top 16, however, you would have had to overcome all sorts of decks that were less powerful overall than Reach, but much worse matchups for your one-trick pony. Green, Red, and Black aggro decks, mono-Black control, perhaps even a permission deck...these probably got beat-the-hell-up by Reach and White Weenie all day, but boy were they happy to play against your metagame deck.
The second thing to keep in mind when figuring out what decks will end up doing well after the Pro Tour is that aggro decks tend to be a more popular choice overall for qualifiers than do control and combo decks. There are a number of reasons for this: aggro decks are typically less stressful to play, they usually don't have to deal with boring or overly complex mirror matches, and they rarely require memorizing detailed strategies for every different matchup. "Attack until dead" will get you quite far against everything but permission and mass removal.
If the Pro Tour: Tinker to GP: Anaheim transition is any indication, we should be doing some degree of playtesting against the Kodama's Reach decks from PT Philly... but we should be doing even more testing against White Weenie, the deck more likely to end up more popular throughout the season.
Still, I'll start by taking a look at the Reach decks - lest they be ignored and bushwhack you in the early in the season. First off, the flavors of Reach deck we saw in the top sixteen were as follows:
-Assorted Fatties. (6 of 13 Green decks)
-Gifts Ungiven/Hana Kami. (5 of 13 Green decks)
-Sway of the Stars. (1 of 13 Green decks)
-Snakes. (1 of 13 Green decks)
I organized these decks according to win condition. While Wolfman's and Fabiano's "assorted fatties decks" bear almost no resemblance to Nakamura's deck of the same classification, they all attack you using the same strategy: play a bunch of fatties, and defy you to deal with them. I lumped these decks together because fundamentally they must be dealt with in the same way: either have some mechanism for dealing with fatties and then some way to kill the player, or be able to kill the player before his fatties can overwhelm you.
Contrast this basic strategy to that of, say, Szleifer's and Herberholz's Gifts Ungiven decks. Regardless of how poor a choice they may be for PTQs (for all the reasons Gadiel discussed in "A Little About A Lot"), it is likely that some number of people will still play these decks at the season's outset - meaning you may have to be able to deal with the Hana Kami-Ethereal Haze lock. Even though other Gifts decks such as those piloted by Kenji Tsumura, Jim Roy, and Craig Jones did not play the Haze lock, I would think it a safer bet that the majority of PTQ players who choose the archetype will include the Haze.
Next we have Sway of the Stars. Olivier Ruel's build of Sway of the Stars essentially begins as an "assorted fatties" deck which, like several other decks in the Top 16, uses Heartbeat of Spring to power out fatties like the Myojin. It is different from those decks in that it also uses the Heartbeat to float a bunch of mana and cast Sway of the Stars, giving it enough mana to unload the contents of its new seven-card hand onto a completely empty board. Since the opponent will be at a mere 7 life, this will usually result in a game win regardless of how bad the board looked just before the Sway. If your deck has no answer to this strategy, you may need to be on the lookout for one if Sway decks rise in popularity as the season develops.
Finally we have Snakes. Snakes will be important both because it is a fun deck (and we all know how popular those can get), and because Sosuke's Summons recursion combined with pumpers like Sosuke and Seshiro give the deck a lot of raw power against aggro decks. While point removal may be sufficient to defeat the "assorted fatties" decks and their bucketfuls of slow legends, against Snakes you will need to remove not only the various legends the deck will throw at you, but also the horde of rampaging Snake tokens generated by Sosuske's Summons.
No matter how different the individual lists within each classification may seem, the important things to know are the key strategic elements they embody. Fatties decks will hit you with several big guys in a row. Sway decks will do the same with fewer fatties, but with the additional threat of Sway of the Stars. Snakes will have fewer fatties than either of these, but will compensate with the recursive threat of Sosuke's Summons. Gifts decks will have the fewest fatties of all, but will also have the option of locking you with Hana Kami.
Whatever deck you play, you must be able to deal with all of these strategies, and not necessarily by using a simple "hoser" - remember that the opponent may have a foil to your foil in the form of Cranial Extraction or Pithing Needle.
Now we come to the other major player to come out of the PT, and the deck which, if MTGO is any indication, may very well end up being the "deck to beat" for the qualifier season: White Weenie.
WW offers threats on four, count 'em, four fronts.
It hits fast with a very low mana curve. The bulk of its creatures cost exactly one or exactly two mana. It can dump its hand on the board with little fear from non-Final Judgment removal thanks to cheap counter-removal spells like Blessed Breath and Indomitable Will. Even if you stabilize at a low life total, Eight-and-a-Half-Tails or Shining Shoal provide the reach that any good aggro deck should incorporate. If there is one piece of advice I should give you for playing against WW, it is this: don't forget about Shining Shoal.
Hokori is a threat classification all by himself. If WW can catch you tapped out and facing down a superior board position, it can drop Hokori and just win. Even if you are playing efficient answers to him like Hero's Demise, Glacial Ray, or Sickening Shoal, these can be trumped by the one-mana answer of Blessed Breath, and more expensive answers like Hideous Laughter and Final Judgment will be hard-pressed to be cast in time when stuck under a Winter Orb. In order to beat WW, you must be able to either maintain a superior board position at all times (difficult because of #1) or have some reliable way to deal with Hokori.
It has a card advantage engine in the form of Tallowisp. The ability to tutor up "free" Indomitable Wills changes many Hideous Laughters from efficient board sweepers into expensive one-for-ones. Furthermore, it means that other potential aggro decks will not be able to beat up on WW's "smaller" creatures. Green or Black aggro decks whose mainstays are creatures like Takenuma Bleeder, Raving Oni-Slave, or Gnarled Mass, will find that their vanilla 3/3s stack up poorly against 2/2s with Indomitable Wills on them. Even worse, basing your strategy around cheap four-mana beaters like Yukora, Ogre Recluse, or Kodama of the South Tree will also get you wrecked by Tallowisp thanks to Cage of Hands. Aggro decks hoping to succeed in this environment must be explicitly prepared to compete with Tallowisp if they are to make any kind of pass at tournament success.
- It plays Umezawa's Jitte. Very, very, few decks in this format can ignore this card. (If you aren't familiar with why this is the case, I suggest Quentin Martin's "Welcome to Jitteland!" article.) Gifts Ungiven decks playing the Hana Kami/Ethereal Haze lock and perhaps Sway of the Stars decks are really about the only ones that do not have to wring their hands and sweat bullets because of this thing. Jitte is so monstrously powerful against most decks that my playtesting group has begun using the term "Jitte advantage" as a synonym for winning the game. Jitte advantage works as follows.
- If you have drawn more Jittes than your opponent, then you have Jitte advantage on him. This means you can trade with any Jittes that he might have drawn, while keeping at least one left over for yourself. Your unanswered Jitte will, on average, kill all your opponent's creatures and then the opponent himself, winning you the game on its own.
- If neither player has a Jitte, then nobody has Jitte advantage and you can play a normal game of Magic.
- If your opponent has Jitte advantage, his Jitte will kill all of your creatures and win him the game on its own.
There are exceptions to this rule, but they are so few and far between that they are not really worth discussing in a general sense.
Since White Weenie runs Jitte, you must be prepared to deal with it. The most efficient way is to play Pithing Needle; this will shut down an on-board Jitte as well as any future Jittes that might come into play. The second-most efficient answer is to simply play Jittes of your own. This lets you play the "Jitte advantage game" as described above, but a draw of one Jitte on your part does not shut down all your opponent's Jittes as Needle does. (It does, however, give you the additional "I win" scenario of obtaining Jitte advantage yourself.) There are other answers out there, of course - Splinter, Terashi's Grasp, Manriki-Gusari, and so forth - just make sure you can deal with the deadly Equipment in some capacity.
Finally, we account for the cards the White Weenie and Kodama's Reach archetypes will be getting from Saviors.
White Weenie will almost certainly be sideboarding - if not maindecking - Promise of Bunrei, and perhaps Charge Across the Araba and Celestial Kirin as well. If Kirin becomes popular, Pithing Needle may not remain a very good answer to Jitte; both Lantern Kami and Blessed Breath are one-mana Spirit/Arcane spells that will clear away any number of Needles you play and reactivate the deadly equipment.
Green decks are getting an entire set worth of new Legends to be fetched with Time of Need. Arashi and Reki are two particularly intriguing candidates, as are the Kirin. It would be worth your time to look through these and see if any of them will be likely foils or hosers for your deck - or if you're playing a green deck yourself, see if one of these could improve a problem matchup, or perhaps the mirror.
So this is the format as we know it. To summarize:
- Although it dominated the Pro Tour, the Kodama's Reach archetype will probably end up less popular than the format's aggro decks, especially White Weenie, for the qualifier season.
- The popular win conditions you can expect from the Reach decks are: Snakes, Gifts Ungiven/Hana Kami, assorted fatties, and Sway of the Stars. Gifts can be expected to dip in popularity as the season progresses, assuming it is as poor a choice for the PTQs as Gadiel tells us it is. Most of the aggressive Reach decks will play Jitte, and those with a strong white component, such as Wolfman and Fabiano's, will likely play Hokori as well.
- White Weenie will attack you on four fronts: with fast creatures protected by Blessed Breath and Indomitable Will, with Hokori, with Tallowisp, and with Jitte. Be able to deal with all of them.
If you are going to try and break the format with a deck of your own, these are the things you have to keep in mind. It would be difficult to bring different foils for each one of the different Green strategies, or for every single one of White Weenie's different attack vectors, so a better strategy would probably be to seek out a deck that defeats these decks on a fundamental level.
A Red/X or mono-Red deck playing Thoughts of Ruin and perhaps Adamaro could easily Armageddon a Reach deck right out the game before it could lay its first fatty. A mono-Black aggro deck could try curving out with creatures and then using Sink into Takenuma to empty the Reach player's hand. A Black/X or mono-Black control deck using Night of Souls' Betrayal and Pithing Needle (for Kami of Ancient Law and Jitte) plus removal could put up some numbers against White Weenie.
If you are instead going to take White Weenie or a Reach deck under your wing, remember in the back of your mind what cards and strategies the opposition will be using against you as you play and tweak your deck. Know that you'll be facing the mirror, or near-mirror, and know what cards will be boarded in against you.
The most popular WW mirror-match card as I write this is Empty-Shrine Kannushi, though Saviors may offer more popular options somewhere down the line. Charge Across the Araba and Celestial Kirin have a lot of potential for raw power in the mirror, and Nikko-Onna looks like a good way to counter Tallowisp and Promise of Bunrei.
Reach decks will probably take a look at Erayo, which works quite well with Divining Top. Swap the Top for the top card of your library so you'll draw it next turn, then play something like "Top, Elder, Erayo, Time of Need" for the flip. Ayumi, the Last Visitor and Reki, the History of Kamigawa also have "remove me or die" written on them under the right circumstances.
Whatever deck you play, and whatever your goal is for the qualifying season, this is the environment as we know it. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.
Good luck at those PTQs!
Team Check Minus