I am writing this article super early in the week. I usually blow my deadline by about six hours but as you read this I am in sunny (?) Las Vegas, ironically sucking down lungfuls of tobacco-filthy wind in the otherwise enchanting Spearmint Rhino. Irony of ironies, there is a PTQ in New York on 3/1 ("tomorrow" presumably) and one [here] in Vegas the same day... However, I couldn't really leave my wife and kids for a week and either stay an extra day or fly in at 5am, dump off my stuff, and game again. So I am kold for the week. Oh well. I'm not sure if it is more or less ironic than last summer when I was actually in the same building as Grand Prix "San Francisco" (I was in San Jose) but thought that the GP was in San Francisco (per its, you know, name) so I left for New York a day before the tournament started.
All told, I am writing this super early in the week, so you might actually have better information about certain elements than I do while I am writing it; just saying.
[Writer's Note: A fair amount of that opening sequence, even if it was intended to be true, ended up not being true. I wasn't actually able to finish the article at all, let alone early, due to my planned trip to Vegas. Sorry if I missed you all last Friday; sorrier for my poor wife and kinds... I'm now off to Boston for 2.5 days to again play no Magic!]
For this one I went back and tallied the Top 8 decks as posted on the Mother Ship in order to prepare a mid-season SWOT for the present Extended PTQ season (people seemed to like the last one). Here is the running total I came up with for reported North American PTQs (not counting events from the weekend of February 23-24 [or now March 1-2]):
|G/W/B Junk (non-Doran)||*1|
|Other Blue decks||11111|
|Heartbeat of Spring||11|
|Stuffy Doll Combo||1|
I cheated a little bit on tallies, for instance lumping decks with Reckless Charge, as well as one or two with Countryside Crusher and not a huge amount of burn, into RDW; even so, these tournaments represented some 35 distinct (if sometimes related) archetypes. That is a fair number of decks to analyze, so I decided to apply the SWOT analysis to only decks that made more than one PTQ Top 8 and decks that actually won a PTQ (and all such archetypes have appeared in more than one Top 8 at this point).
Decks that Have Won PTQs:
Doran is a deck that didn't appear at all in the pre-Valencia SWOT analysis because there was no such card as Doran, the Siege Tower before Lorwyn. Doran can be seen as the natural evolution of the Barra school of Rock deck, making it faster with more two-drops (Dark Confidant) and a legitimate offensive bomb in Doran itself. Doran is hands down the most successful PTQ deck to date, tied for the most invitations (the most important criteria), but also a mile ahead in terms of raw number of Top 8s.
Strengths (positive internal attributes):
Doran is, in a sense, the fulfilment of the promise of The Rock. The addition of Doran, the Siege Tower and Tarmogoyf address the traditional objection to The Rock, that it as an archetype is set up to be a choker due to a paucity of legitimate and consistent threats and finishers. Doran can win the game more quickly than "traditional" versions of The Rock while retaining many of that deck's disruptive and progressive incentives.
Weaknesses (negative internal attributes):
On balance, Doran is not particularly fast and doesn't do anything particularly worthwhile. I recently heard it described as a very good Limited deck; like most "Limited decks," Doran plays creatures, has a couple of removal cards, and actively seeks to gain percentage via combat tricks.
Doran is one of the main Dark Confidant decks in the format; as [almost] always, Dark Confidant might just kill you. This deck can't control its topdecks whatsoever... "Proceed with caution" is probably an appropriate game plan, depending on the matchup.
Opportunities (positive external attributes):
Doran itself is a powerful tool given the shape of the metagame. For instance, the three-color Negator essentially blanks the most potent offensive card in the Affinity deck (Cranial Plating). However, I believe that the most compelling thing about Doran is that no one else can really "hate" Doran our. That is why Doran makes so many Top 8s... Extended is a format where we've taught ourselves to side in Tormod's Crypt against Dredge, Ancient Grudge against Affinity, and so on. Doran, as a decidedly non-linear creature deck, has no obvious weak side. Therefore while it is not particularly fast or impressive offensively or defensively, the fact that the opponents' tools are all so much less effective functions as addition by subtraction.
Threats (negative external attributes):
While specific sideboard cards do not automatically overwhelm Doran the way they do other decks, the power level and speed issues of the deck will quickly be revealed when it is paired with a deck that is just better on some common metric where both decks compete on what amounts to a common field of battle. Two good examples are Death Cloud, where Doran is generally out-classed on card advantage in a Rock-on-Rock "mirror," or Affinity, where its cards, strong as they may be individually, can look too slow, especially when precision in response cards is often required against an opponent with multiple kills inside of the first four or five turns.
All that said, Doran is the kind of deck that gives the spell slinger a large amount of room to play. Tutoring for specific lands can be skill-testing given its three colors, as players balance short term damage, the relevance of a play now, and the utility represented by a particular land as the game approaches a long game plan.
Dredge is hands down the most attractive deck to play in the current Extended. It has won the same number of PTQs as Doran, but with a better batting average based on the number of PTQ Top 8s in which it has appeared.
The most significant delta between Dredge at the Pro Tour and Dredge in the PTQs is the behavior of all the players around Dredge rather than Dredge itself. Truth be told, Dredge has not acquired anything in particular itself but instead has been benefitting from rooms full of less prepared players. In Valencia, almost every viable archetype re-worked itself to include third turn Collective Restraint, Cabal Therapy-resistant Moment's Peace, or / and a half a dozen (or usually more) 0-2 mana hate-driven response cards in the side. On balance, many of the PTQs that Dredge has won in the United States have boasted perhaps 24 or so total relevant sideboard cards, or "not enough."
The greatest strength that Dredge can offer is the fact that it will typically win Game 1 80% of the time or more essentially regardless of matchup, often on turn 2, and almost certainly by turn 4 if left unmolested; put another way, it is both the [consistently] fastest and most powerful combo deck in the format.
Even when an opponent deals with the Bridges, most modern Dredge decks can just go "old" school Ichorid and send the 3/1 team over and over. All these decks play a single copy of Akroma, Angel of Wrath as a Dread Return target, and anyway, a 15/15 Golgari Grave-Troll can usually end it.
The nature of the deck allows it to play only three Cabal Therapies... but to see them all with great regularity.
While it is certainly possible to play Dredge better or worse than some other Dredge player, it is almost impossible for a truly superb player to leverage his exemplary game play abilities beyond those of a merely competent player. Dredge is the tournament Magic definition of a giant blunt object... It is fast and powerful, but there is very little bluff to it, and almost no art (this is not an indictment of its expectation in any way but rather a set of norms to be applied player-by-player to answer the question of what some exemplar or other might get out of choosing it). Recognizing the opponent's plan is going to be valuable especially in sideboarded games, but at least as far as I've seen, what you do about that is probably limited to "Cabal Therapy him first," "bounce that," "try to win with Akroma, instead," or simply "race."
Dredge is a deck that is almost defined by strength, by opportunity. The sky is the limit for Dredge given the current shape of the metagame. Yes, Dredge is probably the most sideboard-vulnerable deck in the format, but its speed forces the opponent to have a cheap sideboard card very early. That means that the opponent must either mulligan aggressively or play a large number of sideboard cards (say eight Tormod's Crypts and Extirpates) in order to beat the deck consistently, and most people are simply not prepared to do so.
Because Dredge casts so few spells, it is less vulnerable to Permission, Counterbalance, or agnostic disruption, than almost any other deck in the format.
The biggest minus sign on this deck is that it often has no say in how or when it loses. Mogg Fanatic, Sakura-Tribe Elder, and similar cards are all hell on Dredge's key Bridges. Any Dredge player actually interested in winning a PTQ will be able to beat a lone sideboard card (especially a permanent... almost all the relevant permanents function similarly provided Dredge hasn't tried to "go off" yet)... but sixteen is another matter.
Gaddock Teeg is a card that has been cropping up into all sorts of decks that in earlier formats would have never been able to beat Dredge; Teeg, left in play, will prevent Dredge from playing Dread Return (even for free!).
It is certainly "threatening" to have to deal with an unlimited number of fast (0-2 mana) response cards; here is a real opposition between opportunity and threat: It is quite opportune if the opposition lack sufficient sideboard cards to deal with the fastest and most powerful deck, but threatening to say the least when evaluating the deck's EV in a prepared room or Top 8.
Arguably the most decorated deck of the current season, a Counterbalance Tarmogoyf deck won Pro Tour: Valencia. The transition to the PTQ season has seen this archetype morph largely from the Dark Confidant / toolbox "Chase Rares" version to Next Level Blue (properly Vedalken Shackles / Living Wish) or some variant thereof (say Force Spike, Trinket Mage, and Sower of Temptation).
Counterbalance + Sensei's Divining Top is a solid combo. If you can follow up with Tarmogoyf to cut down the number of turns that you actually have to defend yourself, you will often win needing little or so other action. All versions of Counterbalance Goyf have high card quality and relatively tiny mana costs, so they win a lot of coin flips and conditional races that will have other decks shaking their fists at the heavens. There are many games, particularly facing decks set up to present one compelling threat at a time, where Vedalken Shackles alone represents inevitability.
The Counterbalance decks are kind of stuck on a model of playing large numbers of particular mana costs (two being the most prevalent, followed by one), which presents an at least somewhat limited model of what cards at what costs are available for inclusion (though many "modern" versions present such eyebrow-raising non-bos as Gaddock Teeg and Cryptic Command, which is a four).
Counterbalance Goyf decks all have questionable manabases to some extent; the Chase Rares decks usually just mostly don't play enough land and lean very hard on their Dark Confidants and Tops to produce sufficient mana to establish the minimum game, but even the Next Level Blue decks have somewhat fragile manabases. Any deck with Chrome Mox will feature an at least nominal possibility of drawing some horrendous openers.
The greatest opportunity presented by the strategy is directly related to its core "combination" or synergy; I speak of course of the lucksack blind flip (and to a lesser extent the relevant card three down or fresh off a sac land). In addition to [probably] generating short term card advantage, these lucky flips are very disheartening and will put a disproportionate amount of opponents directly on tilt.
The biggest threat to Counterbalance Goyf decks is again directly related to that core combination... Because mana costs are so tightly chosen, the deck can often fall behind against decks with high mana costs like sixes, sevens, and xs. In addition, the deck has a tendency to "run out" (despite the Divining Tops) if the game goes to a certain number of turns, specifically against those kinds of spells that don't fall easily to Counterbalance.
These manabases can be very tricky, and even Next Level Blue which is mostly Blue spells is deceptively vulnerable to cards like Blood Moon and Destructive Flow which can help to neutralize sideboard strategies and just fix it first. The strategy is at least somewhat vulnerable to Ancient Grudge and Engineered Explosives despite not being a "linear" sort of deck.
RDW is... RDW. A straightforward strategy that few have on the conceptual short list, yet a potent one that can win any matchup as a function of tempo and finishing burn. In recent weeks, this deck has adapted to include cards like Reckless Charge to improve this speed.
The presence of Tarmogoyf in the format, now in addition to Kird Ape and Stomping Ground over the course of the last two or three years, have all contributed to the default of a Gruul-flavored RDW (usually splashing Black) rather than a Lightning Helix-sporting Boros with some Green benefits. Usually this evidences itself in the absence of that great Lightning Helix and the presence of Blistering Firecat (though as we just said, Reckless Charge has been weaseling its way into lists for about three weeks... Soon we will see the "super boner" [Chris Pikula] represented by four Reckless Charges and four Keldon Marauders).
RDW can do a large amount of damage with a relatively small number of cards; Blistering Firecat exceeds 1/3 the opponent's life total; the old Pat Sullivan math was that Blistering Firecat + Incinerate or Volcanic Hammer was half the battle. RDW competes for the best offensive suite in the format on the creature side, Kird Ape into Tarmogoyf, with consistent mana distribution.
RDW is fairly low on the power level totem pole. Its cards are good but its strategy is not the most irresistible. The deck will have problems closing out some combo decks simply due to speed concerns, and can have significant problems against mid-range creature decks on the draw which are functions not of external forces represented by those decks but rather RDW's own relative efficacy.
"No one beats a Molten Rain." Especially on the play with the Kird-Goyf curve, Molten Rain on three is just exactly what you want in a lot of matchups: a Time Walk that does damage. This deck can exploit the baseline inefficiency of the format, namely that decks start on 17 life. The deck can obtain (and theoretically lose) wild amounts of value with unusual splashes, specifically main deck Terminate against fat creatures (or conversely, against Zoo).
The presence of Mogg Fanatic main deck allows for a surprising number of main deck wins against Dredge, and its sideboard allows for the education of your job better.
Especially for a completely agnostic, non-linear, non-combo deck, RDW is infinitely disruptable. Just to begin with, there are numerous commonly utilized cards in the format that prevent a Red source from dealing damage. The deck is not great when one of its early game Legos is snapped out of place or when the deck misses action on an early turn. While it doesn't need a lot of mana to progress, the specific lands that RDW needs (one Forest source, often a Black splashing land early) can be exacting. This doesn't usually represent a weakness per se due to the automatic inclusion of many Onslaught dual lands, but can combine with opposing disruptive resources to represent a potential threat thanks to opposing Blood Moons, Molten Rains, or Destructive Flow.
This archetype has come to represent a fair range of strategies due to the hybridization of Gaea's Might Get There and the Chapin / Herberholz good stuff Zoo of last year's PTQ / Grand Prix season. All these decks pack Tribal Flames for five (rather than the four of the latter deck); most still run about three Gaea's Mights even if they no longer play Boros Swiftblade, and essentially all of them have appropriated Dark Confidant and Vindicate even though they no longer play Sensei's Divining Top.
Domain Zoo is a bigger spell deck than RDW. In a sense, it has the same capability to deal large chunks of damage with individual spells (here there are two different 1-2 mana spells that clock for five). The inclusion of Dark Confidant helps to keep the spells flowing and Vindicate is an obvious upgrade over Molten Rain.
While Domain Zoo has a lot of incentives over RDW, its manabase is no less than a coin flipping and operational nightmare. You will consistently see players who have broken for the wrong Ravnica Block land and can't drop their hand on turn 4. Some Onslaught duals can't get some Ravnica duals... It can be a mess, especially for the under-prepared. Then there is the issue of starting on 14 or even less essentially every game.
There are no specific opportunities represented by Domain Zoo beyond the intersection of certain of some of its specific creature choices, specifically Mogg Fanatic and Gaddock Teeg, with specific opponents, specifically Dredge or 'Tron.
Other than negative intersections between the deck's mana and the other guy's specific disruption, Domain Zoo also doesn't have a lot of specific threats trained against it. Its large number of best of breed cards - higher quality cards than Counterbalance and even more good creatures at each drop than RDW - due to its ability to play anything from any color gives it play that can loosen up tight situations.
Largely considered a shadow of its former strength, Affinity in recent weeks has been rebuilt to once again end the game on the third turn... This time, Ancient Grudge and anti-artifact hate cards may be too narrow and too slow.
Affinity is at least arguably the strongest and fastest linear strategy behind Dredge. It has the famous "fairy godmother" get out of jail free card Arcbound Ravager, and has reappropriated the even better Ravager proxy Atog. Neither one of these creatures is consistently damning for the opponent as the simple Cranial Plating; one or two hits will usually lopside a race.
Where other decks spend three mana and rework themselves to include and discard artifacts, Affinity has the same functionality for a lone U.
Even Shrapnel Blast Affinity decks need to do most of their damage in the Red Zone. While fast, Affinity is not the fastest deck to consistently win the game, and it can therefore falter against big spell opponents like Ideal or simply find itself raced by combo when it doesn't have the fast draw.
Atog is just fantastic against creature decks, kind of like a conditionally unblockable Abyss and Fireball. Blinkmoth Nexus and Ornithopter allow the deck to deploy a huge amount of potential damage without unduly exposing the deck to scrutiny or removal... The good guys can only chump block with Birds of Paradise so long. If the opponent taps out at the wrong moment, he's just dead.
Kataki, War's Wage; Ancient Grudge, the other Ancient Grudge; Hurkyl's motherloving Recall; the underplayed Shattering Spree. The best thing you can say about this list is that this year at least they aren't all packing or splashing for all four Ancient Grudges. Affinity isn't pinned as badly by its foils as Dredge is, but they are there, and they are all utterly devastating when aimed properly.
They're back! ... And this time, they're Black.
Goblins is one of the few decks that can balance a fourth turn kill with the ability to win a progressive attrition fight with two-for-one threats. Bidding decks can just go all in with a single huge spell, and even non-Bidding versions have a lot of leveragable critical mass thanks to the overlap of Goblin Warchief, Goblin Sharpshooter, and Siege-Gang Commander. Mogg War Marshall is about the best thing that could have happened to this deck, just bonzer with Goblins Warchief and Piledriver.
Goblins has almost no ability to win outside the Red Zone unless it is already in an inevitability position with critical mass, probably with half a dozen or more little guys in play each working at a specific role of mana production, untapping, or tossing ammunition.
Goblins is almost a gap design. People know to play Ancient Grudge and Tormod's Crypt; they know they can play Goblins-foiling cards... They just don't want to commit to, say, the full four Engineered Plagues. This is a clear opportunity for "addition by subtraction," where underprepared opponents pave the way for a deck that is simply less powerful than some other linear strategies.
If people actually start playing Tsabo's Decree and Engineered Plague, it's a race, and a race against the clock. Tsabo's Decree is a blowout printed on a six mana instant, and even one Engineered Plague can prove frustrating.
Ideal is essentially a one-card combo deck. If you can resolve Ideal itself, the deck will present an enchantment or sequence of enchantments that will dictate inevitability provided the opponent has not tailored his deck specifically to overcome Enduring Ideal. Powerful. Consistent. Somewhat deceptive (you can be mistaken for TEPS). Infinitely customizable and hybridizable.
While Ideal can mulligan to tiny numbers and still win, it nevertheless takes forever to actually win. Therefore it will often lose to just one Martyr of Sands or will give the opponent the time he needs to set up Kokusho and a sacrifice outlet, or Venser recursion. For the prepared opponent, Ideal is about the most beatable combo deck in the format. Subtly, Ideal is always on five life when in Phase III, so strategies geared to deal exactly five damage through defensive enchantments will win.
Ideal is difficult to disrupt without devoting space specifically to beating it (consider Duress versus Kami of Ancient Law). While it does not win "on the spot" when going off, its baseline combo will often give it sufficient time to utilize that time (say sequencing multiple Solitary Confinements with no cards in hand for three or four turns against Red). In that sense, Ideal is a combo deck that rewards play skill and pattern recognition much more than the other options.
If you want to beat Ideal, you will, essentially 100% of the time. The nature of Epic is that Ideal will not be able to defend itself so there will be essentially no post-Epic resistance. Kokusho + Cabal Therapy, Martyr of Sands + Proclamation of Rebirth, or often just some sideboarded Ronom Unicorns will be enough.
Death Cloud itself is one of the most powerful spells you can cast in Extended. A prepared Death Cloud player will usually dominate the opponent in three or four ways simultaneously while leaving himself a way to win, certainly some way to leverage his edge of three or more mana.
(For most versions) Planeswalkers are actually pretty hard to deal with; you know a lot of folks don't realize that you can't Deed Garruk Wildspeaker! Death Cloud itself and the fact that the deck is tuned around having an advantage post-Cloud is the biggest thing going for the deck, though it also packs essentially all the incentives of traditional Rock.
Traditional Rock Weaknesses: Speed, potentially a lack of threats, dictated specificity of response cards when under pressure.
Good against basically every kind of deck except for Dredge main deck. Awesome against Next Level Blue and Doran, two of the top three decks.
Simultaneously bad against Gaddock Teeg and bad against Dredge, even sideboarded. Teeg is less of an issue due to the presence of spot removal, but most versions can't really do very much while he's around. While Loam decks are not a huge percentage of the metagame, we've found that Cloud decks have basically no chance against one big guy and an aggressive Devastating Dreams.
'Tron again! Big mana, lots of power, plus control elements. If you can figure out a way around Gaddock Teeg, 'Tron is one of the best strategies.
In terms of raw power, 'Tron is near the top of the list. One of its many "stall" strategies is actually implies a win (pair Academy Ruins with Mindslaver and you will never deck and they will never do anything). Moment's Peace is actually a better card in the format than U/W's Wrath of God due to the speed of Dredge.
Mana! The lands themselves are a bit clumsy even with Life from the Loam, colors can be tight due to the 13+ colorless lands the deck has to play, and the fact is, the significant spells in this deck all cost about a million. If you take mana out of the equation, 'Tron just has to avoid getting raced... It's typically going to win otherwise.
I actually don't see a huge gap for this deck, though it is a fine example of a deck that allows its pilot to play well; you can't really underrate the capacity for 'Tron to get lucky and just lucksack the 'Tron in the first three turns.
Besides being raced early or out-controlled late, the main threat to this deck is Gaddock Teeg, and he is everywhere from Next Level Blue's sideboard to Domain Zoo's starting sixty.
This is the very definition of gap design. Beasts Rock is neither particularly fast nor particularly powerful, but it is resilient against particular brands of disruption and is just overwhelmingly potent against middling creature strategies. Who needs Tarmogoyf?
The main incentive is obviously the Beasts theme of Contested Cliffs and Ravenous Baloth grafted onto a traditional Rock build. Having played Contested Cliffs last year, I can tell you that there are just a lot of decks that will never beat you when you have one online. The Beasts Rock decks that have done well this year also have Living Wish setups and can find bullets that they need when under pressure.
The primary weakness of this deck is that it is The Rock, and The Rock is not "good" in any way in the abstract. It's not fast, it's not powerful, and in this case, it hasn't tuned a superior offense of Tarmogoyf and Doran onto the original model, instead travelling essentially 90 degrees more towards the middle (if you can believe that)!
The opportunities section is all matchups. Line up the right decks, and Spiritmonger is just going to ride all over them. Few specific opportunities besides being difficult to hate out, but then again, the threats section is going to be thin, as well.
Thin. I told you! This deck will often lose by being raced, overpowered, or otherwise out-classed.
G/W/B Junk (non-Doran)
If Doran is the control, Junk is the beatdown side of this equation. I don't actually see why the deck wouldn't want to play Doran, the Siege Tower because it actually fits in-theme... The Junk creatures at this point are all pretty efficient two mana / two power options (excepting Troll Ascetic) designed to curve into Armadillo Cloak.
Lowest power level of any deck to win a PTQ. No way to correct its Chrome Mox draws.
Nothing... and everything. Junk is not very fast all things considered, and lacks even a rudimentary Duress / Cabal Therapy / Thoughtseize / Gerrard's Verdict suite in the current builds. For the most part, if they draw it, they can play it, and if they play it, it's not going anywhere.
My Haterator - and even original PT Junk - roots have me happy with decks like this doing well... I just don't see why you would elect to go in this direction.
That's it for Part 1. This Flores Friday, the plan is to continue with decks that have made more than one PTQ Top 8, and anything important I missed in this article. Stay tuned!