All of this has happened before; all of this will happen again. The wheel turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories. It's a New World. It's a New Year, and, as is always already the case, Magic is a game of changes. Even when the card pools stay the same, Magic almost never sits still, if only because the metagame won't let it.
As it is with everything in life, change is the norm. For me, these last few months have meant a huge backlog of work at the University, instructing full classes for the first time, and corrupting the minds of the youth. Hell, I've even gone out and copied Patrick Chapin and made an official Facebook page for myself, even though I'd said I wouldn't… (you can blame Star City Games for going out and starting SCGLive.com and making me feel like I ought to be helpful in promoting it). New things just happen, large and small, as a matter of course. For our game, these changes are made all the more obvious by the design of organized play itself: formats and their rotations are clear and explicit, even if the way the very changes are made sometimes changes as well…
Huge dramatic shifts in environments are regular but often somewhat contained. Standard has its large shifts yearly, and these are pretty substantial, certainly. The rare bannings and unbannings tend to have a dramatic effect when they hit, but the decks themselves don't shift around all that much; they just shift into greater or lesser prominence. Survival variants were around before the banning of the tutoring power of Mystical Tutor; that banning created a power vacuum that Survival leapt into; the actual contents of these decks shifted only slightly.
Massive revision about what a format is , though, is actually fairly rare. Right now, we're at the cusp of such a format in Extended. Worlds gave us our first real taste of the format, but by most accounts, there's still a lot of room to work with in the format.
If you're not aware of it, Extended has shrunk nearly half of its former size. Previously, Extended was a fairly large format, with about seven years of cards that floated through it. Now, it has shrunk down to what might best be called a “Super Standard,” double the length of Standard, at four years of cards. While personally, I actually think that a five -year rotation would've been largely superior, if only for that extra smidge of depth, really, if it's "only" four years, it will be fine.
In terms of metagame size, Extended still seems to be pretty wide open. Here is a breakdown of the top decks from Worlds, with 4-1-1 records or better:
Vivid Control (4CC/5CC): 8 (with one undefeated)
Valakut (all varieties): 7
Faeries: 5 (with one undefeated)
Steel: 3 (with one undefeated)
Elf Combo: 3
Mythic Conscription: 1
Doran Junk: 1
Now, of course, there are some “flaws” to these numbers when it comes to trying to think about what they mean in terms of valuing, specifically, the true worth of a deck. Because of the multi-format nature of the event, we can't truly use the Swiss rounds to think of it as a real “sifting” mechanism; it's better than nothing, but it's still flawed.
If you think about it, there really isn't very much in the way of “new” here. Prismatic Omen/Valakut was certainly the big innovation of Worlds, with the Tempered Steel “faux-Affinity” deck being the other. Everything else is, essentially, something quite a bit older.
The recent PTQ in Amsterdam gives us a little more to chew on, adding the following results to parse:
Jund: 2nd and 5th/8th
Wargate: 3rd/4th and 5th/8th
U/W Control: 5th/8th
Add onto this, the recent PTQ on Magic Online ( helpfully supplied by Star City. )
Faeries: 1st and 5th/8th
Mythic Conscription: 2nd (piloted by our own Cedric Phillips!)
Splinter Twin Combo: 3rd/4th
Ooze Shaman: 5th/8th
Wargate Valakut: 5th/8th
If we look at the rest of the Top 32, there's a fair amount to look to that is revealing. In total, we have:
Faeries: 8 (including the winner)
U/W Control: 2
Elves Combo: 2
Red Burn: 1
Vivid Control: 1
B/W Tokens: 1
White Weenie: 1
Mythic Conscription: 1
Splinter Twin Combo: 1
Ooze Shaman: 1
Aggregating them all:
(Single results from: Splinter Twin Combo, Ooze Shaman, Red Burn, B/W Tokens, White Weenie, NayaBant, Merfolk, and Doran Junk.)
If there's something fairly familiar about this list of decks, it should be no surprise. Extended really is “Super Standard.”
With the shifting of the format of Extended, currently the current sets are legal: Lorwyn block, Shards block, Zendikar block, Scars block, M10, M11.
This really, really, really is not much.
If you want to know a secret about Extended, it's this:
Extended is just the best decks of Standard from the last few years.
This is a smidge hyperbolic, of course. If you want to know a little bit more than that, think of it like this: this Extended format takes a few (a very few) Standard formats and adds cards onto them. In a way, this format really is just a modified Ultimate Standard Tournament, albeit with only a few legal formats to be used. The formats in question are:
- Standard after Alara Reborn (circa April 2009 until July 2009; GP Sao Paulo, Seattle)
- Standard after M10 (circa July 2009 until October 2009, US Nationals)
- Standard after Rise of the Eldrazi (circa April 2010 until July 2010; GP Manila, GP Sendai, GP DC)
- Standard after M11 (circa July 2010 until October 2010; US Nationals)
- to a lesser extent, Standard after Scars of Mirrodin (circa now; Worlds 2010)
Obviously, these decks don't get to just get ported, card-for-card. What they do get to do is get pumped up by all of the other sets that are available. Those particular moments represent the fullest moments for each of their formats. In each moment, seven sets were legal, which, with the exception of 10th Edition cards from the April 2009 era, are all legal.
Let's cover the current Standard moment first, because, in many ways, it's the least significant in its influence on Extended. The biggest reason for this is that it's made up of a “mere” five sets, instead of a “full” seven.
If we break down the top decks at Worlds, we get this:
B/U Control: 8
U/W Control: 5
B/R Vampires: 2
(Single results from: Elves, BUG Control, Red Burn, and WW Quest)
Even here, a fairly large number of decks emerge that are current to Extended. Yes, some of these are incredibly broad swathes of the archetypes. The Standard Valakut lists and the Cryptic Command/Prismatic Omen lists are worlds apart from each other in some ways. Again, though, this is a fairly rough approximation. Other than BUG Control, Vampires, and Boros, this list is somewhat represented in current Extended.
Obviously, there's the question of the broadness of archetypes. But, the fact remains that there are cards that influence current Extended builds that exist in these decks. Grave Titan and Wurmcoil Engine are showing up in Extended Vivid Control decks, and U/W is influenced by Standard U/W. Valakut and B/U Control are simply dominated, from a game theory standpoint, by Wargate and Faeries, respectively (though, some “traditional” Valakut decks still exist). This does raise the question about whether Boros, Vampires, and BUG might be something worth exploring. But, let's look at some deeper formats first, by compiling the other eras.
The results are probably not particularly surprising. If we wrap in the numbers above, we have the following:
Jund (including variants like 4C Jund): 22
U/W Control and Superfriends: 14
Mythic Conscription: 12
B/W Tokens: 11
Next Level Bant: 9
Doran Junk: 5
Nelson Mannequin: 4
Red Burn: 3
White Weenie: 3
U/W Conscription: 3
(Other decks include, Naya-Jund Cascade, Valakut Ramp, RUG Control, U/G CrabVine, Allies, Green Eldrazi, R/W Control, Reveillark, W/G Beats, and B/G Elves.)
After looking over all of these events, it's unsurprising to me to see the level of diversity in the Top 32 of the MODO PTQ from this week, if only because there are so many things from which a deck could potentially be based.
The point of this exercise is simple: you can't simply port these decks over, card-for-card. What you can do is look to the past to see what has worked in the past, and what you can use so that you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Constantly, I see people working on a deck, working on a deck, working on a deck, trying to fix some matchup, when the solution is something that already existed, but they weren't aware of it. You always need to test to verify theory, but at the same time, when you have a body of history to be working upon, it's worth checking into.
Magic, for the most part, is a meritocracy. Or, at least it is, in aggregate. If you get enough people working on a deck, you'll quickly discover that there are ways in which a matchup moves. Faeries, in general, for example, is likely to beat a more traditional controlling deck. If you try to out-control Faeries, in general, you're going to lose. The ways that people have done it in the past have been through very particular means, generally by dodging the traditional control war in favor of another path. Remembering this can be a big deal when it comes to approaching small problems.
These lists from the past are reminders of what has really worked and really withstood the trial by fire. They can still be pushed out in a new ecosystem by bigger, stronger beasts, but, if given a chance, they might well supply something particularly of value.
Some of the definite holes I see that seem worthy of exploiting:
1) U/W and Superfriends
Clearly there are U/W Control decks that exist and are relevant, even in Extended. Sam Stoddard recently asked for a U/W deck that could somehow beat Faeries. This task might be beyond the reach of the deck. But if we look at a deck like the following, maybe there is something to be built upon that stretches beyond U/W:
In twelfth place, finishing right behind it was a deck that seemed to be largely this deck's clone. While turning U/W into Superfriends only adds, from the past, Ajani Vengeant, you get to be more than a mere Superfriends deck; you get to be super Superfriends. Adding in a card like Volcanic Fallout seems like a pretty clear potential auto-include, and with those two decks mixed, it might have the potential to be a contender.
2) Mythic Conscription
Cedric Phillips' recent performance to the finals of the MODO PTQ reminded the world that this deck exists. His list is particularly straightforward:
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 3 Dauntless Escort
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Sovereigns of Lost Alara
Many people took note of the way that his Kitchen Finks largely failed to perform against Faeries (settling the debate of Finks against Faeries perhaps?) and said that if he'd had Great Sable Stag, he surely would've won this finals. Whether that's the case or not, he may not have actually arrived at this high of a finish if he hadn't had the Finks. I've watched his Top 8 (and the last two rounds of the Swiss) a few times now, and I have to say, this deck is a clear reminder of why these “old” decks are still incredibly relevant.
There really is very little that this deck is doing that borrows from outside of its Standard moment. It gets to run Mana Leak and a few lands. This is an incredibly minor update, and it really speak to just how little you need to do to these old Standard decks to make them powerful.
3) B/W Tokens
Ah, B/W Tokens. This was a deck that, for the longest time, I was basically pretty confident was a weak version of Brian Kowal's Boat Brew. Up until, that is, the printing of Alara Reborn, which really ended up making it blow up into the superior deck of the two.
It's fairly unsurprising to me, then, that a B/W Tokens deck did well at the MODO PTQ:
It doesn't really do much to update itself, either. It has some unusual choices (Marsh Flitter always struck me as a somewhat weak choice for this archetype, but it's a “real” card). I've always preferred this list:
World Poker Tour Bracelet Winner John Stolzmann's list strikes me as a more fundamentally unified list in what it's doing. The MODO list is updated with current lands, Eldrazi Monument, and Doom Blade. Some of these are certainly potentially portable from the Stolzmann list.
Comparing these two lists is pretty intriguing (see this link for the direct side by side – god bless Star City Games database). The choice between Path and Doom Blade is largely a question of metagame. With a deck that was so powerful in its moment (particularly a moment where it was largely believed to be a Faeries killer), updating the Stolzmann list or modifying the Ceobry01 list seems like it would bear a lot of fruit.
4) Next Level Bant
You might not actually remember this deck if you weren't playing Magic when Vengevine was printed. Fortunately, you don't have to:
- 2 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Borderland Ranger
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 2 Ranger of Eos
- 1 Scute Mob
- 4 Sea Gate Oracle
- 2 Sphinx of Lost Truths
- 4 Vengevine
- 4 Wall of Omens
If this deck is going to look for any help anywhere, it would be from Lorwyn block. Here, you're supplied with a whole ton of lands which might make things a little more toasty, and, of course, everyone's favorite blue card, Cryptic Command. Now, Cryptic Command might not be able to be played in this deck, if only because the blue demands from Cryptic are so intense, but it certainly seems like something worth exploring. What are the incentives to this deck? To my mind, they're primarily the power of playing Vengevines in a deck that gets to back them up with planeswalkers. The regular bogeyman to bring up, of course, is Faeries. It simply might not be possible to fight the fight against Faeries that you want to with this deck and play Cryptic Command. Mana Leak, however, is still clearly relevant. Remember Mythic Conscription and how it put up a powerful fight in the current Extended and is almost certainly a deck to make note of. Great Sable Stag doesn't just necessarily fit into Mythic Conscription – it can also make the cut in NL Bant.
And of course…
Here are two noteworthy lists:
This list has a lot going for it that I like. It's simple and straightforward. It looks very much like it does what it ought to do, in general. It's not, as I've talked about in the past, Red Deck Wins, though. And I think it could use some honing.
My first thought is one that I always have when I see Hellspark and Hell's Thunder: why on earth are you only playing 24 land? This is a colossal mistake for a deck like this. You're asking to make your deck into an extra die roll when you do that to yourself. Play 25. Just do it. To make the cut, the weakest card is easily your extra Burst Lightning. Previous to this PTQ, I would've suggested that you hedge your bets and cut one Blaze for the sideboard, but as “only” 28 of the 32 decks in the format were creature decks, maybe you should keep it.
The sideboard is a little frustrating. Whenever I see someone running Leyline of Punishment, I think to myself, “This is probably a mistake.” When I see them running four Leylines of Punishment, I know it is. If you run this card at all, it should be maxed at a one-of. If you even bother to run it. Manabarbs is similarly problematic here, though still has, at least a point. If we were to update this list, I'd probably make it look something like this:
This deck absolutely takes some small bows from Anthony Eason's 2010 US National Team qualifying list, a smidge from Michael Jacob, and mixes it up with some of my own experiences as well. The one thing you don't want to be doing with a deck like this is messing around with cards like Leyline. Have your cards do damage or just break something. It's fully possible that this deck might end up needing a card like that, but if so, go towards Everlasting Torment, a card that does far more work for you.
A similar list was recently mentioned by LSV, apparently from Owen Turtenwald. This list is quite a bit closer to the Sligh end of things but still includes Hellspark.
Here, without running the Hell's Thunder, this deck might not actually need to go to 25 land. I'd still probably find room for Spires, though, and I might make the exact same cut. I'd definitely need to do more testing to figure that out, though, whereas with the first list, based on my experience, I feel vastly confident that that is the way to go.
Some parting thoughts…
There are clearly many, many more decks from the past that could stand to be examined. I know that I've been looking at a number of other decks, without as much promise as I'd like. I've built a Turbo Fog deck that's surprisingly better than I thought it would be but still bad enough to lose 100 DCI points in 2-man queues. I've updated my US Nationals version of Merfolk, but it still seems like there's something missing. There's always, of course, Red, which always makes me get a twinge excited.
I'm not sure what I'll be playing. This last year has largely been frustrating for me with regards to Magic. I'm spending a lot of time in school, both teaching and working on what looks like an endless PhD program. At the same time, I still love the work that goes into academia. The rigor that it requires reminds me an awful lot of Magic.
I know that I'm incredibly excited for the opening of SCGLive. Wow! Talk about exciting. I'm definitely pumped to be doing coverage for you all and making it as good as it can be. I started doing Magic coverage around 1998, so it's exciting for me to be doing this semi-regularly again. In a lot of ways, I'll probably be doing it in the same way that I'll be doing this column: as often as I can.
Partly in order to promote SCGLive and partly just to stay in touch with the Magic community more, I've finally embraced Twitter. For those of you who care about such things, follow me @AdrianLSullivan. If you'd like to see more of my Magic thoughts, you should definitely check out my fledgling official Facebook page, where I'll often be putting out thoughts here and there. And if you see me at any of the events, feel free to come up to me and say hello; if I'm too busy to have a real conversation, I apologize, just bear with me.
2011 is going to be a great year. Goodbye, 2010! Same as always, it's time to bring in the new!
Until next time,