The Past as Prologue: Extended 1999-2000
Extended Season is coming. Soon. Extended season always plays out about the same - the Pro Tour defines the early metagame, a new deck smashes the format, then hated-out decks resurface as the hate disappears. Old archetypes are rediscovered: the Life deck, for example, was played at GP: Las Vegas years ago. The past is relevant - it will define what you will play at the qualifiers.
For this series, I will review each Extended season, one article at a time. I will look at the evolution of the metagame and highlight some of the defining decks. Then, since it is me, I'll also discuss a few interesting decks that floated around. Each article will start with a season summary, like this:
A quick summary of the 1999-2000 season:
Legal sets: Ice Ages block through Invasion itself (prior to Planeshift and Apocalypse)
Pro Tour Kick-off: PT: Chicago, won by Bob Maher with 3-color Oath
The Defining Decks: Maher Oath, Counterslivers, Sligh, Survival variants, Trix
New for the Season:: Trix, Squee-Bind, Turboland
Every Extended season begins with an Extended Pro Tour* that defines the early metagame. This season began with PT: Chicago. The primary card of that tour was, arguably, Necropotence. Necro was the best card drawing engine around, and decks either ran it or played around it. The primary decks there were Free Spell Necro, U/G Oath of Druids, Cocoa Pebbles, Blue control and Survival of the Fittest Variants. Then along came Bob Maher, Jr., playing Ped Bun's U/G/W Oath (a.k.a. Maher Oath.)
Free Spell Necro ran a number of alternative casting cost spells, like Contagion, Spinning Darkness and Unmask, plus Duress, 8 Drain Life spells, Dark Ritual, Demonic Consultation and, of course, Necropotence. The deck would aim for a turn 1 Necro - failing that, it would Consult for one. Then it would draw a ton of cards, wreck hands and the opponent's board, and eventually win with a series of Drain Life and Corrupts, each of which would fuel more card drawing via Necro. It was a classic Necro deck, reminiscent of Black Summer.
Free Spell Necro (played by Brian Davis in the T8, Designed by Craig Wescoe)
2 Skittering Skirge
Prior to the PT, Fruity Pebbles was a favorite combo deck. That deck sacrificed Phyrexian Walkers and Shield Spheres (Zero-mana creatures) to Goblin Bombardment, while an Enduring Renewal kept those creatures returning to hand instead of the graveyard. Academy Rector would be sacrificed to the Bombardment to find the Renewal. At the PT, however, several players added Black to their Pebbles decks, for Dark Ritual, Demonic Consultation, Duress, and, of course, Necropotence. Cocoa Pebbles** put several people into the Top 32 at the Tour. On a good day, it could kill on turn 3.
Cocoa Pebbles (played by Tony Dobson in T8, Designed by John Ormerod, Warren Marsh, Ben Donaldson, Tony Dobson)
4 Academy Rector
2 Phyrexian Walker
4 Shield Sphere
1 Aura of Silence
4 Dark Ritual
4 Demonic Consultation
3 Enduring Renewal
4 Goblin Bombardment
1 Mana Vault
3 Mox Diamond
Another strong contender at the Pro Tour was Suicide Brown, an Early Tinker deck. Suicide Brown killed with creatures that hurt, like Phyrexian Colossus and Phyrexian Processor tokens. It abused mana artifacts with Voltaic Key, and included critical silver bullet Tinker targets in Null Brooch and Crumbling Sanctuary. Back to Basics was a brutal sideboard card against the many decks that ran no non-basics.
The next deck to cover, and the deck that finished first after the Swiss, was a personal favorite: Counterslivers. Counterslivers was the era's aggro-control deck. It combined counterspells, removal, Disenchants and other answers with a bevy of small creatures that got large and evasive faster than most people would expect. What made the deck work, however, was the ability to fetch an instant answer with Demonic Consultation. Consultation would fetch a Force of Will, a Disenchant, a Swords to Plowshares, a Winged Sliver to loft attackers over the blockers, or a Muscle Sliver to make the whole crew large enough to be lethal. Hearing the words "Consult for..." spoken by a Counterslivers player was about as welcome as hearing the Sligh player say "Scroll you naming Fireblast."
The Top 32 decks had several built around Survival of the Fittest, in three basic versions. Survival of the Fittest is an amazing tutoring engine on it's own, and with Squee, Goblin Nabob and Krovikan Horror added to the mix, it is also a powerful card advantage engine. Raphael Levy's version incorporated Opposition and Tradewind Rider to lock opponents. Toolbox Survival featured a greater range of creatures, aiming for at least one with whatever comes-into-play ability might be required. Michelle Bush, and others, played a version of Tradewind Survival that also included the Enduring Renewal / Goblin Bombardment combo. That version was called Wheaties. (To make matters more confusing, the Survival / Pebbles combo deck was called Trix in the original Sideboard coverage, but Michelle later found a different deck to carry that name. Her reason: the artwork on Illusions of Grandeur has a rabbit.)
Survival Opposition (Played in T8 by Rapheal Levy)
4 Birds of Paradise
1 Ghitu Slinger
1 Gilded Drake
2 Llanowar Elves
2 Merfolk Looter
1 Monk Realist
2 Quirion Ranger
1 Radiant's Dragoons
1 Sliver Queen
2 Squee, Goblin Nabob
2 Tradewind Riders
1 Uktabi Orangutan
4 Wall of Roots
I'm getting to Oath, but first I'll mention the other decks that made an appearance, both at the Pro Tour and throughout the qualifier season. Worth Wolpert piloted a Hatred deck into the top 32. Jon Finkel, and others, played Forbiddian, mono-Blue decks with Wastelands and Dustbowls powered via Thawing Glaciers. Beatdown decks included mono-Green Stompy and Ball Lightning Sligh.
Coming into the tournament, Oath of Druids decks were primarily U/G. They ran a number of card drawing spells to complement their counterspell suite. Oath of Druids was primarily anti-creature-based deck tech. Oath decks would run just three creatures, usually: Morphling, Spike Feeder and Spike Weaver. All three are tough to race against. Moreover, the combination of Gaea's Blessings and Oath of Druids meant that the Oath player's graveyard kept getting shuffled back into their library, so Oath could keep returning those creatures to play.
What Ped Bun did with the Oath archetype was to add White for Swords to Plowshares and Enlightened Tutors. The Enlightened Tutors could search for Oath of Druids, but it also allowed the deck to run a number of silver bullets. Null Rod shut down the artifact decks. Ivory Mask shut down the Necro's Drain Life, Corrupt and discard. Phyrexian Furnace stopped Academy Rector. Trade Routes was critical in mirror matches, where Treetop Villages blocked each other. Phyrexian Furnace stops Academy Rector, and so on. Sylvan Library and Abundance is just amazing, and Enlightened Tutor searched for it as well. Bob Maher took Ped Bun's design to the winner's platform.
1 Aura of Silence
4 Enlightened Tutor
4 Force of Will
2 Gaea's Blessing
1 Ivory Mask
1 Null Rod
2 Oath of Druids
1 Powder Keg
2 Swords to Plowshares
1 Sylvan Library
1 Trade Routes
1 Faerie Conclave
1 Aura of Silence
1 Circle of Protection: Red
1 Crater Hellion
1 Gaea's Blessing
1 Light of Day
2 Mana Short
2 Oath of Druids
1 Phyrexian Furnace
1 Powder Keg
1 Sacred Ground
1 Swords to Plowshares
The Season Evolves
Maher Oath had a strong impact on the metagame. Maher Oath's silver bullets shored up the deck against the non-creature decks that could hurt Oath, and it could always smash creature decks. Creature-based decks had a real problem - any attempt at beating down meant that you could be facing a quick Morphling and a perpetual Fog machine - all backed by counterspells - and that deck would be at the top tables all day. Sligh decks found themselves shooting their own Jackal Pups with Mogg Fanatics to avoid triggering Oath. Sligh began running Viashino Sandstalkers and other creatures that don't stick around, but other creature-based decks had no such outs. Survival decks ran more enchantment kill maindeck, and more discard. Counterslivers decks ran at least 2-3 Duresses maindeck - and Ebony Charms and other graveyard removal, because getting rid of the Blessings could be as important as killing Oath.
Maher Oath also did in a few archetypes from the Pro Tour. Suicide Brown disappeared - the Suicide part was all too accurate against a deck that maindecked Null Rod, had a ton of ways to find it quickly and backed that all up with Force of Will and Seal of Cleansing. Cocoa Pebbles also disappeared, but only partly because of Maher Oath - it was soon replaced by a better Necro-based combo deck.
The PTQ season ran through January and February, 2000. At GP: Seattle, Bob Maher once again won with his Oath deck, this time with the typical Morphling / Spike Feeder / Spike Weaver creature set. The rest of the Top 8 included a second Oath deck, two Counterslivers decks, two Sligh decks (featuring Viashino Sandstalkers), a Hatred deck and Mike Hron's Squee-Bind deck.
Squee-Bind was a cool design that featured four copies of Squee, plus a lot of things to pitch him to. Survival of the Fittest topped the Squee-powered cards list, but the deck also ran Stormbind (later Ogre Shaman, which you could Survival for) and Mindless Automaton for card advantage.
SqueeBind - Mike Hron
1 Avalanche Rider
1 Deranged Hermit
4 Elvish Lyrist
1 Mindless Automaton
1 River Boa
3 Spike Feeder
1 Spike Weaver
4 Squee, Goblin Nabob
2 Uktabi Orangutan
4 Wall of Roots
1 Yavimaya Elder
Towards the middle of the season, however, a new deck appeared. As is not uncommon, it was built around cards that, up until then, went directly from the pack to the "trash rare" bin. In this case it included two trash rares - Illusions of Grandeur and Donate. For those fortunate few that have never seen the combo, it is pretty simple. Illusions gives the caster 20 life when it comes into play, and takes 20 life when it leaves - and it has cumulative upkeep. Donate allows you to get the 20 life, then make the upkeep - and eventual life loss - your opponent's problem. That's a cute combo, but what made the deck tick was adding Black for fast mana, Duress, tutors and Necropotence. Necro meant that you could spend life to find the combo pieces, and spend the life from Illusions to find Force of Will and other elements. Michelle Bush unveiled the deck at early PTQs and GPs, and called that deck "Trix." The name stuck. The deck became dominant.
Here's an early Trix list:
Scott McCord, GP Phillidelphia, First after Swiss.
Trix was fast. Very fast. What was worse was that, unless you had an answer in hand, you were doomed once Necro hit the table. Illusions would follow and the Trix player would draw a dozen or more cards. After discard, the Trix player would have a hand that included at least one Force of Will, other Blue cards and the Donate. If you were unlucky, the opponent would also have a Hoodwink, meaning that you would lose before you could even pay your first upkeep. Even without the Hoodwink, however, paying the cumulative upkeep was nearly impossible for more than a turn or two.
For a brief while, other decks were able to keep Trix in check with lifegain or enchantment kill (if you disenchant Illusions while the "gain 20 life" is on the stack, the owner takes 20 damage first.) Green decks, including Stompy and Survival, started running 4 Elvish Lyrists maindeck, plus four Emerald Charms sideboard, and relied on Spike Feeder for just enough lifegain to survive the first Illusions. Oath decks ran Seals of Cleansing and Spike Feeders. Sligh ran Pyroblasts and prayed to be fast enough to keep the Trix player from abusing Necro. Counterslivers ran Disenchants and counters and Consults and some life gain in the sideboard, and prayed for good draws.
As I said, "for a brief while" the Elvish Lyrist and minor lifegain slowed Trix. Then Trix made another technical breakthough that negated that - it started splashing Red for Firestorm. With that improvement, even having a Spike Feeder and an Elvish Lyrist on the board wasn't enough - the Trix player just cast Firestorm end of turn, targeting the opponent, the Spike Feeder, the Lyrist and himself, if necessary. (Firestorm needs a target per point of damage. Spike Feeder gains four life when sacrificed, so including himself meant that the opponent would still be at twenty, and the Donated Illusions would still be lethal.) Then he would be free to combo out the next turn.
Trix was not unbeatable - no deck ever was, or ever will be. It was, however, extremely good. Look at the Top 8 lists from a few Grand Prix that season.
Seattle, Jan. 15th: 2 Maher Oath, 2 Counterslivers, 2 Sligh, Hatred, Squee-Bind
Madrid: Jan 29th: 2 Trix, 2 Cocoa-Pebbles, Sligh, Survival w/ Pebbles, Counterslivers, Fish
Taipei, Feb 12th: Trix, Survival - Pebbles, Counterslivers, Sligh, Blue, Oath, Turboland, Squee-Bind
Philadelphia, Feb. 19th: 4 Trix, 3 Sligh, 1 Stompy, 1 PT Junk
In addition to the rise of Trix, the middle of the season also saw the increasing popularity of two additional decks. The first was Zvi's Turboland, which draw cards and built mana using Horn of Greed and Exploration, while running the same counters and Oath engines that the Maher Oath decks did. Turbo-land, however, would eventually gain infinite turns with Time Warp. Infinite turns is even stronger than constantly refilling your hand of counters with Sylvan Library / Abundance.
A deck called Three-Deuce qualified a few people at PTQs. It was G/W/R, and combined control elements, like Swords to Plowshares, Dwarven Miner and Disenchant, with burn, cheap creatures and Rancor. The name came from the power and toughness of a Rancored Dwarven Miner. Three-Deuce was a classic non-Blue control deck - it messed with an opponent's lands, creatures or critical components just enough to force lethal damage through on the back of fast creatures and an Incinerate or two.
Another deck with a similar approach was PT Junk, an aggro-control deck that combined fast, fat creatures with Duress, Swords to Plowshares and Seals of Cleansing. The original versions ran Hunted Wumpus (the cheapest, fattest monster around) and Simian Grunts, but its success was based on the ability to disrupt opponents more than to beat quickly. Hunted Wumpus was bigger than anything out there at the time - with the sole exception of Secret Force's Verdant Force. Simian Grunts was the deck's only method of dealing with Crystalline Slivers - have the Crystalline attack, pop out a Simian Grunt as a surprise blocker, hope the Slivers player did not have Force of Will or Swords to Plowshares. Slivers was a tough matchup.
Stasis was played by at least a few die-hard Blue mages. Stasis had appeared before. Historically, Stasis had included stuff like Kismet and Birds of Paradise with Instill Energy, but the new Stasis was built around Force of Will, and used pitch counters like Daze and Foil, and Gush, to return tapped Islands to hand. It won with Morphling - 12 untapped Islands meant the Stasis could pay upkeep on Stasis and pay to untap Morphling for six turns - long enough to kill most anyone. Cards like Rescue and Claws of Gix also allowed the deck to get rid of Stasis end of turn, allowing the Stasis player to untap and then recast Stasis before the opponent could untap. It was a particularly unpleasant deck to play against.
Legion Land Loss was another interesting archetype - in effect, a mono-Green Ponza. With twelve one-drop mana accelerants and 16 mana denial spells, it was very consistent - but it could have trouble against decks with Duress, Force of Will and counters. Elf beatdown is not fast, and if you don't nail some lands early, it doesn't work.
Finally, you cannot talk about this Extended season without talking about Jamie Wakefield and Secret Force. Jamie Wakefield was the most entertaining Magic writer going. He played in several Pro Tours, and his 26 land, 62 card deck "Wakefield School of Magic" was grounded in solid theory and understanding of the game, even if some conclusions were debatable. He was the most read Magic writer on the net for good reason - which should be reason enough to read this report: "It's All about the Dinosaurs." Sure, that report is actually from a previous season, but it is still about Secret Force and it is pretty close to a perfect tourney report. It explains the evolution and design of the deck, sideboarding, strategy, best plays in various matchups, and it is just a lot of fun to read. Here's an example:
Tom is one spot below me in the standings and we discuss at length whether he should try and draw in.
A very peaceful calm starts to pervade my being. For those of you who are religious - I can feel the hand of God on my shoulder. For those of you who are not religious - I can feel the hand of Destiny on my shoulder.
Yea, though I walk through the qualifier of death, I will fear no deck. For I am playing with the best fattie ever printed. He is my rod and my staff and he maketh my opponents lie down before me and get eaten by dinosaurs.
Secret Force was a mono-Green deck that featured a lot of mana acceleration, Spike Weavers and Feeders for combat tricks and basic beats, Creeping Mold, Elvish Lyrists and Uktabi Orangutan for utility and Verdant Force, a.k.a. The Best Fattie Ever Printed, as a finisher. Natural Order could allow you to put Verdant Force into play on turn 3, but the deck was far more versatile than that. Read the report if you need a decklist and/or more details.
Late in the Season:
By the end of the qualifier season, it was pretty obvious to everyone that Trix was the Ravager Affinity of the format. It was clearly the best deck and every other deck had to adapt to it. A few decks died, others started running maindeck Annuls, enchantment kill and other answers. Despite that, Trix kept winning. After all, Trix had the best card drawing, the best counter magic, the best disruption, and a two-card combo that could kill on turn 2.
At the time, the only thing that kept Trix from being totally dominant was that it was difficult to play throughout a qualifier. Very difficult. It required a lot of math - way more math than Ravager or the 1.5x + .5y Tog decks. Necropotence required you to calculate the damage an opponent could do, the odds of finding combo pieces and the odds of opponents having certain cards in hand - and to Necro cards based on that decision. Playing Trix was work, not fun. Ten hours with that deck left you with a massive headache, worse than any other deck I have ever played, even Bargain. Survival decks may have been technically more difficult to play correctly, since they had many more answers, but Trix required far more math every single turn. It wasn't impossible, it was just a test of endurance.
The DCI eventually took action against the Necro decks. DCI banned Dark Ritual and Mana Vault - the fast mana that let Trix players get turn 1 Necros and turn 2 Illusions plus Donate. Did it work? Well, that's a question for the next season, but here's a hint - at the Extended Masters season the next fall, after the bannings, Kai Budde was playing Trix.
* Okay, generally begins with a Pro Tour. One year the Pro Tour was Standard, and the Extended season was initially defined by the decks played at the fall Extended Masters series, but that's just a quibble.
** For reasons no longer relevant, decks in that era were named after breakfast cereals. Fruity Pebbles, Cocoa Pebbles, Life, Wheaties and, of course, Trix, are the most famous. Paul Barclay took on that trend with "Full English Breakfast," so named "because it's full of fat and much nicer than boring old cereal." But Full English Breakfast doesn't appear until next year.