I've never been as stumped by a format as much as I am this Extended season. There are so many powerful strategies you can expect to face on your way to a PTQ win that I'm not at all sure how you cover them all. On one extreme, you have Mono Red Burn, the fast, straightforward, and efficient aggro deck. All the way on the other side of the format, you've got the hyper-resilient Tezzeret decks. Then you've got combo decks like Hypergenesis, Dredge, and Scapeshift that each require different game plans to beat. How do you get a handle on this format? I have nothing to grab onto.
At least I didn't, until Faeries hit the scene. If you think I was feeling bad about this format before, you should have seen me the first time somebody cast Mistbind Clique against me. (And the second"¦and the third"¦and the fourth; there goes my PTQ.) Trying to beat faeries for me is like mastering the piano. To a lucky few, it comes naturally and they're playing Beethoven at three years old. As for the rest of us, we've got to work really hard at it.
So now I'm completely stumped. I can find reasons not to play any established deck, and what I really want to do is bring my own deck to the table. I like playing my own deck in a field like this, as long as I have confidence in it. One thing I'm not willing to do at this point is play the deck that I know doesn't have the best shot of winning the PTQ. However, I feel like if you can craft a strategy for each matchup and test each matchup, you'll have a good edge over your opponent who won't know as much about what's going on. This is how I did somewhat decent last year with Martyr of Sands; the deck had some pretty good trumps.
Meanwhile, I've been playing Tezzeret a decent amount in testing. I haven't gotten under the hood and tweaked anything yet, I've just been messing around with LSV's list from a few weeks ago. Yes, the deck is very hard to play. The deck is packed full of choices with cards like Gifts Ungiven, Tolaria West, and Trinket Mage. I've also found that the deck requires you to properly manage the cards in your deck as a resource, kind of like the Mystical Teachings decks had done in the past. Knowing how and when to use your three Cryptic Commands, two [card tezzeret the seeker]Tezzeret[/card], one Muddle the Mixture, etc., can be very challenging.
The primary culprit for the deck's difficulty is Gifts Ungiven. This card creates a complex subgame where you need to think like your opponent. Which four cards can you grab to make them give you the two you want? That's hard enough without factoring in mind games like grabbing two cards you don't want right away, then "agonizing" over two cards you knew you wanted from the start. I've also found that in long games Gifts Ungiven puts a real strain on your deck's resources. When you cast Gifts Ungiven for [card tezzeret the seeker]Tezzeret[/card], Cryptic Command, Thirst for Knowledge, and another Gifts Ungiven, you’re setting yourself up to have a hard time in the long game. Each wasted Tezzeret and Cryptic Command can really hurt. In those situations I felt like my Gifts Ungiven were lacking.
I have a theory and I want to test it:
There is a perfect Gifts pile for any matchup, and after Gifting for that pile, assuming you've done other things this game, you should win.
More broadly, there is a perfect Gifts pile for every situation, but you can't build a deck that can handle every situation. What you can do after you know each matchup, is build Gifts piles into your deck for the common situations you expect to see in each matchup. Now this is just a theory. I'm not saying it is necessarily true, but it's worth a shot. Last season I told myself there was a Gifts pile that set you up to win the game and I wanted to find it. What I came up with was [card kiki-jiki, mirror breaker]Kiki-Jiki[/card], Pestermite, Reveillark, and Body Double. What I'm thinking about now is instead of making a very proactive and general Gifts pile, I want to make specific Gifts piles with pinpoint accuracy.
Based off of the numbers from Jeremy Fuentes' last article, this is roughly the metagame from top to bottom:
Zoo – Tribal
Zoo – Rubin
There are more decks below this like All-In Red, Doran, Hypergenesis, Hive Mind, Elves!, and Death Cloud, but the above decks are the ones I feel you have a reasonable shot of facing at a PTQ, and this article needs to be somewhere under 4,000 words.
It's hard to make Gifts piles entirely from scratch, but hopefully as we go we'll start to see a pattern. I also don't mind including hyper-specific cards at this point, and some pieces of certain packages will likely find their way into the sideboard. We know we're playing blue, and hopefully enough overlaps will make our other colors clear. It's not like the whole deck is going to be one-of Gifts targets, so we're going to need some structure near the end.
This has been a tricky matchup for me because even Martyr can lose to a timely Flames of the Blood Hand. Kitchen Finks has been a good card for me, and he has a very flexible mana cost. Circle of Protection: Red unanswered is probably the best thing the deck can do post sideboard, though some red decks are playing Pithing Needle or Everlasting Torment, so Cop: Red can't be your only plan. Other lifegain spells include Pulse of the Fields and even Aven Riftwatcher, though I've definitely still lost with all of these spells before, so in no way do they spell game over. Creatures with toughness are pretty good as they significantly hurt Spark Elemental and friends, which is why Rhox War Monk is so brutal. I imagine Loxodon Hierarch fits into the same camp. Maybe weaving something like Tarmogoyf into the deck's main strategy will provide some solid defense.
Right now I'm thinking white cards are the way to go, coming out with something like this:
Rhox War Monk might work if given enough time, but spending your fourth turn casting Gifts Ungiven won't get that War Monk gaining you any life until turn six. If the deck can put up enough road blocks early on, maybe that strategy works. Also, while a strange card to like in Extended, I've found Kabira Crossroads to actually be okay. It gives you a good amount of space on turn one against Zoo or Burn when you normally wouldn't be doing much on that turn.
I'm still struggling against these little guys. The easiest way to beat them is to attack early and hard. Fast Zoo and Mono-Red Burn are the decks you want here, not something that's casting Gifts Ungiven. Still, I've heard that Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows is pretty good against Faeries. I imagine once that engine is going things start looking up, so my plan is to search up those parts. To make sure I end up with a grove there could be Crucible of Worlds or Tolaria West shenanigans, but I have a feeling Life from the Loam will come in handy.
The fourth card isn't as important at this exact moment. What you really need is a card to make sure your Punishing Fire plan works against them. Vesuva is what I'm going with right now, to double up your Grove of the Burnwillows, but I'm open to suggestions here. Path to Exile might also be smart as it gives some defense against a Mistbind Clique.
Punishing fire should also be good against random creature decks heading in to the long game just to lock them out.
Zoo – Tribal
Right off the bat, I know I want to be able to Gifts Ungiven for Wrath of God and Day of Judgment. Maybe even something like Hallowed Burial or Firespout to round that out is enough, or Damnation if the deck gets black enough. Path to Exile is also fine there, and Engineered Explosives has done pretty well in Tezzeret. The other package you want to be able to grab gets you out of burn range and probably looks very similar to the Burn package. Lightning Helix can be good at both jobs and is worth thinking about.
A card that I haven't mentioned yet because I feel like it's a crutch is Eternal Witness. I don't want my default packages to include the shaman because it's overall a bit slow and vulnerable. The deck may very well include her because of how good she is later in the game, but I don't want my defaults to rely on it.
For the basic wrath plan I like:
Maybe another Wrath finds its way into the sideboard if it's really necessary, and I could see it being useful in other matchups like Doran or Affinity. Also, Firespout may end up being better than Engineered Explosives. As for the lifegain package, it's going to look pretty similar to Burn with Kitchen Finks and Loxodon Hierarch, though Pulse of the Fields and Cop: Red are a bit weaker here. You know, there's nothing wrong with a good-ol' fashioned [card faiths fetters]Faith's Fetters[/card] sometimes. What's nice about Fetters, Hierarch, and Finks is that they both gain you life and help stop a creature from killing you. For life against Zoo I wonder if this might work:
I could see them giving us Faith's Fetters and Pulse of the Fields, which might be a bit of a weak Gifts Ungiven since it's not really advancing you anywhere. A maindeck Faith's Fetters provides a well rounded answer against things like [card umezawas jitte]Umezawa's Jitte[/card], as well as rounding out the Burn Gifts package by moving the Cop: Red to the sideboard. Baneslayer Angel might be the way to go, but I don't want my lifegain to be so vulnerable to Path to Exile.
These decks can vary widely from Tezzeret with one Sword of the Meek and two Thopter Foundry, to UW control with as many as four of each piece. I don't think the best way to beat this deck is to attack the combo directly, but if that's what you wanted to do then this is probably a decent package:
I'm not a big fan of that pile as it loses pretty badly to countermagic if they put the Extirpate in the graveyard, though I doubt they are going to let Gifts Ungiven resolve in the first place. It's also very easy for them to maneuver around your hate, picking off Pithing Needle with Engineered Explosives, shutting down Extirpate with Chalice of the Void and not letting Sword of the Meek hit the graveyard until they are ready. I do really like Mystical Teachings though, because it lets you Gifts Ungiven for any instant you want, given enough time.
I feel like this game is going to require a lot more setup. Given time, gifting for Boseiju, Life from the Loam, and a few other good spells might let you keep up a solid defense. Add in Raven's Crime and an Urborg, and suddenly they are under a bit of pressure. Imagine this:
A package like that might force them to play into your hand that has a Krosan Grip or Extirpate. Because the Thopter decks tend to be so resilient, it's going to take a lot of setup and maneuvering to win this matchup, meaning you can't solve it with just one Gifts. The rest of the deck is going to have a big say on what happens here. I'm seeing a crack in the theory, but I'm willing to push on.
The Dark Depths combo is much less resilient compared to Thopter Foundry, but it's well-protected. Resolving Gifts Ungiven will probably be the hard part. Ghost Quarter and Life from the Loam is a good way to annoy them, but they usually have access to Pithing Needle somewhere. Our own Pithing Needle is also good as a long-term answer. Path to Exile kills the 20/20 pretty well, as does any bounce spell. Wipe Away gets around most Chalices as well as counterspells, but it's not very versatile and can still be answered by a Thoughtseize. Cryptic Command seems like the right bounce spell because it also protects the rest of the cards you grab, but the mana seems bad for that. I'm thinking that diversifying your answers will give them the biggest headache.
I don't have as much experience with Bant as I should, but I imagine the Wrath plan used against Zoo works similarly here, while the life plan isn't as important. Bant will be a little more resilient and have a better long game, so setting up to win after the Wrath will be important as well. That could be where Punishing Fire comes in. Bant also runs less removal (where Zoo has burn) so a Sower of Temptation or Baneslayer Angel might be easier to stick and should end the game. This is a matchup where a Hallowed Burial out of the sideboard is probably pretty useful. Something like Loxodon Hierarch will probably have a harder time trading because of the exalted from Noble Hierarchs.
This is probably a decent place to start:
If you've got time a good long-term plan probably looks like:
We're getting to more linear decks, so things should get easier. Against Scapeshift all I want are cheap counterspells. They have a hard time fighting a Negate or two with Remands and Cryptic Command. As long as you aren't dying to their random 1/1s you should be ok.
Cards like Punishing Fire and Kitchen Finks should keep the deck alive through combat damage, but again the theory I proposed is falling apart a bit. Flashfreeze may be a bit much for maindeck inclusion, but the next option for a counterspell costs three mana. Meddling Mage or Gaddock Teeg might also work, though Teeg will probably hurt this deck and any good Scapeshift deck should be equipped to deal with a 2/2. I hate playing into my opponent's answers. After sideboard they are going to try to make things harder with Gigadrowse and Vendilion Clique, but I'm confident a good enough sideboard plan can be found if there are issues.
Yay, an easy one:
Academy Ruins is one of those cards I don't think they can afford to give you, so you'll probably have two graveyard removal spells when the Gifts resolves. If there's another good graveyard removal spell I'm forgetting about it might be worth it over the Ruins (like Extirpate) and the next Gifts Ungiven can grab Academy Ruins and Life from the Loam. Heck maybe it's just a Trinket Mage or Tolaria West to fetch your second Tormod's Crypt. The metagame will tell you how much of this to put in the maindeck, though having a little graveyard removal should be useful in the maindeck.
Zoo – Rubin
I'm confident that the Burn, Zoo, and Bant packages can handle most of what Rubin Zoo will throw at you, so I'm not going to go into detail here. Hopefully a Ghost Quarter for your Life from the Loam is enough to keep them off of Grove of the Burnwillows.
Another easy one, though most of the answers will probably live in the sideboard:
I think the standard Wrath plan is good against them, though if the sideboard has room you could make a Gifts package like:
That oughta show ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“em.
It seemed pretty clear to me as I was going that Gifts Ungiven, Wrath of God, and Life from the Loam were important cards, making UGW a good core. Unfortunately, I close myself off to some good black and red options, but I think these colors can handle a lot of situations. Still, the deck is probably going to want to splash red and black, which shouldn't be hard to get to, eventually with Life from the Loam and saclands.
Let's consolidate some of the important cards that could easily make the maindeck.
That's 19 maindeck cards so far, giving us about 16 cards to fill out the deck. I'm going to shoot for 25 lands and some Sakura-tribe Elders because I think this deck will be pretty mana hungry. Adding in some cards that I would like to have in a Gifts Ungiven deck, more removal, some acceleration, and an admittedly rough mana base, I come up with this:
The manabase probably has too many cute lands in it right now. I bet after some testing the Kabira Crossroads and Oran-Rief turn into something like Mystic Gate or Flooded Grove, but for now I want to test the cute lands and see what works and what doesn't. I'm also hoping that Tarmogoyf, Punishing Fire, and a few random creatures are enough for the deck to win. The deck might want a more proactive Gifts package with some big monster, Makeshift Mannequin, and Eternal Witness.
Let's also start fleshing out the sideboard:
Wow, what a crazy decklist. It is no doubt rough, but that's not to say a lot of thought didn't go into its creation. A list like this just needs a lot of time put into it to test what works and what doesn't. Each card slot becomes very important, so any card that isn't pulling its weight has to be replaced by one that will. Also, since some of the packages were split into the sideboard it's necessary to make sure each game one matchup is still winnable.
I hope you enjoyed watching me build. I look forward to trying something like this soon. Gifts-rock style decks tend to be a mass of random cards, but people like them, so if anybody else has had success in this area I'd love to hear about it.
Thanks for reading,
Loucksj at gmail
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