An Extended Set of Rules
There are too many decks.
Extended started out fairly focused this season. At Pro Tour Austin the vast majority of the field was made up of Zoo, Dredge, whatever level Blue control decks, and to a lesser extent, Dark Depths and Affinity. When a format is narrow like that, you can generally test and tune a deck until it gets to the right point versus the anticipated opponents. Now in Extended, all of those decks our still considerd tier 1 and heavily played, except for maybe Affinity; but Scapeshift, Thopter Foundry, Mono-Red burn, and even Faeries are all decks you can reasonably expect to face in an Extended PTQ. For formats like this, where there are countless competitive tournament decks you want to follow, here are some general rules for sucess.
1) You want to play a deck you know how to play.
2) You do not want to weaken your deck as a whole to make it better against a bad matchup.
3) You want to have strong sideboard cards that can win you a match.
This makes tuning decks alot more interesting. For example, the 1 Ghost Quarter in my Martyr deck seems like a no-brainer, considering I am playing Gifts Ungiven and Life from the Loam. However, in the 2 MTGO PTQs I have played with the deck, I have yet to face a Dark Depths but did lose 1 game to it not being a Plains. Does that mean it should or shouldn’t be there?
The answer really isn’t simple. You have to weigh how game-winning it is against Dark Depths, the mirror match, or opposing non-basic lands in general versus how much better your deck would function if it was another of a more optimal card for your deck. In this case, it would be either a Plains or a non-White fetchland like Misty Rainforest.
People keep asking me what do I like in Extended, and would I still play Scapeshift or is the Martyr deck worth playing?
My answer is that Extended has gotten to the point where there is no right answer. There are a large variety of decks and they are all good. If you told me there are going to be 90 entries into the PTQ and 40 will be playing Zoo, 25 Dredge, 15 Blue, etc, I could tell you what deck would do the best against that field. For a metagame like the current one, where you really have no idea what you are going to face round by round, it is better to follow the above rules than it is to try and solve the format. Even for modifications to a deck you really have to judge what you expect to be popular in your area. As a whole, I think any good deck now is a fine choice. What I would do though is de-focus my deck. If I play Martyr I won’t be maindecking Ghost Quarter unless for some reason it seems like all of Florida likes Dark Depths all of a sudden. If i play Scapeshift, I wouldn’t even consider running Into the Roil over Repeal, unless the Florida dealers told me they sold out of Gaddock Teegs within 5 minutes of being open at the site.
If you want to be successful at a tournament with a metagame climate like the current Extended, first and most important is to know your deck. You are not going to know exactly what to do in every situation, because there are too many matchups. Hopefully, you are somewhat familair with some of the more major tier 1 decks, but what you really need to know is how your deck functions. The only deck that will probably make up an overly large percentage of the field is Zoo, and that is not because it’s overpowered, like Jund in Standard. It is because it is easy to play and very proactive, so it is easy to know your own deck if you are playing it.
What I mean is that Zoo is not neccesarily a better deck than Thopter Foundry, but if you gave me Zoo and the first time I looked through my deck was while shuffling for round 1, I would have a good general idea of what to do on each turn. There are nuances to every matchup even when playing a deck like Zoo, but if you don’t know them you can still win with Zoo. With Thopter Foundry, if the first time I looked through the deck was before round 1, I definitely wouldn’t know what I should do on each turn in the first few matches I played. When I played Tinker in Pro Tour New Orleans in 2003, the first time I read some of the cards in my deck was when I cast Tinker in round 1. I started out that tournament 1-3; one of only 2 times in all the Pro Tours I have ever played I started out 1-3. I played alot of fun games in between rounds though, and by round 5 I knew how to play the deck. I then proceeded to go 9-1-1 for the next eleven rounds to finish in 13th place. Tinker was one of the more difficult decks to play and I almost definitely cost myself a Pro Tour Top 8 by not knowing how to play my own deck. My point here is: play whichever of the decks you know how to play. If you don’t know how to play any of them, than play one that is easy to play like Zoo.
Next comes tuning. When you’re playing a focused format (like Standard at Worlds this year), you don’t have to make your deck as powerful as possible. Putrid Leech is an excellent 2-drop creature in the grand scheme of things; it just performs poorly against Boros and Jund. Since we correctly anticipated Jund and Boros to make up around half the field, we were able to cut the Leeches. In this Extended format you do not know what you are going to face, therefore you do not want to go too far tweaking your deck to be better against its bad matchups. If you do this you may end up losing to your better matchups without even facing your bad matchups. Overall, it is much better to just have a deck that performs and hope to draw well against your weaker matchups. On the other hand, if there is a sideboard card that really trumps an opposing deck that you are weak against, that is great in a metagame with a lot of decks. Even though you may never bring it in, thats probably because you never needed it and were winning, and if you play your bad matchup it can be there to bail you out. As an over generalization though, you do not want to weaken your maindeck as a whole to make it better against a deck you may not even face one time over the course of winning a tournament.
Sideboarding is different. If your deck is already set to run optimally, than sideboard cards that are just generally decent in multiple match ups aren’t going to help your deck very much. Something like boarding in Thoughtseize is not generally going to be very exciting if the card you are taking out is helping your deck to perform anyways. Really, how much better is Thoughtseize than what you’re taking out against the control or combo deck you’re playing against? I am sure it is better, but how much better?
What you generally want to identify when playing a format like this is which decks you are probably going to lose to most of the time. Then, you want to try and devise sideboard strategies to beat those almost unwinnable matchups. Generally, nothing is going too far when it comes to this. In Austin, Kibler/Rubin and co. knew Hypergenesis was going to be one of the worst match ups for their slow controlling Zoo list, so they choose to board a Blue dual and Meddling Mages into a non-Blue deck. It might seem obvious, but if you can build a deck that has a high power level but a few bad matchups, than sideboard strategies like that get you through your bad matchups are extremely important.
There are always going to be different numbers of tier 1 decks. What makes Magic so great is how different it is from format to format and set to set. In no way is anything I am saying in this article always right or law to live by. When you do encounter formats where there are a lot of tier 1 quality decks, and you’re not sure what you are going to face, these are good rules to follow. Knowing your deck is always a good rule to follow, especially when playing a difficult deck, but its not really a rule specific to this kind of format. The other two rules are really important when you don't know what you’re going to face. There are a lot of formats that are driven by 1 deck. This occurs mostly in block formats, where decks like Affinity, Jund, or Rebels (for those who can remember way back) dominated. The two deckbuilding rules that I mentioned (making your main as powerful as possible and having sideboard strategies specifically for your bad matchups but pretty much ignoring them in your main) are generally only good for formats like this, where there are a ton of different decks.