I would say I was inspired to write about this subject, but inspired isn’t quite a strong enough word. I was talking to my friend (Potes on the forums) as we walked his dog, and he mentioned that he was planning to blog on this very topic. This got us to talking about it in-depth, and it was such an interesting discussion that I quickly “shotgunned” it for my article this week. So I wholeheartedly stole the topic, for the benefit of the greater good (our audience here on Channelfireball). I figure that’s enough of a disclaimer, so lets get to the article!
As this Extended season winds to a close, I find it interesting to see how many people choose to play decks that cannot win tournaments. Since the tournaments in question are PTQs, winning the tournament is really the only goal for most of the participants. Every other prize offered pales in comparison to qualifying for the Pro Tour, so making Top 8 and losing can be a bitter pill to swallow.
So when I say “decks that can’t win tournaments”, I mean don’t mean decks that literally can’t win a tournament, I mean decks that have innate weaknesses that make winning a Top 8 difficult, much less making Top 8. I will be using this Extended season for most of my examples, since by now most people are well-versed in the decks, but the ideas here should aid in deck selection for any format.
The most important determination of whether or not a deck has what it takes is power level. It may seem obvious that playing a powerful deck is ideal, but how does this explain the dozens of midrange Rock-style decks that people tend to play, much less decks like Burn or Bant. Even our own GerryT endorsed Slide, a deck I am now convinced is very unlikely to win a PTQ. As Gerry said himself, a skilled Faeries player can be difficult for Slide to overcome, and with Faeries taking more PTQ slots than any other deck (by far) it seems kind of foolish to play a deck that would have trouble defeating the current end boss of the season. Slide is a really good example of a deck that can cruise to Top 8 based on reasonable pairing in the Swiss, but will have trouble finishing 1st. Most PTQs tend to be 7 or 8 rounds, and it isn’t unreasonable for a good Slide player to face two Faeries decks in the Swiss and go something like 1-1, while beating all the Zoo-type decks. After all, Slide is very good at murdering creature decks like Zoo, Bant, Rock, even Elves, and those are always well-represented at PTQs. The problem is that Slide doesn’t do anything that powerful. It can control the board against most creature threats, but Riptide Lab is difficult for it to beat in the long game, and Slide always goes to the long game. Life from the Loam is a legitimately powerful strategy, but it doesn’t fuel anything too absurd in the Slide deck. Slide is just another Rock deck, albeit with slightly different tools.
Pure power level isn’t the only determination of whether a deck is good of course, since there are a number of powerful decks that have similar trouble winning tournament. Both TEPS and Elves are quite powerful, easily capable of winning by turn 3 if undisrupted. Elves has a potential turn 2 kill, and TEPS can even kill on turn one, even though it is much less likely (both were accomplished in the tournaments I won with said decks, of course). Still, Faeries is always there at the end of the line, waiting to destroy the unfortunate combo player. In this case, these decks don’t lack the necessary power, but are too vulnerable to hate. Both TEPS and Elves are extremely linear strategies, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Linear decks tend to ignore most of the opponents cards, but can easily fall prey to specific cards targeted at beating them. TEPS is the best example of this, as TEPS blanks basically everything most decks do. The storm player doesn’t care about a single card their Zoo opponent plays game 1, with the possible exception of Gaddock Teeg. Burn, Wild Nacatl, and Jitte don’t matter until they actually deal the finishing blow, and way more often than not TEPS will be first across the finish line. This all completely changes for sideboarded games, as Zoo gets to bring in cards that target the TEPS deck, and all of a sudden TEPS is quite a dog. Rule of Law, Ethersworn Canonist, Pyrostatic Pillar and Gaddock Teeg all make it nearly impossible for TEPS to win if they stay in play, so the single-mindedness that was such an advantage game one is now a horrible disadvantage.
Still, I won a Grand Prix with TEPS this year, so why am I saying it is now not the choice to win a simple PTQ? The difference is that when I played TEPS at GP Los Angeles, it was much less of a known quantity. People weren’t sideboarding sufficiently to beat it, and some of the sideboard hate they did have was quite ineffective (most Faeries decks were on Stifle instead of Trickbind, and Gigadrowse + Pact of Negation trumped that plan fairly well). Instead of winning a good amount of Game Ones and having to deal with a bunch of sideboard hate, I won a bunch of Game Ones and then won a bunch of Game Twos. The same was true with Elves in Berlin, where everyone who wasn’t playing Elves was almost wholly unprepared for the onslaught of green men. Almost every person who knew Elves was good chose to play the deck, meaning that everyone else just didn’t have enough sideboard / maindeck hate to deal with it. When I started this article I didn’t mean to just use all the decks I played in the past six months as examples, but they do fit quite well.
Now that the season is almost over (we still have a PTQ here in Sacramento next week), Elves and TEPS are in everyone’s gauntlet. You don’t get any free wins anymore, and the linear nature of these decks is their biggest weakness. I don’t mean to say that linear strategies are inherently flawed, just that they usually have easily exploitable weaknesses. The key with them is to play them when these weaknesses are not being adequately dealt with, and that is generally not going to be the end of the season. Sometimes the hate dies down for a particular strategy, and it can see an end of the season revival, but I don’t see that happening in this case. In particular, Elves loses to so many of the cards Faeries plays anyway (Explosives, Spellstutter Sprite, Jitte) that the chances of these cards vanishing from the format is nil.
A linear and not powerful deck is kind of the worst of both worlds, since it gets all the vulnerability of being single-minded without the benefit that usually follows. Burn is the best example here, since it is the exact kind of deck that shows up at most events and almost never wins. The strategy of all burn spells plus Mountains is a classic one, but really lacks when it comes to the results department. Burn was actually the deck that spurred our discussion in the first place, since Potes lost to the burn deck while playing for Top 8 of a PTQ. He was annoyed partly because he felt that Burn just could not win the tournament, which is naturally what led to our discussion (Burn did not in fact win the PTQ).
It is probably clear where I am going with all this, since I keep mentioning Faeries. As it turns out, Faeries is the best deck for a reason. It can and does win tournaments with regularity, because it is the right combination of power and versatility.
Furthermore, there is no single card or set of cards that just destroy Faeries. The lack of a silver bullet makes it very difficult to slay this particular werewolf, and that is exactly what you should be looking for in a deck. I don’t mean to say that Faeries is the only deck you should consider, since Zoo is perfectly capable of winning tournaments as well. Naya Zoo is even designed to cause Faeries trouble, since even though no individual card destroys Faeries, playing hard to deal with threats like Woolly Thoctar does try and take advantage of the constraints Faeries has. Thoctar dodges Spell Snare and Spellstutter Sprite quite adeptly, a fact im sure Saito was well aware of when he sleeved up his Zoo deck in Singapore.
Moving back from Extended, I want to generalize these points so they can be applied to any format.
-A winning deck needs to be above all powerful, but power alone will not suffice. Linear decks often are powerful enough, but need to be well positioned to be successful. The presence of too much targeted hate can often defeat even the most powerful of linear decks. The only times this isn’t true, there usually is a big problem. Anyone remember Affinity in Mirrodin Block or Standard?
-Decks that are unlikely to win the tournament are midrange (often green) with an abundance of removal. Any board control deck is going to suffer at the hands of a true control deck, a process that is repeated over and over again with any format. I used to be a fan of Loxodon Hierarch type decks myself, and guess what? I didn’t win at the Pro Tour level. Midrange decks designed to pummel aggro may work during the Swiss at a PTQ, but you will usually meet your demise during the Top 8 to someone playing a real control deck. I learned my lesson the hard way, playing these sorts of midrange decks as recently as PT Hollywood in 2008. My Loxodon Warhammer plus Chameleon Colossus deck did well enough until I played against a bunch of Reveillark decks, which completely annihilated me. Turns out that a control deck with Cryptic Command and Reveillark is better than a control deck with Cloudthresher and Primal Command. I understand why people are drawn to decks like this, but all I can offer is my advice to put down the Finks and pick up Vendilion Cliques while there is still time.
I know this article only scratches the surface of this topic, but it is certainly a good start. Let me know what you think in the forums, as I am interested in continuing the discussion there! Feel free to tell me why I am wrong, as decks other than Faeries or Zoo have in fact won tournaments, even though I think that is just less likely than not. I know it is anecdotal, but our PTQ Top 8 here from yesterday featured two blue decks (Faeries and Tezzeret) and six non-blue decks (TEPS, RGW Loam, two Naya Zoo, Doran, and Sea Stompy) and the two blue decks met in the finals, with Tezzeret beating Faeries (Channelfireball’s own David Ochoa was the unfortunate runner-up).