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In Development – Extended Lessons From San Diego: Plan A or Plan B

 

I had an excellent week in San Diego.

It’s actually been a great two weeks, starting with a Grand Prix in my neighborhood and ending with a Pro Tour in my hometown. This gave me multiple doses of Extended as well as the chance to spend a week back in San Diego with my entire family, including a fairly newly minted nephew.

Today I’m going to talk about lessons for Extended that generalize well to any deck you might choose to bring to the game. This is important since I’m not under any illusion that you share my affinity for Gifts decks. I’ve noticed more generally that people tend to cleave to known deck archetypes in Extended far more than they do in Standard. This makes sense given the breadth of the format. It feels plausible to test every reasonably likely matchup in Standard. The same task in Extended can feel unrealistic. However, even if you’re picking among the many well-known decks in Extended, there are some key lessons you need to keep in mind when making your deck choice.

I’ll discuss this right after I check in on my PT experience.

Romping around at the Pro Tour

With my relatives in town, I declined to make a try at the Last-Chance Qualifier. Notably, Bay Area player Avy Jonay and ChannelFireball’s own Tristan Shawn Gregson did qualify in the LCQ, so if you’re sufficiently motivated, it can be done.

My PT experience started on Friday morning at about 9:30 when I walked into the San Diego convention center and signed up for the first Extended PTQ. I was amused to see that the convention center was also hosting the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, meaning that I had my choice of events I could have attended in San Diego last weekend (I’m a member of the AAAS). Even with multiple events happening at the convention center simultaneously, the place felt empty. I normally find myself at the convention center to attend the San Diego Comic Con which fills the entire exhibit hall from end to end and draws roughly 140,000 attendees.

I was out of the first PTQ relatively rapidly and found myself with some free time. With helpful assistance from Bill Stark, Scott Larabie, and the nice people of Porter Novelli, I acquired a press badge and spent the rest of the day documenting the Pro Tour and checking on the progress of the extensive Channel Fireball contingent.

LSV and Philip Yam

LSV faces down Bay Area player Philip Yam in the Channel Fireball shirt mirror

So many cards

David Ochoa takes on Pat Chapin

The sickness

Standard MVPs

Day two saw me signing up for a much more successful PTQ experience, capped off with a bit more photojournalism as I captured the end of round sixteen as well as the quarters, semis, and finals of the PTQ.

Tom Ross trying to pull out a win

The Boss plays hard for the win in round sixteen

You can see the full two-hundred picture Pro Tour San Diego 2010 coverage set by clicking here.

Following two consecutive days of Extended gaming, I’ve come out with some ideas that I’d like to pass on to you whether you’re thinking of designing your own deck or picking one out of the wide pool of candidates to run in the next PTQ.

Pick one: Plan A or Plan B

Ben Stark has emphasized the need to know what your deck is supposed to do and to be familiar with how it works. I’ll extend that by suggesting that to be viable as an Extended PTQ contender, a deck must do at least one of the following two things:

Goldfish well

or

Crush a popular matchup

Let’s take these in turn.

Be the best goldfish you can be

One of the selling points of decks running the Dark Depths combo is that they sometimes “just win.” You can have “that” draw with an Urborg, a Hexmage, and a Dark Depths, letting you combo out at the end of your opponent’s second turn while they stare numbly at the [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] they just tapped out for.

The real masters of goldfishing are Hypergenesis, Dredge, Living End, Elves, and in case you’ve forgotten, Zoo.

Josh pilots Elves in round six of the PTQ

Josh Utter-Leyton pilots Elves in the day two PTQ

Just so I don’t lose anyone who isn’t inculcated with Magic-associated jargon, remember that “goldfishing” is the practice of simply playing your deck against an unresponsive opponent and seeing how many turns it takes you to kill that theoretical opponent. A deck that “goldfishes well” is one that achieves a kill in just a handful of turns when left to its own devices. For example, an Elves deck that manages an early Cloudstone Curio can easily “go infinite” on turn three and lock the opponent out of the game.

The clear advantage of a deck that goldfishes well is that if you happen to hit an opponent who has no way to interact with you, either due to a bad draw or due to a simple lack of appropriate cards, you can just win. Since some proportion of your opponents will lack appropriate cards and everyone has bad draws from time to time, you can steal a lot of easy wins with this approach.

The downside is that some decks, to quote one of our local players, “just counter” your deck, generating auto-lose matchups. This puts us into the position of making a metagame gamble, which can work out well or lead to a very disappointing tournament experience. Keep in mind that although a single loss in the swiss is acceptable, that same loss is a tragedy if it occurs in the top eight.

Well-defined crush zones

Whereas the first approach relies on getting wins when your opponents fail to interact with you, this approach depends on interacting very successfully with your opponents. It’s also the approach I tend to favor, partially because it makes me feel like I have more control over my tournament destiny, and also because I simply prefer interactive games. As many writers have discussed previously, it’s important to play to your strengths, and these strengths include the mode of play you find enjoyable.

It’s hard to win a tournament if you hate the game you’re playing.

If you’re going to succeed by crushing a specific matchup or set of matchups, they need to comprise a reasonably large fraction of the field. In contemporary Extended, this most likely means trying to target some combination of Dark Depths, Thopter Foundry, Zoo, and a “combo” category that embraces Hypergenesis, Living End, and Elves.

Note my choice of words here. It isn’t enough to just be “favored” in a certain matchup. You want that matchup to be as near as possible to a bye. Where the goldfishing approach tries to harvest a certain percentage of random wins from the entire field, the crushing approach tries to reliably harvest wins from a specific slice of the field.

The Knight is not going to pull it out

That Knight just isn’t going to pull the game out against the Thopter hordes

If I were to convert these two approaches into high-concept sentences, they would be:

Hope that most of your opponents don’t interact with you.

and

Hope to interact decisively with most of your opponents.

If your current deck doesn’t do at least one of these things, you need to sit back and have a serious think about whether it’s going to serve you well at a PTQ.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at my two PTQ experiences from PT San Diego.

Depths, Dredge, and out

My big take-home lesson from GP Oakland was that I needed a backup Pithing Needle. There were multiple games against Thopter Depths decks where I found myself with the first Needle swept away and a Trinket Mage in hand, asking me why I had no second Needle for it to fetch. Given that many Depths decks run just the one copy of Engineered Explosives, this was especially depressing. One Needle is a loss, two Needles would have been a win.

With that in mind, I brought this modified version of Ghost Gifts to the first PTQ:

Ghost Gifts, Day One (not recommended)

This list changes just a couple cards from the version I took to Oakland. I’ve pushed a second Pithing Needle to the main deck while moving Primal Command over to the sideboard. The Tectonic Edge has left the sideboard to make room for Primal Command.

As I mentioned above, my first PTQ experience was rather brief.

Round one versus Raine, playing Foundry Depths

Game one was an epic that hinged on Raine’s ability to legend rule my Academy Ruins out of existence with his own. This gave him a window to generate a mass of Thopters before I could arrange to recover my Ruins and thus my Engineered Explosives. The first game took quite a bit of time, meaning that I wasn’t able to push for a win in game two before we ran out of time.

Losing your first round is annoying, but as we’ve seen, you can still carve through a PTQ even after losing that first match.

Round two versus Michael playing Dredge

Dredge falls into the “goldfishing” category, in that it’s easy to hate out – easier now than two years ago, certainly – but if there’s no hate, it can just randomly win. This is what Michael did to me in game one, as his deck vomited up an Iona and eight zombies on turn three or so.

In game two, my Trinket Mages did their job. Michael’s deck gave me a bit of time with some initially slow dredges, and I was able to Relic of Progenitus and then Crypt his graveyard out, giving me the game.

Game three saw amazing dredges and another one of those horrifying third- or fourth-turn kills, with Michael actually emptying his library exactly to kill me with a giant pile of Zealot-driven zombies. Oof.

At 0-2 and out, I was left with a lot of free time, but found myself wondering what I’d done wrong. I checked in with Luis and confirmed that I was just being twitchy in thinking I needed more graveyard hate. That’s one risk we run in trying to prepare for the next tournament – we tend to prepare for the last one. I did think that I needed more effective support for the Thopter Depths matchup, which influenced my revision of Ghost Gifts for the following PTQ.

Crushing time and tangling with the goldfish

After a fun day one as a photojournalist, I headed home and tinkered with the Ghost Gifts build like so:

Ghost Gifts, Day Two

This time around, the main deck was exactly the same, but the sideboard had matured. I retreated somewhat from my paranoia about Burn and cut a Firewalker, while also cutting the fairly pointless Qasali Pridemage and fourth Bant Charm. In their place I added in three copies of Samurai of the Pale Curtain, a card I had sitting out on my table the evening before the first PTQ as a possible option. I briefly considered cutting a Negate, but that would damage my plan against Scapeshift and Hypergenesis, and that seemed like a bad idea.

Here’s how the day two PTQ went.

Round one versus Derek, playing Zoo

Derek led with a tapped Temple Garden, which made me briefly wonder if this would end up being a wacky Gifts mirror, but his second turn Qasali Pridemage gave me that “I’ve got this” feeling that comes with any Zoo matchup. Ghost Gifts absolutely stomps Zoo – it’s the portion of the field I have chosen to crush. The record for game one is pretty typical for this matchup, as my life total drops with an occasional bump from Kitchen Finks and then just starts rising. Derek eventually conceded in the face of a Gifts for Kitchen Finks, Trinket Mage, Eternal Witness, and Reclaim.

Going into game two, I sideboarded as follows:

+1 Wall of Denial
+1 Worship
+1 Primal Command
-2 Pithing Needle
-1 Relic of Progenitus

Derek sided in Finks and some disruption for game two, but I don’t think that’s how Zoo wins this matchup. I gained 18 life in this game, and played with the comfort of knowing that with game one in the bag, I just had to not lose game two.

Round two versus Jack, playing Thopter Depths

In the first game I was Thoughtseized twice running, taking Pithing Needle and Eternal Witness. Conveniently, I had a backup Pithing Needle, which Trinket Mage fetched while a Ghost Quarter blocked the Depths plan. In fact, I was so pleased that I wrote on my notes in big, block letters, “BACKUP NEEDLE ROCKS.” For game two, I got to try out my new sideboard plan:

+3 Samurai of the Pale Curtain
-3 Kitchen Finks

Game two saw an initial Samurai eat a Smother, which paved the way for Goyf beats that put Jack under so much pressure that he eventually had to run out a Marit Lage sans backup. One Path later, and I was 2-0 on the day.

Round three versus Connor, playing Hypergenesis

Having seen Connor win his round three match, I knew he was playing Hypergenesis, which meant that game one was unfavorable for me. Going into the early game, I kept all my fetches “unfetched” so I could avoid having my board obliterated by a resolved Hypergenesis. Since I had a Wrath of God in my opener, I figured I could uses the fetches to defend against Terastadon and Angel of Despair triggers, and then Wrath the board afterward. As it happened, Connor had a clunky draw and had to hard cast a Bogardan Hellkite at me at one point. I Pathed that, then went on to kill him with an Eternal Witness and some spirit tokens from his Orchard.

Breathing a sigh of relief after a lucky game one, I sideboarded as follows for game two:

+1 Chalice of the Void
+4 Negate
+1 Wall of Denial
+1 Worship
-1 Engineered Explosives
-2 Pithing Needle
-1 Relic of Progenitus
-2 Bant Charm
-1 Crucible of Worlds

In retrospect, siding in the Worship plus Wall plan is not particularly relevant. However, what actually mattered was the Negates, as I was able to “just counter” Connor’s deck and kill him with Goyfs. This is the problem with goldfishing decks, as an opponent who can successfully interact with you will totally ruin your day.

Round four versus Ben Seck, playing Thopter Depths

Ben Seck, aka TBS (“The” Ben Seck) ended up winning this PTQ, taking down Zoo in the finals. Ben goldfished me out in game one, kicking out a turn three Marit Lage token after Duressing away the Path to Exile I had in my hand. I sideboarded as in round two.

In game two, Needle kept Thopter Foundry locked down while Ghost Quarter kept Depths locked down, letting me kill Ben with a Loxodon Hierarch.

Game three saw me with Needles on both Hexmage and Thopter Foundry, which kept things locked down for quite a while. I lost this game to my own error, which was a little frustrating. Although Ben eventually swept the Needles, by then I was in a good position to win if he couldn’t get the Depths combo off. Unfortunately, I chose to cast a Kitchen Finks at one point when I could have cast a Trinket Mage instead. The Mage would have let me search up an Aether Spellbomb, which would have made his following turn play of Depths, Mage, Marit Lage untenable.

One key element to keep in mind when playing against Thopter Depths is that it has very few solutions to things that are neither sorceries nor instants. If I’d had the Spellbomb in hand, he wouldn’t have been able to simply run out the combo.

I’m not sure I would have won this round – Ben is an excellent player – but all I can say for sure is that I didn’t have to lose it the way I did.

Round five versus Michael, playing Zoo

My life total never dropped below 15 in game one, and I ended the game at 30 life. As I review my notes, I see that the only damage I actually took in this game was from my own lands.

Sideboarding was as in round one.

This turns out to be a keepable hand

This kind of hand is great against Dark Depths, but abysmal against Ghost Gifts

In game two, my life total also bottomed out at a flush 15. I eventually locked Michael out with recurring Engineered Explosives.

Remember, we either want to goldfish or crush. Ghost Gifts crushes Zoo.

Round six versus Charles, playing Elves

I’d honestly been hoping to avoid Elves, and supposed that people would prefer not to run Elves following their success in Oakland a week before. This kind of thing can go either way, as people either jump on the bandwagon or hastily exit from the bandwagon in fear of enhanced hate.

In game one, Charles comboed me right out with Cloudstone Curio. I made him run through the combo enough to show he could do it and wasn’t going to accidentally deck himself (hint – always ask the combo player how many times they’re going to run a loop that involves cards being drawn).

I sideboarded like so:

+1 Chalice of the Void
+2 Negate
-2 Pithing Needle
-1 Relic of Progenitus

I had locked in my mind the idea that I wanted to Chalice on one, which I think was a mistake – and one I would repeat in round eight. This meant I kept Chalice in hand a little longer than I should have so I could keep Engineered Explosives active. I did manage an early Engineered Explosives, but that wasn’t enough to keep the combo from happening a second time. I thought I’d mistimed the use of the Explosives, and Charles agreed except that it didn’t matter, since he had a solution even if I made the correct choice. That said, it’s still correct to check in with your opponent to ask what you could have done better, even if it ultimately couldn’t have saved you in that particular game.

At two losses, I was utterly out of the running for top eight, but decided to stay in for experience, fun, and prize support.

Round seven versus Omar, playing Zoo

So many Zoo matchups. It was like Christmas, except there were a lot of Elves, which is like Christmas in its own way as well, I suppose. Evil Christmas, maybe, run by a malicious Santa.

Omar had a very aggressive start and managed to get me as low as 5 life at one point, but my deck did its thing and I eventually killed him with a pair of persisted Kitchen Finks. Looking through my notes, I see that Omar dealt me 23 damage in this game. This shows just how bad this matchup is for Zoo, since I still won.

Sideboarding was the same as always.

For game two, I took the “I just need to not lose” concept to heart and maneuvered the game into having the Wall of Denial and Worship combo out. I’d had Wall out of a couple of turns, and when I subsequently played Worship Omar said, “That’s just gross.” He couldn’t do anything about it, and I took the match with one game win. The judge who was watching us in extra turns said, “You won game one, right? I was getting that impression as I watched the match.”

Round eight versus Andrew, playing Elves

I was once again goldfished out by the power of the Curio in game one. Sad.

In game two, I think I made the exact same Chalice error I made in my first Elves match, which shows my lack of practice with Elves and perhaps the fatigue of round eight in an Extended PTQ. I briefly had the thought that I should Trinket Mage for Chalice, then Chalice for zero to stop Summoner’s Pact. Instead, I reverted to the idea that I had to Chalice for one, and the delay let Andrew play a Summoner’s Pact and generate a giant pile of Elves.

This was a disappointing final round for me as I do think I could have won that game with a Chalice for zero, and I went with a default action instead of going through an actual decision cycle.

Plans A and B in action

My PTQ experiences were nicely illustrative of the concept I outlined above. I chose the strategy of decisive interaction, crushing the Zoo matchup while retaining a great deal of game against other major players in the field. The day two PTQ was awash with Zoo decks, meaning that I received strictly favorable matchups three times. The ability to tell yourself “Okay, I’ve got this” is amazing, and is a valuable addition to the otherwise grinding experience of a day-long PTQ. I also retained game against other key matchups, winning one Thopter Depths match and losing another to my own misplay.

At the same time, I was goldfished right out of the PTQ, which speaks to the power of that approach.

Although any given top eight is an anecdote rather than data, it’s worth considering that the top eight of this PTQ featured Zoo, Faeries, Dark Depths, Thopter Depths, Scapeshift, and Boros but no Dredge, Elves, or Hypergenesis. Similarly, the day one PTQ top eight featured Dark Depths, Thopter Depths, Zoo, and a sort of Bant Haterator deck. Overall, there’s a little less resiliency in the pure goldfish decks, meaning that you’re more clearly taking a gamble on your tournament outcome than you are if you choose a deck that crushes specific matchups. This is also why Zoo and Depths can be so effective, as they build the ability to sporadically goldfish someone out into a deck that is otherwise oriented toward the crushing approach.

If you find yourself reviewing known Extended deck lists and thinking that they all fit in at least one of these two categories”¦well, there’s a reason they’re frequently played. That said, you need to keep this concept in mind when you’re tuning to your local metagame or when you’re modifying a deck away from a list you pulled from a recent online event or PTQ top eight. It’s very tempting to try and adjust a deck to have “reasonable” matchups with everything, and in so doing build a deck that can’t possibly make it to the end of a PTQ.

If you’re playing a goldfishing deck, you need to pick one that interacts with as little of the projected field as possible. In contrast, your crusher needs to interact decisively with as much of the field as possible. If you lose sight of those goals while picking a deck, tinkering with a deck, or designing your own, your success will naturally be limited.

Plan A and Plan B. We have to have at least one.

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