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Careful Consideration – A Format in a Bubble

 

Extended is pretty inbred right now.

Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek combo has really warped the format, and the deck really revolves around two decks: Zoo, and Hexmage/Depths. (Do we really not have a better name for this deck by now?) Most of the decks are trying to do things to stop those two decks while trying to advance their own game plan, which has resulted in this really tightly confined set of cards that has created a format that is generally unready for any rogue strategies.

There’s a time to go rogue and a time to play it safe and go with the established decks, as Jon Loucks once wrote

Let’s look at the evolution of the two decks that define this format.

Zoo

Zoo came in two flavors from Austin – an aggressive, Steppe Lynx-based flavor, and the midrange version that Brian Kibler used to win Pro Tour: Austin.

Zoo, by Martin Juza

 

Zoo by Ben Rubin (played by Brian Kibler)

The Rubin version was great for that metagame. The way to beat a little Zoo deck is to go big. Play some Baneslayer Angels and the Punishing Fire/Grove of the Burnwillows combo, letting you win the long, grinding attrition war that is the Zoo mirror.

Midrange Zoo beats little Zoo, so why not play Midrange Zoo?

Thopter/Hexmage
Paulo Vitor made Top 8 of Austin with the following:

And LSV/David Ochoa played this at Worlds:

 

 

Both are doing powerful things. Dark Depths/Vampire Hexmage is a sweet combo, as is Sword of the Meek/Thopter Foundry. (An aside: is it me, or have combos become a lot easier? Punishing Fire/Grove, Thopter/Sword, Hexmage/Depths, Scapeshift/[card valakut the molten pinnacle]Valakut[/card] – there are no Enduring Ideal type decks anymore where you really have to work to set things up, other than Elves and possibly [card]Living End[/card].) But the Tezzeret decks were losing to hyper-aggressive Steppe Lynx decks (as well as the Burn deck), while the Depths decks were losing to cards that could play two casting cost answers to a 20/20, like Celestial Purge or Bant Charm. Midrange Zoo, on the other hand, had a hard time against the Thopter/Sword decks.

Thopter/Sword got mashed together with Hexmage, and gave us this beauty, courtesy of Gerry Thompson:

Combine Thopter/Hexmage, and voila. You’ve got a deck that answers things, can race Burn by just making a 20/20, and has the long game of Thopter/Sword, which is pretty resilient to the graveyard hate of the time, mostly Ravenous Trap and Tormod’s Crypt, neither of which do anything against a competent Thopter/Sword player.

Midrange Zoo was losing to the Thopter decks, but little Zoo still could put on so much pressure early on that the Hexmage/Sword decks couldn’t really recover (barring a nut draw by powering out a 20/20 protected with a Thoughtseize or stabilizing by naturally drawing their lone Engineered Explosives), and they could easily get burnt out.

But those little Zoo decks were still losing to the midrange Zoo, so we had a nice rock-paper-scissors situation:

Midrange Zoo beats little Zoo beats Depths beats midrange Zoo.

So the Zoo decks refined themselves, and somewhere a happy medium was found. Take a little Zoo deck, make it just midrangey enough to beat the littler Zoo decks, while also being fast enough to beat Hexmage/Sword.

Zoo, by Alexander West

Now that’s a Zoo deck. Four maindeck Bant Charm, Path to Exile, and Qasali Pridemage make the Thopter/Sword decks really struggle while they’re also getting beaten down. The Noble Hierarchs seem a little out of place, but they are subtly quite good, letting you run a Loam Lion into an opposing Wild Nacatl, and letting you win races in the mirror, while also allowing you to play spells and have enough mana to leave up Negate or Bant Charm when you need to be reactive. It still is capable of explosive draws, but doesn’t roll over to the combo decks, and the sideboard is a thing of beauty. Bojuka Bog is also very good in the mirror; it’s a tutorable target (off Knight of the Reliquary) that makes the opposing Knights smaller, allowing you to win Knight fights.

Meddling Mage and Negate give you a lot of game against the combo decks, and it really seems quite good for the format.

So while Zoo decks are playing Bant Charm, Thopter/Sword decks are playing Leyline of the Void to deal with the mirror or other graveyard-based decks like Dredge and Living End. And the inbreeding is complete. Let’s look at some cards that these two decks are not ready for. You want some rogue tech? Here it is!

Wrath of God (against Zoo)
Once upon a time, people played creatures, and they had to worry about playing too many creatures, because their opponent would play this crazy four mana sorcery that would destroy all of their creatures. Then decks in Extended decided Engineered Explosives was better, and Zoo decks adapted by playing three drops like Knight of the Reliquary, and Explosives stopped being that exciting. So now nobody plays mass removal. Zoo players don’t have to worry about playing against Wrath of God or Firespout game one, because nobody does it.

Wrath of God is pretty sick tech, I know, but do you know how many Zoo decks you can blow out with this card? And it’s a sorcery as opposed to an instant, which is weirdly important, since it can’t be countered by Bant Charm.

Rite of Consumption (against Zoo)
This is seeing some play in Dark Depths decks, and should probably see more. You can tutor for it with Muddle the Mixture, and it doesn’t care about Bant Charm or Path to Exile. Bant Charms? Paths? Cool. 20 you anyway. This is also not an instant. Postboard against Zoo, you only have to worry about Thoughtseizing away their Negates if this is your plan, as opposing to having to deal with four Path to Exile and four Bant Charm.

An enchantment (against Depths, partially Zoo)
Depths decks play Muddle the Mixture, but that’s the extent of their countermagic. They have no answer to an enchantment except to bounce it and Duress/Thoughtseize it away, which is why Phyrexian Arena is so good in the mirror. They can only make two colors, so Engineered Explosives isn’t an out to enchantments that cost 3 or more. A problematic enchantment for Zoo like Ghostly Prison or Blood Moon only needs to worry about Qasali Pridemage, since Bant Charm does nothing against enchantments. I’m not saying an enchantment by itself will win the game, but when combined with any sort of pressure or countermagic, these cards can be pretty good. Even “bad” cards like Ivory Mask can fit into the right deck, provided you have a solid strategy to handle it. It’s not that hard (try playing Wrath of God with your Ivory Mask – creature removal and enchantments? What insanity is this?)

Chalice of the Void (against the field)
It’s good against Zoo, but it’s also fine against the combo decks like Hypergenesis and Living End. But the real kicker is if you can put it in a deck that can play it on turn two (probably accelerating it out, a la All-In Red). Most of the answers in Dark Depths cost two mana, as well as their win conditions (and their countermagic). They have bounce spells for troublesome permanents and one Engineered Explosives, and that’s it. I don’t advocate playing All-In Red, but a control deck that doesn’t need to play 2 CMC spells to win can really put a damper on the Hexmage/Depths plan.

Expensive spells
Look at the Standard decklists that are playing white, then look at the Extended lists. All of the Extended lists are playing four Path to Exile, while virtually none of the Standard decks are. The reason for this is that people are doing expensive things in Standard. They want to cast Broodmate Dragon or Baneslayer Angel or Cruel Ultimatum. In Extended, there aren’t big dudes to accelerate into, so giving your opponent a free Rampant Growth comes with not a lot of a drawback. The only deck that really punishes opposing decks for playing [card]Path to Exile[/card] is [card]Scapeshift[/card]. At a PTQ I played recently, I played Zoo and I had a Meddling Mage naming Scapeshift and a Tarmogoyf in play. I had boarded out my Paths, as they are a liability against Scapeshift. I also had three Negates in hand and plenty of mana to play them, so I was feeling pretty good about things. My opponent tapped out on his turn”¦here it is! I’m going to Negate whatever and crush his hopes and dreams, and take down the match!

Oona, Queen of the Fae.

Oh. Awkward. Wish I hadn’t boarded out those Paths.

I had one draw step to draw a Bant Charm. I didn’t, and the game was over soon after.

My opponent was smart (he eventually took down the entire PTQ) and realized that I had these narrow sideboard answers, and that Path to Exile is usually a liability against Scapeshift, so I would board them out. He invalidated my Negates and Meddling Mages, and took a sideways approach.

I want to reiterate: His sick tech was to play a giant creature. It felt sick but this is what we’ve come to.

This isn’t exciting tech, and that’s the whole point. The format’s so inbred that staples like Wrath of God are suddenly “surprise” cards. That says more about the format than it does about the quality of Wrath. Only Rite of Consumption is a “techy” card. The decks that don’t just roll over to this kind of hate are the combo decks, which have their own problems.

Want to rogue it up? Here’s what you should not do in your rogue deck:

Rely on artifacts
Got some cool Krark-Clan Ironworks deck? Maybe now’s not the time. People are going to have splash hate to kill artifacts, and it’s a bad time to be an artifact deck. It’s one of the reasons why Affinity hasn’t made a resurgence, despite the fact that nobody is thinking about it.

Play something that cares about Leyline of the Void
If you are going to play a graveyard-based deck, play something that can deal with a Leyline. Extirpate isn’t seeing that much play (despite it being very good against Sword of the Meek), so if you want to play some sort of Venser/Reveillark deck, now’s the time. I think Dredge is actually a good choice, because while it ostensibly cares about Leyline, it can just bounce the problematic enchantment and create havoc.

Play something that doesn’t care about Negate/Meddling Mage, and you might want to do it as a sorcery
Zoo decks can beat the combo decks because of the blue spells in their deck. I powered through some bad matchups by Meddling Mageing whatever card I cared about and protecting it with Negate and Bant Charm.

I don’t have an exact decklist for you, because I’m still experimenting around with cards and deck ideas in this format, but I’m convinced that it can happen, and when it does, the initial reaction will probably be, “that’s a giant pile of cards.” Yes, yes it is. And it’s still good enough for this format.

Yours inbreedingly (eww),
-Zaiem
zaiemb at gmail dot com
zbeg on Twitter
zbeg on Magic Online

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