A few months ago I wrote an article entitled “Finding Holes in Standard,” which became a personal benchmark for my understanding of a format. If I can write that article for a given format, it means I understand the format fairly well. Unfortunately, Extended is much more complex as a format than that Standard environment was.
For one, you could often shut down a tier one or two Standard deck with a more linear, narrow approach. But with the large card pool in Extended, as we near the end of the format, the decks are much more resilient, and you need to be able to execute a combination of strategies to win. With few exceptions, disruptive strategies need to be backed by a clock, and even disruptive strategies sometimes take two or more approaches, especially against decks with multiple ways of winning (most notably Dark Depths/Thopter).
Decks that beat Zoo usually do some combination of the following things:
Deal with creatures efficiently. The burn in Extended isn’t as impressive as the creature quality. Why play Lava Spike when you can Lava Spike them each turn with Wild Nacatl? If you look at Legacy Zoo lists, you’ll see that most of the creatures are also legal in Extended (and a lot of them are legal in Standard right now, too). Creatures are at an all-time high, so a deck that can deal with them in an efficient manner really limits what Zoo can do. Wrath of God and Living End backed with some other plan to put pressure on the Zoo player post-Wrath are the best solutions here. Engineered Explosives has fallen out of favor, since Zoo has moved away from casting mostly one-drops. Punishing Fire/Grove of the Burnwillows is a variant of this idea; though it’s not super efficient, it’s reusable and when you combine it with some other disruption/clock, it’s pretty devastating.
Mana disruption, particularly against Zoo decks playing Tribal Flames and Bant Charm. Blood Moon is the main tool against those decks, though recurring Fulminator Mages in Living End decks can also do the trick. Those decks have only two basics most of the time (Forest, Plains), so they don’t have a lot of room to work with when operating under a Blood Moon. Some Zoo decks play their own Blood Moons, and are much more resilient to this type of strategy. For the mother of all mana disruption spells, the Boggemes Zoo decks play Boom//Bust in addition to Blood Moon. Ouch.
Goldfish faster. This is the classic aggro-versus-combo matchup. The combo decks can often goldfish a turn faster. Zoo decks have been resilient to this all-out strategy by virtue of playing disruptive cards like Meddling Mage and Negate out of the board, but what if your deck doesn’t care about those cards, like Dredge? Or what if it’s game one? Mono-Red Burn can also beat Zoo by goldfishing faster, although the Zoo players have caught on how to play that matchup by putting their lands into play tapped and fetching basics to conserve their life total.
Play bigger creatures. The way to beat a smaller Zoo deck is to “go big.” Play Woolly Thoctars, Doran the Siege Towers, Baneslayer Angels, or some combination of the above, and Zoo should have a rough time. Granted, these slower decks will have a hard time beating other decks in the field, but if your field is largely Zoo, you might want to think about getting bigger.
Decks that beat Dark Depths/Thopter usually do some combination of the following things (and I do mean a combination – you have to effectively fight both combos):
Have ways to kill/bounce the 20/20. If you can’t, you’re doing something wrong. The Dark Depths deck can simply power out a 20/20 and race the Burn deck, and they have no recourse. This plan is much sketchier against Zoo, however, since they play Path to Exile and now Bant Charm as well.
Search disruption. Cards like Aven Mindcensor and Shadow of Doubt work here; it slows them down, since they can’t effectively Muddle the Mixture for pieces they need for either combo, provided you’re doing something else.
Graveyard hate. Leyline of the Void and Extirpate are the best here. Tormod’s Crypt, Relic of Progenitus, and Bojuka Bog will only nab a lazy player, as it’s very easy to play around those cards. Extirpate can be played around a little by having a Sword of the Meek in play when they try to go off with a second Sword, but that takes a lot longer to set up.
Artifact destruction. Ancient Grudge is pretty solid against the Thopter Foundry side of things, since it eats two cards (either two Thopter Foundries, or Thopter Foundry and a Muddle the Mixture to protect the second Thopter Foundry). Bant Charm is the most versatile of the artifact destruction cards (since it also kills the 20/20).
Decks that beat Faeries usually do some combination of the following things:
Have a fast clock. Playing turn one Steppe Lynx into turn two Wild Nacatl into turn three Kird Ape and Tribal Flames (or some other similar combination of one drops) is going to put a lot of pressure on the Faeries player, and having so many threats so quickly will diminish their life total pretty fast. It’s hard for them to win from that point unless they can get an Umezawa’s Jitte going, and that’s not the easiest thing for them to do.
Hand disruption. You can be proactive by Thoughtseizing their Bitterblossom that they were planning on playing on turn two, or you can use Thoughtseize to protect whatever you want to resolve by forcing a counter out of their hand.
Mana denial. Blood Moon is merely okay, but a land destruction deck or a way to recur Fulminator Mage can keep them off of the mana they need to be effective, although I don’t see any good dedicated land destruction decks.
Ways to deal with a mass number of X/1s (Punishing Fire/Grove of the Burnwillows; Night of Souls’ Betrayal). Since all of the cards in Faeries have one toughness except for Mistbind Clique and Mutavault, blanking their Spellstutter Sprites, Vendilion Cliques, and Bitterblossom tokens turns Faeries into a pretty mediocre deck. Night of Souls’ Betrayal is much less reliable, since it does have to resolve in the first place, and has to do so at sorcery speed – and even then, they can end step Cryptic Command it, then Mistbind Clique you during your next upkeep, and beat down with a 3/3 Clique (assuming the Night even resolves the next turn you get to untap).
Play instant speed threats. Faeries preys on decks that do everything at sorcery speed, but if you can do something instantly that they care about and have to counter, then you can disrupt their plan. Playing an end step Violent Outburst to cascade into either Hypergenesis or Living End, then untapping and playing another cascade spell into the combo card you need is a way to play around their countermagic.
Play uncounterable spells like Volcanic Fallout and Vexing Shusher (the latter strategy being used to protect the cascade combo decks, although I’m not a fan of this particular strategy, and it seems to have fallen out of favor since the beginning of the season).
Combo (U/G/R) Scapeshift
Decks that beat Combo Scapeshift usually do some combination of the following things:
Deck disruption. Cards like Cranial Extraction and Thought Hemorrhage take away their main win condition. Some decks play alternative win conditions like Oona, Queen of the Fae, Hunting Wilds, or Akroma, Angel of Fury – but those are secondary strategies and aren’t as potent as an instant kill. If you want to make sure your disruption spell resolves, a forgotten card is Bitter Ordeal (usually taking out their Valakuts instead of Scapeshift), which you can get multiple copies of by sandbagging saclands until the turn you play it.
Mana disruption, mostly Blood Moon. Playing a Blood Moon and protecting it also shuts off their combo, as Valakut has no abilities (although they do have Mountains for days if Valakut did!), forcing them to either deal with the Blood Moon or find some other way to win. Playing a dedicated land destruction strategy is pretty poor against a deck that plays Sakura Tribe-Elder, Wood Elves, and Search for Tomorrow, but Boom//Bust is another story entirely.
Heavy countermagic/counterspell disruption. They don’t have any Vexing Shushers or other ways to force through Scapeshift (most lists I’ve seen have dropped the Boseijus that were popular at the start of the season), so if you can win a counterwar with them, they’ll have a hard time resolving their namesake spell. Two cards come to mind when I talk about counterspell disruption: Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, and Ethersworn Canonist. Having a Canonist in play means your counterspell will resolve, although it is fairly fragile, as it dies to Firespout. Teferi also means your counterspells will resolve and isn’t vulnerable to the mass removal that Scapeshift plays (namely Firespout and occasionally Volcanic Fallout).
Hand disruption. Destroying their hand isn’t the most amazing thing ever, since they can topdeck the namesake card they need and win, but if you keep them from going off and/or keep them from disrupting your plan, then hand disruption makes for a fine secondary strategy. At some point in the season, decks were bringing in both Thoughtseize and Extirpate to mise the win by Extirpating Scapeshift, although that plan seems pretty sketchy.
Decks that beat Elves usually do some combination of the following things:
Keep them off a critical mass of creatures. Playing lots of spot removal spells like Lightning Bolt, Bant Charm, Deathmark, and Smother can slow them down enough to let you apply whatever pressure you have. An active Umezawa’s Jitte does the same thing here. Or mass removal works as well – Firespout, Damnation, Night of Souls’ Betrayal, Living End, Volcanic Fallout all work well to beat Elves, although be careful with the sorcery speed answers, as they can sandbag a bunch of elves and then explode and go off on their turn when you’re tapped out.
Spell disruption. By this I mean cards like Ethersworn Canonist and Meddling Mage, as well as Rule of Law (though nobody’s playing that at the moment). Canonist is vulnerable to Viridian Shaman, but turn two Meddling Mage naming Heritage Druid is quite effective. If you can protect your Canonist from Viridian Shaman, you can buy a lot of time and it will allow you to set up whatever it is you’re trying to do to get to the endgame.
Hand disruption. Keeping the key cards out of their hand like Glimpse of Nature is pretty key, and if you do have some sort of dedicated hand disruption deck (like some sort of Smallpox/The Rack deck – not recommended), they shouldn’t have enough cards to explode and kill you.
Goldfish faster. They’re fast; a turn three 20/20 is even faster.
Decks that beat Hypergenesis usually do some combination of the following things:
Spell disruption. Meddling Mage, Ethersworn Canonist, Rule of Law. Hypergenesis has Oblivion Ring and sometimes Firespout to deal with the disruptive spells, but they have to draw it, and if you can protect it with some sort of countermagic, you’re good.
Hand disruption. They have a relatively small number of spells that they can use to go off, and if you turn one Thoughtseize away the Violent Outburst they were planning on casting into Hypergenesis, you can buy time to execute your strategy.
Blood Moon. Blood Moon makes it really hard for them to cast their spells, since they run almost no basics (Saito ran one Forest, but has no fetchlands or ways to get it other than naturally drawing into it).
Countermagic. If you counter all each Hypergenesis they cast, they have to resort to powering out creatures the hard way by hardcasting them. They can certainly win by hardcasting Bogardan Hellkite, but the deck becomes so much worse when that’s their plan.
Decks that beat Living End usually do some combination of the following things:
Graveyard hate. Unlike the Thopter/Sword combo, Tormod’s Crypt and Relic of Progenitus work well here, and Leyline of the Void is still Leyline of the Void. Living End does play Maelstrom Pulse, so don’t think that running out three turn zero Leylines is the end of the game, but it’s going to slow them down.
Hand disruption. Same as Hypergenesis.
Countermagic, for the same reasons (and same drawbacks) as Hypergenesis. Sometimes Living End has to pretend it’s a bad sealed deck and they just start hardcasting Jungle Weaver. And if your match suddenly turns into an Extended deck versus a sealed deck, that’s a situation you’d take most of the time.
Goldfish faster. Make a 20/20 and deal with their Living End if they have to use it as a Wrath effect.
Let me know in the comments if I missed anything. It seems like Faeries is on a resurgence in Japan right now, so we’ll see if that carries over to the PTQs or Grand Prix Houston (which I will be attending – so say hello if you see me!) As for the PTQs, the Magic Online PTQs are back in full force and I expect to play in all of them (or until I qualify).
zaiemb at gmail dot com
zbeg on Twitter
zbeg on Magic Online