Careful Consideration – PTQ Kickoff


Zendikar Limited season is over, and it is time to really get the hands dirty and dig into Extended. I’ve waxed poetic before about my favorite Constructed format, and no other Magic format gets the creative juices flowing or gives me more things to think about. Seattle has a PTQ on January 2nd, the first PTQ weekend of the season, which provides a fun opportunity to take advantage of inefficiencies or lag in the metagame.

Early in the season, it’s rare to know what the One Best Deck is. Sometimes there is no One Best Deck, but even when there is, we often don’t find it until things shake out a bit. The earliest Lorwyn Block PTQs were won by Kithkin, even though in retrospect we know that Faeries was far and away the best deck. In Standard, all strategies involving [card]Windbrisk Heights[/card] were put on the shelf for a solid year after the release of Lorwyn despite it being a very strong card and a way for aggro decks to gain card advantage.

Extended isn’t brand new, of course. We can look at results from Pro Tour: Austin and Worlds, but a Pro Tour’s dynamic isn’t the same as the dynamic of a PTQ, and a combination of those differences and the natural metagame evolution provides some things to keep in mind heading into the early part of the PTQ season. Let’s delve deeper:

The skill level curve at a Pro Tour is flatter than at a PTQ.

Magic Online ringer Charles Dupont (A.K.A. Aceman) collected 22 out of a possible 30 points in Austin playing Mono-Red Burn. I know of a lot of people who are thinking of following his lead, and he was baffled at the lack of Mono-Red Burn decks in Rome, as he thinks the deck is quite good. And he’s probably right; the build he used in Austin was very good for that tournament, and was well positioned to take advantage of painful manabases and decks not ready for it.

But Charles’ skill advantage at Austin wasn’t as big as the one he would enjoy if he played in a PTQ. The Burn deck, while more skill-intensive than some people give it credit for, is not the best deck to leverage a skill advantage. In other words, if you have a deck that feasts on the mistakes of others, the advantage of playing such a deck at a Pro Tour (where people are generally good across the board) is going to be less than at a PTQ, where people make a lot more mistakes. So if you have a skill edge, why play a deck that doesn’t let you use it?

Manabases are worse in the early part of the season.

Building a good manabase is hard, and often it’s an afterthought, which creates a very exploitable inefficiency in deck design. Vindicate was nuts from start to finish of the Extended season two years ago, but it was especially nuts at the start, when it could destroy inefficiently-used lands. Tsuyoshi Fujita’s Boros Deck Wins from Pro Tour: Los Angeles in 2005 ran four maindeck Molten Rain and Pillage, plus three Blood Moon out of the board. That’s a lot of mana disruption!

Molten Rain was strong at the beginning of last season, but not as much towards the end of the season, and Tarmogoyf was downgraded to a two-mana 3/4 in Zoo mirrors, as Zoo stopped playing sorcery cards entirely. There just was no room to take advantage of bad mana when the season was mature.

Similarly, Blood Moon was really not doing much at the end of last season. Once Path to Exile was released in Conflux, people added more basic lands to their deck and were more resistant to Blood Moon.

Hey, speaking of Path to Exile

That card has become quite good when facing manabases that don’t run many basics. The Juza Zoo list from Pro Tour: Austin runs one basic land. So while your first Path is stapled to a Rampant Growth against that deck, every subsequent Path is the most ridiculous removal spell ever, putting Swords to Plowshares to shame. Cards like Ghost Quarter are naturally being played to kill opposing Dark Depths, thinning out basic lands even further from decks, increasing the chance of Path having no drawback at the point where you cast it.

If you want to build a creature-based aggro deck, one way to take advantage of this is to have slightly more expensive, but more powerful cards in your deck, plus multiple basics. Bill Stark’s Ranger Zoo list from last year ran only 21 lands, but ran a full four Ranger of Eos. This was because Ranger was most important in the mirror, and with creatures getting Pathed left and right in the long attrition war that was the Ranger Zoo mirror, the four basic lands in the deck would be plenty to power out a four casting cost spell.

Lists from the last major event don’t take into account the breakthrough deck of the format, provided the deck was unknown before the tournament.

Pro Tour: Austin was ready for Dark Depths before the tournament started, so when looking at Austin lists, you can safely assume that the sideboards or maindeck strategies took Dark Depths into account. Therefore, if you want to beat Dark Depths, you don’t have to make a lot of adjustments.

A deck like Tezzeret, on the other hand, was not played in Austin and was not The Hot New Deck before the tournament. So when looking at Rome lists, you can’t assume that they were built with Tezzeret in mind. So heading into this PTQ, if you want to beat Tezzeret, you’ll have to innovate.

Innovation is hard, and not everyone’s going to do it right.

In a format as large as Extended, a lot of strategies can trump opposing strategies, but it requires a pretty deep understanding of the format to really get it right. Not everyone obsesses over Extended even during the offseason or is willing to put in the time to do the mountains of testing and all the theory work in order to get an understanding of the format, so when they try to exploit a previously unknown strategy, they will often be wrong.

For example, take the Tezzeret deck. Tezzeret is a very resilient deck with a robust sideboard plan, and it’s very difficult to exploit whatever inefficiencies might be there. I’m certain there is a way to do so, although several dozen hours of testing have not yet revealed what that is. Some people may mistakenly think that boarding in four Ancient Grudge is enough to take care of it, but any reasonable amount of testing after sideboarding will reveal that this plan is flawed at best and doesn’t get the job done.

That’s one advantage of playing a deck that is both resilient and largely unknown heading into the last major tournament. I’m confident that had Tezzeret been a big deal in Austin, some people would have figured out a good way to attack it by the time Rome rolled around. Instead, isolated groups of people will have to figure it out themselves, and PTQ grinders are generally not as likely to attack a deck as efficiently as those playing in Worlds.

Results from Worlds can be warped due to lack of preparation.

There were only six rounds of Extended for Rome, and it wasn’t played until Day 3 of the tournament. With the Day 1 and Top 8 formats being Standard, some people chose to emphasize their preparation for Standard over Extended, and Extended was put on the back burner.

While this may seem surprising, not everyone who went had infinite time to test multiple formats, and some even got lazy and just relied on Austin lists to get things going in Extended. Also, standings influenced deck choices as well. Someone who needed to get a pair of wins in Extended to level up might play a safer deck and ditch the riskier, more innovative deck they had initially planned to play. Conley Woods needed a scant ten points out of six rounds to make Top 8, so he audibled out of his previously planned deck with Vampire Nighthawk and Ninja of the Deep Hours, and chose the safer route with Rubin Zoo. (He didn’t Top 8, sadly, but his decision to not play the deck was still almost certainly correct.) I also know that Conley spent more time on developing and refining Magical Christmasland, and had done relatively little Extended testing.

As opposed to a tournament like Austin, where you didn’t have the benefit of knowing your standings before registering your decklist, Rome is less likely to provide innovation, and is not the best snapshot of what a post-Austin, mature metagame should look like.

If you’re convinced of it, you might not be wrong.

It’s tempting to say, “But Rubin Zoo did so well in both Austin and Rome, so why do my testing results show that it’s unfavorable against the decks I’m trying? I must be making a mistake.”

Not necessarily. Rubin Zoo was good for the environment that was Pro Tour: Austin, but is it right for a post-Rome metagame? If it keeps losing to controlling decks and you think it’s because Rubin Zoo is too midrange to really deal with them, you might just be right. Austin was a raw metagame and Brian Kibler took that deck to a victory for that environment, but metagames change. Rubin Zoo may not be the best deck anymore, and it may not even be tier one. If you throw your hands up and say, “I just don’t understand how this deck can possibly be the right choice for a PTQ,” it might just be because it’s not.

Test, test, test.

Extended is such a great format in part because it’s so skill-intensive, and there are a lot of subtle interactions that come up that you might not be aware of. Maybe a plan seems good on paper, but when you run into a card that can stop that plan cold in its tracks, how will you adjust? It’s better to figure that out now than during round four of the PTQ.

My batteries are energized and I’m going to be Extending it up at every possible opportunity. Extended season is like a yearly Christmas present for me. Really, who could ask for anything more?

Happy Holidays everyone.

With peace, good will, and Tarmogoyfs,
zaiemb at gmail dot com
zbeg on Twitter
zbeg on Magic Online


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