I’ve been testing a lot of Extended recently, and I’m starting to collect a lot of data on the various matchups. It’s too long to put into a single article (this one is fairly long and it only covers four matchups), but this can be a multi-part series.
What I wanted to do is look at what decks are doing well, why they’re doing well, where they have holes or what they lose to, and what the environment has to be in order to play that deck. I decided to cover all the Umezawa’s Jitte decks and Mono-Red Burn for the first installment.
So let’s get to it!
Strengths: Faeries has always been strong against combo decks, midrange, and other control decks. Between Spellstutter Sprite, Bitterblossom, Mistbind Clique, Umezawa’s Jitte, Vendilion Clique, and countermagic, the deck has a lot of tools with which to beat opposing decks. Because so few of Faeries’ spells are played at sorcery speed, they can sit back and wait and react to whatever the opposing deck’s doing. Usually decks that are so reactive have a hard time winning because they do nothing to further their own plan to win, but when your utility spells are also creatures, you don’t have to make any sacrifices.
Guess what? Mistbind Clique is still unfair.
Weaknesses: Decks that are hyper-aggressive have always given Faeries trouble, and things are no different this time. Tribal Zoo decks can power out starts of multiple aggressive one-drops in the early turns like Wild Nacatl, Steppe Lynx, and Kird Ape, forcing Faeries to react faster than they are comfortable with. They don’t play mass removal maindeck, so an early creature swarm is often all it takes to put the blue menace in a position where they are in danger of getting burnt out. Their best way to win is to get an active Umezawa’s Jitte and try to gain some life back, but that’s pretty slow.
Mono-Red Burn is another big problem for Faeries. It’s nice in theory to counter all their stuff and gain life with Spellstutter Sprites and Mana Leaks, but in reality, it’s pretty tough to beat a Goblin Guide, and Hellspark Elemental doesn’t care about countermagic when he’s coming back. The aggression is too fast for Faeries this year. Jitte helps, but even postboard that plan becomes iffy, since Burn decks are bringing in Smash to Smithereens.
This may be a bit surprising to those who tested this matchup a lot last year, when the Burn matchup was actually in Faeries’ favor. But last season Burn wasn’t as strong, didn’t usually play Hellspark Elemental, didn’t have access to Teetering Peaks, and had a hard time fighting through Riptide Laboratory, since the Laboratory helped get repeated uses out of the same Spellstutter Sprite.
A midrange deck like Doran or Bant should have trouble with Faeries, but another strategy that is actually quite good against them is the Punishing Fire/Grove of the Burnwillows combo. Faeries wins by beating down with one toughness creatures (with the occasional Mistbind Clique thrown in), but if you can eat their creatures each turn, assuming you’re doing virtually anything else to back it up, Faeries is going to have a real hard time dealing with it.
How Faeries can adjust: I personally don’t think that the current blue/black lists are optimal. They’re basically the same deck they were during Time Spiral/Lorwyn/10th Edition Standard, with some Jittes thrown in, better mana, and Spell Snare. Is the optimal build of the deck really just a straight up port from Standard, plus Jitte?
Faeries’ mana has always been secretly shaky (blame Mutavault), but with fetchlands and dual lands in Extended, that problem is mitigated somewhat. Faeries can get a “free” white splash off Hallowed Fountain and play cards like CoP: Red or Burrenton Forge-Tender to deal with the Red matchup. Even playing something like Thirst for Knowledge and Chrome Mox over Ancestral Vision can help speed up the deck so it can play Damnation on turn three (turn four is pretty slow), or if you’re feeling brave, even something like Ghostly Prison, which is an underutilized card against aggro decks.
Extirpate is sometimes okay against Punishing Fire, although if they have two Grove of the Burnwillows, things can get tough. That’s one of the reasons why I kind of like Leyline of the Void instead. The decks that are using Punishing Fire/Grove are generally not concerned with your Bitterblossoms, so they aren’t likely to bring in enchantment hate game two. Also, Leyline obviously has applications against the other graveyard decks as well, albeit not as strong as [card]Extirpate[/card] against things like Sword of the Meek combo, since it can be bounced.
For the record, I’ve been trying Sun Droplet to bring in against Burn, but I’ve been pretty underwhelmed by it. It’s only good if you draw it early, and even if you do, Burn is going to be bringing in [card]Smash to Smithereens[/card] to deal with your Jittes anyway, so it’s not even a surefire thing.
When is it right? If your environment is combo, midrange, and slower decks, then Faeries is a very good call. If there’s a lot of Tribal Zoo and Burn, then it’s probably best to just keep the Mistbind Cliques at home.
Strengths: Zoo has a very favorable matchup against Faeries by starting out aggressively with creatures, then burning them out before Faeries gets a chance to stabilize. When played correctly, it can race Burn (although it depends largely on their draw). In general, control decks are favorable matchups for Zoo because of the early creature aggression. Often, by the time the control deck plays Wrath of God or Engineered Explosives, the control player is in burn range. Gaddock Teeg complicates matters further, as he must be dealt with before control decks can play their mass removal spell (unless they’re playing Firespout, which most decks are not). Having access to any color gives them the use of utility spells like Meddling Mage, Thoughtseize, Ancient Grudge, and Celestial Purge, meaning any powerful deck with a linear strategy can be beaten by Zoo. Even if the matchup is in favor of the non-Zoo deck, the animals always have a fighting chance against Hypergenesis or Affinity or Dredge.
Zoo makes its money off of being fast and consistent. Creatures + burn means it’s attacking on multiple fronts, which makes it harder to beat with narrow answers. In addition, Gaddock Teeg does a good job of buying just enough time against mass removal that the creatures can successfully punch through.
Weaknesses: Midrange decks with Kitchen Finks, Loxodon Hierarch, bigger guys, and lots of spot removal can give Zoo absolute fits. Zoo has only four Path to Exile, so if you keep playing threats that they have to Path, eventually they’re going to run out. If you play Tarmogoyf and Knight of the Reliquary and Baneslayer Angel, all of which they have to kill, they’re going to run out of Paths, and now they’re in big trouble. If a deck can get Umezawa’s Jitte active against Zoo consistently, that’s also a big problem.
And the cost for such efficiency is the mana. Molten Rain is a start, but decks that can play Blood Moon are pretty solid against Zoo. Even if Zoo has a Plains and Celestial Purges out of their sideboard, they have to draw the Purge, and in the meantime they’re playing a really bad aggro deck where Kird Ape is a 1/1.
Just like Faeries, Zoo also has a really hard time against the Punishing Fire/Grove of the Burnwillows combo. This may not be obvious, since many of Zoo’s creatures have more than two toughness, but remember that you can go end step Punishing Fire, Grove it back, Punishing Fire again. The Punishing Fire decks are also presumably doing other things, so even if that combo seems a bit on the slow side, when combined with playing other spells, it’s actually quite devastating.
Zoo can adapt to singular strategies postboard with their sideboard cards. Scapeshift has to deal with Gaddock Teeg, Thoughtseize, and maybe even Aven Mindcensor from the Zoo deck postboard. If your only way to beat Zoo is Punishing Fire/Grove, Zoo can board in Extirpate (and likely you’re dead before that combo gets online if that really is your only plan). If all you’re doing is playing large creatures, chances are those creatures are green, and are vulnerable to Deathmark out of the board, plus the usual Path to Exile.
But throw in lifegain (even if stapled to creatures) plus large creatures, or play large creatures and lifegain and Punishing Fire/Grove, or play a combo in addition to lifegain, Zoo can’t fight all of that. They would have to dilute their deck too much to fight the opposing deck on all those fronts, and Zoo crumbles.
Look at a deck from the Magic Online PTQ from Sunday:
Aggro-Scapeshift by SARCASTO:
Talk about a nightmare matchup. Kitchen Finks plus Jitte plus Punishing Fire/Grove of the Burnwillows, with Scapeshift as a backup plan? And then postboard you have to handle Blood Moon on top of all of that? What the heck is a Zoo player supposed to do?
Are you going to bring in Celestial Purge to beat Blood Moon? It’s a pretty dead card if they don’t play the enchantment. What about Thoughtseize for the Scapeshift combo? Do you leave in Path to Exile to get Kitchen Finks out of the way, or do you worry about accelerating them to Scapeshift? What about Fire/Grove? Extirpate does nothing against their other plans. All of your postboard plans are pretty bad.
You want to beat Zoo? Play lots of different strategies. They can’t beat them all.
How Zoo can adjust: There really isn’t a lot of room for adjustment. Zoo’s already a morphy type of deck that can bring in and out utility cards to adjust to the environment. If a lot of decks are attacking Zoo on multiple fronts, then it’s best to think about something else.
When is it right? If the field is control, aggro, and combo, then Zoo’s a fine choice. It’s just so consistent that it’s almost never a bad choice. If the field starts to look midrangey, then it gets pretty bad for Zoo.
Strengths: This deck largely exists due to the painful manabases people are playing. When Tribal Zoo wants to start its games at 12 life, a deck with a lot of burn spells is pretty appealing. It also resists board control spells like Wrath of God and Engineered Explosives, since the creatures for the most part do their damage the turn they come into play. Sure, you can nab a Hellspark Elemental or Keldon Marauders, to save a bit of life, but they still have all these Lightning Bolts.
The deck’s stronger than it was last year, in part due to Teetering Peaks. It’s basically a land that domes the opponent for two when it enters the battlefield. (And you thought all the shocklands were in Ravnica! Zing!) It’s a free burn spell without having to give up a spell slot. Don’t underestimate the importance of this. Yes, it comes into play tapped, but the benefit you get is pretty big. Between that, Goblin Guide, and Hellspark Elemental, the deck is able to do more damage than it was during the start of last year’s Extended season (at some point during Extended, Hellspark Elemental was legal, but by then the Burn deck had become less popular, so I’m counting it as a “new” card here.)
Midrange decks that don’t have a lot of lifegain (if any) like Rubin Zoo also have a hard time against Burn, since it takes so long for them to get their heavy hitters online. Yes, if they manage to untap with Baneslayer Angel they’re probably going to win that game, but they’re often dead before that happens.
The deck is also very cheap to build relative to other Extended decks, which explains its huge popularity on MODO.
Weaknesses: Though more skill-intensive than people give it credit for, there’s still not a ton of room to outplay your opponent. It does what it does, and little more. Decks that pack a lot of lifegain can really neuter it, and decks that pack both lifegain and good blockers like Kitchen Finks and Loxodon Hierarch are even more problematic.
The other way to beat Burn is simply to race it. Tribal Zoo can actually do this, as long as they don’t take too much damage off their own lands and maybe draw a Lightning Helix or two. Dark Depths has a favorable matchup because it can just power out a 20/20 and win before the Burn deck can amass enough burn spells to win.
It’s a linear deck, and the answers are plentiful and everywhere. Pulse of the Fields, Kitchen Finks, COP: Red, and Martyr of Sands are good places to start. An active Jitte or an unanswered Sun Droplet are also good, although those are vulnerable to Smash to Smithereens, and are therefore not as reliable. The best answers are in white, which is why decks like Faeries can really struggle against Burn even post-board, because they really don’t have a lot of answers in blue and black.
It is worth noting that even though the answers are mostly in white, throwing a couple of Kitchen Finks in your board and calling it a day isn’t enough. You kind of need a critical mass of hate cards, which takes up sideboard space. If you have a three-of that’s supposed to stop the Burn matchup, you need to draw it, and then have it be relevant before you die. So decks like Tezzeret still struggle against Burn despite having access to a toolbox to beat it.
How Burn can adjust: If Burn is running into a lot of Dark Depths, they can play some Blood Moons and Dead//Gone. Lifegain is a bit more problematic, but Everlasting Torment is a card out of the sideboard that can turn that off, and Flames of the Blood Hand is a very maindeckable card. Otherwise, there’s not a lot of room to maneuver.
When is it right? If there’s a lot of Tezzeret, Faeries, and midrange decks (without a lot of lifegain) with some Tribal Zoo mixed in (which is about a 50/50 matchup), then it’s a pretty good call. If there’s a lot of Dark Depths or decks that just have Burn in mind when being built, times can be pretty rough.
Midrange Zoo (Rubin, Saito)
For reference, since not everyone’s familiar with Saito Zoo:
Strengths: Saito Zoo has taken over as the “it” deck over Rubin Zoo (the one that Brian Kibler won Pro Tour: Austin with) recently. It’s got a pretty reasonable game against Tribal Zoo, Scapeshift, Hypergenesis, and Dark Depths. They play some guys, play some disruption, and eventually get around to killing you. Bant Charm is very good in this format, as it kills opposing Jittes and creatures, protects its own creatures from Path to Exile, can fight back a little in a counter war, and happily gets around Chalice of the Void on one when trying to kill a Marit Lage token.
Weaknesses: Well, it’s a midrange deck. To brush up, read LSV’s article on why midrange is bad. It’s got a pretty weak game against Burn, and without Punishing Fire/Grove of the Burnwillows, is going to have a hard time against Faeries as well. A deck that actually does something in a non-linear fashion like Tezzeret or Faeries is going to have a good time against these midrange decks. Grove/Fire was a good way to beat Faeries, but that tradeoff was made by getting Bant Charm and Negate (which is quite good) in its place instead.
How Midrange Zoo can adapt: If Faeries is too much of an issue, then Fire/Grove can be brought back, and go back to a more Rubin-esque build. The deck is pretty fundamentally midrangey and is going to have a hard time against control decks. If burn’s an issue, then lifegain can be put into the board or even the maineknzzznznnnnnnnk
Sorry, I just fell asleep. Midrange decks are boring.
When is it right to play it? If there’s a lot of Tribal Zoo, combo, and linear decks like Dredge or Affinity, then this deck is probably fine. If Faeries gets big, you can go back to Punishing Fire, and you could probably put in Loxodon Hierarchs and Kitchen Finks. If there’s a lot of control, or if you prefer playing decks that do things, then this may not be the right call.
Let me know in the comments if this sort of thing is informative and useful when trying to make a deck decision. If so, I can continue this with the combo and control decks in next week’s installment.
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