Getting to the Bottom of the Depths
Extended may be drawing to a close, but there is still a Grand Prix in Houston and a few scattered PTQs, so the topic still is relevant. I recently got back from an Extended Grand Prix myself, the one held in Yokohama this past weekend, and even though I didn’t make Day 2 I would play just about the same deck if I got to redo the GP. Depths really is just that good, and hopefully Mori winning the GP with it isn’t necessary to convince people of that fact (although it certainly helps). Since nobody has written about Depths for a while (and it continues to win tons of PTQs and whatnot), I wanted to go over the different ways to build it now, since there have definitely been some updates in the last few weeks.
Why is Depths so awesome?
There are plenty of good combos in Extended (Hypergenesis, Scapeshift, Thopter-Sword, Depths-Hexmage, Wild Nacatl–Stomping Ground), so what makes this deck that mashes two of them together so good? I realize this question has been asked and answered, but so many people seem to resist Depths that I wanted to reiterate why it makes such a good choice.
It can play turn one Dark Confidant
Honestly, Dark Confidant is plan A in the vast majority of matchups. Unless you are dueling Zoo or Burn, Bob is the most important card to play early. An unanswered Bob leads to victory just as surely as a 20/20 or a bunch of Thopters, since the steady stream of cards makes it trivial to crush the opponent with disruption spells and eventually one of the combos. There is a reason Dark Confidant is the best Invitational card not close, and playing a deck that can often play a turn one Bob or a turn two Bob after a Thoughtseize gives you so many free wins. I’m not sure how many people realize that Bob is that important; for example, I often play Bob by imprinting Hexmage on turn 1, even if I have Depths in hand, and the number of people who refuse to Path Bob because I might make a 20/20 at some point still surprises me.
Both combos demand immediate answers, and those answers rarely overlap
Obviously, Marit Lage is the faster of the two, since a 20/20 actually ends the game instantly, but against most decks (some combo decks excluded), Thopter-Sword is equally game over if not stopped within a turn or two. There are also only a select number of cards that answer both combos, and even though those cards are becoming widely played (Bant Charm, Night of Soul’s Betrayal, Damping Matrix), all of them are vulnerable to Thoughtseize, as well as either Muddle the Mixture or bounce spells. By threatening to end the game in multiple hard-to-stop ways, Depths often keeps opposing decks off balance. This point is pretty obvious, and is the main advantage associated with the deck.
It can transform into a much more controlling deck with ease
This is a new one, and the main reason I wanted to write about Depths. With the addition of Jace, both in the main and board, this deck gains a third legitimate path to victory. While the opponent brings in Damping Matrix, Blood Moon, Ancient Grudge, etc, etc, Depths gets to bring in some Jaces and more removal, which all of a sudden turns the matchup dynamic on its head. This is most commonly seen in the Zoo matchup, but Zoo vs Depths is one of the most common matchups, so it comes up a lot. I will talk more about it later, but suffice to say that with the new plan, it is possible that Zoo makes its deck worse after board, depending on what it is bringing in. Even against non-Zoo decks, adding Jaces to the already-present sets of Bob, Thirst, and Thoughtseize gives Depths the, well, depth to actually control the game.
Before getting into the list options, I want to go over the cards commonly used to beat the deck, and what they mean for deck construction.
There are a number of cards people use to beat this deck, some more specifically targeted than others. Being the most popular deck for a long stretch of time certainly has its disadvantages, and the cards that are good against this deck are becoming more and more commonplace. After all, everybody knows that if they don’t at least have a theoretical plan against Depths, they are just asking for trouble. Of course, many of the plans are quite beatable, but hate is never as effective against the best deck as people think it is.
1) The first strategy, and one employed by Zoo and Faeries is to play a variety of more general removal spells that happen to be effective against Depths.
The combination of pressure plus a removal spell or two is pretty effective, and I believe that most Zoo lists are slightly favored game one. None of their answer cards require a specific response, and pretty much all of them are going to be effective against Depths regardless of how the deck is built. The sideboard is the main tool Depths uses to fight Zoo, particularly because Zoo doesn’t get anything too dramatic; they add more removal but don’t really change their angle of attack.
Faeries certainly has a ton of cards that are effective against Depths, but it isn’t usually that difficult to resolve a Thopter Foundry and eventually find a Sword, at which point they need to have a bounce spell and a counterspell or Vendilion Clique. The Marit Lage combo is very weak against Faeries; not only do they have bounce, they also have plenty of blockers, including Bitterblossom. Much like against Zoo, the way you build Depths doesn’t change the dynamic much, since Faeries is playing mostly broad answer cards. Having extra Swords and Thopters is useful, but if you lean on the combo too much you are vulnerable post-board, when they bring in graveyard hate.
2) The second strategy that some decks use is to play more targeted hoser cards, the effectiveness of which varies drastically depending on the depths build. The most common cards are as follows:
Not only does the Moon stop the Depths combo by itself, it can often make casting anything difficult. I like Mori’s choice to play five basics, since with five basics, four Moxes, and Tolaria Wests, assembling the right mana isn’t that difficult. Bounce spells also fight Blood Moon effectively, and if you can resolve Thopter Foundry before the Moon hits, casting Sword is obviously not a problem. Blood Moon is still decent, but certainly not the worst card to face. It shows up often, because some Zoo lists either main or board it, and various control decks can also be built to harness it.
This is the most effective hate card, hands down, for a number of reasons. It not only answers both combos, but it kills all the Thopter tokens that have already been made. That is huge, since it not only means that it is almost never too late for Night to be enough to stabilize, but it also makes bounce much less effective. Testing against Martin Juza showed me this, as even when I had Repeal or Echoing Truth, bouncing Night only let me hit him for a few damage before he would play it again. Night requires bounce plus a Thoughtseize, which is much more difficult to assemble. The main strike against Night is that it is difficult to fit into a deck, since finding a deck that can cast it and not be affected by it can be tough. At the moment, Living End, Grixis Planeswalkers, and some UB control decks are the main decks that are playing Night, and they don’t make up much of the metagame. Bounce and hand disruption are Depths’ only out, so the deck I played at the GP with just the one Echoing Truth was more vulnerable than normal lists, and I did indeed lose to Night.
This has lost most of its popularity, and for good reason. Matrix is easy to cast, but doesn’t stop any in-play Thopters, and it is quite weak against bounce. Zoo is the only deck that was siding this, and Zoo can generally do better. I didn’t expect to face any Matrices in Yokohama, and my lack of bounce didn’t hurt me in that regard, since I never saw a Matrix.
GQ only stops the Hexmage combo, but it is one of the more effective answers. It isn’t affected by Muddle or Thoughtseize, and only another Ghost Quarter or a second copy of Hexmage and Depths stops it. Ghost Quarter is at its most effective in fast combo like Elves or Hypergenesis, since those decks can ignore the Thopter combo. In Zoo, GQ is fine still, but Depths is most likely going to try and Thopter anyway, so it isn’t nearly as effective. Mori had his own Ghost Quarter to fight opposing ones, but in all the matches that Gerry, wrapter, and I have played, we have not been happy with the Quarter. I didn’t play it, and I think you can get away without one.
Graveyard Hate – Leyline of the Void, Extirpate, Bojuka Bog, Tormod’s Crypt
For the most part, these cards are only present after boarding. They obviously only stop the Thopter combo, and they do so with varying efficiency. The one-shot graveyard effects like Crypt and Bog are rarely a reliable answer, but decks with tutors like Knight of the Reliquary or Trinket Mage/Tolaria West often have one just in case the Thopter player gets sloppy or careless. Leyline and Extirpate both take different answers, and both aren’t that difficult to play around. Leyline sits on the board until you can find a bounce spell, at which point you get to make some EOT Thopters and a bunch the next turn, which usually does the trick. It can be annoying to have to wait to bounce Leyline, and if you cut down on bounce too much it does make you jump through some hoops, but Leyline should never really catch you by surprise.
Extirpate is pretty easy to play around too, and you have two options. One is to wait until Thoughtseize shows that the way is clear, and the other is to find the second Sword of the Meek before going off. If you have a Sword just sitting in play, Extirpate does nothing, so unless you are under pressure you should be able to find either Thoughtseize or Sword. Extirpate can be annoying if it catches you by surprise, but it usually isn’t that hard to tell when they have it, and most games you have the time to play around it. Extirpate is also a reason to make Thopters whenever they are tapped out, particularly the turn you play the combo, since even if they have Extirpate they might not have thought to keep mana up in anticipation.
That pretty much wraps up the main ways people try and stop you from comboing, so now I want to look at how to build the deck. This deck has had so much work put into it that there aren’t that many different ways to make it without drastically altering the focus, so I’m going to start by laying out the core of the deck.
I would not recommend playing less than 24 lands, or going below the numbers on any of the cards listed above. Three Thirst may seem odd, but I have been pretty happy with one Compulsive Research rounding out the three-mana card draw slot, since this deck isn’t that heavy on artifacts. Smother is excellent against the mirror, Zoo, and most creature decks, so two is the minimum number I would play. The rest of the cards haven’t changed in months, and I certainly see no reason to cut any of them.
The last six slots can vary, but here are some example builds:
Katsuhiro Mori’s GP-winning list:
Mori plays a Jace, which I am fairly sure will become standard, since both I and most other people I saw playing Depths had them. He also has a bunch of bounce, which is also not that out of the ordinary, although his cut of Engineered Explosives is. His Tolaria Wests are much weaker because he cut the Explosives, the Academy Ruins, and has no Slaughter Pact anywhere. I would not recommend cutting Explosives or Ruins, as they add a lot of staying power to the deck at little cost.
The list I played at the GP:
When we (me, Martin Juza, and BenS) were brewing the night before, we settled on cutting the two Repeals that most lists had for another Thopter Foundry and another Sword. The Thopter combo is the primary route to victory against Zoo, Faeries, and the mirror, and we expected those three decks to be heavily represented. I only played against the mirror once, and never against the other two, so losing the bounce ended up hurting me, and I wouldn’t recommend it moving forward. Without the extra Sword and Thopter Foundry, the fourth Thirst is worse than the first Compulsive Research.
The list I would play now:
This obviously isn’t a huge departure from either list, but it contains the best elements of both. The three bounce spells plus the Explosives offer enough removal, and the Jace and Research round out the card draw.
The lands are also pretty locked in, although I like this manabase:
I know playing three Urborg might be pushing it, but drawing doubles can be so devastating, and the mirror is popular enough that they will often play one and turn on your Depths. I like the five basics that Mori had, and from now on will be playing them, since making Blood Moon that much less effective is awesome. The two value lands (Creeping Tar Pit and Academy Ruins) are crucial in the mirror, and give you a ton of value in any matchup that goes long. Tar Pit is very good against Jace, and Jace is exploding in popularity nowadays. The last point of note is the two Tolaria Wests, the third which got cut for the Tar Pit. Too many tapped lands is risky in a deck that wants to play turn one Bob, and I like the utility of the Tar Pit more.
Adding these numbers together leads to the list I currently like:
The sideboard is where this version really shines, since once you side in a bunch of removal and Jaces you are very good against most of the plans Zoo follows. Using Jace’s +2 until you ultimate is a realistic way to win, and comes up way more often than you might think. Making their draws worse while you sit on removal makes it nigh impossible for them to get a foothold in the game, and any Grudge/Damping Matrix/Bant Charm/Path sort of things they draw are just useless.
Here are the locked in sideboard slots:
In Yokohama, I had an Echoing Truth (because of the no bounce spells main, which was a mistake), a fourth Deathmark, and a Duress. The Sphinx that Mori had is decent, and we played it for a while, but ultimately I think Jace is better. However, now that Jace is most definitely common knowledge, Sphinx gets decent again, since he trumps it. Ah, the never-ending battle of trumps and re-trumps.
I would fill out the sideboard with the Duress, a Sphinx, and the fourth Deathmark, since beating Zoo is always important.
I continually go back and forth on the Leyline v Extirpate question. Leyline is vastly better than Extirpate against Dredge, which is important, but if you side in Leylines, Jaces, and Sphinx in the mirror you make your deck really clunky, and Bob much riskier. Especially with three Leylines, the plan is often to cast one, and that takes a ton of mana. Right now I would try Extirpates again, but I’m not really happy with either slot. Still, you can’t just scoop to the Thopter combo, so you have to have some answer.
There are a few more common sideboard plans for the deck, but how you sideboard each time varies wildly. When you are turning into Jace Control, combo pieces inevitably get trimmed, but which and how many fluctuates.
You want to bring in nine or ten cards here: all the removal, the Jaces, the Sphinx, and sometimes the Gatekeeper.
The cards I tend to cut include 3 or 4 of each Marit Lage combo piece, 1 of each Thopter piece, and up to one Dark Confidant. If they are heavier on one sort of combo hate you want to minimize that combo, but the vast majority of the time that means going to either 1 and 1 on Hexmage/Depths or 0 of each. Path usually outweighs whatever artifact hate they may have, but if they are on Qasali Pridemage and Ancient Grudge you can cut the Thopters down to 1 and 1 or 0 of each. I am always reluctant to entirely remove a combo, because by having one of each piece you make your tutors and card draw that much more versatile. It may seem odd to keep Bobs, but Zoo decks tend to be light on burn nowadays, and an early Bob is still quite effective. On the draw Bob gets worse, and I sometimes cut all of them, especially if they keep in Lightning Bolts (which they pretty much always do, for some reason).
Here you want the Jaces, the Sphinx, the Gatekeeper, the Duress, and the Extirpates.
This is the trickiest matchup to sideboard, although the mirror lists are moving to a pretty standard configuration, which makes it a little easier. I used to just cut all the Hexmage combo cards, but they are much better now. Hexmage killing Jace makes it way better than it used to be, and threatening a quick 20/20 gets better if they are still cutting their combo pieces. I tend to cut down on some Thopter pieces in anticipation of increased GY hate, a Mox, 1 Hexmage and one or two Depths, a Muddle, and sometimes the Explosives. Like I said, boarding is tricky, and you want to try to stay a level ahead of them. If they have Extirpates, you definitely want to keep two Swords so you can tutor both, but if they have Leylines it is fine to go to just one Sword and 1-2 Thopter Foundries. Similarly, if they keep all their Hexmages and Depths you proabably want to as well. If somehow they don’t have Jaces and sideboard out all their Hexmages, you can side yours out too, but I doubt that will occur often.
vs everything else
There are too many decks to cover in-depth, but sideboard gets considerably easier against other decks. Figure out what combo they are attacking hardest or is least relevant, and cut the numbers until you have enough slots. Sometimes cards like Smother (vs Hypergenesis) or Dark Confidant (vs Burn) are clearly dead, and you can cut those instead.
Hopefully this guide helps you figure out the Depths deck you want to take into battle, and even if you don’t want to play Depths, it should give you some good information on how to beat it. The odds that I play this or something very close in Houston are good, although two weeks is certainly quite a long time in Magic time!