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Expect the Unexpected Tomorrow

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Far and away my favorite article I wrote this year. This one was a whiz-bang smash hit among the readership, a solid intro to the Pro Tour complete with the "unexpected"—or at least unpreviewed—best deck running all over Berlin, dominating, and ultimately taking first place. But hey! I did say to expect this to happen! Also it was my first Top Decks foray into video and people have liked that angle enough that I have continued to pursue it more or less every week. Promise to continue enjoying them and I promise to continue making them.


The letter T!oday you are going to read this issue of Top Decks, which is about the Extended Pro Tour–Berlin. You are going to go night-night. When you wake up, it is very likely Pro Tour–Berlin will be well underway, and you can tune in here to magicthegathering.com and follow along with what promises to be a Wild West of Kird Apes and Arcbound Ravagers.

So this article is going to try to give you a little context as to what you might see starting tomorrow.

But Extended has been a notoriously difficult format to predict in recent years. Last year, for Pro Tour–Valencia, we all knew that Dredge was going to be the big boogeyman of the tournament... but that was kind of the thing. Everybody knew. So Dredge was ultimately unsuccessful, buried under an avalanche of Tormod's Crypts and Extirpates.

Few in the Magic media would have predicted not just one but two copies of The Rock in the Top 8 of the Valencia Top 8 alongside multiple versions of White-Blue UrzaTron in an eclectic final day including Affinity, Zoo, Enduring Ideal, and of course Remi Fortier's Counterbalance deck.

Fewer still would have predicted that the Barra Rock deck from that Top 8 would have survived the entire PTQ season, making nary a wave, until reemerging at Grand Prix–Philadelphia to take the title in the hands of Gerard Fabiano.

Next Level Blue?

Previous Level Blue?

What is the best third color to splash in The Rock?

Professional-level Extended has been defined by the unexpected, with almost every Pro Tour showcasing the reemergence of a forgotten strategy, and Grand Prix showcasing the odd Fujita Sneak Attack deck or groundbreaking Friggorid.

So no preview article can give you every single angle ahead of time... But there are still pillars of the format, holding the entire structure of countless decks and variations up. Top Decks might not be able to give you an eye on every top deck ahead of time this time, but we can certainly address the pillars, and the levers being pulled to shake up the format.

1. Goodbye to Invasion

The recent rotations have had tremendous repercussions on the Extended format. Invasion Block was the home to Orim's Chant, and with no Orim's Chant, there is no NO Stick, no Scepter-Chant per se.

Moreover, the Invasion sacrifice lands—Ancient Spring, Geothermal Crevice, Irrigation Ditch, Sulfur Vent, and Tinder Farm—and so on were fundamental to accelerating Storm and Enduring Ideal strategies. These lands gave their home decks a lift of a turn or so in order to explode to their combination finishes before the opponent could kill them first.

Here is Andre Mueller's Enduring Ideal deck from the finals of last year's Pro Tour–Valencia. Check out how his deck leans on eleven or so explosive Invasion sacrifice lands.


2. Goodbye to Odyssey

The days of Wild Mongrel and Psychatog ruling Extended have been over for some time—at least as long as Tarmogoyf has had its flag planted squarely in the center of the metagame—but even without defining the format with some of the best two- and three-mana threat creatures ever printed, Odyssey still managed to help define the format.

Why?

Breakthrough
Careful Study
Putrid Imp

While these cards didn't have the word "dredge" actually printed on them, they were essential for the Dredge deck to play on the first couple of turns. The number of times a player evaluated a hand, declared a Breakthrough for zero, and pitched everything... then won in short order with a dredged Golgari Grave-Troll feeding Narcomoebas to set up Dread Return... any number greater than "zero" is probably surprising to many of you.

Cabal Therapy was a weapon used by the hated Dredge deck, but just as much by middle-of-the-road do-gooder creature decks as well. Of all the cards in Odyssey Block, I would be surprised if this one were not the most fiercely missed.

Now does that mean goodbye to Dredge?

It certainly means Dredge is off most players' immediate "to beat" lists. Last year, the entire Pro Tour was prepared for Dredge, and it showed: the boogeyman was completely locked out of the Top 8. However this year, it seems that guards are down... meaning the clever graveyard mage just might make a metagame opening.

...Just a thought.

3. Goodbye to Sensei's Divining Top

Removing Sensei's Divining Top crippled numerous strategies, including basically every Counterbalance deck... including last year's Extended Pro Tour winner. Without Sensei's Divining Top, Counterbalance becomes significantly less reliable; Dark Confidant gets quite a bit worse, at least in control decks, and, subtly, there is less incentive to play Onslaught fetch lands over, say, Shadowmoor filter duals.

Of course, the most significantly affected decks are the Counterbalance family, including Next Level Blue and the deck Remi Fortier used to win last year's Extended Pro Tour:


So with all these goodbyes, where does that leave the format?

There are probably dozens of unique decks that will show up in Berlin, but for this one, we are going to focus on the meat of the format—some of the decks we know with almost 100% certainty will make up a significant portion of the play pool, and doubtlessly, the coverage itself.

Affinity

Affinity has the pedigree of being the most powerful offensive strategy in the history of Magic—a champion in Columbus under Pierre Calali, and Top 8 again in Valencia alongside San Stein—and no kind of loser whatsoever.

Affinity combines many different cards that can piggyback artifact lands such as Vault of Whispers to create advantages... Spells with affinity for artifacts are undercosted when considered next to artifact lands, which essentially "tap for two mana" in this deck ... You only need two artifact lands to summon a Frogmite. Arcbound Ravager can eat artifact lands to get bigger and more powerful.

This is Sam Stein's deck that made Top 8 of Pro Tour–Valencia last year:

Sam Stein's Ravager Affinity
Top 8, Pro Tour-Valencia 2007


Sam's deck played a variety of cards that, while good, will probably not appear in this year's Affinity deck.

Tarmogoyf, the best two drop in maybe the history of the game, will likely step aside in favor of Atog. Atog is a ferocious attacker in Affinity, and next to Fatal Frenzy, can sometimes produce a turn three kill.

Defensive and disruptive spells like Tormod's Crypt and Pithing Needle—artifacts, yes, but that do no damage—will probably be relegated to sideboard duty in favor of more proactive spells (especially the aforementioned Fatal Frenzy).

Here is an Affinity deck by Gavin Verhey from the most recent Extended PTQ season:

Gavin Verhey's Ravager Affinity
Pro Tour-Hollywood Qualifier Top 8


I am of the opinion that this will be the model for most Affinity decks, though certainly Shards of Alara will have an impact on deck design.

The most "out there" Affinity builds might play around Salvage Titan, running all the Chromatic Stars and Terrarions to profit from their profit, while Affinity decks closer to the center might just try Master of Etherium as another big threat, or Ethersworn Canonist as kind of a native Affinity answer to Meddling Mage or Gaddock Teeg (that plays more like a Rule of Law).

I have been playing around with video recently, and decided to showcase some of the predicted decks for Pro Tour–Berlin visually. This video is a short walk-through going over some of the things we've discussed already, plus a little game play at the end.

Aside:

Some people just work better visually, or through storytelling, than just by reading... and videos like this one are an attempt to help reach that branch of the audience... which includes yours truly, it looks like!

A lot of us complain about bad luck, mana screw, poor pairings, and so on without evaluating what we could have done better in individual games and circumstances. Look back at about 3:40 in the video, where I play the Arcbound Worker.

I had enough mana to play Arcbound Ravager. My plan was to crash with Ornithopters and Cranial Platings (got there), and I didn't really consider using Arcbound Ravager as another primary threat. I missed damage due to the opponent's Smother, but if I had had the Ravager, I could have recouped at least a +1/+1 counter even if I essentially missed the attack.

Imagine I had lost a close one with the opponent on one instead of winning with those Ornithopters and Platings... Would I have chalked it up to bad luck? The beauty of video is that it's right there for me. I could review the game and see where I had made a clear error. I guess thousands of you get to see it too!

You've probably experienced low-margin games where the opponent wins on 1 and you don't know where the game got away. It's possible you had a 3:40 of your own in some of those games.

Let's hope this helps both of us.

End Aside.

Anyway, I feel like Affinity will be one of the more popular decks of the Pro Tour. It's extremely explosive and has some nice options from the new set.

On the downside, like many powerful decks based upon a linear strategy, Affinity is grievously vulnerable to sideboard cards specifically geared to beat it. Ancient Grudge, Kataki, War's Wage, and Hurkyl's Recall are just a few potential headaches Affinity players will have to weather in Game 2 and Game 3 situations.

Domain Zoo

What we today call Domain Zoo is a mashup of several decks, evolving over time from a Raphael Levy-style Gaea's Might Get There to incorporate the Chapin / Herberholz Dark Confidants and Vindicates.

...Well, given the Invasion rotation, not the Vindicates any longer.

Domain Zoo has the highest quality cards on a per-mana basis of any deck in the format... Everything from a variety of 2- and 3-power creatures on one mana, to the best two-drops of all time, to burn cards that can swing 6 life or just crunch through 5 points of bone for a couple of measly mana.

Here is a possible Domain Zoo list:


I took out the rotating cards and added Wild Nacatl, Figure of Destiny... but without major modifications to the mana base.

This video walks us through the transition from my friend Daniel O'Mahoney-Schwartz's undefeated Zoo deck from Day One of Grand Prix–Philadelphia to the above. After a little history, strategy, and discussion, Zoo battles Affinity!

All-In Red

I didn't originally have plans to include All-In Red to this article because I think of it as an "out there" rogue strategy, but in my exploration of the format (largely on Magic Online), All-In Red was by far the most popular deck that other people were playing.

Will that trickle down to the Pro Tour?

...Probably.

Here is a very simple All-In Red deck that I built, updating the archetype with cards from Shadowmoor.


All-In Red harkens back to the days of some of the game's great black decks.

Early tournament players often loaded their decks with Dark Rituals and Mind Twists (once upon a time you could play four and four, not none and none). This deck can accomplish a similar feat using a little mana acceleration to drop Magus of the Moon or Blood Moon; in Extended, there are very few decks with a lot of basic lands. Take the Zoo deck above. It is a variation on the red deck, but even Zoo can't play very much with only Mountains. Blood Moon paralyzes the opponent and blanks his or her hand, almost as if you had spent the same acceleration cards to actually force him or her to discard it with Mind Twist.

Many a black mage has used Vampiric Tutor and Entomb to set up the perfect fat creature to Reanimate into play... All-In Red does something similar, pushing all its resources into a single threat on the first or second turn; the only difference is that you don't bring a creature back from the graveyard, rather playing it directly from your grip after using mana acceleration to pay for it. A first-turn Deus of Calamity is nothing that can be ignored.

All-In Red seems to be one of the most fun decks in the format, mixing potentially devastating offensive capabilities with speed and surprise... but it has its holes as well.

In the video I jokingly said that I lost back-to-back games against Faeries with first-turn Blood Moons. Strange but true! The deck has no removal to speak of, so I fell behind a measly 1/1 Spellstutter Sprite and Umezawa's Jitte in each. I later lost a game to Zoo thanks to a 1/1 Kird Ape and Jitte. So while Jitte is no longer a fundamental staple of the Extended metagame, it seems to have a sweet spot against All-In.

Don't forget that even the aggressive decks can tussle with a Demigod if you don't have backup. It's not like Standard where you can easily play more spells! A first-turn Demigod of Revenge might get in for 10, but Tribal Flames, Shrapnel Blast, and so on can play adequate defense at low cost.

Still, more fun than a barrel of barrels; brutally quick, demoralizing, barrels.

Other Decks

I am pretty sure about Affinity, Zoo, and All-In Red, but what about the many other options to be played in the format? The above are basically all attack decks (even if All-In Red rubs up against combo a little bit)... what about the true combo or varying control options in the format?

One possible combination deck is a porting of the Swans of Bryn Argoll strategy to Extended, simplifying the Standard Seismic Assault + Dakmor Salvage to a single Chain of Plasma. This is more-or-less a two-card combo; you target your Swans with Chain of Plasma and can then repeat the process over and over; because the Swans lets you draw three generic cards, you can draw your entire deck with just the two, feeding Chain of Plasma until you're not interested any more... You've got it all! Finish however you like.

The Invasion lands might be gone, but chances are there will still be storm combo decks as long as there is Mind's Desire in the format.

Operation should be the same as always: generate storm count with mana accelerators, play some big storm spell to either set up another storm spell (Mind's Desire) or kill right then and there (say with Pyromancer's Swath + Grapeshot).

This year, the storm decks will likely be setting up post-sideboard games against control with Gigadrowse—a replicate instant to be played during the opponent's turn—which does the double-duty of putting significant pressure on the number of Stifles your opponent drew (that is, even if the Gigadrowse is "countered" by Stifle, chances are your Mind's Desire will be safe).

Control

If Mirrodin Block can put up its local linear as an icon of beatdown, why can't Onslaught Block do the same with its board control Pro Tour winner?

Look for Astral Slide to play either as base-green-white like Julien Nuijten's World Championship deck or to devolve back to Lightning Rifts, though probably as a three-color deck rather than the straight red-white of Onslaught Block Constructed. Sakura Tribe-Elder and Life From the Loam are just too perfect for the defensive cycling strategy.

If a true control survives to Berlin, it might look a lot like Paul Cheon's deck from Grand Prix–Vancouver, Previous Level Blue:

Paul Cheon's Previous Level Blue
1st place, Grand Prix-Vancouver


Losses here include Counterspell, Force Spike, and Sensei's Divining Top, but unlike the Counterbalance decks, Sensei's Divining Top was not central to Paul's deck, just very good. Counterspell and Force Spike can be replaced by a number of cheap permission options, including Mana Leak, Remand, Rune Snag, Stifle, or even Remove Soul.

The big spells—Tarmogoyf, Vedalken Shackles, and Ancestral Vision—are all legal, so the core of the deck is still intact, with Shackles being perhaps the best of the lot.

Ditto on Ben Lundquist's UrzaTron deck from the same Top 8:


With Fact or Fiction and some key sideboard cards rotating out of Adam Yurchick's White-Blue 'Tron deck, the incentive might shift (back) to a Gifts Ungiven model like Ben's green-blue.

Adam Yurchick's UrzaTron
2nd place, Grand Prix-Philadelphia


The mighty mighty mana base is still intact for this strategy (barring Adam's Skycloud Expanses in the white-blue version), and Gifts Ungiven is still there to pull it through the middle turns. The speed of the beatdown decks may be an issue for the UrzaTron decks, especially with Moment's Peace rotating, but they have been the control staple of Extended—at least in flashes—for the past several years.

Perhaps we will see a return to White-Blue UrzaTron for Wrath of God in the absence of Moment's Peace, but more keyed to the "tenacious" Gifts Ungiven card-drawing setup instead of the immediacy of the rotating Fact or Fiction.

Speed in the face of those incredible beatdown decks is going to challenge the control side, but control decks have been counted out of Extended before... and we're still talking about them.

Extended can be a dark and scary place for sure, but I trust we served to shine a little light on it. I hope that you enjoyed this overview, and that it enriches your ability to follow this weekend's coverage.

Then again...

I just got an email from Patrick Chapin reading "dude, just wait till you see what we brought... :)" so I'm ready to go night-night RIGHT NOW just so I can wake up and see! Do you feel the same way? Man, I love Constructed.

Coverage starts tomorrow. I know you'll be here.

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