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Giant-Sized Regionals Primer: Psychatog


Friday, April 25, 2003
 

Of the Big Three decks that will largely define this year’s Regionals, Psychatog may have the finest pedigree. Far and away the best deck of last year’s Regionals, Psychatog won its debut premiere event in San Diego, gave Pro Tour-Venice Champion Osyp Lebedowicz his first Constructed Top 8, put the German National Championship into Kai Budde’s crowded trophy case and won the World Championships. It should come as no surprise that, while maintaining a core of cards that allowed it to transition into one of the most successful decks in last year’s Extended PTQs, the Counterspell deck with the combination kill finish will be the most important control representative in 2003.

Psychatog

Smile.

No matter which build of Psychatog you face, it is extremely likely that your opponent will be setting up the so-called Wrath/Armageddon/Hatred kill of Upheaval + Psychatog. With eight lands in play, the Psychatog opponent can cast Upheaval, floating two mana, replay one of the lands that he previously returned to hand and then cast Psychatog. At that point, you will have a one-turn window before he, in all likelihood, kills you with a single lethal attack. Between having a full hand, a graveyard jazzed with spells cast for the first eight turns of the game and lands that he had to discard post-Upheaval, your opponent will almost always have sufficient resources to deal 20 damage with the most synergistic of Atogs. Even better for the Psychatog player is to have nine lands in play when he casts Upheaval. That way, he can leave Black ManaBlue ManaBlue Mana in his mana pool to cast Psychatog and leave an untapped island to represent Force Spike or Circular Logic after successfully completing his combination.

How does a Psychatog player get to the point where he can win the game with a two-card combination and a single attack?

Typically, the Psychatog player will trade answer cards one-for-one with each of your threats and then refill with some sort of card drawing. For every Wild Mongrel you play, he will want to use a Smother. For every elephant token, he will have a Chainer’s Edict. Trading cards one-for-one is not just advantageous for the Psychatog player because he can end up on top with up to eight copies of Concentrate and Deep Analysis, but because cards both in hand and in the graveyard help to make Psychatog big. Allowing the Psychatog player to draw extra cards will similarly allow him to use his 1/2 Atog to win fights against even 4/4 or 6/6 wurms.

At the same time, it is important for the Psychatog player to continue playing lands. He wants to hit eight or nine mana in order to combination kill you with Upheaval + Psychatog.

More than anything else, what the Psychatog player craves is time. It doesn’t really matter to him whether your creatures are in the graveyard or back in your hand as long as his life total remains positive once he hits turn nine. Upheaval generates so much card advantage that it can turn around even the most complex board positions of a Mirari’s Wake or Astral Slide deck and it will unconditionally wipe the floor with any creature deck that does not have access to 1-mana spells.

Standstill

Good things come to those who wait.

About one year ago, a version of Psychatog based on Standstill was the most successful deck of the U.S. Regional Championships. The Standstill deck was able to “cheat” using the card Standstill in combination with blue bounce spells like Aether Burst and Repulse. It could lift the opponent’s creatures and then play an advantageous Standstill. Many opponents would not realize what was going on when Standstill hit play. They would wait until the Psychatog player hit seven cards in hand before breaking Standstill, not realizing that even more than cards, the Psychatog player just wanted time to draw into eight or nine lands; by waiting until the Standstill seemed to have less effect, these players were simply giving their opponents the opportunity to set up without being in immediate danger.

A better strategy was to break Standstill in order to put pressure on the Psychatog player. The problem with this strategy, of course, was that breaking Standstill gave the opponent three more cards to deal with the alleged threats being played. A single Aether Burst could potentially deal with up to four creatures and it was surprising how often a broken Standstill would just yield a land, Aether Burst and another Standstill.

This version of Psychatog fell out of favor over time, largely because many top players gravitated to the Psychatog archetype. Standstill and blue bounce spells were not very effective in dealing with other Psychatog decks, so the new breed of successful builds exploited the central strengths of the archetype (card drawing and creature sanction), but chose different specific cards, for instance Deep Analysis over Standstill or Chainer’s Edict over Aether Burst.

At the most recent tournament where top-level players showed off their Standard skills, two schools of Psychatog seemed to emerge. Both of them used Deep Analysis, but they divided on the choice of ancillary card drawing.

The first school is typified by Noah Boeken’s deck, which battled through the Gateway to put Boeken into the Masters proper.

PT-Chicago Masters Gateway 2003: Psychatog
Noah Boeken
View a sample hand of this deck

Main Deck

60 cards

Barren Moor
Darkwater Catacombs
Island
Lonely Sandbar
Polluted Delta
Swamp
Underground River

25 lands


Psychatog
Shadowmage Infiltrator

8 creatures
Aether Burst
Chainer's Edict
Circular Logic
Counterspell
Deep Analysis
Force Spike
Smother
Upheaval

27 other spells

Boeken’s deck runs four Deep Analyses as its primary card-drawing engine. Even in the counter-heavy mirror match, Deep Analysis is almost guaranteed to generate card advantage. It is next to impossible to stop the flashback on Deep Analysis without giving up precious resources and the life loss is not particularly relevant considering the fact that the end game will generally end via a combination kill.

Shadowmage Infiltrator

This version, though, is more geared to beating creature decks than the mirror match. Shadowmage Infiltrator can be a terror when most of the creatures in the environment are green. He will run by even Wild Mongrel (note the eight instant speed creature sanction that can punish a color-changing Mongrel), filling Boeken’s hand with more and more creature kill.

This version is less effective in the mirror. Where the opponent may have as few as three creatures, the Boeken build can end up with a hand glutted with Aether Bursts. Shadowmage Infiltrator is three mana worth of dead weight. It is extremely unlikely to live, as the opponent should have more than enough creature kill to deal with a threat of this speed.

More than anything else, this deck will have difficulty defending a combination kill from an opposing deck with black removal. Even should it get off a nine mana Upheaval + Psychatog, with an open island and a Circular Logic in hand, it can fall victim to an instant speed removal spell like Smother or Aether Burst followed by an Innocent Blood.

For this reason, most Psychatog players have gravitated away from the Shadowmage Infiltrator version to one based on Compulsion. Most Psychatog decks you see these days will have descended from a version typified by Kai Budde after the Chicago Masters.

View a sample hand of this deck

Main Deck

48 cards

Darkwater Catacombs
Island
Lonely Sandbar
Polluted Delta
Swamp
Underground River

26 lands


Psychatog

3 creatures
Circular Logic
Counterspell
Force Spike
Innocent Blood
Smother

19 other spells

Kai’s deck is heavily metagamed against other control decks. It runs more card drawing with Concentrate; Psychatog mirror matches often come down to wars of exhaustion, with each player trying to run his opponent out of resources. It runs Cunning Wish in order to find Mana Short. Many players believe that Mana Short is key to winning the mirror. A Psychatog player can tap his opponent out on his own end step in order to resolve Upheaval + Psychatog successfully. That way, even if the opponent has an instant speed removal spell in addition to Innocent Blood, the Upheaval player will only have to deal with a single answer.

Innocent Blood
The elegance of Kai’s design can be seen most clearly in his choice of Innocent Blood and Smother. While Boeken’s deck cannot afford to play Innocent Blood because of its many creatures, Kai’s deck “covers all the bases”. Innocent Blood is almost strictly better than Chainer’s Edict if you don’t plan to have one of your (only three) Psychatogs in play and as we’ve discussed, even if it’s not quite infallible, the combination of Smother + Innocent Blood is one of the best backup plans to an opposing, successful, Upheaval + Psychatog finish.

The Compulsion school of Psychatog decks is most misunderstood in their use of the card Compulsion itself. Compulsion is not just a selection tool, it is a card advantage engine. Besides aping Dismiss via Compulsion + Circular Logic, Compulsion turns irrelevant non-cards into relevant lands and spells. In some matchups, a hand full of creature kill is the same as having nothing in hand at all. If Compulsion can exchange irrelevant cards for usable resources, it is generating measurable card advantage, even if the actual number of cards in the Psychatog player’s hand does not change. The central build of the modern Psychatog deck has gravitated towards Compulsion because of this ability to dig for and exchange away cards, as well as the relative resilience of a two-mana enchantment over a three-mana 1/2 creature in an environment light on maindeck Disenchants but heavy on cheap creature kill.

Kai himself played a slightly modified version of his Psychatog deck in the Stockholm Championships, essentially trading Cunning Wish for Duress.

View a sample hand of this deck

Main Deck

60 cards

Darkwater Catacombs
10  Island
Lonely Sandbar
Polluted Delta
Swamp
Underground River

25 lands


Psychatog

3 creatures
Circular Logic
Compulsion
Concentrate
Counterspell
Deep Analysis
Duress
Force Spike
Innocent Blood
Smother
Upheaval

32 other spells

Duress can do basically the same thing as Cunning Wish in the mirror match (helping to successfully resolve Upheaval + Psychatog), while preserving the overall integrity of the sideboard. Kai’s performance in Standard was not quite up to his reputation as the best player in the world; he bowed out in the round of four, losing to a g-r deck of his own design.

Duress
The conclusion that many players have come to is that with the increasing popularity of g-r, the anti-control Compulsion model descended from the Chicago Masters may not be realistic in a creature-heavy environment.

Different designers have taken radically different routes to return Psychatog to the creature-crushing control deck that it was in the days of Aether Burst and Standstill. Duress or Cunning Wish or Concentrate have been gutted from the main, hurting the mirror somewhat in order to make room for more creature kill. Justin Gary has suggested Ghastly Demise while Adrian Sullivan has added Aether Burst to the fairly standard seven Smothers and Innocent Bloods.

The most radical change may be the one used by Zev Gurwitz, the innovator of Standstill himself, at a recent Standard tournament at Neutral Ground.

ZevAtog 2K3
View a sample hand of this deck

Main Deck

60 cards

12  Island
Polluted Delta
Swamp
Underground River

24 lands


Merfolk Looter
Psychatog
Shadowmage Infiltrator

11 creatures
Aether Burst
Circular Logic
Counterspell
Ghastly Demise
Smother
Standstill
Upheaval

25 other spells

If you really want to play Psychatog and you firmly believe the opponent will be a creature deck, this may be the build for you.

Smother

Take out those pesky Wild Mongrels, Wurm tokens and Psychatogs.

Zev’s deck relies almost totally on Standstill for its card advantage, but with tons of instant speed removal, it can exploit that card brilliantly against even much faster creature decks. On the other hand, without Compulsion, this deck is at a decided disadvantage against control decks. Its Merfolk Looters and Shadowmage Infiltrators make the opponent’s creature kill good, while its own overload of Aether Bursts, Ghastly Demises, and Smothers will be stuck in hand.

The balance to be struck when playing Psychatog is to figure out how far away from the Budde/anti-control school you are willing to go in order to fight off the expected creature decks while accurately predicting how necessary it is to remain prepared for other Psychatog players. Remember, the Psychatog deck has many answers, everything from permission to targeted creature kill to one of the most efficient control creatures ever printed. If you select this archetype, just make sure that you have the right answer for the right opponent.

The Matchups

U-G
One of the most common matchups at Regionals will be Psychatog against u-g. This is a matchup that can go either way and one that will very much be dictated by the specific builds of each deck. There is a lot of play that can occur in the individual card choices of the u-g player, everything from not playing Circular Logic to running main deck Phantom Centaurs.

Overall, I have found this matchup to favor Psychatog. Neil Reeves made the simple statement at the Chicago Masters that if the Psychatog deck got its game going – killing the u-g deck’s creatures – then it should be victorious. If the u-g deck can keep a threat alive, the game will likely go to the green mage.

Basking Rootwalla
U-g should own the early game. Turn 1 Basking Rootwalla can be vicious, especially on the heels of a Careful Study. Wild Mongrel is the best card in the u-g deck… it both deals a ton of damage and can discard Wonder. Wonder is deceptively effective in this matchup, despite the low creature count of the Psychatog deck… a surprising number of games will be decided on whether or not the Psychatog player can block. The many 4/4 and 6/6 threats of the u-g mage can end the game quickly and because the Psychatog deck runs largely one-for-one answers, there is no reason for a u-g player to hold back anything. Particularly annoying is the fact that even if the Psychatog deck can get off an Upheaval, the u-g deck can hold back Basking Rootwalla and re-deploy potential blockers.

That being said, most versions with creature kill in excess of, say, seven Innocent Bloods and Smothers will generally be able to keep most of the key threats off the board.

The Psychatog deck, with its superior card drawing, should be able to win every single long game. The u-g deck, for all its many advantages, can only kill with good old creature damage (it has no burn or haste), so even slow-style creature sanction like Chainer’s Edict should be more than adequate at staving off damage.

For a long time, u-g decks packed Compost as a foil to Psychatog. Because of the focus in recent months towards black one-for-one answers, Compost was thought to be a perfect card to keep the flow of threats coming. Psychatog decks have answered with Alter Reality and Persuasion, two blue spells that help to reduce the effectiveness of Compost in this matchup. With players on the order of Grand Prix and Pro Tour Champion Zvi Mowshowitz saying the u-g should no longer run Compost, don’t be surprised to see lowered popularity for that once ubiquitous sideboard card at Regionals.

G-R
Even the world’s best player has problems with g-r when running Psychatog. The anti-control builds of ‘Tog in particular can fall behind the rush of early Wild Mongrels backed up by late game Grim Lavamancer shots to the head.

Elephant Guide
Two dangerous cards are Elephant Guide and Phantom Centaur. A third-turn Elephant Guide on Wild Mongrel can be lethal and is out of blocking consideration for the typical Psychatog. A resolved Phantom Centaur can win the game all by itself. Because the core of most Psychatog decks’ creature sanction is Innocent Blood and Smother and because Psychatog itself is a black creature, Phantom Centaur is both difficult to block and difficult to remove from the board; factor in its five power for just four mana, and you have a genuinely problematic creature.

That being said, the changes we discussed above go a long way in improving this matchup. Old school blue bounce can turn Elephant Guide from a huge problem to an opportunity for card advantage. Phantom Centaur is rough, but in some builds, can be dealt with via sideboarded Persuasions or held at bay with Aether Burst. At the end of the day, beating g-r has a lot to do with how far you are willing to go in order to do so. If you want your Psychatog deck to remain ironclad in the mirror, it will be a lot worse against creature decks, especially ones as aggressive as g-r; if you really, really, want to beat green decks with Psychatog, you can go the route of Mr. Gurwitz, but sacrifice a lot of your efficacy in the mirror match.

Just remember that while there are wrong answers, there are no wrong threats, and your g-r opponent will generally be teeming with these.

Psychatog
We’ve spent the majority of this article talking about how the differences in builds will affect the mirror match vs. creature matchups, so I’ll refer you to the previous 2700 words for this wisdom.

Astral Slide
A good rule of thumb is that while board control decks are good at smashing creatures, they are terrible at beating true control decks. For the most part, Psychatog should annihilate board control decks like Astral Slide.

Upheaval

Send those pesky enchantments home.

The Slide player’s strategy is to develop a complex board position involving multiple enchantments while playing and cycling tons of land. If a Psychatog player decides to cast Upheaval, the Slide player’s considerable work will be totally undone and he typically can say nothing about whether or not Upheaval will resolve. Moreover, his clock is slow. He will generally have to pray Lightning Rift resolves on turn two, and try to deal 20 with cycling before his opponent hits nine mana.

The Slide player has his best chance to win if the Psychatog player is careless. If he can somehow resolve Exalted Angel, he can lean on not only a 4/5 evasion creature that is difficult to kill with Astral Slide in play, but gain enough life to take the oomph out of even a successful Upheaval + Psychatog endgame. While a Psychatog player can conceivably ignore the enchantments while ramping up to Upheaval + Psychatog, I think he should be wary of letting a morph resolve. Even if Upheaval goes off, the opponent can Slide out Exalted Angel in response, which is at the very least annoying, and can theoretically cost the game. Because Exalted Angel can not only kill in five short swings but also gains life, it can stave off the Hatred end of the Upheaval + Psychatog finish, putting the Slide player at too high a life total to easily kill.

Though this is a very favorable matchup for the true control Psychatog player, there is a reason Astral Slide won Pro Tour-Venice … it has a lot of tricks up its sleeve. Slide can undo a lethal Psychatog attack, even when backed up with permission, by cycling Renewed Faith. It can sideboard Boil and Compost and try to overwhelm the ‘Tog deck with card advantage. It can get lucky with a fast Lightning Rift and ride it to 20 before the Psychatog player assembles his two-card combination.

The Psychatog player will be best served against the Astral Slide player if he respects his opponent and does not give away any games via overconfidence.

Monoblack Control
This is the exception that proves the rule. Monoblack, a creature kill-heavy board control deck, is nearly impossible to beat in game one with even an anti-control Psychatog deck. The reason is that the monoblack deck has what Zvi Mowshowitz would call inevitability. It can assemble the perfect hand for killing Psychatogs. It can hang back until it can force through Mind Sludge or Haunting Echoes with a triple Duress opening. It has double the number of spot creature elimination necessary to kill every Psychatog in the opposing deck with Smothers to spare. It can break up the Upheaval endgame with Duress and can lean back on Innocent Blood even if the dreaded combination kill resolves.

Cabal Coffers

Try to resolve a Force Spike with this thing going.

More than any of these things, monoblack control’s threats are so powerful that the Psychatog player has to assume he will lose the game if any of them resolve. Because of this, the Psychatog player cannot casually move through his powerful blue sorceries, cannot play his preferred game. He would be foolish to tap out early to cast Deep Analysis even if it looked like he was under no pressure. The Psychatog player has to assume that if he does so, he might be walking into a Mind Sludge. He cannot Upheaval + Psychatog, even with nine mana, for fear of losing his kill card even if he has counter mana available. At the same time, because the monoblack control deck has a Counterspell that costs half as much (Duress) as well as a tremendous mana advantage in the form of Cabal Coffers, if the Psychatog player waits too long, his opponent will simply overwhelm him with a flurry of sorceries that de facto win the game in one turn. Against a deck that counts Force Spike and Circular Logic as defensive measures, Cabal Coffers is an imposing weapon indeed; these games will simply not finish in the first few turns. An early Psychatog is as good as dead, so the Psychatog player will have to try to craft the perfect set of circumstances to win the game. The time required to do that will often allow the monoblack control player to generate his massive mana advantage and eventual kill.

Game one is no picnic for Psychatog.

Sideboarded games allow for 2-3 copies of Persecute as a potential foil. Persecute is a turn faster than Mind Sludge and especially with its own Duresses to defend against Duress, the Psychatog player can use this spell to turn around a horrendous game one matchup.

Another option is for the Psychatog deck to play or sideboard a single Zombie Infestation. Because Infestation is both cheap and inoffensive in the early game, the Psychatog player can throw it down and let it sit on the board. Unlike a Psychatog, a Zombie Infestation is not vulnerable to a single Smother or Innocent Blood. With the kill card in play rather than in hand, where it can be Duressed, the Psychatog player has much more freedom to go about his business. The Psychatog player with access to Infestation not only stands a much better chance of exploiting a successful Upheaval kill, he can actually pull off his combination a turn faster because Zombie Infestation costs 1 ManaBlack Mana rather than 1 ManaBlack ManaBlue Mana.

Compost
All of that being said, I don’t know that preparation for and dedicated sideboard cards against monoblack is necessarily warranted when there are so many green decks to worry about. Remember those Composts that don’t worry Psychatog so much any more? Most players considering monoblack will be scared off at the thought of Wild Mongrel being only the second best 1 ManaGreen Mana spell in the opponent’s deck after sideboarding, with Eastern Paladin nothing more than a four mana Volcanic Hammer target in return.

Possibly the best case for Psychatog, better than having a solid matchup against the most recent PT Championship deck and the option to take out any other deck in the Big Three with the right templating, is the fact that its worst matchup may not show up at all. It is no secret that monoblack control is strong against Psychatog, but with 2/3 of the Big Three potentially packing Compost as well as Phantom Centaur, I predict that many mages considering the black cards will go some different direction this year.

Overall, Psychatog is a versatile archetype that can be tuned to win in almost any expected metagame. It has a resilient core of cards that have weathered tougher environments than the current Standard, access to a host of different kinds of creature kill spells, as well as more card-drawing options than will easily fit in one deck. If you choose to take up the Psychatog banner, your challenge will be to balance these many options into the 60 cards that will best match up against your projected Regionals field.

Up next: Giant Sized G-R!



Mike has been a leading voice in the game's strategy for as long as there has been a Magic Internet. He is the former editor of The Magic Dojo and a sometime Pro player. Michael J. Flores: Deckade, is a compilation of Mike's first ten years of strategy and theory (i.e. before he joined magicthegathering.com), and is available at http://www.top8magic.com.



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