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No Surprises... Big Surprises?

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The letter B!ecause of Two-Headed Giant State Championships last weekend, we have only one PTQ Top 8 to share this week. Not surprisingly given the general direction this nevertheless still diverse format has taken, the winner of the said was the mighty Aggro Loam.



Baltimore, MD 2/24

Aggro Loam
Tenacious 'Tron
Affinity
Boros
Haterator



Aggro Loam's continued success, winning over a G/W Haterator variant in the finals, is striking here because of the three Affinity decks in the Top 8. This would not be remarkable if it were a few weeks ago, when Aggro Loam had gone full over to the four Ancient Grudge sideboard strategy (borrowed from essentially every other Green and/or Red deck), but PTQ winner John Moore went with a lone Shattering Spree to supplement his Hull Breach rather than Ancient Grudge.


This is better and worse against both Affinity and the field at large, of course. Shattering Spree is better in that John could find it in Game 1 via Burning Wish and play a scary pre-sideboarded hoser with his many red-producing lands, worse given the still diverse nature of the field. From my perspective, Ancient Grudge is a versatile card that at least initially saw mass adoption outside its most natural homes as an answer to NO Stick, which was an early leader in this year's PTQ metagame if you will recall. Ancient Grudge was and is so good because while it really put the hurt on inflexible NO Stick builds, it was and remains simply the best possible card against Affinity and proved useful in the Boros (Boros with Kird Apes, that is) mirror, any G/R-type creature matchups really, where Jitte advantage is so important. Ancient Grudge, while not a logical card to side in against a Boros opponent's main, is basically the best answer to Jitte (and the next Jitte) anyone could ever want. Ancient Grudge is outstanding against Tooth and Nail, U/W "big mana" decks like Tenactious 'Tron, and even against the new Psychatog builds with their many Chrome Moxes and artifact lands. Then again, Shattering Spree is a lot better given a particular and narrow frame of reference, here considering the key vulnerability of the Aggro Loam strategy: Chalice of the Void with two counters.

Note that under such a Chalice of the Void, Loam can't Wish for Hull Breach, or even play Hull Breach; both Burning Wish and Hull Breach cost two mana... just like Devastating Dreams and Life from the Loam, the main cards being held down by Chalice of the Void. While it is no great help to Wish for a Shattering Spree against Chalice of the Void once it is already in play, a clever Loam player can preemptively Wish for Shattering Spree and play that response card if need be down the line. In recent weeks, Chalice of the Void has become less of a lock against Aggro Loam because of the addition of Engineered Explosives; while Moore didn't run them, most Aggro Loam decks play two copies of Putrefy also. That said, Loam is almost the juggernaut of this format, and will tend to win against most decks if left to its own devices. Chalice of the Void is a problem, even if it is a problem that can be addressed, if only because it soaks up time when Loam wants to be drawing lots of extra cards with cycling lands and setting up the big Devastating Dreams or Seismic Assault. Shattering Spree is just one more tool that Loam can use against this narrow barrier, the rare spot where Ancient Grudge isn't very good.

While the lone reporting Baltimore PTQ didn't give us many surprises, Grand Prix Singapore was just chock-full of them.

Gaea's Might Get There
Aggro Loam
Balancing Tings
CounterTop Tog
Deadguy Boros
Tenacious 'Tron




The biggest surprise of them all has to be 2007 Hall of Fame inductee Raphael Levy taking back-to-back Grand Prix titles. As you've probably read all over the recent Magic media, Raph took nine years between his first and second Grand Prix titles... and then one week to tally up his third victory. Once again he came packing Gaea's Might Get There, a five-color beatdown variant distinguished from traditional Zoo by the presence of Gaea's Might and Tribal Flames with all five basic land types, with Gaea's Might specifically intended to be played with Boros Swiftblade ("take 12"). Gaea's Might Get There is a full two turns faster on the goldfish than essentially any other beatdown deck in the format, and surprisingly consistent given the disparate layout of its spells, lands, and colors even.

A quick review of Levy's sideboard this week versus last week's is the inclusion of three Engineered Plagues. Raph said that Goblins was the worst matchup for his version of Zoo, and the Jim Davis finish in Dallas put the little red men back on the metagame radar. It is no great leap for a mono-red deck like Goblins to run Blood Moon, and as you can see, Levy's deck can't really play if that enchantment hits play.

For a number of reasons, primarily Raphael's back-to-back victories, but also the increasing popularity of Counterbalance Psychatog variants, I would put Gaea's Might Get There in the Deck to Beat seat over Aggro Loam as the most important likely matchup for any PTQ players this weekend. It looks to me as though Gaea's Might Get There will be taking up the mantle that Boros never lived up to for this year's Extended. It's fun, and it's fast.

While Aggro Loam is probably the most decorated option at the PTQ level to date, the deck has a miserable matchup with the new breed of Psychatog decks, which can just sandbag two mana spells with Counterbalance, then kill very quickly with Psychatog. Loam lacks the Sudden Shocks necessary to hold 'Tog decks down, and Sudden Shock is a two-mana spell anyway... exactly the kind of prey that Counterbalance is set to trump in the matchup. Loam seemed to me a safe second- or third-best possible Deck to Play choice throughout the season, but I think that even if it continues to make PTQ Top 8s, Loam will have difficulty continuing its winning ways, at least in the short term.

One of my favorite decks to come out of the Grand Prix, not just as a player and analyst but fan, is Tsuyoshi Fujita's latest take on the Red Deck Wins tradition, Deadguy Boros. If you recall, Tsuyoshi was a key designer influencing both Red Deck Wins and this initial Extended Boros Deck Wins for Pro Tours Columbus and Los Angeles respectively, with a "virtual Top 8" ninth place in Ohio (Shuuhei Nakamura lost in the finals to Pierre Canali with Tsuyoshi's deck) and Top 8 appearance in Cali, standout finishes in consecutive Extended Pro Tours. This time Osamu Fujita was Tsuyoshi's pilot:


The top-down goal of this deck was to approximate Deadguy Red using the available card pool. If you don't know what Deadguy Red is, the first great American team was Team Deadguy, a powerhouse squad that included numerous Grand Prix, Pro Tour, National, World, and Magic Invitational Champions including the Meddling Mage Chris Pikula, Shadowmage Infiltrator Jon Finkel, and popular underdog Dave Price. Dave won Pro Tour - Los Angeles with a mono-red deck, and was in particular known for his simple but effective red beatdown decks, which made him popular among Magic fans. Icatian Javelineers is not the most exciting creature in the format, but it approximates Dave's Mogg Fanatic. Most of the rest of the cards are similar to the default R/W Boros listings, with the exception of big damage spells Blistering Firecat (the modern Fujita take on Ball Lightning) and Char. Here are two examples of Dave's Deadguy Red decks, the 1997 deck that earned him a 6-0 in the Standard portion of the US National Championship and his Top 8 deck from the 1998 US Nationals (Chris and Jon made Top 8 of the 1998 World Championships at the end of the summer with essentially the same deck).

Deadguy Red, 1997

Main Deck

60 cards

Dwarven Ruins
18  Mountain

22 lands

Ball Lightning
Dwarven Soldier
Goblin Digging Team
Goblin Vandal
Ironclaw Orcs
Lava Hounds
Viashino Sandstalker

23 creatures

Fireblast
Hammer of Bogardan
Incinerate
Kaervek's Torch

15 other spells

Sideboard
Anarchy
Detonate
Pyrokinesis
Straw Golem

15 sideboard cards




Deadguy Red, 1998

Main Deck

60 cards

17  Mountain
Wasteland

21 lands

Ball Lightning
Fireslinger
Ironclaw Orcs
Jackal Pup
Mogg Fanatic

20 creatures

Cursed Scroll
Fireblast
Hammer of Bogardan
Incinerate
Shock
Sonic Burst

19 other spells

Sideboard
Bottle Gnomes
Dwarven Miner
Dwarven Thaumaturgist
Firestorm
Pyroblast
Shattering Pulse
Torture Chamber

15 sideboard cards


Okay... Back to 2007. Blistering Firecat is a Fujita favorite that has a special place in the format. It deals seven damage for four or five mana, and few decks can stop it once it is already in play and getting ready to hit the Red Zone. Notice that the Fujita build is much more burn-oriented, with little attention payed to the mirror (Char!). It is all about getting in a few points, then using direct damage to clear a path for Blistering Firecat or finish the game rather than focusing on the Silver Knights, Soltari Priests, Kird Apes, and sideboarded Jittes to win mirror matches.

A well-known deck that has been essentially unseen for the majority of this year's Extended season is Balancing Tings. Two different takes made Top 8 in Singapore, with pilots including the resurgent Olivier Ruel and finalist Shingo Kurihara. The baseline strategy of the Balancing Tings player is to use the various Invasion sacrificial double lands - Ancient Springs, Tinder Farm, and so forth - to generate a mana advantage while simultaneously blowing up his own board. Then he plays Balancing Act with no permanents in play, ideally with only one card in hand (we will get to how he might discard cards in a moment). Assuming Balancing Act resolves, the opponent's board will disappear and and with all of that Invasion mana floating, the Tings player will reveal his last card, Terravore. As in Aggro Loam, Terravore will win quickly - usually in two swings - as both graveyards will be full of lands.

One of the reasons Balancing Tings fled previous formats is that it is not very good against the cards Wild Mongrel or Psychatog. Having one of those defining creatures already in play will allow Tings's opponent to discard his hand and eliminate the Terravore before it can be played. Psychatog is particularly bad because the Terravore player can't really run the Terravore out and ask for a one-on-one fight with no boards and no cards on either side... Not only will the Psychatog side draw first (bad), but when the creatures rumble, Pschatog can eat all the lands in its controller's graveyard, simultaneously growing Dr. Teeth while shrinking Terravore!

Obviously the decline in Wild Mongrel and Psychatog play has given Balancing Tings new life.

Shingo Kurihara has done what so many of the great Japanese deck designers have shown us the past couple of years: He laced two different decks together. Insidious Dreams is a strong card that allows Shingo to drop his hand while finding the final piece he needs to set up Terravore and Balancing Act for the fatal "big turn," but by including one Draco and one Erratic Explosion, Kurihara is given access to a second combo deck.

How much damage does the average player take from his own lands? Boros and Gaea's Might Get There start on 14... 17 max in the early game. With one Insidious Dreams, Kurihara can put Draco and Erratic Explosion on top of his deck. He draws the Erratic Explosion, fires it at the opponent's head and... lo and behold, there's Draco! Take 16! I love Shingo's deck.

One of the great things about playing Tings in the current format is that if you play Ancient Spring and suspend Lotus Bloom, most knowledgable opponents are going to put you on TEPS. You will get a free Cabal Therapy on Seething Song or Rite of Flame much of the time; at the very least, you will have opponents setting up the exact wrong hate cards and working from vastly inefficient strategies. By the time they realize that you are Tings, they might not have any permanents any longer.

This is proving to be one of the most dynamic and exciting formats in recent memory. Some players have voiced concern about having such a wide array of potential opponents to prepare for and test against, but it seems to me that getting an edge in the current Extended is all about attacking from odd angles. It's about scoring with Goblins when everyone else has forgotten about them, tricking your opponent into thinking you are a totally different combo deck, or winning back-to-back premiere events with a straightforward deck that most people who sit across the table from you assume is a joke. So much of the value in the game today exists in players' attitudes, approaches, and innovations rather than dry repetition and memorization. I know that the results of GP Singapore have forced me to rethink my position on how this format runs, to my benefit, I think. It's cool, yeah. So cool.

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