Parallels in Extended: Survival and Trix
At some point last week, I was thinking about Trix and Tradewind-Survival, widely expected to be the two most popular decks in the new Extended. Both are really hard decks to deal with, and when trying to figure out how to handle them I had a realization.
They're the same deck.
In a format with cheap permanents capable of quickly winning entire games, it's no big surprise that the top decks concentrate on forcing them into play by any means necessary.
I expect the universal answer to that statement to be a huge 'What?' but hear me out. Fundamentally, they're the same deck. Take Trix first. The goal of Trix is to cast Necropotence. Every now and then the deck will win without it by drawing both Illusions of Grandeur and Donate, but almost all the time it goes for Necropotence. As much of the deck as possible is dedicated to finding Necropotence and getting Necropotence onto the table: Duress, Force of Will, Misdirection, Vampiric Tutor, Demonic Consultation. A bare minimum of cards are set aside to actually kill your opponent, in this case four Illusions of Grandeur, three to four copies of Donate, one or two Firestorms and sometimes a Hoodwink. That's all, folks. That's the least number of cards the deck could play and still win almost all the time off of Necropotence.
Next, look at Tradewind-Survival. The goal of Tradewind-Survival is to cast Survival of the Fittest. Sometimes the deck will win without it by casting a Tradewind Rider (or sometimes another creature) that it drew without the Survival, but the majority of the time it wins off of Survival. As much of the deck as possible is dedicated to finding Survival of the Fittest and getting it onto the table: Force of Will, Counterspell, Brainstorm, Impulse, Mana Leak. That's all the slots the deck could afford while keeping enough creatures to have them consistently for Survival and have enough options to win once Survival hits. Even the mana acceleration could be considered part of the engine because it helps play Survival early with counter backup. Four Tradewinds gives the deck an alternate Survival in case of emergency.
Basically, both decks are based around two cards. One of them is Force of Will, which is the card that currently dominates Extended. The other is a massive card economy engine, a card capable of winning the entire game on its own if not stopped. It could be said to go even further than that: you could even add Stasis to the list, since Stasis decks are designed with the one enchantment in mind as well. Their job is to turn Stasis into a win on its own, and they abuse Force of Will to help them protect it.
It doesn't matter how vulnerable Trix is if it can just Force of Will every spell its opponent casts...
Three different enchantments, three different decks, same concept. They play in three completely separate ways. Trix gets Necropotence and it draws bunches cards on the spot, and from that point on the game is in the bag. It has the most help finding its enchantment, and the most help forcing it down, because it has the fewest cards dedicated to the kill. On the flip side, it is also the most vulnerable to small disruption. It has to be, or it would be unfair. Literally, the most common version of Trix played at Masters could not win game one against a player who had a Seal of Cleansing on the table. They had to Force of Will it, or they were history. That's indicative of how vulnerable to deck is underneath under all that library manipulation. Still, it doesn't matter how vulnerable Trix is if it can just Force of Will every spell its opponent casts. With Necropotence out that happens a lot.
Another indicator of how Necropotence is the important part of the deck is the transformation sideboard. The transformation is so strong that the European Alliance, whose members were most of the Trix players at Masters, were close to putting Illusions and Donate in the sideboard! Once Necropotence is out, one kill is almost as good as another. Phyrexian Negator and Firestorm as the method of victory requires the deck to go through opposing creatures and isn't as fast. It more or less trades one set of vulnerabilities for another, and makes it easier to win without Necropotence - Phyrexian Negator becomes an alternate 'win on its own' card against many decks. The reason this is so strong is that Necropotence is all that really matters for the deck. Necropotence at any cost. Even against red.
Once Necropotence is out, one win condition is almost as good as another.
Tradewind-Survival gets the advantages and disadvantages of using Survival of the Fittest as its way to win. There are two big problems with it. One is that it requires green mana to operate and cast, forcing the deck to have a large green component. Playing a lot of green mana hurts a lot when the name of the game is 'Survival at any cost.' Green doesn't have any good ways to search for Survival, and no worthwhile ways to protect it either. But green does have one ace in the hole: mana acceleration, in the form of Birds of Paradise and Wall of Roots (and Llanowar Elves and Quirion Ranger). They force the deck to run more mana than it would like, which also hurts the goal of 'Survival at any cost,' but they have one big advantage: they allow the deck to back up Survival with a Counterspell (either the true original or Mana Leak) before a blue deck can counter twice. All Forces of Will being equal, the Survival hits.
The other problem with Survival is that it is a delayed victory. Necropotence is too, but much less of one. Once Necropotence hits, its controller gets to set aside a ton of cards right away. Even if Necropotence is killed the moment it hits, the opponent will still be looking at a deficit of around five good cards. That's normally enough to finish what the Necro started, and often will just find a second Necropotence to finish the job. Removing the Necropotence may even help, because its controller got a lot of its use without the later downside of losing his draw steps. Early on, the wisdom was never to kill an opponent's Necropotence. Later, decks like Trix started using it so well that it was well worth killing, but that doesn't mean a ton of damage hasn't already been done.
Survival, on the other hand, rarely locks the game on the same turn. For every free green mana available, Survival can be used once. That allows bad creatures to be turned into good ones, but normally this won't give more than two extra worthwhile creatures. Even then, an equal number of cards had to be given up. That doesn't mean the Survival was bad, but unless the Survival player was prepared to lose the Survival that turn, it had any where from no impact to a decent one, no more. Survival's real strength is when it is allowed to stick around over multiple turns, while the same Squee is discarded over and over again for fun, profit and soon Tradewind Riders.
This sense of inevitability applies to the selected creatures as well. With old versions of Survival, I found the key was often to have creatures that kept the pressure on my opponent turn after turn. Once I had Survival and some mana, every turn a new problem would pop out of my deck. Duress helped complement this. Now the deck can no longer use Survival to keep up the pressure, although it has counters to help do that. Instead, it must use Survival to get first mana creatures and then Tradewind Rider. Even when Tradewind Rider comes out, it doesn't do very much until next turn. Even then, the real strength of Tradewind Rider isn't felt until it stays in play continuously over many turns with enough creatures to utilize it. That's when it really shines.
So together, these elements result in the trade-offs between the decks. Trix is considered a 'combo' deck because it kills with Illusions of Grandeur and Donate, although it could just as easily be based around anything else (and would rightfully be called a Necropotence deck). Tradewind-Survival is recognized as a Survival deck and as a Tradewind deck. Trix wins more quickly, but has much less defense. Trix has more searching power, but must use it to go down the same path every game. Survival has less search cards outside Survival but can use Survival to pinpoint what it needs. In general, Trix is more vulnerable but much faster. Both decks can often seem unfair, with a game winning card being forced onto the table in the first three turns with multiple counter backup much of the time.
How are these decks to be attacked? In both cases, the most important decision is whether to try and stop the enchantment or not. If Necropotence is fought but it hits anyway, things are even worse than if Necropotence had hit the table without a fight, since the Trix player refills his hand every turn regardless while his opponent's resources are lost forever. Also, once Necropotence hits, the card economy war is over. Instead, some other resource of the Trix player must be targeted; he or she has a whole new set of resources that need to be attacked. Playing against a Survival deck requires a similar decision. If Survival is stopped, all that is left is to deal with a few creatures and counters. If Survival stays on the table, there will be an endless stream of Tradewind Riders.
In both cases, the best answer if at all possible is to fight the enchantment. Not fighting Necropotence (or not expecting to win the battle) means either putting the Trix player under so much pressure that he or she doesn't have enough time and life to use his combination, playing some hoser card like Seal of Cleansing and hoping he or she can't deal with it, playing some life gainer and hoping the Trix player can't go off twice, or doing something to rival Necropotence in power to stay in the game, like keeping Stasis on the table or making good use of a Survival quickly enough. Fighting the Necropotence isn't easy, since the Trix deck will Tutor and Consult and Brainstorm for backup, but if it works, that will put the game away. With Survival decks, stopping Survival doesn't mean the game is over, but it's definitely much easier to fight them when it isn't on the table. If Survival hits, either the Survival has to be raced (and it better be quick and devastating) or it has to be raced in power. Depending on the situation, the green mana required to use Survival will slow the Survival player down. While that happens, and while he tries to cast long term creatures, the opposition must do something with at least as much power or the game is over. And Survival decks are often full of answers they can go get to permanents threatening to do just that. There is a weird twilight zone where a blue deck wins by letting Survival onto the table on purpose, knowing it cannot be utilized in time, but it's extremely rare.
The Trix deck will Tutor and Consult and Brainstorm for backup..
Hopefully this new perspective will help with the understanding of Extended. In a format with cheap permanents capable of quickly winning entire games, it's no big surprise that the top decks concentrate on forcing them into play by any means necessary. With such battles the key to the format now that beatdown is on a downswing, Force of Will becomes a card decks cannot afford to leave home without. That's what has left blue decks supreme in the format. Of course, that means the balance will swing back as players adjust, but the enemy is tough to get in all its forms without taking on its form.