Using Force of Will
As I noted in my last article, Extended is all about Force of Will. Combining the decks from the Grand Prix events at Sydney, Phoenix and Kyoto yields 21 decks out of 24 with four copies of it. Add in Florence and the field is one card short of 28 out of 32. The remaining four are a Survival deck, a Three-Deuce deck, a Stompy deck and a Sligh deck. Necropotence was never played that much, and clearly something has to be done. The good news is there are a ton of ways to use Force of Will. The previous article examined two of those ways, Trix and Tradewind-Survival, and mentioned Stasis as a third. But there are a lot of others. The only real requirement to use Force of Will is that the deck contain enough blue cards to reliably have one to pitch in order to pay the alternate casting cost. After that, the decks go their separate ways. In many ways what's left is a blue version of all the decks that normally get played. There's a blue combination deck (Pandeburst), a blue Necropotence deck (Trix), a blue Survival deck (Tradewind-Survival), a prison deck (Stasis), a blue creature deck (Countersliver, and if this keeps up maybe even Merfolk), a blue pure control deck (Draw-Go or Forbiddian), a blue Oath deck (Maher Oath), even a blue control-combo hybrid (TurboLand, a deck on the move). This list emphasizes blue's strengths, particularly counter-magic, and is light on blue's weakness, aggression, but still runs the whole spectrum except for pure absolute aggression. How do the rest of the decks stand up to the standard of one all-important spell?
4 Ancient Tomb
4 City of Brass
4 Gemstone Mine
4 Underground Sea
3 City of Traitors
4 Force of Will
4 Mystical Tutor
4 Frantic Search
3 Demonic Consultation
3 Saproling Burst
4 Phyrexian Negator
Pandeburst stays very close to the model. The second card for this version is Replenish. The rest of the deck is about finding Replenish, finding the mana to cast it, setting up a game winning graveyard and finding backup. The deck can win by hardcasting Pandemonium and then Saproling Burst, but that plan is a distant second. Like Trix, the deck is almost all search, with even the fourth copies of the kill cards cut out for more search. Those search cards are chosen in large part to be blue. I don't doubt that the primary reason Mystical Tutor got the nod over Vampiric Tutor in a deck that will often want something Mystical Tutor can't find is that Mystical Tutor is blue and can be pitched to Force of Will. The two life points would be a small price to pay. Pandeburst doesn't lose to silly cards like a single Seal of Cleansing, although like almost any interference it does matter a little. Anything that makes more than one life point of difference forces a use of a second copy of one of the kill cards, or an attack step. That's a lot better than scooping. When the key card in Pandeburst is cast, the game ends on the spot instead of dragging out for a few turns. Normally that's not such a big deal, but it's definitely a big help against beatdown decks and eliminates a lot of small potential things that can go wrong. It also lets the deck play only six cards outside the engine and protection for it, where Trix must use at least eight (four Illusions, three Donate and a Firestorm).
But Replenish isn't being compared with Donate. It's being compared with Necropotence. Necropotence is a lot easier to pull off than Replenish, although it needs to be cast faster because of the problems already mentioned. Replenish must be set up, and that set up requires either casting multiple spells (Intuition and Frantic Search, for example) or drawing both a Saproling Burst and a Pandemonium, which would allow the use of only Frantic Search. Pulling all this off on turn two is possible in some versions with Mox Diamond in them but impossible for Lin's, which is probably a better one. In other words, while Trix doesn't kill until at least turn four, Trix can win on turn two and wins most games by turn three. Pandeburst can't win on turn two, although it wins on turn three a lot if not as much. And when it wins, it kills. This integrates Pandeburst into the one spell model. Stasis, as mentioned earlier, also falls into place if a bit farther off.
Oath of Druids decks present a problem. What exactly are they really about? That totally depends on what matchup they're in. Against creature decks often the entire match will revolve around Oath of Druids. Keep it on the table and it will cancel out or even turn around the opponent's creature advantage, making for a battle that's hugely favorable for the Oath player. If an Oath cannot be found or cannot be protected, the situation is reversed. Now the Oath deck faces a battle of threats and responses that generally favors its opponent, and in cases of an all-out attack deck one that can be almost impossible to win without an Oath. This fits the mold perfectly, with Oath of Druids being the low cost permanent that the entire game turns on.
But in other matchups, Oath of Druids is worthless or situational. That's why the deck normally starts only two of them and places the other two in the sideboard. Here the battle moves to other enchantments like Sylvan Library or Seal of Cleansing, and fights over the opponent's spells. Often the mission is more about stopping opposing threats than playing your own, although eventually something will be needed eventually to secure the game. Normally that starts with Sylvan Library, and Abundance wraps things up in combination with it. In the cases where the game is about stopping other player's cards, the deck no longer fits the mold, unless it could be considered to be about the opponent's card as the key card that swings the whole match. Often that will be the case. When an Oath deck is fighting for Sylvan Library like it fights for Oath of Druids, which is what happens against other control decks, Sylvan Library becomes the key card. In other odd matchups it could be Ivory Mask, Null Rod or Aura of Silence as well. In some ways, it's Enlightened Tutor.
Forbiddian fits into place, with the card being Ophidian. Ophidian on the table with nothing else going on wins the game in short order. In matchups where the opponent is really aggressive, it can become Masticore sometimes. Against a few decks it can even be Back to Basics. If Forbiddian becomes Draw-Go, the card could be Thawing Glaciers. Odd versions break the mold by moving to spells such as Fact or Fiction, but the lack of success for these decks should be telling. Do not stray from the path of the permanent!
TurboLand splits much like the other more traditional Oath deck does into Oath games and non-Oath games, in this case Horn of Greed games. When there are creatures to be stopped, Oath of Druids is still king. If there aren't, then Horn is the card that wins the game. One of the great advantages of TurboLand is that Horn of Greed doesn't look like it can win the game like a Survival or a Necropotence, but it does. The path isn't as obvious, and the cause isn't quite as proximate, but it's still the road to victory. As always, the game can be won without it but it isn't easy unless the matchup is one of the special cases where it's really, really hard to lose.
That leaves the only true exception to the rule, Countersliver. Countersliver is the only successful deck that seriously diverges from the outline. Instead of one key permanent, there is a whole army of creatures to be deployed. This then is the creature deck in the format, the one without a key card it needs to protect, and it can use Force of Will to fight over the opponent's cards. Sometimes this is how things work, with one Sliver as good as another, but some matchups are a lot closer to the normal model. Many games against creature decks come down to finding a Winged Sliver, many against Tradewind Rider to finding a Crystalline Sliver. Some versions of Countersliver can even start to focus on playing Aura of Silence on occasion, although this plan is probably of dubious value. Many times Muscle Sliver is by far the most important Sliver, against ways to stall attacks it can be Acidic Sliver and so on. By having the right piece of the puzzle be so important, even the creature deck is often going to be all about getting the right two casting cost permanent into play and protecting it. This one is admittedly a stretch.
So that's how Force of Will works. What are the other four decks? One is a Survival deck without Force of Will. I've played with that deck for a few hours, and it's an interesting deck, but it's just not the same as Tradewind-Survival. In many ways it has all the same weaknesses without Force of Will to back them up. The other two are concepts that don't work with blue cards, good old Sligh and Stompy. Sligh is basically a holdover from the olden days when it was good. Every since Sligh's moment in the sun, it's had enough attention that if there was anything even remotely playable involving small red dudes and a lot of burn then someone will find it. With blue as a traditionally favorable matchup, it should be fine. But nothing in the red deck can compare. There's no game winning permanents there, except in the small number of cases where you can count Cursed Scroll. There are only small creatures and lands. Red can pack hate for the color blue in general pretty well, and hit other things as well, but the decklist hasn't improved much since last season and is at best outdated. The banning of Dark Ritual weakened Trix but that matchup is still bad for Sligh because Trix's strategy trumps Sligh's strategy. Stompy is also fast enough to be dangerous and it can pack more answers than Sligh, especially for enchantment removal, but the power of permanents like Oath of Druids or plain old Spike Weaver combine with Force of Will to stop it right in its tracks.
The other deck did indeed basically originate in the Force of Will era. Three-Deuce is a deck with very little raw power, but makes up for that by being very mana efficient and maximally annoying to decks that play with good cards. Granger Guildmage punishes other efficient creatures, the other creatures are just mana efficient more than anything else, with Skyshroud Elite gambling on the opponent playing nonbasics. That's a pretty good bet right now. One casting cost pumping effects and removal back that up. The key thing to know about this deck is that it is bad. That's bad in the abstract, "what the hell, why doesn't my deck DO anything" sense rather than the "what the hell, why can't my deck beat anything" practical sense. It does win on occasion, make no mistake about that. But that doesn't mean the deck does anything. It doesn't. Face off against a deck that does more than this packet of intense hatred for all things good and true without being vulnerable to that hatred is going to destroy the thin wall of cheap dudes. The good player has a lot of outs, with Cursed Scroll and Swords to Plowshares and such, but the opponent playing badly becomes a pretty vital part of any victory against any creature deck that doesn't randomly lose to Granger Guildmage or Cursed Scroll by itself.
Knowing all that, what should a player seeking to build a competitive original deck do? The basic question is whether or not to try and find another use for Force of Will. One the decision is made to use the Force, that requires a large number of blue cards. After that, the deck is virtually forced to find a new set of cards that work along the lines of an existing strategy. Pick a new set of efficient cheap creatures and the deck is going to be similar to Countersliver. Countersliver has pretty much the maximum about of off-color spells and mana requirements for a deck that can still use Force of Will. Any competition for it would be less able to utilize gold cards and therefore need to play more purely blue cards. As noted above, Merfolk would be the primary prospect. Lord of Atlantis is the primary advantage, which has to be measured against the advantages of Slivers.
Trying to find a new combination deck would require a new hybrid approach, something akin to TurboLand but with a different set of cards. What makes me so certain of this? Pandeburst and Trix have what are clearly the most efficient pure combinations in the format, and I'd be shocked if everyone just flat out missed a third one. Both of those may have room for improvement, if not that much room to maneuver. Similarly, finding a new control deck isn't going to be easy. There are only so many efficient counterspells and creature defenses, especially when it's virtually mandated that blue be the primary color. There's permanent based monoblue, permanent based multicolored and spell based monoblue already. Jason Zila played the last possibility at masters, a spell based deck full of duallands. Since then it's doubtless been considered for adaptation into a real deck. So far, no luck.
The last option is to try and go the hard route without blue. It definitely helps that blue is this popular, since cards like Pyroblast are easy to maindeck. That compensates to some extent, but as always the masses of qualifier players who play their own decks and styles will keep such moves in check outside of players at a Grand Prix with three byes. Going without blue, there are immediate requirements that must be fulfilled to survive. A blue opponent will have to either be killed or seriously disrupted, and it has to happen fast. Really fast. In practice, almost all the cards in the deck end up being either mana, disruption or cheap efficient creatures to go in for the kill. Playing anything beyond (for example) four copies of Swords to Plowshares could already be considered to be pushing the envelope. Duress is a big help, because it can kind of approximate Force of Will. So are other naturally anti-blue cards such as Phyrexian Negator, a common strategy after sideboarding for blue on blue matchups. What will happen to this format in the last few weeks? It's possible a deck will emerge with enough disruption to stand up to the blue tide, but more likely the traditional decks will continue to dominate.