Pro Tour-New Orleans Analysis: Gennari
Raphael Gennari took a truly unique creation to the Top 8 of Pro Tour-New Orleans. Looking at his decklist in detail, it's still hard to see why he did so well. In a different tournament, his setup makes a lot of sense. In this one, it seems a miracle that he got as far as he did. It's no surprise that this strategy has never been seriously tried before. Its central idea is to use four of both Pernicious Deed and Nevinyrral's Disk, giving it eight reset buttons, and setting the deck up to thrive in that environment. The only previous tournament where Pernicious Deed was available was Worlds, and Worlds saw almost no one trying to innovate at the level needed to create a new deck type. Evaluating this deck in large part means measuring the effectiveness of reset buttons.
3 Llanowar Wastes
4 Treetop Village
2 Druid Lyrist
2 Fyndhorn Elves
3 Llanowar Elves
4 River Boa
2 Spike Feeder
1 Verdant Force
4 Wall of Blossoms
4 Natural Order
4 Nevinyrral's Disk
4 Pernicious Deed
4 Emerald Charm
1 Engineered Plague
2 Phyrexian Furnace
2 Spike Feeder
Normally, such cards have diminishing returns. The great advantage of a Disk or a Deed is that it can take out multiple permanents. The longer the deck can wait between using such cards and the less predictable such use is, the more cards the opponent is likely to commit to the table. Waiting longer gives the opponent more time to draw threats to play. A lot of decks will be either out or almost out of them when the first Disk gets used on turn four or five. The next one that gets used two turns after that will be a one-for-one trade. Also troublesome is the possibility that opponents will adjust their play. Against a Deed or two, it's hard to justify holding threats back. Against a deck with eight reset buttons, it's an easy choice. This can cut both ways, because it slows the opponent down, but in this deck's case, it gets punished once its actions become too predictable.
The question then becomes why a deck would play all eight. One reason would be that they're just that good. Pernicious Deed, I would agree, is good enough for almost any deck compatible with it to play four copies. Nevinyrral's Disk is completely out of flavor for an artifact and extremely powerful, but on the Extended power curve, it's nothing special. In the past its only serious use was in monoblue decks that lacked alternative ways to remove permanents. This deck doesn't just have Deed, it has both green and black along with it. Together they give decent ways to remove just about anything that needs removing. So the strict 'they're just that good' answer doesn't hold water. An alternative answer is that they just suit Gennari's playing style and the deck doesn't have general application for future events, but that also seems unlikely. Not only did the deck manage to make it to the Top 8, it did so in what was clearly a hostile metagame for it. Surprise value helped, but there's probably something there.
What that means is that the deck takes advantage of having this many reset buttons. One possibility is that the deck does so by overloading the opponent's defenses together with Duress. The opponent might be able to remove or counter the first one or even the second one, but the third or fourth will go on to wreck them. To an extent, that makes a lot of sense. It certainly makes sense against a deck like TurboLand, which will have no choice but try and counter them all, but that's because such spells are especially good against that deck. Are there enough other decks with the same problem? I don't think that right now there are that many decks that are forced to commit too many cards to the table to play their game. The other deck to consider here is Trix. To win untransformed, a Trix deck has to play Illusions of Grandeur, which against an active Disk or Deed is a death sentence due to the good old 'life gain on the stack' trick. The opponent will likely only have one bounce spell in their deck, and it's also more likely that it will be Rushing River in the future - Capsize is great but too dangerous once people find out. That means that three of the eight must come down to win the game, or else all they do is force the Trix deck to find Rushing River. Of course, if Duress takes out the bounce spell then even one is a win. The problem is that unless one of a few 4+ casting cost spells resolves, this deck is painfully slow to finish the opponent off.
The only real answer seems to be that the deck can be built knowing the world is getting blown up multiple times per game. This deck tries to take advantage of that as much as it can without going too far out of its way. River Boa and Spiritmonger are its main attacking creatures, and they both regenerate. I think Natural Order actually gets Spiritmonger a good portion of the time as opposed to the Verdant Force. The Force is strong against Sligh and similar decks and is a slightly more powerful creature, but Spiritmonger fits better into the game plan. That really applies only to the Disks, because it's very rare that a Deed is used for seven or more, which means it will kill only the tokens.
There's no question that there's great synergy between the regenerating creatures and the mass destruction. The other advantage of having a huge amount of mass destruction is that each individual one isn't as important anymore. When playing Forbidian, each Disk is a valuable asset that must be rationed both from your hand and over the length of the entire game. Here, they can be used a lot more liberally. It's great to be able to just throw these things away on a whim. The question is whether that's a function of expanding options or that the cards just get worse. I think it's a mixture of both. The cards get a little worse but they also get more flexible. In addition, the deck has four Treetop Village and four Wasteland, ensuring it will have at least as much fighting power from its lands as any other Extended deck.
The other big theme of the deck is Natural Order. Natural Order is normally associated with Secret Force, but there's no reason it has to be. All it takes for Natural Order to do its job is to have plenty of targets to get and plenty of targets to sacrifice. It's commonly accepted that the most powerful green creature out there is Verdant Force. Secret Force even had two copies to prevent it from drawing the only copy and leaving it without one still in the deck, but Gennari's deck isn't worried enough to sacrifice a second slot. Spiritmonger has stepped in, and while it doesn't dominate a game quite like a Verdant Force, it's a very acceptable substitute. As noted above it will sometimes even be better, with another good reason being its immunity to Perish if mana is saved. Spike Feeder is also in the deck because of Natural Order. Sometimes all that matters is picking up a few life points, especially against Sligh. Having two copies shows the kind of metagame that Gennari expected.
Natural Order's weakness is that it lets the opponent gain card advantage by removing the creature that Natural Order gets or by countering Natural Order. The most common removal spell that can take out a Verdant Force is Swords to Plowshares, but there was also a decent number of Vindicates running around in New Orleans. After sideboarding, Perish was everywhere. Green looked like it would have a much bigger presence than it ended up having.
By combining the Natural Order engine with the eight reset buttons, the deck is launching a two pronged attack. The reset buttons can make up for the card loss from Natural Order if given the chance, and they can also stall the game until Natural Order or one of its targets can come out. Using so much mass destruction is an attempt to elevate the deck's relative power level without bloating its mana curve. The Disks and Deeds cost 4 and 3 and can trade with most threats when they're not gaining card advantage, giving the deck the power that goes with inevitability along with good stalling tactics. In short, I admire the design of this deck in the abstract, and it probably would have looked good against the field that I was thinking would show up.
The problem with this deck is that, looking back, the field is nothing like what I was expecting. It didn't have a ton of genuinely new decks running around, although it did have some and at least one of them was very good (Bonzo), but it did slant hugely towards control, and control is this deck's worst matchup. In general, if this deck goes against a deck that doesn't need permanents to win the game, stick a fork in it. It's done. For example, consider this deck's matchup against Tomi Walamies. Call of the Herd tokens won't be long for this world, but neither is anything else. Three Seal of Cleansing, one Morphling and three Call of the Herd are the only things in Tomi's deck that can be removed at all. It should be pretty clear that Tomi's deck will have more than enough time to use cards like Wrath of God and Fact or Fiction to draw extra cards, deal with what few threats are put to it and win off of Gaea's Blessing recursion if it wants to.
That's the big danger here, decks that don't have to rely on permanents. After watching his deck in action, the permanentless version of control seems like it can at least give Oath a good run for its money, and probably do even better than that. Enlightened Tutor is very flexible but brings with that a lot of disadvantages, although that's another article. The question is: Given what we know now, can this deck be turned into an effective weapon for qualifiers?
If that's going to work, this deck is going to have to find a way to turn its reset buttons into problems for permanentless decks. There's probably no way around that, because without them all that's left is a bunch of cards that aren't particularly threatening. The other option is to find a way to force the opponent down to this deck's level. To make removal work on those without targets, it has to be turned against their lands. Natural Affinity, for example, would basically be an instant Armageddon for this deck, and would catch a lot of players by surprise. Without a reason to hold lands, using this when the opponent taps out at end of turn followed by a Disk or Deed could cripple them. This would be the concept here taken even farther, to 'the next level,' and it would have to be maindeck. While that might be effective in isolated situations, I have grave doubts that this would be effective in general.
The second option is to use even more creature lands. Treetop Village is a good start, with many decks having only a few ways to deal with them. The problem is that Treetop Village stands alone, making it take all the Wastelands by itself and being the only way to draw out Swords to Plowshares or other removal that can't just be countered instead. Spawning Pool is the black manland, and it only does one damage a turn. It does regenerate though, which means it adds to the deck's theme of stalling into mass destruction. Still, it's not what the doctor ordered, and one damage a turn probably won't be in time very often. Stalking Stones can't be countered, but it also can't be hidden once it is activated, and six mana is a lot. Faerie Conclave and Ghitu Encampment would fit the bill reasonably well but they're off color. Kjeldoran Outpost would be perfect, but it too is the wrong color.
The conclusion is that this deck has to sacrifice its basic lands to have a chance to survive. As a two color deck, it lacks the required options. By adding more dual lands to the deck, it gains access to another effective manland and all the spells in a third color. There probably won't be anything else of that color outside the sideboard, but that's fine. The most powerful splash cards in Extended are like that, with the best of all being Pyroblast. How much does this weaken the deck? The mana was extremely stable, with the only need for multiple black mana being Spiritmonger. Because of the way dual lands work in Extended, the deck could easily add eight dual lands and three Ghitu Encampments without reducing its chances of getting the right mana to matter. More lands coming into play tapped could be a problem, but the number of lands would probably rise slightly as well. As for hosers on non-basic lands, Wasteland shouldn't pose much of a problem, but Price of Progress and Back to Basics could be problems. Back to Basics should be all right because it just gets blown up, and right now there aren't many decks with Price of Progress.
What are the chances this is a tier one deck? I'd venture that the chances while nonzero are not great, but it could be worth trying. I'm always happy to see new innovations, even if they don't fit the exacting requirements for a deck I would play.