Look at how I've graphed this:
The top row indicates internal points, the bottom row external.
The left-hand side indicates positives, the right-hand side negatives.
Put very simply, a Strength is both something that we are good at (positive), and something more-or-less under our control (so a Strength is both positive and internal); whereas a Weakness is something we are not good at, even though it maybe should be (or could be) under our control. In Magic, Weaknesses tend to come in two flavors: 1) unavoidable, and 2) addressable via sideboard; the latter often become Opportunities thanks to the dual magics of metagaming and opportunity cost.
Opportunities are buddy-buddy with Strengths in that they are positive, but because they are not internal, they are default yet-to-be reaped. Great metagamers try to ride Opportunity, even when they don't talk about what they do in exactly these terms. Imagine you have a format where everybody plays only Gifts Ungiven or White Weenie; each player customizes his or her deck in order to get better at beating one of the two major archetypes, and / or better at winning the coin-flip mirrors ... but at the end of the day, the two decks draw from a relatively targetable pool of commonly played cards or at least major clusters of cards. "All" you have to do is create a deck that can beat both Gifts Ungiven and White Weenie, and you will be at a tremendous advantage relative to the other people in the room! You can't actually control that your opponents will play only Gifts Ungiven and White Weenie (opponents' deck choices are not something actually under your control, no matter how predictable they can be for some formats) ... but if and when they do choose these decks ... Bam! Like I said, you would have a tremendous advantage. Let's just ignore the fact that you might be in trouble if you were paired—again not under your control—against another rogue player who did not conform to one of these two deck types. At least until we talk about ...
Threats, then, in the SWOT universe, are points against us and are external. In some sense (at least in a sense where we are not speaking about the intensity of an issue), a Threat can be the absolute worst thing. In Magic, if we are talking about playing a Mono-White Martyr of Sands deck in Extended and someone asked you what your nightmare would be, you would probably say something along the lines of "the absolute worst thing would be being paired against The Rock twice" during the course of the PTQ.
Let's analyze this particular nightmare:
1) The Rock is a terrible matchup for us. We do things like recurse Martyr of Sands with Proclamation of Rebirth ... things that get completely pooped on by a Raven's Crime + Life from the Loam. Moreover, we generate progressive card advantage and try to hit our land drops every turn. The Rock plays cards like Death Cloud that completely bury what we are trying to do ... and then recovers much more quickly using Life from the Loam. It's terrible! Even if we try to out-think our opponent with Ivory Mask or Chalice of the Void, that just gives him or her something interesting to do with Crime // Punishment, Engineered Explosives, and Putrefy. This is of course negative. It couldn't be more negative.
2) The notion that someone might run us over with The Rock is also external. Can we control whether someone else is going to play The Rock instead of a deck we are comfortable playing against, for example, a deck that can't beat one hundred visits from Martyr of Sands? No, we can't control this. Can we control how DCI Reporter decides to pair us over the course of the eleven or so rounds required to win a PTQ? We wish! But we can't. And if we hit The Rock twice, our day is in all likelihood over. Textbook external.
By now you've probably figured out that I am going to apply some elements of the SWOT analysis to the upcoming (and in some locations already ongoing) Extended PTQ season. I've done analyses like this before, and they have been pretty popular, so I hope you like this one. This year we have video support!
Caveat: Current Extended is a format of easily twenty distinct deck types, so no "PTQ preview" article, no matter how awesome, is going to hit every single type of deck every single PTQ player would consider playing (for example, I already hinted at a Mono-White Martyr of Sands deck that I am certainly not going to examine in detail) ... but I have attempted here to cover most of the heaviest hitters that I anticipate for at least the beginning of the upcoming season. Of course we will make additions and amendments as the weeks go by. That's why we have a column, and all those gray and blue boxes, every week.
Okay, let's go!
How does All-In Red work?
All-In Red is the most exciting deck to play, maybe ever. It is a shot glass of adrenaline dropped into a big frosty mug of mystery, rattling around with the sound of rolling dice. Almost every keepable hand with the deck produces some kind of massively exciting second if not first turn. Roar!
The greatest Strength of this deck is its ability to produce a really frightening board on the first or second turn. What are you supposed to do about a first turn Deus of Calamity? When I was actively testing this deck a lot, I had a playtest set where I produced 10 Goblin tokens on the first turn in some game in over half of the three-game matches. This may be the only deck with such an embarrassment of riches that a fast turn-two Demigod of Revenge is actually the "bad" threat draw.
All-In Red doesn't have even a passing relationship with card advantage. In fact, it puts itself in one-for-two situations all the damn time. Say you are sadly on the draw and your opponent has presented Flooded Strand. You play Rite of Flame; now you follow up with Desperate Ritual, planning for something awesome. Your opponent thinks a second and decides not to risk having the wrong response card. He breaks Flooded Strand, goes and gets a basic Island, and shows you Spell Snare. Did he get your "real card"? Nope. Just a one-mana Hymn to Tourach.
Perhaps more importantly, All-In Red is—how shall we say—All-In on whatever threat happens to be in its opening hand. The deck can present a 6/6 walking Stone Rain on the first turn ... but that will usually require something along the lines of a Simian Spirit Guide, Chrome Mox (plus imprint), Seething Song, and the Deus of Calamity itself. In a sideboarded game, as in any game, you would of course make this play turn one .... Just don't be surprised when the opponent who had this little one-mana spell in his sideboard for Elves demolishes you with a four-for-one.
It's not going to happen all the time, but All-In Red is the definition of a high-risk, high-reward deck. When you're not getting rewarded, in this deck, you're usually getting owned.
All-In Red has one really great positive outside its ability to present an almost irresistible threat before the opponent can mount a defense. That is the Mind Twist of the "Moon" cards. Many decks in the format are chock full of nonbasic lands. Those decks—especially ones like 'Tron which are only worth playing because of the nonbasic lands—really hate a fast Blood Moon. Well, at least 'Tron has Signets, so slow might not be dead ... But what about Zoo? If All-In Red plays a turn-one Blood Moon on the play, Zoo has exactly 1/60 chance to play one of three Oblivion Ring to unlock anything outside 1/1 Kird Ape. Read: Your deck sucks if you can't play any of your spells.
All-In Red might not be quite the Affinity hunter that a prepared Zoo deck is, but I don't think I've ever personally lost this matchup. Shattering Spree with no upper limit to how much mana you can pump into it early is just so disgusting for Affinity.
The rise in Elves and to a lesser extent Zoo has increased the number of Engineered Exposives in the format. Since one Engineered Explosives can kill any number of Goblins for two mana, the delta in Explosives makes what was formerly All-In Red's most irresistible threat much more ... resistible. The other card that literally any deck can play that has increased in popularity with the banning of Sensei's Divining Top (leading to the decline in Counterbalance) is Umezawa's Jitte. All-In Red has so many problems with even a 1/1 Kird Ape or a Spellstutter Sprite that never countered anything ... as long as it is wearing a Jitte. Jitte knocks off one storm count of tokens per attack, or in two attacks can snuff a Demigod of Revenge. Jitte gives Deus of Calamity pause (hey, he was going to block anyway ... now he might win). Plus it can gain life! It's just the scariest of all cards for All-In Red.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=
How does Zoo work?
The modern Zoo deck exists at the crossroads of a critical mass of awesome creatures and a critical mass of awesome spells. Once upon a time, the second half of that statement was "burn cards," but today's Zoo incorporates the best elements of the Extended decks we would have previously called Boros, Gaea's Might Get There, and Domain Zoo separately, playing the best of the best of cheap offensive creature threats and affordable support spells across every single color to present a superbly efficient killing machine.
Zoo draws Strength from three major branches of incentives.
1) Creatures. Zoo plays the absolute best offensive creatures: 2/3 and 3/3 at one mana; 2/1 Necropotence and 6/7 at two mana; assorted additional customization based on what the Zoo player specifically wants to beat (the 6-0 deck we are considering has Mogg Fanatic and Shadow Guildmage for Elves control, whereas control-hating decks might play Gaddock Teeg and Tidehollow Sculler with equal facility).
2) Flexibility. Today's Zoo is literally the most flexible offensive deck, ever. In the previous bullet we indicated that a player might replace a one-drop with a two-drop or a one-drop with a two-drop without batting an eyelash. If Zoo wants to beat, say, Affinity, it is going to beat Affinity (consider our pre-Berlin video and the showcase of Ancient Grudge and Kataki, War's Wage shoulder-to-shoulder annihilating artifacts). The deck can be customized to steal Wrath of God with Thoughtseize and Tidehollow Sculler, or deal with any sort of permanent with Oblivion Ring and Bant Charm. Whatever you want, brother.
3) Reach. Before there was a Magic keyword reach, we deck designers talked about a concept of Reach, meaning the ability of a deck to win outside of attacking. White Weenie is a good example of an aggressive deck with no Reach. Conversely, Zoo has superb Reach. Decks feel like they are going to stabilize... and suddenly the opponent is crushing them for 8–10 damage with Lightning Helix and Tribal Flames. Have you read Tribal Flames? Familiarize yourself with the fact that this card can deal 5 damage for two mana before attending your first PTQ of the season. Please.
The Zoo deck's superb mana flexibility can also be its greatest weakness (see the follow-up video under the Lightning Bolt Red section, below). Many Pros call Zoo the "start at 14" deck. There will be almost no games where Zoo doesn't take 6 points from its own lands. While the deck has 20+ lands, technically, only eight of them actually tap for mana. Land destruction can be interesting for want of a better term, at least when deployed quickly enough.
Zoo is a superb garbage man. If the opposing deck is random, it is probably going to lose to Zoo. If the opposing deck stumbles, it is probably going to lose to Zoo. Zoo, even more than Affinity, is not the kind of deck that you want to get mana-screwed against. Zoo suffers suboptimal execution from no one. While it is technically "low" on the power spectrum, most of Zoo's cards play bigger than their mana costs, countering everything with in the top-right corner, drawing extra cards, or generating 5–6-point life swings without having to attack.
While in Berlin Zoo was considered a soft matchup for Elves, the Zoo deck we have presented is very well prepared to beat the onetime best deck, with loads of one-mana removal creatures and spells. While not certified as an official Elves hunter, many Zoo decks will be hard pressed to ever lose to Affinity. Thaler's deck has only one Ancient Grudge, but if you play Affinity, don't be surprised to play against four Ancient Grudge; three Kataki, War's Wage; and even some count of Duergar Hedge-Mage at some point during the season. Duergar Hedge-Mage may be the height of mirror-match opportunity, by the way. Can you imagine the swing of smashing a Umezawa's Jitte, erasing an Oblivion Ring, and calling up a Scathe Zombies to carry your Jitte into ye olde Red Zone next turn?
While not as vulnerable as some decks to specific hate cards, if you want to beat Zoo, you can probably beat Zoo. All of its creatures cost one or two mana, so Engineered Explosives can be effective. The modern incarnations seem to be shying away from Sulfuric Vortex, so some life-gain cards (such as the Kitchen Finks in Thaler's own sideboard for the mirror) can be annoying card advantage. Speaking of card advantage, Zoo can either power up Umezawa's Jitte or untap with Dark Confidant in play, but is otherwise playing off the top. It can be paced, therefore, by a variety of decks that choose to break the usual rules.
The Lightning Bolt Deck
How does the Lightning Bolt Deck work?
Most of the action cards in this deck are worth 3 damage (Lava Spike, Spark Elemental, Incinerate, and so on) with some worth only two (Magma Jet, sometimes Keldon Marauders), and some worth as many as five (Shrapnel Blast, sometimes Keldon Marauders). So with most of the cards worth 3 damage... that means that you need just under seven cards to win the game. Given that even "single-color" decks like Mono-Blue Faeries will likely do 2 points of damage to themselves over the course of the first few turns, you can downgrade the count to winning with just six cards!So how many cards do you start with again?
Make sure to see the "Opportunities" section, below.
While not "Strengths" in the same way that we talk about the other top decks in this list, the Lightning Bolt deck is simple to play. On its face you basically have to be able to count to 20 and pick your spots to resolve your spells (not to minimize what the application of skill can do in this deck ... Of course a tighter player will be more apt to stick Flames of the Blood Hand the turn the opponent is counting on surviving via Kitchen Finks). Like some of the other aggressive decks in this article, you don't want to stumble against the Lightning Bolt deck. There will be a fair number of draws where the Lightning Bolt deck will be able to win with just its first eight or nine cards. However, when we talk about the un-mana-screwable Elves or the relentless grinding card advantage and tempo of Faeries ... the Lightning Bolt Deck simply isn't "strong" in the same way. In fact, only All-In Red dumps its cards with greater abandon.
This isn't to say that there aren't some very good reasons to play the Lightning Bolt Deck (I have found it to be one of the most common opponents on Magic Online recently) ... just that the incentives figure in my mind more as Opportunities, so see below.
While the Lightning Bolt Deck has more resilience than you might guess due to Flames of the Blood Hand and Sulfuric Vortex, it is still an extremely narrow, single-colored strategy that plans to win off the top of its deck, with virtually no card advantage. Just as it is pretty easy to play the Lightning Bolt Deck to about 80% efficiency just by being able to count to 20 and playing with a little patience, the deck is so single-minded that it can be completely overwhelmed by specifically targeted (though admittedly seldom seen) strategies, such as Story Circle, Circle of Protection: Red, or concerted life gain in the form of Pulse of the Fields, Martyr of Sands, and Kitchen Finks.
Like All-In Red, the Lightning Bolt Deck—though it does not give you that "dirty combo deck" feeling—often plays like a solitaire deck. While it is sometimes forced to interact with the opponent (and burn cards are superb at interacting with the opponent's creatures), the main goal of the deck is to play relatively non-interactively and win quickly. Therefore decks with the same goal—but that simply win a little more quickly—can be fundamentally problematic (check out the Pyrostatic Pillars in the sideboard!).
Perhaps more than any other deck in the metagame, the Lightning Bolt Deck is a deck of Opportunity. The first thing I want you to consider is the often mentioned flexible mana bases in Extended. For a deck that counts the opponent's life total toward a kind of card advantage (or at least to measure card economy), actions like the opponent voluntarily playing a Flooded Strand and breaking that land for an untapped Steam Vents—with a total negative life delta of 3—is like drawing one to one-and-a-half extra cards!
We joke that Zoo "starts at 14"... The Lightning Bolt deck will often have enough cards to win the game with just its opening hand!
Because of the streamlined path to victory that this deck rides, the Lightning Bolt Deck can often profit from poor planning or bad keeps on the part of the opponent. Say the opponent is planning to win via overwhelming life gain. He might be in a literal no-win position with a hand that he assumed was unbeatable thanks to a turn-three Sulfuric Vortex or a well placed Flames of the Blood Hand.
I know I have been guilty of keeping hands that looked really strong... only to get demolished by Ensnaring Bridge. How am I supposed to win now? Even when I had answers, they didn't necessarily show up before the opponent cooked me to death (nor did I necessarily consider that Ensnaring Bridge makes for good Shrapnel Blast food).
For such a "simple" 75, the Lightning Bolt Deck is rife with surprises, misdirection, and added value. The smile-cracking repositioning made available by Ensnaring Bridgeis in some ways a blunt object; the extra damage afforded by a Smash to Smithereens when "better" options for destroying artifacts in the format are available is something else entirely.
Umezawa's Jitte is less effective against the Lightning Bolt Deck than it is against All-In Red for two reasons: 1) the Lightning Bolt Deck can typically cook most creatures planning to wear a Jitte during combat, before damage goes on the stack (and obviously after the opponent can move the Jitte to another eligible wielder), and 2) it is pretty good at chump-blocking with Mogg Fanatic or Blinkmoth Nexus + Shrapnel Blast to keep the counters off the Jitte. That said, an active Jitte is still a nightmare, even if the deck is able to stick Sulfuric Vortex as an uncontested Jitte makes for a decidedly one-sided race. There are many things that the Lightning Bolt Deck doesn't want to see, but none are as common and few as devastating as the world's most popular piece of Equipment.
How does Elves work?
Elves is the massively successful creature-combo deck from the most recent Extended Pro Tour. It is probably the fastest combo deck in the format today (Elves can win as quickly as turn two, usually on the draw), and has numerous unique advantages in the format that have either not been seen since the days of High Tide or, um, ever before.
Basically the deck revolves around three cards: Glimpse of Nature, Heritage Druid, and Nettle Sentinel (plus any of the zillions of one-mana Elves and other creatures in the deck). Heritage Druid allows any Elf to tap for (three Elves to tap for , actually), without consideration of summoning sickness. Nettle Sentinel untaps whenever Elves plays a green spell. So assuming you have three Elves in play including a Heritage Druid and two Nettle Sentinel, you net a mana for every one mana Elf you play (the original three tap for ; you have floating when you play, say, a summoning sick Llanowar Elves; the Sentinels untap, and you tap the Sentinels and the Llanowar Elves for an Elves of Deep Shadow, say).
So the question is to get these three creatures in play, and to get a steady stream of one-mana Elves. Enter Glimpse of Nature. Every one-mana Elf you play is going to draw you into more and more cheap green cards to untap your Nettle Sentinel. Not only can you easily "draw your deck" but in Berlin, multiple players were tricked into decking themselves by a cagey competitor! (No, you don't want to do that).
Elves typically finishes with one of three cards (but there are many variations... these are merely the most common).
- Grapeshot: This is the card Luis Scott-Vargas used to win Pro Tour Berlin. Essentially, the Elves deck plays so many Elves that the Storm count exceeds twenty, and then Birchlore Rangers can produce in the same way that Heritage Druid spent most of the game producing , and Grapeshot kills the opponent. This kill is particularly useful in that it can kill opposing Essence Warden and Wirewood Hivemaster. When the opponent has too much life, a solo Eternal Witness can allow Elves to more than double up on storm damage.
- Predator Dragon: This is probably the most common kill. Red can be produced, again, by Birchlore Rangers; alternately, Elves can look for the Predator with Chord of Calling, plopping it directly into play. Once Predator Dragon is in play, it can gobble up any Elves and Insects in play to pump to 20 power or greater for a single lethal attack.
- Mirror Entity: Mirror Entity gives the Elves deck a mana dump to take all that Nettle Sentinel mana to generate massive lethal power. You essentially have to attack with whatever creature(s) you had in play at the beginning of the turn, only bigger. Don't worry if you only had some Elf and it isn't untapped ... Wirewood Symbiote can help you out on that one. Mirror Entity has a bonus ability in that it turns all of your creatures in play into Elves. Therefore any Insects in play can be used to tap for with Heritage Druid. Moreover, you can pick up and re-play Wirewood Symbiote to break the usual "once each turn" restriction.
The strongest point Elves has going for it is not its speed—though that is also an enormous selling point – but the fact that the deck is almost never mana-screwed. Sure, Elves can have a "bad hand," but one land and one Llanowar Elves can lead to an explosive turn three or four if not a second-turn kill. That said, Elves is likely the fastest deck in the format, able to win on the second turn. And that is the definition of strong.
No matter how quick Elves is, it at some point comes down to being a creature deck with a ton of one-mana spells in it. Depending on your point of view, the Elves deck's greatest strength can present a potential non-correctable angle of vulnerability. Cards that any deck can play—Chalice of the Void and Engineered Explosives—while not auto-win disruption against the prepared Elves will typically buy a fair amount of time. Red mass removal like Firespout and Pyroclasm are effective card advantage, at least provided the opponent can destroy Elves, again, before Elves destroys the opponent.
Besides the fact that Elves will race any deck that simply doesn't kill it before Elves kills them, Elves is notable for both past and present strategic Opportunities. In Berlin, it is at least arguable that the metagame was un- or at least under-prepared for Elves. Zoo decks lacked necessary one-mana removal spells to disrupt Elves, blue decks had the wrong response cards to stop the combo kills, and so on. As the new boogeyman, Elves simply does not enjoy this Opportunity any longer. However Elves can ride the boogeyman mystique to gain some sideboarding value. The opponent basically has to respect Elves as a combo deck, and will at least sometimes sideboard against "a combo deck." Elves can reposition and crush these opponents by transforming into a Umezawa's Jitte aggressive deck... When this works, the opponent simply won't have the right cards to deal with Elves in its sideboarded configuration. Pro Tour–Berlin winner Luis Scott-Vargas said that he won the vast majority of his sideboarded games with Jitte in the Red Zone, rather than the repetitive actions that got him most of the Game 1s.
The clearest Threat for the Elves deck is that Elves players may find themselves in an Elves-hostile environment. It becomes seemingly impossible for a deck to win a PTQ in a room where literally every player is packing numerous, correct, sideboard cards. Even if your Viridian Shaman overcome one deck's Ethersworn Canonist and another's Trinisphere, at some point, you just aren't going to draw your Shaman, or you are going to get locked under Chalice of the Void in a match when you didn't draw Glimpse of Nature in Game 1. And when your back is against the wall for the win-and-in round an hour and a half before the announcement of the Top 8, this just isn't when you want your number to come up.
And after the Elves decks' success in Berlin, the cards that are good against them are not just known, but played.
How does Faeries work?
There are a couple of different decks of this style in the metagame. This version in particular is the one that Pro Tour–Honolulu Champion Mark Herberholz used for a strong five-win finish on the last day of the World Championships, with most of the design credit due to his primary playtest partner, the great Gabriel Nassif.
This version is mostly blue but plays a variety of lands in order to potentially jack the sunburst on Engineered Explosives, if not also for the "head fake" effect. Otherwise this is an aggro-control deck that plays for tempo and uses permission for threat suppression (particularly Spell Snare) and to hold the lead generated by its Vendilion Clique. The Extended Faeries deck is very tempo-oriented, using cards like Spellstutter Sprite to create some amount of board presence while undoing whatever the opponent was trying to do... for zero to one mana, that is. While Spellstutter Sprite isn't likely to stop many Mindslavers, it is awfully awful for someone playing Heritage Druid, Nettle Sentinel, and Glimpse of Nature.
Some would argue that this isn't a Faeries deck at all, but in fact a Wizards deck (Mutavault certainly doesn't care). Truly one of the defining cards is Riptide Laboratory. With Riptide Laboratory, this deck can play the Faerie Wizard / Counterspell creatures over and over, generating potentially huge amounts of card advantage while frustrating the opponent's efforts to do anything. This may be the absolute strongest bicep flex that the Fae can boast: infinite blockers that can also prevent the opponent from generating enough mass to get out of the infinite blockers.
As with any Counterspell decks, this one can answer a wide variety of threats with very flexible defensive cards. It can also get out of most situations by falling back on Repeal to pick up basically any type of permanent. In addition, Nassif's Faeries has a fair amount of relevant response to strong creatures (much more than most aggro-control decks, historically, anyway), with a variety of Control Magic variations.
As an aggressive deck, Faeries is far from the most aggressive deck, well behind Zoo, Lightning Bolt Red, and Affinity, probably others; as a control deck, it is actually quite poor at controlling most aspects of the game. The deck's permission suite is primarily worthwhile for holding a lead or stopping the opponent from deploying a Stage One threat, not preventing one of the infinite horrible things that can occur in Stage Three of an Extended match, such as Tooth and Nail, Mindslaver, Mind's Desire, or Death Cloud. Another way of putting it is that while Faeries can theoretically defend itself later in the game, don't count on it, and certainly not against decks focused on winning in Stage Three with Stage Three threats. Does this make Faeries in some way weak? Not if they can win before the game gets there, or can stifle the opponent's efforts to get there.
Much of the deck's pedigree comes as an Elves hunter. Spellstutter Sprite is simply very difficult to beat for the dominant Berlin deck. It is also quite strong against much of the rest of the metagame, due to the high quality of, and blue mana symbols adorning, its cards.
Faeries can be a superb metagame choice. Against a lot of one- or two-mana spells (that matter)... it is going to look golden. More than most of the rest of the top decks, though, Faeries can be a metagame disaster. The deck is set up with a very specific set of tempo and answers, and opponents who operate outside the cards that Faeries can deal with can be difficult to beat due to the combination of the deck's relatively manageable clock and the fact that the cards simply might not be there to answer the call (consider how the Herberholz deck looked to mitigate the ineffectiveness of Engineered Explosives in a single-colored deck by playing all those off-color singleton lands). In addition, Faeries can fall victim to some strategies that are just trying to kill all of its creatures. Imagine this deck against an opponent that can play multiple Darkblast per turn. What is the plan against a Proclamation of Rebirth? Even an expensive creature threat can be problematic. If it doesn't fall to Spellstutter Sprite and can't be countered by Glen Elendra Archmage... things can get sticky is all.
The same line of reasoning can expose some of the Faerie deck's interactive vulnerabilities. For instance, this deck is heavily invested in artifacts and also plays up to four copies of Threads of Disloyalty against decks with one- or two-mana threats, like Zoo. Many Zoo decks are now trying Duergar Hedge-Mage. The Hedge-Mage is just awful for the Faeries when it sticks, destroying not just two cards for free, but many times two cards that were themselves sources of card advantage.
How does Affinity work?
Affinity has been called the strongest aggressive deck in the history of Magic. It is essentially a series of unremarkable cards (0/2 creature, 2/2 creature, draw two cards) but at extremely low cost. Thanks to its artifact lands and the text "affinity for artifacts," Affinity's equivalent to Mulldrifter costs only one mana, its 2/2 creature is no mana at all.
Affinity therefore has its operating mana loose to move around Cranial Plating onto its (again free) flyers, always with tons of artifacts in play.
Affinity adds a fair number of powerhouses such as Master of Etherium, Atog, and the fairy godmother Arcbound Ravager to enhance or eat artifacts. This allows it to close in on massive amounts of damage very quickly, sometimes aided by Shrapnel Blast, at other times Fatal Frenzy.
Affinity has speed and synergy on its side... perhaps more raw synergy built into it than any other non-combination deck. Affinity can strike for enormous damage quickly with Fatal Frenzy, or move around +1/+1 tokens or change who is wearing Cranial Plating mid-combat, resulting in very difficult blocking decisions for most opponents. While its individual card power is often underwhelming, the negligible mana costs on those underwhelming cards allow Affinity to play so many of them so quickly that the opponent has to sit up and take notice.
It is probably not accurate to say that Affinity has any inherent weaknesses. In fact, its success has been so significant that it has suffered more bannings across more formats than maybe any other competitive deck in recent memory: Skullclamp, Disciple of the Vault, and Æther Vial in Extended, and all the artifact lands in Standard (even poor Ancient Den... who never hurt anybody). If Affinity as an aggressive strategy has a Weakness, it is a potential lack of Reach in the post-Disciple of the Vault builds (this is not applicable, of course, to Shrapnel Blast decks). Many Affinity experts will say that the ability to move Cranial Plating midcombat or the harrowing Arcbound Ravager tricks of the best Affinity players simulate a kind of Reach because blocking is so much less effective ... but Affinity still has to attack.
Affinity's greatest Opportunity today may be that many players are not taking it seriously enough. Ancient Grudge is only an issue if people bother to play it.
Affinity is almost uniquely, sometimes comically, vulnerable to the opponent's sideboard, each and every round. This is probably at least in some part a reaction on R&D's part to the Affinity monster, but whatever the reason, Affinity has many enemies... and the flexible mana bases in Extended make it easy for any deck to play the Affintiy-hating card or cards of its choice. Red (with green) has Ancient Grudge, possibly the most popular of them all. Green (or white) has the dominating Fracturing Gust. White has the most difficult card to beat of them all in Kataki, War's Wage... Kill it or do basically nothing while it kills you, 2 points at a time. Finally, blue has Hurkyl's Recall (you know, the card no one ever remembers is in Tenth). Have you ever played this against Affinity? It's like an Akroma's Vengeance for two mana ... that you run at the end of the other guy's turn, preferably on the turn he has played Thoughtcast.
Gavin Verhey, one of our favorite readers to write about, won a Magic Online Premier Event with his version of The Rock (then played the same deck to a respectable PTQ finish this weekend past) so I am going to eschew the SWOT for this deck and replace that with some dialogue I had with Gavin about the two tournaments.
1. List, pls tks:
This is what I played at the PTQ. It's the same deck I used in the PE, with just a couple of sideboard tweaks and some mana updates (1 Bloodstained Mire for more black sources and a Breeding Pool over the man-land I never needed so you can kick Engineed Explosives up to kill cards like Garruk Wildspeaker and Night of Souls' Betrayal).
2. What decks did you beat in the Top 8?
White-Blue 'Tron, Swans, and Elves.
3. What decks are a cakewalk for The Rock / what is the major incentive to playing The Rock?
By playing The Rock, you get to play with an extremely powerful engine in Life from the Loam, which used in conjunction with Raven's Crime and Death Cloud, gives you a nigh-unbeatable endgame. Unlike the versions which prefer to use Garruk Wildspeaker, this deck is more of a Life from the Loam control deck than anything else. Because of your primary engines, control decks are mostly easy targets for you. After sideboarding, Mono-Blue Faeries is almost un-loseable. In playtesting, this version of Death Cloud went the complete 10-0 after sideboarding against the blue menace. Darkblast is an absolutely absurd weapon against them, and makes cards like Vendilion Clique an absolute joke. What's more, if they cast Vendilion Clique you can Darkblast it ... and then immediately dredge Darkblast off of the Vendilion Clique draw to have it ready for the next spell they play! Ghost Quarter takes away their routes to even try and get back into the game by salvaging their 1-toughness creatures with Riptide Laboratory, and Ancient Grudge removes any faint glimmer of hope of Umezawa's Jitte-fueled victories. Speaking of Darkblast, between Persecute and Darkblast, Elves has difficulty winning. They can either play out their Elves and have them crumble one by one to an endless supply of -1/-1, or they can hold them back and lose them all to the Persecute you have waiting in the wings. Additionally, more traditional non–Life from the LoamDeath Cloud decks fall prey for this deck unless they have an extremely quick Garruk Wildspeaker. Death Cloud is a much less profitable card to play when your opponent has Life from the Loam and you don't.
4. What was your toughest matchup in testing?
Mono-Red Burn is a fairly bad matchup unless you can Raven's Crime them several times within the first few turns. Sulfuric Vortex is a must-kill card, and if they land it on turn three it's going to take two turns to remove it with an Engineered Explosives, by which time it is often too late. Many of them have Pyrostatic Pillar after sideboarding, which is also horrible for you. Storm combo decks are also very close matchups unless you can Raven's Crime them early, because you have very little to interact with their game plan otherwise. Urzatron decks are another very close matchup that just requires you to buy time until you can get Ghost Quarter online, at which point you should be able to win. Finally, while Zoo is still a 60% favorable matchup, this deck does not have as good of a matchup as the versions that also have main-deck Ravenous Baloth, and so you need to play very tightly against them. Although I am undefeated against Zoo in tournaments with this deck, all of them were very close 2-1 victories.
5. What deck, if any, did you lose to during the tournament?
In the PE, I was undefeated throughout the entire tournament (keeping in mind that Magic Online Version 3 does not allow intentional draws, so I played out every round) and in my PTQ I went 4-2-1. I beat two Zoo decks, Faeries, and BWrg midrange homebrew, and lost to two mono-red burn decks. I drew a very close mirror match in the last round. I beat the decks I was supposed to beat and lost to the decks I was supposed to be disadvantaged against, so I can't really complain. I just didn't expect there to be as many Mono-Red Burn decks as there were. I believe 17/97 people at the PTQ were playing it from secondhand accounts, so even my last-minute sideboard addition of Ravenous Baloth to combat all of the burn I saw before the tournament didn't help me.
6. What card was your MVP?
Well, all of the cards that are obviously strong such as Life from the Loam and Death Cloud were fantastic, and the Worm Harvest is obviously very crucial, but I have to say the card that looks the most innocuous but surprised me the most was Ghost Quarter. It was phenomenal between both events for me. It looks narrow, but when I was starting to stabilize I would just start Strip Mining my opponents every turn to ensure that no topdecked string of Tribal Flames could bring them back into the game. I've brought the game to a point where against Zoo, Affinity, and even in the Death Cloud mirror and Faeries it's just a Strip Mine. Ghost Quarter is especially awesome against cards that have picked up some popularity like the Ravnica bounce lands and the Utopia Sprawls played in some Death Cloud builds.
7. Why did you select The Rock?
I played a very similar deck in Berlin, and had already put countless hours in to figure out the right cards to play (and which cards to not play; notice the lack of incredibly mediocre Garruk Wildspeaker) and how to play the deck well. I like how many lands the deck plays (I'm pretty sure I had more lands than any person in either tournament—my list sports the full 28!) because you very rarely get mana-screwed and allows you to play your full game in every matchup. I also really like how synergistic a lot of the cards are together and how few win conditions you have to play. Notice your only main path to victory is the one Worm Harvest. If the Worm Harvest is neutralized by a Tormod's Crypt or Night of Souls' Betrayal (although my new version can kick Engineered Explosives up to four to remove the ever-frustrating -1/-1 endowing enchantment) you can get creative with Kitchen Finks and Death Cloud to deal enough damage, but for the most part your only way to deal enough damage to win the game is Worm Harvest. While it may seem like risky to some, people don't really have the tools to combat it and as long as it's not the very last card in your library, with 28 lands in your deck, you can always set it up to be lethal. You can also tweak it for the expected metagame. You can play almost any cards you want because of the flexibility of your mana … and still find room to play nine basic lands. Next week, for example, I'm probably going to be packing Circle of Protection: Red in my sideboard, which can easily be supported by a tweak to the mana base.
The nice thing about playing a deck like this is that your main methods of attack are good against any rogue archetypes your opponent could bring to a table. It not only beats the known decks, but if you play against some midrange or control homebrew like the "Cactus Contol" Martyr of Sands / Proclamation of Rebirth deck that made Top 8 at our PTQ, you have all of the tools to win. Every deck has cards in their hand, every deck has lands. Very few of your cards are dead in any given matchup.
8. I assume if you had it to do all over again, you would play the same deck … but what changes, if any, would you make if you had to run it back?
I liked the changes I made this weekend (see 1), but would probably play more cards for the burn matchup, such as the aforementioned Circle of Protection: Red, to make sure the same doesn't happen. I'm not sure which cards I'm going to cut yet, but probably the Ravenous Baloths and something else. There were zero Elves decks in our entire PTQ, and from what I've heard so far the lack of little green men has been true throughout the entire country, so it also might be safe to cut Persecute. The mana base is awesome and the main-deck spells felt perfect, although I think I want to put the fourth Raven's Crime back in. I know that The Rock is generally eschewed by a lot of players, especially the diehard blue players, but as a typical blue mage I would highly recommend this deck for PTQs. You have one of the best engines in Extended, some of the most powerful cards you can play with, cards that are good in both the early and late game, extreme amounts of synergy, and what might be the best sideboard I've ever used. (Thanks for the Ancient Grudge innovation, Mike!) What's not to like?
Thanks for the opportunity and let me know if you'd like to know anything else!
Gavin is going to be following the forums to this article, and said he will be happy to field questions about the deck.
That BDM-esque faux-Firestarter seems as good a place as any to end this mammoth of an article. I hope you enjoyed it!