A Balancing Act

Posted in Feature on April 4, 2007

By Frank Karsten

Welcome back to Online Tech! I'll be talking about the online Extended metagame today, with a special focus on the Balancing Tings deck.

FluctuatorBut first off, let me explain a small change in the way this column is typically set up: I am going to cover Standard slightly less often. You may be used to getting a weekly Standard update from me, but for instance I'm not going to show one today. This change is for various reasons. The most important one is that I have gotten the feeling – after writing this column for over half a year now – that the weekly metagame differences are often just caused by random chance and low sample size. Comparing last week's metagame to this week's metagame is an awkward thing to do if there are almost no real innovations or drifts. In order to discover the real underlying trends, it is better to look at a longer time period, since the larger sample size should cancel out random fluctuations. So as a rule of thumb, I will be changing my weekly Standard metagame discussions to a biweekly coverage now. If you're looking for Standard information, you'll have to wait until next week.

This change will open up space that allows me to go more in-depth on certain topics every other week, instead of showing a Standard metagame table that was essentially the same as last week's anyway. Today, for example, I will use that opportunity to catch up with the online Extended metagame and write game walkthroughs. And don't worry about not getting enough deck technology at the important times. Right now the Standard metagame isn't moving a lot on Magic Online, but I will make sure to give Standard proper attention when the metagame is in high flux (for instance right after a big Grand Prix or Pro Tour event, and when a new set is released) or when a big tournament is coming up (how about U.S. Regionals?).

With that out of the way, let's take a look at Extended. What has happened since the online Planar Chaos release? In the following table I have listed the 20 most popular Extended decks as seen in the Magic Online Premier Event Top 8s of the last three weeks for which the data was available to me. Click on a deck to find a decklist and short explanation in my deck-o-pedia forum thread.

Deck NamePopularity
1. Aggro Loam■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■ (14%)
2. Goblins■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■ (12%)
3. Counter Top Trinket Tog■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■ (11%)
4. Domain Zoo■■■■■ ■■■■■ (10%)
5. TEPS■■■■■ ■ (6%)
6. Mono Blue GiftsTron■■■■■ ■ (6%)
7. Boros Deck Wins■■■■■ (5%)
8. Flow Rock■■■■■ (5%)
9. Affinity■■■■ (4%)
10. U/W GiftsTron■■■■ (4%)
11. U/G Opposition■■■■ (4%)
12. U/G GiftsTron■■■ (3%)
13. U/R GiftsTron■■ (2%)
14. Balancing Tings■■ (2%)
15. Gifts Rock■■ (2%)
16. Ichorid■■ (2%)
17. Aggro Flow Rock■■ (2%)
18. Trinket Angel■ (1%)
19. U/B GiftsTron■ (1%)
20. Heartbeat Combo■ (1%)

The top tier decks consist of two beatdown decks (Goblins and Domain Zoo), and two control decks (Aggro Loam and Trinket Tog). This is nothing new. All of these decks—with the exception of Domain Zoo, which had its breakout just over a month ago in Grand Prix–Dallas—have been frontrunners for a while now, and there is no reason to expect these decks to cool down anytime soon. Planar Chaos has not had much impact yet. We have a couple stray Brute Force and Extirpate chilling around, and probably the most influential Planar Chaos card is Damnation. It's decent in the Psychatog deck, for which I actually prefer Ryo Ogura's Trinket Mage-less deck from Grand Prix Singapore. I think that a 2/2 for three mana that also dies to your own Damnation is rather clunky.

The big surprise coming out of the Extended events in the last couple of weeks is the rise of Gifts Tron versions. It all started a long time ago with the original blue-white version by Hill and Feldman, which I covered in detail here. But lately we have seen variations in every color. The core of the deck (12 Urza lands, some countermagic in Remand and Condescend, the obvious Thirst for Knowledge and Signets, and the synergetic Gifts Ungiven plus Crucible of Worlds / Academy Ruins / Petrified Field engine) is the same for all versions. But instead of the traditional support of white's Wrath of God and Decree of Justice, players have tried to come up with other stuff. Red adds Fire and Trash for Treasure. Green gives Moment's Peace and Life from the Loam. Black provides Damnation and Psychatog. These cards are all inherently powerful and they work well with Gifts Ungiven. You can even stay mono-blue for added color consistency, and play Fact or Fiction and Repulse instead. That latter option has seemingly been the most successful. I don't have any decklists right now, but they are all so close to the original blue-white build (with the exception of the mentioned cards in the new colors) that you can understand how it should look with your own imagination.

Now I'm not sure whether these changes are for the better or the worse. I really liked the white in a Gifts Tron deck. Wrath of God was an indispensable asset against fast creature decks and Decree of Justice was the finisher of choice in control battles. I doubt that any blue, black, red, or green addition is better than the white cards. However, I am not a hundred percent on this, and the cards in the other colors certainly have some potential merit for this archetype, so I would encourage players to keep on trying to find the optimal Gifts Tron build. And if you look at the stats and add up all the various Gifts Tron builds, you see that they together account for 15% of the Premier Event Top 8 metagame, worthy of a first place rank. So whatever you do, don't deny the power of Gifts Ungiven into Urzatron pieces.

What Deck Would I Play in an Extended Tournament?

The last time I wrote about Extended, I said the following:

"I would probably switch to another deck for the online Extended events: Balancing Tings. Olivier Ruel's version from the GP Singapore Top 8 is very strong. I have seen it in action, and even though it is incredibly difficult to play correctly (it took Olivier two weeks to understand the deck), it may be the best deck in the format, potential-wise. I saw a game where Olivier's opponent played end-of-turn Fact or Fiction. Before his opponent got his turn, Olivier sacrificed all of his lands and then his Terrarion to get the correct colors of mana. With the Terrarion card draw trigger on the stack, he then played Insidious Dreams for four, putting Quicken, Balancing Act, Lotus Bloom, and Terravore (in that order) on top of his deck. He drew Quicken into Act to leave the board and both players' hands at 0, while a deadly Lotus Bloom and Terravore were still lurking at the top of his deck. A deck that can pull of crazy wins like that should not be underestimated."

Balancing Tings

Download Arena Decklist

The above list has been made by combining the best of Ruel's, Kurihara's, and Nakamura's decklists from GP–Singapore, and by using my own personal preferences. This deck resolves around Balancing Act and Invasion sac-lands. The goal of the deck is to play some lands on the early turns and pass, and then around turn 4 you sacrifice all your lands in play for mana, filter to the correct mana you need with Chromatic Star and Terrarion, and then play Balancing Act (forcing your opponent to sacrifice all of his permanents, as you have nothing), and a huge Terravore with remaining floating mana in your pool. Insidious Dreams is the latest tech for added consistency, and it can also fetch the Draco-Explosion combo.

I decided to give the deck a try in an online queue, and have written up game walkthroughs of two interesting games I played.

Game 1

It's round one of an Extended 8-man tournament. We play against Mariano Italiano, who wins the die roll and chooses to play first. He keeps his opening hand and we look at these seven:

Irrigation Ditch, Balancing Act, Archeological Dig, Terravore, Fire, Balancing Act, Tinder Farm. Seems good. We have a Balancing Act and a Terravore in hand already, along with lands that can produce some green and white mana. If everything goes well and we draw into another useful land, then we can expect the game to play out as follows. Turn one through turn three we just play Invasion saclands. Then on turn four we play Archeological Dig, sacrifice all our lands for seven mana, play Balancing Act to reset the board, and use the floating mana for Terravore.

So let's go!

Our opponent leads off with Darksteel Citadel and Arcbound Worker. Ah, we're up against Affinity. Affinity usually does not run a lot of disruption, so we don't have to worry about that. We should just hope his hand isn't ridiculously fast.

We draw Geothermal Crevice on our turn. What land to play now? Well, with this deck, you should usually just look at the mana that a land gives when you sacrifice it. Most of the time, this deck doesn't play anything until big the turn where everything happens. In that turn, you sacrifice all your lands to set up the Balancing Act, so naturally the mana that your lands give when you sacrifice them is crucial. An exception to that concept is a card like Fire. You often want to cast that in an earlier turn and you'd rather not sacrifice a land for it. So that's an additional value of Geothermal Crevice and Irrigation Ditch to keep in mind. But back to our game, it is clear that we are planning on a quick Balancing Act. Because Tinder Farm produces white, that's the dominant reason for me to play that land.

Mariano Italiano plays Vault of Whispers, Arcbound Ravager, and Frogmite on his second turn, then attacks us down to 19 with the Worker. Not a bad draw at all.

We draw Remand. Hmm.

Our opponent truly had a very fast start and I wouldn't be surprised if he could manage to pull off a turn-four kill now. So we may have to adjust our game plan. Turn-four Balancing Act plus Terravore may be too slow. We may have to play Balancing Act next turn already in order to stay alive. So let's see how we can get next turn. The Tinder Farm that we already have in play plus the Archeological Dig in our hand will provide , and either Geothermal Crevice or Irrigation Ditch (doesn't matter which one) satisfies our colorless mana requirements. I choose to play Geothermal Crevice here, because in case our opponent somehow does not to apply much pressure, playing Fire next turn might buy us another turn, so we may need the red mana.

Our opponent starts off his third turn with Seat of the Synod and Cranial Plating. He then equips it to Frogmite and swings. Arcbound Ravager eats Arcbound Worker for a grand total of 11 combat damage. That puts us down to 8 life. Ugh.

We draw Obliterate, and it looks like we are out of options. It's time to balance things out.

We cannot survive by playing Fire. If we shoot down any of his creatures, then Arcbound Ravager will just eat all the artifacts and grow into lethal size. Trying to play Fire is even worse. We have to play Balancing Act this turn. Therefore, we play Archaeological Dig, then sacrifice all our lands and play Balancing Act. Mariano Italiano must sacrifice all permanents except for zero, effectively clearing the board.

Since he only had two cards in hand, I have to discard all cards except for two. What do I keep? I definitely keep my only land, Irrigation Ditch. The next best card in my hand is probably Terravore. It's a win condition, which may be crucial to hold on to. Its casting cost conveniently coincides with the mana that Irrigation Ditch produces when sacrificed, so that works out if we draw another green-producing land.

So we keep Terravore and Irrigation Ditch and discard the rest. We mana burn down to 7 in the process and pass the turn.

Mariano Italiano had some goodies left in his hand though. He plays Great Furnace and Chromatic Star right away on his turn.

We draw Balancing Act on our turn, so we just play Irrigation Ditch and pass.

Mariano Italiano plays Blinkmoth Nexus and passes the turn. I'm a little surprised he didn't want to crack his Chromatic Star to try and draw into an Arcbound Ravager or whatever, but that probably means he has a Thoughtcast in hand (so he wants the blue mana) or a Frogmite (so he needs the Affinity).

We draw Sulfur Vent on our turn.

Let's just play the land and pass the turn. We should just hope to draw into right lands or a Chromatic Star / Terrarion so that we can play our key cards before our opponent recovers.

Mariano Italiano has no new land on his turn and just attacks with Blinkmoth Nexus.

We draw Tinder Farm and play it. Next turn we are able to cast Terravore if we'd want.

Mariano Italiano cracks his Star on his turn – still not finding a third land – and once again just attacks with Blinkmoth Nexus, putting us down to 5 life.

We draw another Terravore. Hmm.

We could wait for another Tinder Farm or Irrigation Ditch, so that we can play Balancing Act and Terravore in one turn. That might take a while though. We can also play Balancing Act this turn by sacrificing Tinder Farm and Sulfur Vent and tapping Irrigation Ditch for white mana. However, that leaves us both with one permanent and thus doesn't give us an advantage. We can also tap Tinder Farm and sacrifice Irrigation Ditch and play a 7/7 Terravore now. That seems better. We add a big threat to the table and our opponent seems to be stumbling on lands at the moment, unable to cast anything. We might just be able to race him here. Futhermore, even if we draw a white source for Balancing Act on our next turn, we can still play it, even after sacrificing Irrigation Ditch for Terravore, so there is nothing to lose by making this play.

So that's the play. We sacrifice Irrigation Ditch and tap Tinder Farm, and play a 7/7 Terravore.

Unfortunately, it was all for naught. Mariano Italiano calmly points a Shrapnel Blast at our face. We were at 5 life. That's game. But we did get close.


Let's take a look at the sideboard. I want to board out the Draco and Erratic Explosion. It's a great combo against decks with fetch-lands and shock-duals that easily inflict 4 points to themselves. But Affinity will never do that, and barring bizarre draws with double Fire this doesn't seem like a good plan. I also want to take out the Orim's Chants. They are meant for control matchups anyway, in order to evade countermagic. Orim's Chant baits the waters for countermagic first, because you don't want to sacrifice all your lands against a control deck and then have your Balancing Act countered. If they counter Chant then that may tap them out, and if it resolves then you are free to blow up the world. But Orim's Chant isn't very good against Affinity. They don't run countermagic, so Chant's best use in this matchup is to play it in the opponent's upkeep on turn two or three to slow him down. But that's hardly spectacular, so I'd prefer to take them out.

I put in 2 Moment's Peace (almost as good as a double Time Walk in this matchup), 2 Krosan Grip (hopefully catching a Cranial Plating to buy us time, or a Tormod's Crypt before we put down Terravore) and 1 Terravore (our opponent's deck may not give us enough time to play Insidious Dreams for the combo, so we have to increase our chances of naturally drawing the win conditions).

Game 2

We have to win the remaining two games to win the match, so let's give it our best try. We choose to play first of course, and look at this opening hand.

Too many Terravores for my liking. This hand is very clunky. We only have one land (the biggest letdown), there is no Balancing Act in sight, and trying to draw cards through all of our artifacts is way too slow against the fast beatdown deck we're facing. Definitely going down to six.

It looks a bit awkward, but I think this hand is decent enough. Having a Lotus Bloom in the opening grip is huge for obvious reasons. We will have already access to five mana on our fourth turn with the Lotus and the land. Assuming that Chromatic Star draws us into another Invasion sac-land we go up to seven, at which point the Insidious Dreams could fetch like a Balancing Act and then we may go off. I'm not sure how that is exactly going to work out mana-wise, but we'll figure that out later. The hand is not awesome, but I think it is better than an average 5-card hand, so we'll keep.

Our opponent also keeps, so we can begin. We suspend Lotus Bloom and play Ancient Spring. Mariano Italiano has a Seat of the Synod and an Arcbound Worker on his first turn.

We draw Balancing Act. That's a great peel, we needed that one. Now all we need is a land and we can go for the turn-four Act plus Vore. We just play Chromatic Star and pass, hoping to find a land somewhere next turn. Our opponent has Darksteel Citadel, Arcbound Ravager, and Frogmite on his second turn. Wow, again a great start from him!

We draw...Archeological Dig. Phew, a land!

However, it's a land that only produces one mana when sacrificed. If we play the land and pass, then next turn we will only have access to six mana (unless we topdeck another Archeological Dig). Balancing Act plus Terravore is seven; one mana short. But if we hold on to the Archeological Dig for a second and sacrifice the Chromatic Star first, then if we draw any land, we are able to run the combo next turn. We don't need the Star for mana fixing, as Archeological Dig plus Ancient Spring gives two white, and Lotus Bloom produces enough green for Terravore, so there is no downside to cracking the Star this turn except for a potential point of mana burn. So we crack the Star for blue, hoping to draw into a Quicken or Fire. Blue is a better color choice than red here, since even if we draw Fire, we'd rather draw a card (hoping for another land) than Fire one of the opposing guys, as modular counters will just fly around to save them. If we are to draw Fire, we should tap our own Ancient Spring so as to not give our opponent the option of fizzling it by sacrificing the targeted permanent to his Arcbound Ravager in response. The mana we got ended up not mattering, as we draw into Ancient Spring.

I gotta admit, our draws this game have been pretty good. Actually close to the nuts. But our opponent also cannot complain, so it's all fair. We play Ancient Spring, burn for one, and are looking forward to the next turn.

Mariano Italiano plays Thoughtcast, Seat of the Synod, Chromatic Star, and Myr Enforcer. Then he attacks with all of his creatures, and starts eating artifacts with his Ravager. Chromatic Star (netting him a card on the way out), Arcbound Worker (putting another counter on Arcbound Ravager), and all of his lands head to the graveyard. The end result is a 7/7 Ravager, and together with the Frogmite that adds up to 9 damage. We are down to 9 life now, facing lethal damage next turn. That's what Affinity does; it can certainly get some broken draws.

So it seems that we have to run it this turn. It's Balancing Act now or never. Lotus Bloom triggers and comes into play. So now we just draw our card and cast Balancing Act, then Terravore, right? Or is there perhaps an even better play? This is the situation in our upkeep.

Now let's look ahead and think of what is going to happen. Imagine we just pass in our upkeep and draw our card for the turn, then sacrifice our lands and run Balancing Act, and follow it up by casting Terravore with the remaining floating mana and playing Archeological Dig. In that case we will be left with a 5/5 Terravore in play, along with Archeological Dig, double Insidious Dreams, and a random card in our hand. Our opponent will keep four cards in hand as well. We can grow the Terravore to 6/6 at will by sacrificing Archeological Dig.

But how likely is that to win us the game? Remember that our opponent drew three extra cards last turn thanks to Thoughtcast and Chromatic Star, so his hand may be full of goodies now. Imagine he goes Arcbound Worker, Arbcound Ravager, and Myr Enforcer over the next three turns. We would probably need four attack phases with our Terravore to kill him, giving him ample time to reassemble his defense and produce 6 power worth of creatures to take down the Terravore. It will be even worse if he has boarded in Tormod's Crypt and he is holding that artifact to shrink Terravore. At the same time our hand is very weak. We will be left with two Insidious Dreams, an Archeological Dig and a random card. It will be tough to make a good comeback with that hand. We would be better off in this game if would just have one card – Terravore – in hand at the time we cast Balancing Act. That would greatly reduce our opponent's chances of coming back into the game.

To summarize, if we would go Balancing Act plus Terravore this turn, then we will have a pretty good chance of winning the game on the spot (I was sprouting some worst case scenarios). The problem is just that there is a non-insignificant chance that he will come back. And there may be an alternative play that gives us an even better chance of winning. It has something to do with Insidious Dreams. Do you see a good play? Think of all the options! We are still in our upkeep, so if we cast Insidious Dreams now, we will draw the card we put on the very top right away, ready for use.

This is my play:

No matter what, we will still have to play Balancing Act this turn somehow. I don't see an alternative. But instead of just drawing our card for the turn, then playing Balancing Act with four cards left I think there is a better option. There is a play that will leave our opponent without any cards in hand and it is basically the same idea as Balancing Act plus Terravore, just a tad slower. We should sacrifice both our Ancient Springs in our upkeep and cast Insidious Dreams. We discard Insidious Dreams and Terravore, and search our library for Lotus Bloom and Terravore. We put Lotus Bloom on top and Terravore just below that. Then we proceed to our draw step and main phase and suspend the Lotus Bloom we just drew. We then play Archeological Dig and sacrifice the Lotus Bloom we still have in play along with Archeological Dig for four white and cast Balancing Act.

The end result is no permanents and no hands for both players. I, however, have a suspended Lotus Bloom and a Terravore on top of my library, which gives me a 6/6 Terravore in three turns. Our opponent will have to actually topdeck great cards now, as he has nothing in hand, and we still have our Terravore coming in. I feel this play looks slightly better than the alternative. So that's what we do. Our opponent ends up discarding Seat of the Synod, Tormod's Crypt, Shrapnel Blast, and Great Furnace. Good thing we made the play we did, otherwise Tormod's Crypt plus Shrapnel Blast might have wrecked us.

So now we're in a winning position. We just have to cross our fingers and hope that our opponent doesn't topdeck the nuts. Fortunately, for three turns he just draws and passes without even playing a land. We, in the meantime, get there with Lotus Bloom and Terravore, drawing Insidious Dreams and Balancing Act as well.

So we play an 8/8 Terravore and pass. Looking good, eh?

Mariano Italiano eventually finds two lands in a row, and starts to play Arcbound Ravagers. However, Ravager can never stop a Terravore in that spot, as any land he'd sacrifice to make his artifact creature bigger would simultaneously pump my Terravore. Hence, in three attack phases it is all over; Terravore finishes the job. Yay, winner!

In case you were wondering about Game 3, I ended up losing it (and the match as a result). It was a fairly uneventful game in which Mariano Italiano had a very fast draw again. I even had a Remand to slow him down, but thanks to Cranial Plating he still pulled a turn-four kill. I had a fine draw offering a turn-four Balancing Act through Lotus Bloom, but that was just one turn too slow.

So that concludes my game walkthroughs. Even though I didn't win it all, I hope I have sparked some interest in the deck. By showing what the deck is capable of, perhaps it becomes clearer why I feel this deck is one of the best in Extended right now, provided you play it well enough.


I'll conclude today by referring you to the Magic Online III launch info site again, in case you haven't checked back in the last weeks. Senior Software Engineer Michael 'Elf' Feuell here has been updating the blog regularly with tidbits of information on the new program. The new beta is up and running, and if everything goes well I should be able to provide some additional information soon in this column.

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