Okay, so what was I actually doing in Singapore? I played in a Magic tournament, of course (also did some nice sightseeing, but I didn't come just for that). Grand Prix Singapore was held last weekend, and I was there to play Extended. The previous weekend I was in Dallas to play the Grand Prix there, so my schedule had been (and still is) pretty hectic. Monday I was in Dallas, Wednesday I was in Amsterdam, Friday I was in Singapore. And next weekend I have another Grand Prix tournament, in my home country this time. Lots of traveling indeed. It also feels strange to tell your Japanese friends in Dallas "see you in four days in Singapore," but it's rewarding. So today (while the Magic Online Premier Events that I usually give metagame write-ups for are on a temporarily hiatus, so that's not a possible topic) I will just talk about the deck that has kept me captivated for the past two weeks: U/W Gifts-Tron in Extended. Even though the Extended PTQ is season coming to a close, the Magic Online tournaments will keep on running, so hopefully my thoughts on the format are still useful.
Nonetheless, I will be happy when the flurry of Grand Prix action calms down and I can finally sit down at home and rest. I will also fire up the Magic Online III beta program when I finally have a chance. Yup, the first closed invite-only beta for MTGO III is underway. Online Tech has been given an invite, so expect to see screenshots, interviews, and news from me soon enough in this column, when I have a chance to try the beta program out.
The Playtest Story of Two Extended Grand Prix
But MTGO III news is for later. Today, I will talk about Extended. The story starts about two weeks ago, the Monday before GP Dallas. Tiago Chan, Rasmus Sibast, Julien Nuijten, and Jelger Wiegersma came to my place to start some playtesting. I felt like I had a decent grasp of the format; I knew which decks were big and what strategies seemed to work. But since there are so many viable decks in Extended, I wasn't sure what the best deck choice for me was. The decks I expected to face most were Boros Deck Wins, Aggro Loam, Aggro-Flow/Rock, TEPS Desire, Affinity, and U/W Gifts Tron, so I built standard versions of all of those (mostly taken straight from my deck-o-pedia), aiming to try out every one of those decks against the rest of that gauntlet, in order to see which performed the best.
I started by testing TEPS Desire, since the deck felt inherently powerful, I liked the way it played out, and I had a lot of experience with it. However, I quickly found out that the current metagame wasn't right for it; every major deck had massive hate for it. Ranging from Chalice of the Void and Counterbalance to Destructive Flow and Devastating Dreams, every deck had some means of disruption. Stifles and Orim's Chants were popping up in pretty much every sideboard, and there was even an awkward deck with maindeck Trinisphere around. Good luck winning against that. TEPS Desire can withstand some hate in the hands of a good player, but running it in this metagame full of hatred felt like certain suicide, so I had to let the deck go and try to find something else.
U/B TrinketTog fell shortly after. In our testing, it couldn't beat an early creature rush. Furthermore, it had a lot of problems against big mana cards like Platinum Angel; Counterbalance is not going to help you against that. In addition, Trinket Mage felt underwhelming and the deck lacked card drawing and hard counters. The deck did usually beat Aggro Loam, using the Counterbalance lock and maindeck Tormod's Crypt, but apart from that I didn't feel too happy about the deck.
Next up was Boros Deck Wins. Boros was the best deck a few months ago, but nowadays Ravenous Baloth, Umezawa's Jitte, and Armadillo Cloak are often seen maindeck, and Boros appeared to have a hard time beating those. So playing Boros didn't feel like a strong bet. Moreover, I preferred to play a more exquisite control or combo deck that would allow me to outplay my opponents more easily, if I were to take the effort of flying across an ocean for a Magic tournament. Nonetheless, Boros still put up okay results in my games, so I kept the turn-one Savannah Lions as a safety net choice in case everything else failed.
Affinity felt like too much of a risk to me. Kataki, War's Wage from the sideboard would often wreck you, Pernicious Deeds were still rearing their ugly heads, and Aggro Loam would happily play Burning Wish for Shattering Spree. I felt there were too many good answers for artifacts around and Affinity didn't seem to be up for it.
Aggro-Flow Rock didn't do it for me. It was pretty funny; every time I played against the deck, I scooped to a turn-two Destructive Flow, but every time I played with the deck, I got very clunky draws and lost to Wrath of God or Devastating Dreams. Furthermore, the deck appeared to rely on drawing Dark Confidant. Without Bob Maher's Invitational card, the deck didn't flow nicely and felt rather underpowered. In other words, the deck felt inconsistent to me. If you didn't draw your key threats or if your opponent removed them, then the deck felt rather weak.
So, Any Decks that I Actually Did like?
Hey, I hadn't gotten to Aggro Loam and U/W Gifts-Tron yet. I had saved the best for the last. Both these decks had strong inherent game plans and powerful combos, were hard to pilot correctly (I like a challenge), and most importantly they won a lot. I quickly decided that I was going to play one of these decks. But which one was the best? Neither seemed to perform significantly better than the other in our test games and I felt I was better off making a choice as early as possible. The reason for that is that the best deck choice is always the deck you are most comfortable playing. Knowing your deck inside out and enjoying playing it will result in fewer mistakes and thus more wins. So if I would keep on debating between both decks and finally choose one at the last minute, I would lack experience with it. If I would just pick a deck early and play a lot with it, I might risk not having the theoretically optimal deck, but I would know how to pilot the deck, which is a bigger advantage. Furthermore, by choosing a deck early, I would also have enough time to properly tweak it. By concentrating all my efforts on one deck type, I would ensure I could get the best possible tuned version of it and be able to play it well. In a format that is as wide open as Extended, where there basically is no best deck, I believe this is the best way to approach a tournament. Pick a deck you are comfortable with, play it a lot, and feel confident when you arrive at the tournament.
As you may have guessed from the title of this article, I settled on U/W Gifts-Tron. The main reason for that choice was that I didn't want to pass up a chance of playing with Gifts Ungiven again. It is my favorite card of all time. Gifts had served me well in the Kamigawa Block season and the resulting Standard format. I loved the way U/W Gifts-Tron made use of Gifts Ungiven, will all the redundant one-ofs, and the deck's strategy was a perfect match for my playing style. For reference, this is Richard Feldman's original version that I started testing with:
A quick rundown for those of you who don't know how this deck works: the deck is based around finding the Urzatron set. Using cards like Condescend, Remand, and Repeal, you simultaneously stall the opponent and dig deeper into your deck, thereby maximizing your chances of naturally drawing into an Urza set. Wrath of God also buys you precious time and Thirst for Knowledge gets you closer to that missing Tron piece. Once you have managed to get one of each Urza land in play, you can put all that mana to good use with Mindslaver and Decree of Justice. An interesting element of this deck is Chalice of the Void, which can shut down complete decks if they are unprepared for it. Chalice for two, for instance, means no more Life from the Loam, Burning Wish, or Devastating Dreams for Aggro Loam.
But the most important card in the deck is Gifts Ungiven. Missing an Urza's Tower to complete your set? Gifts for Urza's Tower, Petrified Field, Crucible of Worlds and anything else, and you're set. Want to go for Mindslaver recursion? Go for Academy Ruins, Crucible of Worlds, Petrified Field, and Mindslaver. It doesn't matter what combination of 2 cards you get, eventually you will steal all of your opponent's turns. All the tasty one-ofs in the deck allow for spectacular Gifts setups, and that is what makes the deck strong.
Improving on the Deck and … Is Chalice of the Void Still Good?
Chalice of the Void was one of the selling points of the deck. A Chalice set on two was amazing against Aggro Loam, and Chalice for one was pretty good against Boros and Aggro-Flow Rock. We won a lot of games on this artifact, until we got to the sideboarding portion. Aggro Loam would board Shattering Spree (which even gets around a Chalice for one, as the replicate copies are just put on the stack; you don't play them, so Chalice doesn't trigger), smashing all the Chalices and then Loaming its way to victory regardless. Boros would board Ancient Grudge, destroying any Chalice of the Voids set to one. And I clearly remember a game I played against Aggro-Flow Rock where I put a Chalice on two, anticipating Ancient Grudge, only to see it fall to a Krosan Grip.
Chalice of the Void was very good for a couple weeks when it was new, but now it seemed like every deck came prepared and found a way to diversify its cards over the mana cost spectrum. Running Chalice of the Void went from a game-winning proposition to a hindrance; you were actively giving your opponent targets for his Ancient Grudges, Shattering Sprees, and Krosan Grips. I ended up doing something that seemed unthinkable when I first picked up the deck: cut the Chalice of the Voids from the deck. The metagame had caught up, and they simply weren't good enough anymore. Not running Chalice meant we could cut a couple Chrome Mox, as the amazing turn-one land, Mox, Chalice opening on the play was not an option anymore. Furthermore, we took out Platinum Angel, as it became too fragile and unreliable without Chalices to protect it. While we were at it, we also cut Razormane Masticore, which we simply didn't like because it took a whole turn before it could do something and usually just ate an Ancient Grudge.
This opened up a few slots. We decided we wanted to fill them with something for the Aggro-Flow Rock matchup, which was pretty bad for us. Looking for ideas on the Internet, I came across an article by Kenji Tsumura over at StarCityGames, who praised Exalted Angel in U/W Tron. It seemed like Exalted Angel was exactly what we needed for that matchup (game winning, cheap, and unaffected by Ancient Grudge), and in test games every time I drew an Exalted Angel against Aggro-Flow Rock, it won me the game. Angel also proved to be awesome against Boros, allowing you to seal a close game before they could draw burn to kill you. Two maindeck Angels were in for sure.
We added a second Mindslaver, as many matchups came down to getting a Mindslaver lock in place quickly. We also added Solemn Simulacrum and more basic lands, an idea we got from watching Alex Lieberman's 4x Online Open-winning version of U/W Gifts-Tron. The extra basic lands are very useful against Ghost Quarter and Destructive Flow and Solemn Simulacrum card makes the deck more consistent, mainly because it provides colored mana, which is of vital importance in a deck with 12 Urza lands. It also blocks an Isamaru, Hound of Konda against Boros and accelerates you into a Triskelion for the following turn.
We then fiddled around with the deck for a while, trying out some new options and tweaks. Tiago Chan tried out the Cloudpost/Vesuva version, but it wasn't as good as the Urzatron version, as any game where you don't draw one of the 4 Cloudpost early you are screwed. Vesuva then just becomes a come-in-play tapped Island.
On to the Sideboard, where a Planar Chaos Common Turns Out to be Awesome
Now that the maindeck was starting to shape up, it was time to work on the sideboard. Richard Feldman's original sideboard was full of incremental cards, and with that term I mean cards that can improve your deck slightly in many matchups, but that don't do drastic things. A fourth Gifts Ungiven, an extra Repeal, a Serrated Arrows, stuff like that. The other option is to fill your sideboard with highly specific cards that can utterly annihilate certain decks - Kataki, War's Wage, Sphere of Law, and Tormod's Crypt, and so on. Since the maindeck of U/W Gifts-Tron is already strong and tight and I already found it hard to choose what to take out, I figured that if I went through the trouble of taking out reasonably fine cards for sideboard cards, I want those to be silver bullet superstars that are powerful but limited in application.
Disenchant was necessary against Destructive Flow and doubled as an incremental sideboard card against Affinity. A second Academy Ruins for the mirror match, and a third Exalted Angel against creature decks also seemed necessary.
Now all that was left was an answer to Dark Confidant and Dwarven Blastminer. These two-mana creatures posed many problems for U/W Gifts-Tron. Their card advantage effects would win the game if unopposed every time. Because our counters are Remand and Condescend at 2 mana, they cannot counter these problem creatures if you are on the draw. And when they do resolve, answers in our deck are usually too late. Wrath of God is too expensive at 4 mana; a Blastminer or Confidant will have done too much harm by then. So we needed a low-cost answer to these 2-mana creatures. We thought of Spell Snare, Condemn, Teferi's Response, Purge, and many others, but none of those were satisfactory enough.
Then we took a look at Planar Chaos, and to our surprise it was full of cards that perfectly fit our needs: Sunlance, Porphyry Nodes, and Piracy Charm. All are great cheap answers to our problem cards. After testing all, we decided that Piracy Charm was the best. Sunlance got the boot because we couldn't board it in against Boros (which is filled with white creatures), and Porphyry Nodes was left off because it was too slow. Piracy Charm was just perfect; it destroyed Psychatog's Dwarven Blastminers and Dark Confidants. Against Aggro Loam and Aggro-Flow Rock it killed Birds of Paradise and Dark Confidants. Against Boros it took care of Savannah Lions and Grim Lavamancer. A bargain at one blue mana! We even put them in against TEPS Desire, because the discard a card effect was better than the many dead cards (like Wrath of God) in our deck. I have yet to use the islandwalk ability and I admit that the discard effect is weak, but one-mana removal for Extended's top creatures is certainly nothing to sneeze at.
After days of tweaking the deck and playing games, Tiago Chan and I decided on the exact same 75 cards to take to battle in GP Dallas. If you're interested, you can check the list out here. I'm not showing it now because I only want to show my final GP Singapore list in order to avoid confusion.
I finished in 21st place, dropping 4 matches total, to losing Aggro-Flow Rock, to U/G Opposition, and to Aggro Loam twice. Tiago Chan finished in the sour 9th place. I think everyone would sign up for a 9th place if given the choice at the start of the tournament, but still when you end up 9th you are always disappointed, since you were so close to Top 8. However, a few days later when you are looking back, you should be happy with the finish. Tiago and I posted a combined 17-7 record, so overall, the deck performed well, and I was happy with the choice.
The breakout deck of GP Dallas was without a doubt Domain Zoo. I never really tested it, mainly because I preferred to play a control deck over a beatdown deck, so I concentrated my efforts on those. I do think it is very strong. I saw Raphael Levy pulling off turn-three kills via Boros Swiftblade plus Gaea's Might, and I think the deck is superior to Boros. Domain Zoo is powerful and consistent, and with 2 GP wins it is hard to deny it is the best aggro deck in the format. Aggro Loam also proved it is a top tier deck in Dallas.
I had made a couple small changes based on my experiences in GP Dallas and my expectations for the Singapore metagame. I expected quite a bit of Domain Zoo after Raphael Levy's win in Dallas, so I asked him what the best card against his deck was and he answered Engineered Explosives. He considered it to be a superior, cheaper Wrath of God that got around Meddling Mage, which makes sense. One Explosives main and one in the board it was. A couple of the other minor changes were cutting one Chrome Mox (going down to just one) because the card disadvantage is harsh in control mirrors, and replaced it with an extra Talisman. Furthermore, I cut a Condescend and a Thirst for Knowledge (going down to three of each, making the deck better against Cabal Therapy since you're less likely to be caught with two of the same card in your hand), and replaced them with 2 Stifles that were previously in the sideboard. The one-blue card makes the deck cheaper and faster, and countering a fetch land activation can prove devastating. It's a bit of a lucky call, but if you can counter Domain Zoo's turn-one fetch-land, then you're in good shape. There were some more minor uninteresting last-minute changes without a big impact on the deck. This is the list I ran:
Unfortunately, I didn't manage to make Day 2. I went 2-2-1, a couple places short of making the Top 64. It was a combination of mostly bad luck (culminating in a mulligan to three in the decisive game for Day 2), bad pairings, and also a couple bad calls on my part that turned out to go wrong in games. I was still happy to have taken the trip, as I loved Singapore - a perfect holiday - and I could see the gloat on Raphael's face when he won again.
I will now go over the main matchups and tell you how they work out and how I tend to usually sideboard.
If you can survive the early game at a high life total, using counters to hold them off, then a Wrath of God or Engineered Explosives to reset the board, you should be in good shape. The goal then becomes to take control of the game before they draw a lethal Tribal Flames. Sundering Titan is the finisher of choice, as it destroys their board, but Exalted Angel will also happily swing life totals in the right direction.
Your entire game plan is based on getting the Mindslaver lock in place. Winning with creatures usually won't work, since they can use Seismic Assault or Devastating Dreams to clear your board. Remember that you need 13 mana to activate Academy Ruins and Mindslaver every turn. The matchup is slightly unfavorable.
U/W GIFTS-TRON MIRROR
The game is a race to the first Mindslaver. Sometimes someone can run a big Decree of Justice early and defend with countermagic, but usually it comes down to the legendary artifact. If they Gifts for something like Academy Ruins, Petrified Field, Crucible of Worlds, and Mindslaver, then usually the best way to handle it is to give them Mindslaver and Crucible of Worlds, then counter Crucible. That ensures they can never get Academy Ruins in play and hence never lock you.
A tough matchup, it is a race towards Mindslaver before they can go Obliterate or Orim's Chant plus Balancing Act. Resolve Mindslaver and you can sacrifice all their lands to pretty much win the game. You can also try to win by cycling Decree of Justice for some tokens, then hiding behind multiple Condescends, but the Mindslaver plan is often better.
This is a good matchup, since most of their cards are meant for cheap cards. Smother, Counterbalance, Spell Snare, etcetera. You pose Sundering Titans and Mindslavers, which they usually cannot handle. If you can keep Dark Confidant off the table, you should win the matchup as you get enough time for your expensive cards to take over the game.
Sideboard in: 1 Condemn, 1 Kataki, War's Wage, 3 Disenchant, 1 Exalted Angel 1 Engineered Explosives
Sideboard out: 2 Stifle, 1 Crucible of Worlds, 1 Gifts Ungiven, 1 Sundering Titan, 1 Mindslaver, 1 Talisman of Progress
Their major threats are Destructive Flow and Dark Confidant. If you can keep those at bay, you can win. If one of those stays on the table, then you are in very bad shape. That's why the matchup becomes much better after sideboard.
That pretty much sums it up. I don't like Chalice of the Void in this deck anymore for the stated reasons. Tomoharu Saitou disagreed (a choice I still understand and respect) and made Top 8 in Singapore with his Chalice-powered U/W deck. Many of the differences between his version and mine are based on his choice of playing Chalice of the Void, so the two decks cannot be compared easily. I can tell you that the slots in my deck I'm not sure of are the maindeck Solemn Simulacrums and Stifles, and the sideboard one-ofs except Academy Ruins and Sphere of Law. Feel free to adjust those slots to your personal preferences and metagame expectations. For instance, it appears that Aggro-Flow Rock is dying out a bit, so cutting a few Disenchants from the sideboard is an option. It seems smart to replace them with hate against Balancing Tings, which is the big deck coming out of GP Singapore. Ghost Quarter, in order to set up Quarter plus Crucible recursion, is a good plan for that matchup.
My version of U/W Gifts-Tron posted a solid record over two Grand Prix tournaments. If you like Counterspells and Wrath of Gods, it may be the deck for you. But I'll conclude today by saying that 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 player's hands at 0, while a deadly Lotus Bloom and Terrarion were still lurking at the top of his deck. A deck that can pull of crazy wins like that should not be underestimated.