Playing Benzo in the Extended PTQ's

Posted in Feature on September 3, 2015

By Tom Guevin

Benzo is a monoblack deck, designed by Team Your Move Games, powered by spells that utilize the graveyard. The Benzo deck seeks to Reanimate, Infest, and/or Contaminate to achieve victory. The success of Benzo at Pro Tour-New Orleans was due in large part to these multiple avenues to victory. Benzo had better success than decks with only a single focus (CMU's Infestation and the French and Swedish Reanimators).

Benzo is at its best against focused beatdown and counter decks. Creatures like Jackal Pup aren't effective against turn two Verdant Force, and counter decks have trouble against creatures like Nether Spirit and Krovikan Horror. Benzo starts to have problems when these decks move toward the middle and become more utility based, adding cards like Swords to Plowshares and Meddling Mage, which can cheaply thwart Benzo's win conditions.

It's been three years since Jamie Wakefield, amidst a sea of Jar and High Tide combo decks, stormed an Extended PTQ with Secret Force. The rule then was beatdown decks rule PTQ's, so play to beat the aggressive decks. The recent IBC PTQs were dominated by control decks, full of card advantage. How will that translate to the Extended PTQ season? While there will be some control and combo decks, I think these will be the minority of decks in the field, especially given how hard some cards are to come by. Picture trying to build an Oath deck - you need about 40 out of print uncommons and rares!

Card scarcity aside, Benzo is still a good choice for the qualifier season, for three main reasons: 1) explosiveness - you can get easy wins, 2) robustness - there are many ways to win, 3) timeliness - you can win quickly if time is running out. To be fair, there are several reasons to not run Benzo in the PTQ's: 1) Donate (and Combo in general) can be a difficult matchup, 2) Phyrexian Furnace is good against you, 3) Phyrexian Furnace is good against the field.

This is the version I played at New Orleans:

Tom Guevin

Download Arena Decklist
Sorcery (16)
3 Buried Alive 4 Reanimate 4 Exhume 4 Duress 1 Massacre
Instant (8)
4 Entomb 4 Vampiric Tutor
Land (22)
19 Swamp 3 Rishadan Port
Other (2)
1 Multani, Maro Sorcerer 1 *
61 Cards

This is basically a new archetype for Extended, so here's explanation to how the deck works (broken up by each focus):

Reanimation: The first step is to get a "fatty" into your graveyard. The primary way to do this is via Entomb - you "tutor" for the best creature against your opponent. Buried Alive can also be used for this purpose, albeit two turns later. Another method is to discard a drawn creature via Zombie Infestation. Finally you can discard a drawn creature by some either means - either having 8 cards in hand or being the target of Gerrard's Verdict. Once the "fatty" is in your graveyard, cast one of the ten reanimation spells at your disposal.

An offshoot of reanimation involves reanimating out of the opponent's graveyard. Common targets are Mogg Fanatics, Meddling Mages and Spike Weavers. Reanimating opponents' creatures isn't your primary win condition, but can prevent your opponent from stopping your win. Humpherys once went to bed at night dreaming of Reanimating opposing Infiltrators, but don't make this or anything else Dave does your primary goal.

zombie infestation
Infestation: The goal is to repeatedly generate 2/2 Zombie Tokens. The first step is getting Zombie Infestation into play. Then you can discard cards to make Zombies. Getting a 2/2 every other turn is generally a losing proposition. Instead, add in Squee and Krovikan Horror, which can be returned from the graveyard to your hand and you have a token generating machine. The ideal setup is to cast Infestation, then Buried Alive for 2 Horrors and the Squee (with the Squee on top of the Horrors). You then return the Horrors to your hand and make a Zombie. Then on the opponent's turn you return one of the Horrors. On your upkeep you return Squee. Now you can generate a 2/2 Zombie during your turn and during your opponent's turn. This allows you to outrace single cards like Cursed Scroll and even Avatar of Woe.

Contamination: The goal is to get a Contamination lock, where you can continually upkeep the Contamination until you win. There are three ways to keep Contamination going (i.e. generate a creature every turn): 1) Nether Spirit, 2) Zombie Infestation and Squee or 2 Horrors, or 3) Verdant Force. Once you have Contamination going, just wait for Duress to stop Force of Will and then win as you please.

The synergy of these three focus paths is what makes the deck so great. An example occurred during my round 13 match against Jeff Magid: I played turn one Vampiric Tutor, while he played Granger Guildmage. I played turn two Infestation, and he played a River Boa. I then played turn three Contamination. He attacked, said go, and I discarded Verdant Force and a land to make a Zombie. I sacrificed the Zombie to Contamination and then Exhumed the Verdant Force, eliciting a turn 3 concession!

In the above example, all focus paths were used. In general the focus path you choose depends on the matchup and the draw. Much of the sideboarding is deciding which focus path to purse, and the sideboarding out cards of the other path. In that light, let's examine the common Extended matchups:

verdant force
Sligh: Reanimating Verdant Force is a good start, but it tends to just pull Incinerate/Fireblast from the opponent. Infestation is the best bet. Get it going early and often, kill off the Pups and Patrols, soak up the Ball Lightnings and eventually win with it. Against a heavy burn version, Contamination can stay in, but you need Null Rod as well. Generally some number of Reanimates are sideboarded out. Easy matchup.

Draw-Go, Finkel-Go: Nearly every spell you cast is a must counter. Entomb gets Nether Spirit, Infestation stops any number or type of Ophidians and Buried Alive for Nether Spirit and 2 Krovikan Horrors is game. Squee and Massacre come out and Negators come in. Another easy matchup.

avatar of woe
Oath: Avatar of Woe is the best bet, as it is both unblockable and can kill Weaver. Multani is also a possibility if Oath isn't in play. Generally it's easier for the Oath deck to get Oath in play than get to Plowshares, so Avatar is the better bet. Infestation generally isn't a good plan, because putting out too many creatures is just going to let your opponent do crazy stuff like double Oath and gain 8 life a turn, etc. For this reason you'd probably take Contamination out, bring in Terror(s) for the Weaver, Evincar, and some graveyard control. A second Avatar can be useful for circumstances when multiple Weavers hit play or you're Oathing up your own creatures. However if the 4 Weaver version of Turboland is big in your area, you're better off with Cursed Totem. A tough matchup, favoring the deck with a better draw.

Donate: Turn 2 Multani can race Donate, if you're playing first. If not, Rishadan Port can come to the rescue, buying an extra attack phase. Crosis is a solid possibility as well, though more vulnerable to main deck bounce. Obviously this is THE matchup for Contamination, but don't sacrifice early pressure to setup a two card combo that might get just countered. You need some clock, even if it's just an Infestation. After sideboarding, more Contaminations come in. Winter Orb is also a possibility if you're really worried about this matchup, and potentially Negator or even Braids could also come in. The latter two are less good against Fire/Ice, but again you need some early play against Donate.

Beatdown with white (White Weenie, Deuce, Junk): Swords stops the fatty, Seals stop Infestation and Meddling Mage/Duress/Vindicate can shut you down. These days most white decks will be sideboarding in Wrath. The key here is to try to Duress the Plow/Wrath and get Verdant Force or Avatar out ASAP. Multani and Marauding Knight are good backup plans which can't be Plowed and pack a punch. In general you want to sideboard out your enchantments for lots of creature kill and useful creatures.

Mirror: You want to do the following in order of priority: 1) Get Avatar of Woe in play, 2) Get Infestation with Squees and Horrors going. Multani and Nether Spirit can be used to slow down the Avatar once it hits. After sideboarding, you want graveyard control and the ability to seize an opening. Negators are fine if you control the graveyard. Don't leave any fatty hanging around in your graveyard as it's a juicy target for Reanimate and Animate Dead (Exhume gets sideboarded out).

phyrexian furnace
As opposed to the Pro Tour, where Reanimator was a novelty, it will be expected in the PTQ's. How then should the strategy and decklist morph for the PTQ's? Phyrexian Furnace will be the common solution people use. Furnace is solid, but not game over. First off, filling the graveyard and then doing a Reanimate can force an opponent to sacrifice the Furnace. Second, cards like Null Rod, Powder Keg and Disk can dispatch the Furnace leaving you free to Reanimate. At the Pro Tour, the answer to graveyard hate was Negator, as only control decks were expected to run Furnace. The problem for the PTQ's is that all the aggro decks can run Furnace, making Negator a bad solution. The best solution will depend on the metagame at hand, but here's a quick look at the alternatives (sticking to monoblack):

Null Rod: Good against Cursed Scroll, Disk, Keg, and Masticore as well as Furnace. Good answer, except that most opponents will have Enchantment/Artifact control against you after sideboarding, and you can't use your own Furnace.

Powder Keg: Good against Cursed Scroll, Weenies, Meddling Mage, Call of the Herd, Treetop Village as well as Furnace. You do have a minimum one turn delay to get the Furnace.

Disk: Good against swarm decks, fatty creatures (mirror), random enchantments and Furnace. Four mana is high, but it's certainly a robust answer. Could also potentially sideboard against Donate.

Hidden Horror: Against Deuce and white weenie, you want to take enchantments out after sideboarding, and bring creatures in. Hidden Horror is great against Call of the Herd, Incinerate, Scroll and potentially can get a drawn creature into the graveyard. Don't want too many, but it is a solid answer.

The next question is how common will Furnace be in the main deck? Definitely Oath will have it, and the Mirror could have it. White weenie with Tutors could have it. Donate, Sligh, Deuce and Junk shouldn't have it. The reason Furnace will be so big is because it's good against so many decks - stopping Gaea's Blessing, Accumulated Knowledge, flashbacked Call of the Herd, even Firebolt and Barbarian Ring. Trust me, you want a main deck cad to deal with Furnace. Null Rod seems like the best main deck solution as it is always useful against Cursed Scrolls and Masticores that show up.

What other changes should be made to the main deck? Massacre has to stay as long as Meddling Mage is in the environment. Contamination could go, as game one you're more into having the broken draw or not. Crosis could be better than Multani game one, as most of the pundits at the Pro Tour felt. Seeing as how Multani is a back up plan in most cases you could do without it main, so long as you have an un-Plowable creature in the sideboard. The Ports are nice against Donate, but to make the room for the Rod, you could go to 21 lands. At the least you want 20 swamps and 1 Port, so you can Tutor for the Port against Donate, 19/2 is probably better with all the Villages out there. 19/3 is even better. It's your entry fee, so it's your final decision.

For the sideboard, Terror is just amazing against Oath and Deuce and can replace Bone Shredder, which isn't needed. 4 Contaminations are key against Donate, and a Winter Orb to be sure you don't get Kai'd. Negators become a Hidden Horror, and throw in a Disk to be safe against enchantments and Turboland. Coffin Purge is fine over the Furnace if you're worried about being caught in the Null Rod/Furnace position. Plus you can Entomb for Coffin Purge in a pinch.

-1 Multani, +1 Crosis
-1 Contamination, +1 Null Rod

2 Massacre
2 Terror
1 Ascendant Evincar
1 Marauding Knight
1 Hidden Horror
4 Contamination
1 Winter Orb
1 Phyrexian Furnace/Coffin Purge
1 Nevinyrral's Disk
1 Perish

While Benzo seems like an overly complex situation that is stretched in many directions, it's not that hard to play. One trick is Benzo mulligans more frequently than most decks and is often rewarded by doing so. Seeing as how you have a cheap two-card combo (Entomb/Reanimate), don't be hesitant to mulligan dead-end hands. A dead-end hand is one that has 1) Infestation, but no Entomb/Buried Alive/Squee, 2) Entomb, but no Reanimate, 3) Reanimate, but no Entomb/Buried Alive/Creature that can be discarded. And even though "pros" like Humpherys and Dougherty stay with one land hand, especially in mirror matches for the Top 8, I don't, and don't recommend that you should.

If nothing else, Benzo is a fun deck to play. Even if you don't play it in the PTQs, build a version to playtest against teammates. And don't be intimidated by the deck's complexity, because it's not a Wild Research/Oath deck and it doesn't have Ivory Mask, Gaea's Blessing, and Sacred Ground. If I can play the deck to a 12th place finish on the Pro Tour, I'm sure you can do fine with it at your PTQ.

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