On the Brink of Banning

Posted in Latest Developments on November 15, 2002

By Randy Buehler

Last week I talked a lot about combo decks and R&D’s current attitude toward them. We know we made some mistakes in the past, and so we avoided anything resembling combo enablers for several years, but now we think we can print combo cards that are interesting without being too good.

What is Extended?

The following card sets are permitted in Extended tournaments:

  • Classic (Sixth Edition)
  • Seventh Edition
  • Tempest
  • Stronghold
  • Exodus
  • Urza’s Saga
  • Urza’s Legacy
  • Urza’s Destiny
  • Mercadian Masques
  • Nemesis
  • Prophecy
  • Invasion
  • Planeshift
  • Apocalypse
  • Odyssey
  • Torment
  • Judgment
  • Onslaught

The following individual cards are banned in Extended tournaments:

A lot of us R&D types went to Pro Tour - Houston, which was played using the freshly-rotated Extended format, expecting to be reminded of those past mistakes because we anticipated seeing combo decks running rampant. I had several conversations where the subject wasn’t “Will we have to ban a card?” but rather “How many cards will we have to ban?” and “Do we need to announce early so our bannings can kick in before the PTQ season?”

However, the rumors of the demise of the Extended format appear to be greatly exaggerated.

The buzz on Thursday, before the tournament began, was all about the blisteringly fast combo decks – Aluren decks can win on the second turn by playing a first turn Eladamri's Vineyard, then dropping Aluren on turn 2 followed by a free Wirewood Savage and then a free Cavern Harpy. It turns out that Cavern Harpy is a Beast, so with the Savage in play this little combo allows you to immediately draw your entire deck. With every creature that costs 3 or less being free, it’s not exactly hard to win from that position. Even more popular, apparently, were the black-blue Reanimator decks that had twelve different ways to put an enormous fatty into the graveyard on the first turn (four copies each of Entomb, Careful Study, and Hapless Researcher) along with twelve different ways to put said fatty into play on turn 2 (Reanimate, Exhume, and Life/Death). Enchantress decks could also “go off” by turn 3 and even the Goblin decks had a bit of a combo feel to them with first turn Goblin Lackey allowing players to put multiple Goblin Piledrivers into play on turn 2. Add in a couple Raging Goblins and you can even outrace the combo decks sometimes.

A funny thing happened on the way to the banned list. Once the tournament actually began, the combo decks simply weren’t going off as reliably or as consistently as they were when they were just being played against goldfish. Lots of players who didn’t do a lot of post-sideboarded testing got a rude awakening as they saw how many answers their opponents brought in against them. After round one I listened to a steady stream of Reanimator players complain about losing to Gilded Drake, Terminate, Chainer's Edict, Diabolic Edict, Coffin Purge, and even Reprisal and Parallax Wave. The Aluren players learned the hard way that everyone knew that Cavern Harpy was a beast and lots of players showed up packing Engineered Plague, Stronghold Taskmaster, or Urborg Shambler, all of which shut the combo down cold.

Extended has some amazingly powerful threats, but it also turns out to have a whole host of answers to those threats. The most played cards list was pretty interesting in this regard: Duress was by far the most popular (nonland) card in the field. Vampiric Tutor was #2, Diabolic Edict was third, and then Cabal Therapy (!) was fourth. Basically, everyone knew there would be a bunch of these blisteringly fast combo decks and so they showed up ready to disrupt them before they could get going.

Cabal Therapy

By the end, some people were referring to Houston as “Pro Tour - Cabal Therapy” and it really was a coming out party for that card. Therapy is obviously good after a Duress because you know what to name, but it was also really good in the hands of some players who were just good at reading their opponents. Mike Turian in particular just never seemed to miss with it. Somehow he always seemed able to figure out from his opponent’s reaction when he played the card what his opponent had in their hand. “Aha, you played a first turn City of Brass and then hesitated when I played Cabal Therapy… you must have Vampiric Tutor in your hand and you were debating whether to play it!”

All those Duresses and Cabal Therapys, along with the specifically targeted hate cards that many players were packing, kept the format remarkably balanced and diverse. As Friday turned into Saturday, there was still no one who knew what the “best deck” was. “The Rock” – a slow green-black disruption deck with Pernicious Deeds, Spiritmongers, etc. – did quite well, with each of the two undefeated players after day 1 running it. (It’s kind of funny how some decks get their names… Sol Malka named his pet green-black deck “The Rock and his Millions” because his Phyrexian Plaguelord reminded him of the wrestler The Rock and his Deranged Hermits brought the millions of fans into play to power him up. Nowadays the Plaguelord and the Hermit have been replaced by Spiritmonger and Ravenous Baloth, but people still call the deck “The Rock.”)

Oath of Druids

The Rock wasn’t the only slow deck doing well, either. Oath of Druids is still good, Psychatog seemed quite playable, and there was even a red-blue control deck that won by eventually Brainstorming a Draco onto the top of the library and then pointing Erratic Explosion at the opponent’s head. With all the Vampiric Tutors and fetch lands running around, most people were effectively starting out at 16 life and Jinpei Hassaku finished 24th with that deck!

By the end of Day 2 there were 7 different decks in the Top 8 and three more in the Top 16. Bob Maher showed off a truly bizarre Sutured Ghoul deck that was designed by the Dutch players (with a helping hand from Tsuyoshi Fujita) and Justin Gary wound up winning the whole thing with an Oath of Druids deck that won with Cognivore – you know, the Lhurgoyf that counts up instants.

All in all the diversity and balance of Extended was far better than anyone was expecting. Better still – everyone seemed to be having fun playing.

Things weren’t perfect though – stuff happens awfully quickly, and games' outcomes can get determined in the first few turns. Many of the most popular cards are really cheap: Duress, Cabal Therapy, Vampiric Tutor, Brainstorm, Force Spike, Goblin Lackey, Birds of Paradise, Entomb, Reanimate, Oath of Druids. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having people build decks around cheap cards, but when crucial spells are resolving on the first few turns of the game, there’s a danger that the opening die roll becomes too important. Looked at in the extreme: if the game is decided on turn one then you really want to go first!

Vampiric Tutor

Luckily, Extended seems to have a lot more going on than just the opening die roll. Anyone who follows the Pro Tour can tell just from looking at the standings that good players seemed to do well. Most of the names at the top of the standings are familiar ones – those are the players who have done well over the years and those are among the most talented Magic players around. That simply couldn’t be the case if the games were all about the die rolls.

I worry a little bit that once everyone understands everything there is to know about Extended, then the speed at which things happen will start to be a problem. However, I think it will take quite a while to “solve” this format – there are an incredibly large number of decisions for players to make, ranging from what to get with a Tutor to what to Duress to how to sideboard against each other deck.

All in all the upcoming round of Pro Tour Qualifiers should be quite interesting – there’s an insane diversity of decks to choose from and they’re all fun. Everyone gets to play their favorite style and strategy, so long as it can have some impact on the game… by turn 2, anyway.


Last Week’s Poll:

What are you: Timmy, Johnny, or Spike?
Timmy 266 3.8%
Timmy/Johnny 1239 17.7%
Johnny 871 12.4%
Johnny/Spike 2634 37.5%
Spike 915 13.0%
Timmy/Spike 487 6.9%
Timmy/Johnny/Spike 604 8.6%
Total 7016 100.0%
Randy may be reached at latestdevelopments@wizards.com.

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