Respect the Mountain (But Not Too Much)

Posted in Top Decks on January 7, 2010

By Mike Flores

The current Extended format is full of iconic opening sequences. You know, the ...

Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth + Thoughtseize (your answer); untap Dark Depths (now a Swamp), Vampire Hexmage ... Marit Lage!

Or ...

Mountain, Rite of Flame, Desperate Ritual, Seething Song ... Deus of Calamity!

Or the most powerful one of all (if, you know, tournament results are any measuring stick) ...

Forest (of some stripe), Noble Hierarch.

The iconic opening often—even "usually"—gives you an indication of the entire rest of the deck you are facing. Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth into Thoughtseize? Chances are the opponent is going to take my Path to Exile over my Lightning Bolt. But Forest into Noble Hierarch? We immediately start running the numbers. Is it going to be a Knight of the Reliquary follow up? Can I answer the Knight and then a Baneslayer Angel a turn later? The extent of this particular discussion probably ends at "Punishing Fire or Bant Charm?".

Until now.

Check out the deck that Christian Calcano used to win a recent Magic Online Extended PTQ:

Calcano (1st Place)

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If the name Christian Calcano rings some bells, it is because the onetime Top 8 Magic Mockvitational winner has been on a tear—both with innovative decks and online PTQs—in recent months. About three months ago, just after the release of Zendikar, Calcano gave the world its first look at Boros Bushwhacker, finishing second at the October Philadelphia 5K.

Running on essentially no sleep, Calcano went 5-1 just to qualify for a Magic OnlineMagic 2010 Qualifier, went 5-1 in that tournament's Swiss ... and came up a disappointing second in his second big tournament in as many days. But last week's Extended PTQ turned out a lot happier for the talented New Yorker.

Is that Doran?

It must be early January, because everything old is new again.

So what is going on here?

Calcano apparently didn't like any of the existing decks in the format, and decided, on a back-to-back (Sealed Deck) PTQ road trip with Sean McKeown and others to go with a deck he had played about two years ago, updated with some new cards (Vindicates becoming Maelstrom Pulses, Birds of Paradise into Noble Hierarchs, and Path to Exile ... Path to Exile is just "the nuts").

Looking at the Doran deck, you can see that it is actually quite similar in card choices to the Zoo decks that we typically see (and will become more so, see below) ... Noble Hierarch to open, Tarmogoyf being the best early threat, and Umezawa's Jitte as the breaker.

According to Calcano, the reason to play this deck over Zoo (besides personal preference in his case) is its superiority against control and combo decks. Disruption in the form of Thoughtseize and Duress—combined with the still-quick offense—makes Doran a better option against Scapeshift and Tezzeret than Zoo variants.

One of the things you may have noticed about this deck is its heavy anti-red sideboard. Calcano correctly predicted a heavy component of mono-red burn decks and All-In Red decks (which were exactly what showed up in the Top 8). However he cautioned against playing this sideboard in a paper Magic PTQ. Red decks are typically very cheap to assemble in Magic Online, so they will be slightly more represented online than in real life.

Burrenton Forge-Tender is obviously a monster against red decks, capable of shrugging off every Keldon Marauders and Goblin Guide an opponent cares to throw (and is quite a Jitte-bearer). Circle of Protection: Red is superb both against conventional red decks and against All-In Red ... even better, in many cases, against All-In Red, given that the opponent will have gone, you know, all-in on a single threat. Calcano suggests de-emphasizing the anti-red sideboard cards, and maybe adding a third Umezawa's Jitte.

Umezawa's Jitte was generally good—a card he never sided out—particularly against red decks and Zoo; the third would be a good card for the mirror (which might in fact become a factor given Christian's win), and a generally solid draw elsewhere, as well.

So what about more substantive changes?

The only main-deck change Calcano suggests is to swap Putrefy for Bant Charm. Bant Charm does everything Putrefy does, and a little more, and a little better, after all. I was surprised to hear that he would not change the mana base. "One Watery Grave is all you need" ... and anyway, every Marsh Flats and Verdant Catacombs in the mana base can find that dual. Don't forget, your Noble Hierarchs can help a lot in the casting of this particular Charm!

The champ's favorite cards in the deck were Meddling Mage and Qasali Pridemage ... and probably with good reason. Main-deck Disenchant capability can be randomly useful (Calcano beat an Affinity deck, for instance), but apparently exalted was the best. He recounted a humorous story where he played a (second) Qasali Pridemage, then cracked in with a Meddling Mage (set against an otherwise lethal Scapeshift). The opponent cast Peer Through Depths, found a Lightning Bolt, and proudly pointed it at ... the now-4/4Meddling Mage!

"That one drew the frowny-face."

That kind of profitable error will actually come up more in paper Magic, as the digital 4/4 Pridemages will actually say "4/4" in the bottom corner (at least temporarily).

And one last caveat: the "bad" matchup for this deck is Rubin Zoo! So either the Kibler Austin-winning Punishing Fire deck or the Saito-into-Coimbra Bant Charm deck ... Both are significant challenges for Calcano's Doran. These Zoo decks match Doran good card for good card, but top up on Baneslayer Angel. Knight of the Reliquary can also be a monster ... So between Tarmogoyf and those two, the Rubin Zoo decks can overtax Doran's available copies of Path to Exile.

So watch out!

How did the rest of the Top 8 play out? Here is a look:

xedcrfvtgbyhnuj (2nd Place)

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Domain Zoo is largely the same aggro deck that we've seen year-in and year-out.

The deck plays all five basic land types in order to hit the big 5s with Tribal Flames. That Godless Shrine can help play Deathmark and Yixlid Jailer, but Steam Vents is just for style points.

The part of Bob Maher is currently being played by the ubiquitous Knight of the Reliquary; the Knight, besides being a heck of a huge animal, can always find the Ghost Quarter in this deck's sideboard, in order to disrupt the Hexmage combination.

The main distinguishing characteristic of this style of deck versus the (now) generally more common Rubin Zoo is its faster offense: lots of attack-oriented one-drops rather than a progressive game plan of mana development and card advantage topping up on Baneslayer Angel. With so many more Kird Apes and Steppe Lynxes, Domain Zoo is more of a "Zoo," and more vulnerable to cards like Engineered Explosives. On balance—while it lacks the relentless Cursed Scroll-ness of a Punishing Fire—it has tremendous reach with more Lightning Helixes as well as the Shrapnel Blast-like Tribal Flames.

So as you're taking over a game, try to stabilize your life total at obnoxiously odd numbers, like 9, or better yet, 11.

Crazycow (3rd Place)

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nagul (5th Place)

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A new addition from Zendikar is Teetering Peaks.

It's just like Boros Bushwhacker in Standard! The Peaks help make Hellspark Elemental and Goblin Guide that much more dangerous, providing additional damage via the haste threats, now without blowing a spell. These Lightning Bolt Decks are quite similar to one another, but if I had to pick one, I'd go with nagul's: The presence of Dragon's Claw can utterly change an otherwise even mirror, whereas I am skeptical about so many generally inoffensive three-mana enchantments in Crazycow's.

QuiGonJinn985 (4th Place)

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And here we have a rare appearance in an Extended Faerie deck of arguably the least fun Faerie in the history of Standard Fae: Mistbind Clique. The Extended Faeries decks we saw last year largely did not play this card, but the extra toughness is quite welcome against Punishing Fire (otherwise a one-card extinction level event, and still not healthy, exactly).

Mistbind Clique of course needs a buddy. In this deck—as with many months of Standard—that buddy is the awesome Blossom. Even the humblest 1/1 Faerie token is a proud member of the "I can still hold onto Umezawa's Jitte" club.

WhisperingEye (6th Place)

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Bant Charms mark the update to Rubin Zoo developed by Tomoharu Saito, on the path that put Andre Coimbra into Top 8 position at the 2009 World Championships. Boasting many of the incentives that made Rubin Zoo so good (if not the trademark Grove of the Burnwillows engine), the Bant Charm version is meant to have the edge in the mirror.

First off, this version has four Baneslayer Angels (Kibler played only three in Austin); secondly, the Bant Charms give the deck more copies of "Path to Exile" ... meaning that it has not only more Baneslayer Angels, but more ways to deal with the opponent's Baneslayer Angel. Of course, Baneslayer Angel is the most important card in a mirror match.

Most everything else is in place; Knight of the Reliquary can find Treetop Village (though apparently WhisperingEye didn't run any Ghost Quarters). The Blue access for Bant Charm carries over to the sideboarded Negates and Meddling Mages. And with four Ravenous Traps and three Tormod's Crypts, this deck really, really, doesn't want to drop a match to Dredge (or spend a mana defending itself).

rastaf (7th Place)

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What else is there to say about All-In Red? It is the most fun you can have playing Extended, and competitive as well. Last year I actually tried to get Coimbra to play it in Berlin—while on a fourteen-game run of first- or second-turn Empty the Warrens—but he elected to play with Cryptic Commands instead.

There is just a rush that comes with laying your cards on the table—literally—on the first turn. Respect the Mountain. It's comin' to get ya.

Demonic_Penguin (8th Place)

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Dark Depths remains a fine intersection of "oops, I won" mise-ability and strategic opportunity. The deck is full of elegant, very premium, cards. Dark Confidant and Vendilion Clique, don't forget, were first played together in a Counterbalance aggro-control variant!

The real plan with this deck, of course, is to set up a Vampire Hexmage + Dark Depths combination, using Beseech the Queen and Muddle the Mixture to assemble the pieces. All together they Voltron into a 20/20 with a poor attitude and short attention span. The Urborg + Thoughtseize + Depths + Hexmage draw we talked about above is one of the strongest unassisted combination openers in present Magic.

So what does this Top 8 tell us?

Despite essentially no card pool changes between Austin and today, we have a very different looking Top 8 in one of the early PTQ events. In fact, we have a winner that was not on the radar at all! This is proof not just for more viability of more, different, decks, but a caution against the anti-deck. It is basically impossible to successfully anti-deck yourself through a format with literally dozens of viable winners. In Standard you might be tempted to play—and even win with—an anti-Jund deck, but that kind of strategy is going to be less successful in Extended. The closest thing might be Saito Zoo, which is meant to beat Rubin Zoo, both of which have an advantage against regular Zoo (and apparently Doran )... except Saito / Rubin schools are as close to the "Jund" of the format as you can get, so the analogy fails on logic (when expecting Paper, play ... um, Paper?).

So far, we see one digital Blue Envelope in favor of just playing what you like!

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