Extended Hat Trick

Posted in The Week That Was on January 23, 2009

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on DailyMTG.com, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.
Luis Scott-Vargas hoisted another Grand Prix trophy this weekend in L.A.

Luis Scott-Vargas has simply been red-hot the last few months. After a lackluster start to his 2008 Pro Tour season, he closed the year out in style by winning Pro Tour–Berlin with the breakout Extended deck of the format. From there he won Grand Prix–Atlanta playing Limited. Next up was Worlds where he was chasing the Top 8 throughout the closing rounds and finished in 11th place after going 6-0 in Extended with Swans—and a second-place finish in the Player of the Year Race.

Just how hot is Luis running these days? You be the judge after hearing the following anecdote. Apparently while hanging out with his pre-tournament gaggle of players in Los Angeles, a friend of Luis's promised that if Luis won the tournament then the friend would buy everyone dinner—and Luis gladly took him up on it after dispatching Brent Piazza to win the event. Normally the “honor” of paying for the post-tournament meal falls to the winner and can eat significantly into that final GP paycheck, but not when you are as hot as LSV.

Now he has opened the 2009 season in the lead for PoY with his win in Los Angeles last weekend—keep in mind that 2008 winner Shuhei Nakamura also won the first Grand Prix last season. Once again the format was Extended and once again LSV took on all comers with a third deck in the three Extended events. His record in those three events is a stunning 36-5-2—and four of those losses came in Berlin. With the Pro Tour Qualifier season just rumbling into gear, I managed to get some time with LSV to talk about deck selection, why he has not stuck with a deck, his hot streak, and the Extended metagame moving forward in this PTQ season.

When I interviewed Luis after his win in Berlin I was struck when he talked about how important it is to play the right deck in a tournament—something he felt he had not always adhered to prior to his first Pro Tour Top 8 appearance in Germany. Now, with three different wins in Constructed under his belt, I wanted to know how he was able to zero in on each of these different decks—and if they were really all that different to begin with.

"They're all combo decks," conceded Luis when we kicked off the interview with a question about the decks' similarities. "But they are different enough decks – calling something a combo deck doesn't it really make it like another combo deck."

"The Elf deck is by far the hardest of the three to play," said Luis of the deck that kicked off his current surge. "Not only do you have a lot more calculation that you have to do but you also don't have as much information. With Swans you have perfect information about whether or not you can go off. You either have both pieces or you don't. With TEPS, for the most part, you don't try to go off blind unless you really have to. Elves is the one of the three where you have to go off not knowing if you will draw into everything you need."

Luis Scott-Vargas's Grapeshot Elves

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"Especially now that people know about Elves, but even before in Berlin, Elves is easily the fastest of all those decks and you want to win before they can do anything," Luis explained. "It is very capable of doing that. With Desire it is much better to just wait to go off until the turn before you are going to die or they are going to do something you care about. Like against Zoo—or especially against Burn—you know how much damage they can do at a maximum. So unless they are going to be able to kill you on the next turn you have no reason to try and go off. With Elves it is actually the opposite. You want to go off as fast as you can under most circumstances."

Heritage Druid

While Luis played Elves in Berlin he was already aware of the other two lists he would play later on down the line, although the middle deck was not one he was taking very seriously.

"It is actually kind of funny," Luis recalled of the Berlin testing process. "We did not test Swans nearly as much because it seemed like an inferior combo deck at that point. We tested TEPS quite a bit. My roommate Matt [Benjamin] ended up playing the TEPS deck that we built—and we got paired Round 1. Elves just seemed much better for that tournament. It was faster, it was still relatively unexpected ... Yes, a lot of people had it, but the people who didn't have it didn't know about it. Everyone who knew about it was playing it. All the non-Elf decks were not prepared for Elves."

That information edge is huge when it comes to selecting the 60-card concoction for a big event.

"It is the whole tournament for some decks," said Luis, who knows how rare it is to have that kind of jump on a Pro Tour field. "One of the reasons I don't like Elves right now is because the cards that hose Elves are good cards. Engineered Explosives is just a good card. If Elves isn't around you still want it in your deck. Because you have incentives to play these cards that are still good Elves is going to get incidentally hated out. Whereas a deck like Dredge—you don't want to play main-deck Leyline of the Void, that would be terrible; you have to work to hate it out. Elves you don't even have to work to deal with. All the cards in the Faeries decks are good against Elves and good against the field. Not having the information that Elves was going to be good certainly meant that people built their Zoo decks wrong in Berlin. No one had Mogg Fanatic or Seal of Fire in the numbers they needed—some didn't have any. People were playing two-drops and Bant Charm, which doesn't do anything against Elves."

Based on the results from Berlin Luis went looking for another deck that would be well-positioned to win and found himself playing the Swans deck to a 6-0 finish.

Luis Scott-Vargas's Swans

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"I think Elves is certainly a viable deck," said Luis before explaining why he switched from a winning deck to one he had so recently dismissed as unworthy of much playtesting. "Elves worked for Karsten but I felt like it was not as good as it used to be—the field was much more hostile towards it. Swans seemed like it had good matchups for what the field was looking to be in Worlds. I got lucky to beat Fairies but all the non-Fairies matchups did not feel close."

Which meant another deck switch was in the offing. So many players will seemingly stick with the same deck—or very similar decks—throughout a season. It wasn't that long ago that Luis was romantically linked with a certain big, stupid Elephant at every Constructed event he could bring it to.

"I have played Loxodon Hierarch a number of times," laughed Luis of his pre-Berlin relationship. These days he is enjoying playing the field. "I knew I wasn't playing Swans again the day of Worlds. Not because the deck was bad necessarily but because Fairies did so well and Swans just can't beat Faeries realistically. I was expecting there to be a lot of Faeries (in L.A.). It was one of the top decks—I didn't look at the metagame breakdown but think it was one of the top Day Two decks—and everyone I knew who was good was going to play Faeries. I didn't really relish the idea of playing Swans against Faeries over and over again."

Death Cloud11
GRW Zoo9
TEPS – Tendrils8
Swath Storm4
All-In Red4
Next Level Faeries3
Gifts Rock2
RGB Aggro Loam2
Bant Aggro1
BG Bitter Crime1
Blood Cloud1
BRW Martyr-Proc1
GB Loam Dredge Control1
GW Hatorade1
Mono-Green Aggro1
Seismic Swans1
UB Faeries1
UB Tron1
UG Faeries1
Swans of Bryn Argoll

So how did LSV come to play the blue-red storm deck for this past weekend's tournament?

"TEPS goes back to the example of Berlin," he explained. "It was off the radar for most people. I didn't expect most Faeries to have Stifle, and those that did ... Stifle is beatable—Pact of Negation and Gigadrowse both get around it. I didn't expect most decks to prepare a plan against TEPS. We tested against cards like Thoughtseize and Tidehollow Sculler and it was beating those cards. We didn't expect people to go to great lengths to beat TEPS—Trickbind was not a card I was expecting to see very much of. The only person who had it was Asher [Hecht], who was playing the same deck."

Asher Hecht

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While there are no more Extended events on his immediate horizon Luis would predictably move away from his L.A. deck—maybe even come around full circle to the deck that got him started back in Germany.

Mind's Desire

"I think that now that TEPS is no longer any sort of secret, that takes it from being a really, really well-positioned deck to another Tier 1 deck," said Luis. "There were four TEPS decks in the Top 8 of the PTQ on Sunday. That kind of thing is going to make people not only play more hate but play decks which are really tough to beat. I actually played against zero Elves decks in LA, which was pretty lucky. I was counting on Faeries to take care of Elves which I think they did."

I was struck by his use of the term "well-positioned deck." How do you know that a deck people aren't prepared for or playing with is well positioned and not just the wrong deck? Take a White-Blue Tron deck, for example—what would be the difference between that being a deck that just isn't being played for good reasons and being well positioned?

"Paul [Cheon] and I took a vow to never play Tron again so that example doesn't really count," laughed Luis before explaining the basics of deck selection: hard work and some good fortune. "You have to test to have reasons for your belief in a deck. I wrote a report for Star City where I mentioned that Josh Utter-Leyton, one of the guys I tested with for Worlds, basically just convinced me that TEPS was really good before L.A. We played a bunch of games, I played different decks against his TEPS deck and he just kept beating me. I was like, 'Alright, maybe TEPS is really good.' We played even more games and it turned out that it was. There it took him believing in it—though his testing. It is not like he just came to that conclusion out of nowhere—and he convinced me of it. So I was lucky that I had someone come to me with this information where I would not necessarily have discovered it for myself."

Despite all the talk of finding the right deck, Luis still places a premium on comfort when selecting a weapon to battle with.

"Especially this Extended season there are a number of decks that I would consider running and even more decks beyond that which are viable and tier one," said the Los Angeles champion. "You really need to be able to maximize the deck you are playing. If you are not suited to playing Faeries—don't play Faeries."

"Michael Jacob is a perfect example," he illustrated. "The deck he was playing was really good and he was playing it really well. It was the exact kind of deck he likes to play. When he feels like he is backed into playing a deck he doesn't like he is not going to do as well. If it conflicts with his play style he is going to be miserable. It is the same reason I wouldn't play something like Zoo. I have playtested with it enough—a lot actually. It would change my mind if Zoo was exactly the right deck but it never has been—at least not in any of the tournaments I have played in."

Luis wanted to be clear that he was not advocating playing bad decks or ignoring clearly powerful decks in certain situations. The point he was making was that there seemed to be a scrum of Tier 1 decks in Extended right now but if there was one that broke out from the pack with results that were out of line with other decks he would certainly be shuffling the broken deck at the start of Round 1.

2008 U.S. National Champ Michael Jacob took black-green to the GP–L.A. Top 8.

"Let's take Affinity back when it was in Standard," said Luis looking back at a deck that generated Standard bannings. "There was no excuse to not play it even if you didn't like it. That is why it was bad for the game. If you didn't like Affinity you didn't have any good options. It was a big edge that Affinity players had over players who just didn't want to play Affinity. There you don't have as much as a choice."

Going back to something he mentioned earlier, that lack of choice can also be about an informational edge: "Elves—and I liked playing Elves because it was combo and I like that—even if I didn't like the deck it would be hard to excuse not playing it for Berlin."

While "battling" with Asher (a.k.a. sitting there while Asher resolved Mind's Desire and attempted to go off) in the Top 8 Luis had plenty of time for a new deck to catch his eye—or should I say old deck?

"I liked Saul Alvarado's deck because it was the Previous Level Blue deck that Paul won Vancouver with," laughed Luis, although he thinks it could be a serious answer to the Faerie menace in Extended. "I watched his match against Herberholz and Cryptic Command is pretty brutal in the blue mirror. Faeries actually can't counter it except with Mana Leak or some sort of enormous Spellstutter Sprite. He just kept casting Cryptic Command—he was playing four of them—and Mark could not deal with them."

Saul Alvarado's Previous Level Blue

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"If you have the Arashi, the Sky Asunders in the sideboard...." mused Luis about the deck's match-up with Fae. "That was kind of interesting. I don't know how they work. Not like Mark who didn't know how they worked mechanically—I mean I don't know how they play out in the matchup. I haven't played the deck at all but from what I saw there were some distinct advantages. The Cryptic Commands were a pretty big one. Tarmogoyf is pretty sick in the blue mirror now. No one is playing Threads of Disloyalty anymore and Shackles can't usually take him—especially with the eight colorless lands that people play. He can really get in there."

Another deck that Luis was impressed with was the one played by U.S. National Champion to a Top 8 finish in Los Angeles.

Michael Jacob

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"Michael Jacob's 'Death Cloud' deck did seem pretty awesome," said Luis with audible airquotes around the notably missing spell. "He basically put in Bitterblossom, Tarmogoyf, and Umezawa's Jitte and took out the slower Death Cloud, Garruk Wildspeaker, and Ravenous Baloth-type cards. He still had the Life from the Loam / Raven's Crime / cycling lands / Worm Harvest engine so you could still win the late game. Adding Bitterblossoms, Umezawa's Jittes, Tarmogoyfs, and Kitchen Finks made him a lot more aggressive. It seemed like it complemented the deck a lot better. He was actually my only loss. That deck was very impressive."

The topic of conversation turned to the Player of the Year race in 2009 and his chase after Shuhei in 2008.

French pro Olivier Ruel tied with Scott-Vargas for second place in the 2008 Player of the Year race.

"I technically finished second, tied with Olivier, but we were so far behind Shuhei it didn't feel like second," said Luis of his 2008 campaign. Of his chances in 2009: "Sure, it is possible, but I don't currently plan to go to too many foreign Grand Prix. Depending on how things go that could change."

Luis tries to humbly downplay his recent success, but with each event it become more and more apparent that he has ascended to the upper echelon of players—much in the way Guillaume Wafo-Tapa did a couple of years back.

"The biggest change in what I am doing now and what I used to is deck selection. I played some pretty bad decks at Pro Tours in the past," he said of the accolades many Pro Tour observers have heaped on him. "I have improved significantly in that area. Other than that I don't feel like my level of play has shifted dramatically other than that now I am doing so well. Maybe I am catching more breaks or something. People have made the comparison to Kai Budde and I think that is ridiculous. I haven't even come close to doing anything nearly like him. I have won some Grand Prix, and it is cool that it has happened in a short span of time."

"It is kind of self perpetuating in that doing well gives me confidence that what I am doing is right," said Luis, admitting that winning does beget winning when it comes to his attitude toward the game. "Last year going into Berlin I only had 14 points and I wasn't doing things correctly and I tried to look at my game and see what I was doing wrong. It was hard for me to tell. Once you start winning you get more confidence in your decisions. It also helps to have that air of confidence when you are playing against other people. People give you the benefit of the doubt and maybe play a little too defensively against you."

Next up for Luis will be Pro Tour–Kyoto, the first Pro Tour to implement the Limited / Constructed split format. Luis rose to prominence through his performances at U.S. Nationals, making the team in back-to-back years with a captaincy in 2007.

"I guess it will be like Nationals—half and half. I think it is good. It showcases the game better," said Luis, who showed his bias for the 60-card format—at least when it comes to the reporting aspect. "I like reading the Constructed coverage way better."

Firestarter: Deck Selection and Positioning

If you only had the cards to build the three Extended decks that Luis has used over the past few events, which of them would you bring to a PTQ in the next few weeks? What would you bring if you had access to everything? What decks do you think are well positioned to do well in the coming weekends?

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