What a Difference a Grand Prix Makes!

Posted in Feature on March 6, 2008

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

Afterlast week's results from Grand Prix–Vancouver—as is often the case with mid-season premier event shakeups—it's like we have a whole new metagame! Blue-green geniuses Paul Cheon and Ben Lundquist—as well as TEPS elimination round participants Marc Bonnefoy and Aaron Paquette—have seemingly re-written the status quo of the 2008 Extended PTQ season, unhorsing the format's previous leaders and cluttering the top positions with both new and rediscovered decks. Likewise, last year's best deck has finally scored another blue envelope, while 2008's resident bad guy has made sure no one can let go of the fact that they just might not be around come turn two or three. Our roller coaster of explosive opening hands and ponderous Darigaaz-colored midrange control decks has come, now, to this:

Blue-Green 'Tron
Previous Level Blue
Assault / Loam
Mono-Red Burn
Flow Rock
Beasts Rock
Death Cloud
Red Deck Wins
Enduring Ideal
Domain Zoo
Green-White 'Wisp
Next Level Blue
Other Crusher decks
Standstill / Ninjas
Barra Rock
Gruul Aggro
Gifts Rock

King of the Mountain: Blue-Green ‘Tron

Tim Landale

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Brian Moss

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The only deck to score multiple North American blue envelope wins this week was Blue-Green ‘Tron. Ben Lundquist's innovations have helped to catapult the ‘Tron strategy (which via a myriad of blue-white and to a lesser extent blue-green decks was probably the second most decorated deck last year) back to the top of the metagame.

You know that this deck is all about big mana, often rolling high on the Fortuna's dice to pick up a natural set of Urza's Mine, Urza's Power Plant, and Urza's Tower in order to power down Mindslaver or one of the big creature threats "too" early in the game; and Moment's Peace is actually better than Wrath of God out of the blue-white versions in today's competitive landscape due to the speed of Dredge and the possibility of lucky Dredge activations with Life from the Loam. Have you figured this one out yet?


Tolaria West
You can lay down a second turn Simic Signet (or a Chome Mox anywhere in the span of the first three turns) to set up a third-turn Gifts Ungiven. You can procure as many as all three (missing) ‘Tron pieces and Life from the Loam to get the degeneracy started (it doesn't matter where the opponent positions which cards). In addition, consider these points of flexibility:

Tolaria West can be a little slow, but it can not only complete the ‘Tron, but can acquire the singleton Academy Ruinsor the singleton Tormod's Crypt. Consider the synergy between Tolaria West as a conditional Demonic Tutor and the fact that it constantly reloads with Life from the Loam. You can pick up the Crypt on turn three for quick Dredge defense (whew!), then set up an inevitable game state position with Academy Ruins... while still drawing multiple cards per turn with Lonely Sandbar and any lands that you incidentally Dredge yourself (whoa!). In a ‘Tron mirror? That Ghost Quarter can be awfully attractive at breaking down the opponent's mana engine or setting up your own Academy Ruins lock. Remember, dredge (the mechanic, in this deck, rather than the opposing deck itself) actually functions as additional card selection when you pair a threat like Platinum Angel or Sundering Titan with an active Academy Ruins (you get to control your topdeck), and the Ruins makes it impossible for you to run out of cards... especially when you have a Mindslaver ever ready for the next excruciating (for your opponent!) turn.

Fast Kill Combo Decks: Dredge and TEPS

Joining the format's most hated archetype in the fast combo winner's circle is longtime Extended powerhouse TEPS (The Extended Perfect Storm). TEPS has been overshadowed by the similarly structured "one card combo" deck Enduring Ideal for most of the season, but multiple Top 8s at GP–Vancouver have catapulted the deck Hall of Famer Raphael Levy once called "the best deck [he] had ever played" back into popularity, prominance, and a fair slew of blue and white Top 8 boxes.

One of the questions that I ask when a deck like this returns to blue envelope contention given a radical format shift towards the faster combo deck Dredge and a horrendous two-mana "get out of jail free" card like Gaddock Teeg is how the archetype can move to adapt. An answer I really liked came from Iowa Top 8 player Christian Griffith's look at the deck:

Christian Griffith

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Gaddock Teeg
Now it's obvious that pretty much any TEPS deck can Burning Wish for Pyroclasm and get rid of Gaddock Teeg that way. Remember that when Gaddock Teeg is in play, there will be no Mind's Desire nor lethal Tendrils of Agony.... No matter how many other pieces you have falling into place, you can't even declare those four-plus mana cards; you have to get rid of the little Kithkin Advisor or go home sobbing about how your overpowered combo deck lost to lowly Green-White. Griffith borrowed from certain early-format Enduring Ideal players and added Fire to his list. This is a card with multiple points of articulation. His version can already support the for Ponder.... Why not a poor "Impulse" that also buys a little time or taps down a blue opponent's critical Counterspell mana? For that matter, why not get a little crazy and tap down Sensei's Divining Top itself at the end of the Counterbalance opponent's turn? Ice digs a little while defending a little, defending by making the next attack at least remotely possible. The Fire side is exceedingly significant when we consider Gaddock Teeg. Two mana for 2 damage from a card that does not demand of TEPS any specific opportunity cost (the deck still gets the poor deck selection from the split card's equal and opposite). While not perfect at any one thing, the celebrated Apocalypse instant demands almost nothing to include but can make the difference in a number of widely varying pressure situations.

Mechanically, this deck does what it has always done: Produce mana with Lotus Bloom, Seething Song, and so on while simultaneously jacking the storm count in anticipation of a big Mind's Desire or just one of the kill cards (usually Tendrils of Agony); Empty the Warrens is there as a backup kill card, especially important now that the world has bent to such an odd place that there are True Believers (once again) peppering the white creature deck lists.

Yesterday (???) Better Than Tomorrow? Previous Level Blue in New York

My poor wife! I have been out of it and all over the country the past couple of weeks. I spent last week in Las Vegas, made it back to New York for a smidgen of the weekend, and am putting the finishing touches on this article from an Acela train motoring down the East Coast from Boston. Despite having my choice of PTQs in Sin City or the Big Apple, I missed both, and must confess that I recognize hardly any of the names in the hometown Top 8. Like I said, out of it. I have to check in with the Innovator, actually. He has been a stalwart supporter of his templated baby, Next Level Blue, for most of the present PTQ season, coming off a Week One finals finish and numerous PTQ wins along the way for those who came after...

But now we have this crazy alternate look at many of the same cards that Pat chose for his Next Level Blue, in a deck that has seemingly removed the most uniquely powerful and compelling part of the deck (the Counterbalance set) for such strangely positioned tools as Rude Awakening, Ancestral Vision, and Tsabo's Decree!

Robert Seder

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I'm sure my old pal—and now Magic Online Brand Manager—Worth Wollpert is in love with this deck. I would not be surprised if he magicked up little digital party hats and little digital cupcakes to be distributed amongst his former peers in Magic R&D upon the occasion of Paul Cheon's win at the Grand Prix. (Eventual) longtime pro Wollpert won his first individual Constructed PTQ with a hodgepodge mashup of like three different decks and like... I think it was just cards he liked! Worth's deck was all Erhnam Djinns, Howling Mines, Armageddons, Stormbinds, Lightning Bolts, and—believe it or not—three main-deck Storm Seekers! He sided in the fourth in just about every matchup.

Back in 1996 I didn't really understand Worth's deck. I had read enough on the Internet to know that there were Erhnam and Burn'em (green-red attack) and ErhnamGeddon (green-white Land Tax) decks, and that his deck was somehow both while qualifying as neither. It was unfocused and ugly, all Mishra's Factory and City of Brass and why would you want to help the other guy draw cards anyway, Worth? I didn't see then how many pistons he had firing, how many different game plans he was capable of undertaking simultaneously, or perhaps more importantly, how many fights he was capable of winning, even on the opponent's terms, when the opponent may not have even understood that he was knee-deep in fistfight.

Previous Level Blue is like that; it eschews the comfort and conditional Right Hand of Doom represented by Counterbalance / Top in order to fight more different battles while shifting the opponent's ability to predict or understand the context under which the games may or will be played. That, and it has more pure Counterspell power and doesn't necessarily falter late game just because the opponent is presenting fives and sevens instead of an endless string of twos. Consider further that many Previous Level Blue games look just like Next Level Blue games in the early turns. Divining Top, check. Tarmogoyf, check. Ancestral Vision? I don't know who this scrub is.... I guess if he doesn't want to draw three cards for a few turns that's up to him, but thanks. Third Cryptic Command? Didn't see that one coming.... He must have an old list. Whew. Finally. Stupid blue mage! Got this one under control.

Rude Awakening!?!


Rude Awakening

I can't say I was playing around that... GG sir.

The versatility this deck brings in sideboarded games is quite wonderful, from the long celebrated Ancient Grudge to those Tsabo's Decrees just now regaining their long forgotten popularity. Previous Level Blue seems like one of those decks that has come out of nowhere to win the hearts of the people; I expect it to continue to produce appropriately blue envelopes for the next couple of weeks.

Loam Again? and Other Countryside Crushers

One of the big winners coming out of Morningtide is last year's best Extended PTQ deck, Assault / Loam. We haven't seen all the thunder that this favorite is capable of recapturing quite yet, but it put up a PTQ win this week... in what would have been a terrible example for what I am trying to say. So instead, check out Damyan Brunson's Quarterfinals Assault / Loam deck from Las Vegas:

Damyan Brunson

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Loam was always "good" and at certain points last year was getting the "best deck" treatment from a number of top rated Constructed players. Earlier this season it sort of fell by the wayside due to the speed of the format, specifically out of contenders like Dredge or Cephalid Breakfast capable of winning in the first two turns of the game with some amount of regularity (Loam tends to be strongest after turn four, after it has had a chance to do a little shuffling and usually after a couple of shifting sideboard shenanigans). The presence of a "fast" Counterbalance deck like Next Level Blue was more trouble for Loam... If it didn't get the game on post haste, any two on top of the deck was going to be all kinds of hell.


Countryside Crusher
However, in recent weeks, a couple of players have made redundant their Terravores with Countryside Crushers (something we talked about way back when we previewed that card). What difference does this hybridization make?

It's simple: speed.

Loam isn't technically much faster than it was before. It also isn't any slower (it can in fact play for the same long game advantage via Life from the Loam, leveraging extra cards with cycling lands or just Seismic Assault). However, the deck has at least twice as many third- or fourth-turn "I win" openings. You will notice that this trend (as well as phenomena like multiple Mono-Red Burn Top 8s a few weeks ago, or now a Mono-Red Burn win this week) has coincided with decreased performance out of middle-turn favorites like Death Cloud. Many decks simply can't fight on the terms dictated by the most extreme draws that these decks are capable of presenting.

Look at Loam. It has always had the ability to go for first-turn Birds of Paradise, second-turn Terravore, and third-turn Burning Wish for Devastating Dreams (or just having that lethal Devastating Dreams), then dumping grip to go all-in with a giant Lhurgoyf... It's just that with Countryside Crusher in the mix, the dramatic "Armageddon" opening can occur twice as often, catching the opponent unawares with twice the regularity, and obviating the need to go for an attrition-based midgame before setting up this sequence. The opponent will often be tapped out for something ineffectual, or even something that might be a gigantic pain in the Assault, like a Vedalken Shackles. Maybe he's tapped for Counterbalance but doesn't have the mana (or Top) to do any damage with it yet.... Countryside Crusher gives this strategy twice as many opportunities to gamble early and set up a de facto "win" even if the game itself will not conclude for another three swings of the Giant slash Lhurgoyf.

I mean this isn't 2002. He isn't going to have an Innocent Blood, and even if he has a Smother, you're likely to recover faster—even relentlessly—thanks to Life from the Loam.

Ken Adams

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From the other side of the "what Countryside Crusher has apparently made possible" spectrum is Ken Adams's synergistic Izzet deck. Ken has quietly become one of the most significant deck designers in the United States over the past eighteen or so months, starting with Solar Pox right before Champs 2006, racking up a fair number of PTQ Top 8s while traveling to local events held at far flung cities with the diligence of a young Dave Price.


Greater Gargadon
I don't know what to say about this deck besides that it completely annihilated my friend Osyp Lebedowicz at the New Jersey PTQ two weeks ago and that, according to Ken (during his ill-fated Top 8 match), his deck isn't very good against Enduring Ideal.

The on-paper synergies are pretty obvious... Greater Gargadon and Mogg War Marshal; Greater Gargadon and Epochrasite; Greater Gargadon and Sower of Temptation (and prefarably whatever Sower sowed); ditto on Threads of Disloyalty. The light counters of this deck, combined with its ability to control tempo with Fire // Ice give it the ability to leverage a slight early game edge into tremendous forward motion via either a fast Gargadon or a fast Crusher.

That's what it looks like on paper, anyway.

I was studying some advanced writing, marketing, and psychology techniques in Las Vegas last week, and one of the seminar attendees asked the wise and venerable trainer how he knew that a piece of direct mail was any good—that is, worth adapting to a new market: Simple, he said. Either I know it was written by somebody who puts out good work consistently, or it has [mailed] multiple times; the guys making those decisions are not stupid. For the purposes of our community, Ken and his multiple blue-red Top 8 finishes could fall under either half of the umbrella, and his strange looking blue-red Crusher deck seems to be one of those rare and roguish gems of the PTQ season.

Say "Go" Like It's 2002: Standstill in Hawaii

One of my favorite recent sub-plots of the current season is the application of Standstill, with and without Ninjas.

Earlier this season I talked about a PTQ finalist deck that ran a "man land" / Standstill / Ninja of the Deep Hours game plan, and even toyed around with similar strategies myself (I was nothing less than ensorcelled by the notion of Trinket Mage finding Shuriken, then reseting it with Mistblade Shinobi or some similar). It is very interesting to see the divergent paths that this strategy has taken in the subsequent weeks, alternately down the "more Ninjas" route with Higure, the Still Wind or down the "no Ninjas whatsoever" route, playing for pure Landstill.

Both deck styles appeared in the most recent Hawaii PTQ Top 8:

Keoni Davey

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Keoni Davey's deck has eight "man lands" working in concert with his Standstills... and at the same time seems to be Some Kind of Level Blue. He has the Trinket Mage package of some style of Next Level Blue, and the Cryptic Commands and numerous sideboard cards we would associate with Previous Level Blue... while actually embracing neither style completely.

Michael Ching

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Mothdust Changeling
Michael Ching on the other hand has pushed Faeries, Ninjas, and Wizards all at the same time! I guess it's not hard with Mothdust Changeling as one of your early evaders.

This is more of a Faeries deck than we saw previously, with Cloud Sprite and Mothdust Changeling helping to supplement the conditionally backbreaking Spellstutter Sprite.

This is also more of a Ninja deck, adding big daddy Higure, the Still Wind as an additional card advantage generating threat (but relegating Mistblade Shinobi to the sideboard, I fear the deck runs the risk of falling behind on the board against a "real" creature deck, Standstill or no).

With Riptide Laboroatory still in the mana mix, this deck can still break Enduring Ideals back with Venser, Shaper Savant, or load and reload the Trinket Mage (or other stuff, like, I don't know, blocking a Jitte-carrying Troll Ascetic with the lowly Mothdust Changeling, then running a "Gotcha!" moment of sheer and unadulterated frustration).

Don't discount that quad pack of Echoing Truths against Dredge! They're not perfect, but they're not "nothing" either. I actually have problems trying to imagine a deck that is more fun to play.

Just Because: Scab-Clan Mauler in Florida

All season we have been applying RDW / Red Deck Wins to... well... almost anything that resembled some version of Red Deck Wins at some point in the past. Grim Lavamancers? Are there Vindicates and Gaea's Mights too? No? Join the club. Blistering Firecats? Obviously! Reckless Charges? Um... sure? With Onslaught and Ravnica duals, Kird Ape and Tarmogoyf joined the ranks of "red" cards (and it really wasn't that much of a stretch for Kird Ape!).... Why not open up the floor to Quirion Dryad?

Well this week, I decided to draw the line at Mark Herberholz signature, Scab-Clan Mauler. Take a look at John Bueno, Jr.'s Gruul Aggro:

John Bueno, Jr.

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I am always a little wary about playing twenty lands, but otherwise, this is exactly the kind of deck I love. Fast, capable of getting in the driver's seat and staying there, capable of romping all over a mana-screwed big spell deck, capable of burning the opponent out from a medium life total. Last, but most attractive to me: (semi-)transformative sideboard.

The great Hall of Famer and red deck innovator Tsuyoshi Fujita once joked to me about all the PTQ players taking Pillage out of his red-white beatdown deck (and here we have Bueno inserting at least a couple of them back in). Don't they know how many free wins they get when the opponent is mana-screwed? Never, never, give up the free wins.

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