Thirst for Knowledge: Looking Forward, Looking Back
By Chris Jobin on April 9th, 2009 · Filed in Thirst for Knowledge, Standard (Type 2), Extended (Type 1.x) · Comments not available just now
Well, it's all over. Last weekend marked the end of the Extended season for me, and the season officially ends in just two weeks for everyone else. I had a good run this year, though I still don't have a blue envelope to show for it all. The PTQ circuit can be grueling, especially here in the Midwest, but I think it becomes more and more believable each year that I really will make it to the Pro Tour someday. I guess this just wasn't my season, just like last year's wasn't. On the other hand, I played and placed much better this season than last year, so I suppose that means I'm working in the right direction.
So, you're probably wondering how my last PTQ went. I ended up playing the same Faeries list from my last article (card for card) because I felt it was still the best deck in the format. I was awake, confident, and ready to grind into the Top 8 and take a shot at the envelope. Still, when my first opponent spent his first turn plopping down a Wooded Foothills and searching up a Stomping Ground, my insides turned. The first game went drastically in his favor, but game two was much different. I was in control of the game for most of it, and the turn before I swung for lethal I Cliqued him to make sure the coast was clear. I turned my guys sideways the next turn, and he responded with Volcanic Fallout. It was almost as if someone were out to get me. Someone was trying to punish me for playing Islands, and I was a dog to them. When my opponent asked me "is that okay?" when he played the uncounterable instant, I almost punched him in the face. I guess there really isn't any justice.
But, alas, it's done now. Another Extended season come and gone. I'll admit that I actually really enjoyed this season as opposed to past ones, though maybe that was just because I played Faeries the entire time. I suppose when you play the best deck all season, it really helps you to enjoy playing the format, yeah? Speaking of "the best deck," though, let's rewind a few months and reflect on what was supposed to be "the best deck": Elves. After Pro Tour-Berlin, everyone expected Wizards to ban the key cards of Elves, which would help to balance the format (which was clearly dense with the new Elf deck). Funny, isn't it, that such a collective prediction about a deck could be so wrong? I mean, everyone thought that the deck would destroy Extended. The consensus was "play Elves or play a deck that beats it." However, just a short while later, Worlds showed us that the deck was far from unbeatable, and that Faeries was very much a contender.
It is occurrences like this that make me laugh each and every year. One of the best things about Extended is how quickly people pronounce one deck "the best" and how rapidly the metagame shifts. The format is ever-changing, much different than Standard, and new archetypes pop up all season long. The peculiar thing, though, is how the decks at the end of the season look compared to the beginning. Take for example the Faerie lists from Worlds, when compared to Sam Black's list from the end:
...yeah, that's almost scary. I was talking with a good friend of mine (Ryan Wall) and we were discussing how strange Extended is. We spend all season shifting the numbers in our lists and trying new cards out, but in the end we always end up where we started. And, well, the two lists I just presented are a great example of that. While the lists are obviously slightly different, it's easy to see that the similarities are astounding. We all stopped playing Chrome Mox and Vedalken Shackles for a while, but eventually came back to them both. The numbers of Venser waned at one point, but we ended up playing more of those than we initially were. Threads of Disloyalty also made a comeback towards the end of the season, as did Teferi. It's just an odd cycle that comes and goes each year, I guess. Can we take advantage of this? Or do we have to accept that it's mostly just a result of metagaming?
Another thing Ryan and I talked about was the fact that the aggro decks (e.g. Naya Zoo) took the entire season to up their curves to dodge Spell Snare, when they could have started playing Woolly Thoctar ages ago and solved their issue with blue decks far sooner. Better still is the resurgence of decks like TEPS which got dismissed early in the season only to make a huge comeback and take a large event. Are these twists and turns exciting? Of course. Are they kind of annoying? Yeah, just a bit. The fact is, these types of radical changes are less metagame-oriented than they really should be. The emergence of the Bant deck, for example, is based on the metagame: it was designed to prey on the aggressive decks and punish the Faeries players by running out powerful equipment early and playing dudes like Troll Ascetic. But the Faerie deck reverting back to the same builds that made the deck popular in the first place? Kind of absurd, don't you think? I mean, when Faeries played more black for Damnation and whatnot, one would think that the deck would have a stronger match-up with the Zoo decks, but in the end the "basically" mono-blue version proved better in that regard. It's this particular observation that leads me to believe that maybe we can skip over these "beating around the bush" segments of the season and begin with the optimal lists right from the get-go. How do we do it, though? I'm not entirely sure, and it's driving me crazy. Maybe it's just a matter of "getting it right the first time," and then not "fixing what isn't broke" from there on out. But how do we differentiate "improving the deck" from "taking a step in the wrong direction?"
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that we can't tell the difference. I know I just spent a whole paragraph pointing out the awkward ways that Extended manages to repeat itself, but I'm not so sure that there is a way to manipulate it. I imagine that if there were we'd have come up with a method by now. After all, we all know that decks change for a reason. The Elf deck became less popular, and thus the Zoo decks increased in numbers. In turn, Faeries played black and such for sweep effects, and some began playing Tarmogoyf to go toe-to-toe with the aggro players. I can talk all day about how much I want to cut out this "middle step," but maybe I'm just getting ahead of myself. I suppose it's just a side effect of playing more Standard than any other format: I naturally want things to be consistent. I want the best decks to remain the best decks, and I want the optimal lists to remain the optimal lists. This isn't to say that I don't like metagaming, but I'd say that I just find it hard to swallow the fact that the metagame will never remain constant during an Extended PTQ season like it will during a Standard one. It is for reasons like this that I'm so excited to be jumping back into Standard again for the upcoming PTQ season.
But before I get into Standard, I'd like to talk a bit about what's to become of the Extended format. This fall marks the end of the fetchlands in the format, and I think that this will cause possibly the biggest shift in the format ever. I mean, blue decks can no longer just splash green for Tarmogoyf. The aggro decks can't just play twelve fetchlands. Things will change drastically, and there's absolutely no denying that. Extended will slow down tremendously, and the decks in it will become significantly weaker. I think we'll see a bit more variation in the decklists, though, as the inability to give any deck the answers it needs will cause many archetypes to lose power and allow the weaker ones to step up. The rotation of Onslaught block means that Dragonstorm will once again become the combo deck of choice (since Elves will also be obsolete) in the event that Lark or even Heartbeat don't take off, and Faeries might just revert to its Standard UB roots (the loss of Riptide Laboratory will mean that the deck will need a source of card advantage, and that means it'll need Bitterblossom). The Naya Zoo deck will still be a force, as it will simply become a powered-up version of the Ravnica Zoo deck (ala Craig Jones). Decks like Bant will remain, albeit with weaker manabases, and Affinity will still be rearing its ugly head. I think a few of the decks from Standard (most notably RDW) will make appearances next year, and Tron might become Tier 1 again. In the end, however, it's all just guesswork: there are quite a few sets coming out between now and then, and it's pretty futile to try and get a handle on a metagame that we can't possibly predict. Still, not thinking about the sweeping changes to Extended season would be an error, I believe, since there are so many to consider. I mean, we're talking about a format where Vedalken Shackles might not be viable anymore! I can't begin to explain how much that pains me. I mean, that's a card that specifically rewards you for playing Islands! And I really like Islands.
No longer the best blue creature?
In any case, I suppose my point is that Extended is a format that rewards preparedness. Those who think ahead and build their decks one step ahead of the metagame come out on top. Brewing ideas now for a format that may be drastically different might sound odd, but I feel like even ideas for decks without the new cards from the rest of 2009 might still be worth something come time for Worlds. If we start building on concepts based on what we know now, the things we learn will fall into place later and help us to construct better decks. I know I'm already thinking about Extended for next year, and I urge you all to do the same. Preparing a tad more than you have to is never a bad thing, right?
Regionals here in Michigan is in the middle of May, and that's only a month away at this point. I really wasn't too crazy about the Standard format until the SCG 5K two weeks ago, but now I'm a lot more excited and ready to sling some spells with a smaller cardpool. Standard, unlike Extended, rewards consistency and optimal construction of decklists over innovation and creativity. Now, I realize that that might put off some, but it's essentially the truth: in Standard, the "neat" ideas that people come up with usually don't stack up to the best decks because the best decks are so finely-tuned that there's not much breathing room for other archetypes. In Extended, there are so many cards and ways to play those cards that you really have the freedom to create any kind of monster that you want, and that's a liberty that you just don't have in Standard.
I like to innovate as much as the next guy, but a deck like Faeries stifles all the creativity that one could put forth in the current format. That isn't to say that I think Faeries is broken or anything, but rather that it's good enough to be "the best deck" and be undisputed in that right. When a deck is strong enough and tuned enough in Standard, it's hard to dethrone it. I like that aspect of this format; I like that I can build an optimal list and pilot it for long periods of time without having to completely shift how the deck functions. This isn't because I'm incapable of adapting, nor is it because I think it's hard to play a deck in a different fashion. Rather, I simply like the feeling of piloting the best list I can build in multiple PTQs in a row. This allows you to build familiarity with your deck and also to bolster your confidence and playskill with that specific list. It leaves you more room for mastery as opposed to just overall "good play." I can preach all that I want about much I love Extended, but Standard really is my best format. I operate best when behind the wheel of a self-tuned, powerful decklist that I have kept with for a prolonged period of time. I suppose that's just how I function.
Still the undisputed king of Standard.
In light of all that, I guess it's fitting that I present a list that I'm considering for my Regionals tournament. And, as you might guess, the deck I'm likely going to play with is Faeries. It seems like that whenever I get an IM from someone asking me what deck they should play at their FNM based on the popular decks at their store, I have been answering "Faeries" more and more. This isn't just some blue-based bias that I'm displaying, either - I just really feel like there is no better choice for Standard right now than Faeries. It can run over Five Color, crushes RW Lark, has the best shot at taking down BW Tokens, and does very well against all the Tier 2 decks aside from Blightning (which really isn't that bad, by the way). Furthermore, it will always remain the most consistent deck in the format. Remember just a moment ago when I talked about how I loved having a consistent deck that would never fail me? Faeries is that deck. I know that, regardless of what Alara Reborn brings, my Faeries list will likely remain the same. I may have to readjust the removal suite in the deck to accommodate for new threats and whatnot, but the deck itself will play almost the same maindeck. When a deck can operate that smoothly, that should set off some kind of alarm in your head or something. I mean, I'm playing the same deck I was last February when Morningtide was released, aside from Ancestral Vision and Rune Snag. So, to put it in perspective, I've been mastering Faeries for over a year now. See why I love this format so much? I know the deck and its cards inside out, and that's because the deck (and the format) have stayed so consistent.
In any case, here's the deck I plan to use to challenge Brian Arnoldy with for the Regional Champion title:
After I wrote up this list, I looked it over and couldn't help but smile. It's truly beautiful, isn't it? It's like a carbon copy of the old Faerie lists from the Time Spiral days, except a few cards are replaced with some similar cards (Ancestral Vision became Jace Beleren and Thoughtseize, etc). I'm even back to just playing four copies of Terror maindeck! I decided to go back to Scion of Oona because I want my Bitterblossoms to be more effective against the mirror and BW, and that's basically all the reasoning I have behind that change. I still have Vendilion Cliques for the Five Color match-up, and plenty of removal after sideboarding. Overall I feel like this list is a sort of catch-all that can tangle with just about anything that comes its way. And, once again, it's absolutely consistent. I love that.
I know, I know. "Chris, stop talking about Faeries." To be honest, this article isn't about Faeries. It's about my impressions of what Extended is all about, and how this particular season went. It's about the reasons why Standard is good, and why I like it so much. Faeries, however, just so happened to make a good example in both cases, which I'm sure is understandable given the context. Next week I fully intent to talk about a deck that has no Islands, and maybe even the week after that. There's a ton to discuss when it comes to Standard, and I'll waste no time in the coming weeks delving into those topics. This week was a bit awkward for me because it's the crossover week where I have to jump from one format into a totally different one. Neither format is all that relevant at this stage in the game, so I thought I'd offer some insight into both. To be frank, I just wanted to convey my personal thoughts on this past Extended season, and then give you all a place to start for Standard. I'd love to hear your own thoughts on the Extended season in the forums, so be sure to leave a comment or two offering them up.
Most of all, though, start thinking about Standard. Take my advice: find a deck that you're familiar with, and test the heck out of it. Master it. Perfect it. Create a list you think is optimal and believe in it. That isn't to say that you shouldn't metagame and change it when necessary, but forge a strong build and maintain its strength. This will not only allow you to play the deck better and more efficiently, but also become a stronger player. Rather than putting off any and all testing for Regionals and the PTQ season until Alara Reborn is released, get out there and start testing now. Learn the current decks and match-ups inside and out. This will help you to understand and better predict what new cards will affect what decks and will give you an edge when heading into events. This is the "getting ahead of the meta" thing that I mentioned earlier. Every bit of testing counts! This is the first time in a long while that we've had a Standard PTQ season, so this format matters more this year than it has in a while. With that in mind, you'd all better get started!
While I get the feeling that this particular article may be long-winded, I hope you got something profound out of it. It's a bit more abstract that my articles usually are, and it is a tad light on cold, hard content than you're probably used to from me, but I actually liked how it all turned out. Well, considering it was a transition article in the first place, that is. If you enjoyed any part of this article, please let me know in the forums. I'd like to strengthen the parts of my writing that readers enjoy and cut out the portions that aren't that good. I want to grow as a writer, and I need feedback to do that. As always, thanks for reading!
Until next time,
Chris "Shinjutsei" Jobin
By Chris Jobin on April 9th, 2009 · Filed in Thirst for Knowledge, Standard (Type 2), Extended (Type 1.x) · Comments not available just now