This is one of the richest, most intriguing Block Constructed formats in a very long time. With access to incredibly powerful cards, an abundance of incredible lands, and a number of well-supported "build around me" cards, Theros Block Constructed is a far more wide open field than many of us would have ever expected. As diverse as the card pool appears to allow builders and brewers to be, there are a few restrictions that it places on them as well, limitations that warp the format and draw a divisive line between the decks that have a chance from those that don't.
"I think a lot of people might have tricked themselves this tournament," Brad Nelson began. "Preparing for this event, it was really easy to come up with a suboptimal version of a deck that others might have perfected and write it off. They may have made their deck well, but when you do it with incorrect assumptions, it skews the deck. It's easy to be inbred in your testing.
We tested a lot to come to our deck. We figured that everyone would at least be able to figure out that this was a viable deck for the format, but we think we have a better build and sideboard than most people would come up with. I think it's the best deck in the field, but it's possible that I'm wrong. It's one of those decks that's going to be either fifty percent of the field, or it's going to be like Tempered Steel, where it's the best deck in the room, but no one knows it."
At first glance, it appears that the deck might actually be somewhere in between. Nelson is playing the R/G Elspeth deck that merges the majority of the shell of R/G Monsters with Elspeth, Sun's Champion and Banishing Light. The deck is the most played deck in the field, though it is nowhere near the fifty percent-mark that Nelson figured. Nor is it clear that it is definitely the best deck in the room, as was the consensus for Tempered Steel. While this may change as we progress towards the Top 8, it appears at this point that the deck is one of the eight or so very good decks played by a large portion of the field.
"Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix are the best cards in the format," Josh Utter-Leyton explained, "because the mana just isn't that great. They block the early creatures of the aggressive decks and help ramp up and over them. The fact that the aggressive decks are going to need to be able to deal with these cards really warps the format. You can't just play a bunch of 1/1s and swarm people, because those decks will just lose. The only other way to go is to use bestow to go over the top of their toughness, but this leaves the decks vulnerable to black removal spells.
I think black-green is the place to be right now. It lets you have the great mana you want, the defensive cards to slow down the little aggressive decks, and the spot removal to deal with the bigger decks. There are other decks that are pretty decent, such as W/U Heroic and Red Aggro, but I would rather be the deck that lets me just play better cards."
Patrick Chapin echoed Utter-Leyton's sentiment about the mana being less than ideal despite the presence of the temples and Mana Confluence.
"Personally, I wouldn't play any deck in the format that doesn't have Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix," Chapin explained. "The mana in this format is so bad that you absolutely need the fixing that these cards offer in order to function. It's not that the lands can't produce the colors. You have access to all of the Temples and Mana Confluence, it's the casting cost of the spells that does you in. The majority of the most powerful cards in the format require double mana to cast, and they're spread across multiple colors. To make matters worse, the difference in power level between the cards that are exceptional and the tier just underneath that is immense. So in order to play the most powerful cards in the format, you have to accept the fact that your mana is going to be less than desirable.
You also gain a great deal of power by being a three-color deck as opposed to a two-color one. Having more Temples not only helps your mana, but it helps your draws because of the extra scry cards. Unfortunately, it also means that you're playing more lands that come into play tapped. Against the really aggressive decks, this leaves you really vulnerable. Caryatid and Courser not only help the mana, but they play excellent defense against these decks as well."
It is no surprise based on these opinions that three of the five most played decks were three colors: R/G Elspeth, Junk Constellation, and BUG Control. Also common to these decks is that all-important duo of Caryatid and Courser. As Chapin and Utter-Leyton were quick to point out, these cards are essential to not only help fix mana and ensure the ability to play the other incredibly powerful spells in this format, but they also provide excellent defense against the aggressive decks that have been so prominent on Magic Online leading up to the Pro Tour. This is especially poignant considering that the other two decks of the top five most-played decks happen to be Black Aggro and W/U Heroic, which Utter-Leyton described as the best aggressive decks in the format. Chapin's fellow Hall of Famer Raphael Levy also recognized the power of these decks and how they force the format to be able to slow them down in order to be successful.
"You need to play a deck that doesn't lose to the Red Aggro and Black Aggro decks that are definitely going to be in the field," Levy cautioned. "You also need to be able to beat all of the midrange green decks. You don't really need to worry about control, because there aren't any real control decks in the field. If you can find cards that help you achieve both of those goals, that's where you should start looking for things to build. A lot of people looked at cards like Sylvan Caryatid to do that. Being able to block the early aggressive creatures but help play larger threats goes a long way.
We looked at Esper as a starting point, but realized that the deck just wasn't really that good early on. In order to play the deck, you need to play 26 or so lands, but there aren't any good ways to use your mana if you flood out without Celestial Colonnade or Sphinx's Revelation. If you're going to play that many lands in the deck, you need to make sure that they do something. Once we moved to just blue-black, we realized that Springleaf Drum could effectively be our lands 22-26. When we combined it with cards like Pain Seer, Daring Thief, and King Macar, the Gold-Cursed, we just got an incredible amount of advantage. Not only that, but it provides value to a lot of the cards that we play to make our early game better against the aggressive decks. To beat the 'unbeatable' cards like Elspeth, Sun's Champion, and Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, we've got Prognostic Sphinx. It's almost impossible to kill, lets you control your draws, and is a great way to kill those planeswalkers.
The one major drawback to Sphinx is that there aren't really any decks in the format that can play it to its maximum potential. It doesn't really work well with Eidolon of Blossoms or in W/U Heroic decks, so most of the other reasonable decks playing blue can't play the Sphinx. In our deck, though, it's the perfect card and the perfect way to finish the game off."
Levy's U/B Inspire deck is a bit of a departure from the green-based strategies championed by Utter-Leyton and Chapin. Still, his deck adheres to the tenets that all three of them have laid out. Omenspeakers and a slew of black removal stop the early rush. Daring Thief and Macar are great against the green midrange strategies. Springleaf Drum is an utter all-star, enabling the numerous inspired creatures, all while fixing the less-than-stellar mana available to the U/B deck. Hero's Downfall kills Elspeth. It's an ideal example of a deck that achieves everything you need to do to be successful in a manner that most opponents won't see coming.
In the end, understanding what needs to be done is what really matters, as long as you can find a way to do it. Levy did it his way, Chapin did it another, but both hit on the same basic tenets.
"The first thing you have to take into account is that Elspeth, Sun's Champion, is the most powerful card in the format," Chapin said. "If you don't have a deck that can either beat an active Elspeth or kill them before she becomes relevant, you shouldn't be playing it. You also have to take into account that the aggressive Black decks were the most popular decks on Magic Online, so you have to find a way to survive the early rush against those decks. On the other side, you have to also be able to kill the important planeswalkers. Last, your deck has to be able to both kill Agent of Fates and survive Prognostic Sphinx. If you leave them alone, they will utterly shred any deck in the format. If you can find a way to do all of these things in one deck, you've got yourself a winner."