Brian Kibler on the IBC Metagame

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By Brian Kibler

For the past several months, players around the world have discussed in hushed whispers the "tech" of Invasion Block Constructed, hoping that they could uncover something that no one else could - some secret formula with the title of "Pro Tour Champion" as the final product. It's a grueling and time consuming process, to be sure, but in the end, for one fortunate individual, every moment is worth it. I'm going to attempt to give you a glimpse into what that process looked like for me in my playtesting with the "Jumble," and eclectic group of pros including the likes of Jon Finkel, Ben Rubin, Dan and Steve OMS, Billy Jensen, Matt Linde, and others. I hope you can use this insight to better understand the coverage you're reading this weekend - and I hope I can use it for something a bit grander than that.

Invasion Block Constructed, or IBC, has proven to be a complicated web of guesswork and metagaming. While previous Block Constructed Pro Tours have all had clearly defined powerful archetypes (such as in last year's PT New York, often referred to by Pro Players simply as "PT Lin Sivvi"), the powerful decks for IBC are not nearly so clear. The plethora of mana fixers in the form of dual lands and similar cards makes two, three, four, and even five color decks a real possibility, but even examining all of the possible color combinations doesn't offer a satisfactory understanding of what each deck will actually look like. In my "decks" directory on my computer, I quite probably have upwards of forty files starting with the suffix "IBC," and ending in everything from "grattack" to "ubrcontrol" to "uwmidgame." The possibilities offered by this sort of variety are both refreshing and frustrating to the serious deckbuilder, as without a clearly defined metagame it becomes extremely difficult to design a successful deck for any environment.

tsabos decree

One must begin, then, at the beginning. Identifying the powerful cards in a block format is not always easy - especially when one must separate the cards that are powerful in the format with those that are powerful outside of it, due to their interactions with cards in other sets. Some examples of this can be seen in Tsabo's Web and Tsabo's Decree, both extremely powerful in the Standard environment, but far less effective in IBC due to the lack of powerful nonbasic lands such as Rishadan Port and the dearth of decks that rely on a particular creature type, like Rebels. There are, in fact, many other such cards, which I will identify in the particular deck sections below. Thus, identifying the powerful cards of IBC is not as simple as looking at other constructed formats and seeing what is played. Where, then, can one start? During the Mercadian Masques block qualifier season, many players compared the top decks in the environment to "really good draft decks". Barring extremely powerful rares, this is often a good first place to look for Block Constructed success.

Interestingly, this maxim seems to hold at least somewhat true for IBC, even when one takes into account the rares in the format. From what few strategy articles about block have appeared online, it is clear that many players are infatuated with the powerful cards black, red, and blue have to offer. While in limited these cards are things like Magma Burst and Agonizing Demise, in constructed players have access to the even bigger guns like Void and Skizzik, although some common threads exist, such as the ubiquity of Flametongue Kavu, Terminate, and Probe. The sheer power of these cards cannot be denied - they are some of the most efficient creatures and removal in the entire block. The only question is how one ought to put them together to construct a successful deck.

The incarnations of the Black/Red color combination are perhaps the most varied of all of the two color combos in the set. There are the cards available for a powerful control deck, but also for beatdown and aggro-control. What archetype one chooses - and what particular card choices one makes within that archetype - must take into account both the power and efficiency of those cards themselves as well as the other powerful cards in the format, and what other players are likely to use in their own decks. Because of the confusion surrounding the metagame of IBC, this isn't a simple proposition, but with that in mind, here are some possible decklists from the various B/R archetypes.

BR Control

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BR Aggro

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BR Aggro-Control

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Sorcery (8)
4 Ghitu Fire 4 Void
Instant (8)
4 Terminate 4 Urza's Rage
Land (24)
10 Mountain 10 Swamp 4 Urborg Volcano
59 Cards

The advantages and disadvantages of each of these designs depends upon both the archetypes and specific cards your opponents decide to play. In general, BR designs tend to perform well against creature-based decks due to the plethora of removal available in those colors. Even the most aggressive BR strategies utilize a tremendous amount of removal in the form of direct damage both to remove opposing creatures and to burn an opponent out when his or her life total dips low enough from Shivan Zombie and Vicious Kavu attacks. The other common cards in these designs are generally (as can be seen) Nightscape Familiar, Skizzik, Blazing Specter, and Void. Many players see Void as the most defining card of the format, and for good reason. Void's ability to both clear the board and decimate a player's hand makes it a powerful tool against any deck, regardless of its contents. Cards that would otherwise present an enormous problem for BR, such as Crusading Knight and Questing Phelddagrif, instead become mere annoyances, to be swept away (along with any other four casting cost cards in their controller's hand) at a moment's notice. No other card influences IBC deck design so much, as creature decks are forced to stagger their casting costs simply to avoid being Voided out of the tournament.

If the existence of Void alone weren't argument enough to play a deck with both swamps and mountains, the support spells in the color combination are nothing short of amazing. Nightscape Familiar stands to be perhaps the most commonly played card in Tokyo, as its allied color medallion ability speeds up both aggressive and control decks alike. Blazing Specter, if not immediately destroyed, wrecks havoc on the opponent's hand, punishing slow or removal-light decks. Skizzik is the fastest finisher around, ending games in short order if hits even once. Last, but certainly not least, is Invasion's Fireball, Ghitu Fire, or "Haduken" (as many Pro Tour regulars have come to calling it, after the fireball move in the popular video game Street Fighter). Doubling as both removal and a potent finisher, Ghitu Fire's ability to take down anything from a Familiar to a Dragon as well as burn a hole directly in the opponent's skull makes it impossible to ignore.

ghitu fire

Even with all of these powerful cards, however, BR decks nonetheless possess a number of glaring holes. Most noticeable is, as always, their inability to deal with enchantments and artifacts. While there are scarcely any artifacts in IBC worth playing, and certainly nothing quite so devastating as Saproling Burst in the way of enchantments, this vulnerability remains an issue. Both Yawgmoth's Agenda and Collective Restraint are cards that can completely swing the tide of a game if they are not removed, thus almost necessitating the inclusion of some way to deal with them. Planeshift's Thunderscape Battlemage, a powerful card for B/R to begin with, offers a green kicker that can remove enchantments, allowing a RB deck the potential to splash a few green sources (as can be seen in the first list) in order to deal with problematic enchantments. Such a splash can be quite problematic for more aggressive designs, however, as too many comes-into-play-tapped lands can slow down an attack considerably, as can dragon lairs drawn at the wrong point in your mana curve. Such strategies are often better off simply hoping they can reduce their opponent's life total to zero with creatures and direct damage before problematic enchantments can become an issue.

Rather than splashing for enchantment removal, another way to get the use out of powerful BR cards without having to worry about being unable to stop Agendas and Collective Restraints is to add another color entirely. Suggested by internet writer Sean McKeown in his short series on IBC as perhaps the most powerful deck in the format, UBR certainly has access to a number of tremendously powerful cards, as well as answers to essentially ever threat the format is capable of producing. A decklist for UBR control may look something like the following:

UBR control

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Creature (3)
3 Pyre Zombie
Sorcery (10)
2 Ghitu Fire 4 Probe 4 Void
Enchantment (2)
2 Yawgmoth's Agenda
Other (4)
4 Spite/Malice
60 Cards

With Void backed up by early removal, card drawing, and Yawgmoth's Agenda, it seems that UBR has everything a player might be able to ask for in a deck. Terminates, Recoils, Urza's Rages, and Ghitu Fires stabilize the board early, while Fact or Fiction, Probe, and Pyre Zombie provide late game staying power. What more could you want? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is consistency. While extremely powerful, a three color design including early game spells in all three colors (including doubles of many) stands to lose many games to itself simply due to drawing the wrong land and spells together. The sheer quantity of CIP tapped lands along with the dragons lairs the deck is forced to play to get all of these colors can occasionally slow the deck down to a crawl, and any stall of this sort can be devastating against aggressive creature decks.

void

Despite these shortcomings, the sheer power of UBR stands give it a strong following in the Pro Tour. A single deck with so many of the best cards in the format is hard to ignore, especially when one considers the sideboard options available in all three colors. Lobotomy, Disrupt, and Gainsay are all extremely powerful options against other control decks, while Slay and Flametongue Kavu help to shore up the holes against aggressive creature decks while providing card advantage at the same time. While it has no specific glaring holes of its own, in a tournament the length of a Pro Tour, a deck with such a fragile mana base stands to lose to itself more often than is to be desired.

Or it could lose to this deck, which many players have looked to as an answer to the powerful control cards available in the environment. The sheer amount of fast damage available, including the uncounterable Urza's Rage, compounded with the lack of life gain in the popular colors of control decks, makes playing a deck designed to do nothing but reduce the opponent's life total to zero as soon as possible a very attractive option.

GR Control Killer

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Fast and straightforward, this deck does nothing but kill, kill, kill. With twelve two drops that either speed up the rest of the deck or have some form of self protection and eleven haste creatures, it rarely takes long for an inactive opponent to get into range of a Ghitu Fire or Urza's Rage. Overabundance both fuels the deck's direct damage, allowing for enormous Ghitu Fires and kicked Urza's Rages with few lands in play, and can also lock down opposing control decks under its Manabarbs effect.

The particular design of this deck, of course, is vulnerable to strategies against which its quick kill plan isn't effective. Opposing creature decks, especially other base green creature decks, are a particular problem, as the control-killer's Blurred Mongooses, Raging Kavus, and Kavu Runners look tiny next to Jade Leeches, Noble Panthers, and Shivan Wurms, and Overabundance's Mana Flare effect can often come back to haunt you. Sideboarded Slays can certainly darken your day, although they are not as painful for you as they are against other base green decks, as a large number of your creatures are either non-green or untargetable.

A less focused anti-control GR deck may look something like this:

GR Aggro

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jade leech
Kavu Titans and Jade Leeches give this deck considerably more staying power than its control-killer counterpart, but the reduction in haste creatures slows down the deck's clock considerably. Like anything else, this version of GR is a metagame call, one clearly aimed at winning in creature matchups rather than against creature-light control decks. Flametongue Kavu and Thornscape Battlemage provide card advantage and a tremendous amount of tempo in these matchups. When combined with the gating ability (not to mention 7/7 body) of Shivan Wurm after sideboarding, clearly dominate a creature battle.

This deck is considerably more vulnerable to the game stalling tactics of the format's control decks, however, as it isn't nearly as fast as the control killer deck. It can still punish an opponent for slow draws, however, and in an unknown metagame may be a superior choice, even though it has a especially rough matchup against removal-heavy BR decks in particular. Regardless, fast creatures have a knack of winning games regardless of what the opponent is playing, and fast creatures backed up with removal and fat can often be all it takes.

When it comes to fat creatures, it's hard to find anything that compares with the sheer size of Invasion's Dragon Legends. Even with this writer's distinct bias to the contrary, it is clear that the most powerful of the dragons for block construct is none other than Dromar the Banisher. Unkillable by the ubiquitous Spite/Malice, Dromar's activated ability is clearly a notch above those offered by the other dragons in this creature heavy format, and with the powerful support spells available in the Black/Blue/White color combination, the Banisher can serve as the basis for a potent deck.

UBW Control - "Go-mar"

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Sorcery (5)
2 Lobotomy 3 Rout
Artifact (4)
4 Star Compass
Enchantment (2)
2 Teferi's Moat
Other (4)
2 Dromar the Banisher 2 Spite/Malice
60 Cards

With more hard counters available to it than can be found in any other popular archetype, Dromar-Go (or "Go-Mar", as termed by New York's Eric Kesselman) has powerful resources against control decks as well as the obvious Routs, Teferi's Moats, and Excludes to decimate creature strategies. The lifegain and -2/-2 abilities of Dromar's Charm come into play in these matchups a great deal, giving the deck a tremendous amount of breathing room in the face of quick haste creature and direct damage based attacks.

The vulnerabilities of this deck, much like its UBR cousin, center around its mana base and the high casting cost of its spells. With so many multicolor and double color casting cost cards, it is entirely conceivable that the deck gets draws with land and spells which simply don't offer a single play. Fast attack decks, like Green/Red and Black/Red, can take advantage of this vulnerability and punish the UBW player with quick damage. When the Dromar deck taps out to Rout, haste creatures such as Raging Kavu and Skizzik can make sure they stay behind. In this way, the Dromar deck is almost always forced to play catch-up to gain control, but when it does, between the deck's counterspells and life gain, it rarely gives it up.

One of the decks many players have been discussing and in many cases altering their decks to beat is a design centered around the Invasion "Domain" mechanic. This deck abuses the overpowered effects of the domain cards when one has five land types in play, most notably using Collective Restraint and Global Ruin to lock down the opponent's attack. The win conditions of these decks vary widely, spanning from large creatures - including Draco! - to Ordered Migration to recursive Tribal Flames and Exotic Disease with Restock.

Domain

Download Arena Decklist
Artifact (4)
4 Star Compass
Enchantment (4)
4 Collective Restraint
Land (23)
10 Forest 6 Island 1 Mountain 5 Plains 1 Swamp
Other (3)
3 Spite/Malice
60 Cards

Domain decks are capable of perhaps the most impressive wins in IBC, but pay for this power in consistency. Domain suffers from the problem of losing to itself in the sense that sometimes its complicated mana base provides entirely unplayable draws. The deck is also capable of simply folding in the face of a creature assault if its considerable deck manipulation doesn't provide it with a Collective Restraint or Rout, and control decks have the potential to give it fits. While the deck has a great deal of card drawing and a number of extremely potent threats in Global Ruin and Ordered Migration, along with Spite/Malice to either force through spells or counter key problems such as Void, the dearth of actual threats and vulnerability to cards such as Lobotomy makes control decks - particularly Black/Blue control decks - an extremely problematic matchup.

collective restraint
Despite this, Domain decks - particularly Domain decks tuned to beat control - stand to be a powerful contender in this tournament. Their ability to nearly automatically win against certain decks given reasonable draws - particularly given expectations that these decks (Red/Green and Black/Red) will define the metagame of the Pro Tour - is an enormous point in Domain's favor. Expect to see a number of these decks in the hands of players trying to beat the metagame, and don't be surprised if they make it to the top tables.

A number of other strategies will see play in the Pro Tour, with U/B, G/W, and U/W metagame decks among them, but these seem to be the front-runners in the minds of most players on the eve of the Pro Tour. Even now many players are scrambling for last-minute tech, finalizing their sideboarding decisions and - in some cases - even choosing an entirely new deck to play. I must myself confess to being guilty of this - as of the writing of this article, I have yet to decide exactly what deck I am going to play, and even went so far as to start testing an entirely new version of one of my top decks just last night. By the time you're reading this, however, myself and all of the other three hundred-odd competitors will be locked into our final decisions. All we can do now is hope that we were right.

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