Metagame Breakdown: Elephant Hunting

Posted in Event Coverage on June 10, 2011

By Nate Price

A longtime member of the Pro Tour and Grand Prix coverage staff, Nate Price now works making beautiful words for all of you lovely people as the community manager for organized play. When not covering events, he lords over the @MagicProTour Twitter account, ruling with an iron fist.

"Tempered Steel."

"Probably Tempered Steel."

"Tempered Steel."

"Is that even a real question? Tempered Steel, obv."

Coming into this event, it seemed that the deck on everyone's minds was the dreaded Tempered Steel, a deck that uses cheap artifact creatures bolstered by war cry and Tempered Steel to defeat opponents before they can set their own game plan up. It had been routinely crushing Magic Online queues and dominating store tournaments when it wasn't busy kicking kittens on the street corner. It was a bad dude, and I don't mean in a rescuing-the-president way.

Tempered Steel7620.88%
Big Red6217.03%
Tezzeret Control4712.91%
RG Con-Troll359.62%
UW Control164.40%
BR Removal143.85%
UB Control143.85%
White Weenie133.57%
Birthing Pod133.57%
Esper Control113.02%
Grand Architect102.75%
Big White71.92%
Bant Control51.37%
GB Control41.10%
GW Aggro30.82%
Grixis Control30.82%
Kuldotha Red10.27%
RW Aggro10.27%
UG Control10.27%
Data compiled by Rashad Miller

Cries had been going out from the Pro community for weeks about how miserable the Scars of Mirrodin Block Constructed format was. If they were to be believed, over a thousand people would be playing the Tempered Steel at the 300-player tournament, and all of them were going to win every game. Clearly, the only way to win in this format was to strap on your kitten-kicking boots and join the mob. It was going to be like Jund combined with Necro with a liberal shpritzing of Affinity on top. It was clearly the elephant in the room, and it wasn't going to be ignored.

Walking into the event hall, I was prepared for the worst. Dressed in full safari gear with an elephant gun across my shoulder, I was ready to slay the mythical beast or die trying. Eager yet wary, I gathered as much courage as I could muster and waited for the signal to begin.

"Attention Pro Tour Nagoya players, welcome to Round 1. You have fifty minutes, you may begin."

This was it. I was in the danger zone. Like a beast in my own right, I shot around the room, doing somersaults and commando crawls for my own safety. I figured this would be the best way to avoid notice. Every so often I'd carefully pop my head up at a table to survey the landscape, always wary of being trampled to death by the Tempered horde. However, for the first few minutes, a glimpse of the beast eluded me. A few more minutes passed. I skillfully avoided notice by constructing camouflage made of opened booster packs. Still, I found myself unable to glimpse so much as a sliver of my prey.

About to lose hope, I finally spied my prey and understood why it had eluded me all along. While I was looking for a massive, savage beast, what I found was a simple, ordinary-sized creature, one that easily escaped my notice.

I should have brought a smaller gun.

It turned out that Tempered Steel only made up just under 21% of the field, which is standard for a deck that most people feel is the "best" deck in an open field. I guess the field was a bit more diverse than people had been complaining all along. Everywhere I looked, I saw different decks, each with their own ways to deal with the Tempered Menace while still remaining competitive against the rest of the field. It was a totally different story from the Affinity Pro Tour, where the anti-Affinity red/green deck was great in that matchup, but terrible against anything else. It was a total rock/paper/scissors format. At first glance, Scars of Mirrodin Block Constructed is fairly open, with variations on eight or so decks running around, bouncing off of one another.

First, you have Mono-red. Their first game against Tempered Steel isn't usually that great. Their removal isn't well suited to dealing with the deck's creatures once a Tempered Steel hits the table. In addition, its greatest strength (its speed) is actually overmatched by that of Tempered Steel. On paper, it looks pretty bad. However after sideboarding (when most of the games in a match take place), it's a different story. Shatter, Oxidda Scrapmelter, Slagstorm, and even Karn Liberated can come in to make the Tempered Steel matchup a completely different story. On top of that, these cards also happen to be decently good against some of the other big decks in the format, like Birthing Pod and Grand Architect. The deck's main strengths, its speed and abundance of removal, are also much better against those other decks, making it a versatile choice for the field.

Oxidda Scrapmelter

Speaking of Birthing Pod, it has spawned a variety of decks here this weekend, from those running green/red cores to black/green to blue/green. The one thing they all have in common is Birthing Pod, a decent chain of creatures that involves Viridian Corrupter, and access to the incredibly powerful Creeping Corrosion either in maindeck or in the sideboard. The Corrosion is basically a Wrath of God against the artifact creature-based Tempered Steel decks. Some of the decks are also running Spine of Ish Sah as a catchall answer, which is very useful for destroying Tempered Steel. Against the rest of the field, the deck is able to do some pretty sick things with Birthing Pod, since they tend to have a bit more time against the field. While Birthing Pod can prove a liability against a field preparing for an artifact-heavy environment, most either don't really seem to have trouble getting the most out of the Pod, or are able to take advantage of their decks great synergies even without it. Phyrexian Metamorph is a key card in the deck, allowing it to deal with any legend in the format, including Urabrask the Hidden and Glissa, the Traitor. It also copies cards like Birthing Pod and the Spine of Ish Sah, allowing some pretty sick little interactions.

While I'm on the topic of the metamorph, I think it's only fair to discuss the Grand Architect archetype. This deck uses the Grand Architect to use all sorts of little artifact creatures and blue creatures to generate absurd amounts of mana, powering out some incredibly expensive cards such as Mindslaver, Wurmcoil Engine, Karn Liberated, Spine of Ish Sah, and Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. The last few in particular are quite good at countering the threat of Tempered Steel, with the Spine and Karn being capable of destroying the Steel, and Elesh Norn able to at least nullify it while bolstering your own squad. Pulling double duty in the deck is the Treasure Mage, who fetches the fancy things to cast as well as working as a mana source for the deck. In case the deck has troubles getting its pieces into place, it is often running some number of Birthing Pods, which allow it to assemble what it needs. Silver Myr become Architects, Gold Myr become Treasure Mages and so on.

Grand Architect
Karn Liberated

One set of decks that have strayed from the Birthing Pod plan are the other blue-based control decks. There are white/blue and blue/black versions of the decks running around, and their respective complement colors give them similar answers to the field. Both the black and white provide basic removal spells, such as Go for the Throat and Dismember in black, while white gives Marrow Shards and Revoke Existence. Both colors also feature their respective planeswalker, with Elspeth Tirel and Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas providing some protection as well as win conditions. The decks both use the Wellsprings to gain card advantage and countermagic to keep offensive spells (like Tempered Steel) at bay. The removal spells keep the bleeding to a minimum while they set up, with white gaining a bit of an advantage since Revoke Existence can remove the Tempered Steel, while black has to rely on removing the creatures, which it is better suited to than the white deck. Ultimately, the decks can win on the backs of either their respective planeswalkers or Karn Liberated. Against the non-Tempered Steel decks in the field, the spells all still have decent targets, though they are a bit dead should two blue-based control decks come across one another.

Ultimately, the giant elephant in the room turned out to be more of a horse or a very large dog, like a Great Dane or something. Maybe like a bear. I dunno. The other decks in the format have proven to be a much better match for the field than most players had originally thought, and a tenuous sort of parity was reached. The decks have found ways to stem the tide, and they didn't need to sacrifice play against each other to do so. It seems that the players' fears, while understandable, weren't as necessary as they thought they were. And fortunately, it also meant that they could leave the puppy kicking shoes at home. Because no one likes a puppy kicker.

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