The Other Side of the Maze

Posted in Event Coverage on May 17, 2013

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.

One of the defining characteristics of any Block Constructed format is the limited card pool. This constraint has some important impacts on what the decks in the field look like. There are often multiple decks that bleed into one another, similar to the way that Selesnya, Golgari, and Junk decks have a significant amount of overlap in terms of cards they play. Just as obvious as the cards that the decks play are the cards that are absent from the fabric of constructed. Thragtusk and Restoration Angel are nothing more than therapy-warranting repressed memories. Used sorceries and instants will remain un-Snapcastered. The unkillable Falkenrath Aristocrat has shed its clothing to reveal that it was actually an Ætherling in disguise. With their passing, other cards that were previously hiding in the alleyways, desperately trying to avoid notice, are finally free to slink out of the shadows and return to the sun's warm embrace.

Sure, some of the cards that are going through a renaissance right now are experiencing it solely due to the reduced card pool. You don't play Foundry Street Denizen when you can play Stromkirk Noble. Gatecreeper Vine is a poor man's Farseek. These cards are simply not played when there are strict upgrades available. Other cards, however, were kept in seclusion due to environmental pressures. Things just weren't quite right for them to have an impact. With some of these pressures removed, cards that had once been relegated to trade binders are now making their way into maindecks.

One of the best deckbuilders in the history of Magic, let alone Block Constructed, is Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz. I sat with him to discuss some of the rediscovered gems of Return to Ravnica Block Constructed.

Jace, Architect of Thought

Jace has never been a bad card. Seriously, not one card with the type "Planeswalker - Jace" has ever been a bad card. Yet the newest Jace, Architect of Thought, has seen much less play than the others. Despite this, the Architect has clearly proven himself to be one of the strongest, most feared cards in Return to Ravnica Block Constructed. It would not surprise me in the slightest if we crunch the numbers after the Pro Tour and I hear that there were more than 400 copies of him registered for the Pro Tour. He was that omnipresent.

Much of his resurgence has to do with the abscence of a few key cards.

"Probably the biggest reason why Jace is better than he was before is the lack of Nephalia Drownyard," Mowshowitz explained. "Nephalia Drownyard actively discouraged players from trying to cast spells against one another, instead forcing them to focus on hitting a Nephalia Drownyard and simply milling opponents out. The player that played the first Nephalia Drownyard or more Nephalia Drownyards won. There was no reason to play anything else. With it gone, people have to go back to relying on spells to win the match, and Jace is one of the best for that."

Mowshowitz went on to talk about another importance between Standard and Block constructed: the absence of value.

"There are less ways to gain an advantage over players in Block Constructed."

Standard had cards like Thragtusk, Restoration Angel, and Snapcaster Mage to allow players to do get multiple powerful effects for a minimal investment. They were card-advantage city. In Block Constructed, there isn't anything nearly on their level other than Sphinx's Revelation and Jace. The margins are much closer.

"RIght now, Jace is the only really good way to get ahead," he continued. "If you manage to stick a Jace on turn four, activate it and grab a pair of cards, and your opponent is forced to cast their Jace to kill yours, you've gotten way ahead. It's also important that if you play him fairly early, there isn't anything really bad that can happen."

Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz explains how the value of Jace at this event comes from Block Constructed not having as many ways for players to gain an edge. Jace is one of the few cards that puts you miles ahead if you're able to play it early and gain some cards off of its -2 effect.

Jace gets a little worse as the game gets longer, as another major threat begins to take center stage: Ætherling. In fact, the dynamic between Ætherling and Jace is one of the most interesting things moving forward.

"Before, the card you cared the most about stopping against control decks was Sphinx's Revelation," Mowshowitz went on to explain. "Now, there are two different battles to worry about, and which one you choose depends on a number of factors. Do you want to stop Jace or Ætherling. There will be games where your opponent lands Ætherling without much else and the you have a bunch of cards in hand. Let's play Magic. That happened against EFro yesterday, and he almost managed to beat my Ætherling with his handful of cards."

One final point Mowshowitz made about Jace is that he happens to be good against the premier aggressive deck in the format right now.

"Mono-Red is the biggest aggro deck in the field right now, and giving Jace plus one loyalty is a real thing. In Standard, the average creature is so big that it doesn't even care about that ability. They can just ignore Jace and kill you through him."

Upon viewing the differences between Standard and Block Constructed, it is clear that a few conditions are going to have to be met in future Standard for Jace to continue to enjoy the success he is currently experiencing. First, there can't be an overabundance of better ways to gain an advantage, as the infernal trio of Snapcaster Mage, Thragtusk, and Restoration Angel were able to provide before. Second, control decks have to actually care about casting spells in order to win. This is incredibly important if Maze's End Control really begins to take off in Standard. Finally, he has to be good against the preeminent aggressive decks in the format. If the creatures care about having their power reduced, Jace's power goes up correspondingly. If not, he's just a minor annoyance on a path to victory.

Psychic Strike

"Psychic Strike is just another Cancel that is easier to cast in Block Constructed."

This is Mowshowitz's one sentence description about Strike's place in Constructed. Still, it's a sentence that says a lot. One of the trademarks of Standard for the past year has been how incredibly easy the mana has become. Ten shock lands from Return to Ravnica Block plus the dual lands from Magic 2013 would have been good enough on their own, but cards like Farseek and the ridiculous amount of card drawing available made playing four colors, as in Kessig Wolf Run Bant, or getting greedy on mana costs, such as Esper and it's Planar Cleansing/Dissipate/Nephalia Drownyard requirements, was not only commonplace, but a winning strategy.

Things aren't that easy in Block Constructed. The card drawing is generally worse or more expensive, as are the land-searching spells. Guildgates are a substitute for the M13 lands, but they are often worse. Players can afford to be less greedy with the mana costs of their spells, and their mana bases need to be more generalized, making it easier to afford a spell of two colors as opposed to Cancel or Dissipate. This is especially true when you consider the spells worth fighting over. Ætherling, Sphinx's Revelation, and Jace all require double blue themselves. Getting to the quad blue required to cast both is a joke. It gets even worse when you toss in Dispel for good measure.

Another important feature of Psychic Strike is the absence of Snapcaster Mage. The counterspell it replaces in many decks is Dissipate, which actively prevented spells from hitting the graveyard, where they were easy bait for Snapcaster Mage. Milling a control or reanimator opponent when you weren't en route to winning the game often actively helped them in Standard.

In block, milling is only really an advantage for the decks featuring Varolz, the Scar-Striped. Other than him, the mill can potentially hit game-winning cards, a not-insignificant fact. Players tend to be running a few difficult, if not impossible, to remove threats in their control decks, and removing them can break a game open.

"The mill is certainly a factor on this card," Mowshowitz told me. "Not only do you get to counter the spell, but you might hit an Ætherling or a Maze's End and effectively win the game outright."

As we move forward, keep an eye on what mana fixing and other draw-smoothing effect we are presented with as we transition into Standard. If levels ever reach those of this most recent Standard, there may be less pressure to play an easier to cast counterspell. Another important thing to watch is how decks use the graveyard. If cards like Obzedat's Aid or Varolz really begin to take over the landscape, milling might not be as desirable an effect. However if decks are instead relying on using a small number of difficult to handle threats to win the game, such as Maze's End, the mill from Psychic Strike might be the ideal answer.

Merciless Eviction

With Supreme Verdict playing such a major role in Block Constructed, I was surprised to see Merciless Eviction popping up, especially since it was virtually nonexistent in Standard.

Mowshowitz broke it down into two basic reasons for me.

"The biggest reason that decks were running Planar Cleansing over it in Standard is because of the power level of planeswalkers in that format," he explained. "You often have to clear the board, but you don't want to leave a planeswalker behind. Eviction can't do that. Another important thing is the ways that people are using to get around Supreme Verdict. There are a lot of players relying on regeneration or indestructability to survive Verdict, and those don't help against Eviction."

If Planar Cleansing makes a repeat appearance in Magic 2014, keep an eye on the power levels of cards like Ral Zarek and Jace, Architect of Thought. If Jace continues to appear alongside Blood Baron of Vizkopa and Precinct Captain, don't be surprised if Eviction once again takes a back seat. If Varolz and his Golgari army, or Boros Charm and Rootborn Defenses become more commonplace, Eviction might be the perfect addition to your arsenal.

Lotleth Troll

Lotleth Troll was one of the cards I was saddest to see sitting on the sidelines for much of Standard. He made brief appearances in Kibler's Golgari deck, Edel's aggressive Jund deck, and even in Junk Reanimator, but he often evaporated as quickly as he appeared.

He appeared to have it all. He could fight unfairly with Thragtusk, a must in Standard. He could trample over blockers like Snapcaster Mage, Doomed Traveler, and Cartel Aristocrat. He could become obscenely large to race with the biggest of haymakers. He could survive Supreme Verdict. Things seemed perfect.

But they never really coalesced.

"Lotleth Troll never really found a good home," Mowshowitz said, reflecting on the progression of Standard. "Kibler managed to make him work, but there were just too many things standing in his way. He gets considerably better in decks with more creatures, but no deck like that able to support him ever showed up. This Block Golgari deck is ideal for him."

In Block Constructed, Golgari Aggro surrounds him with a menagerie of other creatures, a perfect environment for Varolz, the Scar-Striped, and Experiment One, as well. With Thragtusk and Restoration Angel out of the picture, attacking is no longer as scary as it once was, making creatures much better than they used to be.

When people start to gear up for Standard, Lotleth Troll is one of the cards that builders are going to have to consider when they set up their gauntlets. As long as the primary removal spell in the format is Supreme Verdict, Lotleth Troll will be good. As long as there isn't some pressure to avoid playing creatures to accompany him, Lotleth Troll will be good. I can't see this really changing anytime in the near future, so I assume that he will become a fixture as we progress into the new Standard.

Precinct Captain

This was certainly the most surprising card for me this weekend, though the texture of Block Constructed shouldn't have left me bewildered. Precinct Captain is very good against two-toughness creatures like those in Mono-Red Aggro. He's also very good at snowballing against control decks if he can come down early enough. He's a one man army that doesn't require a large investment to get a large effect, and there is virtually no drawback to simply plopping him into play on turn two.

What he isn't good against is creatures that can beat up a 2/2 first striker, such as a certain 5/3 Beast or 3/4 flying Angel. He also isn't good when the format dictates that cheap, single-target removal spells are better than board sweepers. As you'll notice, this is the exact state of Standard until recently.

"One of the biggest things standing in the Captain's way is the prevalence of midrange decks in Standard," Mowshowitz continued. "When the format revolves around big fourth-turn plays, as it did in Standard, there isn't much room for the two- or three-drops to survive. They get pushed out of the format."

Those overpowered four- and five-drop creatures of Standard, the Falkenrath Aristocrats, Huntmaster of the Fells, and, yes, Thragtusks, don't really exist right now. The midrange threats are cards like Advent of the Wurm, Blood Baron of Vizkopa, and Trostani, Selesnya's Voice. While these cards are all very powerful, they lack the inherent resilience of Standard's big dogs. As long as creatures are as "fair" as they are in Block Constructed (except Ætherling), Precinct Captain isn't in as much danger of being shoved out of the field as he was in Standard. In addition, as long as Mono-Red Aggro and control strategies like those we're seeing in Block Constructed continue to be strong in future Standard, it wouldn't surpirse me if Precinct Captain had a nice home in a maindeck or sideboard.

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