Attacking Block

Posted in Feature on May 16, 2007

By Frank Karsten

Hello and welcome back to Online Tech! This week we'll take a further look at Time Spiral Block Constructed. While everyone seems to be caught up in breaking the Protean Hulk plus Flash combo for the upcoming Legacy Grand Prix, it might be easy to overlook that there is another Grand Prix next weekend as well. It is held in a Strasbourg—a central location in Europe, so I would expect a huge turnout—and the format is Block Constructed (without Future Sight). So today I will give you the latest information on the online metagame of that format, and then I will offer some rogue decks ideas for those of you who like creative combos.

First, let's check out the decks that have risen to the Time Spiral Block Premier Event Top 8s in the last two weeks. I didn't get all the events of the week of April 30 since my laptop died (fortunately it's fixed again). But we did have a huge 4x Premier Event last weekend to make up for that, and I included the Top 16 of that event in my metagame calculations as well (I gave those decks the same amount of points as a 5th-8th place deck would get).

Deck namePopularityChange since last week
1. U/B/w(/r) Control■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■ (19%)-2%
2. G/R/b(/u) Big Mana■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■ (14%)4%
3. White Weenie■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■ (11%)-1%
4. R/g Aggro■■■■■ ■■■■■ (10%)+6% (!!!)
5. R/G Scryb&Force■■■■■ ■■■■ (9%)-2%
6. U/b Pickles■■■■■ ■■■ (8%)2%
7. Mono-Blue Control■■■■■ ■■■ (8%)-12% (!!!)
8. Red Deck Wins■■■■■ ■■ (7%)-1%
9. U/G Shifter■■■■■ ■ (6%)+6% (!!!)
10. B/R/u Control■■■■ (4%)1%

These results echo the Top 8 of Pro Tour–Yokohama fairly well. A blue control deck is the winner; green decks with lots of mana also do well, and then you have some red burn decks and a couple others. The biggest metagame changes are the decline of Mono-Blue Control and the rise of R/g Aggro.

Furthermore, we have a newcomer in U/G Shifter. This is a version from one of the Top 8 finishers.

UG Pickles

Download Arena Decklist

This deck plays morphs like Fathom Seer, Brine Elemental, and Thelonite Hermit and runs four copies of Vesuvan Shapeshifter to re-use their unmorphing abilities. Copying Thelonite Hermits with Vesuvan Shapeshifter is certainly good times. The deck also has Cancel, Mystic Snake, and Riftwing Cloudskate to control the opponent's actions. Furthermore, it runs Search for Tomorrow, Wall of Roots, and even Weatherseed Totem to still the deck's mana hunger. Note that the deck eschews Spectral Force and Aeon Chronicler; according to Stan all cards in the current deck are just better, and I have always trusted his deckbuilding skills.

A random cool part of this deck is the singleton Pendelhaven. You might think that it's in there to boost Thelonite Hermits. I actually think that there is an even better use that will come up more often: pumping morphs against White Weenie. Let me explain. White Weenie always runs 4 Knight of the Holy Nimbus and sometimes Benalish Cavalry as well. Imagine they attack with one of those and you have an untapped morph and a Pendelhaven in play. You can block, let the flanking resolve, and then turn your 1/1 into a 2/3 afterwards, eating up that Benalish Cavalry. It's remarkable how often I've seen White Weenie players overlook that Pendelhaven potential. While I'm at the topic of lands, I am happy to see that this deck doesn't play a land in the sideboard for a change. So many decks in this format have at least one land in the board, it's unreal. It could be an extra Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth (to bring in together with extra Tendrils of Corruption), a Vesuva (to destroy opponent's Urborgs so that they can't Tendrils for a lot), a basic land for a splash color (along with cards of that color in the sideboard), a Gemstone Caverns (to bring in only when you're going second), or even simply an extra basic land for no apparent reason (other than that it's good versus land destruction decks). This format is quite unique in this respect.

Vesuvan Shapeshifter
But I digress, back to the U/G Shifter deck. Technically this deck is not new. It had been around since the very beginning (before Planar Chaos was even released), but no one played it once the Pro Tour in Yokohama rolled around. I think that an important reason for its return is the fact that White Weenie is not dominating anymore. White Weenie is definitely a bad matchup for this deck, because it always throws out cheap evasive creatures that you often can't answer in time. You can come up with all kinds of "techy" sideboard cards, like Aether Web (offering a surprise answer versus flyers and Soltari Priest) or Penumbra Spider (pretty solid in this metagame actually; also fends off Damnation). Or just forget about these crazy draft commons and run the powerful Serrated Arrows and Snapback instead, like Stan does. Anyhow, even with half of the sideboard dedicated to White Weenie, green decks still can't beat them. Fortunately, most other decks keep the amount of Serra Avengers in check, so U/G Shifter can compete now. But I don't believe it is the best possible deck choice.

Now, what would be the best deck nowadays? How about we try to understand the metagame better first by reducing the number of deck categories in the metagame table, thereby narrowing it down to:

I would think—and many other pros agree—that a U/B/w(/r) Control deck is the best in this field, probably a combination of Wafo-Tapa's and Herberholz's decks from the Pro Tour. Just keep in mind that this deck is pretty hard to play optimally, so you need some practice and experience before you might start winning. And there is another limitation: round time. Whereas this is not a significant constraining factor on Magic Online (so for the online tournaments I would recommend U/B/w(/r) Control), it might keep me from playing U/B/w(/r) Control in Strasbourg next weekend. If you get paired against another control deck, I think it will be pretty hard to finish three games in 50 minutes, and I am scared of draws. So is there another good deck choice? I considered the B/R/u control deck that I ran to a tenth-place finish in the Pro Tour, but it also has some problems. First off there is the same round time issue, and I also expect a hostile metagame. The amount of green and red decks is rising, and those are pretty bad matchups for B/R/u control.

Icatian Javelineers
That still leaves a bunch of other deck options, and so far I'm leaning towards a White Weenie build without Icatian Javelineers (not enough impact on the game, and it dies to Sulfur Elemental) and instead more solid threats like Opal Guardian (should be good versus Red Deck Wins). I think that White Weenie can position itself well in a metagame where many players run green decks and there won't be so much hate anymore. Then again, green big mana decks can also be good, red burn decks are still potent as well, or maybe I will go for U/B/w(/r) Control after all and suck up some draws. I'm frankly not sure yet, and I will try to find a deck this week that I like and that I feel comfortable with playing for many rounds.

I don't want to talk too much about these top tier decks, though. A lot has been written on them already. I can refer you to Mike Flores's review of the Pro Tour–Yokohama Top 8 decks or Brian David-Marshall's article with relevant deck tech video links if you want to learn more about these decks. Instead of rehashing what has been written already, I will go over some of the more under-the-radar strategies that are out there. This has been inspired by an email from Willie Noveck:

"I was wondering if you could talk a little about metagame evaluation. For example, in last week's column, you talked about the interactions between the top 3 decks, but neglected to mention the other 17 making up the top 20. The decks you mentioned make up only 46% of the online metagame, so even if I created the ultimate Dralnu-Heezy-Storm hozer, I would potentially be in trouble if I ran into any other decks. When choosing a deck for a metagame, do you tend to a) look at what does well against the best decks b) what does well against the entire metagame (if such a deck exists) or c) pick whichever of the most popular decks you are most comfortable with? Another related question: what do you think about the next level of decks, the ones that show up, and put up some numbers, but never seem to be the top tier decks? Decks like Dredge, Panda Connection, Fader and Zoo seem to hang out just under the top 10, never rising to glory, but never dying either. Are these good decks that are being ignored? Or are they suboptimal choices that can occasionally succeed by getting good matchups in a tournament?"

Thanks for your questions, Willie. The problem with looking at all the top 20 decks is that it's easy to loose track of what is going on, since that is such a huge amount of complex information. It's easier to focus on just the best decks. Then, afterwards, when you have settled on a deck, you can tune the sideboard to have options versus the less popular "other" decks as well. The underlying assumption is that a tuned deck that can take on the top tier decks should also stand a good chance (~50%) against the rest of the field. Due to similarities between opposing decks, you are likely to perform well against Zoo if your deck can beat R/G Aggro and you are likely to beat Mono Blue Pickles if your deck crushes Dralnu du Louvre. When choosing a deck for a metagame, I usually try to find a way to beat the "best" decks while at the same time searching for a strategy that I feel comfortable playing (in my case, I have a preference for combo or control). Testing against the entire metagame of 50 decks is just not feasible; no one has time to play that many games.

The next level of decks often just lack the raw power and synergy that decks like Dragonstorm can exhibit. Mostly they are suboptimal choices that can occasionally succeed if a metagame drifts towards a favorable one. However, note that they are not substantially worse than the "best" decks overall. In my mind, I feel that Dralnu has 53% against the field in the hands of an average player, whereas decks like Panda Connection have 47% of the field when played by that same average player. A main reason why these decks are still being played is that not everyone is this average player. People look for decks that match their playing styles. Imagine you do not understand how to play decks with counterspells, while you love playing with black discard spells. In that case, you should ignore average percentages and look at your own expectations. Personally you might have a better chance of winning with Panda Connection than Dralnu. This is why I always try to show new tech and various deck strategies, so that everyone can find a deck he likes.

Now let's apply this to Block Constructed. There are tons of beatdown decks, control decks, and all kinds of mid-range variants in between. There is one thing missing in this equation: combo decks. Today I'll try to fill that void to some extent for those of you who like original decks. I do not think that these decks are going to break the format and win your next tournament unopposed. However, they are competitive and they might just be what combo lovers need.


Download Arena Decklist

The above version is a deck I made and playtested a couple weeks before the Pro Tour; the only difference is that I added Void in the sideboard. This was inspired by Adam Barnett, who ran a very similar deck with Void in the Pro Tour (but lost to me), and I liked that part of the deck. His decklist is included in the Top 50 decklists that are available here, in case you're interested, although I still prefer my Dragonstorm version, mainly because it is more focused on the combo.

I figured that if the Dragonstorm combo is so strong in Standard, it should be at least decent in Block as well. The basic tools are there: Lotus Bloom, Dragonstorm, and Bogardan Hellkite. You can replace Seething Song and Rite of Flame to a certain extent with Search for Tomorrow, Wall of Roots, and Prismatic Lens. This doesn't have the same explosive power and it's a bit slower, but you can still get up to nine mana fairly easily. And don't forget that if you happen to have ten mana, you can play Wall of Roots or Prismatic Lens, use them for mana, and then play a Dragonstorm for two. Aeon Chronicler and Harmonize dig for cards and can get you closer to drawing a Dragonstorm, just like Telling Time and Sleight of Hand in Standard. Furthermore, these suspend cards also count towards your storm count. It is certainly a trimmed down version, but that is to be expected of Block Constructed.

I remember I tested this deck against a gauntlet of White Weenie, U/B Teferi Control, and G/R Big Mana (admittedly, early versions of those, a couple weeks before the Pro Tour), so I dug up the paper with the testing results. It went about 65% versus red-green, where it got off to a Dragonstorm for three on turn 6 quite regularly. It went 45% against Blue-Black Teferi Control, where Aeon Chronicler was the MVP and the sideboard plan of Detritivore plus Volcanic Awakening (they are pretty synergetic in the deck) stole some games. It went 40% against White Weenie, where the fast evasive beats were still hard to handle without Fortune Thief. I do believe that Void could be a good addition, also because it can take out potential Temporal Isolation from their hand before you cast Bogardan Hellkite. I didn't test against Red Deck Wins, but I don't expect it to be a good matchup. They will be able to outrace a turn-six Dragonstorm for three (the "average" kill of the deck). So if the fast beatdown decks aren't out en masse and green decks are popular, then the Dragonstorm combo isn't a truly bad choice. In my opinion, it could be the "best" combo deck.

Wild Pair

Download Arena Decklist

This is a deck taken from Pro Tour–Yokohama, and it is the only "combo" archetype in the Top 50 there. The combo card in the deck is of course Wild Pair. You play any creature with combined power/toughness of 4 (including Wall of Roots, if you take off a counter in response to Wild Pair's effect) and search a Whitemane Lion out of your deck. The Lion bounces itself, and then you cast it from your hand. You then search any creature you like, bounce the Lion, and repeat all over again to quickly make a massive army of Slivers.

You can even go "infinite" with this deck. You need to have a Gemhide Sliver, Dormant Sliver, Pulmonic Sliver, Basal Sliver, and Reflex Sliver in play. That's a lot of cards, but Wild Pair can help assembling those pieces (and Whitemane Lion into Sedge Sliver into Pulmonic Sliver also works). You play any Sliver and stack Dormant Sliver's comes-into-play ability. You then tap Gemhide Sliver for green mana and sacrifice it to via Basal Sliver. Now you put it on top with Pulmonic Sliver and when Dormant Sliver's draw a card effect resolves, you draw the Gemhide Sliver again. Play this Gemhide Sliver, stack Dormant Sliver's effect, tap and sacrifice for , and continue doing this. You net one black mana every cycle. Once you have an arbitrarily large amount of mana, you can gain an arbitrarily large amount of life with Darkheart Sliver or destroy your opponent's board with Necrotic Sliver. This works because you can tap them for green or white when they come in play (due to the Gemhide Sliver plus Reflex Sliver interaction) and you get them back over and over again (due to the Dormant Sliver plus Pulmonic Sliver interaction). Now I have to admit that not many games will be won in this fashion. Often you will just attack with your creatures for the win. But the possibility of this infinite combo is there.

There are other Sliver Pair variants around. For instance, a deck that runs 4 Telekinetic Sliver (pretty good against White Weenie) and 3 Frenetic Sliver (tech against Damnation). And we also had a Wild Pair version of our own in our playtest gauntlet that didn't use Slivers; instead it ramped with Whitemane Lion into Primal Forcemage (!) into Bogardan Hellkite. You don't need Dragonstorm to get 3 Bogardan Hellkites out of your deck in short order. Wild Pair is a solid card that enables many fun combos. However, the availability of Disenchant in U/B/w Control, Krosan Grip out of the sideboard of green decks, and White Weenie builds with maindeck Cloudchaser Kestrel will keep it in check. I would think twice before playing a deck based around an expensive 6 mana enchantment that is so fragile.


Download Arena Decklist

This deck is inspired by a discussion with Stuart Shinkins in Yokohama. The driving force is Greater Gargadon plus Fatal Frenzy. Clearly, this is a game ending combo. However, as well all know, Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir is a popular card in this format, and it stops Greater Gargadon dead in its tracks. Even if you were to remove Gargadon's last counter in your main phase, Teferi would still keep you from playing it, since you would be trying to play it while you resolve the suspend ability, not at pure sorcery speed. Fortunately there is a very good answer to this problem: Word of Seizing. It steals Teferi, thereby eliminating the problem that you can't play a suspended Greater Gargadon. Moreover, now that you have Teferi in play your opponent cannot even Cancel or Tendrils the Gargadon this turn! Word of Seizing is even a fine synergetic spell if you are not planning to unsuspend the Gargadon that turn, since you can sacrifice the stolen card to the Gargadon before you give it back.

Word of Seizing, Greater Gargadon, and Fatal FrenzySo if you Word of Seizing an opponent's Teferi, then let a Greater Gargadon come in play, and then play Fatal Frenzy on said Gargadon, you can attack for 21 damage out of nowhere. That's where the deck name—21—comes from. In order to make this situation even more likely, the deck runs Teferi of its own and Mystical Teachings to tutor for the required instant cards. This is not technically a combo deck, but any deck that can deal 21 damage out of the blue—without giving the opponent the chance to play instant spells that can stop it—definitely has a combo feel to it.

The above version also employs Sulfur Elemental along with Vesuvan Shapeshifter (and Mystical Teachings for Sulfur Elemental if you want) to build up a critical mass of Sulfur Elementals that should crush White Weenie. The rest of the deck is filled up with mana and cards that control the opponent's tempo of the game. It's not tuned yet—especially the sideboard—and you should view it more as a baseline that you can fiddle with, if you happen to find the concept behind the deck interesting.

The combo possibilities don't end here. There are still lots of combo strategies in Block Constructed that haven't been explored yet. How about Stuffy Doll plus Shivan Meteor? Or maybe Walk the Aeons plus Gaea's Blessing for infinite turns? These decks are probably bad, but they do illustrate that Time Spiral Block Constructed is not a boring format. And existing wacky synergies are always something to keep in mind when a new set arrives, as a new card might prove to be the perfect missing piece for a "bad" combo deck.

So how about we take a look at the Future Sight cards? I think the cards that will have the largest impact on Block Constructed are the lands. Graven Cairns, Nimbus Maze, Grove of the Burnwillows, Horizon Canopy, and River of Tears are as close to a true dual land as you can get in Block, and they will help multicolor decks out immensely. They will allow new deck types to flourish that could not work before due to color-screw. Even the other lands are not bad, most of them. Keldon Megaliths should be a fine addition to Red Deck Wins, Tolaria West can fix color problems by tutoring for Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, and even Zoetic Cavern is playable in a mono-color deck.

Jhoira of the Ghitu
As for the other cards, there is nothing that strikes me as utterly insane. New decks will be built and existing decks will be updated, but I don't think that the metagame will get a complete overhaul. Ghostfire (kills Soltari Priest) and Magus of the Moon (should be a decent sideboard card against the U/B/w(/r) Control decks) will be fine additions to Red Deck Wins. Korlash, Heir to Blackblade will help out black based control decks. I'm not as big on Delay as many others (often it won't be more than a mere tempo gain in exchange for pure card disadvantage) although I do admit that the card should have a place in blue Teferi Control mirrors, for example. Imperiosaur, Riftsweeper, and Heartwood Storyteller might enable a solid Mono-Green Aggro deck. And perhaps there is a red-blue mid-range deck out there that abuses the synergy between Jhoira of the Ghitu, Rift Elemental, and Aeon Chronicler. There are plenty of options out there, but I see nothing that invalidates the current "best" decks, so whatever deck archetype you're playing now will most likely still be fine once the PTQs start.

That's all I got for today, thanks for reading. Good luck next weekend if you're going to play in one of the Grand Prix tournaments!

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