Second Foundation

Posted in Feature on August 30, 2007

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

Time Spiral Block Constructed has come full circle, but a circle has no end...

Time_SpiralOne of the main challenges that every Internet Magic writer faces, week-in and week-out, is the proper positioning of puns. It's not easy coming up with them! Some of them are pretty good ("The Best Decks in the Worlds" or "Throwing Down the Gauntlet"), while others can be a little strained (even when attached to sick articles that Pat Sullivan likes) like "Swimming with Lipids." For this one I was like, "Will you look at that? By the end of the season... this format has really come full-circle... or at least 270 or so degrees."

Full circle?

This is Time Spiral Block.

"A circle has no end."

For those of you who have never read the Best All-Time Series,* "[a] circle has no end" is a line from Second Foundation speculating the location of the, um, Second Foundation, which legend holds to be "at the other end of the galaxy" from Terminus, a planet "on the edge of the galaxy." Is the Second Foundation in fact located on the opposite side of the galactic rim? Terminus itself? That's a big chunk of the plot.

Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert!

The galaxy isn't a circle but a spiral... Just like Time Spiral. Hence, the title... of this... Oh, never mind. Here is how the Top 8 of Grand Prix–San Jose Francisco played out:


Relic / Teachings
Blue-Green Aggro
Blue-Green Morphs

Coalition Relic / Mystical Teachings

The "circular" nature of the Time Spiral Block metagame is best exemplified by the re-emergence of Mystical Teachings at this late date. Swimming With Sharks named it the key deck of the format at around Week Three but, as the metagame shifted, moved recommendations to Teachings predator Mono-Blue Pickles, and briefly again to Pickles predator, um, Predator.dec. Teachings, though, as Frank Karsten and Zvi Mowshowitz have always maintained, is the only real deck with Damnation (the best card), and by virtue of that, should be the best deck; additionally, Teachings is about the best possible deck for beating Predator.dec. Its three appearances in the Grand Prix Top 8—including the win!—go a long way in re-establishing the archetype despite several weeks of inaction at the PTQ level.

The three Coalition Relic / Mystical Teachings decks that appeared in the Top 8 of the Grand Prix were all essentially the same. Eventual winner and reigning U.S. National Champion Luis Scott-Vargas credited "Cheontourage" as the designer (a clear nod to last year's U.S. National Champion and Scott-Vargas's fellow in the Top 8, Paul Cheon). Scott-Vargas's deck and Cheon's are an identical 75/75; Fan Favorite Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa played all four Finkels (Shadowmage Infiltrator), swapping out one Foresee, otherwise running essentially the same version of the same deck as well; Shadowmage Infiltrator is one of the key cards that Teachings uses to beat the good beatdown decks in this format, so PV's decision makes a lot of sense to YT.

Here is the exact deck played by Grand Prix winner Scott-Vargas:


Luis Scott-Vargas's Relic

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The model for this deck is very similar to everything we have seen transitioning from Pro Tour–Yokohama through the PTQ season, and for that matter the same path the Kamigawa Block Gifts Ungiven deck took from Pro Tour–Philadelphia through the summer 2005 season. In both cases you had a controlling but not "true control" deck based on (usually three copies of) a four-mana blue search spell generating exactly +1 in the abstract. In Philadelphia those decks took a couple of different paths, possibly culminating in a Myojin for massive card advantage but usually capable of either Ethereal Haze or Cranial Extraction infinite recursion to lock down creatures or control. In Yokohama, the Mystical Teachings decks at least had Cancel, and could gather up several to lock down the late game with a wall of permission, which made for some interesting mirror matches (Mark Herberholz's favorite plan was to wait until the opponent had three Cancels in hand, bait one down, and then use Extirpate like a Mind Twist). Like the Gifts Ungiven decks, the PTQ / GP Mystical Teachings decks had to speed up due to timed round constraints.

Speed manifested in two different ways. Essentially all the Teachings decks you see today will have Coalition Relics for incremental mana acceleration and explosive fourth and fifth turns. Absolutely all the Teachings decks at this point have become more reliant on creatures, usually Shadowmage Infiltrator to keep card advantage flowing after a Damnation. Korlash has been a popular finisher; early in the season we even saw a version with Tarmogoyfs. At this point we are back (three-fourths of the way back, at least) to Teferi, an infinite Triskelavus endgame, and strategic Detritivores with the Cheontourage build.

Cancels, on the other hand, while not quite extinct, are now a minority inclusion in the archetype, largely deemed too slow (they were stock at the two-set Pro Tour).

The most important unique element to this version is Void main deck; we'll actually address that one a little later.

Donkey Pong

Blue-Green Aggro has probably been the most important beatdown deck of the format since the opening Grand Prix (I thought straight Green-White would be the most popular deck, but it hasn't sustained itself as even the most popular creature deck). Like Teachings, Donkey Pong put three players into the San Francisco Top 8. The highest finisher among them was onetime JSS superstar Brett Blackman:


Brett Blackman's Iamadork

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Notice how much more tempo-oriented Brett's deck has become since the introduction of Time Spiral blue-green aggro decks at the beginning of the season. His designers Matt Abrams and Sam Stein took the same road as Predator.dec, completely removing the ponderous Call of the Herd (despite its apparent synergy with Looter il-Kor) in favor of fast initiative-oriented cards like Snapback and main deck Pongify. Like Predator.dec, Brett has introduced (or has re-introduced, or however you want to characterize it) Riftsweeper (back into) the main. Riftsweeper is a half-price Flametongue Kavu in many instances, a sort of a two-mana Avalanche Riders against Search for Tomorrow, a muscular and 'roid-raging Ravenous Rats against Ancestral Vision, and a Nekrataal against Knight of Sursi. This deck has made room for Thornweald Archer in the sideboard, as a Tarmogoyf deterrent.



David Irvine's Ravitz Fiery Justice

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David Irvine answered the question Josh Ravitz and I pondered a couple of weeks ago... Would Predator.dec still be good in this metagame after two weeks? Irvine led the Swiss with essentially the deck Josh used to qualify, making what should probably be considered an obvious swap: He cut the one Saffi Eriksdotter that was consistently sided out in favor of a fourth backbreaking Fiery Justice.

Irvine moved a lot of the cards around in the sideboard, cutting Rebuff the Wicked, a card Ravitz never used... but then again, he never had to play Teachings. On balance, Irvine lost to eventual winner Scott-Vargas in the quarterfinals, missing out on a Top 8 loaded with Blue-Green Aggro decks, his second-best matchup.

Swimming With Sharks didn't get a chance to speak with David, but we did speak with the man he credited with his deck design, Josh Ravitz.

"It's not that Irvine cut the cards that were good against Teachings... He just had different cards," Josh began. "Rebuff is good against Slaughter Pact and Tendrils, but the real problem card in these updated lists is Void. I think I could have beaten anything but Void."

What about Damnation?

"Bah. I could beat Damnation all day. Void is the problem. You can't slow play around a Void. If they Void the four you have in play, you lose the fours you are sandbagging, too."

I pointed out that Damnation was another card that Rebuff wouldn't stop, and that Josh actually just beat Mono-Blue and Blue-Green—his two best matchups—for most of the day.

"What can I say?" Josh concluded. "I'm a master."

Special Bonus Predator.dec Section: Blocking with Ravitz


Call of the Herd
We talk a lot about tight technical play, but sometimes it seems vague to the average reader. Josh wanted to share a play from the Top 4 of the PTQ he won.

"My opponent gave me the cockeyed 'I thought I had you,' but no. I made the 'wrong' play... on purpose."

This game was an awful one with both Ravitz and his opponent mana-screwed going into the midgame. Josh was stuck on two or three lands, but had been attacking relentlessly with whatever he had drawn; unfortunately, one of his lands was a Horizon Canopy... which left him with only 3 life!

Nevertheless, he was on the attack with seven cards in hand, sending a grafted Tarmogoyf into Tarmogoyf and a grafted Call of the Herd token (4/4).

The opponent made the obvious double block; Josh eschewed the "obvious" two-for-one chess move.

"I just traded Tarmogoyfs with him. I had seven cards, so he didn't dare anything cute... But after combat, I played Dead to pick up his Call token (plus graft), leaving him with nothing.

"He asked why I didn't just use Dead during combat, which would have wrecked him and left me with a Tarmogoyf... if he had nothing. But if I make that play, I lose to Thrill of the Hunt for sure; I am on three and he can counterattack me out.

"This is a good example of a game where I should win 100% of the time on the matchup and the merits... but I was mana-screwed. My lands got me. A lot of players will lose their cool in this kind of a situation and try to jam a win or take an obvious two-for-one without thinking about what the opponent might have. Making the obvious or autopilot play just gives him the opportunity to destroy me. I can easily lose if I 'play to win' when it's clearly right to play around his outs."

I would have asked if the opponent had the Thrill of the Hunt... but I knew what Josh would have said.

"You know it doesn't matter."


Poison Slivers with Wild Pair



Blue-Green Morph


I got really excited when I saw the title that John Stocks gave his finalist deck... but then I saw that it had neither Slivers plan, let alone both.


Jon Stocks's "Poison Slivers with Wild Pair"

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This deck is a mid-range Blue-Green Morph build. Curiously, it has neither Thelonite Hermit nor Brine Elemental, the two cards that you would expect from the archetype. Instead, it boasts only Fathom Seer as an abusive compliment to Vesuvan Shapeshifter (you can draw two extra cards per turn with Vesuvan Shapeshifter if Fathom Seer is in play).


Mystic Snake
That said, Stocks's deck may be the most truly controlling in the field. He borrows a fair bit from the mono-blue mage, specifically Ancestral Vision and Aeon Chronicler for card drawing... but adds the busty green two-drops, Tarmogoyf on offense and Wall of Roots back. Instead of a Pickles endgame, Stocks can lock the game down long with his enormous count of card drawing (Visions, Fathom Seers, Vesuvans, and Chroniclers) fueling a halfway impressive counterspell wall. There are no Delays here! Jon has a full count of both Mystic Snakes and Cancels, and supplements with Spell Burst and Draining Whelk out of the side.

Unless I miss my guess, this article marks the end of our coverage of Time Spiral Block Constructed for the summer of 2007. Grand Prix–Florence will use the same format the weekend of 9 September, but Swimming With Sharks will be on Lorwyn previews that week (wink wink, nudge nudge). I didn't get to play a lot of Time Spiral myself, but it seemed like a great Constructed format to me. You can tell the good summer formats really easily by watching the PTQs. If players like Matt Boccio can make 3+ PTQ Top 8s with the same or different decks, or Josh Ravitz can make multiple Top 8s and win (improving on a finals finish), and deck design innovation is rewarded as the format progresses, as it clearly has this season (just look at how the creations of Gerry Thompson, Osyp Lebedowicz, Kenji Tsumura, and now the Cheontourage have broken away from the mediocre, even when they look like stock decks), that is usually indicative of a skill-intensive format. I just want to tip my hat to my friends in Renton, WA on this one. Before you know it, it will be time to prep for Champs, and just like the past couple of early Standard seasons, cracking the code of the previous summer's Block Constructed will be a big part of positioning the right deck.

Have a great week.


* Per the 1965 Special Hugo Award, and still the only series so honored (Asimov actually assumed the award had been created for The Lord of the Rings). [back]

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