Block To The Future

Ari takes a look at Block Constructed for those who want to grind out a few Magic Online Daily Events while they still can and to speculate about the upcoming new Standard format.

Around this time there’s always a decent amount of speculation as to what Standard in the fall will look like. People make a lot of bold claims, and more often than not they are wrong.

Well, I’m going to do some speculation.

Instead of focusing on what exists, I want to put emphasis on what doesn’t exist.

Instead of talking about a format that doesn’t exist, I’m going to focus on Block Constructed for those who want to grind out a few Magic Online Daily Events while they still can.

I’m going to try to make only one very bold claim.

Here we go.

Power Level

A short list of the in-your-face powerful threats from Return to Ravnica block:

Rakdos Cackler
Dryad Militant
Experiment One
Burning-Tree Emissary
Voice of Resurgence
Loxodon Smiter
Boros Reckoner
Domri Rade
Advent of the Wurm
Jace, Architect of Thought
Ral Zarek
Blood Baron of Vizkopa
Obzedat, Ghost Council
Sphinx’s Revelation
Rakdos’s Return

Notice how there are a ton of cards in the format I’m not even listing that are awesome but just lose the heads-up fight to these cards (Dreg Mangler) or are awesome but a bit more specific (Sin Collector).

Now notice how the question of the Pro Tour was "how the hell do I beat Esper Control?" and the answer was definitively "hope their list is bad."

I tried almost everything to not play Esper. I was on Craig Wescoe team. I had the W/G deck. The good Esper lists were massive favorites against it game 1. They boarded in Woodlot Crawler.

The threats in this format are insane. The answers are just as good or even better.

Bold Claim

For new cards to break into the format, they are going to have to do one of the following very well:

A) Offer one of the few things that didn’t exist in the format.

B) Strictly outclass an existing dominant card.

C) Provide a new class of synergies that can compete with the raw power level of the format.

Yes, this sounds generic. My point is to emphasize this is much harder than usual. It isn’t Innistrad block where the issue was "I don’t have anything like a Doom Blade so everyone dies to a 3GG 8/8." The cards that are missing are much narrower positions.

What Exists

Mono-Red Aggro

This is the most played deck on Magic Online. It is the most represented deck in the decks that cash Daily Events.

It also is very clearly not the best deck.

Let’s look at some numbers, courtesy of MTGO Traders:

1 Voice of Resurgence: 41.40 tickets

1 Sphinx’s Revelation: 38.22 tickets

1 Mono-Red Aggro deck, including sideboard: 46.34 tickets

Yes, that is right. One card from the other big decks costs almost as much as this entire deck.

And now the numbers make sense.

What This Deck Has

This deck has a million good creatures to play. Another one-drop or two-drop that is better than Legion Loyalist, Foundry Street Denizen, or Gore-House Chainwalker would be nice, but the deck is still the same thing without it unless said replacement is absolutely bananas (think Goblin Guide).

This deck typically forces a sweeper out of the control decks. You play your hand. If they have Supreme Verdict, they win. If not, they lose. Now, something like Detention Sphere two guys is usually passable as a sweeper if the rest of the hand lines up well, but that requires a specific scenario.

The ability to win combats with a single Loxodon Smiter. Battalion on Firefist Striker and bloodrush on Rubblebelt Maaka are very important to this deck.

What This Deck Is Missing

There simply isn’t good burn. No Brimstone Volley, no Searing Spear, Mizzium Mortars doesn’t go to the face, Skullcrack doesn’t target creatures. Annihilating Fire and Warleader’s Helix are expensive. M14 doesn’t solve this issue either unless Shock is suddenly a big game. Now that Thragtusk and Huntmaster of the Fells are gone, burn that is also playable as removal becomes relevant again. This is especially true if it lets you play into the plus tempo plan of kill their dude and play your own in the same turn, but I’m guessing we won’t see Lightning Bolt any time soon.

If you want to splash a color, the mana is iffy. If you’re thinking about playing Guildgates, just don’t. Again, I will cite my Grand Prix Atlantic City story. I had two byes and then another five byes from opponents playing Guildgates in their two-color aggro decks. Josh Utter-Leyton managed to play Boros Charm off Temple Gardens and three Plains. If there aren’t good dual lands in Theros (and I don’t expect there to be based off R&D’s vague hints), you need to match your duals with your hybrid cards to make any splash happen. Note: even if you splash Boros Charm, leaving up mana for it instead of playing a guy often means Esper can do something that isn’t Supreme Verdicting to not die and then Far // Away you next turn and win.

There isn’t a reason to go up the curve to four-drops. Even Boros Reckoner is a little clunky for this list. M14 adds Mutavault as a reason to play more lands, but there really isn’t anything to do with those lands without Hellrider. Burning Earth could easily be this thing, but whether or not you can maindeck it is up in the air.

You have serious issues with Voice of Resurgence into Loxodon Smiter into Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice. I’m not really sure what’s missing to solve this; you probably are just supposed to die to it.

What Answers Are Missing

Electrickery. Mugging. If you want to trade a one-mana spell for a one-drop creature in Block, that’s what you have access to. For a control deck to keep up with Mono-Red Aggro without a sweeper, it needs to be able to do this. Shock is basically the same as these, so that’s only a marginal gain. If a Disfigure isn’t printed in Theros, expect Sensory Deprivation to be a considerable card for some decks (but probably not for reasons to be discussed later).

There also aren’t really sweepers beyond Supreme Verdict. Everything does one damage or gives -1/-1 or costs six mana, though Izzet Staticaster can block. Basically, look for Pyroclasm style effects. Flames of the Firebrand is a start, but I want to three or four or five for one them, not "just" two for one or three if I’m lucky.

W/G Aggro

Not much to say in general about this deck. You have the biggest best creatures at their cost. You have some instants. You turn dudes sideways.

What This Deck Has

Voice of Resurgence. My Esper deck at the Pro Tour played two Azorius Charms just because of how poor that interaction is. Same with Devour Flesh.

Supreme Verdict resilience. Between Advent of the Wurm, Experiment One’s activated ability, Voice of Resurgence, Selesnya Charm as an instant 2/2, and Rootborn Defenses, the control decks often have to work to set up a Supreme Verdict. Esper had the tools to do so, but it put the onus on them to find the right pathway.

A very fast clock. Experiment One into a two-drop into Smiter is nine or ten power in play on turn 3. There are a lot of turn 5 kills with this deck and even potentially turn 4s.

Flash 5/5s and Elemental tokens. It’s very difficult for smaller aggro decks to attack you in the midgame.

What This Deck Is Missing

The ability to beat Far // Away. Token creature? Get two for oned. Experiment One? Basically get two for oned. Voice in play? Well, bounce that, still sac a guy. Unlike Mono-Red Aggro, you can’t just play the "Supreme Verdict or bust" game because you are just a little bit too slow and too all in on the power and toughness of a single guy in the face of a removal spell. The Esper deck almost always lives to cast Far // Away, at which point you lose.

The ability to beat a creature with "protection from white" or "protection from green." I tested Craig’s Top 8 matchups for him. Had the Mihara-Ochoa matchup broken the other way, we were almost assuredly looking at a new Japanese two-time Pro Tour Champion. Blood Baron of Vizkopa is bad enough but barely raceable, but you cannot beat Woodlot Crawler. We tried everything. It was coming down to boarding in Unflinching Courage and prayer.

What Answers Are Missing

A Pillar of Flame style effect to answer Voice of Resurgence. Sensory Deprivation is cool, except the good removal is all wraths and edicts. Lifebane Zombie is a turn too slow and actually lines up really poorly against this deck’s Advent of the Wurms as the high drop. Banisher Priest is nice but very specific to non-control decks, which should be ok against Voice anyway.

A real way for another creature deck to break through giant green idiots. Also a real way for another creature deck to do this and not die to Unflinching Courage on the way back. And a reason to not just play said giant green idiots alongside the break through cards (see: Brave the Elements and Imposing Sovereign).

Esper Control

This was my list at Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze. Don’t ask why there are only three maindeck Far // Aways and zero Syncopates. It made sense at the time.

What This Deck Has

All good cards. Far // Away, Supreme Verdict, and Blood Baron of Vizkopa for creatures. Sin Collector for control mirrors. Jace, Architect of Thought and Sphinx’s Revelation for everyone.

What This Deck Is Missing

A more flexible early game. Between playing many Guildgates and not having good early removal options for Voice of Resurgence, you are leaning heavily on your cards just being more powerful than your opponent’s deck.

A good answer to an opposing resolved Jace. Prior to M14, the answer was just "you are down cards no matter what—good luck." With the new planeswalker rules, being able to cast your own Jace means you can immediately catch up on cards, but you have no way to break parity without getting a creature on board that likely just dies to their removal. Detention Sphere is not the answer. The Esper mirror was previously a very fast control mirror decided by cascading early advantages. Now that the main source of those is gone, it tends to drag on into a more traditional battle of positioning.

What Answers Are Missing

Sin Collector is nice (and Duress will be too), but every deck that plays it either dies to Blood Baron of Vizkopa or is also Esper. Fix that.

A big creature that isn’t an embarrassment against Far // Away. See Thragtusk and Huntmaster of the Fells as to why this is not a big deal in current Standard.

Something that actually beats Aetherling. No, Debtor’s Pulpit does not actually beat Aetherling.

Burning Earth. Oh wait, we have that one now. Alternatively, any other land destruction spell to punish the extremely high mana curve.

Domri Aggro

The Floridians showed up to Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze with what I felt was one of the few decks that did something remotely reasonable and also beat Esper (aka not Maze’s End). To the best of my knowledge, all of them except Stephen Mann played the three-color list.

What This Deck Has

Domri Rade, aka the only card that actually beats Esper. Card advantage, inevitability, and a three-drop is a very difficult trio to answer.

Even more ways than Mono-Red Aggro to bowl over defending Loxodon Smiters. Ghor-Clan Rampager is a good man.

More Supreme Verdict resistance than Mono-Red Aggro. Domri Rade, Voice of Resurgence, and Experiment One live through the problem sweeper.

Unflinching Courage, which completely breaks the small aggro mirror match.

What This Deck is Missing

Good mana. Even the two-color list is playing three Guildgates.

What Answers Are Missing

A cheap way to kill Domri Rade. Something like Celestial Purge that can also kill a creature would be a nightmare to face. Actually, any control deck that plays Renounce the Guilds fits into this mold.

Grixis Control

This is a relative newcomer to the format. It didn’t show up at the Pro Tour, but in recent weeks it has become a top performer on Magic Online.

What This Deck Has

The missing anti-planeswalker card from Esper in Dreadbore. Kills Domri Rade and random dudes! Just not in response to bloodrush, but you can’t win them all. Rakdos’s Return also beats the crap out of planeswalkers in a similar fashion.

Counterflux, which is probably one of the better answers to Aetherling. Yes, it loses to Sin Collector, but so does everything.

Access to the one-mana red removal and earlier "sweepers" of Izzet Staticaster and Electrickery against Mono-Red Aggro.

What This Deck Is Missing

Sphinx’s Revelation to truly stabilize your life total and gas back up. Opportunity does a decent amount of this, and I assume something can be found to fill in the rest.

Something like Blood Baron of Vizkopa that makes Sin Collector a bit more awkward for Junk style decks.

Additional Far // Aways to not lose to random things like Lotleth Troll. People did these things at the Pro Tour, so they could happen again in the future.

What Answers Are Missing

Burning Earth. Oh, wait.

The Big Picture

– The missing component in this metagame is Thragtusk or Titan style threats that are expensive but good against removal. The exception is Aetherling, but beyond that the cheaper threats are actually better positioned against the expensive removal.

– The other missing component is less interactive decks, but the countermagic and discard is actually quite good (not to mention Slaughter Games). Combo needs to do some work with Dispel or Duress to be a thing.

– The aggressive decks hit hard and fast. That’s without access to an additional block of fixing and early drops.

– The answers in this format are very powerful but are lacking in the "costs one" and "Pyroclasm" department.

Aetherling is the biggest endgame as of now. Rakdos’s Return is probably the next biggest.

– The planeswalkers are very good. Answers are needed, and the M14 rules mean "play yours first" is not valid.

– If you are planning on blocking against the aggro decks, you need to curve out on blockers or back with removal. Boros Reckoner or Loxodon Smiter does not hold them up without backup.

Burning Earth looks awesome against control, but there isn’t really a midrange deck that exists . . . yet.