Constructed Criticism – Control in Zendikar Block Constructed

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Monday, December 14th – Zendikar Block Constructed is pretty much a Magic Online-only format, but I’ve been getting a lot of requests to write about it over the last two weeks. The best thing going for the format is that no one can cast Bloodbraid Elf. Thankfully, there aren’t any cards that even come close as far as power level is concerned, but also it means that Jund doesn’t exist.

Zendikar Block Constructed is pretty much a Magic Online-only format, but I’ve been getting a lot of requests to write about it over the last two weeks. The best thing going for the format is that no one can cast Bloodbraid Elf. Thankfully, there aren’t any cards that even come close as far as power level is concerned, but also it means that Jund doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, with only one set released, the decks aren’t nearly as good as they could be, but they are still good enough to feel powerful. Vampires is obviously the most played deck, as the cards are very cheap online (since you don’t have to get Vampire Nocturnus for Zen Block) and you have the “Twilight” effect. Real Vampires Don’t Glitter. Since Vampires is so popular, I went into the preparation for the format with that in mind, and tried to find something that beat Vampires that wasn’t the mirror. I hate playing mirror matches beyond belief, and will often even try to find a transformational sideboard that attacks from a different direction, just so that we are not casting the same spells and negating everything the other one does. That kind of Magic can get very boring.

As I began building, I figured that I would really like to play a control deck. Since Vampires was the best aggressive deck, trying to build a different aggressive deck was out of the question. White Weenie was pretty close to being good, but the removal was just not good enough, and the creatures were severely underpowered. Additionally, you are stone-cold dead to Malakir Bloodwitch, making White Weenie a very poor decision. I tried a few different builds with Armament Master and Equipment, as well as Eldrazi Monument and Conqueror’s Pledge, but it was just never enough to punch through the last bits of damage against Vampires.

Boros had similar problems, since Vampire Nighthawk and Malakir Bloodwitch were just incredible beatings. You also don’t have access to Ranger of Eos, which makes playing Goblin Bushwhacker much worse. Emeria Angel is a passable replacement for Ranger of Eos, but losing Bushwhacker just made the deck much too slow to compete with Vampires. Disfigure was pretty bad for you, and most Vampire decks play them maindeck. Zektar Shrine Expedition also proved to be a pretty cool card in the deck, as it could become active on turn 4 pretty easily. However, with Vampire Hexmage able to easily block the 7/1, as well as her ability to remove counters from the Expedition….you can see where all this is going. Boros was just bad against Vampires, so I moved on.

Then I found Sphinx of the Lost Truths. This guy was just incredible. The format is pretty slow, and having a 3/5 Flier that can loot for three cards, or just draw three in the late game was pretty huge. Blue pairs very well with White in the format, as you get access to Emeria Angel, who is an incredible threat that works very well with fetchlands, and can protect itself from Gatekeeper of Malakir if you wait a turn before running it out there. White also had access to Day of Judgment, which is a dagger in the heart of every Vampire (except Bloodghast), which helps make the deck feel more like your classic control deck. With Cancel being better than playable, you can play Draw-Go and usually just overpower your opponent in the late game.

In the Blue-White deck, Ior-Ruin Expedition is a fine card, since it can sit in play and protect you from Mind Sludge, or just let you draw cards while sitting on Cancels. Hitting your land drops all the way up until turn 8 and 9 is very important for the deck, since you will want to cast more spells after kicking your Sphinx of Lost Truths, or cast Rite of Replication with Kicker on some juicy target. I have to say that Rite of Replication is just incredible in this format, since Malakir Bloodwitch is possibly the best target of all time for a kicked version. It is fine to just cast as a clone effect, since gaining a 2nd copy of your Emeria Angel or Sphinx is just fine, not to mention the ability to copy your opponent’s Vampire Nighthawk or Oracle of Mul Daya (or possibly their Rampaging Baloths with kicker, which I’ve done). It is very hard to lose to an aggro deck when you kick Rite of Replication, and it can sculpt the perfect hand for you in the mirror after targeting a Sphinx of Lost Truths, making the follow-up Day of Judgment not hurt nearly as much.

The format only has 3 real decks, though there is a lot of room for innovation. Everyone either plays Valakut Combo, Sphinx Control, or Vampires. While I think Valakut is a strong deck, I don’t think it has the power to effectively combat Vampires if they have an aggressive draw. Punishing Fire and Burst Lightning can go a long way in keeping you alive until you get your Lavaball Traps or Valakut online, but Mind Sludge is just too good against you, and can leave you in Topdeck Mode while their Bloodghasts destroy your life total. I have seen multiple versions of this deck, including versions running Plated Geopede, Grazing Gladehart, Rampaging Baloths, Oracle of Mul Daya, Mold Shambler, and Goblin Ruinblaster, but I don’t know which version is best. I’m personally a fan of the more aggressive versions with Geopede, since they can give you a solid threat on turn two that can just win the game by itself. You can occasionally surprise-kill your opponent by casting Harrow with Khalni-Heart Expedition in play, pumping the Geopede with fetchlands in the process. Then, when they think 15 life is safe, you punch them for just enough to make them wish they had blocked.

Since I’ve been playing Block, my deck choice has been primarily Blue-White Control. While my list has gone through many changes, I think I’ve found the one I like best. I have a solid plan for the mirror out of the sideboard that many people wouldn’t think about, and my maindeck has proven itself time and again. Here is the list:

4 Into the Roil
4 Ior Ruin Expedition
4 Journey to Nowhere
4 Cancel
4 Day of Judgment
3 Rite of Replication

2 Devout Lightcaster
4 Emeria Angel
4 Sphinx of Lost Truths

4 Kabira Crossroads
4 Sejiri Refuge
3 Scalding Tarn
3 Marsh Flats
5 Plains
8 Island

4 Hedron Crab
4 Archive Trap
4 Kor Sanctifiers
2 Devout Lightcaster
1 Mindbreak Trap

The maindeck is set up to stall in the early game until you can progressively take control in the mid-game until you overwhelm your opponent with card advantage. Sometimes you just hit the “I win” button with Rite of Replication on, well, anything, but most games are won on the back of Emeria Angel and bird tokens. Your manabase is set up so that you don’t take too much damage, but have a lot of fetchlands to trigger your Emeria Angel and Expeditions. Kabira Crossroads and Sejiri Refuge gain you just enough life to buy you a turn or two against Vampires so that you don’t have to cast your Day of Judgment too early, as well as keeping their Bloodghasts out of haste-range. Additionally, they are invaluable against Valakut, ruining their math when trying to kill you with three-damage triggers.

Into the Roil is fantastic at dealing with any problematic card, and usually draws you a card to boot. Combined with Cancel, you can occasionally tap out without being too afraid to get wrecked by a Malakir Bloodwitch, since you can just bound it and then counter it. The two Devout Lightcasters maindeck are a concession to Vampires being the most popular deck, since they are just nutty when cast. They can be fairly difficult to cast on turn 3, but you won’t usually want them that early, as they are left vulnerable to Gatekeeper of Malakir. They are better around turn 5 where you can Into the Roil them in response to an opposing Gatekeeper. The deck plays pretty well, and it gives you tons of decision trees to follow at every course. Even deciding what lands to play each turn can be difficult, and can cost you the game 10 turns later because you have one less land to trigger Ior Ruin Expedition or Emeria Angel. Figuring out what lands to play in what order is just the beginning, but it is just as important as figuring out what spells to play on what turn against whatever deck you are facing. Unlike Standard, the decisions are not always obvious. With Jund, you usually just run out Bloodbraid Elf on turn 4, and use Bituminous Blast on turn 5. What you cascade into is random, and you have very little control over it, but it is usually right to gain the card advantage while your opponent is vulnerable.

With this deck, often it is correct to use Devout Lightcaster before you cast Day of Judgment, since it baits them into casting their Malakir Bloodwitch. If they can’t attack with their ground pounders, then they’ll have to run out the Bloodwitch to get pressure on the board. Also, it is generally correct to wait until turn 5 to cast Emeria Angel, since you can play a land afterwards, making a creature that protects the angel from Gatekeeper of Malakir. When you have a ton of cards in hand, it is often incorrect to kick the Sphinx of Lost Truths, since it might tap you out and keep you from being able to cast an Into the Roil or Cancel. Against Vampires, you should generally save your Ior Ruin Expeditions until after you have been Mind Sludged, unless you desperately need to dig for an answer to something beating you down. Rite of Replication can just end games on its own, but you can use it pretty early in the game to copy an Emeria Angel or Sphinx of Lost Truths if necessary.

As I said before, there are many different decision trees you must contemplate with the deck, and that is something Standard has not given me in a long time. I’m a fan of any format without Bloodbraid Elf, since it doesn’t punish bad players for making mistakes. This format is very unforgiving of mistakes, which makes games feel like real Magic. There isn’t one deck in the format that is incredibly stronger than the rest, so good play is often rewarded. Also, small changes you make to your deck can great affect the outcome of each match, since your games usually go long, and you can generally draw most, if not all, of your deck in a given game. I’ve won countless mirror matches with 10 or less cards in my deck. I’ve gone back and forth between running Luminarch Ascension and Spreading Seas in the sideboard, but I think the current configuration is the best. Allow me to further explain the sideboard.

In two of your most-played matchups, library size matters a lot. As I said earlier, a lot of games in the mirror leave you with very few cards left in your deck. The plan most people have for the mirror is Luminarch Ascension, but I got sick of losing to Kor Sanctifiers and Into the Roil. Most people side out Journey to Nowhere, since there aren’t very many targets for it, and you need to find room for your Ascensions. This makes Hedron Crab much better, since he is left unmolested most of the time, or forces them to use Day of Judgment to keep from getting milled out by himself. If you can continually hit your land drops, or draw multiple Crabs, you can usually mill your opponent out on turn 8-9 with the help of a single Archive Trap. Fetchlands combo very well with a lot of the cards in your deck, and Hedron Crab is no exception. You bring in your Sanctifiers if you think they are siding in Luminarch Ascension, since you need a way to deal with it. It is also very effective at killing opposing Ior Ruin Expeditions and Journeys to Nowhere. The Mindbreak Trap acts as a 5th Cancel, since countermagic is so important.

The two Devout Lightcasters are there to bring in against Vampires, but I am still not sure what to side out. All of your spells are important, so sideboarding should be done with a few cards in mind that your opponent cast. Most versions of Vampires run Quest for the Gravelord, and occasionally will run Carnage Altar to combo with Bloodghast. In these scenarios, Kor Sanctifiers is a pretty good sideboard card as well. Into the Roil isn’t incredible against Vampires, so you can side some out. You don’t want too many reactive cards in your deck after Game 1, since their Mind Sludges become that much stronger against you.

Against the Valakut deck, you side out all of your Into the Roils and Rites of Replication for the Hedron Crabs and Archive Traps. With all of your Days of Judgment and Journeys to Nowhere, you can effectively stall them until your sideboard cards mill their entire deck. They have few cards that pose a dangerous threat, so use your Cancels wisely. You should be able to mill them out before they kill you, or at least that is what I’ve found in my 15+ matches of playing against them. Some versions side in Hellkite Charger, so be careful about tapping out, lest you get bashed by a hasted Dragon.

If you are not a fan of the mill plan, I can safely suggest playing 4 Luminarch Ascension and 4 Spreading Seas in the sideboard instead. Luminarch Ascension is great against the Mirror if it sticks, or you can protect it with counters. It can be incredibly difficult to beat if you don’t have one of your own, or draw one of your answers, but I think fighting over Luminarch Ascensions is a losing proposition, so making them adapt to your game-plan is a much better prospect. Spreading Seas is great against Valakut, but they have Harrow to keep you from drawing a card. Also, they can usually just tutor up more Valakuts with Expedition Map, so it is not always a solution to the problem. Having 8 sideboard cards for two matchups seems better than 4 each for two different matchups.

The deck just feels really fun to play, and gives you a lot of freedom in decision making. The right play is rarely obvious, so it challenges you as a player to play tight. I feel like this format will become much more interesting once the new set is released, so I’m getting a head-start on figuring things out. The next set will likely add a lot more good white cards to make the Kor viable, and that could possibly give the Blue-White deck a bit more options. Block Constructed formats have always been my favorite formats to play. With the elimination of Block Constructed PTQs, Magic Online is my only real source for playing Block. I’ve seen a few interesting ideas that I might write about, but nothing but these three decks have put up significant numbers in tournaments lately. Nissa Revane is an unexplored territory in this format, and she seems really strong except for Vampire Hexmage existing. I don’t think that is reason enough not to play her, and the next set might bring us a cool new elf to play in Block or Standard. If you have any questions about the deck, or Zendikar Block Constructed in general, feel free to post in the forums. As always, thanks for reading.

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