Deconstructing Constructed — Covered In Poison Bees!

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My deck of choice lately has been Poison Slivers, the new and very shiny aggro deck that’s gotten a lot of press and had a decent amount of success online. It also may be one of the most annoying decks to see play at a competitive level in some time. Ask your opponents what they think when you play the deck, and they’ll either be amused, or they’ll want to grab the nearest sharp object and get a’stabbin.

My deck of choice lately has been Poison Slivers, the new and very shiny aggro deck that’s gotten a lot of press and had a decent amount of success online. It also may be one of the most annoying decks to see play at a competitive level in some time. Ask your opponents what they think when you play the deck, and they’ll either be amused, or they’ll want to grab the nearest sharp object and get a’stabbin. The former happens mostly due to the unique win conditions of poison and milling, and the latter happens after a couple or turn 5 or 6 wins, or winning from a nearly empty board position.

As has been stated elsewhere, the deck can basically play the role of the “fastest” aggro deck available, with multiple one-drops and a solid curve. Virulent Sliver says the opponent is playing at half life, while the other Slivers provide all sorts of support, virtually eliminating the need for additional support spells save the very best. In addition, the deck can switch into a combo mode where it can blow through an opponent in a turn or two by abusing Dormant Sliver. Basically going from two or three initial Slivers to laying anywhere from six to twelve Slivers on the board, and either locking the game up with Telekinetic Sliver or ending the game in a turn or two off a huge attack.

At least that’s what the press release says. In reality, the truth is the deck can do all that, but not quite at the clip one would hope. It also has serious mana and curve issues, due to the terrible manabase you have to employ to hit one-drops, gold mana, and double-colored costs. In addition, the ways of “ignoring” Damnation and other potential issues is still pretty luck based, since they mainly consist of coin-flipping, drawing more Slivers, or the one surefire hit in Delay. Burn on Gemhide Sliver and other early creatures can also put a huge damper on the experience and ruin many a broken start.

To be fair though, the deck does win often enough by turn 5 that it can put a serious damper on the do-nothing control decks and easily race standard G/W decks. Dormant Sliver also gives the deck the capability to go into a combo-mode, where it can overwhelm any deck and win the span of typically two turns. It also packs Opposition, an effect that has been proven viable to build around in far stronger formats than Time Spiral Block Constructed.

To prove I’m adequately neutral on the subject, let me try to explain some of my compliments and complaints with a bit more depth.

Poison. No, really, “covered in poison bees” sums up the deck strategy.

Compliments about the deck in five words or less:
Wins by turn 7, usually.
Plays one-drops that poison.
Runs Opposition, Skullclamp*, and Disciple.
Delay wrecks face.

*Fine fine, nerfed Skullclamp and Disciple

Number three usually catches most people off-guard, but realistically the closest deck designs I can get to the Slivers type is the Affinity deck. Both decks are stuck in a certain groove by a subtype that requires roughly half the deck or more to be a certain kind of card, and both feature the ability to win normally or via a combo. Clearly the speed and consistency aren’t the exact same, but then this would be a rather boring format if it did.

Being able to play poison increases the deck’s winning potential and gives it an edge over its predecessors. Killing an opponent from 10 is easier than 20, and Summoner’s Pact allows for at least a couple of kills to come from out of nowhere over the course of a tourney. In addition, the deck doesn’t even need to actually win the game if it can resolve Telekinetic with any significant Sliver presence on the board. Opposition is not the be-all and end-all though, as the deck gets in many situations where it’s of little value to use the ability. Part of that can be blamed on how the deck is constructed as a catch-all type of deck, rather than a version designed to go straight from aggro into Opposition abuse.

Delay is good in Pickles and U/G, but in Poison Slivers Delay goes up to insane. Buying three turns on Damnation can easily turn into a game win with an initial rush, or help soften the blow of spot removal spell that was targeting Gemhide or Dormant Sliver. Even against normal beatdown decks it can shut down a Mystic Enforcer or Tarmogoyf, to keep their clock a little slower.

The biggest advantage you get from playing Poison Slivers over Wild Pair Slivers is the higher overall synergy of the deck. At every phase of the game, you simply have more power available, and many more options since you can pursue different plans. Meanwhile, the Pair deck really needs Wild Pair itself, and enough life to survive to untap so it can become an abusive deck.

Complaints about the deck in five words or less:
The manabase is awful
Homing Sliver doesn’t do anything
Terramorphic Expanse is garbage
Fiery Justice kills you
Terramorphic Expanse is really garbage

You might’ve noticed my main complaints are about the mana. I understand that Expanse is pretty much necessary to keep the mana count high across all colors, but land that comes into play tapped is awful. You’ve got one- and two-drops you really want to hit, and ideally you’d want to curve out in at least half your games to take full advantage of the aggressive aspects of the deck. Expanse just makes that a practical impossibility, and laughs at you whenever you really wanted that colored source to cast Frenetic in hand. If someone could make the mana work without Expanse, and I think it’d be possible if you really tweaked the mana ratios intensively, the deck would benefit.

Expanse also shows another flaw in the Slivers manabase: lack of duals lands that stick around. Expanse can find any color of mana, but it only fetches one color and then you’re stuck with it. Gemstone Mine is a card you have to play very conservatively with late if you want to use it in the early game. Losing a land with this deck is a sobering proposal, due to just how important Dormant and Summoner’s Pact are if you lose the early rush. This means Grove of the Burnwillows is really the only good dual land the deck has access to.

Now that I’ve complained about the manabase a great deal, and pointed out one of the deck’s sore spots, let’s move onto the other annoyance when playing the deck: burn. This deck hates removal like Dead/Gone, Sudden Death, and Molten Disaster with a fiery passion. The problem is that when you take out a key cog in the Sliver chain, the replacement isn’t typically going to make up for it unless you had a replica in hand. Losing a Gemhide Sliver can cripple the deck down the road, while having a Dormant go down provides a similar reaction when you’ve only got one or two bullets left in the hand. Basically, if you can keep the initial horde under control, Slivers hitting the tipping point where it just overwhelms the opponent is a pipe dream barring some very good draws.

Homing Sliver is one of those cards I like a lot more in theory than in execution. It’ll help win you the long drawn-out control games, and it can act as a bad Survival / Wild Pair and fetch Poison plus Haste right away for the swarm kill. The problem is it takes an investment of six mana to find one guy, then whatever it takes to play it! Even in this format, that’s a lot of time to be sitting around doing nothing. Even worse is that without Gemhide or six land in play, this is pretty much going to be taking place over three separate turns, for all the good Slivers that aren’t poisonous in nature. I think he’s good on occasion, and he definitely has the potential to win games, but I think Telekinetic and Delay both have more substantial impacts on the game and are more likely to see play over time.

As for spot removal… it ranges from annoying to downright crippling, depending on which Sliver dies. Under most circumstances, a few spot removal spells on Gemhide / Dormant / Frenetic can slow the deck down enough that a decent aggro deck can race. Even cards like Pongify can hurt, because of how bad a “normal aggro deck” Slivers is. Losing a critical ability is a lot more important than collecting a 3/3 Elephant that will most likely be reduced to chump blocking Tarmogoyf. Something like Fiery Justice is one of the worst possible things that can happen. You can’t do anything with the extra life, and it certainly won’t make up for losing 3-4 Slivers to a three-mana spell.

Ultimately, this means that Slivers is a very low-ranking choice in a field including a significant Red presence, one that can range from MRA to Justice Zoo to B/R/U removal-heavy Teachings. It’s not just that they have a bad match against the Red decks, it’s that there aren’t any practical answers outside of a very quick start or transforming into Wild Pair (and really, how practical is wasting 12-15 sideboard slots on a stop-gap measure?). We may see the pendulum swing back towards Wild Pair Slivers, and more builds featuring black for Sedge Sliver. They would lose a few key Slivers no matter what tri-color base they run, but they would gain some much needed resilience against burn and be able to buy time against other aggro.

Would I play the deck at a PTQ? I played it at a 58 man GPT this weekend and did dismally, but I’m not sure if that was just mediocre draws combined with a Red match or the deck itself. Most likely a mixture, since there was literally nothing I could’ve done against the B/R deck I played against that would’ve let me win. Meanwhile, my other loss can be chalked up to one bad play and being one turn too slow*, which although unfortunate is something I have to accept when the #1 plan versus other aggro is to race.

* This one I did go back over, and there was simply no way to buy more time. You’ll have a number of close games against U/G and some G/W, where it simply comes down to who has the win in hand.

So all of that said, would I do it again? Honestly, I can’t say that I would, unless I could fix the manabase to my liking. B/U/x is simply more consistent, doesn’t roll over to Red decks, and simply gives you more options than Poison Slivers. However, if you think your field will be heavy Tarmogoyf and control, and you’re willing to brave the Red decks, then I can see justifying it. It really can win quickly, and if you’ve learned to play it well – and yes, the deck does take a decent amount of practice – you can just come back and blow people out if they play fair decks. I would run Delay maindeck for sure, and I’d also consider fitting in as many Telekinetic Slivers as possible in the maindeck.

You might wonder about the other Sliver decks, and how they vary match-wise. Wild Pair Slivers has a worse control match, which pretty much corresponds with how many counterspells the opponent has. The higher the number, the lower the chance of resolving Wild Pair, and the lower chance of winning. Meanwhile, you can actually beat Red decks and keep a favorable normal aggro match. The B/R/W Sliver decks I’ve seen floating around aren’t fast enough to consistently race control, and quite simply are worse the G/R/W or G/R/U Goyf decks. It suffers from the same issue of mana problems under most circumstances, since it wants one-drops and needs to have an actual Swamp in play to power up Sedge Sliver. Not to mention the lack of Frenetic and Delay to beat Damnation, which means it has to rely on burn if the initial swarm gets beaten back.

As for Standard, U.S. Nationals is right around the corner, and I’ll expect to see Gruul and B/U/x Teachings decks everywhere, as well as I’m sure what will be a few cute combo decks. Myself, I’m more of an aggro man, and with the departure of Kird Ape and a few other cards getting printed to help out the Red hordes I felt compelled to make a Gruul list like everyone else. This is actually an update of Radha Gruul, which was relevant for about two seconds when people were trying Planar Chaos cards.

You’re probably looking at the list while trying to come up with the proper way to describe it as “a pile.” The key here is the use of the mana dorks to help power up multiple guys a turn, or Village activation plus burn, Invocation plus drop, etc. Thunderblade Charge goes great with Radha and Troll Ascetic, as it allows for extra burn damage that won’t cost any more cards. In fact, against control post-Damnation, being able to lay Sulfur or Troll and immediately get back to dealing six a turn without expending any more burn from hand is a huge comfort. Stonewood Invocation is a constant wonder as well, because it allows Gruul to deal double-digit damage and end the game.

You’ll notice I don’t have many ways to power up Tarmogoyf, and that might change at some point. At the moment though, I rather liken my odds of my opponent playing a sorcery to power Goyf up, which leaves Seal of Fire as the main burn left out. Personally, I’d rather just cast Invocation and punch somebody in the face, but I could be mistaken.

Radha actually seems like a rather underplayed card in Block, considering how few mana accelerants there are. I get that Sulfur Elemental has lost some of its luster, but Elemental, Invocation, and Charge seem like some solid considerations for such a slow format.

That’s all for now… good luck at your PTQs, and keep posting / sending me your results!

Josh Silvestri
Team Reflection
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom

PS: Congratulations to Outlaw and Rich Shay for winning Day 1 and Day 2 of Waterbury.