Deconstructing Constructed — Forgotten Strategies in Time Spiral Block Constructed

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My idiotic selection for the Grand Prix Trial this weekend was White Weenie. Why? Because the field was anticipated to be something like 50% Pickles with a smattering of Tarmogoyf and Reanimator decks. This is a field prime to be run over by W/G Goyf or the Little White Men.

Hello all, and welcome to another article about Block Constructed. Some things I wish I didn’t have to talk about (but will mention anyway) include how much I hate Pickles, how Teachings is still amazing, and how most aggro decks scoop to at least one of the former. For now we’ll start with my amazing Grand Prix Trial experience, which contributed to my caustic mood for the day. Let me take this opportunity to give a shout out to the guys I traveled with / saw at the GPT: Justin, Mark, Aeon, Derek, etc. All of you guys, thanks for convincing me that walking straight into traffic wasn’t worth it.

My idiotic selection for the Grand Prix Trial this weekend was White Weenie. Why? Because the field was anticipated to be something like 50% Pickles with a smattering of Tarmogoyf and Reanimator decks. This is a field prime to be run over by W/G Goyf or the Little White Men. My selection wasn’t based purely on theory… I’ve shared Zac Hill’s idea that WW has been an overlooked archetype since Goyf caught on, and that it could actually made a nice impact in certain metagames. It’s filled with evasion creatures, spells that can just blow people out, and it never has mana issues.

Now you might think that Pickles smashes WW. From a pure playtesting session against multiple high-ranking players, including my friend Justin who made Top 4 of the last 62-man GPT in California with Pickles, the match was a complete mauling in favor of WW. I played at least thirty post-board games, and maybe more, and I found I’d break even in large part to the four Serrated Arrows coming in on the Pickles side. However, in game 1 they have no such trump, which allows you to swarm them more often than not. The only chance they have is to resolve multiple Vensers / Riftwing Cloudskates to buy enough time, since many builds only run a singleton Snapback, if that, in the maindeck.

The basic logic is that bounce only does so much for the Pickles player, and at some point they need to actually kill your men like Calciderm to have time to Brine lock. Pre-board that’s practically impossible, since they lack Serrated Arrows, so they have to make bad trades or eat damage just to buy time to find the lock. The logic is that despite not having Scryb Ranger to break the lock and take advantage of protection from Blue, you simply have so many early game creatures (along with Serra Avenger and Calciderm) that you can get the job done, even if the early creatures get traded off after dealing 3-6 points of damage apiece.

I didn’t think that deck was all that good in an objective sense, but for ten bucks and a room I expected to be loaded with my supposed best match, I felt comfortable. The result? I lost two full matches to Pickles. Each of the games I won was a blowout, and the games I lost were all within one strike of winning the game (save one). I also may or may not have bawled my eyes out at wasting all that time testing and then losing in games where there wasn’t really anything I could do. The unfortunate part was that other than my round 3 slow-playing idiot of an opponent, it’s not like I can say I got luck-sacked out. WW is, unfortunately, at the mercy of what it draws*, and I simply couldn’t finish off my opponents because of it.

* Insert standard bad beat story here.

After that astounding set of results, I’m led to believe either all of my playtest partners were in on an elaborate joke of Punk’d size proportions, or I simply ran into the strategic limitations of the strategy. I’m going with “horrible joke played on me” for now, although I can see why people just pick up decks the day before a tournament with no testing. No expectations.

Unfortunately, my secondary deck (which I had been getting used to most of the season), Wild Pair Slivers, tends to not have a truckload of fun against Pickles either. And the one thing I was right about was that the room would be filled with the deck. Between Kenji, Karsten, and Flores articles/mentions on the topic, the deck is now at the top of most people’s must-play lists. At least 40%* and maybe more had the Kenji build or a variant derived from the list.

* Although I didn’t attend the second GPT of the weekend, supposedly there was a large backlash of anti-control G/W and G/U/W to counter the Pickles decks.

For those who care, I believe the Top 8 ended up with the following:

2 G/W/R Goyf
U/W Blink
2 Pickles
Poison Slivers
G/U/W Goyf

The Slivers deck got stomped in two quick games by Pickles, and past that I believe the Top 2 involved G/W/R Goyf and U/W Blink, but maybe somebody can correct me on that. The funniest thing at the GPT this weekend was my friend Mark winning all his matches via opponents not showing up. That’s only slightly funnier than watching somebody being poisoned to death, although I’m disappointed nobody got up and shouted, “ARROWED!” even once during the tournament.

It’s gotten to the point where I simply think the only choices worth bringing to a tournament are Pickles, Teachings, some sort of anti-control deck like G/W with Scryb Ranger and Calciderm, or U/W Blink. The biggest problem is many of the anti-decks can only beat Teachings or Pickles but not both, due to the wide divide in methods they use to beat a creature assault. Fighting through Riftwing Cloudskate, Snapback, and Serrated Arrows is vastly different from battling Tendrils of Corruption and Damnation.

For those who want to play an anti-control aggro or aggro-control deck, the only thing I can really suggest is the possibility of maindecking Sunlance over Temporal Isolation in any White deck. Sunlance deals with all the morphs that aren’t Brine Elemental, and Willbender doesn’t do much against it. Both cards are pretty much dead against Teachings, especially if they run more than a singleton Disenchant, plus the increasing use of bounce means Isolation simply isn’t that amazing anymore. Even the Amrou Scout tech is up in the air, because Bound in Silence or fetching another 2/1 in the face of Desert is weak, and the number of aggro matches you face where it’s good is on the steady decline.

The plus side is that Scryb Ranger becomes amazing again, and really breaks the Pickles match wide-open. If you just get a Llanowar Reborn counter or Griffin Guide attached to Scryb Ranger, it becomes very difficult to lose. It’s even better if you run cards like Might of Old Krosa or Stonewood Invocation to come over the top once the board begins to lock up. The other obvious option G/W has is Calciderm which, if Pickles keeps its current popularity and has ten bounce spells post-board, is just better than Mystic Enforcer since it’ll actually stick around when it matters. Stonecloaker is another bit of fun you may or may not like, but is worth thinking about just because it fizzles any tempo boost from a Snapback and resets the Arrows counters. Even Riftsweeper has become increasingly more important to stomp on Pickles early plays, while at the same time being terrible in every other match.

As for Teachings, there really isn’t a whole lot the average aggro deck can do against the beast. Typically, if you’re in Blue you can at least get the benefits of Delay and attempt to race, but obviously you won’t always be able to ruin them. Other than Delay, the best cards left at your disposal are Mana Tithe and Stonewood Invocation. The best part about both of these cards is that they’ve fallen out of favor in recent times, meaning most people won’t expect to see them out of your deck with any sort of consistency. Running sets of these cards has some inherent risk, as they aren’t exactly amazing as a two-of in your opening hand, but resolving either can completely ruin your opponent’s plan.

The one advantage many aggro decks have against Teachings that they lack against Pickles is the ability to take full advantage of single toughness creatures. Looter Il-Kor is one of the best threats in the U/G type of Goyf deck, not to mention Reanimator, and can really get abusive against a deck’s first answer, likely coming at four mana or post-Teachings. Other cards like Whirling Dervish and Virulent Sliver shine here too, thanks to the lack of Desert to cause problems. Past that, Damnation, Sudden Death, and Tendrils of Corruption still beat pretty much everything in the deck.

That’s really all I have to say on the subject of block aggro, since so many of the possibilities have been attempted already and the metagame features two decks that plow the vast majority of aggressive decks even when teched out. Control is a bit more interesting, but I’m reasonably sure Feldman and Tiago Chan have Teachings decks covered, while everyone else is still re-reading the Kenji (so happy he’s doing draft articles now) Pickles article. I have to say, playing a control version with almost no win conditions seems like the next evolution for the Relic decks, as the win conditions become largely superfluous and all are easily answered by opposing control decks.

This was a variant we’ve been working on for some time, after trying out versions with as many as seven creatures (4 Tarmogoyf and 3 Mystic Enforcer or Finkels), going all the way to zero in a few cases. Ultimately, due to time constraints, I decided on the singleton Triskelavus and Urza’s Factory combination, along with Gaea’s Blessing recursion simply to combat the opponents’ copies of the cards. Much easier than trying to answer them with stuff like maindeck Extirpate and Take Possession, while having to deal with their answers.

The basic idea is the same as The Baron: grind, thin, and recur the entire game until you can eventually win. Sideboarding is slanted against Pickles and other control decks, but that’s purely because you already run so much against the current crop of aggressive decks. Having a full set of Extirpate may seem odd, but when your plan is to grind and take at least 20 minutes to win each game, being able to remove key resources multiple times before going into full-blown Blessing recursion can be huge. Spell Burst is purely to beat up on Ancestral Vision and the various set of morphs Pickles run, since I can only see more of them showing up to tournaments in the future.

Against other Teachings decks you give up a Hymn of Haunting in the board, and Aeon Chronicler, in exchange for the Blessing engine, an extra Foresee, and an extra maindeck Hymn. Vore is a mainstay for all the builds running Red, simply because every turn it lives, the more difficult it becomes to remove. Once again, Extirpate shows value to slowly strip the Teachings engine and card draw away, then quite possibly their win conditions down the road.

That’s all for now, but not for this week. Come and check out the MTG Invitational page (no, I didn’t get invited) on Friday to see what else I’ve been working on for the week.

Josh Silvestri
Team Reflection
E-mail me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom