Deep Analysis – Full Circle in Block Constructed

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Thursday, August 28th – The Lorwyn / Shadowmoor Block Constructed season is slowly winding down. With one weekend of PTQs left, Richard has a tough decision to make. Should he plump for one of the acknowledged Tier 1 decks, or should he concentrate on his pet Counter Elves deck? All is revealed within!

As Paulo Vitor put it, “[Faeries] beats Faeries more than any other deck does, except maybe Mono-Red.”

To sum up GerryT’s last article: “Five-Color Control beats basically everything except the mirror, Faeries, and maybe Merfolk and Fulminator/Lark Elementals.”

Unless you think these two masters are full of it, that leads to the following Block metagame:

Tier 1
Five-Color Control

Tier 2
Fulminator/Lark Elementals

I include Kithkin because my understanding is that it beats the other three Tier 2 decks, though it is a dog to the two Tier 1 decks when they are piloted well.

Personally, if I’d had time to get to know it better, I’d probably be running Five-Color at the final PTQ this weekend. I like control decks that play permission, draw a lot of cards, and run cheap beaters that can allow the deck to go aggro-control (Kitchen Finks). However, I also like to know what I’m doing when I play them (lack of familiarity with the Five-Color/Faeries and Five-Color mirror matchups is enough to scare me off), meaning I’ll be sticking to what I know due to time constraints.

Merfolk had a lot of similarities to the Counter-Elves list I ran a couple weeks back, so I took it for a spin. The results were seriously unimpressive. It was significantly outclassed by Faeries, and I couldn’t get it over 50-50 against Five-Color. As I played the Merfolk versus Five-Color matchup, I found that there were three broad paths to victory.

1) Aggro-control. The draw is Banneret into a Silvergill Adept or two, into Sage’s Dousing and Cryptic Command for Kitchen Finks, Firespout, and the sweepers. Whenever Merfolk throws several guys on the table and backs it up with enough countermagic to keep them alive (while keeping Finks off the table), it tends to get there.
2) Cantrip mania. When Merfolk resolves several Silvergill Adepts and Sage’s Dousings, Five-Color has so many lands it just can’t keep up with the two-for-ones unless it draws a similarly large quantity of Mulldrifters or gets multiple Archons or Kitchen Finks to two-for-one (meaning they are not stolen by Sower, tapped by Reejerey, dodged by Sygg, or removed by Crib Swap) to compensate.
3) Five-Color gets screwed early. You know, the usual.

Coming into the matchup, I expected that Silvergill Adept would be good because it was a threat that could go ahead and die to Firespout without losing card advantage. What I learned was that even when it did, unless I drew several of them to rebuild quickly, Firespout’s ability to propel Five-Color into the late game where it could comfortably defeat me was the main problem. It was the tempo loss, not the card disadvantage, that a resolved Firespout really used to put me down. Thus, the main benefit of Adept’s cantrip was to help dig to countermagic to protect itself. Often I had out an Adept or two just beating away while countering the Firespouts that would remove it.

The more I played Merfolk, though, the more I missed Counter Elves. I wanted to cast a freaking Thoughtseize already, or at least a Doran instead of a Reejerey (which would always beg the question “Got the Firespout?” whereas Doran simply asserted, “I don’t care if you have the Firespout”). I started thinking, “What if this was a Wren’s Run Vanquisher here instead of a Silvergill Adept? What if this was a Doran instead of a Reejerey?” This led me back to Merfolk’s three paths to victory, and wondering if I could get Counter Elves to somehow walk those same paths.

Obviously Counter Elves can exploit the same “Five-Color gets screwed early” win condition as Merfolk does, since they’re both beatdown decks that rock countermagic. In fact, with bigger hitters like Vanquisher and Doran, Counter Elves is actually in a better position to exploit those draws.

The current iteration of the deck can’t really get the aggro-control draw because it only has 4 Cryptic Command for counters… but that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, the original version of the deck with which I made Top 8 with had 4 Broken Ambitions, which would perfectly support an aggro-control strategy. Play a Vanquisher, then defend it, and when they finally resolve something to deal with it, punish them by resolving a Colossus or Doran. Seems reasonable, and I do recall Ambitions was about as good as (actually, maybe a little better than) Treefolk Harbinger against Faeries.

Obviously I can’t get cram the “cantrip mania” win condition into Counter Elves, but maybe I can make up for that by generating card advantage with Scarblade Elite (works fine as long as they’re trying to stop me with blockers rather than solid removal) and virtual card advantage through forcing chump-blocks on my larger animals. One of the great parts about Counter Elves over Merfolk is that Doran is always merely chumped by Kitchen Finks, and so is Vanquisher when either Doran, Nameless Inversion, or Scarblade are involved to shrink the Finks. Whereas Merfolk’s “cantrip mania” strategy serves to run Five-Color out of answers, my abundance of fat and removal aims to run Five-Color out of the right answers.

Here’s the list.

I finally took Sower out of the main, and I’ve been really happy with the results against Five-Color and Faeries. Sower is just very, very slow against both of those decks, and while it’s quite good against Kithkin, Doran, and others, I’m on board with the idea that it’s just not worth hurting my chances against the two Tier 1 decks to include it main.

The three Nameless Inversions and three Crib Swaps are a bit of a compromise. I’m pretty sure I want 4 Inversion and 2 Crib Swap against Faeries and Kithkin main, but I’d rather have 3 Inversion and 3 Crib Swap against everything else – including Five-Color – because Crib Swap is much more important in those matchups.

Inversion is almost always better against Kithkin, as it’s cheaper and kills everything but a Figure of Destiny that is already getting out of hand. Inversion is usually better than Swap against Faeries because I really only care about killing three or four of their creatures: Mistbind Clique, Scion of Oona, Sower of Temptation, and Vendilion Clique (if they run it). Inversion is a cheaper way to kill all of these except Mistbind, and doesn’t leave behind a residual token for them, so I’d generally prefer to max out on Inversions before tapping into Crib Swap. However, the 3-3 configuration does give me more direct answers to Mistbind, and the times that I draw the third Crib Swap when a Mistbind is warping in on my upkeep will help make up for the times that I have to use a suboptimal removal spell on a Scion or Sower.

Besides Nameless Inversion for a turn 2 play, this list runs only my best available two-drop creatures in Scarblade Elite and Wren’s Run Vanquisher. I considered adding Sygg (River Guide – I briefly tried River Cutthroat, and though he’s adorable with Doran, usually he just sucks), but while Sygg would be strong against Five-Color and probably fine against Faeries, I’d expect him to be weak against Kithkin and Red. Broken Ambitions for one gives me some more reasonable turn 2 plays that don’t require adding another creature I won’t be happy with.

I battled against Five-Color for a bit, and the matchup felt surprisingly even with the new build. I ended the set at a satisfying 6-4, much better than the dismal results I was getting before Ambitions came back into the picture. A few games against Faeries confirmed that I was still acceptable there as well, and I had my deck!

Matchups and Sideboarding

Versus Faeries:
+3 Cloudthresher
+2 Wispmare
+1 Nameless Inversion
-4 Broken Ambitions
-1 Doran, the Siege Tower
-1 Crib Swap

I finally bit the bullet and went with Wispmare for this matchup. Wickerbough Elder really doesn’t help the most damaging Bitterblossom draws, which are the ones where they start with it and then have Spellstutter Sprites and other counters backing it up, plus killing it before it can crank out any tokens at all is worlds away from hitting it after it’s had time to produce three of them.

I was toying with leaving in Broken Ambitions on the play as another foil to Bitterblossom, but decided against it. Whenever I have Ambitions and a two-drop Elf, I want to play the Elf to keep things aggressive, rather than hanging back on Ambitions. If they have Bitterblossom and simply choose not to play it into my untapped mana, I’m playing right into a game loss when they start playing threats on my end step.

Versus Five-Color:
+2 Demigod of Revenge
+2 Wispmare
-3 Nameless Inversion
-1 Oona, Queen of the Fae

Oona is a bit tough on the curve when boarding in Demigods, so it makes sense to cut her. The rest of the boarding plan, however, is pure greed. By cutting 3 Nameless Inversion, I drop the deck’s Changeling count considerably, making it tougher to resolve Wren’s Run Vanquisher early and Thoughtseize on turn 1. However, given how tough the post-board matchup is once they bring in additional Halos and Wraths, I believe this will give me the best shot at winning it by cutting out the extremely poor Inversions. Put another way, I’d rather be forced to mulligan hands with only Nameless Inversion powering Vanquisher than suffer drawing Inversion the entire game.

Versus Mono-Red:
+2 Treefolk Harbinger
+2 Sower of Temptation
-4 Thoughtseize

Harbinger is simply nuts here, and Thoughtseize is garbage. Sowers are pretty good as long as I don’t draw them too early, as they are a handy (if often temporary) answer to big Figures.

Versus Kithkin:
-4 Broken Ambitions
-1 Chameleon Colossus
-1 Oona, Queen of the Fae
-1 Doran, the Siege Tower
-1 Crib Swap
+3 Sower of Temptation
+2 Soul Snuffers
+2 Treefolk Harbinger
+1 Nameless Inversion

As ever, this sideboard plan is dead simple. I want as much removal as I can get, and I want it as cheaply as I can get it. As with Five-Color, I am going down on Changelings just a tad (to the tune of the one Crib Swap) simply because drawing two Crib Swaps is nothing short of awful in this matchup. Drawing one Swap is bad enough, but it’s not such a disaster that I can justify the impact on Wren’s Run Vanquisher and my manabase that would result from taking out all three of them.

Initially I had 2 Shriekmaw in the Soul Snuffers slot, but I wised up to the fact that even though Shriekmaw is easier on the curve, I drop a lot more games in this matchup to Stillmoon Cavalier and to token generators like Spectral Procession and Cloudgoat Ranger than I do to anything else, and I’d really like to maximize my outs to them if they resolve.

Versus Doran:
-4 Doran, the Siege Tower
-4 Wren’s Run Vanquisher
+3 Sower of Temptation
+2 Treefolk Harbinger
+2 Demigod of Revenge
+1 Nameless Inversion

I am still all about the Chameleon Colossus superiority in this matchup. I knew I wanted to bring out Doran, as he is among the most useless cards in this matchup, and I also knew that I wanted to bring in Demigod and Treefolk Harbinger. I also wanted Sower, as it can turn around Colossus races simply by stealing the other guy’s for a turn (even if it is immediately hit by Shriekmaw, which it usually is), besides which it provides the alternate win condition of “my Sower remained in play.”

Naturally, I then had to make a decision as to what I should cut to make room for the Sowers. I knew it wouldn’t be Cryptic Command, Chameleon Colossus, Thoughtseize, Broken Ambitions, or Crib Swap. Basically none of the cards that have a good shot at stopping a Colossus are coming out in this matchup. That left Oona, Scarblade Elite, Wren’s Run Vanquisher, and Nameless Inversion. If I cut Scarblades or Inversions, I remove 3 Elves from my deck, making Vanquisher unreliable; the choice is, therefore, Vanquisher by default.

Finally, I wanted the fourth Inversion help me save on my Crib Swaps by removing early Wolf-Skull Shamans (you really can’t just let that guy go unchecked from turn two) and to help power my lands and Scarblade Elite. If I remove 4 Doran and replace them with 2 Harbingers and an extra Inversion, I have only decreased my total Treefolk count by 1. Since I am boarding out 4 Vanquishers and only 1 Inversion in, my Elf count is going down by three, but then again my Faerie count is going up by 3 due to the addition of the Sowers. All in all, the Inversion helps me balance back out to 15 Elves, 13 Treefolk, and 15 Faeries.

So I’ve come full circle. I played in my first PTQ of the season with Counter Elves featuring Broken Ambitions, and it looks like I’ll be doing the same in the last. The list is vastly superior, including Doran, Scarblade Elite, and Crib Swap over Imperious Perfect, Leaf Gilder, and two very out-of-place Bitterblossoms. I now have access to Demigod of Revenge, Treefolk Harbinger, Wispmare, and Soul Snuffers post-board, where before I had only Shriekmaw and Stillmoon Cavalier. I like my chances a lot better this time around.

As many writers have said before, this might not be the optimal deck to play in a vacuum, but for me, and for this next tournament, I believe it’s the one that gives me the best shot at victory. I have lots of tricky, interactive cards at my disposal, I’m playing a deck that I know well, and I have no truly awful matchups that I am aware of. I’m no more thrilled to be paired against Faeries than anyone else is (Faeries players included), but though your mileage may vary, I personally like my chances of beating the Fae a lot better with Counter Elves than I do with Five-Color or Faeries itself.

To those of you with your final PTQ this weekend, good luck!

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]