Four Facts That Define Onslaught Block As We Know It

Unless you’re going to Pro Tour Venice, or your local store is having lots of OnBC events, you shouldn’t really care… Or should you? Many of this site’s readers have played in OnBC events – I’m one of them, in fact, as my local Wizards store has already had one OnBC Arena league and will soon have another. Although I took first place in my last Arena league with The Rock, it was a suboptimal decklist… But here’s what I learned along the way.

A lot has been written and spoken about the Onslaught Block format, but virtually none of it has been of much substance. A couple of local-store tournaments and the e-league results are not chopped liver, but when the comments on them boil down to”Astroglide is gonna take over, and that sucks” and”No, it won’t!” that’s not metagame analysis.

Of course, unless you’re going to Pro Tour Venice, or your local store is having lots of OnBC events, you shouldn’t really care. The Block format won’t heat up much until after the release of Scourge, which makes a huge difference. Yes, a HUGE difference. No one could have anticipated after the release of Torment that in a few months U/G would go from solid-but-inconsistent to a powerhouse (Quiet Speculation, Wonder), that G/W would become viable (Anurid Brushhopper, Genesis), or that a deck could be built capable of doing 200 points of damage in one swing (Mirari’s Wake, Crush of Wurms, Firecat Blitz).

Having said all that, many of this site’s readers have played or will soon play in OnBC events – I’m one of them, in fact, as my local Wizards store has already had one OnBC Arena league and will soon have another. The top-notch pros aren’t going to give away their Venice tech, which leaves it to the everyday players such as myself to dispense some wisdom on the upcoming Block metagame.

Now, I don’t have any decklists – although I took first place in my last Arena league with The Rock, I doubt that decklist was optimal and the field was small. But from that experience I gained knowledge in spades, as well as a refreshing departure from the”Ah” sentence.

(Y’know,”Ah, Rock. Nothing Beats Rock” or”Ah, Psychatog. Good old Dr. Teeth.” Nothing gets on my nerves more than that. Even Brian Kibler, the best Magic writer around, wrote in his GP: Boston report,”Ah, foreshadowing…” You could almost hear the English teachers screaming.

Now where was I? Oh, yeah – the logic and wisdom.

FACT #1: There Is No Good Countermagic In The Format.

At first, I really liked Complicate – a slightly more expensive Mana Leak, with the option of becoming an uncounterable card-advantageous Force Spike – but it turns out to be very impotent in the face of a turn 2 Lightning Rift, or a turn 3 cycled Krosan Tusker.

I’m sure that, at the time the Wizards were designing Complicate, they thought it was perfectly costed, maybe even undercosted, for its ability. But now we can tell that it’s too slow. And if that is too slow, I shouldn’t even get into Discombobulate, Ixidor’s Will, or Voidmage Apprentice. The only well-costed counter in the format comes on a stick (Voidmage Prodigy), and it requires one to play lots of Wizards, clearly the weakest of all tribes.

FACT #2: There Is No Good Discard Or Disruption In The Format.

Time and again I have built decks with the powerful OnBC black cards, only to say to myself,”The only way I can plug this deck’s holes is with Cabal Therapy.” Alas, the Wizards learned their lesson after PT Houston; we probably won’t see a card as smooth as Therapy again for some time. That doesn’t leave you with much in the way of disruption for now.

Blackmail isn’t janky, but you really have to wait until the mid-game for it to be effective. Haunted Cadaver is a piece of crap; most players knew that even before Gary Wise informed them. Head Games would rock, if it cost three less. Hollow Specter was a good idea, but it requires lots of mana to use, and its toughness is nothing special, because…

FACT #3: There Is Some Crazy-Good Creature Removal In The Format.

Shock, Solar Blast, and Smother would be good even if they came alone – but they didn’t. There’s also Slice and Dice, Starstorm (one day, this card may rule Standard), Death Pulse, Cruel Revival, Contested Cliffs… and on and on.

The really sick thing is that all of the above spells are instants or can act at instant speed. And then there’s Astral Slide, which is at once much worse and much better than stereotypical removal spells. I would add Sparksmith and Skirk Marauder to the list, except the other removal is so good that it’s unlikely they’ll stay on the table long enough for you to use them.

FACT #4: There Is A Ton Of Enchantment Removal In The Format.

I wonder if it was coincidence that Naturalize and Demystify both got printed in the same set as Astral Slide. To read Buehler and Rosewater, you’d think so (they apparently had no idea how good the Slide was during R&D), but I have a hard time believing it. Plus, there’s the Nantuko Vigilante: if you wanted to play him and use him in one turn, he costs only one mana more than Uktabi Orangutan did back in the day, and gives you an extra point of power and the ability to monkey with enchantments or artifacts. Not super-sick, but not too shabby either.

So; armed with these facts, what can we theorize? You can do whatever you want without fear of a counterspell, but your punk creatures will get nuked and your enchantments could get nullified. This led me to three conclusions:

“If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em”:

Is Astral Rift really the best deck in the format? It’s hard to argue with turn 2 Lightning Rift, turn 3 Slide, turn-4 morph with one mana left over to cycle and slide it into a 4/5″win-target-game” creature. Jareth, Leonine Titan is nuts in the mirror against unprepared scrubs. Goblins and suicide black are not likely to be threats if you are running four Starstorms – and even if they were, then you could always run Stoic Champion.

However, without a Cartographer in the format, it’s more likely that a Slide player could run out of cycling cards, thus leaving the Angel (and Champion) open to all of the creature removal in the format. And then there’s the fact that Slide just tries to get a Slide and an Angel out and put the opponent on a clock; it doesn’t really try to stop the opponent in any other way. So…

“The Boy Scout Plan”:

A player once told me that if he didn’t get any Slides or Angels in the opener, he’d Paris regardless of what else was there, and if he didn’t get any in the six-card hand, he’s already thinking about scooping. Now, he was a bad player, but there is a gram of truth in what he said. There will inevitably be some decks out there that aren’t afraid of the big bad Slide; they just load up on whatever anti-Slide or anti-Angel tools they have, so that they’re prepared, while the Slide player is unable to counter their tech and is left with a hand they’d rather mulligan.

This reasoning leads most Rock and Beast builds to run Vigilantes main. And most cleric decks to run both Nova Cleric and Demystify in the main. Or Suicide Black decks to run False Cure main (to counter-act Angel lifegain), and so on. Like the utility decks of years gone by, these players think that as long as they’re prepared for the Slide, they’re got nothing to worry about. But not everybody thinks so…

“Walk Softly And Carry A BIG Stick”:

Astral Slide and Exalted Angel are two very powerful cards in the Block format… But they’re not the most powerful cards in the format. So some players will show up with decks meant to wreck the Slide (and every other deck they see) simply by playing bigger, stronger spells. Hey, it’s not like they’ll get countered, right?

Biorhythm has already established itself as one such card (although, technically, Starstorm is the power card in a Bio deck). Several decks try to create recursive Oversold Cemetery tricks, but I don’t think that the Cemetery is powerful enough to be in this category. There may be others, including Akroma’s Vengeance, Caller of the Claw, Patriarch’s Bidding, and so on.

So, what are your options? (1) The Slide; (2) A standard deck, such as Rock, Clerics, or RG beasts, loaded with anti-Slide tech; (3) A rogue deck designed to abuse the non-disruptive format by wielding an overpowered card. Make of that what you will.

The Block format is not going to be very deep, but Block formats will almost always be the least diverse of all Constructed formats, just because the size of the card pool is smallest. The wide divide between the really powerful cards and the rest just makes OnBC a little less diverse than MirVLite or Invasion Block veterans might want.

Personally, I don’t even mind if Astral Slide does take over the format; it will at least be more mentally challenging than having to kill a Wild Mongrel every freakin’ game. The important thing is not to sit around and whine about how the Slide is taking over. That won’t do you any good at all. Look at the facts, check out your options. That’s what metagaming is all about.

Questions, comments, and epithets accusing me of having every orientation under the sun can be sent to [email protected].