From Right Field – Why Does Chris Romeo Hate Time Spiral Block Constructed?

E-mails, forum posts, and private messages in my StarCityGames.com mailbox provide me with some of my best inspiration. For example, one person recently asked me, in so many words, “Why do you hate Block Constructed with only two sets?” Because the Block’s not done yet. Sure, the Pros get to play a tourney with the two-set Block, but us regular folks don’t. So why should I waste time on the decks? Especially when the third set becomes legal on May 20th, and I have about ten million Standard decks to work on?

{From Right Field is a column for Magic players on a budget or players who don’t want to play netdecks. The decks are designed to let the budget-conscious player be competitive in local, Saturday tournaments. They are not decks that will qualify a player for The Pro Tour. As such, the decks written about in this column are, almost by necessity, rogue decks. The author tries to limit the number of non-land rares as a way to limit the cost of the decks. When they do contain rares, those cards will either be cheap rares or staples of which new players should be trying to collect a set of four, such as Dark Confidant, Birds of Paradise, or Wrath of God. The decks are also tested by the author, who isn’t very good at playing Magic. He will never claim that a deck has an 85% winning percentage against the entire field. He will also let you know when the decks are just plain lousy. Readers should never consider these decks "set in stone" or "done." If you think you can change some cards to make them better, well, you probably can, and the author encourages you to do so.}

E-mails, forum posts, and private messages in my StarCityGames.com mailbox provide me with some of my best inspiration. For example, one person recently asked me, in so many words, “Why do you hate Block Constructed with only two sets?”

Because the Block’s not done yet. Sure, the Pros get to play a tourney with the two-set Block, but us regular folks don’t. So why should I waste time on the decks? Especially when the third set becomes legal on May 20th, and I have about ten million Standard decks to work on?

Turns out the answer is “Because it’s fun.” No, really. It’s been a blast to work on decks for Time SpiralPlanar Chaos Block Constructed.

“Of course, it’s been fun for you. You’re the White Weenie guy, and White Weenie’s so good that Craig even told us about a Premiere Tourney where all Top 8 decks were White Weenie.”

Actually, that’s not fun for me. Before I’m the White Weenie guy, I’m the “Marches to a Different Drummer” guy. I championed White Weenie when White Weenie wasn’t cool. Now, it is. Other folks have figured out the WW decks for TSP-PC Block. I want to work on other stuff.

You know what “other stuff” no one’s talking about or working on right now? Mono-Black. That just seemed too tasty to pass up, especially since I’d been working on a Mono-Black Aggro deck that was almost purely TSP-PC (minus Dark Confidant, Last Gasp, and Ghost Quarter). Why not see what sort of fun I could have for now in this stunted Block?

When I See a Red Door, Normally, I Want to Paint It Black

My first pass at a Mono-Black Aggro deck was, to say the least, lacking. I had almost no control elements. I was just going to smash face. Except that my face got smashed as much as I did any smashing. It was pretty much even, which is not bad, but I’m tired of not bad. When my MBA deck got a quick start, it was hard to stop. When it didn’t start fast, well, there wasn’t much I could do to check the beef.

So I did one of my favorite activities. I looked at The Gatherer, set to Black and Time Spiral Block. That’s where I rediscovered this gem. Tell me if you remember this guy:

Big Game Hunter
Creature – Monster Crusher
When Big Game Hunter comes into play, make your opponent cry by killing the honkin’ piece of beef that he thought for sure would win the game for him.
Madness – B (Oh, yeah, right. Almost forgot. You can also pay a mere B when this is discarded and get the same effect. So what if it’s just a 1/1? You have Bad Moon, right?)
1/1 (most of the time)

I can’t tell you how many times this guy hit the board and completely turned the game around. Honestly, I can’t tell you. I didn’t keep track. I just knew that I was almost never sad to see him come up. Below is a list of the creatures that he offed, some of them just before they ruined the game for me:

Spectral Force;
Aeon Chronicler (yes, really; I don’t know how BGH got through, either, but he did);
Sporesower Thallid;
Crovax, Ascendant Hero (okay, he paid the life, but it got him off of the board for the turn)
Magus of the Arena;
Reckless Wurm;
Ixidron (yes, really);
Bogardan Hellkite;
Akroma, Angel of Fury; and
Nicol Bolas (who actually died after it hit me; I pitched BGH, casting it for B off of Madness. Boo yah!).

The two worst problems were Akroma, Angel of Wrath, and Calciderm. I solved the Calciderm problem with some help from a local player named Adam, who asked the question “Why isn’t Plague Sliver in there?” as he pounded on me with his Sliver decks. I told him it was in the sideboard. He asked why it wasn’t maindeck. “It’s great on its own, and it just makes life awful for the Sliver decks out there when it comes down in game 1.” Too true, Adam. Too true.

It also stops Calciderm, and, when there’s a Bad Moon on board, it lives to tell about it.

Of course, he can’t do a durn thing about Akroma the White. You know what can, though? Smallpox.

The final piece of the puzzle popped into place when I broke down and added Tendrils of Corruption to the deck.

This was the final result of about three days of playing in the Tourney Practice room. (Luanne was out of town, and you were at the Future Sight Prerelease.)

Mucho Bad Ass (a.k.a. MBA)

16 Swamps
3 Desert
3 Terramorphic Expanse
1 Urza’s Factory

4 Dunerider Outlaw
4 Withered Wretch
4 Big Game Hunter
4 Plague Sliver

3 Midnight Charm
3 Funeral Charm
4 Smallpox
4 Bad Moon
4 Phyrexian Totem
3 Tendrils of Corruption

You’re probably asking “How can he call that an aggro deck when it only has sixteen creatures?” Well, it really has twenty with the Totems. Of course, I learned the hard way that you’re not going to activate them just any time you can. You see, I started him up against a Red deck that only had one Mountain up. What could he possibly cast?

Lightning Axe. And he wiped out my board with it except for one Swamp. From there, it got worse.

Card-by-Card Analysis for Those in Need of That Sort of Thing

Actually, I’m not doing card-by-card. You know why the Swamps and Deserts are in there. Ditto for Bad Moon. There are only three Terramorphic Expanses because I was getting too many hands where I couldn’t cast Withered Wretch or Dunerider on turn 2. Same reason there are only three Deserts. Besides, more Swamps means bigger Tendrils and better chances to drop Plague Sliver on turn 4.

There’s also the curious case of the two different Charms by three. They had been four of each, but some control was needed for bigger creatures beyond what Big Game Hunter offered. (He doesn’t kill 3/x creatures, for example.) That’s where the Tendrils came in. The third Tendrils took over for the other land when I realized that the deck ran fine on twenty-three.

I guess the only card that really needs any sort of in-depth justification is Dunerider Outlaw. For the same casting cost, I could have Dauthi Slayer, and, for a while, I did. The Slayer is often nuts, swinging for three or four (if Bad Moon(s) are out) essentially unblockable damage. Sometimes, though, you want a blocker. You know what’s a good ability in this Block so far? Protection from Green. Guess what? Dunerider Outlaw has that. Yummy.

Why is that so good, though? I will answer that with another question. How many times have you heard this in the past few weeks: “Wall of Roots will define Time Spiral Block Constructed”…? Dunerider Outlaw walks right past him and gets bigger for doing it. It also gets around a lot of the other cards people are playing, like any of the Green Slivers. Again, just sashays right on by. I’ll take that in exchange for it starting out as a 1/1.

Because of this, though, he draws a lot of hate. I mean, people have been wasting Disintegrates and Temporal Isolations on him. That’s fine with me, though. I have a Plague Sliver to smash with. Excuse me, with which to smash. Grrrr, I say. Grrrrr.

The true rares in the deck – Desert, Plague Sliver, and Bad Moon – won’t cost you that much. You’ll spend fifteen dollars on the Deserts, ten on the Slivers, and twenty dollars on Bad Moons. That’s only forty-five dollars over and above what the budget player should already own. You can knock it down to thirty dollars by playing nothing but Swamps. I’m not saying that Deserts aren’t good. They’re awesome. Your opponents have to play around them. Often, that means that they leave a pretty good creature or creatures on their side of the Red Zone. They can be played around, though. Making them play around the Deserts is A Good Thing, but it’s not the same as actually doing something proactive. In other words, if you have the Deserts or can afford them, use them. If not, Swamps are golden.

(I’ve said it before, but just in case you haven’t read everything I’ve ever written, I just can’t force myself to consider Funeral Charm or Withered Wretch to be rares even though they’re “purple” cards in Time Spiral. I can still dig Funeral Charms out of the Giant Box o’Crap (“Anything you’re willing to touch is only ten for a buck!”) at any store I walk into. Withered Wretch may not be as plentiful as that, but it was an uncommon from a set that’s not too old. I have to be able to throw a bone to the guys who, like me, have been playing for a while and still have their commons and uncommons.)

Then a funny thing happened. About a day and a half into testing this thing, people stopped playing with Green. I mean, junkie-without-rich-parents-to-get-him-into-rehab-and-out-of-jail, cold turkey stopped. It wasn’t until a couple of days later that I realized that the results for Pro Tour: Yokohama were coming in, and it was flooded with Red and Blue. I was getting hit mostly by Red. Teferi showed up quite a bit, but not nearly as much as the mono-Red decks. Because of this, I made change to the deck. Dunerider was no longer a very good choice since it was staring down Keldon Marauders and such. So, I dropped them for Sudden Deaths. Of course, with only twelve creatures, I couldn’t really call the deck Mono-Black Aggro anymore, could I?

Once I was down to twelve real creatures and four Totems, four Bad Moons just wasn’t such a great idea anymore. That fourth Bad Moon turned into the fourth Tendrils of Corruption. Karl asked me if I shouldn’t drop Bad Moon altogether at this point. I explained that I had held off too many Calciderms with a 6/6 Plague Sliver to do that. The three Bad Moons were staying.

Against all of those mono-Red and U/b decks from PT: Yokohama, this still held its own. I was quite proud of it, in fact. Of course, pride is one of the seven cardinal sins. As a Catholic, I must take this time to flog myself. BRB.

Sometimes, Though, I Leave the Red Door Red

At the same time that I was working on the mono-Black deck, I was working on a mono-Red deck, too. (I almost never work on one deck at a time. I get bored too easily.) Remember, this was right before the PT: Yokohama results were coming in. As the weekend wore on, I started seeing more decks that looked a lot like mine. I finally asked a guy what was up with that. Again, Pride reared its ugly head. I was hoping to hear “Dude, haven’t you heard? People are copying your deck because it’s so awesome!” Nope, what he told me was “Dude, haven’t you heard? People are copying the PT: Yokohama decks because they’re so awesome!”

Ego crushed again. It is, after all, what I deserve. Damn pride and shtuff.

So instead of taking you through the evolution of a deck that Pros have already tuned and won money with, I’m going to do a little deck deconstruction and show you what I was thinking. The deck that most closely resembles mine was Haruki Nakatani‘s. I say that because he used three Jaya Ballards, four Magus of the Scroll, and a Kher Keep. Yes, I actually used Kher Keep. Infinite blockers is fun. The only major difference in our two decks was that I used four Dead / Gone instead of Nakatani’s four Keldon Marauders.

Why was this deck so good, and what happened to the White Weenie decks that were supposed to rule the roost? Let’s start then with Sulfur Elemental.

Sulfur Elemental is a budget player’s dream card. It can’t be countered, so a big middle finger to the countermagic players. It has Flash, so it can do some very cool tricks. Finally, it’s uncommon, so we can easily afford four of them. That ability that hoses White Weenies, though, puts it way over the top, especially in a format with such a limited card pool. One Sulfur Elemental simply mauls White Weenie. Look at Antti Malin‘s Top 50 deck, one of only two WW decks in the Top 50. Eight of the creatures in that deck shrivel up and die when the Elemental hits play, and four of those have Protection from Red. If two Sulfur Elementals hit play, twenty-one of the twenty-eight creatures in the deck die. (Yes, obviously, anyone wearing a Griffin Guide can survive. However, they become much easier to kill. And, when the Guided creature dies, the 2/2 it leaves behind also dies if there are two Sulfur Elementals out)

Clearly, there are ways for White Weenie to deal with Sulfur Elemental. Not overextending is one way. However, it’s obvious from the results that the Pros decided not to even bother playing with White Weenie. If they had, I’m pretty sure more than two would have shown up in the Top 50. No?

The Elemental is good against countermagic and White Weenie. Prior to that Pro Tour, I had been asking myself what other good, cheap creatures might hurt control. I kept coming back to Magus of the Scroll and Jaya Ballard, Task Mage.

When those two cards were first unveiled, there was a “Huzzah!” loud enough to raise most any roof, and that was just from me. My initial thoughts on those cards were how badly they hosed control decks, especially the Magus, who could hit before control decks could muster any countermagic. Jaya, however, had a special place in my heart for what she could do to Blue control decks. She can kill any Blue permanent. Yes, even Enchantments. In fact, I won one test game against a U/W control deck that dropped Teferi’s Moat against me. I just let Jaya get active (the first one was countered), and then blew it up. Red Enchantment destruction. How awesome is that? I have been quite disappointed that people have not gotten those two creatures going in Standard. Shame on us.

{Special Paragraphs for Newer Players: You’ll often read that cards like Magus of the Scroll and Jaya Ballard are wonderful against the counterspell decks. That’s because their abilities essentially can’t be stopped and they deal damage outside of combat so they can’t simply be blocked. If you can get one in under the countermagic – and a first-turn Magus usually does slip in – you can use them to deal damage over and over and over while holding cards in your hand. Okay, Jaya makes you pitch a card. That’s what Fiery Temper is for. Reckless Wurm, too. I had those in the deck instead of the Fortune Thief and Wildfire Emissary. And, while attacking creatures can also deal damage over and over, they have to do so in combat. Control decks sometimes do pack blockers or cards that prevent creatures from attacking.

The ability to deal damage outside of combat is why so-called control decks hate cards like Magus of the Scroll and Jaya Ballard. You don’t have to keep casting creature after creature or spell after spell to try to kill the control player the way you would if you were playing a beatdown deck. They’re gonna counter anything important anyway. Once Magus of the Scroll or Jaya Ballard have resolved, countermagic players can’t stop them from dealing damage. Counterspell players hate that. I recently had a Jaya deal all twenty damage (twenty-one, to be exact) during one recent game. She hit the board, and my mono-Blue playing opponent couldn’t get rid of her. If you don’t play spells, many mono-Blue decks just sit there with a hand full of countermagic and nothing to do with it. Your strategy is to get one or two of the Magus and/or Jaya into play and ride them until your opponent can deal with them. Then, once they do, play out a bunch of damage spells or other creatures. They can typically counter a couple, but usually they can’t deal with an entire hand full of spells on the same turn. Of course, this is why control will team White with Blue to get Wrath of God and now will team Black with Blue to get Damnation: creatures that slip under their countermagic and repeatedly deal damage outside of combat really ruin their games.}

Keldon Marauders threw me for a loop. As you might know from the constant updates I do to my R/B deck called Quinn’s Harley, I dropped the Marauders quickly. They tended to be just two damage, getting blocked the one time that they could attack. Sometimes, that attack took out a creature. Often, it just ran into a Wall of Roots. If the coming-and-going damage could target a creature, I’d be quite happy with the Marauders. It doesn’t, so I left them on the sideline. Maybe I should change that in the wake of Wall of Roots not being omnipresent, but, instead of the Marauders, I’ve fallen for Dead / Gone. Except for being stopped by Protection from Red, there’s pretty much nothing that card can’t do. Small creatures die to Dead while big ones get kicked off of the playground for a turn thanks to Gone. That turn is usually enough to put you ahead to stay.

The burn spells are the final nail in the other guy’s coffin. I save Sudden Shock whenever I can against Blue-based Control decks. If I can get a Teferi deck down to four or six life, they’re dead, period. They can’t stop Sudden Shock and can’t respond to it. Essentially, those decks start at sixteen life.

What’s a Poor Boy to Do?

The Wednesday after PT: Yokohama, my friend Karl Allen sent me an e-mail dissecting the Top 8 with the final line "Your mission, if you choose to accept it: figure out what cards will do well in such an environment, and design decks to thrive there. Good luck, citizen!" What Karl didn’t know was that I was already working on that. As of right now, I’d play my mono-Black deck. The only hole in that deck right now is Stormbind. I could splash White for Disenchant, but I’d rather race the deck. Tendrils of Corruption does a lot to offset Stormbind tricks.

I’m going to hold off on any more TSP Block decks for a while, though, because Future Sight is about to become Constructed legal. I want any more TSP Block decks to include that set, and Future Sight has a couple of cards that I definitely want to try in here. The one that I most fervently want to test is Deepcavern Imp. Another to test, if control decks keep their stranglehold on the top tables, is Stronghold Rats. (Those with deeper pockets will also want to try Shimian Specter.)

And that’s it, folks. That’s all I did for Time SpiralPlanar Chaos TSP Block Constructed. My real work will come after Regionals when the full, three-set Block Constructed becomes a format that local stores will be playing (hopefully). Until then, I have some Standard decks to look at for Regionals as well as a special follow-up report for next week. Don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

Chris Romeo

P.S. One final word on Sulfur Elemental. People were expecting me to hate all over this guy since, as I noted above, I’m kinda known as The White Weenie Guy. One “problem” that I’ve always had in all facets of my life is that I can pretty much convince myself that any side of an argument is the correct one because I think so much about it. I tend to ponder and ruminate a lot on subjects. I can usually see both (all three?) sides of any debate, which is why I end up a lot with a weird hybrid philosophy on subjects, positions that no one else seems to be able to come to or understand. Anyway, yeah, I could indeed rail against Sulfur Elemental. I mean, just as White Weenie was really getting to be a great deck, they unleash a guy who hoses a lot of the deck when he appears in singles and the vast majority of any WW deck when two show up. I don’t even want to get started on what happens when three show up.

My feeling on this, again after what was probably way too much time spent thinking about it, is “deal with it.” First of all, White mages, there have always been cards that hate out White Weenie. Infest, Hideous Laughter, Wrath of God, Engineered Plague, Pyroclasm, Earthquake, I Could Go On, But I Won’t. Yeah, okay, fine, so Red mages couldn’t pick off a Soltari Priest or Paladin en-Vec (unless, like me, they used Flowstone Slide when White was expected). Again, we need to deal with it. Maybe pack your own removal maybe? I hear that Sunlance is good against the Sulfur Elemental. Sure, you’ll lose that X/1 before you can take out the Elemental, maybe a couple of X/1’s. Hopefully, though, not too many.

Play carefully. I don’t want you to have The Fear, but make sure you’re not playing recklessly when you’re facing a Red deck. Sulfur Elemental is an uncommon. Even the cheapest of us will run them out there – even if we don’t think we’ll see any White decks! – because it’s that good. The fact that it hoses a lot of White creatures is just gravy on the biscuit.