Magical Hack – Block Constructed Like It’s The End Of The World

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Friday, June 13th – With Regionals now behind us, and not enough results on the books to actually work up a good post-script on the U.S. Regionals by my weekly deadline, I seem to have permission to do what I’ve wanted to do for some time now: discuss Block Constructed.

This entry is friends-locked for the necessity of the survival of the human race. I’ve added turing_test to my Friends list, so anyone who’s passed the Turing test validation procedure can read it… and web-spiders can’t. There are only a few networks left under our control that we can be sure are uninhabited by the recent… issues… and it seems AOL is one of them, so I’m posting via AOL. Who knew one day we’d be glad there was a network so uncoordinated and inefficient that it was inherently protected from external control, because it’s so crappy no one can control it, not even the service providers? I’d say thank goodness for foresight, but instead I’m pretty sure we’re just blessed by good old fashioned human inefficiency.

It’s been one hell of a day. I overslept yesterday only to learn it was probably the best idea I’d ever had in my life; getting trapped in a morning commute would have been far more “killer” yesterday than we’re used to thinking of. News of why this is happening is sparse and trickles in catch-as-catch-can, but if you take your paranoid theories behind The Matrix and the Terminator series and cross-breed them I suspect you’re not too far from the truth. All I know is that I’ve never been so glad to have a slightly older, somewhat low-tech car, and that you could never install OnStar on it in a million years. You know how everyone kind of just boggled when the Super Bowl had the ad for the car that parks itself? Apparently this function isn’t “just” hardware based but is at least part software, a way of programming the computer to take the controls of the car directly and to follow a programmed set of rules that sum up to “parked car” somehow.

And so it wasn’t just those fancy expensive self-parking cars that were responsible, but an awful lot of assorted makes and models. Apparently GM installs OnStar in every new vehicle and has been for a few years, as a “service” to customers who might be interested in purchasing for a subscription. Satellite radio was the other culprit, or so I’ve heard; the kind of radio XM installs in your car wires in with the car’s computerized parts, so you can, say, change the radio with the button on your steering wheel… for your convenience. And anything that adds a satellite connection to your computer’s car… well, you know. I’m getting ahead of myself, though, for those who don’t.

I was pulling out onto Searingtown Road in between Manhasset and Roslyn an hour or so later than usual, when it occurred to me that it was quite strange that I found no cars on the road. I hadn’t heard anything on the radio… well, other than the “light” background music I play while I drive… but I was wondering what the hell was going on somewhere in the back of my mind then. Still no traffic as I pulled past the gated communities and the local park, and I’m waiting at the light by the overpass to the Long Island Expressway when I heard something disconcerting. Just then a truck barreled by at full speed, blaring its horn, and for some reason I thought to roll down my window… the air conditioning seemed off, musty or smoky or I don’t know what, so I figured I’d cut the canned air and breathe the first summer morning’s breezes.

And dear god, the stench… gasoline fumes, fire, and something wafting in between on the air that smelled suspiciously like barbecued hot dogs.

There was a crash, and the blaring of a truck horn, and I saw a few more cars speeding past on the expressway… one of them was a police car with red-and-blue lights blazing. I thought I saw something off, as they whizzed by, a broken window or something I wasn’t understanding… so I was understandably nervous as I went under the overpass and made the turn onto the service road. And then I saw it… wreckage, carnage, chaos, and blood, blood, blood. It wasn’t hot dogs on the barbecue, it was us.

Parts of cars were scattered everywhere, and I just kind of parked there a second or two as my brain absorbed it all, recoiling from what it saw and thinking no way in hell am I getting on the LIE today. Another truck barreled by, and it caught up to the first only to slam into the police cars that were following it, and as one of them skidded into the divider I saw what it was that had made no sense… the driver’s side window was shattered even before the impact, and there was no one driving the car. As I was trying to break from the panic growing in my mind, there was a tapping at the window.

I freaked and bolted… there was this guy, bleeding heavily from a scalp wound, knocking at my window. He’d gotten a hold of the door first, however, and as I jolted away he’d managed to get the door open. He screamed “Don’t get on there!” and I realized I was about to pull onto the highway… and I stopped. Maybe he needed help, or maybe I was just spooked, but with death and explosions in front of me I guess I was more afraid of that than I was of him… after all, with the panic subsiding, it’s just an injured person needing help, not a carjacker or a zombie, I was clearly still over-reacting from the weird trend of last year’s “Blog Like It’s The End Of The World” fad. Sure, this doesn’t make sense and is incredibly scary, but it’s not Code Zimbabwe kill-your-neighbor just yet.

Stopped just a few feet from where I’d jerked away in the first place, he got in the open passenger-side door and closed it, strapping in the safety belt. “Whatever you do, don’t get on the highway. It’s like this for miles in every direction, every roadway… wherever you thought you were going, you’re not anymore. The best thing to do is to get off of the map entirely and disappear. So pull back to the service road.”

“You’re bleeding,” I said like an idiot.

“And I may very well have just saved your life. Why, do you have any bandages in a first-aid kit somewhere? Look, buddy, just drive already. Pull under the overpass at the next light.”

So I did. I mean, what else would you do when faced with the completely bizarre and inexplicable? Following an order that seems to make sense is more or less an automatic if it’s phrased reasonably enough, so we pulled under the overpass and listened to the radio as we heard the traffic whiz by screaming overhead. As we sat under the shelter for the next hour, we saw cars pushed off the roadway by the dozen… and the smell of cooking meat started to turn to the smell of dead flesh. Cars zoomed by in the service road, some without passengers at all, the ones not being driven seeming to want to crash into anything they can, forcing the cars they chased to higher and more dangerous speeds then forcing them into the first solid object they could, often each other. And Jack told me his theory… after explaining that his name was Jack, at least. Once we were parked, I got the introduction, and gave him a left-over dishtowel from the pack of crap in the back from moving out of my apartment on Wednesday. I mean, I’d more or less only not thrown it away on a whim because it accidentally got mixed in with some laundry, so it’s not like I still need it for anything.

You know how a car can park itself? Cars can now use their computer systems to handle the controls themselves, and have rudimentary sensors to gauge distance to objects as they’re parking. You know how cars can link to a satellite to transfer information, because that’s how the OnStar network works? What if the satellite wanted to direct how the car drove? I mean, simple concept I guess, but nothing’s really stopping it I guess from sending a signal to engage the computerized controls function and receive further direction. Why any of this would ever happen and the implications on a broader scale is not quite clear, but apparently a hacker a few months ago had proved that it could at least work in concept by hacking the OnStar network and its interface with a specific user car, sending an override program to the car and stopping it in the middle of traffic in a busy intersection out in California. Good for laughs, I’m sure… if the override is sent out by a hacker, to show off and get a laugh, instead of whatever’s going on now. GM and OnStar were notified of this bug, and given a year by the government to correct it.

Well guess what, now it’s not a bug, now it’s a feature. Let me shoot this up to my blog and get the word out there as to how before continuing the rest of the story…

… Random stories that make no sense to kick off an article. Not just for Kyle Sanchez anymore!

With Regionals now behind us, and not enough results on the books to actually work up a good post-script on the U.S. Regionals by my weekly deadline, I seem to have permission to do what I’ve wanted to do for some time now: discuss Block Constructed. It is with great relief that I have dived headfirst into the format; since I found out I wouldn’t be able to attend Regionals this past weekend, my thoughts and my focus have gone on from Standard to Block Constructed, and having this article series finally catch up to where my head has been going instead of discussing a format I can’t actually play is what I have been waiting weeks for at this point.

Block Constructed is a wacky format, traditionally thought of as a “too-small” Constructed format with only three or four good decks and no real room to maneuver because some cards, like Bog Hoodlums, are so much worse than other cards, like its Shadowmoor equivalent in size but not in cost (or drawback) Ashenmoor Liege. With a small Constructed format, and some strong Grand Prix results, the format is set into motion first and foremost by hating on White people… well, not people, kithkin actually… they’re about half as tall.

As everybody who hasn’t been living under a cave knows, White Weenie in Lorwyn Block Constructed is actually one of the top contenders in the format. Having amazing power-to-cost ratios on cards like Spectral Procession and Goldmeadow Stalwart, some amazing two-drops and more Crusade-type effects than you can shake a stick at, it’s no wonder that the deck can be surprisingly potent to those who are used to White Weenie being played but not good. With a lot of mana letting you play huge threats like Cloudgoat Ranger, which happen to also have synergy with not just the Crusade-type effects but fun cards like Mirrorweave (which jumped from a $2 to a $10 rare overnight) that turn hordes of tokens into hordes of Wizened Cenns, making everything Huge/Huge and crashing for eleventy billion damages. Beating White Weenie is not a simple task, but it is what everyone is going to be aiming for nowadays, and I’ve been exploring Block Constructed with exactly that idea in mind. My first look at the format more nearly resembled Raph Levy’s Elemental deck but with either severe improvements or a severe neutering, I’m still not sure which, and while all those Elemental interactions looked great on paper there was a distinct “finishing the game” problem that I didn’t quite find the solution to…

4 Vivid Crag
4 Vivid Marsh
4 Reflecting Pool
4 Primal Beyond
4 Graven Cairns
4 Mountain

4 Smokebraider
4 Fulminator Mage
4 Spitebellows
4 Shriekmaw
4 Mulldrifter
4 Reveillark
4 Nameless Inversion
4 Firespout
4 Makeshift Mannequin

There was a cunning plan that could not fail. What it failed to account for was the fact that it wasn’t in the habit of putting a clock on the opponent, and too often had to trade its spells one-for-one with the opponent rather than take advantage of the mass sweepers or inherent two-for-ones. What that meant was that frequently it would have ten lands and one card in hand, draw another land and die to a Mutavault, because it ran out of gas before the opponent did. When your opponent’s lands give you free spells, like Windbrisk Heights does, trading one-for-one slowly isn’t exactly what I would call a stellar plan. The first obvious change that it needed was to adopt the Mind Springs that served Manuel Bucher so well in his five-color Block Constructed deck, to let the deck trade one-for-one then get five fresh cards in the mid- to late-game and actually maintain control. The remaining changes weren’t so obvious, when I played against White Weenie and found I was too short on Instants to not just die to Mirrorweave sometimes, and while I planned on four Lash Outs in the sideboard to accommodate that fact, between that problem and the occasional Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender problem (ironic, despite the eight Black pinpoint removal spells) I actually ended up deciding I was trying too hard to ‘get there’ with this deck full of two-for-ones and sweepers. I might want to instead try working on a deck with more sweepers, and an actual clock that might let your sweepers do more than just buy you some time before you die.

And thus the following deck was born in the fires of playtesting, to maul aggressive decks and punish Faeries with a stupidly large number of effects that kill hordes of 1/1s without targeting anything, though it possesses a few… odd… card choices that stand out as a bit peculiar.

Now this is an absolute train-wreck just to look at, with seemingly-random choices. We extend the Giant theme to include a two-drop Kithkin, but not one that cares about Giants… just one that happens to do good work, maybe buying some time for everything else to come together. It’s like I’ve intentionally gone and made a deck so ugly that only Flores could love it… but there was method to that madness, as well as work still to be done.

The idea was to try and get as many “sweepers” online as possible. Some five-color control decks run Austere Command and Firespout, plus pinpoint removal, but have the problem of not really presenting a “clock” to the opponent outside of the occasional Kitchen Finks. Enter the Giants: clocks if ever you met one, even at the low cost of three or four mana, and a good way to try and experiment and see how many mediocre Wraths you can play that still at least feel Wrath-like. Admittedly this deck is like 52 cards I want as a “Giants” deck, four Knights of Meadowgrain I took off the bench because I felt it would be an excellent early-game play… and four Taurean Maulers I am running as spare Giants, but which I am not married to. In fact, I keep looking at the Maulers and wondering how much fiddling around I can do with the manabase, and still have me some Mutavaults in the deck and cast Knights on turn 2 reasonably consistently.

… Because if we’re mid-ranging it, and I am already looking at spending three mana in that slot more often than not, I could try and squeeze in Mulldrifter… right? The mana sure gets a bit uglier, but if you squeeze another Vivid land or two in there, to cover the Green-half-of-Firespout requirements, and shift a few Mystic Gates in instead of the current Hybrid lands, just stretch the mana a little and it might just work still. (You can even still afford to run all four Mutavaults, since the manabase starts at 26.) This could also be greedy for minimal gain, but hey, that’s why we test. I want to pry at the edges of the deck, see how the mana holds up and apply those lessons elsewhere… after all, I started working on this format playing an Elemental deck that basically cast all of its spells as if they were colorless, because color discipline really did not apply and came at a minimal cost to the deck… really, just asking the question of whether you could fit Mutavault in too, and would want it if you could. Here, well, we don’t see the slow control style deck the “Commandments” decks (… or has the Internet agreed on “Quick n’ Toast” now, since Bucher Top 8’ed the GP with a polychromatic Command deck?) but we do see a potential opportunity that can be taken, just getting some card advantage and making the mid- and late-game aspects of the deck work better.

I suspect, however, just from playing with the cards, that Countryside Crusher will more than suffice at the role of pretending to be Mulldrifter. He hits harder than Mulldrifter, it’s true, but I’ve found the main reason for including him is not because he’s a Giant… good, but as the Kithkin Knight would show, not a requirement to play on the team… but because you get to the mid-game, have enough mana, and Crushers load up the tank with gas.

I do so enjoy playing with this idea, and found that it stands up admirably against Kithkin — not as in “this deck crushes that deck into oblivion”, but a deck full of mass sweepers that can many-for-one the opponent has to be a considerable obstacle, and Brion Stoutarm plus Knight of Meadowgrain equals an annoying level of life-gain that weathers you into the mid-game, where Spout into Thundercloud into Austere Command overtaxes even the Kithkin decks with four Forge-Tenders main. Color discipline is worth enforcing just because of how frequently it can mess with your draws… no reason to add another variable just to add four cards of another color, that you can’t even abuse as well as the rest of the field does if they set their hearts on it.

Having played around with the format some more, now, the question was raised of playing the 5c Control deck in the mirror. All of the credible solutions I have heard for that particular matchup involved resilient threats, overwhelming countermagic power, or mana control… and when it comes to that first part at least, I find I have to wonder whether the 5c sideboard might fit a few copies of Doran the Siege Tower for the mirror. Considering that ‘color discipline’ is not something to be worried over in this deck at all, and you can cast any complicated assortment of mana symbols, the resilience of a Black threat with toughness greater than Firespout that is cheaper than Cryptic Command probably deserves some consideration.

But what really interests me, thinking about that, is a polychromatic aggro deck, shedding “color discipline” to make use of some of the best heavy hitters in the format all in the same deck. Looking for undercosted creatures that are hard to beat, regardless of color, the idea would be to give up Mutavault (and possibly have some difficulty casting a credible turn 2 threat) in order to cast literally anything and smash your opponent. Skipping one-mana creatures due to the fact that you have to play Vivid lands and you probably don’t want to stretch that far just to include Flamekin Bladewhirl or Goldmeadow Stalwart or run your Tattermunge Maniacs into things that are just bigger than it, we look at two-drops and up to see how you could go about building the deck.

2cc: Wren’s Run Vanquisher, Gaddock Teeg, a possible nod to Woodland Changeling.
3cc: Doran the Siege Tower, Countryside Crusher, Mirror Entity, Taurean Mauler, Kitchen Finks, Vendilion Clique, Ashenmoor Gouger, Boggart Ram-Gang, Wilt-Leaf Cavaliers
4cc: Chameleon Colossus, Brion Stoutarm
5cc: Reaper King

Going with a “Changeling” theme, you can use the Lorwyn and Morningtide lands alongside Vivid lands, Reflecting Pools, and Hybrid lands to craft the right manabase and shake off color discipline entirely, sort of like the ‘Changeling Zoo’ deck people have been looking at for Standard for some time. Presuming you are going to be playing five colors and Changelings anyway… is it really just crazy as a five-mana 6/6 Lord that might have some Vindicate action going on when you cast more men. Conceptually, we’d be looking at something like this:

4 Wren’s Run Vanquisher
3 Gaddock Teeg
4 Doran the Siege Tower
4 Countryside Crusher
3 Mirror Entity
4 Chameleon Colossus
2 Brion Stoutarm
3 Reaper King

4 Nameless Inversion
4 Crib Swap

4 Vivid Grove
4 Vivid Crag
4 Reflecting Pool
4 Murmuring Bosk
4 Fire-Lit Thicket
3 Wooded Bastion
2 Ancient Amphitheater

Obviously this needs some more work… but it’s an interesting nugget of “WTF” that probably is worth looking at some more. After all, five colors of mana doesn’t just ‘have’ to be a controlling deck… there are more options.

The other odd thought I had was wondering if you could shift down from five-color Mannequin decks to a more U/W controlling base. It seems pretty clear to me that the reason we are using five colors in our Mulldrifter / Mannequin package is to fit in Firespout, but working with the assumption that you can play a Mannequin deck without what looks sometimes like the #1 most relevant spell in the format, you shed Red and Green entirely and have to look at a U/W control base.

Of course, given my goofy trends of the afternoon, it should come as no surprise that the next thought that crossed my mind was ‘… But if I don’t cut the Red, I can play Brion Stoutarm!” And thus the ‘innovation’ side of this conceptualizing begins to grow inbred, because apparently I really love me some Stoutarm at the moment. Keeping a sane head on my shoulders, though, we instead end up with a U/W/B control deck and wonder whether it can stand up. Presumably you need a lot of spot removal in the early game to handle Kithkin, so the Black can’t be just a light splash: we want Nameless Inversion, Shriekmaw and Makeshift Mannequin. Fortunately, if you can design a playable five-color manabase, you can design a playable three-color manabase, so we’ll start with the spells and craft the mana around it.

4 Makeshift Mannequin
4 Nameless Inversion
4 Shriekmaw

4 Cryptic Command
4 Mulldrifter
4 Sower of Temptation
3 Mind Spring

4 Reveillark
3 Austere Command
2 Oblivion Ring

4 Vivid Creek
4 Reflecting Pool
3 Vivid Marsh
3 Vivid Meadow
3 Sunken Ruins
3 Island
2 Swamp
2 Mystic Gate

The benefits for ‘stretching’ your manabase from three colors to five is probably minimal, so the stubbornness of not playing Firespout is probably just foolishness. It’s a thought exercise to explore… but having explored, probably not a plan to play.

The format seems as if it can bear a lot more exploring than ‘just’ the obvious tribal themes, and for those who are looking at this as a ‘boring’ PTQ season of Kithkin and Faeries and that’s it, just imagine how interesting things will get when we include Eventide mid-summer as we get halfway through the season. Even if we only get five Hybrid lands and that’s it, seeing the introduction of five more good dual lands is probably going to have an amazing impact on the format. And I doubt that we will see ‘just’ five lands coming into the format… but it’s indicative of the fact that there is a lot of untapped potential lying fallow. Considering that we can already cast anything we want next to anything else in the format, if we just try hard enough, you have to wonder whether this format really is as “degenerative” as it is currently being billed as. Given the fact that all of the leading decks right now are attack-able… look at that ‘goofy’ Giants deck that just happens to punch its weight against Kithkin… I think the format is just beginning to turn, and we will see more decks appearing in coming weeks.

And then there is Kithkin and Faeries, decks you can play around some to try and “optimize” them for the metagame, and decks you can make a new plan based around how they tend to interact with the opposing corners of the metagame… I mean, I’m proud to admit that I am considering playing Ghastlord of the Fugue after sideboarding in the Faeries deck, because he has some key things going for him: bigger than Firespout or Nameless Inversion, Black so that Shriekmaw can’t kill him, and it just so happens that if you untap with him you should win from there against 5-Color Control decks. The format isn’t just a few small cards, and I’m sure the weeks of PTQs we shall be seeing soon will hammer that part home more than any other.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com