Magical Hack – Busting Heads With Aggro Rock

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Friday, August 1st – Historically, any Black-Green deck no matter what it actually does picks up the “Rock” label. Slow and ponderous control deck? Rock. Flores is probably overjoyed that Extended got to keep Onslaught Block for one more year, not because he wants his fetchlands, but because that is going to give him another chance to make Undead Gladiator good again…

Historically, any Black-Green deck no matter what it actually does picks up the “Rock” label. Slow and ponderous control deck? Rock. Flores is probably overjoyed that Extended got to keep Onslaught Block for one more year, not because he wants his fetchlands, but because that is going to give him another chance to make Undead Gladiator good again. An aggressive little number that just happens to be Black and Green? Rock… with a clarification in front, like “Elf” Rock or “Macey” Rock. No matter what you do, whether it’s Overgrown Tomb, Llanowar Wastes, or now Twilight Mire, you’re a Rock deck.

So why don’t I just accept that fact and present to you Eventide’s new change to the format, “Aggro-Rock”…? Sure, we could call it “Elves” and figure you’ll get it, or “B/G Elf Beatdown” if we want to be pedantic, descriptive, and some more pedantic. I’ve been working on a new Elf list for some time now and started with something that looked sort of like this, a bastardized cross-breed of an Elf deck splashing Black for Thoughtseize and Nameless Inversion, plus Blue for Sower of Temptation and Cryptic Command. Originally in fact I had been working on quite a similar deck… thinking I really wanted to get just one more good Elf from Eventide, in the two- or three-drop curve… but when I saw some spicy one-drops I knew where I was going and I wasn’t turning back.

… Sadly the last two cards in the sideboard (Prowess of the Fair) is still sort of a hole-filler, as an answer to be explored for the potential Firespout problem. But why is it I went from looking at a Wren’s Run Vanquisher-plus-Cryptic Command deck to a tight little package that runs a low curve? Simple: so little else in this format gets to take advantage of a low curve, and getting to pack a wallop of a punch on one-mana cards is a great way to punch somebody’s lights out.

In Block Constructed so far, everyone is looking to Kithkin as the curve-hugging beatdown machine. There’s just one problem with that… Kithkin have to be a mono-colored deck, both because of a shortage of easy dual lands the tribe has access to, and because the deck demands WW on turn 2 then WWW on turns 3 and 4. Even Mutavault isn’t an automatic four-of in this particular beatdown deck, amongst its 26 or so lands, because the cost of drawing two of them early on can be crippling for the deck. Mono-White is, well, dumb… it attacks, and maybe it pushes some guys out of the way, but it doesn’t disrupt, and it certainly doesn’t have reach. You do twenty through the attack phase or you die, and sure, cards like Mirrorweave help give the deck explosive potential… but it has some known issues and opponents have been exploiting those weaknesses. Other beatdown decks will have other weaknesses, ones that aren’t so easily exploited by the current crop of ‘good’ decks in the format.

In Standard, the Fae were presumed to be the best in Hollywood, but it was the Green men and their friends the Black spells who won the day. In Block Constructed, it is a powered-down but still quite considerable team of Fae that are unquestionably the best deck in the format… and thus the time may be ripe to attack them just the same way, hit them where they are weakest, and that is by applying pressure in the early game with some disruption and some explosive end-game power thanks to Profane Command. I had been looking at Elves for some time now… mostly with the idea of marrying them to Cryptic Command to give them that little lethal edge that comes from pushing blockers out of the way… but seeing something I didn’t expect to see, in Eventide, it was clear that such drastic measures were not needed.

A format with good one-drops is so very, very different than a format without them. There is after all a reason not much was heard about Elves previously in Block Constructed… they weren’t good enough to keep up, and they couldn’t quite stretch far enough to play Cryptic Command to give them that extra oomph that they needed. One version did well very briefly, playing a BGu Rock deck that was a throwback to MTGO Block Constructed with just Lorwyn and Morningtide. Now, however, an aggressive strategy is supported by the recent additions. Everything else was pretty solid, but good one-drops are just a huge addition to the deck. And while some might challenge just how good these new one-drops are, I’m more than happy to tell you that they are the real deal, even if you can’t expect to untap Nettle Sentinel every turn for the rest of the game. He is not intended to do 20, after all, just “enough.”

Playing against the Fae:

Facing down Faeries is something you have to be expecting to do, a lot, in the current format. Thankfully we have planned for this eventuality, and are packing an aggressive bunch of creatures that don’t trade with a single Bitterblossom token plus Chameleon Colossus, who doesn’t deign to slum with mere Bitterblossom tokens. An early Thoughtseize can change the entire tenor of the game, from a game where the Faeries are in this to one where they are having a hard time getting their cards to do anything because now they can’t lean on the Bitterblossom or Cryptic Command they thought they had in their opening hand.

Just like in Standard, the plan is to relentlessly attack the opponent, hitting their life total early and sneaking in the spells that matter while they are backpedaling to keep up. Just like in Standard, this works reasonably well… perhaps aided by the fact that it is very easy to Profane Command a Faerie dead and reanimate a reasonable creature, just four mana to kill a Sower of Temptation and re-buy a Vanquisher. While you don’t want to count on sorcery-speed stuff against the Mistbind Clique deck, the simple fact is that it takes more than one Clique to really push you off the tempo you generated earlier in the game, so while they can get an advantage by stealing a turn’s worth of mana, they still aren’t gaining the advantage quite yet.

Game 1 against Faeries comes down to aggression on your part, and their list on their part. Main-deck Peppersmokes from them are pretty harsh for your Twinblade Slashers but pretty meaningless otherwise, and a Thoughtseize that steals your best card (presumably a Command or Colossus) still deals them two damage, so it’s working at least somewhat to your advantage: you’re the beatdown. The “standard” version that seems to be going around is tuned for the mirror, not for beating beatdown, and correctly pressuring the opponent and deploying threats at the right time will win the game. After sideboarding you have to expect that they will have Shriekmaws to go with their Nameless Inversions and no ‘dead’ cards, but in that same span of time you can add Guttural Response if you want to contain Cryptic Command (usually only really worth doing on the draw, since on the play for post-sideboarded games you are better served just staying focused on the attack phase) and gain four Cloudthreshers as an Instant Wrath for their side of the board.

Faeries players will tell you that Cloudthresher isn’t hard to beat, but these players have been seeing Cloudthreshers out of control decks, not Cloudthreshers that come down as a tricky response mid-combat that pushes blockers into their graves. Profane Command can be awkward and clunky against Faeries, since Scion negates the —X/-X part and Bitterblossom makes plenty of Black token blockers… they swap one-for-one with Cloudthreshers in the sideboard, which better fill the role you are asking of ‘that card’ thanks to being a game-ending Instant instead of a game-ending Sorcery against Mistbind Clique, and being more likely to fall outside of Spellstutter Sprite range.

Playing against Kithkin:

Remember how I said you were the beatdown? Not here. They are the more mindless beatdown deck, and frankly just on the strength of the aggressive push they are the better beatdown deck. If you just race, you can expect to lose by a little or maybe get blown out by Mirrorweave, so the plan is not to race. For game 1, your mission is to keep them from being able to profitably attack and activate a Windbrisk Heights, or at the very least keep up with them and have poked at their hand with Thoughtseize to know what their plan is and to rob them of their better high-end spells like killer Mirrorweaves or fat Cloudgoat Rangers. They will win in the early game if you try and race; you will win in the mid-game with a Profane Command if you don’t try to ‘race’ but instead try to keep them on the back foot and make free guys with Wolf-Skull Shaman and Imperious Perfect.

Game 1 can be a little hard. It’s a much happier matchup on the play than on the draw, so… if you get to pick and choose when you win your die-rolls, I’d rather lose the die roll against Faeries than against Kithkin. We don’t get to live in such an unusual reality, so really, we’re at game one comes down a little bit to luck: luck with your early Wolf-Skull Shamans, luck of the die roll, all these little lucky advantages you can’t control but you certainly can maximize on by focusing on the role you need to play against the Kithkin. After sideboarding, the plan is to swap your Nettle Sentinels for Scarblade Elites, and cut into your high-end drops to replace them with Murderous Redcap. So far I have been cutting two Profane Commands and a Thoughtseize to fit the three Redcaps, giving us an interesting Elf-Assassin take on using our cards to kill the opponent’s best cards, whacking Wizened Cenns with our Redcaps and getting double duty from Nameless Inversion, all while still having a pretty aggressive stance at the game. For the post-sideboarded games you’ll have a much easier time recognizing your role, because now you have a potent suite of removal at your disposal that meshes up better with the “don’t race” plan. This means you no longer have to lean on Profane Command to win the game but instead are just playing a tempo game with your removal, leaving your good cards in play and their good cards in the graveyard.

Because of how the deck is now better-equipped to face off against Kithkin, it no longer has to lean on Profane Command and thus can cut it down to a game-ending two-of that still has some potential utility as early as turn 4. And you still like Thoughtseize but want to shave one, cutting into the chances that you’ll draw two of them, or draw one later in the game when it isn’t a useful draw. The first is great, but after that they get real ugly real fast. Nettle Sentinel is just a liability in game 1, maybe getting in a little damage and then just having a hard time actually trading with one of your opponent’s cards, so it is coming out for subsequent games despite the fact that it’s basically great in every other matchup.

Playing against Elementals:

The question to be answered is, what kind of Elementals are we facing? The lists with Firespout demand a much different approach than the lists without Firespout main, and frankly you are advantaged against the lists without Firespout main (they are sort of a creature-based combo deck that doesn’t like being rushed by a deck that can disrupt their hand and kill a turn 2 Smokebraider with ease) and disadvantaged against the lists with Firespout main if you don’t see it coming.

Playing against Firespout is a game of putting the most pressure on your opponent with the least number of resources he can actually remove from play with Firespout, more than anything else. Playing a Forest and Twinblade Slasher on turn 1, a Mutavault and Wolf-Skull Shaman on turn 2, and then using the rest of your mana from then on out to pump your Slasher and swing with Mutavault adds an impressive amount of damage very quickly, attacking on turn 2 for one, on turn 3 for five, and on turn 4 for 7-9 depending on whether you made a Wolf token on turn 3. Your opponent may be on as little as five life as they enter their fourth turn just from those two cards and some mana spent, while you have only actually exposed two of your cards to Firespout and have another squad fresh in hand.

Against Firespout decks, Nettle Sentinel is garbage… he makes you play wrong by running into that Firespout instead of playing around it. Sure, he’s okay as a creature drop after the Firespout, but that is not historically where we try to apply our one-drop creatures in this game. Likewise against Firespout decks, Wolf-Skull Shaman is insane, potentially ramping up a significant creature presence very quickly for just two mana period, letting your opponent square off with three or four creatures just from that one spell of yours. Knowing if Elementals have Firespout can be all the difference… so scouting reports, preferably accurate ones, and drawing a Thoughtseize can have a huge impact on the outcome of the match by letting you play appropriately. If on turn 3 or 4 you learn that your opponent is playing a Firespout deck, it’s better to abandon the Nettle Sentinel as already dead than to keep playing out creatures that will die to Firespout alongside him, so untap him using your Chameleon Colossus, but not your Imperious Perfect, k?

Elementals without Firespout are just a worse aggro deck that has explosive potential, but no consistent early game like you have. Killing off a turn 2 Smokebraider with Nameless Inversion or even Profane Command if you are on the play is well worth it, as he is the only chance they really have of doing anything meaningful in a timeline that is actually relevant. Elementals with Firespout have to be treated carefully, as you don’t want to die if they overextend on the board but you also don’t want to die by yourself overextending first and leaving them with more gas in hand for after that Firespout has passed. A single Thoughtseize can ruin their day, robbing them of the trump card and letting you vomit your undercosted Green men on the table, but even just cautious play, Chameleon Colossus, and Profane Command can finish things off in your favor.

Sideboarding is by no means clear for these sorts of decks, but if nothing else you have to be aware that post-sideboarded games will likely be playing against Firespout regardless of whether they had it in the main. Nettle Sentinels thus turn into garbage while Scarblade Elite would be worthwhile, and one has to give at least some consideration to Murderous Redcap (who is both an Assassin for the Elite and something that survives a Firespout) and Prowess of the Fair (to leave you with at least something on the board in the wake of a Firespout).

Playing against Merfolk:

Merfolk will tell you they are favored against Kithkin. Kithkin will tell you they are favored against Merfolk. Ditto this for the Merfolk-Faeries interaction… so really I don’t know what I can say about this matchup without pissing somebody off.

Merfolk wins or loses based on how effectively they can keep the board controlled by keeping open mana for countermagic, or (when they have to be proactive about these things) by keeping a Sygg, Sower of Temptation, or Merrow Reejerey alive. Right off the bat, things are bad for them if they go and rely on the “countermagic” plan, because you are much better than they are at deploying significant threats before their Dismisses come online. When their Dismisses are online, you don’t cast spells, you just attack. If instead they try to be proactive about these things and build a synergistic board presence rather than try to hold up counter-mana and hope that gets them somewhere, well you have Commands and Inversions to bust up their small guys and take Sower of Temptation out of the equation, and put enough pressure on them so that they can’t both keep Dismisses online and play creatures that matter.

In my experience, things are reasonably favored for game 1; your creatures are better, you can play around their countermagic just fine and if they blink and have to do something they might just die to Profane Command. Oops. For game 2 things usually get harder before they get better, but all-around things are still quite reasonable and you sideboard very lightly, really just finding room for those two Guttural Responses to control their Cryptic Command comeback dreams and to help force spells through a Dismiss as needed. I tend to be of the opinion that Elves versus Merfolk favors the Elves, but would expect there to be a significant controversy over this point, and at least one person in the forums cutting and pasting the Magic-League polychromatic Merfolk deck that Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa did well with in one of their online tournaments… that person will be pasting the decklist everywhere because it’s their baby, not because they have any questions about it. The simple fact of the matter is, I’m as convinced as I need to be that this is the better Chameleon Colossus-plus-Thoughtseize deck in Block Constructed, and yes, I have seen your baby before. It’s not my fault it’s a very ugly baby.

Everything Else:

Five-Color Control may or may not still exist; I have heard about hybridized versions that take a more aggressive approach with threats like Chameleon Colossus instead of just the slow do-nothing-ish control decks we all know and love. Regardless of the flavor of their plan, the parts that matter are named Firespout and should be treated accordingly, and the rest of their toolbox pales in comparison even if the nitty-gritty details really are relevant. There isn’t a magical plan for staving off Firespout besides not walking into it blind; Thoughtseize is worth its weight in gold (… and almost costs as much!) for stripping that critical ‘Spout from their hand, Wolf-Skull Shaman does what he is intended to do, and Nettle Sentinel just sets you a big nasty trap to walk into by trying to make him work. Prowess of the Fair leaves you something to work with post-Spout if you play it beforehand, but there really is no magic answer to the problem so the plan is to play right and deal accordingly.

Mono-Red decks are rumored to exist, and tend to be rather harsh on the Elf deck. Laughter ensues something to the tune of ‘ha ha, dead Elf!’, and this is a known issue, but not one that really seems worthy of consideration. Life-total conservation is always the plan, and if you can contain their creatures for the first few turns they will be left with a few burn spells that can’t add up to kill you and you’ll have something meaty in play that asks for the two-for-one. For sideboarding, pretend it’s a White Weenie deck and you won’t be far wrong, because the same cards are bad for much the same reasons and Murderous Redcap is huge against them for being a walking two-for-one. It’s not a great matchup but it’s also not a great deck, which of course in prognostication terms now means that the universe’s driving cosmic force, the Maximum Irony Principle, will now cause it to win this weekend’s Grand Prix.

The Doran deck is like the Elf deck but slower and fatter, which is great for them if they live that long but I’d tend to think the low-curve deck’s chances are better: it starts with the initiative, and finishes that initiative with Profane Command. Likewise there is a Shaman deck, but it has problems with relying on specific cards (mostly Rage Forger) that can either be Thoughtseized or Inversioned, and is just that extra bit higher on the mana curve (it likes three-drops and four-drops) meaning it can be slow to deploy, and thus can be hard-pressed to catch up against the Sentinel-Vanquisher-Perfect draw. I fancy its chances better than Doran’s… it at least leans on tribal themes to do something, instead of just playing ‘good’ cards, and thus has potential draws that are greater than the apparent sum of its constituent parts.

What else is out there? Chapin has been favoring a UWB Mannequin-style deck he calls Solar Flare, and with new tools like Hallowed Burial and Soul Snuffers the deck has some new tools to adapt into its strategy if it wants to update. That’s a slow-ish control deck and thus tends to be easy to try and push over, as your plan is basically to play Kithkin against them except you are Kithkin + Thoughtseize, and can actually kill them without the attack phase if they sit at low life. And the other crazy concoctions are still out there too, like R/B Demigod ‘control’ decks and who knows what else… with a Japanese Grand Prix this weekend, though, I bet we’ll find out just what crazy stuff people are willing to try and might even manage to make work. Elves is one of those crazy things people haven’t really seen before, too… and it works pretty well. Maybe there is more to this format than the Bitterblossom war after all… stay tuned through the weekend and I’ll see you back here next week to decompress the GP: Kobe results!

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com