Magical Hack – Ending the Block Season

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Friday, August 29th – The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. And so the ages pass, grinding mages into grist a hundred or more at a time in more than one place each and every Saturday… but at the conclusion of this weekend, the Wheel shall turn no more for Lorwyn Block Constructed.

The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. And so the ages pass, grinding mages into grist a hundred or more at a time in more than one place each and every Saturday… but at the conclusion of this weekend, the Wheel shall turn no more for Lorwyn Block Constructed.

It’s funny how much progress a metagame can make in a weekend. Two weeks ago I heard nothing but loathing for the Block Constructed metagame; now, as it is ending, I hear plenty of praise for how lively things got ‘at the end’ once the anti-creative forces of “Tier 1 Decks” was widened to return us back nearer towards the Modern Age Of Tier 2 Deckbuilding that we have grown so comfortable living in. Personally, I have been through an awful lot of grist throughout the season, stretching and straining to find something good to work with, settling finally on an interesting list I had expected would do quite well:

I found the deck to be quite amazing. After several weeks spent ‘mastering’ it, which is to say learning to play it at the level it is capable of playing at, I found I was knocking off very consistent results, placing in the Top 16 (or just outside it) across multiple PTQs… at least once I realized that I was winning Game 1 against Faeries and losing games 2 and 3 while sideboarding out my Mulldrifters, so I should probably stop doing something as dumb as that since the reason I was winning was the card advantage that is otherwise absent in the mirror match. However, time and time again I’d had cause to learn that I just wasn’t beating Kithkin on the PTQ level. I’d won my fair share of test games, but when faced with a ‘better’ Kithkin opponent (a PTQ-level opponent who’d been playing it for more than just that one event) I couldn’t buy a win. Given the recent change to the format and Kithkin’s second explosion into popularity post-Eventide, this was a Very Bad Thing (TM).

You could argue that if I wanted to play Faeries I should just play Faeries, since that does pretty well against Kithkin if you’re good with the deck. You can’t do that with the anti-control Mannequin/Mulldrifter package that was leading me to actually post good results against Faeries and Five-Color Control decks, so I was in a bit of a bind. One exploratory tournament later with Soul Snuffers in the board as a four-of, replacing Peppersmokes and an Incremental Blight, and it was time to accept that the deck concept just didn’t stand up to Kithkin. The skills I had earned playing it, however, might suggest that if I just wanted to play Mannequin on my Mulldrifters, there was a deck for that too.

One thing that has been bothering me recently, though, is the Justice Toast versus Self matchup, and the fact that Archon of Justice just isn’t very good against the most popular decks I could expect to face… just getting hit with Unmake against Kithkin, to the point where most users were siding in their Chameleon Colossi just to have something big and meaty that Unmake couldn’t hit. Figuring I wanted a few interesting changes to the deck anyway, as I’d found the deck a completely different animal when you add Doran, the Siege Tower to seize tempo against other control decks, I was inspired to try and capitalize on the fact that Justice Toast lists basically can’t beat Fulminator Mage-Mannequin-Reveillark decks. If you can’t beat ’em… they can’t either, right?

The simple fact is, you want different tools for beating different decks, and that is what your sideboard is for. Chameleon Colossus just wasn’t earning his keep in my sideboard plans, while the interaction added by having Doran, the Siege Tower in my deck along with Reveillark made for some very exciting options. This isn’t exactly Justice Toast… nothing ever is once I get my hands on it and start trying to make modifications for the fact that I expect to face a more developed metagame, which is why I am trying to attack that metagame with a modified approach. Keeping to the “stock” Toast list just makes you a target once your technology is known, and I’d bet on the fact that a lot more people will be aware of the Grand Prix-winning Justice Toast list than my last-minute publication of my PTQ deck for this weekend. From GerryT’s article this week, it was very apparent to me that whatever else I was doing, I wanted Fulminator Mages in my arsenal because his testing showed them to be superior to Kitchen Finks in a number of significant matchups, not just as a tool for trying to win the mirror match. Against the appropriate matchups, then, you have the option of replacing your Finks with Fulminator Mages… and the mana has been adjusted accordingly, to make it easier to cast them, thus the increase in Cascade Bluffs in the deck at the expense of the Mystic Gate count.

The real ‘Innovation,’ if I can steal the word for this week with a straight face, is replacing the Archons of Justice with a miniature Reveillark package. With Unmake showing up in Kithkin as an automatic four-of in most builds, and even being splashed into Mono-Red by the likes of Axel Jensen (one of Neutral Ground’s young up-and-comers) and showing up on The Mothership in Swimming with Sharks, your big drop has to do something useful if you invest in it and it gets Unmade, and Reveillark does something interesting whenever it leaves play, not just when it goes to the graveyard. Admittedly it’s a lot less sexy if they’re Unmaking your Doran as well, but no plan is perfect. After sideboarding it is likely that you are swapping your Kitchen Finks for Fulminator Mages there, as per Gerry Thompson latest advice noting that it was just better against Kithkin, so with Mulldrifters, Fulminators, and Doran to get back with your Reveillarks there should always be something interesting happening if a Reveillark leaves play.

On the surface, the deck operates in most of the same ways that ‘classic’ Justice Toast does, but with slightly more consistent Firespout mana. Effectively there’s just a five-card change: Archon of Justice becoming Reveillark, and three copies of Doran, the Siege Tower where most lists have a one-of Oona, the third Broken Ambitions, and the fourth Kitchen Finks. It also uses the ‘old’ tech of Austere Command over Hallowed Burial main, largely because I have found the extra trickiness worth the extra mana when I have Doran in my deck, and the ability to kill a Bitterblossom an extra benefit that was appreciated. Enough slight improvements have led me to believe I’m better at buying the time needed to get that sixth land drop for Austere Command, while also giving me good reason to choose it over the cheaper Wrath effect. Frequently enough I found I wanted Austere Command either because I want things in my graveyard, for Mannequin and Reveillark, or because I want to potentially have the option of killing everything bigger than Doran and keeping him as a resource in play.

Doran has his uses, especially for pressuring another deck just like yourself, where it demands a lot of respect for being difficult to kill. Anything that can cause your opponent to consider keeping in dead cards like Runed Halo while you’re going with the Fulminator Mage sideboard plan can’t be a bad thing. The slight change in how the deck pressures the opponent, and how Reveillark sort of mimics the third and fourth copies of Makeshift Mannequin, have seemed to have a significant shift in how the matchup plays out. Maybe it’s just me playing quicker than the average Toast player, in addition to the changed pressure dynamic that comes from adding Doran as a cheap fattie, but my ‘hacked’ list versus the stock list has allowed the fight to come down to damage instead of decking in the first game with you applying the necessary brute force… or if things go badly, having the tools (such as time) to win the second and third in the mirror despite clock issues. Meanwhile, the things that were traded for Dorans won’t come back to haunt me in the long run for the mirror match, as the alteration to the deck was generally slight.

Another key difference in how things play out is against mono-Red. The inclusion of Doran, the Siege Tower causes the Red aggro deck fits, trying to beat past it and requiring a two-for-one early in the game, at which time you’re likely to just get it back and do it all again with a Reveillark that they (again) end up on the losing end of in the card-advantage exchange. While the deck cut a Kitchen Finks to find room for a Doran, it now instead has six great-against-Red three-drops, making for a net improvement overall… and with the Runed Halos still split two each in the main and the sideboard, plus the fourth Finks in the board as well, it can be frown-town for Red decks. For once, then, I’ll be going into a PTQ not feeling like I’m a dog to Kithkin and Red decks, which in the last few weeks have been the bane of my existence: the former beating me every time, and the latter should beat my Mannequin Faeries list despite somehow being up 2-0 in matches against the Red deck with it — still not sure how besides dumb luck! Instead I get to feel a bit confident of the fact that I can actually beat all of the decks in the metagame, even if the matchups for a few could be better, instead of deluding myself into that belief regardless of how many matches I’ve lost to Kithkin in the past month of PTQs. To face the ‘nightmare’ match, I even have the same tools (Mannequin/Fulminator Mage/Reveillark) that they use to crush me, to which they themselves have a similar vulnerability.

Stepping back from my proposed plight for this weekend, where I may or may not find out how well I can play a complicated polychromatic control deck on Sunday after a six-hour drive from Hartford, CT to Rochester, Practically Canada with me as the only driver, I wanted to look at recent PTQ results as published on the newly-updated MagicTheGathering.com website. (I’ll leave the impassioned screeds against the site redesign and its inexplicable reduction of functionality, which will inevitably be compared with the V2.5-vs.-V3 MTGO debacle, to other capable columnists like Bennie Smith for next week. It’s bad enough I dipped my toes in the Hall of Fame debate, saying Olivier is cheatyfaced enough to earn the Black Mark of Shame in my book.) The link to the Top 8 decklists can be found here.

The results for this past week, as of the time of publishing, were as follows:

Augusta, Georgia —
Winner: ‘Vanilla’ Faeries
Runner-Up: Lee Steht Faeries (basically)
The Rest: R/G/B Quillspike, Mudkips.dec (River Kelpie recursion), Five-Color Merfolk, Justice Toast, Five-Color Elementals, Vanilla Faeries.

Austin, Texas —
Winner: Kithkin (Original)
Runner-Up: Five-Color Control (Non-Justice Toast)
The Rest: B/W Aggro, Mostly-Vanilla Faeries, Kithkin (Original), Torrent.dec, Mono-Red Aggro, Kithkin (Original).

Boise, Idaho —
Winner: Vanilla Faeries
Runner-Up: Five-Color Merfolk
The Rest: Kithkin (Extra Crispy — Stillmoon Cavaliers main!), Justice Toast, Justice Toast, Five-Color Merfolk, Justice Toast, Kithkin (Extra Crispy).

Minneapolis, Minnesota —
Winner: Five-Color Merfolk
Runner-Up: Vanilla Faeries
The Rest: Faeries with MD Cavaliers, Vanilla Faeries, Kithkin (Surge), Ponder Faeries, Ponder Faeries, Vanilla Faeries.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania —
Winner: Justice Toast (… Brion Toast actually)
Runner-Up: Ponder Faeries
The Rest: Kithkin (Extra Crispy), Doran (Firespout), Justice Toast, Kithkin (Extra Crispy), Justice Toast (… Kelpie Toast, actually), Kithkin (Extra Crispy)

Sacramento, California —
Winner: Five-Color Merfolk (Faerie Harbinger? Really?)
Runner-Up: Vanilla Faeries
The Rest: 2-Color Merfolk, Monogreen Elves, Mudkips.dec, Torrent.dec, Kithkin (Extra Crispy), Mono-Red Aggro

Winnipeg, Manitoba —
Winner: Unknown
Runner-Up: Kithkin (Original)
The Rest: Kithkin (Extra Crispy), RGU Good Stuff, Kithkin (Original), Faeries, Justice Toast, Justice Toast

(“Original” is without Stillmoon Cavaliers, while “Extra Crispy” has between 2 and 4 Stillmoon Cavaliers. Many, if not all, “Extra Crispy” chose to replace Lieges with Cavaliers… and some cut Mirrorweave accordingly.)

There was another tournament in Rockville, Maryland won by NG regular Adam Levitt with his personal brew of Quick n’ Toast (non-Justice edition), which has seen him Top 8 steadily in recent weeks. While we can’t tally all the decklists, we can present it here as I presume it remains the same as the prior week’s Top 8 appearance in NYC:

A few interesting things about this list… compare it to GerryT’s Justice Toast and you’ll see the following:

2 Crib Swaps over 2 Hallowed Burials.
+1 Makeshift Mannequin, +1 Cloudthresher over 2 Oona’s Graces
+2 Shriekmaw over Archons of Justice
3 Chameleon Colossus over a Land and 2 Runed Halos.

Never mind the conventional wisdom where plenty of people wanting to play Justice Toast go up to twenty-seven Lands and Adam dropped to 25, room had to be made somewhere and it is perhaps this slight opportunity to give an edge to your opponent that made it so Adam had to spend multiple tries qualifying instead of nailing it the first time. I’m looking at potentially changing the beatdown role of my Toast deck, so seeing a successful list sneaking in a powerful beater (here, Colossi instead of Doran) gives me a bit of hope that I’m not off my rocker entirely. Adam has gone with more point removal over the more powerful Wrath effects and Runed Halos, and (against Red) is relying on Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender instead of Runed Halo to get the job done… something that doesn’t stop even a single Demigod of Revenge, never mind multiples of them, and thus I consider the Runed Halo technology good technology, especially considering that Forge-Tenders don’t even evade the apparent ‘response’ card to Halos, Everlasting Torment.

So… I see a few things I like, specifically that change to the tempo of the game that comes with being the beatdown better, though I am still high on my post-sideboard Fulminator/Reveillark dreams and set it up with Doran as a recursive Reveillark target. I also see a few things that are ‘old tech,’ like having more Shriekmaws and spot removal instead of mass removal and Halos, and no Oona’s Graces. You also can’t convince me to cut a land — I want to add one but can’t make a different cut already, surely you can’t begin to think I’d slum it with just 25.

Tallying results for the PTQs this weekend, we see the following:

Five-Color Control: XX OOOOO OOOO
Five-Color Merfolk: XX OOO

Mudkips: OO
Torrent: OO
Mono-Red: OO
Five-Color Elementals: O
Quillspike Combo: O
B/W Aggro: O
Doran: O
2c Merfolk: O
Mono-Green Elves: O
RGU Good Stuff: O

A productive week for Faeries yet again, rising to the top (no matter what Flores said — he had four results, while I can tally seven) to claim a pair of North American PTQ wins and the most Top 8s again, bouncing back to the top after several weeks of Kithkin dominance at the elimination tables. Fourteen total Top 8s and two wins for Faeries tops the charts, followed closely by Five-Color Control of various versions and a swarm of Kithkin… the latter of which only converted for one win this past week, as opposed to the multiple wins each week we were seeing once Eventide rotated in.

While the format has opened considerably — “The Rest” has earned two wins and a total of eighteen Top 8 appearances this week, more than any of the three leading archetypes — we seem to be settling in with three best decks versus each other and the world. It’s better than one best deck… and it’s not quite a Rock-Paper-Scissors metagame, especially not with some people trying to dodge Kithkin and throw “Bomb” at the control decks of the format with their Merfolk builds. It’s not as wide open as some of the formats we have seen recently, but it’s still a distinct improvement over this time last year, where there really was only one best deck even at the end of the season. A good player with a good deck has a chance, even if a good player with one of ‘The Best Decks’ has a better chance.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com