Magical Hack – Nearly Mono Black In Standard… In Block Constructed

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Friday, July 4th – This one’s going to be a little bit… odd. At the moment, I have laryngitis, and so days and days worth of sarcasm are bottling up inside because I cannot actually croak the jokes that are on my mind. I was thinking about Block Constructed and some of the problems I have seen play out, and a certain deck title of John F. Rizzo’s struck me as an apt description of where it was my mind was thinking.

It’s only fitting that I am starting to write this at three o’ clock in the morning, on a Sunday night in the middle of a thunderstorm… after all, it’s hardly a sane hour, and probably a bad time to write anything on a computer that you would be unhappy to lose in a sudden, unexpected, and yet completely predictable power outage. But since I (as usual nowadays) find I can’t sleep even if I do go to bed, and I’m pretty sure this is a good chunk of why I am sucking at Magic lately, it’s kind of fitting that this would be how my story for you this week starts. Magical Hack is traditionally an attempt at distancing the article from the writer, maintaining objectivity and talking about what is relevant or what is news instead of what I’m thinking. That’s not what you’re getting this week. To understand what that is, well, I suppose you’d have to crawl into the skull of one John “Friggin'” Rizzo and see what is going on in there.

This one’s going to be a little bit… odd. See, normally I’m rather dry and, well, a fan of puns… and semicolons; and ellipses… in my writing here. In the real world however I’m not the stuffy, boring, pedantic fellow I write as — I much more nearly fit the description of “sarcastic *sshole,” and get away with it because a) it’s funny, and b) it’s true. (And yes, it is in fact funny because it’s true.) However… I find at the moment I have laryngitis, and so days and days worth of sarcasm are bottling up inside because I cannot actually croak the jokes that are on my mind, or much of anything else for that matter. So I have very few channels to vent into, and thus for my amusement you get something rather a bit different today. As to how this all comes around to Friggin’ Rizzo, well… you see… I was thinking about Block Constructed and some of the problems I have seen play out, and a certain deck title of his struck me as an apt description of where it was my mind was thinking.

My mind. Not his mind. His mind is in the gutter. His mind is probably thinking something like this right now: “I am John Rizzo’s sex drive. Eight equals equals equals equals equals equals equals equals equals equals Capital D*! Man, I like hot chyx.”

At Saturday’s PTQ in New Jersey, I saw someone playing a five-color control deck who played a Mystic Gate, a Sunken Ruins, a Wooded Bastion, and a Fire-Lit Thicket as his first four lands. His fifth land was a duplicate of one of the above — which is a real shame, the story’d be so much better if he just drew a Graven Cairns and completed the set. Anyway, point is: improbable though it may be, every time you add more cards and more colors your mana gets a little bit less consistent, and thus it gets a little bit harder in those games where you’re really boned on mana to get your way back into the game. What would happen if you took the five-color “Quick-n-Toast” shell but tried to consolidate colors until you had as few off-color cards as possible? (And what the bloody hell is a Quicken Toast anyway? Deck names have gotten really abysmal and I figure it’s probably those Legacy players secretly spreading their loving and yet pernicious influence around, where they have decks like Iggy Pop**, Golden Grahams***, and River Tam Kicks The Crap Out Of Everyone****. It’s a five-color Mannequin deck, can’t we just call it Five-Color Mannequin?)

What if, instead of five-color control, we instead tried to make it as near to mono-colored as you can make a deck with Makeshift Mannequin, Cryptic Command, and Firespout? The difference between some of these cards isn’t huge, and I’m aiming to dodge the crazy idea of squeezing Cloudthresher into the deck too… after all, the biggest problem I have with the Mannequin concept right now is the fact that people stubbornly refuse to accept the fact that they are going to get their heads handed to them by Puppeteer Clique in a Faeries deck, and that the Faeries players seem to know this while the Mannequin players stick their heads in a hole and say “if I can’t see you, you can’t see me!”

While you’re in that hole… has anyone else wondered why it is that the five-color “Elementals” decks that are basically like the Mannequin decks but without Cryptic Commands, don’t just, like, shut up and just cut four cards for four Cryptic Commands already? I just don’t know. But where were we… right…

I originally had the Festercreeps and Dusk Urchins switched around as to which was main and which was sideboarded, and ditto for the fourth Mannequin and the third Oona, but one PTQ and a fast track into the loser’s bracket because the deck had a hard time actually killing the opponent and those ‘Creeps were less-than-ideal when you didn’t successfully wing your way into the Faeries / Kithkin bracket*****. Assuming you want to try having a deck instead of the right to say dude, I am the only motherf***er in the room playing four maindeck Festercreeps, I’d suggest going with the above (better) version of the deck instead of the worse (what I played at the PTQ) version, even though they are the same 75 it’s a big difference when they aren’t the same 60.

“Nearly Mono Black In Standard” was a JFR classic, his stubborn ugly baby he refused to throw out with the bathwater. It probably sucked. A lot. (Like your mom! JFR would then say. But I’ll pretend to take the high road and not. Not even in a footnote*******. But the thought I had was, well… how many of those five-color mages’ spells actually need to be all five colors? Like, Cryptic Command and Mulldrifter are awesome, but Broken Ambitions you could reasonably replace with a Black card (Thoughtseize) and 90% of the time you’d only notice an improvement. (That other 10%, I made up. But that is why we playtest! After all, 75% of the people in the world will believe any statistic you give them, like, 80% of the time without checking it! It’s a fact, Google it, check Snopes.com or whatever! You read it on the Internet, it must be true!) Wispmare and Crib Swap are cards I am much a fan of, in those setups, but usually out of the sideboard so they can be ‘stealth’ White cards. Cloudthresher? Gets you killed dead nowadays, to the point where the five-color Mannequin mages are sideboarding it against themselves, they’ve realized it’s so good against them! (And yet no one takes their Cloudthreshers out. My mother taught me not to run with scissors before I lost an eye, and I think some mages out there may have missed the lesson.) Instead I have, um… Festercreep, yeah, Festercreep, against Faeries. Yeah. That’s the ticket. (And scarily enough it works much the same way, a lot of the time, at least if you were thinking of Evoking instead of smashing face with a 7/7/)

And I was just thinking… what happens if you try to take your Five-Color Mannequin deck… and go nearly mono-Black?

Dusk Urchins is one of those strange cards that nobody really pays attention to, but probably should. Working at its best, it deals five damage and draws you three cards, or trades with an attacker and draws you one card. The part where you draw three cards is kind of Mulldrifterish, which certainly isn’t a word but you get what I mean, you spend three mana and a body goes to the graveyard and you draw some cards. In this case, all that ends with words like “maybe” and “eventually”, since you maybe draw cards, eventually. Still, it’s pretty useful as Mulldrifters #5-8, and having twice as many Mulldrifters is pretty awesome in the mirror match… and meanwhile makes the rest of the deck function more consistently. Considering the efforts were all about trying to make the 5c Control deck more consistent without making it awful as well, I’d say it does okay… I mean, it’s not Kitchen Finks against aggro decks, but it’s better than Kitchen Finks if it successfully attacks or blocks once. At least in the world where, like Rizzo, I get to make broad sweeping Statements of Fact and you accept such proclamations without evidence.

I thought that trading Broken Ambitions for Thoughtseize was actually quite reasonable, as it’s better as Thoughtseize against control decks and against aggressive decks it can serve a similar role while saving you mana in the long-run and letting you do stuff instead of just keeping up mana. And trading Cloudthresher for more removal (in this case, Nameless Inversion) is worse against Faeries game one, better against Faeries game two (… since I’m not buying the “they won’t kill you with Puppeteer’s Clique” story, and have alternate Cloudthreshers-against-Faeries in my sideboard a.k.a. Festercreep), kind of neutral in the mirror match because people try to use these things as awkward nine-point burn spells and having additional removal to target a Mannequin’ed creature at instant speed is about the same as having a big dumb 7/7 to block their big dumb 7/7.

Cards that remain the same: Firespout, Mulldrifter, Cryptic Command, Shriekmaw, Makeshift Mannequin, Oona. Now, you lose the other colors of Commands, so you have to take a good hard look at Austere, Incendiary, and Primal Command and ask what they were doing for you, that couldn’t be accomplished with more cheap removal spells. Then you look at the polychromatic threats-and-answers department, like Twilight Shepherd and Plumeveil, and ask yourself if you couldn’t just use more copies of Oona instead of getting cute with Twilight Shepherd, because she’s the ultimate champion of the ultimate showdown of ultimate destiny.

Maybe I’m fooling myself into thinking these things are the same, but if you just want to play against creature decks all day you’ll find these things do work out. I aimed at the Kithkin/Faeries/5-Color Control/GW Little Kid metagame I expected to see at the Edison PTQ, and just one thing went wrong: I didn’t escape round 1.

I’d like to say that my first round opponent was a clever mage who threw me something out of left field, but in actuality he tried really, really hard not to kill me, but managed to do so anyway. Short of mana-burning himself I don’t know what he could have done more wrong; Garruk was played and used once, then never touched again when even a single 3/3 would have done good work… not even untapping two lands just to grow his loyalty, the card didn’t exist for several turns. Meanwhile I’m sure my play was likewise sketchy, just trying to stay alive against a small Mongolian horde of Oversouls and Colossi, all made the simpler by the fact that he refused to not cast spells before combat, so a bulky hand full of Cryptic Commands went from terrible to wonderful because he’d land one Colossus, then cast another before attacking, letting me counter the second and bounce the first. Wash, rinse, repeat through multiple Commands and you really do have to wonder.

My own play wasn’t terrible, but neither was it great: I’ve found I play pretty awfully in the first three hours or so of PTQs, which is likely related to the fact that I find it rather difficult to fall asleep before 4 or 5 AM nowadays. I can’t quite say why my body is under the impression I live somewhere in the Pacific ocean, but that’s the time-clock it’s punching right now and that makes me something the opposite of “a morning person”. As bad as my opponent was, making mis-play after mis-play, I still made a worse mistake, having not playtested my deck more than a few sparse games to see if its mana hung together and it more-or-less did what I wanted, and thus had failed to realize that with an immensely fragile assortment of bodies I had a very hard time actually putting a game away. Drawing a billion cards? Easy. Making sure one of those cards was Oona, when I only had two copies? Harder. So I outplayed my opponent (he didn’t even make it look hard), out-drew my opponent with repeated Mulldrifter use and re-use, killed basically everything he played and just couldn’t deal him damage. A pair of O-Rings on my Shriekmaws gave him all the time in the world, and on that greatly inflated time-scale I just couldn’t answer every single Colossus and Oversoul, so I didn’t… and died. Game 2 was similar except that I’d “sideboarded” into what I now believe to be the proper main-deck configuration, losing Festercreep and adding Dusk Urchins, plus having the third copy of Oona, and since there were very few relevant targets for Nameless Inversion I ditched those in favor of Crib Swap. Spare Firespouts and other miscellaneous died to become Wispmares, for his O-rings and the quite possible Shields of the Oversoul one might expect.

The sadness of getting kicked in the junk exactly the same way, having used Cryptic Commands and Crib Swaps pointed solely at Things That Matter, only to run dry of Commands (1) and Swaps (4) before a) I killed him (still never drew Oona, though I probably drew literally twice as many cards as he did this time, thanks to repeated application of both Urchins and Mulldrifter), or b) he ran out of Oversouls and/or Colossi. Down 0-1 for the PTQ, suddenly things were going to look grim: I was going into the Bad Deck Bracket, where well-aimed but admittedly narrow-focus cards like Festercreep were suddenly turds instead of all-stars and I’d foolishly put them main. I’d imagined that my probability of winning would rise exponentially as I left the ‘random’ decks and hit the ‘good’ bracket, so I really needed to win rounds one and two and from there it’s almost a reasonable assumption that I might just run the PTQ, being “clever” and all. (Such was after all the plan.)

Instead, I get to play the mirror match round 2, and fall behind in the first game when he hits all the metrics that matter and I just am on the back foot at all times, my spells being countered, his resolving and drawing cards. At least I didn’t draw any sucky Festercreeps, but a hand full of Nameless Inversions and Firespouts left me without cards in hand that actually mattered, though I was at least able to trade in one of each to kill off his Oona when he landed her, and that second Inversion killed the Mannequin’ed copy when she came back from the dead. On to game two, we see the third Oona in, the four Urchins in, the three Puppeteer Cliques in, and the four Crib Swaps in. Now, only sideboarding twelve cards for the matchup, I found I was a lean, mean, mirror-killing machine, as the opponent quickly learned when I started beating down and gaining advantage with Dusk Urchins as ‘backup’ Mulldrifters, even funnier when my sideboard card-drawer (Dusk Urchins) attacked and killed his sideboard card-drawer (Jace Beleren)… it’s like I’d planned it or something. Puppeteer Clique earned the concession, even though it didn’t bring back a Cloudthresher, it was just going to do all sorts of rotten things to him and draw me yet more cards.

The third game again comes down to the random acts of chance. We danced merrily, trading threats, sideboard card versus sideboard card, and for a while it looked like the guy who was bringing in Crib Swaps to permanently deal with the mirror’s large threats regardless of name, race, age or gender was going to win. Seeing as that was me, well, I was sort of cheerful… after all, at 1-1 I could still go on a reasonable tear facing “the real decks of the format”, which I’d over-prepared for, and stuff could happen. Instead he started to get back into the game, and we reached a late-game brawl where we’d both been exhausted and gone through a lot of resources, and the first one to get something that mattered off the top of his deck would likely win the game with it. That person wasn’t me, as I was pulling lands while he plucked enough of a spell to finish me with.

Comparing our decks after the fact, since we knew each other and could now dispense with the attempts to perform murder most foul upon each other, an’ act like we were homies and check out what a brotha was trying to do to each otha. (I warned you, Rizzo-esque. He gets away with this stuff all the time, so I expect to as well today. If’n you don’t like it, exit’s in the top left corner, looks like a left arrow.) Having whipped it out and measured it, well, seems we agreed that in this particular case mine was bigger, and bad beats, bro.

Gotta love this game sometimes. It’s now noon and I have yet to win a match. It’s around now that I’ve decided that as long as I’m going to lose like Rizzo, I might as well write like Rizzo, too. (And this is probably around when my editor, our beloved Scouse, had a spontaneous and unexplained nervous breakdown. Sorry.) It’s also about when my voice started to break down for the day, and thus frustrations began to build, especially since being sick in the first place had cost me what was supposed to be an awesome weekend with my girlfriend instead of starting out 0-2 at a PTQ I wasn’t even expecting to play in. Resolute in the Rizzo-an ideal of at least winning one match before I call it quits, I figured I’d stick in another round and clobber someone dead. So far I’m not much enjoying the John Rizzo experience instead of the Sean McKeown experience, but for the past few tournaments off about three hours sleep each, that has been the “me” experience. Sucks, but what do you do? (Sleep more first. Yeah. Thanks for the tip.)

Dear John,

Win more matches pls.

Your BFF 4eva,


PS: Hope you enjoy the man-love action.

Of course I lose the next round. The story wouldn’t be anywhere near the proper level of “woe is me” if I didn’t, again in one of those very close, tight matches that go forever. Game one I win comfortably, killing the creatures that matter, ignoring the ones who don’t, and settling in with Oona in play to close the game out. Game 2 I fall behind, spending time and resources to kill off Sygg multiple times and contain his beatdown, then relying on an Oona I force through as my last card of relevance only to have it hit with an Oblivion Ring for which I have no answer… yet another Sygg manages to go the rest of the way, since he’s got plenty of mana to protect it with. For the third game I sideboard in Wispmares for his Oblivion Rings, and again do a complicated dance to not fall behind too badly and actually kill his Syggs, since they are so far the only card he can actually keep in play against me. Again the game goes very long and I struggle to get a victory condition to stick while savagely outdrawing my opponent, but can’t resolve an Oona and protect it from O-ring, and I don’t have a Wispmare handy to get back in the game. With ten lands in play for my opponent, Sygg and a friend go the distance, as close to unkillable as matters.

What would Rizzo do? I stubbornly stay in, I’m not dropping till I get a win.

Round 4 my opponent doesn’t show up. I technically have a “win”, but I didn’t earn it. It’s now past 2:00 and I still haven’t won a match. This is pretty damn grim. Round 5 I get to play an opponent who didn’t forget to drop, and at the 1-3 table I beat the Constructed equivalent of the mono-Red weenie burn draft deck Nick Eisel recently talked about. Festercreep as a turn 2 blocker for Tattermunge Maniacs worked pretty well, and I won the first game at two or four life after eating a few hot Flame Javelins… and countering one of them. Game 2 I don’t win at three life, the Clash on a Lash Out kills me when it reveals Spitebellows, though it’s a bit disheartening because I was going to randomly Oona the top two cards of his deck before the clash for no good reason and didn’t get to because he’d flipped the top card of his deck in the excitement of resolving Lash Out while I was thinking “man, I really want to Oona him here” even though it’s an obviously wrong play (I can deny him a spell if I survive the clash and he puts a spell on top).

Of course, here I’m thinking and even say out loud, “Dude, I was totally going to Oona you for two first.” But it’s a clear ethical violation to try and “back up” with a flimsy and super-shady wrong-play Oona activation, just because my gut was telling me to do the wrong thing for no good reason, so whatever, I die. Game 3 I win at four life, having countered one Flame Javelin and again eaten another one to the face, again just declaring a blocker as fast as fast can be and trading my boatload of creature removal for his early creatures.

At 3:00 in the afternoon, playing since 10am, I finally had a win in the bag and dropped with great relief. Rizzo would have stayed in and ground out the next three hours; Rizzo would also write a 40-page screed about whatever comes into his head in this article. Be glad I am not actually John Rizzo, merely his secret man-crush Shante, for whom he cries into his pillow late at night and never tells his Becky about because she just wouldn’t understand, dawg. I could have stayed in to see if I could muster my way back to at least 3-3 and get to claim I went 50-50, but I’d still have had that free win in there and I ain’t about to suddenly lie to you, so I’d have to stick in to 4-3… another two hours… when I was losing my voice to the point where I had to croak painfully. I mean, pride is one thing… and hanging it Rizzo-style would be an interesting change from how I usually do things, just sticking it out to stick it out just because… but really, I could be drafting right now.

(I actually went and grabbed dinner, got caught in a thunderstorm, watched the 8-Man Block Constructed for a Box tournament, then drafted. Details, details.)

Finishing out the tournament, then, I’ve got some interesting ideas about something different to do with the format, and not a lot to show for it because I didn’t play against the decks I was aiming at… because I walked in presumably knowing I was taking a risk of getting caught in matchup-hell if I played something “weird” and couldn’t overpower them, and mis-designed my deck to have less power instead of more if I did in fact have to try overpowering Colossus/Oversoul.dec.

Working on the deck some more, and playtesting to see where I went wrong, we diagnosed the errors in the original decklist and came up with the better list, above, instead of 4 Festercreep.dec. I mean, I could totally handle the three or four decks you can reasonably expect people to play with at the PTQ… but if you run into anything off the radar, suddenly you’re underpowered if Festercreep doesn’t kill a whole lot of guys, and you still only have two copies of Oona as an actual creature of relevance to try and win the game. With Dusk Urchins getting the nod main, you’re still doing okay against most of the decks in the field because you have a boatload of removal, but you aren’t playing the drastically underpowered deck and hoping your little trick is good enough… now you’re playing “IDrawLotsOfCards.dec” and hammering everything the opponent plays with removal and your powerful cards, because you’re the guy splashing Cryptic Command in his mono-Black deck.

If nothing else went right in the main-deck, at least the mana worked like a dream. Instead of the awkward games 5c Control can have, when they’ve stretched their mana so hard to include Cryptic Command and full-price Cloudthreshers off the same six lands, you’ve got a lot of Black mana, some more Black mana, basically everything makes Black mana… and enough alternate sources to cast the Firespouts with ease (… for Red, definitely, for Green, maybe… for both, well, that’s a little bit harder) and plenty of mana for Cryptic Commands. Primal Beyond was awesome as my ‘stealth Plains’ for the sideboard cards, and next to a Reflecting Pool was every bit as good as a Vivid land for enabling Firespout.

But the one biggest problem I had overall was failing to realize that with the aggressive spell-smasher (Thoughtseize) instead of the reactive spell-smasher (Broken Ambitions) you usually see in these sorts of decks, you clearly profit when forcing spells through opposing permission and never have to spend more than one mana to stop a relevant threat… but as the game goes longer and your opponent is set to ‘topdeck’, you really need something powerful in play to give the opponent as little time as possible to sneak back into the game, because Broken Ambitions doesn’t care if that Chameleon Colossus came off the top of the deck, but Thoughtseize does. Thus most of the difficulty I had in the games I played was that I’d failed to realize that subtle implication when I was goofing around with the deck, and let myself get into a lot of games at a stalled board position, where I wasn’t actually terribly favored to find my bomb (Oona) in a timely fashion.

Now it’s Tuesday instead of Sunday night, and my voice has come back… so the bitter energy that was fueling my “sarcastic *sshole” schtick for the article has vented… after all, I mean, now I get to say all the amusing crap that pops into my head, instead of just thinking it really loudly at people. Craig’s going to want my article on-time for early publication I imagine, what with Fourth of July being my usual Magical Hack time-slot, and while it’s hardly a happy holiday for those Bretons who would prefer to think back to the good old days when the sun could never set on England’s empire********, I’m still going to assume that he’ll want it good and early if for no other reason than to check it for profanities as I do my damnedest to pull off the Rizzo impersonation*********.

More goofing around with the deck will continue into the future, but in the meantime I hope to have at least amused you. (Or better. I know Rizzo’s probably got chub right now.) And if we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended: that you have but slumbered here, while these visions did appear.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com

“Ninety-nine dreams I have had, The Dark Mark’s floating in the air
It’s all over and I’m standing pretty in what used to be the city
If I could find something tragic… just to prove there once was magic
And here is a Chocolate Frog, I think of you and let it go…”
— “99 Death-Eaters“, Draco and the Malfoys

*: 8==========D for those of you I have to draw a picture for.
**: A Storm-based combo deck using Ill Gotten Gains.
***: Auriok Salvagers / Lion’s Eye Diamond combo.
****: Not actually, I’m just f***ing with you on that one. But I wish I wasn’t.
*****: You know, the winners bracket. But it’s okay because Mike Flores went 0-2, too, it was like some Star City Games writers’ kumbayah love-fest******.
******: And as long as we’re having a libertarian hippie love-fest, mise well make fun of Zac Hill and add a footnote inside a footnote, ‘cause mise, right?
*******: Your mom. But only because you looked. And because she’s hot.
********: After the war, there was this feeling of no empire no longer … “All right, come on, Europe, give these countries back. Britain?” “What?” “What’s that behind your back?” “Oh, it’s India and a number of other countries.” “Give them back.” “Oh, all right. This one goes here and that one there. Oh, we need the Falkland Islands … for strategic sheep purposes.”
*********: He might even find them, too, but Rizzo had a lot of tricks… like spelling profanities with the first letter of each new paragraph to sneak a curse in if you really wanted to look for it. Cheerio, Craig, have fun! [Sean, I hate you — Craig.]