Magical Hack – Rock Around The Block

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Friday, June 20th – With a brand-new PTQ season starting, we begin to see the development of a metagame that at first glance seems inbred and static. With literally only three good decks – because really, the difference between one Mannequin-Firespout Elemental deck and another is a matter of greed, not ultimately something that creates a unique archetype – our first impressions could not help but be “Faeries / Kithkin / Mannequin.”

So it begins.

With a brand-new PTQ season starting, we begin to see the development of a metagame that at first glance seems inbred and static. With literally only three good decks because really, the difference between one Mannequin-Firespout Elemental deck and another is a matter of greed, not ultimately something that creates a unique archetype, our first impressions could not help but be “Faeries / Kithkin / Mannequin.” I spent a good portion of last week testing the format out, and learned enough to know that I will not be playing Kithkin at any point this season — I like a good beatdown deck perhaps even more than the next guy, as this spring’s half-dozen articles on Goblins in Extended can attest — but some White dorks and some pump spells with no reach is not my cup of tea.

Thankfully that still leaves plenty of options. Any good draft deck is actually a Block Constructed deck waiting to happen, if you think of it that way, and there is a wealth of untapped potential. I did not spend last week plumbing the depths of that potential. I found a deck I thought was fun but ultimately not good enough against the controlling Five-Color Mannequin decks and Faeries, no matter how much I wanted to bash with Brion Stoutarm, and then thought I was rather clever in deciding to play Faeries at the first PTQ of the season.

Here is a quick lesson in how not to do well at a PTQ.

1. Find a decklist that won the last PTQ.
2. Cut three Swamps until that deck is 60 cards.
3. Change Pestermites to Vendilion Cliques because you’re sure it is right, always.
4. Decide to shave one of those slots, and one other, for super secret tech… Familiar’s Ruse.
5. Do not playtest these changes. Assume you are a genius. Build a sideboard that includes Ghastlord of the Fugue.

Hubris always was, and always will be, where things go horribly, horribly wrong. I dare say that not actually being able to fall asleep the night before the PTQ probably didn’t help. I believe I settled in and actually dozed off at 5am, with the alarm clock set for 8. But when the first mistake comes when you turn in your deck-registration sheet, things are not going to end well. My round 1 opponent noted I looked absolutely exhausted, and the internal struggle to actually win my first match despite my opponent casting such stellar hits as Sootstoke Kindler was probably a sign that I should have dropped at 1-0. (I finally did at 1-3.)

For my embarrassment, here is the decklist that I registered and played:

4 Swamp
4 Mutavault
4 Secluded Glen
2 Reflecting Pool
2 Sunken Ruins
9 Island

4 Bitterblossom
4 Spellstutter Sprite
4 Scion of Oona
4 Mistbind Clique
3 Sower of Temptation
3 Vendilion Clique

4 Nameless Inversion
4 Cryptic Command
3 Peppersmoke
2 Familiar’s Ruse

4 Thoughtseize
3 Ghastlord of the Fugue
3 Incremental Blight
2 Oona, Queen of the Fae
1 Swamp
1 Peppersmoke
1 Familiar’s Ruse

The mistake made here was in failing to challenge a decklist just because it won a PTQ. This was based on the deck played by Rob Seder – of recent ‘The Week That Was’ fame – to win the second PTQ at Pro Tour: Hollywood. Reading through that article on the day before the PTQ, I read one unsettling thing that should have made me shift away from thinking I was ‘clever’: “I can’t make decks at all, so when I play in Constructed I pretty much just look for whatever was posted for the last major event.

I already knew friend Rob was ‘not the best’ at building decks. There is a reason he was easily convinced to play Ponder Faeries at PT: Hollywood, if he had to play Faeries, being the one person who ‘got that technology’ from me before the stroke of midnight on the day before the Pro Tour. Knowing he was ‘not the best’ at building decks I should have been running for the hills at the idea of playing a Rob Seder Original Creation, not putting my long experience at deck-design on the back shelf and playing a “slight update.”

And if you’re wondering how the Ghastlords were, well, let me put it simply. They were lovingly put into the sideboard with the best of intentions, and the belief that if I stuck it and untapped against the Five-Color Mannequin decks that the game would cruise from there. I was hemming and hawing between Ghasty and another card I was thinking of, Puppeteer Clique, because every small child wants to live the dream: Clique, take your Cloudthresher, Clique dies and Persists back, take your other Cloudthresher… take 4, attack for 14. Melissa DeTora won the PTQ I played at, and may or may not have lived that dream all over Benjamin Peebles-Mundy dead body.

Let us look where blind acceptance got me:

1. Reflecting Pool. This card is terrible in this deck. You do in fact want a land that lets you Cryptic Command on four lands with two Swamps in play, and a land that quickly turns on Incremental Blight. That land is named Sunken Ruins. Those numbers should have been adjusted accordingly… but I just trusted Rob for it without turning my brain on. Fixing the manabase required more than just pulling out the extra three Swamps to get down to 60.

2. Sower of Temptation main. Well, this was awesome, and was the part I was happiest about when I was testing. So, fair enough.

3. Broken Ambitions nowhere to be found. I played Peppersmoke because Rob said they were great against White Weenie and Faeries, and because they give the deck some supplemental card draw. While Ambitions can be a little awkward sometimes, it still is an early-game counter and it does smooth your draw some, so it has similar benefits while being overall better.

And then we have my own idiocy:

1. Ghastlord of the Fugue. ‘Nuff said.

Plugging my brain back in, after the vicious beating, it’s much easier to reach a list that I am happy with, without lying to myself and saying Ghastlord of the Fugue is playable in a Constructed format. Building things back from the beginning, with one PTQ’s playtesting experience, a lot of observation, and a better understanding of what makes this format work, I aim to be playing the following instead:

The sideboard I am more flexible about, but I did learn a few important things in among all those horrific mistakes: sideboarding Oona was actually really, really powerful, and alongside Puppeteer Clique it gives the deck some surprising late-game staying power with which to battle the Five-Color Control decks. That gives us apparently the following to work with:

4 Thoughtseize
3 Puppeteer Clique
3 Incremental Blight
3 Peppersmoke
2 Oona, Queen of the Fae

Thoughtseize, Peppersmoke, and quite possibly Oona can come in against Faeries; Thoughtseize, Clique, and Oona come in against Five-Color Control, and against Kithkin you just have the light approach of siding in Incremental Blight, though you should give serious consideration for swapping Broken Ambitions for Peppersmoke as well on the draw. Easy peasy… not a very difficult problem to solve, so long as I plugged my brain back in first. To get a hang of where this deck was going, instead of blind theory or the industry-standard “ten-game set” playtest session, I decided to take it into battle. Tuesday nights at Neutral Ground is the local Block Constructed tournament, and while I can’t say everyone in the tournament is very competitive, I can say that for a small tournament you do see a lot of people who actually bring, y’know, decks.

I had the joy of playing against Five-Color Control in both the first and the third rounds, and got to do some amazing things with Puppeteer Cliques after sideboarding. I also got to actually control the board during the first game, too, because I actually had significant functional countermagic thanks to Broken Ambitions. I won the first 2-0, and the second 2-1, and the power of Puppeteer Clique when the first creature you steal is a Cloudthresher cannot be denied. Likewise the power of Faeries when it starts the game with Bitterblossom cannot be denied… the games where I drew Bitterblossom, it was still a game but it wasn’t particularly close, while the games where I didn’t draw Bitterblossom I had to fight a good deal harder to squeak things in. Vendilion Clique is an all-star in this particular matchup, as is having access to all four Sowers… many a Cloudthresher was stolen with a Sower of Temptation, and once that situation was dealt with, Puppeteer Clique frequently made fetch happen.

The second round (of four) I got to enjoy playing against Black-Green Elves… which is like the worse Kithkin. I win the game narrowly in the first after a mis-play, deciding that on five life with no significant presence on my opponent’s board that my Cryptic Command had better bounce my Bitterblossom, despite the fact that it had already given me a sizable advantage and would just continue to hammer things home and make sure my opponent died. When my opponent had to choose between all-out attack and keeping back his Imperious Perfect, he let me convince him that with my three cards in hand if I had anything it was wrong to swing with everything, as he’d just die on the backswing. Truthful words all, but neglecting to mention that he’d just die on the backswing anyway thanks to Bitterblossom tokens. The game isn’t to make no mistakes, it’s to not make the last mistake, and I squeak by at 2 because the Perfect didn’t attack and I didn’t have anything of relevance in hand. Game 2 is decided by Incremental Blight, targeting Perfect, Perfect, and Elf token, when he started off with no turn 2 play, and Perfects on turns 3 and 4. The race then is two Elf tokens and some removal in his hand, versus my late-appearing attack force. The removal was Eyeblight’s Ending, as Gilt-Leaf Palace revealed, and the blocker a Mutavault, so I had all the time I could want to keep control.

The fourth round I intentionally drew with my opponent playing Mono-Black Rogues, which had dispensed with a pair of Five-Color Control decks and a Kithkin deck. Having split the prize and taken ratings points of the table, however, it was time to battle… and game one was decided by multiple Sowers of Temptation protected beforehand by Scion of Oona, while the Second was more of the same but with Peppersmoke to control his earliest threats. Bitterblossom appeared on turn 2 in one game and turn 3 in the other, and I imagine it would likely have been a very different game without it, but as-is the U/B Faeries deck pummeled the mono-Black Faeries deck with a few Goblins in it.

Not the biggest of learning experiences, but having gone 1-3 at a PTQ and losing to everything, not just ‘real’ decks, it was still good to see that the changes were a drastic improvement now that we were getting away from the crack-smoking Ghastlord of the Fugue “plan.” I did get an Oona into play against a Five-Color Control deck, and it was in fact pretty much unbeatable since he was running Incendiary Command instead of Austere Command, and not too hard to force through. With a momentary reprieve from kicking myself over playing an awful list at a PTQ, the next step in looking at evolving this decklist comes in finding room to play Ponders — a card I am generally sure is right to play in Faeries regardless, that just hasn’t seemed to sneak its way into my list yet. The most reasonable proposition is to play -1 Sower of Temptation, -2 Vendilion Clique, and -1 Swamp for +4 Ponder, but waiting to see how the successful Faeries decks from the first week of PTQs looked would be a great help.

To continue looking at the format, the next step was to see the Week One results for the format and see where things developed in the previous week. Mike Flores‘ “The Week That Was” for this week included 3 of 8 Top 8 results, so first things first the plan was to correct for that count. For the record, the weekly Top Eight results are being collated here on MagicTheGathering.com, if anyone wants to follow from home as the weeks progress. I’m sure I’ll be coming back to this page frequently in coming weeks, but it never hurts to add a bookmark to your browser.

Tallahassee, Florida — Kithkin (“Mirror Master”)
Boston, Massachusetts — Faeries
Burlington, North Carolina — 5c Control (“Quick-n-Toast”)
Calgary, Alberta — Faeries
Columbus, Ohio — G/b/u Elf Rock
Lincoln, Nebraska — Merfolk
Minneapolis, Minnesota — Faeries
Phoenix, Arizona — Faeries

Faeries: Wins: 4, Total Top 8’s: 19
Kithkin: Wins: 1, Total Top 8’s: 16
5c Control: Wins: 1, Total Top 8’s: 16
B/G/x Rock: Wins: 1, Total Top 8’s: 3
Merfolk: Wins: 1, Total Top 8’s: 2
5c Elementals: Wins: 0, Total Top 8’s: 4
R/G Shamans: Wins: 0, Total Top 8’s: 3
G/W Big Mana: Wins: 0, Total Top 8’s: 1

So right off the bat we see that the only deck to qualify more than one player this weekend was Faeries, taking half of the slots. It also obtained the most slots in the Top Eight overall, pushing three more players into the Top Eight than the next-closest archetypes, of which Kithkin and 5c Control were tied at sixteen slots and one win a piece. And unfortunately you can’t say that there was any “high technology” in the format overall — the closest we saw to true ‘technology’ was a regular trend towards some players cutting Ponder from their deck to favor Peppersmoke, losing the more robust card-selection spell for the small cantrip kill spell. Having myself tried the Peppersmoke plan I figure it is useful but not necessarily something I would desire main-deck a second time, especially in a varied and widening metagame.

And yes, we DO have a varied and widening metagame. Two of the eight slots were stolen by a Merfolk deck that was on literally no one’s radar, and a B/G/u Elf Assassins “Rock”-style deck:

“Elf Rock” – Michael Pinnegar, Winner, Columbus Ohio (6/14)

4 Forest
4 Gilt-Leaf Palace
4 Reflecting Pool
2 Sunken Ruins
3 Swamp
4 Vivid Grove
3 Vivid Marsh

4 Chameleon Colossus
4 Kitchen Finks
4 Masked Admirers
4 Mulldrifter
2 Nath of the Gilt-Leaf
4 Scarblade Elite
3 Shriekmaw
4 Wren’s Run Vanquisher

4 Nameless Inversion
3 Profane Command

4 Guttural Response
4 Incremental Blight
3 Mind Shatter
4 Raking Canopy

The good news is, interesting things are happening in the format right before our eyes, and slowly but surely more decks take to the field and can actually compete. 51 of the 64 Top Eight slots were in fact occupied by the “Tier One” metagame as we now know it, but that means that 13 of the 64 were not. About 20% of the metagame after several rounds of competition was able to include other competitors, and slowly but surely we see more good ideas.

Ideas area always curious, though, and instead of wondering “How do I squeeze Ponder in?” for Faeries, I have to wonder whether there isn’t more you can do with the Faeries decks that try to squeeze Firespout in. Marijn Lybaert made the Top 16 at GP: Birmingham playing Faeries with access to Firespout, as was explained in more detail here in Marijn’s first article for Star City Games. That deck, however, still considered itself to be a Black deck… with Thoughtseize and Nameless Inversion in the main in addition to Bitterblossom, and with Peppersmokes and Incremental Blights in the sideboard. What if, instead, we looked at Faeries-with-Firespout as not a Blue-Black but a Blue-Green deck, taking advantage of free mana-fixing to sneak Bitterblossom in just as effectively anyway? There is a certain Faerie that other Faerie decks just can’t beat… and recruiting him to YOUR side would, I imagine, improve both the Faeries and the People-Playing-Cloudthresher match-up. A 4/4 that can become an 8/8 is, after all, bigger than Cloudthresher

Call me crazy, sure, but isn’t it the crazy ideas that need looking at the hardest?

4 Broken Ambitions
4 Cryptic Command
4 Bitterblossom
4 Firespout

4 Spellstutter Sprite
4 Scion of Oona
4 Mistbind Clique
4 Chameleon Colossus
2 Vendilion Clique

4 Vivid Creek
4 Vivid Grove
4 Reflecting Pool
4 Secluded Glen
4 Fire-Lit Thicket
4 Island
2 Mutavault

The sideboard can be flavored to taste, likely including some mix of Faeries sideboard cards and “whatever you feel like playing,” such as accessing White’s Wispmares for Bitterblossom and Crib Swap for guys like Colossus and Oversoul of Dusk, both of which you are at least in the running against main-deck with a Chameleon Colossus of your own able to handle the situation. I imagine Sower of Temptation would appear, as it is basically awesome against Kithkin and is basically the only removal spell I want in after sideboarding against 5c Control decks before gaining access to other colors of mana. Puppeteer Clique is the latest technology for Faeries versus Cloudthresher decks thanks to the crazy turns you can have when your Clique resurrects two guys in the same turn. Thus I would imagine a sideboard that looked like this:

4 Thoughtseize
3 Puppeteer Clique
3 Wispmare
3 Crib Swap
2 Sower of Temptation

The key problem here with those Thoughtseizes is one that Marijn’s deck, both before and after the changes he details in his article, shares: incredibly few first-turn mana-sources capable of casting that Thoughtseize. As frequently as Thoughtseize is touted as ‘the turn one answer to an opponent’s Bitterblossom’, the most lands any deck I’ve seen play that actually cast it on the first turn in a Faerie deck is 9 (5 Swamps, 4 Secluded Glen) unless you want to get crazy and include Robert Seder’s 63-card misregistered PTQ-winning Faerie deck (a mighty 7 Swamps for a total of 11 first-turn Black sources). So the loss of first-turn Black lands from 8 to 4 for this deck, which then has 12 total Black sources potentially for the second-turn Thoughtseize, is presumably not terribly crippling, as many players are cutting back on their Swamp count to begin with or even replacing with Vivid lands as extra dual lands. Especially considering the deck can sideboard Wispmare and thus has additional tools to fight that early Bitterblossom from the opponent, and can punish Bitterblossom use with its Chameleon Colossus where the opponent has no such nightmarish animal, I find little reason for worry about the reduced effectiveness of Thoughtseize in the early game.

It’s a little early to look at trends in motion, with just two PTQ’s and one Grand Prix prior to the season, but as the weeks progress I am sure we will come back to take a look at the metagame in motion as things develop further.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com