Not Magical Hack — The Time Spiral Block Metagame, and Core Set “Block” Constructed

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Sean is currently taking a brief break from his column… so today’s Magical Hack comes from Phil Barker. He brings us a comprehensive breakdown of the Time Spiral Block Constructed metagame, before turning his eye to something a little different. What do you think of playing a little Core Set “Block” Constructed?

Hello! I’m your Not-Sean for this week. It’s been a couple of weeks now since you saw some stats on the PTQ Top 8s, so I’ll start off with a full run down of what’s happened in the last fortnight.

Archetype Week 5 Week 6 Total Top 8’s Wins
Mono-Blue Pickles 3 5 8 2
U/W Pickles 1 0 1 1
Other Pickles decks 2 1 3 0
U/G Goyf 1 7 8 0
W/G Goyf 1 5 6 2
Other Goyf decks 3 1 4 0
Red Deck Wins 2 2 4 1
W/U Blink 0 4 4 0
Other Blink decks 2 2 4 0
U/B/x Teachings 1 2 3 0
U/B/x Relic 2 0 2 1
4-5 Color Relic 1 2 3 1
White Weenie 1 2 3 0
R/G/b Midrange 0 2 2 0
Reanimator 1 1 2 0
Wild Pair Slivers 2 0 2 0
Miscellaneous 1 4 5 0

Where a deck is listed as “Other Something,” that category includes all the variants of that deck that showed up only once or maybe twice.

So what’s significant here? Mono-U Pickles has made a definite mark on the format. This isn’t really surprising; the deck has always been hovering on the edge of the spotlight, cleaning up online and making consistent Top 8s. It’s still in the ascendant, making more Top 8s than ever before, and it has the wins to back it up. You can’t argue with the versatility of the deck, capable of playing as a respectable control deck with the combo lock as an ever-present threat. There’s also the simple fact of Teferi and Vesuvan Shapeshifter, two of the most powerful creatures in the block. There’s Willbender too, which is just so much fun to play with, especially if you’re good at bluffing. Of the other variants, U/G has been moderately popular and the U/W build picked up a win two weeks back, but hasn’t had any other Top 8s. Mono-U is certainly the one to watch, and I’d expect to see a lot more it in the coming weeks.

Tarmogoyf’s block performance reflects its in-game nature; it just keeps growing. There were 18 Goyf decks in the past fortnight’s Top 8s, that’s nearly 30% of the field. Admittedly those Goyf decks took a variety of shapes* and it didn’t find success in all of them, but I don’t think there’s anyone who honestly doesn’t expect to see Tarmogoyf beating down in the coming weeks. The main question is whether it’s the White or Blue version that will be the definitive variant. U/G Goyf picked up two more Top 8s, but W/G Goyf got the wins. This one’s too close to call.

Of the other Goyf decks, most contained some degree of Red. These decks come in two flavors, either packed with the good midrange fat of RDW or based on the synergy between Grove of the Burnwillows and Kavu Predator. The Predator decks are more popular, which makes sense as RDW is posting solid results and Green only serves to dilute it. (Something that should be comforting to those without a spare kidney to sell for ‘Goyfs.)

Red Deck Wins seems to have had a renaissance, putting up consistent Top 8s and a win. This could well be a result of the U/B control decks petering out. Whilst possibly not the fastest aggro deck, its selection of formidable fatties are probably the biggest creatures seeing play right now. Yes, Greater Gargadon is pure Timmy fodder; it’s also pretty good. Incidentally, it’s refreshing to see a Mono Red deck doing well in a format these days; Paskins should be pleased. If you’re so inclined, there’s never been a better time to bring the savage beats, and unlike the Goyf decks, this one doesn’t draw the hate.

Teachings is slipping ever more downward. The deck has failed to post a win in two weeks, and its combined Top 8s for the fortnight struggle to equal the figures from any single previous week. Relic based control, the more recent take on U/B, has posted a win, but this is undermined by its Top 8 appearances, of which there are only two, and neither in the most recent week. U/B Control has become a thing of the past, although it remains to be seen whether it will get an end-of-turn flashback before the PTQ season is out. For an archetype that was once so dominant I find it hard to believe we’ve see the end of it altogether.

There’s also another breed of Relic deck kicking around that’s got a win under its belt. This version adds a splash or two for more diverse threats, generally White for removal and sideboard cards and Red for Hellkites and Detritivore. The four-color variations all do without Green (poor dear), but the full five-color affair carries a Forest for Ana Battlemage and Quagnoth. Truth be told, this seems a little random, but it pulled a second place out in Darmstadt so maybe it’s worth a look. It’s certainly a fun array of cards, and Ana Battlemage is a neat package.

Body Double Reanimator decks never made it out from under the radar, and are now in the decline. Possibly these decks are posting low numbers because nobody’s playing them, rather than because they’re losing all the time. I think that likely, given their modest collection of wins earlier in the season. Don’t forget about this deck.

Blink decks are making their share of Top 8s, though they have no wins to catch your eye. U/W Blink is the only notable build, which has jumped into the standings with four Top 8s. That’s quite a leap, and this deck might burst onto the scene yet. Other variants have only nabbed a single Top 8 each, and are less likely to make any big movements.

Various hybrid decks have also shown up, U/B Relic and Teachings decks are becoming fairly homogenous, whilst other decks are splashing for Blink or Goyf on top of their basic strategy. The winning U/W Pickles deck ran Blink, for example. Generally the more focused decks are the ones putting up the numbers, though, so I wouldn’t dwell too long on this.

Finally, there have been some interesting roguish decks in the past weeks. Flores got the scoop on two different, equally interesting, Mono-B decks and a U/G/b combo deck that took infinite turns, however there’s an interesting R/G/b midrange deck that’s so far unmentioned.

I can’t help but think this looks scarily fragile in the first few turns, but if you make it past turn 4 it should be potent. A turn 3 Acid Moss is a huge tempo swing.

The next few weeks look like they’re going to be dominated by Mono-U Pickles. Be prepared to see it make up a good fifth of the field. Goyf will be everywhere, W/G and U/G in fairly equal measure, although the weight of wins might push people toward U/G. Expect Red Deck Wins to maintain its consistent Top 8 appearances, with probably a win or two to boot. Beyond that, there’s a fair few Relics and Blinks running around. I’d be surprised if Teachings is gone completely, but I don’t anticipate it showing up in any great numbers.

So, that’s the Block as it stands. As we drag into August, more and more you hear the complaint that Magic is boring right now. Standard season is over, Block is on the cards (heh), but it’s been four months since Future Sight and the format is old. Well, true enough, it is old. Nevertheless, it’s still on the move. Which is the better Goyf build, U/G or W/G? Will Teachings make a comeback? Are any of the rogue decks capable of becoming viable archetypes? Those questions can’t be answered yet, or columns like this would be irrelevant. The format has not been solved, there are still problems to try and wrap your head around. If you’re really tired of the format, swap decks. Pick one of the archetypes that you aren’t sure about and see if it matches your preconceptions. In six weeks we’ll be surrounded by pretty pastel shades and rolling countryside. Make the most of the post-apocalypse whilst you can.

For the rest of the article, I want to look at a hypothetical new format that I was set to thinking about recently. I’ve been teaching a friend of mine to play for the past few weeks, and if you’ve never taught someone before, it’s a surprisingly enlightening experience. After a while, he came across a mention of Block Constructed**. He asked me what it was and I gave him the simple answer. This was met with another question, “What about the Core Set?” No, no, I explained, the Core Set isn’t used for Block Constructed. I don’t know if my friend was going to ask me why, but I anticipated the question anyway, and realized I didn’t have an answer.

Why is there no Core Set “Block” Constructed?

Alright, that’s not a hard question to answer; there are plenty of reasons not to have a Core Set Constructed format. The more relevant question is whether these reasons are good enough. Personally, I can see plenty of merit in Core Set Constructed, so I thought I’d weigh up the pros and cons, and maybe get some sort of discussion out of it if I’m lucky.

Not exactly a pro, per se, but the first favorable point for Core Set Constructed is that something like this does exist already. Magic Online already features a Core Set Constructed option. On MTGO, though, this uses the cards from every core set published, which seems somewhat slapdash, as core sets were not designed to mesh well in a format smaller than Extended. Nevertheless, the fact that it’s there proves that Wizards has some faith in a format of this sort. Admittedly very few people know the option is there, and even fewer play it, but this shouldn’t necessarily cast aspersions over the format itself. Wizards has never promoted the online Core Set Constructed format, and people aren’t likely to go looking for it, so it’s not wholly surprising it goes unnoticed. Add to that, Core Sets aren’t currently designed for such a format. If Wizards decided to create the format, then they would, of course, design the Core Set with it in mind, and this would make it a much more enjoyable format to play, and therefore a more popular one.

Also in its favor, and this is really the main selling point, it would be a fantastic teaching format (as opposed to Time Spiral Block Constructed, which is a Teachings format). The Core Set is full of reminder text for just that reason, if the set made up the whole pool of the format, players would quickly be exposed to a lot of abilities and their rules. When people teach others to play they often make them a deck to learn with. It’s usually a simple deck; it probably has a bunch of Core cards in it anyway. I’ve always thought that the teaching devices worked into the Core Set are somewhat diminished because it’s not a set players really immerse themselves in. If they’re playing with Constructed decks using only Core cards, that’s about as immersed as you get.

Still on the subject of teaching, players could learn the basics of deck construction far more easily when working from a smaller, more user-friendly pool. The basic cards in the Core set serve as good examples of the archetypal components of archetypal decks. On top of that, if your initial deck-building experience was anything like mine, there was a shell-shocked period where you were just overwhelmed by the number of cards, the amount you had to choose from. For a beginning player, limiting this factor will let them see things more clearly. It’s easier to grasp why card A is a better burn spell than card B than it is to grasp why card A or B is better than cards C, D, and E, but you might want to run a single copy of F. Those interactions will come later, built on the initial weighing of just two or three options.

Another advantage for beginners of having a small card pool to choose from is a reduced initial investment. Players can struggle to get into the game when they need to buy cards from anything up to eight sets. If a player can buy a common and uncommon set and build almost any deck he pleases with just a few additional rares, he’s going to find starting their collection much easier. Once he’s got a collection and a deck from the Core Set pool, it’ll also give them a point from which to branch out into the other sets, supplementing their deck and collection how they see fit.

Moving away from the beginner crowd, Core Set Constructed would fill the gap between sets, at least every other year. I’ve already mentioned the listlessness that surrounds this time of year, and a new format would obviously answer that need. Wizards have already anticipated that to an extent, with their double block release schedule for next year. That said, unless they’re going to release double blocks alongside the Core Set, that answer won’t work during Core Set years. Perhaps a format like that wouldn’t hold the attention very long, but then it wouldn’t really need to. Run it as a side event at M-Fest for teaching new players, and have a Core Set Constructed league run every weekend at selected stores throughout August. By the time it ends, it will be rumor season for the next block and people will be getting excited about that.

One benefit that really appeals to me is the chance for more cards to see play. I always feel a little disappointed when a cool card is released but doesn’t quite make the cut for competitive play so it just falls by the wayside. Abundance, Citanul Flute, March of the Machines, Megrim (maybe not), all cool cards that will probably never see play. When you cut the pool down to just the Core Set, however, archetypes shift, alternatives are lost, and more of those cards get a chance to see time in a deck.

What of the downsides, then? I think the largest one is that people struggle to get excited over the Core Set. It’s a set of reprints, it’s half vanilla, the reminder text is ugly, and the cards are weak. Not all of those points can be addressed, but I think this is a symptom of a larger issue. Wizards must want people to be excited about the Core Set. Tenth Edition brought loads of gimmicks designed to make it catch players’ eyes. Therefore Wizards should be trying to solve this problem anyway. Maybe they should wait until they have before they start basing formats on the Core Set, but maybe the format would help drive interest.

Another downside I imagine people would mention is that Core Sets aren’t fun to play with. After all, Core Sets are boring, right? All vanilla creatures and unplayables. Well, the thing about playing Constructed with the Core Set is you can ignore the awful cards. The Goblin Pikers and Vampire Bats. Maybe only a third of a Core Set is fun to play with. But a lot of the weak or un-fun cards will lack the power to make a Constructed deck, so you won’t be playing with them anyway.

It’d burn out quickly. Well, yes, probably. I have to agree this is one of the more prominent downsides. You’d be playing with a tiny pool of cards, less than Block Constructed with two sets. It wouldn’t burn out immediately, though, and like I say, it would only have to run for a couple of months in summer to give players a new direction for their deck building.

Ultimately, it’s not so thin on the ground, anyway. There’s an UpwellingDoubling Cube engine in there, Sleeper Agent and Windborn Muse, a whole glut of milling cards, loads of fancy artifacts. Tenth wasn’t even designed to stand alone and there’s potential there. A Core Set created with a Constructed format in mind could have some longevity.

I suppose Core Set Constructed is never likely to happen. It has its benefits, but there are negatives too, and it wouldn’t offer more than a brief break from the norm. Still, it’d be nice to see something along those lines receive some attention from Wizards, maybe only to the degree that Tribal Wars or Prismatic does. I guess the MTGO variant is a step in that direction. If nothing else, it’d be a fun kitchen table format for once in a while.

I’ve finished pretending to be Sean for the week. Thanks to Craig and Sean for the opportunity to write this, any opportunity to get something published in any form is worth pouncing on. If you’re wondering who I am, I go by Eiphel on the forums. I hope this wasn’t overly monotonous… after all, you’re on vacation from Sean, too.

Thanks for reading,


* On that note, why is it that every Lhurgoyf looks completely different than the others?

** Incidentally, the phrase “Block Constructed” always makes me think of Lego.