Peebles Primers — Blocking Isn’t Loose

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Zac Hill recently offered the opinion that, in Limited at least, “blocking is loose.” Benjamin Peebles-Mundy disagrees. In part 1 of today’s Peebles Primer, he offers a very persuasive counterpoint to Zac’s claim. Once the Limited theory has finished, BPM moves onto some fun Dredge versus Aggro game descriptions in Standard, showing us the way to beat those tricky beatdown decks with fuel and fire from the grave…

Recently, Zac Hill wrote an article about Booster Draft and some theories he’d learned from a friend of his. I did not necessarily agree with everything that the article said, but the one piece that really bothered me was the section prefaced with “blocking is loose.”

The basic idea behind this statement is that a blocker is often very vulnerable to tricks that the aggressor might have. This makes sense on some level; if you’ve just tapped out to play a 3/3, then you won’t be able to do anything about the Strength in Numbers, Thrill of the Hunt, or similar trick that your opponent represents when he swings in with his two 2/2s. It’s often hard to think beyond “well, I’m just going to walk right into his trick”. Let’s look at the following case:

Your opponent has led with an Ashcoat Bear on turn 2 and another on turn 3. You’re on the draw, and your first play is Nessian Courser. Your opponent sends with both of his guys, and you know that he’s got a Strength in Numbers in his deck from a previous game, and so you decide that you believe he is holding that Strength right now. This is a situation where blocking might appear to be quite “loose,” but could easily be the right play.

Let us first look at what it means to have put our opponent on Strength in Numbers. It means that we have decided that the card is in his hand, and now have to play the game as though he is actually holding it (even if your opponent is just bluffing you). The first level of thought here is that you clearly don’t want to block because then you will just lose your guy and take three damage without killing either of his guys. However, you often need to look beyond that to what it means to let him have a Strength in Numbers in his hand. If you are planning on following your Courser up with, say, a Sporesower Thallid, then not blocking this turn also means you can’t block next turn. You are letting that one trick scare you off of stabilizing, potentially for long enough that it doesn’t matter how well you “play around” it, you will just die because you’re on the back foot. In other words, if you play around the Strength this turn, then you’ll need to play around it for the rest of the game, until you can no longer afford to. If, instead of playing around the trick by not blocking, you decide that you’re going to walk straight into it, then two things might happen.

He might simply have the Strength in Numbers, and blow your guy away and deal you four damage. Even that can be a good thing, for two reasons. First, spending his fourth turn on the trick might keep him off his ideal curve play, so when you go to play your follow-up, it will be the biggest man on the board by quite a lot. You can also more confidently block for the rest of the game, knowing that you’ve gotten the Strength out of his hand now. This speaks to something that is not entirely obvious: tricks get better the later the game goes. Strength in Numbers on this turn is good for +2/+2 and trample, but on turn ten it could easily give +5/+5 or more. You must also worry that, later in the game, the Strength could be used to power a 5/5 through a 1/1 for the win, or let his curve-topper take out your curve-topper. Losing your Courser here is certainly not the end of the world.

He might also be bluffing. There is little more devastating than successfully calling someone’s bluff. If you block here and he doesn’t have the Strength, then you get to kill a guy for free and you get to know that he must now topdeck his trick. Ravnica block, for example, was a prime time to call certain potential bluffs. People had greater incentive to bluff a trick because getting damage through meant that they could play their creature as a 5/6 instead of a 2/3. They also were able to prey on the fact that walking into a Wildsize was often a very bad deal, as you lost your creature, took damage, and had your opponent draw a card on you. However, even if they did have the Wildsize, spending the three mana on that play often meant that they couldn’t cast their Ghor-Clan Savage, and you could fight over their ability to activate Bloodthirst again on the next turn, without Wildsize in the picture. And if they didn’t have it, then they fell very far behind.

The point that I am making is simply that walking into tricks is often not as bad as people think it is. Making your opponent spend his tricks early, when 2/2s are hitting 3/3s, means that you won’t lose your five-drop to a two-mana trick when his 4/4 attacks into your 5/5. In other words, the cost of a trick stays the same, but as the game progresses, each creature costs more and is more valuable. Getting those tricks out early will allow your more-controlling deck to stabilize and come over the top of an aggressive draft deck.

On a completely different note, I’d also like to talk a little about Dredge and its aggro matchups. The control matchups are extremely favorable, as they always have been, but the aggro matchups seem to be what many people are afraid of. I was recently in a Standard queue on Magic Online, and though the server crashed in the middle and lost my first three games (round one against UB control and game one of round 2 against RG aggro), I have the rest of the games saved and ready to be analyzed.

Red/Green Aggro

I’m on the draw. He mulls to 6, and I keep on 7 with Forest, Llanowar Wastes, 2x Greenseeker, 2x Golgari Grave-Troll, and Imp. My first draw is a third Troll.

He starts the game off with Mountain and a suspended Greater Gargadon. I have Forest and Greenseeker. Luckily for me, he misses his second land drop and just passes. On my upkeep, I Greenseeker away one of my many Trolls for a swamp, and dredge six, hitting a Narcomoeba and a Bridge from Below. I drop the Llanowar Wastes and the second Greenseeker, and pass. He drops a Pendelhaven and Mogg War Marshall, and sacrifices the Marshall to his Gargadon to kill my Bridge from Below. I Greenseeker away Troll for a Forest, drop my land, and send the Narcomoeba in for one. He untaps, plays Treetop Village, hits me for two with his tokens, and drops a 4/5 Tarmogoyf. At the end of his turn, I pitch a Troll to my second Greenseeker for my last Swamp. Yet again, on my upkeep I Greenseeker away a Troll for a Forest. I dredge past a second Narcomoeba and a second Bridge from Below, send my earlier Narcomoeba over for one, drop a Swamp, and play Stinkweed Imp. My opponent plays a second Mogg War Marshall and eats it to kill my Bridge. On my fifth turn, I don’t use Greenseeker in my upkeep. I dredge a Troll back, and attack with my two Narcomoebas. After combat, I sacrifice both Narcomoebas and one Greenseeker to Dread Return a Golgari Grave-Troll. Despite the fact that it should be an 11/11, Magic Online decides that today it will be a 2/2 (thanks guys), though the Troll I hardcast hits play as the expected 11/11. On his turn, he makes a Troll Ascetic and sacrifices a token to his Gargadon to kill my third Bridge. I dredge a Troll, hit with some Imps, and drop my 3rd 11/11. At this point I would usually Dread Return a Stalking Vengeance, and then sac my Trolls to another Dread Return for the win, but I have only dredged past two Returns, and I already used one on my fifth turn. My opponent sees the writing on the wall, though, and concedes.

So here are some thoughts on the game. Of note is that this was the second game of the match, but a MTGO crash meant that neither of us got to sideboard, so it was essentially a game 1 where both players know what the other is playing. Knowing that I’m up against Red/Green Aggro, my opening hand is very good, though obviously I would rather have something like Life from the Loam or Delirium Skeins instead of the second Troll. The key pieces, though, are multiple outlets, strong dredgers, and the ability to cast Stinkweed Imp. This is because the standard game plan against aggressive decks is not to go for the combo. Instead, you are hoping to sit back on Stinkweed Imp and Shambling Shell while you build up to Grave-Trolls. All you are interested in is keeping your head above water until you can drop three 10/10 creatures and hide behind them. At that point, you can go for a double Dread Return turn where you bring back Stalking Vengeance and then use the second Dread Return to send twenty or more Troll burn points at their head.

My opponent starts off with Gargadon, which is very strong in game 1s as a way to completely blank Bridge from Below, but he doesn’t kill my enabler on turn 2, so I’m golden. Now, despite the fact that I want to drop a second Greenseeker on turn 2, I don’t go and get a Forest with my first dredge; this is because I don’t want to risk dredging past both Swamps on my second turn. Taking one point of damage now will save me from taking at least one point (if not more) when I have the Swamp to play Stinkweed Imp. Usually I would plan on playing Imp on turn 3, and then activating Greenseeker and replaying Imp on turn 4, but since I’m not under very much pressure at all, I go for a double-activation turn on turn 3. I then drop my Imp and consecutive Trolls on turns 4 through 6, locking the ground up completely. At this point, the only thing I’m looking for is two Dread Returns in my graveyard. If you’re having trouble finding them, you can always dredge Life from the Loam and fetch up three Horizon Canopies, allowing you to dredge nine cards on that turn and twelve on the next.

Assuming that I had been able to sideboard, I would have removed the combo (four Bridges, three Husks, and three Vengeance) for three Archons, three Ghosts, three Skeins, and the fourth Darkblast. Ghosts of the Innocent is amazing against their deck in general, and pretty much the only way they can deal with it is Gargadon plus Threaten. The Archons are also very good, buying you plenty of time to assemble your Grave-Troll army while fighting for five damage each turn. You need to worry about a solo Threaten when you’re relying on a Blazing Archon, so it’s often best to play things safe and leave back your Imps and Narcomoebas in case they do have it. The Skeins give you a way to get dredgers into the graveyard even when they spend turns 1 and 2 killing your Greenseekers, and it has the added bonus of gaining you an average of eight life due to the burn it will hit. The fourth Darkblast is good against Rusalkas, Fanatics, and War Marshals, and is just another way to get dredgers going without needing an enabler to survive.

Green/White Aggro

I’m on the play. We both keep seven card hands, and mine is Llanowar Wastes, Swamp, two Darkblast, Greenseeker, Golgari Grave-Troll, and Bridge from Below.

I lead off with Llanowar Wastes and Greenseeker. He plays Treetop Village, so I get to pitch Grave-Troll for a Forest and dredge six, hitting Narcomoeba. I drop the Forest and pass. He plays Pendelhaven and a 2/3 Goyf, though it’s not likely to be that small for very long. I pitch Troll in my upkeep, finding a Forest, and dredge past a Bridge from Below. I drop my opening hand’s Swamp, swing with my Zombie token, and pass the turn. He attacks for four, and I block with the Narcomoeba, getting a 2/2 for my trouble. He drops Temple Garden tapped, and passes. I pitch Troll for the final Swamp, dredge past a second Bridge, and drop a Stinkweed Imp. He swings in with his Tarmogoyf and I block with my Stinkweed Imp. This kills his Tarmogoyf and my two Bridges, but I do get two more 2/2s on the way out. He drops a Flagstones and a Loxodon Hierarch. I don’t activate Greenseeker, dredge a Troll, and then flashback Dread Return for Stalking Vengeance and swing with it and a Narcomoeba. I finish up with a 12/12 Troll. My opponent has a Llanowar Elf and a Horizon Canopy for Glare of Subdual, but I just play a second Troll and sac them to Dread Return for the win.

Sideboarding against non-Red aggro is much simpler. The Bridges are bad in general, because you’ll be relying on Imps, Shells, and Darkblasts to keep their army under control, but the Vengeances and Husks are still a great way to break through a stalled board. They can also be your only way to win if you run into something like Glare of Subdual. With the Bridges out, you bring in Blazing Archons and one Life from the Loam. The Loam could be a Darkblast, but I prefer having three and three as opposed to two and four. The Blazing Archon is often a lock against aggro decks without burn, but it isn’t a win condition if they have something like Glare. I don’t bring the Skeins in for anything because I like the rest of the maindeck cards against Green/White, and because you aren’t as worried about your enablers dying.

Game 2 is quite the savage beating. My opening hand is Llanowar Mentor, Golgari Grave-Troll, Stalking Vengeance, Forest, Overgrown Tomb, and two Horizon Canopy. I figure that my opponent can’t beat a first-turn enabler, so I keep. At which point I promptly get hit by Sunlance. I try to get back into the game with Life from the Loam, but that’s fairly slow and my opponent has two Tarmogoyfs. I have a tiny glimmer of hope that I can dredge past three Narcomoebas in one turn, allowing me to Dread Return a Blazing Archon, but I miss and we go to game 3.

For the decider I keep Overgrown Tomb, Llanowar Wastes, two Horizon Canopy, Greenseeker, Golgari Grave-Troll, and Darkblast. This hand is clearly much better because it has a second way to start dredging early, and it might even keep him off his plan if his first plays are some combination of Llanowar Elves, Saffi, and Selesnya Guildmage. I drop the Tomb untapped and play Greenseeker, but my opponent has Flagstones and a Sunlance. I rip a second Greenseeker off the top, and drop it into play. My opponent has Pendelhaven and Llanowar Elf, so I pitch my Grave-Troll for a Swamp. I dredge past a Bridge, but I still Darkblast his elf, since it’s dangerous that it’s worth losing a Bridge. He drops a Forest and Troll Ascetic. I pitch a Troll for a Forest, drop my land, and pass. He swings for three, plays a second Forest, and drops Loxodon Hierarch, going to 24. I dredge Stinkweed Imp and drop a land and an 8/8 Troll. He drops and cycles a Horizon canopy, and I dredge and play another 8/8 Troll. He plays a Plains and a Saffi Eriksdotter. I dredge Life from the Loam, hitting a Narcomoeba, and cast it for some Canopies and Svogthos, finally dropping Stinkweed Imp and passing the turn. He plays a tapped dual and another Troll Ascetic. I dredge a third Troll, and drop it as an 11/11. I swing for one with my Narcomoeba, putting him to 27. At this point I sacrifice my Greenseeker, my Narcomoeba, and my Stinkweed Imp to flashback a Dread Return on Stalking Vengeance. He sacrifices Saffi at his Hierarch in response to the six Bridge triggers. I get my Vengeance, and then sacrifice the three trolls (8/8, 8/8, and 11/11) for 27 damage and a Blazing Archon in case anything goes wrong. He regenerates his side with his Hierarch, gaining four life, but he’s still dead.

Hopefully this will give you insight into how I see these matchups. I wanted to talk about these games in particular because they showcased situations that I think come up fairly frequently, and because they show how the deck plans to win aggro matchups. People who come from the Bazaar dredge deck are not necessarily strangers to the Troll plan, but it’s not as obvious that you’re gunning straight for it from the beginning with the backup plan of Soulblasting your opponent with a late-game double Dread Return.

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me in the forums, via email, or on AIM.

Benjamin Peebles-Mundy
ben at mundy dot net
SlickPeebles on AIM