Preparing for the Block Constructed Pro Tour in Nagoya presented an interesting challenge: How do you build a deck that can withstand the blistering
speed of Tempered Steel “Hawkward” decks, while having reasonable game against anything else? This is my story of trying to overcome the Scars of
Mirrodin Constructed format with the help of Sam Black, Raphael Levy (who would go on to finish 11th), Gaudenis Vidugiris (who would go on to finish
6th), Adam Yurchick, and Alex Ledbetter.
When approaching the format, Sam, Gau, and I had the prior experience of playing Hawkward at Pro Tour Paris. Before the breakout of Caw-Blade, we
thought Tempered Steel was the card that was finally going to bring Valakut to its knees—we had a 7 out of 10 win-rate game one that only got
better after boarding when we augmented our strategy with counterspells post-board. If it was good enough for that Standard format, it certainly was
going to be the dominant force in Block. The hive mind agreed, and the deck became 40% of the metagame on Magic Online once New Phyrexia went live
there. Here was my stock list to test against:
- 14 Plains
- 4 Inkmoth Nexus
This list was non-standard in that it was designed to present more of a threat to the control metagame I expected to develop. It had Chimeric Mass and
Shrine of Loyal Legions to provide more threats that would survive a Slagstorm. In retrospect, it wasn’t the best maindeck configuration, but it was
not too problematic since I test mostly post-boarded games when tuning decks anyway. (What is the best 60 this deck could play against whatever I am
Hawkward presents quite a few problems for any opponent. First, it has the possibility of a “nut draw” where they can pile on enough attackers and a
Tempered Steel to kill their opponent on turn 3. Even on a normal draw, it’s not unusual to kill on turn 4 or 5. The deck also has a number of
hard-to-kill threats like Inkmoth Nexus or Glint Hawk Idol that fly and can finish a long game without some permanent answer to them. Hero of Bladehold
also offers a completely different angle of attack for anyone who thought that just controlling artifacts or sweeping the board for three damage would
be enough. In short, Hawkward is the aggro dream: a diversity of fast, resilient, evasive, powerful threats.
Though it accounted for 40% of the field, Hawkward was not the only powerhouse of the Block format. Mono-Red was also tearing up the field, accounting
for 25% of the metagame and attacking along a completely different axis. The red deck mainly leveraged quick Koth of the Hammers and Kuldotha Phoenixes
to quickly chop down an opponent’s life total and then finish them with burn. The typical list looked something like:
- 4 Red Sun's Zenith
- 4 Sphere of the Suns
- 4 Slagstorm
- 4 Tezzeret's Gambit
- 4 Volt Charge
- 4 Shrine of Burning Rage
I was not overly fond of the red deck. It certainly did great things when it landed a Koth on turn 3, but otherwise it felt like it lacked the sort of
early pressure that I feel makes an “aggressive” deck successful. Goblin Guide in modern Standard, for example, often deals 4-6 damage by himself, and
there was nothing like that providing a continuous source of damage here. Likely this was part of the success of the deck; it avoided all the creature
hate that was directed at Hawkward and was just doming people and using the recurring Phoenix and angry Mountains. The deck was also playing artifacts,
which seemed like a big risk in a format where everyone should be packing some artifact hate to deal with public enemy number one: Hawkward. The
subtheme of proliferating was good, in that it kept Sphere of the Suns charged up, accelerated Shrine of Burning Rage, and let Koth ultimate a turn
early. All the same, any deck in the format would have to have a real answer to a turn 3-4 Koth or a big Red Sun’s Zenith thanks to this part of the
The final major pillar that seemed to be part of the format was an Azorius control deck with gobs of artifact hate, life gain, and some impressive
- 4 Divine Offering
- 2 Disperse
- 4 Stoic Rebuttal
- 2 Volition Reins
- 2 Steel Sabotage
- 3 Ichor Wellspring
- 2 Dismember
- 3 Mycosynth Wellspring
To me this deck does some interesting things. Most importantly, the deck uses Wellsprings to make artifact hate viable in general. What I mean by this
is when you Steel Sabotage or Divine Offering a Wellspring, you are essentially cycling it (getting a slight upside on the Offerings).
This means that in matches where your anti-artifact card is dead, you can use it to get another card instead. This is a huge breakthrough, as control
needs to be hateful but also can’t afford to have too many dead cards. Eventually all of these Wellsprings get turned into effective Cultivates and
Divinations when Phyrexia’s Core comes along and consumes any that haven’t been used up through other means yet.
Another big thing going on here is the presence of all four Elspeths. Usually playing all the copies of such an expensive planeswalker is quite
questionable, but here it’s a strategy. In general, if your first Elspeth makes two swarms of tokens, and then you immediately follow-up with a second
and gain life, you’re often out of burn range from the red decks and in a good position to blow up the board at whim. Life gain from Elspeth and Divine
Offering also does a nice job of offsetting the life loss from Dismembering one’s foes.
The shining gem of the deck is Consecrated Sphinx, which Adrian Sullivan had correctly described as the “Jace, the Mind Sculptor of the format.”
Drawing two extra cards per turn with a 4/6 body in play was usually just the unfair thing control wanted to be doing once it stabilized.
The sideboard was solid, with Marrow Shards being the near-universal hate card against Tempered Steel and Hero of Bladehold.
Despite all of its hate, this deck wasn’t really much to write home about against Hawkward. However, since this was the Pro Tour, a tournament with a
known bias toward control, I figured it was important to test against the most popular known control strategy, even if it was only 5% of the field
With the stage set, I sat down for a lengthy discussion about what we thought would happen in this format with Alex Ledbetter, a wily deckbuilder from
my hometown of Seattle. We agreed that to beat Hawkward you would need access to either red for Slagstorm, Oxidda Scrapmelter, and Into the Core or
green for Viridian Corrupter and Creeping Corrosion. We thought Black Sun’s Zenith would be too slow, since a Tempered Steel on the play makes your
card ineffective at board control.
To beat mono-red decks, a player would need an answer to an early Koth; the only one appeared to be Beast Within or a board full of beaters. To beat
control decks, you would need to be able to take out their Sphinxes, for which the best solutions looked like Stoic Rebuttal, Go for the Throat, and
Beast Within (anything that was not instant speed let them get up on cards). We thought that aside from Go for the Throat there was no real incentive
to play black and that white was pretty lackluster when you really thought about it.
We thought no one who wasn’t exploring a very powerful linear strategy should play with artifacts, as any deck with a few targets was going to lose all
of them. Partial exception should be made for artifacts that give you value when they enter or exit play, such as Wellsprings, Wurmcoil Engine, and
Spine of Ish Sah. Finally, since Hawkward and Mono-Red seemed to play a lot of fliers, it seemed that taking to the air with one’s creatures might be
needed to survive.
With our initial theory sessions out of the way, I went forth to test, test, test these theories.
A few weeks later, I had tested numerous decks. I had brewed up a mono-green poison deck, which was going even with everything, which was fine, but I
was looking for a winner. Raph was slowly evolving an R/G Liquimetal Coating deck, which strived to turn its anti-artifact cards into Vindicates
against non-artifact decks. Adam Yurchick brought some Puresteel Paladin decks to the party, which Sam jumped on quickly, joking that he liked tribal
decks, and this was clearly a tribal Germ deck: right up his alley!
I’d been impressed by the raw power of throwing a Lashwrithe on a black creature in Mono-Black Infect, provided you weren’t blown out by a removal
effect. I liked what Raph’s deck was doing, but no matter how many iterations we went through, even eventually giving up on Liquimetal Coatings; it
could not beat control decks.
I did not like the Puresteel Paladin decks at all. They won handily when they had a living Puresteel Paladin, but when they did not draw one or he
died, they looked like a ridiculously janky deck full of pretty bad Equipment. I decided that the format was small enough, and warped enough by
Hawkward, that it was right just to build a solution deck (a better one than the Azorius deck, since it would actually need to beat the most prevalent
deck in the format handily).
To that end, I built a generic control shell to see how it performed against the known enemies:
- 12 Mountain
- 12 Island
- 2 Phyrexia's Core
- 4 Stoic Rebuttal
- 4 Red Sun's Zenith
- 4 Steel Sabotage
- 4 Ichor Wellspring
- 4 Slagstorm
- 4 Mycosynth Wellspring
The deck performed adequately in testing. It won 35-45% of its G1s against Tempered Steel but went up to 70% post-board. Overall, this made for a
slightly favorable matchup there.
Against mono-red decks, the deck won most of its G1s because red was so threat-light that it could generally interact with a few cards that mattered as
long as Koth didn’t get going too fast. Koth out of the board turned out to be a great solution, as well as presenting a serious threat and providing
acceleration in control mirrors.
In control mirrors the large number of Blue Sun’s Zeniths generally gave the deck an edge, in that it could force counter wars on an opponent’s turn,
play a threat with backup earlier, and had a stronger draw engine, since it had more Wellsprings. (Eight Divinations are better than six!)
The deck was far from perfect, but I felt like it was working pretty well, and I was onto something. The biggest problem was that it was losing to Hero
of Bladehold and wanted a few more solutions to Koth.
Gaudenis made the somewhat brilliant suggestion of Artillerize, which turned out to be quite good. (Though the deck could not really support more than
two copies due to low artifact count.) It also seemed like Red Sun’s Zenith was a really lackluster card, since the deck didn’t apply enough early
damage for a big burn spell to win. It was always just an expensive removal effect.
Discussions were had, and more suggestions chimed in from the mailing list. Gaudenis wanted to get Dismember in there somehow; he had been playing with
it at GP Providence, and he thought it was the best thing since Swords to Plowshares. Adrian Sullivan (who was invited to the mailing list in an
advisory capacity) complained the deck was not proactive enough and wasted too much time with Wellsprings.
Taking all the test results and suggestions from my team, I built a new edition of my deck:
- 4 Stoic Rebuttal
- 2 Volition Reins
- 4 Steel Sabotage
- 2 Ichor Wellspring
- 4 Slagstorm
- 4 Dismember
- 4 Mycosynth Wellspring
The most fascinating thing about this build is that it couldn’t beat Hawkward to save its life. Sam and I both tested sets and found that it was only
winning 20% of games post-board. I thought the deck had become better by removing some Wellsprings and adding Dismember for Hero of Bladehold.
After being horrified by this, I went back and thought about what we must have been doing right that was now wrong; we realized Arc Trail (which Raph
Levy had been touting all along) was the best sideboard card against Hawkward. We tried putting it back again, and our matchup literally improved 50%.
There was essentially a .95:1 correlation with drawing an Arc Trail by turn 2 and winning.
We found our silver bullet against the enemy! It didn’t matter that it got turned off when they cast Tempered Steel; it bought you so much time when
you killed their first two drops that it was worth having a semi-dead card later. Blunting the speed of Hawkward is the key to beating it. The other
interesting aspect of Arc Trail (or Slagstorm) was that when you could use one to answer a lesser creature (like a Spined Thopter), which freed you to
use your better answer (like Dismember) against their better guys (Hero of Bladehold, Inkmoth Nexus). I like to think of this as “cascade success” (as
opposed to “cascade failure”), where efficiently solving one problem helps you efficiently solve the next.
Our red matchup improved, since Dismember was a pretty good answer to Kuldotha Phoenix and attacking Mountains. However, the red decks were bringing in
guys post-board, and we were finding that our win rate was mostly a coin flip in post-boarded games. Sam wanted some hate, and we found that
Batterskull was a crippling answer. The artifact is a little weaker than Wurmcoil, but our expensive slots were full, and this guy filled an empty spot
on our curve; not to mention the fact it would be good against Hawkward, and the tempo always matters in both red and white matches.
We found that Volition Reins was a big disappointment, as it rarely worked against red (Sam called it a dead card), and Azorius often had the Disperse
just waiting to return whatever it was we tried to steal or would Revoke Existence the following turn. In general, we were also finding we had enough
black sources, but lands entering tapped was losing us some matches.
Based on those results and the impending perception that white decks (Tempered Steel and Puresteel) were going to be the lion’s share of the metagame,
this is the final build of the deck that was prepared:
In the end, only Mat Marr and I (who I gave the deck to the night before) ended up playing the deck. I got the bad end of some variance and wound up
2-3 in Constructed, while Mat would play the deck to a 7-2 record before conceding to Matthias Hunt in the final round to give Mathias an edge in the
Rookie of the Year race and lock him for Level 4. 9-5 is an okay match record at the PT, but I feel pretty strongly that with a higher sample size, it
would have been better.
Here are the sideboard plans I gave Mat the night before the tournament:
-4 Stoic Rebuttal, +4 Into the Core, -1 Karn Liberated, +1 Batterskull.
You need to be careful about leaving one Mycosynth Wellspring on the table so you can use Into the Core as an instant to kill Inkmoth Nexus. Try to use
Steel Sabotage to target artifacts your sweepers can’t reach (Glint Hawk Idol, Shrine of Loyal Legions, Chimeric Mass). Save your Dismembers for Hero
of Bladehold early and Inkmoth Nexus late. The match might be more correct with +1 Go for the Throat over something, in order to leave more Dismembers
for Inkmoth Nexus, but it’s probably not right with only four targets. You’re even game 1 and a huge favorite games 2 and 3.
-4 Stoic Rebuttal, +4 Go for the Throat, -1 Karn Liberated, +1 Batterskull.
This is just an easier version of Tempered Steel for Izzet. I’m still not certain whether Into the Core or Scrapmelter is better here, but I lean
toward Scrapmelter when I’m not sure since he provides a clock and stabilizes the board as a blocker. You need to deal with Puresteel Paladin, Kemba,
Kha Regent, and either Indomitable Archangel or Hero of Bladehold. Save your black removal for the big guys if you can, but making sure a Paladin never
lives is tops. Steel Sabotage is great for blocking their best gear and stops Paladin from even getting to draw a card. You’re favored game 1 and a
huge favorite games 2 and 3.
-4 Arc Trail, -4 Slagstorm, -2 Oxidda Scrapmelter, +4 Go for the Throat, +4 Koth of the Hammer, +2 Batterskull.
Counter Sphere of the Suns with Steel Sabotage whenever you can; anything to slow/stop their Koths is strongly in your favor. In general your removal
and counters should buy you time to stabilize with either a Batterskull or Consecrated Sphinx, both of which they are ill equipped to deal with.
Sometimes running Koth on their Mountains and using Throat and Dismember as LD spells can be the correct plan. You are slightly ahead game 1 and more
ahead game 2 and 3.
-4 Arc Trail, -4 Oxidda Scrapmelter, -1 Slagstorm, +4 Go for the Throat, +4 Koth of the Hammer, +1 Blue Sun’s Zenith.
You need a few Slagstorms to help keep Elspeth in check. Ideally you sweep her soldiers, and then a Mountain finishes her off. Go for the Throat is
your answer to their Sphinxes so you can save your counters for the main attraction: Karn Liberated. Sabotage their early Wellsprings in hopes of
mana-screwing them. Generally most matches will be won or lost be keeping either a Consecrated Sphinx or a Karn on your side of the table. Watch out
for your Karn getting Volition Reins-ed. Dismember has poor maindeck targets, but post-board they generally bring in heroes, which you will want it
These games are very draw dependent. In general, the match feels like a dead heat, with U/W being very slightly ahead game 1 due to their higher count
of Wellsprings. Games 2 and 3 shift in your favor, as you get to use your countermagic much more carefully, and they don’t have good solutions to Koth.
The deck is generally not positioned against control and very geared toward aggro, compared to where it could be. If the format becomes more
controlling, I would suggest moving out some Oxidda Scrapmelters, getting a single Go for the Throat in the main and maybe an Into the Core and using
the opened up slots in the board on another Blue Sun’s Zenith and an Island. (A Volition Reins is the next card I’d add after that.)
This deck has a lot of percentage against aggro that it can give up to have a better control matchup.
Mat also cut two cards for Gitaxian Probe, which was an idea Sam Black made repeatedly. Probe seems very good in control mirrors (to know if you can
“go for it”), and I think if you can figure out the right cards to cut, it’s a bold and good move.
Also, if Thrun, the Last Troll decks pick up in popularity, I would cut a couple cards (probably two Go for the Throat) to make room for a couple
Phyrexian Metamorphs to legend rule him out. Though Sphinx can block Thrun, he is often in decks with a lot of burn, and you don’t want to lose your
Sphinx this way!
This is what I expect to be playing in Block events for some time to come. Hopefully you’ll find it useful too.
Until Next Time,
P.S. For future articles like this, let me know in the forums whether you like hearing about the process of developing the deck or whether you’d just
prefer a decklist with sideboarding guide with general thoughts on where continuing development on it might go.