Removed From Game – First Steps in Block Constructed

StarCityGames.com Open Series: Philadelphia June 5th - 6th
Thursday, May 27th – With the Pro Tour hours away, Rich brings you the beginnings of Block Constructed. It may seem as if the Pros have plucked extraordinary decklists out of thin air, but it’s a lot less arcane than that. Hard work, common sense, and a bit of method can take you a long way, even if you’ve never built a deck in your life. Grab a pen and paper, and take your first steps in Block Constructed.

If you’re like me, you’d be fat, ginger, and British. You’d also consider deckbuilding to be a very scary and arcane process that is bordering on the mystical. You can appreciate the awesomeness of any number of decklists, but the idea of coming up with one of your own fills you with horror. In my case, that’s mostly because I don’t like to lose, and the ratio of bad deck ideas to good deck ideas is such that constant failure is the overwhelmingly prevailing experience. It’s also because I’m lazy, have eyes, and can read about the latest decks within days of them having been created. Have Gerry Thompson, Conley Woods, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Patrick Chapin, and Mike Flores all died in the past two days? No? In that case, decks will continue to be plentiful.

Unless, of course, we’re in that ‘vow of secrecy’ fortnight that comes before the Block Constructed Pro Tour. Although the title will be determined next week with a Rise of the Eldrazi Draft Top 8, ten of the sixteen rounds of Swiss will be Zendikar-Worldwake-Rise Block Constructed. And nobody is talking about it, for obvious reasons. Since most of you won’t be looking for a deck to play in San Juan, that’s not a problem, and you can carry on reading all about Standard, whether it’s for Grand Prix: Washington, Nationals Qualifiers, or just your regular FNM.

However, if deckbuilding genuinely mystifies you, and you have some time to spare, this is the perfect opportunity to get into the swing of things, because Block has one beautiful thing going for it in terms of the novice deckbuilder — it’s really small. With only three sets to contend with, no defined Metagame or historical tournament results, Block represents a virgin stretch of deckbuilding real estate, and my purpose this week is to help you take a few tentative steps onto that territory.

So what, exactly, can we hope to accomplish between now and Dan Gardner of England lifting the trophy on Sunday? Eternal optimists will suggest ‘finding the winning decklist,’ but I believe our sights should be set a little lower. Or even a lot. Instead, let’s try to explore a few processes that can make deckbuilding in any arena easier, and if that allows us to feel a tiny bit more confident in trying out new ideas, then great.

Step one is to Read The Cards, a bit like the T-shirt and the deck sleeves say (RTFC), but without the bonus profanity. Take the time to look at what cards excite you. It doesn’t matter whether they’re good or not, just make a mental note of the ones that cause a spark. Of course, you’ll have a lot of baggage already onboard, because chances are you’ve played in various Formats with Zendikar and Worldwake, and are starting to get familiar with Rise too. In any case, read through all three sets. I find the Players Guide that comes with the Fat Pack to be awesome for this, but some people need the actual tactile stimulation of cards in their hands.

Now it’s time for some pen and paper. Be methodical. Start with Zendikar, and work your way down color by color. Every card in Magic has a use, but we’re not looking to note down literally every card. If Jwari Scuttler turns out to be a key card in a Block deck, I’ll hold up my hands, but we have to start somewhere. For each card you list, put a little note beside it to say where it might theoretically fit. As you go along, you’ll find certain themes cropping up time and again, and gradually you’ll be able to assemble lists by theme. Now’s the time to work your way through all the White cards. Then come back, and see how yours compares to mine:

Armament Master — Dedicated
Brave The Elements — Efficient
Celestial Mantle — Lifegain
Conqueror’s Pledge — Finisher
Day Of Judgment — Control
Devout Lightcaster — Sideboard
Emeria Angel — Landfall, Control
Felidar Sovereign — Control, Lifegain
Iona — Finisher
Journey To Nowhere — Removal
Kor Aeronaut, Skyfisher, Hookmaster — Beats
Landbind Ritual — Lifegain
Luminarch Ascension — Control, Finisher
Steppe Lynx — Landfall
Admonition Angel — Landfall
Archon Of Redemption — Lifegain
Guardian Zendikon — Control, Defender
Emeria, Sky Ruin — Inevitability
Marshal’s Anthem — Circular
Perimeter Captain — Defender, Lifegain
Rest For The Weary — Lifegain
Stoneforge Mystic — Equip
Deathless Angel — Finisher
Demystify — Efficient
Emerge Unscathed — Efficient
Gideon Jura — Planeswalker
Harmless Assault — Lifegain
Kor Spiritdancer — Dedicated
Linvala, Keeper Of Silence — Control
Lone Missionary — Lifegain
Nomad’s Assembly — Dedicated
Puncturing Light — Removal
Repel The Darkness — Tempo
Smite — Removal
Soul’s Attendant — Lifegain, Tokens
Survival Cache — Lifegain
Student Of Warfare — Aggro
Time Of Heroes — Level
Transcendent Master — Level
Umbra Mystic — Totem

Bunch of Lands — Graypelt Refuge, Kabira Crossroads, Marsh Flats, Sejiri Refuge, Sejiri Steppe, Stirring Wildwood, Celestial Colonnade.

So, a few notes. Although you have to make decisions to cut at least some cards, I believe it’s better on the first pass to be generous towards cards rather than go in with an attitude that 90% of them are going to be worthless. The absolute best decks will only use a small percentage of the cards available, but being too harsh too early might mean missing out on an unlooked-for theme.

It’s also important not to be too influenced by the early going. White historically has certain themes, and there’s no point in looking at just the White and starting to think ‘gosh, there’s a lot of Lifegain running around’. White has Lifegain. Keep trying to look at the bigger picture.

Anything that’s labelled as Dedicated needs a deck themed all to itself. Armament Master instantly demands plenty of Equipment, and probably some ways of protecting your Armament Master. At this stage, it doesn’t matter whether those cards exist in sufficient numbers or not. What matters is that we understand what the card is demanding of us if it’s going to work.

Now, there are some White cards missing from this list, specifically the Allies. We know that Allies are a theme in Zendikar, so it makes sense to explore how far that theme can go. As we go through the colors, we can keep a separate Allies list, which ends up looking like this:

Kabira Evangel
Kazandu Blademaster
Makindi Shieldmate
Ondu Cleric
Hada Freeblade
Join The Ranks
Talus Paladin

Sea Gate Loremaster
Seascape Aerialist
Umara Raptor
Halimar Excavator
Jwari Shapeshifter

Bala Ged Thief
Hagra Diabolist
Nimana Sell-Sword
Agadeem Occultist
Bojuka Brigand

Highland Berserker
Kazuul Warlord
Murasa Pyromancer
Tuktuk Grunts
Akoum Battlesinger
Tuktuk Scrapper

Joraga Bard
Oran-Rief Survivalist
Tajuru Archer
Turntimber Ranger
Graypelt Hunter
Harabaz Druid
Vastwood Animist

Stonework Puma

Again, we’re not trying to build a deck, just put the information together that will allow us to make informed choices.

I won’t spoil things by printing out my entire list — the whole point of the exercise is that you get to do it without too much external influence — but, even if your thresholds and personal preferences are different from mine on individual cards, you’ll likely end up with the same ‘shape’ to your lists. Blue is going to be a big list, because it has card draw, and flyers, and counterspells, and big finishers, and levelers. Black is going to end up as two lists. One is packed with removal, and the other is Vampires. Red is going to be full of spells you love to see in Limited, because they kill creatures, and the challenge with Red is to work out which spells are powerful enough or important enough to make their way to Block. And then Green will be an enormous list, because it has Landfall, and all the mana acceleration.

Once you’ve completed your lists, you’re going to have a reasonable overview of what’s in the Format. If you’re just starting out, it can be hard to work out how fast a format is likely to be, but that’s the kind of information you can probably get online. Everyone understands that Rise has made things slower at a Limited level, so if you’re looking for an Aggro deck, you need to be aware of what forces are at work to stop that. Still, that’s several steps beyond where we are now.

Next up for us is to come up with some deck themes. These ideas can come from a variety of sources. First, look to the list you’ve just made, and see what crops up most frequently. Think about formats you’ve played in before, or have seen played. Some deck ideas are universal. What are the Aggro colors? Where do Control decks generally sit on the color wheel? Is there a Ramp deck? Apart from generic deck ideas, you can look to specific decks in Standard, and see how analogous they might be for Block. In simple terms, start out with a straight count of how many Block cards are in the deck, and how many come from M10 or Shards Block. Even if you have plenty of cards in terms of numbers, you need to make sure that you aren’t losing key cards.

If you’re doing this exercise properly at home, you probably want to stop reading for a while, as the next thing I’m going to do is give you my list of the first twenty or so ideas that ended up on my list. End spoiler alert.

Armament Master equip
W Control
Lifegain Felidar Sovereign
W Aggro
Al Tran Flying Beatdown
UW Control
Mono B Control
Vampires Aggro
Vampires Control
R Burn
RW Aggro
G Beatdown

You’re probably getting ready to point out that many of these ideas bleed into each other, and you’re absolutely right. That’s really good, for a number of reasons. First, you’re going to see certain cards cropping up time and again. If they’re good in multiple decks, it’s a reasonable bet that they have a home somewhere. Also, once you have your lists, you can start merging the promising ideas together.

For example, look at the Lifegain Felidar Sovereign idea. The idea of such a deck would be to get to 40 life or more, have a Sovereign in play, and win. Here’s a bunch of cards that might help:

Felidar Sovereign
Landbind Ritual
Archon Of Redemption
Emeria, The Sky Ruin
Perimeter Captain
Rest For The Weary
Gideon Jura
Deathless Angel
Lone Missionary
Eternity Vessel
Soul’s Attendant
Conqueror’s Pledge

When you start making this kind of list, you very quickly come to understand that not all cards are created equal. Remember, you want to be as unfair as possible. In that sense, you’d look at Emeria, The Sky Ruin; Gideon Jura; Deathless Angel; Eternity Vessel; and Conqueror’s Pledge. Making something come back turn after turn is unfair. Almost all Planeswalkers automatically get allocated unfair status (although Chandra Ablaze is an exception). A huge flyer that can make itself and anything else Indestructible is unfair. So is resetting your life total to fifty three every turn. And so is making a swarm of guys.

Alone, none of the rest are unfair. Landbind Ritual can gain you a lot of life, but even if it’s ten, sixteen, twenty, that’s probably still only a few hits from an opposing force. Lone Missionary may gain you four life, but it’s fundamentally a 2/1 for two. That’s basically rubbish.

You get the idea. As you start striking cards from the list, you start thinking about what challenges the deck might face. This doesn’t need to be about specific decks, but against generic ideas. In the case of this deck, what would it do against a quick Aggro deck? You can answer ‘make some Perimeter Captains, gain some life, stay alive until I cast Eternity Vessel or Felidar Sovereign or Conqueror’s Pledge, then I should be fine,’ then that’s a perfectly fine standpoint. It might be wrong, but it’s a view you’ve come to. If your answer is ‘I get steamrollered’ then go back to your wider lists and start looking at what it would take to make the deck competitive. Maybe your answer to that involves mass and point removal.

At that point, it starts to look like your deck is heading towards a White Control deck, rather than a specific Lifegain theme. That’s fine. Our goal isn’t to find the best Lifegain deck, it’s to find the best deck, and if we’ve learned that Journey To Nowhere is of more use than Lone Missionary, then that’s fine. Move on, look at White Control, and forget the Lifegain, at least for now.

To go through every deck on your list, and pull out every card that might work within the theme can be very time-consuming, but there’s a shortcut that can help you get to the themes that seem the most promising. For each item on your list, write a short note to yourself, explaining what it might be trying to do, and a few of the cards that would belong in the deck. If you can think of those cards quickly, and you think of them as legitimately good cards, then that’s a promising sign. If you get to three cards off the top of your head, and then start wondering whether Dread Drone of Escaped Null is a good addition, that’s also a sign, a sign that you should move along.

I truthfully have no idea whether any of the twenty decks on this list will have any serious impact on the Pro Tour in San Juan. If I was going to put money on it, the themes that seem like they might have the most possibilities are Tokens, Totems, Defender, and Vampires. And, of course, Eldrazi, which is the Holy Grail of this Block. If anyone can solve getting Eldrazi reliably and safely onto the battlefield, they’re going to make many other strategies look distinctly average.

To conclude, I’ve learned that deckbuilding at the highest level has a lot in common with improvisational jazz. It looks as if stuff is being created out of nothing, but, once you get down to it, that really isn’t the case. Pros simply go through the steps a lot quicker than the rest of us, so apparently effortlessly discard in a moment what it takes us an afternoon of tinkering to work out isn’t viable. But that’s fine. We can’t all be LSV or Gerry T. But we can, until Friday morning, quietly look at the Block Constructed Format, and take some steps into the world of deckbuilding.

And then, you can tune in to the Tournament Center with me and BDM, and we’ll reveal the ‘correct answers.’ Until then, enjoy the process.

As ever, thanks for reading…