Scouse of Cards – Testing the Water in Block Constructed

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Wednesday, May 28th – In three days, I’ll be slinging spells at Grand Prix: Birmingham. I’ve been testing for weeks. Two days ago, I won three byes. Today, I start intensive testing with a gaggle of established pros. On Sunday, I intend to be in the Top 8. I’m taking this one seriously. Wanna join me?

Project Birmingham, Week 2 — Needs More Cumin

I’m a decent cook.

Place me in a well-stocked kitchen, and I’ll knock up something special. I steam a mean dumpling, I can parboil to an Olympic standard, and I’m well seasoned with seasonings. In the scale of culinary artistry, what I lose from being English I gain from being fat. My home-made lasagne has made people weep. Given the right ingredients, I can wok your socks off.

Yes, I can cook. However… I’m not a chef.

Thing is, when it comes to cooking, I have zero imagination. Give me a recipe, and a pantry packed with the requisite foodstuffs, I can produce the goods. But give me a bagful of random comestibles, and I flounder. When I taste-test my dishes while cooking, it’s more for the look of the thing than for any measurable purpose; hell if I’d know if it “needed more cumin.”

My friend’s wife, on the other hand, is a wonderful cook, full of verve, elan, and joie de vivre. In fact, she’s so good, she’s recently competed in an as-yet unscreened reality TV show involving an intensive “cookery camp” at a posh stately home, a show in which, each night, a would-be chef was voted off the (thousand) island (dressing) until only one remained. It was all very secretive, and I’m not able to say any more for fear of cleaver assassination.

Why do I mention this? Because it meant her husband was able to test Block Constructed with me long into the night in preparation for Grand Prix: Birmingham. Which was, as they say, nice.

When I approach a Constructed format, I feel myself pulling on my cook’s apron. Just as when I’m preparing a meal, when I’m deckbuilding I work best if I have the recipe. I’m happiest if the metagame is transparent and obvious (“play Affinity or die,” or “Rock beats Scissors beats Paper”). I’m comfortable when the decklist “ingredients” are laid out before me, and I can pinch a little here and there, tweaking the final build according to personal taste*.

The actual act of creation itself, of deckbuilding genius in a Stuart Wright or Wafo-Tapa stylee? Not so much.

But that never stops me from trying.

When I first examined the smorgasbord of sweetmeats on offer in Lorwyn Block Constructed, looking for something fresh, I turned to the Green and White cards. As I said in my last article, all I wanted to do was stick a Shield of the Oversoul on a Doran. After a tepid test session in which my own build was spanked by the fruity Fae, Adrian Sullivan brainstormed the following deck:

I threw this deck against a number of contenders, including the Faerie menace, elementals of all shapes and sizes, and a funky Mono-Black Control deck (which I’ll mention later). Here were the pros and cons:

PRO #1: The Core of the deck seemed to work just fine. Wilt-Leaf Liege, Wilt-Leaf Cavaliers, Kitchen Finks… good options all. Oblivion Ring provided its usual top quality removal, and Oversoul of Dusk was the proverbial claw to the groin.

PRO #2: Gaddock Teeg was strong. In a world packed with Commands Profane and Primal and Cryptic, this little kidney-stealing scamp shouldn’t be overlooked. While he may not play well with Planeswalkers and the like, he’s a fine board option for mid-range, and a serviceable maindeck spod in an aggro strategy.

CON #1: The manabase wasn’t great. As I predicted in my previous article, four copies of Mutavault was greedy in the extreme. And I don’t care how great Manamorphose seems, in reality it never managed to consistently aid my quest for GGGGG or WWWWW.

CON #2: The “fringe” cards seemed, well… weedy. I’ve touched on Manamorphose, but even supposed stalwarts like Prison Term seemed underpowered. Shield of the Oversoul proved little more than filler, and Rhys the Redeemed was rubbish. In a Block format full of powerful cards, settling for mediocrity wasn’t an option.

After the deck was slapped by Faeries, and humiliated by straight Green/White and mid-range Doran builds, it was time to move elsewhere. Hell, it was even struggling against Mono-Red Elemental beatdown unless it drew multiple Kitchen Finks.

Next up, we tried to produce a winning Mono-Black Control list. Here’s what we had:

In theory, we liked this deck. It had powerful finisher spells such as the perennial favorite Corrupt, some excellent card drawing options in Dusk Urchins and Scarscale Ritual (com-BO!), a sackful of relevant disruption and removal, and Lorwyn’s very own Tarmogoyf in Bitterblossom.

And in testing… man, did it crucify Faeries.

If I’m honest, I never expected the Faeries matchup to be as one-sided as it appeared in testing. I appreciate that the all-important Bitterblossom War is favorable with four maindeck Thoughtseize — if it’s good enough to tip the scales in Standard, it’s good enough to do so in Block Constructed — but cards like Shriekmaw, Profane Command, and expensive options like Oona are hardly promising weapons against untargetable flyers backed with countermagic. However, in practice, the Faerie deck had trouble in the face of overwhelming removal options, opposing Bitterblossoms, and efficient card drawing. Eyeblight’s Ending was powerful when being Cliqued in my upkeep, and the innocuous Leech-Ridden Swamps were brilliant when the Bitterblossoms faced off against each other. The only problems came when faced with the double Scion of Oona draw, and only then when the pair of flying Crusades were laid when Mono-Black was completely tapped out.

The sideboard promised both Peppersmoke and Festercreep to help cement the matchup, but while Festercreep is cute, it’s hardly necessary in such a one-sided contest.

That’s great, Craig, I hear you say. So you’re set for the Grand Prix? You’re playing the Faerie-crushing Mono-Black?

Of course I’m not. There’s a glaring problem with it, which I’m sure you’ve noticed.

Chameleon Colossus. Oversoul of Dusk.

Protection. From. Black.

I was hoping that Pro-Black guys wouldn’t be too bad. I’d stumbled upon the idea of Trip Noose as a colorless preventative measure, and thought that’d be enough.

It wasn’t. Not by a long chalk.

Thing is, Trip Noose is far too mana intensive to gel with the Mono-Black Control deck’s overall strategy. Spending two mana each turn to lock down a guy that can end the game in a single swing is too expensive, especially when your game plan is to kill everything and send six-mana Corrupts to the dome. Trip Noose would come down and sap my mana, and the high-end spells would sit in my hand as my opponent made another guy, and another guy. Trip Noose merely stunted my development and let me tap two mana turn after turn while monsters battered me.

I also tried Warren Weirding, but it didn’t feel right either. Sometimes, they’d have another guy to sacrifice. Other times, they’d make more troublesome threats. And sometimes they’d beat me to death with bloody tokens.

On Monday, I played in a Grand Prix Trial, hoping to pick up three byes for Birmingham. I managed to take home the prize, which is nice — I’ll share my Doran decklist later in the article. In the semi-finals, I played against a Mono-Black Rogue Aggro deck, and only managed to take it down after three hard-fought games (I made a mistake to lose Game 1, my opponent did the same to lose Game 2, and I won a back-and-forth Game 3**). In each of the three games, I made multiple Chameleon Colossi. For the Mono-Black Rogue deck, they were obviously impossible to handle… but the sheer aggression of their strategy meant that chump-blocking with that Mutavault may well have bought enough time to swing for the win. Even so, I won the match on the back of exponential Pro-Black beats.

If a Black aggro deck doesn’t have the time to prevail against a Colossus, how can we expect a Black control deck to fare any better?

We ended up shelving the Mono-Black Control deck, as while it’s decent in theory, it’s hardly a winning strategy in the current metagame. If anyone has any idea on how a Mono-Black Control deck can best a variety of Pro-Black monsters, please chime up in the forums. The deck was so much fun to play, despite its obvious weakness.

After trawling the net, and with a Grand Prix Trial approaching, I settled on the following Doran list:

This is very closely based on a Top 8 deck at a 67-player Grand Prix Trial held in Osaka. The designer, Yasuhiro Kushigami, finished 6th on the day, but the winning deck is also a riff on this design. As for my changes, they were minimal — I re-tooled the sideboard to taste, and I subbed the four Leaf Gilders for the superior Devoted Druid.

Perhaps the best thing about this deck is that it’s packed with power. There are strong cards throughout, with perhaps the only weak mid- and late-game draws being surplus mana elves. A primer on how to play this is largely redundant… however, I’ll give a few shout outs to the deck’s strengths.

1 — Turn 2 Devoted Druid, turn 3 Garruk and Doran. Just sayin’.
2 — Wren’s Run Vanquisher, while being awesome as mere Watchwolves, are much better than simple 3/3’s for two mana. The Deathtouch makes them this deck’s all-star performers in a lot of key matchups, especially in the mirror.
3 — Be careful with Devoted Druid… make sure to play around him being killed in response to the -1/-1 counter ability. If you’re planning to use all your mana on any given turn, including the mana from adding a counter to the Druid, be sure to create that “extra” Green mana before casting any spells. Thus, if the Druid is killed in response to the counter activation, you can prioritize the use of the remaining mana in an optimal way.

At the GPT, I lost the first round to a guy making his sanctioned debut, playing Mono-Green Elves. He battered me 2-0 with a swarm of idiots. I then bested the mirror, an innovative Blue/White mid-range Godhead of Awe deck, Mono-Red Elementals, and Ten Commandments, before taking an ID into the Top 8. There I defeated Faeries in the quarterfinals, and Mono-Black Aggro Rogues in the semis. In the final, I lost a quick match to the popular Mirrorweave / Spectral Procession Kithkin deck, but as the GPT had byes for both finalists, I wasn’t bothered. I kept terrible opening hands. Even so, I think the Doran deck’s weakness is the Kithkin / Elvish swarm-style beats. Hopefully I’ll shore up those holes in time for the GP, should I plump for Doran as my Weapon of Choice.

For reference, here’s the winning decklist:

This afternoon, I decamp to the home of Richard Hagon, where I join a small Magic colony looking to break the Block Constructed format wide open. Steve Sadin will be there, as will Chris Lachmann and Jacob Van Lunen, alongside Stuart Wright, Neil Rigby, Rich Hagon, and myself. At the time of writing, I plan on playing Doran at the Grand Prix… but all could change over the next few days.

Nevertheless, I’m feeling chipper. I’ve three byes for the tournament, and at the very least I have a strong deck I enjoy playing that has a proven track record in recent events. And if I don’t wanna play that, there’s always Faeries.

I’m taking this one seriously — missing Pro Tour: Valencia taught me that large tournaments are to be cherished.

Next week, I’ll share my Grand Prix story, be it good or bad.

Until next time… thanks for listening.

Craig Stevenson
[email protected]
Scouseboy on MTGO

* I wouldn’t know if a dish “needed more cumin,” but I’m fine when dealing with the less subtle flavors. Needs more salt? Add salt. Not spicy enough? Break out the chillies. And no matter how it tastes, a meal will always be improved by lashings of ground black pepper. Same with decks… I can tell if something “needs more removal,” but I’ll be damned before I can tell you if the third Terror is better than the second Nameless Inversion.

** In Game 3, my opponent dropped a Prickly Boggart on turn 1, and Thoughtseized my Chameleon Colossus on turn 2. On turn 3, he prowled out an Earwig Squad and went searching for my three remaining Colossi… only to discover I’d drawn another Colossus in my one-draw-step window of opportunity. Good beats.