Sky Swallower and You: The Basics of Ravnica Block Constructed

Pro Tour Charleston is fast approaching, and the Team Block Constructed format remains largely unexplored. Josh presents the first of a series of articles examining the runners and riders of the format. Simic Sky Swallower, Dark Confidant, Giant Solifuge… are these the cards that will break the format? A fine article that opens the door to a promising series.

A new Block season is among us, and everyone is looking for what Standard decks they can port over minus half of the good cards. Others will be looking at the few powerful cards that worked in Standard and will be trying to make decks around those. The remainder? They’ll be playing whatever junk their team managed to make to hole up that dreaded “Here’s that non-Dark-Confidant and non-Glare-of-Subdual deck; suck it up, boy.”

The best places to start looking into the format are the base blocks that we’ll be building our decks from. I apologize in advance if this stuff seems obvious… most of it is simply pointing out what we know and where all decks are coming from.

Mana Acceleration
Birds of Paradise
Elves of Deep Shadow
Utopia Sprawl
Coiling Oracle (Sort of)

As in all Block formats, mana acceleration is of some importance, especially when you consider Ravnica Block games typically end around turn 8 or 9 (I’m including inevitable board position wins, not just opponent deaths). I mean, in all likelihood you will have time to hard cast Simic Sky Swallower, Niv-Mizzet, or Supply / Demand for 5-8. The only question is; will you be doing it sooner than your opponent?

Birds or Elves, maybe even both, are going to be seen in nearly every base Green deck in the format. These mana creatures will usually be slaughtered in a turn or two by any aggressive deck, but will still see a lot of play because they help Chord of Calling and Glare of Subdual. Also note that Utopia Sprawl basically guarantees use till the late-game, as well as providing immediate color fixing if cast on turn 2 or later. I can’t imagine why any non-Glare deck bothers running these mana fixers versus Sprawl.

Farseek is in its own class, because it almost always finds two colors of mana you need, can’t be destroyed, and really only costs one mana after turn 3. The only real downside is you can only run four throughout your team decks.

Coiling Oracle isn’t guaranteed mana acceleration, but the ability to drop a dual or Karoo land into play while at worst getting a 1/1 creature and a cantrip certainly isn’t a bad deal. If the colors can be supported, it’s a solid choice for general mana acceleration. And of course, we have Signets, which will most certainly see play in any top-heavy deck that can’t easily support the other options given (i.e. not playing Green).

Ability Lands
Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree
Prahv, Spires of Order
Svogthos, the Restless Tomb
Skarrg, the Rage Pits
Rix Maadi, Dungeon Palace
Orzhova, the Church of Deals

Just a quick mention of the ability lands you may actually see in the environment. Vitu-Ghazi, Skarrg, and Rix Maadi seem like the most common ones that’ll see play. I figure any of these are viable (maybe even Sunhome too), as a one- or two-of in some decks.

The Best Creatures in the Format
Simic Sky Swallower
Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind
Ghost Council of Orzhova
Giant Solifuge
Loxodon Hierarch
Dark Confidant

This list should be pretty obvious to anyone who has even played the format a little bit. Simic Sky Swallower is a minor deity in block, with few ways to kill it, not to mention the fact that he’s the ultimate stalemate breaker and finisher.

Niv-Mizzet can wipe out token armies and end the game in a few swings, even with most of the draw in the format being lousy. Niv actually has a chance of living until you untap, at which point Compulsive Research or Invoke the Firemind can ruin armies – or just allow a swing or two to end the game in a hurry.

Burn, Baby, Burn! Disco Arachnid!

Giant Solifuge falls under the “hard to kill” category. Against opposing control decks, Solifuge is even more of a beating than in Standard. In Block, control almost always needs to spend a Savage Twister or Brightflame to wipe it out (Assuming it even can target something else). However, mid-range aggro will probably laugh at you while throwing a token in the way, and straight aggro will just dump a one-drop at its feet. Still, Solifuge – along with Char – is the closest thing to an efficient burn spell for Block Aggro.

Loxodon Hierarch is another obvious addition to the list. He mauls aggro in every format, and Block is no exception. Congregation at Dawn into three Angry Elephants is GG for almost every aggro deck available.

Dark Confidant is the best draw engine in the format. Enough said.

The only questionable choice on there is Ghost Council, simply because the only deck he really fits in at the moment is a Chord or BWG deck. Regardless of fit, the creature is practically invincible in this format and is easily fetched via Chord to break up ground stalls.

The Rest of the Best
Angel of Despair
Firemane Angel
Grand Arbiter Augustin IV
Rumbling Slum
Burning-Tree Shaman
Rakdos Guildmage
Azorius Guildmage
Selesnya Guildmage
Birds of Paradise

Other Impact Creatures
Lyzolda, the Blood Witch
Orzhov Pontiff
Rakdos Augermage
Gruul Guildmage
Dimir Guildmage
Dryad Sophisticate
Vinelasher Kudzu
Plagued Rusalka
Frenzied Goblin

Everybody wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads

They Might Be Giants
Skarrgan Firebird
Isperia the Inscrutable

Not much to say about the rest of the list; it’s merely a set of very good creatures along with potentially strong creatures which don’t have a deck to fit into. The last bracket happens to be for creatures without a real home in the format, but with sufficient special attributes to be worth considering.

Firebird may not be as resilient as Simic Sky Swallower, but if the bird does die, it’ll eventually come back. The main attribute to look at is its 6/6 stats thanks to Bloodthirst, which allows it to take down just about every creature in combat, including Simic Sky Swallower. Combine these two attributes with the proper mana set-up and you can trump nearly every other finisher in the format.

The other three are pretty obvious. They were a little too slow for Standard, but in block they have more time to come online and show their abilities. Helldozer kolds half the manabases people play while swinging for six… assuming you get to untap with him. Isperia brings a gang with her, if you can guess the opponents hand worth a lick, and there’s no end to the list of large flyers you can grab. Finally, Windreaver is a really good creature, when you can invest seventy kajillion mana into him every turn.

Mass Removal
Savage Twister
Crime / Punishment
Plague Boiler
Culling Sun
Hour of Reckoning

Spot Removal / Burn
Seal of Fire
Hit / Run
Lightning Helix
Last Gasp
Seal of Doom
Faith’s Fetters

The format is shaping up to mainly be creature battles and huge stalemates, thanks in no small part to the copious amounts of token producers around. It’s best to take a good hard look at what mana-efficient removal we have available, as well as any way to actually beat Simic Sky Swallower outside of direct combat. Sadly for the latter, we are limited to Savage Twister, Hour of Reckoning, or Brightflame, as even halfway reasonable options. Though you could hit a Simic Sky Swallower with Hit, I wouldn’t bet money on it, considering it’ll almost always be accompanied by a creature of some sort, or a Signet. You could also try an off-the-wall solution like Graven Dominator into a Rain of Embers or something silly like that, but I’m trying to be realistic here.

Savage Twister is seemingly the closest thing to a reasonably-costed Wrath of God in the format. Brightflame enjoyed early success with only one and two blocks available, due to massive token wars – after all, who hasn’t heard of players gaining 100 life or more in these sorts of games? However, the base cost of RRWW is hard for even dedicated Firemane Angel control decks. Culling Sun suffers from the same castability problem by forcing WWB out of a three-color deck, typically by turn 5. Plague Boiler is still very good at being a delayed Pernicious Deed, and may be one of the few ways for BGW to gain significant card advantage in the long term (considering that almost all other removal you have access too is one-for-one). It’s heavily mana-intensive, and it can limit how much you want to invest into mana acceleration, but it can be a great safeguard against mid-game swarms and late-game bombs.

As for spot removal, we have the classic power uncommon cards that actually kill creatures in this format. Seal of Fire goes in just about every Red deck by default just so you have a chance to wipe out Bob or BoP. Last Gasp probably isn’t good enough to actually see play, but it wipes out almost every 1-3 drop in the format. Electrolyze may actually see play because of the number of X/1 men running around. Repeal is nothing more than a small tempo boost most of the time, but to kill a token at U and draw a card is too good to pass up.

Dark Confidant
Telling Time
Compulsive Research
Invoke the Firemind
Bottled Cloister
Moonlight Bargain
Novijen Sages

As I said before, Dark Confidant is easily the best card drawing engine in the Block format. It doesn’t even cost two billion mana to activate! What a deal! Other than being an auto-include in Rakdos, I’ll be interested to see what BGx or BWx mid-range decks begin using him. Telling Time, though not technically card draw, is close enough considering it only costs 1U and is decent card selection. A lot of Simic and UGR good-stuff decks will probably use it to make sure all of that early mana acceleration doesn’t go to waste.

Compulsive Research and Invoke the Firemind are two of the only legitimate card drawing spells the environment has. Pay three mana, dump a land (not hard in a format with Karoo) gain two cards. Goody goody gumdrops. Though much narrower, you can expect to see Invoke the Firemind simply because not only does it fill the finisher roll for UWR and UGR decks, but also because the ability to simply draw two to four cards on turn 7 or 8 – to truly put the game out of reach for aggro – can’t be overlooked. Yeah, were not in “Academy powering Stroke of Genius” range mana or anything, but it’s not hard for a control deck to have 9-10 mana after turn 7.

Bottled Cloister is an interesting beast. There are maybe seven cards in the format I’d worry about possibly destroying it, and out of those I’d only worry about four or so seeing significant play. In exchange for giving up instants in a Block without a huge amount of good examples, you gain a significant card advantage engine. The real question is what deck would want this as its four-drop that could truly abuse the extra card every turn. BW and GR midrange decks come to mind as the main candidates for Cloister, simply because they probably won’t win games against other fast or mid-range decks without a trump.

Moonlight Bargain and Novijen Sages are narrow in the decks they can go into, but they should see some amount of play (and rightfully so in Bargain’s case). However, they both can draw a lot of cards in the right kinds of decks. A BUW controlling deck using Faith’s Fetters and Azorius Herald could easily stall the game while using Bargain to reload. The same applies to Sages using various graft creatures, including Wall of Hats (Vigean Hydropon), to abuse a quick burst of drawing around turn 6 or 7. Though not particularly mana-efficient, it’s still some card drawing in a format that mainly features creature brawls and large stalemates.

Game-Breaking effects
Glare of Subdual
Debtors’ Knell
Supply / Demand
Chord of Calling
Eye of the Storm
Cloudstone Curio

These choices are pretty obvious, and almost all have seen play in Standard in one form or another. Though Cloudstone Curio may be too slow for the format, once it comes online, the chaos is causes it too hard to overlook. I expect the vast majority of non-early game aggro decks will be based around some of these effects and/or Simic Sky Swallower.

Questions your deck should be able to answer in the Team Block format:

1. Can my deck deal with, or win around, a Simic Sky Swallower? What about on turn 5?
2. Will Glare of Subdual cripple or disable my deck? If so, do I have an effective answer to it?
3. How do I beat a resolved Dovescape?
4. If a chosen deck is three colors or more, can I afford to take that many duals away from my teammates and have three competitive decks remain?
5. Can my deck survive an aggro rush backed by Delirium Skeins and potentially other discard?
6. Can I stop a turn 2 Dark Confidant? Alternatively, how big a threat is an active Dark Confidant?

If you can only answer three of these, the deck concept either needs some significant revamping or should be scrapped. Answering four or five of these questions reasonably well means the deck probably has some real merit. If you can answer all six effectively, without exaggerating the odds on actually doing so, then you have a very good potential deck choice.

There are plenty of other questions that can be asked based on specific deck type, but these seem to be the main format-centric questions one can ask about any deck.

And so ends the basic overview of the Block format. With luck you’ll be caught up with the major components of the format, or at least have an easy reference for those who have been keeping up to date. I’m sure if I missed anything important, somebody will yell at me on the forums.

Joshua Silvestri
Team Reflection
Email me at: JoshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom

“New items will eventually get old and rot,
So people seek a non-existent eternity.
Live for now and engrave for tomorrow.”
Angela – Ring of Miracles