Sullivan Library: Birmingham Brainstorm

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Friday, June 6th – With the eyes of the world setting on Standard for the Regionals competition this weekend, Adrian Sullivan bucks the trend and investigates Lorwyn Block Constructed. Grand Prix: Birmingham was a happy hunting ground for both Fae and Kithkin alike. By examining the successful decklists, what can be learnt about the metagame as a whole?

Grand Prix: Birmingham has come and gone, and there are some things that seemed evident.

1 — Faeries and Kithkin are the heavy hitters of the format.

All we have to do is look at the Top 8 decks and the five undefeated Day 1 decks. In these thirteen decks (or, technically, twelve), five are Kithkin and six are Faeries. That’s pretty overwhelming evidence in the power of these decks. However

2 — Block remains a largely unexplored format

In talking with many of the Madison folk, like Brian Kowal and Sam Black, and other smarties like Zac Hill and others, the general consensus on Birmingham seems to be that not much work was put in on the format, in general. A lot of this can be attributed to the following:

A — Birmingham was incredibly close to the Pro Tour.

This means that a lot of people were saving their energies for Standard. 1st place in Birmingham is $3,500. Compare that to 1st at Pro Tour, which is over ten times the prize. With 578 players, this makes an average of $50 of winnings for any competitor at the event. At Pro Tour, the average winnings for a competitor would be $622. It just makes sense that the pros that were planning on playing at Birmingham put their energy into Pro Tour, and only touch on Block.

B — The powerful decks were apparent.

As I brought up a few weeks ago, Faeries from Standard largely ports directly to Block. And while it is clear that it might want to be slightly tweaked here or there to make the deck be optimized for the format, the work on the deck is largely done. The other deck, Kithkin, doesn’t have such a pure modern analog, and this is largely responsible for the lack of relative homogeneity to the archetype. That said, there are some clear cursory common points. This isn’t like Rebels or Affinity or Goblins — not that much of the deck seems pre-built. But a lot of it does. Given this high power level, innovating something powerful can be difficult.

C — The support systems were not there.

There is no MTGO for Block, not really. There were, at that moment, no truly credible Top 8 lists. As of now, we’ll have Bucher and Levy as potential dissenters from Faerie- and Kithkin-land, and over the course of the life of the format, more and more of these decks will enter into the world. In the meantime, though, we’re largely in a place right now which harks back in time to the pre-explored realm of Magic. I know many, many people who are very excited by this, because it seems to highly reward people who are skilled deckbuilders.

As it is, we have some data to work with. From Birmingham, then, what are our consensus lists of the big two?

If we just do an initial amalgamation of Faeries from the Top 8, just to see what we get, we have the following:

Quasi-Amalgamated Faeries

24-25 land
8 Island
4 Mutavault
3 Sunken Ruins
4 Swamp
4 Secluded Glen
1 to 2 other lands, of the above

4 Mistbind Clique
4 Scion of Oona
4 Spellstutter Sprite

4 Bitterblossom
4 Broken Ambitions
4 Cryptic Command
4 Nameless Inversion
3 Ponder

5-6 other spells

This is a pretty intensely agreed-upon baseline. It is worth noting that this is not pure canon, however. Carlos Santiago started out undefeated with Faeries, and he chose to use no Ponder. Even so, this is still a pretty filled out skeleton. How much room is there? Six cards? Eight? If you follow Carlos’s tiny little monkey wrench, potentially 11? Even there, though, it brings in other constraints. Simply put, there isn’t much room.

Let’s also check out Kithkin, in the same way:

Quasi-Amalgamated Kithkin

24-26 land
2 Mutavault
2 Rustic Clachan
4 Windbrisk Heights
14 Plains
2 to 4 other lands, of the above

3 Cloudgoat Ranger
4 Goldmeadow Stalwart
4 Knight of Meadowgrain
4 Wizened Cenn
2 Thistledown Liege

2 Mirrorweave
4 Spectral Procession
11 to 13 other spells

Here, there is nearly double the space of the Faerie decks. Do you want to do things like run Oblivion Ring? Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender? Militia’s Pride? What is it that you want to accomplish and what is it that you fear?

Sometimes the answer is to ask this: who do you trust?

Maybe you put your trust in the eventual champion, Lee Shin Tian. That might be completely reasonable. Lee Shin Tian is the dissenting voice on the 26 land count that seems to be commonplace among most of the rest of the Kithkin lists. Maybe he got something right? To accomplish this, he cut down the curve, chopping off the top of it. His list is —1 Thistledown Liege, -1 Mirrorweave, and —1 Cloudgoat Ranger off of most people’s lists that I’ve seen. He fits in +3 Surge of Thoughtweft in their place. This lower curve (plus cantrip card draw) might make his 24 land sufficient, and it does also afford him the room for an additional +2 on the spell count. He certainly won the event, clearly helped by his Surges along the way, but we need to be careful in ascribing too much value to winning.

Contrast that with deciding to trust in experience. Here, I see no better person to look to than Jelger Wiegersma. Jelger’s deck only touches into the Harriers that Lee Shin Tian chose, and instead runs far heavier on creatures. Its only spells are the three Overrun, err, Mirrorweave (while not technically true, effectively Procession is a creature). His entire deck, in fact, is largely devoted to not being sneaky, but rather just beating down. With a full complement of Clachan and hitting the near maximum of top-heavy guys, he expects to be able to just kill his opponent. Unfortunately, we don’t have a match report for his games against Remi Fortier, so we don’t know what went wrong for him there. Lee Shin Tian handily defeated Fortier in two games, a complete reversal of Jelger’s situation.

So, in this key matchup, what were their major differences? We’ll glean what we can from the little data available.

First of all, even though Tian has access to Oblivion Ring, it never actually came up in their match. Still, he didn’t sideboard them out, and Jelger only has access to them (if he chooses to use them) after sideboarding. Even then, he only has access to 3.

Also, potentially important, Lee Shin Tian is packing a full compliment of Harriers, which can facilitate more beating down. Jelger, by contrast, has Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender. Forge-Tender’s use, it seems, is as a potential answer to Firespout. This is a fine use indeed, but we’ll note that only a single deck in the Top 8 played the card main, and there used only 3 copies. Further, the Forge-Tender has no real practical use versus that deck except versus Firespout. In addition, that deck still has access to Shriekmaw/Austere Command to make that less effective. While another deck had access to Firespout after board, it seems clear that one advantage that Tian probably had was not relegating main-deck space to this card, but saving it for the sideboard.

Very important is Tian’s ability to have a surprise pump in Surge of Thoughtweft in game 1. While this is not a great card after the board is likely to bring in a ton of critter answers, in game 1 we can imagine how effective it might be, seeing that it could have cut Fortier out of any potential outs if he hadn’t already been reeling so badly from the initial onslaught. Jelger, conversely, will have to settle for Mirror Entity/Mirrorweave as his massive pumps.

Even though I remain somewhat dubious of Tian’s sideboard plan (-3 Surge of Thoughtweft, -2 Militia’s Pride, -1 Cloudgoat Ranger, -2 Mirrorweave, +1 Thistledown Liege, +2 Brigid, Hero of Kinsbaile, +2 Thoughtweft Gambit, +3 Kinsbaile Borderguard), it does seem as though he probably has more potent tools than Jelger. What will Jelger be doing? Add in Rings and Wispmare? Does Reveillark come in? It looks like a clear decision to become more controlling is Jelger’s only option. Tian can still maintain a kind of beatdown, even in the face of more dedicate removal.

And perhaps almost comically, those Thoughtweft Gambits, a card I would have imagined to be too expensive, might be just the thing to wrap up games that would otherwise be out of control… One can particularly imagine it as a trump to a Cryptic Command: they use their card to tap down your potential attackers. You respond by bringing them all to bear, and tapping down all of their defenders. Not bad.

The Faeries decks seem broken done into a few camps:

Pestermite or no?
Vendilion Clique or no?
Sower of Temptation or no?

Other than that, they are all, largely, the same deck. This raises an interesting question: which decks do you fear?

Before Grand Prix: Birmingham, it was probably safe to say that you wouldn’t be sure what it was that you should expect to fear. After Birmingham, it has become so crystal clear that Faeries and Kithkin are completely overwhelming. This can inform your decisions. If Kithkin is your big enemy, the answer seems clear. Sower, Sower, Sower. Perhaps the move is to return to the Yuuta Takahasi list or stick with Remi Fortier’s list. Sower has its detractors in the Faerie mirror argument, but its proponents will argue that if you can get it to stick, getting a Scion is so damning that it is fairly crazy.

I’m uncertain of this next claim, but Sam Black claims that Vendilion Clique is a more potent response to Kithkin that the next alternative, Pestermite. This makes sense intuitively, just in the way Clique can take out larger men and stop game-ending trumps or other problems, but it is still a Legend, and doesn’t actually do anything to the tempo of an opponent like a Pestermite can. That said, Kithkin are so low on the curve that often a Pestermite can’t impact tempo enough to make it all that potent.

Here is Remi Fortier, and his Kithkin-respecting Faerie list:

Of everything here, the two things I’m vaguely uncomfortable with are 24 land (25 seems better, but Ponder might change things… I would need to test it more to know), and only three Ponder. To my mind, this newly Restricted Vintage card is either a 4 or a 0 (or, I suppose, a 1, if you play with the Moxes). That said, this looks like a very potent list, if you’re trying to be respectful of the power of Faeries.

He ups to the full four-of (post board) of Sower of Temptation, has access to 4 Shriekmaw, and 2 Incremental Blight. At that point, I might go a step further and find room for the third Blight. We can expect that the Kithkin plan will be to bring in men, as Tian did, and lower the curve. This plays right into our plan, but does, of course, run the risk of having Blight stranded with an insufficient number of targets. This doesn’t change anything about the way that you’ll still be largely reeling, and it is still a question of whether you can recover in time.

There are, of course, all of the other decks. Levy’s Elementals, or Ten (or Eight) Commandments. The thing about both of these decks, to my mind, is that they still look untuned to me. People will plug away, certainly, and in the next few weeks, we’ll see how people clean those decks up, or craft new ones. I expect that that’s what you’ll see me doing in the next few weeks.

The Block Constructed PTQ season approaches, but this weekend is all about Standard. Good luck to all those playing in Regionals!

Until next week…

Adrian Sullivan