This Block Constructed format has shaped up to be something of a frustrating bore for me. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to crack the nut of the metagame, and ultimately it all boiled down to something someone said to me at the PTQ in Chicago this last weekend.
“Wow. This format totally sucks. Even you’re playing Faeries!”
I don’t have a problem playing the de facto best mainstream deck in a format, not by a long shot. I’ve done it a huge number of times. I’ve played High Tide and Affinity and Goblins and Teachings, all when they were at their high ebb. Of all of the formats that I can think of off of the top of my head, I really feel like this one may just be the worst explored constructed format in my own memory.
By “explored,” I mean to say that enough people have taken a crack at the format, and their results are public enough, that someone walking fresh into the format can have access to what will generally be called the “common wisdom” of the environment. There are mainstays, and these mainstays are not only known, but they are elaborated upon to a point where there are clear staples that make up the deck.
The big problem with this format is that there seems to be very little room for innovation. This is a very different format problem than the problem that plagued Combo Winter (dominated by High Tide and Jar). Those formats, perhaps because they had a little bit more play (as in give and take) due to the larger card pool, were bad because they eliminated the Little Guy so completely from the format, and so obviously overwhelmingly, that tons of Little Guys simply would stop showing up to events. I still remember the Iowa PTQ that I won (playing High Tide), where a player playing next to me played a grand total of two turns of Magic. Sitting next to him, I could see his hand, and he was playing a clearly home-brewed version of PT Jank, and I was pretty sure he had made it completely by himself. The deck looked like it would be good in a fairer format. He lost the die roll, on his turn played his land and Savannah Lion and then promptly lost. In the next game, he started out with a Lion again, and his opponent won on turn 1.
This minor reason that this format is different from that format in that the wins are not so spectacularly stark for the unbeknownst non-competitor. They are still going to lose to Faeries (this format’s version of High Tide/Jar). The major reason is that there are just not enough tools to take them down.
If you look at the big American Grand Prix in the format back then, Grand Prix: Kansas City, the event was won by Mark Gordon, playing Lackey “Sligh,” and featured six other archetypes in the Top 8, with only one person (Finkel) actually playing one of the combo decks that designated the era Combo Winter. If you took the effort and punched it into the format, you’d get returns.
This leads me to Sam Black.
Sam Black, for those of you who don’t know, was the winner of the Car Tournament at Worlds this last year, and is one of Madison’s rising stars. I think in a lot of ways that his strange build of Goblins that he used to win that tournament might have been a kind of quiet inspiration for Stuart Wright Stoken Tokens deck (as I’m most commonly hearing it called), though, then again, it might have been completely independently conceived, at least as much as those things are possible.
When I was working on prepping for Hollywood (in my somewhat hobbled capacity as overworked student in the middle of finals), Sam was working on Block. Heck, who am I kidding. Sam was working on Block incredibly actively even before then, probably by a month or more. Why? Well, essentially none of the Madison crew was qualified for Pro Tour other than Mike Hron, and they really, really wanted to have a leg up on everyone come this current PTQ season.
So what did Sam play at this PTQ? Faeries. What did his list look like? Well, to my eyes, it looked about two spells off of another PTQ winner’s list, Melissa De Tora’s.
This isn’t to say that there is no innovation, obviously. I went into some of the innovations last week. Of those, perhaps most exciting was Michael Pinnegar’s Elf/Assassin deck. For those who don’t remember, here it is:
- 4 Masked Admirers
- 4 Mulldrifter
- 2 Nath of the Gilt-Leaf
- 3 Shriekmaw
- 4 Wren's Run Vanquisher
- 4 Chameleon Colossus
- 4 Scarblade Elite
- 4 Kitchen Finks
After my analysis last week, he wrote to share some of his insights. Here are some of his thoughts on the archetype:
This match is a little awkward. You don’t have any sweepers, and Kithkin vomits tokens onto the board. The key to the match is to be extremely aggressive in the early game. As long as you can, you should push damage through. Be willing to trade your men one for one in almost all situations. Avoid evoking your Shriekmaws when possible because the fear will help your plan to win, but if they’re your only removal don’t hesitate to evoke them on turn 2. You want to whittle away at Kithkin’s life total so that they have to begin chump blocking or so that you can blow them out with a Profane Command.
Do everything you can to prevent Kithkin from activating Windbrisk Heights. Feel free to spend your removal on the tokens. Assuming that they’re eventually going to activate the Heights, you should make it cost them. By holding guys back equal to what they’ll need to swing with to activate the Heights, you can guarantee that you’ll at least trade with those attackers. You should think long and hard about hands that don’t have any removal in them. If you have a nice creature curve and are on the play you can just rely on turning guys sideways. On the draw I would almost always mulligan a hand with zero removal spells in it.
+4 Incremental Blight
-4 Mulldrifter and/or Masked Admirers
Winning depends almost entirely upon having pressure. If you can produce a Vanquisher on turn 2, even after they play a Bitterblossom, the game is completely different then if you just pass the turn with removal in hand. Put guys on the table; don’t be afraid to swing. Make sure to keep their token count low when you can as that makes the sprites and cliques that much worse. Don’t be afraid to run your Colossus into counterspells, especially if you have a Scarblade Elite on the table. You have more card advantage than them at the end of the day, but you’ll lose if you stop putting pressure on them. In the off chance that you do resolve this guy, he’ll win you the game by himself. Be careful to never pump him when they can cast Cryptic Command; you’re much better off just casting a creature after you swing.
+4 Guttural Response
+4 Raking Canopy
-3 Profane Command
Protecting Canopy in multiples gives you tons of time to sit back and develop your board. Make sure you abuse your Admirers, and don’t be afraid to toss your guys into the meat grinder to keep their Faerie count low and prevent the chances of a surprise alpha strike. Profane is slow and awkward in this match, and Mulldrifter really does nothing useful in this match.
Five-Color Control (any deck that runs Reflecting Pool, a ton of a Vivids, and Cryptic Command)
Your game plan against all of these decks is exactly the same. You want to put two pieces of pressure on the table every turn. Use your first Profane liberally by returning one of your small drops, and killing their Finks. The second and third profane should get back a Colossus if at all possible. Never let your Chameleon Colossus get countered by a spell. Force them to kill it with a sweeper. Always play your Masked Admirers first, unless they’re tapped out and you have a Colossus. Whenever possible, return Masked Admirers to your hand. Always try to maximize the card advantage presented by your choices.
+4 Guttural Response
+3 Mind Shatter
-4 Scarblade Elite
-1 Nameless Inversion
The Elites are awful against any deck that doesn’t maintain a board position. You don’t want to remove too many Nameless Inversions because they’re good for poking creatures that have been Mannequined, and they give you a way to kill something like Oona if they block, or if you draw dubs. You really need to hit your land drops game 2-3, so feel free to keep those land heavy hands as long as you’re still doing something in the early game. For the skim slots, just pick two different cards. Everything is so good in this matchup it’s hard to decide.
Put tons of guys on the table. Be aware that they play Firespout, but this generally isn’t a huge problem because they’ll have creatures on the table too. Don’t run your guys into Reveillark and let them draw a million cards off of Mulldrifter. Use your own card advantage engine to get yourself to a Profane Command so that you can swing through.
+4 Incremental Blight
-4 Masked Admirers
Game 2-3 you must have removal for Smokebraider, which means either Shriekmaw or Inversion. I would be hesitant to keep a hand that does not have some way to kill Smokebraider. Incremental Blight will allow you to wreck Elemental’s board, and push your big guys through.
He notes that he actually managed to dodge Faeries all day. That’s going to be a feat that is harder and harder to actually accomplish. I know that when I looked at the top tables, at a certain point in the day, they were only Faeries. Heck, even the Grand Melee was largely dominated by Faeries (piloted by Mike Krumb of Grand Prix: Charlotte fame), though politics dragged him out of contention… I left the PTQ in disgust, wandering around the comic convention where the event was held, coming back periodically to check in on the PTQ, but it was the same every time: nary a non-Faerie in sight. Oh, well, at least I got to meet Lou Ferrigno (the original actor to play the Hulk, for all you young’uns).
Believe me, you will not have Pinnegar’s luxury of playing against no Faeries. I actually played against the deck twice in the Swiss, and also played against it for fun (a.k.a. learning) both that day, and in playtesting since. The problem I foresee for the Pinnegar deck in the Faerie matchup is that it has a plan that is only good against those people that aren’t fully prepared for it.
I walked in knowing that the plan was going to be “get out and protect Raking Canopy.” Normally, I would consider this plan terrible, but it actually makes a lot of sense for a deck that is planning on being able to overwhelm Faeries with a degree of board presence. It can literally power through the card advantage/tempo of Cryptic Command and friends, and it can hope to use its Assassins and other elimination to keep a Scion pumped Mistbind Clique out of the equation. If you know that this is their plan, you can completely dodge it with Shriekmaw as an alternate kill condition, and keeping in all of your Scion/Clique, and making sure you’re maxed out on Sowers, you actually are situated in a really potent place. In fact, in my testing, you largely pushed them over. Even if they did manage to get out a Canopy, there was no reason for it to matter. You could slightly change your plan and just â€˜get them’. I started experimenting with bringing in Puppeteer Clique as well, for yet another way to dodge them (and also a way to beat the potential “next response” of the deck, which might be switching to Cloudthresher), and that also seemed promising (though not as good).
The point is, that the innovation was largely successful only in a vacuum.
For reference, here is the particular Faerie list that I am testing. It was inspired by Sam Black comments that in his previous build of Faeries, Vendilion Clique was unexciting.
In some testing, I ran —1 Broken Ambitions / +1 Negate, just largely to see if it would impact anything, but I didn’t have enough data to really get a sense of it.
The key with any Faerie deck is the same, as best as I can tell, in every version. Sowers, Vendilions, Ponders, Thoughtseizes, Oona, Peppersmoke. These are the major “variants” of the deck. Here are the keys to the kingdom, if you want them:
“Respect every deck for what it can do, but do not fear them.”
What this means, in essence, is to pay attention to what is possible to come out of any of your opponents. This is a pretty narrow format, so this is incredibly doable. Recognize, for example, that an opponent could potentially drop a Horde of Notions on the next turn, and weigh what that means, but do not automatically hang back in fear of their potential Horde of Notions if your play leaves you in a position to handle the problem.
A great example of this kind of play comes from Sam Black, once again. I watched him play the Faerie mirror. In game 1, I believe, his opponent Thoughtseized Sam’s turn 2 Bitterblossom, and then played his own. Sam, stalled on mana, mounted an offensive with Mutavault and then Scion, even though he didn’t have much in the way of mana. It took him too long to draw more mana, and even though he lost, the game was incredibly close. How? He decided that he was on the ropes, and his only hope was to simply play as though his opponent had nothing, and try to eke out as much damage as he could in any moment, and hope that the Bitterblossom would end up finishing his opponent off. As it happened, his opponent was answer-light, and threat heavy. It wasn’t enough, but that was largely only because Sam continued to be mana screwed until too late.
In other matchups, it’s all the same. You have to be willing to make yourself be vulnerable if it is worth it. You can work this out by playing out thought experiments. If the thing you don’t want them to have happen were to happen, where would the game go? How likely is it to be there? In this way, you can decide how risky a behavior is, and make a determination of whether it is worth stopping.
Take the Pinnegar Rock list. Clearly, the deck can drop a clock that is worthy of attention. If, on the play, they drop a Wren’s Run Vanquisher, followed by Kitchen Finks, followed by Masked Admirers, they haven’t done anything in and of itself that is too crazily egregious, but at the same time, they are threatening to kill you and they are threatening to make your Bitterblossoms far less valuable if they aren’t online already. Further, if this is a sideboarded game, you can recognize the potential for them to drop Raking Canopy to stall out the game if you stabilize so that they can recover and push back through, powered by Masked Admirers. With that in mind, is it worth “blowing” that Cryptic Command? Working through what it is that they can do, you can realize little things like perhaps that Masked Admirers isn’t worth thinking about, because your plan might be to not chump with tokens at all, but to Inversion the Wren’s Run at the end of their turn and Mistbind Clique them during combat (removing the Blossom) to Time Walk them and kill their team with Faerie Rogue friends… so hold back that valuable Command for a better moment. The situation can change from game-state to game-state, but the fact remains, in the games of non-screw, you can expect to overpower your opponent on the merits of how your deck simply functions more powerfully.
If I’m a little bit down on the format, it might just be the depressing nature of the PTQ I witnessed. When the results are officially in, I’d be unsurprised to discover eight Faerie decks in the Top 8. We’ll see how it breaks down when the cookie crumbles. I know that reading today, four of the five Top 8s reporting were won by Faeries, and all had at least half Faeries.
At the same time, I feel like there is some major hope on the horizon. Eventide looks to be a set that is going to completely shake things up. I look at lists like Michael Pinnegar’s, and I can’t help but think how hopeful I am about the potential for creativity. The stifling nature of the format is oppressive, certainly, but fresh cards will break things open to a huge degree. Further, I have a feeling that there are enough cards in this set that it will not simply resettle into a similarly stagnant metagame. And, shockingly, one of the cards that I think might be most responsible for this is found in my least favorite color, White.
I know I’m already plugging away with new decks based on confirmed cards, and I imagine that many of you are as well. Best of luck to everyone in these coming weeks of PTQs before the rotation. If you think you have some idea that “solves” the stagnation in the format, please, by all means, post about it in the forums. I’d love to hear about it. Alternately, what cards are out in the new set that you think will break the deadlock. What do you think? Please, someone, cheer me up a bit…