The Beautiful Struggle – Closing the Book on Block

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The sun is setting on Block Constructed season. The last tournament in my area was last weekend (I finished an unceremonious 2-1-2, after picking up a pair of draws with U/B Mystical Teachings). DragonCon’s website is a little confusing, but it doesn’t seem that they have any Magic tournaments this weekend, much less Block events. Grand Prix: Florence is next weekend, and then it truly will be over. For most of the Western Hemisphere it’s already time to move on to Lorwyn Block.

The sun is setting on Block Constructed season. The list of qualifier tournaments has been taken off of the magicthegathering.com Tournament Center. The last tournament in my area was last weekend (I finished an unceremonious 2-1-2, after picking up a pair of draws with U/B Mystical Teachings). DragonCon’s website is a little confusing, but it doesn’t seem that they have any Magic tournaments this weekend, much less Block events. Grand Prix: Florence is next weekend, and then it truly will be over. For most of the Western Hemisphere it’s already time to move on to Lorwyn Block.

We’ll be seeing most of these decks again, however. Block Constructed has always given the majority of information on State Championships. Although Coldsnap exists, its impact on Standard has been small enough that I’d expect Time Spiral Block to again be the well that players return to when designing Standard decks over the next two months. For that reason, I’d like to give the Block format a pre-Florence send-off by looking at the major decks that I’d expect to endure beyond the current season. We’ll start right at the top:

Blue/Black Mystical Teachings

That’s actually a little bit of a misnomer: some people have had good results at the PTQ (and Magic Online Premiere Event) level with versions of this deck that do not run Mystical Teachings at all. However, the vast majority of decks have featured most or all of the cards that showed up in Luis Scott-Vargas’ GP: San Francisco-winning build:

3 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
1 Academy Ruins
4 Tolaria West
4 River of Tears
4 Terramorphic Expanse
2 Molten Slagheap
2 Urza’s Factory
3 Island
1 Mountain
1 Plains
1 Swamp

3 Shadowmage Infiltrator
1 Bogardan Hellkite
1 Detritivore
1 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
1 Triskelavus

4 Damnation
2 Void
2 Tendrils of Corruption
1 Slaughter Pact
1 Strangling Soot
3 Mystical Teachings
3 Careful Consideration
2 Foresee
1 Haunting Hymn
1 Pact of Negation
3 Coalition Relic
4 Prismatic Lens

2 Detritivore
2 Pull from Eternity
2 Spell Burst
2 Slaughter Pact
1 Imp’s Mischief
1 Ancient Grudge
1 Return to Dust
1 Extirpate
1 Pact of Negation
1 Void
1 Strangling Soot

This build is maybe a little more teched-out than you would want for States: the maindeck Detritivore is particularly hateful against the field of mirror matches that Scott-Vargas was clearly expecting. I’ve been told at various times that you don’t need maindeck Void or Shadowmage Infiltrator, but both of those spells are a tremendous beating against aggressive decks.

In the abstract, Teachings is the best deck in the format. Blue/Green aggro has demonstrated some decent results against it, and the various flavors of Pickles and Sliver decks would never have made names for themselves online if they couldn’t beat Teachings now and then. There are Mono-Black and G/W/B decks that use a heavy discard element to give Teachings some problems. However, if you want the proverbial “answer to everything,” you start your decklist with Mystical Teachings and Damnation. The only card that I’ve ever found difficult to beat is Molten Disaster, and not many people are running that one.

Unless Lorwyn provides the beatdown and midrange decks with some ridiculous gas, I would expect this deck to remain the Boss Hogg of the format. If anything, the inclusion of other sets will strengthen Teachings this fall; among other reasons, there’s the fact that four copies of Teachings can be chained together to produce 20 points of Beacon of Destruction damage. This quick, clean win condition might lessen the number of draws you can pick up in an event with 50-minute rounds.


If we ask now who had the best deck at the beginning of the three-set format, the answer is not very surprising: Kenji Tsumura.

The Teachings, G/W and other decks from GP: Montreal have needed to evolve with time, but this decklist is still rock-solid. You could play these 75 at GP: Florence and have a decent chance at making Top 64. Your chances would be better if you had adopted more recent tech, but this decklist still holds up well. Even those maindeck Serrated Arrows turned out to be the right choice; it’s really hard to beat Shadowmage Infiltrator without them.

Part of the reason this deck is so solid is that it runs 28 lands in one color. Thus you’re almost never mana-screwed, and the deck easily and consistently gets to seven mana for the namesake combo of Brine Elemental + Vesuvan Shapeshifter.

The only real problem with this deck is that the more people expect it in the format, the worse it gets as a choice. If other decks with Vesuvan Shapeshifter are running around — U/G beatdown and the mirror are the primary concerns — then this deck can no longer run the Pickles lock at will. An opposing deck could flip its own Shapeshifter and lock you back. Willbender and Fathom Seer present similar problems. Even if you run U/G Pickles, as some folks do, Thelonite Hermit presents the exact same problem. For this reason, Jon Stocks’ Top 2 deck from San Francisco may attract some attention, ditching the Brine Elementals for Tarmogoyfs:

4 Terramorphic Expanse
1 Urza’s Factory
4 Llanowar Reborn
1 Horizon Canopy
2 Forest
12 Island

2 Venser, Shaper Savant
4 Vesuvan Shapeshifter
3 Fathom Seer
4 Riftwing Cloudskate
2 Aeon Chronicler
3 Wall of Roots
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Mystic Snake

4 Ancestral Vision
4 Cancel
2 Serrated Arrows

1 Draining Whelk
2 Spell Burst
4 Riftsweeper
3 Seal of Primordium
3 Thornweald Archer
2 Serrated Arrows

Green/White/Red Aggro

Since we’ve just mentioned Tarmogoyf, the next deck on our list is pretty obvious:

Obviously, versions of this deck existed at GP: Montreal and have appeared from time to time in the PTQs since then. The real innovation here is the lack of Griffin Guide and Call of the Herd: cards that work really well when they work, but which lead to total blowouts when your opponent has the right answer.

David Irvine’s Top 8 deck from San Francisco cut the one-of Saffi for the fourth Fiery Justice, which may well be a great idea since I have been boarding out Saffi in almost every matchup online. Irvine also had a very nasty surprise waiting in his sideboard in the form of Boom/Bust; he realized that Rebuff the Wicked just doesn’t get it done when your opponents can play Mystical Teachings for Spell Burst.

This deck is strong against many of the other decks in the format. Flores and Ravitz designed it to whip Mono-Blue and Blue/Green, which also leads to advantage over most other beatdown and Sliver decks. Against Teachings, though… as I said before, it’s really hard to beat a Finkel if it is allowed to attack even once, and Void just violates this deck. Boom/Bust helps a bit, but that’s another case where, if the opponent knows it’s coming, it loses some of its value.

Green/Blue Aggro

It’s not at all surprising to me that Brett Blackman made Top 8 at San Francisco. He’s been working well with the U/G deck online and in PTQs for the last two months, and his list is about as good as you can get:

4 Terramorphic Expanse
2 Horizon Canopy
1 Pendelhaven
4 Llanowar Reborn
2 Forest
10 Island

4 Tarmogoyf
4 Looter il-Kor
4 Riftsweeper
4 Riftwing Cloudskate
2 Venser, Shaper Savant
2 Mystic Snake
3 Vesuvan Shapeshifter

4 Delay
4 Psionic Blast
4 Pongify
2 Snapback

4 Thornweald Archer
2 Snapback
3 Serrated Arrows
3 Cancel
3 Stonewood Invocation

Of course, the really impressive thing about this deck is that two similar lists also made it into the Top 8.

Like many aggro-countermagic decks, Blue/Green rarely “just wins.” Instead it tries to stay a step ahead of the opponent. Many decks have answers to cards like Looter il-Kor, Tarmogoyf, or Riftwing Cloudskate, but it’s tougher to have answers to all of them together and backed up by Delay and Mystic Snake. Typically, these creatures can take and hold the initiative just long enough to end the game with Psionic Blast.

The flipside with this strategy is that if the opponent can get the initiative back, you’re in trouble. In fact, that’s why the G/W/r deck was tailor-made to crush U/G. Most of the creatures in this deck can’t rumble with a Calciderm, let alone a Fiery Justice-enhanced Kavu Predator, and most G/W/r can have one of those on turn 3 with a decent draw. I don’t know how much U/G Blackman faced during the tournament, and what his record was against it (I haven’t had a chance to talk to him online since the GP). However, even with Pongify and Thornweald Archer on the team I’d be surprised if he could swing the matchup in his favor.

Red Deck Wins

Like a cockroach, the Red Deck refuses to go away on Magic Online, in part because it’s the cheapest deck to build by a wide margin. In “real world” Magic, however, cases of the Red deck making a PTQ Top 8 have been rare. The most recent I can find is the second-place finisher from July 29th, in Little Rock, Arkansas:

No less an authority then America’s own King of Red Deck, Patrick Sullivan, has told me that he wouldn’t go near a build like this in Block. Part of the reason is that Patrick likes his Red cards cheap and aggressive, and while this deck can curve out and get you hellbent by turn 5, it can also give you a hand crowded with three-drops that puts you on the defensive. I can’t imagine Patrick going for a deck where one of your “one-drops” is a comes-into-play-tapped land.

Nonetheless, I have to give this deck credit in one area: it whips mono-Blue or a badly built Teachings deck (i.e. one that depends too heavily on Tendrils of Corruption). Readers of this space will know that I was a big mono-Blue devotee early in the season, but I had to give it up online because I kept getting knocked out of Premiere Events by turn 1 Gargadon, turn 2 Keldon Marauders. The Blue deck has to have several things go just right to win: Teferi needs to be drawn and played, the opponent needs to not drop Word of Seizing on it at a later point, Riftwing Cloudskate or some other answer to Mogg War Marshal tokens needs to be drawn, etc.

No lies: the biggest reason there is a Red Deck section in this article is because the deck will be impossible to ignore once Mogg Fanatic and Incinerate join the team. Hell, they’ve already joined the team: the aggressive Red players at both U.S. and Great Britian Nationals were practically running Time Spiral Block decks already, with the aforementioned Tenth Edition cards and some Ravnica-Block-enabled splashes. No matter what I see from Lorwyn, my likely first test deck for States will have a large number of Mountains in it.


Wild Pair Slivers made the big splash at GP: Montreal, but like mono-Blue, that’s a deck whose weird mirror match can deter you from playing it. Instead the Virulent Sliver deck has become the popular one, especially online:

Not to disparage the designers of the Sliver deck, but what the hell kind of format is this if Virulent Sliver is the best one-drop out there? Bizarre, says I. I can’t imagine what Lorwyn would give you that would improve this deck, since Slivers are not to my knowledge combing back, so I think it may just end up being a Block-only phenomenon. What a fun phenomenon it was, though. “11:00: mm_young was poisoned!!!” Good times, even on the receiving end.

This is the sort of deck where if you don’t win quickly, you are probably in trouble. Frenetic Sliver and Telekinetic Sliver offer some staying power, but almost all of the games against control that I’ve seen the Sliver deck win involved an overwhelming beatdown early on. There are just too many ways to hate out the army, even after Frenetic Sliver has resolved; for example, I like to play Strangling Soot or other spot removal on the Frenetic in the opponent’s end step, and then even if the opponent wins the flip you can Damnation away the remaining team.

The main advantage of playing this deck is that very few people actually prepare for the matchup. They mostly either say, “That deck? It’s stains!” when in fact it should not be taken so lightly. This kind of ambush factor might do well for you at States, but on the whole I would not want to venture this deck in a format containing Mogg Fanatic.

Epilogue: The Hall of Fame

I don’t have a vote, but if I did it would be Kai, Zvi, Tsuyoshi Fujita, Ben Rubin, and Nicolai Herzog. If there is any question that Kai and Zvi are deserving, I’d be happy to discuss it in the forums. Tsuyoshi is the Finkel of Japanese Magic: others before him were good, but he was the first great, as evidenced by the fact that he’s won about $42,000 more than the next Japanese player on the ballot. Rubin and Herzog get in by a nose over the equally deserving Mike Turian and Randy Buehler, because I would prefer not to give permanent Level 3 status to people who are not going to use it.

I would not be surprised if Kai and Zvi both got in unanimously, which is very sad considering that Jonny Magic himself did not. As long I write about Magic, this will never cease to annoy me: of the two people who did not vote for Finkel, one did PR for the Pro Tour, and the other worked for the European Organized Play. If it had been somebody in Accounting or whatever, I could accept it, but… you work in one of those two departments and you don’t know who Jon Finkel is? Seriously?

This article written while listening to Talib Kweli’s “Eardrum.”

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