The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Why Didn’t I Run The Best Deck?

Hall of Famer Brian Kibler made only one mistake when preparing for Pro Tour Nagoya: overestimating everyone else’s ability to prepare for the metagame. Read how he picked a suboptimal deck in anticipation of a phantom metagame.

As those of you who keep up with my articles probably already know, I love Block Constructed as a format. Since Block Constructed has a smaller card
pool than any other format, it poses unique challenges to deckbuilders. Block formats typically revolve around a small number of powerful cards from
which the format’s archetypes are built, which makes “solving” the metagame in a Block format much more realistic than in a bigger
format like Standard. I love the challenge of breaking down a smaller subset of cards, identifying the key matchups, and finding fringe cards that
totally turn those matchups around.

Scars Block Constructed is nothing like that.

When I started playing Scars Block on Magic Online, I enjoyed it. It was before NPH was released, and the metagame was a mashup of Tempered Steel, Mono
Red, and various blue control decks—essentially, decks built around Tempered Steel (and Hero of Bladehold), Koth, and Consecrated Sphinx. I
brewed up a midrange Jund deck built around Glissa, splashing primarily for Red Sun’s Zenith as an out to Mirran Crusader and as an alternate win
condition. I had a great deal of success playing the deck online since it was capable of playing aggressively against control with cards like Viridian
Emissary, Phyrexian Rager, and Thrun, but could play control against Tempered Steel, with Glissa serving as both an all-star blocker and a way to close
out games in combination with Sylvok Replica.

As a result of my experiences, when I got to Singapore and started testing Block with the usual suspects—LSV, Brad Nelson, Martin Juza, Conley
Woods, Owen Turtenwald, David Ochoa, Josh Utter-Leyton, Lukas Blohan, Ben Stark, and Matt Nass—the first deck I put together was a Glissa deck. I
was excited about the prospect of Gremlin Mine providing good early defense along with an even cheaper recursive removal engine with Glissa.

I got crushed. Over and over, I got stomped by Tempered Steel. My Viridian Emissaries and Phyrexian Ragers were basically useless as blockers, since
the modern Tempered Steel decks have access to so many evasive creatures, and my long-term plan of Glissa recursion got shut down by
Dispatch—along with any other creature-based defensive strategy I could piece together.

Throughout our testing, that would prove to be a consistent theme. I brewed up new decks, played them against Tempered Steel, and got my teeth kicked
in. Tempered Steel had clearly been the #1 deck prior to NPH, and NPH just made it better.

The reasons Tempered Steel is so dominant were manifold. First, and most obviously, it has the strongest and most explosive possible starts in the
format. Few decks can withstand Signal Pest, double Memnite into Glint Hawk Idol into Tempered Steel. Even with an immediate Slagstorm, that’s
already ten damage dealt with a four-power flier coming in the next turn!

The second reason is the diversity of Tempered Steel’s threats. A lot of people look at Tempered Steel and think all they need are some
Slagstorms and Scrapmelters, and there’s no way they can lose, but the way the games play out is much different. Some games you have Slagstorm
against Chimeric Masses and Glint Hawk Idols, and other games you have Scrapmelters against Hero of Bladehold and Inkmoth Nexus.

Those are really the two key threats that beat all of the decks that people build to beat Tempered SteelHero of Bladehold and Inkmoth Nexus.
Against a deck stuffed with Slagstorms and Creeping Corrosions, either of these two can still end the game in short order. A single attack from Hero
often kills the opponent because of how much damage his abilities enable, and he only dies to a handful of the removal in the format. Inkmoth Nexus can
end the game in as few as two attacks with Tempered Steels in play and can only be stopped by instant-speed removal and flying creatures, and the
alternate poison win condition makes cards like Wurmcoil Engine and Batterskull much less impressive at closing out games.

The third reason for the dominance of Tempered Steel is Dispatch. Dispatch is the most efficient removal spell in the environment by leaps and bounds,
and Tempered Steel is the deck best able to take advantage of it. Cards that were previously problematic are suddenly barely speed bumps. Unlike many
of the other removal spells in the format, Dispatch isn’t limited by what it can kill, has no drawback (once its condition is met), and does all
this for one mana at instant speed. Glissa? No problem. Wurmcoil? Don’t pass go; don’t collect two tokens. Hoard-Smelter Dragon?
That’s not going to do a damn thing if you played it before you had ten mana.

The combination of these factors means that Tempered Steel has the best aggressive position in the format, the most diverse threat base in the format,
and the best removal in the format. But on top of that, the combination of the last two factors means that Tempered Steel matches up well against decks
that try to establish control with either spells or permanents.

As Dave Price famously once said, “There are no wrong threats. Only wrong answers.”

Tempered Steel is a deck that demands that an opponent have the right answer right away or get run over. Many of the cards in the deck require
different types of answers and can easily disrupt an opponent’s attempts to optimize their mana usage. A savvy Tempered Steel player won’t
just walk Glint Hawk Idol into a Galvanic Blast—he’ll let it sit dormant for a turn to play Tempered Steel and get it out of range instead.
Got Slagstorm? Well, when are you going to cast it if your opponent plays a Memnite plus Origin Spellbomb turn 1, Glint Hawk Idol turn 2, and then
another Origin Spellbomb with mana up to break one on turn 3? If you don’t kill that Memnite right away, you may just take ten damage when
Tempered Steel powers all of them up on turn 4. Or maybe they played Hero of Bladehold that turn instead, forcing you to answer that as well as their
swarm of creatures.

Never before has a format wanted Disenchant more than this. Tempered Steel itself is nigh unkillable, with only Slice in Twain, Revoke Existence, and
Sylvok Replica as enchantment removal. Slice and Replica each cost four mana to use, so they’re too slow to take out the enchantment the turn it
comes down, while Revoke’s sorcery speed ensures you’re going to take at least one Steel-powered attack to the chin. Zendikar block had
both Naturalize and Nature’s Claim, and nobody wanted either. In Scars, either one would be a superstar!

Typically the problem with building control decks in new formats is that it’s not clear what sort of threats you’re going to need answers
to. In Scars block, that’s only the first stage of the problem. The mana in Scars block is the worst we’ve had in a while, with only one
set of dual lands for each allied color pair, and no colored-mana producing utility lands to speak of. That means that every two-color control deck has
to play an inordinately high number of mana sources just to hit land and color drops, and none of those lands has extra utility later in the
game—no Celestial Colonnades or even Tectonic Edges to speak of. There’s Phyrexia’s Core and Inkmoth Nexus, but lots of those are
difficult to support without running into colored mana problems.

So the control decks have to overcompensate with land and have to play pretty much all basics, while the beatdown decks can run 22-24 lands easily,
with four of those being incredibly deadly manlands that also help with metalcraft. That leads to the control decks easily flooding out later in the
game, even when they’ve dealt with the beatdown deck’s early assault, and still missing land drops or their needed colored mana a
significant percentage of the time. On top of that, the control decks have to have an incredibly diverse set of answer cards to deal with the wide
range of threats the premier beatdown deck plays, with no draw smoothing effects like Jace or Preordain to ensure the right mix of land, spells, and
different types of answers.

Basically, playing control in Scars block was a fool’s errand. We spent literally hundreds of man-hours trying to get various control decks to
work, from R/G to U/W to U/B to mono-blue to mono-black to three- and four-color monstrosities. They all had the same fundamental problems—they
had to draw the rights cards at the right time with the right mana, or they’d get crushed by Tempered Steel. Our earliest decks had tons of cards
against other control decks, like Karn Liberated and Volition Reins and Stoic Rebuttal, but those got slowly trimmed before being jettisoned entirely
in the quest to actually stand a chance against Tempered Steel.

We had U/W with maindeck Divine Offerings, Dismembers, Marrow Shards, and Sunblast Angels that struggled to win 40% of games. We had G/R with
Slagstorms and Galvanic Blasts and Creeping Corrosions and Scrapmelters that got run over time and again. We had B/R with Scrapmelters and Skinrenders
and Grasp of Darkness and Black Sun’s Zenith and Wurmcoil Engine that could never seem to buy a win. We kept trying to find a control deck that
worked, but none of them could beat Tempered Steel, no matter how much we biased them against it—and that’s to say nothing of actually
trying to beat other decks. The only card that really let a control deck take over the game was Consecrated Sphinx, but blue offered very little else
that was attractive, and Sphinx could easily just get Dispatched by the Tempered Steel player anyway.

This led us to two possible conclusions:

1)   Play Tempered Steel

2)   Play Mono Red

Mono Red was different from the other control decks in that it didn’t play a bunch of specific removal, and it wasn’t a fundamentally
reactive deck. Your removal was burn, which could go to the face in a pinch. You were monocolor, so you didn’t have to worry about the awful mana
of the format, and you got to play Inkmoth Nexus, which gave you a possible alternate route to victory as well as a great blocker for opposing
Inkmoths. The ability to actually pressure the Tempered Steel player’s life total was important because it made for fewer games that ended in a
drawn-out topdeck war against the deck with fewer land and in which every card was a huge threat thanks to the deck’s namesake enchantment.

I decided to play Mono Red, in large part due to my expectation that Tempered Steel would make up a huge percentage of the field, and I didn’t
want to play a bunch of mirror matches. The mirror match felt incredibly random, with Tempered Steel itself deciding essentially every game. While I
knew the deck could win through the hate, I didn’t want to have to play around everything against every opponent, and I was afraid that our
results in testing had been somewhat biased because we always knew the right cards to play around in a particular matchup—if they could have
Marrow Shards, we’d play around it, but if we knew they didn’t, we wouldn’t. And who knows—maybe people had decks that were
better built to hate out Tempered Steel than we did. I felt like our list of red had a substantial edge in the mirror, was solid against Tempered
Steel, and had a good plan against any of the control decks people might play, with the first two being by far the most important.

It turned out that I gave everyone else too much credit, and Tempered Steel only made up a paltry 20% of the field. A huge percentage of the remainder
was clunky multicolor control decks that didn’t stand a chance against Tempered Steel. It turned out that many people hadn’t done the
testing that we had and just assumed their decks would win because they had a few artifact destruction spells. I literally overheard someone saying,
“I don’t understand why I keep losing to Tempered Steel. I have four Scrapmelters!” When, in reality, Scrapmelter isn’t even an
especially good card in the matchup. There were a whole lot of cute three- and four-color Tezzeret lists with bad mana and bad cards in them—LSV
played an exhibition match against Shouta with the 4CTezzeret deck that Fujita played to his Top 8 finish and beat him 2-0, with the match taking
something like a combined total of ten turns.

I suppose the moral of this story is that you shouldn’t overestimate your competition. It’s much like Caw-Blade in Standard. While
Caw-Blade makes up a huge percentage of the field in any given Standard event, it should probably make up more if players were acting entirely in their
own rational self-interest. But people will have any number of reasons for not wanting to play the best deck even when they know about it, and others
will not realize the extent to which it is the best and play something else. 

I liked the Mono Red list that I played, but I should have played Tempered Steel. With the knowledge that I have now, I would have played a Puresteel
Paladin deck, but that was something we didn’t sufficiently explore in our testing, which was certainly a mistake. I ended up 2-3 in the
Constructed portion on Day One, losing to U/B Control, Puresteel Paladin, and Tempered Steel. I feel like I got pretty unlucky in my matches—one
of my opponents removed my second Mountain of the game with Karn, while my Tempered Steel opponent drew two Steels each game, and I bricked on drawing
any spell to kill him for three turns in game two—but I didn’t set myself up for success as well as I could have and made a suboptimal deck

Usually at the end of any big Constructed event, I want to play in another tournament of the same format right away to apply what I’ve learned,
but in this case, I never want to play another match of Scars Block Constructed again. Good riddance. I hope Innistrad is better!

For those interested, my Mono Red list:

Until next time,