The Idiot’s Guide to Team Ravnica Block

The Pro Tour hits Charleston this weekend. The format? Team Ravnica Block Constructed. Online, the Ravnica Block Constructed metagame consists largely of BGW Control variants… but in team, those cards will be spread pretty thin. Mike examines the cards and archetypes that’ll make waves in the team format, and while such stalwarts as Loxodon Hierarch are a given, is Simic Sky Swallower really overrated? This is a must-read article for those doing battle this weekend!

Loxodon Hierarch

There, I said it: the two most important words on the plane of Ravnica.

If you don’t know anything else about Team Ravnica Block Constructed, know this: It is an insult to call Loxodon Hierarch merely “the best creature in the format.” The Panacea Pachyderm is not only the best creature in the format, but the best card. It is not only the best card, in this polychromatic universe of many viable decks and more options on how to assemble them, it is the only element enabling whole archetypes to weather the violence of the best aggressive opponents. Let me explain how this works… Loxodon Hierarch is not only the cornerstone of decks like straight G/W Ghazi-Glare, but due to the realities of the format (specifically that the opposing team will be, in most cases, forced to play two non-Hierarch decks) certain arcane board control archetypes can’t actually exist in its absence. I have seen multiple decks built by competent players that literally – literally – play no other Green cards besides Loxodon Hierarch… And you know what? It might not be “correct” to splash this way in the abstract, but such decks tend to be unable to beat, say, G/R without the ability to tutor up Three Stupid Elephants™.

The influence of Loxodon Hierarch is therefore special in Team Trios in a way that no other card can claim. It is a card that is an obvious inclusion in certain decks (for example the aforementioned Ghazi-Glare), but at the same time, is so important to other possible decks that its absence in one of them blanks the ability to play the best cards in other colors than White and Green… and you only get to play four Hierarchs between three players. I have considered asking Aaron Forsythe or some other luminary for special dispensation to play, say eight Hierarchs (nothing else special, just the Elephants) so as to play more good (and by “good“ I mean “remotely viable“) decks. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that even the third tier [competently built] Hierarch decks are better than the first string of all the other decks, but if I did, and it was a lie, it would be a little white lie.

Without a doubt, almost every team will field four copies of Loxodon Hierarch. You can’t really say that about any other card – not Birds of Paradise, nor Char, nor Compulsive Research – and most teams will carry some bitter player who wishes he were also playing Loxodon Hierarch. The teams that don’t have four Hierarchs will only fail in that way because they couldn’t scrounge up enough copies of the chase Ravnica rare.

Rolling Spoil

The most important spell in Ravnica Block Constructed is Rolling Spoil. Rolling Spoil is one end of the spectrum that defines the Block, the Tooth and Nail to Moldervine Cloak’s Arcbound Ravager. The strength of this card in a format defined by $20 dual lands and often ponderous, yet color-fixing, Karoos is obvious once you’ve thought about it for a second… but the influence of the card goes beyond that.

In a fundamentally interactive way, this card is a true limiting factor of the format… Birds of Paradise has been on the short list of the best creatures in Magic since Alpha, but Rolling Spoil makes that card a liability. Utopia Sprawl was touted by some with the release of the Dissension spoiler as a future staple, but the prevalence of Rolling Spoil similarly limits that card’s sexiness in context. Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree is a fundamentally strong long-game threat against especially control decks, but Rolling Spoil eliminates Outpost and Soldier – all the Soldiers – with a single swoop.

In the same way that Loxodon Hierarch makes your deck good, Rolling Spoil makes the other guy‘s quite poor. In the abstract, a four mana Stone Rain is about as solid as… a Demolish (i.e. “a four mana Stone Rain”). However Rolling Spoil is good against both slow decks, because they are likely to play Karoos, and beatdown, because they are likely to have small creatures to sweep up. Rolling Spoil is a known staple already, and has been a cornerstone of the online Ravnica Block Constructed decks to date. When I said that odd board control decks need Loxodon Hierarchs… Many Rolling Spoil builds (though not necessarily all) fall under this category. Online you can sometimes get by playing an anti-control B/G/W control deck, but then again, you are much less likely to have to beat…

Moldervine Cloak

Without a doubt, G/R will be the most commonly played archetype on Day 1 in Charleston. The reasons for this are many, and I will get into them in greater detail tomorrow, but suffice it to say you need to play decks that aren’t Loxodon Hierarch-centric nor Rolling Spoil-control, and on many teams, two such non-affiliated decks, and G/R is a serviceable archetype that is easy to understand, easier to assemble, and ultimately one of the best stock archetypes.

Moldervine Cloak is a superb tester. If you haven’t tested heavily against this card, you haven’t tested for Ravnica Block. The difference between the online tournaments to date and the real life Pro Tour format is that online you are likely to play some sort of B/G/W control deck, and in real life you have a maximum 1/3 chance of doing so round-to-round. I would actually guess that you have a greater chance of playing against G/R with three (if not four) Moldervine Cloaks just because there will be teams that elect to spend their Loxodon Hierarchs in non-B/G/W board control decks, under the assumption that, given the projected popularity of G/R, a team would not be crazy enough to also play the aforementioned B/G/W without his Elephants.

Skeletal Vampire

After Loxodon Hierarch, I think this is the best creature in the format, though unlike Loxodon Hierarch, that statement is actually up for debate. In contrast to most other creatures in the format – including higher profile Guildpact Black flyers like Angel of DespairSkeletal Vampire is the kind of creature that makes or ruins archetypes by its inclusion or absence. This six mana 3/3 is the most in-demand lynchpin finisher available, and is often the difference between a passable deck and a terrible one, let alone a superb version of a deck and an embarrassingly assembled one.

I had no idea how insane Skeletal Vampire was until I played it. I think it is honestly valuable because it is just above average in so many different ways. I mean, no one is scared of a creature with this body in the abstract, but it is also very difficult to kill. Assuming you don’t have your response card ready immediately, with bats on the stack, Skeletal Vampire resists every Lightning Helix and Mortify you toss at it. Even though its printed statistics are only 3/3, the card plays like a five power creature for six, putting it in Kamigawa Block Dragon class… and I am no longer convinced it is even “worse” at all. The reason, of course, is that Skeletal Vampire is actually a more efficient token generator, once it is online, than even Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree. The land requirements come out exactly the same for both cards, but Skeletal Vampire makes 1/1 Black flyers instead of 1/1 Green Saprolings. You can’t discount the fact that going long, this card also starts netting two Bats per turn late game, something a single City-Tree can’t claim.

Savage Twister

Because most of the other sweep spells suck.

Simic Sky Swallower

This card is sort of the Umezawa’s Jitte of the format. No, I don’t mean that it is some ridiculously broken card that shuts out the color Red and is a must-beat or must-play threat for the Block… just that it influences card decisions in an exaggerated way. Let me tell you what I mean… I cast an Angel of Despair the other week, and Paul giggled, and then I took seven. Now I am fine with getting a two-for-one even if I lose my 5/5 flyer, but there is no reason that I should have taken seven in that spot; in fact, I should have face-planted him with four strikes in the air while gloating about how he was out of cards and I had a 5/5 that had just Stone Rained his face. Instead I died shortly after. The only reason people are willing to play maindeck Hit / Run (unless they are playing the token deck I guess) is to kill Simic Sky Swallower. Hit / Run certainly doesn’t aim very well. When you are playing against G/R the opponent just sacrifices a Frenzied Goblin and takes one, and then you take eight or so. And then he Chars you.

I don’t know if anyone else has the stones to say this out loud: Simic Sky Swallower is overrated… Don’t get me wrong…Simic Sky Swallower is still a great card and some teams that do well will play four copies, either in one deck, or split between two, or even all three… but it’s overrated. It costs seven mana in a format where Rolling Spoil is a defining card. Simic Sky Swallower isn’t Loxodon Hierarch and it isn’t Skeletal Vampire. It will win plenty of games, but I’m guessing that it will be responsible for fewer team victories than Rumbling Slum.

The format is anything but set, but it doesn’t feel like that online. The one general rule that I really think is true in Team Trios that might not be on Magic Online is that it’s probably okay to play a deck that is bad against Rolling Spoil… If you set your team up correctly. Unlike online, you don’t have a positive expectation to hit B/G/W every round; anyway, two of the other decks aren’t Rolling Spoil, after all.

I’m going to cut this idiot’s guide off at this point; tomorrow, Sadin and I will return with an actual matchup relevant to the format.