The Little Engine that Could?

The goal of this article is quite ambitious: in the middle of the Block Constructed season, with multiple Grand Prix behind us, I’m going to argue that there is a viable (possibly tier one) rogue deck available for Block. It’s a control deck with tremendous utility and a ton of play decisions that has game against all of the most popular decks and favorable matchups against most.

Foreword: Be warned. The Magic content of this article alone is fourteen pages long, and the goal of the article is quite ambitious: in the middle of the Block Constructed season, with multiple Grand Prix behind us, I’m going to argue that there is a viable (possibly tier one) rogue deck available for Block. It’s a control deck with tremendous utility and a ton of play decisions that has game against all of the most popular decks and favorable matchups against most.

Be further warned that with the launch of Your Move Games (as a game-publishing company) fast approaching I’m going to put out The Calltm. The Calltm is my request that any of you out there who like the idea of Chad Ellis and Robert Dougherty publishing awesome games step up and help us make it a reality by joining our evil army. It’s easy to do, and you’ll get some cool Phil Foglio art for free! In fact, you can even sign up for the evil army, get the Phil Foglio art and then desert and do no work whatsoever and nothing bad will happen to you. Well, other than that you’ll be a bad person and you’ll have made an angel cry. Somewhere.

On with the article.

Several weeks ago I mentioned that a natural answer to Crystal Witness might be a deck based on Auriok Salvagers. Such a deck could tutor for Scrabbling Claws and could recycle them (drawing extra cards as it did) to remove any Witness targets, thus destroying Crystal Witness’s game plan. A 2/4 body that doubles as a Jayemdae Tome (without tapping) and can recycle a bunch of non-trivial utility effects sounded pretty reasonable.

So naturally, I had to build it, even though I doubted it would be tier one in a block where decks were capable of doing such gross things. I was pretty sure that I would end up mentioning the deck as a follow-up to”Are you Kidding Yourself?” explaining how three or four years ago I probably wouldn’t have been able to let go of the deck and might have wrecked a PTQ season trying to make it work but now I was mature enough to let it go.

But it kept winning.

Don’t get me wrong. I got my face smashed in by Affinity, and I had a slight disadvantage against Tooth and Nail, so the deck was still on the critical list, but it performed a lot better than most rogue decks do in their first incarnation, and was holding its own against a lot of powerful decks. Moreover, it was slaughtering one major deck archetype and beating a few others, while trashing any other rogue decks I faced. Even Rob Dougherty said it deserved more work. Here’s what I was working with:

Flea Market 1.0

4 Serum Visions

4 Annul

4 Condescend

4 Trinket Mage

4 Auriok Salvagers

3 Echoing Truth

4 Thirst for Knowledge

2 Solar Tide

4 Wayfarer’s Bauble

1 Aether Spellbomb

1 Engineered Explosives

1 Sunbeam Spellbomb

1 Conjurer’s Bauble

1 Scrabbling Claws

14 Islands

8 Plains

The sideboard was pretty random, since at this point I was just getting a feel for the deck. I had a second Engineered Explosives, four Last Word, two Pristine Angels (partly in case I needed a quicker victory path), and four Vedalken Archmages so I could turbo-charge the engine against other control decks. There were also some Purges and I think one Pulse of the Fields.

The basic idea is as simple as it is obvious. You’re a U/W control deck with card drawing, permission and an engine that lets you take over the game completely if you survive long enough. You have lots of early plays that either slow them down or accelerate you to help you last through the first few turns. Then Trinket Mages and Auriok Salvagers form a utility belt engine that, while not doing anything truly gross, can do a lot of little things on demand, and can do them over and over again, while drawing extra cards or building your mana base whenever you have nothing better to do. (It is this latter point that makes the deck so powerful against other rogue strategies, since you often have a solution to their game plan and if they don’t do something gross to you, you’ll just outdraw them over anything like the long game.)

Another key feature to the deck is that the Salvagers are extremely annoying for a lot of decks simply by virtue of being a 2/4 body. Most Crystal Witness builds have no creature with power greater than three, so the Salvager can often stare down two or three opposing creatures, especially given the bounce you have available. Frogmites and Disciples have to sit back, and when combined with bounce a Salvager is a pretty good blocker against Arcbound Ravager, too. Red decks need either two spells or a Shrapnel Blast to kill him, either one of which is fine by you, and you can often use a single bounce spell to save him if you haven’t drawn a second.

My intuition before testing was that I had a tough (actually very tough) matchup against Affinity, a favorable matchup vs. Crystal Witness, a favorable (although always risky and somewhat build-dependent) matchup against Big Red, and a highly interesting one against Tooth and Nail, depending a lot on the specific build. I had no idea how things would play against Ironworks, since while it felt good with four maindeck Annul and good card-drawing, I’ve learned from painful experience not to try to predict how a given control-on-combo matchup will play out. I won’t pretend to have been able to do a statistically meaningful testing sample against all these decks before modifying Flea Market, but here is how initial testing went:

Random decks, including Black Control: favorable.

The core engine is powerful enough to beat most rogue decks. Death Cloud decks in particular have a hard time stopping you from generating a ton of card (and land) advantage and thus surviving the Cloud, even if you can’t counter it (which you usually can). A few times my opponent would manage to clear our boards and hand with Death Cloud, but usually by that time I had more land out than he did and substantially more life (having been swinging for two or four every turn) as well as having some cards”stored” in play in the form of spellbombs. Engineered Explosives gets rid of their mana rampers (a key part of their strategy) and you can almost always counter Solemn Simulacrum while outdrawing them.

The only real tricks were not to put out the Salvagers before you can activate them at least once so that you get a bit more card advantage if they have Terror or Barter in Blood, and to try to keep a couple of Spellbombs in play so that if they did blow up the world, you stood in a good position to recover. I lost a couple of games when I just walked into Death Cloud, but in general this is a favorable matchup.

Another Rogue deck that Flea Market seems to handle pretty well is White Weenie. Engineered Explosives is again the nuts, getting rid of whatever you need to get rid of and then coming back to clean up whatever is left. Sunbeam Spellbomb then makes sure that you aren’t killed by whatever random creatures they have left.

Affinity: horrible.

You pretty much lose game one about 90% of the time, which is about as bad as you’ll ever see when two”real” decks square off. Engineered Explosives are good at taking out their small stuff, and you can bounce Ravager-enhanced creatures, but basically they are too fast for your mid-game engine to matter much. This matchup had me thinking that at best Flea Market might only be a metagame choice if you think that Affinity has been hated out… not a very likely prospect.

Ironworks: wonderful.

This is a surprisingly fun match to play, both because it’s interesting and because you should win. Simply put, their only good plan against a control deck is to go for a long game in which their card drawing overcomes the opponent’s permission or removal. That has a hard time working against you, since quite soon you are able to draw one or two extra cards per turn during their EOT, and only have to counter a fraction of their spells.

Engineered Explosives is your best cog vs. Ironworks, able to blow up their artifact mana when set to two, or wiping out an army of Myr if set to zero. That in turn means that they can only win by going off”big,” i.e. by Fireballing you out or resolving a Goblin Charbelcher or Mindslaver. Neither is that easy to do.

You can sometimes lose if you stall on lands or are forced to tap out for a Salvager, but that doesn’t happen too often. I won most of these matches 2-0 pretty comfortably, and while I lost one to a deck running Abunas, I think that was also a favorable matchup. Annul is powerful enough that you can often put out threats pretty aggressively, and the power of the Explosives is amazing. After boarding you have eight hard and four soft counters that you can recycle, and the matchup just gets better and better against any conventional build.

Crystal Witness: favorable.

This matchup seems generally favorable. They don’t have anything that really breaks up your engine, while your engine does break up theirs (courtesy of the Claws), and most builds have no way to put on enough pressure to stop you from setting up. Another nice point is that even if they board in Claws (which seems more and more popular), theirs don’t do nearly as much against you since you can protect your cogs with additional activations of the Salvager.

There’s one thing here that bears mention. You don’t win this matchup – they lose it. This game can take forever, especially if they manage to resolve a few Troll Ascetics. I strongly recommend not losing game one, especially if your board doesn’t include Angels or some other way to win quickly.

Tooth and Nail: unfavorable.

This matchup plays very differently, depending on how the early game goes. Most decks know their Condescends will end up dead soon enough, so they have to use them on land-search and hope to win (or get back their permission with Eternal Witness) before the T&N deck can go off the hard way. You’re somewhat different. Your only way to get back permission involves long-term recursion via Conjurer’s and Wayfarer’s Bauble, but against a deck with few threats, you can put multiple lands into play per turn. This means you may be able to keep up with their mana development for quite a while. If you’re fortunate, this in turn means that you can put some pressure on them with a 2/2 or 2/4 and have your Condescends stay meaningful for quite a while.

The other thing that matters a lot is their particular build, i.e. what they intend to put into play with Tooth and Nail. Darksteel Colossus is actually a pretty marginal threat against you, since you can just put it back in their hand over and over again with Aether Spellbomb. Duplicant is also essentially a 2/4 creature that rarely does anything significant. I won a match against a T&N deck that had nothing better to do than put an 11/11 trampler into play and Duplicant my Salvagers. I just smiled, returned my Salvager to my hand and then recast it, got back my Aether Spellbomb and put the Colossus back into his hand.

Abunas plus Angel just means you have to bounce both of them, and you often have plenty of time to do so, especially when 2WW lets you gain five life. In short, quite often their big threat can resolve without really bothering you. Of course, Vampire/Trike is another story – if they play that out, you should just do as much cycling as you can and hopefully put the Vampire back in their hand and replace your Salvagers. Bringer/Slaver is okay so long as they haven’t already made you their slave, since you can bounce the Bringer and they often can’t recast it.

The surprising”fear card” in this matchup is Reap and Sow, and it’s good news for you how many articles and recent decklists suggest that this is being cut from four to two or even zero. Your game plan involves being able to keep up with them on mana (more or less), until you can put out a Salvager while still having enough mana to counter their Tooth and Nail. A single Reap and Sow with Entwine can wreck this plan, and even without Entwine it is sometimes scary.

Big Red: favorable to strongly favorable.

This isn’t a Dan Paskins Red deck that smashes mid-game card advantage engines to pieces with its early drops. This is a control deck with few if any early plays and, quite frankly, its spells aren’t very good against you. Your artifacts are so used to taking trips to the graveyard that Furnace Dragon is just a one-turn 5/5 flyer they often can’t cast a second time. Aether Spellbomb is a wrecking ball against such an approach and is also really good against Arc-Sloggers, since it is rare indeed that they can cast a Slogger with RR available before you’ve either got permission for it or a second Salvager to replace the one they’ll burn out when you bounce the Slogger. Sunbeam Spellbomb is your real hero and means that the only burn spell that can realistically kill you is Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author] (which can be countered and sometimes even raced), and that doesn’t leave them a lot of game.

In any case, I noticed a few clear avenues for improving the deck during this playtesting. One is that Serum Visions really isn’t that good. I thought it was going to be critical for finding Salvagers, but with four copies and so many cantrips plus Thirst for Knowledge, finding one is very rarely a problem. Looking at Serum Visions more generally, you’re drawing so many cards and shuffling your deck so often that stacking it isn’t such an advantage, and since your land is so useful you rarely want to shove it to the bottom of the deck. Add to that the fact that you really don’t want to touch more mana than you have to during your own turn and the very large number of one-mana plays the deck has, and one of my favorite Fifth Dawn cards gets cut down to two and then to zero.

The first thing I generally do when I take out cantrips is to replace at least some of them with land, and since another thing I’d learned is that an early mana-stall was your biggest weakness against some decks I knew I wanted to add two more lands, at least one of which should be an artifact so that I could use a Trinket Mage to fetch a fourth mana source if necessary.

Meanwhile, Engineered Explosives is so good that even though it doesn’t cycle and I can already tutor for it, I added a second to the deck. This is partly to improve the odds of finding one, but even more that you want two of them so often. Against Affinity, one of your only ways to win is to Explode for one (getting rid of Disciples) and then for two (getting rid of Ravagers and Cranial Plating). Against Ironworks, you want to blow up their mana and then set up Explosives set to zero so they can’t sneak out a win.

I also found that the option to Explode for more than two was good often enough that I made the 23rd and 24th lands a Forest and a Great Furnace, with the last remaining card becoming a Chromatic Sphere. Now I had the possibility of Exploding for five, and more importantly had a lot of ways to Explode for three. (This latter point is surprisingly good against both Crystal Witness and several mono-Green builds. Even if they re able to recoup their lost cards, the tempo swing can give you time to build up your engine. It’s also good to have a way to keep tapping Troll Ascetics.)

Interlude: The Calltm

Anyone who doesn’t want to get involved in helping Rob and me become big gaming moguls, scroll down until you see a picture of my daughter, read what she has to say, and then continue with the article.

As most of you probably know, I recently spent almost two years in Germany, leaving competitive Magic to run a marketing department for Siemens Mobile. It was great fun, but boy did I miss gaming. In fact, the longer I was there the more I dreamed of making my own games… although I knew that I was missing some important tools to do that on my own.

Fast forward to Worlds in Berlin. I want to go, but our daughter-to-be is kicking the crap out of my wife and she’s feeling miserable. No way I’m ditching her for the weekend. Then, poof… it’s Sunday morning and she feels great and says,”Let’s go on a road trip!” Six hours later, we’re in Berlin. We track down the Your Move Games crowd and hugs are everywhere. Good times.

Then Robert Dougherty and I get to talking and I mention my dream. Turns out he has the same dream. Somewhere in the background a chorus sang.

Okay, so I’ve got a lot of general business experience, some marketing, some finance, etc. Robert knows the retail and distribution side of games, how to organize events, etc. We have similar goals, similar dreams and have worked well together in the past. We also trust each other completely, which is really important for going into business together.

And life is too short to pass up on dreams.

Since then a lot has happened. Some of it is boring stuff, like incorporating Your Move Games, Inc. as a distinct legal entity. Our lawyer is nice, but she’s still a lawyer. Some of it is scary stuff, like writing the big checks necessary to have our games printed professionally. Most of it has been tremendous fun, like designing games, testing them to death, making changes, testing them more and finally saying,”This is great.”

We’ve produced two games for our launch at GenCon. One, by Darwin Kastle, is called Space Station Assault. It’s a fast-paced, easy to learn space battle game that you can teach a friend in five minutes and play in fifteen to twenty, yet which has enough replay value that we’re still challenging each other to matches when we have a break in our work. It uses two decks of cards that come in a single box, so it’s perfect for throwing in your backpack and playing whenever you’ve got some free time, and also means it was relatively inexpensive to produce, so we can retail it for $14.95. Kaja Foglio did the graphic design, and is as broken as ever, and we found some beautiful art from Lon Chaney and Steve Wilson to bring the fleets to life. StarCity was good enough to print some sneak peaks of the art here.

Our other game is a”German-style” board game called Succession: Intrigue in the Royal Court. We were nervous about producing a board game as our first product because the economics are so rough, but it playtested unbelievably well with gamers and non-gamers alike, so we decided we had to make it. It feels strange to say,”Trust me, this game we made is really fun,” but it is. Trust me. I’ve been playing games all my life and this one is great. Plus the art and graphic design are by Phil and Kaja Foglio, so it’s absolutely beautiful.

So how do you help us make this dream come true? Simple. Email me at [email protected] with”Evil Army” as the subject line. (It’ll work even if you don’t use”Evil Army”, but it’ll be easier for me if you do.) I’ll email you back some digital images and a text description of our games as well as some of the Phil Foglio art from Succession. (The art is yours to keep – you just can’t publish it.) You then take the images and description of the games to your local hobby shop and tell the people there that they should carry our games. If you’re a bad person who likes to make angels cry, you can even skip this last step!

Be sure to let me know if you’d be interested in doing more. Rob and I are going to set up a demo/ambassador program through which you can really get involved and get copies of every game we make.

The Hard Sell

Don’t make angels cry… buy my daddy’s games!”

[Yes, he’s utterly shameless, folks. – Knut]

We now return you to your regularly scheduled MD5 Block Constructed article.

That left Flea Market 2.0 as:

4 Annul

4 Condescend

4 Trinket Mage

4 Auriok Salvagers

3 Echoing Truth

4 Thirst for Knowledge

2 Solar Tide

4 Wayfarer’s Bauble

1 Chromatic Sphere

1 Aether Spellbomb

2 Engineered Explosives

1 Sunbeam Spellbomb

1 Conjurer’s Bauble

1 Scrabbling Claws

14 Islands

8 Plains

1 Great Furnace

1 Forest

At this point I should mention one obvious cog-finding card that I’m not using: Artificer’s Intuition. In his budget deck column on magicthegathering.com, Nate Heiss put up a Salvager deck with three copies of Intuition, but I suspect he would take them out for Thirst for Knowledge if he wasn’t trying to be inexpensive. [Well, he might… except Intuition is a rare, while Thirst is uncommon. – Knut]

The problem with the Intuition is that the deck’s effects are only degenerate if you can reuse them, i.e. if you can play with Salvagers. Paying mana and discarding a card (even if it’s a 1/1 you hope to have reappear during your upkeep) is far too steep for anything you can tutor for. Your early mana needs to be used for permission, bounce or mana-ramping rather than tutoring for mediocre effects. Thus, a deck like Nate’s is likely to do okay stuff for a while and then peter out (if paired against decks with no money cap), whereas a deck with more card-drawing and permission will get you your engine far more consistently.

There also isn’t room for Grizzly Bears that get back cogs. Putting aside the whole question of when you’re actually going to cast them (e.g. on turn 2 they almost never have a target), they just don’t do enough. You want things that help you stay alive or else help find the engine.

There’s also an obvious cog that’s missing from the list: Chalice of the Void. This is a potentially powerful card, but you can’t really use it well for two simple reasons. First, it’s best as an early play, rather than as something you tutor for on turn 3 and play on turn 4. (This might be okay vs. Affinity, but isn’t really exciting.) Second, its best setting is often one, and that’s not exactly something you want to do. (Chalice for one is one of the many reasons why you should never board out both of your Engineered Explosives.)

Testing and further evolution

I was glad to be rid of the Serum Visions, and quite happy to be up to twenty-four lands. (Small wonder considering what Flea Market can do with mana, and how important it is to hit all your drops at least up to turn 4 and hopefully beyond.) However, I also noticed that I never wanted to Explode for five and almost never for four – three was plenty. This meant that I could make the basic and artifact land the same color and lose the Chromatic Sphere, which naturally raised the question of what other cog I should find room for. I played around with every possibility I could think of, including one Forest and Darksteel Citadel (why not have my artifact land be indestructible?) and Lifespark Spellbomb to give me an unstoppable 3/3 every turn. But I knew all along what was going to be the best choice, since I’d wished I had one so many times during practice.

Necrogen Spellbomb

Tooth and Nail was still proving a difficult matchup because the long game was favorable to them, especially if (as with most recent builds) they were using Witness. You still had Claws to handle Witness recursion, but you didn’t want to have to do that against a deck that fast and if they got back even one Reap and Sow you were in trouble. Even replaying Sylvan Scrying could mean their third Cloudpost and the end to your dreams of using Condescend to do more than Scry.

After boarding, my Last Words made things quite solid, but beforehand I would have game after game where I got set up but couldn’t stop them from forcing through a big Tooth and Nail. Or, just as bad, the Tooth deck would simply keep developing until it could play Tooth and Nail twice, and keeping up eight mana was often impossible. I was winning only 40% of my matches and since most of my playtesting was in the”Serious Decks” area of MTGO, I knew that the strength of the opponents and their decks was a bit lower than after the first few rounds of a PTQ.

The basic problem was a strategic one. There was fairly little I could do to a Tooth and Nail deck other than swinging with a Gray Ogre. Swinging for two isn’t awful and swinging for four is pretty good, but you couldn’t always attack at all, since they have (at least) Solemn Simulacrum and you really don’t want to swing into him. Essentially I wasn’t presenting my opponents with a big enough threat that would force them to act before they were ready.

Necrogen Spellbomb changed all that. Suddenly I had a strategic”clock” and could lock them out of the game. We would play our turns, nothing to see here folks, move along, with them playing out test spells and building their mana base. Then suddenly at the end of their turn I would fetch a Swamp instead of an Island or Plains, untap, cast Trinket Mage for either Necrogen Spellbomb or Vault of Whispers, and start ripping cards out of their hand. Sometimes if I didn’t have permission, I could still empty their hand in a single turn (when you’re playing land and casting a test spell every turn, you can quite easily get down to just one or two spells), and other times I would only take one card at first but have Last Word in hand and be ready to empty their hand next turn.

Necrogen Spellbomb also creates a really unpleasant situation for other decks in general, especially if they don’t know about it. At any point where the game is stable (and especially if you have a Last Word in hand), you can just rip away their last card or two and the game is over. There are some good instants in the game, but the only one that can possibly beat you from that point is Rude Awakening (or very rarely Pulse of the Forge). The odds of them ripping that and you not being able to counter it aren’t huge. And of course when this point arrives, you are gaining five life a turn or drawing an extra card, so if it isn’t a hard lock yet, it will be soon.

Another thing I noticed is that Solar Tide was okay, but not great. Since Tooth and Nail was one of my toughest matchups, why not ditch the Tides and start with two maindeck Last Word? This helped tremendously. Instead of having to keep Condescend mana open (quite a task, especially if they have Condescends of their own), I only needed four mana to stop their biggest spell. This, combined with Necrogen Spellbomb and the fact that I also had Annul for Mindslavers and Oblivion Stones and Annul and Condescend for things like turn 4 (or three) Solemn Simulacrum, turned the Tooth and Nail matchup in my favor.

That left Affinity, and Rob Dougherty had the right idea. Just devote the sideboard to that matchup. You don’t really want to board in much against a lot of decks (I learned early on that against the decks where Vedalken Archmage is nuts, I really only have a couple of cards to take out), especially now that the Last Words are maindeck, so you can afford to devote a lot of slots to beating Affinity. The nice thing about Affinity is that it can’t really duck if you take aim at it. In fact, it’s usually a mistake for it even to try – better to smash your face before you can set up. So I took aim:

Flea Market 4.0 (3.0 was a variation along the way):

4 Annul

4 Condescend

4 Trinket Mage

4 Auriok Salvagers

3 Echoing Truth

4 Thirst for Knowledge

2 Last Word

4 Wayfarer’s Bauble

1 Necrogen Spellbomb

1 Aether Spellbomb

2 Engineered Explosives

1 Sunbeam Spellbomb

1 Conjurer’s Bauble

1 Scrabbling Claws

14 Islands

8 Plains

1 Vault of Whispers

1 Swamp


4 Vedalken Shackles

4 March of the Machines

2 Last Word

3 Purge

2 Vedalken Archmage

And now, the matchups and sideboarding:


+4 March

+4 Shackles

+3 Purge

-4 Thirst for Knowledge

-2 Last Word

-1 Auriok Salvagers

-1 Scrabbling Claws

-1 Conjurer’s Bauble

-1 Necrogen Spellbomb

-1 Vault of Whispers, one Echoing Truth or a second Salvagers, depending a bit on build and whether or not you’re going first. The second Salvagers should only come out if you think March is guaranteed game over. I’m still not 100% sure what comes out here and have experimented with one Explosives, one Condescend (if drawing – you never board this out when you’re going first) and Sunbeam Spellbomb.

Note as I’m editing the article: Although I’ve always pulled the Vault if I wanted to cut a land, it’s actually probably better to pull the Swamp, since if you resolve March you’re almost certainly going to win and that gives you the option of fetching the fourth March land with Trinket Mage.

Post-boarding you have a lot of efficient answers to their threats (Purge, Annul, Explosives, bounce) and an absolute wrecking ball in March of the Machines.”Armageddon, targeting you” is powerful in any matchup and against Affinity it usually means they can’t cast anything at all… and you’ve got bounce for whatever is in play. You also get the benefit that your cogs become 1/1s, which means that you can have infinite chump-blocking (as I found to my delight against someone with a +9 Cranial Plating). Vedalken Shackles is also a hero in this matchup, stealing Disciples so they can’t drain you out, making it virtually impossible for them to use their Cranial Plating and generally turning their best creature against their second best. After March hits, the Shackles become 3/3s that beat up their Cranial Platings and can still steal creatures.

The reason you cut such”good” spells as Thirst and Salvager is that they are too slow. You have enough bomb spells that you want to be casting them aggressively, rather than going for long-term card advantage. This might change if your opponent is boarding in a lot of control elements (slowing himself down in the process), but most of the time it seems right.

You keep your Explosives because they are so powerful vs. Affinity’s best cards (Disciple and Aether Vial at one, Ravager, Plating and Atog at two) and your bounce because that is often the follow-up either to March or to destroying a Ravager. The Sunbeam Spellbomb is also a great post-March”finisher” or stallbreaker. Necrogen Spellbomb and Conjurer’s Spellbomb are a bit too greedy; they empty their hands fast enough that the Necrogen Spellbomb will rarely be that good, and you’re very unlikely to need Conjurer’s Bauble to thicken your deck.

The net result so far is that while I still lose game one 90% of the time, I have won my last seven matches against Affinity. After boarding I have won thirteen straight games, against a wide variety of sideboard strategies. Sometimes people ask,”What if they Annul your March?” but my experience doesn’t bear that out. Decks that board in Annul have fewer threats and have to keep mana open on your turn; that slows them down considerably. Combined with Purge and Shackles, as well as the fact that once you’re at six mana they have to keep U1 open and you should be fine.

Big Red:

+2 Last Word

-1 Scrabbling Claws

-1 Conjurer’s Bauble

This matchup remains favorable. Being able to gain five life for 2WW (spread over multiple turns if need be), combined with solid permission and enough of a clock that they can’t just ignore you seems to be enough to keep this matchup favorable. Basically, your Sunbeam Spellbomb can overpower their burn and your permission can handle their big spells, especially with Annuls to take out Solemn Simulacrum and Necrogen Spellbomb to empty their hands in the mid-to-late game. (If they are running the Conjurer’s Bauble version, sideboard as above; if not, cut one Annul and keep Conjurer’s Bauble. If they are running a version with eight artifact lands, bring in a March of the Machines or two.)

Occasionally you’ll get blown off by a turn 2 Slith, turn 3 Molten Rain, followed by burn, but this is the exception rather than the rule. (Even if they are running four of each, they will cast both of them in roughly one game in four, and if you’re playing first, you get a chance to Condescend the Slith and always have a chance to Condescend the Molten Rain if you even have to.) In most cases they are packing big spells vs. Condescend and bounce, and burn vs. your ability to gain vast amounts of life, and both of those situations are favorable.

Another common point about the Big Red matchup is that unless they start off with the Slith/Molten Rain start, you often have enough time to set up your Salvagers. Ideally this means protecting them with bounce, but at the very least you should be able to activate them when they use two spells to kill him. (Of course, fairly often you’ll have drawn into a second one, in which case letting them blow two burn spells on the first and then playing the second is good enough.)

If game two looks like they didn’t board in any artifact removal you should at least bluff bringing in some Vedalken Shackles.

Tooth and Nail:

+2 Last Word

+2 Vedalken Archmage

-3 Echoing Truth

-1 Engineered Explosives

All of your cantrip-cogs are potentially good in this matchup, whereas your Engineered Explosives are usually just there to deal with their sideboard and Echoing Truth isn’t good enough to keep in. Conjurer’s Bauble and Sunbeam Spellbomb are the cantrips you might afford to cut, but the power of the Sunbeam Spellbomb to lock up a game where there’s some random annoyance (or where they’ve gone”turbo” on you while you take out their hand or graveyard) is good enough that I’d cut Echoing Truth instead. (I’ve won a game where Sunbeam Spellbomb”raced” Darksteel Colossus for several turns until I found my Aether Spellbomb, and another game where I’d locked up his hand with Necrogen Spellbomb and Sunbeam Spellbomb meant that he had no chance to break out of it by forcing me to block his two Solemn Simulacra.) Conjurer’s Spellbomb”thickens” your deck with spells (especially the Last Word) and is your cheapest cantrip bauble, both of which can be important.

Engineered Explosives is usually not exciting, but I like to keep one to deal with their sideboard options (e.g. Scrabbling Claws or Thought Courier) as well as for blowing up a handful of three-mana creatures, or Oblivion Stones.

Recent experience suggests that this matchup has turned favorable – call it neutral in game one and positive after boarding. How you play it depends on a lot on whether they’re packing Blue or not, i.e. whether or not you have to fear Condescend. Ideally after boarding you put out a Salvager or Archmage as early as possible (turn 3 is not unusual with the Wayfarer’s Bauble) and then just out-draw them while holding them off with permission and eating up their library. If you can’t force one of these into play early, you usually want to trade one for one with them until you can play a Salvager with Last Word to handle their big threats.

Once your engine gets going (especially with an Archmage), they are on a short clock and they know it. Don’t play it too fast, but expect that a good player will”go for it” even if you’re holding up Last Word mana since they don’t really have any choice. Watch their hand size until you’re in a position to lock them out with Necrogen Spellbomb.

One thing to keep an eye out for is them suddenly turning all of their lands into 2/2s. Your lock isn’t hard unless you’ve got it backed up by permission or you’ve gained enough life with Sunbeam Spellbomb, but it’s pretty close.


+4 March of the Machines

+2 Last Word

-1 Scrabbling Claws

-1 Sunbeam Spellbomb

-1 Necrogen Spellbomb

-1 Conjurer’s Bauble

-1 Auriok Salvager

-1 Trinket Mage

Before boarding you’re a scary control deck. After boarding you’re a nightmare control deck. Your card drawing isn’t quite as good as theirs, but you’ve got a targeted Armageddon and lots of hard and soft counters. Remember that once you’ve played March of the Machines you can’t use your Explosives (they are always considered zero converted mana cost once they hit play), but they’re still good to keep in because they blow up Talismans and Prisms, as well as wiping out Myr armies.

Some Ironworks decks will bring in Blue flyers against you. Fortunately, you’ve still got all your bounce so this shouldn’t be a big problem. One opponent of mine challenged me to Explode his flyer away, confident that the duel was his. I simply played March, took a hit, and then played Aether Spellbomb, returning his last permanent to his hand.

Big Green

This is your bad matchup… at the moment it’s the only one that really looks rough. Your Annuls are dead, and without any Wrath effects you have a hard time dealing with their big creatures and pump effects. Salvagers are able to handle many of their creatures, provided you have some bounce to protect them, but so far I haven’t found a way to make this match work. Basically you take out Annul for Last Word since Last Word can actually counter things and hope for a miracle.

Crystal Witness

+2 Vedalken Archmage

+2 Last Word (usually)

-1 Necrogen Spellbomb

-2 Echoing Truth

-1 Vault of Whispers

Boarding depends a bit on variations, but is similar to Tooth and Nail. You definitely want the Archmages and you’d like to bring in more Last Words, but they aren’t as important and you may want to keep some Echoing Truths in your deck.

This is what the deck was designed to beat and it seems to do so pretty well. The central truth remains – they can’t break up your engine and you can break up theirs. For a matchup between two mid-speed decks that are going to have a tough time smashing each other’s faces, that’s a pretty big deal.

The one key permanent you need to resolve is Auriok Salvagers, but you generally can force him through. Your card drawing is better than theirs and you have one more land (equal after boarding if you take out the Vault) and better artifacts for searching out land, so you should make your drops more consistently, provided you don’t do something silly like let them get back Thirst with Witness. Generally they will have to tap out before you do, and you can use that (or else just enough mana with a Condescend of your own) to get a Salvager into play.

From that point on, the game is pretty much yours. Not only do you then have your engine going while theirs usually gets short-circuited, they usually don’t have anything that can attack into a Salvager, so their whole offense gets into trouble. Their one good way to turn it around radically is again by creating an army of 2/2s, but while I’ve lost a few games to this, you’re usually able to counter it. Also, once you have control of their graveyard, there’s nothing wrong with gaining an extra five life per turn… that can quickly put you out of range of anything they can come up with.

Blue-White Control

+2 Last Word

-1 Echoing Truth

-1 Scrabbling Claws

This is the matchup I was able to test the least (just two matches and neither against Zvi or someone running his decklist), but all my instincts scream that it should be good. Once again you have as much or more land and better card drawing, and if your engine gets going they don’t really have a great answer.

There are really only two spells in their entire deck that you care about – Vedalken Shackles and Pristine Angel. (I suspect that one of the reasons I started the deck with Solar Tide was because I’d just finished reading Zvi’s article on U/W control on Brainburst and wanted a way to kill Angels.) Pristine Angel costs six mana and doesn’t even win the game against you (go go Sunbeam Spellbomb!), although an Angel in play does require you to take complete control of the board before you set about winning. (But hey, why play control-on-control if you can’t squeeze the life out of them before finishing them off?)

The Shackles, on the other hand, are really annoying and can easily turn fatal. They have Wayfarer’s Bauble so not only do you lose your engine if they steal your Salvager, but they can go off on you. It is quite possible (especially if you think they may board out Annul) that you should simply bring in Shackles of your own, in which case a truly bizarre battle could take place that is to your advantage since you own them to start with and can fetch Explosives when you’ve got control of the Salvager. Another approach would be to snark at the Shackles and bring in Vedalken Archmage, although I think this is far too risky since they have enough artifacts to draw some real cards off of him if he gets stolen, at which point you may not be able to come back, even if you find an answer. Basically I think your best bet is to recognize that the Shackles are their key permanent, and fight them with Annul and Explosives.

A few more points on playing the deck:

Take the time to practice. There are a lot of intuitive situations with this deck – when to go for more land, when to cycle Conjurer’s Spellbomb to draw the most cards, what to counter. There’s not point in playing a deck your opponent won’t know how to play against if you’re unable to take advantage!

In most neutral situations, your best cog is Wayfarer’s Bauble, since it powers up everything else. Once the engine is going, resist the temptation to draw as many cards as possible and instead increase your mana base so long as your hand is good. This will improve your draws and make sure that you can abuse the Salvagers while still protecting yourself. Second best (and best against a deck with removal) is Aether Spellbomb to protect your Salvagers. (Another nice point on Aether Spellbomb in a slow match is that you can put it into your graveyard for free (in card terms) by bouncing a Trinket Mage.)

You will often Condescend a spell where your opponent has tapped out (so you know nothing else is coming) while you have some spare mana and a Wayfarer’s Bauble out. While this isn’t a big deal if you can spend the spare mana bringing back some other cogs, you usually want to pop the Bauble first so you don’t waste your Scry.

While it is often tempting just to draw lots of cards in a standoff situation, be open to the possibility of gaining life instead or in addition. Five life isn’t that big a deal, but five life every turn can put you out of a lot of deck’s”comeback” plans, like Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author] or Rude Awakening, as well as buying you insurance against some other ridiculous occurrence.

Another point on lifegain is that you can often win games by using your life as a resource to take control of the board and then come back with the Spellbomb. I’ve played games where I didn’t counter my opponent’s Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author] while he lowered his life total in order to keep it active… then finally countered it and pumped my life back up with Sunbeam Spellbomb, leaving him on a very short clock.

If someone boards in Scrabbling Claws against you, don’t panic! In fact, don’t even panic a little bit. The Claws are certainly annoying, but you can play around them by activating your Salvagers with spare mana. In one match my opponent had Claws in play the entire game and I was still able to take control of his graveyard while using my own – albeit less powerfully than I would have liked.

Be wary of your Archmages, lest they deck you. At some point in a slow matchup you may need to bounce them back to your hand so you don’t draw too many cards. This is rare, but good to keep in mind.

Finally, don’t stress out about the lack of victory conditions. Flea Market is a control deck and once you’ve got control, you can win easily enough against the vast majority of situations. Trolls can be tapped with Explosives set to three, almost all other creatures can be bounced, and if you really need to you can set up a perfect hand with Conjurer’s Bauble.

One potentially devastating cog I didn’t include, in either the main deck or the sideboard, is Avarice Totem. If any deck could use this card it seems to be this one, since you can tutor for it, ramp up to the necessary mana to use it, and even destroy and recur it with Engineered Explosives. The problem becomes what matchups you want to bring it in for.

The possible candidates are Big Red (Furnace Dragon or Arc-Slogger would both be pretty much uncastable with a Totem in play) and Tooth and Nail. It’s risky to bring it in vs. Tooth and Nail, but potentially quite powerful as well, since they generally have to tap out (or close to it) to play Tooth and Nail, and you might be able to steal their best creature and then get rid of the Totem before they untap. The problem with the latter matchup is that you’re boarding out all but one of your ways to get rid of the Totem, which makes it very risky to bring it in. No such problem with Big Red, but at the moment that matchup seems favorable enough that you wouldn’t devote a slot specifically to it. That could certainly change if you need a better answer to their smaller dragons as well.

So there you have Flea Market – by all impressions a viable Block deck and what I would play in a PTQ tomorrow if I could go to one. (Sadly, my unique personal life is likely to prevent me even from going to GP: New Jersey, although I will definitely hit at least two or three PTQs before the season ends.) While there are plenty of directions you could take it (e.g. recursing Pyrite Spellbomb, making it more aggro, etc.), this build seems to be the best against the main block decks.

Of course nothing is simple, and I recognize that there are variation upon variation of the main decks, one or more of which may crush Flea Market, but I haven’t found them so far. Moreover, this deck gives you a very real surprise factor in your favor since even if someone has thought of it or read this article, they won’t understand how it plays or what to do about it. I had several opponents on MTGO abandon our match after the first game, no doubt frustrated that they weren’t playing against a real deck – even though in all but one of those cases I’d won game one. (The Ravager Affinity player can be forgiven for thinking that I was playing a pile of poop, although I suspect he’d have thought differently after boarding.)

Another practical consideration is that this deck takes time, both in terms of being a fairly slow control deck and because you shuffle your deck many times per game. This can make time an issue and I strongly encourage anyone playing it to practice as much as possible beforehand so that you don’t lose too much time to take your match.

And buy an extra pack of sleeves… you’re going to need them.

Hugs ’til next time,