Weak Among the Strong: Early Days – Brainstorming a New Format

Whenever a new set comes out, two things happen. First, people look at the direct impact on existing decks in a given format. What Fifth Dawn cards might go into Tooth and Nail? What does Ravager get to replace Skullclamp? Second, people start building the obvious decks, like Krark-Clan Ironworks combo or mono-Black control. In my opinion, both of these activities are premature. First should come the brainstorming.

Whenever a new set comes out, two things happen. First, people look at the direct impact on existing decks in a given format. What Fifth Dawn cards might go into Tooth and Nail? What does Ravager get to replace Skullclamp? Second, people start building the obvious decks, like Krark-Clan Ironworks combo or mono-Black control.

In my opinion, both of these activities are premature. First should come the brainstorming.

If you’ve ever held a brainstorming session with a professional facilitator or just a process-oriented person who has had one with a professional, there’s a rule you’ll be familiar with: don’t reject any ideas during the brainstorming itself. Don’t evaluate, just let the ideas come. The same thing applies to getting the most out of a new set. Start with a lot of ideas, even small ideas… and don’t just look at the new set, look back at older sets to see if things might have changed.

When I joined up with StarCityGames.com, one of the things we agreed was that I would share my own PTQ preparations as openly as possible. The next PTQ format is Block Constructed, so naturally that’s where my energy is. But I’m not building Ironworks combo decks yet, or trying to tweak my Ravager deck. I’ll get to that later, and I’ll benefit from all the work other players are already doing. All I want to do now is find as many little ideas as possible.

Some of them may become decks. More reasonably, some of them will become sideboard cards, or mirror-match technology. Most of them will eventually be discarded, but even those help me to understand the format.

So here are some of my current thoughts:

First of all, there are a lot of good control cards out there. That gives me a warm feeling when beatdown has just lost Skullclamp and everyone else is talking about combo. Here are a few control cards that have caught my eye:

Relic Barrier

This card has never been so good. Cast it on turn 2 and port their land for free or keep their Arcbound Ravager, Myr Enforcer, or Blinkmoth Nexus under control.

Guardian Idol

Mana ramping and a creature that stops being a creature when you want to cast mass removal. It’s like Mishra’s Factory and a Diamond rolled into one.

Avarice Totem

At first glance this might only seem interesting for a Tooth and Nail deck, but this has the potential to be a hidden gem for a control deck as well. Affinity often won’t have five mana to use it, and even if they do, you can still force their hand with Ravager quite effectively. Against Big Red, when they tap out to play Arc-Slogger, you steal it. Then you untap and swing. You’ll get to swing again before they can take it back from you, and then you can keep playing the game. And they can’t ever cast Furnace Dragon with a Totem out.

Auriok Salvagers

Obviously powerful in Limited, are they too slow for Constructed? Maybe, but with Wayfarer’s Bauble and other cantrips you can decide whether to build your mana base or draw cards. Could be an interesting Tooth and Nail card if that deck needs a late-game engine.

Auriok Champion

Blocks Slith Firewalkers and Arc-Sloggers all day and Big Red can only kill it with Pyrite Spellbomb. As a nice side effect, if someone goes infinite with Ironworks and two Myr Retrievers, you gain infinite life… we’ll be back to that in a moment.


This is the best Sink yet, make no mistake. It also offers great synergy with Wayfarer’s Bauble, since after a turn 1 Bauble you can say”Go” on turn 2 and get full use of your mana if they don’t cast anything you want to counter.

Circle of Protection: Artifacts

Darksteel Colossus, Ravager, Blinkmoth Nexus, Goblin Charbelcher. They used to kill you, now they just tap two of your lands. I can live with that.

Stasis Cocoon

Okay, it’s an enchantment rather than an instant. And it doesn’t stop whatever it is from being sacrificed to a Ravager or Ironworks later on. But it does take out an artifact land on turn 2, including their turn 1 Darksteel Citadel, so it’s not awful.

Serum Visions

I love this little card, and if you’re going first you don’t even have to worry much about not keeping up Annul mana.

Thought Courier

Merfolk Looter lives again, and may be decent.

All Sun’s Dawn

This card is a bit tricky and only works in a 5cG archetype, but it’s the sort of card that can end games.

Engineered Explosives

For zero mana you have a permanent answer to a Myr army and can also break any Chalice of the Void lock someone’s got you in. (Okay, any lock other than one including a Chalice set for zero…) For a bit more mana, you can have a zero-mana instant-speed answer to problem permanents, making it much harder for your opponent to pull stupid Ravager tricks.

Pentad Prism

I know the combo players are salivating over this one too, but the Prism may also be a gem for control. Control decks are almost always mana-starved in the early game, and one of their problems is they can’t always afford to tap out for a mana-builder, since they lose their ability to counter something. (If Ironworks does nothing else, it will certainly reduce the value of Solemn Simulacrum – who in their right mind is going to tap out on turn 3 or 4 when their opponent can combo-kill them?)

Meanwhile, control decks often win or lose based on their ability to handle that one key threat (or two threats in one turn), which the Prism can make possible. It isn’t permanent mana, but it gets you over the early hump and does so without reducing the mana you’ve got available at that moment, so you can still Condescend or Annul as needed. Late game it might even give you the ninth and tenth mana you need to use Avarice Totem to trade a dead Prism for the permanent of your choice. (Yes, this only works if they don’t have five mana of their own free at the time.)

And there’s more. A number of existing control cards are looking better than ever now.

Rule of Law

As noted before, there isn’t much enchantment removal around and this card is a beating against a lot of the Ironworks decks I’ve seen.

Echoing Truth

It will single-handedly crush the dreams of anyone running Relentless Rats (and they will be out there when the PTQs roll around, even if the deck turns out not to be any good). It buys you at least a turn against most Ironworks decks. It vaporizes an infinite number of Myr tokens (provided they don’t have an Ironworks out). It’s virtually a Terror against Furnace Dragon. It gets Leonin Abunas out of the way so you can kill off Platinum Angel. Not a bad little card.


Okay, it was always good, but never had a good deck in which to run it. Now it may, and with almost every deck likely to be using early Prisms or Talismans, Annul may be the best card to have in your opening hand, especially when going second.

Tel-Jilad Justice / Ouphe Vandals

Green now owns artifacts in an artifact block, has the best 5c power with a 5c set entering the metagame and has Regrowth on a 2/1 beatstick to boot.

All this leads me to believe that there is probably at least one good control deck out there, waiting to be built. In fact, there are probably three – Affinity control, 5cG control, and quite possibly a base-Blue control deck with virtually no artifacts. Now let’s look at some other ideas.

First, there’s Krark-Clan Ironworks. It doesn’t take much to see that this card is broken and offers a rather large number of possible combo engines, with Myr Incubator being the simplest way to go for the kill and two Myr Retrievers being an obvious infinite loop. Throw in a Disciple of the Vault for infinite life loss, a Genesis Chamber or Dross Scorpion for infinite mana or if you’re feeling goofy, how about Dismantle, Darksteel Reactor, and either Arcbound Crusher or Serum Tank? (Hey, I said only if you’re feeling goofy… and with the Crusher you could just swing for the kill if you don’t have Dismantle and the Reactor!)

As noted, I don’t want to spend too much time on the Ironworks at this point because everyone else is doing that work for me, notably in the StarCityGames.com Forums. But I can’t help noticing a few things.

First, there’s Dross Harvester. Not only does this guy make you virtually immune to any Ironworks combo based around Retriever recursion, it turns it into an infinite combo for you as well. Not bad when attached to a 4/4 body for three mana. A heavy Black Ironworks deck has Night’s Whisper and Plunge into Darkness for card search, can gain infinite life with a Harvester or cause infinite life-loss with a Disciple, and would also have great synergy with Genesis Chamber. As noted above, Auriok Champion also gains you infinite life if you go off with Ironworks.

Ironworks decks can be built with a lot of resilience. Most decks I’ve seen so far are one-trick ponies that go off and hope you don’t stop them. They depend on getting the Ironworks out, and without it they depend on you not having Echoing Truth or Echoing Decay to wipe out their Myr army. If past experience is any indication, most of the early PTQ builds will look like this, too. They’ll goldfish on turn 4 pretty consistently and turn 3 will happen enough to be scary, but they will have real problems dealing with decks that come prepared, or will cause their owners to tell stories about the God-draw that got wrecked by a random Annul or (appropriately) Shattered Dreams. Another common pattern will be lots of game one wins followed by massive problems post-sideboarding.

One of the advantages to running a Retriever version of Ironworks is that you can rebuild much more easily. Trash for Treasure and Reshape (both of which have lovely synergy with Pentad Prism) let you recover or tutor for your Ironworks, and suddenly Thirst for Knowledge becomes quite powerful as well. Such an approach is also a lot harder to stop with an assault on your mana base.

And don’t forget… if you’re building a steadier (but slightly slower) version, you’ll often be able to play the control deck in the mirror. And if that means that your opponent has to play a bit slower as well, Acquire could be an interesting sideboard card.

No, I’m not putting up a decklist yet. That will come later, and believe me I will share every deck and idea I’ve got in the upcoming PTQ season, regardless of how much I might want to keep them secret (either because they’re too good to share or because they’re bad enough to make Star City reconsider buying my articles). It may be that a controlling version of Ironworks is too slow or that it still gets blown up by heavy artifact hate. But I wouldn’t count on it.

In any case, at this point, we’re still brainstorming. That means that any idea is still on the table, even some that look pretty awful. Like this next one.

Fold into Aether

Okay, this looks horrible. And it probably is. Four mana is too much for a hard counter with no drawback, so the only way to make this good is to cast it on your own spell. The most obvious idea would be a combo deck using Moxen, Talismans, and Prisms to accelerate your mana, some zero-mana spells to counter (Mox, Chalice, Welding Jar) and some insane monsters so you could put a fattie into play on turn 3. Wow, that’s horrible. What a great example of how even horrible ideas are still on the table at this stage.

Beacon of Tomorrows

Someday Zvi will take infinite turns with this card in Extended. I just thought I should mention that.

That concludes today’s brainstorming session… at least my part of it. Bring your own ideas to the Forums and see if the Star City community can’t make something out of them!

Hugs ’til next time,


P.S. Just because I wrote an entire article without mentioning my games coming out this Fall doesn’t change the fact that they are amazingly fun to play. And Kaja Foglio is still a first pick.