(Editor’s Note: This article was written before the Dark Ascension Release, but the recent Pro Tour kept me busy. Fortunately, the content is still relevant. -CalebD)
Today we’re going to talk about a format where limited bombs pass off as legitimate threats! Often heralded as the red-headed stepchild of grinders and MTGO junkies, Block constructed is rarely given a second thought (aside from its one Pro Tour a year). In the face of Standard’s growing homogenization and the meteoric rise of fish decks, Block Constructed offers a lot more than a minor diversion or a gateway into more expensive MTGO passions. To that end, I’ll establish a primer on the format’s current state and talk about where Dark Ascension could take us in the coming weeks.
Block Constructed is, in my mind, similar to another popular online format, Pauper. Evaluating decks from either format out of context is meaningless. Many people conclude that building decks based on a single block is stifling and constricts innovation, yet the opposite is true. Walling yourself off from traditional constructed choices is freeing. You allow your eyes to be opened to new possibilities as a deck builder, because of the smaller card pool. Block Constructed adheres to principles shared across all formats of Magic, and it introduces a few unique problems of its own:
1. The basic rock, paper, scissors formula applies, as it does everywhere, with an exception: combo (or scissors, here) is missing. I can’t speak personally for all Block formats, but true combo style decks are hard to come by when you limit yourself to interactions between the cards in a single block.
2. Top-tier cards still serve as the pillars of the format and general guidelines for deck building. Orange Mythic symbols are twice as powerful in Block and will pull twice as much weight.
3. Planeswalkers rule the road! This is a unique phenomenon to Innistrad Block at the moment, since Standard is less of a planeswalker format than it has been in the past. Card advantage is at a particularly high premium, and the incremental (and usually game-ending) bonuses offered by these cards are invaluable.
I mentioned pillars, and I’d like to outline them here:
1. Garruk Relentless: In my opinion, this is the most commanding card in the format. If anyone has any doubt about this character being the real deal, take him for a whirl in Block. As Innistrad Block is creature-dominated, Garruk has an opportunity to shine.
2. Burning Vengeance (and the accompanying accoutrement of flashback spells): Removal at an affordable rate is hard to find, and this is pure, unadulterated value in that respect. Most of the flashback spells are insane, with Geistflame and Silent Departure being praiseworthy. Burning Vengeance gives pure counterburn style decks a fighting chance.
4. Devil’s Play (in addition to Brimstone Volley and Geistflame): Devil’s Play is the poster boy of this class of spells and it should be revered for its utility. The average power and toughness in this format is notably lower than in other constructed formats. Cheap, spot removal is effective against almost everything. These cards will never be completely dead, at worst acting as additional damage sources.
5. Sweepers (Curse of Death’s Hold, Sever the Bloodline, Blasphemous Act): Sweepers are an integral part of any healthy metagame, and these options go the extra mile. Sever the Bloodline is akin to Maelstrom Pulse with flashback; it really is that good. The only thing holding it back is a bevy of vital noncreature permanents.
6. Token generation (specifically Midnight Haunting, with honorable mention going to Spider Spawning): These are cards that are exceptional at fighting planeswalkers, with Midnight Haunting taking the crown in that department. Garruk’s worst enemy is multiple fliers, which are capable of clearing the way for your own planeswalker.
7. Bombs (Olivia Voldaren, Bloodgift Demon, the occasional Charmbreaker Devils): Usually these are reserved for controlling decks, these guys either mop up quickly or provide insurmountable advantage that can put you too far out of reach.
A few staples that just fell short of the list:
1. Liliana of the Veil: This may seem a glaring omission from the “bombs” section, but Liliana is in a strange place right now. Her edict effect is diminished by the abundance of token generation (with Doomed Traveler getting a huge nod here). Currently, she’s worth running, but is often blanked with ease. A metagame shift and/or better support cards would do wonders for her bombiguity.
2. Manor Gargoyle: This guy’s playability scales with the current metagame, but when he’s good, he’s an absolute house.
These pillars boil our deck choices down to three broad strategies: aggressive, counterburn / midrange control , and standalone strategies, such as self-mill. All three of these are viable choices with different strengths and weaknesses. What stands out in Block is the emphasis on synergy. With a single block of cards (often only a set or two), players have to stretch their budgets as far as they can. Deck construction becomes an exercise in getting maximum value out of every card inclusion. This tactic is especially useful in Innistrad, as the return of the much beloved flashback mechanic rewards those who focus on incremental gains. This type of environment has a strong hand in sculpting successful decks.
Take, for example, a standard G/ W tokens build:
G/W Tokens by Alfonsoos:
This deck is an Oblivion Ring short of Standard level power in Block. It also happens to be my personal weapon of choice in the format. This deck emphasizes fast pressure supported by steady, backbreaking threats (Garruk, Gavony, etc..) Your worst enemies are Geistflame, Curse of Death’s Hold, and Sever the Bloodline. All these are devastating upon resolution and usually mean game over when multiples are involved. Fiend Hunter is also particularly effective against this deck, as it can snag a token indefinitely and provide a sizeable blocker.
Other aggressive strategies with impressive results are B/W tokens, U/R Delver, and R/W aggro. Each of these lean on some combination of efficient spells, persistent threats, and a fast clock. Of note are Stromkirk Noble, Champion of the Parish, and their class, which provide alot of raw power for a small initial investment.
The aggressive player in this format has a few notable advantages. These decks are constructed around either dealing with planeswalkers effectively and/or clearing the way for their own walker. Aggressive decks tend to side towards reach and they come prepared for cards that would otherwise hate them out of the format. Aggressive players need to stay abreast of metagame changes more so than slower control decks.
Knowing your opponent’s game plan and using that knowledge against them is vital. Specifically, knowing when to board into a more aggressive or controlling strategy against Curse of Death’s Hold, packing the right hate against flashback removal, and playing around Geistflame and Blasphemous Act (especially not overextending into mainboard copies of the latter) are all key skills to master. Boarding against mirror matches is also important. Having trumps like Slayer of the Wicked and Butcher’s Cleaver can go a long way in preventing creature matchups from devolving into purely die roll scenarios.
There are many different decks that you can try when choosing the aggressive route on Block. G/W tokens focuses on cheaply costed sources of beaters that are occasionally renewable. U/R Delver starts with a one drop or two and then proceeds to beef them up with enchantments, this strategy is complimented with burn and countermagic (Invisible Stalker is a real monster in this deck). R/W aggro is more traditional with cheap guys and numerous burn spells. This strategy uses Instigator Gang and Elite Inquisitor to great effect. Mono-red vampires is an archetype that’s been tested, and could get better with an increased selection of creatures on the horizon.
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, we have pure control decks. The purebred counterburn decks aim to play almost exclusively during the end step, while the addition of splashes gives the control player additional versatility. Here’s a sample list:
Jund Planeswalkers by BraveGhostofYou
This is one of a dozens permutations of this type of strategy. These decks have the benefit of superior card quality. Using any number of color combinations, these decks have access to nearly all the best cards in the format. By the same token, they can suffer from dilution and must perform a balancing act between reasonable mana and the right toolbox of spells. Fortunately, mana fixing is plentiful in Innistrad and stands to improve (See Evolving Wilds).
The main challenge presented to these decks is the protection of its main threats. You have to avoid exposing a planeswalker whenever possible. Playing around instant speed token generation and anthem effects is a must. This format rewards players for using their removal sparingly and investing in spells that pull overtime in the matchups that count. The control player needs to maximize on cheap spot removal.
Another issue is Witchbane Orb. It’s unassuming enough, but the amount of options that this card shuts down is staggering. Naturalize is a staple sideboard card of the format, and this is a main reason why. A special mention goes to Gavony Township, and Vault of the Archangel soon; these cards are nigh-untouchable threats that require you to cull your opponent’s creature count effectively before you get buried.
Control decks are insane because of the sheer number of tools available. I’ve been impressed with some of the RUG, BUG, and Rock variations that I’ve seen. Green gives you the flexibility to incorporate virtually anything you want. With the release of Dark Ascension, I’m excited to start delving into the realm of Esper control. Sorin provides a big incentive to brew B/W based control. Between all the different options (Jund, Esper, RUG, BUG and UR) a traditional control player will have no problem choosing one of these builds and going straight to work.
The third deck category I’m going to discuss is self-mill. In Block card advantage is the name of the game and this deck oozes it. Dream Twist and Mulch are powerful engines, almost on the level of Ancestral Recall [Editor’s Note: I do not endorse this statement. 🙂]. The deck flips over numerous creatures and flashback spells before “going off” with an innumerable amount of Spider Spawning tokens and life gain via Gnaw to the Bone. A decklist, for reference:
U/G Self-Mill, by Prowler66
By being base-green, this deck is customizable, which is important given the nature of the format. The ability to adapt your wrath effects and spot removal without damaging your engine is important. This deck has a weakness to graveyard hate (Obvious Statement is Obvious), which is commonplace in most sideboards. Bad draws also cripple this deck more than most, as a string of poor mill triggers can leave cards in your hand either stranded or severely weakened.
The main hurdle when playing self-mill is keeping yourself alive while your engine gets going. This is what makes Armored Skaab a perfect inclusion. Coupled with your ramp spells, this card helps ensure the necessary longevity. Milling yourself to death is a legitimate concern, and Memory’s Journey can grant your deck redundancy while keeping you alive.
Most self-mill decks start U/G, but you can incorporate several additions based on what colors you’re splashing. Sever the Bloodline/Unburial Rites is a popular package, as is red for burn and Blasphemous Act. This is another deck that can benefit from the addition of Garruk. He can provide token generation, removal, tutor (when flipped) and a game ending ultimate that combines particularly well with Spider Spawning.
Dark Ascension in Block
Now that I’ve gone over a basic framework of block, I’d like to look forward to the fast-approaching Dark Ascension MTGO release and how it stands to shake things up. Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first: B/W tokens is due for a massive overhaul and will definitely stand as a format pillar in the coming months. Major role-players are Gather the Townsfolk, Lingering Souls, and of course Sorin, Lord of Innistrad. I’m particularly interested to see where Sorin will go beyond B/W tokens. I can envision a spicy rock planeswalker brews that might just be plausible with mana-fixing getting even better. Another staple of this archetype that’s sure to make a splash is Vault of the Archangel. While probably more ostentatious than its G/W counterpart, Vault is a huge threat that is practically impossible to eliminate. For other aggressive decks, Gather the Townsfolk is again an exciting prospect. Base human decks incorporating Champion of the Parish are going to get a lot better, and I envision further explosive and consistent starts involving him.
Aggressive mono-black decks will grow in popularity. The zombie theme is already halfway there, and additions in the vein of Geralf’s Messenger and Gravecrawler could push the strategy closer to the top tiers of play.
Self-mill will be getting a lot of love through cards like Tracker’s Instincts, Thought Scour, and Screeching Skaab. These are all solid self-mill additions that will make the deck’s engine increasingly potent and consistent. I expect Ghoultree will be a huge player, since you can power him out rapidly. I’m also curious to see where Secrets of the Dead fits. It provides a potent asset at an affordable rate. I can definitely see Burning Vengeance decks incorporating this card to devastating effect.
Also of note are the new removal options. Tragic Slip is an exceptional card whose presence will be felt throughout all constructed formats. The ability to combine the speed of Geistflame with the flexibility of Doom Blade is insane, and Snapcaster Mage makes this card even filthier.
With all that being said, Faithless Looting stands as my pick for most revolutionary card of the set. I can sing the praises of this monstrous card for days. This card, without question, will single-handedly up the mountain count across the board. I can already think of multiple decks where this card is insane, and I’m sure I’m just beginning to realize how awesome “Careful Study Plus” is.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this introductory primer to a format ripe with possibilities. We’re only scratching the surface at this point, as Block Constructed’s intricacy stands to deepen with time. I urge anyone who has had reservations about Block to give it a try! You just might surprise yourself with how powerful the Innistrad block is!
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