Grand Prix Manchester 2014 Musings Part 1: Block Constructed

Cyclonic Rift on a 6/6? Too strong!

Cyclonic Rift on a 6/6? Too strong!

Friday evening, 8:32pm: I’m attempting to ignore the vendor’s confusion as I provide them with a long list of cards including Constructed all-stars Scourge of Fleets and Dakra Mystic. Journey Into Nyx ended up defining the deck we ended up playing in the main event.

Yes, I ended up playing the Mono Blue Devotion deck that caused a number of stirs beginning with a GPT win on Friday. You can check out an interview with David Inglis and Neil Rigby  about the deck here where they shared some of their thoughts

Block Constructed: When It’s Easy Being Green

The defining engine of the Theros Block Constructed format unsurprisingly ended up being the triple whammy of Sylvan Caryatid (the un-Boltable Bird), Courser of Kruphix (the Pillarfield Ox that could), and the cycle of Temples. Even since the point early in the block, when the format consisted entirely of Naya decks featuring Stormbreath Dragon and Elspeth, we had repeatedly debated whether Sylvan Caryatid was too good to stay; both entirely stifling to traditional aggro strategies as well as giving green decks a huge leg up in resources in a control matchup where you don’t even have to worry about wraths. Whilst WotC did not end up banning anything, (like Innistrad block’s token dominance) it is plainly obvious that this combination of cards warped deck choices like no other.

You just have to look at the aggro decks (which play out more like true combo decks) that had any moderate amount of success – the R/W and U/W heroic decks (with mono black being a touch more traditional) had to be constructed in the eye of maximising nutty draws at the cost of unplayable hands just because a true aggro strategy was not good enough.

Constraints of the Format

  • The best creatures all have huge toughness stats for their investment – Caryatid, Courser, Brimaz, Prognostic Sphinx and so on. The red decks had Blinding Flare, Arena Athlete and Harness by Force, whilst the blue decks had access to Stratus Walk and Aqueous Form. The problem with these strategies is that all the cards are bad on their own; Arena Athlete is garbage without the targeting effect and if you don’t draw the other tricks you are left floundering with mediocre weenies that can’t beat a life-gaining Pillarfield Ox. Gods Willing could force a creature through, but in a lot of games your Gods Willing is so important in protecting your creature from removal that it’s quite hard to cash it in. I liked Harness in my red sideboards (and Portent of Betrayal before it), as the card was a good draw much more consistently, scaled up in the late game, and happened to have fringe benefits (inspired creatures untap after you gain control of them, for example), but of course the card had to be terrible against Elspeth since nothing in this format actually tramples, barring Polis Crusher.
  • Courser of Kruphix.  Another reason I decided to give up making Esper or red aggro work. Courser was perfectly situated against these kinds of strategies.
    Of course it's good.

    Of course it’s good.

    Against aggro, it has the obvious strengths of a good body for 3 mana, and free lifegain, but that isn’t all. Consider that in a vacuum, an aggro deck plays a low curve and shaves lands below the average (to say the range of 19-22). Doing so allows an uptick in threat density and live draws. Well, Courser blows that theory out of the water, by allowing you to play a higher and more powerful curve, at similar threat density thanks to the second ability. Against control? It’s simple. They have to spend a resource to kill the Courser, because if they don’t it will simply out-resource them into the ground anyway.

  • Thoughtseize. One of the more powerful cards to be reprinted in recent memory, Thoughtseize finds itself in an interesting position in the Block format. On one hand, the card stifles synergy-based strategies in an almost-broken way. Look at the aggro decks again! When my aggressive deck is actually soft to Thoughtseize, I don’t want to play it very much at all. However, in other matchups, the card is surprisingly variable in how well it performs; sometimes, the ability to pluck a key Planeswalker or Prognostic Sphinx out of the opponent’s hand before they can get value from it can be devastating, but the thing was that Courser and scry effects are so good at drawing your way back into the game that players in this format are better protected from the tier one discard spell than before. Additionally, most Thoughtseize decks didn’t have a key way to capitalise on an early discard like in Standard formats where a turn 1 Thoughtseize into either a Bitterblossom or Pack Rat has often dominated the game by itself. However the card found its way into many mandecks following the Pro Tour, due to raw power level, and this eventually dissuaded me from my previous choice to play Team Revolution’s U/B Inspired.
  • Planeswalkers. All of the planeswalkers are very good. Ajani, Elspeth and Xenagos all provide simple, large amounts of value, Ashiok excels in a creature-based format with Courser of Kruphix, and Kiora’s abilities are pretty useful both as protection from battlecruisers as well as her -1 interacting very well with Courser. Yes, that card is good, did I mention it yet? The key weakness of most of the planeswalkers is their susceptibility to Prognostic Sphinx, but regardless, a good plan against planeswalkers was without doubt essential.

Joining the Thassa Fan Club

As the post I linked to above says, the deck was essentially a metagame decision predicated upon the overwhelming masses of Junk decks present in the room. Their whole strategy is based around powerful creatures/planeswalkers backed up by the best removal spells. Neither of those, for the most part are very good against the deck we chose to play. A big core of their strength is that hexproof threats Fleecemane Lion and Reaper of the Wilds are troublesome to interact with, but both Whelming Wave and Scourge of Fleets ignore that protection very well.

Sample decklist

la_rata_diabolica (3-1)
THS Block Constructed Daily #7143447 on 06/04/2014
4 Dakra Mystic
4 Master of Waves
4 Omenspeaker
4 Prognostic Sphinx
4 Scourge of Fleets
1 Thassa, God of the Sea
4 Dictate of Kruphix
3 Hubris
2 Retraction Helix
3 Thassa’s Rebuff
3 Whelming Wave
20 Island
4 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
4 Dissolve
4 Gainsay
2 Hour of Need
3 Perplexing Chimera
1 Retraction Helix
1 Whelming Wave
I would certainly play a Kiora’s Dismissal over the extra Helix in the board – Mono Black aggro, a hard matchup is pretty popular because it is cheap, and Dismissal is great to have to shore it up.
A card  we played in the side (probably the worst card I have ever registered in a Constructed tournament, excluding a joke Enter the Infinite in a mono red list once…) was Cloaked Siren. The 3/2 flash flier is not very good, but it does happen to fly over a lot of creatures, and kill an upcycled Kiora or a Xenagos that made a Satyr. It’s not bad at pressuring the others, either. Besides, no one can play around it, which is an edge!

Notes about the deck:

  • I enjoyed playing Dakra Mystic a lot, giving a little bit of control to a Howling Mine effect over what is drawn is sweet, and I’d be interested in trying the card out in other formats. Another aspect of the card was that it regularly led opponents down the garden path believing that Drown in Sorrow was actually good against us; instead it is inefficient at killing the Mystic, and the only other card it hits, Master of Waves, would be in the sideboard by the time Drown in Sorrow had led theirs. And the best feeling? Scrying 3 with a Prognostic Sphinx attack, then drawing that card you want immediately.
  • Omenspeaker isn’t a great card, but finding land drops for every turn is critical for the deck, and the card works pretty well with Whelming Wave and Nykthos.
  • Dictate of Kruphix is the most important card in the deck, finding your Evacuation effects, hitting your lands, and adding two pips of devotion to boot. The extra cards your opponents get are regularly of limited use, since their mana is usually invested in replaying the cards you bounced. Meanwhile, via Nykthos you can play your cards with much greater velocity – as David put it very well, you only get a small advantage each time but your opponent is getting absolutely nowhere.
  • Since BUG, Junk and Mono Black are all rammed to the gills with Downfalls, Bile Blights, Silence the Believers, and so on, Master of Waves is easily the most sided-out card, but he is very good admittedly against non-interactive aggro decks (especially red ones), and Naya, where Chained to the Rocks and Banishing Light are put under a lot of pressure to answer the threat. Another boon to Master’s playability is the fact that Polis Crusher and Reaper of the Wilds both have far more relevant abilities in the format than Polukranos, so the World Eater was getting cut from a lot of lists.
  • Retraction Helix was a vital part of the puzzle. Another component of the bounce spell package, it has the key utility of resetting normally troublesome planeswalkers, or allowing you to counter them. I also used the card to return Chained to the Rocks, freeing an estranged Master of Waves to deliver the kill, and the card possesses a fine synergy with Thassa’s Ire, which provides a way to use the ability multiple times in one go. Quite the blowout.
  • Thassa’s Ire is a card I was extremely high on throughout testing various decks. Debtor’s Pulpit had been a fine answer to the unkillable Aetherling in last year’s Block format, and I drew parallels early on. Whilst much more expensive to activate, Ire handles a Prognostic Sphinx or a Stormbreath Dragon just fine, and is another resilient form of devotion. Conveniently enough, it works just nicely with your own Sphinxes, removing the tap downside of the protection ability from the equation.

We ended up having some bad luck, but I still feel good about the chosen deck. I just happened to get paired against people who hadn’t got the memo that Mistcutter Hydra doesn’t really do a lot in any of the primary matchups. We can’t beat it though, unless we land a Perplexing Chimera before they land it. In addition, players were upping the numbers of Ajani, Mentor of Heroes in their 75s which proved to be problematic, as the card is hard for us to interact with, and the counter-placing ability makes you lean on Whelming Wave a little too much as their guys become too big for Scourge to handle. Daniel Entwistle ended up just shy of drawing into top 8, but still a great run from him, and he made sure there were real Krakens on day 2!

In my next column, I’ll wrap up my thoughts about the format and what it menas for the future, and talk some M15!

Until then,

Davie Whyte

@fullofgravy on twitter