All right… I got you to come this far even though this article is, at least on its surface, about Block Constructed. That was probably not an easy decision for you, and I appreciate the trust you've shown in making that click.
I know that no one cares about Block Constructed anymore. I know that Block Constructed doesn't even really exist anymore. This bothers me.
When I began playing competitive Magic, Block Constructed was a big deal. My first PTQ was Lorwyn/Shadowmoor Block Constructed. There were Block Constructed Pro Tours and Grand Prix. Block Constructed was a major part of Magic's landscape. And now… nothing.
There were a lot of bad Block Constructed formats. Block Constructed's last hurrah was Pro Tour Journey into Nyx, and while our own Patrick Chapin certainly carries fond memories of the event, there are few others who share that sentiment. Block Constructed didn't put butts in seats. The people who did participate did so begrudgingly.
Except on Magic Online. Block Constructed flourished on Magic Online, giving players a budget entry point to Constructed play in the digital world. Metagames were often diverse and adaptation could be seen on a week-to-week basis. Somehow, despite an incredibly limited card pool, new technology was found all the time. The dedicated player base saw to that.
Times weren't always good. There were several one- or two-deck metagames, but with each set release, things changed dramatically. When a Block Constructed format was stagnant, it didn't last a year or more, the way current Standard does.
The best thing about Block Constructed though, was that it was a testing ground for both cards and archetypes that people had preemptively deemed not good enough for Standard. There were a host of Standard innovations that found their roots in the Block Constructed queues of Magic Online. If I had some downtime where I wasn't actively preparing for an event, I would always hit the Block Constructed queues to see what new technology was lurking about.
Then, for some reason, we weren't allowed to play Block Constructed tournaments on Magic Online anymore. I don't recall what nonsensical reason was provided for this decision. If it was something about fracturing the player base, I wholeheartedly reject that explanation. Magic Online, despite its faults, has only grown over the years. It supported Block Constructed for years with far fewer participants than it currently has.
I also reject any explanation that tried to suggest that Magic Online was eliminating less popular formats to preserve ease-of-use and accessibility. Allow me to present my evidence:
I'm sure there are people who love 1v1 Brawl and 1v1 Commander, and I'm happy those 113 people have a place to play it (Note: As I was writing this article, Wizards announced that Brawl queues would be ending, but nothing was said about 1v1 Commander). I'm not sure why the same can't be offered to people who want to explore Block Constructed.
Despite how I feel, I can't just wave my wand and make Block Constructed a real thing again (that would take a concerted effort by a group of vocal supporters of the format… perhaps stirred to action by an article that showed just how interesting a return to Block Constructed could truly be… hint, hint #bringbackblock). But that doesn't mean we need to miss out on the joy of exploring and learning from what looks like an awesome format.
I can't in good faith suggest that building a bunch of Guilds of Ravnica Block Constructed decks and running a single-elimination tournament is the best use of your playtesting time. Luckily for you though, pretty much all I do is talk and think about Magic, meaning I have ample time to pour into an exercise like this!
I'd argue that a ground up exploration of a format should begin by laying out the aggressive decks that will prey on any inefficient nonsense. In Guilds of Ravnica Block Constructed, I see two potential competitors for the aggro crown:
- 3 Boros Challenger
- 2 Goblin Banneret
- 4 Legion Warboss
- 4 Runaway Steam-Kin
- 4 Swiftblade Vindicator
- 3 Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice
- 3 Tajic, Legion's Edge
Mono-Red Aggro's best card is probably untapped Mountain, but don't underestimate the value of just playing threats on curve when your opponents are struggling with their suboptimal manabases. Boros Aggro, on the other hand, gets to play some incredibly powerful legends and capitalize on the absence of Goblin Chainwhirler by playing Swiftblade Vindicator. I expect Swifty to get out of hand very quickly given all the fine mentorship opportunities available in Ravnica these days.
Drifting a bit more to the "midrange side of things," we have Golgari Aggro:
- 4 Charnel Troll
- 4 District Guide
- 4 Doom Whisperer
- 4 Glowspore Shaman
- 4 Kraul Harpooner
- 4 Nullhide Ferox
- 4 Pelt Collector
- 1 Underrealm Lich
- 1 Izoni, Thousand-Eyed
In this format the removal is iffy, and keyword BIG is going to ensure that our creatures stick on the battlefield. We're leaning pretty hard into Nullhide Ferox here by playing very few non-creature spells maindeck. This should pay dividends against any of the more controlling decks we encounter, and we can always adjust in sideboard games.
- 3 District Guide
- 4 Hunted Witness
- 4 Knight of Autumn
- 3 Pelt Collector
- 4 Venerated Loxodon
- 4 Emmara, Soul of the Accord
- 3 Trostani Discordant
Wait, is Impervious Greatwurm even legal in this format? How about cards from the pre-constructed Planeswalker Decks?
- 3 Blood Operative
- 3 Doom Whisperer
- 2 Dream Eater
- 4 Thoughtbound Phantasm
- 2 Whisper Agent
- 2 Lazav, the Multifarious
Another feather in Block Constructed's cap was its ability to serve as the best possible vehicle for conveying a sets themes and feel. To me, this is the Dimir deck, and we will never see a purer expression of the surveil mechanic. More than any other, this is the deck that has me begging for a return to Block Constructed. I want to live in a world where Thoughtbound Phantasm can do things outside of Draft. Given its parasitic nature, Thoughtbound Phantasm will almost certainly struggle to see Standard play. Here, it may just be an all-star.
- 4 Burglar Rat
- 3 District Guide
- 3 Doom Whisperer
- 3 Glowspore Shaman
- 2 Golgari Findbroker
- 3 Plaguecrafter
- 2 Izoni, Thousand-Eyed
The Golgari guild is deep enough in this set that there several very distinct decks you can look at. I debated including an undergrowth focused build instead of this more classic midrange build, but I actually think that version of the deck is better suited to Standard play (more on this in the future).
Let's see what's available on the control side of things.
Removal in this format is wholly unimpressive. It's not a great sign when you're forced to splash for a four-mana removal spell, but I wasn't convinced this deck could exist without access to Price of Fame. Maybe I'm playing things far too safe and now I'm doomed to lose to my manabase.
For our last competitor, I turned to the GAM Podcast Discord. I know I may be biased, but I honestly believe that this chat room might be the single best deckbuilding community on the planet right now. Folks there work tirelessly on exploring new ideas and do so with a level of respect and openness that makes me truly proud. While there were a host of great suggestions, I ultimately was drawn to this seemingly simple suggestion from Liam Cahalan:
- 4 Fresh-Faced Recruit
- 4 Haazda Marshal
- 4 Healer's Hawk
- 4 Hunted Witness
- 4 Sunhome Stalwart
- 4 Tenth District Guard
- 4 Venerated Loxodon
- 20 Plains
Maybe this is the baseline deck I wanted mono-red to be. "Play some creatures on curve, make them slightly bigger" is a battle-tested plan for success in Block Constructed. This would likely comprise the budget entry point to the format and will make a fine litmus test for all the midrange strategies.
For this tournament to produce the meaningful insights I was hoping for, I knew it needed to be played at a high-level. So I called in the person who has beaten me at Magic more times than anyone else on the planet.
If you've ever heard me talk about my playtesting process, you probably know that I'm a huge proponent of playing games of Magic against myself. The benefits of learning two sides of a matchup simultaneously far outweigh the damage done by the fact that your match will occasionally arrive at the "wrong" outcome. If you are actively attempting to figure out what play would have been made in the absence of perfect information and eliminating bias in your decisions, things will mostly play out the way they are supposed to.
I see far too many people attaching themselves to the numbers that come out of playtesting sessions. "I went 12-3 against Humans in playtesting." "I was undefeated against Tron." "It's an 80-20 matchup." I know you've heard statements like this brandished about. The fact is, no means of playtesting is ever going to have a large enough n to produce an accurate assessment of matchup percentage. Beyond that, virtually every game of Magic in the history of the world has been played imperfectly, further polluting testing results.
One of your goals in testing should be to establish a feel for a matchup. Efforts to establish hard matchup percentages are pointless. I'd argue that feel can be generated much faster by playing both sides of the game, even if doing so occasionally influences the outcome. Focus on the journey, not the result.
Seedings for the tournament were assigned randomly. Place your bets now.
Round of 8: Mono-White Aggro vs. Grixis Control-Grixis Control wins 2-0
While in both games Mono-White Aggro was able to get off to a blazing start, Grixis Control was able to do just enough to stay alive and play a Niv-Mizzet on Turn 6. It's very possible that I have been dramatically undervaluing this crafty Dragon. I had previously said I didn't think it would do quite enough for such a prohibitively costed six-drop. But after having played with the card, I'm pretty sure that it's going to be very difficult to lose games in which you get to untap with Niv-Mizzet, assuming your deck is built properly.
While Mono-White Aggro was just was a little too far behind in terms of card quality, Dawn of Hope was a definite bright spot out of the sideboard. There have been a few times recently I've found myself wishing for a Sacred Mesa. Dawn of Hope is likely far better.
Round of 8: Selesnya Convoke vs. Golgari Midrange-Golgari Midrange wins 2-1
A swingy set, where both decks were throwing haymakers back and forth, Golgari Midrange leaned on recursive Izoni, Thousand Eyed to outvalue Selesnya. I have little doubt that Izoni is good enough to make the leap to Standard, and I'm very excited to see what fully powered up Golgari decks are capable of. Find deserved similarly high marks for providing exactly the type of versatility you would expect from a sweeper/draw your two best cards in the matchup (Izoni and Doom Whisperer).
This was also a matchup where Assassin's Trophy really was able to shine. Any deck playing targets like Trostani and Conclave Tribute is going to feel absolutely targeted by the versatile piece of removal. I'd note that March of the Multitudes on the Selesnya side was often underwhelming. Maybe it was just a function of facing Izoni, but the 1/1s simply never mattered, and were easily answerable in sideboard games.
Round of 8: Mono-Red Aggro vs. Dimir Surveil-Dimir Surveil wins 2-1
After a long and extremely back and forth set, Dimir Surveil had the strongest possible double Thoughtbound Phantasm draw in game 3 to close out the match. Honestly, these were fantastic games of Magic, with loads of decision points throughout and interesting points of tension surrounding Blood Operative decisions. As expected, Thoughtbound Phantasm proved to be a standout and I don't think it's crazy to suggest that Inescapable Blaze might see some sideboard play, even with the presence of Banefire. When it comes to Mono-Red, every small bit of mana efficiency matters.
The real shocker in this set was Risk Factor. I've been around the game for 20+ years now and I promise, I know all the arguments against "punisher" cards. In fact, I would have never under any circumstances put Risk Factor into a deck were I not playing Block Constructed. That's how strongly opposed I am to a Browbeat. But Risk Factor was far more impactful than I expected, and there comes a point where no matter how much worse one option may be than another, you can't argue with the efficiency of generating eight damage and six new cards from one Risk Factor. I'm not saying I'm sold, but I am saying I will try the card again.
Round of 8: Boros Aggro vs. Golgari Aggro-Boros Aggro wins 2-0
Good lord was this Boros deck explosive. Integrity did a beautiful job of forcing through damage early while providing reach late, and Swiftblade Vindicator is one of the strongest double striking creatures we've ever seen. Despite the large bodies in Golgari, the Boros Aggro deck kept finding ways to force awkward blocks and get damage through.
Semi-Finals: Grixis Control vs. Golgari Midrange-Grixis Control wins 2-1
I found this outcome somewhat surprising, since I thought Golgari would be able to leverage the fact that virtually every card in their deck was a two-for-one, but Niv-Mizzet again proved unbeatable in a host of situations. If Grixis effectively dealt with Golgari's early board presence, they quickly composed an unassailable hand via the card selection of Radical Idea and Chemister's Insight. From there, Grixis only had to wait for 9 mana and the chance to play Niv-Mizzet with countermagic backup.
The most surprising card on either side of the matchup was Plaguecrafter. The first time this card kills one of your planeswalkers as a control player, you will realize that this card is far more than a Fleshbag Marauder. It may just be a Standard staple.
Boros Aggro again showed its resiliency, as it took a victory over a Dimir Surveil deck that cast six Blood Operatives in game 2. First strike, mentor, double strike, pump spells, burn… the Boros deck brings heat from every possible angle and is extremely difficult to play against. When this deck picks up some Standard upgrades such as Lightning Strike, it just may be the starting point for aggro post-rotation.
Finals: Grixis Control vs. Boros Aggro-Grixis Control wins 2-1
An incredibly close match, this showdown ended like so many others in this tournament--Grixis at one life, seven cards in hand, and a Niv-Mizzet, Parun in play. I'm done gushing about how impactful this card was. It should be respected as a premier control finisher, and it deserves to have decks built around it. While Sarkhan, Fireblood powering out Niv-Mizzet on turn 4 has its own appeal, make no mistake about it: Niv-Mizzet will be at its best paired with Radical Idea and Chemister's Insight.
-Removal in this set past Assassin's Trophy is some of the worst we've seen in a long time. I tolerated a lot of Price of Fame, but only when it cost two mana was it acceptable. While we have two other blocks (three if you count M19) in which to find Standard removal spells, I would still expect to occasionally feel the pinch of poor removal when deckbuilding in Standard.
-Surveil is an extremely powerful mechanic. There is a lot of equity to be gained by building your deck to get as much value as possible from your graveyard.
-Jump-start is far better than I initially gave it credit for. I was very happy I had copies of Radical Idea in my Grixis deck, and Chemister's Insight was quite a bit better than I expected, and I already thought it was one of the ten best cards in the set. It'll be interesting to see how these cards transition to Standard and whether Radical Idea is able to take some metagame share from Opt in control decks. In decks that play Connive along with sizable threats, Radical Idea is an auto include.
Cards That Impressed
Niv-Mizzet, Parun - You get it.
Thoughtbound Phantasm - It is a true shame that there probably isn't enough surveil support to make this card a thing in Standard, because it is pushed to the max. If surveil makes a return in the third Ravnica set, keep an eye on Thoughtbound Phantasm.
Hunted Witness - When will I learn that one mana white creatures with upside are just always going to be great? I can't wait for Sam Black to get up to some shenanigans with this card.
Cards That Underperformed
Runaway Steam-Kin - This one truly shocked me, but I think Runaway Steam-Kin is going to turn out to be a bust. I understand that these aggressive red creatures will always get worse as the game goes on. But at any spot in the game other than turn 2, this card was an absolute blank.
Legion Warboss - It wasn't that Warboss was necessarily bad, its just much worse than I thought it was at first glance. Warboss gets bricked on a whole host of gamestates. It's a card you really have to work to maximize, and it may prove to be a far better sideboard "change of pace" type card than an instant inclusion in all red creature decks.
Venerated Loxodon - Making your 1/1s into 2/2s still leaves you with an irrelevant state. I expected more from this card when I saw it previewed, but I think I was way off base.
Overall, I am incredibly happy I decided to explore Guilds of Ravnica Block Constructed. I've got a high number of experiences with a host of new cards, many of which I don't think I would have given their proper due if the confines of Block Constructed hadn't led me to look for new solutions. More than anything though, I was impressed by how good the games were. Part of it was the joy of playing with sweet new toys, but I honestly think that this format would be a pleasure to play, at least for a smaller window of time.
I'm sure every single set would not yield such a positive experience. For instance, my brief Magic Arena dalliance did not give me the impression that I wanted to spend much time exploring Ixalan Block. But that's fine. Give me the freedom to choose. Block Constructed doesn't need to be part of organized play going forward. I would love if it was a small part of Magic's digital world though.