Constructed Criticism - Constructed Chop Suey: Standard and Block
Pre-Seattle it seemed as if Cascade-Swans was the new "deck to beat" taking the top slots at a few PTQs and also GP: Barcelona. After talking with a few friends about the deck at the PTQ in Nashville last week I had thoroughly decided against playing it myself and here's why.
BW Tokens is still the best aggressive deck in the format. If you have a good sideboard to disrupt the Swans deck every other deck is usually a cakewalk. Most of the decks you'll face at PTQs aren't going to be equipped to handle a swarm of 1/1 dorks that have a few pump effects but could randomly be able to disrupt your combo via Pithing Needle or Runed Halo (or other such nonsense). BW Tokens is still the real deal and I don't think many people are giving it enough credit. The metagame will eventually shift in a direction to be able to handle it effectively but that time is not now. At the last PTQ I attended in Nashville 6 of the Top 8 decks were BW Tokens giving me a pretty strong feeling that it is still a great deck. Furthermore the most competent players in the room seemed to be playing either BW Tokens or Cascade Swans while none of the Swan players made Top 8 (honorable mention to Derrick Sheets going 0-2 drop).
Tokens will still prove to be a dominant force in Standard until people finally realize just how to beat it. The same could be said for Swans but the combo is fairly easy to disrupt as long as you bring the right tools to the table. I've noticed that while playing with BW Tokens against Swans that I could kill them fairly easily as long as I resolved an early Tidehollow Sculler (or Thoughtseize after sideboarding). The deck plays 40+ lands so their business spells aren't going to be coming steadily. If they are being disrupted then they will probably have to use their Swans as blockers or their Seismic Assault as a machine gun to bring down an army of 1/1's. Both of these options seem fairly sub-optimal but the combo is strong enough to win out if given enough time. Applying disruption and pressure is the key to defeating Swans.
Ever since the card was printed Swans of Bryn Argoll has begged to be attached to some infinitely recurring damage source drawing your deck and killing your opponent in the meanwhile. In previous Extended LSV took this strategy to a 6-0 finish at Worlds using Chain of Plasma in tandem with the Swans of Bryn Argoll. Over the last few months a few Seismic Assault related decks have played Swans as a "combo" in order to kill their opponent. A few Japanese players played UR Swan decks at PT: Kyoto in February doing poorly when compared to their usual standards. After the Cascade mechanic was spoiled people flipped out about playing Hypergenesis in Extended but everyone overlooked Seismic Assault in Standard... until Regionals. There Parth Modi won a Northwest area Regionals with the deck creating a spark that sent 3 people into the Top 8 of the biggest Constructed tournament ever: Barcelona.
But now that the cat is out of the bag hopefully the pros in Seattle will be able to defeat that annoying Swan Combo deck. Paulo Vitor Damo de Rosa has already switched to playing Faeries after his Top 4 showing in Barcelona and I wonder if others will follow suit. It'll be interesting to see and you can bet I'll be watching the coverage. Standard is a great format and changes from week to week keeping everyone on their toes. Next week Five-Color Control or Faeries could be top dog or possibly some Five-Color Bloodbraid deck that Chapin has been raving about for weeks. Either way it should make for some awesome PTQ results over the coming weeks.
Since everyone and their mother has been talking about Swans for the past week or so I guess I'll move onto another topic. Recently I've been working on a Bant deck that does a fairly good job at attacking the format. It uses a combination of Trampling and Unblockable creatures alongside Rafiq of the Many and Finest Hour to put your opponent on a ridiculously fast clock all while being able to disrupt your opponent via Negate Bant Charm or Path to Exile. I'm sure you've seen something similar before since the deck has made a few Top 8s at PTQs. Here is my current list (special props to my fiance Kali for some technology):
- 2 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Jhessian Infiltrator
- 3 Kitchen Finks
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Rhox War Monk
- 4 Shorecrasher Mimic
- 4 Rafiq of the Many
This deck is pretty strong in the current metagame. You are occasionally able to kill the Swans players before they have a chance to set up or you can Negate their Assault or just Bant Charm/Path to Exile their Swans of Bryn Argoll if they haven't landed their Seismic Assault yet. After sideboarding you have a few extra weapons against them namely Cephalid Constable (a.k.a. the nuts).
I would like to take a moment to talk about Cephalid Constable. This guy is actually ridiculous against any deck that plays a million "comes-into-play-tapped" lands. If you can play him on turn 2 or 3 on the play or turn 2 on the draw there is virtually no chance for a Vivid-land deck to recover. In combination with Exalted and Double Strike you can use him like a one-sided Upheaval. I'm sure others have used this card before me but I didn't know about it until recently and I would just like to say that this guy is the real deal. You can't really fathom what it feels like to be playing with Swans on the draw and your opponent plays this guy before you play your third land. You have 4 cards in your deck that cost 3 mana and if you don't have an opener with Seismic Assault or a sideboarded answer then you can go jump off a building. That would be a better use of your time since you aren't going to be playing spells this game.
The only problem with the deck so far has been the painful manabase. But with seven creatures on the three-drop slot that gain life it hasn't cost me so much that I feel the manabase is necessarily "bad." The deck could probably use a little work as it is currently in its rough stages but the addition of Cephalid Constable makes me very happy to battle against a room full of Swans Combo decks.
Another notable card for the sideboard is Telemin Performance for the TurboFog decks. I don't advocate playing the card since it is very unlikely you will face any/many Fog decks but it is a crazy good answer if they ever tap out and is certainly something to consider if you think you'll be battling against the format's MOST BORING DECK EVER. They only play 4 Cryptic Commands and will probably side Negate out against you so it is likely to resolve. The deck did win the Nashville PTQ (beating me in the Top 4 that's probably why I hate it so much) so it can't be that bad. Hopefully more people will start to play Faeries or Five-Color in order to combat the combo decks which will in-turn weed out the Fog decks and make BW Tokens and Bant stronger metagame choices.
In other news the Magic Online Season II Championship starts in approximately 13 hours. The format is Alara Block Constructed and here is the deck I'm planning on playing for the event.
After playtesting Block Constructed over the last week I found the lists I kept testing lost to Jund over and over again. Somehow Ajani Vengeant and Elspeth Knight-Errant (the format's previous "best cards") have become irrelevant spells since they almost instantly die via Maelstrom Pulse or hasted Bloodbraid Elves. Anathemancer crushed my dreams of ever playing Five-Color Control while Terminate Maelstrom Pulse and Bituminous Blast all defeated my armies of crashing Woolly Thoctars and Wild Nacatls and Broodmate Dragon stopped any notion that I ever had of winning a game. I finally submitted to what I now believe to be the best deck in the format. The manabase is solid and lacks vulnerability to Anathemancer which is a big upside for a control deck at the moment. The deck has potential to go aggro if the opponent is playing a slow or weak control deck utilizing Blightning and Maelstrom Pulse to take out their hand or problematic permanents/Planeswalkers while attacking with efficient monsters. Oblivion Ring is actually a big joke now that Maelstrom Pulse has proven its salt and this in turn makes Sprouting Thrinax an incredible monster often trading for 2 or 3 of your opponent's cards (aside from Celestial Purge).
Bituminous Blast is just incredible. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Aside from accidentally cascading into a Lavalanche every now and then you will often find yourself on the happy end of a brutal beating. Cascading into a Bloodbraid Elf is just icing on an already unhealthy (but delicious) cake and you will wreck your opponent with nearly every cascade you make whether it hits a Blightning or just a removal spell for their creature(s). Maelstrom Pulse Terminate and Blightning have all been worth their weight in gold and I wouldn't recommend playing the deck without four of each. One of the things I like best about the deck is its ability to draw out of most sticky situations. This has been the only deck I've played in a long time that isn't afraid of a resolved Broodmate Dragon on the opposing side of the field. Often Bituminous Blast alone will be enough to take down both dragons! Hitting a "lucky" Terminate or Maelstrom Pulse will leave you with a very warm fuzzy feeling inside.
Aside from your massive amounts of efficient spells you have a few finishers of your own: Broodmate Dragon and Lavalanche. You will rarely hit Lavalanche while cascading since it is a lonely two-of and it is just good enough to play even with that threat looming in the background of having a weak cascade. Broodmate Dragon is a staple in any Jund deck not sporting Bloodhall Ooze and should never be left on the sideline if you're hoping to out-card your opponent. He's an amazing finisher and probably one of the three best cards in the format.
The opposing decks I'm probably going to face are: Jund Aggro Jund Control (mirror) Naya Aggro/Control Esper midrange White Weenie (mediocre at best) and 4-5 Color Monstrosities. The latter is something I'm looking forward to playing against since they have a lot of trouble dealing with cards like Sprouting Thrinax and Putrid Leech not to mention Broodmate Dragon or Blightning. If they're relying on Planeswalkers quick Bloodbraid Elves and Maelstrom Pulses should work wonders. If they're relying on late-game finishers then they will rarely get to that point. After boarding they have virtually no chance of surviving Anathemancers and Thought Hemorrhages as well as your other incredible cards. I've seen a few Five-Color lists playing Wall of Denial. While this guy is definitely playable I don't classify him as necessarily being "great." I could be proven wrong as he definitely gives me trouble in the early game. However the manabases used to cast him will rarely be able to get him into play efficiently on turn 3 and will often be too far behind on the board to survive long enough to cast Martial Coup or Lavalanche. People are really underestimating Blightning at the moment and I'm hoping to show them just what they're up against.
After sideboarding you have the potential to side out a lot of your useless removal against the slower control decks or side in more removal in the form of Caldera Hellion for aggro and Karrthus for the mirror match. Stealing an opposing Broodmate Dragon(s) or possibly an Ultimate'd Sarkhan Vol army would be truly Magical Christmas Land (where Mike Flores lives with an Overbeing of Myth and Mishra). However simply having the threat of blowing out my opponent should he/she decide to battle with dragons makes me feel somewhat safe when battling opposing Jund mages. Last week I proposed a few decklists that seemed pretty sub-optimal in retrospect. But after testing for a week straight I can safely say that I feel confident about my deck choice. However there are no cards in this list on the same power level as Balefire Liege but I'll take my chances.
With the tournament approaching I am confident in my abilities and my deck and only hope to minimize any play mistakes. I have earned a Round 1 Bye for attaining 25+ Qualifier Points and hope to take the utmost advantage of that bye. I'll probably give a brief tournament report in the forums on Monday after the article goes up letting everyone know how I did. This tournament should help to set the stage for the upcoming Pro Tour: Honolulu since there aren't any high-profile tournaments that are the same format before then. Alara Block Constructed is a monster of a format and breaking it should be very difficult. Aggressive decks have a lot of trouble breaking through the sea of efficient removal and control decks have a tough time competing with any deck sporting the 2/2 version of Price of Progress. Hopefully this Jund deck is the answer everyone has been waiting for.
Good luck on the battlefield.