Sullivan Library - It's Elemental! Elementals in the New Block
In emails and the forums it was clear that the big favorite from readers for a topic was Block Constructed. I had fully intended to write about the format last week but the topic of playtesting got stuck in my craw after a particularly unfruitful playtest session – unfruitful I suspect because of our different goals: my goal of discovery versus his goal of measurement. In some ways this was useful if only because of some inspiration I received from a friend of mine while I played Standard.
They were curious if anything I had seen in Standard impacted my perception of Block. What I had in my mind was a somewhat mediocre beatdown deck. It ran Llanowar Elves going into Kitchen Finks and Boggart Ram-Gang and had a top end of four Siege-Gang Commander and two Cloudthresher. It was a distinctly unsuccessful deck but it had this curious habit of often kicking the crap out of a pretty good Faerie deck.
What is a pretty good Faerie deck? While your mileage may vary I think that going straight to Yuuta Takahashi is a very solid place to start. Clearly there are other ways to build the deck but a Grand Prix win is nothing to scoff at.
The big reason my pile of crap was beating the Faerie deck was that it would just put a fast clock down and relentlessly plug away with it. It didn’t win by being fancy but rather by putting on pressure and not stopping. Bitterblossom never really offered up any trades until it had been active for several turns or with help from a Scion. These were fragile ways for it to play D though.
Sideboarding… well that was another matter. Yuuta’s Deathmarks plus Razormane Masticore were problematic. But the main deck held a lesson: with sufficient pressure and an ability to not fold to Bitterblossom Faeries was beatable (game 1).
Interestingly a wee bit of Yuuta’s deck translates into Block Constructed. Let’s check just how much:
It needs replacements for the four Ancestral and it needs eleven lands. Other than that a Grand Prix winning Standard deck ports.
It’s kind of an elephant in the room this Faerie deck. You can’t pretend it isn’t a problem. Standard decks have so many more tools at their disposal here to fight the fight. What are you going to do?
Even if Shadowmoor isn’t exactly a tribal set it does have a number of cards that support that tribal role. We still have Lorwyn and Morningtide’s tribal nature that we can build from. Together these sets give us more than 700 card options. One place that that can take us is the land of Elementals.
What is it that Elementals might have going for them in a land of Faeries? Well first off when you look at their available creatures it is actually kind of shocking just how potent a number of them are. A couple of them are the kind of constants that we saw in early Block Constructed and a few of them are new cards that already have gained the attention of people. Let’s look at the color by color:
Horde of Notions: Let’s start right off the bat with talking about Horde of Notions. It’s casting cost almost seems prohibitive until you begin thinking about the mana in this new format. Not only do Elementals have access to their own painless City of Brass Primal Beyond but they also have access to Smokebraider. Between that and the odd Vivid lands and Reflecting Pool it seems completely reasonable to cast Horde of Notions on turn 5 or occasionally turn 3. From there things seem all manner of fraught with danger for essentially any opponent. Two particular magic words on the Horde are Trample (amazing in a Bitterblossom world) and Haste (nearly guaranteeing a connection to the dome right off the bat. I know that towards the end of Lorwyn-only I was beginning to see an upsurge of Horde of Notions decks and the ability to make these decks only becomes easier now.
Fulminator Mage: Fulminator Mage managed to generate a great deal of excitement at least initially some of which appears to have died down. This doesn’t change its unique placement as the sole real Stone Rain of the format. This power cannot be understated. Add to that the ability to potential get into Horde/Fulminator recursion and you have something worth paying attention to.
Ashenmoor Liege: Sure this is an expensive 4/1. On the other hand it guarantees that any of your creatures will be able to attack into a single 1/1 faerie without fear. Furthermore the typical answers to the card while they will nearly all do what they need to will still result in a huge zot to the dome of the offending Liege-hater. The power to make your gold creatures +2/+2 is also quite noteworthy. Running out double Liege gives you a pair of 6/3. That’s not too shabby.
Ashenmoor Gouger: The Gouger suffers from a trample and blocking problem. It can’t stop anything swinging in on it and it can’t push its damage over a 1/1. Thankfully the format is such that there really aren’t very many competitors with it that it could (or would want to) block. Faeries fly over its head. The Ram-Gang seems like an unfun blocking target. As a 4/4 for three mana the Gouger can demand blockers with just a little bit of help.
Sootstoke Kindler: I was pretty surprised by the quality of this card. Essentially a one-way Fires of Yavimaya for most of your men it has the added ability to just hop in there for a quick point of damage if you have nothing better to do. While this only works on your Black and Red creatures it works outside of the Elemental tribe (inasmuch as you’d actually desire to step there). When you examine what this can mean for some creatures such as Dread or Nova Chaser it can just add in an absurd amount of damage. In the case of more reasonable creature it is still pretty impressive.
Red seems to be the natural home for Elementals. There are so many things to consider here whether when going for pure beatdown more control or even where the top of the curve lands.
Some of the Sligh guys: If you just want to go with a natural Sligh-style beatdown curve your options are plentiful. You have your own “Tattermunge Maniac” but without that annoying “must attack” clause. Backing up the Flamekin Bladewhirl are a number of two-drops with special abilities (though almost all of them share Bladewhirl’s one-toughness) and then the three-drop where Inner-Flame Acolyte can come in with haste Incandescent Soulstoke can provide pumping to everyone and Taurean Mauler can provide some cheap Changeling-based muscle. Cards like the Soulstoke are quite important because you will need to have two toughness if you’re going to be attacking into Bitterblossom. But outside of pure curving out things can get interesting…
Smokebraider: Here is a card that is actually really nuts when you think about what it is capable of. This is a format largely without acceleration. To get to mana you have to drop your land and let it go from there. Smokebraider breaks that rule and takes you immediately to the five-drop. Mulldrifter Shriekmaw Reveillark and other fun elemental goodies live up in five-territory. If you think that killing Birds and Elves was necessary it’s probably even more the case when it comes to Smokebraider. Even in aggressive builds this card seems like an utter monster. In some ways Brightearth Banneret can play a similar role actually making more “mana” if you cast three spells in a turn. The Reinforce ability of a Banneret is noteworthy largely because it is essentially uncounterable.
Hostility: Even in a world where you aren’t necessarily going to be running that much burn to anyone’s face Hostility is still a potent guy. 6/6 hasty damage for six is very good. In many games the world will just kind of go into top-deck land and this guy is a sure means to win such a race.
Ashling the Pilgrim: While she is also a reasonable card to drop into the two-drop for a Sligh-style deck it is worth noting just how potent this card can be in a Block control deck or even just a Block burn deck. An unblocked Ashling with mana available gets to drop in an extra five damage and blow up the world. Take a simple 2/2 Ashling. Unblocked she becomes 4/4 and then after damage can go to 5/5 and make your opponent be nine life less happy than they were the turn before. Sure it takes six mana but it is a hell of a way to do something about a mana flood. Also important without ever playing another spell it is possible for an Ashling to just go the distance.
Spitebellows: Six damage to a creature for three mana is a pretty solid “spell” in its own right. When you get to the actual casting of a Spitebellows though you often have a consistent way of dropping a full 12 damage onto your opponents creatures usually resulting in a two for one. Spitebellows cannot be overlooked.
Honorable Mentions: Flamekin Spitfire Flamekin Harbinger Glarewielder Sunflare Shaman Pyroclast Consul (great versus weenies) Vengeful Firebrand Changeling Berserker and Nova Chaser (especially off of an Incandescent Soulstoke).
Black’s options are largely of a support variety or live in the hybrid spells. As for Black proper there are only a few places to really pay attention to the color.
Shriekmaw: Ah Shriekmaw. It really is pretty damn close to the FTK of old. In a pure Elemental deck it gains even more bonuses from all sorts of places. Smokebraider Banneret and Incandescent Soulstoke can all get it out more quickly. Horde of Notions can make it a recurring nightmare. With the ease in which Elementals can play five (not to mention merely two) colors this is worth keeping close at hand.
Dread: At BBB Dread will require a bit more of a commitment but can also provide a simply incredible way to keep from falling behind (unless you are essentially already too behind for it to matter). Fear doesn’t matter that much but in some matchups it could become relevant (versus Faeries without Bitterblossom for example).
Green is a strange place for Elementals. There are a lot of real potential pounders but many of them actually require a teeny commitment to the color to really get any returns.
Cloudthresher: A fantastic end-of-turn way to slap most Faeries around it also is a great surprise attacker against an opponent without any defenders. Gee Gee Gee Gee can be incredibly rough however relegating Cloudthresher probably to either Red/Green Elemental decks or non-Elemental Green decks.
Chameleon Colossus: This creature has already largely proved its mettle finding homes in Standard and seeing the occasional Extended play. Mana intensive to be sure its pro-Black is incredibly relevant in a world where some of the most common elimination is Black.
Blue is a strange place for Elementals. Blue gives an Elemental deck some tricksy-ness but otherwise seems largely out of place.
Mulldrifter: Splashing Mulldrifter into decks has become incredibly common. This is all the easier for an Elemental deck which can use Primal Beyond and Smokebraider to make the casting of a splash card so much easier. With the five-color variants Horde of Notions can combine pretty obscenely with Mulldrifter.
Nevermaker: A fairly cheap flier Nevermaker also has this other fun facet to it – it doesn’t care how it leaves play. Burn it invert it fight it bounce it; once it leaves play it gets to put something back on top of the library. Neat trick!
AEthersnipe: This guy is a pretty big body if you can keep him out there. Most of the time people will just be using him to bounce stuff but much like the Mulldrifter if you’re powering it out with Smokebraider or Horde it can be a handful.
Yes there really isn’t too much to pay attention to in this color. Reveillark is clearly insanely good and an Elemental but that’s about it unless you think that Shinewend and Wispmare are good enough to play because they can answer Bitterblossom. Yes Purity is an Elemental but this requires such a heavy White commitment without much else going on in this department I can’t imagine it would be of much use.
Where do we go from here?
We go to some decks of course! The three decks that immediately spring to mind after going over the options are all pretty simple. The first is a basic Sligh deck albeit a touch higher on the curve than the much more aggressive Red decks you might otherwise see. At the same time it is still very aggro and it is also more resilient to the threat of Bitterblossom. The second is a more controlling deck relying on a large amount of creature recycling. The third is that exciting Horde of Notions concept that I’ve been mentioning albeit in somewhat rough form. Let’s get to it!
This decks curve starts out with only four Bladewhirl as its Jackal Pup and then has drops all the way up the curve to four mana with four Ashenmoor Liege and three Nova Chaser. What this deck gains from moving slightly up the curve from heavy ones and twos is a greater resilience against cards like Bitterblossom by giving you eight Lords and eight ways to have surprise hasty men. While not dipping into Shard Volley the deck’s Sunflare Shamans can actually become a repeat source of damage and with Sootstoke Kindler and Incandescent Soulstoke it’s entirely reasonable to draw one late game and just immediately shoot it off in someone’s face.
This deck has a lot of comes-into-play meanness. Combine that with Profane Command and Makeshift Mannequin and you can do a lot of disruption to your opponent. This format is largely a creature format and in such a format this deck can really pack a wallop. And take into consideration what you can do after a turn 2 Smokebraider. How about Shriekmaw a creature and Fulminator a land? On the following turn a Makeshift Mannequin on the Fulminator can keep up the disruption and your Smokebraider can Invert something cast another Smokebraider or drop an Ashling. As games go late this deck really has a lot of potential to take over. With only the slightest effort splash in Mulldrifter for more fun and profit.
This is the roughest of the lists by far. The ability to successfully cast turn 3 or 4 Horde though is shockingly regular. I did a quick check and here is how my Horde hands played out:
1 – Turn 6 Horde (cast as soon as I drew land 5 a Thicket) with a spell cast every turn beginning on 2
2 – Mulligan Turn 2 Inversion Turn 3 Mulldrifter Turn 4 Nevermaker Turn 5 Horde
3 – Turn 5 Horde spells every turn from Turn 2 on
4 –Turn 2 Smokebraider Turn 3 Horde
5 – Turn 2 Smokebraider Turn 3 Mulldrifter and Shriekmaw Evoked turn 4 Horde
6 – Turn 5 Horde spells every turn from Turn 2 on
7 – Turn 2 Smokebraider turn 3 Horde
8 – Mulligan turn 2 Smokebraider Turn 3 Fertile Ground Turn 4 Horde
9 – Turn 2 Fertile Ground Turn 3 Nevermaker Turn 4 Horde
10 – Turn 2 Inversion Turn 3 Fulminator Turn 4 Inversion/Maw Turn 5 Horde
Average play of Horde (in hands that had it)? 4.4 Not bad.
All of these decks are at the very least solid and I imagine there are some places that they could be brushed up but as initial lists they seem pretty exciting to me.
What do you think? Which deck do you like the most and what would you change? I’m curious to see your ideas.
As for me I’m just finally finished with my last day of class for the semester (yay!) though I still have finals to look forward to (boo!). Then it is off to Hollywood and hopefully fame and glory. Wish me luck!