Deep Analysis -What Matters in Block
First a list of five things (not an exhaustive list but some of the most important ones) each point of which is critical to deck composition in Block.
Unless you're okay with turn 2 Bitterblossom and you're okay with turn 3 Spectral Procession and you're okay with the opponent casting Mirrorweave you need Thoughtseize to fight these things. The alternative is to get bashed by them which is not generally a winning strategy given how many of your opponents are likely to play them.
Some people will test against techy Kithkin lists that eschew Thistledown Liege and Mirrorweave for things that do more against Five-Color Control (like say maindeck Burrenton Forge-Tender and a full set of Unmakes). And for all I know those Kithkin lists might well be superior in the current environment.
Unfortunately it doesn't matter what build of an opposing deck is superior right now; even if the list is out there not everyone will get the memo and even some of those who do get the memo will not yet be convinced and will stick to their Ol' Faithful build. If you want to avoid being blindsided you have to recognize that the consequence of people updating Kithkin to fight Five-Color is that there are now two Kithkin decks in the format.
There's neo-Kithkin which offers fewer tricks in exchange for more Five-Color hate and there's Last Week's Tech - traditional Kithkin with Weaves and Lieges. Assuming the new version is better you're more likely to face it in the Top 8 and the old version in the Swiss but as the path to a blue envelope encompasses both the Swiss and the Top 8 you must be prepared to battle both versions.
This point pretty much sums up my beef with the Merfolk list from Denver. A Merfolk list that eschews Thoughtseize has only two defenses against Spectral Procession and Bitterblossom: Sage's Dousing and Cryptic Command. Since neither of those can stop a turn 2 Blossom or turn 3 Procession on the play losing the die roll means critical spells are going to hit the table in the common case where well the opponent draws them. (On the flip side making room for Thoughtseize and Cryptic Command and Sage's Dousing is admittedly tough.)
An alternate strategy is to play a deck like Kithkin or Red which ostensibly do not care about Bitterblossom and Spectral Procession enough to mandate answers like Thoughtseize.
2. Answers to Demigod
We all know about Runed Halo now but most decks don't have the luxury of productively playing that card. Many of the traditional answers to Red decks - cards like Kitchen Finks Burrenton Forge-Tender fatties like Doran - just do absolutely nothing against a 5/4 hasty flyer. Thoughtseize can actually make matters worse if the Red player draws an extra copy.
The most common answers we see are Crib Swap and countermagic. Like Thoughtseize countermagic only works if they draw exactly one copy but Crib Swap is plenty effective. One way or the other though you need to be able to handle this beast; simply racing it is rarely an option.
3. A Lot of Creature Kill
To beat Kithkin this is simply a must. The more guys Kithkin has on the table the higher and higher its power level creeps. At three guys Windbrisk Heights becomes active. Over three pumpers like Cenn and Liege start to do incredible amounts of damage. At a certain critical mass Mirrorweave is instantly lethal.
Five-Color has a good Kithkin matchup thanks in large part to the fact that it has ten ways to kill creatures plus things like Mannequin Finks and countermagic to back them up. (Even better six of those removal spells are board sweepers.) The only successful anti-Kithkin strategies I have seen to date recognize this principle.
4. Not Very Much Creature Kill (unless it's good against Finks and Archon)
This is the catch. Removal that is good against Kithkin is often an egregious loss of card advantage against Five-Color. Nameless Inversion your Kitchen Finks? Ugh. Any draw that includes too many cards that do nothing but ding Kitchen Finks remove a 3/2 Shriekmaw or 2/2 Mulldrifter or turn Archon of Justice into a Vindicate can often lead to what amounts to mulligan death. (In fact an easy way to get ahead in the Five-Color Control mirror would be to cut Firespout for Crib Swap or Unmake…but you can imagine what such a change would do to the deck's other matchups.)
So what's a competitor to do? How do you play enough removal spells to not get killed by Kithkin and yet not get "flooded" with do-nothings against Five-Color? Furthermore where's a guy supposed to turn for...
5. A Good Plan against The Faeries Plan
Even if you have plenty of threats non-dead removal and disruption to throw at Five-Color enough creature kill to manage Kithkin and a good solid anti-red strategy there's still one last monkey wrench to throw in the works. What do you do against Bitterblossom Mistbind Clique Spellstutter Sprite Scion of Oona and Sower of Temptation - all in the same deck? Some lists have enough trouble with Peppersmoke or Bitterblossom by themselves let alone the whole PTQ-dominating nine yards that is Faeries.
Prior to the Justice version of Five-Color Control we had a bizarre metagame where attacking Faeries and Kithkin satisfied a good chunk of what you needed to do to succeed. Now we have some actual "poles" - Figure of Destiny at one end of the spectrum (paired with Cloudgoat Ranger or Flame Javelin) Runed Halo at the other and Bitterblossom somewhere in between. You have to deal with all of these.
I called Five-Color the "Big Bad Wolf" in my previous article as it is a new deck with frighteningly few bad matchups. I've been unequivocally displeased with Counter Elves's matchup against it but I've heard it has trouble with Merfolk and certain Fulminator-based Elementals builds. Until someone finds some breakout technology it will probably be about even with the mirror give or take playskill.
So how do you deal with it? One option is to ignore it and hope you won't get paired against it - might work out in the Swiss but it seems foolish to assume that in these last few weeks good players who are desperate for a qualification will not adopt the control deck featuring plenty of lands and excellent matchups - or you can play it and try to figure out some sort of edge for the mirror… or you can try to beat it.
I played some games with the Merfolk list from the Denver Top 8 against Five-Color to see what all the fuss was about and was frankly unimpressed. Rather than presenting Five-Color Control with something fundamentally difficult to overcome Merfolk capitalizes on Five-Color Control's subpar draws to steal enough victories here and there that the scales can tip.
Cantrip or no a 2/1 is not difficult for Five-Color Control to handle. Reejerey Banneret and Inversion are all incredibly "meh" in the face of a simple Kitchen Finks. With so much going on in the main phase it's often tough to defend against Firespout except when Banneret and Sage's Dousing are involved. The games Merfolk wins come from very specific situations - "I have Banneret and Sage's Dousing when he has Firespout" or "I have Reejerey and Sygg to blunt his Kitchen Finks" or "he has no early plays whatsoever I resolve some dudes and then untap with countermagic in hand" - but when so many of these specific situations are assembled it actually manages to swing a substantial number of victories whenever Five-Color Control is off its game in the right way.
Punishing stumbles like this has been the trick of Red Deck Wins for ages but a big part of that has always been the Red deck's consistency. As a deck that requires a lot of elements to come together - not just because of its several colors but also because it plays cards that rely on synergy to be competitive - Merfolk has ways to stumble of its own which makes me wary of its chances once Five-Color Control players start testing the matchup and finding ways to dodge the situations that get it in trouble.
So where do we turn? I have some ideas but they are little more than that at this point. Here's a take on Counter Elves which eschews Wren's Run Vanquisher (I know it kills me too) in favor of more cards that matter against Five-Color Control.
- 4 Chameleon Colossus
- 4 Scarblade Elite
- 2 Sower of Temptation
- 3 Treefolk Harbinger
- 1 Wickerbough Elder
- 3 Doran, the Siege Tower
- 1 Oona, Queen of the Fae
- 2 Sygg, River Guide
Sygg is not as potent here as he is in Merfolk but a Grizzly Bear that can launch himself fearlessly into Kitchen Finks or any other two-toughness blocker while making Chameleon Colossus unblockable seems to have enough talking points to justify starting him. In this build the weakest cards against Five-Color Control are Nameless Inversion Scarblade Elite Sower of Temptation and the one slow Oona - eleven cards in total. That's better than the previous build's fifteen but admittedly unlikely to swing the matchup back in my favor.
Here's another approach.
- 3 Chameleon Colossus
- 3 Cloudthresher
- 4 Flamekin Harbinger
- 4 Fulminator Mage
- 4 Mulldrifter
- 4 Reveillark
- 2 Shriekmaw
- 1 Smokebraider
- 1 Wispmare
- 1 Horde of Notions
This build drops the Smokebraider count to 1 (making it still tutorable when an opening hand demands it) to make room for Thoughtseize while making the deck less vulnerable to Peppersmoke. Thanks to the Flamekin Harbinger tutoring package it has several answers to Demigod and (potentially) ample removal for Kithkin. It also has Thoughtseize and Wispmare for Bitterblossom though unfortunately Thoughtseize will often be uncastable on turn 1. It only has four cards (2 Nameless Inversion and 2 Shriekmaw) that are poor against Five-Color Control and encapsulates the deadly triumverate of Fulminator Mage Flamekin Harbinger and Reveillark plus Mulldrifters to find them. It has maindeck Cloudthresher against Faeries and ways to tutor it up which should translate to at least a reasonable Fae matchup.
In theory this list has all the tools to address the format's biggest challenges though whether the parts are cohesive enough to actually win consistently is another question entirely. (I'd be loathe to PTQ with it in its current state regardless due to my desire to stick with "tricky" decks this season but I know that not everyone is on a similar mission.)
Sadly these ideas are both untested and fairly late to the party. The format's winding down and the highest-EV choice for players that can run it may simply be to jump on the PChapin/GerryT bandwagon and pick up some Runed Halos. (The good news is Eventide actually did shake up the format! Hooray!)
However late to the party they may be though surprising a PTQ with something no one has tested against is just as valuable at the end of a season as it is in the beginning. Even if you don't try out one of the above two lists think about the principles I've talked about (and add to them if you observe trends in the format that I didn't mention) and see if you can come up with something to crack this nut at the eleventh hour. If you do it will certainly be worth your while!
See you next week.