Constructed Criticism - Cutting Teeth on the Esper Stoneblade
Alara Block Constructed is a relevant format for Magic Online, and I've been playing a lot of it since Pro Tour: Cascade... erm, Honolulu. After last month's debacle playing a "solid" looking Jund deck, I really needed a good idea to lift my spirits. Two people made Top 8 bashing with robots, and I really liked the look of the deck. After winning a few 8-mans, I knew I had found my new deck, and it was strong.
I decided to battle with it in an online Daily Event containing approximately 50 people with spectacular results. After taking down the tournament I had learned a few things, mostly about the sideboard and how awful it was. Here is my new "Esper Stoneblade" list for Alara Block Constructed (based on Paul Rietzl's list from the Top 8 of the Pro Tour).
As far as the deck goes, I didn't change much, as I think Paul had a few things right that Brian Kibler did not. For starters, I am not a fan of Esperzoa. While he has some good synergy with Glaze Fiend, he is pretty poor when paired up against a lot of removal, especially early removal targeting your Borderposts. Your opponent can easily catch you with your pants down in a tempo race by blowing up your Borderposts via Vithian Renegades and Maelstrom Pulse (or various other Disenchant effects) and force you to return two drops to your hand to keep the Esperzoa in play. This can make for some pretty sticky situations, as well as hurting your curve on a general scale. This deck is very aggressive, and needs to play a lot of threats very early to take advantage of a format where over 1/2 the lands in the opponent's deck are going to come into play tapped. Playing the maximum number of Court Homunculus is also another reason why I mirrored my deck after Rietzl's. Being as aggressive as possible in this format is definitely the right direction, where Kibler played a lot of 2-ofs that were often not as impactful and less synergistic with the rest of the deck.
One interaction that most people don't think about (if you haven't played with or against this deck) is that between Thopter Foundry and Glaze Fiend. At first glance, this interaction may seem weak, but believe me when I say that I have often killed my opponent on turn 5 with a Glaze Fiend and a few Borderposts, as well as a few other creatures attacking. This interaction is vulnerable to removal, but the threat of killing this early in such a slow format is not something to scoff at. You can also force your opponent to remove the Glaze Fiend early, less they take 4-10 damage from it just for playing spells (or Borderposts, which I consider to be lands). Experience would tell us from limited play that Glaze Fiend is not good enough for constructed play, but this information that we've gained is flawed. This format is a healthy environment for the 0/1 beater, with only a few spot removal spells and slow-to-react decks.
Playing 4 of most of the spells makes me like the deck even more. Doing this ensures redundancy with your draws, and having the 1-2-3 drop draw is usually lights out for control decks that get rolling on turn 3 or 4. This is especially true if your draw includes Thopter Foundry, Tidehollow Sculler, or Ethersworn Canonist to blank any of their potential comeback spells. Thopter Foundry works very well in conjunction with Tidehollow Sculler by sacrificing it with its ability on the stack, permanently removing the opposing card from the game and still having a 1/1 flier afterwards. The life gained from Thopter Foundry is not irrelevant either. Most of the time it will allow you to race very effectively, blocking an opposing creature with a 2/2 and sacrificing it mid-combat, gaining life and gaining another attacker in the process. The deck is resilient to a lot of spot-removal, but the one problem is that it lacks a way to effectively come back from a huge blowout spells like Infest or Martial Coup.
Master of Etherium and Elspeth, Knight-Errant are your later game cards that allow you to battle on a competitive level after turn 4. You can usually overwhelm your opponent before then, but you can put the nail in the coffin after just a few swings backed by either of these monstrous spells. Master of Etherium in combination with Thopter Foundry is something a lot of decks can't handle. Often Master of Etherium will resolve after they have played a few removal spells, leaving them helpless as you beat them with 2/2 fliers, all while keeping the ability to blank all of their removal with Thopter Foundry. The synergy of this deck is unmatched by any other in the format, and these interactions create huge problems for anyone unprepared to deal with this kind of aggression. Even decks with fool-proof plans are hindered by a timely Tidehollow Sculler, or Ethersworn Canonist if they are relying too hard on Cascade to save them (much like Zac Hill's deck from the PT).
Alara Block Constructed is a fun format with multiple archetypes relying on similar strategies. Esper is far and away the most unique archetype in the format, straying completely away from Cascade. The deck is built to fight a plethora of removal while still having gas to deal 20 damage. All other strategies fail in this goal, because all other strategies lack Thopter Foundry. It is the backbone of the deck, and by far the most important card for beating the cascade decks in the format. If you can't combat on their card advantage level, then you will lose in swift fashion. You have tools set up to fight them until you can get Foundry active, but Outlanders and Canonists will only get you so far against a removal-heavy deck. On to the matchups!
Jund based Control
These strategies rely on cascade to be effective, usually splashing for Enlisted Wurm or Uril the Miststalker. Your best weapons are Thopter Foundry, Elspeth, and Vedalken Outlander in game 1. You should have plenty of pressure with your other early drops to force them into taking turn after turn to cast Terminate and Maelstrom Pulse to stifle the damage. Your Outlanders are invaluable, dying only to Maelstrom Pulse and blocking virtually any creature they play. Most controlling strategies don't play Putrid Leech because he is not great in a field full of removal, so you will more than likely not have to face that monstrosity. Otherwise, he's going to be a real annoyance. If you resolve Thopter Foundry, you'll basically blank all of their removal and be able to fly over their Sprouting Thrinaxes and Bloodbraid Elves, all why being able to race thanks to gaining the life from Foundry. Your sideboard should probably be like this:
I don't like siding in Path to Exile in this matchup, because ramping them into their Bituminous Blasts, Enlisted Wurms, or Broodmate Dragons is pretty horrible. With this sideboard, you eliminate the weaker creatures in your deck and replace them with Gargoyles to fight a war of attrition. This matchup is all about your ability to overcome their removal, and Gargoyle is amazing at bringing back your Thopter Foundries or Masters of Etherium.
Esper Mirror Match
The mirror centers around a few cards in game 1: Tidehollow Sculler, Thopter Foundry, and Master of Etherium. These are the most important cards in the matchup, and the person who draws the most Masters of Etherium or Tidehollow Scullers is usually the winner, aside from massive flooding or horrible draws. Master of Etherium is mostly important because he pumps your tokens from Thopter Foundry, and can make combat difficult for the opponent if they don't have one of their own. If you have Master of Etherium and Thopter Foundry, you basically have the match won if your opponent only has one of those cards. Thankfully you play four of all these cards, so you should draw them quite often. I would sideboard like this:
The mirror is a lot about tempo, and if you can swarm your opponent early and use Path to Exile for their Scullers or Master of Etherium, you will generally have a huge advantage. I would not recommend siding in Gargoyles because they are very slow, and the removal you play removes creatures from the game, as opposed to putting them in the graveyard. Vedalken Outlander and Ethersworn Canonist are virtually the same card, but Canonist is slightly easier to cast so he gets the nod over the Outlander when sideboarding. As of now, I don't play against the mirror too much, so I wouldn't expect to need a lot of hate for the mirror. I saw one guy playing Dispeller's Capsule and Sanctum Gargoyle, and that was pretty cute, but I don't think that limited combo is good enough for constructed. It is ridiculously slow, and your deck is designed to fight through spot removal.
GW Japanese Beatdown/Bant
This deck is quickly evolving into a touch matchup for you to win. They have gigantic bombs like Battlegrace Angel and Thornling, which are impossible to deal with in game 1. You can stifle the life-gain from the Angel by using Thopter Foundry and racing, but it is going to be very difficult to win otherwise. Your only option is swarming and hope they have a slow draw in game 1. However, if you stick a Foundry and/or Master of Etherium, your chances of racing increase immensely. They also usually have maindeck Qasali Pridemage, which can be a real nuisance. However, usually they will use him to kill a Foundry when you are tapped out instead of mid-combat after blocking. This tempo boost should be enough for you to push through, even though you lose one of your better cards in the process.
-4 Vedalken Outlander, +4 Path to Exile
This matchup is similar to the mirror match in how it plays out. You each have very important cards and drawing these ultimately decide the winner. If they draw Behemoth Sledge or Battlegrace Angel, it will be difficult to race without you drawing Path to Exile. If you get the nut aggro draw, there shouldn't be too much they can do outside of a very early Martial Coup, but usually they don't play very many of those. Even then you can use Thopter Foundry post-Coup by sacrificing your Borderposts or the Foundry itself and try to race their 5 tokens. Tidehollow Sculler is absolutely amazing against them, as their only removal against you is usually Path to Exile. You should be in fine shape with a little disruption and a removal spell.
Five-Color Cascade Control
This matchup is almost a bye, since they don't play spells until turn 3. You have a huge tempo advantage as long as you don't keep a crazy slow start. Their Walls of Denial can force you to overextend into a Caldera Hellion, but they only play two so it should be much of a problem. They also don't play that many removal spells, relying too hard on Maelstrom Pulse, so Tidehollow Sculler and Ethersworn Canonist are simply amazing against them. If you can stick a Thopter Foundry then they are basically cold.
-4 Glaze Fiend, +4 Countersquall
Glaze Fiend comes out here because he is fairly awkward against Walls of Denial, as well as forcing you to overextend into their Infests or Jund Charms. If you play correctly, you should be able to play out a few guys and sit on Countersquall for their most relevant answer to your threats. They can't handle your tempo and rarely get to the point where Cruel Ultimatum even saves them. Most of the time they just get blown out by Sculler, Foundry, Canonist, or Countersquall. A lot of things have to go wrong for you to lose in this matchup.
This matchup is strange, and usually revolves around what they draw. If they are playing the same version as Conley Woods, then they will tend to be overrun by your threats. However, most 5-color aggro decks have grown to incorporate Maelstrom Pulse and be more of a Jund-base. If this is the case, then you probably don't have to worry about Rhox War Monk. That is a pretty huge relief. The problem with analyzing this matchup is that the builder can go a variety of ways on their creature and mana base. The Rhox War Monk version is tough to race because of the life gain, but you can occasionally put a stop to it via Thopter Foundry. This matchup is purely a race, so try to rely on Master of Etherium and Esper Stormblade in game 1 to take it down.
+4 Path to Exile, +2 Celestial Purge, -4 Court Homunculus, -2 Glaze Fiend
After boarding you have 6 removal spells that take out most of their best threats. Broodmate Dragon will always be a problem, but they don't normally play enough lands to get him into play in a timely fashion. Homunculus will never be a match for any of their threats and has no utility against any of their cards, so he comes out in favor of more removal. Glaze Fiend flies but you will likely be running out of gas since you have to side out 4+ artifacts in favor of removal spells. Glaze Fiend is strong sometimes, but drawing 2-4 of them and not enough artifacts to make them worthwhile can be rather awkward sometimes. He also makes you vulnerable to Jund Charm, Volcanic Fallout, or Infest by overextending, and they can play any of those three spells to crush you.
The Naya matchup plays out pretty close to the GW matchup, but with them having a few more removal spells but worse mana. If they stumble at all in the first few turns manawise, then you'll likely destroy them in short order. Your curve is insane, and they don't have any creature comparable to Master of Etherium on power level. Your fliers should put them away in no time if left unchecked.
+4 Path to Exile. I'm not entirely sure what to side out, but it is usually a combination of Shieldmage, Glaze Fiend, and Court Homunculus depending on if you are playing or drawing, and also depending on if they have a lot of removal spells for Glaze Fiend or not. If they play cards like Magma Spray or Celestial Purge, then I generally cut the Glaze Fiend to give them less relevant targets early on. If you have suggestions on which cards to cut, please sound off in the forums.
Again, this matchup is all about tempo, so try to control it by making efficient attacks and blocks, and using your removal or Thopter Foundry effectively.
Alara Block Constructed is a MTGO-only format for the rest of its short life, but it is still a great format if you are trying to actually have fun playing Magic. If you play a lot of Magic Online, I would highly recommend this deck, as it has already won me upwards of 50 packs and 20+ Qualifier points in the last few days. With the MOL Birthday Celebration, they are giving away 3 QPs to the winner of any 8-man Constructed event for Alara Block, and that is a great way to qualify for the Season III Championships in quick fashion if you are not already qualified. The deck is ridiculously efficient (not to mention very cheap!), and a great break from the Cascade variants that you will surely face over and over again. It just proves that innovation in a "dead format" is all we needed from the game's top pros in Hawaii. Thanks for giving us some great ideas to play with! Oh, and congratulations on winning thousands of dollars. I hear that's nice too.
strong sad on MOL