The Pro Tour has come and gone and with it, another top 8, and growing fame for the 8 individuals who stood atop the hill on Sunday. As cool as it was to see a deck with 16 miracles top deck its way through the top though, that exact deck serves as a sort of beacon for what the format actually was. Today, I would like to discuss the environment that was PT Barcelona and talk about why I think something has to happen to future Block formats to avoid the trend we have seen lately.
Early on in our testing, the team was pretty happy looking at a list like RUG. It had some nice control elements with a decent clock to it, and the mana was better than other color wedges due to two different Dual lands. Very quickly, it became apparent that the removal available in the format, and specifically in RUG, could not handle some of the big hitters that we expected, like Sigarda, Host of Herons, or Wolfir Silverheart. Not wanting to play a deck that was weak to those two creatures, and quickly realizing how bad countermagic would generally be due to Cavern of Souls and the aggro decks, RUG fell by the wayside and we began to focus our efforts elsewhere.
This is when the trend of the format hit me full force. After we had discovered that control had these gaping holes that it could not really fill in what we expected to be popular cards at the tournament, our focus shifted to aggressive decks. First on the list was the much talked about Boros deck, as it seemed to have the best early game and closing speed of any deck. When the deck worked, it delivered what it promised, with stifling speed and resilience. But much too often, you opened up hands that simply could not cast your 1-drops and if it could, would encounter problems when it came time to cast Fiend Hunter. Cavern of Souls helped, but it could not make Reckless Waif into a better card than Stromkirk Noble and it could not turn Hellrider into a human, so the deck got weaker the better the mana got and vice versa.
With this knowledge, we turned to other aggressive decks. Owen tried out a 5 color humans list that seemed sweet, but the mana once again prevented you from playing the best aggressive cards in the format, like Wolfir Silverheart. Meanwhile, while most of our efforts went toward looking for an aggro deck with a good mana base, other options were being tried. Control often had a better mana base, due to less varied one-drops and options like Vessel of Endless Rest, but it had its own problems. Terminus was a card that was essential, but too slow when cast the hard way, meaning your deck really relied on an actual miracle to get off the ground. The same could be said for Bonfire of the Damned and Entreat the Angels as well. Even your general curve was very reliant on when you drew it. Your opening hand had to have some number of Pillar of Flame and not very many expensive spells, or else it was always a mulligan. Cards like Sever the Bloodline were essential for the midgame, but terrible early on when you needed to kill a Champion of the Parish. Every had and draw step felt like it needed to deliver the right thing at the right time, or the deck could not stand a chance.
The format made sense all of a sudden to me, but I didn’t like what I was discovering. Variance was at the center of the entire format. Every deck had some set of variables that needed to line up in order for that deck to work properly. Whether it was a shoddy manabase providing the right mix at the right time, a 2 card combo coming together when you needed it most, or the perfect curve of defensive spells to get you into the late game, each deck asked something from itself, and when that thing was absent, the deck failed to work in any sort of reliable sense.
It was around this time that I was doing a gatherer search and came up with the idea for a Mono Black synergy based aggro deck. I scratched down 3 versions of the deck, one that was actually Mono Black, one that splashed for Falkenrath Aristocrat and one that splashed for Diregraf Captain. While each list was slightly unique, the basic shell was as follows:
The idea was a mono colored aggro deck that could put up the sort of end game that Boros could, without stumbling on its mana base early. Blood Artist added a sort of combo element to the deck that could either make things messy in straight up creature on creature combat, or could just end the game in combination with Killing Wave or other sacrifice outlets, like Falkenrath Aristocrat.
Originally, I thought I had come up with a list that finally fell on the right side of variance. The list was mono colored, so you never had to worry about being color screwed, and your game plan was a proactive one, so drawing the right removal at the right time was not as important as in the control decks. After a dozen or so games with the deck though, the hidden variance of the deck jumped out at me:
Whenever the deck drew 6 or more lands, your chances of winning dropped dramatically, almost to a point of not being able to win at all.
The reason for this was that the list was built on the back of synergy. No one card save for Geralf’s Messenger was powerful enough to carry a game on its own. In Boros, you could top deck cards like Silverblade Paladin or Hellrider and that threat would be enough on its lonesome. A Stromkirk Noble left unchecked could also grow to some huge size, as could a Champion of the Parish, but in Zombies, a single Diregraf Ghoul or Falkenrath Noble was not going to be winning any game that you did not have a huge advantage in already. Thus, every draw step that yielded an extraneous land was essentially a dead draw, and no single top deck could make up for a string of two or three of these dead draws.
The worst part is that in order to reduce this particular set of variance, variance had to be moved to a different area. I cut the land count down to 20, and even though I ended up running 21 lands in the Pro Tour, I think 20 was probably the right number. Now variance was found more in your opening hands due to a low land count, but at least that was more controllable than late game top decks. I could mulligan if see fit, and because the deck could easily win when stuck on 2, but not when it hit 6 mana, the variance was less harsh.
This realization lead me down an entirely different path. Rather than try to find the deck without variance in it, which there really was none and that was quickly becoming evident, the goal should instead be to maximize your output when variance shines favorably on you. In other words, when the variance pendulum swings in your favor, are you doing the biggest and best thing possible. No deck could escape the variance of the block, so ignoring that and doing powerful things would ultimately prove to be the key.
Look at the Pro Tour winning deck for example. A deck with 16 miracles is the epitome of variance, but Miracles are inherently powerful, and when things when well for Alex, they went really well. Time Walks, Hallowed Burial, a million Angels. All of these things are big and powerful, so although the deck could not really know what was on top of its deck, when the right card was there at the right time, the deck was hugely advantaged.
This idea can also be seen in the UG Spirits deck. I don’t actually think the mana is as good as some people might claim, as I played against Jon Finkel in the Swiss and saw first hand that without some stringed together Forests, the deck would have actually done nothing, but again, when the deck does have the right draw, with the right mana and the right mix of enablers and pump spells, the deck is a thing of beauty. It was doing something few other decks could contain when it actually was working properly.
Throughout testing, part of the thing that was selling most of the team on GW (and I use selling quite loosely here) was that it was theoretically consistent. A 2 color deck with a lot of redundant threats seemed like it would beat all of the other inconsistent decks. The problem with that philosophy, is that the mana base ended up not being very consistent, as the team admitted, and then when variance was swinging in your favor, your plan was to play fair, dropping efficiently costed threats. It just did not embrace variance in the ways that other lists did.
My list suffered from much of the same though. The list I ended up settling on was the following:
I was pretty happy with the list once you remove the variance issue we have been talking about. I probably would have crunched the 20 versus 21 land issue a little longer had I had the time, but the team was pretty adamant about playing 21, and even though I disagreed, it was based on a couple hundred games and theory, and adding more lands is generally safer, so I made that change relatively close to the tournament. I thought this list had some good things going for it, like an explosive end game or combo draw that could kill on turn 4 or 5, coupled with a consistent color base, even if the exact number of that color was debated.
A day 1 record of 3-2, playing against two of the eventual top 8, was a bit of a let down, considering that I thought my match up against Jon Finkel was very winnable and I then lost to a GW Mentor of the Meek deck that seemed like it should also be favorable, but a Champion + Mayor nut draw in game 3 left me not knowing anything for sure. Day 2 had me in a significantly worse bracket though, playing against main deck Slayer of the Wicked and more Angel of Glory’s Rise builds.
So, while I hardly want to turn this into an article stressing the finer points of design, as I certainly trust the guys in R&D who have consistently done a great job recently, I do have some things that bug me about Block formats these days, especially if they are going to be represented at high level play in both Pro Tours and Grand Prixs.
When Block formats were reduced in size, they inherently became worse in my opinion. The number of cards available shrunk down by nearly half in some blocks, and the variety in what you can play was lost when that move was made. This leads to constructed formats that get stale very quickly and as soon as one card is proven to be slightly more powerful than others, like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Tempered Steel, or Wolfir Silverheart, the majority of the decks pounce on this technology. While the details may defer, such as what your support cards are in Tempered Steel, or whether you went R/G or W/G for your Silverheart, the format still plays out very similarly too often.
One of the contributing factors to this, aside from small set sizes, is a lack of good mana fixing. Scars of Mirrodin block was particularly bad in this department, with most 2 color decks being unplayable due to mana, and Innistrad block did not improve on that notion all that much. Evolving Wilds was a nice addition, but no allied set of dual lands really pigeonholes you into what 2 color and 3 color combinations you can get away with. Bad mana just makes you feel bad when you are building and playing decks, and it is something I would like to see improve in the future.
With Grand Prix Anaheim just around the corner and also being block, it will be interesting to see if the masses can take the info from Pro Tour Avacyn Restored and develop something that pushes past the variance. I am doubtful, but hopeful at the same time. This weekend is my first taste of new Standard and I have no idea what I will be playing. If you are in Minneapolis though, stop by and say hi and I inevitably scramble around last minute looking for cards! Thanks for reading!