Two weeks before the PT, I flew to Las Vegas to meet the rest of the ChannelFireball Team. Most of our team was planning on staying there the entire time, but some people would have to go back to work and then meet us again in Atlanta. We considered skipping the GP in Minneapolis, but enough of us needed Pro Points that we agreed we might as well just go, and hopefully it wouldn’t make testing for the PT too awkward.
By the time we left for Minneapolis, we had a pretty good idea of the format and I knew I would be very happy to play BUG. Considering that in the last two PTs I agonized over what to play until a couple hours before the tournament, that was definitely an improvement.
Our Conclusions About Block
• The mana was not good. Most of the powerful cards were spread across multiple colors and all of them had double mana costs, and Temples plus Mana Confluence weren’t enough to make a two-color aggro deck have consistent mana. Three-color decks without green (e.g. Esper) were unplayable—the amount of games you lost because you couldn’t cast Elspeth even though you had nine lands in play was astonishing and I didn’t want to put myself in this position.
• Because playing green is mandatory in a three-color deck, aggro decks as a whole suffered from everyone playing Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix. Caryatid was virtually immortal and there weren’t any cards in aggro that effectively dealt with Courser. Aggro decks were put in a conundrum where if they tried to swarm the board, they’d run into the combination of Courser + Caryatid + Drown in Sorrow, and if they tried to go big, they’d run into Silence the Believers. If my opening hand against any aggro deck contained a Drown in Sorrow and a Silence the Believers, I’d find it very very hard to lose.
• As a result of that, the best aggro deck, in our mind, was UW. It was the only one with the ability to jump through green blockers (as well as other big blockers, like Doomwake Giant and Elspeth tokens) and the ability to protect its big guy from Hero’s Downfall or Silence the Believers. In my mind, it was the only viable aggro archetype for the tournament. UW as a whole did not do well, so perhaps it wasn’t as viable as we thought.
• Because we thought UW would be the most popular (and best) aggro deck, we didn’t want to play the various constellation decks, because that matchup felt pretty hard if they had a decent draw. You were slow, couldn’t block, and didn’t have enough removal/discard to overpower a draw with Gods Willing, Ajani’s Presence, or Swan Song.
• Playing a lot of Temples did not hurt you as much as it would in a normal format. When aggro decks have to go big, it’s much easier to recoup the tempo loss. Imagine a scenario where your opponent plays creatures from turns 1-3 and you play tap lands—in this case, if you remove one creature per turn, you will die to the other two. In this format, however, people will play a creature and make it bigger, which means that you will take damage but that you can stabilize the board with only one removal spell. In this regard, Silence the Believers is your Supreme Verdict, because it deals with everything they have played up to that point, letting you catch back on tempo after you’ve lost it because of the temples.
• Most of the aggressive decks had horrendous sideboards. Looking at MTGO lists, you’d see mono-red decks with four Reckless Revelers and multiple Bolt of Keranos in their boards. You’d see white aggro decks playing six enchantment removal spells, even though they never really want to board in that many. Any black aggro deck would have to play four Dark Betrayals, because they just don’t have anything else to play. Control decks, on the other hand, would have the best removal spells available for each deck they were facing, as much enchantment removal as you wanted, and the ability to skew more controlling or more proactive against other control decks, depending on what you thought was good. That was a big draw to control for me.
• It was impossible to play a control deck with red. Anger of the Gods is extremely good, but it’s the only Red card in the entire format that does not lend itself to an aggressive strategy.
• Prognostic Sphinx was the best creature finisher in the format and it wasn’t particularly close. In a format where black removal was the best and most common, it was the only thing that actually survived. It was also the perfect size for killing planeswalkers, including Elspeth. There was nothing available in any other color that did what Prognostic Sphinx did, and it was most of the reason we were playing blue in our decks.
• There were no super late-game trumps in the format. If you wanted to win the late game, you had to rely on getting gradual advantage through multiple 2-for-1s. This was a big part of the reason we played BUG.
• Ashiok was very good. Most of the decks we tried couldn’t beat their own cards—BUG with Sphinx and Reaper, Naya with Stormbreath Dragon, Reanimator with Ashen Rider, and so on. The value of Ashiok also increased significantly because of scry and Courser. When they scryed something to the top and you played Ashiok, it was significantly better than taking a random card because you also took away from them something they wanted. Conveniently it removes three cards, which is as many as Sphinx scries, effectively nullifying that part of the ability. With Courser, you had the ability to know when you had to Ashiok them and when you didn’t.
Armed with those thoughts, this was the list most of us played (some people differed a couple cards in the sideboard):
This deck is basically an amalgamation of most of the good cards that you can play in the format. Before the tournament, a coverage reporter asked me what I thought the 10 most powerful cards in the format were, and I started listing them: “Caryatid, Courser, Sphinx, Ashiok, Silence the Believers, Hero’s Downfall…” up to a point where I realized I was actually just giving him my deck list.
Even though this deck is a “pile of good cards,” it has more synergy than you’d think. BUG is a control deck, but it’s not a control deck in the traditional sense. It wants the game to go late, but it doesn’t have any super late game trumps, so it has to start working early if it wants to be successful late.
We’ve lived with Sphinx’s Revelation for so long that we’ve already internalized that surviving is your only priority in a control deck and that if you do, you’ll eventually win the game. This is not true for BUG because there is no card like Sphinx’s Revelation in Block. Instead, BUG gets ahead in the game due to gradual card-advantage in the form of Courser of Kruphix, Ashiok, Kiora, Sphinxes, Silence the Believers, and Temples.
By themselves, those cards would not guarantee a good late game, but when you add every one of them together, each giving you a small advantage over your opponent every time you play them or use one of their abilities, you end up with a lot more resources to work with than they do. This is the key to winning with the BUG deck—get your permanents in play as soon as possible and use them as much as you can. Don’t focus on the late game, focus on the early-to-middle game and gradually press your advantage until it becomes insurmountable.
You can mix and match the removal depending on what you expect the metagame to be. We thought Silence was the best, but somewhat clunky, so the fourth went to the board. Bile Blight was the worst against the field we expected, but it was a necessity against aggressive decks, and still fine as a 2-of to combat Elspeth and Xenagos. Unravel was a good card to have, it was a Vindicate against certain decks while dealing with threats that were otherwise hard to remove, like Whip or Erebos or a God. The shuffle effect was also a bonus rather than a bad thing, because you could somewhat control their draws if they had a Courser or had scryed something to the top. Hero’s Downfall was the most versatile and the one that would be dead the least amount of the time, so we played four of those. The other ChannelFireball team maindecked many Drown in Sorrows, which we had for a while but cut because we thought the super aggressive decks would not be as popular. This is, again, entirely a function of what you expect the metagame to be and any configuration could be correct.
We thought Thoughtseize was best because this is a tap-out control deck that doesn’t have anything to do on turn two the great majority of the time, making 1-mana spells welcome because you can utilize them well with a double-Temple draw. Other teams didn’t like Thoughtseize as much, and the Pantheon team played zero in their main deck, which is a decision I do not agree with. Even against aggro Thoughtseize wasn’t the worst, because their cards had drastically different values (being able to take Gods Willing from a UW opponent, for example, was very important). We wanted one Dissolve to be able to dig into something in the late game with Sphinxes.
Kiora is your card advantage, and she’s very well positioned in a bestow format that does not have a lot of haste or direct burn. Ashiok is bad against some of the aggro decks, but it is so good against so many people that I think it’s insane to not play them if you have blue and black in your deck. Our Esper decks had a few Ashioks from the beginning until we realized no deck could beat them, then we just started playing three or four everywhere. In the control mirror, I consider Ashiok to be the second most important card after Sphinx.
The land count was where I feel like we could have done a bit better. The deck is not expensive at all, but the fact that you scry so much in the late game means we should probably have played a 26th land, probably another Mana Confluence. The Pantheon team played 26 lands, and some people said they liked 27. I think 27 is crazy and 26 is likely too much, but I do agree that 25 is better than 24.
The sideboard was very straightforward. We had seven removal spells, and wanted to take all of them out against control, so we needed seven cards.
The main issue we had with that matchup was that there were two completely different kinds of games: games that would be won in the early-mid with gradual card advantage, in which Coursers and Kioras and Thoughtseizes and cheap spells were very important; and Sphinx games, where both players would have Sphinxes in play and no one would be able to do anything. We tried some late game trumps (Worst Fears, Phenax) so that you would win the “Sphinx mirror,” but all those cards were so bad in the early game that we settled for just having Gainsays in most of our slots. Normally Dissolve would be better, but the deck was very short on blue mana and it was impossible to cast two blue spells in the same turn, so Gainsay got the nod. It countered all the important cards anyway.
Our one “weird” card is Erebos, which I think is actually very good. Sometimes people just Thoughtseize/counter everything else and you’re left with a window to play one card, and if that card is Erebos you just win the game. We can never animate it, but the “Greed” effect is surprisingly good when you gain life for each land you play, and it completely dominates any board that was remotely close to parity.
Some other players on our team had Mistcutter Hydras, which we thought were worse because we expected most of the control players to be on Esper and Hydra just gets embarrassed by Elspeth. Now that BUG will become the premier control deck in the format, Hydra gets better, but it also gets worse because BUG has Coursers as well, which means they can just leave in some Silence the Believers against you (and will sometimes get multiple Sphinxes with it). I’d recommend against playing Hydras and for playing one Erebos.
Against aggro, you sideboard differently depending on what they are playing. If it’s black, you don’t want Thoughtseize, Dissolve, and some number of Ashioks/Kioras (Kiora is better against the more midrange version, but worse against the one with the one-drops). If it’s a heroic-based deck with Gods Willing, you want to keep in Thoughtseize and you cut more planeswalkers (probably all Ashioks), as well as Unravels.
Against Naya, you don’t have a lot to bring in. You want Silence and Dissolve and you cut whatever you want, depending on their list. I usually cut two Kioras. The matchup is great game one and gets a lot worse game two when they take out their bad cards, but I feel like it’s overall still good and there isn’t much you can do about it anyway.
The one deck I feel we were not adequately prepared for was Junk Constellation. We had a sideboard plan of taking out Downfalls, but our Constellation builds did not have Elspeth, and the ones at the PT did. Once you have to keep in Downfalls, you end up not sideboarding much. One of my opponents had Elspeth and Fleecemane Lion, which made me want to keep in Bile Blights and Downfalls, and I ended up not sideboarding at all against him.
My overall Constructed record was 6-3, ID’ing the last round to put myself in 34th place (since I didn’t have good enough tiebreakers to make Top 25 with a win).
My draft started with a very bad UW deck, that had good heroic creatures and absolutely no way to pump them. I lost my first two rounds and salvaged a win in the last one to start 1-2.
My Constructed rounds went like this:
R4: Naya, 2-1
R5: Junk Constellation, 2-0
R6: Mono Black, 2-0
R7 Junk Constellation, 1-2
R8: BUG mirror, 1-2
The order of the rounds might not be exact, but those were the matchups. I lost to Shahar in the last round, on a decision that I still think was right but every other person on our team disagreed with. Game one he mulligans into a one-lander and quickly concedes. Game two he has a turn two Caryatid, and my hand is:
• Blue Temple
I have a BG Temple in play, so no access to blue mana right now.
My choices are Thoughtseize or Caryatid. I chose to play the Caryatid. On his turn, he played Thoughtseize taking my Ashiok, then played Courser, which revealed Erebos. I didn’t have another blue land and couldn’t Dissolve his Erebos, which won him the game by itself.
If I play the Thoughtseize instead, I would have taken his Thoughtseize. Then I would have Ashiok’d his Erebos and likely won the match. I don’t like this play, however, because I think it sets me too far behind. Even if I take the Thoughtseize, he just plays Courser, which can then attack my Ashiok. Then next turn I have to waste my entire turn playing Caryatid to block, since I’ll only have four lands—it just seems clunky to me.
The only scenario in which I think Thoughtseizing him could be right is if he has specifically Thoughtseize. I don’t care about any of his 3-drops because I have a Downfall of my own, so I’d rather take away his answers for my Ashiok. Even if he Thoughtseizes my Ashiok, it’s not very bad for me, except that he had to have Erebos exactly on top of his deck (or a Sphinx, I suppose). If that card were in his hand I’d have been able to Thoughtseize it instead, and it could easily have been the fourth card (so I could have Ashiok’d him into drawing it as opposed to removing it myself). I think the way the game broke my decision ended up losing me the match (since I lost game three as well), but I do not regret making it because I think it was the right call.
The second draft was a disaster and one of the worst decks I had ever seen. It was three-colors no good cards, including Eye Gouge, Asphodel Wanderer, two Forsaken Drifters, two Humbler of Mortals, Weight of the Underworld, Psychic Intrusion—I had trouble deciding which two colors to be, and on top of that I was seeing no good cards (because if you are willing to pick a card in any color and you settle for Forsaken Drifters, well…). I thought my tournament was over at this point, but I somehow managed to pull off a 3-0 to get right back on track, including beating a great GW deck with three Reap what is Sown—turns out Hour of Need is very good even if you only have four Islands in your deck.
After that, we went to eat during the lunch break (which I despise, by the way), and promptly got stuck in the elevator on our way back, with a couple minutes for the round to start. We pressed the “help” button which said it would redirect us to someone, but no one ever actually picked up. Luckily we had a judge with us who guaranteed we wouldn’t get game losses, and after a while the elevator simply started working again for no apparent reason.
After that, I went:
RW Aggro: 2-0
Mono-Black Aggro: 2-0
Mono-Black Midrange: 1-2 (That was a very surprising match. I felt like I was winning all three games but somehow just ended up losing to Grey Merchant. I’m sure I could have played much differently).
Moving forward, I think BUG is by far the best control deck in the format, and I really like our list, though I’d probably try to add a land. The biggest question mark to me is Chapin’s deck. It didn’t look good on paper, but he had a great record and the deck had the best win percentage in the PT, so it’s very likely better than it looks. I have not played against it, so I don’t know how you need to adapt to win that matchup.
I don’t think there’s anything that can be taken for Standard, unfortunately, because the formats are fundamentally very different (Standard has better mana for aggro decks, has black ways to gain card advantage, has late-game trumps and Supreme Verdict). After the rotation, it would still depend heavily on where we stand on mana, wraths, trumps, and cheap threats. The block format is defined by a lack of those, and I have no reason to believe this will be the same after the new core set (and in fact I hope it won’t be). I’m therefore wary of making any predictions, because if any single one of those factors is inserted into the metagame (better mana and cheap creatures for aggro decks, for example) it will look very different than Block did, so I guess we just have to wait and see.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this,
See you next week!