Returning from Pro Tour Honolulu, I don’t have much to say about my performance (nonstellar), or the particular games of Magic I was involved in. But I think there’s something to be gained from examining Alara Block Constructed as a whole, for what lessons it might teach about Magic in general.
Wet and Dry
The first concept that got me into this mode of thought was that of ‘wetness’. A card is wet when it’s flexible- not just when its cast, but also while it’s in your hand. Obelisk of Alara, for example, is quite flexible in that once it comes into play it’s got a host of useful abilities. But in the often decisive early turns of the game, it’s pretty useless sitting in your hand. And even at six mana it can be premature because of a need to more dramatically influence the board (so you don’t die to a creature rush), or take some measure to protect it (to prevent it from being Countersqualled, or Vithian Renegaded). This is not to say that there isn’t a deck to play Obelisk of Alara, or a turn worth casting it. I just mean to illustrate the sense in which it is quite rigid.
Conversely, a card like Brainstorm is not flexible in the classic sense. On the surface, it always does the same thing: draw three cards, put two from your hand back on top. But Brainstorm is the epitome of wet. It can be used to protect your best card from a discard spell, it can draw you three new cards while you use something to reshuffle a couple of weaker ones into your deck. It can smooth an early draw, or it can be held until a an important turn so that you can dig three cards deeper and have the best chance at finding a crucial spell.
In a format full of worthwhile targets, a card like Maelstrom Pulse might be considered wet- though in Block Constructed I wouldn’t go that far. Cruel Ultimatum, on the other hand, is classically dry- powerful, but only at a certain part of the game. Savannah Lions is similar- excellent in the early turns, but quite rigid and narrow as the game progresses. Incinerate is an interesting case in that it appears to be dry- with only the ability to do 3 damage. But a look deeper shows why aggressive Red decks are so resilient- their removal spells (like Incinerate) can prolong a board advantage in the early game, then be aimed at the opponent once pushing creature damage through has become unrealistic. Incinerate is, in an aggressive deck, quite flexible and wet. The variety and application of burn spells are why aggressive red decks can be so frustrating to play against- at all times they leave you wary of both the welfare of your creatures, and the safety of our life total.
I’m not saying this just because there wasn’t a Red burn deck to play, but Alara Block Constructed was one of the drier formats I’ve played. If you look through the decklists, most of the cards are either aggressive creatures, or creature removal spells (classically one dimensional, and therefore dry cards). Traumatic Visions was a pleasant exception, but some of the mainstays of midrange and control strategies were completely absent- cards like Cryptic Command, Sleight of Hand, Counterspell, and Compulsive Research. What these cards do is give you functional early plays (ways to improve your position in the early turns), while not being weak or inapplicable in the wrong matchup (Terminate when they have no targets) or part of the game (Force Spike when the opponent has plenty of mana). Wetness is why Blue decks are often happy to play Mana Leak over Terminate; unless the format is very creature heavy, Mana Leak’s got more applications. It’s also why Compulsive Research is often a better choice than Tidings: though less powerful when cast, it can turn an otherwise disorganized early-game around, while still pulling its weight when drawn in the late-game.
In addition to dryness, another noteworthy aspect of Alara Block Constructed is that two of the best cards in the format (Bloodbraid Elf and Bituminous Blast), and another handful of quite viable ones (Enlisted Wurm, Captured Sunlight, Kathari Remnant, and Ardent Plea) had Cascade. Apart from the deck constrictions of playing with Cascade, it had the odd effect of making permanents worse. Why?
Suppose your opponent is playing Jund with Bloodbraid Elf and Bituminous Blast, and maybe Enlisted Wurm or even Captured Sunlight. A few times a game he’s going to be flipping a spell from his deck which will go to waste unless he casts it that turn. Some of those spells will be Sprouting Thrinax or Blightning, which will probably be applicable regardless of what you have in play. But what if he flips a Terminate or a Maelstrom Pulse? You will be much happier if you haven’t got a juicy target sitting on your side.
This, combined with the fact that the Alara Block removal was quite potent (though, as we saw in terms of wetness, nearly useless for anything else), meant that having targets for Terminate, Magma Spray, Bituminous Blast, Celestial Purge, Path to Exile, and Maelstrom Pulse was quite unappealing.
So with strong removal, plus Cascade, you get a format where people really don’t want to commit cards to the board to begin with. You see this in the conspicuous rarity of the extremely powerful Planeswalkers, and some of the more undercosted and hard hitting creatures- like Spellbreaker Behemoth and Wooly Thoctar. Even seemingly excellent early plays like Trace of Abundance were abandoned because people didn’t want targets for opposing removal (Maelstrom Pulse and Celestial Purge), and so that Cascade spells wouldn’t leave them with only a mana spell to play.
Thus, the backbone of the format was Jund Control, replete with creatures that can’t be killed in one shot (Sprouting Thrinax, and Broodmate Dragon), devastating removal, Cascades, and lots of slow mana to support three or four colors and work up to the all important 5 and 6 mana spells. All of this without the benefit of card draw or ‘wet’lands that might be used for something other than mana- like Treetop Village, Wasteland or Riptide Laboratory.
Making matters worse was the fact that there was little in the way of wet early plays for control decks (even the Blue ones). If you were looking to control, you pretty much either played a wall or a removal spell in the early turns (with the exception of Landcycling Traumatic Visions). Some decks sunk to playing the sluggish Courier’s Capsule. Others resorted to the color intensive Esper Charm (despite the fact that almost no one had enchantments to target, and the discard function was often useless because your opponents had dead removal spells). And these were reasonable in a format where Counsel of Soratami would’ve seen an embarrassing amount of play.
So you had lots of control decks- but they weren’t classical control decks. They were really just ‘creature removal decks’, which were simply rounded out (for lack of better options), with the most removal resistant creatures (cheap ones like Putrid Leech, recurring ones like Sprouting Thrinax, and comes-into-play-bonus creatures like Bloodbraid Elf and Broodmate Dragon). Other than playing creatures, and killing the other guy’s, all these decks could really do was Blightning each other. And since most of the other options in the format were creatures, anyone deviating, and subsequently playing more permanents, was at a disadvantage. It would only mean more targets for opposing removal decks.
What’s interesting about Pro Magic versus amateur Magic is how professionals always seem to adapt. Where Modo Queues and PTQs can remain stagnant for a long time with few players profitably stepping out of the norm, pros tend to press harder at challenging the established wisdom, and finding a way to take advantage of surprising the opponent. Where the Magic Online Premiere before the Pro Tour featured seven of eight Jund decks in the top 8, I was pretty sure the Pro Tour would disappoint any expectations of an all-Jund metagame.
There were three principle ways people did this:
One was to play nothing at all to remove- the plan of 5 Color Control. Instead, these decks played untargetable creatures (Uril, and Wall of Denial), removal of their own (similar to Jund), and spells like Esper Charm, Traumatic Visions, and Cruel Ultimatum to stock up on answers. We found this strategy to be overly reliant on land search, and come into play tapped lands. We also found it unable to keep up with Jund once there were Anathemancers to Cascade into.
Another track was to be aggressive with creatures that the removal couldn’t hit (Valeron and Vedalken Outlander, Uril, Thornling, and Deft Duelist). Several players tried strategies relying on these creatures in White/Blue and White/Green based aggressive decks. We found them to be ultimately inconsistent and insufficient to beat Jund- their cards simply weren’t powerful enough.
Last was to simply make small investments in lots of creatures, such that the pinpoint removal would be too expensive to keep up (especially given all of the slow lands in the control decks). It would also mean that Blightning, a very common card in these matchups of Black/Red/Green control decks, was too slow. This is ultimately the route we opted for, in the form of Esper creatures.
But before talking about creatures, it is worth noting a common oscillation concerning removal. In the beginning, if the removal spells are good (trade profitably with the usual creatures, whether through being cheaper, or generating an added benefit- like a cascade), people will play them. If people are playing lots of good removal, others will only play creatures that are inexpensive, or resilient to them. Where that left Alara Block Constructed was with Jund control decks dominating.
Jund Aggro could’ve been good enough to beat the removal decks (it certainly had resilient, inexpensive creatures), but suffered in a few ways. First, it needed three colors to play all its best cards: Bloodbraid Elf, Blightning, Sprouting Thrinax, and Putrid Leech. Three colors is fine for a control deck which expects to only play some of its spells in the early game, and take control later. But for an aggressive deck which hopes to cash in all of its cards before the opponent can make use of his more expensive spells, three colors of mana to juggle is a serious detriment. Second, where classic Sligh could go to the face with its removal spells, Jund aggro had only permanent-specific (dry) spells. Terminate and Maelstrom Pulse were crucial for dealing with larger creatures and keeping the creature assault going- but did not have the added benefit of being burn spells once the board became hopeless. This detriment was exacerbated by the fact that the control decks were increasingly running creatures that were resistant to being removed.
Along with getting mushed by Jund Control, Jund Aggro played an interesting role as gatekeeper. With lots of people playing it on Modo (it’s an easy deck to understand, build and play), it became very difficult to win with other aggressive strategies. You were facing a deck with hard hitting, efficient creatures, and excellent removal- a natural bad matchup for decks like Green-White Aggro, and Esper Aggro. Jund Aggro also got to include some of the most powerful cards in the format (some of the same cards Jund Control rode to the top), like Bloodbraid Elf and Blightning (and sometimes Bituminous Blast)- whereas the other aggressors’ Noble Hierarch and Glazed Fiend didn’t quite measure up.
But two things happened to shift the balance of power in the world of aggressive decks. One, the White based aggressive decks began to run creatures that were specifically good against Jund Control, and happened to also be good against Jund Aggro- Vedalken Outlander, Dauntless Escort, Valeron Outlander, and Ethersworn Canonist. This meant they at least stood a chance in the case of meeting Jund Aggro. Second, and more importantly as the format adjusted to itself, these new aggressive decks eschewed removal. Instead of grinding through Sprouting Thrinaxes, they went for an all out (often evasive) assault, wasting no slots on the [card]Maelstrom Pulse[/card]s and Terminates Jund Control was metagamed to withstand.
With the control decks caught somewhat by surprise, aggressive decks were poised to take advantage of their slow mana, and noncommittal setup.
Here’s what we decided to play:
Brian Kibler 5th place
Pro Tour-Honolulu 2009, Shards of Alara Block Constructed
That’s right, forty three nonland permanents. In addition to taking advantage of our slower opponents, we included some problematic cards they weren’t ready for. Ethersworn Canonist is quite annoying for anyone relying on Cascade, Thopter Foundry is devastating against decks that try to grind us out with removal, and our unusual quantity of flying creatures meant that usually sturdy blockers like Putrid Leech, Sprouting Thrinax, Uril, and Enlisted Wurm were inadequate. You can read the coverage and podcasts for more details on the deck- although its aims are pretty straightforward: hit hard!
What’s most interesting about the deck is that when I built a similar version weeks before the tournament, it seemed unviable. Opponents were still sideboarding lots of artifact hate, and had only just started to react to the power of Terminate and Maelstrom Pulse- not to mention Jund Charm, Caldera Hellion, and Infest. Removal still dominated, and people were still being rewarded for playing board sweepers and full sets of Terminates and Maelstrom Pulses. The metagame hadn’t adjusted yet.
But by the time I arrived in Hawaii, things had shifted. When I talked to Jelger Wiegersma and Neil Reeves (proponents of the deck), and tested our decks against it, I realized that such a departure from the norm was a very reasonable answer to the controllish metagame we were looking at. Brian David Marshall commented that “Esper seems hard to play in a format full of spot removal”- which is somewhat apt in how illustrative it is of the (flawed) conventional wisdom. Spot removal is good for killing a single creature- not for dealing with them en masse. Esper aggro made them quick, resilient, and without wasting resources on other angles of the game. It added Thopter Foundry, a card which is unbelievable in a format full of removal, but with a lack of flyers to hold off an army of 1/1s. That we had to play three colors was somewhat offset by the power of Borderposts in an artifact deck: although it certainly took a toll in forcing lots of mulligans.
There is more to read and talk about concerning Alara Block Constructed, and Esper decks in particular. I’m sure Brian Kibler will write a report, and other resources are already available. More than anything, I hope this analysis of the metagame demonstrates a little bit of the thinking that can go into choosing a deck for your next tournament. Later.