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Rogue Report – The Yin and Yang of Zen

 

I’ve decided I’m at the point in my life where I want to start playing Constructed on Magic Online. Until very recently I had never played a sanctioned match of Constructed Magic Online – my rating was a solid 1600. I hear Constructed is a good way to make a profit online, but I don’t yet have the funds to enter Standard or Extended play. I thought I would start small with Zendikar Block Constructed, and it would give me a chance to stretch my deckbuilding muscles in a format that isn’t getting a lot of attention.

Format Undefined

The first place I went to check out the field was the decks of the week section on magicthegathering.com. It’s a really hard part of the website to find (kind of like every other part of the website) and finding the correct week usually involves editing URLs, but once you get where you want there’s a treasure trove of information.

I spent some time browsing through the top decks of Zendikar Block premier events, and the clear frontrunner appears to be Mono-Black Vampires. The typical lists tend to have the same creature base of:

The noncreature spells are where the decks tend to differ the most. Most have 4 Disfigure and 4 Feast of Blood, but those numbers are a lot less consistent than the creatures. Quest for the Gravelord is the next most common spell, and Mind Sludge always lives somewhere between the maindeck and the sideboard. Then there are cameos ranging from Blade of the Bloodchief, Marsh Casualties, Sorin Markov, and even Blazing Torch. The manabase is generally 24 swamps, but some get fancy with sac lands and Grim Discovery. I’ll give more of my thoughts on the Vampire deck in a bit.

The Yin to the vampire’s Yang appears to be UW. The lists generally share:

Devout Lightcaster is sometimes in the sideboard, but is often maindeck. Rite of Replication is anywhere between a 2- and 4- of.

Then you get a mix of just about what you would expect with Conqueror’s Pledge, Emeria Angel, Sphinx of Jwar Isle, Spell Pierce, Ior Ruin Expedition, and Luminarch Ascension. Even Spreading Seas is making an appearance in winning decks, but I honestly can’t tell why. Maybe it’s good at throwing off the decks with shaky mana (which usually run Harrow though), or on the play it keeps the Vampire deck off of their two-drops, or maybe the deck just needs a card to cycle.

The Beating Heart of Zen

Zendikar has fewer than 230 cards in it. That means for deckbuilding, you can see all of the pieces relatively easily. When tweaking the Vampire deck, unless you splash another color, there are only 39 black cards and 15 artifacts to consider, along with a small handful of relevant lands. That also means that knowing your opponent’s deck is pretty easy from the get go – if they are playing red, they have 4 Burst Lightning.

This small set size is very interesting to me because it makes the “why” of the format very easy to understand. For example, Mono-Black Vampires is the defining deck of Zendikar Block. Why?

As I was building decks one of the first things I realized was that the removal in the format was limited. Red has Burst Lightning and Punishing Fire. White has Day of Judgment and Journey to Nowhere. Blue and green just straight-up can’t kill a creature. Sure there are Pitfall Traps and Inferno Traps, but now we’re getting to awkward or inefficient removal that can’t always kill what you want.

Black on the other hand, or more specifically Vampires, has access to three very solid removal spells. Not only does black kill a guy, but they kill a guy plus. “Destroy target creature. You gain 4 life.” What other color has such an efficient and straightforward spell? “Destroy target nonblack creature. Its controller loses 2 life.” Again, efficient and straightforward, except of course for the non-black requirement comes in. Black even has Disfigure and Marsh Casualties to kill hoards of little creatures.

In a way Vampire’s success is self-fulfilling. Other decks can’t afford to meet a Hideous End, so black creatures are better than nonblack. Since black creatures dominate, Hideous End moves to the sideboard, which helps the nonblack decks compete, but things are still grim after sideboard. The best removal spell at black’s disposal, however, has to be Gatekeeper of Malakir. The Gatekeeper is another reason why Mono-Black is the top deck – it costs BBB to kick it. I tried building control decks with Gatekeeper, but even with two colors hitting triple black was too inconsistent. Vampires, on the other hand, can play this guy off three mana every time, which again gives black a removal plus that no other color can match.

So what are people so desperate to kill? The same thing they are trying to kill in limited: Vampire Nighthawk. Just look at the vampires in the list above and compare them to the removal that red has. Sure Burst Lightning and Punishing Fire can kill the little guys. To kill Vampire Nighthawk, however, takes five mana from the red deck. Then you’ve got Bloodghast, a creature red can’t ever completely answer. You think green and blue can efficiently handle a Vampire Nighthawk on their own?

That leaves white. Why white is one of the colors in the control deck of the format comes down to the removal. Not only can they kill Vampire Nighthawk straight-up with a Journey to Nowhere (because Mono-Black is never going to kill an enchantment), but Journey also answers Bloodghast, a card that gives other control decks nightmares. Malakir Bloodwitch is another card that is hard to efficiently answer, and that’s where Day of Judgment comes in, easily THE removal spell of the format. White also has the most efficient removal spell against the Vampire deck, their own super-Gatekeeper: Devout Lightcaster. The only thing that keeps black going is the fact that they are not just cold to this card: they can still Gatekeeper, Marsh Casualties, or fly over with Vampire Nighthawk and the completely immune Malakir Bloodwitch.

The other key card that the Vampire deck has access to, and a card I would even go as far as to call THE defining card of Zendikar Block, is Mind Sludge. There are very few responses to a deck with four Mind Sludges and a bunch of Swamps in this format. You can be aggressive and empty your hand before Mind Sludge becomes a problem, or you can counter it. Efficient counters are limited to Cancel and Spell Pierce, but their presence explain why the control decks look the way they do. If white is what the control decks need to even be close to answering Vampire’s threats, blue is what they need to stop Mind Sludge from destroying them.

How can any control deck without access to blue expect to survive a Mind Sludge? I actually find this question extremely interesting. There’s a good chance that there isn’t a way for nonblue control decks to answer Mind Sludge, and that’s the way I feel right now. But, there’s still the chance that there is something I’m missing, and if somebody finds a way to answer Mind Sludge I haven’t thought of, then they’ve got access to more of the format than everybody else does. That deck could still be bad in general, but there’s always the chance that it’s the answer.

Building a Better Vampire

I haven’t played that much Zendikar Block so far, but I like what I’ve learned in the time I have played. The way I feel about the Vampire deck is that it has three really (really) good creatures with Vampire Nighthawk, Gatekeeper of Malakir, and Malakir Bloodwitch. My early experiments with recurring these creatures were very successful – any game where I used Soul Stair Expedition to get back two of any of these felt like a blowout. Bloodghast is another one of the really good creatures in the deck, but I feel like his power is enhanced by what he does in the format. He’s really good at keeping your Feast of Blood active, letss you keep pressure up without over-committing to Day of Judgment, and it makes your opponent’s Gatekeepers much less effective.

Then you’ve got the lesser Vampire Lacerator and Vampire Hexmage, and the games where I draw lots of these I tend to lose more often. Hexmage is actually pretty good in the mirror and is probably the reason why Sorin isn’t as powerful as you would think, but I always feel like Lacerator is the weakest card in the deck, which is why I’m not surprised to see some lists cutting them entirely. That makes me nervous because you start minimizing the effectiveness of Feast of Blood, but I’m tempted to try it myself.

I’m still messing with different mixes of spells, but as I said, I’ve had very good success with recurring the three main creatures in the deck. Lately I’ve enjoyed Grim Discovery and running full sets of Verdant Catacombs and Marsh Flats. I still can’t tell if it’s better than Soul Stair Expedition, but I hate drawing that card off the top. The lands are a little awkward in aggro matchups sometimes, but I like being able to run 24 lands and still consistently cast five mana spells on time. In the control matchups the lands are very good and take a lot of lands out of your deck, and they also have good synergy with Bloodghast. Sometimes you play a Marsh Flats and choose not to bring back your Bloodghast until you sacrifice the land at the end of your opponent’s turn, just so you don’t take a Journey to Nowhere.

I’m also a big fan of maindeck Mind Sludge because it’s one of the deck’s most powerful tools. You get so many free wins off unprepared opponents, and sometimes you even catch them without a Cancel. I’ve found that going first in the mirror is very important. Not only is your Mind Sludge active before theirs is, but you also get to Gatekeeper of Malakir or Feast of Blood their creature first, keeping them off of their own Feast of Blood.

Now things start to get a little crazy. Out of nowhere a combo hit me in my economics class, and I’ve been stuck on it ever since: Bloodghast and Carnage Altar. I first thought of Standard, but I don’t think an awkward “3: Draw a card” is going to cut it there. In Block though? I’ll try anything. Once you get multiple Bloodghasts, or every sac land, then you really start digging through your deck. (This is another reason that Grim Discovery got the nod over Soul Stair Expedition; the deck likes mana.) I can’t bring myself to run more than two Carnage Altars because of how blank the second one is, so it hasn’t come up enough for me to give it a full endorsement.

So far I like what I see, and the card actually does more than you would think at first glance. Obviously it’s good with Bloodghast, but it also keeps him safe from Journey to Nowhere. I’ve also used it multiple times to make my opponent Journey to Nowhere their own creature! Sure you still lose your Vampire Nighthawk, but now they’re down a card, too. It also lets you attack with your whole team into something like a Kazandu Blademaster or an opposing Vampire Hexmage and just sacrifice whatever they’re blocking, letting you stay aggressive without losing cards.

As I said before, I feel like the Vampire deck is 12 impacting creatures surrounded by Feast of Blood fuel. Carnage Altar lets you dig through your deck, find those creatures, and repeatedly cast them. Here’s my most recent list, though it’s constantly evolving.

Vampire Carnage!

There are a lot of cards that didn’t make this list, but I am far from disregarding them completely. Quest for the Gravelord, for example, is card I need to test more. It appears in a lot of the other lists, but it looks so bad to me in the UW matchup when they’ve got Into the Roil and [card]Journey to Nowhere[/card] (that they can freely bounce and reuse). Maybe it’s good enough against Day of Judgment to be worth it, so I just need to test the quest. Pick a black card or an artifact that isn’t in this decklist, and it probably deserves at least some testing.

I’ve built this deck primarily with the UW and mirror matches in mind. I’m assuming that the deck’s raw power and superiority with cards like Gatekeeper of Malakir and Mind Sludge beat the other decks, so there’s not a lot of extra work you have to do there. I’m not a big fan of Disfigure in either of these matchups, but it’s one of the cards that makes you good against the other decks, so I think it has to at least have a presence. I’m still hoping I can just get rid of Disfigure and Lacerator entirely.

The mirror felt like a grind with the twelve good cards I mentioned continuously bouncing off of each other, so I’ve tried to maximize those creatures with Grim Discovery and Carnage Altar. Out of the sideboard comes Soul Stair Expedition to keep this plan going. I think I still need to work on my mirror match plan after sideboard because I feel like there has to be a card that just breaks the matchup open somewhere. I’ve been told that Blade of the Bloodchief is very good, but I think if you keep recurring Vampire Nighthawk and Gatekeeper of Malakir, you trump that plan.

My plan for the UW matchup involves stretching their counterspells out. Once you have Desecrated Earth, Halo Hunter, Mind Sludge, and Malakir Bloodwitch, there’s a lot they have to care about. Desecrated Earth can keep them off of triple white mana (for Devout Lightcaster) and also makes their Sphinxes and Rite of Replications much harder to pull off. Mind Sludge is a must-counter. Halo Hunter and Malakir Bloodwitch serve as ways to present a threat they have to deal with and can’t block with Devout Lightcaster, hopefully forcing them to Day of Judgment one threat at a time. (This reminds me of Mystic Enforcer against Teachings decks in Time Spiral Block, forcing the Damnations). Since you’re siding in eight cards that cost five, I thought the 25th land would be helpful.

Hideous End is my sideboard response to the people that haven’t learned that they lose to Vampires – basically anybody playing random green, red, or white creatures. The fourth Mind Sludge also teaches the nonblue control players what’s wrong with their plan.

Step 3: Profit!

There’s still a lot of testing to be done, but I’m sure having fun doing it. It feels good to play Constructed on Magic Online because you can just grind out matches and keep tweaking and trying things. I can’t wait for the day where I have enough cards to do the same for Extended.

Speaking of Extended, now that Worlds is over I feel much more comfortable testing Extended for the next season of PTQs. I also think I’ll manage to make a Grand Prix or two this season, so testing is very important to me. I’m really looking forward to biting into a Constructed format. Here’s hoping Kiki-Jiki works again!

Thanks for reading,

Jonathon Loucks
Loucksj at gmail
JonLoucks on twitter

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