Color Stretching in Block Constructed

Magic is a game of colors. Strategy aside, one can play any of 32 combinations of colors. One could play mono from any of the 5 colors. One could play any of 10 two-color (guild) combinations. One could play any of 10 3-color combinations. One could also play any of 5 combinations of 4 colors. And, of course, one could play all five colors. In the right format, one might even be able to play an all-colorless deck, presumably comprised of artifacts and lands. This is the full range of color combinations that are possible for the game of Magic.

Return to Ravnica Block Constructed is an interesting format. The block is very well-designed, with each guild boasting its own character. Individual guilds tend to match up well against some guilds, but poorly against others. Moreover, some guild pairs are more suited to join forces than other guilds. The more I playtest and think about deckbuilding possibilities, the more it seems that the color wheel is spinning around my head, or perhaps that my head is spinning around inside the color wheel, or even perhaps that the color wheel is spinning around my head while my head is spinning in the opposite direction.

This block was primarily designed for limited play. The prevalence of multi-colored cards can be understood as a way to test players’ skills at weighing card power versus mana consistency. One of the crucial questions for limited play is: How much should one stretch one’s manabase in order to maximize one’s chances of winning? If one is Orzhov, for example, there might be a question of whether to splash for Assemble the Legions. Assuming the answer to that question is yes, there might be a further question of whether to splash Hellkite Tyrant. After all, if one has already included a few red sources for Assemble, how much more of a burden is it to splash for the second red on Tyrant?

That is also a question for Return to Ravnica Block Constructed. The word on the street is that the best deck in the format is Blue-White Control. At least, that’s what has been regularly 4-0’ing Dailies. The most stock list you could imagine for Blue-White would look something like the following:

This list is very straightforward. It plays the recognized core of very good Azorius cards. It plays Precinct Captain and Lyev Skyknight to stall off enemy forces. Aetherling, Angel of Serenity, and Psychic Spiral serve as late-game win conditions. This deck should beat most aggro decks, with your opponents often conceding after you have pulled too far out of reach with Jace or Sphinx’s Revelation. Because its maindeck is tuned more toward aggro, it has mostly anti-control cards in the sideboard. This deck gets the best of Azorius with a super-consistent manabase, and is no stranger to anyone currently prepping for the next Pro Tour.

However, since this deck is known and commonly played, there will be variations on it that are designed to give it an advantage in the mirror. These variations involve stretching the manabase to include a third color. One of these variations involves splashing black for Sin Collector. Sin Collector is a Duress with a body. The 2/1 is important because it can put pressure on the opponent, especially the opponent’s planeswalkers. While Sin Collector is bad against aggro, splashing black also gives another instant-speed removal spell, namely Devour Flesh. And, if you really want to stretch the mana, you can play Obzedat as well:

This version plays 12 shock-lands and 4 gates. It also eliminates the smaller blue-white creatures for more traditional control cards. Obzedat is a powerful win condition against Blue-White decks that are not prepared for him, such as with Devour Flesh or Orzhov Charm. Notice that the straight Blue-White list would have a more difficult time dealing with both Obzedat and Sphinx’s Revelation. This deck could also play Notion Thief, or perhaps other removal such as Warped Psyche. The cost, however, to giving oneself access to these additional tools, is that one’s manabase becomes worse. The lands for this deck, most of the time, either come into play tapped or shock you, and you don’t even always have a choice about which one. And that makes you worse against aggro.

Another possibility is to splash red. Red also gives you a good card against control, namely Counterflux. Counterflux is good at stopping Sphinx’s Revelations, as well as win conditions such as Aetherling, Obzedat, or Psychic Spiral. Red also gives Turn // Burn, which can kill Obzedat or act as early removal against aggro decks, and it gives Izzet Charm, which is never a dead card against either aggro or control. Here is a version of Blue-White splashing red:

One could also try to fit Ral Zarek in this build if one were so inclined. Again, this deck has a more problematic manabase than straight Blue-White, meaning that this deck has less mana available to it in the early turns, and that mana often comes at the price of 2 life from a shockland. For even more of a stretch, one could try to fit in Boros Reckoner, but that would require cutting Islands (and replacing them with guildgates?). Just as with the Blue-White splashing Black build, this deck is better against control decks, but it is worse against aggro decks. In essence, the Blue-White control decks have a clear edge against aggro decks such as Boros, Mono-Red, Rakdos, or Selesnya, but they could lose that edge if they put too much emphasis on beating the mirror.

The most extreme scenario I can imagine along these lines would be to take a trip to Magical Christmasland and play Maze’s End control. This deck targets control by using the win condition with the least disruptability and most eventuality. Maze’s End control uses the Blue-White shell to buy time until the Maze’s End manabase is complete. Here is a sketch of Maze’s End Control:

This deck plays 2 Maze’s End and all the requisite guildgates, and has the rest of its lands be blue-white Shocklands, Guildgates, and basics. As you can see, this deck’s only win condition, aside from solving the Dragon’s Maze, is 1 Psychic Spiral. This win condition is present in case a non-Azorius guildgate gets milled. However, if both Psychic Spiral and a non-Azorius guildgate get milled, the deck can only win through a Jace ultimate or from the opponent randomly drawing out of cards first. The benefit of this deck is that its win condition is very difficult to disrupt, and the deck has 32 cards dedicated to beating control. I would guess that this deck is in the running for Blue-White Control’s worst nightmare.

The problem with this deck is that it loses to aggro. Yes, it has Azorius Charm, Detention Sphere, and Supreme Verdict, but its other spells are very narrowly positioned against control decks. Also, the mana is slow as molasses on a winter’s day in Michigan. This is almost like splashing black, green, and red in a Blue-White deck. Although crucial to the win strategy, Golgari Guildgate, Rakdos Guildgate, and Gruul Guildgate are not friends with the deck’s spells.

While Blue-White has been dominant in Block Constructed Daily Events on MODO, Dragon’s Maze brings some new cards with it. Boros gains Legion’s Initiative and Tajic, Blade of the Legion. Rakdos gains Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch and Spike Jester. Selesnya gains Advent of the Wurm and Voice of Resurgence. These cards make aggro more resistant to being controlled. It could be that an aggro deck has become powerful enough that it has a good matchup against any version of Blue-White. More likely, the increased power of aggro decks will force control decks to devote more resources to controlling creatures, thereby weakening control mirrors.

The trick for Blue-White control players, then, will be to figure out how much to prepare for aggro decks versus how much to prepare for control mirrors. This includes the question of how much to stretch their manabase for anti-control technology. The answer to this question lies in knowledge of the metagame. But since Pro Tours are comprised of approximately 400 players from around the world, predicting a metagame with a new set is extremely difficult. At Pro Tours, you must expect the unexpected (which is to say, you must expect everything). Although the Blue-White control builds can be very strong, it is difficult to have precisely the right cards for the meta; Blue-White players who call it wrong could very well be players whose Pro Tour ends on Friday.

And, of course, the format is much more nuanced than this one type of control. There are other control builds, other win conditions, and mid-range strategies available. Much of the work has to do with identifying viable candidates for decks, which is tied into identifying possible problems for one’s deck. Personally, I am still undecided about what to play, but at least I have narrowed down the field of possibilities. Given the nature of the fixing in this format, I am unlikely to play an aggro deck that has more than two colors, or to play a control deck that has more than three colors. I have a few ideas that need more testing, but hopefully one will soon prove its worth against the anticipated common strategies.

Thanks to Kyle Boggemes for talking through some of these ideas with me, and to Chris Esteves for spending days helping me proxy and test decks.

 

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