Dissecting the Time Spiral Block Constructed metagame and taking a hard look at Frank's Pro Tour–Yokohama deck.

Around the Block

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The letter H!ello and welcome back to Online Tech! Today I will cover the Time Spiral Block Constructed format. I will go over the online metagame as it has evolved since Pro Tour–Yokohama, and I will discuss my own deck choice for the Pro Tour. I played a black-based control deck, which I would consider to be a solid, fun deck choice for your Block tournaments.

Terramorphic_Expanse Just for clarification and to avoid confusion, let me define the Time Spiral Block Constructed format before I begin. In the Time Spiral Block Constructed format, you can only use cards from the Time Spiral and Planar Chaos sets, and (in the future) Future Sight. So please don't rush to the forums to suggest Birds of Paradise, Urza lands, and whatnot. I will cover Standard next week again.

I would guess that many of you are exited about the Future Sight cards and are eager to apply them in the Block Constructed format, especially since Future Sight will already be tournament legal when the important Block Constructed Pro Tour Qualifier season starts. However, a look at the current Block Constructed without Future Sight is not useless. In fact, it is quite valuable if you want to prepare for those PTQs. There is a lot to be learned from the decks of the two-set format. Most Block decks using the full three sets will be expansions of Block decks using only the first two sets. If you want to build good decks for the Block Constructed format with Future Sight cards, you don't have to rush and invent the wheel by yourself. It's more efficient to try and understand the current Block format and expand from there on. Furthermore, there are still a lot of Block Constructed tournaments going on before Future Sight becomes tournament legal on May 20. There are seven Premier Events per week on Magic Online, and this format will also be played at the Grand Prix in Strasbourg. In other words, I will offer a look at a very relevant format!

The Magic Online Metagame

We have had eight Premier Events since the Pro Tour ended (I watched events #951773 through #956783). Let's take a look at the metagame breakdown of the Top 8s of those events.

Deck name Popularity
1. U/B/w(/r) Control ■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■ (21%)
2. Mono Blue Control ■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■■ (20%)
3. White Weenie ■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■ (12%)
4. G/R Scryb&Force ■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■ (11%)
5. G/R/b(/u) Big Mana ■■■■■ ■■■■■ (10%)
6. Red Deck Wins ■■■■■ ■■■ (8%)
7. U/b Pickles ■■■■■ ■ (6%)
8. R/g Aggro ■■■■ (4%)
9. B/R/u Control ■■■ (3%)
10. Others ■■■■■ (5%)

Mike Flores went over the Top 8 decks in Yokohama in his article last week. As could have been expected, the online players took these results at heart and copied these decks. I could often state with reasonable certainty state that a deck was a card-for-card copy of a Pro Tour–Yokohama Top 8 deck. The similarities were usually just too striking.

Blue control decks are at the helm. The number one spot is taken by various incarnations of U/B/w(/r) control. Almost always they looked like direct copies of Guillaume Wafo-Tapa's or Mark Herberholz's versions, which are actually very similar; they even had a similar white and red splash. There were only small differences; Herberholz had some more reactive one-ofs maindeck, whereas Wafo-Tapa had some extra card draw, and Herberholz had Magus of the Tabernacle against creature decks out of the sideboard instead of Wafo-Tapa's Premature Burials.

Mono-Blue Control is a close second, which is unexpected as this deck did not finish in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Yokohama. However, scrolling down in the Top 50 decklists we see that Masahiko Morita finished in a close 11th place with a Mono-Blue Control deck (supposedly designed by master deck builder Tsuyoshi Fujita!), and the builds that I observed in the online tournaments looked very similar to his.

The deck did not finish in the Top 8, therefore it was not talked about much, and yet it performed extremely well in the online events. Eschewing Damnation and Tendrils of Corruption, this deck instead plays a tempo game against creature decks. With lots of bounce and the Serrated Arrows plus Desert connection, it approaches the game in a completely other way than the U/B Control decks that pack Damnation. Instead of the slow Mystical Teachings into Careful Considerations engine, this deck takes a more mana efficient path with Ancestral Visions. It also happily casts Dismal Failure while its respectable army of creatures smashes your face in. I would rather have access to Damnation in a field full of White Weenie, but if slow control decks are more popular then I can totally get behind choosing Mono Blue Control.

Speaking of White Weenie, it is in a solid third place, and I think it belongs up there. The deck was hated out at the Pro Tour, but the metagame is curving around again, and seeing how everyone is currently going for Mono-Blue Control without Damnation and red-green decks, White Weenie should be a fine choice.

Red-green decks come in many varieties. This is readily observable by looking at the Top 8 of Pro Tour–Yokohama, which held three distinct red-green variants. I chose to make two distinct classes: G/R Scryb&Force is Paulo Carvalho's version, with a more aggressive focus. It runs Radha, Heir to Keld, Akroma, Angel of Fury, Scryb Ranger, Stormbind, and Lotus Bloom. G/R/b(/u) Big Mana is Sebastian Thaler's version, which is more controllish. It aims for the late game with Disintegrate and more lands, has Avalanche Riders to attack opposing mana bases (in combination with the Mwonvuli Acid-Mosses that are present in all versions), and splashes Void. Masashi Oiso's deck is somewhere in between, although it is more similar to Thaler's version. A version resembling Oiso's deck was a rarity amongst the Premier Event Top 8 decks, though. And often it was unclear which style of G/R a deck belonged to, but then I just used my best judgement and guessing power.

Moving to the bottom of the popularity table, we come across some other seemingly direct copies of the Pro Tour–Yokohama Top 8 decks. Red Deck Wins is Raphael Levy's deck. U/b Pickles is Kazuya Mitamura's deck. R/g Aggro is Tomoharu Saito's deck.

The Deck I Played: B/R/u Control

My deck for the Pro Tour was originally made by Rogier Maaten, and then tuned further by the Dutch playtest group. I liked it very much. It has a good matchup against U/B Control and White Weenie, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes control decks but hates to play with countermagic. Because it did not finish in the Top 8, the deck might not get a lot of press. But I feel that it is still one of the top tier decks, so I want to use today's article to introduce it. In the beginning, the Dutch playtest group tried to come up with the best strategies and ideas. Next to typical versions of U/B Control, White Weenie, G/R Big Stuff, and Red Deck Wins, we also made some more creative decks. Rogier saw a lot of potential in the card Void and built a deck around it. Void is one of the most powerful spells in the format and makes a great start for a control deck. Complemented with Damnation and Sudden Death, it seemed that you could easily create a deck with a wonderful arsenal of creature removal. After tossing in some Stupors and Phyrexian Totems versus control decks and adding a couple win conditions, the groundwork of the black-red deck was set. Lots of tuning and testing eventually brought the following deck that I played in the Pro Tour to a tenth-place finish:

You may wonder what the advantage of this B/R/u deck is over the U/B Control decks that were tearing up the Pro Tour. After all, U/B Control is using the powerful black creature kill spells just as well. Why forego the nice blue cards? Well, Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir and Cancel are quite weak against beatdown strategies. What would you rather have against White Weenie: Teferi or Void? In other words, an overcosted five-mana 3/4 with an irrelevant ability in the matchup or a five-mana sorcery that wipes out a Shade of Trokair in play and also nails a Calciderm that was lurking in the opponent's hand? Void was the main reason to pursue a black-red deck; the card is that good. If Void had not been in the format, I don't think this color combination would have been worth it.

We did try to make a U/B deck splashing Void and a U/B/R hybrid good stuff deck, trying to fit together the strengths of both strategies, but that did not work well. The first problem we got when we tried to do that was the mana base. Working triple blue, double black, and double red into a deck is hard without proper dual lands in the format. Furthermore, a deck with Cancel and tons of sorceries is conflicting. You'd rather match Cancels with other instants. U/B Control plays lots of instants, because it provides you with a more flexible power of choice. The way this works is that you keep mana open during your opponent's turn and then if your opponent plays a challenging spell you Cancel it, otherwise you just spend your mana on Teferi. However, you cannot easily fit playsets of Void, Phyrexian Totem, and Aeon Chroniclers in a deck with Mystical Teachings, Cancel, and Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir. This just clashes. You have to tap out on your own turn for sorcery cards more often and thereby hamper your options of timing instants well. It seemed that a deck would always turn out better if it made a distinct choice for synergy: either all instants or all sorceries. And in the end all the sorcery-speed cards appeared more powerful and just better.

The Development of the Deck

Early version of the black-red deck smashed aggro decks all over the place due to the abundance of efficient mass removal. The matchup against control decks was more problematic, although the Stupors and Phyrexian Totems that were in the deck from the start helped out a lot. There were actually many decks that had little to no answers to four hits from a Totem. Totems also work fantastically with Damnation and Void; it is a persistent threat that does not die to our own mass removal. It is definitely one of the best cards in the deck. But our initial versions still had problems against control. You have to know that our initial version was a straightforward two-color red-black build. We didn't have the blue yet at first. The original win conditions were a mix of Twisted Abominations and Bogardan Hellkites. However, against many other control variants this did not work satisfactorily. They would just Cancel or Damnation your big threat, and then you were out of gas while they started chaining Mystical Teachings. The deck lacked card draw and staying power. This was around the time where everyone started to grasp how good Aeon Chronicler really was. and I think it was Tiago Chan who added them to this deck. They were an immediate hit and gave the deck a very powerful late game. Twisted Abominations were kind of clunky anyway; you cycled them in 80% of the cases and then you would rather have used that mana to charge up a storage land instead. Basic Swamps were actually better than Twisted Abominations. Bogardan Hellkite was also questionable as a four-of. Even with 4 Prismatic Lens and 4 Phyrexian Totem as mana acceleration, you were often stuck with 2 in your hand, slowly waiting to get up to 8 mana. If you drew multiple Aeon Chroniclers, you would not have that problem. You could just suspend them for one for five mana and start beating early.

So after a while we arrived at the following core: 26 lands, 4 Totems, 4 Lens, 4 Damnation, 4 Void, 4 Chronicler, 4 Sudden Death, and 2 Bogardan Hellkite. Those 52 slots were fixed and never really changed. They are also fairly obvious choices and don't require lots of explanation. Twenty-six lands plus eight mana artifacts looks like a lot, but it is definitely not too much. The deck is very mana intensive; you don't want to miss a land drop in your first eight turns. You want to start activating Urza's Factory quickly, and you also need eight mana sources on the table if you want to so something like play Damnation and attack with Phyrexian Totem all in one turn. A mana flood can be easily mitigated with a suspended Aeon Chronicler. Getting out of a mana screw, on the other hand, is often impossible. Moreover, thanks to playing so many lands the deck is very resilient to mulligans. You usually happily keep hands with four lands, one Lens/Totem, and any two spells.

The Final Card Choices Are always the Hardest

The remaining eight cards were varying a lot every day, although amusingly our eventual choices for these slots (4 Stupor, 2 Tendrils of Corruption, and 2 Plague Sliver) were very similar to the version we had one to two weeks before the Pro Tour. It may be interesting to learn what options we considered for these slots and what factors led to our eventual decisions. I'll first go over all the cards that we considered but that did not make it after all. We tried Shadowmage Infiltrator, which was eventually cut because it was hard to play on turn three with our mana base, it died to our own Damnation, and, perhaps most importantly, it gave opposing Sudden Deaths valid targets, whereas otherwise Sudden Death was a near-dead card against us. We also tried Strangling Soot, but in testing we found that the flashback was hardly relevant as you often had better things to do in the late game. We also had Extirpate for a while, which was good at taking out Mystical Teachings and taking a sneak peak so that you could name the right number with Void, but this effect was too weak and situational overall.

Now, as for the cards that did make it to the final cut. First, Tendrils of Corruption. It is amazing against Red Deck Wins for obvious reasons. And against White Weenie it buys you time so that you don't die to hasty Shade of Trokairs that often hit for five before a Void or Damnation can be played. Even against blue-black with Teferi, a 10-point life swing can buy you a lot of important time. And the best part: even without an Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth in play, our deck ran enough Swamps to support it.

We were never really happy with Stupor, but the card advantage it provided was never bad either. The main argument to keep Stupor in the deck was mana curve issues; we needed something to plan on the early turns—as the deck was full of expensive stuff already— and Stupor was simply the best available.

The number of Plague Slivers ranged from 2 to 4, then to 0 and eventually back to 2 over time. Plague Sliver is a very potent weapon against U/B Control. If they cannot counter it when you play it on turn four (or turn three with a Prismatic Lens), then they have a very hard time dealing with it. Sudden Death doesn't kill it, Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir doesn't block it well, and Tendrils of Corruption first needs five lands including an Urborg, Tomb of Yawghmoth. Damnation does the trick, but that forces them to be reactive and tap mana, thereby opening a window for you to resolve big spells.

Plague Slivers are even better after sideboarding, as often people board out Damnations against you. They are even not all that bad against red decks with burn. This sounds counter-intuitive, as it deals damage to you. But a 5/5 for four mana can actually race Disintegrates and Stormbinds, which you would otherwise lose to in the long term if you didn't start dealing fast damage yourself. Anyone who has been around long enough to remember Juzam Djinn should know that it certainly poses a huge damage clock. Plague Sliver also helps you to win in time. The deck is quite slow, and draws due to time-out never make anyone happy. However, a start like turn-three Plague Sliver, turn-four Phyrexian Totem, smash-smash-smash can end a game in five minutes. The only downsides are that Plague Slivers have bad synergy with your own and opponent's Damnations and they are relatively weak against White Weenie, mainly because white has so many evasion creatures. Plague Sliver cannot stop Serra Avenger, Soltari Priest, Griffin Guide, etcetera, so often you are forced in a situation where you have to Damnation away your own Plague Sliver in order to survive. That's just a pity. In the end I chose to go with two Plague Sliver maindeck, balancing all these factors. Rogier put all of them in the sideboard (I think he played an extra Tendrils of Corruption and a third Bogardan Hellkite instead), but I liked my deck, and I would go with a pair of Plague Slivers again.

Don't Forget the Sideboard

Now, let me touch on the sideboard choices. I had 4 Sulfur Elemental, 2 Dead // Gone, and 2 Tendrils of Corruption against White Weenie package. Sulfur Elemental was mainly in there in order to have an answer to Sacred Mesa. Sacred Mesa isn't actually good against a deck with Sulfur Elemental, but if they did have it and we didn't have Sulfur Elemental then we would probably lose. The first Sulfur Elemental didn't even kill that much, since most smart players would board out Soltari Priests and Icatian Javelineers against red decks (or not play them in the first place). The first Sulfur Elemental was actually beneficial to White Weenie. However, the second one takes down Shade of Trokair, Knight of the Holy Nimbus, Stonecloaker, and Griffin Guide tokens. In other words, wins the game. Next to Sulfur Elemental, I ran extra Tendrils of Corruption and Dead // Gone, whereas Rogier Maaten chose Fortune Thief for those slots. Fortune Thief is probably better than Tendrils of Corruption or Dead // Gone against White Weenie; it's a card that they might not have any answers to and that therefore might just defeat them on the spot. However, it is useless against Red Deck Wins. The way the Pro Tour worked out, I was happy to have access to these creature kill cards, as they certainly improve the matchup versus Red Deck Wins. Dead // Gone can kill an early drop before it can attack and also bounces Greater Gargadon.

Then we needed some slots versus Blue Control decks and green-red decks. Plague Slivers were in there for sure, as I already explained. Furthermore, since we did not have counterspells to stop the opposing big spells, the best we could do was to discard them before they could play them. We tried a variety of discard options, from Psychotic Episode to a Mystical Teachings package with 1 Haunting Hymn. But eventually we liked Mindstab best, mainly because it had the best impact to mana ratio. Suspending it on turn one against green-red decks was huge. And often you couldn't get up to Haunting Hymn mana due to their land destruction, so the one-mana discard spell was best. I just ran two, not more, because you don't want to overload on discard spells. Otherwise you draw them too often in the late game while your opponent is empty-handed and playing from the top of his deck.

We also had 1 Detritivore for the mirror match and against U/B/w(/r) control decks. Herberholz's and Wafo-Tapa's decks played more nonbasics than basics, so it is clear that Detritivore poses a great long-term advantage. We ran just one because it is bad in multiples, but you can consider a second copy as well. Right now many players online seem to be running Mono Blue Control instead of U/B/w(/r) decks, so there are fewer nonbasics to pry upon, so I guess sticking with one copy is fine. I then noticed that I needed more slots against green-red decks; we had a lot of cards to take out but not that much to put in. And unfortunately no one could come up with something great. Eventually I chose 1 Enslave and 1 Mountain. The former is self-explanatory; it's great versus Spectral Force and Bogardan Hellkite. The latter is awkward, but I wanted an extra land to battle all the land destruction spells (if only we had something like Sacred Ground in Block...) and a Mountain could also double as an incremental card versus White Weenie. It fit the color requirements of Sulfur Elemental and Dead // Gone well, and could replace an Urza's Factory in that matchup to decrease chances of color screw.

Well, that concludes my discussion of the card choices. It has turned out to be lengthier than I had envisioned, so I hope you're not dozing in yet. I will say that I wouldn't make any changes to the deck. This is logical as we tested a lot and predicted the Pro Tour metagame fairly well. Every card fulfilled its desired role well. We expected a bit less green-red and Red Deck Wins, but I'm afraid there is not really a card or strategy that can significantly improve those matchups. Well, I guess you can try to add extra Tendrils of Corruption to the main and/or extra Enslaves to the sideboard, but even that wouldn't change around the bad matchups. Now let me go over the more popular matchups and explain how to play and sideboard.

White Weenie

This is a good matchup. We easily beat them in the beginning, but later versions that started packing Stonecloakers and Duskrider Peregrine instead of irrelevant tiny creatures and non-aggressive cards (like Temporal Isolation and Mana Tithe) suddenly started beating B/R/u! We then tested loads and loads of extra games; against every incarnation of White Weenie you can imagine, in order to convince ourselves that we could actually beat them. I tracked all the results and with the large sample size we got, I was eventually happy with the matchup. The final playtest game score was 19-25 (in favor of White Weenie) before board and 50-23 (in favor of B/R/u) after board.

An important thing to remember in this matchup is to make sure a Calciderm doesn't catch you with your pants down. Imagine, for example, that your opponent is attacking with Serra Avenger and Knight of the Holy Nimbus and he doesn't seem to be willing to add extra creatures to the board. You are holding Sudden Death, Tendrils of Corruption, and Damnation. The obvious play would be to play Damnation in that situation in order to get card advantage. Unfortunately, it is often the wrong play, because if your opponent plays Calciderm the next turn you can't answer it. It is better to burn your targeted spot removal first. After board you can sometimes take the non-intuitive role of the beatdown player. If you get a draw of Sulfur Elemental and Phyrexian Totem, you can actually start attacking them for loads of damage, and then perhaps gaining back some life with Tendrils of Corruption in order to win the race.

I board in 4 Sulfur Elemental, 2 Dead // Gone, and 2 Tendrils of Corruption. I take out 4 Stupor, 2 Plague Sliver, and 2 Aeon Chronicler.

Blue-Based Control (Mono Blue, U/b Pickles, U/B/w/r, ...)

This is once again a good matchup, although it heavily favors the more experienced player. I played this matchup about nine times during the Pro Tour and didn't lose a match. And so can you, as long as you are patient. Your goal is to sit and wait. You will win the game in the long run. You have more removal than they have creatures, you have more Aeon Chroniclers and more mana, and you have two Urza's Factories to fall back upon. The way the game often pans out is like this. You resolve a turn-three Phyrexian Totem. It is a good route to victory, and it should attack whenever it can, but never when there is an Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth in play and the opponent has 4 or more mana up. You don't want to lose to Tendrils of Corruption. So usually you get in one hit with Totem and then the game turns into a stalemate. Then the opponent finds a Mystical Teachings and gets Haunting Hymn. You discards most of your hand, but you keep an Aeon Chronicler, which you then promptly suspend for as much as possible. Plan for long-term advantage. Don't do it for just one or two; getting a beatstick fast is irrelevant, and usually it will be stranded in limbo by Teferi anyhow.

After sideboard, don't take off many counters from storage lands for Aeon Chronicler if there is a threat of Pull from Eternity. Now while you are drawing cards keep on sitting and doing nothing. Your opponent is gaining card advantage with Mystical Teachings in the meantime. You have to make sure you never walk into a Draining Whelk; that is how you lose games. Instead just wait, draw cards, charge up your storage lands and make an occasional Factory token. Then at some point you draw Urborg. You play it and destroy the opponent's with the legend rule. Now your Phyrexian Totems can freely attack without fear of Tendrils of Corruption, and you force your opponent into action. He will probably have a hand full of Teferi, Draining Whelks, and whatnot. He will make some creatures, which will force you in action. Hopefully your storage lands are overflowing with counters now, and your hand should be full of creature kill spells. You should be able to work through his hand full of countermagic with your hand full of Damnations and Sudden Deaths. That clears the board, and leaves both players pretty much empty-handed. Eventually your Phyrexian Totems and Factory tokens will charge in for the kill.

I always board in 2 Plague Sliver and 1 Detritivore. Depending on the opposing version (how many creatures and what mix; do you have to answer a turn-three Shadowmage Infiltrator or no) I take out a combination of Void, Damnation, and Tendrils of Corruption. If I envision a long attrition game, then I also put in Mindstabs. They usually take out Damnations, allowing a fast Plague Sliver to seal quick games.

Green-Red Versions

This is a bad matchup. B/R/u doesn't have an answer to Stormbind, and land destruction is also a big problem for the fragile mana base and expensive curve. The matchup is not unwinnable, though. If they don't have lots of land destruction or if you have enough mana sources, then you can fend them off with Damnations and Voids, and eventually take over with Aeon Chroniclers and Bogardan Hellkites. Even then, you should still try to get up to a safe life total with Tendrils of Corruption before they draw Stormbind or Disintegrate. Discard spells can also work against those burn threats. I board in 1 Enslave, 2 Mindstab, and 1 Mountain for 4 Sudden Death, as that spell usually doesn't kill anything.

Red Deck Wins

This is another bad matchup. You can answer their creatures, but often they will have attacked once or twice before you get to Damnation or Void mana. And you have trouble dealing with their burn spells. B/R/u also takes a long time to kill, so you give them lots of time to draw Disintegrate. Stupor can take out burn spells, and a Void for one is also often not a bad guess. Tendrils of Corruption is premium of course, although Greater Gargadon can fizzle them after board, so keep that in mind. I add 2 Tendrils of Corruption and 2 Dead // Gone for 4 Damnation (often too slow, and they usually take out creatures). On the play I may also swap Bogardan Hellkites out for extra Plague Slivers.

What Does the Future Bring?

I won't lie, if G/R decks or Red Deck Wins is popular, then B/R/u is not a smart choice. It performed great against White Weenie and Blue Control decks—that is the main reason why I chose the deck for the Pro Tour—but the metagame has to be right to play the deck. At the moment the online metagame looks fine, although you should be on the watch for the green-red decks. Land destruction is scary.

Future Sight brings a very potent weapon for this deck: Korlash, Heir to Blackblade. It is obvious that the card is very good, especially in combination with Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. And B/R/u provides the perfect home for Korlash! Korlash will have a hard time finding a place in U/B Control decks (even if they run 4 Urborg), as Korlash is more or less dead if you don't have that legendary land and the Grandeur ability will be useless. Korlash is much better in B/R/u, since this deck naturally plays many basic Swamps. Korlash can replace (or maybe complement) Plague Sliver. What to cut in order to make room for 4 Korlash (the Grandeur ability is so good, so you want to draw multiples and therefore play it as a four-of) will depend on the metagame once Future Sight rolls around.

As for the new dual lands, I am unsure they will improve the deck. It's hard to say without testing them first. You want to keep enough basic Swamps and Urborgs for Korlash and Tendrils of Corruption. You also want to keep at least a couple storage lands in order to fire off big Aeon Chroniclers. The only way I can see working River of Tears and Graven Cairns in the deck is by cutting Terramorphic Expanse and basic Island and Mountains. Maybe that is a good swap, but time will tell.

I hope you enjoyed my look at the B/R/u deck. See you next week!

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