This week I want to talk a little bit about Innistrad block constructed. There’s going to be another big set out before the format is relevant for the pro tour but it’s always good to get a head start on the format and hopefully we can learn something about how best to look at a brand new format.
I think Zvi first made this point when he first made the mythic deck a couple of years ago but the most important thing in basically every format is the mana. The lands in a format define what colour combinations are going to be available and recently Wizards have been pretty good at printing enough duals lands to allow people to play whatever cards they want and the mana will basically work.
Innistrad block isnt that lucky however as we only have the cycle of enemy colour duals and [card]Evolving Wilds[/card] as good fixing. There’s also [card]Shimmering Grotto[/card] which might see some play in allied 2-colour decks just for want of a better option or maybe in some 4 or 5 colour decks. Lastly there’s the cycle of utility lands most of which are pretty powerful and push you towards certain colour combinations – currently only BW and BG have off colour utility lands so I imagine they’ll be finishing off the cycle in Avacyn Restored. There’s also two land search spells in [card]Caravan Vigil[/card] and [card]Traveller’s Amulet[/card] neither of which are very good but might get the nod in some sort of 4 or 5 colour deck.
For mana acceleration we have a few small creatures that tap for mana: [card]Deranged Assistant[/card], [card]Avacyn’s Pilgrim[/card], [card]Scorned Villager[/card] and [card]Warden of the Wall[/card]. Obviously none of these have the power level of [card]Lotus Cobra[/card] or [card]Noble Heirarch[/card] but mana acceleration is still a very powerful thing in Magic and all of the above cards might see some play. There’s no spells that accelerate mana directly like [card]Rampant Growth[/card] or [card]Explore[/card] so we’re not going to be seeing any of the ramp based strategies that have been good in standard recently.
Spells wise there is a full mix of allied colour gold cards and off colour flashback so all the two colour combination have at least 1 card in their colour combination. Some are obviously more powerful than others ([card]Lingering Souls[/card] was so good it got banned!) but that will definitely push decks into being multiple colours, in order to play the more powerful gold and flashback cards.
So just looking at the mana we can expect to see 2 colour decks (either enemy colour using the good duals or allied colour using the good utility lands) 3 colour decks (probably enemy shards as you get 2 sets of good duals rather than just one) or 4+ colour decks with lots of duals and Grotto for fixing.
Creatures vs Removal
After looking at the lands the next port of call is usually comparing the power level of the creatures and removal spells. Better creatures will lead to a faster more aggressive format and better removal leads to more slower controlling decks. Innistrad is definitely in the former category as most of the removal is pretty situational. The board sweepers are all pretty clunky with [card]Blasphemous Act[/card] costing a lot even with the discounts, [card]Rolling Tremblor[/card] not hitting big creatures or flyers and [card]Divine Reckoning[/card] not killing their best guy which is a pretty bad trait in a [card]Wrath of God[/card], unless you can make it work for you.
Innistrad also features the undying ability and creatures like [card]Doomed Traveller[/card], [card]Loyal Cathar[/card] and [card]Gravecrawler[/card] that arent really affected by board sweepers. Honourable mention goes to [card]Curse of Deaths Hold[/card] which can be a Wrath+ vs decks with lots of little creatures but also a bit of a 5 mana do-nothing against decks with larger creatures.
Point removal wise we have a few good spells in black with [card]Tragic Slip[/card] and [card]Dead Weight[/card] dealing with early creatures and [card]Sever the Bloodline[/card] being the best removal spell in block – the fact that it exiles means it deals with undying and the like that come back from the graveyard and even indestructible cards like the newly spoiled Avacyn. Add in the fact that it also deals with multiple copies of creatures and tokens from things like [card]Increasing Devotion[/card] AND has flashback and we have one very powerful removal spell. Also worth considering are [card]Victim of Night[/card] which is one of blacks few instant removal spells, although not really main deck worthy due to it’s limitations, and [card]Tribute to Hunger[/card] which might be required to deal with Hexproof creatures like [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] and [card]Invisible Stalker[/card] if they become popular.
Red’s burn is almost as good as Blacks removal with [card]Geistflame[/card] being good vs little creatures, [card]Devil’s Play[/card[ providing a nice scalable removal spell that can deal with creatures and finish off players (and planeswalkers) and be used twice and [card]Brimstone Volley[/card] which can be a little expensive for just killing creatures but can also pack quite a punch for finishing off players.
The creatures in block however are pretty fast and powerful and most of them demand an answer pretty quickly. [card]Champion of the Parish[/card] is the first stand out creature who can quickly get very sizeable in a dedicated human deck and really puts the early pressure on anyone trying to play control. Gravecrawler, [card]Diregraf Ghoul[/card] and [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card] lead the usual zombie regulars and are also resistant to removal which can present another quick combination of cards that a control deck will struggle to deal with. [card]Hellrider[/card] is another very powerful card that combines well with other creatures will definitely see some play in red aggro decks.
Lastly on the creatures front we get werewolves which are again fast and powerful with very good single cards such as [card]Mayor of Avabruk[/card], [card]Daybreak Ranger[/card] and [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card] as well as tribal synergies with [card]Immerwolf[/card] and [card]Moonmist[/card].
The major failing in a werewolf deck is that mana as you have no good fixing apart from Wilds (which is definitely worse in an aggressive deck where you want your lands untapped) although you do get the benefit of a nice utility land in [card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card]. Also worth mentioning when talking about creatures are [card]Olivia Voldaren[/card] and [card]Bloodline Keeper[/card] who are both very powerful and capable of completely dominating a board if allowed to survive a couple of turns.
Sadly the other tribes just arent really as good with Vampires just being worse than Zombies and Spirits really suffering from a lack of good 2 drops and the banning of Lingering Souls.
Looking at the balance between the creatures and removal we can see that it’s going to be a pretty fast format with the 3 main aggressive decks being:
RW Humans – Champion and early humans like [card]Elite Inquisitor[/card] and [card]Gather the Townsfolk[/card] topping out with Hellrider and Brimstone Volley and Devil’s Play providing removal and reach. It’s also an enemy colour combination so we get a good dual land.
Zombies – Small resilient Zombies with nice point removal spells and even a small amount of reach in the form of Geralf’s Messenger. Some versions splash blue for the Zombie lord but personally I think the mana is too much of a stretch as your best card is usually Messenger and having to make a t1 Wilds instead of Gravecrawler or Diregraf Ghoul really slows down your best draws.
Werewolves – aggressively costed creatures that can really punish you if you skip a step on curving out yourself, with powerful single cards and tribal synergies.
Regardless of how powerful your removal is, to make any sort of control deck you need to have some sort of card advantage to be able to have a better late game than the aggro decks. Innistrad has a lot of cards with built in card advantage as it has flashback which is an instant 2-1 but in terms of actual card draw it’s red and blue that have the best options with [card]Faithless Looting[/card], [card]Desperate Ravings[/card] and [card]Think Twice[/card] giving you either card advantage or card selection (which with flashback in the mix is almost as good).
Planeswalkers also fall into this category in my mind (or at least the Innistrad ones do) as both [card]Garruk Relentless[/card] and [card]Sorin, Lord of Innistrad[/card] make creatures every turn and [cardLiliana of the Veil[/card] and Garruk can be used to trade loyalty for removal. [card]Mentor of the Meek[/card] also gets a mention here as a recursive way of drawing extra cards if you’ve built your deck with enough ways to activate her.
In my mind there’s two main control routes in this format: Planeswalkers and Flashback. The flashback deck is usually Jund colours, sometimes splashing a 4th for off colour flashback, and uses the flashback removal spells (Geistflame, Devils Play, Sever the Bloodline), flashback draw spells (Faithless Looting, Desperate Ravings) and creatures with inbuilt card advantage (Olivia, Bloodline Keeper, Huntmaster and Daybreak Ranger) as well as Blasphemous Act and Curse of Deaths Hold for sweepers and Garruk as a versatile planeswalker that can be a removal spell or threat. Note it sometimes plays [card]Burning Vengeance[/card] as a way of getting extra value out of its flashback spells but it’s not really a Vengeance deck and functions very well without it.
The Planeswalkers deck is the evolution of the GWB tokens deck that was popular before the bannings and runs Garruk, Sorin, Bloodline Keepers and sometimes Liliana’s as powerful recursive threats, with some spot removal and Mentor of the Meek as it’s card advantage engine. Some versions go for a Human sub theme with Champion, Elite Inquisitor and [card]Fiend Hunter[/card] as early plays that can be both aggressive and defensive but I prefer more mana acceleration dudes like Pilgrim and Scorned Villager to try and maximise the chances of a t3 Planeswalker.
Combo and Obvious Synergies
Sadly block constructed is usually too small a card pool to create any degenerate combos and this block is no exception. There are however two decks that fall outside of the aggro/control categories and they are UG selfmill and Reanimator. [card]Unburial Rites[/card] is such a powerful card that is pretty much spawns it’s own deck as there’s a few nice ways to get creatures into the graveyard and a couple of choice reanimation targets.
[card]Drogskol Reaver[/card] is a big powerful creature with card advantage if it hits you and lifegain which is always nice in a deck like this. [card]Flayer of the Hatebound[/card] is the other usual reanimation target of choice as bringing him back from the graveyard with Rites triggers his ability and lets you do 4 damage to something immediately.
Sadly neither of these creatures survives a Sever the Bloodline and the mana required to play the reanimation as well as the enablers can be pretty ropey (I’ve seen Red for Faithless Looting, Green for [card]Mulch[/card], Black and White for Unburial Rites and Blue for [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] in the same deck before!) so at the moment this is definitely a tier two strategy in my mind.
UG self mill is the last deck that rounds out the format with the obvious synergy between milling yourself and cards like [card]Splinterfright[/card], [card]Boneyard Wurm[/card], [card]Ghoultree[/card], [card]Kessig Cage Breakers[/card] and [card]Spider Spawning[/card]. Usually they splash for some sort of removal – either Sever the Bloodline in the Spider Spawning versions or Blasphemous Act if they go red but i’ve also seen versions that do both and include white mana for [card]Gavony Township[/card] so it can be very greedy! Very powerful when your Mulches and [card]Trackers Instincts[/card] hit the right things but also a bit clunky when you Mulch into no lands then make a turn 3 1/1 Splinterfright.
So there’s some initial thoughts on block, it’s a pretty diverse format for only two sets with aggro, control and something slightly off beat all represented and I for one can’t wait to see what Avacyn Restored brings and how the format rounds out!