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By: Psychobabble, PB
Nov 05 2014 12:00pm
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Last week I took an initial sampling of the emerging KTK block constructed format based on my initial experiences and a detailed look at one of the early daily events. I thought I had a decent read on the format and expected the decks I'd identified to do well in the dailies. The day after that article was published, the first set of lists was posted on the official website. One of the 4-0 decks featured 4x Goblinslide. Another person 3-1ed with a Trail of Mystery/morph deck (with no Ghostfire Blade). There were no Abzan lists. My mind was blown, was this format really completely wide open and able to be beat by a bunch of decks playing cards that aren't even that good in draft? Only one way to find out.

Metagame Breakdown

For those joining this column for the first time, I should explain how I do this. Each week I manually go through all of the daily event 3-1 and 4-0 decklists posted on the official site. I then categorise each deck in my own spreadsheet based on my read of the deck. I then present this data as a pie chart breakdown of the metagame each week, breaking out each deck that accounts for 5% or more of the metagame. I will sometimes combine two different flavours of a deck's colour into a single category (eg. Jeskai tempo, Jeskai control) but will discuss nuances like this in a brief overview below if it's important. Without further ado, here's the stats for the first week of competitive KTK block constructed events:

A few comments:

  • Temur is the clear winner out of the gates. My impression during the set review was that Temur was the obvious "level 1" deck of the format. My attention was initially diverted by the much better standard performance of Siege Rhino and friends than Savage Knuckleblade, but in block Big 'Knucks has shown that some of the initial hype wasn't entirely unjustified. I will note that the numbers are somewhat skewed by one outlier event where 6 out of 9 winning decklists were Temur so it might not be quite as dominant as the number suggests, but it's still obviously a very strong deck.
     
  • Jeskai  is a close second to Temur, and is made up of two broad types. The most popular by far is the tempo-oriented version, some of which run Monastery Swiftspear and Ride Down, others operating a little further up the spectrum. There are a smaller number of people (3 out of the 16 Jeskai decks) playing much more controlling lists with main-deck End Hostilities. I mainly mention this because one such person is 2013 MOCS winner Dimitri Butakov, which could indicate that there's more potential in that deck type than the numbers suggest.

  • Mardu comes in third, the majority of the lists (9) being based around the BW soldier shell, splashing cards like Crackling Doom and Arc lightning. The other four are midrange or even creature-less control lists with a range of strategies, from all-out planeswalkers to Butcher of the Horde sacrifice shenanigans.
     
  • Straight-up BW Soldiers is less popular than the Mardu version of the deck to date, it seems the manabases are good enough to support 3-colour aggro-ish strategies after all. Still, BW soldiers is putting up some numbers in its own right and may have a future.
     
  • Finally, the deck I was very high on last week Abzan has had a slow start. There were actually no Abzan decks in the reported lists until five days into the format, although that does reflect the incomplete sampling as I reported one 4-0 Abzan list from the first day of the format (I actually saw one person place with the exact 75 I reported, nice to see a reader doing well!). Still, Abzan is obviously nowhere near as dominant as I thought it may be, it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

Deck spotlight - Jeskai

As in standard, the colour wedge formerly known as American, Jeskai, is tearing up the early block constructed metagame. In my set review and early brewing, I hypothesized that an aggressive/tempo Jeskai deck built around Mantis Rider and Seeker of the Way could get there, I was just unconvinced by the much poorer mana and burn in block compared to Standard. The former hasn't proven to be an issue in the overall slower block format and as for the latter? I was right, the burn in block is indeed almost completely unplayable. Turns out the deck doesn't need it:

On paper, this deck looks very similar to the heroic aggro decks from THS block constructed. You have a small number of threats, a shaky manabase for an aggro deck, a bunch of pump spells (of which the most important in a lot of situations is the (Gods' Willing) of this format, Feat of Resistance) and creatures that get naturally bigger when you play said pump spells. Strangely enough, it seems to play vastly better than the UW heroic decks ever did. I have no idea why this deck just feels like it works whereas the UW heroic decks never quite did. Perhaps the fact that you have so many more multi-coloured lands makes a big difference, even if you are playing an extra colour. There's also the interesting feature (in this link at least) that one of your Heroic, I mean, Prowess-enablers also makes a bunch of creatures which is nice. Anyway, some specific comments on the list itself.

The creatures that make the cut here have proven themselves in multiple formats. While Monastery Swiftspear is a lot more exciting when it's being powered up by cheap cantrips and Lightning Bolt in legacy, Defiant Strike here does surprisingly good work here as the "white Brainstorm". Ok, so no one has ever called it that ever, and I'll admit that it's about 100x worse, but they don't seem to print one mana cantrips at blue anymore - AVR was the last time in a block format if you were wondering, and a cookie if you can name it without a search - and this one does its jobs quite well (triggering prowess to trade up or eat blockers, card velocity, extra damage) . I've seen some other lists run Jeskai Elder as another body, the one here seems to forego that in favour of Hordeling Outburst which is an interesting option in a field full of decks going tall with Savage Knuckleblades, Siege Rhinos rather than wide, which makes the triple-token producer somewhat more valuable. I don't think you want to run any more creatures such as Jeskai Windscout, you start losing the density of non-creature spells that you need to make your prowess guys a constant threat to blockers.

This list has a few ways to get through blockers beyond triggering prowess a bunch of times. Singing Bell Strike deals with most problems for as long as you actually care about them. Some lists opt for Suspension Field maindeck, I've found that card getting worse and worse in a field full of BWr warriors and Jeskai mirrors where it has few targets, which may be why it's left in the side here. Feat of resistance is also an absolutely amazing card, giving your prowess creatures +2/+2 and protection for the turn which frequently enables them to just eat opposing blockers. Saving your Mantis Rider from an Abzan Charm or whatever in the later game isn't bad either; consider waiting to play your threat until you have two extra mana if you have one of the threat-light hands that this deck frequently has to deal with. Out of the board you can bring Ride Down in against decks with larger creatures, and Arc Lightning for those with smaller ones; both of which could be played in the maindeck under the right circumstances. One additional option to consider is Crippling Chill, cantripping is really nice on this effect.

Finally, the one thing that this list has which the UW heroic decks never did is reach. While the burn that can target creatures in the format is pretty awful, both Jeskai Charm and Crater's Claws do a pretty good job of finishing the game off if you get in your early hits. You'll very rarely trigger ferocious on Crater's Claws (a prior-turn Feat of Resistance on your Seeker of the Way is the only somewhat realistic scenario), but it's fine without it. This reach is very important to the deck's ability to win after your opponent has stabilised the early rush, and without it the deck simply wouldn't exist. Treasure Cruise (some decks are running Dig Through Time instead) is also another form of late-game reach, refueling your hand when you and your opponent are in topdeck mode is obviously a great way to close out a game.

As mentioned earlier, this isn't the only version of the Jeskai deck going around. There's a more controlling version, piloted by 2013 MOCS winner Dimitri Butakov and a few copycats subsequently:

I always sit up and take notice when top players or notable MTGO grinders play block, as their deck choices have got to be respected. This though? this is insanity. I had vague thoughts that Jeskai control might be viable before the release of the set, but Dimitri must be a much better player than me and/or good at running if he can make this work. Ok, ok, he's clearly a much better player than me but this is still insanity. Let's take a short tour of cards in this set which this deck effectively can't beat:

And that's without even mentioning the planeswalkers and token makers (Hordeling Outburst, Mardu Hordechief). Control decks only work if they have cost-effective answers to the cheap threats that oppose them and then a source of inevitability in the long game (which could take the form of a combo win). From my testing with this list, the first problem with it is a chronic lack of answers to the main 2-drop threats of the format. In addition to the above list (of which Chief of the Edge is particularly brutal), even Heir of the Wilds and Seeker of the way were incredibly frustrating. Both suspension Field and Disdainful Stroke are great at gaining tempo against large/expensive threats, but really bad against grizzly bears, which will kill you just fine . It might be too much to ask for a Doom Blade or Lightning Bolt, but even a Lightning Strike or something awful like Debilitating Injury would make this deck massively better. In the absence of effective 2-cost answers, you're forced to spend 3-mana to take our your opponent's main two drops, meaning they resolve their three/four drops in peace, not a good thing when it's something like Temur Ascendancy, Ashcloud Phoenix or Sorin which need to be Cancelled to be answered effectively. You couple all this with the fact that the deck doesn't close out games very fast at all (funnily enough, Dig Through Time is not a particularly fast win-con even by comparison to Sphinx's Revelation) and it's possible to even lose games which you've completely stabilised and outdrawn your opponent by half a dozen cards, which is utterly depressing for a control deck.

I will say, though, that the deck does play with one card which I hoped might be playable in my set review and which finds a really nice home here in some post-board matchups. Guess the morph:

That's right, it's everyone's favourite Spelljack-on-a-stick, Kheru Spellsnatcher. If you ever get to fire it off, it's just the sweetest feeling in the world. It might be a win-more, but if you ever get to the point where you've completely stabilised the game, it's a really nice way to stop your opponent from topdecking an answer.

Anyway, that's not all to say this control deck can't win games, obviously. End Hostilities can be very nice in the format and this is the only deck that plays four maindeck at the moment. I also like that the deck goes a long way to blanking despise even pre-board, which punishes Abzan and BW(r) players running it maindeck. I just think that either the card pool isn't quite there for this deck yet, or maybe it needs to look at dropping red for black - you lose a tri-land, but gain a fetch and a bunch of good removal. What I don't recommend though is copying Butakovs list and thinking it will work for you, there's a slight chance he's a better Magic player than you or me!

Conclusion

Even if I didn't like the control version, the tempo Jeskai deck is clearly a player in the metagame and should be expected to keep putting up numbers. The exact maindeck list is far from settled, but as the field becomes a little more settled this list should too so if you're a fan of the deck's playstyle then keep an eye out.

PS - huge thanks to Paul Leicht for his decklist editor with working links for KTK cards!