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Attention to Detail #17
A Controlling Interest
by Jordan Kronick
April 14, 2006

It seems like just yesterday that the buzz among all the Magic writers was the impending release of Guildpact. The second set of Ravnica block gave us a few new guilds with some interesting new abilities. Everyone marveled at Bloodthirst, Replicate and Haunt and quickly tried to figure out how best to make use of the new mechanics. Casual and tournament players alike agreed that Angel of Despair was really, really cool. We've barely had time to breathe since then. People are still trying to figure out exactly how the RRG draft format works, and suddenly it's time for Dissension previews. Through both official and – shall we say – less official sources, information on the final three guilds of Ravnica has started to roll in. With every card that is revealed, opinions shift as to what the dominant decks in the block constructed format will be, and what the shape of Standard will be for the next year – or at least the next three months before we get yet another addition to the format, this time in the form of Coldsnap.

As I've mentioned before in this column, my greatest interest as concerns new sets this year is the Block Constructed format. I've always been a big fan of the smaller format. It combines the atmosphere of a Standard tournament with the more homogenous card pool of Limited. Aaron Forsythe pointed out in a column a month or so back that until recently, most Standard decks were really just dolled up Block Constructed decks. Block mechanics, for the most part, function best when combined with more cards in the same vein. The cycling decks of Onslaught block didn't have much use for the non-cycling cards of the surrounding blocks. The blue-green tempo decks and machinehead decks of Invasion Block Constructed worked best when utilizing the powerful multicolored cards of their own block when translated to Standard. The same can be said for the artifact-based strategies of Mirrodin or the Tribal decks of Onslaught. Wizards R&D has said that they are trying to increase the inter-block playability. This is why there are so many spirits in Ravnica – so that they will more easily fit in with the spiritcraft and soulshift cards of Kamigawa. One can expect that Time Spiral (this fall's large expansion) will find a way to work with the multicolored theme of Ravnica, without directly borrowing the theme. Still, even with this interconnectivity, block-based decks still look to be dominant on the scene of Standard. What that means is that the most exciting new decks of Standard are often decks which can be replicated (no pun intended) into Block Constructed.

Dissension seemingly doesn't pull the format in any particular direction. The three new guilds seem to be designed with balance in mind. The Azorious pull the format in a slower more thoughtful control direction, while the Rakdos pull it in a fast-paced aggressive direction. The Simic seem to be built with an eye for combo but, as I've stated before, Block Constructed is never a friendly place for combo decks. At the time I'm writing this, the spoiler sites and Magicthegathering.com have revealed to us 45 of the 180 cards that make up Dissension. A fairly even split among the guilds has been found, but I have to say I'm most excited about the Azorious. Any frequent reader of Attention to Detail knows my love of control decks. Particularly of the classic control scheme – white/blue. It seems like every Azorious card that is released makes me break out in a fit of evil laughter. Black may be the color of demons and immorality, but anyone who's fallen victim to an old school control strategy will tell you that White and Blue are the colors of evil.

With that in mind, I take a look at the first officially revealed card to use the new Azorious mechanic – Forecast. It's a heck of a card, and it does a lot of the things a good control card should do. Here's what it reads like, if you haven't seen it for yourself:

Pride of the Clouds – 2WU

Creature – Elemental Cat
Pride of the Clouds gets +1/+1 for each other creature in play with Flying.
Forecast – 2WU, Reveal Pride of the Clouds from your hand: Put a 1/1 white and blue Bird creature token with Flying into play. (Play this ability only during your upkeep and only once each turn.)

The mechanic is pretty easy to understand fundamentally. It's another one of those pseudo-keywords, where everything is written out on the card. Basically you get to spend mana during you upkeep to make a bird, if this is in your hand. That's pretty handy. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, after all. I apologize for that joke, but it had to be said. Let's look a bit more closely at just what this card does. At it's core, it is a 2-drop flying creature. That's pretty standard, or even a little bit substandard as a 1/1. Of course, if you're doing things right, it will probably be much larger than that. Even as a 2/2 flying for 2 mana, that's a heck of a deal. In a deck with a large number of cheap flying creatures, that could be a heck of a beater. Beating down with a quick swarm isn't what this was built for, though. It's a rare, after all, and it's not just because of the power and toughness. When you want to swing with the Pride, you want an army backing it up. However, unlike similar cards like Radiant, Archangel, the Pride brings it's own army. It's a slow build up, of course. You probably don't want to start making tokens with this on turn 4, as that's a big price to pay for a small creature. Instead, you want to save the Forecasting for the midgame, after you've established control. This Forecast ability has the potential to be a huge drag on your mana supply. I'll come back to that later, and I think this is going to be an imporant consideration for the White-Blue deck of the future.

White-Blue control has historically had a reputation for being very creature-light. The theory goes that if you control the game completely, you only need one creature. Pride of the Clouds fits this very nicely, as one creature becomes many. The question of quantity then needs to be addressed. Oftentimes blue control decks will only run a couple copies of their kill creature, so as to make room for more control. The most recent Standard decks to feature blue control use things like Keiga and Meloku as kill cards. The legendary status of those creatures adds to this reasoning, and the decks usually only run a couple copies of either creature. I think a different reasoning strangely applies to the Pride of the Clouds. I say strangely, because the Forecast effect is somewhat less useful in multiples. It's unlikely that you're going to have enough mana to produce two birds every turn, even if having two allows you to do so. Eight mana is a big investment. However, having two doesn't make for a dead card. Far from it. It allows you to put on a bit of pressure. While you're building up that army, having a second copy means you can play a big one too. The extremely cheap cost means you won't have to give up your bird production hopefully, or at the very least you'll have mana enough to protect your Pride.

Mana – that's the real hot button issue. Conterspells and card draw used to be a lot cheaper. And the card draw used to happen at instant speed. Even the token generators used to work as an instant. Look at Decree of Justice for an example of that. If you want to protect yourself and keep control, you're going to need a lot of mana. White and Blue are notorious for having the worst mana acceleration of any two colors. Black has the older fast mana like Dark Ritual. Red has the more recent fast mana like Seething Song. And green, of course, is the king when it comes to speeding things up. That doesn't mean that all is lost, however. Remember that you're playing a slow game. You want to control the pace and make sure that you're moving at a steady clip. You don't need to bust out quickly, as long as you bust out steadily. Ravnica provides us with a perfect card for this. The key to maintaining a steady pace is to make your land drop every turn. Most often this is accomplished by drawing lots of cards. But Ravnica gives us the “karoos” - the common bounce-lands. Each one is like two land drops. In recent months, karoos have proven somewhat ineffective in Block Constructed, due to maindeck land destruction from the Green-White-Black control decks. However, the decks that were getting their lands destroyed didn't have any way of stopping it from happening. As a Blue-White control player, stopping things from happening is your prime objective. And once you've got the land advantage, you can keep control while you Forecast your way to victory.

I'm not quite done talking about mana. There's another new Azorious card which has mana advantage written all over it. Those of you who read the rumor sites will know immediately that I'm talking about the leader of the guild, Grand Arbiter Augustin IV. Here's what he says, in case you haven't seen my new favorite card of Ravnica block:

Grand Arbiter Augustin IV – 2WU
Legendary Creature – Human Advisor
White spells you play cost 1 less to play.
Blue spells you play cost 1 less to play.
Spells your opponents play cost 1 more to play.

That is, as they say, a hum-dinger. All your stuff gets cheaper, all your opponent's stuff gets more expensive. Suddenly your Mana Leaks only cost 1 mana, while your opponent's removal becomes more vulnerable to the Leak. Sounds like a great combination to me. Of course, we don't have a Mana Leak in Ravnica. We have to settle for (so far) a much poorer set of counters. This is going to be a hindrance to the deck. However, there's still 135 cards to be revealed from Dissension. I'm still holding out hope that the counterspells will be in there, and the deck will have a place in the coming format. Augustin has spurred something of a debate among fans of control. Some see it as a great way of maintaining control. Some see it as a liability. Control elements tend to be instants and sorceries. Ways of controlling the board in short spurts. Augustin provides us with a control element that needs to be protected. That's a bit different from what some people are used to. I'm of the mind that it's still a good card. Of course, you don't want to drop this on turn 4 with no way of preventing it from being destroyed. It's a big target for a Putrefy, and 1 extra mana isn't going to stop that from happening. Augustin make himself easy to protect, though. Let's look at the most popular counterspell so far released in Ravnica block. Remand costs 1U. That's a perfect cost for Augustin. He turns it into a 1-mana counter that can stop anything temporarily. Temporarily is great when Augustin is around, though. If you drop this on turn 5, with one mana as backup against a tapped out opponent, it's extremely unlikely that they'll find a way to stop it before you can untap again and establish more complete control. The jury's still out on whether or not the judge is any good, but I'm voting in his favor.

Enough speculation. Let's try to do something with these cards. Or at least one of them. I've got a deck in mind that I want to make an argument for to make the best of the Grand Arbiter. He reminds me of two earlier cards from Ravnica block which seemingly provided a hint as to the future of the Azorious. I'm talking about Spelltithe Enforcer and Loxodon Gatekeeper. People have already tried to combine these two cards into decks, with limited success. I think the time for them to shine could be now, however. The Gatekeeper means that your opponent is severely slowed in mana development, and haste creatures become irrelevant. The Spelltithe Enforcer punishes them for playing their most expensive cards. Augustin further complicates matters, by making even cheap things more expensive. Eventually your opponent ends up in a position where casting anything more expensive than a two drop becomes a painful endeavor.

Let's start out with the trio themselves. Augustin is legendary, so three copies should do nicely. He's important to the deck, so two probably won't cut it.

3x Grand Arbiter Augustin IV
4x Spelltithe Enforcer
4x Loxodon Gatekeeper

Protecting these guys can go a couple of ways. More permanent control like Privileged Position is possible, but the high end mana costs are pretty well locked down for this deck, and it's probably best to try something a bit cheaper. Ravnica gives us the perfect card, though. A deck like this make bounce spells particularly devastating, as they severely slow things down. To that end, Peel From Reality is the perfect choice. When Augustin is around, it only costs 1 mana, and it can save one of the control elements while simultaneously removing one of your opponent's threats. Besides that, how about Repeal. It also becomes cheaper when Augustin is around, and gives us a cantrip too.

4x Peel From Reality
4x Repeal

Sometimes though, there's something in play that you just don't want coming back again and a gain. Bounce works great against a creature like Rumbling Slum, but it's not going to cut it if your opponent's got themselves a creature with a comes-into-play effect. To that end, we want Faith's Fetters. It's control and it slows things down. It's hard to express how useful this card can truly be. So let's add 4 of them.

4x Faith's Fetters

It can't be all control, though. Ending up in a topdecking match against an opponent when your creatures don't affect the board position but merely slow it down is no good. We need some card draw, too. The repeals help in this respect, but something a bit more substantial is necessary. We could use a large-scale drawing card like Train of Thought, but that's not quite spicy enough. Instead, I recommend Compulsive Research. The three mana cost means that it can happen before you start playing the elephants and judges, and it will get cheaper when the Arbiter is around, too.

4x Compulsive Research

This deck is still looking pretty high on the back end. The removal is cheap and the creatures are expensive. We need something that's going to let us survive the first few turns long enough to get to our control. To that end, I recommend a wall. I think the best choice here is Vertigo Spawn. It only costs two mana, so the price is right. It has the potential to slow the beatdown quite a bit, as well. In it goes.

4x Vertigo Spawn

We're at 31 cards so far, and there's still a couple things I want to put in. First of all, the deck needs something flashy. The three rare control elements aren't bad, but they're nuts and bolts. And they also top out at three power. We're going to need something to help kill the opponent, too. And while we're at it, why not a bit more control as well? For our purposes here, I think the right choice is Dream Leash. It can steal anything you want when the Gatekeeper is around, and that's not bad. Against a mana deprived opponent, it could even be used to steal a karoo, further solidifying the position.

4x Dream Leash

35 cards. I think there's two more card to put in. And the speed of the deck is still a concern, so I think it's time for a pair of signets.

2x Azorious Signet

Throw in 23 land, and that's the deck. The blue-white shockland would be a nice addition here. Maybe even the blue-white guildhall will make the cut. This deck only uses two cards from Dissension so far, since there's a limited supply to pick from. I'll revisit this deck in a couple weeks to see how things panned out. If I can get together the card stock, maybe I'll even try to build it.

That's it for this week. I hope you enjoyed the look at what the future of a format might look like. Forecasting is, after all, the act of predicting future climates. I'm sure by this time next week the spoiler sites will have assembled nearly all of Dissension. And then we can find out if a bird in the hand really is worth two in the bush. I'm sorry to reuse the same joke, but control isn't about dynamic actions after all. Until next week, may things stay just the same.


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