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Building Blocks: Black-Red-Blue and Black-White-Blue

Zvi Mowshowitz

Going into Tokyo, we expected Black-Red-Blue to be the most popular deck. The strategy is based in U-B, and the biggest gains from red are Void, Terminate and Urza's Rage. The version that posted the best record was played by Frederico Bastos:

Frederico Bastos

Main Deck
Sideboard
7 Island
4 Mountain
4 Salt Marsh
3 Swamp
4 Terminal Moraine
4 Urborg Volcano
	
3 Pyre Zombie
	
4 Fact or Fiction
2 Lobotomy
3 Probe
4 Recoil
4 Spite and Malice
2 Terminate
4 Undermine
3 Urza's Rage
3 Void
2 Yawgmoth's Agenda
	
2 Cremate
3 Gainsay
1 Lobotomy
3 Slay
1 Terminate
1 Tsabo's Decree
4 Urborg Shambler
	


Bastos
When looking at decks that do well at Pro Tours, especially Block Pro Tours and especially the Top 8, it's a fair bet that they're pretty good decks. If they weren't, how could the deck have survived fourteen rounds? But that doesn't always hold true. Sometimes the decks that make it to the final day are played by better players, by players who understand them better or just plain old get lucky. Without having actually tested Bastos' version of Black-Red-Blue, I'm going to come out and say this is one of those times. This is not a seriously flawed version of the deck, and he's either a very good or a very lucky player, and probably both. An alternative version was used by Eric Taylor, who drew up one game in the last round to finish in 22nd, which was the next highest finish for the deck type:


Eric Taylor

Main Deck
Sideboard
10 Island
4 Mountain
4 Salt Marsh
4 Swamp
4 Urborg Volcano
	
2 Crosis, the Purger
	
4 Fact or Fiction
2 Lobotomy
4 Opt
4 Recoil
2 Spite and Malice
2 Terminate
4 Undermine
3 Urza's Rage
4 Void
3 Yawgmoth's Agenda
	
1 Crosis, the Purger
2 Disrupt
2 Flametongue Kavu
4 Gainsay
2 Lobotomy
4 Ravenous Rats
	

The biggest error in Bastos's decklist is in his land base. Terminal Moraine is simply too slow. If this deck has two problems, they are its mana base and potential loss of tempo. The deck cannot afford to sacrifice much time to help fix its other problem. Undermine requires Blue ManaBlue ManaBlack Mana on the third turn, which Terminal Moraine cannot provide, making it very hard to play it and use it only if the mana isn't needed that turn. Terminate is two mana, both of them colored and both of those colors minor. With so much need for all the deck's colors early and often, Terminal Moraine is far too dangerous, even though that may sound like it should have the opposite effect. Spending three mana eventually is one thing, but needing to spend it early on in order to operate at all is another, and drawing multiples is a disaster. Against R/G and other aggressive decks (including decks like The Solution, which in this matchup becomes completely offensive) time is of the essence. The other deck comes out faster, and whether the Black-Red-Blue deck can survive the early attack will determine who wins the game. Yet another argument comes from Probe, which Eric Taylor chose not to use because of its inability to be cast as an instant under Yawgmoth's Agenda. If the deck has Probe, it's much better to use it turn three to find colored mana than to have to use Terminal Moraine.


Black-White-Blue is often called 'Gomar'
After that, the other decisions come down to judgement and metagame calls, and it's much harder to determine who is right and who is wrong. Choosing Pyre Zombie as the only kill card in a deck with Yawgmoth's Agenda is slow and dangerous, but in a control deck, the kill generally isn't very important. After sideboarding, the Zombies were probably often switched out for Urborg Shambler, which keeps opposing copies of Pyre Zombie in check. That's also the purpose of Cremate, which he described as a poor sideboard choice. The rest of his decisions come down to numbers, and his decision on which cards were more important to consistently draw than others.

On to the other control deck. For me, the biggest surprise of the tournament was that Black-White-Blue didn't fall completely flat on its face. It's no secret that before the tournament I had zero respect for the deck. When I was asked for advice by a group that was going to play the deck, I tried as hard as I could to talk them out of it. The deck's mana base is horrible, with huge color commitments in three colors that running eight dual lands doesn't even come close to solving. It has a big speed problem. Because of the nature of its best available spells, the deck is forced to play a large number of spells dedicated to stopping creatures, giving it what I felt were extremely poor matchups against other control decks. To top all that off, the deck had to rely on Dromar the Banisher in order to finish players off. But despite all of those problems, both Frank Canu and Wilifred Ranque got the chance to play for the Top 8 in the last round. Both drew, and narrowly missed out on the final day. Canu ran out of time against Benefal, which was all Benefal needed to make it, and Ranque was somehow talked into accidentally drawing into ninth with Federico Bastos. So in practice it's not totally junk after all. Here are their decklists:

Frank Canu

Main Deck
Sideboard
4 Coastal Tower
8 Island
7 Plains
4 Salt Marsh
3 Swamp
	
2 Dromar, the Banisher
4 Galina's Knight
	
4 Absorb
4 Dromar's Charm
1 Exclude
4 Fact or Fiction
2 Hobble
2 Lobotomy
4 Opt
1 Repulse
2 Rout
2 Spite and Malice
3 Teferi's Moat
	
3 Aura Blast
3 Crusading Knight
2 Disrupt
1 Dromar, the Banisher
2 Gainsay
1 Lobotomy
2 Riptide Crab
1 Rout
	

Wilfried Ranque

Main Deck
Sideboard
8 Island
6 Plains
3 Swamp
4 Salt Marsh
4 Coastal Tower
	
2 Dromar, the Banisher
4 Galina's Knight
	
4 Absorb
4 Dromar's Charm
2 Exclude
4 Fact or Fiction
2 Hobble
2 Lobotomy
3 Opt
2 Repulse
3 Rout
1 Rushing River
1 Spite and Malice
1 Yawgmoth's Agenda
	
2 Aura Blast
3 Crusading Knight
1 Disrupt
4 Gainsay
1 Lobotomy
2 Slay
2 Voldalian Zombie
	

Like the Crimson Acolytes in The Solution, these versions' main innovation is using maindeck Galina's Knight to fight Tokyo's avalanche of red, which the majority of the versions that made it to Day 2 used. In this case, it served a second purpose as well, which was to give the deck a turn two play. Without Galina's Knight, this deck is stuck with everything costing three or more mana. If an aggressive deck starts dropping serious threats on turn two, the Black-White-Blue deck might well never catch up, although it does have Rout and often Teferi's Moat to give it a chance. Fujita's deck used Addle and Prohibit to solve the same problem.

After that, the deck does one thing and does it well, which is stop threats and in particular stop creatures. Opt and Fact or Fiction provide search. Spite/Malice, Dromar's Charm and Absorb are great all-purpose counters. The deck could use Undermine, but it clearly needs the three life from Absorb a lot and needs a lot of white because of Rout, while it wants to at least hold black mana requirements to a minimum and has almost no use for life loss. If this deck can do 14, it can normally do 20. Repulse, Exclude, Rout, Hobble and sometimes even a Rushing River provide the dedicated anti-creature slots, and while the deck doesn't use four of any of those it's still a lot of dedicated cards. In many ways the Galina's Knights are included because they'll just draw what would otherwise be dead removal spells.

That leaves only two Lobotomy behind to fight control battles with the counters, not counting the omnipresent Fact or Fiction or Opt. Dromar's Charm definitely helps out, allowing the deck to have nine or ten real counters where most of the versions without white are stuck with six to eight. But can that make up for cards like Void? I would have thought no way. Can it deal with a Pyre Zombie? There doesn't seem to be a way without protecting a Galina's Knight or Dromar, or forcing through Lobotomy if the opponent is careless. Then there's Yawgmoth's Agenda. It would appear that even a minimally prepared Black-Red-Blue deck would crush this deck dead. Whether that actually happened, I can't say, but the deck clearly did well.

The sideboards just emphasize what the deck already does well, making it do whichever of them is important in this match even better. Gainsay and Disrupt can add countermagic, or there can be more cheap defensive creatures or more removal. They also included Aura Blast, but that failed to prove relevant.

The other big contrast between these two lists is that Ranque did not use Teferi's Moat in either the maindeck or the sideboard, a very unusual choice for a deck type that exists for a lot of people largely in order to use the Moat. There are two possible reasons for not using it. Either enchantment removal was expected because of Domain (or Moat), or he was trying to minimize the number of dedicated anti-creature cards.

Before moving on to anti-control tactics, another version should be noted, because it was used by none other than World Champion Jon Finkel, although he did not do well:

Jon Finkel

Main Deck
Sideboard
3 Coastal Tower
1 Dromar's Cavern
7 Island
6 Plains
4 Salt Marsh
3 Swamp
	
2 Dromar, the Banisher
	
4 Absorb
4 Dromar's Charm
4 Fact or Fiction
2 Lobotomy
4 Opt
2 Recoil
4 Rout
2 Spite and Malice
4 Star Compass
2 Teferi's Moat
2 Yawgmoth's Agenda
	
1 Dismantling Blow
4 Disrupt
3 Hobble
1 Lobotomy
4 Meddling Mage
2 Teferi's Moat
	

This is clearly the same deck type, but there was one major differences. Galina's Knight is missing, with Star Compass as its replacement. The problem there is that in a deck where everything costs three, it's a very open question how valuable it is to accelerate to four mana. After that, the decks are very close to each other. Gainsay is missing from the sideboard in favor of Disrupt, and Meddling Mage is a stand in for Galina's Knight. The fourth Coastal Tower is missing for a single Dromar's Cavern. In the grand scheme of things, these are minor differences for decks that doubtless were created separately, but they again show how important small changes are in Block Constructed. I've since learned where this deck came from - it was designed by Eric Kesselman, who tried to talk Finkel out of playing it to no avail as he felt it wasn't tuned enough to play.

Terminate is a precious resource, since it kills almost everything in the format. It's painful to waste that on a 2/1 creature.

Once again, the question becomes how to play against and defeat these decks. The obvious response is to beat them with speed, since they are both control decks with expensive but powerful spells. That's the R-G plan against them, along with most non-control decks in the format. The speed to beat is one spell a turn starting on turn two under ideal conditions, which means that if all of them directly affect the board the plan probably won't work without an amazing draw. Normally at least one of them won't, but a bigger advantage is needed to kill them before they can stabilize. To combat that, the control deck has problems. One of them is that it's much more likely to miss its early drops than a deck with 12+ of them available for turn two. Another is that Terminate is a precious resource, since it kills almost everything in the format. It's painful to waste that on a 2/1 creature. With Galina's Knight, the flip side is vulnerability, in particular to Thornscape Battlemage but to other non-red removal as well, and that again it's too valuable to trade lightly with early creatures, although it's often necessary. The Solution needs a heavy sideboard against Black-Red-Blue and is in trouble against Black-White-Blue, because without the pure speed of R-G or its ability to launch haste creatures, these strategies have enough time to work.

The second possibility is to nullify these decks' strategy, which is possible because both strategies are based on creature removal. The Black-White-Blue has more vulnerable cards here than the Black-Red-Blue, although it isn't vulnerable to Protection from Red. If a deck can render some or all of its opponent's cards useless and then trade off, it will win, which is what Crimson Acolyte and Meddling Mage try to do here for The Solution. After sideboarding, the ultimate in anti-removal technology is Pure Reflection. A Reflection token can be removed, but aside from Rout it's virtually impossible to kill it with the same card that kills the creature itself, which means that the removal will run out quickly. A creatureless deck would be the ideal way to go about making the removal irrelevant, or at least a deck that doesn't care about its creatures living until after the fight is already over. Black-Red-Blue itself is often a deck like this. Domain can be another, with its threats being both huge and hard to deal with with single creature removal spells. Pyre Zombie is a Rout for B-R, forcing these decks on a clock they often can't keep up with. The third way, of course, is to beat them at their own game, which is closely linked to the second method. When two decks like this face off it becomes a battle between the few cards that matter, and whoever has more of them has a huge advantage.

After those decks, those that remain are the two decks that made the finals, U/B and W/U, both of which made it that far by being responses to the decks already mentioned. After that, there are other deck types that failed to make an impression, the most important being Domain. Domain failed for a number of reasons, not the least of which was its horrendous mana base that it was forced to live with to be a Domain deck in the first place, but I mention it often because its influence can be seen in many other designs due to fear that 'there's a good Domain deck out there,' even though it turned out there wasn't. It forces these reactions because it presents a unique challenge, which is much harder to evaluate than the standard battles against control decks like these. When I discuss W-U, I'll look further into this type of impact - what I'm going to call a 'deck in being.'



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