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The Season
By Stephen Bahl
This article has been a long time coming. It was actually one of the first articles that I'd wanted to write for the Comboist Manifesto, but I put it off. I liked the idea, but actually turning it into a good article would be problematic. My plan for this article was to tell a story—better yet, a true story. But the problems crop up with the pesky details: I wasn't a principal player in the story, the whole thing happened over a decade ago, my memory of this is fuzzy, and I've really never been sure what kind of point I wanted to make. So, I have my own incomplete recollection, years later, of second-hand accounts. I have no compelling message or theme with which to bring details together into a coherent narrative.

Yeah, this seems totally doable. I'm just going to throw the digital equivalent of ink at the digital equivalent of paper and see what happens. With my recent output ranging from nonexistent to imaginary, this actual article should probably be considered a success. Is it plausible for me to assert that this has been my plan all along? One can't really set the bar lower than “absolutely nothing.”

Before I begin my tale of the days of yore, I should explain Block Constructed formats. Block Constructed formats are akin to a miniature Standard, with card pools consisting exclusively of a single block for each type of Block Constructed. It seems that experienced Magic players are familiar with the concept, but the vast majority of players, myself included, haven't actually participated in official Block Constructed events. In theory, any Block Constructed format could still be played, as each one is its own sanctioned format. In practice, they were never very popular formats, and the players who did participate in Block Constructed only did so for the sake of those events where tournament organizers incentivized them to do so. As a casual observer, I always thought that, in principle, Block Constructed was more interesting than the more popular Constructed formats, Standard and Extended. The card pool for each Block Constructed format was fixed and had its own themes and mechanics, since the sets in each block were designed to fit together as a unit.

Although Block Constructed formats started being sanctioned before the block design concept had even solidified (in 1996, with Ice Age and Alliances as a block long before Cold Snap existed), they never really took off. Why not? Analyzing the history of obscure Magic formats is subjective and I'm sure that many factors contributed, but I'd lump them into two major issues. Firstly, players prefer more options over fewer. Secondly, Block Constructed suffered from identity problems due to the nature of its support structure and utilization in tournaments.

Players Want Options

The Magic community is diverse, and even for bizarre, fringe formats, some fraction of players will, given the chance, delve into those formats. However, broadly speaking, players prefer to have more options up until the costs for having those options weigh against their other interests. For example, a Standard player may resist making the jump to Modern because they hesitate to invest more money into cards, or because they find the metagame overwhelming. But because they don't have to give up their favorite cards on rotation and because they get a bigger pool of cards to build with, many players do make the jump. As the format with the most official support, Standard offers players more options in terms of where and when they can play, and the (relatively) inexpensive monetary deck costs provide more options for the budget-minded than in formats that have larger card pools. This is an oversimplification of the appeal of different formats to players, but it does address some very important aspects of what players want.

Block Constructed was in the awkward position of having the smallest cardpool of any officially sanctioned format, less than half the size of Standard, and offering no other form of options to compensate for the deckbuilding constraints. In theory, Block Constructed isn't just one format, but a set of mini-formats that showcases the distilled elements of card design from each block. In practice, only the most recent block was available for Block Constructed tournaments, only for part of the year, and it coincided with that same block's appearance in Standard.

The Identity Crisis of Block Constructed

By the time Block Constructed was created, Standard (then known as Type 2), had been around for well over a year. Standard was the most supported format. Both Standard and Block Constructed used current cards. It made more sense for tournament players to focus on building decks for the more popular, better established, more supported format. So most tournament players only paid attention to Block Constructed when they had to. Ultimately, when Mark Rosewater was asked about the discontinuation of support for Block Constructed, he explained, “Block Constructed has proven over time to be an unpopular format almost exclusively played because we required it at Pro Tours and PT Qualifiers. Players almost never played it of their own volition.”

As a casual player, I most of the times that I saw any references to Block Constructed, it was in complete lists for DCI bans and restrictions. Because Block Constructed formats were official, the cards that were banned in them did show up in magazines and on websites, even if hardly anyone was actually talking about the formats themselves. However, there was one other place where this obscure tournament format caught my attention, and it has to do with the time when this casual player almost became a tournament player...

The Standard Off-Season

I'm a casual player through and through. I often tell people that I'm a Legacy player, because I've been following that format pretty closely since its inception, mostly through the internet. But time an circumstances have put me in a spot where I'll probably never be a serious Legacy tournament player. I attended one Legacy tournament last year. I might attend another one this year, or perhaps I won't.

I started playing Magic in 1997, and actively participated in casual playgroups with friends from 1998 to 2006. Then there just weren't enough people to play with: my Magic-playing friends had all either moved or had quit the game. When I went to tournaments back then, it was mostly a social thing, showing up to a tournament with a couple of friends who'd tested decks with me, seeing if any of us could collect prizes or trade for cards we could use to complete decks-in-the-making.

Going to a Magic tournament by myself feels weird. And while I have been following Legacy since its inception, I'm a meticulous sort of player who likes to grind out a lot of playtesting to get comfortable playing a deck. Since I lost the last of my Magic playgroups around 2006, I spent most of my time in college, lacking the time and funds to build competitive Legacy decks and test them to my satisfaction, assuming that I had the motivation to do so, which I didn't. These days, I'm no longer in school, but I've gone to a few tournaments and I find them more stressful than fun. Getting into the hobby of collecting cards again now that I can afford it has been easy.

Tournament gameplay hasn't been a hobby I've worked toward, not even in my format of choice. I was fanatical about Legacy from the start because it was a place where I could use all of my old cards and expand on concepts that I'd used in casual games (the old Type 1.5 was awkward and skewed by Mishra's Workshop). Many year's later, I'd go on to build a Standard-legal Jeskai Ascendancy deck as a novelty, but I had no interest in participating in rotating formats.

I watched my friends play with their Extended decks and such, but I didn't get involved. I wasn't a tournament player. Other than some reprinted staples, I didn't even own any Standard-legal cards! And yet, the one time that I almost became a tournament player was in, of all formats, Block Constructed.

Eventually, Wizards of the Coast would make changes to tournament structuring, core sets, FNM, and Block Constructed would fade into even greater obscurity. But for a while, there was a place where Block formats eked out their own little identity, in what was sometimes referred to as a “season.” As a casual player, I never quite caught when these things began and when they ended, but it had something to do with the Standard tournament and rotation schedules. There was “off-season” time when one block was going to rotate out of Standard and tournament organizers focused on the current Block Constructed format as filler before going back to Standard.

I couldn't tell you when this started, how widespread the concept was, or when it ended. All I know is that, in my local area, it was popular enough that a significant portion of the Standard players would briefly switch from Standard to Block Constructed. Among my circles of friends and acquaintances, the Block Constructed season of 2004 was the peak of this phenomenon. Not only were all of the tournament regulars enthusiastic about Block Constructed, but they were roping in their more casual friends. Like I said, I didn't own cards from Standard-legal sets at the time. My collection stopped at Prophecy and I didn't have money to buy cards. But I was still meeting up with playgroups, and when even the casual players were building Block Constructed decks and no one was interested in playing against my High Tide deck or my Necropotence deck, I naturally became a sort of designated playtest partner. It wasn't what I'd set out to do, but it was fun. A lot of fun, actually!

Affinity

Mirrodin Block introduced several powerful cards, with powerful decks based around them, that went on to change the game, but the elephant in the room has to be the interaction between Skullclamp and Arcbound Ravager. Artifact hate was strong enough in the block that these decks didn't completely dominate, but the archetype was unequivocally the strongest thing to be doing, and warped the Standard and Block Constructed environments. To compete, one had to either use Skullclamp or use a deck designed to beat Skullclamp. Affinity with Arcbound Ravager wasn't even the only concept to exploit Skullclamp. Another popular deck was essentially a kind of white weenie deck using Skullclamp to speed things up and generate card advantage. Skullclamp was such a powerful, versatile card, that there were probably several viable paths for it to appear in competitive decks, but Ravager Affinity had a sort of head start on the competition: it replaced the existing Broodstar Affinity archetype, being faster and more reliable while using many of the same tools.

In June of 2004, Skullclamp was banned. That wasn't enough to kill Affinity, the environment having enough blue spells to give Affinity decks access to the cards it needed, if not quite as quickly and abundantly as Skullclamp could manage. Arcbound Ravager and Atog were still potent kill conditions, especially with Disciple of the Vault to back them up. Affinity decks also got a new equipment to work with: Cranial Plating. At various points, Affinity was being outperformed by the competition, but it seemed that throughout the season, it was the archetype with a target painted on it. Being so utterly reliant on artifacts, Affinity decks might seem vulnerable to hate, and for such a high-profile archetype, that could be a big problem. But blowing up an artifact or two wasn't enough to stop Affinity and could scarcely even slow it down. I'm talking up Affinity and its incredible power, but earlier I mentioned that Mirrodin Block Constructed was fun. Most of the time, the format wasn't actually warped by Affinity, and Affinity pilots had to be careful, because they had some dangerous predators...

Tooth and Nail

Decks based around Tooth and Nail had existed before Fifth Dawn was released. The deck's iconic tools, Reap and Sow, Viridian Shaman, Solemn Simulacrum, Darksteel Colossus, Cloudpost, and so on were already around. And then along came Eternal Witness. Tooth and Nail just might be the most impressive archetype to come out of Mirrodin Block Constructed. Variants on the deck went on to wreak havoc in Standard and Extended. Affinity may have been faster, but Affinity was prone to artifact hate and had little room to pack its own disruption. Tooth and Nail decks could comfortably employ a disruption package to stop opponents from executing their own gameplans, while simultaneously ramping toward a big finish. Since they were built to generate lots of mana, most Tooth and Nail decks doubled as Mindslaver decks, using a few card slots to recur Mindslaver, a card that was deadly to just about everything else in the format.

One of my friends specialized in Tooth and Nail. I almost always lost to his deck. I even pitted my casual decks against it, figuring that my decks with cards going back from Prophecy all the way to the beginning of the game could surely overpower a deck that could only use cards from the three most recent sets. Tooth and Nail held its own, even then.

Big Red

Obviously red had Shatter and similar effects, but when it came to preying on Affinity, Big Red could do better. Much, much better. Furnace Dragon was a nightmare for artifact-heavy opponents, and not too shabby on its own, since Big Red also used artifact lands, Solemn Simulacrum, Pyrite Spellbomb, and some other artifacts. And of course, there were some red damage spells like Shrapnel Blast and Pulse of the Forge. Big Red could finish games with Fireball, Arc Slogger, or even Lightning Coils.

Big Red was the most popular deck with the people I knew. One of my friends played Big Red exclusively and at least two others played some version of it for part of the season. The Big Red vs. Tooth and Nail matchup was such a big consideration for Mirrodin Block Constructed players that it sometimes overshadowed the presence of Affinity, both archetypes having inherently strong matchups against Affinity builds. Despite considerable variation among Big Red builds, the archetype was rather predictable, so my impression is that players were generally able to accept the presence of the deck and account for it in their planning. Still, it seemed like Big Red was, throughout the season, one of the top decks.

Green Beatdown

This was a format with a lot of power, and much of that was tied to artifacts. The two colors with the most artifact destruction are traditionally red and green. While Tooth and Nail was the dominant green deck of the format, green had enough space to do more than just ramp into a nine-mana spell. Troll Ascetic, Tel-Jilad Chosen, Fangren Firstborn, and other green creatures provided efficient utility and power. With spells like Creeping Mold and Oxidize to deal with immediate threats, a reasonable array of small to medium-sized creatures to control the board, and enough artifact hate to stop the late game of most opponents, Green Beatdown could apply pressure in most matchups. It struggled against some of the decks that my friends played, but preyed on Affinity better than any of them.

To some extent, the Green Beatdown I saw was probably a result of people needing to play budget decks, as its lackluster matchup against Big Red (a very popular deck in my area, at least) made it a dangerous pick for tournaments. But if Affinity ever became too prevalent, Green Midrange was sure to be there to smack it back down to a normal level. This was also the default midrange deck of the format, capable of picking apart a fast deck and winning by having bigger creatures, while applying a threatening clock to slower decks.

March of the Machines

Is blue/white ever not control? I've been playing Magic for 19 years, and blue/white control is like a fixture. I don't think that I've ever seen a single blue/white deck that wasn't particularly controlling, and it seems like the slowest, most controlling deck in every format has been either blue, white, or both. Mirrodin Block Constructed had one. Being that Mirrodin Block Constructed was played in 2004, this deck came from a time when men were men, women were women, and control decks killed you with one flying creature, maybe two, while preventing you from doing anything meaningful to harm them. Not that I'm nostalgic or anything.

I didn't see much of this deck, but I think that my friends all thought that playing control was dirty or something. This deck had some powerful tools. To deal with the artifact-based acceleration of more aggressive decks in this format, there was the deck's main gimmick and namesake: March of the Machines. It nuked artifact lands to deal with an otherwise desperate matchup against Affinity, as well as turning the deck's Darksteel Ingot into an indestructible creature. Pristine Angel was the other creature of choice, and came with its own inherent form of protection. Annul was the best counter in the format, and the card advantage suite available in this format was actually pretty good. Blue/White Control probably took more skilled players to pilot it to success, but that's been true of control decks in general for a long time.

Death Cloud

My best friend played Death Cloud. The deck really struggled before Fifth Dawn, but picked up useful tools like Wayfarer's Bauble, Night's Whisper, Plunge into Darkness, Guardian Idol, and Devour in Shadow. Black was easily the best color for creature-killing in the format, but had a harder time against other permanents. Greater arvester could deal with some of them, but artifacts were always a problem for this deck. Death Cloud itself was seen as a successor to Pox, and players tried to take the same approach that older monoblack control decks had in other formats, but with modifications for the peculiarities of the format. Toward the end of the season, I think most Death Cloud players had added green as a support color for artifact hate. My friend never did that, but he did start focusing on other decks instead.

Death Cloud had a bad matchup against Big Red for most of the season, but my friend's deck, with sideboard, could handle them. Big Red was the most popular deck in our playgroup, so he was motivated to tune his deck against it. The problem was simply that red had a lot of damage cards, and Death Cloud decks used cards that depleted an already vulnerable life total, but cards like Consume Spirit and Plunge into Darkness could mitigate that. Death Cloud had a positive matchup against most versions of Tooth and Nail, playing better small creatures and having the tools to take out the big guys. The problem was that Death Cloud's worst matchup was Affinity, the format's most popular deck.

Ironworks

While my friend continued to work on his Death Cloud deck, he also looked into other options. He built an Ironworks combo deck (initially because it was something fast that could beat Affinity, and didn't require rares he didn't own) and wanted me to play it in tournaments. As we're all aware by now, I'm a sucker for combo decks. Most Block Constructed formats couldn't support a dedicated combo deck, but this one was an exception. Different versions of the deck ran different kills and even had different options for setting up the kill, but the constant was the use of cheap artifacts and acceleration alongside Krark-Clan Ironworks, generating large amounts of mana for a kill in a single turn. Typically, the sink for the mana would be either Myr Incubator or Goblin Charbelcher. Fireball, Goblin Cannon, and even Disciple of the Vault saw play in some cases as part of a kill. Krark-Clan Ironworks was the card that provided the big mana dump and gave the deck its namesake, but perhaps even more iconic for this archetype were Myr Retriever shenanigans. While actually killing someone required specific combinations of cards, Ironworks decks could make use of any artifact, and had the format's potent card selection spells and some artifact recursion.

My friend thought that I'd have fun playing Ironworks in tournaments. He already had the deck built. Eventually, he switched to it himself when monoblack Death Cloud seemed hopeless, but for a while, he was attached to Death Cloud himself and had me pegged as the person in our playgroup to pilot Ironworks. And really, I had no excuse: my friend had already built the deck for me! But I chose not to. I don't remember exactly what was going through my head, but I just couldn't be bothered to. So even though I'd have gotten to play in tournaments with my friends in a fast-paced environment that I was already familiar with, even playing combo, I abstained. I had some other crap going on and never actually competed in a single Block Constructed tournament. As these things do, the whole system rotated. I missed my chance. We got a new block, followed by another new block. By that point, most of my friends who'd played Magic had quit the game or moved somewhere else. And then Wizards of the Coast banned the entire field...

And then Wizards of the Coast banned everything

I'm exaggerating. Maybe. Kind of. In March of 2006, With Ravnica being the current block, the DCI banned nine cards in Mirrodin Block Constructed. I thought about linking to the announcement, but the WotC website it giving me an error on lots of pages because the website is a steaming pile of crap. Anyway, they banned the six artifact lands (Ancient Den, Seat of the Synod, Vault of Whispers, Great Furnace, Tree of Tales, and Darksteel Citadel), Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault, and Æther Vial. It took me an inordinately long amount of time to find it, because of aforementioned website issues, but Aaron Forsythe had an explanation for belatedly banning so many cards in an essentially defunct format...

quote:
Just when you didn't think it was possible, we banned “Affinity” cards in precisely the format that we thought we didn't have to ban them in: Mirrodin Block Constructed.

Why, you may be asking, are we banning the ultra-powerful Ancient Den* in Block when that was two blocks ago? A fine question. I really don't know. I think we just felt bored not having to ban stuff in other formats.

No, seriously folks, we went back and cleaned up MBC because we hope to start supporting the “Block Party” format (meaning “pick a block deck, any block deck”) on Magic Online, and to that end, that format will be one of the five used in this year's Magic Invitational (look for more on the Invitational later on this site). Because we didn't want the format to be Affinity vs. Anti-Affinity Red and/or Green vs. Guest Appearance by Kataki Paying one Per Turn For His Jitte, we nipped that problem in the bud. Now the format will be the Madness vs. Goblins shindig that everyone has been missing in Extended, with guest appearances by Some Kamigawans With
Jittes. Or not. I can't wait to see what the Invitees cook up. I doubt “Phelddagrif Domain” will be making a comeback.


Until 2014, when I was searching for other information and stumbled on that quote from 2006, I had no idea why they'd ban cards in a seasonal format after the season had ended. The Mirrodin Block Constructed that anyone had actually played wasn't the same Mirrodin Block Constructed as the official one, a bizarre incongruity that didn't really matter, but didn't come up in any other Block Constructed format. I have more to say about all this. Actually, I have a lot more to say about this. Ultimately, it goes way beyond the scope of Mirrodin Block Constructed as a format, so I'll save it for another article. This one, I think, is long enough. It may be about a season, but I don't want it to run on for a season!

Read More Articles by Stephen Bahl!

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