Legend tells us of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who drove all the snakes from the Emerald Isle in the fifth century. And yea, was St. Patrick fasting for 40 days on top of a hill, when these slithery buggers had a proper crack at him, and lo, did the noble St. Patrick say unto them, "get out of here with that business, thou legless idiots, I haven't got time for thy nonsense!" And yea, verily were the hideous reptiles driven into the briny deeps, and yea, verily did St. Patrick go down to the chippy and get a snack, because he was bloody starving.
It seems like a millennium and a half later, our friend Patty is up to his tricks again - but this time, in Standard. It wasn't too long ago that Winding Constrictor was running the tables… well, not running, obviously. "Slithering the tables" doesn't quite have the same ring to it, however. My point here is that GB Constrictor decks used to be great - tier one great, no less! But within the space of a few short weeks, Standard looks more like Ireland than ever, and not just because of all the Forests, Mountains, and Islands everywhere - there's not a snake to be seen.
In their preparation for the upcoming Pro Tour Ixalan, some very powerful (and for the time, unfortunately nameless) wizards have been testing with Winding Constrictor. Given the insane synergies that the Snake offers a properly-constructed deck, and given the fact that the deck didn't lose all that much to rotation, it's not immediately clear why the black/green strategies that dominated a few months ago have dwindled into near-nothingness. In catching up with these players, I had some interesting reasons for the downfall of B/G Constrictor decks explained to me.
Abrade has been a known factor in the format for quite some time now, and has very heavily influenced deck construction due to its omnipresence in not only Temur Energy but also Ramunap Red. Ixalan doubled down on instant-speed three-damage burn spells by bringing Lightning Strike to the party—and having your marquee card in Winding Constrictor die to two of the most ubiquitous cheap removal spells makes things very difficult indeed.
It gets a lot worse, however—Abrade also cheaply and efficiently deals with anywhere between 50% and 100% of the powerful top-end of B/G Constrictor. The fact that Verdurous Gearhulk is an artifact is a huge liability in a format where main deck Shatter effects are everywhere.
While Constrictor decks didn't lose too much in the Ixalan rotation (vale, Zombies), the cards it did lose were of critical importance to the deck's game plan and left some significant holes to fill. Firstly, the loss of Grasp of Darkness means that Constrictor decks don't have the powerful, cheap interaction that could fight off everything from Glorybringer to Hazoret—as good as Fatal Push is, it's a poor substitute for Grasp in this format.
Secondly, and much more importantly, is the loss of Nissa, Voice of Zendikar. Nissa enabled patently absurd Constrictor draws, distributing a squillion billion +1/+1 counters as well as the bodies to pick them up. Rishkar, Peema Renegade offers a similar effect—but Nissa's went much wider and was repeatable. Much of the deck's synergistic power came from the massive anthem-like effect offered by the Voice of Zendikar, and losing it to rotation is a huge strike against Constrictor strategies
The ascendancy of Azcanta Control decks—both Blue-Black and White-Blue—has spelt disaster for the Snake and his friends. Approach decks have access to both Fumigate and the new Settle the Wreckage, which is appropriate there's certainly a lot of wreckage to settle on the part of the GB player once the card is played against them. Mass removal spells are, surprise surprise, at their absolute best at a creature-based deck with a more midrange bent—Constrictor decks are capable of lightning-quick starts, but don't always get them. In those situation, wrath effects are backbreaking.
Additionally, GB Constrictor can't beat The Scarab God. Not only do their cheap creatures help to fuel the hunger of the arthropod-faced Zombie factory, the only real answer they have is Vraska's Contempt—and expensive removal like Contempt naturally dilutes the synergistic approach Constrictor decks take.
Temur Energy, better known as Capone Midrange due to it being Public Enemy Number One, can do more or less all the things that B/G Constrictor does, and in many cases, better. Attune into Longtusk Cub for a blazingly quick aggressive start? Stalling out a board with increasingly enormous monsters? Temur Energy does these things and more, but doesn't have to play situationally-questionable cards to do it.
The traditional strength of B/G Constrictor is that it can, with a busted Constrictor draw, run away with a game before it's even really started. The problem with this that Temur can do exactly the same thing without sacrificing an excellent late game and its characteristic flexibility. You would think a deck based around a snake would be as flexible as the animal itself, but no—the synergy-driven style of Constrictor decks means that they can only really take one posture.
Do all of these factors mean that Standard, like Ireland itself, will remain snake-free for the rest of time? Recent results indicate that St. Patrick may still have some work to do. After all, it's not as though the effect offered by Winding Constrictor is any less potent in a vacuum. There are still plenty of effects that offer +1/+1 counters, and Standard is still all about either dominating or controlling the battlefield. Constrictor strategies contest the board strongly with stonking great beaters that only grow bigger as the game goes longer, which seems like a recipe for success in the current format.
So what will it take for the deck to break back onto the big stage? Well, one particular snake charmer named truthordare has been tootling away on his flute, and in the MOCS over the weekend this spicy little number rose from the basket, swaying its way to a clean 8-0 finish.
The answer—as it almost always is—play blue! If you can't beat 'em, says truthordare, join 'em. Removing the synergistic (but highly Abrade-able) Verdurous Gearhulk to instead splash for The Scarab God makes excellent sense. Even without overwhelming synergies with the snake, the card is still bonkers and a pillar of the format. Additionally, it opens up some other red-hot options: Hostage Taker is huge game, either as a removal spell to push through damage or a way to contest massive endgame haymakers.
This list is light on interaction outside of Hostage Taker, with the only "real" removal spell being Fatal Push. However - it is absolutely critical when playing around this deck to recognise the power of Blossoming Defense! A one-mana hard counter to point removal, a way to win combat, and a way to punish lazy or ill-thought-out blocks - Blossoming Defense will get you! The full four-of also goes a long way in showing how seriously the deck needs to defend itself from red removal.
The Energy component offers both excellent enablers and payoffs - no-one is embarrassed to include Rogue Refiner in a deck, and cards like Glint-Sleeve Siphoner help to keep cards flowing against blue-based control. At first blush it looks as though there isn't enough of an Energy component to even make it worth it - but again, Constrictor has sssomething to sssay about that. Its ability affects Energy Counters too, meaning that a Longtusk Cub will generate three energy per hit and gain two counters per activation!
Additionally, I love what is going on in the sideboard here, and would like to see more of it. Transitioning post-board into either an answer-filled deck against decks it can't out aggro, or a bigger, more powerful deck with a denser mass of huge threats. Negate and Duress are huge against Azcanta Control, and extra Scarab Gods as well as Vraska help to go long when your two-drops aren't going to get the job done.
This list eats up Ramunap Red, tussles with Temur, and now goes much further in contesting Azcanta Control decks due to the addition of blue. Given that these snakes have lain in Hibernation as the weather grows colder (at least here in this weird hemisphere where the seasons are backwards), it may be time for them to slither out of the Chamber of Secrets once more to send you off to the Hospital Wing.
We'll see how things shake out in Albuquerque, but given the recent adaptations and innovations surrounding Winding Constrictor, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see the snake up and about at Pro Tour Ixalan. Historically we've seen straight Golgari, and now more recently Sultai Constrictor has done good work. Perhaps moving forward it may be worth experimenting to Abzan Constrictor - maybe the best configuration of this strategy is, after all, Snakes on a Plains.