Last week I had the chance to spend some time with an enthusiastic new player a few days after her first PTQ. Full of spit and vinegar, ready for another go 'round, she had gone 5-3 in what I believe was also her first tournament and sought input on her Sealed Deck choices. Should she have played G/W instead? No; I thought her decision to go U/W was best. She had some good tempo cards plus it seemed to me that yes Azorius Charm, Detention Sphere, Sphinx's Revelation, and Supreme Verdict were all more-or-less her best cards.
"But, you know, Pack Rat."
As with many players in our community today, she lamented the awesome power of that little troublemaker.
"Why don't people play Pack Rat in Constructed decks?"
Ah, more my wheelhouse.
It's like this. YOU tell ME. You tell me what your "Pack Rat" draw is going to be. What turn are you going to play Pack Rat? I assume I don't just have a Pillar of Flame for it? Seriously, do whatever you want; tell me what you are going to do.
Okay, okay. That's great. Now while you are playing your Pack Rat, hoping I don't remove it and gearing up for solo activations for the next few turns, this is what your average Standard opponent is going to do...
I went through a couple of different Grisly Salvage routines that set up the dichotomy between "having 2-3 Rats in play" versus an Angel of Serenity or Griselbrand (I didn't even mention Craterhoof Behemoth so as to avoid having to do the math). Or, you know, it could just be Thragtusk / Restoration Angel.
That said, sure: I think it is entirely possible to play Pack Rat as a Reanimator enabler. It's possible you could turn that into an interesting subtheme, but it commits your first five, maybe eight, mana without actually fixing your hand... So if you were going to do it, you would have to find a matchup where it makes sense; no, I don't think you could slot it maindeck like you might a Lotleth Troll.
Here's the interesting thing: Standard, like everyday life, has structure and patterns. These patterns come up over and over in similar and disparate matchups. Players vie, desperately pray for, and sometimes miraculously mise the cards that set up certain of these patterns in order to quickly blow out their opponents (who for the most part play along). They spend more than tons of mana but often several cards and all of their willpower to get into a particular set of highly repeatable strategic positions. If you asked them—if you asked yourself—you would probably nod and say Yes, that came up this week. Yes, yes—three or four times.
Here's the thing about patterns: once you know the pattern, you can exploit it.
Pattern 1: G/W Beatdown vs. Supreme Verdict
What's your worst matchup?
Decks with Supreme Verdict.
All respect to Peter Kelly, who made Top 8 of Grand Prix Charleston last week. I don't know how enthusiastic his response to DailyMTG really was, but it makes for a good talking point. Kelly was playing a G/W creature deck that, yes, if he committed any substantial number of his 35 creatures to the table, yes... He could be blown out by a Supreme Verdict. Separately, certain of his creatures (e.g., a Mayor of Avabruck) might be vulnerable to / actually demand a sweeper by itself.
I would guess that in order to make Top 8 of a large tournament, Kelly would have figured out the ability to hold back some resources, and Rancor by itself can dig you out of a Supreme Verdict... But sure, let's all agree that the card Supreme Verdict might be very good against a deck of all creatures and creature-pump.
How do you beat their best thing [against you]?
I have been impressed with Rootborn Defenses a couple of times on Magic Online, for both its abilities honestly. I've been blown out in combat, I've had my sweeper "countered," and I've separately not liked the other player getting a freebie creature one bit.
Regardless, I think that most of us have been on one side of this pattern or the other. Either you are trucking along and the opponent is desperately looking for a Wrath of God, or you are the guy spending all your Think Twices—mana and turns even more than the cards themselves—looking for the Supreme Verdict. In this pattern, clearly the onus is on the control to "get it" much more than the beatdown to "have it." And there's nothing better when the opponent desperately tries to get it than Trump.
Pattern 2: Combo Reanimator (Let's Call It ReaniCrater) Finds a Craterhoof Behemoth
Let's assume the opponent has three dice.
Turn 2 he rolls...18. That's pretty good.
Turn 3? 18 again.
Well, you know where this is going: on turn 4—probably intending to be the Grand Finale—18.
Of course he had the Grisly Salvage! And of course his Grisly Salvage turned over a Craterhoof Behemoth [that he didn't draw, are you kidding]. And it wouldn't be much of a story if he didn't have the freebie Unburial Rites. Oh, and along the lines he managed to make some mana creatures.
Druid's Deliverance isn't a long-term solution or anything, but as has been said elsewhere and will be repeated repeatedly in this article, Standard is not a format with an excess of instant speed removal and interaction. If someone asked you if you could kill a 5/5 haste, you'd smile and say Sure, of course my deck can handle some 5/5... But that presumes you have the life points to untap and answer with that answer. Craterhoof Behemoth decks can take you from 20 to nil in one turn! Even if you live, if have an answer, your opponent might be able to run back the other side of Unburial Rites and Sligh you to death with the same Beast.
Druid's Deliverance has a couple of things going for it:
- It's cheap. The cardinal rule of any answer is that it has to be faster than the threat that it purports to un-threaten.
- It has some upside. In the right deck, you can walk away with a bonus, or enough catch-up that you are no longer even scared of "a 5/5 and a couple of dumb 1/1s".
- It's applicable to other patterns. You can use Druid's Deliverance as a kind of Dismiss to an ostensibly lethal Selesnya Charm or many other "beatdown has you on the ropes" race situations.
Druid's Deliverance can keep you alive so you can use your sorcery speed answers, which makes it surprisingly applicable in control strategies, and, as I said, because of the structure of Craterhoof Behemoth decks in general, "regular" decks will often find themselves in a perfectly defensible position if they simply don't die.
Another great, low-cost, solution to the Craterhoof Behemoth problem is Cremate. I have played a fair number of maindeck Cremates, and they have been generally quite welcome. I like cantrips in general, especially a cantrip that basically Time Walks the opponents first three or four turns while essentially Hymn to Touraching them (and drawing a card).
Ground Seal looks a lot like Cremate (maindeckable anti-graveyard cantrip) but has some important differences. No, I don't mean how Cremate is good with Snapcaster Mage and Ground Seal nixes both players' Snapcaster Mages... I mean that it doesn't actually conform to this core pattern. A Ground Seal prevents our Pattern #2 outright (and in fact might give rise to a Pattern #3 situation) while Druid's Deliverance and Cremate actually allow the opponent to spend a ton of resources and willpower with the end result of tricking him into thinking he rolled three straight 18s...only to come up empty.
Pattern 3: Opponent Makes a Strategic Investment in Enchantments
Enchantments have an odd, potentially quite powerful, but precarious place in Standard. A few weeks ago I spent at least one article and one video series talking about an enchantment that could win the game outright for the cost of a Thragtusk. Many white decks use Oblivion Ring as a catchall answer to Gravecrawlers and Architects of Thought. At one point last week I had a smile from ear to ear as I laid down my third Staff of Nin. LOLcats your stupid Sphinx's Revelation... STAFF OF W—stupid Detention Sphere. Frown :(
Ground Seal, mentioned in the previous pattern (but not actually conforming to that pattern), is an additional example. The difference between these sorcery speed strategic investments and catching someone with a Cremate is that when you are blowing someone out with a Detention Sphere or sitting smugly behind your Ground Seal as they desperately run out that string of Grisly Salvages and Mulches is that they might just flip over...
See how the Craterhoof is on the other foot here?
In Pattern #2, "the beatdown" gets caught having invested several cards and three or more turns of mana only to go home sad and alone.
In Pattern #3, our "preemptive answer" is actually exposed to the potential two-for-one. Ray of Revelation is medium-underplayed in Standard. I think the most common target for an Oblivion Ring is probably the front half of a Thragtusk. Do the math.
Pattern 4: All Roads Lead to Thragtusk
Control decks might play three Thragtusk as their only nonland permanents. Thragtusks love blocking Zombies, and they love being blinked by Restoration Angels even more. Thragtusk drives a huge number of decks and is a problem for even more.
Thragtusk is a "regular" card in Bant Control (a Masticore-like "does everything" dirty dawg) and an ace in Reanimator strategies, participating combo-like.
You pretty much have to have a plan for Thragtusk.
And every viable deck does!
Here are some low-cost solutions to this big problem you may or may not have considered:
I saw this card in a deck by Tomoharu Saito on Facebook; in the same week, Patrick Chapin called me up and asked if I knew about "the secret new two-drop." Fog Bank is a heck of a Thragtusk shock absorber (as well as buys you a lot of margin against cards like Fencing Ace, Silverblade Paladin, and Gravecrawler), but like most low cost solutions, it is not the be-all and end-all.
First time I tried one, it bit a Pillar of Flame. Well, it's not like I have a whole lot of other targets.
I'll probably talk about this one for as long as it's legal in Standard. Rakdos Keyrune beats the crap out of the front half of a Thragtusk. Then it beats the crap out of the other half of a Thragtusk. It beats up planeswalkers without exposing itself to most of them. It works with sweep spells, and it actually does something you really want even when it is not beating up Thragtusks. You know you have something special when you have two Staff of Nins working and your opponent shakes his head and puts his Detention Sphere on your Rakdos Keyrune.
Moreover, Rakdos Keyrune exploits a further pattern:
Pattern 5: Standard as a Whole Has Relatively Little Instant Speed Interaction
You all know this by now. Lots of Pillar of Flame, not so much Searing Spear. Go go Dreadbore! No thanks, Murder. Part of the reason Druid's Deliverance and Rootborn Defenses are exploitable is because they are unexpected (because, you know, instants). Rakdos Keyrune wouldn't be half so scary if the opponent's Pillar of Flame could just hit it.
Here's another on that theme:
There are a fair number of additional, identifiable patterns. How are you against flyers? I've noticed more than one brew I've worked on has had some issues with x/3 or bigger flyers (Vampire Nighthawk, the as-yet un-rediscovered Vampire Nocturnus). Apparently an x/3 is too big for a Ravager of the Fells flip.
You know what card some decks just can't beat? Gnaw to the Bone. When you are already filling your graveyard with creatures through card drawing and trades? Hit one (or both!) sides? It can be a heck of racer.
For years we played a Magic—a Standard in particular—that was predominantly about individual powerful cards dictating deck construction, the pace and limits of individual games: destinations, conclusions, even if they came early on. The first turn Delver, the second turn Stoneforge Mystic, the inevitability of Primeval Titan. Today we are playing a game more about how we get places than the once upon a time of what those places were.Whether you are Control or Reanimator, all roads lead to Thragtusk...except when Reanimator gets an Angel (which is more-or-less also fine). Staff of Nin and Sphinx's Revelation have quite similar intentions. And have you noticed? Lots and lots of folk are playing cards like this but not like that.
Identifying common patterns like the ones we have discussed in this article can give rise, perhaps, to even better underplayed tools, and ultimately, an opportunity to play with an edge.