Now that the massive Grand Prix Richmond is behind us, we can focus once again on Standard. I'm sure some of you like me are a bit tired of Standard, but there are still a lot of relevant high level events to be played in and won, so it does us both a service to buckle down and focus in on it while we can.
Last time I wrote about Standard, I talked about a black aggressive deck that had its roots in an Owen Turtenwald original design and then received a tune-up from Larry Swasey. The deck succeeded last weekend; I wish I had played it in the events I attended, but that is not the tale for today. That being said, writing and thinking about the deck made me realize how excited I was to play Lifebane Zombie, which is excellent against not only the increasingly prevalent G/R and Jund Monsters as well as the green decks that are powered by Nykthos Shrine to Nyx but also against the Esper Midrange decks. The fact that you really might want it against everyone but the "mirror" (and even then if they have white) speaks volumes about the card.
I wanted to play Lifebane Zombie for the above reasons as well as to give myself an informational advantage. I go to PTQs to win; I am a competitive person, and I think that gaining an information advantage is one of the best ways to perform well against an opponent who may not be as experienced as you are. When you're boarding in Lifebane Zombie (or not boarding it out, as the case may be) against a control deck, you're buying an evasive 3/1 with a built-in Peek most of the time, and you're happy about it.
I knew that I wanted to play Lifebane Zombie or Courser of Kruphix, which in my opinion is the best card from Born of the Gods, and after a brief consultation with Paul Rietzl, I was pretty excited about the prospect of playing Elspeth, Sun's Champion as well. Elspeth is of course great against R/G/x decks as well as just about everything else given that she is a six-drop planeswalker with appropriately powerful abilities, including an emblem that wins the game most of the time (if your opponent doesn't scoop first).
I also briefly considered trying to build a Junk deck that used all three and perhaps took advantage of Read the Bones (with Courser), but I wasn't really thrilled with the idea. I did like the fact that if I built it correctly it might be able to beat anything given that there are so many good cards to choose from. It really might actually be worth exploring, as you can play Sylvan Caryatid; Reaper of the Wilds; Polukranos, World Eater; and Desecration Demon as well as Elspeth, Courser, and the sideboard Lifebane Zombie.
You also get to play any of the overpowered gold five-drops like Obzedat, Ghost Council and Blood Baron of Vizkopa, and while you don't get twelve scry lands, you do get access to the best three colors of sideboard cards as well as Vraska the Unseen, which is quite strong against the various Detention Sphere running around right now. I haven't given this archetype enough thought to recommend a list, but I could see giving it a try if I had a lot of spare time.
Instead, what I did was focus on a straight B/W deck that would let me play both Lifebane Zombie and Elspeth, Sun's Champion. Given that I was so excited about Lifebane Zombie, I wanted to play it maindeck, which seems totally reasonable. The card is not just a color hoser anymore since a lot of the creatures you'll be nabbing happen to gold cards (like Reaper of the Wilds and Ephara, God of the Polis).
Lifebane Zombie has transcended that and is just a great card. The fact that it can grab Obzedat, Ghost Council and Blood Baron of Vizkopa is something that I wish I had thought about more before playing the deck in a PTQ, but we'll get to that. The draw of B/W is that you get to play the maindeck gold five-drops to gain an edge against other black-based decks. This is great, of course, but if you lean too hard, it all crumbles when they board in their copies of Lifebane Zombie.
After my article about Herald of Torment went up, I gave the deck a lot of thought and eventually decided that Pack Rat didn't belong in it. I also came to the conclusion that I simply didn't like Pack Rat in this format anymore, which isn't as unreasonable as it might sound. Frankly, I already felt like the card was beginning to show signs of age by the time the previous format concluded and Born of the Gods was released.
People were definitely ready for it, and it certainly wasn't a surprise; it was just a great card (and maybe a stupid one at that). The ability to "scry away" all of your bad cards—Dead removal against control? No problem! Make a Rat!—and make them into Rats is a little overpowered. But Detention Sphere and Supreme Verdict are popular cards, and everyone had access to Dark Betrayal at that point (even U/W Control).
The format has now shifted so that even more decks are playing Detention Sphere (Mono-Blue Devotion is now splashing white for Ephara, God of the Polis and Sphere), and then of course there is Bile Blight, which is an amazing card and also cannot really be played around. As good as it happens to be in Mono-Black Devotion, it's also quite strong against Pack Rat. The fact of the matter is that if they draw a Bile Blight early enough, your Rats are going to get wiped out. The only constraint it really puts on someone is that they cannot have any cards called Pack Rat, but I'm sure that's a fair price to pay.
This logic is a little flawed. Pack Rat getting wiped out in the control deck is not that devastating, and knowing about it means it'll likely only be a two-for-one. In addition to this, you have more mana to operate with, and you have discard spells to prevent a Bile Blight if you want. In the aggro deck, I will reiterate that Pack Rat does not belong. You'll see in the eventual PTQ decklist coverage that the deck without Pack Rat succeeded in multiple tournaments; it won one PTQ and made Top 8 two or three other times (that I know about).
However, just like the value of Desecration Demon varies from strategy to strategy, Pack Rat too is much more necessary in a control shell than I originally credited it. Not having anything to do with the excess lands in my midrange deck, I was forced to simply sit idly by while my opponent finally finished me off time after time. In addition, in a matchup that I felt originally would be strong (R/G decks) due to my deck's copies of Elspeth, Sun's Champion and Lifebane Zombie, not having Pack Rat made Bile Blight weaker because I had nothing to fight with that could survive in the early turns.
Desecration Demon was another card I was excited to play with since it laughs in the face of Stormbreath Dragon and other red spells; most green creatures are too small to even consider fighting it heads up. But again, the curve of this deck without the Rats was just a little too high, and not playing the Rats had its own issues. I think there are good lessons to learn here, and I'd like to talk about the deckbuilding process I used to come to my final decklist.
Going into the weekend I felt the format was ripe for breaking. I'd had this feeling once before, and indeed I was correct that time all the way back in 2007 for Time Spiral Block Constructed. I had finished second with the Mono-Blue "Pickles" deck (named for the brine in Brine Elemental), and people were going nuts about how great the blue deck was. So since there were only one or two other decks people were even considering playing, I was able to transform the normal build of the Kavu Predator / Fiery Justice deck into one that could not lose to the blue deck and beat the other decks (U/G with Call of the Herd, Looter il-Kor, and Mystical Teachings for the record).
The week after the CFB guys figured out how hard Void destroyed my deck, and I'm glad I didn't have to go to that GP to try to qualify for the PT! I don't really consider myself a master deckbuilder by any stretch of the imagination, but I do like to dabble and had fun this time around so maybe I'll try it more often.
I thought that the field for these PTQs would be light on Pack Rat since Bile Blight felt overwhelming and that the field would be heavy on Courser of Kruphix decks, so I knew I wanted to attempt to beat that field. As it turned out, Bile Blight was quite a poor choice for the weekend since there were so many green decks and so few black decks, but c'est la vie. I started the deckbuilding process by making a list of cards I would want to play, first just the names and eventually numbers:
Read the Bones
Obzedat, Ghost Council
Blood Baron of Vizkopa
Elspeth, Sun's Champion
Whip of Erebos
Drown in Sorrow
Things like 4 Duress; 1 Last Breath; 4 Thoughtseize; and 4 Elspeth, Sun's Champion flitted across my screen, and I also theorized about how would want my deck to be configured pre- and post-board against each possible matchup. This was time consuming, so I would've loved to have come out of it with a PTQ win, but alas.
The first draft of the deck was as follows:
3 Underworld Connections
4 Desecration Demon
4 Blood Baron Of Vizkopa
4 Lifebane Zombie
4 Hero's Downfall
2 Bile Blight
2 Doom Blade
1 Obzedat, Ghost Council
3 Elspeth, Sun's Champion
1 Revoke Existence
I thought I would want 27 lands so that I never missed a land drop and hit my five- and six-drop bombs; this was good in theory but led to a lot of floods. I considered other control decks having 27 lands, but I didn't also consider that they have Sphinx's Revelation to feed with all their mana. I liked playing four of each of my non Obzedat, Ghost Council creatures because they all had a purpose and I always wanted to draw one in the given matchup that they were meant to excel in.
I also loved the idea of Revoke Existence given the prevalence of cards like Ephara, God of the Polis; Detention Sphere; and Courser of Kruphix. I felt I'd come to a good starting point with this list and wanted to hear other opinions, so again I went to Paul Rietzl, who had mentioned he felt B/W was a great place to be. He gave me his decklist, which looked like this:
1 Revoke Existence
4 Bile Blight
1 Devour Flesh
1 Ultimate Price
4 Pack Rat
4 Hero's Downfall
3 Read the Bones
1 Whip of Erebos
3 Desecration Demon
3 Obzedat, Ghost Council
3 Blood Baron Of Vizkopa
2 Elspeth, Sun's Champion
1 Dark Betrayal
2 Doom Blade
1 Revoke Existence
2 Drown In Sorrow
1 Underworld Connections
3 Lifebane Zombie
2 Sin Collector
1 Blood Baron Of Vizkopa
This was pretty different from my own take on the deck, but it did put Whip of Erebos on my mind. I talked to him a bit about his list and was convinced regarding Read the Bones in B/W since you aren't trying to gain card advantage so much as hit your land drops. Once I knew I wanted the Whip, I knew I also needed to add at least one more Obzedat, Ghost Council to take advantage of it, which meant I had to reconfigure some numbers. Finally, I asked Paul, "Am I wrong about Pack Rat?" to which he replied, "Yes." I should have believed him!
After much deliberation and tuning, this is the list I brought to Friday Night Magic:
I had determined in addition to everything else that untapped Plains was a great card in this deck, as it could often be the difference between a timely Obzedat, Ghost Council or Elspeth, Sun's Champion or losing while feeling foolish. I was pleased to cut a Guildgate, and if you get nothing else from this article, I hope it teaches you that sometimes you need to buck the trend and make a slightly nontraditional move.
At FNM, everything was going great until round 4, when I was paired against Mono-Black Devotion. Suddenly I panicked. I thought the matchup might not be as sunshine and rainbows as I thought. Would I choke to death on Doom Blade and Lifebane Zombie while they got to play their normal game (no bad cards, my cards don't matter, deal with these Rats or lose)? Indeed, I mulliganed to five for the first game and died with both copies of Doom Blade in my hand. (Ah well, Worth).
I mulliganed again for game 3 and lost to a bunch of Desecration Demon while holding on to some Bile Blight that he saw with a Duress and was able to play around. He also drew a Lifebane Zombie to take my Blood Baron of Vizkopa before I drew my fifth land to cast it. While these things happen I should have assigned more value to the outcome of the match than simply trying to tune my deck to have a slightly better game 1 against Mono-Black Devotion. In reality, if you can't run with the big decks of the format, you shouldn't be competing.
I was blinded perhaps by my desire to outsmart people, and while I had some more good ideas about what direction to take the deck, ultimately I needed to admit defeat regarding Pack Rat. I didn't come to this conclusion until the PTQ was over though.
For the PTQ, I registered the following list:
Making Bile Blight more accessible shored up some of my fears about losing to an early Pack Rat against Mono-Black Devotion; removing a Lifebane Zombie was a price I was willing to pay, especially because I was now a little bit frightened of playing against Mono-Black and wasn't excited about the prospect of drawing Lifebane Zombie against them. The Dark Betrayal was meant to be great against Nightveil Specter while taking some of the strain off of Bile Blight and being a viable answer to Desecration Demon, which we were honestly a little thin on answers to.
During the event, I lost to a green deck that assembled a critical mass of Courser of Kruphix; Domri Rade; and Ruric Thar, the Unbowed. It was a bloody affair, and while I did win one game with Elspeth, Sun's Champion, I did not come close to winning the other two games, where his draws were good and mine were only okay. I do not mean to sound as if I am complaining, but losing to the deck that I had thought about and designed this deck to beat was frustrating. I was beginning to think my deck might not be able to win at all without the wretched Pack Rat.
I also ended up losing to a Horizon Chimera with a Boon Satyr riding on its back, which was actually a fun match. I got to Duress, Lifebane Zombie, and Thoughtseize away something like twenty cards between two sideboard games (I lost game 1), but in the end he scryed to the top. I was toast.
Like I said at the onset of this article, there is a lot more relevant Standard to play, and I would be remiss if I didn't give you what I think is the best version of B/W Midrange going forward. I expect there to be a plethora of Mono-Blue Devotion (with or without white) as well as a lot of Mono-Black Aggro decks (which actually do have trouble with Blood Baron of Vizkopa in their current configuration save Lifebane Zombie and Thoughtseize (and maybe Herald of Torment).
This is where I'd begin testing B/W Midrange moving forward. I don't think it's perfect, but I believe it gives you a solid chance to win against everyone. This deck truly does play the strongest available cards, a great sideboard, and a lot of ways to gain an informational advantage. The first place I expect upgrades to become available are in the Doom Blade slots. At any given time, Doom Blade can range from an all-star 10 out of 10 to an unplayable Terror in Mirrodin block.
Sometimes Devour Flesh will be the order of the day; other days Ultimate Price will be the right call. Your local metagame will determine the right choice. If you'd like, you can reconfigure and move some copies of Bile Blight to the sideboard as well since now that you're actually making Pack Rat they aren't all upside. If you do this, I would consider Last Breath too since it can kill Nightveil Specter, Mutavault, and smallish Rats, which your Blights were originally earmarked for.
I think giving up Pack Rat in a control deck is giving up both staying power and any free wins the deck was potentially going to get. I don't play Magic for the free wins, but it is simply foolish to attend a tournament with a deck that doesn't have any potential free wins when decks with free wins are just as good or better.
Please let me know if you enjoyed this article. I know I didn't break a ton of new ground deck-wise here, but I don't see a lot of other articles about the deckbuilding and thought processes that go into a deck. This was a fun one for me to write, and I look forward to any feedback you may have. The process I employed taught me a lot about how important synergy can be and why Pack Rat is more than just a Pack Rat.