I always spend a lot of time for each Pro Tour trying to build new decks, which are rarely successful. For Pro Tour Magic 2015, I started with some more speculative decks, a few from articles I'd written that I really had no idea about, some other takes on Slivers, and a few other things. Mostly, I was getting a sense of the primary constraints on the format and the kinds of pressures new decks expect to face.
Expensive green creatures were basically off the table between Thoughtseize, Lifebane Zombie, and Tidebinder Mage, for example. Every deck basically needed removal or some reliable plan to beat Pack Rat--this was one of the problems with the Trading Post decks--they just couldn't go big enough fast enough to beat a Pack Rat. You really can't mess around in this format. You have to either try to go faster than Pack Rat, or have to have enough removal to reliably keep it under control through a Thoughtseize which is a lot of removal. More and more, it felt like Pack Rat was definitely The Thing To Do, and the question was just finding the best Pack Rat deck.
I started with a human-based Return to the Ranks shell that was less aggressive than what I'd previously written about. We'd come to the conclusion that Blood Baron of Vizkopa was a great way to fight black, especially B/g which is likely to have fewer Devour Fleshes; they'll have Abrupt Decay and Golgari Charm instead. My goal was specifically to build a deck that had plans to beat each of the three primary decks in our gauntlet: Mono-Black Devotion, Mono-Blue Devotion, and U/W Control. I thought I could do this with W/B Humans.
- 2 Blood Baron of Vizkopa
- 4 Cartel Aristocrat
- 1 Imposing Sovereign
- 4 Pack Rat
- 4 Precinct Captain
- 4 Soldier of the Pantheon
- 4 Xathrid Necromancer
Against Mono-Black Devotion I had Pack Rat, Mutavault, and Thoughtseize to have parity in the Pack Rat game, but I could lead with Soldier of the Pantheon to come out ahead, and I could use Return to the Ranks to get my rats back. Ultimately, my creatures were good against removal, and it was easy to buy time to cast Blood Baron of Vizkopa, which I expected to win the game.
Against Mono-Blue Devotion I had a fast clock with removal that could kill Nightveil Specter and Master of Waves, and after sideboarding in seven cards that exile Thassa, God of the Sea, it became very difficult for them to build to any real game plan.
Against U/W Control, I'd board in six additional discard spells to try to clear the way for Pack Rat or Obzedat to win the game, and Xathrid Necromancer, particularly combined with Cartel Aristocrat, made their removal very awkward against me. I could generally keep the pressure on quite well.
This shell was surprisingly good at beating the exact deck I wanted to beat. The problem came in when I tried testing it against other decks. If the first cards I was trying to beat were Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix, for example, I'd never have gone anywhere near a deck like this. I'm playing a bunch of cards that can't attack through those, and I have no real plan to beat a planeswalker if my opponent has blockers. This deck was about as close to 0% to beat Jund as you could get. It was cool to feel like I'd succeeded at the impossible: "build a deck that reliably beats the "big three," but my matchups in other places were unacceptable, so I tried to find ways to rearrange the deck to address those problems without taking away too much of what I already had going for me.
I started by trying a direct shift away from the human plan toward creatures that would be a little higher impact. I cut Cartel Aristocrat and Xathrid Necromancer for Brain Maggot and Brimaz, King of Oreskos. Instead of playing creatures that were good against removal, my plan was to clear the way of removal and cast Brimaz or Pack Rat. I also really liked the idea of stripping my opponent's hand while creating a powerful board with Return to the Ranks and Brain Maggot. I also swapped Blood Baron of Vizkopa into the sideboard to make room for Obzedat, Ghost Council in the main deck to get some percentage against green decks. Later, I tried replacing those with Dictate of Heliod. Dictate of Heliod was awesome at making my tokens and Brian Maggots matter, and it let all my creatures attack through Courser of Kruphix, Sylvan Caryatid, Nightveil Specter, and Gray Merchant of Asphodel.
This plan felt a bit better, and Brain Maggot was fine but not necessarily perfect. While Brimaz was big enough to attack through Sylvan Caryatid, it still couldn't clear a Courser of Kruphix. I decided to cut Brian Maggot, which forced me to cut Return to the Ranks, because I now didn't have enough cheap creatures. What I wanted was a way to get through blockers, so I turned to Ajani, Caller of the Pride and Desecration Demon and added Ephemeral Shields to protect my creatures since I was losing Brain Maggot but still didn't want to just run Brimaz, King of Oreskos into removal. My thinking is that with such hard hitting creatures and expensive removal spells, the tempo swing of countering a Hero's Downfall without spending any mana can easily cascade into a game win. When I moved toward bigger creatures like Desecration Demon and had Ajani, Caller of the Pride to make my creatures bigger, Dictate of Heliod suddenly felt out of place, and I was worried that it would be a liability when I didn't have creatures. I went to a mix of Blood Baron of Vizkopa and Obzedat, Ghost Council, but Zvi convinced me that I couldn't play Blood Baron in the maindeck because it didn't work with Ajani, Caller of the Pride, and the play of launching my five-drop to attack for a huge amount was just too important.
Ajani was great and I managed to come out ahead in my first set of games against a Junk Courser deck with Blood Baron of Vizkopa, which seemed like it should be a nightmare matchup for me.
I went back to test against Mono-Black Devotion some more and found that most games basically hinged entirely on Pack Rat advantage--I'd often win games where we both had Pack Rat because my cheap spells gave me better support, but they were better at containing my Pack Rats than I was at containing theirs because they had more Bile Blights, and Devouring Light could never kill the last rat. I had to streamline my removal to three Bile Blights and three Hero's Downfall to avoid falling behind in the rat race.
The last card I tried adding was Herald of Torment. When I added Ajani and Desecration Demon, I also added one Elspeth, Sun's Champion to try out, but it felt pretty random and off plan. It wasn't aggressive enough, and I didn't want to ever have to play my sixth land, preferring to hold it to discard in case I drew a Pack Rat. I didn't get to play many games with Herald of Torment, but I liked it in theory--it was another high end card that could end a game, but it also gave me another cheap aggressive play, and Ephemeral Shields helped avoid a big tempo swing if my opponent tried to kill my creature in response to bestow. It also just gave me more play to keep planeswalkers and Nightveil Specters under control.
The final list that Gaudenis, Zvi, and I played at the PT was:
- 2 Desecration Demon
- 4 Pack Rat
- 4 Precinct Captain
- 4 Soldier of the Pantheon
- 1 Herald of Torment
- 4 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
- 2 Obzedat, Ghost Council
I added Lifebane Zombie because I wanted more answers to Blood Baron of Vizkopa, and I wanted to help my green matchups. Duress proved better than Sin Collector because Sin Collector just didn't offer enough pressure against Jace, Architect of Thought, and I wanted to be able to attack planeswalkers and Detention Spheres in my opponent's hand and then play bigger threats. Too often I was just spending more mana than I wanted to get a worse discard spell and a body my opponent could just ignore.
The seven white removal spells were to make sure I had good matchups against Mono-Blue Devotion, G/W Aggro, and any other random aggressive decks I faced. Devouring Light is the best removal spell against creatures that are actually attacking me since it lets me get ahead on tempo. It's particularly great against a deck like Mono-Red Heroic that will freely invest a lot of resources into trying to kill me with an unblocked creature when I'm "tapped out" and Devouring Light can be game winning. Getting the extra edge here was really important because I was doing so much damage to myself, so even though my white creatures play very good defense, my lands could leave me in a vulnerable position.
Blood Baron of Vizkopa was just there to try to steal wins against Mono-Black, though it can come in in a few other places, like against W/x Aggro.
Ultimately, the Pro Tour went really badly for me. I lost a lot of close matchups early, starting with the draft, my draws in general weren't great, and I closed out by playing against Jund Monsters, still my worst matchup even if it wasn't 0% anymore, twice in a row and getting demolished both times. Gau and Zvi fared better with the deck finishing 8-1-1 and 7-2-1 respectively, and I have no reason to believe it was a bad deck or a bad choice, it just didn't work out for me this time.
Moving forward, I expect everyone to cut the Ephemeral Shields as a card that's just too cute. It likely is, and the deck could easily be better with two Desecration Demons instead. I wanted to get the jump on people who wouldn't play around it, and I think the tempo swing can be great, but ultimately, I probably would have done better with a little more power in the deck, especially given the opponents I happened to face. With two more demons and no Ephemeral Shields, I'd look to cut Herald of Torment as well, and at that point, I'd probably want another removal spell and any combination of Devouring Light, Bile Blight, or Hero's Downfall could be fine.
I lost to G/W Aggro in the Pro Tour, but I found the matchup to be great in testing, as they have a huge problem beating Soldier of the Pantheon, and most of your other cards are pretty good. I've also found the deck to be excellent against U/W Control, so if you expect the metagame to copy the finals of this Pro Tour, I'd play this deck in a heartbeat. If Courser of Kruphix is on the rise, I'd still be hesitant, but making the swap to four maindeck Desecration Demons could help those matchups quite a bit. As a cautionary note, I'd point out that losing Ephemeral Shields will make the control matchup quite a bit worse, as keeping Brimaz, King of Oreskos, or any creature with Ajani, Caller of the Pride through a Supreme Verdict is a really important play in that matchup, so be sure to test the deck with and without Ephemeral Shields against control before changing the deck. If you want to make the switch away from Ephemeral Shields, but you're held back by the cost against U/W, you could always add another Duress and either an Ephemeral Shields or and Obzedat, Ghost Council to the sideboard to try to get your percentage back there.