In which our hero presents a spicy little black-red number for your delight and general edification. Slicing brains has never been so much fun…
I’m talking about Constructed again. So before we go anywhere I may as well get this out of the way…
You may remember here me saying something about a certain Standard deck.
Solar Flare! Have you any conception of what’s about to hit Standard! It’s the apocalypse! We’re talking rivers of blood, skies falling in, the rape and ruin of virgins and *shudder* Scotsmen winning Wimbledon.
It’s the end of all things as we know it, and you want to play a slow Black/White control deck with a sort of, maybe, please-don’t-be-a-naughty-boy, meagre suite of permission?!
I might have been a little wrong here.
Champs has been and gone and the only rivers of blood are those raining down after Akroma has hacked chunks out of some unfortunate player’s life total. Solar Flare is still going strong, mainly on the back of reanimating Akroma turn 4 and smashing face. I suppose I was partly right on the impact of the purple cards, it’s just that… well, resurrecting Akroma on turn 4 is so obvious.
I think I was expecting a little more. With the addition of an extra set in Coldsnap and a “sort of” extra set in the Timeshifted cards, I thought we might be back in the halcyon days of lightning fast combo-ey goodness all over the place. I think it goes to show just how important cards like Vampiric Tutor were for those decks. Currently, the combo deck that has emerged as top dog is Dragonstorm, and that has plenty of detractors.
Big tournaments can be strange affairs, and I imagine Champs is no exception. Most players don’t like to gamble on something new, so there is always the likelihood that the majority of the field will play it safe with updated versions of existing decks. It wouldn’t surprise me if we don’t see the true Standard format start to emerge until Worlds later this month.
Looking at the finishers from a big tournament doesn’t always tell the true story of the format. Maher won PT Chicago in 1999 with Oath, but the talk of the tournament was the English Cocoa Pebbles deck. That all paled into significance when the true monster of the format – one of the most broken decks ever, Trix – emerged afterwards.
Fast-forward a couple of years, and it was Comer’s Miracle-Gro deck that appeared after the Pro Tour had come and gone to batter the format.
If we look at more recent times and go back to Honolulu, then we have this deck:
- 4 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
- 2 Savannah Lions
- 4 Kami of Ancient Law
- 3 Nantuko Husk
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 2 Ghost Council of Orzhova
- 3 Orzhov Pontiff
- 4 Plagued Rusalka
We know it as Ghost Husk, and although Diezel only finished 17th with it at the Pro Tour, the deck did go on to become top dog until Dissension came in.
Now that Kamigawa has rotated out, Ghost Husk takes a bit of a beating. The dynamite that makes the deck so explosive, Promise of Bunrei, is consigned to history. It also no longer has access to Umezawa’s Jitte, a card that appeared in later versions to fight the aggro decks.
Unfortunately, despite the grandiose introduction, I’m not going to claim I’ve got a brand new deck that is going to smash the format. Plenty of people do that, and usually they’re talking through their ass. And if it’s just before a major tournament and it’s a pro, then you can guarantee they’re talking through their ass. People don’t spend weeks and months fine-tuning a deck just to give it to the entire world a week before a Pro Tour (with the exception of Frank Karsten and Stuart Wright).
Unfortunately, while I’d like to claim I have a deadly secret deck all lined up, I don’t. I did have a devious plan to kidnap Frank Karsten through the help of Dan Paskin’s Goblin Operatives. But unfortunately Dan had them all executed when they failed to stop Norin the Wary from making it to print, and he’s still looking for replacements. So that means I’ve been scanning through the Champs lists like everyone else.
While looking through the Japanese top 8 lists I came across this:
- 3 Nekrataal
- 3 Nantuko Husk
- 3 Mindslicer
- 4 Rakdos Guildmage
- 3 Haakon, Stromgald Scourge
- 3 Stromgald Crusader
- 3 Greater Gargadon
- 3 Nether Traitor
It immediately made me think of Ghost Husk.
A dubious looking manabase aside (Terramorphic Expanse? Molten Slagheap?), the deck has so much synergy it’s hard not to fall in love with it.
Often Japanese decks and card choices look quite odd. They don’t appear to make sense until you actually play with them. The Karoo lands in Ghazi-Glare looked very odd to me at first, but now they’re used frequently in Standard. So it’s a good idea to just play a deck list as-is to start with, to get a handle on what roles the pieces are playing.
So of course I threw the original out of the window and built my own version to take advantage of the various synergies. That looked something like this:
Pact Husk version 1.0
Lightning Axe is a card I’ve been wanting to play around with in Constructed for a while. For one Red mana it makes most creatures in the format dead (but not Akroma, sadly). The cost of the card is significant, but in this deck there are cards we actually want to go to the graveyard (Haakon) and cards that will probably come back later anyway (Nether Traitor). Being able to blast the hell out of early Kird Apes, Savannah Lions and Watchwolves gives the deck a degree of early defence.
The other addition I wanted was to play Shadow Guildmage. A turn 1 Guildmage does horrible things to any deck relying on Birds and Elves, and is not completely dead against control decks as you can ping for the last few points of damage when attacking isn’t possible.
Initial testing online showed the synergies were indeed a lot of fun, but it wasn’t all roses.
Lightning Axe wasn’t impressing me. It was sort of okay, but not quite clicking. I think I’d introduced too many dependencies into the deck. Nether Traitors were nearly always cast early and so would never be in hand. That meant I was relying on Haakon and Lightning Axe both appearing together, otherwise they were very suboptimal. The Axe wasn’t very good at killing Spectral Force either. After being smashed in the face and trodden into the earth by that particular behemoth, I decided to kick out the card disadvantage removal spell and replace it with the one that leaves a residual monster behind. Back with Nekrataal.
Haakon was also giving me a few issues. An awful lot of times he was getting stuck in my hand and showing no intention of going anywhere near my graveyard like a good little walking corpse. I was also a little concerned that the Nether Traitors already said “go get your Crypts and Withered Wretches,” and having Haakon in there as well is just giving them freebies.
I was also concerned about the aggro decks. The biggest problem with any Grave Pact deck is that you have to tap four mana to put an enchantment into play that may not immediately impact the game. Games where you go turn 3 Arena, turn 4 Grave Pact are basically saying “my role in this game is Goldfish.” As aggro decks kill most Goldfish on turn 4 or 5, this probably isn’t the best plan.
For completeness I built up a copy of the original, Terramorphic Expanses an’ all. Okay, so I should have done the first, but at least gives me a chance to see if I’ve missed anything. The main card I wanted to give a twirl was Soul Spike. Life is a fairly precious resource with the Arenas, and my guess is Soul Spike was in the original to claw it back. It also goes to the head, which Lightning Axe doesn’t, and there were a few games where that had been relevant. Unfortunately, I found it awkward to use. The alternate casting cost is too much and the mana requirements a little too expensive. Aaron Forsythe rates Soul Spike though, so it probably has a home somewhere we haven’t stumbled across yet.
I knew I needed some form of targeted removal and so it was back with the Nekrataals. Aggro decks still scared me and so I wanted some form of cheap removal along the lines of Lightning Axe. I did put in Last Gasp, but to be honest they felt horribly passive and probably dead in too many matchups.
I wanted something that could swing sideways in that slot, so Stromgald Crusader was called back into the list. Yes, that’s the inevitable consequence with playing around with Japanese lists. You tinker around and with them and come back to something close to the original. The protection from White is useful but not a windmill slam. He still can’t block Knight of the Holy Nimbus or Soltari Priest, and Boros will probably throw a burn spell at him, but he might inconvenience certain decks and that’s not bad for a filler creature. And of course Haakon can call him back to duty if the match goes that way.
And so we get version 1.1:
Pact Husk version 1.1
And this would be where I talk about what the deck is actually doing. But I can’t resist fiddling and so made some further changes:
- 2 Nekrataal
- 4 Nantuko Husk
- 4 Shadow Guildmage
- 3 Mindslicer
- 2 Haakon, Stromgald Scourge
- 3 Stromgald Crusader
- 3 Greater Gargadon
- 3 Mogg War Marshal
- 4 Nether Traitor
Mainly because I was heavy in the four-mana slot and didn’t think Sengir Autocrat was pulling his weight. Mogg War Marshal is an earlier drop that provides much of the same functionality. He’s three critters in one card, and that means three counters off the Gargadon or a nice +6/+6 bonus to your Husk. And if you have Grave Pact out, then that’s three dead critters for them. All for a bargain two mana (you never pay echo – our poor old Marshal is destined to be Gargadon fodder long before then).
Okay, so what’s going on here?
Well, how would you like to empty your opponent’s hand in their draw step, and then follow up with a 9/7 hasty behemoth ported in from the mists of time? Condemn, you say? Well, that would be in your graveyard. Whoops, sorry.
Nantuko Husk and Mindslicer was one of the particularly nasty tools available to Ghost Husk. In this deck it’s even nastier, as you have extra redundancy for the sac outlet in Greater Gargadon. As a sacrifice outlet, Greater Gargadon is vicious. He sits safely outside of the game where your opponent can’t touch him (unless they have Pull from Eternity), and then once the Mindslicer has done its dirty work the Gargadon comes rushing in to mop up.
In a deck jam-packed with dirty tricks, Mindslicer plus Gargadon is probably the dirtiest. Every time I pulled it off online there would be a slight pause as my opponent realised just how badly they’d been sodomized. You don’t want to know what this does to any White-based control decks.
The deck is a control player’s nightmare. Phyrexian Arena and Nantuko Husk have to be dealt with quickly and Mindslicer cannot be allowed to hit the table. Even the “filler” cards like Stromgald Crusader are a headache, as they cannot be Condemned and fly over Phyrexian Ironfoots and Teferi.
The deck also plays a good waiting game. Rix Maadi is an uncounterable way of slowly picking a control player’s hand to pieces and a way to get Haakon to your graveyard where he can do most damage. Haakon and Nether Traitors are also ultimate “cockroaches,” coming back again and again to nip at your opponent.
With Grave Pact out, the control deck can’t even hit back as it neatly counters all their monolithic threats. Akroma? Well, I’ll just feed this little Kobold to my Gargadon. Oh dear, looks like you’ll have to send Akroma to the graveyard as well. And she was so purty…
The deck can also be incredibly explosive. Promise of Bunrei may have gone, but Mogg War Marshal isn’t a bad replacement. As already mentioned it can give a Husk a +6/+6 bonus or take three counters off the Gargadon. In the early game it’s no slouch either, buying you time against aggro decks to set up the Grave Pact.
Two Nether Traitors is extremely powerful with the Husk, as it gives it +2/+2 for B. Even if you draw just one it will double the effect of creature sacrifices, providing you have enough Black mana to fetch it back. Haste and shadow isn’t bad either, as it means the Nether Traitor can feed the Husk and Gargadon and then be ready right after to nip in for an extra point of damage.
The main thing I like about this deck, and so many of the decks I see coming out of Japan, is the multiple angles of attack. Ghazi-Glare was so good at last year’s World Championships because it asked more questions than decks had answers for. This deck also has a similar multi-pronged attack strategy.
Graveyard hate annoys the deck without crippling it. You can even board out Haakon and watch them waste cards on Tormod’s Crypt.
Going after the Husk to stop the sacrifice outlets again only inconveniences the deck, as a suspended Gargadon will still give the deck ways to trigger Grave Pact.
Even though the deck relies on a number of synergies, it is robust enough to keep kicking even if one leg is ripped off. This is no one-trick pony that falls over in a heap if a single Trickbind is waved in its direction (although that does at least stop your head being sliced open by our walking Mind Twist).
The sideboard is there to fill in the gaps in the main deck. Just in case the control decks weren’t miserable enough already, you replace the sub-optimal cards such as Shadow Guildmage and Nekrataal with the fourth Mindslicer and Persecute. Withered Wretch stops any re-animated Akroma nonsense, and also serves as pest removal against opposing cockroaches like Firemane Angel.
The Aggro Matchup
Yeah, this is pretty bad, as you might guess from a listing that includes only Grave Pact and Nekrataal to stop Watchwolf and chums beating the snot out of you. Surprisingly, the Green decks can be awkward even with Shadow Guildmage murdering all their mana producers. They can just make Elephant Tokens and Spectral Force without the help of Santa’s little helpers, and they’re still a handful.
Deathmark is just what the doctor ordered for the small critters. It doesn’t kill Kird Ape but it kills pretty much everything else, and more importantly it does it at a mana cost that gives you back the tempo advantage.
Life is inordinately precious in this deck. I suspect this might have been the reason the original listing plays Soul Spike, and also the odd lands over more obvious fixers like Blood Crypt and Sulfurous Springs. Any deck packing burn is going to fry you long before the longevity of Haakon and other cockroaches takes effect, especially with Arena to help them along. For this reason I included Loxodon Warhammer in the sideboard, as it both claws back life and provides a hefty punch to take the Red decks down quickly. Okay, so it’s no Jitte, but you have to make do with what’s available. The Warhammer is especially good with the Nether Traitor, as it has haste and shadow, which means it hits from nowhere and can’t usually be blocked. Red decks also can’t control the Hammer by controlling your creatures because no matter how many critters they burn, the Nether Traitor will always be there to pick it up and go back into the breach.
How you sideboard against the aggro decks depends on the flavor of the aggro deck. Four Deathmark is a certain inclusion against any Green or White deck. Pyroclasm is effective against some, but maybe not against Zoo. All three Hammer have to come in against any deck with burn.
In these matchups the longevity is less important. Haakon is too fiddly and has to come out. Mindslicer is generally too slow and can backfire as they are more likely to empty their hand faster than you. I would take out one Arena, but still leave in three. You still have to gain card advantage, even if it costs life. You never want to be making a second so every Arena after the first is a dead draw.
Don’t forget also that the Withered Wretches aren’t just there for graveyard removal. They are still a Bear, and can be brought in for extra beatdown for those odd matches when you have more cards to take out than bring in (against creatureless combo decks, for example).
“So why are you talking about this deck, then? Worlds is in a week. Aren’t you playing?”
I suppose this is the obligatory “gee, look how cool my deck is, but I’m only talking about it because I’m not playing it” section.
This one was actually quite tight, as the deck really is good fun to play. The games you win, you win big (In one game I had two Arena, a Grave Pact and Husk in play, a Gargadon suspended, and two Nether Traitor between play and graveyard. Then I cast Mindslicer…).
Unfortunately I am overly fond of gimmicky decks… and I know this. I also know I’ve screwed up more than a few major tournaments by refusing to give up a pet deck that isn’t quite top tier, and although I do love this deck I think it’s one of those decks. I don’t think it’s far off, and it is a wrecking ball in the right field.
The matchup against burn decks is virtually unwinnable game 1, and although the sideboard does help considerably the fundamental problem with “I lose game 1 to Red decks but I’m 60% after boarding” argument is it just equates to losing 2-1.
In itself, this problem isn’t insurmountable. Plenty of successful decks have sacrificed a matchup they thought would be underplayed, and after Champs I suspect Worlds Standard might be a very controllish environment.
When I started this article I still had the Sengir Autocrats in the deck, and I had resigned it to being one of those cool decks that are fun to play, but are a little too clunky when facing highly tuned tournament beatdown machines. Then I carried on tinkering and the Mogg War Marshal dropped the mana curve into something that looked both cool and had smoother draws.
Then the Dragonstorm matchup scared me. In theory, wiping out their hand with either Mindslicer or Persecute should make the matchup a doddle. Unfortunately, neither of those cards hit before turn 4, and as Dragonstorm can kill on turn 4 (or even earlier sometimes) reasonably reliably, this is going to be too late going second. Dragonstorm also has Remand, and sometimes even Ignorant Bliss after boarding.
Basically what this means is that the game is a race between the Dragonstorm deck going off and Pact Husk shattering their hand. Dragonstorm is capable of going off before turn 4 and also has two mana answers (Remand, Ignorant Bliss) to Pact Husk “going off.” Pact Husk can… well, it’s pretty much stuck to waiting until turn 4 and hoping that firstly, the game isn’t over, and secondly, it actually gets to land that Persecute or Mindslicer.
I think I know which runner I’d back in that race.
A thorny matchup against Zoo/Boros variants I could probably cope with, but a tricky matchup against Dragonstorm, especially given the deck’s current popularity online, is probably too much.
Anyway, the deck is a lot of fun to play. There are bad matchups, but they aren’t impossible. Try it out at your local tournaments, especially if you’re sick of cocky control players flinging re-animated Akromas at you. It’s worth it just for the expression on their faces when you say:
“In your draw step, after you’ve drawn a card…”
Thanks for reading.