Double Or Nothing: Pirates In Standard?

Jonny Chapman’s OBC Pirates! deck was aimed at beating a very focused metagame. It has aggro elements that MBC and ‘Tog can’t really cope with – and lots of ways to kill or control green creatures, without with U/G has a real problem winning. So what, you ask? Well, have you looked at Standard lately?

Back in September of last year, everyone was battling it out with Odyssey Block cards and the environment had polarized into two main camps: Those who played MBC and those who played U/G. The U/G camp had two main variants, Threshold and Madness, and there were some pundits pushing Psychatog. Then, out of the blue two decks appeared. One, a mono-Red deck was hailed as the format breaker and even won a couple of PTQs – but didn’t travel well. The second saw play all over the world.

Pirates! by Jonny Chapman (Grand Prix London 2002).

Creatures (29):

4x Faceless Butcher

3x Slithery Stalker

4x Millikin

4x Braids, Cabal Minion

3x Ichorid

3x Crypt Keeper

4x Nantuko Shade

4x Mesmeric Fiend

Other Spells(7):

3x Zombie Infestation

4x Chainer’s Edict

Land (24):

24x Swamp

Sideboard (15):

2x Grotesque Hybrid

1x Stalking Bloodsucker

1x Ichorid

2x Buried Alive

3x Cabal Therapy

3x Mutilate

1x Slithery Stalker

2x Screams of the Damned

Jonny’s deck was aimed at beating a very focused metagame. It has aggro elements that MBC and ‘Tog can’t really cope with – and lots of ways to kill or control green creatures, without with U/G has a real problem winning.

So what?

Well, have you looked at Standard lately? Many players are applauding the sheer variety of the decks available but the Tier one decks seem to have an awful lot of Odyssey block cards in them don’t they?

That got me thinking: How does Pirates perform in Standard right now? Are there any cards in Onslaught or Legions that make it better?

I started by playing a few matches against U/G Madness, a deck you’d expect Pirates to be good against – and surprise, surprise it certainly got the upper hand. I didn’t like the Slithery Stalkers so much, as they didn’t help much with Mongrels or Looters, although everything else had real problems. Millikin played okay, giving me a little extra mana and keeping enough critters in the graveyard for Ichorid. Braids worked well if I was already winning. If I was on the back foot, I didn’t want to see Braids at all.

The games I lost had been mainly because of mana screw or just drawing a lack of good threats. Without a Shade, my early offence was often lacking, and let them survive to refill their hand with a Deep Analysis and start coming back at me. Crypt Keeper was good at getting rid of Wonder and Roar, but was only a one-shot.

The current sideboard gives us more anti-Green men, and Mutilate to play with – which should be plenty.

Next up to bat was everyone’s (bar Kai of course) least favourite – the toothy survivor himself, Psychatog. The first few matches swung one way and another before I started to get a handle on what cards I really needed. It seemed that if we get a good mix of critters and land, ‘Tog has a hard time. There are many ways to win: an unchecked Shade, lots of weenies then Ichorids for the finish, or just a few weenies, followed by the Braids lock.

Tog won if it saw its business spells, rather than card drawing, and a Tog in the early game. A Tog dropped on turn 4 or 5 with counter backup and a few cards in the graveyard can slow you down enough so that a win is looking unlikely and the more mana the Tog player gets, the more they’ll be able to cast card drawing spells safely.

After boarding we have Cabal Therapies, Bloodsucker, Ichorid, and Buried Alive to fuel the Ichorids. Life gets tougher for Tog whilst they really don’t have much to bring in against us.

So those two are the top decks according to some… And we’re doing okay. Obviously, we can do better. Duress may be a better choice than Cabal Therapy, and Smother may indeed be a better choice than Slithery Stalker (but we have to make sure we don’t take out too many creatures or the Ichorids won’t work). Withered Wretch may help us beat U/G even more than the Keeper does and he’s a 2/2 to boot.

There is a whole truck full of bad news though. It’s a big truck, a popular truck – and above all, it’s a Red truck.

Red is bad for Pirates – really bad. So bad that if you thought a good percentage of the field was playing Red and Green/Red, I’d hold you down and call for the medics before I let you play this deck – at least the way it is right now.

There are three main archetypes that use Red spells that people are playing right now: Sligh, Slide and G/R beats.

To start with I played a little against Sligh and, after five games I gave up. Modern Sligh is very hard to beat thanks to two cards: Grim Lavamancer and Sparksmith. If your opponent doesn’t see either you might be lucky but then they’ll be seeing Burn spells instead. Blistering Firecat kicks you in the teeth and nearly every creature you have dies far too easily. Even Nantuko Shade isn’t good enough because you need to leave so much mana open to keep it alive, let alone if it blocks or attacks!

On the upside I’m positive that there are good sideboard cards against Sligh – Engineered Plagues being the most obvious and Mutilate a close second. If you drop a Plague naming Goblins your life gets a lot easier. You probably still won’t win unless you can get some three or four toughness creatures into play, but you’ll have a much better chance.

The next deck I tried it out against was Slide. I played a R/W version of Slide, popularised here on StarCity by Ben Ronaldson some time ago. Pirates started well, but after all my testing with it against other decks I was much more familiar with it than with Slide. After a few games I started working out what hands I needed to mulligan with Slide and, pretty soon, Pirates were being slapped around like they’d gone up against the USS Enterprise with sticks and stones.

If the Slide player dropped an Angel and protected it with an Astral Slide, there was very little I could do. Butchers and Stalkers occasionally worked… But then Wrath would happen and the Angel would saunter back onto the play mat, spoiling for a fight. Astral Slide itself wasn’t too much of a problem, but managed to keep a tanked-up Nantuko Shade in limbo for long enough that it didn’t matter.

And last (but by no means least) in the terrible trio is Lightning Rift: Lightning Rift is very good against Pirates. All of the critters bite the dust except the Butchers and Shades and, as I’ve mentioned before, keeping the mana open to keep the Shades alive slows you down a lot.

Black, traditionally, has a nightmare dealing with enchantment-based decks and so boarding is going to be a real problem. Even so, Haunting Echoes looks like it might help, even without Tutors to go and get it, and if we can make bigger guys somehow we might just be in luck. We might also be able to look at MBC and see how they beat Black.

The last of the Red-filled decks to consider is G/R Beats. I took Zvi’s advice and added a few more Skirk Marauders to Kai’s version of G/R before playing. I hoped against hope that my initial feelings would be wrong but I was right. G/R really is the worst matchup for Pirates right now. Not only do they have the burn spells that Sligh is playing, but they cherry-pick the best creatures from U/G Madness and make them bigger and tougher to kill! Add in spells like Call of the Herd that take twice as many resources to deal with, and you have a big problem.

The Butchers and Stalkers help out with the Elephants, but they just get burnt and drop any other creature straight back into play. Coupled with that is the fact that almost every deck plays three or four Composts in the sideboard. I’ve heard that Compost is some good against mono-Black decks…

They’re the worst matchups we can have… But there’s one more worth looking at, and that is Opposition. There are, as ever, a whole host of versions of Opposition out there ranging from U/G Madness decks with Opposition dropped into them, all the way over to crazy U/G/B versions that may be very good (or may not, depending on who you read and who you believe).

There are two general approaches: The first is to play like you don’t have Opposition then drop it and use the extra control it gives you to manipulate the last few turns. This is the route the U/G Madness versions take. The second is to stall out a bit, then create masses of tokens and drop Opposition (with or without Static Orb) leaving yourself in total control.

The latter approach is a good matchup – providing they don’t drop Squirrel Nest on turn 3. If they do you’re in trouble. The former, much like U/G Madness itself, is also a good matchup.

So we have to worry about tokens… Hmm, did I mention Engineered Plague when I talked about Sligh? All in all, the aggro/control nature of Pirates is very good against other aggro/control matchups – and with a good Braids draw, is good against resource-hungry control decks too.

So, in summary we do quite well against some of the top decks, but fall over if they play Red spells. That gives us three questions that must be answered:

  • Will anyone play decks with Red spells in?

  • If so is it worth playing Pirates?

  • If we do play Pirates, what can we do about Red?

The first is easy to answer: Maybe not, but most likely yes. Sligh and G/R Beats are popular with a whole host of players that like to go balls to the wall, and want time between rounds over a long, long day. Slide is popular as well, as it’s being pushed by a number of Pros as a Tier 1 deck. And people listen to Pros.

So is it worth playing Pirates? Pirates was designed to be a metagame choice. If lots of people are playing MBC, U/G Madness and Tog, it’s still a good choice – as it was designed purely to beat that metagame and, with a few tweaks I’ve outlined below, it still does.

On the other hand, we have the new decks. In Bath there’s always someone playing Sligh, someone playing G/R Beats and Slide. In the last tournament five G/R decks, four Slide decks and two Sligh decks showed up in a field of 37. That’s roughly 30% of the field! Over seven rounds, you could expect to play two of them unless you were lucky. If 5-2 will win you the tourney, that’s good enough – but you can always bump into a third or a fourth and a 3-4 record is not so bad. Basically, if you think more than 25% of the field will be running those decks, I’d think very carefully unless you can make it beat red spells.

So; we’ve decided we’re going to run it and we want to make it a bit more robust. I’d start with two simple changes:

Creatures (26):

4x Nantuko Shade

4x Withered Wretch

4x Mesmeric Fiend

4x Faceless Butcher

4x Braids, Cabal Minion

3x Millikin

3x Ichorid

Other Spells (10):

4x Chainer’s Edict

3x Smother

3x Zombie Infestation

Land (24):

24x Swamp

I’ve dropped the creature count, but not by much, and added Smother. Smother will kill Mongrels, Looters and Togs that the Stalker wouldn’t, as well as Grim Lavamancers and most Goblins you choose to mention. It’ll also kill any Morphs you don’t like the look of. Withered Wretch has also made the team. He may use up a bit more mana than the Crypt Creeper, but will easily be more effective in the long run against U/G Madness.

It’s tempting to drop some Swamps for the new fetchlands, but I’m really not sure. Braids needs a lot of land to keep her going – and with some of my losses down to being stuck on three land, I’m loathe to introduce cards that make me less likely to draw a Swamp!

These changes strengthen the deck against decks it was already good against… So what do we do against Red spells? Well for a start, we accept that we’re going to have a tough time in the first game and hope against hope we can win the last two. That means pushing our sideboard towards killing red things and dealing with critters.

Braids and Mesmeric Fiend are the first, obvious, sideboard targets – which give us seven easy slots to play with. Against Sligh, we’re going to choose Engineered Plague to start with, and we know that this can help against Opposition too. What else? Well, the oft-criticised Shambling Swarm can help out against G/R Beats and can probably come in against Sligh – but will probably be a little too slow. I’d also like to see more instant-speed removal, which pushes me in the direction of Ghastly Demise.

One surprise contender is Oversold Cemetery. Sligh and R/G are very good at killing our critters, but what if we can get them back and use them again – especially the Shambling Swarms? Against R/G we may just have a chance if we make it far enough into the game but they’re really not going to help us out early on.

Against Slide I’m betting on Haunting Echoes – and with no Tutors, we probably need two or three, depending on how many people we think will be playing it. For now, I’ll stick on two. A few Duresses should also help us out.

So what have we got so far?

Sideboard (15):

3x Engineered Plague

3x Shambling Swarm

3x Duress

2x Haunting Echoes

2x Oversold Cemetery

2x Ghastly Demise

We’ve lost the Buried Alives, Screams of the Damned, and Stalking Bloodsuckers – because frankly, we need the sideboard space to help us deal with the decks we have more problems with. Withered Wretch makes the U/G madness and Tog matches easier for us anyway and we still have extra spells to bring in in each of those matches.

All in all, I like this deck a lot. It’s fun to play and it’s fun to test and play against – but that’s the real danger. Fun decks often get more testing than Tier 1 decks because, frankly, playing the same game over and over is boring. You find yourself thinking a deck is much better than it is because you like it.

Don’t make that mistake with this deck. This is certainly not Tier 1. It won’t deal with random decks as well as G/R Beats, Tog, or U/G Madness will. It has problems with several of the Tier 2 decks (Slide and Sligh), too. Even so I’m happy to recommend it as a deck for your gauntlet – and if you really trust me, for a FNM tourney you’re playing in for fun.



Jim Grimmett.

Team PhatBeats.