Pack Rat Fever

Todd talks about the evolution of Mono-Black Devotion and shares his thoughts about the current state of the Standard after playing in the SCG Invitational in Las Vegas.

Mono-Black Devotion has been the deck that I’ve wanted to play with in Standard for months now. When Theros was first released on Magic Online, I got to work building and honing a Mono-Black Devotion deck before all of my friends played at the Pro Tour. Once I got the list where I actually thought it was insane, I sent them a Facebook message telling them how good Gray Merchant of Asphodel was and included my list.

At the time Thrill-Kill Assassin was a little better than Pack Rat due to the high density of G/W and Mono-Red Aggro, meaning I didn’t have Pack Rat in my list. I mean, before the Pro Tour I don’t know many people who even had Pack Rat on their radar let alone would have bet on it sneaking into the maindeck of a Top 8 deck.

Pack Rat was just a Limited hoser. Nothing more, nothing less. There were too many answers in Detention Sphere and Supreme Verdict and enough spot removal to get the job done early in the game. But this Standard definitely fleshed out much differently than I imagined, and Pack Rat is now one of the most influential cards in the format.

The thing about Pack Rat is that it doesn’t give a crap about what the rest of your deck does. If you have Mutavault or incredibly cheap spells to play alongside it, great. Otherwise, just get the hell out of the way and let Pack Rat do its job. There are some cards that will tag along with Pack Rat for piggyback kills later in the game, like Gray Merchant of Asphodel, but for the most part I’m just discarding everything that isn’t a removal spell if I expect that my opponent has no answer.

After seeing Pack Rat at the Pro Tour, my first instinct was to cut it. Generally, I feel like I’m pretty decent at card evaluation and my instincts are fine when it comes to things like that, but there was just something about the card that gave me goose bumps. It was like remembering a bad dream that you had a few months ago. You know the one where a rat multiplies into a hundred other rats and then eats your entire limited format? Yeah, that’s the one.

Pack Rat went from Limited all-star to Constructed all-star in a flash. And it isn’t difficult to see why. With devotion being the mechanic that everyone was latching on to, removal spells were waning. Everyone wanted to jam as many permanents into play as they could and cross their fingers hoping their opponent didn’t have Supreme Verdict. As a spell, Pack Rat acted similarly to entire devotion decks. You used resources and time to create an overwhelming board presence and hoped they didn’t have the answer.

Sometimes Pack Rat is much slower than you need it to be, but at other times it is the only card that can win you the game. When you play against a deck with a high density of removal spells, waiting to cast Pack Rat until turn 5 is just insane because it forces them to have two removal spells immediately. And if they’ve burned a few of those already on your Nightveil Specter or Desecration Demon, the likelihood of this happening is pretty slim. But the coolest part about Pack Rat is that it gives you an entirely different game plan than the rest of your deck. Your opponent can have a lot of ways to interact with your deck, but sometimes it just isn’t enough. Pack Rat can just overwhelm them, especially when combined with Mutavault.

At Grand Prix Louisville I knew that Mono-Black Devotion was the best deck. I was confident in the week leading up to the event and even more so after the results of Brad Nelson, Brian Braun-Duin, and myself. After that event I wasn’t really sure about the format anymore. I went into Grand Prix Albuquerque unsure as to whether or not my deck was actually good and almost audibled to Mono-Blue Devotion since that deck seemed to give so many pilots free wins. But after making Top 4 of the event with very few changes from my Louisville list, I was blown away at how good the deck ended up being with so little effort on making it "better."

Pack Rat Fever

Of course, the real talk of that tournament was the version played by Paul Rietzl and Owen Turtenwald (and Matt Sperling, who got ninth after drawing with Paul when he had him dead on board). They ended up playing the full four Pack Rats maindeck, and that has been the trend ever since. The cost of playing four Pack Rats is cutting some number of removal spells from your deck, which makes you less interactive with all of the other creature-based devotion decks, but it gives you a proactive game plan that often forces them to interact with you in ways they aren’t prepared to do.

My mistake over the last month has been trying to keep a high density of removal spells while also playing four Pack Rats, which translates into cutting some number of your other threats. At first I wanted to cut Erebos. Then I wanted to cut Desecration Demon, and ultimately I wanted to cut Gray Merchant of Asphodel. This led me to various versions featuring a combination of Mono-Blue and Mono-Black that I never really fleshed out due to time concerns and holiday mumbo-jumbo, so for the Invitational I just played the B/W Control deck that won Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth. It was similar enough to Mono-Black Devotion, but I had been feeling like Gray Merchant was lacking, so I decided to give Blood Baron of Vizkopa a shot.

What I found was that the Mono-Blue Devotion deck was still trouble. I don’t care how many times Mono-Black beats Mono-Blue in the finals of a major tournament—the matchup is incredibly close. Being on the play is huge because it makes Pack Rat a threat. If you’re on the draw, the Mono-Blue deck can basically ignore Pack Rat and beat you with fliers or Thassa. This makes your removal much more important when you’re on the draw, and cutting down to so few of them leads to some blowouts from the other side.

The first blowout draw, which I have yet to be able to contain (or lose with when I’m playing the other side), is the triple one-drop. Regardless of which one-drops you start with, having so many creatures in play to help turn on devotion or just having a giant Cloudfin Raptor is pretty rough business. And when Devour Flesh is your two-drop removal of choice, you will almost never get to kill their Cloudfin Raptor.

The thing about Judge’s Familiar is that it looks pretty bad on paper and even seems bad when you’re playing with it but puts a ton of pressure on Mono-Black’s Hero’s Downfalls. If you have to wait an entire turn to use your removal spell, you’ve been effectively Time Walked. And if you don’t have anything to play in the meanwhile, you’re basically already dead. Mono-Blue is very good at flooding the board with random dorks, and Mono-Black is not very good at killing a lot of random dorks. Without access to a sweeper effect, you can fall behind very easily with no real way to catch up.

The Steamroll Effect

With devotion being the most important mechanic in Standard, it is no wonder that so many strategies involve just jamming every spell in your hand onto the board and trying to overwhelm the opponent. There is no such thing as overkill because nearly every deck is just trying to goldfish into the most efficient ways to win. Some of these kills involve spewing twelve or more power by turn 4, while others just use Fanatic of Mogis to come right back over the top. It is strange to watch some of these decks interact because none of them actually want the opponent to interact with them.

When Wizards decides to print a card like Master of Waves, you have to take a moment and think about what that card means for the format. Master of Waves is the definition of overkill. If you aren’t able to stop the initial 2/1 with protection from red, then you are going to die unless you do something even more ridiculous. This leaves us with decks that are removal heavy or virtually removal-less since those are the only two ways to fight something as absurd as Master of Waves. We can’t rightly block it because when someone is attacking with the actual Master of Waves it is probably going to be for lethal damage. We can’t rightly attack into a board full of Elementals because we will lose all of our creatures or they will just soak the damage and kill us on the return serve.

So if you’re wondering why Standard looks so strange right now, Master of Waves is the reason. I think that there are many cards in Standard that look similar to Master of Waves and have similar effects even, but the truth is that Mono-Blue Devotion has the best supporting cast for an aggressive devotion list. With eight (and potentially twelve) solid one-drop creatures, multiple two-drop creatures that can act as both aggressive and defensive measures, the only three-drop God card in Nightveil Specter, and even the best planeswalker in the format, it isn’t hard to see why Master of Waves is so good. And let’s not forget Bident of Thassa, which has singlehandedly accounted for three of my premier event losses to Mono-Blue Devotion.

The other decks that utilize the devotion mechanic can be strong as well, but they hinge on having access to Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, whereas Mono-Blue Devotion doesn’t need that card to go bananas. In fact, Greg Hatch actually cut Nykthos from his Mono-Blue Devotion list at the Invitational last weekend. They can do just fine steamrolling you without it. Many of the draws from Mono-Blue that feature Nykthos are quite poor, as it doesn’t help you cast your two- or three-drops all that well and basically just combos with Cyclonic Rift (which Hatch also cut).

As I mentioned, there are two avenues of attack when it comes to beating the devotion decks in Standard. Their goal is to build up a massive board, so your first avenue of attack is to dismantle that board. Detention Sphere, Supreme Verdict, Ratchet Bomb, or any other removal spell that can deal with multiple permanents is a great start. Last Breath and Dimir Charm are fantastic at killing virtually any creature from Mono-Blue and are solid against Pack Rat. As control players, we have the tools to interact with devotion on our own terms. If you want the best control deck for interacting with devotion, I highly recommend Brian Braun Duin’s list from the Top 8 of the Invitational.

As you can see, his removal spells are particularly strong for a devotion-based metagame. Dimir Charm has been fantastic for me over the last few weeks and even has a little bit of utility against some of the random blowout cards in the format. Have you ever stopped a Rakdos’s Return with Dimir Charm?

I’ve tried to splash Dimir Charm in Mono-Black Devotion and even tried brewing up some strange stuff featuring the card, but I’m admittedly not very good at brewing new archetypes that take over a metagame. I am usually pretty spot on when it comes to figuring out which cards are good at fighting what and then trying to implement those cards into existing decks.

The second avenue of attack to beat devotion strategies is to ignore them as much as possible and try to do something bigger.

Erik Smith went for a double up on Invitational wins this year but was foiled by Greg Hatch in a close five-game match. While Erik lost to Greg, who was playing Mono-Blue Devotion, I like the build that Erik brought to the tournament. It’s explosive but also has some similar qualities to Mono-Red Aggro. This deck is nothing new, but I think it can give you a good start on what it takes to be competitive against other devotion strategies.

If they decide to stall the ground with Master of Waves, you have to go over the top. Stormbreath Dragon and Fanatic of Mogis are great at doing this. Purphoros isn’t all that bad either. The problem comes when you don’t have enough pressure against them and they’re able to stick an active Thassa or Master of Waves. Since you’re a devotion deck that relies on Nykthos, you can have some draws where you stumble and fall apart and are just too slow when you are unable to find a Nykthos. Your Burning-Tree Emissary draws are actually quite sloppy when you don’t draw Nykthos since you have no two-drop creatures you can actually cast for GR.

The problem with this entire avenue of attack is that the more ridiculous you make your deck, the more it hinges on Nykthos for support. If your opponent is able to kill your first few creatures or if you just fail to draw Nykthos, your deck doesn’t really do anything spectacular. You have a reasonable curve but aren’t breaking the game open, and this will ultimately lead to failure versus a lot of reasonable draws from opponents. Of the two, this is the most dangerous avenue to take, which is one of the reasons why Mono-Blue Devotion has just been the safest devotion-based deck.

Diversify Yo Bonds

In our match Erik was able to sideboard into a much more aggressive version of the deck that still had a lot of the same top-end spells to punish me, including Assemble the Legion. I really love this type of sideboarding because it gives you more range when it comes to deckbuilding. Having access to Firedrinker Satyr in the sideboard might seem like a wasted slot, but it is one of the best starts you can have against a control deck. Force them to use Supreme Verdict early and then finish them off with Stormbreath Dragon!

Assemble the Legion has been the bane of Mono-Black Devotion for months now, but people still haven’t caught on. I’m not sure why. Brad tuned Naya Control for the last Invitational to just smash all of the devotion decks by using Assemble the Legion as the arrow to the knee for Mono-Black, and he ultimately went 8-0 in the Standard portion. The fact that so few people have been able to build competitive decks featuring Assemble the Legion is surprising to say the least. With Mono-Black winning most of the premier tournaments in North America, it only makes sense that Assemble the Legion would be everywhere!

While there aren’t any major tournaments for the rest of the year, 2014 should be the start of a fantastic journey for me. I want nothing more than to qualify for the new StarCityGames.com Players’ Championship, and I’ll be traveling more than ever to SCG Open Series in search of enough points to qualify.

See you soon!