Pack Rat, Thundermaw, And Unbanning Modern

Hall of Famer Patrick Chapin tells you his thoughts about Pack Rat in Return to Ravnica Limited, Thundermaw Hellkite in Standard, and what could be done to make Modern a better format.

The mayor has declared a state of emergency for the city of Philadelphia, beginning Sunday and continuing to Tuesday, as Hurricane Sandy approaches the region.

As of this writing, it is 2 AM Sunday morning, and I have finally given up being on hold with United Customer Service after five hours.

The largest North American Grand Prix of all-time is caught dead in the middle of what might prove to be one of the largest North American hurricanes of all-time. With flights Sunday night, Monday, and Tuesday all getting canceled, it’s looking like our plan is to find rides to Pittsburgh, where flights will still be happening. So far, rental cars seem difficult to acquire, but we are still drawing live to hiring limos to take us across the state.

While I am not at all sure how we will be getting home, I certainly hope we have found a way by the time of publication. In the meantime, let’s talk about some of the topics of the day!

Pack Rat

Kind of unreal that more people in my Facebook/Twitter feed are complaining about Pack Rat than the incoming hurricane, props to Efro for being the only one to hit both. – Owen Turtenwald

To be fair, Efro had been given a pool to build from that contained a Pack Rat and a Mizzium Mortars, but due to disorganized judging, pools were recollected then redistributed, this time with Luis Scott-Vargas (sitting next to Efro) getting the exact pool back that Efro was originally going to get before the mix-up. Luis went 10-0 on Day 1, his first undefeated Day 1 of a Grand Prix.

Going into GP Philly, a number of us had joked about the Pack Rat lottery, i.e., opening Pack Rat in your sealed pool. What’s the big deal? There have been plenty of busted Limited cards, before, right?

See, it’s not even that 3/4 of the undefeated players on Day 1 at the GP had Pack Rats. Honestly, Pack Rat isn’t even that unbeatable. It is frustrating and is certainly totally overpowered in Limited, but from having played with and against Pack Rats a lot, it is more beatable than some cards (Olivia, Jitte, etc.).

It isn’t even that it is merely rare, leading to more non-games. I am sympathetic to cards, like Bloodline Keeper and Mercurial Alchemist, that are rare instead of mythic largely to provide true aces to people in Limited. The problem is that rather than some badass monster or planeswalker that threatens to take over a game that has already taken place, like Inferno Titan or Gideon Jura, Pack Rat is a two-drop that comes out before a game has taken place.

Now, there is almost no element of game going on anymore. The algorithm for using Pack Rat can actually be solved by a five-year old. The game state is exceedingly repetitive, and there is little joy in winning with or against a Pack Rat. Winning with Inferno Titan or Gideon, you knew the card was amazing, but you still felt the rush of victory. Pack Rat removes most of the agency and robs you of the feeling that you had anything to do with the outcome at all. You certainly don’t win 100% of the time you play it, but when you do, it is less satisfying than any card I have played with in recent years.

It is easy for Magic players to imagine that every decision revolves around them. Maybe Pack Rat even got a bit of a pass to help serve as another spoiler for Limited. Maybe the card is even supposed to be for Constructed. Personally, I think if the card’s primary purpose was casual formats, it should have been released in a non-draft set, like a Commander product. Obviously, costing even a mana more would make the card far weaker, but it is the play pattern that I really call into question.

If it was supposed to be a card for Standard, I think you are supposed to print a couple commons or uncommons that are generally weak cards but hose Pack Rats to give people outs. It is hard to design common or uncommon cards that can do this effectively, but it can be done, such as Echoing Truth.

One last piece of evidence of the absurdity comes from a side draft at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. Owen Turtenwald was 0-2 with a poor W/U/R deck and was getting desperate. With the team draft on the line, he decided to sideboard into one Pack Rat, one Volatile Rig, and 38 Swamps, mulliganing very aggressively.

He won that match.

That is how much Pack Rat removes any game from the equation. There is actually an ongoing debate about if the correct build for some pools with two Pack Rats is 38 Swamps and two Pack Rats. After all, you are 78% to get one in your opening hand if you mulligan all the way. If you assume that you win 90% of games where you play Pack Rat on turn 2 (which may or may not be a fair assumption), you are talking about a win percentage north of 70%, even against the best players in the world.

What I wonder is if you are supposed to play two Pack Rats and 38 Swamps or two Pack Rats, 37 Swamps, and one Drainpipe Vermin (which powers up your Rats). I am pretty sure you want the Drainpipe Vermin once you get your third Pack Rat, but where is the line?

Overall, I think Pack Rat is a mistake. It is very unfun for all parties involved and makes the format noticeably less fun than if it was not around. That said, it is not a big enough mistake to ruin Return to Ravnica Limited (which is generally a good Limited format). I just hope, like Invisible Stalker, there are lessons learned from this.


Brian Kibler recently wrote an excellent perspective on the problem with the Modern format, which you can find here. In summary, the problem with Modern is that cards matter too little or too much. When cards are important, they are so important that almost nothing else matters. So many decks are attacking from so many different and non-connected axes of interaction that the format feels very strongly about guessing which sideboard cards to use and which sideboard cards others will use.

This is because there are too many unfair decks. Unfair is not a judgment regarding the power level of the decks in question. Fair decks can and often are stronger than unfair decks. Unfair deck is just a term to describe a strategy that makes the game about something much different than it normally is.

For instance, the Second Sunrise deck does not attack. It does not have creatures. It does not play removal. It makes the game about resource manipulation, primarily cantrip artifacts and the graveyard, as it quickly moves towards a recursive state where it can play any card it wants any number of times. Storm decks make the game about playing twenty spells in the same turn (or just resolving a Past in Flames). Dredge makes the game revolve entirely around the graveyard and your ability to interact with it.

Unfair strategies are not inherently "bad," but in Modern, there is an overabundance of them that stretches in very different directions while there are very few "fair" strategies that can possibly hope to hang with a number of them. The result is a lot of goldfishing against each other and a lot of Jund mirror matches. That is not a great format.

It is not as simple as just banning a few more cards. There is just too much degeneracy and without Force of Will holding the format together, like in Legacy. After all, what are you going to do, ban Lotus Bloom, Cranial Plating, Second Sunrise, Serum Visions, Snapcaster Mage, Gifts Ungiven, Gravecrawler, Dark Confidant, Goryo’s Vengeance, Seething Song, Past in Flames, Splinter Twin, Kiki-Jiki the Mirror Breaker, Through the Breach, Life from the Loam, Birthing Pod, Inkmoth Nexus, Urza’s Mine, Urza’s Powerplant, Urza’s Tower, and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle?

That format sounds so much better than the one we have now, but it’s probably not politically feasible, as surely a bunch of those cards are in the Modern Masters set that comes out next year. As a side note, as cute as it would be to ban Urza’s Tower, you’d have to ban them all, as it is just too unfun for the kid who does a search for Urza’s Mine, sees it is legal, and builds from there.

One possible solution is to try unbanning cards. This has a high probability of being adopted, but, honestly, probably a lower probability of actually working. After all, it’s not like Force of Will is on the banned list. Mental Misstep is the closest thing, but the cure might be worse than the ailment. Then again, desperate times call for Desperate Ravings, err, I mean desperate measures.

If we were unbanning cards, what about Bitterblossom, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Green Sun’s Zenith? Green Sun’s Zenith might have to be accompanied by a Dryad Arbor ban and flies in the face of the "ban the Tutors" policy, but it does give fair decks a stronger tool (assuming you can keep it out of the hands of the unfair decks). Bitterblossom and Jace, the Mind Sculptor have both historically been used in decks that beat up on unfair decks. Is that the chemotherapy the format needs?

I suppose if I were trying to fix Modern without banning 22 cards, I would start by unbanning Bitterblossom, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Green Sun’s Zenith. I would ban Dryad Arbor, Serum Visions, and Sleight of Hand. I’d also include Dark Confidant, but I imagine that one is likely a very tough sell, as I would be shocked if it is not in Modern Masters.

Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand are the cards to hit to do the most damage to the unfair decks as a whole. At least this way they are all less consistent at doing their things so fast. Dryad Arbor is probably a sad necessity of the deal-with-the-devil that is unbanning Green Sun’s Zenith.

Believe you me, I am not a person that wants to see Green Sun’s Zenith unbanned. As Kibler will tell you, I am a fairly heavy believer in the ban the Tutor policy and have been an advocate against the card. However, I am also a practical man.

To stay true to the principles that were laid out, I think we have another 20 cards to ban. After all, the Legacy banned list is right around 60 cards, while Modern’s is less than half that. However, if we cannot do that (and I’d love if that somehow was popular and we could), then we must examine what we can do. Unbanning Green Sun’s Zenith, Bitterblossom, and Jace the, Mind Sculptor is a lot of playing with fire, but it’s what I’d recommend if we can’t ban more than three cards.

Remember, it is not that the unfair decks are too good (though they might be). It is that they promote a format that does not seem to be winning over the hearts and minds of players or people watching the games. Jund isn’t even really that good of a deck (it did have a losing record in Seattle), but it would be less frustrating if people could play a wider range of cards that are generally decent against Jund without getting punished by the unfair decks.

Another possibility is to reimagine what the banned list means. What if Modern’s banned list was less permanent than other formats? What if cards were banned somewhat aggressively but only temporarily? For instance, what if a few cards were unbanned and a dozen cards were banned, but at least half of those cards were unbanned next year? And when those cards are unbanned, some other cards are banned, but again only temporarily?

Right now, there is a certainly permanence to cards getting banned, even though they sometimes get unbanned (like Valakut). It is very different experience if you are only talking about a year off. Modern is a very challenging format to evolve, as it does not have the benefit of a rotation (which is effectively like banning 750 cards at a time). A rotating banned list might give it a more dynamic feel, keeping it more fresh and interesting.

Modern is supposed to be the format where you can play anything from the Modern era. Maybe the best way to do that is to temporarily ban things that are drowning out most of what people would play. You can still play all the unfair stuff, just not all of it all of the time. After all, even if you just cut the variety of unfair decks in half, people could be more prepared for those decks and have more tools that actually interact rather than having to go all-in on haymakers like Rest in Peace or Creeping Corrosion.

Thundermaw Hellkite

Standard went through a phase where Zombies seemed to be everywhere. It did not take people long to realize, however, that the pillars of the format are Thragtusk, Restoration Angel, and Jace, Architect of Thought. You certainly don’t have to use all of them, but using none is dubious. Of the Top 16 decks of this past weekend’s SCG Standard Open, only three did not feature one of the big three, two G/W Humans decks and a Mono-Red Aggro.

For you Mono-Red fans, here is the 10th place finisher from this past weekend:

There are a number of clever pieces of technology to examine here. First of all, Pyreheart Wolf is an ingenious solution to the Thragtusk problem. Gaining five life is still a big game and Restoration Angel is still going to be brutal, but at least making Thragtusk unable to block on his own goes a long way towards giving us some counterplay. The undying is actually an amusing feature against Supreme Verdict or the endless removal of Jund.

Next, we observe the eleven two-drops, with just eight one-drops. Personally, I would want to trim another Flunkies for another one-drop, maybe a Stonewright. Either way, the important thing is having more staying power. With lots of two-drops plus some threes and fours, red is a little bigger than it has been recently.

Finally, Archwing Dragon isn’t new to players that played Innistrad Block Constructed, but it is an important card to transition over since so many people only have instant speed removal. It’s bigger than Restoration Angel and hard to kill with spot removal.

I wonder if the next step in the evolution of Mono-Red is the adoption of Thundermaw Hellkite. Already, Thundermaw Hellkite is, ahem, thundering to the center of the metagame. With three Thundermaw Hellkite decks making Top 8 the most recent Open and another in 9th, it is card that is finding its niche. By next week, everyone will always remember liking it.

Why is Thundermaw Hellkite so good? Outside of its raw power, which is described here, it is contextually good because it is a giant flier with haste. Flying makes it go over the top of Thragtusk, haste makes it beat sorcery speed removal, and giant is because it is bigger than Mizzium Mortars or Restoration Angel.

Jund is one home that Thundermaw Hellkite has found, sharing the five-spot with Thragtusk. Another new home is in U/W/R Midrange, such as:

The format isn’t right for little threats like Delver of Secrets. We want creatures that can hit hard, like Geist of Saint Traft and Thundermaw Hellkite. I’d still like to see Jace, Architect of Thought in here for added Fact or Fiction power, but the format is going to be about beating him.

Ok, one last sketch for the day… Grixis!

I’m out for this week. I have to figure out how to get out of this city before they close the bridges and the hurricane locks everything down. What are your thoughts on what to do with Modern? What about the future of Standard? See you next week!

Patrick Chapin
"The Innovator"