Tainted Pact Is Breaking Historic One Card At A Time

Historic Tainted Pact decks had a breakout weekend on the SCG Tour Online. Dom Harvey shares their power… and why it will only grow.

Tainted Pact, illustrated by Benjamin Ex

Thassa’s Oracle may be the strongest card printed in years.

Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath does almost everything better than everyone else. Thassa’s Oracle does something no other card can. It is perhaps the most compact and efficient win condition ever printed if you can meet its requirement. Any card that can do so deserves automatic consideration. Oracle turned Inverter of Truths from a bulk rare into a ban-worthy oppressor. It also revived Doomsday as a staple of Legacy and the best deck in Vintage.

Players reared on Arena’s ‘safer’ formats are now learning the power of this effect. After initial hype over other combo cards, Tainted Pact emerged as the breakout star of the Mystical Archive this weekend. After bursting onto the scene at the Insight Esports Historic Open, the deck continued to impress at SCG Tour Online $5K Strixhaven Championship Qualifier #8, posting the highest win rate and putting four players in the Top 16. Prominent streamers are promoting and iterating on the deck constantly. This is only going to get better.

Tainted Pact

If your library contains only unique cards when you cast Tainted Pact, you can exile as much of it as you like to set up a lethal Thassa’s Oracle (or an analogous effect like Jace, Wielder of Mysteries). You can split this cost across several turns by casting Tainted Pact in advance (leaving enough cards to avoid decking) or combo out of nowhere in one turn (typically by casting Thassa’s Oracle and responding to its trigger with Tainted Pact, especially if there’s a chance of Oracle being countered).

As with its cousins in other formats, this combo sidesteps conventional interaction and hate cards. It doesn’t use the graveyard (a big deal when combo decks fuelled by Faithless Looting carry a large target and cards like Grafdigger’s Cage and Rest in Peace were already sideboard staples), you don’t have to protect a permanent on the battlefield before your combo turn, and removal doesn’t stop Thassa’s Oracle winning the game with an empty library thanks to the ‘or equal to’ clause on its devotion check.

Time Wipe

You should be able to execute this combo as early as Turn 3. Simply cast Tainted Pact on the opponent’s second turn and then Thassa’s Oracle on yours. Unfortunately, Tainted Pact is broken, and not just in the Magic jargon sense. You have to manually select yes or no for each card. In between, you also must sit through an animation each time while the rope burns. You will run out of time if you have to do this for a full library before earning additional timeouts. At this point, Arena will auto-decline all remaining choices and you will deck yourself in your draw step.

All this forces you to wait until you can bank extra time or cast Pact and Oracle together. When you do, Arena shortcutting the rest of Tainted Pact still lets you win with Oracle. This has the unfortunate side-effect of opening up a loss to Baleful Mastery or Prismari Command. Either can force you to draw cards in response to the Oracle trigger with an empty library. 

Hopefully this will be fixed soon and Arena will take a step closer to being ready for hosting competitive Magic. Until then, note that the combo’s excellent results occurred despite this handicap removing the top of its range. Its true win rate is even higher. 

Single Combat

True to its name, Tainted Pact demands a high price in consistency in return for this speed and resilience. Pact breaks all the normal rules of deckbuilding. If you have more than one copy of any non-combo card or more than two copies of either combo piece, you can’t reliably go off. This restriction limits not just the combo but also access to premium card filtering spells like Brainstorm and Opt that would help to mitigate that weakness otherwise.

This would be fatal in formats where specific cards are more important. Without Force of Will as a reliable safety valve and the smoothing of fully-powered Brainstorm, forget Tainted Pact in Legacy. Historic falls in a sweet spot where there’s enough redundancy on each broad category of card – filtering, removal, counters – that you can make up the numbers, but few of these individual cards are so much better than the competition that you can’t accept that tradeoff. 

The forced variety can punish you when you need a specific answer, yet also make you harder to play against. Choosing what to play around and when is hard enough with known information about a binary choice. This diversification makes that even harder. Instead of asking whether you have one of your four copies of Heartless Act, the opponent now has to account for the aggregate chance that you have a removal spell as well as any relevant differences between Heartless Act, Tyrant’s Scorn, and Eliminate, all while the threat of suddenly dying to the combo looms over the game. 

This restriction also presents deckbuilding problems whose novelty makes them interesting and challenging. A regular Dimir Control deck’s discard spells are four Thoughtseize or Inquisition of Kozilek and a few of the other. Tainted Pact forces you to answer more questions. Do you still want discard spells if they cost two mana and are worse at taking cheap cards? If so, do the easier casting cost and exile clause on Agonizing Remorse outweigh the surveil ability and lack of pain from Thought Erasure? Is the marginal fifth discard spell better than the marginal fifth counterspell? Every slot now faces its own set of questions that wouldn’t arise in any other deck.

There are big-picture questions too. You have to make tough choices regarding colours, companions, and where you fall on the combo-control spectrum.

With this in mind, giving an exhaustive treatment of every option is impossible. Still, it’s worth looking at those options to get a sense of the tradeoffs involved:

Lutri, the Spellchaser Lurrus of the Dream-Den

You need a good reason not to play a companion if one is available. Here, we have two companions vying for our attention and can justify playing either or neither.

Lutri, the Spellchaser is rarely available, but building around Tainted Pact gets you most of the way there and Lutri turns Tainted Pact into a one-card combo with enough time: Lutri copies Pact, finding Thassa’s Oracle, and the original Pact depletes the rest of your deck. However, running just one copy of Pact and Oracle makes it harder to combo without Lutri, and comboing via Lutri is very slow, especially as you are now more likely to have to use a Tutor to find the Pact. If you choose Lutri, it should be because you think the deck is strong enough at executing its plan anyway or can support a strong backup plan (such as a slower control plan that Lutri does excel in) and you get Lutri as a freeroll rather than with the aim of enhancing the combo. 

The restriction that explicitly points to Lutri subtly boosts Lurrus of the Dream-Den. You wouldn’t run Chromatic Sphere or Aether Spellbomb in the absence of other synergies, but you have to get creative to reach the desired density of card filtering or removal, and these cards working with Lurrus is a good tiebreaker. In this deck Lurrus is either returning these benchwarmers or rescuing you by returning an all-important combo piece. There’s not much in between. Its own restriction boxes out planeswalkers or other threats that let you play a different game, but Lurrus offers a backup plan itself and this is more reliable in post-sideboard games when you have no other good removal targets in your deck. Lists with Lurrus lean harder on the combo both out of necessity and by design. 

Jace, Wielder of Mysteries Narset, Parter of Veils Shark Typhoon Brazen Borrower Nimble Obstructionist God-Eternal Kefnet Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver The Scarab God Torrential Gearhulk Crackling Drake Bonecrusher Giant Nicol Bolas, the Ravager Ral, Izzet Viceroy

Losing Lurrus opens up some familiar options as well as a vast array of threats seen in this weekend’s decklists. Narset, Parter of Veils; Shark Typhoon; and Brazen Borrower need no introduction. Jace, Wielder of Mysteries reprises its role as a backup Thassa’s Oracle from the Dimir Inverter days. Nobody has ever registered Nicol Bolas, the Ravager and not regretted it, but I fully support Crackling Drake as another threat that replaces itself while representing an immediate kill with Tainted Pact. God-Eternal Kefnet is a nigh-unkillable ‘value’ threat that can also win by copying Pact.

Nimble Obstructionist may look like a random inclusion on this list. It’s my best tool for the mirror, an uncounterable answer for Thassa’s Oracle and also a flash threat.

Prismari Command Expressive Iteration Valakut Awakening Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger

Another handful of red cards round out the case for Grixis. Notable among them is Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger as the best sideboard card against Dimir Rogues (Lurrus).

Explore Growth Spiral Maelstrom Pulse Abundant Harvest Polukranos, Unchained Maelstrom Pulse Mythos of Brokkos Finale of Devastation Quandrix Apprentice Regrowth Bala Ged Recovery

No one green card is especially appealing but Finale of Devastation is the cheapest direct tutor for Thassa’s Oracle and Regrowth / Bala Ged Recovery (as well as Mission Briefing in Dimir) help against the only kinds of disruption that can interact with your combo while letting one copy of Pact execute the whole combo (finding Oracle, rebuying Pact, and then Pacting away your deck). 

Formation Squire

There are no good reasons to play white.  

Building the manabase is an unusual exercise as we usually take the best fixing for granted. There is an obvious core:

Watery Grave Drowned Catacomb Temple of Deceit Clearwater Pathway Fetid Pools Zagoth Triome Fabled Passage Island Swamp Snow-Covered Island Snow-Covered Swamp

And some inferior fixing that enters the battlefield tapped if you deem it necessary, like Dismal Backwater and Ice Tunnel (the land types here can be relevant between Drowned Catacomb and Castle Locthwain / Vantress) or Terramorphic Expanse / Evolving Wilds to support Brainstorm and Cling to Dust / Search for Azcanta.

Castle Locthwain Castle Vantress Ifnir Deadlands Ipnu Rivulet

Any land that immediately taps for a main colour jumps to the front of the queue. The rest of the text box simply doesn’t matter. The Castles are as strong as ever in longer games such as the mirror, which should only become more popular. 

Barkchannel Pathway Blightstep Pathway

Each colour gets three more Pathways on the house. 

Steam Vents Spirebluff Canal Sulfur Falls Temple of Epiphany Canyon Slough

If you splash a third colour, you already have two Pathways. You can fill out the rest with corresponding members of the above cycles as well as relevant lands in others.

Jwari Disruption Silundi Vision Valakut Awakening

The modal DFCs make up the numbers but would likely make the cut anyway. Silundi Vision in particular shines when your top priority in every game is finding Tainted Pact. 

Sea Gate Stormcaller Expansion

Cards that copy a spell can set up the same outcome as Lutri + Pact while being compatible with Lurrus. Shaving a mana off the copy spell makes it easier to copy something else relevant in a useful time frame. 

Brainstorm Opt Discovery Curate Deliberate Shimmer of Possibility Hieroglyphic Illumination Sign in Blood Behold the Multiverse Drawn from Dreams

You want more card filtering than usual and have more choices than usual, so you have to dig deep here. Lists that are more focused on the combo shy away from more expensive spells that actually provide card advantage, which makes sense when you care about speed but leaves you outmatched in longer games against control decks or attrition battles against Thoughtseize + Kroxa. Additionally, these ‘small’ draw spells have diminishing returns if you don’t find combo pieces, wasting time and mana. Thankfully, Hieroglyphic Illumination and Behold the Multiverse are somewhat flexible ‘big’ draw spells and Drawn from Dreams does a decent impression of Dig Through Time. 

Crucially, if you know a Thassa’s Oracle is near or at the bottom of your library thanks to a scry (sometimes via the London Mulligan) or Fire Prophecy / Valakut Awakening, you can cast Tainted Pact as soon as possible without any additional setup until you reach the lethal Oracle (or are just short of it, if you had to exile one along the way), making Pact a one-card combo.

Cling to Dust Scrabbling Claws Soul-Guide Lantern Chromatic Sphere Aether Spellbomb Mind Stone Omen of the Sea Augur of Bolas

Incidental graveyard hate is less important now that the format is hostile to Mizzix’s Mastery and Unburial Rites, but Torrential Gearhulk and Arclight Phoenix are still around and there’s a floor on how bad a cantrip that works with Lurrus can be. Chromatic Sphere’s fixing is useful for a deck that has to take liberties with its manabase and the Aether Spellbomb lock with Lurrus is very appealing if decks like Orzhov Auras (Lurrus) return. 

Mazemind Tome Search for Azcanta Arguel’s Blood Fast

These sticky, slower sources of card advantage are your best cards in any grindy matchup. Lurrus recurring them is a big part of its utility there. Mazemind Tome is the most reliable, as it does something even in faster matchups. Arguel’s Blood Fast is narrow but brutally effective where it shines. 

Solve the Equation Grim Tutor Mastermind's Acquisition Fae of Wishes Wishclaw Talisman

Without redundancy on your combo pieces or the card draw to find them, direct tutors are uniquely valuable. Handing the opponent a Wishclaw Talisman is much more palatable if they never get to capitalize on it.

Fae of Wishes is the popular inclusion that confuses me most. You spend four mana to find a Tainted Pact from your sideboard. It leaves copies in the deck to clog up Tainted Pact or makes you spend even more mana using them. In return, you lose valuable sideboard slots. Why dedicate those to other Granted targets when you can only run one copy of your Wish?

Censor Supreme Will Thassa’s Intervention Neutralize Sinister Sabotage Pact of Negation Mystical Dispute Memory Lapse Spell Pierce Miscast Negate Test of Talents Saw it Coming

There are more strong counters than slots even in a singleton deck, so card choices follow the deck’s aims. First refusal goes to counters that can draw cards instead (Censor through Neutralize); are the best on rate (Memory Lapse, especially in a combo deck that often just needs one additional turn); or offer something unique (Pact of Negation letting you punch through interaction on a mana-hungry combo turn). Jeskai Control, Dimir Rogues, and the mirror are popular and successful enough that I’d maindeck Mystical Dispute.

Memory Lapse pushing out hard counters is a boon for Dimir Pact, which can happily present the same Thassa’s Oracle turn after turn until it resolves and wins immediately (versus Lapse acting as a hard counter against something like Mizzix’s Mastery).

Thoughtseize Inquisition of Kozilek Duress Thought Erasure Agonizing Remorse

You are much less spoiled for choice with good discard spells and you want fewer of these in total anyway. Early consensus seems to be that Agonizing Remorse is the worst and just below the cutoff for earning a slot.

Fatal Push Bloodchief’s Thirst Heartless Act Eliminate Tyrant’s Scorn Cast Down Legion’s End Noxious Grasp Fire Prophecy Drown in the Loch Baleful Mastery Enter the God-Eternals

You feel the loss of Fatal Pushes two through four keenly. That said, Bloodchief’s Thirst is close enough while tagging Narset, Parter of Veils and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Eliminate and Tyrant’s Scorn are Terminate in a format where the good creature decks have Lurrus or Collected Company. Scorn is also the best removal spell against Kaya’s Ghostform from Orzhov Auras. Baleful Mastery is a useful upgrade to Eat to Extinction / Vraska’s Contempt; the accidental utility against the combo in the mirror is a bonus. Noxious Grasp is an excellent sideboard card with the popularity of Selesnya Company and Gruul Aggro.

Cry of the Carnarium Languish Extinction Event Yahenni’s Expertise Ritual of Soot Shadows’ Verdict Crux of Fate Sweltering Suns Anger of the Gods Storm’s Wrath

A few sweepers are important, if only as tutor targets and to stop the opponent from freely overcommitting to the battlefield, but none of them are impressive. Ritual of Soot and Shadows’ Verdict play off the same factors as Eliminate / Scorn with Verdict stopping Lurrus recursion (and Kroxa against Rakdos Arcanist), while Languish is the next best four-mana sweeper. Cry of the Carnarium is unreliable against the main aggressive decks and Arclight Phoenix is a narrow use case, so that one can stay on the bench for now. 

Rather than offering a sideboard guide for a deck where every slot is in flux, I’ll discuss some popular matchups briefly along with some cards narrowly targeted at each matchup.

Selesnya Company

Selesnya Company quickly established itself as a deck to beat and the default midrange creature deck in Historic in response to the early surge of combo with the Mystical Archive. Almost any combo deck would find itself pinned by one or more of Archon of Emeria, Skyclave Apparition, Scavenging Ooze, or Elite Spellbinder (as well as sideboard cards like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or Rest in Peace).

Dimir Pact is the rare combo deck that dodges all of that. You don’t have to expose a cheap permanent, you don’t care about the graveyard, you can space out your Pact and Oracle over different turns, and your cards are cheap enough that Elite Spellbinder doesn’t take them out of commission for good. These disruptive creatures tend to be smaller than their peers with the same mana value, giving you more time to thread the combo together, and you have a lot of relevant removal and sweepers to fight a fair game.

Gruul Aggro

Gruul Aggro doesn’t interact with you or care what your plan is. It just gets you dead. This is a scary prospect for a deck with fundamental inconsistency built into its design. Gruul does not allow the time to smooth out rough draws.

Despite that, I think Dimir Pact is favoured. This is a matchup where Arena limiting your fastest draws can hurt most. Non-Lurrus lists can consider cheap creatures that trade effectively like Nighthawk Scavenger or Rotting Regisaur as pivots here. Blacklance Paragon is a smart choice I’ve seen in Lurrus lists.

Dimir Rogues (Lurrus)

Dimir Rogues (Lurrus) is one of the few decks that can meaningfully interact with you while applying significant pressure. Aggro-control is a traditional foil for combo-control. Unlike Dimir Inverter, your namesake can’t double as a giant roadblock that dominates combat. The card removal effects of milling can interfere with your ability to Pact or tutor for specific cards and there’s a delicate balance in Pacting in advance to get in Oracle range without leaving yourself dead to Thieves’ Guild Enforcer.

You may have to rely on the format at large adapting to Rogues and forcing it out rather than preparing for it yourself, but Skyclave Shade or whatever escape cards are in your colours offer counterplay in this format too. Lurrus is strong against Rogues, but so are some of the alternate threats it competes with, like God-Eternal Kefnet and Shark Typhoon.

Jeskai Control 

There’s no stock Jeskai Control list to aim at as players debate just how adventurous they want to be, but finalist Chase Masters’s list that leans hard on Magma Opus is a good template. Your combo is very effective here and they are saddled with a bunch of dead removal spells, but they are better at accumulating resources in a longer game and you can get buried under Teferi, Hero of Dominaria or an early Magma Opus.

The cards you’d expect to be effective do good work here, but any aggro-control plan involving cheap creatures (Skyclave Shade, Brazen Borrower or Nimble Obstructionist in non-Lurrus lists) is less reliable in the face of Lightning Helix. Narset’s Reversal stands out as a sideboard card that trumps Magma Opus and lets you fight against Dovin’s Veto.

Dimir Pact

I expect the mirror to become one of the most important matchups in Historic – and one of the most intricate. Some games end with a fast combo that feels sudden and unfortunate due to the quasi-singleton nature of the deck, but others feel like a bizarre chess match with each player forced to pick their battles carefully and navigate around an absurdly wide range of possible cards.

Discard, hard counters, and recurring sources of card advantage are the keys here. Cards like Necromentia or Unmoored Ego can be effective, but Mastermind’s Acquisition and Fae of Wishes mean that the combo is still theoretically available and you should expect opponents (particularly those without Lurrus) to have a solid backup plan.

Dimir Pact is a uniquely charming villain: an incredibly powerful concept that poses new and tough challenges in deckbuilding and gameplay. Play this deck while you still can. Just make sure you practice your clicking first…