Ascendant Packleader Will Let Aggro’s Star Rise In Innistrad: Crimson Vow Standard

Mono-Green Aggro❄, meet the new boss. Dom Harvey shares how Innistrad: Crimson Vow preview Ascendant Packleader will help MTG Standard and Historic decks shine.

Ascendant Packleader, illustrated by Alessandra Pisano

Aggro lives and dies by its one-drops. Aggro flops in a format because there aren’t enough one-drops, the one-drops are bad, or the mana can’t cast them on time. 

The aggro decks in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt Standard all felt this weakness in their own way. Mono-White Aggro❄ has fantastic options at every other spot in the curve but would gladly trade any of them for another good one-drop to join Usher of the Fallen. Mono-Green Aggro❄’s reign of terror ended once the Izzet decks adapted to punish them for starting the game on Turn 2. Gruul Werewolves desperately wanted a cheap Wolf to let its tribal payoffs have an immediate impact. 

This Vampire-themed trip to Innistrad may be remembered for solving that problem instead:

Ascendant Packleader

You don’t get to lead the pack by being a mere Savannah Lions (or Jungle Lion I suppose) — a one-mana 2/1 needs some other hook to be appealing. Thankfully, Ascendant Packleader has enough going on to remain a relevant card at most stages of the game.

What might Mono-Green Aggro look like now that it can finally curve out properly?

It soon becomes clear how much having a strong one-drop powers up your other cards, even without explicit synergies. It’s common to follow Turn 2 Werewolf Pack Leader with Turn 3 Blizzard Brawl; with Turn 1 Packleader too, you now get to draw a card with Pack Leader (that’s the other one) while attacking for extra damage. Turn 2 Sculptor of Winter into Turn 3 Esika’s Chariot is a fine start that’s close to unbeatable if Chariot also pumps a Packleader before it attacks again. Packleader makes it easier to justify taking a turn off to level up Ranger Class and is a cheap creature to cast from the top of your library when Ranger Class is fully levelled.

The curve-toppers that trigger Packleader all benefit from it too. Wrenn and Seven gets what might be a critical chump blocker to let it survive the turn, while Unnatural Growth immediately translates into another three or more damage. This list opts for Blessing of Frost, which now gets to draw an additional card most of the time and power up a creature that already received a boost just from Blessing being cast. 

All of these now have another four-drop to compete with:

Ulvenwald Oddity

Ulvenwald Oddity is no Questing Beast — it somehow has fewer words despite having two sides — but it does a decent impression of it here. The Mono-Green Aggro❄ list that Paulo and Sam Pardee played at Magic World Championship XXVII had Froghemoth as a follow-up to sweepers from slower black decks. Ulvenwald Oddity fills that role while being stronger across the board. Its stats aren’t ideal for a format where you already have to handle 4/4s — it can’t attack well into Esika’s Chariot or Old-Growth Troll without help — but transforming it into Ulvenwald Behemoth will immediately end most games. That’s a realistic threat between mana creatures and the easily forgotten mana boost from Old-Growth Troll as an Aura.

Fading Hope

The Mono-Green threat suite is as resilient to typical removal as you could hope for; even the targeted hate like Burning Hands looks poor against Old-Growth Troll or Esika’s Chariot. By contrast, tempo-positive delaying tactics like Fading Hope excel when guaranteed to trade up on mana. As a one-drop, Ascendant Packleader is cheap enough that you don’t care about it being bounced. It even benefits from you recasting some more expensive threats. 

Ascendant Packleader isn’t a Wolf by accident. Can it help Gruul Werewolves finally deliver on its promise?

Packleader enables many of the same sequences here as above but also makes the Werewolf-specific cards and mechanics much smoother.

Unnatural Moonrise

Unnatural Moonrise has a sky-high ceiling in a dedicated Werewolves deck. Previously you could only cast it with a developed battlefield unless you were willing to waste a card and a turn making it night in advance. Ascendant Packleader doesn’t care what time of day it is but lets Unnatural Moonrise replace itself on Turn 2, setting up for Turn 3 Reckless Stormseeker as Storm-Charged Slasher or some other play that makes Moonrise a worthy investment. 

Packleader also makes it easier to have a battlefield that immediately benefits from Moonrise. Turn 1 Packleader, Turn 2 Kessig Naturalist, Turn 3 Unnatural Moonrise and attack for seven, drawing a card and possibly casting another two-drop post-combat with the Naturalist/Lord mana is a realistic yet terrifying start. 

Kessig Naturalist Outland Liberator

Tovolar, Dire Overlord Reckless Stormseeker

Beyond the text on the tribal payoffs — Packleader draws a card when it connects if you have Tovolar! — Packleader plays into the day/night mechanic well. Packleadr makes it easier to have a battlefield presence strong enough to justify taking a turn off to make it night and upgrade your Werewolves. If you’re going off with Tovolar, a powerful one-drop makes it easier to unload that full hand.

Shatterskull Smashing

Packleader raises the stock of Shatterskull Smashing on both ends. It’s an important, low-toughness target to kill. It’s also a source of Packleader triggers (when cast for X equals two or more) that’s already a ‘free’ part of your manabase. 

Note that Packleader is worded differently from a card like Smoldering Egg. A kicked Inscription of Abundance would give Egg five ember counters but wouldn’t trigger Packleader, for example. 

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben Alrund's Epiphany

It’s easy to identify Thalia, Guardian of Thraben as the best challenger to Alrund’s Epiphany from this set but it’s just part of a larger solution. One-drops that stretch Izzet Epiphany’s removal suite and force them to respect fast, aggressive starts without sacrificing too much in the mirror will help to knock Izzet Epiphany off its perch. Ascendant Packleader is a perfect example.

The bar for four-drops varies between formats, but Packleader piques my interest for Historic too:

Ascendant Packleader points you in two directions: cards with a sticker price of four or more that cost less in practice, and cards with flexible mana costs that give you a higher density of four-drops without ruining your curve. Gemrazer is a standout in the first category, Stonecoil Serpent is obvious for the second, and the two of them did great work together in Standard. From there a green aggro deck builds itself, and you have enough +1/+1 counters synergy — including Packleader itself — to make Winding Constrictor worth the splash. 

Gemrazer Sawtusk Demolisher

Gemrazer is a familiar face, but Sawtusk Demolisher is a Commander all-star that — surprise! — is somehow legal in Historic. It’s worth considering in any green creature deck that isn’t flush with Humans as the biggest creature on the battlefield plus Beast Within in a single card, but the mutate mechanic works perfectly with creatures whose power is stored in counters. Turn 3 Yorvo, Lord of Garenbrig into Turn 4 Sawtusk Demolisher gives you a 10/10 with trample against an opponent who just lost their third land or a key permanent. 

Venerated Loxodon Vivien, Arkbow Ranger

You can take your pick from any number of suitable counters payoffs across various colours. You could also give this all up and pursue a more conventional beatdown plan:

Primal Might

Primal Might isn’t just the perfect card against any creature deck. It’s a build-your-own-four-drop for Packleader in a deck whose curve is mostly capped at three.

Moving beyond Historic, Ascendant Packleader becomes harder to justify. The eight-pack of Llanowar Elves and Elvish Mystic lets you jump up to three-drops and the four-drops Packleader asks you for but largely removes the need and space for additional one-drops. Look at this Gruul Aggro list putting up remarkably consistent results in Pioneer:

Every creature here is either a game-defining threat or gives you additional resources. At that point, a 2/1 with dreams of becoming a 3/2 looks out of place, even though this is notionally an aggro deck. 

Leyline of the Void Fury

Force of Vigor Become Immense

Modern has a wide range of well-intentioned (well, maybe…) ways to cheat the mana value condition on Packleader. These aren’t an argument in Packleader’s favour so much as a minor benefit once it’s something you already want. That’s the tough part. As the power level of Modern, the small-ball aggro decks like Zoo have been squeezed out by aggro-combo like Mono-White Hammer, disruptive aggro like Five-Color Humans, or streamlined linear decks like Burn and Prowess. A pile of above-rate creatures and burn spells isn’t appealing unless your deck is monomaniacally focused on doing that. The Leyline or Force of Vigor or whatever is the thing putting the opponent in the ground; it doesn’t matter what’s cleaning up the mess. 

Scion of Draco

The one possible exception is Domain Zoo, a deck that has some interest in actual Wild Nacatl and a fake twelve-drop in Scion of Draco. Even here, the competition is stiff between premium one-drops like Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and Noble / Ignoble Hierarch to enable Scion of Draco or three-drops on Turn 2.

Ascendant Packleader plays the type of Magic that’s suited for smaller formats, but it’s excellent at doing that. At the risk of crying wolf, I think Turn 1 Packleader will be a feared start in Standard for months and years to come.