This week we examined two scenarios featuring the mighty Pack Rat in BW Control.
Our Weapon of Choice for the scenarios, the Pantheon's deck from Pro Tour Magic 2015:
The Girl In Question:
As a reminder, this was a game two scenario where we were coming off a game one loss. In this one, we led on Pack Rat then were counter-struck by Ash Zealot. We swung in for one, and the opponent challenged us with a second Ash Zealot...though that Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx sticks out like a sore thumb.
What's the play, right here and now?
I asked my friend Zac Hill to help out on this one as Celebrity Guest. In addition to being a Grand Prix and Pro Tour Top 8 competitor, Zac was a member of R&D while Pack Rat was in development!
Zac Hill's solution:
"Wow, this is interesting.
"Pack Rat, though it creates repetitive game states and is clearly way more powerful than we (and the whole world) thought it was going to be, is nevertheless a strategically fascinating card. Like Scion of Oona in Faeries, it allows you to 'pivot' very rapidly into being the aggressor--but because it costs you cards, you have to choose the right moment to pull the trigger.
"In this scenario, a lot of interesting things are going on that affect your decision whether to Pack Rat. The most salient of these is that your opponent has Nykthos and four red devotion. This is problematic for the Pack Rat player for a number of reasons. Ordinarily versus a pair of 2/2 creatures, you'd want to make Rats as rapidly as possible so as to out-size the smaller creatures and take over the battlefield. In this situation, though, the red player is threatening the ability to cast Mizzium Mortars next turn for all your rats due to Nykthos, which would utterly Devastate your board if you went all-in on Rats (making one at the end step, then making another on the attack to get through more damage). Additionally, the red devotion deck is designed to take advantage of numerous other ways of using its excess mana, so you have to think of those Ash Zealots as Worn Powerstones in addition to 2/2 haste creatures.
"The threat of Mortars specifically inspires me to want to kill one of those Zealots at some point over the next two turns. The big questions, of course, are *when* and *how.* The other question is whether to activate Pack Rat, and what to discard when I do so.
"The one signal that Mortars may not be coming is the opponent's decision to play Nykthos instead of Mountain as his third land. That typically means that either the opponent has no more lands left, or the remaining lands are more copies of Nykthos--although relevantly, if both Zealots are on the table, an extra Nykthos does mean Mortars is still castable. Still, if an opponent spends a Nykthos, a Mortars, and a turn on *two* rats, I'm okay with that.
"I also definitely do want to start putting pressure on the opponent, as I don't want to invite him to drop Purphoros, God of the Forge on what's essentially an empty battlefield. That would pressure my Underworld Connections, blank my removal, and generally shift the momentum of the game.
"As such, what I'm going to do is take four damage and activate Pack Rat at the end of the turn, discarding Elspeth, Sun's Champion (since I don't think I'm getting to six mana in a hurry this game). Then I'm going to see what my draw step yields before I decide which removal spell to use on the Zealot.
"One could fire a removal spell at a Zealot right away, saving two damage, but that prevents you from leveraging your mana and information most effectively (since it's unclear whether Downfall or Price is the better option here) *and,* importantly, Deprives you of the option of drawing what would be an utterly *devastating* Bile Blight next turn, which would essentially win you the game on the spot.
"Next turn, I'd likely cast Downfall if I draw a blank. While Downfall can kill Emissary and Reckoner, Emissary is an unlikely target and the mana-efficiency is just so much more important given that I'm going to seize any open window that I can to start drawing cards off Underworld Connections. The critical variable when cards aren't a limiting factor is how many of them you can cast, and so I don't want to 'waste' mana at any point in the game."
Zac Hill's play: Take four damage and activate Pack Rat at the end of turn, discarding Elspeth, Sun's Champion.
I ultimately concur with Zac's play, which is to take four and make a Pack Rat copy at the end of turn using Elspeth, Sun's Champion. My reason for choosing Elspeth, Sun's Champion is the same as Zac's: once we commit to discarding cards to make Pack Rat Tokens we are just not going to be in a position to be casting six mana spells.
My approach [to getting, ultimately, to that same play] was a mite different.
A lot of readers cited that we might be afraid of the amount of devotion to red the opponent is accumulating. At some point that might in fact be a problem, and a problem we might have to solve (on the other hand, "going bigger" is a different angle at a solution. Pivot to the beatdown). The fact that the opponent played Nykthos, Shine to Nyx as his third land is kind of a weird signal. With his present devotion count he can make four mana. Of the four mana spells he could cast I am actually most frightened of Fanatic of Mogis, which will hit us in the face for five, followed by a certain God of the Forge. I am actually less worried about other elite threats like Stormbreath Dragon.
Rather, why waste our removal on Ash Zealot? At least now?
We can easily pace Ash Zealot with the tools at hand and have two Terrors back in reserve. We can set ourselves up for an even race with two 2/2 Rats here, and discourage an attack from the Ash Zealots by potentially making a 3/3 Rat back.
Our hand can actually break up a lot of his good threat draws; we can turn off god-level Devotion to Red or knock a Stormbreath Dragon out of the sky. We can do these things while advancing our threat position, in fact; and worse (for him) we can do these things while the opponent actually wastes turns walking into our efficient removal (if we are forced to use it).
Using removal for an even trade here feels like a trap. If we trade Ultimate Price for Ash Zealot, we are trading one-for-one on cards -- and even on mana -- against a deck with potentially explosive mana. However he isn't doing anything like a Time Spiral or a Mind's Desire with that mana… His big things are just things we can trade for one-for-one while netting mana (i.e. Hero's Downfall versus Stormbreath Dragon).
What I was focused on in my decision was looking at this as a "Who's the Beatdown?" problem.
Namely, his deck is far more powerful than ours; more explosive, more high-end threats; plus, we aren't exactly flush. Our best chance to win, in my mind, is to finish the game before the opponent can start whaling at us with big threat after big threat or murder us with Fanatic of Mogis. Since our deck can't prevent direct damage, our only chance against Fanatic of Mogis is to get big enough that we can race it.
And that means playing proactively, rather than reactively, for now.
Mike's play: Take four damage and activate Pack Rat at the end of turn, discarding Elspeth, Sun's Champion.Scenario Two:
Here we have two Pack Rats and are fairly flush with mana (including two Mutavaults).
We're being attacked by Ash Zealot, Burning-Tree Emissary, and Frostburn Weird; but the situation is exacerbated by the presence of a Legion's Initiative.
What's the play, right here and now?
Back to Zac:
"So, first thing's first, I'm assuming my opponent absolutely has Lightning Strike, as this attack makes essentially no sense if that is not the case. He could be running the next-level bluff and thinking that he is so surely representing Lightning Strike by this attack that he doesn't even necessarily have to have it, but that's extremely bold and is generally the kind of thing I don't really assume happens much outside of Pro Tours.
"As such, I just don't even stop to consider all the plays that blow my opponent out with onboard tricks (e.g. activate Mutavault, make a Rat, block both 3/2s with 4/4s).
"I'm also not *that* concerned with Fanatic of Mogis, since it plus the existing board very nearly kills me no matter what happens (he casts it; I have to kill either Ash Zealot or Frostburn Weird on the spot or I'm very nearly dead to a Legion's activation and have to make all sorts of really bad blocks--basically, I think my opponent would have cast it pre-combat). So the card to worry about here is definitely Strike.
"Given that reality, what do you do?
"I think the first thing to do is activate one Mutavault with the other Mutavault, leaving Rat and Downfall mana up. If no Strike happens, that gives you the option to block Emissary with Mutavault, which you want to do very badly because the "Magic number" of lands you need right now is just four. It also means that until you 'bite' with Downfall, you can activate Rat to make your Rats into 4/4 creatures in the event your opponent casts a Strike on a Rat, effectively depriving him of that option. So the question becomes, if Mutavault doesn't get hit with a Strike right away (and two Strikes blow you out regardless), will it get hit with a Strike mid-combat?
"This combat is a nightmare, both because Weird can hit you for five damage and because Legion's Initiative can Undo anything that goes super wrong for your opponent as well as disincentivize the double-block on the Zealot, since stacking first-strike and then activating Initiative keeps Zealot alive while killing at least one Rat.
"The upside is that Demons can Threaten to take over the game, so what you really need to do is clean up this board.
"So: as mentioned before, I'd activate Mutavault and see what happens. If it gets to block, I'd block the Emissary with Mutavault and double-block the Weird with both Rats. Then I start to see what's happening. If the opponent Strikes the Mutavault and starts to pump Weird, I Downfall the Weird before First Strike damage to force the activation of Legion's before I take damage. If my opponent tries to move to First Strike damage, I Downfall the Zealot, trade both Rats for Weird + a bunch of pumps, and beat up on my opponent's lone Emissary board with a pair of Desecration Demons and a remaining Mutavault.
"If there's no Lightning Strike at all--which there probably won't be, since I'm playing around it--then the situation is the same except Emissary is dead and Strike is in hand.
"Also, this scenario is really, really hard!"
Zac Hill's play: Activate Mutavault with the other Mutavault.
I actually went for full-on blowout here.
There are two drivers for me:
First, I just don't think he has Lightning Strike. Who has Lightning Strike in Red Devotion [against BW Control after sideboards]? It's way more likely he just swung with everything to see what I would do, with the thinking that he could Undo a disastrous attack with Legion's Initiative. I think this not just because I don't think many Red Devotion mages would have Lightning Strike, but because it's obvious he doesn't have Fanatic of Mogis.
On the current battlefield he could just tap for a bazillion mana to cast Fanatic of Mogis and activate Legion's Initiative and kill me to death without attacking at all. Risking his creatures in combat here actually rips some teeth out of Fanatic of Mogis.
Ergo, I feel like he has to try to win with the cards he has (and may therefore be gambling I don't destroy him on the block); plus, if I can get him to blow Legion's Initiative, I am no longer auto-dead to Fanatic of Mogis.
Second, my hand isn't actually that great against his board. This hand would be infinity better with some kind of Doom Blade (next turn I could activate Pack Rat and also play Doom Blade). Also there is a weird tension between Desecration Demon and just making more Rats (which are actually more flexible than Desecration Demon in non-Stormbreath Dragon situations). So not a horrible hand, especially if he blows us out with something like an Anger of the Gods (we have good recovery resources in that case).
Technically speaking I have the same here-and-now play as Zac: Which is to activate Mutavault with Mutavault.
This play preserves the options of activating the other Mutavault, playing Hero's Downfall, or making another Rat.
Mike's play: Activate Mutavault with the other Mutavault.In case you were wondering though, I followed up with full-on blowout, making another Rat, and blocking both Ash Zealot and Burning-Tree Emissary (letting in Frostburn Weird). He maxed out Weird damage but lost both his other guys. My counter-strike was not lethal but I got the concession a turn later.
Remember - even if he has a blowout response to our proposed blowout (post-combat Anger of the Gods or thereabouts would kill our Mutavault and our other three Rats), he only has one card left. Whereas we would have a fourth land even if we lost Mutavault with double Desecration Demon. If we preserve our life total, I figured to be in a commanding spot, even if the worst happened.
As such, here are this week's winners:
For agreeing with the eloquent scholar Zac Hill, scotmart2000 takes home a $25 TCGplayer gift certificate.
For agreeing with YT (and this week, our Celebrity Guest, too!) Curtis Cochran takes home a $25 TCGplayer gift certificate.
Great job to scotmart2000 and Curtis Cochran! Make sure you send a message (not a wall post) to our Facebook page - MTGatTCGplayer - to claim your prizes! Thanks to everyone who played and thanks for reading.
Directly before joining the Magic: The Gathering Development team at Wizards of the Coast, Zac Hill achieved every player's dream, adding a Pro Tour Top 8 to his standout Grand Prix Top 8 resume (he was, in fact, a member of R&D when Pack Rat was developed). Today, Zac is the COO of The Future Project in NYC and a writer for The Huffington Post. Follow Zac on Twitter at @zdch.