Shaman of Forgotten Ways. Maybe if getting to eleven mana was even remotely reasonable. Shorecrasher Elemental. Bleh, triple blue? Surrak, the Hunt Caller. Taigam's Scheming. Wait, what was the one before that?
Just like that, my Gatherer search had come to an end. I was in hour 25 of Magic Online play with Bant Company and I had come to a realization: I could never beat ramp. Mono-green, R/G, it didn't matter, I couldn't win. Sure, maybe I could have just trusted any of the plethora of articles saying that every ramp strategy was an awful matchup for Bant Company. Instead, I found out the hard way. And now that I knew, I was far from okay with this fact.
Some people have it in them to be okay with unwinnable matchups. They are willing to trust in their metagaming and don't mind that their match is close to decided before opening hands are drawn. Not me. I like my Magic like I like my coin flips: 55-45. Playing Magic is what draws me to this game; not brewing decks or studying metagames, but engaging in fair mental combat with my opponent. Sometimes an 80-20 or two can't be avoided; in Modern or Legacy they are sadly par for the course. But to calmly acquiesce to one in Standard of all places? Unacceptable.
Hence the Gatherer search. I was five pages into a list of every green, blue, or white card in Standard and things weren't looking good. Normally on a deep Gatherer dive like this I would have a lengthy list of possibilities, but this time I had zilch. The memories dancing in my head of mediocre ramp starts crushing me whispered that none of these cards would be good enough. Surrak, the Hunt Caller was the best I found, but honestly, I wasn't that excited. Sure, the aggressive draws he promised tantalized me, but my expectations were tempered due to the fact that you can't even find him with a Collected Company! Surrak, the Hunt Caller's hardly a team player, after all.
Well, I was wrong. Surrak, the Hunt Caller was powerful — more powerful than I had imagined. Five hasty power on turn four was, as I had thought, good enough to get close to winning the game without actually winning it. The unexpected factor was just how good the implied three power of haste every turn for the rest of the game was. I hadn't realized just how good a simple Fervor effect would be. For the first time, I found myself winning games against ramp. I was sold. Quite the salesman, that Surrak, the Hunt Caller.
But Surrak, the Hunt Caller himself was only one piece of the puzzle. Winning games with Surrak, the Hunt Caller taught me a valuable lesson about how I was able to beat ramp: I needed unprecedented levels of aggression. Bant Company is at its heart a tempo deck, not an aggro deck. The difference between these two deck types is in the varying levels of interaction they possess. As a tempo deck, Bant Company is chock-full of ways to interact with its opponent. The problem at the core of Bant Company's terrible ramp matchup is that none of Bant's interaction does anything against ramp. Flashing in a Bounding Krasis on upkeep to tap down a mana creature is about as good as it gets, and it's not very good.
Surrak, the Hunt Caller showed me how aggressive I had to become to beat ramp, and in so doing taught me that the draws I thought were aggressive were anything but. The idea that Bant Company wasn't aggressive enough in its natural state to beat ramp was a completely foreign one to me. The deck is basically all creatures, and a lot of them have three power — how can such a deck not get aggressive draws? Well, it turns out that Bant Company's creatures were chosen for interaction, not aggression. Bant Company was built to optimize the card Collected Company, but I learned the hard way that Collected Company was not good enough to beat ramp.
It was time for some serious corporate restructuring. A crazy idea began to take hold: what if I boarded Collected Company out for Surrak, the Hunt Caller? Playing with Collected Company puts a huge restriction on your deck, both maindeck and sideboard, as you have to ensure that you are always playing with at least 25 Collected Company hits, preferably 26. Beating ramp demands specific interaction, and no creature findable by Collected Company in Standard provides that kind of interaction. By 'boarding out Collected Company we get to board in multiple copies of spells that can counter an Explosive Vegetation or an Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and interact in a reliable and profitable way. Backing up aggressive threats with cheap disruption is a Magic strategy older than Delver of Secrets — could Surrak, the Hunt Caller offer me that kind of gameplan?
I continued grinding Magic Online in my quest for knowledge and tournament preparation. Slowly but surely, I started feeling that this crazy idea of boarding out my deck's namesake card was actually working. The deck still felt good in postboard games after ditching Collected Company, not like the pile of underpowered cards I thought it might be. The deck still felt tempo-oriented, only now with interaction that could actually slow down my ramp opponents and a power card that could drastically speed up my clock. Don't get me wrong, the ramp matchup still wasn't fantastic -- but at least now it was winnable.
Mission accomplished, right? I had found a way to not just auto-lose to ramp, but the cost was currently too high. Three of my sideboard slots were locked into Surrak, the Hunt Caller, and 20% of my sideboard being dedicated to a single matchup that honestly doesn't see all that much play is an unacceptable value bleed. I hate 80-20 matchups, but I also hate throwing away equity. Time to find out if Surrak, the Hunt Caller could do anything else for me.
The first spot to look, naturally, was anywhere I felt Collected Company was holding me back, anywhere where I could really benefit from some spell-based interaction. I started boarding in Surrak, the Hunt Caller and Counterspells against Four-Color Rally, with the theory that the pressure granted by Surrak, the Hunt Caller, backed up by significantly more disruption than I had previously been able to play, would be better than the raw power of Collected Company. After all, the kind of huge board presence that Collected Company lets me build into doesn't mean that much against a deck even better at clogging up boards than Bant Company. Surrak, the Hunt Caller proved his worth here too and became my default plan against Rally. In fact, in this matchup Surrak, the Hunt Caller earned himself the nickname "The Abyss" — he forces Rally to chump block him every turn. Rally is able to chump block virtually forever — but counter a Collected Company, and all of a sudden, that forever becomes a whole lot more virtual.
I was happy with the card Collected Company in every other matchup, so I thought Surrak, the Hunt Caller work was done… until I found myself spending an entire postboard game against Jeskai Black trying to keep my Collected Company from getting Dispelled. I couldn't help but wish the Company in my hand was a different four-cost green card, one that couldn't be Dispelled. I started boarding in Surrak, the Hunt Caller against grindy midrange opponents whose sideboard plans seemed especially hateful towards Collected Company. Dropping Surrak, the Hunt Caller on turn four into Hallowed Moonlight mana is one of the best feelings in the world. However, Surrak, the Hunt Caller is weak to the spot removal these decks commonly play, so he is only really good in these matchups when they are over-prepared for Collected Company.
Given that I seem to really like Surrak, the Hunt Caller and think he's better than Collected Company in a wide range of matchups, you might be wondering if I tried to play him maindeck. I did. Turns out Surrak cannot peacefully coexist with Collected Company — the anti-synergy between them is a little much. You cannot run any other Collected Company misses, which means losing the super-powerful Dromoka's Command. Further, in the grindy matchups I like Surrak, the Hunt Caller in, he is better in game two and three than he is in game one where they still have their typically lackluster spot removal. The ability to steal game one from ramp is very tempting, but on balance, not worth it.
All of this work with Bant Company was to prepare myself for the Regional Pro Tour Qualifier I played last weekend. Here's the list I ended up playing:
I ended up missing Top 8 by one win, not playing against ramp once (alas), and will be running back this list or something very close to it this weekend at Grand Prix Houston. For those curious, the board plan I most often implemented in testing against ramp was -4 Collected Company, -2 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, -2 Nissa, Vastwood Seer, +3 Surrak, the Hunt Caller, + 2 Disdainful Stroke, + 2 Negate, +1 Valorous Stance.
If you are thinking about Bant Company for your next tournament, I strongly recommend giving Surrak, the Hunt Caller a shot. Besides, how often do you have a chance to board out the cornerstone of your deck and feel good about it?
Thanks for reading,