The last few weeks of Standard have seen megamorph strategies revolving around Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector obtain a good deal of success. Indeed, we are at the point where we are calling those two cards a 'package' and discussing them as a deckbuilding unit. Today I want to dive into the nitty gritty of how this package works and find the places where we are doing ourselves a disservice by considering them a unit and not separate entities.
The synergy between Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector is obvious: flipping Den Protector brings back all the wayward Raptors that have managed to find their way into your graveyard. Deathmist Raptor is the card benefitting through the pairing, as without any other morph creatures Raptor becomes quite anemic. As such, if we were ever to pry these two apart, Den Protector would be the card to include without Raptor.
To Reap the benefits of this synergy within a given game we need to get a Raptor into the graveyard before flipping up a Den Protector. If we have no other enablers for this synergy (spoiler: many of the lists seeing success with these cards don't) this means we have to play Raptor first. That's not a big deal, as Raptor is a great turn three play and Den Protector is a great turn five play. However, we do need to find a way to get our Deathmist Raptor dead.
The dream after casting a turn three Raptor, synergy-wise, is for it to trade with one of our opponent's cards, either a creature or a removal spell. If that happens, then our turn five Den Protector represents a huge tempo and card advantage swing that should put us far in the lead. The problem is that our opponent, being an intelligent Magic player capable of reading cards, knows that if they kill our Deathmist Raptor we are likely to just bring it back and gain a sizeable advantage. When we cast Deathmist Raptor on turn three we immediately started a subgame with our opponent - a subgame that we win if they kill our Raptor and lose if they delay long enough in doing so for our synergy to not be effective.
Inherently, we are at a disadvantage in this subgame. Our opponent has all the power: for us to win they have to voluntarily take an action that causes our victory. Therefore we cannot depend on winning this subgame; if our opponent wants to stubbornly deny us our value, we can't stop them. The trick is to make sure that if we lose the subgame we win the actual game of Magic. To accomplish this, the successful Deathmist Raptor / Den Protector lists maximize either the offensive or defensive role of Deathmist Raptor.
Visualize Deathmist Raptor as an unblockable 3/3 for three. If we attack with Raptor every turn and our opponent is committed to winning the subgame they are essentially giving our Raptor unblockable (ok, they can still chump block but in the current meta it is hard to find a large amount of chump blockers). An unblockable 3/3 for three is a strong card, but in a deck that otherwise isn't aggressive it represents a clock that is ignorable for a long time. To ensure that our opponent winning the subgame results in them losing the real game via an attacking plan, we need to maximize the effectiveness of an unblockable 3/3. For instance:
Craig Wescoe made the Top 8 of Grand Prix Toronto with this aggressive Deathmist Raptor / Den Protector deck. This deck is constructed in a way that guarantees that any opponent who commits to winning the Deathmist Raptor subgame will swiftly fall in the real game to the high level of aggression that this deck is capable of outputting. This is exactly what I mean by maximizing the offensive role of Deathmist Raptor, assuring that the support for the aggressive plan is strong enough that an attacking Raptor cannot be safely ignored for very long.
The other route to ensuring that our opponent cannot just ignore our Deathmist Raptor is to use it as a permanent blocker. For our opponent to then win the subgame, they are locked into not attacking until late in the game (after a point is reached where the value we would get off returning a Raptor is no longer important). Using this stratagem in a deck like Wescoe's is a recipe for disaster, as its late game is less impressive than that of nearly any deck it would face. Keeping Raptor back on blocking duty goes a long way towards ensuring that both decks achieve their late game goals. In a deck with a powerful late game, this can be a very effective plan.
This Grand Prix winning deck of Yuuki Ichikawa is a great example of a deck seeking to primarily utilize the defensive Raptor plan. The late game Ichikawa is playing to is primarily Elspeth, Sun's Champion, a card that has proven its mettle at dominating end-game board positions. An untapped Deathmist Raptor represents a sizeable quandary for Ichikawa's opponents: do they seek to win the subgame and not swing their Siege Rhino into the Raptor or do they endeavor to win before Ichikawa's powerful late game comes online?
Taking this defensive route towards enabling our Deathmist Raptor / Den Protector synergy does come with a couple of pitfalls. First and foremost among them, the possibility that the late game we are seeking to reach is just not as powerful as what our opponent is doing. Elspeth is strong, certainly, but not unbeatable.
The second pitfall is that our Deathmist Raptor on defense might just not interact at all with our opponent's game plan. Esper Dragons, Ascendancy Combo or any of the aggressive dragon oriented decks do not care at all about a blocking Raptor.
Persevering Through Adversity
These question marks that come with the defensive tack make that route less certain. The successful decks that utilize this plan combat that uncertainty through two primary methods: synergy supplementation and role hedging.
By synergy supplementation I am referring to the inclusion of cards that serve to help us achieve the Raptor / Den Protector synergy pay off more reliably (and potentially without our opponent's help). Ichikawa achieves this with Satyr Wayfinder as a four-of. The card is very strong in his list, working to develop his mana while providing very real assistance to the Deathmist Raptor / Den Protector synergy.
Another card commonly included in Raptor / Den Protector lists that adds to the synergy supplementation is Mastery of the Unseen. The idea here is that the deck velocity that Mastery of the Unseen enables helps find Raptors (disguised as manifests which our opponent will be more inclined to kill) while also providing additional ways to flip creatures and trigger Raptor. I consider Mastery to be fairly weak synergy supplementation because it doesn't really come online until late in the game.
I find that most of the successful decklists using weak synergy supplementation are also engaging in role hedging. By this, I mean that they are including cards that give them the potential for strong aggressive draws, even if that is not their main plan. Abzan colored decks are the main culprit here, as following up a turn three Deathmist Raptor with a turn four Siege Rhino inherently gives the Raptor a lot of aggressive value, and no Abzan deck ever cuts Siege Rhino. Another common roleplayer in helping lists to role hedge is Fleecemane Lion (also an Abzan all-star).
Role hedging to some degree is very necessary for every list hoping to utilize its Deathmist Raptors defensively just because sometimes the opposition is on Esper Dragons or any of the multitudes of Stormbreath Dragon decks. Turning Raptor sideways turn after turn is the only thing we can do in these matchups, and very rarely will an offensive force comprised solely of Deathmist Raptors be threatening enough for our opponent to care. I think it's valuable to state explicitly that lists trying to use Deathmist Raptor offensively do not have this problem and never have to hedge defensively simply because being able to attack our opponent to zero is a given in this Standard environment -- their deck cannot just render our plan useless.
Leaving the Mist Behind
With all these ideas about how to maximize the mileage a list is getting out of the Deathmist Raptor - Den Protector synergy in mind, let's look at one more Grand Prix list:
How is this deck planning on utilizing its Raptors? It's hard to say that this deck is on an aggressive plan, as it is running four copies of Courser of Kruphix and two copies of Elspeth, Sun's Champion. But those same two Elspeths are also the beginning and end of its plan to take over the late game, so it isn't easy to call it defensively minded either. The only cards supplementing the Deathmist Raptor / Den Protector synergy are a pair of Mastery of the Unseen in the sideboard, which can hardly be called monumental assistance. The list is certainly geared to be able to role hedge with its Raptors, with plenty of cards that make for aggressive draws paired with Elspeths for the games where it wants to play long.
To me, of the lists we've looked at, this list is by far the one with the weakest usage of the Deathmist Raptor / Den Protector synergy. I don't mean to say that it is the worst of the lists, or that it is in any way a bad deck, just that the other lists are getting better use of Deathmist Raptor. As such, this list is the best candidate for having its Deathmist Raptors removed. None of the analysis done here guarantees that this list would be improved by not having Raptors, or even suggests it - it is entirely possible that the Deathmist Raptor / Den Protector synergy is so strong that even weak forms of it are wholly beneficial. My intuition, however, says that Deathmist Raptor is not good enough in non-aggressive decks that don't also include some strong form of synergy supplementation. That intuition led me to develop and play the following list:
I have been playing versions of this deck in my Standard tournaments for the last month or so to very consistent moderate success including an Open Top 32 and a 60 player PPTQ win. Eschewing Deathmist Raptor greatly increases the flexibility of the deck in-game, which is in part due to the more dynamic and versatile removal suite that fills the spots vacated by Raptor, but also because the early turns are less scripted with no must play early creature. An opening hand Raptor represents a must cast early creature, as the longer we wait to get Raptor in play the more irrelevant, and thus less likely to hit the graveyard, it becomes. Further, games that involve a turn three or turn four Raptor often become warped around it, with the player who cast it becoming nigh-on locked into a specific role based on their need to trade off the Raptor.
The increased flexibility comes at the cost of a lower power level. My deck has no cards that are individually game enders like an Elspeth, and can't even depend on Deathmist Raptor / Den Protector synergy to overpower opponents late in the game. Because of this, I find that the deck operates on very tight margins and that errors often prove game-ending. This is challenging and rewarding Magic, but why play that way when you can just Crush opponents? Here's another Raptor-less Abzan Den Protector list with more power (and, incidentally, more success):
My list is actually only a very few cards off this one, but Elspeth is a game changer. She is the most important card in multiple matchups and gives the deck the raw power my list sorely lacks. I avoid her because she costs six mana and is highly inflexible, but I encourage anyone interested in this archetype to give both takes a whirl and figure out what they think is better.
I hope this deep examination into the Deathmist Raptor / Den Protector synergy has been interesting and informative. The analysis was born from my quest to understand why my intuition said that Deathmist Raptor was not the card I want in Abzan Den Protector lists. I think that individual intuition is important to Magic success, but it's equally important to put in the effort needed to understand what it is your intuition is keying off of.
Questions or comments, feel free to contact me in the comment section or on twitter.
Thanks for reading,
@thequietfish on twitter.