Team drafting with almost-10-time Pro Tour Top 8er Gabriel Nassif and future Hall of Famer William “Huey” Jensen humblebrags aside—this was the draft I realized you sometimes can, and should, just jam all-in on Pack Rat.
The backstory on this starts at GP Boston. I wasn’t even close to the Day 2 cut, so I spent my time there team drafting the hours away with Huey, whom I had just met, and a host of other world-class players like Rich Hoaen, Andrew Cuneo, and Shahar Shenhar. In my early days, I never experienced high-level team drafting. Whenever I did, it was just for fun and there was no strategy to it—besides to draft a good deck and try not to pass anything broken that your teammates couldn’t beat.
I did all right but not great in those drafts in Boston, and the tips I got afterward were always valuable. One of the first things Huey said is, “if you have a good deck in a money draft, then you probably did a bad job,” meaning you didn’t counterdraft enough. Your overall score at the end of the draft isn’t measured by the number of match points you earned in total, but by how you performed compared to the person you were passing to.
Ideally, if you can go 3-0 and the guy to your left goes 0-3, then it’s assumed you drafted perfectly by not passing anything too good, while putting a good deck together yourself. Obviously that scenario is pretty rare, but if you can go 2-1 passing a 1-2, or 1-2 passing an 0-3, those are winning results as well. Many people may not realize that you can be a great teammate, even if you ended with a 1-2 record.
Anyway, we sit down for the draft, and P1p1 I open Rakdos, Lord of Riots and slam it—awesome card but very color-committing. I second pick something stupid like a Rakdos Shred-Freak, because I really wanted to play a black/red mana base and be able to cast my bomb.
Needless to say, the guy passing to me (by pure coincidence) ended up in Rakdos, so I had to waste picks and audible into a different color combination. I end up in RWU with no good cards at all, and pack three I opened a Pack Rat, which I knew I couldn’t pass. As I laid out my cards after the draft, I could barely get to 22 playables even assuming I would play 18 lands and my deck looked wildly unplayable (which is normal for proper strategy in team drafts).
I ended up deciding to just play the Pack Rat anyways with 3 Swamps because it allowed me to have a nut draw, and it kind of is just a two-card combo: Pack Rat – Swamp – game. After my first two matches, I had played long grindy matches and lost them both. I felt like I was always behind and my cards power level was just too low to compete.
Nassif was 2-0 and Huey was 1-1 going into the last round, and at one point I looked over to see that both games looked good for them and they both had good decks. So, I just told myself that I was going to gamble and try it. Someone did the math in an article for Lost in the Woods when people tried to play that with all Forests, and I remember it being like 44% to actually see the card assuming you’re willing to mulligan down to 2 to find it.
I believe that a 44% chance of having a turn two Pack Rat (which I estimate wins the game about 90% of the time) was much better than my chances of winning with my original deck. And, as the story goes, I draw up opening hands of 7-6-5-4 Swamps, and mull to 3 picking up Swamp, Swamp, Pack Rat to win very easily.
Game two my opponent chooses to draw and I find the Rat on 6 cards to blow him out of the water. So I steal the thunder, win by a mile in mere minutes, throw my lands on the table and tell my teammates not to bother—GOT THE MATCH—and with Nassif winning moments later we won the draft, collected our loot, and left with a pretty insane story.
First things first, the reason Pack Rat is so awesome is because almost nothing can remove it, and it almost never loses the race. These are the available answers in Limited:
Now that may seem like a lot, but remember that many of the cards on this list are rares. The odds of exactly Pack Rat and Dreadbore being opened in the same 8-man draft pool, your opponent ending up with it, being those colors, and having it in their opening hand is pretty unlikely. Without getting into stupid math, it’s pretty safe to say that this isn’t going to happen all that often. On top of that, many of the answers on the list cost three mana, so assuming the Pack Rat deck gets to play first, you can slam it turn 2 and then make a copy on turn three before the opponent is able to remove the first one and then that’s just game over. So assuming I have turn two Pack Rat on the play and discounting rares, the number of answers to Pack Rat are as follows:
So five total cards. Three obvious first pick cards and Electrickery, which isn’t usually good enough to main deck. It’s clear that Pack Rat is a cheap card that wins the game all by itself and is hard to remove, so you can see the appeal of wanting to go all-in on it. I said on Twitter the other day that for GP Philly that if I get two copies of Pack Rat I will just play them with 38 Swamps and expect to go 8-1 or 9-0. You can always sideboard into a real Sealed deck if you suspect that your opponent has good answers or is willing/capable of mulling into their outs. Plus if they mull to Mountain – Electrickery you can always wait until turn 5 to cast the Rat and use it on the same turn.
In my draft I opted to play a copy of Volatile Rig but I have no idea if this is correct. I liked it because it is a high power level card and can have a good effect on the game if my opponent is mana screwed (winning), or become a Wrath if I’m losing (unlikely but still possible). I chose not to play Perilous Shadow, since it would do nothing to increase my odds of winning in my Pack Rat hands and only trick me into keeping hands that didn’t have Pack Rat or not do enough in hands where I didn’t have Pack Rat.
There is a very real balance you need to keep in mind—you want to minimize the number of games where you get mana screwed. I know this may sound strange, but you are accepting a strategy that encourages you to mulligan to 4 or 3 or 2. So assuming you put stuff like Mind Rot and Rakdos Shred-Freak in your deck, they could have a positive effect on the game in hands that contain Pack Rat, but that upside is generally going to be minimal.
The downside of mulling to 2 and having to keep Rakdos Shred-Freak and Pack Rat, then having your first draw step be the Mind Rot, you absolutely lose a game that you should have won (and by won I mean have turn 2 Pack Rat). In my draft I played 39 and a Pack Rat for g1, mulled to 3, and won. While sideboarding I opted to put the Volatile Rig in my deck since it’s a freeroll to play one or two spells as long as you have a good reason.
So now you know how I feel about stuff like Perilous Shadow and Rakdos Shred-Freak in the deck, but what cards are acceptable to play? Easily the best one is Drainpipe Vermin. Pack Rat reads, “power and toughness equal to the number of Rats you control,” so it’s effectively a Glorious Anthem for B in your Pack Rat hands—I imagine it’s correct to play a huge number of these. Obviously this is unlikely, but in the abstract assuming the land station had a giant stack of each basic land and a stack of Drainpipe Vermin for all players to use, it’s likely correct to play between 7 and 15 Vermin. Optimal number is probably 7.
A card I value very similarly to Drainpipe Vermin in this deck is Slitherhead, since you can discard it to Pack Rat and it will give you a very real bonus. I think a mix of Slitherheads and Drainpipe Vermin in the last slot is reasonable, I wouldn’t mind having 1 Drainpipe Vermin and 1 Slitherhead in my Pack Rat hands. That is ideal, but only ever one of each because if I miss a land drop I could be in serious trouble.
The possibilities are actually kind of insane to think about, I joked that it may be correct to play 1 Island 1 Inspiration because that could actually help you in a game. I also noticed when I played g1 with the 39 Swamp 1 Pack Rat build that it was optimal to play one off-color land such as 38 Swamp 1 Forest 1 Pack Rat. I could play a full game and reveal the Forest to have my opponent believe that I’m just a normal deck which got mana-flooded, and not have them adjust their strategy to try and mulligan to Pithing Needle, which I can never beat.
I don’t have all the answers, but I know it was really fun and interesting to talk about because nothing about the deck is intuitive to basic strategy. It’s a very real option as well, if you’re desperate. Just giving yourself a %50 chance to win the match is pretty good, especially if you don’t like your deck, think they have no outs to it, or if you think your opponent is likely to outplay you.