You write one little article about how Pack Rat isn’t at its best right now and suddenly nobody expects you to play the card any more?

How quickly the metagames in Magic change. Or, at least in my opinion, how quickly the perceived metagames in Magic change. While I had no interest in playing Pack Rat just a couple weeks prior, I knew he was going to make the cut in Phoenix. There are many reasons as to why I wanted to make this change, but you, dear reader, will have to wait a few moments before I get into them.

GP Phoenix

I don’t really want to write a tournament report for GP Phoenix, so this is not going to be one, but when you make changes to a deck, take it to a tournament, and then do exceptionally well, describing the events that took place is often useful.

I’m a company man. I love ChannelFireball, love the people involved with the website, the team (now teams), and how the company operates. They have made so many efforts to help us as players succeed and have gone to great lengths to bring a great experience to all of the players who attend their events. Now with that being said, even if this tournament was run by another TO, I would still feel like it would be wrong to not talk about how exceptional GP Phoenix was on so many levels.

We finished Day One of the tournament, went to a restaurant where there was an hour wait, and we were fine with it. Now, for those of you who have never been to a GP, this may not seem like a big deal. Most GPs, however, have Day One end sometime between 9 p.m. and midnight, with 9 p.m. being usually incredible (and the time that GP Sacramento, also run by ChannelFireball, happened to end, despite being Limited). We were done with our 9 rounds by 7 p.m. Consider how many articles are out there about sleep and being well nourished—this is huge.

The main thing to take away from this tournament is some revolutionary new coverage. Luis Scott-Vargas is one of my very best friends in the world, but I think many agree with me that there is nobody who brings as much to coverage as he does. He’s so absurdly knowledgeable about Magic, so skilled at being able to relate the information to the public at large, and is generally humorous (occasionally). I actually love many of the coverage guys that are used at events these days, many of whom receive flack from the audiences, but there is no comparison to Luis. Matt Sperling and William Jensen are both excellent and accomplished Magic players, incredibly smart, and able to keep a stream flowing. They are so experienced with Magic and watching it, that they know what the audience is looking to hear, and being able to combine that with an excellent knowledge of the game creates an incredible viewing experience. I watched the entire stream, beginning to end, of the entire two days (which, mind you, started with ROUND ONE COVERAGE), as soon as I returned home. And I loved it and hope you did too.

An actual tournament report wouldn’t be that interesting, I feel, but I will give a brief synopsis. Day One went perfectly for me. I ran the tables to a 9-0 and only lost a single game on the day. I only had two truly great games on the day, and BOTH were covered for on-camera feature matches. Lucky break! My round 5 feature against B/W was very well done by Sperling and Huey and involved a game where my opponent stripped my hand of Devour Flesh on turn 1, signaling Blood Baron of Vizkopa, but I wasn’t able to draw into a Lifebane Zombie. I had to take an Elspeth with my Duress, seeing the expected Blood Baron and an Erebos. I drew a Thoughtseize before he got to 4 mana, but now had little choice but to take his Erebos and leave him with the original Blood Baron and a second copy he had drawn because he didn’t yet have the fifth land needed to cast them.

He actually made a critical mistake the next turn, forgetting to even play his fourth land, but wasn’t punished for it since the land he drew the next turn came into play tapped. Had it been an untapped land and he had not forgotten his land, he would have won that game rather easily. As is, I was able to dispatch both Blood Barons with copies of Devour Flesh, sending his life total extremely high, but had no answer to his third. No answer except for casting 3 copies of Gray Merchant of Asphodel after he had stripped my hand of a copy earlier. That card sure can swing games!

The other amazing game was during round 9 in the B/r “mirror,”—he didn’t actually have Rakdos’s Return. Game two he is able to land his Erebos, a card that can’t really be dealt with, but my hand had a few ways to gain card advantage and deal some damage, so I didn’t think I was quite out of it yet. Unfortunately, he drew perfectly, hitting Underworld Connections into a second copy of Underworld Connections, putting me impossibly behind. What this did do, however, was open up the “fringe case,” as Huey and LSV so aptly described it in commentary, of being able to Devour Flesh Erebos. This still leaves me incredibly far behind, as he gains 7 life there and had 2 Connections that he ripped in a row to my 1. I felt very defeated in this game, until my draw step revealed the 1-of Whip of Erebos. In tandem with my Gray Merchants, this gave me a very real chance to win the game, and that it eventually did. The game itself is great, so I hope people who didn’t have a chance to watch the coverage head on over to the Twitch archives for ChannelFireball and check out all the action.

Day Two started off on the wrong foot as I got absolutely annihilated in an on-camera feature against eventual semi-finalist Nathan Holiday and Mono-Blue Devotion. I kept two very weak hands that I am fairly sure should be keeps but could easily be wrong on and got punished hard for it. His draw steps were fantastic and it isn’t a great matchup to begin with. The only interesting thing from the match that they talked about in coverage and he mentioned in his report was his decision to cast a second Judge’s Familiar on turn 2 over a Frostburn Weird, assuming I wouldn’t keep a hand without a 1- or 2-mana play that didn’t have Lifebane Zombie. While interesting, I don’t find it close to true (and, in fact, had kept a hand without a Zombie that I drew into to cast turn 3, so it ended up working out for him). My Mono-Black list from the previous GP was a deck with 4 copies of Thoughtseize and 6 removal spells in the two-slot, 3 of which I would never cast on turn 2 vs. a Familiar, so there are definitely plenty of hands I would keep without those cards, but if he already knew I was now on Pack Rat it makes more sense. Either way, he was winning that game with relative ease in the end.

The next few rounds went better, Whip of Erebos singlehandedly winning more games, and then a match against Shahar Shenhar that was only partially recorded because he forgot that he was instructed to hit the “record” button when we were about to start. This was maybe the worst beat of the tournament for me, as my deck really showed off in that round while his draws never came together. I even made a comment to him while shuffling his deck before game 2 that “I hope you brought Nightveil Specter in so I don’t look like an idiot on stream,” and then promptly got to Bile Blight one. Unfortunately, by the time the video director realized he had forgotten to hit record, I had an Erebos out, had Rakdos’s Returned his entire hand, and had Duress, Rakdos’s Return, and lots of gas left in reserve. The kid was Lou.

I ended up going 12-1 before taking 2 intentional draws into my 10th GP Top 8. My quarterfinal matchup was what I had found in testing to be the single worst matchup for the deck: Blue Devotion with white. The addition of Detention Sphere is so huge, making Pack Rat a much bigger liability and cutting down the effectiveness of Desecration Demon, not to mention the ability to just cast multiples to easily win the game. I stole game one against his awful mana draw despite drawing the worst cards in my deck every turn, including several Thoughtseizes when he had nothing in his hand that he could cast, Erebos himself, and Underworld Connections. Luckily, they were enough to take down the first game and I was feeling pretty good. Game two really just came down to whether I could get there with a 2-land, great Pack Rat opener on the draw, but I never drew a third land in the game. Game 3 I was again mana screwed, never hitting the second black source, but Pack Rat threatened to take over the game in short order. In fact, he had exactly a one-turn window to hit a Detention Sphere or I would have been able to make Rats during his end step while leaving up Devour Flesh for any potential topdecked Spheres to win the game with relative ease, but alas he did hit his 4-outer. I had clearly run well the entire weekend to that point, so it didn’t hurt quite as bad to get so unlucky in the Top 8, and I was happy with my finish despite always wanting more.

Now, finally, to talk about the deck! Here’s the list I used to Top 8 GP Phoenix, for reference:

I wholeheartedly believe this to have been the best list in the tournament and wouldn’t change a single card. So why the changes? I’ll break them down…

Lands

I went from 26 lands down to 25 and cut both of the Guildgates. Cutting the red entirely from the main deck and only having 3 total red cards maximum after board, in addition to those all being cards you will never cast in the first several turns, allows for cutting the fairly weak Guildgates. The removal of an X-spell from the main deck also allows for more opportunity to cut a land without harming the deck, and 26 was already on the high side with the previous version. In actuality, I would have preferred to play 25.5 lands, but with the need for 2 colors and the late game mana sinks, the decision to go up to 26 vs. down to 25 ended up leading to the extra land. I believe 25 lands to be the correct number in black devotion decks, especially those with 4 scry lands to help smooth out draws and without a huge glut of 5-casting cost spells.

Removal Spells

I really like Bile Blight, but other people are trimming down to 1 copy pretty regularly. I apparently like it more than most with my 2. Devour Flesh is exactly where you want and need to be right now, and the ability to target yourself has never been more relevant with a deck like Burn being commonly played. I definitely advocate the 4-2 split in any black deck.

In the sideboard, I went up to the full 4 copies of Pharika’s Cure and 2 Doom Blades. Doom Blade is not as powerful these days with a lot of the green decks also utilizing black creatures and with Mono-Black being so popular. The card can also never kill a Nightveil Specter. Many people have started shying away from Doom Blade and in the direction of Ultimate Price, but I don’t agree with that. I don’t want my removal spell to be less effective against a deck like red, where it is so important to be able to kill a Boros Reckoner or Mutavault. I don’t want the extra removal spells against Black Devotion anyways.

Pharika’s Cure has continued to shine for me. It’s incredibly powerful against black aggro, white aggro, and red aggro these days. Being able to kill an Ash Zealot AND 2/3 of a Lightning Strike from their hand for only two mana is so powerful. I also love the card against Blue Devotion as it kills almost everything in the early game and provides a little buffer that always helps. So many decks are filled with all these creatures that the Cure can take care of while also being able to dispatch Mutavault. This card is great right now and I chose to play the fourth copy as a hedge for my removal of Drown in Sorrow from the deck entirely. I still like Drown, but it’s much weaker against the red decks than Cure and white is hardly played, if at all. Not dealing with Mutavault is the final nail in its coffin, but should white become good one day, I will sleeve up this card again.

The Big Switch

So the question I keep getting, and with good reason, is how I went from Rakdos’s Return one week and Pack Rat the next. Nothing else in the deck really changed dramatically, so why this switch?

The metagames change constantly. The weekend between Cincinnati and Phoenix, Yuuya was out there winning a GP sporting a deck with only 1 copy of the card Bile Blight. That’s a huge shift from people playing 2-4 copies regularly the weeks before Cinci. This, of course, makes Pack Rat a much bigger threat in that matchup.

I expected a lot of people to come equipped with the white splash in their blue devotion decks. Detention Sphere is the best removal spell in the format and adding scry lands, while slowing the deck down a little bit, also adds some utility. This ended up not being the case as players continued to play mono-blue and Sam Black had great success with the mono-colored variant (once again) the week prior. This makes Pack Rat better, as well.

The Esper matchup, even with Rakdos’s Return maindeck, is still not great in game 1. You have dead cards that can make winning attrition games more challenging. I would certainly rather have Rakdos’s Return in my deck than Pack Rat game 1, but if it isn’t changing the matchup that dramatically, then it really isn’t necessary. Where Return really shines, no matter which version you play, is in sideboarded games. With the full 4 copies of Duress to complement the Thoughtseizes, you can rather easily strip the control player of all their countermagic, leaving them a handful of answers and removal spells like Last Breath, Detention Sphere, Supreme Verdict, Revoke Existence, etc. That’s when the Rakdos’s Return is truly devastating and game winning. Even if they deploy a planeswalker due to having no other gas in their hand, Rakdos’s Return will clean up everything.

The biggest matchup where the loss of Rakdos’s Return in game 1 is felt would be in the green matchups where they have lots of planeswalkers. Return is just great against Jund and one of the best cards in the matchup. Pack Rat is something they have a lot of removal for, can even Mizzium Mortars away if you wait until you can make 2 copies, and can get outclassed by their creatures quickly. They are a slow midrange deck with planeswalkers, and stripping their slow spells and removal while killing their best threat is still the best thing you can do.

Now, for a quick aside on the format in general, green stinks. It’s just not good. Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix are good cards, but they are not reasons to be playing green cards outside of a control Bant shell. I asked Brian Kibler before GP Cinci if he had even considered playing a non-green deck, which he talked about during his deck tech during the Phoenix coverage. He responded that he had not but he really hasn’t done much winning since Lifebane Zombie. After pointing out how bad the color currently is and why would he still force himself into that trap, he pointed to the card Polukranos, which I said was bad against everything (it is). Black easily kills it, blue doesn’t really care, and it’s just downright bad against control decks. He said it was good against green. Well, we agree with that! Bad cards are bad except against bad decks! I know there will be plenty of comments talking about how much people have won with Jund or G/R Monsters and I’m stupid and wrong. But no. I’m right. Don’t do this to yourself. Not now.

Back to Pack Rat. With blue decks not having Detention Sphere and black decks skimping on Bile Blights, Pack Rat was going to be where you want to be in the format. It has always had the ability to steal games and that isn’t going away any time soon, but Rakdos’s Return is still a fantastic tool. I love it against the slow green decks, all of the control decks, and a couple of copies against the black decks. It just has such a great ability to run away in these midrange/control mirrors. I strongly endorse playing red simply for this card, not to mention it is actually quite good against the burn decks!

Lifebane Zombie vs. Nightveil Specter

A few quick notes on this debate—Nightveil Specter is a good card. The 2/3 body on a flier can block extremely well against the aggro decks and card advantage can be great in the control matchups. Certainly the card shines in the mirror, but it also creates another small creature that can (usually) be taken care of easily with removal. In the Mono-Black mirror, Lifebane Zombie is quite poor and quickly gets sideboarded out, but the B/W version of the deck is becoming far more popular and the Zombie is fantastic there.

People seem to think that Nightveil is great against control decks and Lifebane is bad. I feel the opposite. Yes, if I can play non-red scry lands and somewhat reliably cast their blue or white spells without having to hit multiple lands first, then Nightveil can be solid. I don’t play blue or white lands, however, and the white control decks tend to run Last Breaths. I would actually sideboard out Nightveils against the control decks with my red lands to board in Lifebane Zombies in the matchup, something I tried for a while, which led to me realizing how unplayable the Specter really was here. The 3 power on Zombie is just huge when facing a card like Jace, Architect of Thought, and the ability to evade Mutavaults and Elspeth tokens is extremely relevant. It also just hits harder, applying a much faster clock, which helps offset the 1 devotion lost between it and Specter on your Gray Merchants.

If there are aggro decks that demand blockers and don’t play Lifebane targets in your metagame, then by all means, make the switch. With my game plan in the mirror already being to force through card advantage spells, make them discard their threats, before stripping their entire hand of removal, having a creature to cast early and get killed isn’t very exciting for me right now and I’m sticking with my Zombies.

Journey into Nix

I just wanted to quickly touch on the LSV spoiler card Silence the Believers. I’m excited to try this card in my deck. Yes, it’s a little bit slower than Hero’s Downfall and can’t kill planeswalkers, but being able to kill Thassa and other Gods is potentially huge. The strive mechanic’s potential card advantage when you flood out is quite nice and should be relevant in the black mirror, and I know I’m excited to pay 7 mana to kill a Desecration Demon and an Erebos with one spell. This card may be too slow in practice and only time will tell what the metagame will look like, but with the ability to curve your deck with cheaper removal spells to follow up with this card has serious potential.

The only other big change to the deck that may come courtesy of Journey into Nix is the potential to try the only 2-color combination that really hasn’t been seen in black devotion. Abrupt Decay is a great removal spell right now. With Temple of Malady finally seeing print, the opportunity to play a black devotion deck with green is finally real and that may be the next direction the deck takes. Abrupt Decay and Vraska being able to remove problematic Detention Spheres and Underworld Connections could be exactly what the deck wants going forward. I’m excited to see just how it all unfolds!

Eric Froehlich
@EfroPoker on Twitter