I absolutely love playing Pai Gow—it occupies the perfect intersection between ripping boosters and having fun with sealed product. Ever since I was introduced to it at Worlds last year, I’ve been a huge fan of the format and am always doing everything I can to stay on top of the very latest developments within the world of Pai Gow.

For those unfamiliar with the rules, Frank Karsten’s initial write-up is pretty comprehensive. While I know others have slight variations on the rules presented within that article, I always play by the Karsten rule set. Given that we have an entirely new Pai Gow format opening up for us so soon with the arrival of Core Set 2019, I thought it appropriate to help everyone prepare. If you haven’t played Pai Gow Magic before, I highly suggest it as a way to bust through those boxes you preordered.

One-Hit Wonders

The first cards I look for when opening a pack are cards (or combinations of cards) that will either win the game on the spot or after one attack. Evasive 5-power creatures, huge burn spells, and hasty threats—these are some of the best options in Pai Gow. It’s also possible to assemble combo decks. My good friend Jamin Kauf once beat me with Radiating Lightning and Gaea’s Blessing!

When building my five decks, I’ll look for turn-1 kills, most of which fall into one of the following categories. Bear in mind that this disregards your opponent having cards like Revitalize to mess things up for you.

Hasty Bois

Any haste creature or effect that grants haste is massively powerful, as you have a good chance of being on the play for many Pai Gow games (especially when you become faster at building decks). I’ll look to pair Hostile Minotaur or Volcanic Dragon with a pump spell or Aura to win the game on turn 1. This has the added advantage of being able to get rid of a blank card from your other decks. For example, if you have Volcanic Dragon and Infernal Scarring, you could easily include the basic land in this deck to get rid of it for good.

Heroic Reinforcements is effectively a 2-power haste creature, but comes with the added advantage of giving haste to other creatures. I’ll be looking to include it with other 3-power creatures (or creatures whose power totals 5 or greater) for turn-1 wins.

Go Upstairs

Examine your cards carefully to see if you can assemble 5 damage without even going to combat. Lightning Strike, Vampire Sovereign, Sovereign’s Bite, Sparktongue Dragon, and Radiating Lightning all deal 3, Fell Specter, Explosive Apparatus, Shock, and Viashino Pyromancer all deal 2. Pair some of these cards for an immediate victory without even having to attack!

Combo ’em Out

Certain two-card combos will steal games then and there. Salvager of Secrets or Recollect can regrow cards like Sovereign’s Bite and Lightning Strike, so if I open one of them I immediately look for 3-damage effects. Additionally, any 5-power creature in combination with Thud should get the job done. Don’t forget about Doublecast when trying to burn opponents out—copying a Lightning Strike or a 3-power Thud should also be good enough!

Open Devastator Dragon, Banefire, or Lava Axe

This is probably the tier 1 strategy in M19 Pai Gow. I suggest you adopt it as often as possible. Looks like red decks are here to stay. Thanks, Obama.

A Second Chance

Sometimes you can’t win on turn 1 (#neverlucky). In that case, examine your pack to see if any turn-2 kills are available. Again, there are some broad categories for decks like this.

5-Power Beater Plus Interaction

One of my favorite effects in Pai Gow is discard spells. Mind Rot is a terrific play, as forcing them to bin two-thirds of their hand (or even all of it, sometimes!) is insane. As a result, I’ll try to put Mind Rot in a deck with a creature that will win with a single unimpeded attack (for example, Fire Elemental) to get it done then and there.

In addition to discard, pairing removal with a 5-power creature will often be enough. Either breaking up a double-block or removing their single defensive creature can be enough, so make good use of your Murders. Finally, putting 5 power (even across two creatures) in a deck with Sleep or Ghostform can push through a turn-2 win.

Strong, Independent Monsters

Some cards can win the game on their own, but need a turn to get ready. For example, most evasive 5-power creatures will get there on turn 2, as will cards like Siegebreaker Giant or Sparktongue Dragon. For extra surprise value, throw in a Goblin Motivator—make that your turn-1 play, then get ’em out of nowhere on turn 2 with your Colossal Dreadmaw!

Two Cards on Turn 2

There are a few two-card combos that will finish things on turn 2 if you can catch your opponent napping. Find a 2-power creature to include with Skyrider Patrol, (or a 3-power one with Mighty Leap), or flood the board with Goblin Instigator or Aviation Pioneer, then conclude with Inspired Charge or Trumpet Blast!

The Middle Ground

Not all your cards are going to be this powerful, of course, and at some point you’ll have to start filling out your mediocre middle-ground decks with whatever’s left over. Generally speaking, this is the world of the Tolarian Scholar and the Walking Corpse. Snore.

You may have noticed that the previous decks I’ve talked about focused on containing just two important cards. This is because I’m a strong believer in not “winning more.” It’s always excellent to get rid of clunkers like the basic land in your best decks so that you can always get get three at least half-decent cards into these decks.

The reality is that you’ll almost always have one or two decks that are two middling creatures and a combat trick. Try to build the decks to maximize the chance of getting 5 or more damage through (for example, two 2-power creatures with a Sure Strike). Apart from this, there isn’t too much more to say.

The Stone-Cold Whiffski

My goodness, there is a lot of blank cardboard in M19 when it comes to Pai Gow. Dragon’s Hoard, Apex of Power, Chaos Wand, One with the Machine—these cards are all pretty horrific. Luckily, most of the real clunkers are rare, so you won’t open them too often.

I never try to leave myself with a deck that is a guaranteed loss. Many players will put their three worst cards into a deck as a write-off, but I don’t like this. Instead, I’ll put my two worst cards and my worst creature into that deck. For example, my deck might be Plains, Tectonic Rift, and Stitcher’s Supplier. While it’s still very unlikely for me to win, I don’t want to be 0% as there’s always the chance that you’ll get paired with their write-off pile and therefore snag a free win.

General Tips

  • Count to five. Always look for ways to push through 5 or more damage. For example, target Air Elemental with Aegis of the Heavens, or attach Marauder’s Axe to an Aerial Engineer.
  • Act of Treason will generally be an absolute blowout—these games tend to be too fast for it to be much less than a Mind Control. The card is obviously highly situational, but don’t underestimate it.
  • Always look for weird, niche interactions with otherwise unplayable cards. For example, if you have a Blanchwood Armor, check if your basic is a Forest. If you have an Enigma Drake, burn some useless Divinations and Sifts as a 2/3 flyer might just be good enough.
  • Weird, defensive decks are hard to break up. Combine things like Wall of Vines or Reassembling Skeleton with Vampire Neonate to win in an unexpected fashion.
  • Infinite mana means activated abilities (without other costs) and X spells will generally involve insanely large numbers. Lightning Mare can become a squillion-power creature, Siegebreaker Giant can falter everything, and Banefire will win games instantly.

Pai Gow is a quick, easy, and enormously fun way to bust open packs, and quite aside from leading to some pretty silly games of Magic, can also teach you a lot about fundamentals like planning out several turns of attacking and blocking. Here’s hoping that M19 is as much fun as Dominaria when it comes to Pai Gow!