Vegas and Magic have always held a special, conjoined place in my heart. My first competitive tournament was the original Grand Prix Las Vegas Modern Masters in 2013. Two years later, I saw my first GP Day 2 and cash at Grand Prix Las Vegas Modern Masters 2015. It’s only fitting that returning to (the ridiculously huge and awesome) GP Vegas 2017 produced my first big finish and Pro Tour qualification via the GP circuit.
For those wondering why the hell Smallpox is the best selling card besides basic land on some sites this week, I have answers for you below.
Don’t Worry, This Won’t Be a Tournament Report
I previously qualified for Pro Tour Eldritch Moon in 2016 via the Limited RPTQ circuit, with a tepid performance that earned me the nickname Pro Tour “Participant” Warren Woodward among my friends and put two specific doubts in my head: Firstly, “I can only win at Limited formats,” and the more dangerous, “you’re an impostor that doesn’t actually belong at the Pro Tour,” which, in hindsight is probably something that most folks have thought upon qualifying for their first PT. Your first PT can be intimidating, particularly with the teams and cliques of many pro players, and it can be difficult to convince yourself not only that you belong there but that you are fully capable of winning.
That said, I came to Vegas with something to prove. As someone with a marriage, a full-time job, and a band, that is still serious about playing at the highest level, you have to pick your battles if you want to do well. A couple of months prior to GP Vegas, I was invited to join a small testing group by two local Bay Area players (Nicolas Goles and Hubert Wong) that I met during GP San Jose.
We set our sights on preparing exclusively for Limited and Modern at GP Vegas and focused all of our available Magic Hours toward that goal. No Standard, no FMN, no Legacy—we just focused on anything that would better prepare us for Vegas. Nicolas ended up having an incredibly deep run in Limited for 25th place, an amazing showing considering this was his 2nd GP ever.
My path to the top tables took a different route, backed by our testing data and and a bit of intuition that lead me to pilot this beautiful beast through 15 rounds of some of the most satisfying and challenging games of my life:
Warren Woodward, 12th place at GP Las Vegas (13-2)
So the most obvious question is: if I’m putting all of my eggs in the basket of spiking the largest MTG event in history, why on earth am I playing this deck? Furthermore, what is this deck and where did it come from?
This is where I admit I have a problem… I have an unhealthy addiction to 8-Rack. I mean, I belong to a Facebook community devoted exclusively to the card Smallpox. I bounced around the Modern metagame for the last few years but once you go Rack you never go back. At least, your heart doesn’t. Here I am obliged to shout out to both deck 8-Rack creator Robert Leva as well as Tom Ross, who put it on the map for myself and many others as the first pro to treat the deck with the respect it deserves and put up real results with it (granted Tom Ross, can Top 8 with a ham sandwich). Both Leva and Ross have produced great content on 8-Rack, which I would recommend checking out for anyone interested in this deck as well.
This is the context in which several weeks ago I was doing my daily keyword search for “Smallpox” among MTGO 5-0 decks, which typically comes up blank. This time, however, it revealed a list similar to the one above that immediately pulled at my heartstrings.
After a quick 4-1 test run in competitive Leagues, I knew that I had found the deck I wanted to settle down with to start getting my Vegas reps. MTGO players qbturtle15 (who I believe was the original creator) and IxidorsDreams were regularly posting strong finishes with this deck, yet there were few people talking about it and no high profile results. I attribute this to the momentum of the MTG hive mind toward Death’s Shadow decks, as well the deck itself being rather difficult to pilot, so it’s likely even those exploring rogue brews of the 5-0 lists saw poor initial results and quickly moved on.
Why is Planeswalker Pox any good right now?
Much like its brother-from-another-mother 8-Rack, B/W Pox is a metagame deck that preys on certain archetypes and is vulnerable to others. That said, they are rather different decks. 8-Rack is at its heart a disruptive aggro deck while B/W Pox is an attrition deck that looks to take over the game by depleting your opponent’s resources from multiple angles and dropping resilient threats. Leading up to the GP I tracked results for 75 games of competitive Leagues on MTGO, seeing an overall win rate of 62% with positive results against most of the decks I expected to show up at the tournament.
The common thread among your prey is that they are trying to put several moving pieces together to do something powerful or unfair—think Death’s Shadow walking the life loss tightrope while protecting one huge threat, Storm trying to stick a 2-drop creature that allows the rest of their deck to start going off, or Counters Company trying to resolve particular pairings of creatures on the board to enable their combos. If you can identify the the key moving parts of their machine, you can rip gears out.
Conversely, you are bad against decks with tons of redundancy (Dredge, Elves) or those that provide a steady flow of value creatures (Abzan, Eldrazi Tron) as their redundancy makes them much less vulnerable to their plans being picked apart and their average card’s power level is often higher than yours.
You should play this deck in a meta of:
- Grixis Death’s Shadow
- Jund/4-Color Death’s Shadow
- Counters Company
- U/W Control
- Jund/B/G Rock
Avoid this deck when you expect a meta of:
- Eldrazi Tron
- Traditional Tron
- Abzan Goodstuff (Witness, Kitchen Finks, Lingering Souls, etc.)
Overall, the deck was a blast to play at GP Vegas and outside of a few matches I felt like I was just playing a different game than most of my opponents. This would not have been evident if you watched BBD smash me on camera at the 8-0 tables, but hitting my only major mana problems of the tournament in a feature match vs. the reigning world champ on a Lilly Last Hope ultimate (immediately followed by Lilly #2) is not a pleasant place to be.
(This is… fine…)
I was quite happy with the list I played, but did feel like there are a few optimizations moving forward. Anguished Unmaking always seemed like a bad removal spell and while the main-deck Damnation did make me feel quite clever in one match, it is bad often enough that it doesn’t justify the slot.
Planeswalkers also gave me a few headaches throughout the day and I think Never // Return is a good hedge on removal that can also hit a planeswalker while providing some minor synergy with your tokens game plan. If I were to play the GP again, here is the updated list I would take:
Planeswalker Pox, Updated
Just Take the Play
8-Rack devotees live by one solemn vow: “Always take the draw”. It’s important to note that this is not the case with Planeswalker Pox. This is because A) You want to reliably cast 4-drops before you die and B) Smallpox + Flagstones of Trokair and/or Bloodghast allow you to make major tempo swings that are even more effective on the play. That said, you are not actively sad to be on the draw as you can react to the opponents early play with a cheap 2 or 3-for-1 at the hands of Smallpox or Collective Brutality.
These are your Swiss army knives, offering disruption, removal, and card advantage. Major blowout plays start occurring as early as turn 2. The ideal play that comes up more than you think looks something like:
You: Play Urborg (or Fetid Heath)… Go.
Opponent: Play land, cast Noble Hierarch.
You: Play Flagstones of Trokair, cast Smallpox, discard Bloodghast, sacrifice Flagstones, search for Godless Shrine, trigger Bloodghast, kill your creature, kill your land, make yourself discard a card.
For those counting, that’s a 3-for-1 that also fixed your mana and puts a threat into play for free while setting your opponent’s mana back a turn. Not bad for 2 mana. More regularly, Smallpox will be a 2-for-1 that you are still happy with, but identifying the optimal times to spring the Smallpox trap is key to mastering this deck.
Liliana of the Veil is even better here than usual. You’re discarding Bloodghast and Lingering Souls while your opponent is seeing their resources stripped away between Lilly and the rest of your disruption suite.
Your targeted best-in-class discard is a notch better than normal. Many decks will have dead cards against you game 1, allowing you to more easily disrupt the remaining relevant parts of their plan.
There’s probably no case for ever going below 4 Fatal Push main deck, but Never // Return is a flex slot you should play with based on your expected meta. Anguished Unmaking, Gideon of the Trials, Damnation, and Dismember all enter the conversation for these slots.
A resilient and annoying suite. Both Bloodghast and Lingering Souls are happy to be discarded to your engine cards. 4 Souls main deck is also just a nice place to be in the meta right now, and nuts with Sorin, Solemn Visitor. Make sure to use the disease-ridden SDCC version of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar for maximum Pox flavor points.
Notes on the Mana Base
I’ve seen lists that only run 1 Swamp, but going up to 2 is a very low cost to keep most of your deck operating through a Blood Moon, a situation I had to win through twice in round 15 of GP Vegas versus Affinity.
I’ve also revised the sideboard. Shadow of Doubt was situationally brutal, but in practice the opportunities to maximize it just don’t come up enough. I also now prefer Rest in Peace as my 5th piece of graveyard hate over Surgical Extraction as I lean heavily on Leyline of the Void for a few key matchups and Surgical Extraction is a nombo with Leyline. The increase to 3 Fulminator Mage and 3 Damnation are a nod to the poor Eldrazi Tron matchup, though that one is still going to be a slog.
Matchup and Sideboard Guide
Grixis Death’s Shadow
A favorable matchup. You have a lot of ways to punish them for a single big threat and their discard suite is less effective against you than most due to your graveyard recursion and the fact that their Inquisition of Kozilek matches up very poorly with your threats. Leyline is a godsend here, as it turns off a fair percentage of their deck and they have no way to deal with it. Their best cards against you are Stubborn Denial and Liliana the Last Hope, which will usually come out of the board. Also be aware that once they are on to your plan they will also likely bring in Anger of the Gods and Izzet Staticaster.
Jund/4-Color Death’s Shadow
Similar to the Grixis matchup, but they have more threats as well a more ways to deal with Rest in Peace. Leyline of the Void does additional work here against Tarmogoyf and Traverse the Ulvenwald. They are more likely to get multiple threats out at once, hence maxing out on Damnation. Lastly, respect the random Temur Battle Rage that still periodically shows up in these decks and can make your blockers look embarrassing.
A good game 1 that turns into a nightmare for them post-board. With Affinity taking taking up 3 of 8 slots in GP Vegas’ Top 8 you can expect to see an uptick of this deck, which is great for you.
Your worst popular matchup—many of your answers line up poorly with their threats and their topdecks are just better than yours. Matter Reshaper is an important card to rip from their hand. It gets better post-board, but not great.
You have 9 sources of main-deck life gain that make their job tough. Collective Brutality does major work here and a well-timed Sorin, Solemn Visitor +1 can completely take the game away from them. Damnation out of the board is slightly less bad than Thoughtseize as an awkward-but-acceptable answer to Eidolon of the Great Revel.
Another favorable matchup. You look to become the control deck here. Use restraint and look for the optimal time to Smallpox or Collective Brutality. Currently, I don’t recommend graveyard hate here as there is not a consensus best build, but if you see a lot of Eternal Witness and Kitchen Finks, you might want to consider bringing some in. Anguished Unmaking is an additional hedge to make sure you don’t die out of nowhere to an end-step Collected Company.
A favorable matchup once you’ve played it enough and understand how to pick apart their plan. Look to bait their enabling creatures into a timely Smallpox or Collective Brutality. Graveyard hate helps post-board, but be mindful to pack a few Damnation for post-sideboard games where they are more likely to go all-in on Empty the Warrens.
A critical mass deck that matches up very poorly with your resource denial plan. Game 1 is highly favorable. Post-sideboard, expect some number of Obstinate Baloth to come in, but remember that Smallpox still forces them to sac the Baloth after they discard if that is their only creature.
A nightmare matchup game 1. Post-sideboard, mulligan until you find a pieces of your graveyard hate, because if you don’t you’re likely dead.
Basically Dredge with a higher fail rate. You still have plenty of play game 1 as you can take their cascade spells. While your sideboard is mostly the same as Dredge, it’s not a deal breaker if you don’t draw your graveyard hate. You should still keep a strong initial hand with no hate, but if it’s medium or worse and lacks disruption, be aggressive in shipping it for a stronger 6. If you see Archfiend of Ifnir, keep in a bit more spot removal as it’s still fairly scary as a hardcast threat.
Tips and Tricks
- Both Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth and Fetid Heath enable a big turn-2 Smallpox when combined with Flagstones of Trokair as your second land.
- Remember that you can legend-rule your own Flagstones of Trokair to help fix your mana.
- Look for opportunities to drop unexpected, hasty Bloodghasts versus Death’s Shadow decks after they’ve punched themselves in the face a few times, and feel free to help them out a bit via reach from Smallpox and Collective Brutality.
- If you expect Blood Moon, prioritize getting 2 Swamps on the table over the first Plains—this will enable the bulk of your deck.
- Creaturelands can be a threat to your planeswalkers as much of your best removal is sorcery speed, so don’t be afraid to board in a Fulminator Mage or 2 when you see them.
- If you think your opponent isn’t familiar with the deck, be mindful of what they see game 1. If they see lots of Bloodghast and Lingering Souls, they are more likely to bring in serious graveyard hate and you may want to side some number of these cards out if you expect this.
That should put you on the path to productive Poxing! Players that enjoy messing with their opponents’ plans will find the deck thoroughly enjoyable and I believe it’s well positioned in the current meta. It also may still be flying under the radar somewhat, as even at 13-2 my breakers in Vegas placed me in 12th place rather than Top 8. It’s possible that the sales spike in Smallpox means the secret is out, but I also think it may just be speculators at work after analyzing oddball GP finishes.
Either way, the deck was a blast to play and got me through a ridiculous field in Vegas to qualify for my 2nd Pro Tour, something I wasn’t sure I actually had in me after Sydney last year. Apparently, with the power of Pox in your heart anything can happen!
Now I cross my fingers and hope some sweet disruption is printed in Ixalan to bring to Albuquerque. I would love to hear your thoughts on Planeswalker Pox and any ways you can see it evolving in the future or further improve the bad matchups. In a Modern meta that looked to be on the brink of takeover by a definitive “best deck,” this is one disease I’m happy to see spreading.