“Magic: The Gathering” Standard deck brew – Jeskai Pirate Aggro

This is my first post about Magic, which I’ve been playing for years. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I highly recommend this New Yorker article about the history and culture of the game or if you prefer audio, this episode of Planet Money from NPR, about how the game has managed to stay popular for over 25 years.

Ever since Rivals of Ixalan came out about a year ago, Path of Mettle has been my favorite card to try to build around. It’s a finicky card that requires your deck to be stacked with the specific types of creatures it needs, but the payoff is that, once transformed into Metzali, Tower of Triumph, it’s “a one-card, synergistic game-ender,” as Craig Krempels put it. I can’t resist trying to make a card like that work. You see Field of Ruin rarely these days, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria can’t touch it, and it can take down a Carnage Tyrant. The one damage spread across the board by Path of Mettle entering the battlefield is also highly relevant in the current metagame, with a lot of one toughness creatures running around in mono-blue, white aggro, and token decks (it also hits Llanowar Elves in Sultai and Pteramander in Drakes). Of course the trick is, any competitive deck can’t rely on one card – you still need to be able to win without it, and I’ve been getting good results with this build, which I’ve been iterating on for a while.

Path of Mettle

Path of Mettle

Metzali, Tower of Triumph

Metzali, Tower of Triumph

About a year ago, Craig Krempels made a splash with his Path of Mettle deck, winning 13 of 16 rounds at SCG Philadelphia. His build featured 16 one-drop creatures, and he had this to say about his deck list:

The abundance of one-drop creatures ensures there’s always pressure on our opponent. It’s worth reiterating that they will have a difficult time keeping up with our cheap creatures, and our number one goal is attacking as much as possible… In the old Ramunap Red decks, the scariest starts involved three creatures on the first two turns, followed up with cheap removal… The cheap creatures also make flipping Path of Mettle a sure thing… I liked the three copies of Path of Mettle a lot, as the single damage they sprayed around often had higher-than-expected value. Once flipped, Metzali is a one-card, synergistic game-ender; the opponent has no chance of attacking you without a large army, and every turn they don’t attack is a turn you can Shock the opponent.

Of course, the over-powered cards from last year’s Standard are no longer available to us, like Hazoret the Fervent, which was a key card in Craig’s build. But without such oppressive cards available, the current Standard is one of the healthiest and most diverse ever, with room for innovation.

I went through numerous iterations of the deck list (i.e. endured many loses) before arriving at the current build, below. Some of the challenges were:

  • The deck’s primary color is red, and I had a hard time coming up with 16 decent red one-drops, which are important for maximizing the early pressure on our opponents, and flipping Path of Mettle. I was running Ghitu Lavarunner for a while, but the deck lacks enough instants and sorceries to support it sufficiently.
  • Goblin Chainwhirler, was a little too demanding on the mana base to reliably provide access to white mana early for casting Path of Mettle.
  • Rekindling Phoenix in the main board was always a powerful card, but often felt a little too slow, and didn’t help out with flipping Path of Mettle.
  • My deck was previously a two-color Boros deck, which basically meant I always lost to Esper Control, and usually to Sultai, with their multiple ways of wiping all my creatures off the board in a single stroke.

So I splashed blue to get access to counter-magic in the sideboard, and that’s when I realized the way to go was all-in on Pirates (well, almost all-in).

Jeskai Pirate Aggro

Creatures (24)
Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice
Captain Lannery Storm
Daring Buccaneer
Fanatical Firebrand
Rigging Runner
Storm Fleet Sprinter
Tin Street Dodger

Spells (14)
Lava Coil
Light Up the Stage
Lightning Strike
Path of Mettle
Lands (22)
Clifftop Retreat
Sacred Foundry
Steam Vents
Sulfur Falls

Sideboard: (15)
Dovin, Grand Arbiter
Fiery Cannonade
Lookout’s Dispersal
Lyra Dawnbringer
Rekindling Phoenix
Tocatli Honor Guard

The quality of some of the cards in this approach is lower, but the synergies are stronger:

  • With a total of 17 pirates, Daring Buccaneer becomes a sufficiently reliable turn one one-drop (that’s fewer than the 20 pirates Frank Karsten recommends, but more than the 15 that Craig nonetheless did well with).
  • We can support a playset of Lookout’s Dispersal in the sideboard, which is effectively an old-school 2-mana Counterspell in the early to mid-game, when it matters most for countering board-wipes or making sure Path of Mettle resolves.
  • Captain Lannery Storm is a good card that never found a home in Standard, but I think she finally has one here. She helps flip Path of Mettle, and with the treasures she creates, she makes combat tricky for opposing creature decks, and provides often helpful mana-fixing and ramping (if control decks don’t deal with her quickly, she can accelerate us into a game-ending Banefire).
  • The blue splash lets us play Storm Fleet Sprinter, to keep pressure on our opponents and help flip Path of Mettle. Also, between the Sprinter, Tin Street Dodger, Fanatical Firebrand, and our burn spells, we can almost always cast Light Up The Stage for one red.
  • While Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice is no Hazoret, she’s still quite powerful, synergizes well with all the small creatures (especially the Sprinter and Dodger), and can get us through the mid-game, which often becomes the end of the game.
  • Other red decks deal with opposing small creature decks with Fiery Cannonade, because no one is playing Pirates, right? It’s useless against us, but for us is quite effective from the sideboard.
  • I’m running 4 copies of Path of Mettle, instead of the 3 that’s typical for Legendary cards, so that: we can maximize our chances of seeing it early (as we have nothing quite like Hazoret to fall back on); the extra source of mana of any color can be helpful early; with all the counter-magic in the current metagame, we may want more than one shot at casting it; and the 1 damage it sprays around is also very relevant in this metagame.

The sideboard options are great, and I’ve included mostly what you’d expect for a Jeskai creature deck. The one recent addition I’m experimenting with is Dovin, Grand Arbiter. Casting him is a little risky, as he relies on both our splash colors, so the card is a one-of. But he rewards decks that go fast, it’s pretty easy for us to capitalize on his +1 ability, and planeswalkers have a habit of demanding your opponent’s attention. He may even end up in the main deck – we’ll see how it goes.

Win or lose, the deck is always fun to play.

Some entertaining aspects of the deck:

  • I’m pretty sure all the human pirates in the deck are women – kudos to the designers for providing diversity here. So is Aurelia, which is just about the only thing I imagine an angel might have in common with a bunch of pirates.
  • I’ve played several games now where my opponent reflexively brought in Fiery Cannonade from their sideboard, and then eventually realized they made a big mistake (usually before casting it, but sometimes after).
  • Fanatical Firebrand is one of my favorite cards in the game. I have to try not to laugh every time I look at the artwork.
  • How many decks have a theme song? The Housemartins, a band I liked from years ago, released an instrumental called Pirate Aggro in 1987:

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