Hi, everyone, and welcome to a new column here on ManaDeprived! In this column, yours truly and his trusty testing partner Marco Hoonderd will take the top Magic the Gathering decks of the moment and smash them against each other. By “top decks” we could mean those that just made the finals of the latest Grand Prix, Pro Tour or SCG Open or those that have been consistently performing up until that point.
For the first edition of this column, Marco and I tested Ghost Pants (the Bant Aura deck that recently won Grand Prix Atlantic City in the hands of ManaDeprived’s own Jon Stern) versus Dragon Zombies.
Dragon Zombies did not have a very good showing at the GP despite hovering near the top tables consistently throughout the day. This is easily explained by the multiple Mono Red decks (a notoriously bad matchup for Dragon Zombies) in the top 16. The Rakdos-colored Zombies deck is very popular though, which is why we chose it oppose the new deck, Ghost Pants.
”Ghost Pants by Jay Lansdaal”
This deck is a fusion between Jon Stern and Josh Utter-Leyton’s list, with Jon Stern’s sideboard (as Josh mentioned he didn’t like his). From Jon’s list, we cut a land (like Josh did) and a Selesnya Charm for two Fencing Aces. Josh’s maindeck cut all the Charms for two Curiositys and another Silverblade Paladin, but he said he didn’t like the Curiositys in his top-eight profile. The reason we didn’t just use Jon’s list is that we wanted to figure out which list was better, and this way we could try both Fencing Ace and Selesnya Charm at the same time.
This deck will be played by Marco.
”Dragon Zombies by Charles Zhang”
This deck was the highest-finishing Dragon Zombies deck, taking 18th place at the Grand Prix in the hands of Charles Zhang, a relatively unknown but strong player from New York. With its maindeck Vampire Nighthawks, this deck should be a little better set up against Ghost Pants, and aggressive mirrors in general, than the average Zombie Dragon deck.
This deck will be played by me, Jay.
We will play ten games: four pre-board and six post-board. We play more post- board because logically speaking those are more important; two out of three games will be played with a sideboard, as long as you go to three games. We will simply alternate playing and drawing.
G1 with Dragon Zombies (Jay) on the play:
Ghost Pants 1-0
G2 with Ghost Pants (Marco) on the play:
Marco had no plays the first two turns but made a 2/2 Knight at the end of Jay’s turn with Selesnya Charm, following that up with an Invisible Stalker. The Stalker, by then enchanted by an Ethereal Armor and a Spectral Flight, hit Jay once but then had to be held back. Otherwise, if an Aristocrat showed up, Jay’s team of Nighthawk and Hellrider could kill Marco. An Aristocrat did show up, but also stayed on defense because of the flying, first striking Stalker. A Geist with a Spectral Flight on it helped Marco hold down the fort, but a Thundermaw Hellkite came in for Jay, tapping both of Marco’s creatures and ending the game.
Ghost Pants 1-1
G3 with BR Dragon Zombies on the play:
A Diregraf Ghoul, followed by a Pillar of Flame on an Avacyn’s Pilgrim, followed by a Searing Spear on the second Pilgrim seemed to slow Marco down. It didn’t stop a Geist from coming down on turn three, however, and Jay’s response of Geralf’s Messenger and no fourth land didn’t bode well for the Zombie team. An Ethereal Armor made the Geist a good blocker, but Jay smashed his team into it, losing the Ghoul but putting Marco down to nine in the process. A Searing Spear at the end of Marco’s turn followed by an Aristocrat on Jay’s turn finished Marco off after he put nothing but another land into play. His hand revealed more land and an irrelevant Armor.
Ghost Pants 1-2
G4 with Bant on the play:
With Marco on the play, Jay started off with the notorious triple one-drop start, which Marco matched with an Invisible Stalker and a Spectral Flight. Stalker stayed home for a turn, but then swung in, powered up by a Rancor as well. Jay went to 13 (he took two from a Blood Crypt), and Marco played a Geist and passed. Jay missed his fourth land drop and attacked Marco down to 12. Marco then attacked with Geist and Stalker. Jay made the Angel a Victim of Night and droped down to six, not blocking the Geist to still threaten lethal damage if he topdecked a land for the Hellrider in his hand. He missed, and we went to sideboard.
Ghost Pants 2-2
Keeping in a Silverblade and a Charm keeps your opponent honest. Charm is a removal spell and a pump they have to play around if they see it once, and Silverblade forces them to keep in spot removal, which isn’t great otherwise, especially since the best instant speed removal spell, Searing Spear, doesn’t kill Loxodon Smiter.
On the play, you want to just get them dead, and to do that, you need small creatures, not five drops. On the draw, you’re playing catch-up, and a Tragic Slip kills a Pilgrim that can otherwise pull them ahead, while Messenger is terrible at playing catch-up. It is perhaps even warranted to board out the last two Messengers for two Pillar of Flame as well.
G5 Jay mulliganed and was on the play:
Two one-drops faced off against a turn-two Geist. A Nearheath Pilgrim traded with a one-drop while Geist and Vampire Nighthawk stared each other down. A second Nearheath Pilgrim came down and traded with a Victim of Night. Jay missed his fourth land drop for the second turn in a row, and after Marco played an Avacyn Pilgrim and passed, Jay was forced to pass straight back, missing yet another land drop. The turn after, Jay at last hit his fourth land and attacked with an Aristocrat, which got there in a few turns while Marco kept bricking on action.
Ghost Pants 0-1 (2-3)
G6 Jay mulled to six (4 lands with some four- and five-drops) with Marco on the play:
Marco’s first real play was a Loxodon Smiter. It was joined by a Geralf’s Messenger, which Jay chose to play over a Vampire Nighthawk, hoping to race the Smiter with the help of two Falkenrath Aristocrats. That plan fell flat on its nose when Marco enchanted the Smiter, first with a Spectral Flight and then with a Rancor, which let Marco trample over the Nighthawk for lethal when it came down the turn after an Aristocrat.
Ghost Pants 1-1 (3-3)
G7 Jay mulled to five (first seeing two one-landers without a turn-one play) and was on the play:
After the first couple of turns, there were two one-drops and a Nighthawk on Jay’s side and a Geist of Saint Traft on Marco’s side. We’d seen this before, but this time Marco had an Ethereal Armor which let him attack through the Nighthawk. Jay had no answer and died shortly after.
Ghost Pants 2-1 (4-3)
G8 Marco mulliganed to five (seeing a bad seven and a no-lander on the way) and was on the play:
Jay had a double one-drop into double Hellrider draw, but Marco had a Loxodon Smiter enhanced with Rancor and an Ethereal Armor. A Feeling of Dread on the double Hellriders when the second came down (which would’ve killed Marco), left Jay with too few defenses to stop Marco from killing him instead.
Ghost Pants 3-1 (5-3)
G9 with Jay on the play:
Two one-drops and a Knight of Infamy squared off against a turn-three Geist of Saint Traft. The zombies seem to be on the winning side, but when Jay played his fourth land a turn too late, a Feeling of Dread followed by Spectral Flight on Marco’s fifth turn put Jay at a lower life total than state based effects would allow him to keep playing with.
Ghost Pants 4-1 (6-3)
G10 Jay mulled to six with Marco on the play:
An early Rancored Geist traded with a Vampire Nighthawk. Marco followed up with two Loxodon Smiters and a Rancor for each that ended up trading with a Thundermaw Hellkite and a Diregraf Ghoul (with the help of a Knight of Infamy). Jay dropped to five, but Marco had very little action afterwards, while Jay had a Falkenrath Aristocrat that killed Marco in two turns.
Ghost Pants 4-2 (6-4)
Both Marco and I felt the games were fairly representative of the decks. I mulled a bit more, but that can be expected when running a deck with a curve like Dragon Zombies with a bunch of one-drops and a bunch of four- and five-drops with little in between. We both mulled to five once.
The games, as expected, seemed to be a tight race, but perhaps unexpectedly, you cannot just turn your guys sideways every turn. Both decks have very explosive plays after the first guys come down that can kill out of nowhere, so playing around the right cards becomes very valuable. Hellrider or Aristocrat with a Geralf’s Messenger on the board can do a lot of damage for the Dragon Zombie player, but so can an Ethereal Armor for the Ghost Pants player.
While Ghost Pants has been named “I H8 Life Aggro” for its non-interactiveness, we found the games to be quite interesting, involving quite a bit of combat math.
The coinflip also isn’t the largest decider, as both Marco and I won games on the draw as well as on the play.
The reason the games are so interesting is because of how the decks interact. While Dragon Zombies is not well-known for its blocking capabilities, Vampire Nighthawk and Knight of Infamy proved to be quite excellent at blocking a Geist, often creating standoffs. The “racing” happens between Invisible Stalker and the one-drops and, on the other side, Falkenrath Aristocrat and Hellrider.
Because this is generally the case, drawing the right enchantments becomes critical for the Ghost Pants player. Ethereal Armor is the best enchantment, as it lets Geist get through a Nighthawk or survive an attack into Knight of Infamy. Rancor and Spectral Flight help against Knight of Infamy but only let your Geist trade with a Nighthawk.
When racing, an early Increasing Savagery or an unimpeded Silverblade Paladin changes the math in the favor of the ghosts, whereas multiple four-drops out of the Dragon Zombie deck often spell a quick doom for them.Increasing Savagery can also be used to put a non-hexproof creature out of range of burn spells, but beware of Victim of Night or Ultimate Price. Most Zombie decks still play a couple of these, and if they have one in hand you basically Time Walked yourself. (Four mana is a lot when games don’t go past turn five or six.)
Because games don’t go very long, neither player has many draws to fix a problem. If you have no early plays in your opener as the Dragon Zombies player, you should probably mulligan. The same goes for not having hexproof creatures in the Ghost Pants deck. Fencing Ace and Silverblade Paladin can alleviate the need for hexproof creatures a bit in the right matchups, though. If removal is damage based, for example, a Fencing Ace and some pump spells might be enough.
Key cards pre-board:
Pre-board revolves around getting a quick start for both decks, and whether Ghost Pants has Geists, Stalkers, or neither. You probably shouldn’t keep many hands without either hexproof creature as a Searing Spear or a Victim of Night will ruin your day, and Dragon Zombies plays plenty of those.
In case of a Stalker game: you are both racing, and the Stalker player is the only one who can block. Good luck.
In case of a Geist game: which blocker does Dragon Zombies have, if any? If they don’t have any, good luck racing. If they do have one, does the Ghost Pants player have the right enchantment to get through?
In all games: Zombies needs early pressure. Hands with two four-drops, a Hellkite, and lands are most likely not going to get there.
Key cards post-board:
– One–drops in multiples
– Vampire Nighthawk
Post-board changes a little bit, as the vulnerable creatures mostly come out, making the games a bit less swingy without much surprise double-strike action. Dragon Zombies also gets a couple extra blockers, helping in the Geist games.
Next to extra blockers, the black-red player also gets an answer to hexproof creatures in Bonfire of the Damned. However, this only works if you get it off early, and even then it often costs you a full turn, without putting pressure on the table. Pressure is still the most important thing for the Dragon Zombies deck.
Another card that was worse than expected was Nearheath Pilgrim. Even though Zombies probably has less removal, they can’t realistically board everything out, so this often still dies. It also trades with everything and is only really good if you can pair it with an already large creature on your side. When you get to do that, though, you are probably not losing anymore.
A card that was better than expected was Loxodon Smiter. Hard to kill, a good blocker and a reasonable clock, the Smiter did some good work in the post-board games. However, the card that makes sure Ghost Pants is truly favored post-board is not an elephant with a hammer but the innocent Innistrad instant, Feeling of Dread. Because the games are always a race, or a stalled race due to blockers on the Zombies side, Feeling of Dread lets you prevent huge chunks of damage or push huge chunks of damage through. Twice. If that doesn’t win you the game, you really have a reason to hate life.
Overall, both Marco and I felt that Ghost Pants is a solid favorite in the matchup, although Dragon Zombies can steal games when Ghost Pants’s threats don’t match up well against the few blockers Dragon Zombies has. Take your time to do the math as the games don’t take many turns and a misstep will often cost you dearly.
Question for the audience:
Since this is the first time for this column, please let me know what you liked! What would you like to see more of; what would you like to see less of? Where should I go deeper, and what can I do without?
Feel free to leave a comment, or tweet at me here. Suggestions for which decks to test are also appreciated!
Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you next week!
iLansdaal on Twitter and MTGO