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Ascendant Packleader is a Little Little for My Liking


As the title says: Ascendant Packleader is a little little, you know?

Kind of the whole point of going Green - going back to Green - is the size of the creatures; and the keywords in their text boxes. With Green a wee bit more on the radar, probably because of this video I've found myself playing against any number of Ascendant Packleaders recently, with my usual Weapon of Choice.

Friends. Beloved readers. Listeners?

Ascendant Packleader isn't very good. My favorite deck in Standard remains Rakdos Ob Anvil. I have not, in fact, changed out a single main deck card since The Four Things You are Getting Wrong About the Best Deck in Standard from back before the Streets of New Capenna Set Championship. It is puzzling to me how Ob Nixilis failed to make a big splash on the biggest stage. So much so that I literally incinerated between three and four thousand gems testing out the winning decks from the Set Championship. None of them compares to Ob.

... But this article isn't about Rakdos.

Yet, a side quest if you will, is just finding other decks I can plausibly play to continue to rack up Play-In Points. Boros Haste is pretty good, and up until my rediscovery of Mono-Green, I would have said that it is the second-best deck in Standard. My current vote, though, goes to Mono-Green. Here is the exact sixty I have been slinging in Standard Events:

... And ZERO copies of Ascendant Packleader! [I told you it was a little small ball, etc.]

There are three driving forces behind wanting to play this strategy, beyond just trying "any" deck that isn't Rakdos.

The first is that Jan Moritz-Merkel won his second call-it-a Pro Tour last month with an Izzet-adjacent strategy. Look at Jan's deck list for a second:

Uncreative automatons copying this deck list will have access to exactly one Voltage Surge (which may or may not be paired with a Treasure token) and one Dragon's Fire (which may or may not be paired with one of only four Goldspan Dragons) to contend with 4 toughness creatures. Even 3 toughness creatures can be problematic for Jeskai, as neither Flame-Blessed Bolt nor Voltage Surge is particularly good at taking out a Werewolf Pack Leader in isolation. And certainly not on the second turn.

All of these details, and the continued popularity of Jeskai Hinata (and let's call them Prismari style decks in general) are good news for Mono-Green in the near term.

Even before the banning of Alrund's Epiphany months and months ago, Izzet mages by and large did not want to find themselves in the Mono-Green matchup. Green has weirdly always been able to grind on card advantage; plus the sheer and consistent size of its creatures makes Izzet's interplay feel underpowered. Merkel's deck, in particular, has no Doomskar despite adding White; nor even a single copy of The Battle of Frost and Fire or Burn Down the House that we tended to expect in straight ur Control in the past.

This is what we call an opportunity.

Secondly, the rise of Boros in Standard (in particular Best of One Standard on Magic: The Gathering Arena) creates a straight incentive to the Previous Level creature deck. Boros has lots of fast, but comparatively small, creatures and tons and tons of haste. But even one 4/5 can seemingly hold off an army. A Vigilance counter might just be gravy. If you get the jump on an otherwise dominating Boros deck with a mana accelerator on turn two, and then follow up with Esika's Chariot, they're going to essentially start off on the back foot. If your next turn follow up is Invoke the Ancients... Well, that is pretty convenient for all parties. One 4/5 can hang back (presumably soon to be joined by a third 4/5) while its initial twin powers up the Chariot. Boros creatures like Bloodthirsty Adversary, Luminarch Aspirant, and Etching of Kumano are small enough at that stage of the game that the Cats themselves might just be appropriate for a rumble!

Both the enormous size of the creatures in Mono-Green and the likelihood that one might be a token rather than an actual card make Brutal Cathar // Moonrage Brute conditionally one of the best pieces of interaction that Boros can bring from their side... But at a miniscule 2/2, Brutal Cathar is not a very good actual blocker of 4/4 or 4/5 monsters... Or anything really. Cats fight it. Sculptor of Winter would be happy to trade. But we all know that if Boros is blocking, it is not taking advantage of its haste, and the game is likely slipping away.

This is also what we call an opportunity.

Finally, the tool set has shifted a little bit. As you can see this build has moved away from the powerhouse end games of either Unnatural Growth or Wrenn and Seven. While it is certainly painful to say goodbye to the sheer power of Esika's Chariot copying a Treefolk token, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty just pays Green too much material, too much power and toughness, too much immediate advantage, to ignore Invoke the Ancients. Though lacking Wrenn and Seven's card advantage given enough time, Invoke the Ancients provides two bodies RIGHT NOW. Wrenn needed multiple turn cycles to get enough loyalty back into a second body; and even then, many players would run it too greedily, in fear of losing their giant Planeswalker.

In this build we see Ulvenwald Oddity // Ulvenwald Behemoth - not exactly a "new card" but certainly on the newer side than some of these others - as a full four-of next to Esika's Chariot. It took me a minute to fall in love with Ulvenwald Oddity, but it is in fact pretty good. Haste is a great addition to an aggressive deck in general, and trample is probably Magic's most underrated keyword. But "a terrible Questing Beast" wouldn't make the team in isolation.

Flipping Ulvenwald Oddity into the horrifying Ulvenwald Behemoth has become a legitimate part of Mono-Green's kit. Sometimes the opponent just draws two Luminarch Aspirants and you don't have a fight spell on schedule. But that doesn't mean they can necessarily contend with a Rhythm of the Glorious Anthem that is also packing an 8/8 body. I've been pleasantly surprised at how many games can be won, neither attacking nor blocking, just methodically navigating to seven mana for the Oddity flip (generally followed of course by all hands on Red Zone).

Subtly, these two cards together quietly help to cure Mono-Green's biggest weakness in Standard. Blood Money / Snow Control decks didn't necessarily have everything going for them at the height of Alrund's Epiphany... But they sure beat the bejeezus out of StOmPy. In the rare cases that Green battled back against Black back then, it was usually as a result of drawing multiple copies of Old-Growth Troll. Old-Growth Troll, with its second essentially built-in body, was resilient in a matchup largely predicated on out-lasting removal. But that wasn't the real reason it was so appropriately good in-matchup. Each Old-Growth Troll presented two different 4/4 tramplers, either of which could un-hitch the Blood Money defensive game plan. Their whole shtick was to hide behind 2/1 Spider tokens, draw extra cards, and accumulate enough resources to rain sweeper after sweeper until not even Ranger Class could keep Green in attackers. The matchup favored Black dramatically, but if Green mages knew what they were doing, they knew it was all up to Old-Growth Troll.

Because each Invoke the Ancients gives you two bodies, the addition of that sorcery; plus Ulvenwald Oddity, essentially quadruples StOmPy's access to Spider-bypassing 4/4 (and now 4/5) tramplers. Which is not to say that Snow-covered Swamp is anywhere close to the popular archetype it was last fall... But the fact that the upgraded tool set in total provides built-in percentage against its worst historical matchup is yet another reason to go back to Snow-covered Forest.

This is what we call revenge.

Tool sets shifting elsewhere might not have put Mono-Green on my radar, but they have certainly influenced my opinions on which pieces to play... Or not play.

The default Mono-Green StOmPy does tend to play Ascendant Packleader, which is how I figured out how bad it is. How do you think an Ascendant Packleader matches up with the free Construct from an Oni-Cult Anvil? You know, the free one you get just for draining the opponent. How about the Devil from Ob Nixilis, the Adversary? One thing you kind of want to avoid with your go-wide beatdown deck is getting your non-trampling Giant Monster (TM) successfully chumped by a 1/1... That also takes down an additional, actual, piece of cardboard on the way out.

While it might seem like my bullying of the 1-drop Wolf is coming perhaps overly from a br perspective, think about the card in other matchups and contexts. One of the big reasons to play this deck is because its creatures are too big for Play with Fire and a bunch of 2/2 bodies to contend with one-for-one. If Boros has to kill a mana accelerator, they might be conceding a full turn to just not fall behind. But a combat creature? Congratulations, you just made the Boros interplay good.

How do you think the 2/1 matches up against Raffine, Scheming Seer after it's gotten in... Um... Once? Put aside that its 1 toughness is not impressive against even an unenhanced Sphinx Demon. Esper, like many Black and Black-adjacent decks will often take a quick main-deck visit to Ray of Enfeeblement-ville. Presuming you play Ascendant Packleader... That is about the only creature in your deck that makes Ray of Enfeeblement actually good. Ditto on Spikefield Hazard // Spikefield Cave.

A few weeks ago on the way to my Top 8 at the North American Premodern Championships, I rediscovered 1990s superpower (and Reserved List member!) Abeyance as a tool to overcome Counterspells. Many combo decks, including other Replenish decks, sideboard the Urza's Legacy Staple Defense Grid. It is theoretically super synergistic in a deck like I played thanks to Ancient Tomb... After all, I could play it as early as the first turn, before my Control opponent could deploy their first Mana Leak.

But I realized relatively quickly that Defense Grid is an actively bad that Replenish should never play. Enchantment and artifact removal is pretty underwhelming against the text of namesake Replenish itself; but at the same time, every piece of enchantment destruction the opponent has access to will be in their deck, every sideboard game. Combined with the power level readjustment of Parallax Wave and Parallax Tide, Replenish's POV is that one-for-one Disenchant and Seal of Cleansing types are unlikely to beat it without a lot of help. The removal is not pointless, exactly; but just not likely to win the game, either. Nevertheless, the opponent will have all of them in, because why play them if you aren't going to play with them?

... Unless you start leaning on cards like Defense Grid. DEFENSE GRID IS ACTIVELY BAD. All you did was make the opponent's card good. And you probably overvalued your hand or took two points for the privilege, along the way.

This is quite the same folly of playing Ascendant Packleader. Mono-Green isn't the best deck in the abstract. Rakdos Ob Anvil is. StOmPy isn't the fastest beatdown deck. Boros Haste is. Despite an admirable bandolier full of card-advantageous bullets, it isn't the creature deck most likely to out-last the opponent's fair game. "Grindin'" Grixis Vampires is.

Rather, StOmPy is an animal of opportunity. It fits into a metagame niche where opposing interaction makes certain assumptions and fights are lopsided because the other guy brought a 2/2 to a 4/4 fight. The second your non-White deck starts making Ray of Enfeeblement good, or your combat creatures merely trade, rather than consistently winning fights, you've lost the script.

Play Mono-Green while it's a metagame winner. But play it right!



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