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In Development – Picking Perfect Pods

Names are tricky things.

When we name something, that guides how we think about it. If I call a deck “U/W Delver,” you can reasonably assume it has some copies of [card]Delver of Secrets[/card] in it. More than that, however, you’ll also expect it to be a tempo deck featuring [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card], possibly [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card], and a whole host of cheap instants and sorceries.

So in the same vein, you’d tend to think that a [card]Birthing Pod[/card] deck would be pretty dependent on, you know, [card]Birthing Pod[/card]. You might even expect that to be the core point behind the Birthing Pod deck.

And that might actually be a pretty bad way to pick out the best Birthing Pod list for you. This week I’m going to take a look at what we think of as Birthing Pod decks, check in on what’s good right now and why, and look at what kind of deck we’re really picking out.

What’s a Birthing Pod deck?

It’s intuitive to us that most Birthing Pod decks feature Pods, a bunch of creatures, and a progression up the chain of converted mana costs to some final boss – often [card elesh norn, grand cenobite]Elesh Norn[/card] or a [card]Sun Titan[/card], these days.

But is that what we’re looking for – a sort of combo deck where it’s awesome when you hit the Pod and not so hot if you don’t?

That’s one possible approach, but I’m about to suggest that it’s not quite the right one.

How many paths to Pod?

If we look back at oldschool Cawblade decks from prior Standard, it’s clear that the equipment is a big deal. A typical Cawblade deck had two copies of [card]Sword of Feast and Famine[/card] and a single [card]Batterskull[/card], all plugging into four copies of [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card].

The upshot there was that you effectively had six chances to access a [card]Sword of Feast and Famine[/card], even before you factored in the ability to churn through your deck with [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card].

That’s kind of what we’d expect to see in a deck that really wants to hit a specific card – more ways to get there than just drawing the card.

In contrast, take a look at Max Tietze’s winning list from the SCG Invitational in Baltimore:

Naya Birthing Pod (as played by Max Tietze)

[deck]2 Avacyn’s Pilgrim
4 Birds of Paradise
3 Strangleroot Geist
1 Viridian Emissary
3 Blade Splicer
1 Daybreak Ranger
1 Fiend Hunter
4 Huntmaster of the Fells
1 Phyrexian Metamorph
1 Solemn Simulacrum
1 Acidic Slime
1 Archon of Justice
1 Geist-Honored Monk
1 Inferno Titan
1 Sun Titan
1 Wurmcoil Engine
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
4 Birthing Pod
3 Green Sun’s Zenith
1 Oblivion Ring
6 Forest
1 Mountain
1 Plains
4 Copperline Gorge
2 Gavony Township
4 Razorverge Thicket
3 Rootbound Crag
3 Sunpetal Grove
Sideboard
1 Acidic Slime
2 Hero of Bladehold
2 Oblivion Ring
2 Act of Aggression
2 Ancient Grudge
2 Celestial Purge
1 Surgical Extraction
1 Thrun, the Last Troll
2 Arc Trail[/deck]

Max’s list has exactly four ways to get a [card]Birthing Pod[/card] – by drawing the actual [card]Birthing Pod[/card] itself.

And about two thirds of the time, your opening hand won’t feature a [card]Birthing Pod[/card], and about half the time you won’t even draw into one in the first three turns.

So if this deck is “only good” when you get the Pod, then we’re in trouble.

It was an archetype that started with the letter J…

What happens if we remove the [card]Birthing Pod[/card]s from a deck like this?

After all, if we’re not even going to have those Pods much of the time, then we’ll want to know just how fragile the deck is without them.

Let’s take another look at Max’s deck, this time with the Birthing Pods removed:

Naya Birthing Pod (with Pods removed)

[deck]2 Avacyn’s Pilgrim
4 Birds of Paradise
3 Strangleroot Geist
1 Viridian Emissary
3 Blade Splicer
1 Daybreak Ranger
1 Fiend Hunter
4 Huntmaster of the Fells
1 Phyrexian Metamorph
1 Solemn Simulacrum
1 Acidic Slime
1 Archon of Justice
1 Geist-Honored Monk
1 Inferno Titan
1 Sun Titan
1 Wurmcoil Engine
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
3 Green Sun’s Zenith
1 Oblivion Ring
6 Forest
1 Mountain
1 Plains
4 Copperline Gorge
2 Gavony Township
4 Razorverge Thicket
3 Rootbound Crag
3 Sunpetal Grove
Sideboard
1 Acidic Slime
2 Hero of Bladehold
2 Oblivion Ring
2 Act of Aggression
2 Ancient Grudge
2 Celestial Purge
1 Surgical Extraction
1 Thrun, the Last Troll
2 Arc Trail[/deck]

With the Pods removed, some of the one-ofs in there look a little bit curious. After we get over that we see a deck that’s actually quite solid. It has six one-drop mana accelerators feeding into an attack wave of Geists, Splicers, Huntmasters, and eventual fatties.

We also see a deck that is rich with cards that are two-for-ones or better. Consider:

N-for-ones

[card]Strangleroot Geist[/card] [card]Viridian Emissary[/card] [card]Blade Splicer[/card] [card]Fiend Hunter[/card] (sometimes)
[card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card] [card]Solemn Simulacrum[/card] [card]Acidic Slime[/card] [card]Archon of Justice[/card] [card]Geist-Honored Monk[/card] [card]Inferno Titan[/card] [card]Sun Titan[/card] [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card] [card]Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite[/card]

The last deck we saw that was seriously packed to the gills with two-for-ones was Jund. It didn’t need to draw any key cards. Instead, it just two-for-oned the opponent over and over again until it won.

…and that’s what a “Pod” deck like Max’s can do, even if it never draws a single [card]Birthing Pod[/card].

Which is also, I’d suggest, why it’s still a good, solid deck.

I thought it was interesting that Brian Kibler, in describing the “Birthing Pod” deck he used to good success at the invitational, said that he almost ditched the Pods completely. He didn’t, because there was still good synergy between the Pods and the other cards in the deck.

But he did go down to two copies of Pod, which says a lot about what was most important in the deck.

Picking Pod Parts

My inclination is to keep all four copies of Pod in the deck – it’s still quite good. Overall, the rest of the deck is pretty much a Naya-light take on Jund, featuring a bunch of high-value green-white creatures with just a splash of red for those Huntmasters.

…and there are a couple options we’re seeing players go for in Pod lists (along with one they aren’t, but which I wanted to mention).

Green Sun’s Zenith is my favorite Mountain

Although we call it Naya Birthing Pod – there’s that naming issue again – there isn’t a lot of red in most Pod lists. Max’s deck features just five red cards in the main deck – those four Huntmasters and the lone [card]Inferno Titan[/card]. It also has six red cards in the sideboard, although two of them really don’t count as “red” exactly. Other Naya Pod decks may run a slightly different suite of cards, including Incinerates in the main or a few more red utility creatures, but they generally don’t lean on red the way a full, Alara-era Naya deck did.

Which is good, since the mana support for doing so is pretty dodgy.

Max’s deck runs a fairly typical mana base for Naya Pod lists. Here are the red-producing lands:

1 [card]Mountain[/card] 4 [card]Copperline Gorge[/card] 3 [card]Rootbound Crag[/card]

Eight lands making red mana is pretty sad stuff when you want to cast a four-drop requiring red. Fortunately, to those eight we add:

4 [card]Birds of Paradise[/card] 1 [card]Viridian Emissary[/card]

…although to be honest, the Emissary requires that the Pods be online to really work in the mana-fixing role, so I’m loathe to count it toward our total. So let’s say that leaves us with twelve red sources, four of which can be killed by [card]Gut Shot[/card].

Not so hot.

The white situation is a little better, since Pod decks typically add two to four copies of [card]Avacyn’s Pilgrim[/card] to increase the base of white mana sources.

But we’d really like to be able to cast some Huntmasters, and that’s where [card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card] comes in, after a fashion.

Each Zenith effectively says “for one more mana, I’m a Huntmaster that doesn’t require red to cast.” So, even discounting for the tutoring aspect, it effectively ups the “red source” tally in your deck by one for each copy of Zenith. Since it also ups the Huntmaster count, that’s a double whammy.

Seen in that light, Max’s deck has a genuinely respectably fifteen red sources alongside a pleasing seven copies of Huntmaster. As long as we can accept occasionally paying a one-mana premium for the privilege, this setup makes our access to Huntmaster a whole lot better.

…and, to be clear, Huntmaster is a very good card in this deck. The immediate two-for-one aspect is nice. After that, it generates a pressure for your opponent – especially a Delver opponent – to play their spells at times that are awkward and not of their choosing.

Zenith also plays well with both the base and the “Pod spine” cards in the deck. Obviously it can grab a mana dork or a Geist, in addition to what is likely to be its main job of recruiting Huntmasters. It can also grab some of the same singletons you may have been loading into the deck for Birthing Pod:

[draft]Daybreak Ranger
Viridian Corrupter
Thrun, the Last Troll
Tree of Redemption
Acidic Slime
Vorapede[/draft]

…and one other card, which I’ll talk about next.

The Wolf Run plan

Although it’s not in our sample list above, [card]Primeval Titan[/card] is a very solid addition at the six-mana slot as a Pod or Zenith target….and if you have tutorable access to [card]Primeval Titan[/card], you might as well include it second favorite land after Valakut and pack a single [card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card].

When I first tried jamming the Wolf Run plan into a Birthing Pod deck, I went for the whole deal – [card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card] and [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card]. However, given the general shakiness of Naya Pod’s mana, including Nexus generally meant cutting a [card]Gavony Township[/card]. Overall, the Township is more important, since you’re going to win the vast majority of your games via combined creature damage rather than by coming over the top with an angry Inkmoth.

As you’re probably well aware at this point, the primary value of the Wolf Run in most cases is going to be to let your creature of choice punch through a wall of spirits or soldiers to take down your opponent or their good buddy [card sorin, lord of innistrad]Sorin[/card]. In that light, it’s worth a single slot in a deck that’s going to run [card]Primeval Titan[/card], since your opponent suddenly has to choose between killing the creature you’re about to Wolf Run up and killing [card]Primeval Titan[/card] (which also has trample).

MetLife

The utter lack of this combo as a central component of Birthing Pod decks speaks to the fact that it’s too shaky to regularly pull off in practice.

Just in case you’re lost on how this works, since it’s probably been off your radar for a while:

Get [card]Suture Priest[/card] on the battlefield
Get [card]Leonin Relic-Warder[/card] on the battlefield
Cast [card]Phyrexian Metamorph[/card], copying Relic-Warder
Use Metamorph’s “warder” ability to exile itself
Metamorph immediately returns from exile…and exiles itself again
Repeat as much as you want, gaining 1 life each time

I’ve tinkered with including this option in Naya Pod decks as a sort of “incidental” win condition. It has the advantage that two of the three cards aren’t bad on their own – you might play Relic-Warder as a foil against annoying equipment, and you frequently play Metamorph as at least a one-of in Pod decks.

[card]Suture Priest[/card] used to be a strictly poor card outside of this combo. These days it’s kind of oddly useful, since it converts each of those annoying soldiers and spirits into life loss for your opponent. It combines well with normal attacking pressure, forcing your opponent to lose life if they want to chump block your creatures.

Of course, it’s still largely a 1/1 for two mana that is the third leg of a vulnerable infinite life combo, so I still wouldn’t recommend going all-in on this combo in a Pod deck.

But it might be worth a single slot.

Curses are hurting words

Take one more look at that sample list. No need to scroll – here it is again:

[deck]2 Avacyn’s Pilgrim
4 Birds of Paradise
3 Strangleroot Geist
1 Viridian Emissary
3 Blade Splicer
1 Daybreak Ranger
1 Fiend Hunter
4 Huntmaster of the Fells
1 Phyrexian Metamorph
1 Solemn Simulacrum
1 Acidic Slime
1 Archon of Justice
1 Geist-Honored Monk
1 Inferno Titan
1 Sun Titan
1 Wurmcoil Engine
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
4 Birthing Pod
3 Green Sun’s Zenith
1 Oblivion Ring
6 Forest
1 Mountain
1 Plains
4 Copperline Gorge
2 Gavony Township
4 Razorverge Thicket
3 Rootbound Crag
3 Sunpetal Grove
Sideboard
1 Acidic Slime
2 Hero of Bladehold
2 Oblivion Ring
2 Act of Aggression
2 Ancient Grudge
2 Celestial Purge
1 Surgical Extraction
1 Thrun, the Last Troll
2 Arc Trail[/deck]

The main deck includes twenty-eight creatures.

Ten of them can’t survive with a [card]Curse of Death’s Hold[/card] on the battlefield.

What’s really insidious about this effect is that it undercuts your ability to start a Pod chain. You can’t get any of your one drops to stick, and the majority of the three drops in most builds – that is, [card]Blade Splicer[/card]s – also won’t stick.

Although you may be tempted to rely on [card]Acidic Slime[/card] to solve this problem, I think there’s a good case to be made for running a couple copies of [card]Ray of Revelation[/card] in the sideboard. The cheapness and instant-ness of Ray makes it a solid choice against those opponents who are going to be Cursing a third of your team out of existence. You also get a second shot at solving the problem if they [card]Mana Leak[/card] your first one out of existence.

Jund in Pod clothing

Whether or not you take the advice on Ray or choose to include the Kessig kill, I think the fundamental basis of a sound Pod deck at the moment is to build a deck that can win a tournament even if you never draw a Pod. Something with a solid base of N-for-1s and the mana-relieving nature of Green Sun’s Zenith will be a pretty good hammer in a format where you need to bring some kind of card advantage to the table, unless you’re just hoping to keep your opponent on the back foot with the Delver suit of tempo tools.

So if you’re going to play Pods, first ask yourself, “How will this deck run without them?” Then build from there.

***
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