A while ago, I wrote an article about what each tribe would need to compete in Standard. Now, with the full Rivals of Ixalan spoiler already out, we get to see how they fared. This will be a series of four articles, one on each tribe, where I go over the tribal cards from Rivals of Ixalan and try to analyze what the best build of that tribe will be, and whether it can compete in Standard or not.
Let’s start with Pirates!
When I wrote about Pirates, I said they were looking for a payoff. There were good Pirate cards, but no real reason to dedicate to Pirates, as the rewards weren’t there—having one Pirate was often the equivalent of having five.
It seems that the “you need to have one Pirate” theme continues, but there might be enough of those cards now to make sure you play a critical mass of them. Take, for example, Daring Buccaneer. You cannot simply play it hoping for “incidental synergy” because it’s horrible if you don’t have a Pirate. Decks with four other Pirates will not want it, but decks with twenty other Pirates absolutely will.
Let’s take a look at the good Pirates from the new set:
When Pirates were first released, I had Skyship Plunderer in a lot of my decks, even though I had basically no counters to “proliferate.” Warkite Marauder is a much better version of that, and I think it’ll see play in more aggressive versions of Pirates, since those are the ones interested in a baseline 2/1 flyer.
The ability won’t always come up, but when it does it’s very strong. Its main use is going to be to discourage blocking—it cannot stop them outright if you have a ground creature attacking, but it makes sure that chump blocking is all they’re going to do. Past that, it serves as a way to kill creatures that would otherwise be tough to deal with. With Warkite Marauder, you can use Moment of Craving and similar cards to kill anything. You can also attack, make Hazoret a 0/1, and then kill it with Fatal Push once it’s no longer indestructible. Finally, you can turn off abilities for a turn so that they cannot be used on defense, such as Merfolk Mistbinder.
Dire Fleet Poisoner
I quite like Dire Fleet Poisoner. First, it has flash, which means that you can pass with untapped mana up, and if your opponent does nothing worth countering or removing, you can develop your board. As a deathtouch, flash creature, it serves as a pseudo-removal spell that can deal with big Longtusk Cubs, Dinosaurs, and Bristling Hydras. Then there’s the second part of the card, which is to serve as a combat trick.
Pirates are notoriously small—they have good enters-the-battlefield abilities and leave behind small bodies—so giving them +1/+1 and deathtouch on attack is huge, because it means that you can trade the small bodies for the bigger bodies your opponent is playing. The mere presence of Dire Fleet Poisoner is going to make people play differently against Pirate decks, and you often won’t even have to play it to get the desired effect because your opponent is not going to block.
I also like how this interacts with menace cards, particularly Fathom Fleet Captain. They are forced to double block it, and then deathtouch can kill both creatures.
This card will probably see play as another 2/1 attacker for 1 in mono-black decks (you can now play effectively 16 of those!), but it’s unclear to me whether it will see play in Pirates. My inclination is that it won’t because most super aggressive Pirates decks will be heavy red and won’t be able to cast this turn 1, but if there is a super aggro black Pirates list, then this will definitely be an inclusion.
Red had been suffering for its lack of playable 1-drops since Falkenrath Gorger rotated, and Daring Buccaneer could be the solution for that. Red has always had the worst 1-drops since it’s the one that makes the best use of them, and if you can turn Daring Buccaneer on consistently then it’s going to be very hard for some decks to deal with.
I think Daring Buccaneer will be at the forefront of a new build of Pirates: Mono-Red Aggro Pirates. It will be similar to Mono-Red Aggro, but with Pirates! It’ll be more creature-based and have a much lower curve, eschewing cards like Glorybringer and Chandra for more 1-drops.
Dire Fleet Daredevil
This card is very hard for me to evaluate. Obviously, it’s no Snapcaster Mage, but is it good enough? A 2/1 first strike body for 2 is passable, and if you’re drawing a card off it, then that’s an amazing rate. It reminds me of Abbot of Keral Keep in the sense that it’s a card you don’t mind playing as a 2-drop but that has bigger uses later in the game.
The big question is probably “what are you stealing?” Against other red decks, you can get Shocks, Magma Sprays, and Harnessed Lightnings. Against black decks, you can get Fatal Push. Against green decks, you can get Attune. Against blue you might have to settle for an expensive draw spell, and against white you’re probably not getting anything. As a whole, it’ll be much stronger in creature mirrors, as those decks tend to have a lot of cheap removal and it’ll be a 2-for-1 much more consistently, on top of having a body that can brickwall a lot of attackers. To me, it seems like the ability is a nice bonus, but not enough to get you to play the card by itself. If you’re a deck that wants a 2/1 first striker Pirate for 2, then Dire Fleet Daredevil will be great, but you don’t want to use it just for the ability.
This isn’t a haymaker, but it’s a solid roleplayer. At 1/1 haste for 1 it’s very unexciting, but the ability to throw itself at anything instantly—often serving as a pseudo-removal spell—can be very relevant. When you have a Bomat Courier and a Daring Buccaneer in play and your opponent has just played a Dire Fleet Daredevil, being able to cash your 1-drop for 1 point of damage is going to be huge.
Dire Fleet Neckbreaker
+2/+0 is huge, but there’s a ton of competition at 4 in those colors (particularly in red), and I suspect Dire Fleet Neckbreaker isn’t as good as the other options, though it could be an option if you’re a B/R Pirates deck that feels like they can’t empty their hand enough to make use of Hazoret.
Storm Fleet Sprinter
26 guaranteed damage a turn starting immediately for 3 mana is actually a pretty good rate in my mind. Is it better than Ahn-Crop Crasher? It’s hard to say—it’s very different. Crasher gets damage in much quicker, since it stops a creature from blocking anything, but Storm-Fleet Sprinter is much better when the board is not in your favor. It’s also a Pirate, which can be relevant. If there’s a U/R Aggro Pirates deck, this will probably see play.
So, that’s what we have to work with. What do we do with it?
The first Pirate deck I want to build is Mono-Red Aggro with a much lower curve than we’re used to—more similar to the pre-rotation one. Right now we have sixteen 1-drops I believe are worth playing, and you add that to the direct damage that you can get from lands and from spells and you have yourself a very fast deck. I think this style of deck cannot add a second color because you’re going to be very red-heavy, so the best way to build it is just as fast-red with a touch of Pirates.
The goal of this deck is to play multiple 1-drops and rush your opponent. Per Frank Karsten’s article, with 13 other Pirates, you have an 85.5% chance to have a second one in your hand if you want to play a turn-1 Buccaneer. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s good enough. I think Earthshaker Khenra is a better card than Dire Fleet Daredevil, but if you cut those two you get to 80.5%, and I don’t know if that’s an acceptable number or not. I’ll start with the Daredevils and then, if they’re bad, I’ll switch to more Khenras or a 4th Kari Zev.
Mono-Red decks these days have been a bit slower, with Rampaging Ferocidon and Harsh Mentor. I don’t think this is what you want here—you want the Falter abilities of Crasher and Earthshaker Khenra because you’re just trying to burst your opponent down. You can also try Captain Lannery Storm, but I think that’s too inferior to Ahn-Crop Crasher to justify, even if it is a Pirate.
Consuming Fervor is an experimental card, but I think it can be better than a removal spell in this style of deck with so many 1-drops since it deals a lot more damage than a Shock in the long run. I would like to test it more, and wouldn’t be surprised if the right number ended up being 4 or 0. If you don’t like it, simply replace it with another Shock and Lightning Strike.
I think this is a legit deck that can become a tier 1 strategy in Standard.
The other Pirate strategies are sketchier. I don’t think the mana can realistically support B/R Aggro or U/R Aggro—those will end up being simply worse versions of Red Pirates. Simply put, there are already enough good aggressive Pirate cards in red alone that there’s no reason to make your mana worse and to give up the damage of Ramunap Ruins and Sunscorched Desert. I could easily build a 70-card Mono-Red Aggro Pirates deck, so why would I play blue or black in it?
The other alternative is U/B. U/B gained two new 2-drops and a 1-drop, and can now adopt a slightly more aggressive build because of that. I would try two different styles:
U/B More Aggressive
This is an aggro deck, but with some disruption added in. Between Freebooter and Dispersal you should be able to navigate Settle the Wreckages and Fumigates, and Dreamcaller Siren should help racing. Since it’s very creature-based and you have 1-drops in both colors, you can use 4 Unclaimed Territory.
One card that could be interesting in a deck like this is Curious Obsession. You have enough flyers for it, and you want to be attacking every turn anyway. +1/+1 and drawing an extra card per turn is no joke, especially when you can draw into removal or countermagic. With Siren Stormtamer, Kitesail Freebooter, and Lookout’s Dispersal, you can protect the enchanted creature very well.
To play Curious Obsession, you probably have to make the deck more heavy blue:
U/B Curious Obsession
Now, a more controllish build:
U/B More Controllish
This is a different take—it’s much less aggressive, and instead relies on a series of powerful, must-kill creatures to eventually exhaust your opponent’s removal spells and eventually take over.
Verdict: I think Pirates mostly got what it needed, but perhaps not in strong enough numbers. I believe that Mono-Red Pirates will be a strong contender in Standard, probably a tier 1 deck and potentially a deck that forces other players to change how they build their decks to combat it. Because Mono-Red Pirates is so strong and has so many options already, and because red mostly wants to be aggressive, there will be no B/R or U/R Pirates. I’m more skeptical about the U/B builds, but they’re also more customizable to the field you expect, and their initial list is much less likely to be correct. I imagine they’ll initially be tier 2–tier 3 and then might either become better as the format evolves or fade into obscurity as they have now.