One of the best things about testing with Team ChannelFireball: The Pantheon is being part of the search for the latest Sam Black special. Sam finds ways to make things playable that don’t seem remotely so, and tier one strategies no one else can even see. Things start far, far crazier than the decks that get played. This build began as a Human deck with Xathrid Necromancer and Cartel Aristocrat powering out Return to the Ranks backed by Dictate of Heliod. That did a lot of cool things, but it really paid off in that it allowed Sam to find a shell that could handle the field, despite playing many cards that don’t do what you need them to do in Standard: Win games on their own, and do so quickly. Anything less gets you run over by Pack Rat, Thassa, God of the Sea, and Sphinx’s Revelation.
The true theme of the deck is cheap threats that can take over the game. If Pack Rat goes unanswered, everyone knows you can win games while casting only one spell. The same isn’t true as often for Brimaz, King of Oreskos or Precinct Captain, but it’s true more often than it looks—leave those creatures alone and the incremental advantage can quickly put the game out of reach, or against control force a reaction without having to dump too many cards on the table. Obzedat, Ghost Council is the classic heavy-hitter; you’d like Blood Baron of Vizkopa but you need to be able to target your own men. Desecration Demon and Soldier of the Pantheon are more traditional threats that smooth out your curve and cause many decks nightmares.
Sometimes your threats need a little help. Against Courser of Kruphix and Sylvan Caryatid, often your base creatures are a little too small to get the job done, so that’s why you’re packing Ajani, Caller of the Pride and Herald of Torment. Together with Obzedat, Ghost Council, that gives the deck a surprising amount of reach even without a Pack Rat, and you still have the free Pack Rat games. You also get to protect your creatures with Ephemeral Shields, which is usually free thanks to the tokens from Precinct Captain and Brimaz, King of Oreskos.
The rest is the standard Thoughtseize and removal package. Bile Blight needs to be in your removal mix to deal with enemy Pack Rats and often gives you tons of value in other ways as well, and Hero’s Downfall is the most reliable and flexible removal spell in the format. Even against control you’re not unhappy with it, it’s vital to kill Jace, Architect of Thought and sometimes Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, and sometimes they board in Archangel of Thune or even Nightveil Specter. With removal, discard, the best supplemental creatures, and protection for your Rats that you can cast for no mana, you play the best Pack Rat games of anyone when your mana cooperates.
The mana is what makes this deck possible. Caves of Koilos and Mana Confluence supplement Temple of Silence and Godless Shrine to ensure that you can play cards that cost both double white and double black without too many problems, while Pack Rat and Mutavault mitigate the risk of flooding. It isn’t pretty, and it is rather painful. There are games where you’ll take enough damage from your mana base to put yourself in the single digits, but the cards are so efficient that often your opponent can’t touch you at all, and you can slow down to save pain when you need to.
The deck also gets an excellent sideboard. You have a core that almost never leaves the deck, but also a few slots that are easy to swap out for better cards. Ephemeral Shields, Ajani, Caller of the Pride, and Herald of Torment often become either discard or removal to help deal with whatever your opponent is up to, or you can swap your removal out for better removal or for discard. Blue decks have lots of trouble with Banisher Priest and Banishing Light, as well as Deicide, making it very difficult to stick Master of Waves or Thassa, God of the Sea. Control decks get their hands ripped apart by Duress. Blood Baron of Vizkopa gives you the most well-positioned creature in the format for when it is at its best, usually as a straight swap for Obzedat, Ghost Council. Occasionally you take out all your fives (such as against blue) so you can lower your curve when it is safe to do so. Lifebane Zombie gives you protection against Blood Baron of Vizkopa and free extra advantage against true green and white decks. Against aggressive decks, you can bring in removal that will often effectively cost zero in Devouring Light to help you catch up and lower your curve, and both Precinct Captain and Brimaz, King of Oreskos are excellent at holding down the board, sometimes on their own.
Going forward, there are a few flexible slots to use for tuning. No doubt some players will reject Ephemeral Shields in favor of more removal; more testing against aggressive decks will tell us if you can do that without getting yourself into trouble there. You might want to trim or add a reach or removal spell as well, or try other mixes of either one. With so many red and green decks showing up at the Pro Tour, there are now important matchups where you can likely improve by trimming cards from other situations.
Like most Sam decks, you get a tuning sideboard rather than a series of hateful cards. When sideboarding, you’re building a better deck by improving your mana curve, picking the right mix of creatures, removal, and discard for what your opponent will be up to, and improving the matchups of your cards against theirs. A lot of this is how your opponent plays the matchup—you have the tools to deal with anything. If you see your opponent not respecting a card in game two, you can board it in for game three, and if they’re playing around it, maybe there’s now something better. Ephemeral Shields and Devouring Light especially change in value depending on your opponents’ instincts.