One of the most distinctive things about Pauper which allows so many creature-based strategies to thrive is its lack of board sweepers and mass removal. Sure, there are things like Seismic Shudder, Shrivel, and maybe even Echoing Decay to some extent. But there is nothing that comes remotely close to a Wrath of God that can decisively shut down a would-be onslaught. It is this feature of the format that underlies the flourishing of the many aggressive creature-based strategies. This opens a unique window to competitively attack the metagame.
Pestilence gives us a way to Crypt Rats the board each turn, which completely hoses any opposing creature-based strategies, and to chip away at the opponent’s life total each turn, which means that it also acts as a win condition to a degree. Of course, Pestilence will require some work to do both of these things efficiently. This article will explore the most efficient ways of using Pestilence, how these elements can be worked into a single deck, and how this deck can be situated in the current metagame.
Why Life Gain Isn’t Useless
I’m sure that everyone has heard someone at least once say, “Your life total doesn’t matter as long as you haven’t lost yet. Being at 1 is the same as being at 30.” When running any deck built around Pestilence, this idea needs to be completely forgotten, and we’ll quickly see that not managing your life total throughout the game is a quick way to bring about disaster.
First, on a much more general level, for a deck that is trying to establish a particular game state or midgame goal, bolstering your life total increases the amount of time you have to do whatever it is you’re trying to do. This is particularly the case against aggressive decks that have a very strong early game but one that deteriorates as the game progresses. So while 20 life and 25 life may seem to be the same thing, remember that an opponent will have to take more swings or cast more spells in order to deal that extra 5 points of damage. By forcing an opponent to take more time to do what he is trying to accomplish, you have more time to accomplish your own goals. Of course this does not apply to decks that do not aggressively push damage, such as any Cloudpost or any control variants, and you are still down one card with basic life gain spells. However, the issue of card advantage is not a large concern for two reasons. First, we are primarily discussing incidental life gain, or cards which are fulfilling some other purpose aside from gaining life. Second, there is an element of the end justifying the means in the role of life gain. For example, if the goal of the deck is to land an Enchantment which will destroy all of your opponent’s creatures and destroy any other creatures he plays, the value gained from such a position more than makes up for losing a card or two in making that game state possible.
Secondly — much more specifically related to Pestilence — is understanding how Pestilence relates to your life total and what is required for it to actually win you the game. Unlike Pestilence’s creature-like counterpart Crypt Rats, which only deals its damage in one large hit or incrementally (because of its X-cost ability), Pestilence only deals damage 1 point at a time. So supposing I had 6 life and my opponent had 7, and supposing that I activated Crypt Rats for 7, the game would result in a tie, since after Crypt Rats resolves, I would be at -1 and my opponent at 0. However, in this same situation with Pestilence, I would lose the game, since after the 6th Pestilence activation had resolved, I would be at 0 and my opponent at 1. What this means is that managing your life total throughout the game is absolutely essential because a low life total restricts the number of times you can activate Pestilence and also prevents Pestilence from acting as a win condition. What this means is that you should also ensure that you are capable of making your life total at least 1 above your opponent’s (whether this is by reducing his or increasing yours). Also, and more importantly, we must be aware of the fact that a low life total will prevent us from properly controlling the board, since a creature with toughness above our life total cannot be killed by Pestilence without also causing us to lose the game. This is not to say that it is the end of the world when a Goblin Cohort gets through for 2, but only that allowing your life total to get dangerously low can cause considerable problems, since having 1 life and having 20 life are not in any way the same thing in match ups with or against Pestilence.
Making the most of Pestilence
The first consideration is that in order to be effective, Pestilence needs actually to stay active since when it’s destroyed, our board position and win condition go with it. Therefore, keeping a creature on the field at the end of each turn becomes absolutely essential. In doing this, we must also be aware of the fact that Pestilence hits all creatures and players, so we are not only looking for creatures which can fill the standard creature role of blocking and building board position, but also for ones that will not be destroyed once Pestilence starts plaguing the field. Ideally, we want creatures that are good on their own, but even better with Pestilence, as opposed to ones which do nothing but keep Pestilence online. Fortunately for us advocates of disease and famine, there are several ways to go about this:
The first class of creatures which can support Pestilence are those which are immune to the damage dealt by Pestilence, which include anything with protection from black.
The standout card in this category is Guardian of the Guildpact, which serves so many roles in the deck. It is, on its own, an outstanding card to which many decks in Pauper have absolutely no answers and must simply work around. This is useful because it acts as a huge deterrent to many of the pressures aggressive strategies use to race the Pestilence deck, and also buys considerable time in setting up Pestilence. Furthermore, Guardian compliments Pestilence quite nicely by causing a dilemma for a number of decks. If the opponent chooses to not play any more creatures (and assuming he doesn’t have a small army already), his clock is considerably halted, since it is difficult to push damage past an unkillable 2/3 blocker. On the other hand, if the opponent does try to race Guardian by playing more creatures, it makes the board sweeping effectiveness of Pestilence that much greater. In addition to this, by being incredibly difficult to be removed, Guardian makes an online Pestilence that much more difficult to be removed. This is an obvious but important point. Unlike some of the other options which we will soon see, your opponent cannot get rid of a resolved Pestilence with a Lightning Bolt or Snap directed at the last creature on the board. And, finally, Guardian, by being the powerhouse that he is, allows a way to steadily damage the opponent and bring his life total below ours, which, as we have seen, is of great importance.
Other cards which would fall under this category would be Obsidian Acolyte, Order of Leitbur, and Disciple of Grace. I do not particularly like Acolyte in Pestilence lists because of how little it does for this deck aside from supporting Pestilence. Order of Leitbur is a solid choice because it blocks with first strike and can also push through for considerable damage after we have control of the board. Disciple of Grace is also a good choice in that, while it fills the role of a creature to keep Pestilence online, it never becomes dead weight when you already have a creature to serve that function since you can cycle it to find something more useful.
A second thing which can qualify something as an ideal Pestilence-support creature is something like Wall of Hope, which essentially negates the damage dealt by Pestilence to you. This ability allows us to completely circumvent the problem of having less life than an opponent, since we gain life after each Pestilence activation, effectively making Pestilence a one-sided effect. It is important to note that Pestilence can still destroy Wall of Hope if activated three times in a turn, and also that Wall of Hope will not protect you when you are at 1 life, since you will lose before Wall of Hope’s trigger has a chance to resolve. In addition to shielding you from Pestilence, Wall of Hope is a huge asset against early pushes from multiple creatures, since it effectively blocks two creatures (gaining much of the life lost to whatever creature goes unblocked). This also puts the opponent in a dilemma similar to that of Guardian of the Guildpact in that the only way to race it for most decks is to cast more creature spells. Dromad Purebred also works well by fulfilling the same functions with a relevant 5 toughness but suffers severely from costing too much.
And finally, remember that Pestilence will survive even if it is your opponent with the creature. This is means that any type of Pacifism effect compliments Pestilence nicely, since it will nullify problematic creatures which cannot readily be destroyed with Pestilence such as Ulamogs Crusher or Spire Golem, while still making sure that Pestilence does not destroy itself at the end of the turn. There are certainly too many of these effects to provide a comprehensive list, but some candidates include Curse of Chains, Soul Link (which effectively negates the damage the creature does and also makes it a Wall of Hope), Pillory of the Sleepless, and Faiths Fetters.
And as a final point on this issue, remember that Pestilence checks the battlefield for a creature at the beginning of the end step, so you are able to destroy creatures during an end step and still have Pestilence online during the following turn. In these cases, if your turn follows, you can simply play another creature to keep your Pestilence around when it checks for one at the end of the turn. Conversely, if you use Pestilence to destroy everything during your end step, it frequently prevents your opponent from playing a creature on the following turn since doing so would keep your Pestilence active.
A Framework for the Pestilence Deck
As previously mentioned, Pestilence is excellent at sweeping the creatures from an opponent’s board and threatens to destroy any and all creatures he or she plays. Obviously this is effective against any deck that plans on winning through creatures, since it essentially hoses any opposing path to victory. This means that these decks win against Pestilence by racing and winning before Pestilence hits the board. Therefore, our strategy against these decks is rather simple: Make the game last long enough to resolve Pestilence and take control of the board. Thus, the goal of much of the deck is to stretch the clock our opponent can put you on as much as possible. This is achieved quite easily through incidental life gain, which has value with Pestilence for reasons mentioned earlier. Chump blockers and typical removal also go a long way in making sure the game lasts long enough to be ridden with plague and disease.
The bigger problem Pestilence faces is the control deck. Against the aggro deck, Pestilence thrives on controlling the tempo of the game until it can shut out the opponent by resolving Pestilence and stopping him or her from playing any more creatures. The problem with a control deck is that what Pestilence tries to accomplish does very little in interacting with it. Pestilence is great against a field full of Goblins, but considerably less awesome against a Rolling Thunder for 35. In addition to this, because the Pestilence deck is meant to take more punches than it delivers, it does not have a reliable way to be aggressive enough to win before the control deck can stabilize. Therefore, in building the Pestilence deck, it is important to include some way to interact with control decks in order to have a fighting chance and prevent being completely blown out by them.
Next I would like to look at a deck I have been having a decent amount of success with in recent Daily Events.
WB Pestilence by ThePolkaMan
The function of many of these cards has already been covered in previous sections of this article, and I would like to instead focus on the cards that have not yet been covered.
Aven Riftwatcher helps immensely in holding down the board by being the only creature in the deck that can block flyers, giving you 4 life, and being able to attack for a few points of damage in the air. Each of these things is something which the deck wants to be doing early and often, making it a great addition to the deck.
Augur of Skulls is used primarily as a tool against control decks, which also acts as a blocker with regenerate. It is also worthwhile to acknowledge the point that while these are intended primarily for the control matchup, they are still incredibly strong when played early against both aggro and Storm, since you are still cutting away at the opponent’s resources, which reduces the amount of pressure he can place on you.
Dimir House Guard is a solid choice because it can search for Pestilence and Guardian of the Guildpact, which are by far the most powerful cards in the deck.
The final point of note is the Grim Harvest-Disturbed Burial package in the deck, which fulfills different roles based on the matchup. Against control, these cards act as a way to gain card advantage and not be completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of cards the control deck will draw. Ideally, Grim Harvest can recycle an Augur of Skulls to apply significant pressure to the control deck. Against aggro, these provide an endless supply of chump blockers and life gain to act as a wall through which most decks cannot conjure enough resources to break. Essentially, the Grim Harvest package acts as another way to stay alive until Pestilence can be set up to win the game.
Because the main deck is already incredibly well-suited toward beating aggro, the sideboard is entirely devoted to other matchups. Fortunately, sideboarding for this deck is quite simple since you are typically not sideboarding (as is the case against aggro decks) or sideboarding in mostly everything (as is the case against Storm or control). In the following section, I will give a more detailed account of how the sideboard works in each particular matchup.
I would like to conclude by briefly looking at the how Pestilence compares to various decks of the format and how the matchups go.
The Good Ones
This matchup is incredibly easy since most variants have no way to apply consistent pressure, and most decks are completely unprepared to face any type of life gain. After boarding, this matchup gets even easier since Prismatic Strands acts as a double Counterspell, using it in response to any burn spell. In addition, because the burn deck’s resources exist almost exclusively in the opponent’s hand, siding in hand disruption is incredibly effective.
This matchup is really ideal for this deck, since it interacts with Goblins favorably in so many ways. Goblins thrives on being able to push through for early damage very quickly, so gaining life to take away this edge really makes things difficult for the Goblins player. An early Wall of Hope puts Goblins behind by at least two turns since it is essentially blocking two creatures. It is also very difficult for Goblins to deal with any of the higher-end cards of the deck since it has no way of dealing with Guardian of the Guildpact, and Pestilence can sweep the opponent’s board very easily because Goblins focuses on quantity of creatures rather than quality, and as a result plays a bunch of low-toughness creatures. After boarding, Echoing Decay and Prismatic Strands go a long way in winning an already-favorable matchup. Strands is especially effective against Goblin Bushwhacker, which is the Goblins player’s best tool against this deck (because of the sheer amount of damage it can allow the little army to push through).
Unfortunately, I have very little experience against this deck when playing Pestilence, but I think Pestilence is still heavily favored. You should quickly see a trend in all of the favorable matchup analyses in that the idea is to survive long enough to activate Pestilence and take control of the game. Stompy operates in a similar way to Goblins but instead favors creature quality over quantity. It is important to be aware of the fact that Stompy decks can respond to Pestilence triggers with pump spells (such as Groundswell and other similar things) which can save a creature, so it is best to use Pestilence in situations where the opponent cannot gain additional value from the pump spell by attacking with a pumped creature. All in all, this matchup and the sideboarding options for it are nearly identical to the Goblins matchup, since all the opponent is doing is trying to push through a ton of damage quickly in a slightly different way. It is important to be aware of the fact that Stompy will have some tools in the sideboard to destroy Pestilence (such as Naturalize), but because of how infrequently the Stompy player will actually draw the card compares favorably to how frequently our deck can find and play Pestilence. Even so, Prismatic Strands and Echoing Decay are incredibly effective in the side.
This matchup is the most difficult of the aggro decks simply because of the high toughness of many of its creatures, such as Kor Skyfisher and Razor Golem, because of the fact that most of the creatures have flying or have 3 power and are colorless, so Wall of Hope and Guardian of the Guildpact do virtually nothing in holding down the board, because WW’s use of Guardian of the Guildpact, and because Kor Santifiers can make occasional maindeck appearances and catch us completely off-guard. Despite these things, a Pestilence on board for just a few turns still is a major obstacle for the deck. Aven Riftwatcher is also the strongest early game play in this matchup, since it gains life and blocks the otherwise problematic flyers very well. Curse of Chains in this matchup is also best held for Razor Golem or opposing Guardians, since they are by far the most difficult creatures in the deck to get rid of. As with the other matchups, Prismatic Strands and Echoing Decay are strong options for the sideboard.
The idea of our deck having an advantage because it can completely shut out creatures once it establishes itself applies here as well; however, this matchup is slightly more difficult because it can kill faster than the other aggro decks and also because we cannot interact with it through life gain. The difference in playing against Infect and playing against the other aggro decks is that in other matchups, it is acceptable to take early hits in order to consistently play a Pestilence around the middle of the game; however, against Infect, this is not appropriate, because without ways to interact with it very early (particularly through Curse of Chains and Journey to nowhere), it is very likely that the game will never last long enough for Pestilence to have a chance to do anything. Sideboarding Prismatic Strands and Echoing Decay are much more essential in this matchup than the others because of the increased importance of the early game. And, as a point to avoid a frustrating and embarrassing loss (as I have done several times), remember that trample damage can still be assigned over Guardian of the Guildpact. Finally, it’s worth noting, too, that even though life gain is less useful against Infect, an Infect player’s early advantage does not make winning the game with Pestilence later any more difficult (since no life loss from attacking creatures would have been suffered).
Storms (Grapeshot and Warrens versions)
I know this may be a bit surprising, but from my experience this matchup is generally in favor of the Pestilence deck. Certainly, the Storm decks will have their nuts-draws where they make a few million Goblin tokens before your first Upkeep, but that is just the nature of playing against Storm. The first game is usually brutal since Pestilence is a slow-paced deck that likes to take punches to reach the late game in good shape, and Storm is a deck that likes to win by hitting fast and hard and being as non-interactive as possible. The only chance for Pestilence Game 1, which is not completely out of question, is to last until Pestilence can shut off the Empty the Warrens plan (since 1/1 tokens are useless against it) or to hit an early Augur of Skulls and reuse it with Grim Harvest. Occasionally, the life gain can throw off the opponent’s math in planning a Grapeshot and cause the opponent to run out of steam, but this is much more an oddity than anything else. The strength of this matchup lies in the fact that the entire sideboard is dedicated to it, and in Games 2 and 3 we will have more than enough ways to interact with it.
Mono-U Aggro (Delver Blue)
The difference between this matchup and the other aggro decks is that Delver (by which I mean the deck and not the card) has a midgame plan of countering whatever its opponent tries to do. This makes resolving Pestilence very difficult, especially if the opponent expects it (and he or she most certainly will in Games 2 and 3). On the other hand, if Pestilence actually resolves, it is incredibly strong against the deck, since it is, at heart, a creature-based aggro deck. More often than not, this game comes down to resolving a Pestilence. Grim Harvest is actually quite useful in this regard since casting it during the opponent’s end step can force him to tap out, allowing you to freely resolve Pestilence. Also, remember that Pestilence shuts off Spellstutter Sprite since it can destroy all Faeries on the board before the Sprite resolves and counters whatever it is targeting. From the sideboard, Duress is quite useful since it allows you to force-discard countermagic to safely cast Pestilence, though Wrench Mind is less useful since most players will gladly pitch whatever they have in order to hold onto countermagic. All in all, this match is a coin flip, and really comes down to whether or not Pestilence resolves.
In all honesty, this matchup is virtually unwinnable since UR Cloudpost interacts with everything we can hope to use to win by Capsize-ing it, can prevent us from grinding it out by bouncing Glimmerpost, and is not affected in the slightest by life gain or Pestilence. Unfortunately, this is the cost of having such favorable matches in all other areas. Because the Pestilence deck focuses so heavily on shutting out creature-based decks, it sacrifices ways to deal with decks that do not rely on creatures. At best, the Pestilence deck can hope to win by recycling an Augur of Skulls, but the Post decks will often have enough draw power to still carry on and eventually find an answer to it. Even after sideboarding, the most relevant card is Duress, which can target Capsize (the key reason this matchup is so difficult), but this is not foolproof, since the Cloudpost player can either counter Duress or return Capsize with Mnemonic Wall.
Final Thoughts and Further Development
Fortunately for this deck, Cloudpost occupies a very small fraction of the metagame right now, which is much more populated by the variety of aggressive decks. This means that at the moment, Pestilence is an excellent deck choice given the frequency of decks which have very few ways of handling the card.
And for further development of the deck, I think the next version of Pestilence needs to rework the sideboard so that it includes cards which are effective in both the Storm and Cloudpost matches. I think the one very promising avenue for this is with the land destruction effects which can be found in Black, such as Rancid Earth and Icequake. Furthermore, I think Distress or Castigate can easily replace Wrench Mind to give some chance of stripping away Capsize or Rolling Thunder from the Post player.
As always, thank you for reading my article! I would greatly appreciate hearing your own thoughts and feedback in the comment section below.