Last week I wrote a tournament report essentially bragging about the unbeatable Izzet tempo deck that I am cumulatively 8-0 in tournament play at the ChannelFireball Game Center. I hope that the deck is popular now so that all of the brewing time I’ve invested in creating decks that smash it this past week pays off. As it turns out, Izzet is not indestructible.
The following is the process by which I came upon an interesting Gatekeeper Control deck that I found was able to handily beat my Izzet deck. The decklist is at the end, but it’s an interesting journey building the deck card by card. Read on to follow my thought process on the deck’s creation!
There are multiple brews that I feel are interesting and well-positioned right now but I want to focus on just one for this article and to do a more in depth analysis of card choice and gameplay. The deck is called The Aristocrats despite having zero of said creature type in the deck. First off, the deck name is ironic – there’s no way an Aristocrat would even think about including itself in any pauper format. The deck name simply implies a 3-color Borzhov mana base that has synergy with sacrificing creatures riddled throughout the deck. This theme has been popularized by Sam Black, SCG team member and lead deck designer that created the Standard Aristocrats deck that my friend Tom Martell won with at Pro Tour Gatecrash.
Revisiting My Dragon’s Maze Spoiler Set Review
After making this deck I was interested to see what I originally thought of a few cards – the gatekeepers in particular. Smelt-Ward Gatekeeper, Sunspire Gatekeeper, and Ubul Sar Gatekeeper. The black is obviously the best, but looking back I see that I thought the red one was SUP (strictly unplayable) and the white one was BUP (borderline unplayable). Oops – I hope I can prove myself wrong!
The consistent 2-color decks like my Izzet deck can’t get much benefit from Gatekeepers because they would only run 4 Guildgates – chances of having 2 in play on turn 4 are quite low. Things get interesting when you branch into 3-color wedges. Having access to up to 12 Guildgates seriously fixes your mana while ensuring that your 4 drop will enter the battlefield with 2 gates already in play. The power level of Gatekeepers is what made me reconsider 3-color decks as viable choices. The 2/4 is more significant that I originally thought since most creatures and spells kill X/3s or smaller. The downside to a Gate infested mana-base is that we are going to be setting ourselves back on tempo routinely, but since we know this going into the brewing process, we can plan for it with specific card choices to make up for the potential tempo loss.
Let the Gates Begin
Almost every Gatekeeper deck should start with 4 Ubul Sar Gatekeeper. He takes down everything from Delver of Secrets, Goblin Electromancer, and Skynight Legionnaire while leaving a body in play that blanks 3/x attackers, and he can be blinked later for additional value.
The red Gatekeeper, Smelt-Ward Gatekeeper, is the odd ball choice that I have grown to love. Originally I thought he was the worst because a 2/4 doesn’t seem useful and Act of Treason is not a powerful effect. On it’s own it at best it acts as a one time burn spell that can may indeed create a lethal alpha strike by removing a blocker, but most times the creature you steal can be chump blocked or you won’t have enough pressure on them for it to even matter.
Cue the dinner bell – time for the Vampires to arrive. Bloodflow Connoisseur, Falkenrath Torturer, and Bloodthrone Vampire are all waiting to sink their teeth into our prey – that being whatever creature we stole with Smelt-Ward Gatekeeper. Now our Act of Treason Pillarfield Ox plays more like a Shirekmaw or Flametongue Kavu.
How to Regain Tempo
If playing 2 Guildgates within the span of turns 1 through 3 is ideal because we want to hit our 4th land drop with an untapped land, then we have to decide carefully what we can do with one less mana available than the turn we are on to survive the early game. Our deck is control by nature because it’s looking to deal with all of the opposing threats and then widdle away at the opponents life total with 2/4s. The best way to do this is to shore up our game against aggro decks and low drop creatures in general. This puts one and two mana removal spells at a premium for our Gatekeeper deck.
Pillar of Flame is my sorcery speed X/2 killer of choice. I like Dead Weight here, too, but the exile clause is often relevant. I like that Dead Weight can also blank a 2/4’s power and let our 2/4s forge past them – but if you know anything about the format then you know that blink effects like Ghostly Flicker and Cloudshift are common and powerful enough value engines on their own that we don’t need to get our enchantments brushed off for additional rub-ins. If we can avoid that, we will.
The next jump in the curve for removal is Devour Flesh. The instant speed helps kill a lone creature in play in response to a Rancor, in response to a less good creature coming into play, and it can even kill the Attended Knight in response to the token trigger on the stack. Cards that make more than one creature make Devour Flesh obsolete, so beware of Gather the Townsfolk, Krenko’s Command, Attended Knight, Seller of Songbirds, Captain’s Call, and Eyes in the Skies. These cards fit into a Boros aggro token shell that I haven’t seen being played much lately, so I think Devour Flesh should be well positioned against popular threats, things like Nivix Cyclops and Seraph of Dawn.
The final bit of hard removal comes in at the 3-drop slot. While expensive, Oblivion Ring makes up for it’s high cost with being the most versatile removal spell in the format. It can hit everything in the creature world (minus hexproof) plus troublesome enchantments like Rancor, Mark of the Vampire, Curse of the Blood Tomb, Curse of the Pierced Heart, and even other Oblivion Rings! I defend Oblivion Ring over Murder or Victim of Night because of it’s flexibility to target multiple permanent types and it’s ease of colored mana cost, despite the limitation of playing it only at sorcery speed.
I thought Control Magic was an Uncommon…
If killing our opponents early plays, then stealing their team and saccing them to our vampires isn’t enough to satiate your need to dominate a game, then consider our 2 card combo of Cloudshift + Smelt-Ward Gatekeepers to be our “victory lap around the table” combo. Have you ever used Restoration Angel or Cloudshift on a creature that you stole with a Zealous Conscripts? If not you have got to try it sometime – it just feels so good!
You see, this deck is actually hoping that our opponent is deploying the ‘best’ creatures in the format against us. Seraph of Dawn, Sentinel Spider, other Gatekeepers, anything with an ETB effect – these are all awesome targets to Mind Control. Say we steal an Archaeomancer and then Cloudshift it. We are able to remove the pesky Ghostly Flicker combo enabler from our opponent’s side of the board while also getting our Cloudshift back so that we can set up another round of Treachery. Just nasty. Be wary of bounce effects – they will ruin your day. Your victory lap will turn into a spontaneous game of musical chairs and guess who wasn’t paying attention and doesn’t have a seat anymore?! Gosh that would feel pretty bad, right? Brutal even.
Filler Card Choices
The deck needs to do something before turn 4 other than kill things with removal – I mean, what happens if they don’t have things to kill? Attended Knight answered the call and won out versus Gather the Townsfolk because it is harder to kill both bodies and it can stave off an X/2 attack without fear of trading unless they have a combat trick.
Sunspire Gatekeepers is actually a fantastic card because the 2 bodies are potent on offense and defense, but his inclusion is overshadowed by the white angel of the format, Seraph of Dawn. If you’re playing white without the Seraph you have some ‘splaining to do!
Brimestone Volley and Tragic Slip are worth mentioning since our deck can enable morbid on command. The problem is that we often want to wait to pull the morbid trigger until we sac their creatures, not ours. This makes our mana slightly constrained. I can see having access to these cards in the sideboard could help us deal with problematic creatures, but then again, our whole deck is designed to steal and sac or control magic the best of the best creatures. So for now, I definitely prefer Oblivion Ring the most, with Brimstone as a close second because 3 damage kills a few things, 5 takes care of most, and don’t forget the situational flexibility of Lava Axe to the face.
The key to this deck is to play your gates as early as possible and kill any threat that your opponent plays in the early game immediately. Remember to play a Rakdos or Boros Guildgate first always since you want to play Pillar of Flame on turn 2 should they play a killable target.
Do not wait to see if the Delver will flip – kill it on site. This is pivotal. We do not want our removal to get hit by Negate or Ranger’s Guile effect ever, so we should snipe when the opponent is tapped out after fresh, summoning sick creatures are vulnerable and helpless. Doing this often makes Devour Flesh better. What about Gatekeeper Vine? I guess I’ll let that one live – but who plays that anyway? Someone who likes dodging Edicts I guess…
From there we try to land a turn 3 Attended Knight or Vampire sac outlet if possible to set up a potential Smelt-Ward Gatekeeper on turn 4. As long as we aren’t behind on board by the time we hit 4 mana we should be in good shape. If they are playing draw-go then you just run your least impressive threats out first. If they don’t counter they risk falling behind, and if they do then you get to one-up them with a follow-up creature.
While I don’t like playing without Think Twice and Amass the Components, so many of the cards we play create virtual card advantage that it’s OK to be without strict card draw spells. We have no game if we get stuck on 3 lands, which will happen some of the time. I don’t think they deck wants more than 23 lands, though – it’s just too brutal to flood out unless you are running Faithless Looting or Amass the Components to filter through them. Right now I am always swaying towards the lower mana count for the average standard pauper brew.
Piecing It All Together – The Paradoxical “Pauper Aristocrats”
2 Haunted Fengraf
4 Boros Guildgate
4 Orzhov Guildgate
4 Rakos Guildgate
1 Falkenrath Torturer
1 Sunspire Gatekeepers
4 Attended Knight
4 Bloodflow Connoisseur
4 Seraph of Dawn
4 Smelt-Ward Gatekeepers
4 Ubul Sar Gatekeepers
4 Devour Flesh
4 Oblivion Ring
4 Pillar of Flame
1 Dead Weight – more early game removal for aggro
1 Duress – for finding a spell like Essence Scatter
1 Dynacharge – for the Gatekeeper Mirror board stall – hope they block!
1 Gravepurge – for control decks that try to kill all of our team
1 Sunspire Gatekeepers – for an additional threat if we need to be more proactive
2 Cremate – to remove Ghostly Flicker and Rancor from the game
2 Electrickery – to kill x/1s, tokens, or to help our Gatekeepers get by x/3s
2 Keening Apparition – for Oblivion Rings and Curses
2 Ogre Jailbreaker – for Gatekeeper Mirrors and attacking past x/4s
2 Thunderbolt – for flyers like Seraph of Dawn and Stitched Drake
If you find yourself in a metagame full of quality creature decks, consider hiring the Aristocrats to slay them for you. The deck has a good game plan but you don’t always have an obvious sequence of plays – it definitely takes some practice games to figure out how to gain the biggest board advantages.
I wrote this well before the Weekly Standard Pauper Event #2 @ CFB Game Center. I brewed a hybrid deck between the Aristocrats and my Izzet Control deck (sideboarded version of the Izzet Tempo deck) the night before the event – American Gatekeeper Control. It sounded good in my head and I ran it without testing a game. Tournament report to follow in the next post!
Thanks for reading. Comments and further discussion is appreciated!
Dr. Chris Baker, D.C. | Sports Chiropractor
ChannelFireball Team Chiropractor