Odyssey: Pressure Cooker Review (Part 1 of 2)
If there can be said to be a bête noir amongst preconstructed decks, a particularly dreaded aspect of their construction, it is certainly without exception the removal package. To understand why, we have to consider the power level of precons. On the far end of the power scale of Constructed play, we might see brutal- even degenerate- combo decks in Vintage or Legacy that can scalp their opponent on the second turn. With decks such as these, you really needn’t worry about any creatures the other player is packing, because for the most part you’re just going right for the kill. Your ‘removal’ package is often nonexistant, because what you really need is a way to disrupt their combo while searching for your own, such as with a Force of Will. Massive storm counts before blowing your opponent away with an equally massive Empty the Warrens or Tendrils of Agony. Blowing them up with Goblin Charbelcher. Dredging your way to a win. These decks tend to play against themselves to some degree as much as playing against an opponent. Other decks, like Landstill, might use broadstroke sweepers to clear the board if facing a creature rush, like Wrath of God or Engineered Explosives.
On the other end of the power scale, duels with precon or casual decks without removal devolve into creature wars with much more predictable outcomes- barring, of course, the occasional combat trick. Quicker, more aggressive decks will stall out against midrange decks, with little hope of securing victory or finishing off their opponent. Such decks quickly become boring and dull to play, with little to give the player continued interest in piloting the deck. Clearly, then, a certain amount of ability to deal with your opponent’s threats is an important factor in the construction of a precon deck, and even the least of these will usually have one or two.
On occasion, Wizards will release a preconstructed deck that is absolutely laden with removal cards. The balancing factor here is that they aren’t always straightforward to play- you’re not going to see a deck with a playset of Doom Blades, for instance. The most recent example of this was New Phyrexia’s Feast of Flesh. Here was a deck with a staggering eighteen different ways to eliminate an opponent’s creature as a threat- and yet the means of playing them was widely disparate, and there was little consistency in their efficacy. For instance, to kill an opponent’s 4/4 beater, you could Artillerize it at the cost of one of your own creatures or artifacts; you might Enslave it; you could let a Shrine of Burning Rage build up and pop; embed it with a Parasitic Implant; or possible pick it off with a Geth’s Verdict, but only if you’d already eliminated the less appealing victims from your opponent’s board… and that’s just a sampling. But with the inability to depend on a particular form of removal, you never knew what you were going to get or even be able to play, such as the case with an Ichor Explosion sitting uselessly in your opening hand. This uncertainty, this variance, offset some of the advantage of being able to squash anything your opponent chose to play. Imagine if those eighteen pieces of removal were four Doom Blades, four Go for the Throats, four Lightning Bolts, four Dismembers, and say a pair of Grasps of Darkness. With the variance slashed by this collection of highly dependable removal cards, Feast of Flesh would be unplayably lethal against the field of other New Phyrexia Intro Pack decks. So there is the price of power: unreliability.
The Bitter Smokiness of Cruel Murder
Of course, Feast of Flesh is not the first such deck to hew to this strategy, but rather merely the latest example. Today we’ll be looking at Odyseey’s take on the archetype, the Black/Red Pressure Cooker. Pressure Cooker has the following tactical ambition. First, you get out some early threats and beaters, and begin damaging your opponent. When the red zone begins to get too congested, you start ladling out the removal to clear a path for your creatures. Between your inevitable combat casualties and the removal you’re dispensing, you should hit threshold realitvely soon, allowing a number of your creatures to ‘power up’ and become stronger. Then use your remaining removal to clear a path, drop some heavier creatures, and mop up your opponent. We’ll examine how the deck performs at each stage of this strategy, but let’s begin with the mana curves to give us some points of reference.
As you can see, the deck has some rather expensive cards beginning with the four-drop slot. In playing this particular colour scheme, there’s not a lot of access to mana ramp- a pair of Shadowblood Eggs is about as good as it gets. Instead, Pressure Cooker is hoping that its abundant removal will take some of the teeth out of your opponent’s offense, buying you the time you need to get to four land drops and begin to open up your options.
Stage One: Early Presence
As evident in the creature curve above, you have a grand total of only four creatures costing three or less mana, and with none of them having a toughness greater than 1, they’re a fairly brittle lot- at least, at first. The Crypt Creeper is a 2/1 which has a single trick- it can be sacrificed to exile a card in a graveyard from the game. It seems like a minor ability- and it is- but it can sometimes be the difference between your opponent hitting threshold and being just one card shy. The card makes more sense too when you consider the graveyard-centric context of the block- Incarnations like Anger exerted a power from beyond the grave, and the Crypt Creeper gave you some answers to those as well. And of course we can’t forget the ability to deny your opponent the chance to flashback a particularly unpleasant spell.
Next up we have the mighty Frightcrawler, a 1/1 whose evasion ability we would now call intimidate. He’s a passable deal for two mana, but once you’ve managed to put seven cards in your graveyard and hit threshold, he becomes a much more robust 3/3- albeit one that won’t block for you if need be. Finally there are a pair of Barbarian Lunatics, who can be recycled for a Shock effect once they’ve passed their sell-by date on the battlefield.
Even if you haven’t managed to land much in the way of creatures yet, you should have no problem dealing with any early drops from your opponent. And not only will you be rewarded with the look of anguish on your opponent’s face, but you’ll also be stocking up your graveyard for later. For instance, a pair of Firebolts deliver 2 damage for one mana, though they do so at sorcery speed. Still, with flashback you’ll be able to play them later in the game, so you haven’t seen the last of them. Twin Engulfing Flames are like Firebolt’s instant-speed little brother.
Flame Burst is another early burn spell which gets better the more often you play it. The first once you cast deals 2 damage, but then each successive one you cast adds another point of damage for free. Pressure Cooker gives you three of them, but there are two points to bear in mind. First, the deck also carries a trio of Pardic Firecats, which count as Flame Bursts when they’re in the graveyard. Second, if your opponent is playing them too, Flame Burst looks at their graveyard as well- a fact which will benefit the both of you equally. This means that if your opponent isn’t playing Flame Burst, and you’ve managed to cast two of them and see off all three Firecats to the great beyind, that final Flame Burst will be dealing seven damage to a creature or player- and at instant speed. Needless to say, the more you use these the better they will get.
Finally, there’s an Innocent Blood. As an edict it doesn’t let you choose the creature to die, but can be played to maximum effect with just a little work. As you can see, Pressure Cooker is highly lethal in the early game, and with flashback, threshold, and the card-counting effect of Flame Burst, you have little reason not to start burning down things early.
Stage Two: The Four-Mana Explosion
Even if it means you have to soak up some early damage, once you’ve made it this far you’re well-poised to start to take over the game for your options unfold almost exponentially. The aforementioned Pardic Firecats are 2/3 beaters with haste that help pad your burn damage when they’re dead- a gift that keeps on giving. The single Halberdier is a high-power first striker, which can give your opponents fits. Instant-speed burn can help him take down even the stoutest enemy creature, so plan accordingly. A pair of Famished Ghouls are hopped-up Crypt Creepers, helping to judiciously prune your opponent’s graveyard. By the same token, Childhood Horrors are the grown-up versions of the Frightcrawler, 2/2 flyers that become 4/4’s with threshold (and losing the ability to block in the process). Two Chainflingers act as pingers with beefier bodies, and become almost ridiculous once you’ve hit threshold. Finally, Braids, Cabal Minion– one of only a handful of legends that’s banned from acting as a general in Commander- puts your opponent in a lock if you’ve managed to maintain numerical superiority.
Stage Three: The Endgame
By now, most games should find you with a well-stocked graveyard, threshold up and with some solid creature options in play. All that’s left is to pick apart your enemy’s defenses and beat them to death. Access to some nasty damage spells begins to open up too, giving you the reach you need to finish off your opponent. Morbid Hunger, for example, gives the game a six-point swing, and if it goes long it can be flashed back once you hit nine mana. The deck gives you two of them. There’s also a Liquid Fire, which can either go right to your opponent’s face or be spread between your opponent and a single creature. For 5 damage to a creature, there’s a Thermal Blast, though it only deals 3 if you’ve been kept off of threshold.
A pair of Ghastly Demises are dirt-cheap removal, but they are constrained by the number of cards in your graveyard. If you’ve hit threshold on-schedule, there should be very little that this card won’t instantly kill. Morgue Theft can help return one of your casualties to play, bringing a dead creature back to your hand for a second chance, while Reckless Charge can turn a freshly-summoned creature into a hasted ambusher against an unsuspecting opponent. Both have flashback, and so can be used a second time. And in case all that removal wasn’t quite enough, you have access to a pair of Cabal Pits, which can be popped to give a creature -2/-2 once you’ve filled your graveyard up.
Finally, you have a trio of closers in the form of a Face of Fear, Repentant Vampire, and Dwarven Strike Force. The Face is a “symbiote,” the term Wizards gave to creatures that help you fill up your graveyard. This is a great way to put excess land to use, and an intimidating Face can help wrap the game up. The Vampire isn’t just another pretty face, but its actually your insurance policy when facing a heavily-Black deck. Because Pressure Cooker will be weaker when facing Black, since its Black kill spells exempt their own colour and your intimidate creatures are no longer unblockable, a way to repeatedly kill off Black creatures helps remedy the deck’s vulnerability. Finally, the Strike Force can act as another surprise attacker, though the cost for giving it haste and first strike is rather steep- a card discarded at random. Of course, if you’ve played your hand out and only have land at that point, it’s a steal!
So overall, we see that Pressure Cooker has a well-defined strategy in place, and seems to give you the tools to implement it. Join us next time when we report back on how it performed in action, and see if it has enough power to burn a path to victory.