I know what you're thinking: I'm going to run face-first into Pirate puns and dragged-out "arr" sounds, right?
While I won't promise there isn't coy wordplay ahead, I can say there's far more to making the most of Pirates than the stale references you've seen elsewhere. Ixalan brought a few flavorful tribes to the forefront, and despite being an unabashed Dinosaur kid, I'm over the moon that Pirates finally get their due.
Pirates have been around for a long time in Magic, but were so few in number it was impractical to look at building decks around them. Now there's a treasure trove to sift through.
Competing for Treasure
If your goal is to make the most powerful Pirate deck possible in Standard, you're in luck: pro players are looking at Pirates too. Seth Manfield considered a few Pirate decks and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa also dove into the mix with another. Some takeaways were clear.
The leading takes on Pirates center around aggressive creatures that curve out. Fell Flagship is, well, a flagship Pirate card given it both makes Pirates more painful for your opponent and can punish an opponent's hand even further.
"Even further" is a big upside for being a Pirate: Kitesail Freebooter can pick out dangerous removal from the opponent's hand, reducing their options for fighting back without casting creatures. Both Ruin Raider and Fathom Fleet Captain make blocking necessary for an opponent, forcing them into situations where they might rather not make a trade—or you can surprise them with removal of your own.
Blue is the most common pairing for the preliminary Pirate decks, given that one-drop Siren Stormtamer serves as an excellent way to push damage through (thanks for Fell Flagship and flying), turn on raid, and protect critical Pirates (like a Kitesail Freebooter keeping Settle the Wreckage locked away mid-combat). Going Siren Stormtamer into Kitesail Freebooter into Fell Flagship or Ruin Raider is a ton of flying damage or extra cards drawn by the third turn.
Supporting Pirates of multiple colors is required. For maximum speed, going black-red leads to things like Captain Lannery Storm (bundled with haste) and a Metallic Mimic that makes every Pirate bigger as long as it sticks around. Dire Fleet Captain is most impressive when you're swinging big, and alongside flying friends like Kitesail Freebooter, it's a two-drop that can hit above its weight.
Slowing things down slightly is where blue-black Pirates shine thanks to the impressive Hostage Taker. It not only works like a removal spell, helping you push through more damage or make blocking a Fathom Fleet Captain impossible, but given another turn, you can potentially keep your opponent from getting their creature back while growing your own army.
That trick of taking something from your opponent is also part of The Scarab God's strength. While it's no Pirate, the God becomes the top end you need to finish a game off in the long run by turning your opponent's best creatures (as well as your own) against them.
Charting Your Course
A good crew is only half of the Pirate equation. Both the decks above back up their creatures with Standard's best removal and spells.
Removal doesn't get any more Pirate-like than Walk the Plank, a new twist on Victim of Night that can kill just about any creature you'll face down. Early in the game, when aggressive Pirates need to swing through and slower Pirates want more time to set up, Fatal Push from Aether Revolt continues to shine. Vraska's Contempt can't come down early, but dealing with a problematic planeswalker or creature too big for Fatal Push is a necessity for some decks.
Forking outside of a black base, Lookout's Dispersal can be a better Mana Leak and an excellent way for Blue-Black Pirates to leverage an early Kitesail Freebooter or Siren Stormtamer. For Black-Red Pirates, Lightning Strike makes a triumphant return to Standard as solid removal and a way to end games even faster.
The lands your Pirates will set sail from are straightforward, depending on the color combination you choose. Canyon Slough and Dragonskull Summit are your best for black-red, while Fetid Pools and Drowned Catacomb are the clear winners in blue-black. Balancing how many basic lands of the appropriate types to play alongside our Summits and Catacombs is important since our plan is to curve out and use mana every turn—making Frank Karsten's article on the math behind them in Standard required Pirate reading materials.
Fortunately, it's not all bad news. Uncharted Territory, like Metallic Mimic, is a card that supports tribal decks of all stripes. For our purposes, it's close to a perfect land:
- It enters the battlefield untapped, giving us a turn-one Siren Stormtamer or Deadeye Tracker while helping us cast a two-drop of the opposite color on the next turn, like Kitesail Freebooter or Kari Zev, Skyship Raider.
- It gives mana for other spells too, so it won't take our tempo off for a turn if we play it later.
- Fixing any color for Pirates means shoehorning three colors is within reach (albeit not something Karsten's math recommends, particularly if you want to have one-drops around).
Going to three colors is what Admiral Beckett Brass asks us to do, and while Peter Ingram's early Ixalan Standard look didn't use her, he did settle on the best of all Pirate worlds. If playing the best Pirate of every stripe is your goal, Grixis (blue-black-red) is where to go:
Horizons Even Further
Setting sail to find treasure in formats beyond Standard is an obvious course to chart. While it might take some additional support from Rivals of Ixalan to give Pirates what they need for Modern's speed, a format like Commander is an excellent place to push our new friends.
Admiral Beckett Brass may not be suitable for Standard's demands, but she's perfect for leading Pirates in a 100-card deck given all the cards she lets you play with.
Turning more of your deck into Pirates and making those Pirate's even better is easy thanks to Conspiracy and Arcane Adaptation. Smuggler's Copter is banned in Standard, but it's an impressive Vehicle for Commander that filters your hand and stocks your graveyard with goodies to use later. Commander (2017 Edition) brought more tribal goodies like Herald's Horn, which can make more expensive Pirates (and "Pirates") come down faster.
Deadeye Navigator is one of my favorite-to-hate-on Commander cards, but as an honorary Pirate, it looks amazing. Rishadan Brigand is one of a few Pirates that punish opponents just for entering the battlefield, which an obvious combo with the Navigator and other "flicker" effects. Deadeye Quartermaster is another friend to bounce in and out of play, letting you find things like Whispersilk Cloak to throw on Kukemssa Pirates. Stealing opponents treasure (artifacts) is both flavorful and powerful in Commander.
Two more Pirates that can shine in Commander are Ruthless Knave and Captivating Crew. Cards that convert resources—here, creatures into Treasure tokens—are staples of combos and other shenanigans possible in the format, so finding a home for Ruthless Knave shouldn't be hard. Captivating Crew turns your opponents' biggest, best creatures into weapons against them. Nobody is going to want to drop an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger down and leave it sitting out for your next turn.
Mapping It Out
The full force of Pirates is here, and whether you play with decks small or tall, you can count on them plundering victories everywhere. After considering the options, my plan is to be on the side that gets all the Treasure, and I can't image it any other way.
Damn, it feels good to have a galleon.