The 5 Most Underplayed Cards in Competitive PDH
Thanks to cPDH’s explosion in popularity over the last two years, we now finally have something you can properly call a cPDH metagame, with a lot of successful strategies and an ever increasing number of deck lists floating around. There are 2 major consequences of this development. First, while there are still plenty of uncharted waters left to explore in cPDH, it becomes increasingly more relevant to look at the decks that have already been built, to see how we can improve on them by exploiting what we now know about the format. Second, as is the fate of everything with a growing audience on the internet, people start to produce content with annoying clickbaity titles on the topic. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules.
Before we get started, let me quickly clarify two things. The PDH Homebase is a larger umbrella for multiple variations of the PDH format. While some of the things I touch on in this article might be interesting or helpful for card choices in PDH in general, the variant I am concerned with here is competitive multiplayer. Many of the arguments I make are about specific features of the competitive multiplayer environment and often aren’t applicable to the casual or duel variants of PDH. The second thing I want to point out is that by “underplayed” I don’t necessarily mean “sees little play,” I mean “sees less play than it should.” To give an example: if only 95% of all multicolor decks in the format were to play Command Tower, the Tower might be at the same time the most played card in the format and yet still underplayed, because pretty much 100% of multicolor decks should play it.
With that out of the way, let’s jump right in and have a look at 5 of the most underplayed cards in cPDH (in no particular order).
If you ask people about the most important cards for combo decks in cPDH, you will likely hear a lot about Ghostly Flicker, Freed from the Real or Banishing Knack. With that in mind, it is no surprise that cards like Negate or Pyroblast are such popular answers in the format. But with Freed from the Real and Ghostly Flicker often getting all the talk, people tend to forget about a crucial element that many of the best combo decks in the format have in common: their reliance on specific lands. The best Ghostly Flicker deck in the format, Tatyova, loses a ton of its power without Mystic Sanctuary. Weavers revolves heavily around land auras. Many Banishing Knack decks like Parcelbeast or Puresight Merrow use bounce lands and/or land auras to get mana from Cloud of Faeries and Peregrine Drake. Izzet Guildmage uses both Volatile Fjord and Izzet Boilerworks as combo pieces. Seedcradle Witch and Gretchen Titchwillow rely on enchanted lands as well.
At this point, almost everyone in cPDH is prepared to play against combo decks and usually brings a number of ways to interact with spells (both creature and noncreature ones) to stop them. Far fewer decks take advantage of the fact that the lands of combo decks are such a good angle of attack. Does this mean that everyone should play a bunch of land destruction now? Well, maybe. I do think some decks should take a long hard look at Sinkhole and consider playing it, but classic Stone Rains do suffer the same fate as all 1-for-1s in multiplayer: their impact diminishes with the number of opponents you have. Cleansing Wildfire on the other hand replaces itself, it can significantly disrupt one of your opponents without putting you down a card. It’s the Arcane Denial of Stone Rains.
Okay, Cleansing Wildfire is good against combo decks, but what if I rarely play against those, because my meta is mostly fair decks? Turns out Cleansing Wildfire is very good against those as well. Opal Palace is finding its way into more and more decks, often being an important part of the game plan of grindy decks. Be it Witherbloom Apprentice, Baleful Strix or Ghost of Ramirez DePietro decks, if you want to grind your way to the late game and wither away your opponents’ life totals, Opal Palace can be very valuable. Study Hall and Path of Ancestry are other utility lands frequently played in fair decks. Besides those, it can also be more than worth it to hit one of your opponents’ bounce lands, which are very common in the mana bases of cPDH decks, even when not used as part of some combo.
After talking about all the valuable targets at the other side of the table, I also want to quickly touch on another aspect of Cleansing Wildfire, that everyone who plays regular Pauper will be well aware of - the interaction with indestructible lands. Modern Horizons 2 brought the bridges - a cycle of indestructible dual lands - to the Pauper card pool. Playing one of those is a pretty easy inclusion for most 2-color PDH decks and gives you the option to turn Cleansing Wildfire into a ramp spell. Rampant Growth is an okay card in cPDH, Rampant Growth with “draw a card” stapled onto it is a phenomenal card in cPDH. Of course you won’t be able to do this as consistently in a 100-card singleton format, but it is worth keeping in mind.
Overall I believe most red decks should play Cleansing Wildfire. Playing it should be the default and you should only exclude it if your strategy gives you specific reasons to do so.
This card might look innocent at first glance, but is a member of the very exclusive club of cards that are banned in Pauper, Modern and Legacy. Only 3 cards have ever made it onto that list and 2 of those are featured in this article, which is no coincidence. While it doesn’t play the same role in enabling splashes in cPDH, it has a lot of other things going for it.
First of all, the mana fixing you have access to in PDH is not the best. Almost all duals enter the battlefield tapped, there is always a tradeoff between having better mana and being slowed down a bit. In that regard Arcum’s Astrolabe is very similar to tapped dual lands: you are down one mana the turn you play it in exchange for some fixing. That alone makes it a reasonable inclusion in any 2-color deck.
If reasonable mana fixing was the only reason to run Arcum’s Astrolabe, it wouldn’t make this list of underplayed cards though. There are tons of little synergies and interactions with Astrolabe that can push it over the edge of being worth putting in your deck, but there are also some huge synergies, so let’s get those out of the way first.
Arcum’s Astrolabe is an important payoff for many combo decks. Ghostly Flicker + Archaeomancer + Peregrine Drake is one of the most popular and well known combos in the format and is often described as a 3-card combo. It is true that these 3 cards give you infinite mana, but that infinite mana won’t win you the game unless you have a payoff for it. Some Ghostly Flicker decks, like Tatyova or Sultai Soothsayer, have a payoff for infinite mana in the command zone, but for all other Flicker decks it is a crucial part of their game plan to find said 4th piece. A cantripping 1 mana spell that also fixes your mana is about the best payoff you could ever hope for, because the cost of including it is so low. Imagine a tapped dual land that has “you win the game” written onto it, if your game plan works. Nobody in their right mind would ever exclude such a card from their deck and yet, every other Ghostly Flicker deck I see (not counting ones with a payoff in their command zone) is missing Arcum’s Astrolabe. In a similar way it is a payoff for some Banishing Knack combos and for Planar Incision combo in Izzet Guildmage.
Then there are a lot of decks which have relevant synergies with (snow) artifacts and therefore incentives to run Astrolabe. There are too many cards to consider here to go into much detail, but I’ll list some of the more common ones. As commanders there are Armix, Keskit, Ravenous Squirrel, and Dargo, among others. Regular cards that work well with Astrolabe are Cranial Plating, Trinket Mage, Stoic Rebuttal, Disruption Protocol, Deadly Dispute, Skred, Frost Bite, Thoughtcast, Repeal, Moonsnare Prototype, and many more. A single one of these might not be enough to turn Arcum’s Astrolabe into a great card, but if your deck contains several of them, I would consider adding it.
Even if you don’t have special synergies with Astrolabe, there are a decent number of cPDH decks which have more challenging mana requirements and are interested in good mana fixing. While the average 2-color deck might work well without cards like Astrolabe, there are some cards that put more strain on your mana base. Crypt Rats and Pestilence are the most popular sweepers in the format, but can be awkward in multicolor mana bases, especially if you also want to play some utility lands. Crackling Drake and Nightveil Predator have obvious requirements for mana fixing. And decks like Weavers are interested in some filtering as well, because your deck is quite blue heavy, but at the same time you run cards like Arbor Elf, Wild Growth, and Overgrowth, which can lead to an overabundance of green mana.
The last aspect of playing Astrolabe is almost certainly the most overlooked one, even though it comes up very frequently in cPDH. Unlike most other formats you have very limited access to dual lands with basic land types and as a result often have to reduce the count of lands with basic types if you want better fixing. This might not sound like much of an issue, but there are a lot of very powerful cards in the format that require lands with specific basic types. Mystic Sanctuary is an absolute powerhouse, but other lands from the same cycle - e.g. Witch’s Cottage - also see a lot of play. High Tide is feared throughout the format, but its potential heavily relies on the number of islands you play. Snuff Out needs a certain density of swamps if you want it to be online early, as does Defile. Arbor Elf and Utopia Sprawl need you to play forests. Rime Tender and Sculptor of Winter require basics as well. Astrolabe can help you with this, because it provides fixing without having to cut basic lands for duals.
Overall I believe the majority of all decks should run Arcum’s Astrolabe. Playing it should be the default in all 3-color decks and decks where it is part of a combo. While maybe not the default in all 2-color decks, it should be carefully considered, especially if you have synergies with the card or challenging mana requirements.
It’s no secret that graveyard hate is powerful in cPDH. There are countless combo decks which need their graveyard to win the game, and graveyard hate is often much more effective at stopping them than counterspells or removal are. There are also plenty of fair decks which gain huge advantages by using their graveyards, be it Ghost of Ramirez DePietro getting back Transmute cards or a Crypt Rats being reanimated by an Unearth. But on the other hand the number of slots you can dedicate to graveyard hate are limited and the competition is high, especially when you are playing black. Relic of Progenitus, Honored Heirloom, Bojuka Bog, Nihil Spellbomb, Faerie Macabre and others are all excellent at what they are doing. So why should anyone play Rotten Reunion?
Rotten Reunion has a couple of nice things going for it, apart from being a good graveyard hate spell. Part of what makes Relic of Progenitus and Nihil Spellbomb so attractive is that they replace themselves and don’t leave you down a card. While Rotten Reunion doesn’t have “draw a card” written onto it, a lot of decks can make good use of spells with flashback, by being able to get them into their graveyard without having to cast them. This can be done with commanders like Armix, Azra Oddsmaker, Keskit, Disciple of Deceit, Sultai Soothsayer, Syr Konrad or with cards in your maindeck like Scattered Thoughts, Ransack the Lab, and Compulsive Research. Combining flashback cards with self-mill and loot effects is neither new nor innovative, but nevertheless important to keep in mind.
The zombie token is the more interesting aspect of Rotten Reunion though. Even with the “decayed” keyword, they are more relevant in cPDH games than one might think. There are a number of commanders that are happy to have some additional creatures laying around to sacrifice, like Keskit, Dargo, Ravenous Squirrel or Mayhem Devil. Cards like Innocent Blood or Fleshbag Marauder are also increasingly popular and your opponents will usually not expect you to get an additional creature at instant speed to save your more valuable ones. Another mechanic where instant speed creatures are very relevant is monarch. While deciding how many blockers they need to keep up in order to keep the monarch, your opponents will rarely play around you generating two extra attackers at instant speed. Also if you are playing with Tormod, Rotten Reunion can generate 10 power at instant speed for 3 mana, which can be extremely threatening combined with the clock that Tormod already creates.
Rotten Reunion is less of a generically good card than Cleansing Wildfire or Arcum’s Astrolabe, instead it is more of a roleplayer for specific decks and a tool against specific metagames, but in the right circumstances it can work very well. If you are struggling against Tatyova players, it can make their life a lot harder.
Overall I believe a significant number of black decks should run Rotten Reunion. It shouldn’t be the default to include it, but you should keep it in mind and see if it is the right fit for your deck and your metagame.
Whereas most of the cards in this article fall into the category of cards that have a low opportunity cost and are easy inclusions in a wide range of decks, this one needs a very specific shell to be playable - but it rewards you with one of the more powerful effects in the entire format. There aren’t that many sweepers in the format to begin with and a lot of them only kill creatures with low toughness (Fiery Cannonade, Evincar’s Justice, Eyeblight Massacre, etc). Crypt Rats and Pestilence can reliably kill the whole board, but apart from those two your options become pretty scarce. There are however a couple more conditional red sweepers, the strongest of which - Krark-Clan Shaman - can be a real powerhouse in cPDH.
Shaman is not a fit for every deck, but there are some commanders which naturally work well with it, either because they produce artifacts themselves (like Malcolm or Toggo) or because they are interested in playing the kinds of artifacts that work well with Krark-Clan Shaman (like Dargo, Mayhem Devil, Keskit or Ich-Tekik). If you find yourself playing cards like Chromatic Star, Experimental Synthesizer and Terrarion, Shaman will likely slot right in. Everyone who has played with (or against) Crypt Rats or Pestilence is probably well aware how devastating this kind of sweeper can be, if you can choose exactly how much damage you want to deal. And while the right setup for the Shaman might be a little more demanding than for its black counterparts, it has one major advantage: It is very cheap. Playing plus activating Crypt Rats/Pestilence usually costs you 6-7 mana, which can be problematic, especially if you need some mana to tutor for them or spend counterspells to protect them. Being able to sweep the board for only 1 mana is both very scary and quite unique.
Apart from the overall power level, I also want to point out a couple of noteworthy interactions or cards it synergizes with especially well. One of those is Mayhem Devil, not only because of the obvious synergy with sacrificing things - activating Shaman for 2 so your Mayhem Devil stays alive, but then still killing larger creatures with the Devil pings is very nice - but also because those decks often run some deathtouch-granting cards like Touch of Moonglove or Bladebrand that make your Shaman even more potent. The way triggers are stacked also works very well with Ich-Tekik, where the +1/+1 counter trigger will always resolve before the Shaman damage, so you can sweep your opponents’ boards while growing your own. Malcolm not only enables your Shaman activations, it also conveniently has flying, so it lives through the activations, turning what is sometimes a downside into an upside. Lastly I want to mention that Krark-Clan Shaman is a goblin, which makes it a target for one of red’s few tutors: Goblin Matron.
Overall I believe only some red decks should play Krark-Clan Shaman, because it has very significant deck-building requirements. It shouldn’t be the default to include it, but if your strategy allows it, you should definitely take advantage of how powerful it can be.
Last but not least, we have arrived at the real reason I wanted to write this article; To provide me with an excuse to rant about people not including Gitaxian Probe in their blue decks. But hold on, isn’t this one of the most widely played cards in the format, how is it underplayed? Well, Gitaxian Probe falls into the category mentioned in the beginning, it should be in every blue deck but isn’t. Because of that, it’s underplayed. It also is a member of the same club of cards as Arcum’s Astrolabe: It’s banned in Pauper, Modern and Legacy - for a reason. It is one of the most broken cards ever printed and you should not cut it from your decks, even if it might seem less important to your gameplan than some other more “impactful” cards.
There are plenty of excellent explanations out there about why Gitaxian Probe makes many decks function so much more smoothly, so I won’t spend much time on it, but I want to quickly mention some cPDH relevant cases. Probe helps fill your graveyard for mechanics like Delve, which is relevant in every blue deck because of Treasure Cruise. It also makes everything requiring instants or sorceries more consistent, be it a commander like Murmuring Mystic or Crackling Drake, a random Archaeomancer or Firebrand Archer effects. And it can help to make more efficient use of cards that put something on top of your library, like Mystic Sanctuary, Reclaim or Mortuary Mire.
What I think is more interesting than those interactions we know from all the formats Probe has been banned in are its implications on threat assessment. While also an important part of Gitaxian Probe’s role in 1v1 formats, it is even more emphasised in a multiplayer format like cPDH. I believe that having proper threat assessment is the single most important factor for your win percentage at cPDH tables. It’s not hard to get a good decklist from somewhere on the internet and the mechanical parts of playing Magic - while not trivial - are usually not a problem for people involved enough in the game to be reading an article like this. The part of playing cPDH that is extremely challenging, even for experienced players, is good threat assessment at a multiplayer table. Yes, deckbuilding is important, but way fewer games are decided by your choice between including Doom Blade or Cast Down, than are decided because you didn’t know whether to cast your Doom Blade on Ley Weaver or keep it up for Crackling Drake.
Proper threat assessment is a huge topic and this is not the place to go into too much detail, but Gitaxian Probe can be an invaluable help. Whether it is to decide where to point your removal, who to attack, whether to go for a combo, or which piece of interaction to use to stop someone else from comboing, the information you get from Probe can easily make the difference between winning and losing. Obviously getting more information is only the first part, you then have to correctly interpret the information you get, or it will be of limited use to your threat assessment, but nevertheless Gitaxian Probe can make that job much easier. The potentially game winning upside of the information you get, combined with pretty much no opportunity cost, makes it so there’s simply no reason not to play it.
On a related note, a lot of the same things are true about Peek, which I also believe is underplayed in cPDH. It isn’t quite as free as Gitaxian Probe, but still a very reasonable card to add to your cPDH decks.
Overall I believe every single blue deck should play Gitaxian Probe. Playing it should be the default and I don’t know of any exception in the entire format.
Depending on how entrenched you are in cPDH as a format and Magic in general, a lot of this might have been old news - it’s not exactly groundbreaking to tell people Gitaxian Probe is a good card - but I hope this article was able to shine some light on the more subtle and cPDH-specific reasons to include these cards.
That being said, these obviously aren’t the only cards that deserve some additional attention in cPDH; there are plenty of other underplayed cards around. While I had to limit this article to only a handful of cards, I would be happy to talk about other cards you believe to be underappreciated in the format right now. Come find me on discord or post something in the "competitive-pdh" channel on the Homebase server, I love me some good cPDH talk!