Zero Thrill: The Pact of Negation Story
- Gianluca Aicardi
Were Force of Will available in Modern, the format would be dramatically altered. And yet, Modern does already contain a piece of non-conditional zero-cost countermagic, and while it's not played as much as Vintage and Legacy's signature counterspell, it's been tentatively around since Modern's early days.
Everything we do in a game of Magic ultimately depends on our mana resources fueling it. This is why there's nothing better than being able to cast spells for free. And you know which are the most coveted free spells of all? Well, counterspells, of course. This is why, when Force of Will came out with Alliances in the summer of 1996 (ending the darkest era in the history of Magic expansions), you can say competitive Magic would never be the same again. Because sure Mana Drain is terrific, but it can't stop an opponent's crazy turn-1 play while you're on the draw; Force of Will can.
Cut to 11 years later. Magic had experienced its first, drastic visual design revamp a few seasons prior, and was now about to complete one of its most experimental blocks ever. And right there in the aptly-named Future Sight, the Pact cycle emerges. I'm making it sound like it was some seismic event, but it wasn't, particularly. The Pact cycle's way to justify that "0" in the cost felt both honest and slightly too cute to work. I mean, "you lose the game" as a downside? That's not exactly on par with losing one card and one life. Still, there was that "0" printed up there, something that never fails to feel exciting, bringing dreams of Black Lotus into every player's mind. Besides, a few of the cards in the cycle were doing interesting enough things to warrant the unspeakable hazard their "pacts" engendered. First among those, our Pact of Negation pal; both control players and combo players started to try and break it.
First of all, you can just follow Pact of Negation's instructions and play it as written, no shenanigans involved. Of course, to ensure a lasting legacy, you need an eternal format where Force of Will is not legal, and this was Extended at first, then Modern four years later.
When you play our blue Pact straightforwardly, you essentially trade an immediate tempo gain for a tempo loss in the subsequent turn. In this sense, it's sort of like an echo cost, except countering any spell for zero is definitely a stronger effect than any existing echo discount. Most of Modern's control decks make for a suitable shell for this use, but it showed up in other kind of decks as well, most recently in the heir to the Summer Bloom/Amulet of Vigor combo.
Bloomless Titan, Ian Bosley, Top 8 at SCG Classic Worcester, March 2018
|1Chameleon Colossus||2Dismember||1Engineered Explosives|
|1Hornet Queen||1Nature's Claim||1Obstinate Baloth|
|1Pact of Negation||1Ramunap Excavator||1Reclamation Sage|
|1Sigarda, Host of Herons||2Swan Song||2Tireless Tracker|
This is a deck that already runs the only other truly successful member of the Pact cycle, Summoner's Pact, to find and play Azusa, Lost but Seeking or Primeval Titan (or late-game Walking Ballista) in the same turn, being sure the mana production will be adequate to pay the upkeep cost in the next. And even with Jace, the Mind Sculptor back, there's still room for at least a singleton Pact of Negation (and another on the side), as a failsafe. It's worth noting how Tolaria West can transmute to tutor up not just some of the key lands, but one of the Pacts as well, which means, for 3 mana, you have a semi-uncounterable way to put Pact of Negation on your hand and proceed combo-ing out more comfortably.
With the Help of an Angel
But what if we can ignore the upkeep clause altogether in a more competitive way than with stuff like Eon Hub or Gibbering Descent? It so happens Modern saw the slow but steady rise of a combo deck based around Shards of Alara's Ad Nauseam, and that deck already incorporated a way to stop you from losing the game during one specific turn. This way:
Angel's Grace is clearly good news for our demanding Pact, which is now free of protecting the assembling of its shell's combo without bothering with such meaningless things as losing the game in the process. Ad Nauseam builds run the highest number of Pacts of Negation at the moment, with typically three copies in the maindeck and the last one in the sideboard. This might easily be the most commonly encountered home for our 0-CMC counterspell right now.
Ad Nauseam, Danny Spencer, Top 8 at SCG Classic Indianapolis, February 2018
|3City of Brass||1Laboratory Maniac||4Ad Nauseam|
|3Darkslick Shores||4Simian Spirit Guide||4Angel's Grace|
|1Dreadship Reef||1Lightning Storm|
|2Gemstone Mine||3Pact of Negation|
|1Plains||4Sleight of Hand|
|3Seachrome Coast||3Spoils of the Vault|
|3Temple of Deceit||4Lotus Bloom|
|3Temple of Enlightenment||4Pentad Prism|
|2Bontu's Last Reckoning||1Echoing Truth||2Fatal Push|
|2Hurkyl's Recall||4Leyline of Sanctity||1Pact of Negation|
If Ad Nauseam decks gave Pact of Negation specific meaning thanks to its interaction with another card of their build, chances are the most well-known use of the spell is still the one associated with the Hive Mind combo.
Once players started to think of insidious ways to win the game with Hive Mind, the Pacts naturally came to mind, assuming a whole new connotation. Granted, Pact of Negation is not singled out here, as any Pact works the same way for this purpose, but Hive Mind decks typically use several of them, to make sure you can play the one the opponent is less equipped to pay for. Pact of Negation obviously comes in handy for its written effect as well, so it's always part of the team.
Modern Hive Mind, feefyfohfum, 1st place at MTGO Modern Daily, August 2012
|8Island||1Ethereal Usher||2Gitaxian Probe|
|3Mountain||4Simian Spirit Guide||1Intervention Pact|
|4Scalding Tarn||4Pact of Negation|
|1Shivan Reef||4Pact of the Titan|
|2Tolaria West||4Seething Song|
|4Sleight of Hand|
|2Echoing Truth||1Magmaquake||3Magus of the Moon|
|3Pyroclasm||3Relic of Progenitus||1Spell Pierce|
We can see Tolaria West used as pure Pact-fetcher here.
The deck exists in Legacy as well, taking advantage of Show and Tell in one of the rare instances of Pact of Negation showing up in the Force of Will realm, and fighting side by side with it (though probably being pitched to it a lot).
Legacy Hive Mind, Bryan Eleyet, 1st place at SCG Open Seattle, April 2013
|4Ancient Tomb||3Emrakul, the Aeons Torn||4Brainstorm|
|2City of Traitors||4Force of Will|
|3Flooded Strand||3Gitaxian Probe|
|2Misty Rainforest||4Pact of Negation|
|1Polluted Delta||4Pact of the Titan|
|2Volcanic Island||4Show and Tell|
|3Firespout||2Flusterstorm||4Leyline of Sanctity|
|4Leyline of the Void||2Spell Pierce|
In Modern, it would gradually morph into a hybrid with Amulet Bloom, which was already a blue ramp deck that could easily hit the 6 mana required for the Hive.
Hive Bloom, JusTimur, Top 4 at MTGO Modern Event, November 2013
|1Boros Garrison||3Azusa, Lost but Seeking||3Ancient Stirrings|
|4Gemstone Mine||2Pact of Negation|
|1Gruul Turf||4Serum Visions|
|1Kabira Crossroads||1Slaughter Pact|
|1Khalni Garden||4Summer Bloom|
|4Selesnya Sanctuary||4Summoner's Pact|
|4Simic Growth Chamber||4Amulet of Vigor|
|1Slayers' Stronghold||3Hive Mind|
|1Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion|
|2Tendo Ice Bridge|
|1Acidic Slime||2Beast Within||1Bojuka Bog|
|1Cavern of Souls||2Damping Matrix||1Engineered Explosives|
|1Pact of Negation||1Pithing Needle||4Pyroclasm|
Despite some further experiments (like Gifts Ungiven to fetch the Mind, a Pact, Snapcaster Mage and Noxious Revival), Hive Mind decks went out of favor in later years with Ad Nauseam being a similarly positioned combo deck more likely to attract attention and play, while still being far from tier 1. After Summer Bloom got banned in January 2016, the Bloomless successor to the Amulet deck had more pressing problems than finding ways to keep a Hive Mind package around, but, as we've seen, it still plays some measure of Pact of Negation. You can never entirely ignore a free counterspell, no matter the cost.
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