Is the Pirates life for me?
The recent showing at Zanarkand might lead you to think it is and I’ll be honest, it can be a hell of a lot of fun to play at times. The best way to understand how to beat any new and powerful deck is to play it yourself and discover it’s weak points so I would encourage anyone wondering how to beat them to try it out first.
Since this is the early discovery period of the set, nothing is particularly optimized short of Mono Fire and Sky Pirates who just about build themselves and too often I’ve assembled a board when playing Sky Pirates that isn’t getting answered and it just feels like I’m straight cheating, drawing 4 cards per turn with my opponent stuck not knowing how to interact with my board, never forcing me to expend my resources. For me at least, that power fantasy isn’t one I take a lot of enjoyment in so I haven’t spent too much time upsetting my friends. So I can understand that it might not be a deck for everyone, but it definitely finds a stable home in the competitive environment.
First and foremost I want to talk about two particular lines of text on Penelo as they’re the ones that speak a lot to Sky Pirates resilience and are a key part in dismantling the deck.
(5) (This cost is reduced by 1 for each Job Sky Pirate other than Penelo you control.): Select 1 of the 3 following actions. You can only use this ability once per turn.
“Choose 1 Job Sky Pirate Forward other than Penelo. It gains ‘This Forward cannot be chosen by your opponent’s abilities’ until the end of the turn.”
“Choose 1 Forward. It loses 3000 power until the end of the turn.”
“Draw 1 card.”
These lines tell us two things
- Sky Pirates want to play as many Sky Pirates as possible as it is a two-fold synergy, that both protects their Sky Pirate forwards and makes this ability cheaper
- Penelo is the first layer of protection as most answers for problem cards are from abilities that choose other forwards, she also cannot protect herself.
This makes Penelo the priority target for any Sky Pirate list if you want your abilities to interact with the other Sky Pirate forwards and is the glue holding this pirate ship together. It’s time to start packing 2CP hate cards in your decks if you want to get a leg in versus Sky Pirates. Fortunately there’s a number of other 2CP threats that come in this set that make playing 2CP hate cards worth playing.
Penelo has a whole lot of parallels to Yuri of old when it comes to how you can play around her ability, it’s just coming in a slightly different form this time. If you recall how we played against Yuri, it was generally moving straight to attack step, or if you wanted to play removal or threats of your own, you could try to end the turn, knowing they won’t want to give up their two Yuri triggers, you can then play into them after they’ve taken their actions. The same is true of Penelo, if you want to choose a Sky Pirate other than Penelo with an ability, moving to the end step so they will draw with her effect could be your recipe for success if you can afford them not taking an action and ending the turn.
The most unavoidable card and another high value aspect of Sky Pirates decks is the new Kytes. Your first instinct might be to kill Kytes on sight, and while that doesn’t hurt, he will always be present in the breakzone for Balthier later unless you RFG him which is a big ask. You kind of have to just force the opponent to use Kytes’ effect and only then play into the Sky Pirates with bigger removal pieces.
In the context of board wipes, Kytes presents as a 1CP soft-Y’shtola so no matter how you slice it, trying to sweep a board with a Kytes on it will always be a poor value trade for you and a huge tempo swing for them, likely leading to a fast defeat.
The best ways to deal with Kytes on reasonable value takes a few things lining up and assembling two pieces of counterplay. I think the best way to deal with Kytes is to hit him with a cheap piece of disruption, some examples are Cuchulainn, Brynhildr (so long as Balthier can’t buff him to 7k) or Thunder Drake (if Penelo isn’t on field, or has been used already). Then following up with something that can deal with the current board, or a summon to break the Kytes target if they go for the ability in response should lead to tempo in your favor.
Since the Sky Pirate returns to the field at the end of the turn, it’s important that not only can you not interact with it in the end step, but the Sky Pirate player doesn’t have a window to spend the CP if they’ve chosen Vaan to return to field.
The good news is, after you make it through 3 Kytes, if you can keep on top of their numbers and the game is relatively even, Sky Pirates are finally past their strongest point because there’s a hard cap of 3 on how many times you can use Kytes’ ability.
Balthier’s power level is a little unassuming. However, not only is he a Lenna that’s 1CP cheaper, he happens to give the entire archetype relevant power increases to protect your forwards from numerical removal or combat. This is well and good enough all on it’s own, but where this gets into dangerous territory as a point of protection is with a Vaan on field (and let’s be real, there’s very little reason for Vaan to ever leave the field). All while being able to recur either Penelo or Kytes with a relevant Job to support them.
Yeah, she makes both lists. Crazy card, lovely little Swiss-Army knife! Draw 1 card for free each turn on a low investment and readily recurrable to boot! While drawing a card is the typical action to take, you will only use it to draw on your opponent’s turn if she’s about to leave the field, or before the end of their Main Phase 2. Protection for your other Pirates is the big one to use in your opponent’s turn to protect your other Pirates, but the -3k power has a lot of niche usefulness and synergy with Bismarck all while being able to threaten in combat. Every turn she can do one of these things uncontested is another turn Sky Pirates are pushing ahead.
Bismarck, Lord of the Mists
The assumed boogeyman of a post-ban metagame which in fairness could still be the case. Right now however his main home is in Sky Pirates as an afterthought, don’t get me wrong he can still accomplish plenty of nice things here. Penelo’s -3k line of text does her best to be an honorary Wind Forward in the list, however Bismarck’s value is a little bit lower and less applicable than in decks that dedicate more slots to getting value off of his bounce effect. Still, Sky Pirates run plenty of Wind forwards and he does a great job locking down a game when you have an established board. He’ll always demand an answer at many points of the game since he is naturally powerful enough to run away with a game very quickly.
Leviathan, Lord of the Whorl
Much like Bismarck, Leviathan does a great job of shutting out a game when you have an established board, but his applications are much broader. If Penelo is the Swiss-Army knife of the deck, Leviathan is the novelty world’s largest Swiss-Army knife you make a stop at on road trips, you’re not really sure why it’s there, it’s huge and impressive, but you’ve gotta go out of your way to get there. Most importantly, he’s the best anti-aggro tool available for the deck. Furthermore the synergy with Althea, Chocobo and Bismarck are the kinds of things that push Leviathan into unfair territory if you can find the space to utilize them and avoid counter play. It’s also looking like a pretty key piece for the mirror match.
Much like how Balthier can protect your forwards, you can also use his effect to apply pressure by way of threatening to buff your attackers above the opponents blockers or by granting haste, but it’s not without a cost because first and foremost you want to use your Pirate’s abilities to protect what you have rather than give the opponent open windows to interact with you. However as a low priority threat with inbuilt protection, he can often be a difficult one to answer and the prospect of another Balthier bringing a new Penelo with him is often a troubling one.
A little bit about Vaan
It probably seems a bit weird that we’ve come this far and only mentioned Vaan in passing, he is absolutely a fundamental and core piece of the deck, however in the context of threats, protection and how to combat Sky Pirates, Vaan doesn’t really enter the list of priorities. He does help with protection but it’s really only enabled by other cards like Balthier, Althea and Summons. Also since he is the fundamental setup piece for the deck, it’s in our best interest that he doesn’t get replayed for value.
The thing is, it’s generally always wrong to choose Vaan as a priority target when there are other choices. He has a high cost, the highest power and a solid ongoing effect, so that can be misleading, but he is just a setup piece in the grand scheme of things, did you ever go out of your way to kill Paine? The only time this isn’t true is after he has been chosen by Kytes or a bounce effect, because he then starts threatening further setup. Interacting with him in those positions still poses a fair bit of difficulty as the summons that break him on stack are rare for decks to include right now and when chosen he will also reactivate backups for potential follow up with something like Chocobo or Althea backup. All of that said, one of the major weak spots for Sky Pirates is Amaterasu on an early Vaan without a Kytes to back it up.
Choosing any Sky Pirate (and this includes backups, sorry Ice cards) will activate 2 backups each time and this is seemingly really great value, but it’s very important to note that Sky Pirates have very little ways to utilize that CP outside of their own main phases, so there might be more windows for you to interact with Sky Pirates than it seems. Where this ability becomes important are with a Balthier on field, a Penelo without a 0 cost ability, an Althea on the backup line, or a healthy hand size that could be holding summons, because these are really the only important ways for Vaan triggers to capitalize on the free activations outside of Main Phase. There are some other minor value avenues the Pirates can take with backups like Chocolatte and Fiona which aren’t overly important, but still something to keep in mind when they’re present.
Winning Combat Versus Pirates
There isn’t much to say here, but when dealing with a typical board of Vaan, Balthier and Penelo, there’s very little in your power to beat them in combat. There could be merit to forcing them to expend their Penelo or Balthier Abilities, but as the Sky Pirate player I’ve generally wanted to take an opposing forward off the board in lieu of a card off the top or 2CP from my backups.
The Aggressive approach to beating Sky Pirates
First and foremost Sky Pirates don’t have the luxury of running EX, board sweeps or much in the way of single target removal. This leaves them particularly vulnerable in the early stages of the game. If you can keep playing threats and support them with protection. A lot of what Sky Pirates are playing falls short early game save for Leviathan, Lord of the Whorl, and Leviathan alone that early is an expensive, sketchy all-in that is only hoping to buy you time enough for your opponent to skip a beat in their aggression.
This should position Fire/Water Vikings with the new Faris in a good spot to beat Sky Pirates. Being able to consistently present boards that need an answer at a low cost, backed up by Noctis and Yuna which apply pressure, a powerful closer in Faris’ Pirate Storm and Amaterasu to interrupt your Vaan and protect from Leviathan.
We’ve also tried variants of Rydia, Porom and Palom presenting early boards to combat Sky Pirates to reasonable success as the twins themselves pose a scaling threat that can remove a forward on each player’s turn if unchecked, Rydia enables all kinds of threats and protection with 0CP summons. But that is a 3 colour mess of a deck that’s been difficult to make consistent and optimize so far.
There’s a lot left unexplored still, this is just what I’ve personally seen perform well into pirates in this small slice of our brand new metagame.
Thus far Sky Pirates have struggled with answering individual cards on board that generate value over time consistently or present a big threat of their own as their answers to a lot of cards are primarily surrounding Typhon and the Primals which can be difficult to produce on demand and only work on their own turn. Furthermore they can’t necessarily answer threats on their next turn in a lot of spots. Other times you’re looking at suboptimal lines of play such as breaking Fran for 6k in combination with Penelo, Bismarck or another Fran and it’s somewhere pirates will gradually fall behind in value, especially when they’re forced to keep doing it. Keep it up consistently and I expect it will be a recipe for success.
I mentioned it earlier as well but cards that target 2CP or less forwards at a low cost are at an absolute premium right now and Penelo being the cornerstone of Sky Pirates definitely doesn’t appreciate them.
Indiscriminate board damage is another place to look toward, we’ve come a long way from the days of Fina Valefor YRP and I’m still curious to try it with the new Diabolos regardless of if it’s even remotely good. But Chocobo Joe recently floated the idea of Machina with support, like say Ifrita to keep a Sky Pirates board in check and I can see it. Hell, 20 minutes later I got to watch just that happen with Baralai versus Sky Pirates in the Finals of Zanarkand 2. There are a few more things to explore these days and I could definitely see Rydia being a component in something like that.
Big summons, your stock standard 4CP removal summons like Alexander and the new Bahamut both ignore Penelo’s protection and can remove Kytes’ target on the stack if the Pirates are getting any lofty ideas, but there are also some options for more efficient removal summons that can hit with restrictions like Diabolos or Ramuh.
Break zone hate poses an interesting solution in hampering Sky Pirates options and threats. Mist Dragon is still standing strong as the premier breakzone removal everyone has begrudgingly come to need. Now we could be looking toward other options like Fire Summons, Kadaj, White Mage, or Alba to keep specific cards (like Penelo) away. Anything that keeps the Penelo count to a minimum, or hurts Balthier’s value gets a resounding “Yes” from me.
With the welcome ban of Sterne Leonis, people are exploring new ways to fill his void and everyone’s favourite black belt The Emperor has been seeing a resurgence lately. There are a lot of potent Activated Abilities on the threatening cards in this set and among them are not only Balthier, but both of the new threats for Sky Pirates, Penelo and Kytes. Playing a black belt for my light/dark spot will always be a hard sell to me, but right now The Emperor can definitely hit good timings and create windows for you to be able to combat the new cards, especially because he can come down without responses. For the first time in my experience of FFTCG he might actually have merit. Aside from Pirates, The Emperor also happens to hit Rydia, Palom, Porom, Monks, Lady Lilith, the new monsters, any Gogo strategies and a whole slew of other cards.
Are Sky Pirates solved?
At first it looked like it was the case, adding new cards into last sets lists and playing around with the ~8 tech slots gave us a rock solid deck that is difficult to beat with brand new archetypes. I kind of just assumed that was it for a while, the deck was done, let’s have fun with some other stuff. But these last few days, I’ve been understanding the deck better and have gradually shifted to maximizing on Sky Pirate count, running 3 of each of the backups, Jote to find Fran and maximizing Merlwyb to get things going early.
Is this the best version of the deck? Maybe not yet, but I’m inclined to think it’s on it’s way. It has only been getting stronger with each change and with Amaterasu permitting, I have quite reliably been getting 0 CP Penelo triggers by turn 3 and essentially having 2 draw steps that early in the game is kind of mental.
Time Will Tell
Sky Pirates are absolutely barreling out of the gates as the new great hotness, so much so that Bismarck centric decks are barely even a consideration, but rather an afterthought include for Sky Pirates to lock out games and Bismarck decks alone were looking like the new hotness in our post-ban World.
Here’s looking forward to our brand new metagame! Do you think Sky Pirates are the new boogeyman? What has been working for you versus them? What do you think might help against them in the decks you’re working on? Let us know!