In thirty-four articles to date, I have only mentioned Birthing Pod in passing a couple of times, and I feel that letting it rotate out of Standard without dedicating an article to such a highly versatile card would be blasphemous. Despite my affection for the card, I'm no expert on Pod strategies, so I'll be keeping today's discussion to a fairly high-level to avoid getting bogged down in details. To be sure, Birthing Pod decks come in all chromatic varieties, from Naya (WRG) to Bant (WUG) to RUG to the Jund-flavored (BRG) Zombie Pod. We'll talk about a couple of the options today, while the great debate rages as to which Pod list is the best.
Before we look at what makes the lists different, however, it seems prudent to talk about what makes them the same. The namesake card Birthing Pod allows players to basically run 1-of creatures at each converted mana cost up the chain to wherever your highest creature lies. Sometimes the top of your chain is a single Zealous Conscripts at 5, while others prefer to go up to 7 with Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. Pod is all about the journey, though, and it's the creatures en route to the top of your curve that make Birthing Pod decks really powerful. Whether you're getting Enters The Battlefield (ETB) effects with the likes of Borderland Ranger, or "Dies" effects like the Undying on Strangleroot Geist, most of your creatures are doing double-duty. By the time you're ready to Pod away your creature, chances are it's already done its work for you, or it's going to be coming back with Undying to fight another day. Birthing Pod turns your deck into a 'toolbox' of creatures that you can pull out on-demand as the situation warrants, each with relevant triggered abilities either coming or going (Or both in some cases. Hello, Thragtusk.)
Most Pod decks run Green for mana acceleration to power out spells faster, mana fixing to help cement the mutli-color mana base, and, of course, the namesake Pod itself, to avoid always having to pay 2 life for the Phyrexian mana cost in the activation. Zombie Pod is the exception here, as it only dabbles in Green for the Pod, and foregoes the rest of the Green spell selection. Naya and Bant Pod both run acceleration in Birds of Paradise and Avacyn's Pilgrim, plus Borderland Ranger to help fix the slightly-shaky mana base, and to give a good place to start the Pod chain. It should be noted here that the Naya mana base is often heralded as superior because of the existence of both Copperline Gorge and Razorverge Thicket to make Green mana available on turn one in order to cast a Bird or Pilgrim.
Complementing Green in Naya are Red and White, which give access to a bevy of powerful ETB abilities on its creatures. With the mana base being fairly solid for a three-color deck, the games can play out more like an Aggro deck than anything, but when the Pod comes out, it goes into overdrive. Naya has evolved slightly since M13 launched, but the basis is the same. Mana acceleration and early aggressive creatures like Strangleroot Geist can get you started while Thalia, Guardian of Thraben can keep spell-heavy decks on the back foot. With some early acceleration, we can start to Pod as early as turn three to solid effect. Let's say a first turn Pilgrim leads to a second turn Blade Splicer. Turn three gets you a Birthing Pod and an activation, sacrificing the Splicer for Huntmaster of the Fells. If you're playing against a faster aggro deck, given the life spent activating Birthing Pod, you may need to grab Thragtusk to regain a chunk of life. In less aggressive builds, you may find Inferno Titan or even Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite at the top of the Pod chain. With many creatures leaving Token critters behind, we're not even losing much board presence by podding away our creatures, making for a potentially very cluttered ground state by the mid-to-late-game. Of course, being in Red also gives us access to Bonfire of the Damned, a one-sided sweeper effect that will win some of your games more easily than you'd imagine.
Bant offers a less aggressive strategy, in part because of the slightly looser mana base. It won't have quite as fast of a start as Naya Pod often will, but Bant can occasionally play out almost like a combo deck, with all-star teams like Deadeye Navigator and Acidic Slime all but shutting out the opponent if and when it gets online. This isn't the typical end game for the deck, though, so don't plan to live this dream too often. Bant will often skip out on running the more aggressive Strangleroot Geist in favor of something like Elvish Visionary, who's card draw can be huge. There's a little less excitement at four mana for Bant, given a lack of Huntmasters, but Stonehorn Dignitary can force the opponent to take a combat phase off, and flickering that with a Restoration Angel can buy you a lot of time to enact your own game plan. You can also team the Dignitary up with the aforementioned Deadeye Navigator to ensure your opponent never attacks again. Blade Splicer into Mist Raven is a pretty powerful tempo play when your opponent is looking to ride a single large creature to victory, as with Ramp strategies. Mist Raven leads to Thragtusk, which finally brings us to the top of our chain in Deadeye Navigator or Sun Titan, depending on the situation and board state. Sun Titan grabs the 3-mana creature that likely started your chain, allowing you to start again. Anywhere along the way, if you've got a creature out that you want more of, you can sacrifice a Birds of Paradise or Avacyn's Pilgrim to the Pod and grab a Phantasmal Image, which makes for some pretty nasty interactions with both Thragtusk and Sun Titan, either gaining tons of life or grabbing extra permanents out of your graveyard.
The odd-man out, Zombie Pod, is something of a different breed. It's predominantly Black with hints of Red, but there is little Green to speak of included, aside from the Birthing Pod itself. It is basically a BR Zombies build with Woodland Cemetery and Birthing Pod tossed in for good measure. Sometimes folks tinker with the stock Zombie list to include more one-ofs to search for with Pod, but I haven't seen too much variation. Blood Artist helps offset the life paid to activate your Pod, while also slowly bringing your opponent down. Blood Artist is typically one card you want to see every game, so you're not often going to pod him away. These lists often play some Phyrexian Metamorph to search out after a Geralf's Messenger, which, with Undying, actually allows you to copy your Messenger, doubling up on his ETB ability. Aside from frequent Metamorphs, Falkenrath Aristocrat is the most common 4-drop that I've seen, with some people playing Phyrexian Obliterator as well. Topping off the chain is Zealous Conscripts at five, which can often be all the reach that a Zombie list needs to finish off the opponent. Zombie Pod won't necessarily have an answer for every situation, like you'll often see in a more traditional Pod list, but it is still a force to be reckoned with.
These are some of the more common Pod lists around, but don't let that stop you from coming up with your own flavors. If you're interested, you can check out a pretty neat looking RUG list here, and a 4-color list here!
As a special treat this week, we get to check out the art for the exclusive playmat, only available at Escapist Expo. Pre-register for Saturday's Charity Tournament benefitting Gamers Helping Gamers by 8/23 and you'll get the playmat free at the event!