I’d like to take a moment to introduce myself. I’m a closet geek. During the day I masquerade as mild mannered sales manager and at night I moonlight as an amateur tactician. The battle field I choose is a game called Magic the Gathering. “Wait!” you shriek, “Isn’t MTG the collectible card game that keeps middle-aged balding guys, in too small Firefly T-shirts, prowling about their local comic shops every Friday night?” Yep. That’s the one. And, yep, that guy plays. And chances are if you were seated across the table from him, too small shirt not withstanding, he’d trounce you three ways to Tuesday and take the cookies your mommy baked you to boot. You see, Magic the Gathering, (which I’ll save wear and tear on your eyes and refer to as MTG from here on out), is an obscure corner of geekdom that pays no heed to appearance, age, T-Shirt size, or whether your 6 pack tapers into a “V” or not. Some consideration is given if you are a girl, but mostly because, like all geek girls, you’re something of a rockstar. Even that won’t help you win. It’s a game that combines the best of strategy, luck, and resourcefulness. For those of you who play, you know what I mean. For those of you who don’t, it might warrant taking your Firefly T-Shirt out of retirement and heading down to your local Comic Book Store.
In this article I plan on delving into the art of deck building.
“Deck building! There are a hundred pros that publish their top decks each week. We have no need of your paltry offerings!” you scoff.
If your style of playing involves looking up what the pros run, and racing out to buy the same cards, then you best stop reading now. I won’t be writing for you. I’m writing for those of us who are intrigued by the seedier back alleys of the Magic world. This column will be dedicated to looking at the cards that are not commonly played and seeing if they can be made into something competitive. Think of it like a mad scientist’s laboratory of deck building. In the process, we will document, test, and retest our decks. When we feel we’ve gotten it to a point that it is ready, we’ll run it out to Friday Night Magic to see how it fares.
For my first deck I’m going to focus on building a deck around a card from the recent Return to Ravnica block, Pack Rat. This little black rodent hits the table for a mere two mana, and almost looks cuddly.
Pack Rat may look harmless enough at first, but pay attention to the fine print. The first troublesome piece of text is:
“Pack Rat’s power and toughness are each equal to the number of rats you control.”
As I learned in my first apartment, wherever you see one rodent there is bound to be more. If there aren’t more yet, there will be soon. Don’t let Pack Rat’s fuzzy little exterior fool you, his second power makes sure that he won’t stay cuddly or alone very long. For a mere three mana, you can:
“Discard a card: Put a token on the battle field that’s a copy of Pack Rat.”
Suddenly the cute little 1/1 ratling is a diabolical duo of angst filled 2/2 adolescents. Next round you’ve got the three mouseketeers at 3/3 gnawing on the cat. One more and you’ve got a veritable gang of 4/4 mutant mega-rats capable of eating the neighborhood watch. What happens next is not suitable for children.
“Sweet Mama Pajama!”, you exclaim. “I had no idea! How can I get a set of these petite plague-bearers, so I can win at everything forever?!”
Hold there Turbo. Before you go pilfering your piggy bank in favor of rat ownership, I should mention that there are a few drawbacks to our furry little friend. The most significant are 3 cards that seem to be everywhere these days: Supreme Verdict, Detention Sphere, and Mizzium Mortars. All three cards allow an opponent to clear the deck of your unruly gang of rats right when you are ready to pee on their lunchables. The other drawback is that you have to discard a card to get each new Pack Rat. This means Pack Ratting becomes a kind of “all in” strategy that can leave you with an empty board and no money for the bus should something go wrong. Those are the main reasons that Pack Rat sees such limited play in standard constructed. It’s our job to see if we can make it competitive.
Here is our first attempt:
4- Pack Rat (2)
1- Murder (3)
For the first draft of the Pack Rat Deck we decided to go with a heavily black deck with just a splash of white. The black helps us to make sure that Pack Rat comes out right away, and the white gives us a little defense and flash back on Unburial Rites. Pack Rat is joined by Ravenous Rats who will not only make it stronger, but help to generate a card advantage through a little forced discard. The Ogre Slumlord will give our rats death touch and serve as a little rat making factory for more Pack Rat steroids. Crypt Ghasts will make sure the mana flows by instantly doubling our swamps. This should allow us to drop our bombs sooner, or create an almost instant swarm of rats. Filling out the ranks are Evernight Shades who are hard to kill and very dangerous with all the black in this deck, and Necropolis Regents, who not only are 6/5 flyers, but also double the size of every creature that does damage to a player.
For instants, we focused on removal and defensive spells. Rootborn Defenses protect us against the dreaded Supreme Verdict and Mizzium Mortars, while giving us More Pack Rat! Faith’s Shield protects against everything, and Devour Flesh allows us to get rid of threats, or even our own creature if Detention Sphere tries to poop in the pool. Murder and Tragic Slip round out our removal with some straight forward blunt force trauma.
Sorceries we limited to grave digging spells. Unburial Rites allows us to retrieve creatures we discarded to make Pack Rats, and Immortal Servitude can bring back half of our creatures in the event of a board wipe. If you didn’t like the Ravenous Rats the first time, you are going to hate when they all come crawling back from the grave and make you discard another 4 cards. (Insert evil laugh here).
We didn’t include many enchantments. In most cases we’d rather have a rat. We did include underworld connections to give us additional cards to transform into rats. The only other enchantment, Gift of Orzhova, helps to address one of our glaring weaknesses. Rats can’t fly. These borrowed wings will help make certain that we don’t get beat to death by a pigeon, or some other aerial form of humiliation. I am in favor of avoiding humiliating loss when ever possible.
Finally I tossed in a Ring of Zathrid. Call me a steady-handed patriot with cruel yet handsome eyes if you wish, but an artifact that makes black creatures bigger while giving them regeneration seemed worth a spot.
Play Testing Pass One:
We tested our deck out against a few other decks. Against slow decks without lots of removal our disreputable rodents proved a potent form of punishment. Surprisingly, the cards we surrounded our furry friend with proved as effective at closing the deal as the rats themselves. This deck has a lot of ways to punish your opponents for showing up. We did find that if a deck was heavy with fliers, we were always on our heels and often without a good way to recover. (Oh, Sublime Archangel how I hate thee!) The amount of discard needed to get out our rats also became an issue. By the time we had a few rats out, we rarely had the cards necessary to protect anything. This was not an issue if they couldn’t remove our rats. If they could, we were left begging for change at the gas station. Finally, we found ourselves clutching protective cards in the wrong color, when we really wanted removal. With those weaknesses in mind, it was back to the lab for pass number two.
Pack Rat Deck Version 1.1
3- Pack Rat (2)
As you can see,we made a few major changes to address some of the issues we encountered in our play testing.
“Wait!” you scream, “You’re tricking us! You said this was a “Pack Rat Deck”, but you removed a Pack Rat! You’re a bad man!”
Fine, I’m a bad man. I eliminated a Pack Rat. This isn’t candy land kid. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices for the greater good. The beauty of Pack Rat is you only need one to make an army. In the end one less Pack Rat seems like the right move. Play testing will show if I’m right or wrong.
I also eliminated the Evernight Shades and Ogre Slum Lords. Both are better as defensive cards and will serve as sideboard relief hitters should we need to play defense. In their place I added lots of fliers to our line up. The Nightveil Specters will serve double duty, both giving us an early presence in the air and generating extra cards for us to play. It’s doubly sweet that those extra cards will come from our opponent’s decks. The Bloodline Keeper is a low cost way to generate chump blocks or an aerial armada depending on what we need most. (Plus, admit it, vampires are cool! Especially when they help us to win.) At the top end we added two big bodies with the Lord of the Void and Avacyn, Angel of Hope. Either card can change the face of the game if they hit the battlefield and make an excellent target for Unburial Rites.
For instants we ditched Murder and one Rootborn Defenses for the more flexible Necrobite. It gives us the ability to regenerate a creature in trouble, while providing a little deathtouch at instant speed. This fits the more aggressive character of the deck better.
Our last substitution was to ditch the two Gift of Orzhovas in favor of a second Underworld Connections and a Stab Wound. With our flyer situation so improved we prefer the card generating engine and a nasty trick. This final substitution sets us up for round two of play testing.
Play Testing Round Two:
For round two we took the Pack Rats on the road to Friday Night Magic. Our first match against an aggressive Red/Green deck went 1-2, with the final loss being entirely operator error (never bring back a ravenous rat when the opponent has no cards in his hand and you have a pack rat available.) The second match was against a slower deck, and Pack Rat ended them with fliers in the air. Hello Necropolis Regent! The next match was against a creative Green/Red/White combo deck that used Slayers Strongholds, Silverblade Paladins, and Lightning Maulers to pound us hard. We got decimated quickly, as we couldn’t muster a defense in time to prevent the carnage. The player also employed one of the more unique removal techniques to clear our board the one game we actually put together a defense. She would play Rancor on our creature to get it over 4 power and destroy it using Intrepid Hero. It was as annoying as sand in your undies, but admittedly clever. The final two matches were against decks that weren’t quite up to our caliber and we destroyed them 2-0, 2-0. At the end of the night Pack Rat proved to be formidable given time, but very vulnerable against fast aggression. Fixing that vulnerability gave us our goal going into the final week.
Pack Rat Deck Version 1.2:
3- Pack Rat (2)
1- Pack Rat (2)
For the final build we made a few significant changes to give us a better chance versus the aggro decks. We let Ravenous Rats go in exchange for the High Priest of Penance. While the discard was nice, the ability to destroy choice permanent was much better at holding off aggro. Blind obedience took away the haste, and also gave a bit of extort in the early game. It was our hope that this would make it tougher to overrun our deck before things got rolling. With those changes we took our deck back on the road for a final test.
The changes we made work perfectly, freezing early aggro and forcing our opponents to dig deeper into their decks for solutions. We won our first match 2-1 with an opponent that used exile to devastating effect. We won the match in game three when his mana pool all but disappeared. Match two was against a classic Red/Green aggro deck. It ended with a disappointing 0-2 loss. Game one we failed to get any of our removal or defensive cards and got trampled. Game two went better, but we failed to get any of our creatures larger than 1/1. Eventually his second Hell Rider sealed the deal. The good news was that we definitely had cards to give us a chance. The bad news was that those cards never showed up. Match three ended with a 0-2 loss, but was much closer than the outcome suggested. Playing a Red/Blue/White American deck, our opponent top decked a second Boros Charm to burn us off the turn before we killed him in game one. The second game he managed to play two Geist of St Trafts. We dealt with one, but got beat down by the second before we drew a solution. Our final match of the night was against the Red/Green/White deck that had stomped us so thoroughly the week before. It was in this match that our deck really shone. Game one a pair of Bloodline Keepers finished things in the air with a flock of 6/6 vampires. Game two we did our best impression of the camper trying to ward off the bear with a pointy stick, bringing back our High Priest of Penance 3 times before finally letting Ruric Thar eat our marshmallows. Game three we were able to destroy their only source of white mana on the second turn. That meant no Intrepid Hero, as our little Pack Rat starting pumping out babies. We stop rat production long enough to play a Nightveil Specter. The next turn it hit for 2 and stole a card; white mana. Without that mana, there was no way to stop the rat infestation and we finished the night 2 and 2.
It was a fun experience trying to build around the Pack Rat. In the end, we found that our little rat buddy makes a great support card, but is probably not ready to be prom queen. The lessons learned from our adventures in Pack Ratting should serve us well as we attempt our next experimental deck: Land Destruction!
We’re interested in your feedback. Was there something we should have tried, or done differently? Is there a different card that we should build a deck around? Feel free to leave your comments and stay tuned for our next dive in to the seedy underworld of Magic the Gathering.