Building_on_a_Budget

What if you expand a minor theme instead?

Rat's Nest: Ratimation

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The letter B!ased on the URL of this article, this is apparently my one-hundreth weekly article for magicthegathering.com! It's funny, I don't feel that old. Just goes to show you the value of a reasonable diet and exercise, folks.

As I warned you last week, today is going to be a little different from the preconstructed evolutions I've done so far. Up until now, I've taken a preconstructed deck and slowly evolved it into a fun, respectable budget deck using these Guidelines:

1. Start with a preconstructed deck, unedited, and play it.
2. Don't make changes until playing the deck in at least five games.
3. Change no more than five cards at a time.
4. Build a respectable deck that's fun to play.
5. Build an affordable deck.

These Guidelines are still in effect over the next three weeks (although I'll violate the first one a little), but there is one key difference. Each and every time I've changed the previous precons, I've done so staying true to the deck's core mission. That is, none of the decks have deviated from the major themes I've identified up-front. Samurai stayed Samurai. Ninja stayed Ninja. Ogre-Demon fatties stayed Ogre-Demon fatties.

This time, I'm operating with a new guidline:

6. Turn one of the deck's minor themes into a major theme.

That is, I'm going to be consciously turning the deck away from its major themes in order to embrace one of the minor themes in the deck. For example, using this lens with my approach to Dark Devotion, I may have ended up with a Heartless Hidetsugu-Overblaze combo deck instead of an Ogre-Demon fattie deck.

Why change my tactics? Partly as an experiment and to shake things up. The foundation of this column will remain sticking to the precons' major themes but I will occasionally try something off-beat like this to see what happens.

The major reason for my change, however, is a couple of e-mails I received from readers asking that I focus on expanding the minor themes of a deck. These people complained that they often find themselves buying preconstructed decks and falling in love with a single card or two-card combo that goes otherwise unsupported in the deck. I think a lot of people are in this boat, wanting more of a left-turn in deck design instead of sticking to a deck's original intention. This series, I hope, will show how I approach such left turns.

My sixth Guideline probably means that I should set two expectations:

  • Today's preconstructed deck will probably undergo some radical changes, which is appropriate given what I'm trying to do. You should be prepared for the final decklist to look unrecognizable from the original.
  • More than any other experiment so far, you'll probably find yourself disagreeing with my choices over the next three weeks. In fact, you may want to choose a different minor theme to expand. Again, think of these articles as illustrative rather than proscriptive. The point is to inspire and teach, not read as a cookbook.

Now that I've set the stage, let's see what deck I'll be changing...

Pick a deck:
Rats Nest 2473 24.7%
Sunburst 1807 18.0%
Snakes Path 1623 16.2%
Spiritcraft 1143 11.4%
Special Forces 964 9.6%
Kami Reborn 831 8.3%
Stampede 619 6.2%
Spiritbane 556 5.6%
Total 10016 100.0%

Rat's Nest it is! Do you guys love the tribal themes, the newest precons, or both? Sunburst almost made it, but it couldn't overcome the power of the Rat.

Note that I didn't ask about format this time around. Since I was using a list from both Kamigawa and Mirrodin blocks, a Block Constructed option wouldn't make sense (who would I play with a Mirrodin Block deck?). The deck will be Standard-legal, which currently means 8th Edition, Mirrodin, Darksteel, Fifth Dawn, Champions of Kamigawa and Betrayers of Kamigawa.

A Nest of Deck Themes

Here is how Rat's Nest looks straight out of the box. As always, I've separated the land from the creatures from the non-land/non-creatures, then sorted by number of copies and cost.

Normally, here is where I talk about the deck's initial themes, manabase, consistency, power, and fun potential. Most of these first impressions are less important since I'm going to be fundamentally changing what the deck is all about. As a result, let's take a deep, close look at deck themes only.

In my mind, there are two major themes in Rat's Nest:

Major Theme 1: Black Weenie - I'm going to go out on a limb and say the primary theme of Rat's Nest isn't tribal so much as it is black weenies. Nezumi Cutthroat, Skullsnatcher, and Nezumi Ronin are the deck's primary creatures and all are meant to be quick beaters whose power is equal to their cost. Add Nezumi Graverobber, Throat Slitter, Dance of Shadows, Shuko, and Umezawa's Jitte and you're well on your way to having a swarming weenie deck trying to kill an opponent before her strategy can get off the ground. Even Ragged Veins, if you squint, sort of fits into this mindset. If I were to play up this theme, I would probably focus on cards like Ogre Marauder, Takenuma Bleeder, Blind Creeper, Wicked Akuba, and maybe even Bile Urchin or Ebon Drake. I'd nab me another Umezawa's Jitte or three, as well.

Major Theme 2: Rats - Well, um, duh. The use of “Rat” as a creature type is the deck's most obvious theme. Nineteen of the deck's twenty-two creatures (all but Numai Outcast and Genju of the Fens, which I'll count as a creature) are Rats of varying profession and use. The interesting thing about this theme is that the only card that directly benefits from it is Patron of the Nezumi. There's no Marrow Gnawer or Swarm of Rats-type cards to be found, much less a Coat of Arms. This makes the theme more flavorful than mechanics-based. It's a pretty flavorful theme, though.

So at this point I know two things: 1) My deck is not going to win primarily through a quick swarm of weenies, and 2) My deck is not going to focus on Rats other than as a supporting theme.

Speaking of supporting themes, what are some of the more minor themes vying for attention in the deck? In other words, what are the possible themes for me to expand? For simplicity's sake, I'm going to exclude themes only supported by a single card, though I will identify my favorite individual cards in the deck.

First I'll dissect some of the minor themes that either don't hold much potential or don't interest me:

Minor theme: Creature Removal - The deck is loaded with creature removal. Throat Slitter, Rend Flesh, Horobi's Whisper, Befoul, Umezawa's Jitte, can all ensure your opponent can't keep a creature on the table. The clump of removal helps enhance both Nezumi Graverobber and Patron of the Nezumi's effectiveness, although I think their primary purpose is to remove blockers for the deck's weenies. Creature removal isn't a deck-worthy theme on its own, but I thought I'd at least point it out.

Minor theme: Black Ninja - I can easily see this deck evolving into a black Ninja deck as a counterpoint to Club Ninja. Skullsnatcher, Throat Slitter, Okiba-Gang Shinobi are a good start, with Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni probably entering the fray as well. Maybe the deck could even splash blue for Ninja of the Deep Hours and Mistblade Shinobi. Too bad there aren't comes-into-play creatures, but I could probably--*cough*Ravenous Rats*cough*--fix that. Anyway, I feel like I've been down this road recently, so I won't embrace this theme either.

Minor theme: Discard - As monoblack is wont to do, Rat's Nest dedicates some cards to discard. Nezumi Bone-Reader, Okiba-Gang Shinobi, Psychic Spear, and Three Tragedies are already in the deck, with Ravenous Rats, Megrim, Distress, and probably Nezumi Shortfang waiting in the wings. Yawn... that's boring, though.

Minor theme: Arcane/Splice - I'll list this as a theme because of Horobi's Whisper and Rend Flesh, but Dance of Shadows and Three Tragedies are too expensive to use as reasonable Splice targets. No cards like, say, Hired Muscle or Thief of Hope, exist to take advantage of this theme, and it frankly feels like too much of a stretch to force the deck this way.

Minor theme: Graveyard elimination - The only cards meant to destroy graveyards are Nezumi Graverobber and Skullsnatcher, but that's a total of five cards, which isn't a terrible starting point. I wish there was a Gorilla Titan sort of card in Standard that would entice me into this theme, but the only use I can see expanding this theme is in flipping Nezumi Graverobber. To me, that's more the “Reanimation” theme than graveyard elimination.

Minor theme: Creature Pumpers - Is this a theme? It must be, or else I have no other way to justify Midnight Covenant in the deck. Genju of the Fens, Midnight Covenant, and Umezawa's Jitte can all pump your creatures. Wall of Blood would be fun to add, too. What to do with a theme like that, though? Grab the Reins and Soulblast? Ugh. The mana requirements seem untenable.

Minor theme: Equip - I guess it's worth pointing out that both Shuko and Umezawa's Jitte are equipment. I could see adding more equipment and making a Cranial Plating / fear deck that tried to get its creatures unblocked and big. That just seems like a variation on the weenie theme, though.

Those themes, too, won't be playing anything but a supporting role in my deck. In fact, as I look at the deck only two minor themes and two individual cards tug at my creativity...

Minor theme: Black Samurai - As far as I can tell, the only reason that Numai Outcast is in the deck is because he's a Samurai to go along with Nezumi Ronin. Cursed Ronin is another possible addition, and Toshiro Umezawa is also a Samurai. Maybe splash white for Nagao, Bound by Honor? Red for Godo, Bandit Warlord? Interesting options there, especially with red.

Minor theme: Reanimation - Both Nezumi Graverobber and Stir the Grave can pop creatures back from the grave. There's again that problem of a lack of comes-into-play or leaves-play effects, but the deck could fix that absence pretty easily. Reanimation is one of those mechanics that always seems to make me smile.

Favorite Cards - As for individual cards I think are cool, both Nezumi Graverobber and Patron of the Nezumi really inspire me. Actually, I sort of like Dance of Shadows as well, but to use it in a non-weenie deck means focusing on token generation which is too far afield.

Is there a way to embrace one of these two minor themes and use the two cards in the deck I like? No points for guessing there. I would say Nezumi Graverobber and Patron of the Nezumi have a natural place in a Reanimation deck and no place at all in a black/red Samurai deck.

Here is my plan, then: I want to make a deck that maximizes the use of both Nezumi Graverobber and Patron of the Nezumi, with a primary focus on graveyard animation. It's Rat-Reanimation. Rat-imation, even.

Making Changes? Already?

Yep, after all of this analysis, I'm already ready to change the deck a little. Keep in mind that usually I want to play a preconstructed deck before I start swapping out cards. Given that I'm expanding a minor theme, however, I'm not likely to see my favorite cards after even a handful of games. As a result, I need to tweak the deck so I can get a better feel for what's working and what isn't. The goal with this first round of changes will be to take out the cards directly in conflict with my new major theme (Ratimation... heh) in order to build up the deck's core.

What is my new deck's core? I'm glad you asked...

IN: 3 Nezumi Graverobber

He fits the theme I'm trying to support, is one of my favorite two cards in the deck, and in a pinch can help me cast my other favorite card in the deck. The nice thing about Nezumi Graverobber in this deck is that the creature removal and discard all help put cards into an opponent's graveyard if none are currently there, making the Graverobber very easy to flip quickly.

IN: 1 Patron of the Nezumi

He's rare, but he is also now one of the deck's centerpieces. If I follow my usual practice of buying two preconstructed decks when starting these experiments then I already have the second copy. That means copies three and four, if I want to add them, will be under a lot more scrutiny than number two. In any case, the inclusion of two Patrons of the Nezumi means that Rats will remain a supporting theme in the deck. The idea I'm seeing is an ability to power out a quick Patron, then bring my sacrificed Rats back into play. We'll see how that shapes up in practice, however, and if a Ratimation deck is too limiting.

That's my core around which I'll build: Four Nezumi Graverobbers and two Patron of the Nezumi. Since I allow myself up to five cards in a change, I'll also toss in...

IN: 1 Stir the Grave

I'm a huge fan of Zombify (I wouldn't be surprised if it made an appearance in the deck, in fact), and Stir the Grave can be a cheaper Zombify for, say, a Skullsnatcher or Nezumi Graverobber. It's unlikely I will ever use it to pop a Patron back into play, but it should serve the cheaper Rats who get sacrificed to the Patron.

Now, which cards do I know right away don't deserve a place in my Ratimation deck?

OUT: 2 Numai Outcast

Numai Outcast is the only true creature card that isn't a Rat and it also happens to be terrible. On last week's Message Boards, Zavyyn expressed so much hatred for Numai Outcast that he wanted it on my “Worst Commons” list even as an uncommon. The only time I have ever used Numai Outcast in a deck was for a Prismatic Samurai deck, and even then I hated drawing it. Why? Four mana for a 1/1 is horrible, even if the creature has bushido 3. Paying Black Mana and 5 life is horrible, even if it's to regenerate your creature. Add two horrible features to a non-Rat and this card has no place in my deck.

OUT: 1 Ragged Veins

Ragged Veins is one of those head-scratcher Enchant Creature cards from Kamigawa block that can be played as an instant yet seems to have no place in a Constructed deck of any kind. It didn't quite make my “Sucky Six” list from last week because it can technically win you the game. Also, I can see this card being used in combination with some sort of burn or Consume Spirit shenanigans, or as a way of neutering an opponent's regeneration creature. I don't see any way to use it in a reanimation deck, though, much less a Ratimation deck. Even if I were sticking to a straight Rat or black weenie deck, Ragged Veins wouldn't make it past the first round of cuts.

OUT: 1 Genju of the Fens

I like Betrayers' Genju, but Genju of the Fens is the worst of them by a fair distance. It requires a small mountain of black mana to use effectively, although it is unique among the Genju in that the more mana you have the better it gets. My deck wants to hold back mana to cast Patron of the Nezumi, remove creatures, reanimate, or cast more creatures. As a result, I can't see Genju of the Fens being effective except in a slow, monoblack control deck with board-sweepers like Hideous Laughter and Barter in Blood. Besides, not only is it not a Rat, it's not a creature I can reanimate.

OUT: 1 Shuko

Shuko is strictly for either aggressive decks or silly combo decks trying to abuse Daru Spiritualist. I've already established that the deck is going to stay away from being strictly aggressive and the Spiritualist isn't Standard-legal, so I guess Shuko is out of consideration. Don't get me wrong: +1 power is a nice boon, especially for creatures with fear. A cheap power boost isn't what I want to spend my card-slots on, though. In fact, the only equipment I can see holding on to is Umezawa's Jitte (because, well, it's awesomely unfair) and something that will help reanimation (say, Sword of Light and Shadow).

That leaves me here as a starting point:

Now it's time to jump into the Casual Constructed room of Magic Online and see how far away I am from something that feels Rat-tastic.

Game 1: Monogreen Legendary beatdown

Okay, I fell in love with Ratimation after a single game. He had green good stuff, including Sakura-Tribe Elder, Troll Ascetic, Humble Budoka, Dosan the Falling Leaf, Kodama of the North Tree, and Iwamori of the Open Fist. He dropped Troll Ascetic first while I played a second-turn Nezumi Graverobber. Thanks to his Elder, my Rat flipped into Nighteyes the Desecrator. I then played Nezumi Ronin. He responded with Iwamori, which gave me a free Patron of the Nezumi. Wheee! On the next turn I hit five mana, meaning I could animate his Elder every turn as a blocker to get me a Swamp and deal him one damage via the Patron. Pretty soon I hit ten mana and could do it twice in one turn. I gambled to use a Nezumi Bone-Reader on his last card in hand, which was Kodama of the North Tree (he already had one in play). Reanimating the Kodama killed both, then I could grab one of my own to start beating away. It was all downhill from there for my opponent.

I couldn't believe how well Nighteyes and Patron worked together, especially against an opposing Sakura-Tribe Elder. I'm in love, I tell you, LOVE!

Game 2: Monoblack Ninjas

He started with a Grimclaw Bats to my Nezumi Cutthroat. He attacked, then brought Throat Slitter in Ninja-style. The ability was obviously ineffective against me and he had lost valuable tempo while I played Nezumi Ronin and Nezumi Bone-Reader. I then miraculously drew Nezumi Shadow-Watcher to kill his Ninja and keep attacking. He played two Ronin Warclubs, setting up a replay of his Bats, but I cast Three Tragedies first to empty his hand, then brought Skullsnatcher into play to start eating his graveyard. He drew his fifth Swamp, followed by a Throat Slitter (which was 6/4 thanks to the Warclubs), but at the end of his turn I sacrificed my Bone-Reader to bring out Patron and he died to my next attack. Go Ratimation!

Game 3: Black/Green Ogres-Demons

He started with a Sakura-Tribe Elder, which had me excited except that I had no Nezumi Graverobber in hand. Instead I cast Nezumi Bone-Reader and Nezumi Ronin to start my offense. My Ronin traded with his Takenuma Bleeder, then I cast another Ronin. He used Time of Need to get Yukora the Prisoner, which pretty much halted my offense. Another Time of Need brought out Kokusho, the Evening Star. Yukora held on defense while Kokusho attacked by air and I died quickly. It wasn't very close, really.

Game 4: Blue/Black Ninjas

Ah, it's like old home week! My deck has a sense of humor, at least, since his first-turn Shuriken was met by my first-turn Nezumi Shadow-Watcher. Then I started to lose. My Psychic Spear came up empty for the second game in a row, his first Vedalken Shackles took my Nezumi Graverobber then flipped it, and finally his second Vedalken Shackles took my Nezumi Ronin. I knew from the Spear that he had Ninja of the Deep Hours and Mistblade Shinobi in hand, so when he cast Sage Owl I conceded. Again, not very close.

Two games where I mop the floor and two games where I am the mop. Let's check out the tie-breaker...

Game 5: Monoblack Underworld Dreams

I've seen a few of these decks online and they're always fun. He had Howling Mine, Skullcage, Underworld Dreams, Barter in Blood, Promise of Power, and Kokusho, the Evening Star. I tagged him with a Nezumi Cutthroat and Nezumi Bone-Reader for a couple of turns before Barter in Blood cleared the board. His 6/6 Demon token attacked while I turned a Throat Slitter into Patron of the Nezumi. I equipped my Patron with Umezawa's Jitte and attacked, killing his Kokusho but putting me too low on life for the charge counters to save me. I got stuck, for the third game in a row, with

Horobi's Whisper

uselessly in hand.

The Obvious Rat

Alas, the deck is performing more like a preconstructed deck than a Ratimation deck. Time to make a few more modifications.

IN: 4 Ravenous Rats

Ravenous Rats seem like my Ratimation deck's most obvious addition. They are one of black's best reanimation targets and they're also Rats. Good with Nezumi Graverobber. Good with Ninja. Good with Patron of the Nezumi. Good with Stir the Grave. I'll take four, please.

IN: 1 Throat Slitter

On one hand I seem to be playing against all black decks, which makes Throat Slitter a lot less effective. On the other hand, a Throat Slitter allows me to cast a Patron of the Nezumi for only two mana at instant speed. The inclusion of Ravenous Rats makes the ninjutsu ability even better. I don't know that Okiba-Gang Shinobi or Skullsnatcher will stay in the deck yet, but so far Throat Slitter feels like a keeper.

OUT: 1 Psychic Spear

I've cast it twice and both times come up empty. The deck either needs four copies to reliably use it on the first turn or none at all. Psychic Spear is a worthy card in Kamigawa Block Constructed, but for Standard it's far from being Duress in quality, especially when Distress is hanging out at two mana.

OUT: 2 Three Tragedies

Three Tragedies can devastate an opponent's hand sometimes, like in my Game 2. I find that I want to use my mana on other things, though, and that my opponent either has fewer than three or a lot more than three cards in hand when I want to cast it. The real reason to drop it is that in Standard I have access to Mind Sludge, which is strictly better in a monoblack deck not trying to abuse Arcane. Anyway, I want fun creatures with comes-into-play effects, not slow sorceries.

OUT: 1 Midnight Covenant

The good news is that a deck wanting Enchant Creature cards must first have a lot of creatures. Not only do I have that requirement down but have just upped the creature count significantly. The bad news is that I just don't see my deck wanting the “Shade” effect, especially when it might cost me card advantage. It's an admirable idea to try and make weenies with fear much less weenie-ish, but my deck isn't going to be as much about a quick weenie rush anymore and fear seems sort of incidental to what I'm doing.

The interesting thing about the deck at this point is that the changes are right in line with the major themes. That is, so far all I've done is add Rat weenies. It's conceivable that had I done of my “normal” evolutions that I would have made these same initial changes.

Ah, but that's why the experiment continues, eh?

Game 6: Five-Color Super Fatties

Not only did he have Tooth and Nail, but he also used Elvish Piper. I kept a hand with one land because it also had five two-cost Rats and Umezawa's Jitte. I found my second land on Turn 3, but it was too late as he got an active Piper into play, then Bringer of the Black Dawn. Memnarch showed up to steal my Jitte and that was game.

Game 7: Black/Red Demons

Well this is familiar territory. He had a Wayfarer's Bauble to speed him up, but I had the perfect beginning: Ravenous Rats on Turn 2, Throat Slitter on Turn 3, replay my Ravenous Rats and sacrifice my Ninja to play Patron of the Nezumi on Turn 4. His Scourge of Numai chump-blocked my Patron, and he couldn't find any other creatures. Nezumi Graverobber showed up and flipped into Nighteyes for style points.

Game 8: Five-color Control

In the absence of my favorite cards, I was feeling pretty good about winning quickly with a swarm of weenies. I had two Nezumi Cutthroats, a Nezumi Ronin, a Ravenous Rats, and an Umezawa's Jitte. I even used Befoul on his lone Forest to slow him down. It didn't work, though. At eight life, right after I played the Jitte, he played Engineered Explosives for two. I recovered a bit and put on more pressure. He had another Explosives, plus a Trinket Mage to block my Ronin. Birds of Paradise followed, then Sword of Light and Shadow. Ouch. His life started climbing, and then he played Sword of Fire and Ice. I was out of cards in hand and conceded.

Game 9: White Weenie equip

Umezawa's Jitte just seems so unfair. My opponent got an Auriok Glaivemaster and Shuko. I got a Nezumi Cutthroat on Turn 2, Nezumi Ronin on Turn 3, then the Jitte on my Cutthroat Turn 4. Although my opponent played Mask of Memory and found a slew of weenies, I killed them all with my Jitte counters and kept attacking. For the last two points of damage, I saved a counter to give my Cutthroat +2/+2. Sigh. Not quite how I envision my Ratimation deck winning, even if it was a dominant victory.

Game 10: Monoblue Ninjas

This was a fun, fun game. His deck was a lot like Club Ninja except, apparently, using four Umezawa's Jitte (!). He never found his Jitte but I found my lone copy. The result was a back-and-forth game in which he played three Spire Golem and two Sage Owls to my small army of Rats. I flipped Nezumi Graverobber pretty early in the game, and once I hit five mana could reanimate one of his dead Golems to block for me. My Spire Golem equiped with Jitte turned to offense while Nighteyes the Desecrator used--and I'm not making this up--a recurring Nezumi Shadow-Watcher to kill all of his Ninja, then used Ravenous Rats for two turns to keep my opponent's hand empty. If he had a Jitte of his own it would have been a very different game, but the Shadow-Watcher nonsense alone was worth the price of admission.

I'll stop there. Clearly the deck is still as much about weenie swarms as it is reanimation. It almost feels like a different deck shows up each game.

Next week I'll start off with some changes to the deck, followed by lots of changes and then more changes. I may end the day with changes. No more winning through creature swarms for me. Nosirree. I want more Reanimation and less Rat, and I want it soon...

Have fun!

-jms

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