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Fixing a Problem Child


I have a deck-building problem. Having played the Magic for twenty-plus years, I’ve amassed quite a collection of cards. Even as I go through the dregs, readying them for their next lives, I occasionally find a card that starts the gears turning in my brain. “Go ahead,” some dark passenger whispers. “Build a deck around me.”

Worse than this is when I go through different card lists and see interactions that my collection cannot support. “Buy it,” goes my shadow self. “It’ll be fun to put another deck together.” The darkness takes over, and I add cards to my cart.

Then I wake up, surrounded by piles of cardboard.

Oh no, not again.

It was after one such fit that I found myself the proud owner of a Marrow-Gnawer. I remember thinking that Rat tribal would be a fun change of pace from my normal, graveyard-based strategies. Having a commander that required a sacrifice, however, pushed me toward some death synergy. I resisted the urge and ended up with a deck that pulled in multiple directions.

I have found this to be a problem when building Commander decks. My natural inclination is to construct stacks around what I love in Magic, which, as I’ve mentioned previously, is using the graveyard as a significant resource. When I try to go against my own personal grain, I find that the decks just don’t come out as cohesive. Heck, even my Muzzio, Visionary Architect deck has a number of cards based on sacrifice and Raise Dead effects (albeit focused on artifacts).

With Marrow-Gnawer, I wanted to do something different. Except I didn’t, and now the deck is a little bit of a mess.

This deck reminds me of a Rube Goldberg machine, but one he left on the cutting room floor. Pulled in more directions than a Stretch Armstrong, my Marrow-Gnawer deck went from tribal deck to bad black good stuff.


Chittering Rats
First, I have the Rat theme. I have found just about every card with the creature type Rat that I thought would be fun and jammed them in here to feed to Marrow-Gnawer. This led to a minor token theme that is best exemplified in Eldrazi Monument, Paragon of Open Graves, Coat of Arms, and Ascendant Evincar (among others). The Rats also led me down the sewer of two other subareas of the deck. There is an enters-the-battlefield package centered on Cloudstone Curio and Erratic Portal and a small-creatures-matter strain, fueled by Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker. The former is inspired by my love of Chittering Rats, while the latter was pilfered from the Shizo deck of my friend Rob. These were the first elements of the deck and continue to constitute the core.

Often, these suites of cards will flood the board with an exponential number of Rats. Then, when the time is right, I slam an Anthem effect and ride it to victory. Sadly, this does not happen very often, as this deck takes quite a while to set up. But when it does, there is nothing like slaying a table with a swarm of rather large rodents.


While this theme was partially present before the advent of Theros block, it took off in earnest when I added Gray Merchant of Asphodel, Erebos, God of the Dead, and Abhorrent Overlord. Calling it devotion is a bit of misnomer, as it just really liked black mana. Cabal Coffers, Crypt Ghast, and Pontiff of Blight gave this deck another angle of attack. I call this devotion since it plays along a similar axis as the mana-symbols-count vector.

Lashwrithe was a recent addition to this pocket, as was Pestilence Demon. The Pontiff of Blight has cross-area synergy, as it works very well with all the tokens available from Marrow-Gnawer’s minions.


Nihilistic Glee
Marrow-Gnawer has a tendency to attract cards that I find fascinating but that don’t have another home. One such enhancement is Nihilistic Glee. There is something about this absurdly-hard-to-use draw engine that makes me smile—maybe it’s the art—and the ability to turn extra cards into damage is always fun.

Many of the Rats fall on the border of this category as well. The Rats themselves are cards that are left of center and are not what I would call standard Commander options. The tribal nature of Marrow-Gnawer gives me an excuse to run some odd cards like Stronghold Rats, Rotting Rats, and Diseased Vermin.

Somehow, even though these three areas overlap, I still feel that this deck is pulled in multiple directions. Unlike the Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord deck linked to earlier, Marrow-Gnawer has no unifying focus to its multiple plans other than that they all require black mana. Instead, each plan is only partially complete, and that results in a deck that can never really close. I rarely pull it out of the deck box because it’s not as fun to play as some of my other creations.

This is where you, my readers, come in. I want to revise my mono-black deck, and I want your help. I am willing to focus on any of these ideas or to try to find something new. First up, though, will be thinking about the creature in charge.

Here are some current candidates:

Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief
Marrow-Gnawer currently holds the throne, and keeping this Rat at the helm would push the deck back toward tribal and token lines. This would bring the deck in line with those original lost thoughts, but it may be a bit underpowered for the games I currently play. Removing Marrow-Gnawer would open up a lot of space for tinkering, as it would remove some of the less potent, but on-theme, inclusions.

Erebos, God of the Dead also lives in this junkyard. If I wanted to push this deck more toward a devotion engine, I could see it taking the reins. However, Erebos is a card that would be a departure from the somewhat off-kilter nature of the deck. Therefore, if I want Swamps to matter, I have pulled two options to the front, each with its own subtheme.

These cards would totally dismantle the Rats theme, but I would be excited to see how these commanders would direct their armies.

Finally, there is Ashling, the Extinguisher. I am enamored with this card and its saboteur nature, but also with the fact that I haven’t seen it on battlefields very often. Running the dark side of Ashling could push the deck more toward the Voltron style: trying to win with a suited-up commander. Ashling would also push the odd inclusions up more, as I think I would have fun with some black Auras that enhance creatures and perhaps some of the loner cards from Avacyn Restored.

Those are four options and four very different directions. I want to take Marrow-Gnawer from a deck about which I always say, “Maybe I’ll play you next time,” and turn it into, “I’m playing this tonight.” Vote in the poll below, and let me know which path to take!

[poll id="459"]

When you vote, sound off below on some cards in the comments to get the conversation started. Think Volrath needs the Whip of Erebos? Let me know. Want Ashling to carry the Sword of Light and Shadow? Write it down. I won’t be writing about Marrow-Gnawer’s journey every week, but I’ll update you on progress periodically as the deck evolves.

Let the voice in the back of my head speak to yours. I’m excited for this experiment, and I hope y’all are as well!

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