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The Why and the Rats


The comments in my article chronicling my issues with my Marrow-Gnawer deck were loaded. The insights and ideas definitely have given me ideas for future builds (more on the updated deck later), but it illuminated something else entirely. It has been said many times before, and it will be repeated as long as people are playing Magic.

I play Commander for my own reasons, and they may be different than the reasons of the rest of the cardboard slinging population’s. But then again, everyone has his or her own motivations for playing with one hundred cards.

What follows is an attempt to explain not only Why I Commander, but How.

I built my first Commander deck in advance of the 2009 Community Cup. For the next few years, my main interaction with the format was in deck-building. I would deconstruct and reassemble my decks every four months, even though the number of people to battle with hovered around zero.

Before this, I was what could be called a Spike. Playing Magic outside a tournament setting was not a very appealing prospect. Even when I would draft my Cube in a heads-up fashion, my goal was to prove to myself I could win and grow better. Sixty-card Constructed was off limits. I did not feel I had the time to master rotating formats, and I was hesitant to add too many cards to my collection.

When I moved to graduate school, I shipped my cards in two boxes—one had the vast majority of my cards while the other had my rare binder and a few key decks. One box made it to my new apartment; it had the binder. The overwhelming majority of my cards, and therefore my youth, were lost to a parcel company.

It was this experience that soured me on trying to constantly build decks. Instead, I would draft. I played Pauper on Magic Online. I would grow bitter with losses, and playing the game was fun, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I used to when I was younger.

Commander changed that. But it was predicated on a move.

Craw Wurm
I got a new job and moved close to where I grew up. Unlike the suburban sprawl where I had been living, my new, old, urban digs made finding people to play with easy. After a few Drafts at the Twenty Sided Store, I ended up on a few mailing lists and found people with whom I could play Commander. And I was a kid again.

Like many, I was attracted to Magic in my youth not for the competition, but for the wonderment. I loved being immersed in the battle and becoming a wizards. Summoning giant Craw Wurms to do my bidding was my jam. Magic grounded my imagination on the table, and it was amazing. Just like this video takes my love of space opera and makes it tangible, Magic did the same thing for swords and sorcery. Somewhere along the way, I lost that.

When I found tournaments and games became about wins and losses, and more so when I understood the consequences of those outcomes, that became my primary concern. I would go through stretches when that was all I cared about. Commander brought me back to Craw Wurms battling Stone Giants. I was able to make monsters and have them fight. Just like before, I was in charge of an army. This time, though, I had an intermediary.

Commander awakened something primal in my Magic mind. I started building different decks and cared less about the outcome. Sure, I enjoyed winning the games more than losing, but what I really enjoyed was sharing a beer with friends and the stories that came out of our bouts.

Whereas before I had been almost purely Spike, Commander allowed my Johnny and Timmy sides to flex their muscles.

It comes down to this. I play Commander because it lets me have fun with my toys the way I want.

Xenagos, God of Revels
So this brings us back to the Marrow-Gnawer deck. As I identified earlier, one of the problems with the deck is that it was pulled in too many directions. More than that, it is a commander that plays into how I want to play Magic. Being able to sacrifice investments for resources is something I do often, and going against that was a recipe for disaster. From this experience, I learned that if I want to build a deck that does something outside of my comfort zone, it would have to be with a legendary creature that doesn’t naturally pull me toward my wheelhouse. Current commanders in my repertoire that don’t require some graveyard synergies include Vorel of the Hull Clade and Xenagos, God of Revels. These decks do not have the focal problem that Marrow-Gnawer displayed.

As for Marrow-Gnawer, the rat gang leader will remain as the commander of the deck. With 41% of the vote, it held a plurality. The vote helped me to realize my original intent with the deck. Much like Commander reminds me of Craw Wurms, the process of the last article dredged up memories of my original goals. And lo and behold, they largely align with Marrow-Gnawer. As I refine the deck, the following will serve as a guide:

  • This is a Marrow-Gnawer deck. That means there are going to be Rats and tokens.
  • This is not a Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker deck. Upon looking at the list with some distance, it became clear that trying to shoehorn Shirei into this build created some problems. It stretched the deck too thin.
  • This will be a mono-black deck. Pontiff of Blight and tokens is a spicy combination, and concentrating on making as much black mana as possible makes sense.
  • I want to keep some of the quirk, exemplified in Nihilistic Glee, alive.

Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker
So where does this leave the deck? Shirei will be leaving, along with many of the 1-power creatures that just don’t work well without Shizo’s Caretaker. So I bid a fond farewell to Cadaver Imp, Deathgreeter, Fume Spitter, Mortician Beetle, and Stinkweed Imp.

These are simply the first cuts, and more are going to be made. As I was mulling over the responses to the original piece, I came to the conclusion that I still want this deck to be different than my others. Last week, while waiting for the subway, I realized how I could make this deck stand out.

Marrow-Gnawer has the potential to be theme deck, and that theme would be the Black Death: the Bubonic Plague.

Some of the cards in the deck, such as Erebos, God of the Dead, are easy inclusions on both flavor and power. Skullclamp, well, is just too good to not include. Ogre Slumlord and Ratcatcher, well, they get passes for being on the Rat theme. As for the others—again, is where you come into play again.

I want to know if I should build toward this theme or just construct another deck.

[poll id="461"]

Regardless of how you vote, I want to know: How do you go about building a flavor-driven deck. My weapons tend to be constructed around mechanical themes, and they push hard in those directions. If this is going to be a theme deck, I want to ensure that it doesn’t lose the potency to pull out a victory once in a while. The future of this deck is in your hands. Help make it something evocative, something the Alex of twenty years ago could latch onto and enjoy.

. . . Just maybe not as fully as some, because Rats are filthy creatures.

Here’s the deck, for reference:

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