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Searching Along the Trail of Crumbs

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There are two extraordinarily powerful things going on right now in Standard. One of them is Cavaliers, which I played in Twitch Rivals and wrote about here. The other is the food engine, a core of cards with several possible ways to finish.

Yes. Instead of fighting over snowballing planeswalker activations, we are now fighting over snowballing Trail of Crumbs activations and who can put more cats into ovens each turn.

The Core Engine

The never-touch-this-actual ever core are these fifteen cards:

Duplicate Cats are often low impact, and risk draws that have too much air, so it's not clear that you want the fourth copy.

If you have the cats but you're not running Green at all, then you're running Mono-Black Sacrifice or Rakdos Sacrifice. Those are decks, but they're focusing on a different game plan.

With this engine, you have fifteen one- and two-mana cards that are almost guaranteed to give you value. Together, these cards give you both good things to do in the early turns and a late game engine that can grind out anyone who doesn't finish you off. That's quite the combination.

They also give you a continuous supply of sacrifice triggers, death triggers and food tokens for you to build upon, and a key artifact worth looking for, giving you many directions to explore. The rest of this article is about exploring the various options for the remaining 20-21 spell slots.

Wicked Wolf

People are increasingly moving away from Wicked Wolf. They need to slow down, because the Wolf is amazing once you have twelve sources of food. Allow me to list the reasons:

  1. Wicked Wolf gives you removal for almost all creatures in the format.
  2. Wicked Wolf gives you an effectively indestructible threat to pressure opponents and planeswalkers. With so much food it can often go very large for a lethal attack.
  3. Wicked Wolf gives you an additional zero-mana way to sacrifice food when you want to activate Trail of Crumbs.
  4. Wicked Wolf, with food available, can hold the ground on its own or with minimal against a large percentage of aggressive strategies.
  5. Wicked Wolf is the most reliable way to find cards that close the game once you have the engine running, taking down their problematic creatures then as an unstoppable attacker.
  6. Wicked Wolf plays great Magic. Be very hesitant to play a food engine without it.

There are three arguments against it that I can see.

  1. Your build doesn't want to support double Green. The problem is you already need to support first turn Gilded Goose. Once you are doing that, there isn't much additional cost to supporting Wicked Wolf. For example, the undefeated Jund Sacrifice deck from Day 1 of Twitch Rivals played only one Wicked Wolf, but had sixteen Green sources from its lands plus eight from its creatures and still felt comfortable sideboarding Questing Beast. I don't think this holds water.
  2. The card is bad against Jeskai (and control, where a parallel discussion will say basically all the same things). I think this is a pre versus post board confusion. In Game 2, you want to fit in both Duress and access to removal for Fires, so your space is super tight, and you end up having other priorities. Even then, it's not like Wicked Wolf is bad. Dealing with it can be quite the challenge, it can take out a Cavalier, and it is very good against Sphinx of Foresight. It usually can't be killed by any of the sweepers either. In Game 1, I think you give up very little having this, as opposed to running 3-drops that die to Deafening Clarion or paying five mana for Massacre Girl, both of which hurt quite a bit. So I don't think this matters much, either.
  3. In the mirror, Wicked Wolf is blocked forever by an endless stream of cats, and does not usefully block. That makes it a four-mana removal spell that often requires eating a food, which is not impressive. That's all true; but, if they don't have the full Cat-Oven trick online, this puts meaningful pressure on them, and, if you don't have that trick, it prevents attacks that can potentially do a lot of damage. Even if they do have the full engine, you can often attack with multiple things, and increasingly there are ways to kill Witch's Oven on both sides, which opens things up for attacks once again. I see a lot of value in the creature after the fight, and the fight can take out Mayhem Devil, or Gilded Goose, or Massacre Girl, and provide a lot of value. You need some amount of removal and it's certainly better than Murderous Rider, which dies when they sacrifice the target to Witch's Oven. Again, I don't see it.

The pseudo-fourth argument is that the places it is best are aggro decks, which 'don't really exist.' Just one problem. They do exist.

Thus, I don't get cheating on this one, at all. Even if you don't maindeck all four copies, it's one of the best cards against aggressive strategies, so I can't see not having all four in the 75. Even where it's bad, it's not that bad. People sideboard it out in matchups where it can be surprisingly problematic to deal with, like against Cavaliers, a matchup in which how many to have after board is a very interesting question I'm still pondering.

From here I will assume we have a 19 card base rather than a 15 card base, which, combined with the bare minimum 24 lands, gives us 17 remaining slots to play with.

Land Base and Color Costs

Fabled Passage
We always have access to heavy Green since we must support Gilded Goose and Trail of Crumbs. We always have access to at least some Black so we can cast Cauldron Familiar. So we get heavy Green, heavy a second color, and if we want it enough, we get a splash color. In theory, we could double (or even triple) splash using Paradise Druid and Fabled Passage plus Gilded Goose, if we wanted to do something wild, that is.

If we run a two color build and stick to Golgari, our mana is solid. We get four Overgrown Tomb for free, and get additional dual lands from Fabled Passage and/or Temple of Malady. I don't like running Temples of any kind in these lists, because once you start using Trail of Crumbs every extra mana you get often matters on every turn of the game.

Fabled Passage also gives you four additional sources for any potential splash, and gives you four more triggers for Mayhem Devil.

I don't think the deck requires four Fabled Passage if it is sticking to two colors, but it's, at worst, small mistake to run four and make your mana that much more solid, especially if you run a 25th land. It also matters how invested you are in having double Black.

If you are running three colors, especially when that third color is Red, your splash is either something very tiny, like Black for three cats or it is a real third color. If it's Black for three cats, you don't want to run a Swamp and may not even want all eight shock lands, so Fabled Passage does not help you, and having all the extra shock lands makes another tapped land that much worse. The same goes for if you're splashing White for Ethereal Absolution and a few sideboard cards. If it's a real third color, I do not see a way out of running four copies of Fabled Passage and a basic land, plus shock lands, as your way to get the third color. The borderline case is Red purely for Mayhem Devil. There I think that the extra Mayhem Devil trigger from Fabled Passage pushes you back to running four copies and the Mountain, even though that's more Red mana than you would otherwise need. If you also have Korvold, Fae-Cursed King, the decision is easy.

Four or even five colors are available for splashes, if you are willing to run Paradise Druid and Fabled Passage. That gives you 13 sources off one basic land, which is not so bad.

You can also run Castle Garenbrig or Castle Locthwain.

Castle Garenbrig
Castle Locthwain

Tapped Green sources are scary with Gilded Goose, so you likely can't play both four copies of Fabled Passage and also Castle Garenbrig in the same build. Castle Garenbrig gets you to Feasting Troll King if you are interested in that, and also allows you to make food while deploying Wicked Wolf a turn early, or leave extra mana for Trail of Crumbs. I think two color builds should seriously consider the first Castle Garenbrig as more valuable than a Fabled Passage, even without any 6-drops.

You hope to never have to activate Castle Locthwain, but one does not always have Trail of Crumbs, and the price of including it is very low. The first copy is essentially mandatory, the second copy is much rarer, and this seems right.

Land counts range from 23 to 25. Running 23 is almost certainly wrong even without a top end. Whether to run 24 or 25 remains unclear to me, but these decks hate missing land drops and don't want to have to dig for them with Trail of Crumbs. Versions that don't have extra 1- or 2-drops beyond the core need the 25th land. Versions that run Paradise Druid or other cheap action should be fine at 24.

The limiting factor on Green sources is first turn Green, where you want at least 14. Beyond that you're probably better off investing in shoring up other colors.

Green Options

The plausible additional green cards are Leafkin Druid, Thrashing Brontodon, Lovestruck Beast, The Great Henge, and Feasting Troll King. I've heard suggestion of End-Raze Forerunners or Nissa, Who Shakes the World, but those do not seem to address our actual needs. Return to Nature, Questing Beast, and Shifting Ceratops are reasonable sideboard cards. Leafkin Druid and Cavalier of Thorns are elementals that do relevant things, if that is relevant to your interests.

Paradise Druid

Paradise Druid
Paradise Druid is very common, but I'm skeptical since it gets caught up in Massacre Girl and Deafening Clarion. The key early spells are mostly 1-3 mana things, so it takes many turns for Paradise Druid to turn a profit. If you tap it on your turn it can get picked off when it matters. Your splash can't rely on it, especially since you should sideboard it out against Jeskai or other decks with sweepers, and is good enough without it. It seems like Paradise Druid increases the number of bad things that can happen to you.

In exchange for that, you do get more acceleration to your top end along with the color insurance and something useful to do on turn two. The question is whether or not that is relevant to your interests. Casting a faster Feasting Troll King or Casualties of War, or a life-saving Massacre Girl, or even a quicker Korvold, Fae-Cursed King, can be worth a lot. The more high end you play, especially proactive high end, the more reasonable Paradise Druid becomes, but I'm still not excited.

A lot of players are more concerned than they should be that Massacre Girl won't do her thing if you don't have Paradise Druid. Between Cauldron Familiar and Witch's Oven you are usually fine, and Thrashing Brontodon can provide extra insurance if you need it. It seems rare Massacre Girl won't work and you care a lot that you didn't have an enabler, as opposed to losing another card in the bloodbath.

Ultimately, we should be seeing more builds with less copies of Druid. Drawing two Paradise Druids is awful, and the second one stands a very strong chance of not even being worth playing. I can accept these lesser numbers as necessary for those not packing as many 2-drops and also having a more proactive high end. For people with more 3-drops, this seems like it mostly gets in the way.

Leafkin Druid

If you are running Risen Reef, suddenly Leafkin Druid becomes a quality card. Without Risen Reef, it does not do anything you want it to do that Paradise Druid does not do better, nor is there much call for a fifth copy.

Thrashing Brontodon

This card is in a curiously good spot right now. Historically, I think almost all people playing this card were making a mistake; you either got an overpriced creature or an overpriced removal spell. Now, you still get that same combination, but it suddenly is strangely attractive to me because of what cards actually matter. If your opponent has Trail of Crumbs, Fires of Invention, or Embercleave, then that card needs to die. It needs to die now. Overpaying to deal with it is acceptable. The same can sometimes be said for Witch's Oven. If your opponent has none of those cards, how are you losing this game, and is it so bad to pay for a 3/4 body to hold the ground for a bit given nothing bad is happening to you? Seems fine. You'd rather get a better deal but you'll probably be fine.

That is the theory, in any case. Again as with Paradise Druid, we see players embracing the philosophy and playing the full four copies while other players play zero, when a mix of the two seems much better than the average value of the two options. They even work together.

It comes down to what role your build is trying to play. If your goal is to grind out the win over time, Thrashing Brontodon seems to be a great way to make that happen. If your goal is something more ambitious, this mostly gets in the way. Lists that differ by only a few cards answer that question remarkably differently. So it's not obvious that people playing four or zero copies must be making a mistake, but I suspect that a lot of them should be compromising on copies more than they are. Your three slot is full of good options that get worse in multiples, and also Lovestruck Beast which improves in multiples.

Lovestruck Beast

I continue to strongly believe that in Game 1 you either run four copies of this or you run zero copies, due to the need for more 1/1 creatures to allow your Lovestruck Beasts to attack. Drawing two doesn't even cause a curve problem. You get an incredible deal on power for cost, and the Cauldron Familiars are the most reliable to keep a 1/1 creature on the board and allow you to attack.

The problem is that it's unclear that getting a cheap 5/5 creature does anything relevant for you at all, whereas you are passing up relevant other cards to get it. There's no point in paying three mana in order to get blocked forever by a cat. Lovestruck Beast is great when it can block. It's a solid clock. But if you don't need Lovestruck Beast to hold the ground, and you don't have a way to usefully attack with it, you're falling behind on the engine race. So what is it good for?

There are two other things it is good for. There's the minor bonus that Lovestruck Beast is good for three food in a Witch's Oven, keeping your engine well-fed in a pinch. And there's the advantage of putting a five-power creature onto the battlefield on turn three, which enables following it up with The Great Henge.

Cavalier of Thorns

There are a bunch of synergies and advantages here. The numbers allow for good fights against the more popular Cavaliers. Witch's Oven allows you to kill off the Cavalier if you want to get back a card from your graveyard. Milling five cards helps you find your cats. It's also an elemental for Risen Reef. Without that last effect, this is an interesting card, but having tried it, the alternatives are too good and there isn't enough here. It's good in builds with Risen Reef, but that's different from those builds being good decks.

The Great Henge

Now that this is no longer an Elk, and there are lots of games that go long and ways players keep themselves alive, this once again becomes an interesting Magic card. When it sticks around this tends to dominate the game, and the cat engine provides additional velocity so you never run out of gas. Decking yourself can actually be an issue, to the extent that I've stopped using Witch's Oven to avoid drawing the resulting cards, but those are not games one frequently loses.

The problem is having enough enablers, and having to play them. Wicked Wolf starts out at 3 power and can easily get to four or five, so it is at least reasonable, but it can't get there on its own. Nothing else you naturally want to run that costs less than five is going to be good enough unless you go with Lovestruck Beast. Playing The Great Henge off a Feasting Troll King is a nice bonus option but not where you want any card's default plan to be.

Rotting Regisaur is the best enabler of all, but it can't be played in the main while this deck remains legal.

That forces you to run Lovestruck Beast as your primary enabler. Add in Wicked Wolf and something on the high end, and playing a miser's copy of The Great Henge becomes reasonable. If you want to go bigger than that, the Blue option of Vantress Gargoyle turbocharges things a lot, so you can check that out in the appropriate section. It's a big commitment, but not without reward.

However, if opponents have Thrashing Brontodon and Casualties of War, then you're doing a lot of work and often not getting much in return. New version of the Elk problem.

Feasting Troll King

Powering him out with Castle Garenbrig is likely the best thing to do with five sources of mana these days. There is no response to that other than Planar Cleansing that doesn't result in lots of value having been gained. This also benefits greatly from both enabling and being cast by The Great Henge, and provides a solid way to pull ahead when searching with Trail of Crumbs. Trample lets us cut through any cats in our way, and many opponents lack Wicked Wolf.

The problem is it completes for the slot with Casualties of War, and, to some extent, various planeswalkers. It also goes against the desire to keep the curve lower. This could be Garruk, Cursed Huntsman or Liliana, Dreadhorde General. You can get a lot for six mana. This remains my favorite top end permanent to dig for, but all three options have their charms depending on what else you are up to.

Questing Beast

You can't play Questing Beast in the main due to its vulnerability to Wicked Wolf and it not contributing to the core engine. In places where you need to put people on clocks while taking out planeswalkers, or its numbers are well positioned, it's a crazy good Magic card. Right now it loses out to Shifting Ceratops, given exactly what else is out there, so you'd only play this if you wanted to devote 5+ slots of your board to this plan.

Shifting Ceratops

Shifting Ceratops, in the abstract, is a much worse card than Questing Beast, but it fills its particular role exceptionally well at the moment. Against Cavalier decks, along with packing a big punch, it stops the air assault in its tracks and it can't be bounced by Teferi, Time Raveler, so many very powerful boards have no answer. Its fifth point of power allows it to trade with Kenrith, the Returned King or Cavalier of Flame. This matters enough to consider modifying Cavalier builds to have good answers that don't otherwise make sense to run. When facing Reclamation or uwControl, the can't be countered clause and the immunity from Brazen Borrower become important. So where this helps you, it's a big upgrade, and thus a reasonable use of sideboard space.

Return to Nature

There are a bunch of enchantments and artifacts that have to die, and have to die now, and we're bringing it in where we know we want it, so why pay 1gg and then 1 when you can pay 1g instead? One might even catch a cat in a graveyard if someone gets careless. The issues are that this is not a permanent, so we can't find it with Trail of Crumbs, and also we can't proactively deploy it to the table. I don't think this justifies the space, but it is certainly reasonable.

Black or Golgari Options

Extending the use of Black mana cuts off the opportunity to go deep into another color. Black as the secondary color is the natural move, since the deck relies on early cats and benefits from both Murderous Rider and Massacre Girl at double Black as its best solutions to aggro. It is also excellent for your sideboard. The staple card is Midnight Reaper. Then we can add Casualties of War, Garruk, Cursed Huntsman, Liliana, Dreadhorde General, Duress, Deathless Knight, Noxious Grasp, Leyline of the Void, Assassin's Trophy and Rotting Regisaur.

Midnight Reaper

Your engine works much better with Midnight Reaper. Your creatures die a lot, and your cats die every turn while providing the life to compensate for the Reaper's fee. It's hard to not get some value for Midnight Reaper, and playing it greatly reduces the chance the engine will stall out. The question is how much you need this, whether to prioritize it over all the other great 3-drops, and how much to worry about its vulnerability. Being a three-mana 3/2 is not a great place to be right now, giving opponents a juicy thing to target with Bonecrusher Giant and Mayhem Devil or getting caught up in Deafening Clarion. Deafening Clarion goes both ways, since that likely means drawing multiple cards, but you'd usually rather have had something that lived.

Consensus is to run two or three copies if you're running a 'normal' Golgari or Jund build of the deck. That seems about right to me, as you do not need two copies but you'd usually like to have the first one.

Murderous Rider

Murderous Rider gives you Murder plus an extra creature while being a permanent for Trail of Crumbs. When the deck tries to do a second ambitious thing alongside the core food engine, it does so at the expense of having reliable removal. That reliable removal is the way one sideboards in many places, so not only does your sideboard end up with large pressure on its slots, your configuration after sideboarding ends up with the same issue. This is a big reward for keeping things straightforward. Playing four Murderous Rider and four Wicked Wolf wins a lot of games essentially on its own.

I was very happy to run four copies of Murderous Rider in several of my builds, and consider the card underplayed. If you are committed to playing a normal game of Magic and can support double Black, the game currently offers nothing better. It doesn't improve your engine, but where your engine needs the help it does help you break up the opposing engine. You sideboard out at least some copies in cat mirrors, but only because you have other cards that are more important.

The tax on the mana base is real. Murderous Rider wants you to pay 1bb twice, which is a much higher bar than any other plausible Black card. Doing it twice means that Gilded Goose is not a good solution. Casualties of War and Massacre Girl are also double Black, but they are more expensive and it's usually fine to spend a food casting them if it comes to that.

Casualties of War

Casualties of War
Casualties of War is rapidly growing in popularity because of its power against Jeskai Fires and in cat mirrors, which are the two most important matchups. Taking out Witch's Oven, Trail of Crumbs, a land, and a creature together turns what looked like a perfect draw into a nightmare. Hitting Fires of Invention, a land, and a creature is almost as good and challenges the viability of Sorcerous Spyglass out of Jeskai.

There are some places where Casualties of War is effectively a six mana creature removal spell, with the only other target being an irrelevant land. In those situations you're sad you don't have a more impactful high end play. Those are also the situations in which all the top end plays are bad except maybe Feasting Troll King, so it is only a problem for one game, and it costs you less than you might think since none of your other 6-drops were resolving and mattering all that often.

The natural objection is that Casualties of War is not a permanent, and a huge portion of your total seen cards are from Trail of Crumbs where you are often looking for big action more than anything else. That kept me off of Casualties of War at first. Then I realized in the scenarios where you are digging deep into your deck, mana efficiency matters more than the quality of the cards chosen, because once you get started you can keep generating triggers as needed. Sure, you'd love to find Casualties of War, but you're happy to be finding more one- and two-mana pieces instead. It's fine to have it not get hit, so long as there aren't too many other non-permanent cards in the deck, since missing or only finding unneeded lands can be pretty bad.

I consider Casualties of War to be the default 6-drop in versions without a secondary theme. This is especially true given how it lines up so well against the planeswalkers specifically and other food decks in general.

Liliana, Dreadhorde General

There are certainly games Liliana wins that nothing else would have won. There are also a lot of games where my opponent plays Liliana, and the game changes surprisingly little. I also sometimes found myself thinking "I can beat anything except Liliana." Overall, I have still been underwhelmed by Liliana, in a variety of decks and a variety of matchups. Sure, the player who plays it usually wins, but it's a 6-mana planeswalker, and most of those games would have been won by pretty much anything.

With so many copies of Murderous Rider and Casualties of War running around, and so many places where all this does is +1 and hope to eventually draw cards or ultimate, I don't like playing her.

Garruk, Cursed Huntsman

Garruk certainly can feel, like Liliana: a the unique card that wins a game. You've dealt with the key permanent and then have a card that dominates the game, or you play Garruk and he's better than the opponents' entire deck without ever having to minus. There is certainly that, but more often he seems like he's a lot of mana for something players often have a way to deal with, even if it's not terribly pretty. I buy the consensus that Liliana gets a slot before Garruk, and I don't even want her to get one.

Duress

You want access to at least three Duress and I prefer four if the mana supports it. Duress is vital to beating Jeskai Cavaliers, Temur Reclamation and all the various control builds. Mana efficiency and protecting or preventing key cards is where it's at. The upgrade value of bringing it in where it is good is very large. It's usually good even when it is drawn late. It might even be a great card against some cat builds if you have reliable first turn Black source, as it breaks up Trail of Crumbs and prevents Casualties of War. Playing a few copies in the main would not be crazy.

Noxious Grasp

Noxious Grasp is a great removal spell for decks that give you juicy targets to kill. If you can spare the sideboard slots, it's certainly an upgrade where it's good, but it's an effect you already have a bunch of to start with thanks to Murderous Rider and none of the matchups where it is good seem especially popular or worrying. While I would certainly be happy to have this available, I don't feel that pressured to make room for it either.

Deathless Knight

You are gaining life all the time, so Deathless Knight will usually be truly deathless. This gives you four power with haste that can't be permanently killed. Against control decks, this has appeal, since the 2 toughness does not matter. I don't feel any need to do this, because if there is one thing I have a lot of already it is ways to grind out card advantage. Every time I've had or seen someone try Deathless Knight, either it has sat in their hand because they had something better to do with their mana, or it has won games that most any card would have won in its place.

Rotting Regisaur

You absolutely cannot play Rotting Regisaur in the main of decks without Embercleave, given how easy it is to get brick walled by a cat and lose the game. That makes this a sideboard card even when you're embracing The Great Henge. Where it is good, either where you want to hit harder against Temur Reclamation or have a big body against decks like Red, it is very good ,even without The Great Henge. However, it does not belong in the places you care about most. Is that worth the space? In 'generic' versions clearly no, since you have a lot of sideboard needs. In Henge-themed versions I think mostly yes, because you need to look for ways to sideboard that reinforce the central themes rather than dilute them.

Leyline of the Void

The attraction of sideboarding Leyline of the Void is obvious. For zero mana you shut down Midnight Reaper, Cauldron Familiar, and Massacre Girl although that one is a double edged sword, and this is a permanent for Trail of Crumbs. Zero mana is a great deal.

The problem is that there are a ton of ways for this to go wrong.

You have to telegraph it before cards start getting eaten by the void. They can hold their cats in their hand if this starts in play. If it comes down they can often deposit them in the graveyard for safe keeping.

Then, once it is in play, they often can remove it when it matters and ignore it when it doesn't. Leyline of the Void does not do that much work to stop the enemy from ramping to six and almost nothing to stop Thrashing Brontodon or Return to Nature.

Thus, I think you're better off being the one with removal for enchantments and artifacts, rather than trying to run more of your own, given the importance of Trail of Crumbs. I don't see any other places where Leyline justifies its space.

Assassin's Trophy

Too many Jund bilds play this card for me to not mention it. I strongly dislike it since the land they get bites you back so often. This is especially true when you go after Fires of Invention. Almost always, when this kills a Fires of Invention, the extra land makes the loss of Fires much less painful, and often leaves them better off, especially if Fires has already given them a free 5-drop or two. Players like it as a catch-all, since it can do what it needs to do. I do get that, but I don't see any trouble getting to a good 60 against the whole field, so I don't see any reason to go here.

Red Options

Red offers two key creatures in Mayhem Devil and Korvold, Fae-Cursed King. It also offers Cindervines. Which leaves one other card worth discussing: Fires of Invention.

Mayhem Devil

Mayhem Devil is the reason to play Jund. It turbocharges everything the deck does, and works off the opponents' triggers as well, which gets extremely painful extremely quickly for other cat decks. If you have access to Red, you are running four copies.

The downside is that a 3/3 for 1br is exactly the wrong thing against Jeskai, where they have both Devout Decree and Deafening Clarion, and nothing important to kill, or other similar matchups where you would prefer something that made you resilient. But you can't argue with the raw power on offer here, other than asking whether it is worth the pain and Fabled Passages.

Korvold, Fae-Cursed King

Korvold was designed as a commander and It shows. Leave Korvold alone and it creates lots of value for a deck that is focused on sacrifice triggers. Kill Korvold on the spot and you've likely invested five mana in order to go down on permanents. Korvold packs a big punch and flies but does not trample, and usually will have a window where it is vulnerable to Wicked Wolf. Overall, I have not been impressed with it on either side of the table, as it seems like your high end card should not need to take this level of risk or this failure rate. It does pack a punch, so if I already had Red mana access I don't think playing one or two is unreasonable, but I'd do my best to avoid relying on this card.

Cindervines

Cindervines is a permanent that functions as a spell. If you would have considered Return to Nature, this is doing most of the things Return to Nature was doing while also getting in a bunch of damage. If you have access to Red mana, this seems by far the best way to answer problematic enchantments and artifacts, but it's not a big enough swing to pull me toward playing Red sources.

Fires of Invention

Fires of Invention will never be as good in a cat deck as it is in Jeskai Cavalier Fires, or in Grixis Planeswalker Fires, but that is not the threshold for playing a Magic card. One can play Fires of Invention as a good card that makes your deck better, rather than a key card the deck is entirely built around. One does not even have to play all four copies.

Fires of Invention fixes your color entirely, and it lets you use your mana while casting two spells per turn. The food engine provides a bunch of plausible mana sinks while also providing the cards to cast multiple spells per turn, and games go long enough that the savings add up. When Fires of Invention gets together with Trail of Crumbs or a stream of Midnight Reaper triggers, it is a beautiful thing. In theory one could even tack on a Fae of Wishes engine, but that too is unnecessary.

The problem is that if you have a 4-drop that only provides mana, you run serious risk of flooding, especially if you also run Paradise Druid. If you build to take advantage of Fires of Invention, you risk relying too much on having Fires of Invention. When this does work, one has to worry about it being a win more card rather than something that matters, since an active Trail of Crumbs engine plus action should usually be good enough to win the game anyway.

White Options

White gives you a maindeck high end permanent with Ethereal Absolution, and quality flexible sideboard cards such as Kaya, Orzhov Usurper and Knight of Autumn. I have seen suggestions of Prison Realm, but that seems to me like a bad fifth Murderous Rider so I won't say more about that one.

Ethereal Absolution

Ethereal Absolution dominates the board. Your creatures hit hard. Enemy cats stay dead, other enemies are severely weakened. Spirits are waiting if you are otherwise out of gas. Many decks have little or no chance once it hits. There's a lot to love here.

The problem is it's a 6-drop that often gives opponents a chance to remove it before the game snowballs fully out of control. If that response is Casualties of War, you're screwed. Against other cat decks, if that response is Thrashing Brontodon or Return to Nature, you may have forced some awkwardness, but it is unlikely to have made that much difference. Thus, this is no longer a reliable trump card, so there isn't that much attraction in jamming it, especially given the cost to the mana base, unless you have some strange trick on offer.

Kaya, Orzhov Usurper

Kaya, Orzhov Usurper is great at picking off cats and Witch's Ovens, and doubles as a solid anti-aggression card or general solution to graveyards. You can't main it as there are too many places where it does nothing relevant, but she is certainly a welcome addition to the sideboard if White is reliably available. However, I don't believe she's enough better than the alternatives to justify much of the price of that White access.

Knight of Autumn

If one is in the market for Thrashing Brontodon, the first thing that comes to mind is Knight of Autumn, but I'm no longer so sure. Having four toughness to survive Deafening Clarion, and to be proactive on the board for Embercleave, are both big issues for Knight of Autumn, even with its additional utility options. Leaving behind a 2/1 body is not nothing, but it also does not matter much when both sides are fighting Trail of Crumbs wars. So gain, White has lost its luster.

Blue Options

Blue is the color of the artifact theme, with Emry, Lurker of the Loch and Vantress Gargoyle. It is the elemental color for Risen Reef, which can then bring along cards like Quasiduplicate and Agent of Treachery. It possibly also offers Fae of Wishes, if you're a Fires of Invention kind of player.

Fae of Wishes

Fae of Wishes is great with Fires of Invention. If you have that engine going, you should win even if the rest of your cards are blank. Cat decks have an engine to provide extra card fuel and stall the game while this happens, so they are a fine place to consider putting this. The problem comes when you don't have a Fires of Invention, at which point you mostly have a two-mana 1/4 flyer that does not do anything relevant. This means you have exacerbated the risk of drawing hands that don't play properly/the risk of having your plays broken up. I didn't like Fae of Wishes in Cavalier Fires, and I don't like it here either.

Vantress Gargoyle

Vantress Gargoyle provides a 5/4 flyer for1u. That enables The Great Henge, and works great with Emry, Lurker of the Loch. Lowering the mana curve is great, and with four toughness this threatens to hit for a lot of damage eventually even if it spends a few turns not attacking. Milling cards helps you find your cats. You can even sideboard it out on the play (or, as I've considered in other decks, sideboard it in on the draw) when it won't be able to properly block and can afford time for cards that cost more mana. Vantress Gargoyle is a super powerful Magic card that has not found the right home yet, with cats being yet another place that comes tantalizingly close.

Emry, Lurker of the Loch

Food is an artifact, so Emry more often than not can find a way to cost one mana. You get four cards closer to Witch's Oven and to Cauldron Familiar, along with any other artifacts you seek. The more artifacts you play, the better Emry gets. I found that Emry was quite good once you had Witch's Oven, Vantress Gargoyle and The Great Henge. That forms a natural package. It does mean you run a substantial risk of missing, with Emry having nothing to target. We'd like to add a few copies of Golden Egg to fix that, if we can find the space and time. Having a few extra mana and food sources is far from the worst thing, but more durdling does seem like exactly what would not help matters. Thus, my inclination was to accept that Emry's main job is to find key cards rather than provide an additional source of durdling.

Risen Reef

If you get to play a three-mana card on turn two, Risen Reef seems like an excellent choice. It allows you to continue accelerating, it sets up a third turn playing Risen Reef or Leafkin Druid, and generally is something no one without a ready-to-go Mayhem Devil or Deafening Clarion is going to be happy to see. We are focused on assembling our key cards in quantity and have a mana intensive engine, so anything that cycles us through the deck while deploying extra lands is certainly welcome. As discussed above, Leafkin Druid and Cavalier of Thorns both are also reasonable fits for the rest of what we are doing.

That gives us a twelve card base for our second theme to go with the fifteen card first theme, which then means about nine cards to fill out the deck and provide interaction. That has to pay for any Simic-style payoff cards like Agent of Treachery, Quasiduplicate or Jace, Wielder of Mysteries if you're looking to go the full self-deck. It also has to pay for Wicked Wolf and any additional food engine components. Regular Simic builds already have the same issue where they need to devote so many slots to their engine. Combining the two makes things even worse.

Putting It All Together

We can now can now tie a few of our options together: Golgari, Jund, Emry's Restaurant, Fires of Niv-Mizzet (which we'll talk about later), and Cat Elementals. The first two are the standard strong builds of cats. The last three are some of my brews, which aren't as good for now, but illustrate some other directions one can go. I do not believe Abzan is a viable approach at this time.

Golgari

The gold standard for Golgari has to be Crokeyz's build. He has been spearheading such strategies for a while, so his insights are all over this analysis. Here is the build he submitted for MC7:


The core Golgari strategy is to defend against anything that can go over the top of you, then go over the top of them with Casualties of War combined with your engine. The innovation of Thrashing Brontodon gives you that needed protection. In general, you're focused on playing as many solid cards as possible. Take care of your core needs, keep the mana excellent and minimize the chance anything bad happens.

As you would expect, I do not agree with all the choices above. Here are the places I disagree.

Fabled Passage seems to me like a tapped Green source, whereas my long term Green needs are not much higher than my first turn Green needs, so running three copies seems like a lot. I'd certainly cut one of them for a Swamp and likely would keep cutting.

Legion's End didn't even get mentioned above because I do not know what good it is doing at the moment. It's good against Edgewall Innkeeper, I suppose, and helps cover you against strange creature rushes, but it seems entirely inessential.

Deathless Knight, as discussed above, has not impressed me and I'd rather have Shifting Ceratops in my board so I can also have it against Jeskai.

The fourth Wicked Wolf is a card he kept mocking people in his chat for wanting to cut, and then he cut it. I hereby mock him in turn, as I have no intention of letting it go. This may have been because of the nature of the tournament in question, in which case I do understand it, but I wouldn't ladder without a full set.

That is about it, really. I've been on four Murderous Rider for a long time. I'm torn on moving the third Massacre Girl to the sideboard, but so is he, and again the nature of a Mythic Championship leans toward running less copies. I don't actively have a problem with any of his choices.

My 75 would probably cut the Legion's End and Deathless Knights, and add a Wicked Wolf and two copies of Shifting Ceratops, and that would be it.

Jund

Jund mainly gives you Mayhem Devil. One approach is to take Golgari, cut four flex slots for four Mayhem Devil, maybe one or two other cards for Korvold, Fae-Cursed King, and call it a day. Eight of your lands now shock you and one of them is colorless, in exchange you get an amazing creature. I do think Mayhem Devil is a substantial upgrade in those slots, but it does leave you more vulnerable to Jeskai and isn't something you can keep alive all that well in the mirror, so it's hard to justify the price you must pay.

Most successful Jund players also use the aggressive posture of the Red cards as a reason to play less engine cards and be more aggressive, including shifting their 6-drop toward planeswalkers and away from Casualties of War. They usually cut most copies of Wicked Wolf on the theory that they can use Mayhem Devil in that role, despite the two working together rather well. We frequently even see Assassin's Trophy, a card I have always hated running. We see more copies of Vraska, Golgari Queen to get more sacrifice triggers.

I wonder how much of this is about the deck actually benefiting from those changes, and how much of it is that there is a play style and deck-building style that goes with playing Jund which causes players to make those choices. On the other hand, players who are capable of giving up Mayhem Devil also make different choices, plus there's a lot of deck copying that does not question such differences overly much.

Here's a typical list, from the first Magic Online PTQ, by bnjy99, who finished 3rd:


Now for the fun stuff.

Emry's Restaurant

If we take the core fifteen plus Wicked Wolf and combine it with Emry, Lurker of the Loch, Vantress Gargoyle and The Great Henge, plus Lovestruck Beast as an enabler for The Great Henge, we have two slots left. If we use them on Feasting Troll King, which is another logical progression of graveyards and The Great Henge, we get this:


This is a natural build. It takes good advantage of all of its cards, and needs all its pieces to interlock in order to tie itself together. Without access to other removal you definitely want four Wicked Wolf, so there are not many slots that can be challenged - you could cut one Feasting Troll King if you wish, or the fourth Emry, but if you cut pretty much anything else you might as well abandon the strategy entirely. That makes sideboarding difficult. One big advantage of Rotting Regisaur is that where you bring it in, it fills the role of 'big power creature' thus allowing you to cut Lovestruck Beast or Feasting Troll King or Vantress Gargoyle, depending on what you don't want in a given situation. The same is true for Shifting Ceratops. You need Vraska because you want a flexible card that answers Mayhem Devil, and your choices aren't great.

I consider this a tier two build. It is lots of fun, it does powerful things, but it has the problem of many Simic decks that it does powerful things but has trouble turning doing powerful things into winning games.

Cat Elementals

The problem with Cat Elementals is that you are providing space for two engines at once. This does not leave much space for also interacting with the opponent and winning the game. Thus, when I tried out the following list...


I ran into the most nightmarish board states I have ever seen. It did not help that I faced multiple other elemental decks, but the point was made regardless. Sam Black pointed out we could run a Jace, Wielder of Mysteries (and by implication, also a Tamiyo, Collector of Tales) if we wanted to in order to make decking ourselves a plan. That does seem like it would make effective sideboarding even harder, but perhaps it offers a path forward. We can also go deeper into the themes with Yarok, the Desecrated, as we have a lot of cards that trigger.

I sincerely hope this going along this path is not a good idea.

The Five Color Dragon: Niv-Mizzet Reborn

There is one more path, and I do not believe it's top tier, but man is it a fun one.

We noticed that once we accept playing Fabled Passage and Paradise Druid, one basic land gets you thirteen sources of a splash color. The card you most want to cast is Casualties of War, which you currently can't search for, and you also love a Mayhem Devil. Why not splash all five colors and play Niv-Mizzet?

Once I convinced myself the mana would work, I looked at all the gold cards in Standard to see what was worth fetching. We already have a good Golgari card with Casualties of War, so there isn't much pressure in my mind to play Vraska, Golgari Queen. We also have Mayhem Devil. Korvold has an extra color, so it doesn't count.

There weren't many cards that were that appealing, but I realized that was fine. In the past, Niv-Mizzet Reborn decks have packed themselves full of gold cards to turn Niv-Mizzet into a draw-four or draw-five. But that's completely unnecessary. If you can get Niv-Mizzet into play, what you care about most is the cards that want to follow Niv-Mizzet - the 6-drops. As long as you can find one of those, you still get your ideal sequence, and you're still pulling way ahead, even if you don't get a second card. If you can find even one more card, you're good to go.

So I added another quality 6-drop to go with Casualties of War and Mayhem Devil, but decided that was enough. Let the rest of the deck be what it wants to be, throw in Fires of Invention for obvious reasons, and the deck-builds itself:


The sideboard is designed to 'return you to normal' where what you are doing is not relevant. The deck comes together naturally. You can slot in one card like Cindervines or Duress for disruption, but if you want to do more than that, then you cannot maintain both Niv-Mizzet all the payoffs and enablers that make Niv-Mizzet shine. Thus, you need to be prepared to pull much of the high end and 'return to normal.' The good news is that the normal setup is pretty great in those places, so having a few awkward lands and choices is not so bad. Otherwise, choose the tool that supplements what you are doing and otherwise stand pat.

Where does Cats go from here? It would be surprising if Golgari and Jund cats do not remain a staple of the format. I consider them the strongest contender for title of 'the best deck.' Jeskai remains a better tool for dealing with random opponents and is a great deck, but a good player with a carefully built Golgari Cats deck can handle it.

The biggest question is, when you modify the Cat deck to be good in the mirror and against Jeskai, what does that open you up to? We won't know the answer until enough players get far enough along that the opening becomes worth passing through.