Deck Clinic #1: Beating The Infamous Rat Deck

A tutorial for beginning players who don’t know why they’re losing, Will looks at a typical beginner’s deck… And dissects it to see what lessons we can learn about consistency.

First, let me say”thanks” to everyone who sent in a deck. As I outlined earlier, this clinic is going to be devoted to helping the newest players with their decks while giving me a chance to revisit basic theory – thus bringing it to all those new Magic players out there. Roughly half the decklists that I saw this week were very solid builds from obviously more experienced players; that didn’t leave me a lot of room to work at getting to what I wanted to say. At this point, I will try and give a reply to everyone who sends a decklist with what help I think I can provide. Figuring out a last few main deck cards for sideboard slots isn’t as much about basic theory as it is about knowing your local metagame and doing a little experimenting and testing.

As it is, I did receive an outline from”Sting” describing his problems that went sorta like this: He had some older cards, but the bulk of his collection was from Invasion era. He was having trouble beating a few of his friends and wanted to be able to have a better chance at doing so playing current Standard.

Here is the decklist he sent…


12 Forest

12 Swamps

1 Tainted Wood

1 Meteor Crater


1 Spiritmonger

1 Llanowar Dead

2 Fyndhorn Elves

1 Rushwood Elemental

1 Craw Wurm

1 Stone-Tongue Basilisk

2 Scaled Wurm

1 Feral Thallid

1 Argothian Elder

1 Lhurgoyf

1 Deepwood Legate

1 Dirtwater Wraith

1 Mortivore

1 Carrion Wurm

1 Crazed Skirge

1 Order of the Ebon Hand

2 Primeval Force


1 Death Mutation

2 Seal of Strength

2 Stamina

2 Desert Twister

2 Spidersilk Armor

2 Giant Growth

2 Regeneration

1 Diabolic Tutor

2 Sinister Strength

1 Unholy Strength

1 Sadistic Glee

1 Plague Wind

1 Morgue Theft

4 Dark Ritual

This is a seventy-card deck list that is running 26 lands. Obviously, to get to a Standard-legal deck, I had to cut away a few cards. After doing so, I had this list:

12 Forest

12 Swamps

1 Tainted Wood

1 Meteor Crater

1 Spiritmonger

1 Llanowar Dead

1 Death Mutation

1 Stone-Tongue Basilisk

1 Mortivore

1 Carrion Wurm

2 Giant Growth

2 Regeneration

1 Diabolic Tutor

2 Sinister Strength

1 Unholy Strength

1 Morgue Theft

From the beginning, the problem here would most pointedly boil down to consistency. Consistency very often is the first hurdle that a new player will have to overcome when building their decks. Playing with the most interesting cards you have in a collection can often be the most fun… If you like to play where winning isn’t at a premium and you get a kick from wild and wacky card interactions. Winning – and not even all the time, but a reasonable amount of time – comes first from developing a consistent deck that plays similarly game after game. Playing such a deck lets a player get a feel for how the game should progress where they can plan ahead for the win.

This deck should gain that by:

1) Cutting the deck down to the minimum size of sixty cards, and:

2) Trying to fill in the second listing with three and four copies of the cards that we think will help it to play consistently and win games.

I was pleased to see that”Sting” chose to stick with two colors. Over the course of Magic’s history, it has been said that two-color decks form the basis of the most powerful ones because they generally offer the highest ratio of outright power to consistency. More colors too often lead to”color screw,” where a player is stuck with good cards that they can’t play. This is not a good thing, as a card’s ability to help you win is only good if it can be cast and brought into the game. This is why any card that can’t be used is often called a”dead” card; something one should try to avoid in the extreme.

As I go back to the second list I see that”Sting” has a predominantly creature-oriented theme that we will stick with. Consistent creature-oriented decks are often good because creatures offer flexibility once cast, in general giving the options of being able to both block and attack. Any card that alone can end the game is a threat… And all threats are in a way good.

However we must pass judgment that some threats are better then others.

Sting has a Spiritmonger; one of the most powerful creatures in the game. However, as he only has one, and as ‘Monger is a hard-to-get top rare, it appears we’ll be unable to suggest that he rush out and get three more… Although if he has the resources, that alone would up the power of his deck tremendously. As it is I still want to keep this big beatstick in the listing, as I’m sure he’s one of Sting’s favorites.

That being said, we need to pay careful attention to the decks”mana curve.” The mana curve is an old and time-tried idea whereby you again try and avoid the presence of”dead” cards in your hand – which this time, are created by cards that you don’t have enough mana for. Many young and inexperienced players love really huge monsters; however, they spend whole games staring at a hand full of them because they don’t have enough mana to cast them. They run too many large monsters and too few lands. My general rule of thumb here for new players is to use at least twenty-two to twenty-four lands, and not more than six cards that cost over four mana to cast.

Other problems can be cards that take multiple colors to be cast or take many units of a type of colored mana. Stone-Tongue Basilisk can be a game-altering creature, but it costs seven total mana – four of which must be green. In such cases, it’s unlikely that a player can create a situation where four green will show up quickly… And therefore, the creature doesn’t need to appear early in the game, so fewer copies of it are warranted. Mortivore only costs four mana to cast… But similarly, for it to be effective there have to be creatures in the graveyard – something that usually takes some time to occur during a game.

Now, we can retain these big monsters and perhaps even add one or two other bigger ones, but then our focus needs to be put forth on making sure that this sort of deck gets to bring these”fatties” to bear while not getting run over in the meantime. That is going to mean filling in the remaining deck slots with creatures and cards that cost less than five mana and are easy to cast. By easy to cast, I mean ones that don’t have tricky color requirements.

Llanowar Dead is an interesting example of what I am talking about. Just about any 2/2 creature that can be cast on the second turn is a fairly good thing. Generally, any creature whose power and toughness are equal to its casting cost is worth looking at; however, in the Llanowar Dead we have a secondary ability to produce black mana. I have to ask: Is this is worth it? First, to get the creature you have to already have black mana; and secondly, a 2/2 is often worth attacking with over using it for mana production. The problem with Llanowar Dead is that you need two colors of mana on the second turn for it to have its greatest impact. As a rule, needing early multiple color mana isn’t favorable. Like Llanowar Dead, Spiritmonger needs both a black and green mana – but knowing that a Spiritmonger’s power isn’t available to use until you can produce five mana means that there is some time for you to draw cards and more likely cover two colors of mana. What I think I need is some more info before I decided on whether or not I like Llanowar Dead in this deck – and for that, I’m going to have to back up a bit and look at the lands used.

Sting used these:

12 Forest

12 Swamps

1 Tainted Wood

1 Meteor Crater

One copy of Meteor Crater isn’t bad… But it’s probably not good either. Again, we have a card that is reliant on a certain board state to provide the normal function of a land: Making mana.

Tainted Wood is an uncommon that can produce the two colors of mana our deck requires. However, it needs to have a swamp in play to do this. In this case, this single fact is going to swing our deck to using more swamps than forests – and thus move our deck towards more of a black bias.

I still maintain, and have found, that three (and multiples of three) is the best number of cards in a deck. We like Tainted Wood, but it has a downside of needing a swamp in play to be at its best; thus, we run three and see it often enough but rarely too early.

As we wish to do this with some economy, I generally like to run down and list the more viable options from the legal cardpool’s common cards.

For black, we have these possible creatures:

Blood Pet

Carrion Rats

Crypt Creeper

Faceless Butcher

Fright Crawler


Mesmeric Fiend

Phyrexian Battleflies

Phyrexian Rager

Phyrexian Slayer

Plague Beetle*

Ravenous Rats

Razortooth Rats

Serpent Warrior

Whispering Shade*

Keeping in mind that Sting mentioned a problematic rat deck, I chose to add in a few creatures ? those with asterisks ? that have swampwalk. Most of the others furnish some sort of advantage either by offering some form of possible card advantage like Ravenous Rats, Gravedigger, Phyrexian Rager, or Faceless Butcher, or again have evasion. I’ve found the four named creatures to be a pretty good suite of black commons that are disruptive enough to carry you to mid-game.

Black Uncommons

Bog Wraith*

Grotesque Hybrid

Green Commons

Diligent Farmhand

Gorilla Chieftain

Kavu Climber

Krosan Avenger

Krosan Constrictor*

Llanowar Elves

Penumbra Bobcat

Spined Wurm


Wild Mongrel

Green Uncommons


Arrogant Wurm

Metamorphic Wurm

Penumbra Kavu


Ebony Treefolk


Odyssey is the set that brought us some kingly spells in creating token creatures – most notably the pricey Call of the Herd. This isn’t the only token generating spell around, however, and some of the others are still quite good. Elephant Ambush and Beast Attack are both decent spells that can give you two creatures out of one card. Again, this is a possible card advantage play. The downside on these”creatures” is their mana requirements. Beast Attack takes three green mana; Ambush isn’t as pricey at 2GG, but the flashback doesn’t occur until you put eight mana into the flashback casting cost.

Non-creature spells

General theory places a fairly strict no-no on creature enchantments. For the newer player, this is often less than intuitive – but the reason is that if the creature is killed then you’ve lost two cards in one”death” which is disadvantageous. In some cases, exceptions are made. Armadillo Cloak is one example, as it gave several advantages (bigger size, trample, and lifegain)… But still, in an environment where there are a lot of creature-killing cards and bounce that returns the creature to your hand without the enchantment, such plays are generally still seen as too risky. Spells like Unholy and Sinister Strength can be seen in play in the current environment in decks like”Marines Black,” which are based more on a hyperactive beatdown idea then we are going for here.

Consume Strength holds some possibility, but its viability depends on whether your opponent is playing a creature-oriented deck or not. The card that I think I like in this deck is Sylvan Might, which not only pumps a creature +2/+2 but adds trample as well and has a decent flashback cost.

Duress has a long history of being played in any deck using black. It offers a trade of itself for your opponent’s best non-creature spell. As commons go, I also like Unhinge with its discard plus cantrip effect.

Okay; we have a base of cards to work with, how about a deck?

Here’s the land again:

12 Swamps

9 Forest

3 Tainted Wood

Non-creature spells:

I’m gonna go with the four Duresses and three Sylvan Mights here, plus Sting’s one Diabolic Tutor. The Tutor will be good way to help get to the lone Spiritmonger; that will leave us with slots for twenty creature spells. Our”fatties” will be…

1 Spiritmonger

1 Stone-Tongue Basilisk

1 Mortivore

Seventeen other creatures:

4 Ravenous Rats

4 Phyrexian Rager

4 Wild Mongrel

4 Ebony Treefolk

4 Faceless Butcher

4 Gravedigger

1 Grotesque Hybrid

There you go. What we have is a general group of very synergistic cards that hope to bring an advantage. The Rats, Ragers, and Butchers all have a”comes into play” effect that can be reused if they die by using Gravedigger. Also, you may be able to target your own Ragers and Rats with the Butchers in, say, a case where your opponent is playing a lot of creature”bounce” spells; remember, these creatures don’t have to be cast to have those effects trigger! Mongrel and Treefolk can be pumped up to survive burn and win battles picking off opposing creatures. Such effects lumped together are disruptive and will often make a game last some turns until you can play one of your bigger threats – like the ‘Monger, Basilisk, or Vampire. A sideboard is generally determined by your local metagame, but I’d guess that since Sting was having trouble with Rats that several swampwalking creatures would be good along with targeted removal like Dark Banishing against non black creature decks, some added discard like Unhinge perhaps against blue-oriented decks, and a bit of enchantment kill like Tranquility for things like Circle of Protections and so forth.

For some added reading.

Examining The Theories Of Card Advantage And Quality by Will Rieffer


Peace of Mind: Any Given Sunday Series by Mike Mason

Mike defines and analyzes Raw power, Card advantage, Synergy, Speed, Consistency, and The Metagame.





It’s four long articles. Good thing Mike is such a great writer. Get this and get the basics defined.

Deck Submissions

Remember, the more information you give me, the more likely it will be that I will select a deck to discuss. Tell me everything. In what format is the deck to be played? What sort of card pool do you have? What decks are you having trouble against – and similarly, what decks are popular where you play? What sort of further resources do you have – that is, are you willing to spend money to upgrade the deck and how much?

I will present the deck clinic every other week or so with a focus on beginning the game. In this I hope to use the clinic to talk about general theory, which every new and aspiring player needs to know. Send those decks in!


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