From Right Field – The Prince and the Pauper and the Peasant

Read Chris Romeo every Thursday... at StarCityGames.com!
I write about budget decks. I tell those without unlimited Magic funds to make sure that the first thing that they do when each new set comes out is to get four copies of each common and uncommon. Since we know the schedule of sets’ releases, we should be able to budget for that purchase by putting aside five or so bucks a week. Some players, though, don’t have any money for anything beyond that. Not even enough to get four Heartwood Storytellers or four Stalking Vengeances. Why do I ignore those folks?

{From Right Field is a column for Magic players on a budget or players who don’t want to play netdecks. The decks are designed to let the budget-conscious player be competitive in local, Saturday tournaments. They are not decks that will qualify a player for The Pro Tour. As such, the decks written about in this column are, almost by necessity, rogue decks. The author tries to limit the number of non-land rares as a way to limit the cost of the decks. When they do contain rares, those cards will either be cheap rares or staples of which new players should be trying to collect a set of four, such as Sulfurous Springs, Birds of Paradise, or Wrath of God. The decks are also tested by the author, who isn’t very good at playing Magic. He will never claim that a deck has an 85% winning percentage against the entire field. He will also let you know when the decks are just plain lousy. Readers should never consider these decks “set in stone” or “done.” If you think you can change some cards to make them better, well, you probably can, and the author encourages you to do so.}

Last week’s column was a trip to the ol’ mailbag. In my overflowing box of virtual epistles was one that asked, in essence, the following: why don’t I do more with Peasant decks?

Before I get too deep into this quagmire, let me explain what I think “Peasant decks” are, in case, like me, you didn’t know what these were. I use the phrase “what I think ‘Peasant decks’ are” because there’s no official Wizards-promoted, DCI-sanctioned definition. However, my limited online and door-to-door (consisting of going from Joe’s door to Evan’s) research tells me that Peasant is not a format so much as a limitation on formats. Peasant decks use only commons and uncommons. So, you could have a Standard deck that is a Peasant deck but you could also have a Vintage Peasant deck.

Some people that I asked claimed that Peasant is the format I’ve been promoting where the composition of the decks mimics that of packs, i.e. rares can be no more than one-fifteenth of a deck while uncommons can be no more than one-fifth. However, the people with that opinion were far outnumbered by the non-rare camp.

Also, there is another limitation/style called Pauper. This is much more common (pun intended) and even has a website dedicated to promoting The Pauper Deck Challenge (a.k.a. PDC) on Magic Online. The restriction on Pauper decks is that all of the cards must be commons. Some people are real sticklers for this, too. You can’t just play a card that is currently printed as a common. No, the card you play has to be the common printing. For example, I wouldn’t be able to play them with a Ninth Edition or Xth Edition version of Consume Spirit in my deck. If I were going to play using Consume Spirit, I’d have to use the Mirrodin version because it’s the only one that was actually a common. Some folks would then put the restriction on my Pauper deck that, even though Consume Spirit is Standard legal, since I could only use the Mirrodin version, my deck couldn’t be Pauper Standard legal.

Some of these people also restrict the decks in the other direction, too. For example, if I wanted to play Lone Wolf in my Pauper Extended deck, I would have to use the Eighth Edition version. I couldn’t use the Urza’s Block version because it was printed as an uncommon in Urza’s Legacy even though I could mix and match versions in a DCI-sanctioned Extended tourney. In other words, for many Pauper Purists, your deck has to contain nothing but actual commons, and the sets from which they come would have to be sets legal in the DCI version of the format. The folks who run the PDC tourneys on MTGO aren’t as strict, though. If you have questions about their definitions, here’s their FAQ.

This isn’t about Pauper decks, though; it’s about Peasant decks. The sentiment behind the question seemed to be this. I write about budget decks. I tell those without unlimited Magic funds to make sure that the first thing that they do when each new set comes out is to get four copies of each common and uncommon. Since we know the schedule of sets’ releases, we should be able to budget for that purchase by putting aside five or so bucks a week. Some players, though, don’t have any money for anything beyond that. Not even enough to get four Heartwood Storytellers or four Stalking Vengeances. Why do I ignore those folks?

Right off the bat, let me say that any ignoring that you saw was not intentional on my part. It’s not as if I ever said “screw those people who don’t use rares at all!” I’ve just never equated “budget” with “completely disregarding rares.” To me, a budget player is one who can’t walk into the local card store or log onto StarCityGames.com and, on a whim, plunk down whatever is needed to purchase the expensive hot deck of the day just because he wants to play it at tomorrow’s tourney. The budget player is one who has to plan ahead to get those sets of four commons and uncommons, scouts the rares he’s pretty sure he wants, plans his purchases of those, and maybe – if he can afford it – put a little something aside in case some rare creeps up on him. Of course, I like to write about those rares that have crept up on me.

However, I know what it’s like to be in a place where Magic becomes a drain on your financial resources. Almost universally, the emails that I get are from fathers. I know that they don’t want to totally give up Magic, but they feel that they must. “How can I justify spending hundreds of dollars on cards when my kids need [fill in the blank]?” Obviously, you can’t. If your kids really and truly need [fill in the blank], you gotta give it to them. Don’t confuse, though, “Daddy, I need the latest Paris Hilton perfume, or I won’t be the coolest girl in school” with “Dad, I need my hemophilia medicine so I won’t die.” Of course, I’m not a parent per se, so I can’t empathize with the guilt factor. I am an Italian-American Catholic, though. I can probably sympathize with that guilt.

Seriously, Magic can’t come ahead of family. It just can’t. If the game is important to you, though, I still think that you can get in some decent games. Of course, that’s if you can find the time. (Suggestion: Try to get the wife and kids into the game.)

Because I feel a kinship to this segment of the Magic-playing populace and I don’t want them to think that I don’t consider them, I’m going to begin sprinkling my columns with decks that don’t include any rares. It won’t be an every-week occurrence, but I’ll do my best. This week, I present the first one.

Dear Mr. Editor, Please, Put as Section Break Overused Pun Such as “Back in Black” Here.

The first deck that I wanted to try building was a mono-Black deck. You probably thought, as I first did when I started this, that surely I’d go straight to White. Makes sense. I love the White Weenies. Awesome common and uncommon White cards are some of the best in the game right now. Griffin Guide. Knight of the Holy Nimbus. Stonecloaker. That one guy. The other one that does that thing. Alas, I’ve been hooked on Phyrexian Totem for many months now, and I just had to feature it in a deck in some way. I know, Frances. I’ve used the P-Totem before, but I haven’t really used it, knowhatahmean? I wanted this deck to strive to win by sending over the 5/5 Trampling Thingamajig a couple of times for the win.

He has some awesome backup, too. There’s the best non-Rare Split Second card, Sudden Death. I believe that Tendrils of Corruption has gotten the stamp of approval from many of the Pro Tour Players. Heck, he can even bring along Consume Spirit, a card that can double as removal and a win condition.

He has a drawback? What drawback is that? Oh, right. The whole “sacrifice a permanent for each damage dealt to Phyrexian Totem while it’s a creature” thing. Yeah, I guess that could be a problem. I’ve talked to some people about how they solve this problem. A lot of players are thinking one-dimensionally on this issue. “Pack lots of creature kill. Then, you won’t have to worry about it.” That would be true if the only way to deal damage to the animated Phyrexian Totem was in combat. However, as is often the case, your opponent might have something we often call a Direct Damage spell.

Direct Damage spell: noun – a spell that can deal damage directly to a creature or player. Usually Red. Most often has the word “target” in its rules text. {From the French dir ecte dammage, meaning to surrender at the first sign of enemy fire.}

While direct damage spells are mostly Red, every color has them. Yes, even Green, if you consider Hail Storm. I know that’s a stretch, but you gotta trust me when I say that you absolutely do not want to be this guy:

This Guy’s Friend: How’d you do, T.G.?

This Guy: Lost.

TGF: Really? How?

TG: He played Giant Growth on his Llanowar Elves. Then double Hail Storm. I ended up with nothing on the board at the end of combat.

TGF: Well, you gotta be expecting Hail Storm, you know.

TG: Yeah. I know.

Farfetched? Certainly. The point, though, is that, except in extreme circumstance, you don’t want to be sending in Phyrexian Totem when your opponent has cards in hand. Remember, even Blue has Psionic Blast now.

Fortunately, Black also has discard. Hooray for Black! Thanks to hand destruction, we can take away an opponent’s options for handling an animated Phyrexian Totem before we ever activate it. And if their hand isn’t empty, we do what?

That’s right.

We don’t activate the Totem.

Unless we do something else about it. But I’ll get to that later. Maybe. Depends on whether I’m still mad at you or not. And don’t ask “about what?” You know what you did. Gawd, I can’t be here right now. So, here’s the deck:

This is the Part on Sprockets When We Explain Each Card

3 Mouth of Ronom: I wanted some colorless, uncounterable removal. By the way, some folks, in what I’m sure is an effort to get some Romeo swag, have tried to catch me on calling abilities like Mouth of Ronom “uncounterable.” “What if I had Trickbind? I could counter it then.” While it’s true that there are indeed a few spells out there that can counter activated abilities, they are a tiny percentage of the population of Counterville. Typically, Blue-based control decks will not have cards like Trickbind in the maindeck. Now, see in that last sentence where I said “Typically”…? I do know that, sometimes, given a certain metagame, these decks might have a copy or two of a Trickbind-type spell in the maindeck. Those situations are so few and far between that you should not live in fear of them. Besides, if a Blue mage were to use his Mystical Teachings to get a Trickbind to stop you from killing his Teferi, well, I think that’s probably a good trade, given what else this deck packs. Bottom line: when I call a spell or ability “uncounterable,” I mean that it is virtually uncounterable, and I just don’t want to spend the time explaining all of the possible ways that it might be countered.

17 Snow-Covered Swamp: The deck is mono-Black. It needed Swamps. The Snow part was so that the Mouth of Ronoms wouldn’t be useless.

1 Snow-Covered Plains: Snow for the Mouth and White for the sideboard Disenchants.

3 Terramorphic Expanse: A little deck thinning is always nice.

4 Phyrexian Rager: No Phyrexian Arena in Standard meant that I needed to find another way to draw cards. Also, the Arena is rare. So, even if it was in Standard, it wouldn’t qualify for this deck.

4 Ravenous Rats: Discard plus a body equals free space in which the Totem can roam.

4 Consume Spirit: As you can probably tell from looking over my archives, I’ve been a big fan of this card ever since it was printed in Mirrodin. Anytime a spell can hit a creature or player, I’m gonna look at it more than twice. The life gain can also completely change the game around. It’s also a potential win condition.

4 Mind Rot: I looked at Agonizing Memories, but I liked this card’s mana cost. Two for one discard is card advantage plus an opening for the Totem.

4 Recover: Yes, I am completely aware that the deck packs only eight creatures. I was worried about that, too. Turns out that it’s not a problem. Ravenous Rats die very easily, and Phyrexian Ragers aren’t much tougher. Plus, the “Draw a card” line gives you more card advantage.

4 Enslave: This was the second card (besides the Phyrexian Totem) that I was itching to use. I still think people are underusing and under-appreciating this card. Like the Red Threaten-type cards, Enslave can completely swing the board position and, thus, the game. Picture an opponent with a 5/5 of some sort on the other side of the board and sitting at twelve life. You’ve got some lands and a Phyrexian Rager. Are you going to swing your Totem and Rage into that? Of course, not. You’ll lose the Totem and five other permanents, and your opponent will only be down to ten. If you take his critter with Enslave, though, you can potentially end the game on the next turn. Don’t forget that life loss, too. I’ve used it to end games when we were in a stalemate near the end. Two or three turns of Enslave-based life loss ended it.

4 Phyrexian Totem: You’ve been reading this up to this point, right?

4 Sudden Death: I will keep saying it until a Pro Tour player who is better looking than me convinces me otherwise or agrees with me. This is the best non-rare Split Second spell. You got Teferi? Big deal. You don’t anymore. Ditto for anyone else with a toughness of four or less that this can target.

4 Tendrils of Corruption: More removal. More lifegain. Instant timing. Yummy.

The Sideboard
4 Caustic Rain: There are still some lands that can cause problems for a deck like this. Desert just blows with the Phyrexian Totem. Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree, isn’t much better. Don’t destroy them. Remove them from the game. If you feel you can’t afford the extra mana, you can use Rain of Tears. I still like this better, though.

4 Cruel Edict: Some inconsiderate soul will play Akroma, Angel of Wrath, Troll Ascetic, or Silhana Ledgewalker on you. You won’t have anyway to deal with it outside of this kind of card.

3 Disenchant: There are still some Artifacts and Enchantments that are hazardous to this deck. You’ll be glad you had this when one of them shows up.

4 Yixlid Jailer: This was the last card I put in here. I haven’t faced a lot of Dredge decks in the Tournament Practice room in the past few weeks, but you can’t ignore it. There are also some Flashback cards that can just ruin your day. Do I wish this was Withered Wretch? Yes, but the Wretch is not an uncommon in the current environment. However, if you have still have some from Legions, use them. If your local metagame dictates, though, this might need to be Festering March. As usual, mix and match the sideboard as you deem necessary for your scene.

Playing the Deck (Hint: Do It Better Than I Do)

Typically, this behaves like a Mono-Black Control deck. It just doesn’t behave like a creatureless Mono-Black Control deck. Your Ravenous Rats and Phyrexian Ragers will be speed bumps at first. Don’t fear losing them. You have Recover to get them back. What you want to fear is Spectral Force. You don’t have many good options for getting rid of him. So, don’t hesitate to double block with a Rager and a Rats and use Tendrils of Corruption for the final five points to kill it. However, the best thing to do is to Enslave the Force. If you can hold off a turn, do that. I’ve found that, before they bring in Naturalize in games 2 and 3, the only way they have to handle an Enslaved Spectral Force is attacking you with another Spectral Force. That’s a two-for-one trade I like. If this scares you, remember to massage your sideboard as needed. I’ve found Cruel Edict to be fine against Force decks because you can eliminate the other creatures, giving them no choice but to sacrifice their Force. If you want Terror instead of the Jailer or a Caustic Rain or two, do it.

As I said above, unless you have zero fear of direct damage, you don’t want to activate the Phyrexian Totem when they have cards in hand. Maybe you’d do it in a Mono-Black Aggro deck where you had plenty of creatures to sacrifice. Not in this deck, though. Direct damage almost always means losing lands, and that’s never A Good Thing.

Of course, there are times when they might have a card in hand that you think is a direct damage spell, and it just doesn’t matter. For example, your opponent is playing Mono-Blue and is at five life. He has nothing on board that can deal any sort of damage to a Totem. No creatures to block; no untapped Desert. He does have, however, a card in hand. It could be Psionic Blast, and you have lotsa land. Do you activate the Totem and swing? Sure. If the Totem gets hit with the Blast, you just sacrifice lands. The Totem then ends the game. Easy as pie.

But Wait! There’s More!

I was having so much fun using a more limited card pool that I couldn’t stop myself from trying to build every new ten-year-old player’s favorite deck: The All-Burn Deck.

I started playing this game when I was 32 years old. I was not immediately drawn to the Mono-Red Burn deck. Yet, I couldn’t escape it because the person who first taught me the game played it like he was ten years old. I’ve always understood the appeal of that deck. The game is about dropping your opponent’s life total from twenty to zero. So, just throw burn at his face, and be done with it.

Of course, we also quickly learn that this often doesn’t work out like we planned. You draw too many lands. Your opponent’s creatures keep coming at you faster than you can throw damage at your opponent’s head. You rely on that big spell with X in the casting cost, but it never shows. Mostly, though, it’s that the burn just isn’t efficient enough.

I wasn’t going to let any of that stop me, though. I mean, it’s just a game, right? Okay, I had a slightly better reason than “because it was there.” I looked at the cheap common and uncommon burn spells available in Standard right now and realized that we actually have some pretty efficient cards, cards like Seal of Fire, Shock, and Rift Bolt. Yeah, it costs three mana, but not if you Suspend it. Then, there’s the returning red-headed hottie, Incinerate.

So, I took the best of the three-mana-or-less Red burn spells and put them in a deck with twenty lands. And I lost. Every. Single. Game. For two of those reasons above. I drew too many lands, and I couldn’t stop hemorrhaging during combat. I decided to fix the land problem first, dropping lands for more burn, one at a time. I stopped at sixteen lands just because I felt completely uncomfortable at any fewer than that. However, it still kinda felt like I was getting too many. That was when I decided it might be time to look at Terramorphic Expanse.

Do you know how sick that card is in a sixteen-land deck? Think about it this way. If your opening hand includes a Mountain and an Expanse and you pop off that Expanse on turn 1, you’re left with only thirteen lands in your deck. In other words, of the fifty-two cards left, thirty-nine are business spells. On average, then, you’re drawing three burn spells out of every four cards. If you pop off another Expanse it gets even better.

I still needed to stop those rampaging beasties from the other side of the table, though. I didn’t need to kill them outright. They just needed to be stopped long enough for me to draw more burn spells. I asked myself “What creatures would best fit this hare-brained scheme?” I answered “Creatures that double as burn.” Which scared the frijoles out of me, I tell you what. What creatures might those be, though? It didn’t take me long to settle on Mogg Fanatic and Scorched Rusalka. Both cost one mana, so, they just slip into the deck’s mana curve without disrupting the fine balance of twelve mana-producing lands and four Terramorphic Expanses. In addition, they’re an extra eight or more damage, depending on whether you get to attack with them.

Near the end, I had this:

Burn, Baby, Burn

4 Terramorphic Expanse
11 Mountain
1 Keldon Megaliths

4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Scorched Rusalka

4 Incinerate
4 Seal of Fire
4 Shock
4 Threaten
4 Fiery Temper
4 Ghostfire
4 Grapeshot
4 Rift Bolt
4 Sudden Shock

I was quite happy with the results. I was winning a lot more than I was losing, and people were even okay with it. “Man, I didn’t think ten-year-olds even tried those decks anymore. :-)” I was winning a lot more than I was losing, about three to one, and probably would have won more if I had kept my eyes on the prize and not tried to take out so many opposing creatures.

Then, someone pricked my balloon. “Fiery Temper’s not a common or uncommon.” Guh. He was right. Curse my ancient bones, I was remembering Fiery Temper from when it was originally released in Torment. It was common then. Not now, though. Crud. So, what could take its place? At first, I tried Orcish Cannonade. It does, after all, draw a card. However, I settled on Surging Flame.

Surging Flame wasn’t the great success that Fiery Temper was. The Ripple ability has only produced extra damage about one out of four times, unlike some of the strings I put together when playing Red in Coldsnap Cubed drafts. Ah, yes, forty-card decks with six Surging Flames. Now, that’s bringin’ the heat. Even then, the deck was quite serviceable, and I was still winning a lot more than I was losing, just not as many. It was time for me to start wrapping this up to get it in to Craig. I needed a sideboard.

First, I had to take care of some Artifacts that kept showing up. Fury Charm was just wonderful for that because it was almost never a dead card. Even if they didn’t see that Artifact in game 2 (I suspect some took them out knowing that Red had lotsa Artifact kill), I could squeeze through extra combat damage by giving a Rusalka or Fanatic an extra +1/+1 and Trample. I also wanted some land destruction for this sideboard for the same reasons that I wanted it for And Your Little Dog Totem. I picked Demolish. Weenie decks needed something to take care of them, so, I used Pyroclasm. Finally, in the special case of White Weenie decks, I wanted Sulfur Elemental.

Needed: Sense of Humor

To play this deck, you really do need a sense of humor. You’ll be transported back to a time when all you wanted to do was sling burn at an opponent while drinking Mello Yello and eating cheese curls. The most important thing is to resist the urge to play the deck “properly.” You can’t be wasting burn on the other guy’s creatures unless absolutely necessary. Every card used to kill a creature is one less that can be used to char an opponent’s dome. Still, you want to somewhat smart. Play Instants at the end of the other guy’s turn unless you find a Blue player tapped out on your turn. Try to save Rift Bolt for when you’re holding Grapeshot. Suspend the Rift Bolt one turn so that you can get two or more damage out of the Grapeshot the next turn. The deck doesn’t run much mana, as you know. The most I’ve gotten out of Grapeshot is three damage when I had three lands, a Rift Bolt un-Suspended, and I cast a Seal of Fire. Not a bad turn, though, as my opponent went down to four life. All I needed after that was some other burn spell to add to the Seal of Fire, and it was game. That’s why I kept whittling down the lands. In a situation like that, I wanted to make sure (as much as possible) that the next card was a burn spell. It was: Surging Flame.

The deck’s best trick – really, it’s only one – is Threaten in hand with a Scorched Rusalka on board and four mana. You take that huge offending creature from the other side of the board, say a Spectral Force, swing for lotsa damage, and then sacrifice the “borrowed” creature to the Rusalka’s ability. Voila! Extra damage and creature removal for one card and four mana. This isn’t to say that you should always wait to use that Threaten. Often, you just can’t afford to. Other times, Threatening the opponent’s creature ends the game. I’m just saying it’s a fun trick.

The deck’s two biggest holes are Enchantments and lifegain. Obviously, we could drop one Mountain for a Forest and slip Seal of Primordium into the sideboard with no problem. I would drop the Fury Charm in that case. You want it to be Seal of Primordium and not Naturalize or some other Instant or Sorcery because you don’t want to have to hold your mana. This is a Sligh deck in the original sense of the term. You want to use all of your mana before your next turn. You don’t want to keep yourself from casting burn spells just because you need mana for Naturalize. The biggest Enchantment problems are White’s. Story Circle is the most obvious problem, but Imperial Mask has shown itself to be nasty, too. Meanwhile, Rule of Law really slows you down. You know what? Let’s go ahead and put that Forest in the maindeck and drop the Fury Charms and one Demolish for a Seal of Primordium right now, mmmmkay?

Then there’s lifegain. Mostly, I’ve been seeing that in the form of Loxodon Warhammer. If that thing hits, you simply must kill the creature out from under it (in game 1) and then kill the Luckhammer itself (in games 2 and 3). If they get more than one swing in with that thing, the game is out of your reach. Sometimes, even one swing is enough if it’s on someone like – oh, I’ll stay on message here – Spectral Force. Faith’s Fetters can be a problem if your opponent is smart. I’ve had too many people try to Fetters a Mogg Fanatic or a Scorched Rusalka. In those cases, you’re almost always going to sacrifice the creature out from under the spell. In fact, I can’t think of a time when you wouldn’t. The smart ones, though, will Fetters a land, your Megaliths, if it’s out.

Creatures with Protection from Red (i.e. Paladin en-Vec and Voice of All) aren’t as big a concern. Just to be safe, against White decks, don’t use your Ghostfires on your opponent until they can end the game. Save them in case one of those guys shows up. The last thing this deck wants to see is a Voice of All with Protection from Red carrying a Loxodon Warhammer. *shudder*

That’s it for now. I’m feeling much better after more than three weeks on this new medicine. I see the doctor on Monday. Let’s hope I get the all clear to drive and go back to work. Let’s also hope that I don’t have to take this medicine forever. I’ve had to maintain a very low sodium diet since I started on it. While I know that’s healthy anyway, it’s nearly impossible to maintain because you can’t always tell how much sodium is anything. It also makes you sound like a bit of an ungrateful *sshole. “Thanks for inviting us over for dinner, Mom. Do you know how much sodium is in that dish you made? No? Well, then, I’ll just have water and some celery.”

As usual, you’ve been a great audience. Please, remember to have your children spayed and/or neutered.

Chris Romeo

P.S. In case you were wondering, these decks were not specifically designed for nor tested against only other Peasant decks. I played against any Standard decks that people brought.