Dead/Aflame: Death, Sorceries, and a Mirage

Posted in Building on a Budget on September 26, 2005

By Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar

It's interesting that a few people on the Message Boards wrote that my evolved 9th Edition preconstructed experiment is turning out to be a “mess” and “lacks focus.” This is not to say that the negative feedback was in the majority, but I think a lot of people looked at the deck last week and thought it was underpowered, fragmented, or just plain boring. My guess is that these people didn't try playing the deck or their own variation on it.

Here is the deck as I left off last week:

Dead/Aflame v.1.6

Download Arena Decklist

As I said last week, I wasn't sure whether to call this deck “finished” or not. My goal with each of these experiments is to make a respectable, fun, budget deck. I knew the deck was budget (one of the cheaper ones I've made, actually), and pretty fun to play. Was it respectable, though, or did it need a lot of work as some readers were suggesting?

So I played the deck. Over, and over, and over again, never changing a card. I wanted to really understand the card interactions and see the deck matched up against a wide variety of strategies. I jotted down notes, trying to get a handle on how and why the deck won or lost.

I played fifty games with version 1.6, and in those games I went 38-12. This is clearly on par with (or better than) the winning percentage of my other decks, even if you factor in the rise of highly experimental decks in the Casual Decks room as a result of 9th Edition's release. The deck may look a mess, but the cards all work together well. As a result, I feel confident that the deck is “respectable.” I am also convinced more than ever that the deck is “fun.” Countless spectators said how enjoyable the deck looked to play, and I won some games in dramatic and quirky fashion.

Since it's respectable, fun, and budget-friendly, my work here is done. I don't see any reason to keep making changes for change's sake.

That said, here are some observations on the deck after fifty games:

  • Almost two-thirds of my losses were due to my own mana issues. Sometimes I got stuck on two land for several turns, recovering too late to survive. Sometimes I got stuck with no Black or Red mana sources. Often I sat with a Nekrataal or Magnivore in hand but unable to cast it due to the mana requirements. If you can somehow solve the mana issues in the deck without diluting the deck's offensive punch, I think you've just hit gold.
  • I didn't face a single Enduring Ideal or Honden deck in fifty games, which strikes me as blind luck on my part. Certainly people play those decks in the Casual Decks room. With so many relatively dead cards in these match-ups (especially Threaten and Cruel Edict) and no way to handle enchantments, I'm guessing this is a near auto-loss match-up.
  • I can't stress enough the importance of the mana curve. A lot of suggestions on the Message Boards and e-mail included things like Diabolic Tutor, more Gravediggers, more Anarchists, big fatties, etc. Those are fine cards, but what makes this deck hum is the ability to play a lot of cards early. The deck has seventeen viable Turn 2 plays. Magnivore plays cleanup in this deck, and Anarchist isn't a card you want to see early. That's how I can justify two copies of cards in a deck with no card-drawing or tutors. As I say below, there are ways to make the deck focused on higher-end spells, but right now the deck is trying for maximum cost efficiency.
  • Genju of the Fields
    The toughest opposing creatures I faced weren't Dragons, Spirits, or Legends of any kind. I won lots of games versus Umezawa's Jitte and weenie swarms. I even won all of my games against Nezumi Graverobber. No, the toughest cards to face by far were Genju. With everything at Sorcery speed, it's impossible to do anything but block and kill a, for example, Genju of the Fields. For ground-based Genju I could often dissuade them with a big Magnivore or first-striking Nekrataal. Sometimes I had to send in a suicidal attacker just so my opponent would activate her Genju and I could steal/sacrifice it in my second main phase with Threaten and Nantuko Husk. Over my fifty games I think I faced all five monocolored Genju, and each one gave me fits. For those people who wanted to keep Demolish in the deck, this is a good argument for why to do so.
  • This is one of the only decks I've ever made where I sometimes aim burn directly at my opponent in the early game. It all depends on my hand. If I have an Anarchist, Gravedigger, and two Zombify, I'll happily throw Volcanic Hammers at my opponent if he doesn't play an early creature. Likewise if I have Magnivore in hand, sometimes I will play Hammer just to give it an added bonus before it comes into play. Some of the decisions are wacky with this deck, but that's in part what makes it fun.

Even though I'm calling the deck finished, I still like some of the suggestions made last week. In particular, if you have the time and inclination, I think it's worth messing around with three cards to see if they fit your style of play:

Pain Kami
Pain Kami - GodofAtheism ended up with a decklist very similar to mine in his own tinkering. Whereas I used Threaten and Nantuko Husk, he used Night's Whisper, Highway Robber, and Pain Kami. I like his reasoning about Pain Kami when he says, “along with Hearth Kami, he gives me the chance to react to something at instant speed, something this deck otherwise lacks the ability to do. I have found this ability very important in many situations.”

Festering Goblin - The deck currently doesn't have anything to do on the first turn, so a little beater with a nice secondary ability certainly makes sense to me. With Nantuko Husk, it also adds a little instant-speed removal into the deck. What I worry about is that with so many one-toughness creatures myself, there is a danger of Festering Goblin backfiring. Still, as I said it's worth a try.

Mortivore - The other Llurgoyf in 9th Edition, he has just as much synergy as Magnivore in the deck. I didn't include him for mana reasons since the deck certainly doesn't need another card with a ability. I also don't agree with the people who say it should replace Magnivore, since the haste has been key to winning games for me. Where I think Mortivore makes some sense is as a replacement to Gravedigger. It's not ideal since Gravedigger's effect is so juicy in this deck, but it doesn't raise the manacurve, while giving the deck two more legitimate game-ending threats.

Of course, I also haven't officially named the deck. Now that you know that version 1.6 is the final one, chime in on the Message Boards with your name suggestions. Just remember that I tend to choose names that are short, catchy, and that tie directly to the deck's strategy. Also, if you suggested a name last week, please re-log it on this week's Boards so I have all of the suggestions in one place.

Speculative Sideboard Time!

I don't know why I kept playing single duels instead of matches when in the latter stages of testing the deck. I should have messed around in the Tourney Decks room just to see how my deck performed. Since I didn't, I'm left with a speculative sideboard without testing behind it. I'm not sure of the numbers distribution, because that distribution is based on what cards I want to drop and add in each matchup. Still, here is how I would begin thinking about a sideboard for something like a Friday Night Magic:

Sideboard: 4 Coercion

Against decks without creatures, I'm going to want to take out Cruel Edict and Threaten. One card that would certainly get added in their place is Coercion. I know, I know... why not Distress? Well, it's possible that I could use Distress on Turn 2, but it's also possible that I wouldn't have the BB mana to cast it until the fourth or fifth turn. Coercion is a turn slower than Distress, but I will almost always be able to cast it. Mind Rot is another consideration, but with only Ravenous Rats as backup, it's not likely to hit my opponent's most critical cards.

Sideboard: 4 Boiling Seas

This deck is probably one of the only ones that is happy Boil is out of the Core Set and replaced by Boiling Seas. For any deck with a lot of Islands, this should be a game-winner if it resolves.

Sideboard: 3 Pyroclasm

Yes, it kills almost all of my own creatures. The good news is that against weenie swarms--especially White Weenie swarms with lots of fliers--it kills all of their creatures too. I will also get some of my creatures back thanks to Zombify and Gravedigger, so it's likely that I will win a topdecking war against other weenie decks. Pyroclasm seems to me like a good solution against decks with lots of small creatures as long as I'm wary of when and how I use it.

Sideboard: 2 Eradicate

Keiga, the Tide Star, Yosei, the Morning Star, Solemn Simulacrum, Arc-Slogger, Meloku the Clouded Mirror, Darksteel Colossus, Platinum Angel, Rukh Egg, Seedborn Muse, Verdant Force, Memnarch, Zo-Zu the Punisher... I can think of a lot of reasons why I would want to Eradicate something. Eradicate is reserved for non-Black decks, obviously, but especially those decks with hard-to-handle creatures. Against most creature decks I have enough weapons, but there are some creatures I never want to see again in a game.

Sideboard: 2 Demolish

As I said, Genju are a pain. Demolish also provides a small way to slow down decks relying on the Urza cycle of lands, decks relying on all five colors, decks with heavy mana requirements, or decks that use a lot of artifacts.

This doesn't feel like an optimal sideboard, partly because it doesn't necessarily cover the deck's weaknesses (especially enchantments). If you have sideboard thoughts, feel free to speak up on the Boards. There is a card I would absolutely like to use in the sideboard while it's still legal in Standard, but that will have to wait until the next section...

Adding Money To The Deck

As always, I'm going to include some suggestions if you happen to be on a less-than-tight budget. These cards aren't necessary to the deck's success, but they are worth trying if you happen to own them or can easily get them.

Sulfurous Springs

Remember my recent plea to get the 9th Edition painlands? I imagine I'll get pretty repetitive over the next year in these “Adding Money” sections. If you can at all afford them and want to give a deck like this a try, absolutely include Sulfurous Springs. The deck's chief weakness is mana consistency, and the reason to add painlands is to achieve better mana consistency. Dropping two Swamps and two Mountains for four Springs is an absolute no-brainer. If my conscience could justify them in this column, they would surely be in the deck.

Solemn Simulacrum

Solemn Simulacrum
Solemn Simulacrum won't be around in Standard for long, so it's probably not worth going out and finding them if they're not already in your collection and you play all your matches using that format. If you do have them, though, I can't think of a deck that loves Solemn Simulacrum much more than this one. It's slow, yes, but it smoothes mana, thins land, draws cards, and is a perfect target for Gravedigger or Zombify. I love the Simulacrum, and will be sorry to see it leave Standard once Ravnica: City of Guilds becomes legal.

Rare Bad-Boys

A lot of people see “reanimation” as a deck theme and automatically think fatties. This deck is a good example of utility-based reanimation without a reliance on getting big meanies into my graveyard. That said, big meanies are certainly worthy of a spot as the deck's “finisher” if you aren't partial to Magnivore. Kokusho, the Evening Star, KageMaro, First to Suffer, Ryusei, the Falling Star, Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni, and the aforementioned Mortivore might all shine as the deck's cleanup man. In addition, Nezumi Shortfang could easily replace Ravenous Rats, and Duplicant or Triskelion could work well. Just remember that if you start adding five- and six-mana cards to the deck you're like to run into even more mana problems.

Hell's Caretaker makes a neat addition to the deck, but I don't know how necessary he is. It's a nice effect that fits the theme well, but the deck's four-mana slots are already pretty glutted and it doesn't need another one-toughness creature. It's worth trying out two in place of Gravedigger to see what happens, but I suspect I would end up liking Gravedigger more.

Cranial Extraction

Arguably Black's best sorcery, it's worth trying out Cranial Extraction. At worst it becomes a sideboard card in place of Coercion, and at best it muscles out some of the lower-cost sorceries to up the overall power level of the deck.

Oblivion Stone

The card I would love to use in the sideboard is Oblivion Stone. It's a tad slow for this deck, but it does what no Black or Red Standard-legal card can do: It kills enchantments. I could easily see adding a couple of these to the sideboard to combat Honden, Ghostly Prisons, Genju, Worship, and the like. This also kills cards like Paladin en-Vec and Auriok Champion, two creatures that are a pain to face with a Black/Red deck.

Beacon of Unrest

It costs one more than Zombify and it has that double-Black mana requirement. For those complications you can now reanimate creatures or artifacts in your opponent's graveyard. The deck is already slow, but it would be worth fooling around with Beacon of Unrest if you have them to see how much of a boon it is to the deck.

Paths Not Taken and Ravnica

Normally I would walk systematically through several variations on the deck. Since Standard will be changing soon, though, I'll curtail this section so that I can also talk about potential Ravnica cards that might fit this deck's strategy.

It seems to me that any variation on this deck is likely going to go one of three ways. The first is to focus more on the reanimation/graveyard aspects of the deck, lowering the number of Red cards and possibly slipping into Monoblack. Mortivore probably becomes a feature card, making room for things like Chittering Rats and Grave Pact. A second alternative is to focus more on the Sorcery side of the house, upping the number of Anarchists and Magnivores in the deck. I think Black likely sticks around in the Sorcery deck, maybe adding Spellweaver Helix for true reanimation shenanigans. The final variation on the deck is to focus on more high-end cards like Beacon of Unrest, fatties, and the like. Pyroclasm probably moves maindeck to help in the early game, and the deck relies on Talisman of Indulgence and/or Wayfarer's Bauble to ramp up its mana. Other variations on the deck exist, of course, but I think most ideas would follow one of those three core paths.

Standard will be changing soon with the release of Ravnica: City of Guilds. All of those artifact-laden Mirrodin Block cards slip away, making room for the Gold madness of Ravnica Block. As a result, it's worth thinking about what the deck loses and potentially gains in a month or so.

The good news is that it loses next to nothing. Fireball can easily become Blaze again, making the deck perfectly legal for the new Standard. Even the draft sideboard stays intact. If you end up liking a deck like this, it's easy to keep it around until the Black/Red Rakdos Cult becomes a featured guild and adds a bunch of fun tools to the deck.

Until Rakdos makes its way here, though, we're stuck with the leavings of the Golgari, House Dimir, and Boros Legion. None of the Gold cards here are going to help the deck, but some of the monochromatic ones might. I'm going to narrow the long list of potential cards to the ones I think most deserve a look-see:

Golgari Thug - In general Dredge is an excellent mechanic for this deck, and there's no better spot for it than a cheap creature. I could easily see Golgari Thug replace Ravenous Rats. I love the Rats, but the Thug interacts with the rest of the deck in so many interesting ways this would likely be one of the first cards I tried.

Keening Banshee - I like Keening Banshee. A lot. The question is whether it kicks Nekrataal to the sideboard since the Banshee is useful against Black decks too. The flying certainly fills a hole in the deck, and the extra point of toughness somewhat makes up for the lack of first strike. It's a tough call. Why does Black have so many juicy four-cost creatures I want to use?

Sparkmage Apprentice - I like the effect, although it doesn't naturally replace any of the creatures in the deck. If I assume that Golgari Thug is muscling Ravenous Rats aside, I don't know where Sparkmage Apprentice fits. I'm pretty sure I want both Hearth Kami and Volcanic Hammer to stay put. Hm.

Brainspoil - It's interesting because it can kill Black creatures and because its Transmute cost can search out Anarchist. It's also nice that Transmuting it helps out Magnivore and can be reused via said Anarchist. Maybe Magnivore falls to wayside for something like KageMaro as a finisher so the Transmute can find it. I worry about the cost, of course, but the option to Transmute might be worth it.

Mausoleum Turnkey - It's not better than Gravedigger, but could it be used alongside Gravedigger? Dang... another four-cost critter to try. Maybe I should make a Singleton deck along these lines soon.

In terms of rares, Dark Confidant is perfect in this deck since most of the cards are of reasonable cost. Also, in a deck with lots of small creatures, Flame Fusillade might be interesting as a two-of sort of card. Empty the Catacombs is very interesting to consider, but I would be more comfortable if the deck was also using Nezumi Graverobber.

Those are some thoughts to get your mind whirring. That's enough denouement for one day, especially since I didn't even change the deck from last week. In any case, if you try the deck out I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with the results. Now it just needs a name to suit it.

And now for something completely different...

My Mirage Preconstructed Deck

It's a secret I've been keeping for months! You all heard that Mirage is coming to Magic Online, and that the online release of the set is also going to include four preconstructed theme decks. One of those theme decks is being designed by Markus Pettersson, the winner of the "Design a Mirage Theme Deck" Magic Online tournament. Starting later this week, you'll have a chance to design another deck in “You Make The Card” style. Once they know the other three decks, Magic R&D will design the fourth to fill out the set.

And... oh yeah, baby... I'm designing one too.

Over the next two weeks, I'm going to take you through my card choices for my very own Wizards-endorsed preconstructed deck. When Scott Johns told me about the idea of doing this in the precon column I can't tell you how giddy I was (and am) at the prospect, especially since Mirage was one of the first sets on my radar screen in terms of Constructed Magic (I started playing during Ice Age, but mostly just with Starters and no concept of deckbuilding).

This is not to say I'm designing in a vacuum, though. I know Markus Pettersson's theme and colors, for one thing, and am steering clear of them. I also am going to rely on you all to help me along the way.

You should think of the next two weeks as very much like my regular deckbuilding evolutions. I'm going to start things off with a poll so that you can pick my initial direction. After that, the deck I'm building will be mine, based on my own logic and decisions. However, I expect you all to pipe up early and often on the Message Boards to guide me. You will be there to ensure that I don't miss cool cards, the power level of the deck stays realistic for a theme deck, and overall that I make a fun preconstructed deck.

Below you'll see my quick sketches of four Mirage-only decks I would enjoy building. Each description has the color(s) of the deck, its general theme (in purposefully cheesy form, no less), and the two rares I would include.

One request: Please don't vote for what you think would be the “best” or “most powerful” of the decks. These are preconstructed decks and by definition should leave lots of room for improvement. Don't vote for which deck has the best or most powerful rares, either. Instead, please vote for what you think would make the “coolest” or “most interesting” or even “most fun” deck of the bunch. Those are the parameters I'll be using when I start putting commons and uncommons around the two rares.

Here are my four deck sketches...

Benthic Djinn
Deck #1

Colors: Blue and Black

Theme: Banzai! Keep your opponent off balance and end the game before he knows what hit him. Attack, maim, and attack some more, confident that your opponent will die long before you manage to kill yourself.

Rares: Benthic Djinn; Purraj of Urborg

Spirit of the Night
Deck #2

Color: Black

Theme: The Nightstalkers are on the move! Stay alive (or at least undead) while you assemble your army. If you're lucky, you may even summon the Spirit of the Night itself to aid you in your dark cause.

Rares: Shallow Grave; Spirit of the Night

Deck #3

Colors: Red and White

Theme: To arms! You are a master of strategy, able to outmaneuver any opponent. Your warriors may look small, but they win through superior tactics, military intelligence, and a hefty dose of the flanking mechanic.

Rares: Sidar Jabari; Telim'Tor

Rock Basilisk
Deck #4

Colors: Green and Red

Theme: Boom, baby! Your creatures are bigger and scarier than anything on your opponent's side of the table. Shake the earth with your passing and leave only giant footprints in your wake.

Rares: Lure of Prey; Rock Basilisk

Now it's up to you to decide which deck will be my own home-grown preconstructed deck.

Which deck should Jay make?Deck #1 (Blue/Black)Deck #2 (Black)Deck #3 (Red/White)Deck #4 (Green/Red)

I've given you a lot to ponder today, and a lot of discuss on the Message Boards. What do you think of the deck? What name should I give it? What sideboard cards did I miss? What Ravnica cards do you think fit the strategy?

And, most importantly: What Mirage preconstructed deck should I build over the next two weeks? Get your vote in now!

Think hard and have fun,


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