Interlude: My Mirage Precon, Part 2

Posted in Building on a Budget on December 19, 2005

By Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar

A clear highlight for me this past year was the opportunity to create one of the four official Mirage preconstructed decks for the set's online release in December. I actually found out about the opportunity months earlier, and Scott Johns and I talked several times about how to turn the idea of designing a preconstructed deck into a series of articles. I'm pleased with how the articles turned out, especially the terrific feedback on the Message Boards that helped shape my card choices. Of course, I'm also thrilled with how the deck itself turned out and have already made a Mirage Block Constructed deck centered around the Nightstalkers. Wheee!

Howdy! A big thank you to everyone who provided feedback to me last week on my initial Mirage preconstructed deck. As I requested, you not only thought about what cards do and don't fit into my deck, you also offered some really compelling reasons as to why. Of course, I couldn't take everyone's advice (which was sometimes contradictory), and I'm sure some of my decisions will rub some folks the wrong way. Still, almost every card I add (or ditch) today is a direct result of at least one reader's argument.

When I last left my half-formed preconstructed deck, these are the cards I had selected:

3 Feral Shadow
3 Urborg Panther
3 Breathstealer
2 Mire Shade
2 Dread Specter
1 Blighted Shaman
1 Zombie Mob
1 Ravenous Vampire
1 Spirit of the Night

2 Stupor
1 Shallow Grave
1 Withering Boon
1 Phyrexian Vault
1 Kaervek's Hex
1 Nocturnal Raid

In other words, I had decided on my color (Black), theme (Nightstalkers), rares (Spirit of the Night and Shallow Grave), and uncommons (every other card listed up there). I felt okay about most of my decisions, although I had privately agonized over a couple of them.

Luckily, you were all there to rescue me from myself...

Rethinking My Choices

As I said, you did a great job arguing persuasively for either uncommons that didn't belong in my decklist, uncommons that did, or commons that should make today's cut. A few of you even went so far as to argue for different rares or adding a second color, although you were doomed to disappointment from the beginning since those particular parts of the deck weren't up for debate.

After careful consideration, I've decided to tweak the cards from last week in the following ways:

IN: 2 Charcoal Diamond

charcoal diamond
Okay. Uncle. I get it. Add Charcoal Diamond.

Pretty much everyone on the Boards said that Charcoal Diamond should be in my deck. In my defense, this is one of the two places I agonized over in the first iteration of the deck. I thought Charcoal Diamond would make a good addition, sending a signal to new players about the benefit of cheap mana-acceleration and helping some of the probable commons in the deck like Drain Life and Fetid Horror. Besides, my manacurve so far has stunk. As I said last week, I decided not to include it because of thematic reasons. That was clearly a mistake, and you all let me know it.

I received an e-mail from a reader by the handle Symbolism, who wrote, “what fits thematically is Charcoal Diamond. It provides crucial mana acceleration for a deck centered on getting a trio of creatures into play, and in terms of its aesthetic, it's as "spooky" as gems can be. There are all sorts of ways to work this in to the story of the theme. Not to mention, Charcoal Diamond fits the core mechanic of the deck.”

Some strangely articulate fellow named Scott Johns agreed when he wrote to say:

I thought you did a good job on this Jay, no major changes.

But, I'm going to take my editor hat off and instead put my "I'm a fan of this column" hat on. Ready?

Dear JMS,

I love your column and have read it since the very beginning! I thought you had some great ideas for this deck and I love the way you've really embraced the idea of making it a theme deck rather than just a collection of interesting cards.

That said, I think you're missing the boat a little bit on one thing.

You mention several times that you're concerned about the deck's manacurve, but then you ruled out an outstanding answer in Charcoal Diamond. I understand that you're trying to keep the deck very heavily "on theme" and I would agree with that if there were other good fits flavor-wise to use. However, to me it seems like you dropped the Diamond option for flavor reasons, but then ended up adding other uncommons that were worse for the deck and by your own admission were probably stretches (at best) flavor-wise for the deck's theme. On top of that, as you point out, these decks are teaching tools to help newer players learn how to build decks, and a big part of that is having good mana. When it comes to the theme part of the deck I think mana is probably the one place we should be willing to suspend flavor a little bit. As you argued so well yourself recently in your article about picking up the rare painlands, decks are way more fun when you actually get to cast your spells, and I believe Diamonds would better allow you to do just that given the way this deck is shaping up. If you aren't happy with the last couple uncommons in your deck anyway, I wonder why you aren't using two Charcoal Diamonds instead?

Okay. Uncle. I get it. Add Charcoal Diamond.

OUT: 1 Zombie Mob

zombie mob
I think Zombie Mob is a cool card that has some synergy with what the deck is trying to do. Some people even liked the idea that one part of the deck looked to eat a bit graveyard while other parts of the deck tried to use it in other ways because it gives would-be deckbuilders two paths to follow. Quite a few folks even argued for a second copy of Zombie Mob. The more I thought about it, though, the more I agreed with Landman on the Message Boards when he said: “The Zombie Mob... isn't all that great. I would rather hoard my creatures in my graveyard, because there is a great recursion card that deserves to be a two-of: Bone Harvest.”

Prunedanish agreed: “If there's any card I outright veto, it's Zombie Mob. Zombie Mob is a fun card, and it is deeply satisfying to get a 7/5 creature out of it. But it has no synergy with reanimation, (in the form of Gravebane Zombie and Bone Harvest--which I'm pushing--or in your own Shallow Grave). The Mob is a great "fun" card, but I'm just not sure this is the right deck for it.”

Good enough for me. Zombie Mob--despite all of the fun Evil Dead references I would want to make playing them--is out.

OUT: 2 Mire Shade

“One Mire Shade? That works. Two? No.” sayeth theorgg. Person after person on the Boards agreed. Most people felt that a single Mire Shade was okay to keep for flavor reasons, but that two was putting way too much strain on a deck that sometimes wants to cast a nine-mana creature. As unspeakable says on the Boards, “Mire Shade is an awful fit for this deck, as you really don't want to burn through all of your land. While it's true that you need some cards to fill the two-cost slot, another Blighted Shaman would be much more useful than a Mire Shade. Furthermore, there are a bunch of common cards, such as the Skulking Ghost, that can be better used for this purpose.”

So, originally, I thought I would drop my Zombie Mob and one Mire Shade for two Charcoal Diamonds. As you can see, however, I've decided to drop both Mire Shades. Why? Well, for one thing I agree that it sends the wrong message to newer players that you should be sacrificing your land willy-nilly when the feature card in the deck relies on you having every mana possible at your disposal. The main reason, though, is a post by Jokinen: “Why not just cut the second Mire Shade for a common? There are tons of great stuff in Mirage's Black commons. Looking quickly at the list you'll want at least some mix of Dark Banishing and Enfeeblement, some Drain Life, Wall of Corpses, at least one Bone Harvest (the only graveyard related common available) and Fetid Horror...”

I had already realized that filling my thirteen uncommon slots felt like a stretch in this deck, while an army of good Black commons waited to fill in the remaining slots. Could I get away with only twelve uncommons to sneak in another common? I checked with Frank Gilson in Wizards R&D and he gave me the green light to do so.

Note that I have dropped three creatures for two non-creatures. For a deck that is both relying on its creatures and aiming to sacrifice them, this makes me nervous. I'll need to pick up the critter count on the commons side of the deck.

Incidentally, the second place I agonized over last week's choices was the addition of Blighted Shaman. For some inexplicable reason I really, really dislike Blighted Shaman and have since I first played it in Mirage. I've decided to keep it in the deck, though, because I do think it's an obvious and interesting addition to the deck's minor themes. Although I personally prefer Mire Shade as a creature, Blighted Shaman is more strategically interesting as a one-of uncommon. Besides, maybe I'll put my Blighted demons to rest and come to love the little guy (or at least come to grips with why I dislike him so much).

A sizeable camp of people wanted me to either drop Ravenous Vampire, add Painful Memories, or both. I still dislike Painful Memories and need as many creatures as possible, so it's out. Ravenous Vampire is often going to be frustrating for any deck, but I think that's a good lesson for new players to learn on their own. I wouldn't keep it in my own modified deck, but I think some people will try to make it work, and both of those are what this is all about.

23 Swamp

I also decided to drop a land to make room for a second extra common. My thinking was that as a monocolor deck I could get away with one fewer land than the other three decks, particularly when dropping Mire Shade and adding Charcoal Diamond. It's also nice that, since my precon will be scrimping on the uncommons, you get two more commons than the other decks. This, too, I okayed with Frank.

After these decisions, my budding preconstructed deck looks so:

23 Swamp

3 Feral Shadow
3 Urborg Panther
3 Breathstealer
2 Dread Specter
1 Blighted Shaman
1 Ravenous Vampire
1 Spirit of the Night

2 Charcoal Diamond
2 Stupor
1 Shallow Grave
1 Withering Boon
1 Phyrexian Vault
1 Kaervek's Hex
1 Nocturnal Raid

That leaves fourteen open slots for Black's juicy commons. In this final section, I guarantee that at least one of my choices will raise a hackle or two.

Combing The Commons

As I scanned through the Message Boards last week, I saw highly varied Black commons showing up in decklists anywhere from zero to three times. This is great because it speaks highly of my options and justifies my making room for more commons than the typical preconstructed deck. It appears that there is a decent reason to include almost every single Black common in Mirage either for mechanic or flavor reasons. As a result, I'm going to go common by common to discuss why it either makes my deck or doesn't.

Just so you know, I'm looking at theme (this includes the mechanical themes in the deck as much as the flavor) first, and power a distant second. I'm also trying to favor creatures more heavily than non-creatures so my deck will work as it's intended to work. I say this because as I scan the Boards, it's clear that some of you were trying to figure out the optimal deck given the guidelines I presented last week. I'm instead looking to make a fun deck that inspires deckbuilders to tinker with and improve it.

Here we go:

Binding Agony - Put simply, I agreed with BringBackBanding (although not on the whole “bring back banding” issue) when he said, “What doesn't belong? Binding Agony, aside from being a bad card, has no flavor reason.” Just like Painful Memories, I can see the minor usefulness of Binding Agony in my deck as a teaching tool, but there are way too many terrific commons to waste a slot on something that seems so “meh.”

Bone Harvest
Bone Harvest - If there was ever a no-brainer common for my Nightstalker deck with Shallow Grave, it is Bone Harvest. Lots of people picked up on this fact, and quickly. SnowFire said, “I'd just like to recommend the almighty Bone Harvest, a classic for casual and budget play at the time as I recall. Great for getting back your whole army in creature-based decks, and can also get back dead Nightstalkers.” In following up his “drop Zombie Mob” argument, Landman said, “With Bone Harvest, you can put all three Nightstalkers on top of your deck if they are in the grave, effectively giving yourself a Spirit of the Night in two turns! Plus, this lets you manipulate the cards in your graveyard so that your preferred creature is on top for Shallow Grave!” Mikkyld went on to point out that Bone Harvest “feeds Ravenous Vampire and Blighted Shaman and gets back Spirit parts too.”

Want more? valyn5 said, “Bone Harvest. A lot of people are talking about this one. It would work well with the deck. For mechanics, a lot of the current creatures either sacrifice themselves or sacrifice others. The Harvest gives you the chance to make use of your creatures' saccing ability while not being too concerned about losing your creatures. It also helps set up the order of your creatures in the graveyard...well...except for those you try to get back. You know, if you'd rather have the big, bad Spirit of the Night come out for fun rather than the Feral Shadow that is sitting on top. As for flavor, it is bone harvesting. The type of thing that people do at night. They creep around dark, spooky graveyards in the middle of the night, harvesting bones for their dark experiments. Could even be the Nightstalkers themselves harvesting the bones. It also plays well into Shallow Grave. With all these shallow graves about, it makes it easy for creatures to harvest the bones. Granted these don't exactly work together like that, but the flavor idea is there. For a theme, it helps with Shallow Grave and your creatures coming back to haunt your opponents again. I'd run two copies of Bone Harvest to build on the theme of your creatures coming back.”

Yep. A clear winner. I agree with the two copies, too.

2 Bone Harvest

Cadaverous Knight – On the upside, it's an undead knight and an all-around solid creature. On the downside, my deck is already pretty stuffed full of three-cost creatures thanks to the Nightstalkers. There's also the argument that a few people made on the Boards that flanking should be a mechanic reserved for another preconstructed deck. As Rescinder said, “Cadaverous Knight is very cool and I can see how it would fit thematically; However, I'm not sure I like just one dude with the flanking mechanic, and also leaving mana open to regenerate him can interfere with getting out Nightstalkers.”

Choking Sands - Choking Sands is a good card, especially for an aggressive Black deck (the jury is still out, I think, about how aggressive my deck will feel). That said, no one can convince me it's on-theme, nor can they argue that it fits any of the core mechanics of the deck other than a Black weenie strategy.

dark banishing
Dark Banishing - Okay, so I have three solid non-creature removal choices in Dark Banishing, Enfeeblement, and Drain Life. All are high on the power curve and showed up in multiples on the Boards decklists. The dilemma is that I want as many creatures as possible for my deck. There's no way I'm dropping a Bone Harvest to make room for removal, even if it makes the deck more powerful. Soulshriek is a card that makes me smile because of how it complements so many of the “sacrifice” cards. Since I want desperately to maximize my creatures, the slots are few and far between for these three obviously good choices. Of the three, I like Dark Banishing the best and, as a minor point, for newer players I think it provides some familiarity and continuity.

2 Dark Banishing

Dark Ritual - Okay, kiddies... Strap yourselves in because it's about to get ugly.

Is Dark Ritual one of the most explosive mana cards ever printed? Yes. Does my deck need explosive mana? It could use it, sure, especially with all of those three-cost creatures sitting in my hand. Does Dark Ritual fit my theme? I don't see why I would exclude it for thematic reasons, nor do I see why I would include it for thematic reasons. Does my deck make Dark Ritual “unfair” in some way? Actually, no. As Kevin Nash on the Boards pointed out, “I don't think there is a single card in this deck that Dark Ritual is going to "break." No Hypnotic Specters or "Combolicious Card Drawing Engines" exist in this deck.”

All fine reasons for its inclusion, but I'm not using it. Not a single copy.

Talk about agonizing over a decision. I've read all of the Message Boards posts concerning Dark Ritual, both for and against. Look, I know Dark Ritual is a classic and an iconic card for Black. I know people are worried about the secondary market prices on Magic Online. As a result, I know people are going to scream bloody murder at my leaving Dark Ritual on the sidelines.

My first instinct was to leave Dark Ritual out for three reasons: 1) I felt like my mana was fine with Charcoal Diamond and twenty-three Swamps, 2) I need creatures in my deck more than anything, and my non-creature slots should either be creature removal or something that messes with the graveyard, and 3) It's not a particularly strong thematic choice.

Once I read the Boards posts, I started to think maybe I should set aside these reasons and include at least one copy in the deck. I couldn't find a common I wanted to drop for it, though, not even Cadaverous Knight. Confused about how to proceed, I again turned to R&D for advice.

Frank replied with “It's an old card that's almost never usable and would not be likely to be reprinted. The Diamonds could just get reprinted, and have in many similar forms.” Randy Buehler agreed with Frank. If I was going to include mana acceleration, their advice was that Charcoal Diamond was sufficient. Dark Ritual will be illegal in almost every format, so it seemed easy to exclude.

My final rationale is this: Not every card that should be in a preconstructed deck shows up in a preconstructed deck. That's part of what makes people want to modify and tinker with them. Dark Ritual is a clear addition to any Mirage-based Black deck, but that doesn't mean it automatically goes into my deck any more than Sensei's Divining Top should go into every Kamigawa precon (thanks Jinzo17 for the example).

Like I said, I don't think people will love me for it, but Dark Ritual is out.

Dirtwater WraithDirtwater Wraith had few real champions on the Boards. I pretty much agree with BringBackBanding again when he said, “A decent shade that fits flavorwise. Fetid Horror is probably more powerful in most situations. However, it further gums up the 4-slot and does not address any real needs of the deck. General filler, IMO.” I like Fetid Horror for the deck, which sort of pushed Dirtwater Wraith aside.

drain life
Drain Life – See my Dark Banishing section above. No one argued that I should avoid Drain Life in my deck. As a nice side effect, it recoups lost life from Withering Boon. I don't want to make room for two copies, but one feels great.

1 Drain Life

Ebony Charm – A lot of people included Ebony Charm in their homespun decklists, but as far as I can tell they did so because they like the Mirage cycle of Charms and wanted to highlight it. I agree that the Charms are cool and versatile, but I'll reiterate that my goals were focused on theme and creatures. Ebony Charm isn't a creature, and its thematic addition to the deck is marginal at best.

Enfeeblement – See my Dark Banishing section above. Either I use Enfeeblement and have twenty-one creatures in the deck or lose it and have twenty-two. One copy sort of bothers me for some reason, so I'm not including it in my deck. It bothers me that I'm not making room for any Auras in the deck, but it's a small complaint. Thematically speaking, I can argue that Enfeeblement is the worst of my removal options, despite the flavor text from Kaervek. It's safe to say that Enfeeblement is the fifteenth common I would add if I could but for now it's out.

fetid horror
Fetid Horror – With Mire Shade, people rightly assumed that Fetid Horror was out. Now that I've dropped the Shade, I think Fetid Horror makes a cool way to use excess mana. “Pump” creatures like the Horror make for interesting game situations and, I think, help newer players learn strategy and resource management. Thematically it's a clear winner, and also happens to be a creature. One copy seems perfect.

1 Fetid Horror

Grave Servitude – I went back and forth on Grave Servitude. On one hand, it's creature removal, versatile, has a very “preconstructed deck” feel, and fits the theme of the deck perfectly. If I was going to use an Aura, Enfeeblement had a lot more support on the Boards and would have been my choice. A couple of people cited Grave Servitude's awkward Oracle wording as a reason to exclude it, but that didn't really factor into my decision. More important to me was the fact that almost half of my creatures were poor Grave Servitude targets.

Gravebane Zombie – I really wanted to include two copies of Gravebane Zombie since it interacts in such interesting ways with Ravenous Vampire, Phyrexian Vault, and Blighted Shaman. A self-reanimating creature is just natural and cool in my deck, and it doesn't get much more “bump in the night” feeling than a Zombie that won't stay dead. Unfortunately, the second copy of Gravebane Zombie would have meant dropping either Cadaverous Knight or Fetid Horror, and in the end I decided that variety was better for the deck than pushing the interactions with the aforementioned three cards.

1 Gravebane Zombie

restless dead
Restless Dead – This goes up with Bone Harvest as the biggest “duh” addition to the deck. My deck is all about restless dead, and it needs to lower its manacurve, add more creatures, and focus on defense. As Evu said on the Boards, “Restless Dead is a perfect card for Black decks that are trying to survive long enough to pull off a combo, consistent with your spooky theme, and cheap to boot. I'd run two.” Two it is...

2 Restless Dead

Sewer Rats – It's true that without Sewer Rats, the deck has no real first-turn play. Some people have even argued that the Rats are on-theme. I don't see it that way, though. I'm focused much more on creepy undead things than real-world animals, and there are a lot better thematic creatures to add than these guys. So how important is the first-turn play? It's looking like I will have plenty to do on Turn 2, so I say “not very.”

Shadow Guildmage – defenestrator tried a quirky notion by suggesting I should add one each of Island, Mountain, Bad River, and Rocky Tar Pit as a way of supporting two or three copies of Shadow Guildmage. That's a clever idea, but it's much more of a Constructed idea than a Preconstructed one and way too tricky for what I'm doing here.

Skulking Ghost – Just like I have an unnatural distaste for Blighted Shaman, I have an unnatural attraction to Skulking Ghost. In this case, I think it's the art. Anyway, no one is going to argue that Skulking Ghost is out of theme, and it's a fun card even when it dies to something like Giant Growth. Besides, my deck often likes a full graveyard, so Skulking Ghost has some synergy with cards like, say, Soulshriek. Since my deck is scrambling for as many creatures as possible, I'm adding two copies.

2 Skulking Ghost

Soulshriek – As you probably guess from last week and comments above, I already had it in my head that Soulshriek would be a fun addition to the deck. It's not a power card, but it's a fun combat trick and works well with the self-sacrificing cards in the deck. It probably gets dropped from every polished decklist, but it makes games interesting while it's in there. As many folks pointed out, it's a shame that it can't target the protection from Black Spirit of the Night, but that's a lot better ratio than what Grave Servitude was facing. In an odd twist of logic, Soulshriek is probably the reason that Dark Ritual is out of my deck.

1 Soulshriek

Wall of Corpses – BringBackBanding (what can I say? He had a lot of good points) wrote a nice summary of the Boards posts up to Tuesday morning in which he said that Wall of Corpses was “One of the most recommended cards, it fills an important need for early defense, is a great fill-the-graveyard type creature, and is hardly a bad card. Flavor is ideal. Who wouldn't include this card?” I agree. Wall of Corpses is one of those “sweet spot” cards that fills every single need I have for the deck. It's thematically great. It's cheap mana-wise. It's a creature. It's defense. It's creature removal. It goes to the graveyard with regularity. It's a fun Shallow Grave target. Basically, Wall of Corpses is a half-cost Dread Specter without the two power or ability to attack. The Specter shows up twice in the deck, and I think two Wall of Corpses make loads of sense.

2 Wall of Corpses

With those fourteen commons added to the deck... I'm done!

Right now, without the benefit of your feedback, I'm feeling pretty good about the way the deck came together. It has cool rares, a broad but fun theme, varied uncommons, and the commons have really served to tie the whole thing together. Probably the best I can say about it is that it looks like a precon I would be rooting to win in an article poll, because it looks both fun to play and fun to modify. I couldn't have asked for better as an end result to this process.

Thanks again to everyone who helped guide my way. This means two of the four Mirage preconstructed decks are officially shipped off to R&D. Don't miss your chance to vote in the articles from Frank Gilson and R&D on the third deck, and after that R&D will design the fourth. Once Mirage releases online, I can almost guarantee I'll evolve your favorite precon of the bunch as one of my deck evolutions.

In the meantime, I suppose it's time to put all of the pieces together.

drum roll...

JMS' Mirage Preconstructed deck!

Download Arena Decklist

As for a name, well, unfortunately I can't hand the naming over to you. It turns out that since this deck is an “official” preconstructed deck, it gets named by folks inside of Wizards of the Coast. Somehow instead of this feeling like a bummer, it just makes me all the more happy that I was allowed to design the deck. Besides, word on the street is that Mark Gottlieb is the madman coming up with the names.

Next week will be another Interlude as we collectively await the online release of Ravnica: City of Guilds. If you're lucky, I might even throw in some more Black decks, since this column clearly avoids Swamps as often as possible.

Just kidding there. No Black decks next week. Promise.

Think hard and have fun,


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