Gently Rapping At Your Door

Posted in Serious Fun on October 28, 2003

By Anthony Alongi

Important, Smooky Context:

When my daughter was four or five, she had a great word to describe the darker side of Halloween. Whenever she saw an image of a witch or skeleton or something else spooky, she'd mispronounce the word and dub it "smooky."

My wife and I, ever eager to pounce on any error our children make, loved the word and use it all the time now. So you're going to see it a lot today, and now you know why. If you can't stand the smookiness, too bad…my daughter is cuter than you are.

Who's The Smookiest Of Them All?

Theme decks are a staple of the casual player's arsenal. They let us explore mechanics and cards we'd otherwise neglect. For example, before Onslaught block creature-type decks were a rarity. Whether you focus on a mechanic (e.g., artist) or an element (e.g., something in the art), building a deck where every card matches a theme can both expose you to cards you've never heard of, and re-introduce you to old friends you'd crammed into the back of the collection.

Be clear on one point: the goal of a theme deck is creativity. While you should stay alive long enough for everyone to guess and and enjoy your theme, never has winning been less important.

(Insider's note: paragraphs like those serve as convenient barriers to those players who must win at all costs. See, they never read this far. So we can poke fun at them all we like, without worrying about upsetting them too much. Catty, but convenient.)

This week, those of us who celebrate Halloween have an extra-special reason to think about theme decks. The holiday comes with certain imagery, and one of my favorite types of theme deck is an "imagery" deck: one that tells a story through the card titles and/or artwork.

So I smell a natural competition brewing: who can out-smook everyone else? Who can come up with the most smook-tastic idea? Who smooks better than a smook in a smook? And will I ever get tired of that word, even as my readers are completely smooked out?

How To Be As Smooky As You Wanna Be

As I've said, most casual players are already familiar with the concept of theme decks. Mark Gottlieb and I visit the concept quite often. But since many readers celebrate Halloween - and several other holidays are approaching in the coming months, depending on where you live and what you believe - I'd like to spend some time on the art of constructing theme decks.

While groups differ, in general a given theme deck will hit its highest potency if you follow these guidelines:

1. Set aside a special week for theme decks. Most groups don't do theme decks all the time (and if you do, you certainly don't need my help). If you set aside a week, you'll get two benefits. First, people will actually be looking for the theme in your deck, which is most of the point of doing one! And second, since you'll likely sacrifice card quality in favor of cards "in theme", you'll feel better knowing that the other members of your group are making the same sacrifices.

2. Set clear guidelines for what is and is not acceptable. People are still going to try and win with their Magic deck, so you should expect folks to try to push the rules a bit. That's okay, as long as no one tries to justify Morphling in a hobbit-themed deck. Just be clear in advance, and all should be fine.

3. Never mind all the deckbuilding rules. While the deck I make below sticks to my 60-card rule, and I try to find four copies here and there, you should not feel so bound at all! The more single cards you can stuff into your theme, the better. Feel free to be as inefficient as you can!

4. If you're using source material, get to know it well. Sometimes themes don't need reference, like "my favorite fruits and vegetables" or whatever. But sometimes, your theme is from a source - say, the work of Edgar Allen Poe. No matter how many times you had to read it in tenth grade literature class, get a copy in front of you again and read it, word for word. You'd be amazed how many nooks and crannies there are for card ideas to hide in.

In fact, I recommend using works of art, written or otherwise, as sources for theme decks, because creativity flourishes best when it's based on or in a structure. The rest of my guidelines assume you're using source material.

5. Look for key phrases or places. If you look them up in a card database, you'll be amazed at what you find. For the deck below, I had completely spaced on the card "Forgotten Lore"... yet there it was, when I looked for the word "forgotten" out of that very phrase.

6. Try to establish at least one or two far-out links. Really push the theme. The key here is NOT to go for a power card. Pernicious Deed only squeezes into an AC/DC deck! Instead, pick an obscure phrase from the work and see what strange cards bubble up in your head, or the database. For me, it was Somnophore and Altar of Shadows, both of which I explain below. Those are the kind of decent, but not game-breaking, cards that a group will appreciate.

7. Don't tell each other what the theme of a specific deck is. Let the group try to guess. If you've set aside a night to do this and you've picked an appropriate "overall" theme (e.g., scary stories by Edgar Allen Poe), then no one should have any trouble identifying your source material. (Bring a copy, just in case! It's fun to show off how clever you were.)

To Wit


I stuck pretty close to imagery through text, here, without much regard to actual artwork. A deck that focused more on the art would use completely different cards, no doubt. (Lots of things perched on top of statues, curtains fluttering by windows, and so on!)

The neatest thing about this deck? Black is a minor, third color. Who'd have thought blue-green could be so smooky?

Somnophore seems out of place until you mix together the "nearly napping", the "tapping" (at the door), and the cool rhyme with Lenore/door/lore/etc. Speaking of Lenore, if Crypt Angel doesn't feel right, you can always go with a Nameless One, which has nice synergy with the blue wizards.

Altar of Shadows was my other "stretch" card. I see it as a nice mirror of the protagonist's growing madness, caused by the shadow of the raven (and the other stuff going on in that smooky room).

"Denying Wind" has a nice double-entendre here. ("'Tis the wind, and nothing more.") But why Still Life, when a "token" card might be better from a play perspective? You'll have to read the poem to get that one...

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
`Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, `art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

- Excerpt from Poe's The Raven

You may reach Anthony at However, he cannot give you deck help, no matter how smooky your cards are.

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