I love building decks. Itís easily my favorite aspect of Magic. There are so many cards and so many different ways that they can interact, which leads to endless choices for any casual deck builder. However, when I sit down to write about Magic, I find it so much easier to ramble on about miscellaneous Magic-related issues than trying to convince others to become interested in a deck Iíve built. In my experience, deck building is a very unique experience for each and every player. We all value cards differently, based on the style that we play and the experience level that we have.
When I help some friends at Boy Scouts who are new to the game, with building a deck, Iíll give them a recommended build, based on my tastes and experience. But a lot of times when they try it out, they donít like certain cards for any number of reasons, so theyíll take them out for lesser cards. I canít fault them for this, because I might do the same thing, modifying a deck to suit my tastes.
I also notice a distinct difference between deckbuilding styles of experienced players. My friend Dave has been playing a little longer than I have. We have roughly the same experience and have probably been each otherís most frequent opponent. Yet when I compare our decks, there are some major differences between the ways we approach deck construction. Itís hard to see and impossible to explain, but I just canít help noticing it. Neither person is necessarily right or wrongÖ just different.
So I think thatís an idea Iíd like to explore. We all build our decks differently and we call these ďpet decks.Ē They are our creations. They emphasize our strengths and downplay our weaknesses. They are born from an idea and molded over time through playtesting and new cards and general changes in philosophy. Iím going to start by analyzing my oldest and most beloved deck, which I have long called, ďTap and Tim.Ē
Tap and Tim is about as close to a control deck as I ever play. It does two things well: Tap opposing permanents and ping creatures and players with Tims. Hence the name. My first build came together during the Ice Age Block and looked something like this:
Tap and Tim (circa 1996)
4 Prodigal Sorcerer
4 Zuran Spellcaster
4 Icy Manipulator
3 Fatal Blow
2 Psychic Venom
2 Soul Barrier
1 Nettling Imp
1 Abyssal Hunter
1 Spirit Shackle
1 Royal Assassin
1 Essence Vortex
1 Sivitri Scarzam
Wow. What a glorious testament to my deckbuilding prowess! The core of the deck lies in the Norritt / Icy Manipulator interaction. The Ericís-Small-Group-of-Magic-Playing-Friends metagame was being dominated by creatures. The best way to combat this, of course, is by tapping those creatures down, forcing them to attack, and killing them when they can not attack. Of course, some decks were built around small, fast creatures. For these, the Prodigal Sorcerers were included, as they could slowly wipe out an army of tiny creatures. They could also serve as a win condition after all my opponentís creatures were destroyed. I will now explain each card choice in detail:
- Norritt was really the intersection between two ideas. Not only could it kill tapped creatures by forcing them to attack, it could also untap my Tims for extra damage.
- Prodigal Sorcerer and Zuran Spellcaster slowly kill both creatures and opponents.
- Icy Manipulator could tap down anything Ė usually my opponentís creatures.
- Twiddle and Enervate served the same purpose as the Icy Manipulator. In fact, so did Paralyze and Flood.
- Fatal Blow could kill creatures that were hit by a Tim.
- Psychic Venom was another slower win condition that could drop my opponentís life early in the game and force those last points of damage late.
- Soul Barrier was there to slow down my opponentís creatures or force them to take a lot of damage.
- Nettling Imp was a cheaper, one-dimensional Norritt.
- Abyssal Hunter was like a Prodigal Sorcerer and Icy Manipulator all rolled into one.
- Spirit Shackle could slowly bleed my opponentís creatures as I continued tapping them.
- Royal Assassin, of course, is freaking sweet because it could repeatedly kill those tapped creatures. (I remember trading a Gaea's Liege for this guy and a couple years later someone stole him out of my deck.)
- Leviathan is in there because itís freaking huge and I could untap it with a Norritt and then only have to sacrifice two Islands when attacking.
- Essence Vortex and Sivitri Scarzam are in there on account of the lesser-known rule that all multicolored cards that you own must be included in a deck containing those colors. As Iím sure many of you know, this rule was phased out in Sixth Edition.
- And finally, there was also the rule that every deck must be 60 cards, containing 20 lands. My instincts told me there should have been a 50/50 Island/Swamp split, but my experience told me that I wasnít drawing enough Islands.
And that's that. I kept this decklist for about 5 years, pulling it out whenever I'd have time for a casual game against a random opponent. It did pretty well against the decks it was supposed to do well against, but it always had problems with fast decks and creatureless decks. The whole point was to kill the creatures, so it didn't do much when my opponent didn't play any. Regardless, I still had fun playing it and the variety of cards let games take any number of directions.
So the years went by and I got really good at playing this deck and never needed to change it since I wasn't buying new cards. Then, around the Onslaught block, I started getting back into Magic. I also started reading articles about strategy and realizing how to maximize the efficiency of a deck. I also had a full-time job and thus a large disposable income. The great thing about pet decks is that they never seem to completely settle. Every time a new set comes out, we look at the cards and think, "Hey, I can upgrade this for this," or "I'll bet that would work well in there." And so began the renovations.
The biggest boon to the deck came in a little card called Death Pits of Rath. I think it was originally in Tempest, but the first time I saw it was as a reprint in 8th Edition. Holy crap! It's a continuous Fatal Blow. I immediately added four to the deck and then realized the absurdity of having any creature in the deck with toughness greater than one. The purpose of the deck was to ping an opponent to death, not smack them over the head with some ridiculous fatty.
I also bought more Royal Assassins, since they're so freaking sweet and I missed my old one. The 8th Edition art disappointed me a little (why is he dressed like a mime?) but they were cheaper than the older ones and I had to have an assassin back in the deck.
The next thing I did was fill out my playset of Psychic Venoms. I traded for the remaining two from a friend in Boy Scouts. After I changed my deck, we played a game and I cast Venoms on three of my first four turns. Playing a Psychic Venom on my opponent's only land on the second turn of the game speeds the game up insanely in my favor. Or else, it slows it down greatly in my favor. Either way, they help a lot.
I also briefly experimented with Aphetto Alchemists before deciding on Puppet Strings as a repeatable source of both tapping and untapping creatures. And finally, believe it or not, I added a few Rod of Ruins. A couple people I played with also used Prodigal Sorcerers and if they got one out before me, I was doomed.
The deck was clearly better at this point, but it was still inconsistent. Eventually, I decided to listen to the advice I had been reading and up my land count to 24. I also started using those crappy dual lands I picked up during Ice Age. You know, the ones that hurt you to use them. I threw 4 Salt Marshes on top of that, since I didn't have any first turn plays in the deck anyway. (Note: Twiddle is NOT a first turn play. Nor is Fatal Blow.)
Just when I thought the deck was perfect, out came Mirrodin. One of the staple cards of the deck, Twiddle, had become obsolete. Dream's Grip was better than it in every way. I should say it was better than it in one way, since Twiddle only did one thing and Dream's Grip did it better. Mirrodin also gave me Fabricate, one of my favorite utility cards of all time. The deck was getting a healthy mix of artifacts and Fabricate was the perfect way to pick and choose the right one at the right time. It also gave me the courage to add my only Ensnaring Bridge, since I couldn't see including just one without a way to fetch it.
I briefly considered putting in Granite Shard since it's simply better than Rod of Ruin, but for some reason I didn't. Maybe it was nostalgia for the Rod or the feeling of disgust whenever I used anything but a single red mana to activate the Shard. Either way, the Rods stayed in and continue to do so. And just like that, my pet deck evolved.
Tap and Tim (circa 2004)
4 Prodigal Sorcerer
4 Zuran Spellcaster
1 Royal Assassin
2 Death Pits of Rath
1 Ensnaring Bridge
4 Icy Manipulator
4 Psychic Venom
2 Puppet Strings
2 Rod of Ruin
3 Fatal Blow
3 Dream's Grip
4 Salt Marsh
4 Underground River
Not much was added over the next year. I found the whole Kamigawa block to be incredibly narrow as far as helping out my pet decks. But that doesn't mean I don't keep looking for new ways to improve old Tap & Tim.
Brainspoil seems like it would fit right in, since it would help fetch a Death Pits or help get rid of a particularly pesky creature. But then again it can only fetch the Death Pits and the only particularly pesky creature I can think of that the deck has trouble dealing with on its own is Phantom Nishoba.
Hunted Phantasm would make an interesting inclusion, since I'd have no trouble dealing with those pesky goblins, but it would also take away from the main theme of the deck: poking away at my opponent. It would also die to a Spark Spray once the Death Pits are in play.
Guildpact offers Gigadrowse and Orzhov Euthanist. But Death Pits of Rath is way better for the deck than the one-time (and maybe again) effect of the Euthanist. Gigadrowse, on the other hand, comes about as close to being included as possible. I could throw in a Maddening Imp or two and have some real fun. But again, the tempo of the deck is methodical. Bam. Bam. Bam. Wipe out my opponent's army one by one. Plus, Gigadrowse would have to replace either Dream's grip (whose versatility I enjoy) or Puppet Strings (whose repeatability I enjoy.) So at this point in time, my pet has stopped growing. But like all of you, I'm always on the lookout to make it a little bit better, while keeping it as close to home as possible.
I think that's the toughest thing about pet decks. We like to see them grow. We like to try out new ideas and new cards within them. But eventually they reach a point where they're not our pets anymore. They're a different deck, entirely. They don't work quite like they used to, but we want to keep playing them like we used to. Eventually, they don't work anymore at all and they get taken apart. So remember when you have your own pet decks to keep the point of the deck as focused as possible. Write down the decklists before trying new cards, because one of these days you might have your pet neutered without even realizing it.