An Ode To Cats (and a Lesson in Deckbuilding)

Darin Keener • August 31, 2018

(First, I'd like to thank Cardsphere for the chance to be the monthly Standard columnist for the blog! It's been a great experience writing here on a semi-regular basis, and I'm excited to bring you a variety of angles on the cutting edge of MTG play. But since we're a few days away from spoiler season for Return to Return to Return to Ravnica, first a look back...)

I hadn't been playing Magic for long when I opened her.

I'd been watching videos and reading articles for about six months before I actually started playing, and it had only been a few months since then that I first hit the "start streaming" button on OBS with a two-dollar Blisterpod deck that taught me the mechanics of the game. Amonkhet was the second prerelease I attended, after Kaladesh demonstrated that I had no earthly idea what I was doing. I had read my fair share of previews, but since I couldn't tell my butt from a hole in the ground yet, I was still flying pretty blind. I sat at an LGS with my prerelease pack and started cracking packs, and then I saw her: Mama Cat.

Regal Caracal not only made baby cats, but was a cat lord. A cat lord? I mean, I knew about tribal decks. But they were all big, mean, UGLY things (in Standard, mind you...elves and merfolk were still a bit into the future). The idea of playing a deck full of cats was absurd, really. But for some unknown reason, it struck something in me. Maybe it was the idea of breaking out a deck full of kitties in a world of grotesque beasts that was so unexpected. Maybe it was that it was absurd to think that it might work, and since I had just gotten finished trying to Align some Hedrons I obviously appreciated the absurd. So I threw all of the cats I could find in my prerelease pack into a deck, went .500 with them (lost a tiebreaker to get in the money), and built my first Cat.dek:

4 Sacred Cat
4 Thraben Inspector
4 Felidar Cub
4 Metallic Mimic
2 Gideon of the Trials
2 Vizier of Deferment
2 Oketra's Monument
2 Oketra the True
4 Regal Caracal
3 Cast Out
2 Declaration in Stone
3 Blessed Alliance
22 Plains
2 Westvale Abbey

4 Fragmentize
2 Declaration in Stone
1 Stasis Snare
1 Cast Out
1 Blessed Alliance
2 Fumigate
2 Vizier of Deferment
2 Watchers of the Dead

You'll notice a problem with Cat.dek: there aren't enough cats in it. But I wasn't very good at deckbuilding and so I did what a lot of novice Johnnys do: kept it one color, tried to fit in cards that I knew were "good" regardless of whether they actually helped me do what the deck was trying to do, and spent too much effort trying to make fringe Candyland scenarios happen (like using the Vizier to blink Mama Cat post-combat to make EVEN MORE cats!). You'll also notice one other main issue with that deck which I'll spell out in a moment. But, undaunted as I was, I took to combat with them. And, admittedly, in one of my first matches I got what I wanted:


I don't remember whether I won or lost that match (announcer voice: he probably lost). But that one reaction gave me so much joy that I tried again. And again. And again and again and again. Hour of Devastation provided MORE cats, and this time GREEN cats, so I attempted a two-color build:

3 Sacred Cat
4 Adorned Pouncer
4 Metallic Mimic
4 Longtusk Cub
3 Pride Sovereign
3 Regal Caracal
4 Attune with Aether
2 Lifecrafter's Bestiary
2 Stasis Snare
4 Blossoming Defense
3 Blessed Alliance
2 Cast Out
3 Canopy Vista
5 Forest
3 Fortified Village
7 Plains
4 Scattered Groves

1 Cast Out
3 Prowling Serpopard
2 Heroic Intervention
2 Fragmentize
2 Crook of Condemnation
1 Fumigate
2 Authority of the Consuls
2 Dusk/Dawn

Okay, this is getting better. In hindsight, I had the skeleton of what the final product would be (even though I didn't know it at the time). All my creatures are finally cats (yes, Metallic Mimic sorta counts don't @ me), Lifecrafter's Bestiary is a powerful card in a creature-heavy deck, and both Authority and Dusk // Dawn were necessary in the meta of the time.

But it was missing...something. It didn't quite get there. (By the way, it's still missing the same something that the first deck was missing...figured it out yet?) It was fun and still brought cat joy to many opponents, but also brought joy to opponents who were playing The Scarab God or Glorybringer and just ran me over. I was undaunted, however. I tried EVERYTHING I could think of. Maybe my removal was too clunky? Okay, let's throw some Abrade and Harnessed Lightning in there and try Naya Cats! Yeah, no. That was a terrible idea. I don't have very many blockers for bigger what about Aethersphere Harvester? Not really. Cats were never meant to fly planes or Harvesters or whatever the heck you'd call that vehicle thing.

Finally, as I sold off the cards that were rotating out of the format a few months later, I resigned myself that Cats would never quite be a competitive deck. It was sad, but it was the truth. However, a few weeks ago, it happened. A Cats tribal deck went 5-0 in a Magic Online league. A couple of weeks later, Dirk Crasto entered his GW Cats build into Pro Tour 25th Anniversary! Cats has finally grown up. I quickly jammed that deck into MTGO, worked. It wasn't Tier 1, but it was better than anything else that I had built to this point. So what were all of the other decks missing that this one had?

4 Sacred Cat
4 Leonin Vanguard
4 Ajani's Pridemate
4 Adorned Pouncer
3 Pride Sovereign
3 Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants
4 Leonin Warleader
4 Regal Caracal
4 Radiant Destiny
3 Appeal/Authority
3 Forest
12 Plains
4 Sunpetal Grove
4 Scattered Groves

3 Authority of the Consuls
3 Prowling Serpopard
3 Thrashing Brontodon
2 Settle the Wreckage
2 Ajani Unyielding
2 Blossoming Defense

What made the difference in the end? And what does my Cat.dek experience demonstrate in fundamental deckbuilding principles? Two things:

  1. This deck knows what it wants to be. It's not consistently trying to build big cats, but instead it wants to build LOTS of cats and go wide. It has a few random synergies (most notably the Vanguard/Pridemate combo that can get out of control if the opponent doesn't have removal), but otherwise the plan is the plan. Play creatures, chip away at the lifetotal early, and use Appeal // Authority on the same turn to tap down the biggest creatures and alpha strike to win. Simple.
  2. Four-drops. It's really that simple. There was never a good choice for turn 4 in a cat deck that really advanced the board state. Yes, you could use expensive removal to thwart your opponent's plan, but you never got to do anything proactive for your own plan. With the advent of Core 19, the deck added both Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants and Leonin Warleader, which made all the difference in the world. The white Ajani added counters and got back a body from the graveyard if need be, and Leonin Warleader is just a huge body that is a must-answer before you untap and make more cats. (Addendum: I'm not one for conspiracy theories, but I will go to my grave believing that the reason the Saheeli Rai/Felidar Guardian combo got missed by Wizards R&D is NOT because they're dumb, but because the Guardian was meant for the Cat tribal deck. Can you imagine being able to play Pride Sovereign, exert it to make more cats and grow itself, and THEN play the Guardian to untap it? Or to blink Regal Caracal the turn after it's played to make even more cats after attacking to provide blockers? It would have made all the difference in the world. Darn you to heck, Rai!)

So when my cats go gently into that good night of rotation in October, I will not weep for them. They brought a lot of joy to not only myself but also my opponents, and it taught me a lot about how to build better decks. The experience of iteration, evaluation, and improvement creates a feedback loop that gradually improves not only the deck you're improving but your ability to evaluate cards and the ways that cards work together. Happily, Cat Mama and I still have Modern...after all, cats have nine lives.