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Budget Magic: $98 (22 tix) Cats (Pioneer, Magic Online)


Meow, Budget Magic lovers, it's that time once again! This week, we're heading to Pioneer to play one of the most popular (but traditionally underpowered) tribes in Magic: Cats! In the past, we've played Cat decks in Standard and Modern, but in general, the tribe hasn't been very good. However, last week, when working on Budget Magic, it struck me that Pioneer might be the purr-fect format for Cats to shine. The Pioneer card pool includes most of the best Cats in Magic, the Pioneer format is slow enough that there's actually a reasonable chance we'll survive long enough to cast powerful four- and five-mana Cats like Regal Caracal and Leonin Warleader, and the aggressive bent of many Pioneer decks means that all of the Cat tribe's incidental lifegain is meaningful (and maybe even powerful) in the format. So today, we're going to put this theory that Cats are actually good in Pioneer to the test, in budget form! Can Cats compete in Pioneer? Let's get to the video and find out; then, we'll talk more about the deck!

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Budget Magic: Cats (Pioneer)

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The Deck

Cats is, predictably, a tribal deck. Although many tribal decks are as aggressive as possible, Cats are more of a midrangy tribe. We have solid tribe members from one mana up to five mana, a handful of very powerful payoffs, and a ton of incidental lifegain to swing the race against all of the aggressive decks running around in the Pioneer format. While the Cat tribe has a surprising amount of raw power, it also has some sneaky synergy. Let's start by discussing our Cat payoffs before talking about the rest of our Cat curve.

The Payoffs

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Regal Caracal is probably the poster child for why the Cat tribe is powerful in Pioneer, even though it was weak in both Standard and Modern. In Standard, there simply weren't enough good Cats to really make Regal Caracal a true lord (although it did see play as a standalone threat), while in Modern, five mana is just way too slow for the format. Pioneer, on the other hand, offers a surprising number of good Cats and is slow enough that we'll live long enough to cast our five-mana lord in most games. Once Regal Caracal hits the battlefield, it's incredibly powerful. It adds seven power to the battlefield by itself while also buffing all of our other Cats and giving them lifelink. Against aggro, Regal Caracal essentially shuts down the game as soon as it hits the battlefield since just a single attack with our Cat army will usually gain us enough life to put the game out of reach, while against more controlling, removal-heavy decks, putting multiple bodies onto the battlefield will help us fight through our opponent's removal and disruption.

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Our second Cat payoff is Pride Sovereign, which is usually the biggest creature on the battlefield in a deck that plays 31 Cats, many of which make Cat tokens. Even just curving a one-drop into a two-drop into Pride Sovereign means that it will immediately be a 4/4 for three, which is already fine in Pioneer. And then later in the game, it isn't uncommon for Pride Sovereign to hit eight or even 10 power! While Pride Sovereign is mostly in our deck to beat our opponent down, the exert ability offers a lot of upside for situations where we can't attack with the three-drop, allowing us to make a couple of lifelinking Cat tokens for just a single mana, which in turn will grow our Pride Sovereign and hopefully allow it to be big enough to start attacking after it finally untaps.

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Our last Cat payoff is Icon of Ancestry, which offers another way to pump our Cats (which is especially powerful in the Cat tribe since we have a lot of cards that make 1/1 Cat tokens), while also giving us a source of card advantage for the late game when we run out of action. The other upside of Icon of Ancestry is that it turns all of our 1/1s into 2/2s, which allows them to dodge things like Goblin Chainwhirler that would otherwise be very good against our deck.

The Cat Curve

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In the one-drop slot are two options: Leonin Vanguard and Sacred Cat. Leonin Vanguard is the more aggressive of the two, quickly ending up a 2/2 for one once we get two other Cats on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Sacred Cat offers some resiliency since once it dies, we can embalm it back onto the battlefield, making it a good chump blocker in the early game against aggro and a way to rebuild after removal or wraths in more controlling matchups. It's also worth mentioning that both of our one-drops have the potential to gain us life. While they aren't in our deck for the lifegain abilities (rather, they are just the best one-mana Cats in Pioneer), the incidental lifegain is helpful against aggro and offers some nice synergy with one of our two-drops...

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Even though we aren't a lifegain deck, we almost accidentally have a lot of cards that can gain us life—Leonin Vanguard, Sacred Cat, Pride Sovereign, Leonin Warleader, and Regal Caracal—which makes Ajani's Pridemate a very solid two-drop for the Cat tribe. Even though it starts off as just a 2/2 (which is annoying since it dies to basically every removal spell in Pioneer), it quickly grows into one of the biggest creatures on the battlefield. If we're worried about something like Wild Slash, we can sometimes chump-attack with Sacred Cat (since we can embalm it back into play anyway) to get a +1/+1 counter on Ajani's Pridemate and push it out of range of the removal spell. Later in the game, once Regal Caracal hits the battlefield, Ajani's Pridemate very quickly becomes massive since all of our Cats have lifelink, so if we attack with our team, we end up giving Ajani's Pridemate a +1/+1 counter for each creature that deals damage. Meanwhile, Fleecemane Lion is our backup two-drop. It doesn't offer any specific synergy, although a 3/3 for two is fine stats in Pioneer. Plus, the monstrous ability offers a nice mana sink for the late game once we run out of Cats to deploy. And if we do manage to make Fleecemane Lion monstrous, it becomes almost impossible to deal with since hexproof fizzles targeted removal and indestructibility allows us to avoid wraths like Supreme Verdict

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Finishing off our Cat curve are two cards that are both solid standalone threats but also surprisingly synergistic with our deck. As a 3/4 for three that makes a 1/1 Cat whenever it attacks or blocks, Brimaz, King of Oreskos is powerful in a vacuum, locking down the most aggressive threats on defense and being a fine attacker as well. Meanwhile, Leonin Warleader is a bit slow since we need to attack to start generating value in the form of lifelinking Cat tokens, but it offers a reasonable body as a 4/4 for four. As the game goes along, the Cat tokens that Brimaz and Warleader produce become more and more valuable, with Regal Caracal and Icon of Ancestry buffing them into more meaningful threats while also adding more random Cats to the battlefield to grow our Pride Sovereign

Removal

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For removal, we have Selesnya Charm. While this might seem like a strange choice, the Cat tribe doesn't really care about random small creatures since we have good blockers and a ton of lifegain. On the other hand, one big creature like Ghalta, Primal Hunger or Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger has the potential to steal the game all by itself. Selesnya Charm offers a nice, clean answer to big threats like Ghalta and Ulamog for just two mana. And if we're in a matchup where we don't need to use it as a removal spell, we can always make a surprise blocker to potentially eat a small attacker or to pump one of our Cats, to help it win in combat or avoid dying to damage-based removal like Wild Slash or Wizard's Lightning

Wrap-Up

While it might sound strange, Cats felt legitimately good in Pioneer. We ended up 4-1 in our five matches, with our one loss coming to Simic Ramp, which is probably a bad matchup (since Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is brutal for our deck), although it didn't help that we mulliganed to four in game two. Otherwise, we not only won our other four matches but won them without dropping a single game, crushing Affinity, Mono-Black, Mono-Red, and Humans! The combination of big, undercosted creatures; some sneaky synergy; and a ton of lifegain makes Cats absolutely brutal against all of the creature-based midrange and aggro decks in the Pioneer format. While Ramp, Control, and Lotus Field combo are tougher matchup-wise, we have some decent sideboard options to improve those matchups, so although they are difficult, they certainly aren't unwinnable. 

As far as changes to make to the budget build of the deck, I'm actually really happy with how it turned out. I'm not sure that Selesnya Charm is the right option for our removal spell—Dromoka's Command or Declaration in Stone might be better—but the Cats themselves felt very solid. I wouldn't mind finding room for another copy or two of Icon of Ancestry, mostly to give us a source of card advantage in more controlling, grindy matchups, but I'm not sure what to cut to fit it in. The deck might be good enough against creature decks and aggro that we can cut removal from the main deck altogether and play Icon of Ancestry over Selesnya Charm and then plan on bringing in removal from the sideboard as necessary. 

All in all, Cats felt great! They actually feel like a fairly legitimate tribe in the Pioneer format, especially right now, with so many aggro decks running around in the format. If you're a fan of the Cat tribe or just looking for something different (and cheap) to play in the format, give Cats a shot!

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Getting Cats down near $50 is pretty easy: we mostly just have to cut Brimaz, King of Oreskos since the three copies we played in the budget build cost around $35 by themselves. While losing Brimaz, King of Oreskos hurts because it is one of the most powerful cats in a vacuum, it gives us an excuse to play more copies of Icon of Ancestry, which should help to improve our matchup against control decks. Otherwise, we change up the removal package slightly and turn Sunpetal Grove into some more basic lands, and we're good to go!

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As for non-budget Cats, the improvements come exclusively in the mana base and the sideboard since the build we played on video already contains all of the best Cats in the format. Temple Garden replaces Unclaimed Territory as an untapped dual land that also helps Fortified Village and Sunpetal Grove come into play untapped, while in the sideboard, we get Rest in Peace for graveyard hate, Selfless Spirit to fight through removal and wraths, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar as a planeswalker that is resilient against control and can help us close out the game quicker against ramp and combo. Thankfully, even the fully upgraded deck is fairly cheap, at well under $200 in paper, with Temple Garden being the biggest expense at over $9 a copy (although if you already have shock lands, upgrading to the non-budget build should be pretty easy and inexpensive).

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.



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