Happy Halloween! To celebrate the beloved holiday, James Wise of Master of Magics put out the call for a Halloween Challenge. The idea is to create a spooky, Halloween-themed Commander deck based around a scary subject.

Rather than having free rein to build our decks, we must follow these restrictions:

  1. The decks must not cost more than $50 in paper.
  2. The decks must be built with the idea of fun and balanced gameplay in mind. No turn one kills.
  3. The decks must be based around literary and pop culture themes of horror. Everything is fair game.

Always one to take up a challenge, I was excited to build something fun, spooky, and noteworthy. For a long time I’ve wanted to highlight a tribal archetype that I’ve never found the time to build around: Rats. The Halloween Challenge finally forced me to focus on the vermin so often overlooked as a tribe.

This week, we will examine my newest creation, a deck entitled “Rats in the Walls” built around the Dominaria legend, Whisper, Blood Liturgist, and inspired by the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name.

It had been several months since I last played a game of Commander; many of our group were moving on to fatherhood. I had constructed what I thought to be a perfect new deck for my metagame, but before writing about it and spoiling all the fun for my playgroup, I wanted to unleash it by surprise. That night my thoughts weighed upon me as I buttoned pajamas; I was nearing my seventh week in a row without Magic.

My thoughts that night went wild. I tossed and turned as the worries weighed upon me. It was only when I began to notice the wallpaper wilting off the walls that it occurred to me: I might not be awake.

In the dream world, I turned my vision to the glass door at the far end of the room. I wished to dismiss it as my imagination, but I almost certainly saw something moving within the smoky chamber. An eerie glow backlit a silhouette trapped inside. Fear snapped me awake.

I sat, grasping for some sign of reality. Further sleep was out of the question; I was too shaken by my experience. A glass of milk and some decompression in my office—so I hoped—would see me right. Candle in handle, I opened the door and set off down the stairs. At the bottom, I was met by the most curious of sights. Where my desk once had been, there now stood a table, with Hobbes, Erik, and Alex shuffling up their decks. They whispered amongst themselves in a long-lost tongue before turning their heads to me in unison like barn owls—they needed a fourth.

At my chair sat my deck, writhing with utter blackness. An urge lulled me to the table, that childish joy of Commander. As I shuffled my deck, an acute terror rose within me. The cards before me were not actually sleeved, but covered in a viscous black ichor. It stuck to my hands, and the chilling touch brought about a feeling that at once felt reassuring, but likewise tore at the corners of my mind.

Imagination can sometimes be reflected, refracted, and magnified by the host. I say this because as earnest as my account may be, there are many who’ve contested my tale, citing my eventual sanitarium interment. I supposed that one game couldn’t hurt, and sat down.

I completed shuffling and drew an opening hand: Swamps, Skullclamp, Descent into Madness, and a few copies of Rat Colony. This felt right. Erik reassured me that he had won the die roll. The next few minutes are truly a blur, the light in the room slowly receding around the table, the darkness carrying the same chilling touch as the maddening tar that housed my deck. My only recollection was the sound of chittering from just outside my view, but none of my opponents seemed to notice.

It was only many turns later when I had finally cast my Commander, sacrificing some rats in an attempt to reanimate the lone creature that had come to occupy my graveyard, that the grisly art permeated my vision. The Hypnox spilled out from my graveyard and onto the battlefield, its tentacles reaching and writhing out of the card and onto Hobbes’s side of the table. I tried to apologize, but it was too late; Hobbes’s Cheshire Cat smile swiftly shifted to utter disdain.

The chittering continued and something bumped into me. Something soft and plump, and likely the rats. I passed the turn and excused myself, taking up a lantern. I began searching, in the direction of the kitchen, for a source to the disturbance which had thrown me into a snarling panic. I opened the door to the basement and tossed a nearby rock down the stairs in an attempt to scare away any foul creatures. From the bottom of the stairs emanated an inky, boundless din.

I had not realized that my deck was still attached to my arms as I stood glancing down cobblestone steps to my basement. I drew a card, trying to divine what might lay stirring at the bottom; Breeding Pit stared back at me. My ears popped as I finally reached the end of the steep descent down a long, low, and peculiarly sculptureless corridor that hung over the porous, breathing floor.

Before me sat an ornate pedestal, lit only by the shifting glow of a chandelier above. It called to me, though I was hesitant to respond. The presence of chalky bones around the cavern put me off. Yet the pedestal spoke out to me in a guttural tone, and I had no choice but to cross the foamy sea of bones. I reached the obsidian fixture and peered in. It communicated with me by touch, telling me how to win my Commander game, if only I present a sacrifice. A familiar feeling washed over me at last: I really wanted a win. As I fed it the first few cards, a low rumble echoed unmistakably from within.

I cowered in fear, remembering something that I recalled vaguely from a podcast about The Necronomicon. My pupils darkened and my teeth turned to fangs. Chitters all around compelled me to feed more of my deck to the relic.

Realizing that I had tapped into a primal, unknowable force, I wavered; then I flung my body back towards the cobblestone stairs where I had entered. The last thing I saw before sprinting away in terror was the black, putrid sea of Misshapen Fiend, Fleshbag Marauder, and Blood Vassal breaking free of the encasement of my now abandoned cards. As I ascended the cobblestone steps back into my world, I was guided by the sounds of what I would best describe as whippoorwills.

When I finally returned to the table, Hobbes was gone. All that remained of him was the scorched outline of his deck on the ceiling. I knew I was down half my deck, but that would not matter. I drew a card, itching to get back into our game. As the chittering prattled on and on in my peripheral, my thoughts wandered to the empty seat in the corner that was now occupied by a greasy plate.

I turned to my opponents and rambled on (madly I’m sure) about what I had seen, and how long it felt like I had been gone. I tried hard to describe the ornate architecture of the basement, the stench and wailing that consumed my every sense. They were not the least bit alarmed by the fact that this looming threat lay merely a hundred feet below the floorboards of the room where we sat.

I must have been musing a long time, as Alex’s normally jolly demeanor was turning to ire. But he was also tapped out. I knew that if I let the Void Maw attack, it would certainly devour everyone at the table—maybe even myself. I was the only thing holding it back. It spoke to me in the hushed words, reminding me of the souls of the fallen creatures it had harvested over the eons long game. Shivering and consumed by chittering, I commanded it to syphon all the creatures out of the unknowable eternity and back into our three graveyards. It grew and grew, overtaking the wooden table with its size. My body grimaced as I cast Essence Harvest, the cardboard rippling from my hand and blowing over the battlefield as the creature’s purple hues illuminated the room.

It removed Alex from the game, then, as if the orders were delivered telepathically, the table contorted towards Erik and my horror attacked him for 1,923 trample damage. The room fell silent, my opponents defeated. My fangs receded.

I could not leave the padded walls of my office, haunted by the rumors of what they thought I had done. Winter came. When I later spoke of playing my Whisper deck, they accused me of a hideous thing—but they must know that I did not do it. They must know it was the rats; the slithering, scurrying rats that I must never cast. Not just cardboard, I beg of you, believe me in that. The rats that lay scattered at my feet in this room and beckon me for black mana, blacker than that of which I’ve ever known. The rats they can never hear; the rats, the rats.

Ryan Sainio is a Graphic Designer who writes about EDH and the EDH community. He has been playing Magic: The Gathering since 7th Edition in 2002 and values flavorful and fun gameplay over competitively optimized decks.

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