With the latest Commander 2017 spoilers has come a lot of tribe hype for some of Magic's classic tribes. I was greeted with all manner of Cat related goodies when I first tuned in for spoilers so it seemed a natural time to take a look back at the many cats of MtG. Plenty of other tribal coolness awaits but you gotta start somewhere, so let's dive in and explore the rich history of magical cats!
Author's Note: I'm trying to only cover sets that introduce new cards. That includes core and expansion sets and supplements like Commander and Conspiracy. Compilation sets like Masters et. al., From the Vault, etc. are not included. Commander 2017 is also omitted.
The Where of Magical Cats
Cats have been a part of Magic: the Gathering since the very beginning when Dr. Garfield graced us with Savannah Lions in Limited Edition Alpha. Ever since then cats have been a regular creature type, not in all sets but many, and a favorite tribe of many players. Across sets that feature cats the average cats per set is 1.84 but even so Magic features a whopping 157 unique cat creatures and cards that care about cats.
The Cat creature type appears very frequently in Magic, showing up in 88 out the 114 sets covered here. That 77% set inclusion certainly doesn't put them as high up on the list as broader tribes like humans but it's notably high for sure. Many early sets were cat-free and modern sets with strong themes like Shadows Over Innistrad also tend to be, but more often than not modern sets have at least one cat.
|6th Edition (6)|
|10th Edition (5)|
|Commander '14 (5)|
|Magic 2013 (5)|
|Portal Three Kingdoms (5)|
|Scars of Mirrodin (5)|
The most prominent cat-inclusive sets and planes are featured here and run the gamut from brand new to decades old. The most prominent set is a tie between Amonkhet and Mirrodin, both of which feature seven cats. The Egyptian theme of Amonkhet makes it an obvious choice for felines, less so for Mirrodin which shows us the humanoid-cat Leonins that feature heavily throughout Magic. Sets like Mirrodin, Theros, and Commander give us many white Leonin in the form of clerics and warriors while sets like Mirage and Invasion present greener animalistic cats. The list tapers off quickly and at the low end there are 29 sets with just one cat and 13 with just two.
We can also break this down into planes since most blocks are several sets on a single plane and we've returned to a few now. To no one's surprise Dominaria has far and away the most cats; almost all of early Magic took place there barring Arabian Nights and Homelands. Mirrodin, a plane we've since returned to, comes in strong at 29 with plenty of cats in original Mirrodin, 5th Dawn, and Scars of Mirrodin. Many of the top planes' individual sets didn't make it into the top sets but it makes it clear that cats are regularly sprinkled into modern sets a few at a time and add up quickly at the plane level.
What Makes a Magical Cat
Cats have shown up in many shapes, sizes, and colors in Magic's history but more often than not they fit a common theme. Across Magic's 157 cats 76% of them are white, green, or both. Leonin creatures are almost always white and there are a handful of WG cat warriors; jungle cats are usually mono-green with a few exceptions. The Naya shard of Alara brought us many of the White, Red, and/or Green cats and Tarkir block some of the black ones, but in general most of the non-WG cats come from older sets. Red cats in particular used to be quite common, with just a few in modern sets like Slash Panther. Some sets also break animal-cats out of the green mold for flavor reasons, like Dark Ascension's spooky black cat or Amonkhet's zombie-lawful Sacred Cat.
The color identities of magical cats are often the same as their colors. In general cats tend to have static or triggered abilities and keywords rather than activated abilities, but when they do they are often payable with on-color mana like Jareth or have generic costs like Leonin Arbiter.
Cats are generally not an expensive tribe; nearly half of all cats cost two or three mana. The tribe tops out at CMC-7 but the most recent card in that slot is from Mirrodin Besieged and the most recent at CMC-6 is from Zendikar suggesting that cat costs are trending down. Despite the high concentration at CMCs 1-3 there are enough higher costed cats to bring the average CMC of a magical cat up to 3.3, although the CMC mode is clearly 2. Those numbers could decrease if the trend continues however; Amonkhet block has 10 cats and only one of them has a CMC greather than three.
The depiction of cats in Magic has ranged from simple house cats all the way up to the King of Oreskos so it is unsurprising that they appear at all rarities. The high concentration of commons accounts for the house cats and Leonin foot soldiers but it's worth noting that even common cats are rarely vanilla. At uncommon we see fearsome wildcats, powerful soldiers, and magical beasts that often have interesting abilities and a good value-to-cmc ratio. Rare and mythic cats (of which there are only 3) have impressive abilities and often legendary status.
How Do Magical Cats Work
|Subtypes||# of Cards|
|Monkey, Rebel, Scout, Wizard||2|
|Ally, Giant, Illusion, Snake, Nightstalker, Vampire||1|
|Life Gain (15)*|
|Equipment Matters (9)|
|+1/+1 Counters (9)|
|Make More Cats (8)|
We've come to the how of magical cats and that asks basically two things: how do they break down within the Cat umbrella and what sorts of things do they do. There are 62 cats whose only subtype is Cat and those unfortunately don't tell us much; the other cats have more than enough subtypes to make up for it. Clearly the most common subtypes to share with Cat are Warrior and Soldier, which are thematically similar but drastically change the way these cards interact in other tribal decks (e.g. a Soldier deck that has cats). Clerics come in third, and these top three demonstrate very clearly the way the Leonins are meant to work. They are combat oriented creatures, as opposed to creature combo pieces, and they tend to have abilities that buff combat stats or otherwise get you swinging happily.
The other big grouping for cat subtypes is Elementals and Beasts, and it's worth noting that many of the mono cat creatures fit into this category as well. These are the green or green-flavored cats, beastial creatures of the forest. This group touts forest walk, flash, and other jungle cat appropriate abilities. Beyond those two major cat groups are fringe items like the Cat Vampire and the Cat Snake that are very interesting but don't have any sort of other support within the tribe.
The other ask follows a similar set of strong themes just like colors and classes. There are few cats that are vanilla but there are many that have a simple keyword or static ability and those aren't terribly exciting.
Trample, flying, and vigilance all show up regularly on cats showcasing the raw power of the jungle cats and the military prowess of the Leonin. What's more interesting is the hallmark abilities that the tribe has showcased, like creating more cats. Many cats, especially the rarer ones like Brimaz or HOU's Pride Sovereign make cats on the regular to constantly refuel and empower your cat army. There are about 8 cards in the cat arsenal that pump out cat tokens, usually 2/2's and occasionally with abilities, most of which are white. White cat tribal also makes good use of the equipment synergies present in the Leonin; there are 9 or so cats who care specifically about equipments. They range from additional blocks to creating more cats when equipped and all places between. The Leonin have a third specialty and that is a combination of life gain and +1/+1 counter synergies. These typically appear on Ajani related cards and heal you and buff your creatures in tandem.
The green cats also have a theme to their abilities. Being junglecats they make good use of the trample and flash keywords. Many green cats have flash as a thematic way of pouncing, letting them ambush enemy creatures. Larger cats also tend to have trample as jungle beasts would, and they sometimes have first or even double strike to display feline agility. While the green cats do not have quite so broad a template as the white ones it is very flavorful and very powerful.
Who Are the Magical Cats
|Purraj of Urborg||Mirage|
|Mirri, Cat Warrior||Exodus|
|Jareth, Leonin Titan||Onslaught|
|Raksha Golden Cub||Fifth Dawn|
|Jedit Ojanen of Efrava||Planar Chaos|
|Mirri the Cursed||Planar Chaos|
|Kemba, Kha Regent||Mirrodin Besieged|
|Brimaz, King of Oreskos||Born of the Gods|
|Jazal Goldmane||Commander 2014|
Like the how, the who can be broken into two clean parts: who makes the cats and who are the cats of note in the game. Magic has surprisingly few legendary cats given how long they've been around. The most recent is from Commander 2014 while our earliest legendary cat sighting is from as far back as Legends with Jedit Ojanen, a vanilla legendary from Legends. The second is more interesting with Purraj of Urborg, an interesting early example because it's black but it uses +1/+1 counters and first strike. Mirri, Cat Warrior and Jedit Ojanen are interesting as they are the only two cats to be color shifted in Planar Chaos. The other cat legends Jareth, Raksha, Brimaz, and Jazal all embody the major themes of white cats very well; between them they care about equipment, make more cats, and buff up your cats in combat. Commander 2017 will expand this list even further.
The other part of the who is the artists we have to thank for our cats. This was actually very intersting to me; usually when I write these up I've heard of four or five of the top artists but this time I've only heard of two. The fan favorite Terese Nielsen produced four of our feline friends and Kev Walker produced another four, but my knowledge ends there. Those two are middle of the pack for the top 10 however, John Matson takes the lead with six cats and Daren Bader and Carl Critchlow each produced five of them. It may seem like the numbers for the top 10 are quite low, but fully 100 artists have produced cats for Magic and 66 of those 100 have done just one.
Why Play With Magical Cats
I admit that I'm not terribly aware of the history of competitive/professional Magic, and I don't know if a cat tribal deck has ever won anything of note. Still, I wanted to provide at least an anecdotal "Why" for feline history. That said, I do know why the average player should consider giving cats a shot in a more casual setting.
Even before the spoilers for Commander 2017 a cat themed commander deck was not out of the question. All the legends listed above are eligible commanders and Brimaz and Kemba are quite good ones. The many cats that care about equipments and life gain also make for excellent additions to commander decks even if they aren't led by Cats as Commander lets you play all the best equipments and life gain sources. An especially amusing feline additon is Felidar Sovereign which lets you win a turn later if you've got your starting life, which might not make you friends but definitely makes for an entertaining win.
There have been a number of times that cats have been a fun, if not wholly tribal, strategy in limited. Most recently we saw this in Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation limited where such toys were available as Regal Caracal and Pride Sovereign. In formats like these cats often make good bombs that fit into otherwise fine shells and might push you to pick up other matching cards (e.g. grab some Sacred Cats over random zombies).
Despite my love for limited and my enjoyment of commander, I think the kitchen table might be the best place to play cats. Obviously commander is a kitchen table format sometimes, but I mean good old no-limits pure-enjoyment kitchen table magic. I've seen several cat decks at our tables over the years, ranging from equipment themed decks to cute-kitties.dec and all manner of other things with cats stuck in. By far though, the best deck we've seen is a cat tribal deck my good friend made in which he refused to run any creature that didn't explicitly have "Cat" on the type line and more or less every equipment he had handy. It performed well at the table, still does, and is a blast to pilot for him and any of us borrowing it.
Cats are a pretty big part of Magic. They've been around since Alpha, they crop up very often in modern magic, and we've recently gotten all manner of neat felines. The Commander 2017 cat tribal deck looks like it will be a blast. I do hope you've enjoyed this look back at the many magical cats in Magic and that you enjoy the upcoming Commander release. Thanks for reading!