I started playing Elder Dragon Highlander around the release of Zendikar, give or take a little. I had played the format previously with other peoples’
decks, and while that’s fun, it somewhat undermines the point of the thing. I have nothing against putting cards in my deck at another’s suggestion –
with this entire series probably doing that, it’d be hypocritical if I did – but the fun of the format just wasn’t there with someone else’s creation
in my hands. I wanted to build my own deck, and I had some vague ideas for it, but everything gelled when I latched onto the legend I wanted as my
General, Ob Nixilis, the Fallen. Yes, I could go a more combo route and pick a General that worked with that plan, as I knew plenty of people did.
Instead, I realized I wanted to play a more midrange control deck with a heavy creature focus and latched onto the realization that I could build a
good black deck and basically play The Rock.
The Rock is a deck archetype that is almost inevitably a wrong choice for a tournament, since having no bad matchups and a 55% edge on the field is
exactly the same as having no great matchups and no better than a 55% win percentage against anyone. If the day plays out as you intended, you
most likely drop after round five at 3-2 and realize you got exactly what you expected out of the day, which is what you deserve when you aim for
mediocrity and settle for a fair deck.
Commander is not a tournament format, however – even if we do occasionally put a little money on the line and have a “tournament” game instead of a
casual one – and The Rock is a lot of fun and allows for a lot of decisions. I decided that I would get the most enjoyment out of my time by starting
down the path of “I want to play fair.”
For six months, last year, my Ob Nixilis deck was not fair. You see, there was this little card called Emrakul that was both incredibly unfair and
surprisingly affordable in 99-card decks, and I found that I was far ahead of the curve at the time in understanding that winning by the grace of His
Noodly Appendage was the strategic trump that was hardest to overcome. My deck went from a lovely, grind-filled game of interaction to a masquerade of
that same game I had been playing before, and suddenly there was a secret caveat that if you ever let me tutor twice in the same game, I had quietly
already won it unless someone got wise to what I planned to spring on them.
For six months, I ended every game by activating Winding Canyons in the end step before my own turn and flashing in Myojin of Night’s Reach to nuke my
opponents’ hands out of existence, then untapped and cast Erratic Portal and Emrakul to enter the infinite-turn zone and kill everyone else at the
table. I had a little class as I did it at least… I would explain that I was demonstrating infinity and declaring the win, and if they wanted to keep
playing for second place, they can keep all their stuff and do that; I’d just ascend to the plane of victory and leave them to it.
Emrakul was broken. Everything I’ve said in the last two weeks should explain why Emrakul was banned in December – as an uncounterable,
nigh-untargetable source of infinite turns (or even “just enough” turns, as a 15/15 flier with Annihilator: 6 is plenty of monster to wipe out one
single opponent), the colorless strategic trump card undermined the interactive elements of the game and could go in literally every deck. That banning
is, to my mind, the clear break between Elder Dragon Highlander and Commander – maybe it was just my personal perspective from six months of more than
50% of my game wins coming from Emrakul no matter what deck I was playing – but that banning was what led me to realize concretely what Sheldon Menery
knew implicitly: having the fun was more important than having the win.
The Ob Nixilis deck has changed only a little since then, losing the infinite combo and adjusting slightly with the release of Mirrodin Besieged to add
a few new cards, but it remains my favorite deck to play because so much of what I believe is right about the format is built right into its design,
starting with the choice of Commander and going from there. Today, since I’ve spoken so much about how I feel you should be building and designing
decks that focus on what is important in the format and
stay comfortably within
a restraint that is the realm of “fun” without hamstringing yourself unnecessarily, I’m going to show you mine as a deckbuilding walkthrough,
its strengths and weaknesses, and note how it puts those thoughts into motion.
Pride Goeth Before The Fall(en)
Ob Nixilis is by my count the fifth best Commander you can play in a mono-black deck, perhaps sixth if you want to consider Oona, Queen of the Fae as a
potential mono-black Commander despite having that smidge of blue that is present but optional.
The clear #1 power Commander for the color to my mind is Maga, Traitor to Mortals, simply because a Fireball with buyback that sticks around and
attacks for large chunks of damage that can put a quick dent in even an infinite life total is a powerhouse player. Black decks tend to have little
problem achieving a critical mass of mana, thanks to Cabal Coffers and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, the latter of which an opponent can control (and often
does!) to help out with assembling your mana-ramp combo that can power out ten-point or larger Magas to finish the opponent off.
Second-best I would call Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon, as a hard-to-kill hasty Commander that kills in three swings thanks to Infect, which makes it
basically a hasty seven-power Commander if you want to compare it to legends that have to actually deal 21 to TKO anyone at the table.
Third and fourth I see as Drana, Kalastria Highborn – a Commander capable of repeated creature kill and potentially killing a player in one swing
thanks to the ability to over-pay for the creature-kill ability in order to get extra power – and Geth, Lord of the Vaults simply based on the powerful
aspect of card advantage you gain by accessing each opponents’ graveyards as your own resource.
Ob Nixilis, the Fallen is thus at best the fifth-best mono-black Commander, and I’ve seen multiple players gaming with each of the above four, and only
once have I ever seen someone else playing Ob Nixilis (and he admitted it was because he didn’t have a Maga yet). There’s even a Portal Three Kingdoms
legend that might be better, allowing you to trade him in for a tactical Regrowth multiple times, but since it’s basically impossible to get, I haven’t
put that much thought into it.
There is a certain power to being below the top tier of Commanders in this format, as you show a little goodwill and self-restraint by unveiling a
slightly goofy Commander even if that Commander has the potential to grow large enough to kill a player with a single hit and can deal an appreciable
amount of damage to a player’s life total over time without even attacking. Ob Nixilis, then, was who I chose to play, as I felt I could build a deck
easily around the landfall ability on him while reaping the extra rewards for showing self-restraint and not just jamming Maga at people over and over
again. It doesn’t hurt that as a five-drop he can realistically go beatdown far more readily than Maga, who focuses entirely on end-game power with no
utility in the earlier turns of the game. Ob Nixilis can be cast turn five and attack for as much as nine damage on turn six and another fifteen on
turn seven, able then to oust a player in two attacks if they need to go and then kill in a single swing if left unchecked.
That’s not how most games of Commander go, but if you find yourself in a more cutthroat room than you expected to be, it can’t hurt to have a Commander
who can carve his way out of that unpleasant box as quickly as possible if somehow the game is a sprint rather than a marathon. Not everyone plays the
same way, after all, and I like that you can pick to show restraint in how you use aspects of the deck or individual cards to accommodate either a
friendly or a cutthroat game. You’ll see a lot that can potentially be used in a very powerful way below, and similarly it’s worth noting that a lot of
what keeps it from being abused instead of used occurs between the ears.
With our Commander selected, we will want to look at what black is good at and build accordingly. Playing to your color’s strengths and building in
additional utility to make your Commander even better alongside the rest of the deck is great, but you have to identify what those strengths are
instead of wave your hands and expect magic to happen.
1) Black is readily capable of drawing cards. It’s the second-best card drawing color, but it has plentiful ways to put fresh cards into your hand,
which is vital for winning the game in the last mile no matter how far that may be from the start line. If we can do this more, we should.
2) Black is the best color for killing creatures, and many of the cards we choose will be able to do that.
3) Black is great at recursion, be it reusing things from its own graveyard or treating an opponent’s graveyard as if it were a second hand you can
play cards out of. Both reusing your stuff and rewarding yourself for killing the opponent’s stuff will advance the overall plan of “always having
something relevant to do,” and this theme is one that black excels at and which should be taken advantage of.
One Problem Down, 99 Problems To Go
The bare minimum mana requirements for wherever I am going to end up is 35 lands plus the Sol Ring and Expedition Map I already know I am going to want
for sure, and I may end up wanting as many as 40 lands if the casting costs trend upward too far. That leaves space for about sixty cards, and it’s
time to start identifying major chunks of what I know I want in the deck to make it operate as Rock-like as I can. Following the concept of wanting to
stay relevant in the game, I’m going to try to fit a fair chunk of card drawing into the mix, even though small card advantage cards are unglamorous
and are often forgotten when building a Commander deck. After all, you can only cast as many spells as you’ve drawn, and a little card advantage can go
a long way when it comes to still having something worth doing on turn twenty of a drawn-out game.
The fundamental backbone of the deck is what I want to lay in first, the skeletal structure of easy card advantage and the tutors black has ready
access to, as even the littlest of card advantage effects is well worth having to maintain relevance in the later game. I was able to identify the
following as core additions before building further outward from there:
Demonic Tutor, Diabolic Tutor, and Beseech the Queen were simple to add, all the tutor action you can get without giving up too much for it or trying
too hard. Imperial Seal and Vampiric Tutor are realistic options, but giving up a draw phase is considerably worse than giving up more mana to get the
effect. Every time you intentionally skip a draw, as many as three opponents haven’t, meaning you’re down one card drawn but potentially behind as many
as three cards if you’re the object of the table’s ire. Grim Tutor would fit within my realm of an acceptable tutor – three life is not too much to
spend in a format where you start with 40 – but I’ve only ever seen a Grim Tutor once in my life, and I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m
unlikely to ever own one.
Card drawing is relatively plentiful in black at a reasonable cost. I knew from the get-go that I wasn’t going to leave any of the following on the
bench: Night’s Whisper, Sign in Blood, Phyrexian Arena, Promise of Power, Skeletal Scrying, Decree of Pain, Dark Confidant, or Sensei’s Divining Top.
Each of these can help get a number of cards in your hand or, in the Top’s case, at least try and make sure the card you get each turn is one that
matters. Night’s Whisper and Sign in Blood seem so innocuous, and fly so easily under the radar when you think of cards to play in Commander, but time
has proven that having one in the early game is a powerful way to start the game off, and it’s not like “draw two cards” stinks in the later stages of
the game. Phyrexian Arena is either wonderful or terrible depending on how long your table lets permanents like it sit in play, and both Skeletal
Scrying and Promise of Power are late-game card-draw bombs that can refill an empty hand to bring you back into a fight from comparatively nowhere.
Decree of Pain fills the hand and wipes the board, two things we intend to excel at. And Dark Confidant is considerably riskier in a deck that
can flip a ten, but with the padded life total and the ease with which ourselves and others can regularly kill a creature, I don’t expect him to stick
around long enough to do me real, meaningful harm.
Barren Moor and Polluted Mire were likewise simple additions, lands that can be traded in when we already have as much as we need, and an easy way to
append that land count of 35 to 37 without harming our ability to draw the same number of spells later in the game. Considering I already have an
eight-drop spell listed and know I want at least one Eldrazi before even accounting for anything else, I’m happy to have these around even if they
aren’t Swamps for Cabal Coffers, just because they will help to stabilize the deck’s ability to draw lands and spells in a proper balance.
We now have 50 cards identified, though 35 of those slots are nebulously left blank as “insert lands here.” I want to see what we can do and what our
needs are, before I start identifying what lands I want to work with and what I am willing to give up as far as colorless lands and non-Swamp black
lands go. Next on my list of things to figure out was a group of cards that work well with Ob Nixilis himself, as synergy could be built into the deck
easily while also fulfilling other goals.
Crucible of Worlds is a clear and obvious addition to the deck. I definitely want to have fetchlands to go with Crucible of Worlds, which can turn an
early Crucible into an incremental card advantage engine that lets me play a land every turn out of the graveyard. You can always try to push someone
out of the game with Strip Mine recursion, but helping your own growth is far more important than stopping someone else cold. Crucible + fetchlands is
an excellent source of card advantage, letting you make your land drop each turn regardless of what’s in your hand, and with a Commander that has a
nice little landfall ability, I know I’ll want some good fetchlands to go with this. Ideally, a single tutor for Crucible of Worlds will fix my
mid-game aspirations by operating with a fetchland drawn naturally, so I know that Crucible comes into the deck with six land slots identified
alongside it: Bloodstained Mire, Polluted Delta, Marsh Flats, and Verdant Catacombs for lands that come into play untapped, and Evolving Wilds and
Terramorphic Expanse for lands that don’t. Bad River and Rocky Tar Pit are both options as well, but with too many fetchlands the ability to get a
considerable number of Swamps with this combo starts to diminish, and Wilds/Expanse both have the benefit of coming into play untapped if I want to
tap them for mana with an Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth in play. This has come up a few times; after all, “saving a fetchland for later use” is not
something only a Counterbalance deck has ever thought of doing.
Journeyer’s Kite is an oft-forgotten card that seems perfect for what this deck is trying to accomplish. Unlike Crucible, it will cost mana every turn,
but it’s a second early permanent that can develop a continual flow of free lands to put into play, and this one doesn’t require drawing a
second half of the combo. Such an innocuous card but one so crucial to have in order to expand into the higher reaches of casting costs. Likewise, a
land can be declared to be the awesome Thawing Glaciers, which gives us not just another means to do the same sort of mid-game ramping when we need
more lands that can be hunted for specifically by Expedition Map.
And while we’re identifying some of these lands, we might as well admit the obvious and note that we’re going to play Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth and
Cabal Coffers. No reason to dance around the fact – it’s one of the main reasons to even consider mono-black, after all. We’ve also used the words
“Strip Mine” in a sentence, so it’s not as if I’m giving serious consideration to obviously hamstringing myself by intentionally excluding it from the
deck. There are some people who kill players who control Crucible of Worlds on sight in order to prevent Strip Mine abuse, and choosing not to abuse
Strip Mine that way is something you can actively and intentionally do. We’re not here to shut anyone out from playing his or her game. We’re here to
play ours, and getting yourself a land will, in the long run, work much better than trying to pit your ability to play a land each turn against that of
three other individuals. It’s not a fight you are designed to win.
This gives us 37 land slots on the page I’ve got open for tracking the deck in so far, twelve of which we’ve identified so far (and a fair number of
which we know are going to be basic Swamp). Of the 62 slots identified for spells and creatures, we’ve used up fifteen establishing the backbone of the
deck, remembering the little effects that will nonetheless be extremely valuable and adding a few easy Tutors that will give us some in-game
customizability to fix our draw by hunting up the most powerful of the type of effect we’re missing at the moment: the right creature for the moment,
the best removal spell we know we need, or just a source of card advantage or a way to make our next several land drops a reality.
Time To State The Obvious A Little
With a skeleton in place, it’s time to start identifying the things we know we want to hang on this skeleton of a deck. We’ve identified ourselves as a
controlling deck that focuses on grinding out card advantage over a long game, which means we’re going to need some efficient removal spells, a hefty
chunk of mass removal, some recursion to dig our way through a pile of bodies and still have something left at the end of the grind, and enough awesome
creatures to both threaten the opponent and defend our own position.
Solemn Simulacrum is the easy no-brainer, both mana ramp and card advantage stapled together into one depressed-looking package. Sad Robot may not look
very happy, but aren’t we always happy to see him? Sad Robot should cheer up.
Duplicant is likewise an obvious auto-inclusion, as a colorless creature that can handle almost every persistent threat there is to worry about. He
gets around being shut out by someone hosing us for our color (Iona exists after all and can be an unpleasant card or worse yet Commander to face off
against with this deck) and can nullify threats up to and including Blightsteel Colossus. Best of all, as a creature himself, we can expect to be able
to reuse him with what we’re going to naturally include already, so he’s of considerable value.
Kozilek, Butcher of Truth may be incredibly expensive, but not to the point where it’s unreasonable to consider. Kozilek is another excellent source of
card advantage, and the more ways we have to draw cards, the more likely it is that we’ll be able to chain them together and play our spells freely
without fearing to run out of them. He can’t be really included in the backbone because ten is a lot. Thus we’re looking at him as a haymaker
who happens to do something good like that, but he’s the right kind of guy for this deck even if he does die to Doom Blade.
Undead Gladiator: The backbone of this deck, to my eyes, is card drawing and staying power later in the game. We’re not a blue deck. We can’t play card
advantage spells up and down the mana curve and then rely on Consecrated Sphinx to power us through the game on a wealth of cards every turn, but we
can use what we have even when what we have is not glamorous. Undead Gladiator is expensive card filtration, but when you’re staring at five dead draws
in your hand, you don’t really care what the price is to unchain you from your draw step and let you survive the doldrums and low moments. It also
helps that Undead Gladiator can pitch lands to play from your graveyard with Crucible of Worlds, and that you can even use it as a moderation device
later in the game – if you’re playing a more friendly game and drew one of those cards you’ve included for a more rough-and-tumble table and want to
keep it friendly, you can even pitch it to the Gladiator instead of being stuck in the “play it or refuse to play it” trap. This lets us be a
little more aggressive in picking powerful cards to play without worrying we’re going to actively overpower anyone past the point of fun, since
you can even functionally ban a card mid-game if for example you don’t want to Myojin anyone today.
Nirkana Revenant is a mana multiplier creature, sort of your own little Mana Reflection stapled onto a 4/4 Shade. Don’t cry when it dies, because it
deserves to, but don’t leave home without it in a mono-black deck either.
Myojin of Night’s Reach: We spoke about him last week, and it’s
worth noting that he has variable utility depending on what you need from him. In some games, he’s present against high-power decks to break up the
combos they are building towards; in others, you’re evenly matched but want to close out a tight game, and Myojin gives you that little hint of unfair
that lets you push through for the win by denying future interaction with the opponent for a turn. He’s best when used sparingly, rather than jammed
hard: I don’t want to push as hard as possible to win every game because that’s the style of play that leads to having to push as hard as
possible to win a game, an escalating arms race where your cutthroat behavior perpetuates itself by making the opponent press your back against the
wall time and again. He’s here to break the games that need to be broken and to be discarded to Undead Gladiator in the games where playing fair will
earn you more friends instead of enemies you can ill afford. Myojin of Night’s Reach is present to be tutored for when needed, but is best left alone
if you don’t need the really big hammer.
Maga, Traitor to Mortals: Player removal. At the very end of the game, Maga starts coming down to make people disappear, at the very top end of what we
can expect to pay. We’re going to lean on Cabal Coffers to make this guy worthwhile, since he’s just unwieldy if he’s only doing half of the job, and
even including him makes me want to lean higher than the 35 slots left blank so far.
Liliana Vess, Mimic Vat, Nezumi Graverobber, Puppeteer Clique, Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni, and Geth, Lord of the Vaults: Recursion is a wonderful thing
to have, and each of these can put the opponent’s graveyard to work for you in one way or the other. Sure, Liliana can tutor instead of work towards
this, and it’s even fair that this will probably happen sometimes, but if we want to excite ourselves with the inclusion, it’s going to be the massive
swarm of reanimated casualties that flock to your side of the board that gets you salivating, not yet another game in which Liliana tutors the best
card to the top of your deck twice in a row and you became unstoppable because of this. Mimic Vat, by the way, is fast being recognized as a Commander
powerhouse – it’s getting to the point where you have to argue why you’re not including it rather than note why you are, but it’s here because killing
things is your forte, and the Mimic Vat rewards you for a job well done.
Sword of Light and Shadow is present as the deck’s only equipment card, based solely on the fact that returning dead creatures to your hand is the kind
of job black wants to do. As a recursion spell it has some hoops to jump through, but the rewards are powerful once you start clearing those hoops and
it keeps your hand full better than any other equipment there is. Even Skullclamp, which started in the deck, got cut based on the fact that it could
be stifled easily in some games, but Sword of Light and Shadow only has to pay off once to be worth the investment and gives a whole bunch of
additional benefits besides.
Yawgmoth’s Will: The most powerful recursion effect in the deck. Yawgmoth’s Will is one of the most abusive cards in the deck if you try to go down
that way, right alongside Myojin in its ability to turn a game on its ear with some preparation to set it up. With that in mind, I aim to self-censor
when I use it; sure, I could engineer a game state in which I cast it and my opponents presumably die as a direct result, but in most games people will
be playing fair, and I’ll aim to do the same with it. The best Yawgmoth’s Will I’ve ever cast in this deck got me a free land, killed a couple of
creatures to reduce the casting cost of Avatar of Woe, cast Avatar of Woe from the graveyard for two mana, and finished with an Expedition Map and
Night’s Whisper for a satisfying turn. The most powerful Yawgmoth’s Will I’ve ever cast in this deck killed two players and crippled a third, but it
only got played that way since they kept trying to kill the board back and forth with an Aluren combo and Tooth and Nail for Kiki-Jiki/Pestermite,
while the third guy tried to take all of the turns. The kid gloves came off and they got what they deserved from Yawgmoth, but I try to play Will for
good advantage in the middle of the game if I draw it rather than devolving the game into me staring at my graveyard for five minutes playing Magic:
The Puzzling in order to see how many people I can stuff down a dark hole immediately.
Grim Harvest and Corpse Dance: Potent recursion that is very difficult to stop, the things that coast me through the middle of the game and make the
Rock deck Rock-like. Either functions quite well with a number of creatures in the deck to erode even the largest board of creatures, and both keep
relevant things happening on my side of the board to keep me as a player in the game rather than the guy left short on resources who then has a hard
time keeping himself around.
And now it is time to kill the creatures. We have thirty slots left and have implied some friends we want to have present like Avatar of Woe, but not
yet leaned on black’s strength, the creature-kill department. A few cards that are targeted as pinpoint removal are fine, but since we can expect to
have three opponents, we can kind of expect our removal spells to have to kill three creatures before we come out even on the deal.
Black Sun’s Zenith, Damnation, Oblivion Stone, Nevinyrral’s Disk, All Is Dust, Reiver Demon, Bane of the Living, and Kagemaro, First to Suffer: Easy
inclusions as part of our “mass removal” package. Some are easier to use than others, since some of these cost a million mana, but they’re all
straightforward and can clear the board of a considerable amount of creatures, and some even get around hard-to-deal-with things like indestructible
monsters if you pay enough. The ones that count as creatures are a boon for the games we go and grind things out with Corpse Dance or Grim Harvest, so
we’re glad to see a few like that even if they don’t all work with both spells.
With the easy mass murder devices set into place, we need to know what other ways we can kill a smaller number of creatures without ceding the
possibility of falling behind in every exchange because we’re making a one-to-one exchange with a single opponent. Gatekeeper of Malakir is good but
not necessarily impressive, but that is enough to keep him on the team for the once in a while he nabs the Blightsteel Colossus that just got Bribed
into play. Likewise, Shriekmaw’s good enough for inclusion, both as a creature that has enough going on to not be embarrassing while he’s in play and
as a spell that happens to be a one-for-one removal spell when we need to evoke him. Evoking him even has added value with our recursion spells, so we
like Shriekmaw in both of his forms, dead and pre-dead.
Fleshbag Marauder, Innocent Blood, Smallpox, Barter in Blood: Sacrifice effects scaled to fit the entire table. While any of these may miss the most
important guy sometimes, each has the ability to affect each of your opponents to hinder their attacks, and again each can answer the most nefarious of
threats, the too-early One-Shot Robot.
Consuming Vapors is in a similar boat as an answer to the One-Shot Robot. It lacks the ability to affect each opponent at once, but pays you back some
of that mana with a free repeat on the following turn and some life to cushion the blow of how much you had to spend to do that. It’s right at the edge
of what I’m looking for here, but definitely good enough to play so long as you expect a fair number of your opponents will stick to more
creature-oriented strategies, a reasonable guess. It edges out Chainer’s Edict based on the fact that four once is considerably less than two plus
seven, and the bit of life gain is well worth having.
Powerful, repeating removal is the next priority and covers two different spreads of cards: the powerful rattlesnake cards that make people look
elsewhere instead of at you and the reliable effects you can use over and over to have your say in what is going on. The rattlesnakes I found well
worth having are three in number.
Grave Pact is the first, for its obvious power in assisting with your overall general plan of suppressing creature strategies as you play the game.
Butcher of Malakir is the second, for its excellent impression of a Grave Pact pleasantly attached to a large, flying body. And the third of these is
Dread, which is an aggressively-costed, evasive fatty that happens to also cause people to think twice before committing an attack your way.
Each has their strengths and weaknesses – the creatures suffer the “has a throat” problem of every other creature that can be simply answered with a
single, indiscriminate removal spell, and Grave Pact does nothing by itself and sometimes not enough even with friends jumping into your graveyard in a
timely fashion. Each has however earned their inclusion, though Dread has at times moved in and out of my deck as I find my playgroup shifts around how
they’d play into it, as its value can go very strongly up or down.
The repeating removal effects of Drana, Kalastria Highborn, Avatar of Woe, and Visara the Dreadful add an extra layer of comfort to the deck’s
capabilities, and controlling these past your own untap step greatly increases your ability to interact with an opponent at instant speed. There are
only so many worthwhile instants you can play in the deck before you’re trading spells with the opposition at merely one-for-one, a sure way to fall
behind against three other opponents in total, but putting any of these to work gives you that instant-speed interactivity and the potential for
repetition turn after turn.
99 Card Decks Live Or Die With Their Manabase
We now have a very nice idea of how the deck is supposed to play out, and we can get a sense of how quickly the deck can interact with opponents by
looking at the mana curve for both creatures and spells. We have removal and card draw starting cheap and ramping up into the X-spell range with
Skeletal Scrying and Black Sun’s Zenith, both scaling to whatever size is most appropriate to suit your needs, and only a few slots left that aren’t
already dedicated to the lands we want to play. To figure out what exactly we want to fit in there, we should next figure out what lands we want to
play and see what needs we can have filled there before figuring out what we want those last spells to do.
We already have 37 slots earmarked for lands and the following lands dedicated already to filling those slots: Winding Canyons, Thawing Glaciers,
Terramorphic Expanse, Evolving Wilds, Bloodstained Mire, Polluted Delta, Marsh Flats, Verdant Catacomb, Polluted Mire, Barren Moor, Cabal Coffers and
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth.
A fair chunk of the lands are going to be basic Swamps, given the heavy black mana requirements of many of the spells and the intersecting needs of
Cabal Coffers and the repeating fetchland plan already built into the design. The argument for every land is actually up against ‘is this better than
just another Swamp?’ in order to figure out what utility lands are worth including, and some will have to be allowed to fall by the wayside.
Leechridden Swamp is an easy inclusion, given that it can be found as a Swamp by four of the fetchlands and has some additional utility that might be
useful in a game or two. It doesn’t interfere – after all, it counts as a Swamp, for Cabal Coffers – and the downside of coming into play tapped or
counting as a nonbasic seems very small compared to the upsides of finding it in a game where you want it and getting a few extra points in
Everglades is also an easy inclusion to my mind: we intend to have a pile of Swamps to begin with, and it’s the only bounceland we’re allowed to play,
unlike multicolor decks that can have a fairly large number of them to help get to the higher mana costs on their cards with just the lands they
regularly draw. By comparison, however, Temple of the False God seems like it is not worth including; yes, it taps for two mana, but two of the wrong
mana and with enough hazards along the way that it could be problematic if it were drawn as the third or fourth land in your hand. We’re only going to
be allowed so many colorless lands to begin with, so what they do for the deck has to be a little bit more than “tap for two mana if you’re already
reasonably well established.”
Strip Mine is the easiest colorless land to accommodate, being absurdly powerful at solving the problems you want to pose to it. It would actually
probably be better as Wasteland – to do so would telegraph the deck’s intentions to use it more honestly – but Strip Mine is significantly cheaper
pricewise, and you don’t have to abuse it even if you have the ability to do so. “With great power comes great responsibility,” after all, and the deck
can use the extra little shot of power without having to worry that suddenly Crucible + Strip Mine is the main plan or focus of the deck. The ability
to destroy a basic land is unlikely to come up, if for no other reason than that this deck considers it far more important to build its own mana up
than to tear someone else’s down.
I did feel that I wanted a second such effect in the deck and settled on Dust Bowl to do that job. You never know; in some games, you might encounter
several lands that you need to destroy in order to maintain a serviceable game state, and for those games, Dust Bowl might be useful in order to kill
several pains in the butt without having to set up Crucible of Worlds in order to achieve that objective. Again, just because you can doesn’t
mean you will, and the repeating effect on Dust Bowl comes at the price of using your lands to hinder one player rather than help yourself.
Useful as this is to have, it can be a trap to have that power and not use it responsibly. The ability to go to town with Dust Bowl comes at a very
high price, as the deck is most comfortable when it has passed the 10+ mana mark and can really do its thing with the repetitive spells or just play
card draw and its actual spells in the same game.
For more utility lands, I felt the deck wanted a sacrifice outlet. Having one would reap occasional benefits with the recursion cards, allowing us to
maintain a specific creature as the top creature in the graveyard for Corpse Dance or to eat a monster at a convenient time and return Grim Harvest.
Miren, the Moaning Well provides this utility while also offering the option to regain life, a very important option to have, considering that so far
we have a fair chunk of cards that use life as a resource and precious few ways to gain life points back. High Market makes the same offer but less
life for less mana, and I felt it best to commit to Miren: when it comes up, we’ll be happy to spend a little mana to gain a considerable chunk of
Mystifying Maze is a slower Maze of Ith, and one without the ability to protect your creatures when you attack, but it also taps for mana without
Urborg in play. This shortcoming excluded Maze of Ith from candidacy for the same reasons as Temple of the False God: it can cause you to falter in the
establishing turns of the game and isn’t a good enough “spell” to justify the spell slot that it truly requires. Mystifying Maze covers many of the
same needs without requiring us to sacrifice a spell slot and is much preferred accordingly.
And to assist in helping to ramp to high mana values, Vesuva is included with the hope of copying an interesting land like Cabal Coffers or potentially
playing the role of another Strip Mine effect against a legendary land like Gaea’s Cradle or Academy Ruins. Enough games have occurred in which it
copied Cabal Coffers that it has more than earned its keep, and even the ability to play as a second copy of something like Thawing Glaciers or
Mystifying Maze makes it well-loved. It is a Swamp that comes into play tapped at the very worst, which is still perfectly justifiable.
From here on out, however, our special lands have to tap for black mana if we are to include them, and looking at all the nonbasic lands that fit that
description I see only four worthy of inclusion.
Crypt of Agadeem can potentially be useful, providing a hefty chunk of black mana and filling some of the role of a Cabal Coffers without being
offensive to those who get sensitive when Coffers is providing you with such a huge benefit. Enough of the creatures in the deck are black to ensure
that in the middle of the game, you’ll be able to get at least something of a mana boost out of it just with the things you have that die in the course
of doing their job, and the only real downside to go with that is coming into play tapped and not counting as a Swamp.
Likewise, Bojuka Bog has enough utility to want to include it; I’ve drawn Expedition Map and needed to turn it into something to stop a really large
Living Death or some graveyard recursion enough to be glad to see Bojuka Bog in the deck. As a spell-land it does a good job, and at the worst if you
don’t need the spell you still have a perfectly serviceable land with only minor drawbacks.
Shizo, Death’s Storehouse thankfully doesn’t come into play tapped, and alongside the ability to sneak Ob Nixilis across a group of potential blockers
or even just make sure that Ink-Eyes connects, it adds quite a lot to the deck by its inclusion.
The last one is a bit harder to see, since tapping at the price of a life point to get any mana at all from a single-colored land is a pretty rough
drawback, especially given that we’ve said the deck wants to keep its life total up if possible and not erode it any further than the spells already
do. However, I’ve found Cabal Pit provides just enough benefit to be worth including, especially given that it adds a new dimension of utility to the
Crucible of World package, and more things that just naturally work with that aspect of the deck is good to have. I considered whether I’d prefer this
to be Mouth of Ronom instead, and realized that without providing colored mana, I’d have to cut it from the deck, so it stays as it is. It’s that
little extra bit harder to kill a Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir without Mouth of Ronom present, and thus we’ll have to stagger our remaining card decisions
to address that particular problem and also note that a little bit of bias is going to be required during play: do not trust the blue mages unduly and
make sure you don’t give them too much breathing room to operate in just in order to be nice.
With these last inclusions, that makes a hefty 23 special lands we’ve added to the deck, leaving room for fourteen basic Swamps given the space left
aside for lands, which is still plenty to work with the fetchland recursion and Thawing Glaciers that are intended to build the deck past the 10+ mana
mark slowly but surely. Almost all of the lands produce black mana, which is important in a deck that focuses heavily on the black mana symbols.
The Last Slots
With the lands figured out, we have nine slots left out of the 99 originally available and have to bend these considerations against the problems that
will regularly come up. With only minimal discard, we have very few ways to beat a counterspell, there are perhaps a few things left we might still
want to be able to do well, the mana curve requires consideration still, and the deck’s ability to regain life points that have been spent is still not
exactly stellar. A fair chunk of the time, we’ll find ourselves tutoring for something that gets back life points, and while that’s fine and not “a
waste of a tutor,” the strain of doing so too often can still be worked on.
The obvious solution to the diminishing life total problem is Wurmcoil Engine, usually good for at least a little boost even in the creature-unfriendly
world of Commander where everything dies all of the time. A second addition is not hard to twist my arm to: Sorin Markov can likewise return a few life
points to you while he does his usual thing, and the non-Vicious Hunger abilities are mighty powerful in Commander, either setting somebody up for a
nasty fall or pointing a Mindslaver at your convenience. Even more so than Wurmcoil, you can’t expect Sorin to live – he has a big target on his head
to people who are sensitive about that whole “set your life total to ten” thing – but a few uses out of him are more than enough to be worth having,
and the games where he stays around for a few turns will be good ones indeed.
I still want to make the deck a little more robust in the face of the occasional blue mage, however, either by picking on Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir or
just building some more elements into the games where they can plan to counter all of my spells and stop me in my tracks. Both of black’s split second
creature removal cards, then, are worthy additions.
Sudden Death is a fast removal spell for the early game and a potent thing to point at Teferi, upping the number of instants we have to work with and
providing an extra level of security on other players’ turns given that we know it is in hand and will do its job.
Sudden Spoiling is very potent in Commander, and many a game will turn on having it in your hand to leverage an advantage with, be it saving
yourself in a tight spot or even just coming to another player’s rescue or using it alongside a cycled Decree of Pain to wipe a player’s board without
taking no for an answer.
The last spell included to fight off countermagic is Imp’s Mischief, a peculiar little sideways shifting of the color pie to give black something that
its allies red and blue usually fight over, a Deflection effect that you can use during a counter war or even just to point a mundane spell like Cruel
Ultimatum at somebody else’s head instead of your own. The little bit of life can be a bit tricky but can be planned for with the reasonable assumption
that countermagic in this format can cost up to five mana if you want to hedge your bets on how much you’ll lose to it.
So far, Imp’s Mischief has been a most excellent inclusion in the deck, both for warding off blue mages who assume they can use a single counterspell
to stop your cunning plan that cannot fail and for its more innocent usage like pointing an Ancestral Vision your own way. The most critical (and
surprising!) use in a game so far has been to point Time Stretch my way, interrupting an infinite-turn combo with Crystal Shard and Eternal Witness,
and while that wasn’t the plan when I included the card in the deck, it was certainly good to find out it has all sorts of interesting corner cases
where it happens to come up smelling like roses.
After all, who cares about ten life when you get two free turns and just denied your opponent those turns?
This leaves four slots still, and I’m favoring creatures at this point, having added plenty of spells and wanting a few more things that sit on the
table and attack or otherwise serve interesting roles. Withered Wretch is the first obviously absent body needing to be tagged in for use, as the pesky
little two-drop fits alongside Nezumi Graverobber as a utility creature that can rob a graveyard of critical recursion cards; it loses the ability to
flip and do silly things, but instead it offers an extra toughness and a cheaper activation cost on its ability. Black decks like their own recursion but have a
hard time stopping someone else’s, so he’s a very happy addition.
Massacre Wurm is a new card I want to try out in the deck – I see a fair share of Faerie token creatures, Rith’s Saprolings, and the occasional Sliver
Queen token around these parts and think he might do a good job keeping all of these things relatively in check, in addition to occasionally being the
right guy to kill an opponent who has a lot of these things and is threatening serious action. I never, ever want to see Rite of Replication targeting
this guy with kicker but choose not to live in fear of the unlikely-but-awesome when choosing a creature to fill out the bench.
Nantuko Shade serves nicely as an early creature drop, helpful to have when you want to keep stray planeswalkers off the table, who still scales nicely
into the late game and works excellently with Cabal Coffers online. Good at two mana and good at twelve is an excellent resume for a creature in this
deck, as we can expect to start at one place and head towards the other, and the Shade offers his fair share of upsides both on offense and defense.
The last slot is a cute one, under the idea that it can provide a firm negotiation point in a few games and lets me play the table a little sneakily
when coming to someone else’s defense and recruiting allies. Abyssal Persecutor is like a Platinum Angel for all of your friends, a good way to make a
friend or two without pointing yourself out as the obvious enemy. A security blanket working to keep opponents at bay is a good thing to have in
Commander, and few things can be as reassuring as something over there saying “you can’t lose.”
This gives us the following as our completed decklist:
Commander: Ob Nixilis the Fallen
Miren, the Moaning Well
Crypt of Agadeem
Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Sign in Blood
Black Sun’s Zenith
Beseech the Queen
Barter in Blood
Promise of Power
Decree of Pain
Gatekeeper of Malakir
Bane of the Living
Kagemaro, First to Suffer
Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief
Visara the Dreadful
Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
Geth, Lord of the Vault
Butcher of Malakir
Avatar of Woe
Myojin of Night’s Reach
Maga, Traitor to Mortals
Sensei’s Divining Top
Sword of Light and Shadow
Crucible of Worlds
All Is Dust
Kozilek, Butcher of Truth
Blightsteel Colossus: The most unfair card I could allow myself to play but chose not to. I could arguably include it in my deck with the caveat that I
won’t aim to search for it often, and sometimes I’ll want to ditch it to Undead Gladiator for a replacement, but otherwise the One-Shot Robot might be
needed to suddenly crush a game. He used to be in the deck for a few weeks after Mirrodin Besieged came out, but the novelty of the idea wore off and
he deserved to be cut as I can imagine him being a far greater liability than a benefit. Given that my opponents may be willing to steal him from my
deck considerably more than I may be willing to cast him, I feel it’s better not to trust my playgroup more than the One-Shot Robot requires.
Blightsteel Colossus is the ultimate technology for making anyone at all fall down a dark hole to their demise. The fact of the matter is that the
games I see myself reaching for the One-Shot are likely ones that I should aim to win with my Commander instead, and Blightsteel Colossus was a crutch
more often than it could ever be a boon.
Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon: Of a lower power level than Blightsteel Colossus on a card-for-card basis, if considerably easier to cast. Skithiryx
raises the question of whether poison is a valid kill mechanism for this deck, and ultimately it lost the comparison based on the fact that 21 damage
from your Commander was sufficient to oust a player even from an arbitrarily large life total and both Skittles and Ob Nixilis can come down for the
same amount of mana and kill a single player in roughly the same amount of time. Ob Nixilis doesn’t regenerate, true, but he does survive by
means of recasting later in the game, so that’s not a complete wash… and while Ob Nixilis is attacking, that damage actually contributes to knocking
down a life total, while Skittles here leaves the opponent exactly where they started and racks up only his own private flavor of damage. As good as he
seemed in theory, he was strategically trumped by the Commander and provided no additional utility or options to work with, so ultimately he warms the
Volrath’s Stronghold: An obvious inclusion to a Rock-like deck but one that I included for six months and never once used. With a resume like that, it
became a basic Swamp pretty readily, with the creature recursion already present in the deck proving to not just be enough without it but also better
at what I was trying to do than skipping a draw phase each time I wanted to do that. Good, but not necessarily helpful.
Nihil Spellbomb: A surprising thing to list alongside some of the most potent cards in Commander, but this was the last card squeezed out by the deck,
#100 in my list of 99. The Spellbomb is a cantrip Tormod’s Crypt that’s another avenue to shut down graveyard recursion that doesn’t just die to
everything like Withered Wretch does and can be used at instant speed unlike Bojuka Bog. However, I wasn’t getting quite enough play with the Spellbomb
coming up at vital times, finding myself just cycling it about half the games I drew it in, and until my local area starts living a bit more actively
out of their graveyard it will stay just barely edged out of the competition.
Vampiric Tutor: The question comes down to how, exactly, I intend to play this deck. I briefly flirted with the idea of a more Tutor-heavy deck just
before Rise of the Eldrazi came out, acknowledging that this deck has a few very vital cards that it really wants to see in a game and will go out of
its way to hunt for, those specifically being Crucible of Worlds, Grim Harvest, Thawing Glaciers, Oblivion Stone, or a powerful card-drawer like
Skeletal Scrying to provide a much-needed influx of cardboard. A lot of other things are interchangeable, and the deck can make its plans on the fly
very easily, but the extremely high value of being able to find one of these cards to go alongside what’s been drawn naturally raised the question of
whether Vampiric Tutor had a home in this deck.
Of course, Rise of the Eldrazi came and changed everything: Myojin of Night’s Reach became incredibly more potent to clear the way for a combo-kill
finish, and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn plus Erratic Portal was an effective means to win the game in combo fashion. Emrakul crept into the deck alongside
an Erratic Portal I had already been playing quite happily to reuse creatures like Bane of the Living, and I found more than half of the games I played
devolved into tutoring twice for these pieces and muscling through to win the game. I didn’t like this new route once it started feeling less novel but
continued taking advantage of it, secure in the knowledge that the arms race had escalated things accordingly, and you either had Emrakul, planned
around Emrakul, or lost to decks that were better in the know than your own.
It was a wonderful and terrible six months, and in fact, I built a new deck just to get away from the “mana ramp into Emrakul” plan that wormed its way
first into my Ob Nixilis deck and then into my Experiment Kraj deck, deciding to chase Numot the Devastator with an equipment-heavy theme centering on
the fun things you can do with Sunforger in play and not including Emrakul at all. I’m glad to no longer be graced by His Noodly Appendage, even though
I won far too many games with Emrakul on my side of the table, and I find the deck works best when it is not pointed at a specific combo but is instead designed
with enough redundancy that I can leverage the same sorts of advantage over a wide variety of opening hands and build towards the same grinding and
ultimately fair means to win the game. For that usage, I consider Vampiric Tutor just that little bit below par for not replacing itself with a card in
my hand and rely simply on the tutors that do not cost a card in and of themselves.
Recent additions from Scars of Mirrodin, like Mimic Vat and Geth, Lord of the Vault, let me leverage black’s ability to use another deck’s graveyard as
its own resource pool and have added plenty towards winning the game the way this deck wants to win it, which is more than enough to beat the urge to
reach harder for the cards that begin an escalating arms race of tutoring and high consistency. And I prefer to have that urge tamped down firmly than
to indulge it, as I find more games are won playing fair Magic reasonably well with a good (and fun!) deck than by trying to push through that type of