New sets bring new ideas – sometimes, though, a new card sparks off the memory of an older time, a time when one red mana could cause three damage, a time when white had efficient creature removal.
Invasion brings us a card called Blazing Spectre. The moment I saw it,
I thought fondly of my old favourite Hippy (also called Hypnotic Spectre, for the uninitiated) – and I then thought of the deck that Hippy used to love to be a part of: Necropotence. Many players out there will remember Necro from Black Summer, or the Nationals two years ago when Urza’s Bauble was used to generate amazing free card advantage. Some players, I imagine, will notice a slight involuntary tic at the thought of Necropotence and the dominance it once had. But there are a whole bunch of players out there who don’t remember, but have heard whispered rumours around the gaming shops and would like a little more concrete info.
In June 1995, the first stand-alone expansion for Magic: The Gathering was released. It was called Ice Age. It weighed in at 383 cards, and since it included basic land, it was the first set that could really be played on its own. One of the cards that it brought with it on that fatal day changed the way that players thought about resources for the rest of eternity:
Skip your draw phase. If you discard a card from your hand, remove that card from the game.
0: Pay 1 life to set aside the top card of your library. At the beginning of your next discard phase, put that card into your hand. Effects that prevent or redirect damage cannot be used to counter this loss of life.
At the time a lot of people panned this card. After all, you can only lose by being decked or losing life – so this card actually helps your opponent! Who wants to do that?
There were a few people who looked at it like this: If you could start a game with eight cards and only nineteen life, would you? How about ten cards and eighteen life? It’s an interesting prospect, and one that began to light a few creative forges in the minds of the top players at the time. Now if only there were a few ways to gain life, you could draw almost as many cards as you wanted!
One card that has been around for a long time, Ivory Tower, was the first thought in many people’s mind:
During your upkeep phase, gain 1 life for each card in your hand above four.
With this on the table you can gain three life a turn, if only you can keep seven cards in your hand. Necropotence allows you to do just that. The synergy between the cards allowed a black mage to draw three times as many cards as their opponent. But it didn’t end there. One thing that mages started to notice was that you drew a lot of land, after a certain number of land – in some decks – other land doesn’t seem to have much use. Ice Age brought another card along that caused a bit of a stir:
0: Sacrifice a land to gain 2 life.
All those extra land could be converted into more life, and thereafter into more card-drawing through Necro.
With these three cards in mind, the deckbuilders of the day started looking at what else might fit into such a deck. The earliest deck I can find is from the winner of a Pro Tour New York Qualifier in Long Beach. I’ve had a quick look at the entrants to PTNY 1997 and Paul Pantera is not listed among them – so from the cards it contains, I presume that this deck is from the PTNY ’96 qualifier season:
Paul Pantera, New York Pro Tourney Qualifier Winner
2x Dancing Scimitar
3x Order of the Ebon Hand
2x Sengir Vampire
2x Ihsan’s Shade
4x Hypnotic Specter
Other Spells (22):
4x Hymn to Tourach
4x Dark Ritual
3x Drain Life
2x Demonic Consultation
4x Nevinyrral’s Disk
1x Zuran Orb
1x Ivory Tower
1x Icy Manipulator
4x Mishra’s Factory
4x Strip Mine
3x Serrated Arrows
1x Dark Banishing
4x Cuombajj Witches
1x Fallen Angel
Dancing Scimitar? Sengir Vampire? In a tourney!? Yes, and the winner of that tourney, too. I can’t spot Paul in the top 64 at PTNY ’96, so he can’t have made the second day – but he made it to a Pro Tour with this. Let’s have a quick look.
The card drawing ‘Engine’ is present: Necro, Ivory Tower, Zuran Orb and the lifegaining theme are backed up with Drain Life. It can take a little life from your opponent, finish your opponent off, or deal with creatures that are getting on your nerves – and then you get to use the extra life to draw more cards. VERY strong.
The deck is very big on disrupting your opponent. Strip Mine disrupts their land, Hymn to Tourach and Hypnotic Spectre disrupts their hand, and Nev’s Disk keeps any creatures they might be attacking you with under control. Draw, disrupt, draw disrupt – the deck is nasty to play against.
At the same time, the deck would drop one or two threats and start to apply pressure to your opponent. It’d be difficult to deal with them because of the hand disruption, and the Necro player keeps a few threats in their hand just in case. The cost of some of the creatures seems high, but with Dark Ritual in the deck, they can all be cast very early on. As all of the creatures are black or artifacts, not much black creature removal will work on them. Many of the creatures are big enough to be burn spell resistant, and if they use two Lightning Bolts? Excellent – more card advantage. Ihsan’s Shade has the pleasure of having protection from white, the only colour that can deal with all of the other creatures with one spell: Swords to Plowshares.
All in all, the deck has answers for most things, and the card advantage gained from using the Necropotence at the cost of your own life won the game. This was a fundamental change in the way people thought about resources that changed the face of Magic forever. It got people thinking on a deeper level than attack and defence. It got people wondering,”What is a resource?” and”What short term disadvantages are acceptable to take on in order to gain me the long-term win?”
Necro was such a good deck that it spawned Black (or Necro) Summer. Pretty much all of the decks were Necro decks or decks designed to beat Necro (which was the birth of Stasis decks). If you couldn’t beat it, you weren’t going to win because so many people would be playing it.
Thankfully, time passed, and new sets rotated in as old sets rotated out. New deck archetypes and strengthened older ones challenged Necro’s dominance and brought more variety back to the tournament scene. Necro never really died, though (How appropriate! – The Ferrett), and throughout the latter half of 1997 Necro decks were once again showing up all over the top eights at prestigious tourneys. Here’s a deck from The Dojo at the end of 1997.
Erik Lauer’s”Discard-Necro” from December 1997
4x Knight of Stromgald
4x Abyssal Specter
4x Bottle Gnomes
Other Spells (26):
4x Drain Life
3x Funeral Charm
3x Diabolic Edict
4x Dark Ritual
4x Nevinyrral’s Disk
2x Dread of Night
2x Spinning Darkness
2x Agonizing Memories
1x Disrupting Scepter
1x Snake Basket
Lots of the older, more powerful cards were gone by then, but the similarities in spell types alone are startling. Only one more creature than in 1996, and only a little less land. Hippies were replaced by their slower, not-quite-as-effective (but more resilient) friends the Abyssal Spectres. Hymn to Tourach has left, but Stupor was played instead. The Disk and Drain Life were still the primary methods of creature destruction, but Diabolic Edict was added due to the amount of creatures with protection from black that were around at the time.
Other decks that were around at the time included ProsBloom, Four-Colour White (with Empyrial Armor), Cursed Sligh, Propaorb and Five-Colour Green. The Bottle Gnomes gave a little extra life against Sligh, whilst the Funeral Charms kept Ball Lightnings under control, added a little more hand disruption, and even gave a slight advantage against other black decks! The sheer amount of hand disruption helps against ProsBloom, and an early use of the sideboard Perish does to Five-Colour Green what Superman pretty much does to any bad guy who doesn’t have a green glowing rock.
Fast forward again to another new environment: The Mirage block had left us, and Funeral Charm and Stupor were powerful discard spells of memory, waiting in the wings for a future return. But a new boy on the block had changed Necro design yet again: Yawgmoth’s Will.
Until end of turn, you may play cards in your graveyard as though they were in your hand. Cards put into your graveyard this turn are removed from the game instead.
Yawgmoth’s Will offered unparalleled card advantage to match Necro’s amazing card drawing ability. With Dark Ritual in the deck, and with Dark Ritual immediately playable from the graveyard upon the resolution of the spell, all the spells could get played at least twice, lessening the Necro player’s need to dig deeper into their deck to find answers to dangerous creatures and spells. Necro mages added Urza’s Bauble, previously considered by many as a deck-thinning card at best – an unplayable card at worst – to give them even more: Free card drawing. Here’s one of the best examples of the deck:
Necro, as played by Brian Hacker at the Duelist Invitational February 99
3x Skittering Skirge
Other Spells (35)
4x Dark Ritual
4x Yawgmoth’s Will
4x Urza’s Bauble
4x Drain Life
4x Nevinyrral’s Disk
4x Diabolic Edict
4x Rain of Tears
4x Bottle Gnome
The deck was a monster. Everyone had to be ready for it or ready to lose. Sligh was seen by many as the Uber Answer, but lost frequently. Speed Green did well in many game ones, but after Necro sideboarded for a total of twelve creature kill spells – combined with their constant reuse by Yawgmoth’s Will – it found it hard to keep the pressure up.
Other decks around at the time included Hatred, Recurring Survival and CounterPhoenix. All could win, but frequently lost to the card advantage monster that the Necro deck had become.
So far, all the decks have been Type II (or what its equivalent was at the time), but Necro is also a force to be reckoned with in the Extended format. Not only are there many versions of the decks above, Necro is seen as the card-drawing engine of choice.
We have to back up a little, but it all started with Adrian Sullivan Pro Tour Rome ’98 deck:”Dread Panda Roberts.” The deck started as a traditional Pandemonium/Phyrexian Dreadnought deck. The idea behind it was to play Pandemonium, and then cast two Phyrexian Dreadnoughts to deal twenty damage to your unfortunate opponent. Adrian realised that Necro would let him dig down to find the keys in his combo a lot faster, and adapted the deck to include it. A wacky idea, perhaps, but Adrian came in 51st, with his deck coming in higher than many named players, and it must have caught the eye of a few people – but the idea stayed dormant for almost a year.
At Pro Tour Chicago ’99, a group of UK players (Tony Dobson, Brian Benedict, Ben Jacobson, Warren Marsh, John Ormerod and Ellis Romero) all took a brand new deck along, called ‘Cocoa Pebbles,’ and Tony made top eight with it. It was based around the well-known ‘Fruity Pebbles’ deck that included a zero casting-cost creature, Goblin Bombardment, and Enduring Renewal. The decklist was as follows:
Cocoa Pebbles, as played by Tony Dobson at Pro Tour Chicago ’99.
2x Phyrexian Walker
4x Shield Sphere
4x Academy Rector
Other Spells (28):
1x Mana Vault
3x Mox Diamond
4x Dark Ritual
4x Demonic Consultation
4x Goblin Bombardment
1x Aura of Silence
3x Enduring Renewal
4x City of Brass
4x Gemstone Mine
3x Peat Bog
3x Phyrexian Tower
4x Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author]
The deck is designed to put out a Necropotence, enabling the player to dig through their library to get the rest of the combo. On occasion it needs three black or two white mana, but the deck worked and took Tony Dobson to seventh place in a field of over 300 players.
These haven’t been the only Extended Necro decks either. Trix (or NecroDonate) famously became dominant, again using the Necro to dig deep into the deck to find all the pieces of a powerful combo. Trix was only two colours, though (black and blue), and so in many eyes is a much more powerful and consistent deck than Cocoa Pebbles.
So where is Necropotence today? Necropotence was rotated out of Type II when Classic Sixth Edition replaced Fifth Edition as the base block of cards. It is still played in Extended, despite numerous bannings and new cards in the environment, and until it rotates out of Extended, it’ll probably still be played.
Wizards have realised just how powerful it is and tried to balance it by printing a newer version, Yawgmoth’s Bargain, at twice the cost. Initially it was decried as”another bad replacement” that would”never see serious tournament play,” but it went on to spawn a whole new batch of combo decks in Type II, up until the Urza’s block rotated out in November 2000. I expect they’ll print something similar again one day, and the same thing will happen all over again.
Is there a substitute out there right now? Is there a card that lets us do what Necro did? Have a look yourself. A quick scan of my own reveals very few. Take Greed, for example:
B, Pay 2 life: Draw a card.
Is it as good as Necro? No. Does anyone play it? No. I’ll let my friend Liz Keogh answer:”Oh, we never played that. I can’t remember why… oh yes I do. We played Necro instead.”
Necro was played instead – but it’s gone. Can we play Greed? Well, I’d say not. (Me too – The Ferrett) It’s more expensive, yes, but that didn’t stop Yawgmoth’s Bargain. The real problem is that it’s TWO life per card, and you have to pay mana as well. You can’t keep digging down as much as you like early on because you don’t have the black mana. Later on in the game, you just don’t have the life. I’ve built a number of Necro-style decks with Greed in just to make sure, and it’s the worst card in all of them.
Type II is a Necro-free zone at the moment. There isn’t anything like it, and if the past is anything to go by, there won’t be anything quite so good again. Some people miss it; some people are glad it’s gone. I only got my fourth Necropotence just after it rotated out of Type II. I don’t play many PTQs at the moment (although I am planning to make more of an effort during this next year) so they’ll probably stay in their box, but at least I have them and who knows? I might get to play them someday…