Sometimes, a deck has been among the most played decks for so long that you feel like everything must have been tried, and all the cards have to be more or
less perfect–at the very least, if you’re going to add a new card to the deck, it has to be a reaction to something very specific, a card that’s sometimes
been played before, or a card that’s newly printed. In this case, I believe there’s a reasonable chance that people just missed Liliana of the Dark Realms
in Mono Black Devotion because they’d already coded it as a “bad card” and never really reconsidered.
Don’t get me wrong, Liliana of the Dark Realms basically is a bad card. Too often, you want to use the second ability the turn you play it, and then all
you have is a four mana sorcery speed removal spell, which is definitely not what your deck needed, but Liliana of the Dark Realms actually does quite a
bit more than that.
It’s easy to discount because Liliana’s best and most obvious use is getting to large amounts of mana–If you’re using it more than once, then the most
used ability finds more lands, and the ultimate does nothing except generate a ton of mana–clearly, it’s reasonable to code this as a card you only want
when you can use a ton of mana.
That’s not the only thing it can do though. Liliana of the Dark Realms doesn’t actually generate mana–it generates cards in hand. While Mono-Black
Devotion might not care about getting the seventh land in play most of the time, it does care about getting an extra card every turn to discard to Pack
Obviously, Mono-Black Devotion already has a card that does that, Underworld Connections, and sometimes people even cut one of those, but Liliana of the
Dark Realms offers some other pretty solid benefits, starting with the fact that it doesn’t cost you a land and a life per turn. Beyond that, as you know,
the first ability doesn’t have to find basic Swamps, so it can contribute to whatever splash you’re playing–if you play multiple Lilianas and you’re only
splashing late game cards, you can reasonable take it into account as part of your colored manabase. This would be most useful for spots where you’re
trying to splash Blood Baron of Vizkopa and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. Liliana of the Dark Realms is particularly good at splashing Elspeth, Sun’s Champion,
since it can find both copies of Godless Shrines you’d need for the white mana. Another splash that it’s ideally suited to is Rakdos’s Return, where even
the ultimate can help.
Beyond this, the real reason I think Liliana of the Dark Realms warrants further investigation is for the +X/+X ability. Mono-Black Devotion has some
evasive creatures and often leaves the opponent with an empty board. It’s not uncommon that you’ll know you’re going to hit your opponent with a creature,
and that Liliana of the Dark Realms would make it lethal. In this spot, it doesn’t matter that Liliana dies when you use it, as you can basically use this
Lava Axe mode as a finisher. Gerry Thompson has been trying to get Corrupt into Mono-Black Devotion, and I think Liliana of the Dark Realms offers a
similar angle while generally playing toward the deck’s attrition plan better as a way to generate additional resources when you aren’t looking for a Lava
So we know Liliana of the Dark Realms isn’t the best card and that the deck works well without it, but that it might offer enough to deserve a chance. The
next question is, if it’s on the edge, when would you want it, and when wouldn’t you?
First of all, it’s likely best when you’re playing Nightveil Specter instead of Lifebane Zombie because Nightveil Specter is a better blocker, so you’re
more likely to be in a spot where you can count on untapping with it. Second, as mentioned before, it’s best when you’re splashing cards that you don’t
need to cast in the early game, but it also benefits from either not playing any temples or playing multiple copies of Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth.
Regarding opponents, it’s going to be best where a generic planeswalker is best–it will be fairly weak against aggro, especially decks that are trying to
swarm you, and best against control decks that aren’t going to be able to attack it most of the time. Against something like Burn, it would likely be best
used as a finisher, since that’s likely to come down to you trying to kill them before they can draw the last burn spell to finish you off.
This means it works relatively well in decks that have access to four Bile Blights and/or some number of Drown in Sorrows, as that will cover some of
Liliana of the Dark Realm’s natural weaknesses. My first take on a deck where Liliana of the Dark Realms is most likely to perform:
This is the most basic implementation of Mono-Black splash Red Devotion with a few tuning choices made to support planeswalkers. Additional Bile Blights
takes the place of other two mana removal spells and I have some Drown in Sorrows in the sideboard. Theoretically, this makes me weaker against single big
threats that are too big to Bile Blight, but remember that Liliana of the Dark Realms can sometimes serve as another answer to those things.
Overall, it’s not a radical change, but I think Liliana of the Dark Realms might be a welcome addition to Mono-Black Devotion’s arsenal.
I’d also like to discuss Mark Rosewater’s announcement in his article ” Metamorphosis.” From what I’ve seen, this has not been a controversial
announcement. Almost everyone loves the change, and the most common question I see is, “What took so long?” It seems fairly clear to me that the answer to
that is Lorwyn/Morningtide, Shadowmoor/Eventide.
Lorwyn and the rest of the year corresponded with a relative low point in Magic sales. There are a lot of potential reasons for this–Lorwyn’s theme didn’t
resonate with a large number of Magic players–I’ve heard theories that the whimsical “faerie tale” theme was possibly too feminizing for Magic’s teenage
male audience, but I think a bigger problem is that it used new and previously unsupported creature types, which meant that it didn’t play well with
player’s existing collections. This is the same problem that Kamigawa Block had, that all the cards only wanted to be played with each other, so for
players who buy maybe three to a dozen packs of each set, those packs will be filled with cards that really aren’t for them. This issue becomes very
obvious if you ever do a draft with packs from a variety of sets–while decks in Lorwyn Limited were extremely strong, packs for Lorwyn in a mixed set
draft format tend to be terrible. It’s also apparent when you’re putting a cube together, and you might like to include some of the sweeter cards in
Lorwyn, like Mistbind Clique, but they just don’t work.
Additionally, the use of the tribal type was confusing and didn’t fit well with the rest of Magic. It’s really weird to see random cards like Tarfire that
have very little to do with Goblins have the type Goblin, while cards from other sets that feel more tribal, like Goblin Grenade, don’t. It just makes the
set not fit very well into Magic as a larger game.
Wizards uses weird experimental changes in different blocks to test ideas and see what’s popular. When people love certain mechanics, those mechanics are
likely to come back. Lorwyn tested a divergence from the regular block model, and Lorwyn block didn’t go over well. There were other reasons for it, so
that doesn’t mean that the block model for Lorwyn was disliked, but it’s a data point against.
It’s actually impressive to me that Wizards is not only trying again, but committing to it as a new direction for Magic consistently despite the fact that
it’s only “trial run” was a solid failure. Given their reasoning and historical sales data, the shift looks great and obviously right, but Lorwyn
definitely obscured that. What I mean about historical sales data is that the first set of each block is always very popular, and sales trail off each set
after that. Mark Rosewater’s realization that they need to end the game before players get tired of it is spot on here–players are almost always ready to
move on to something else by the time a third set is coming out. This change allows them to create a mechanic in the first set, and pull out all the stops
in twisting a mechanic in the second set, rather than feeling compelled to save space for later. This will make the small set better, and then replace the
undesirable third set with another awesome first set. So that’s all great.
Still, I have some concerns. First of all, Core Sets recently have been awesome. I believe M10 was well-received and well-loved. Core sets offer an
opportunity to make generic base line fantasy themed cards that are solid flavor hits that, due to their lack of narrow mechanics, play well with anything.
Sleep is still the design that stands out to me as the most impressive and perfect implementation of the new core set model–this card turns a classic
D&D spell into a Magic card in a perfectly flavorful transition in a way that really hadn’t happened since Alpha. I was excited about Magic creating
opportunities to try to do more of that, and I’m sad to see the end of that.
On the other hand, I’m guessing there just isn’t that much space to be able to make extremely simple, flavorful, iconic spells, and I’m guessing, based on
the decision to go this direction, that core set sales have been trailing off as additional products fail to find ways to stand out and identify
themselves. It’s definitely the case that I have to think pretty hard to remember what I liked about M10 as compared to M11 or M12 Limited formats, since
the sets all kind of blend together as they have several shared cards and a lack of unique themes to distinguish themselves. Magic doesn’t want to lock
itself into making one product per year that’s just a less successful/exciting version of previous year, and I can imagine that it would be hard to avoid
that while being locked into making a Core Set each year.
I believe Mark’s announcement showed us only half of the puzzle though. He says, “This would mean we’d have to solve the problem of what to do with new
players, but there had already been talk of creating a product line solely for them anyway,” but he doesn’t go into what that new product line might look
like. Intro packs or the like would be obvious, but that’s hardly a new product line. I’m hoping whatever they have in mind there is awesome, but I don’t
know that this is a problem Wizards has ever been able to solve well, and I’m not sure that a great solution exists.
I’m also frustrated that this wasn’t announced with the announcement about the change to PT formats. I’ve gotten some replies on Twitter that there was no
reason for me to expect these announcements to be linked because they won’t start impacting things at the same time, but that doesn’t really matter.
Clearly, they knew about this change when they decided to change the PT formats, and clearly that change was informed by this one, so players weren’t set
up to receive it well because we didn’t have the information they had that made them decide to make the change in the first place.
This resulted in much more negative responses than I believe would have been generated if we were given all the relevant information at once. Arguably,
that all doesn’t matter much now, but I think that generating negative feelings with their announcements is something Wizards should work harder to avoid,
and I think there’s some chance that it would have made enough more sense to temper the outrage about removing Modern as a PT format (obviously, many
players would feel the same way and would still want to see Modern at PTs, but opinions might have been more split if people understood how quickly
Standard would be changing). This is frustrating to me because I’d actually prefer all Standard PTs, and I wonder if we could have had that if everything
had been announced properly.
Anyway, I, like most of you, expect the new changes to be great, and I’m impressed with Wizards for seeing past previous failings introduce this excellent
change anyway, and I’m really excited to play Magic once this is all happening.