Analyzing Liliana, Dreadhorde General

One War of the Spark panel later, and The Innovator’s mind is spinning! How would he make the most out of Liliana, Dreadhorde General?

War of the Spark drops in one month and looks to be one of the most ambitious sets of all time. The basic premise is one so preposterous, it was once used as an example of what you’d never build a set around. It would just be too hard to build a set entirely around planeswalkers, too complex, and too many of the cards and themes wouldn’t be appropriate for common or uncommon.

War of the Spark isn’t just a planeswalker-centric set. Literally, every single pack will contain one of the 36 ‘walkers in the set (and I believe there are no ‘walkers that transform in the set), which is really going to make for different Limited experience from what we’ve ever seen before.

With 36 new planeswalkers, we knew they were going to have to do something a little different with them to avoid things being too repetitive. Sure enough, we are finally seeing planeswalkers with static abilities. This sounds great to me, getting some of the enchantment feel, but with a permanent that can be interacted with more reasonably in Limited.

Vraska, Swarm’s Eminence is a perfect example of the type of walker they felt could work at uncommon (at least in this set). Her static ability provides some direction in Draft, with lots of little synergies and plenty of gameplay, while also synergizing with her -2 ability.

Whenever a creature you control with deathtouch deals damage to a player or planeswalker, put a +1/+1 counter on that creature.

I’m a big fan of this approach to design. Her ability influences the values of other cards, but most of the package is self-contained. It can be very impactful on the game, but to really get your money’s worth takes tactical decisions, making it work on the battlefield you find yourself on. There’s also a ton of counterplay on the opposing side, as how they block, when they attack, and what they remove all matter a lot.

This ability is especially interesting given that the tokens she makes are not just 1/1 deathtouch creatures, but actually have deathtouch to planeswalkers as well.

-2: Create a 1/1 black Assassin creature token with deathtouch and “Whenever this creature deals damage to a planeswalker, destroy that planeswalker.”

While I don’t think this Vraska is likely to make a dent in Constructed, Wizards of the Coast wasted no time previewing a bunch of ‘walkers, including this bad girl right here:

Liliana, Dreadhorde General is a new kind of four-ability planeswalker, with one ability always on to go along with the traditional mix of a plus, a minus, and an ultimate.

It’s not clear to me the best way to go about evaluating these new ‘walkers with so many abilities and multiples having an impact at once. My first thought is to look at the three traditional abilities and imagine each one also has a second line of text, which is the static ability.

Whenever a creature you control dies, draw a card.
-4: Each player sacrifices two creatures.

As is generally the case, I think the best place to start here is with the middle ability, or really, whatever ability you can use immediately that has the biggest impact on the game the turn you cast the ‘walker. This way, you can evaluate it through the lens of a sorcery that happens to also leave you with a low-loyalty ‘walker, as well as having other options.

So, for starters, Liliana lets you spend six mana to Barter in Blood, but for each creature you sacrifice, you draw a card.

While Barter in Blood is a great design, probably made by someone very handsome, it was generally at its best when used to “beat the system” by not having any creatures to sacrifice. Liliana can be used this way, as a Barter in Blood that also leaves you with a token-making planeswalker; however, Liliana actually pays you handsomely for walking face-first into the sacrifice ability. There is no shortage of creatures with death triggers worth considering, and besides, she’s even got you covered there with her +1 if you need.

+1: Create a 2/2 black Zombie creature token.

This ability is basically the same as Vraska, Relic Seeker, albeit with less loyalty gain. A fine ability, but certainly, we’re here for the -4 ability. It’s kind of interesting that you can drop Liliana, kill your opponent’s only two creatures, and then over the next two turns tick her up so you’ve got two extra bodies to sacrifice if you want to use the -4 again the turn after that.

-9: Each opponent chooses a permanent they control of each permanent type and sacrifices the rest.

While Liliana’s -4 may be the defining feature, her -9 is a solid option, particularly when facing creature-lite decks. Dropping her and plussing immediately gives you a seven-loyalty ‘walker with a blocker, and then another blocker each turn for the next two turns before you can threaten to use this ultimate, which will generally be fairly game-winning (assuming you can manage that one remaining threat).

Notably, proliferate is back, which is really a wildcard for evaluating planeswalker ultimates. Afterall, if you drop Flux Channeler the turn after you Liliana, you may be able to ultimate her right there.

Liliana’s power level is high, but costing six is quite the challenge. My first thought was to explore the possibility of pairing her with Skirk Prospector.

The Prospector would be very effective for getting her down early, and the ability to sacrifice your Goblins to net a mana and draw a card at will seems pretty exciting.

There are at least two major problems with this approach, I think. First, can we really get away with this little interaction? I worry that we’ll get snowballed right out the gate by an opposing unblockable creature with Curious Obsession or something like that.

Second, are we even getting enough out of Liliana in this list? It’s hard to play many anyway, both for costing so much and for how much of a strain it is on the mana. I mean, it’s not like we want to play four Rakdos Guildgates in a deck with eight one-drops. Besides, once we’re drawing cards with her, how many of them are just going to be more 1/1s and 2/2s, rather than higher-impact cards?

Of course, how much are we even getting out of the Goblin tribe besides Skirk Prospector? Volley Veteran is nice, but what else? Siege-Gang Commander is great anyway. What if we just move out of Goblin tribal?

This approach looks a lot more promising. Treasure Map goes a long way towards helping ensure we can actually cast Liliana, and the cards this build draws from her look a lot more exciting for that kind of a game state. Additionally, Dreadhorde Invasion looks more exciting than any of the Goblin stuff we’re giving up.

Dreadhorde Invasion is kind of a Bitterblossom in some respects, but it is a meaningfully different experience when you are stacking counters on one creature rather than amassing an army going wide.

Generally, I think stacking the counters is less desirable than making new creatures (unless you can get up to a 6/6, in which case the lifelink is a big game). To this end, we’re going to have extra incentive to sacrifice our creatures for profit, pulling us towards Judith, the Scourge Diva.

Judith, the Scourge Diva is an excellent threat that screams to be paired with Liliana. The challenge I have faced so far is that traditional homes for Judith have not exactly been well-suited to playing six-drops. The closest I’ve come to so far is in Jund, where you can play her alongside Llanowar Elves and Incubation Druid. However, when I went down this path, I ended up with no red cards besides Judith. At that point, is the red definitely worth it? It’s not like it’s trivial on the manabase when we could just play a Golgari list, maybe along the lines of:

Assuming Dreadhorde Invasion is actually as exciting as it looks (it might be a little slow in the format), I could also imagine needing to prioritize lifegain, to help offset the damage it deals you. One obvious engine that could really work well here is the addition of Merfolk Branchwalker and Wildgrowth Walker.

However you slice it, Priest of Forgotten Gods looks absolutely excellent at capitalizing on Dreadhorde Invasion while also offsetting the life loss. The Priest is also an absolutely fantastic way to power out Liliana early. Maybe the key to getting Judith to work is to just really emphasize the Priest of Forgotten Gods package?

The best way to use Liliana, Dreadhorde General could easily be one of these decks with lots of small creatures that die easily and often; however, we’d do well to also explore using her in slightly more midrange-esque decks, leaning on her as a Barter in Blood that leaves behind a token-maker. The natural place to start here is with Orzhov.

While this strategy has no shortage of ways to spend a bunch of mana to do big stuff, Liliana actually seems like an excellent addition. She’s a great source of card draw for a strategy that is frequently left wanting, and besides, she is just so perfect at punishing people that try to play around Kaya’s Wrath.

It’s funny, but I could imagine the lifegain from Kaya’s Wrath really helping mitigate the damage from Dreadhorde Invasion. A little bit goes a long way.

Another really interesting source of lifegain we might consider is Interplanar Beacon. We probably don’t have enough planeswalkers to justify it above, but if we wanted to splash Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, it sure would be easy.

For instance, if we cut out all most of the other high-end cards above, we could easily make room for Teferi and a few more ‘walkers, moving towards some kind of a tap-out control Superfriends deck along the lines of this:

While we’d probably be hesitant to sideboard permission like Negate with this manabase, we could always add a couple extra shocklands if we just really had our hearts set on it. Treasure Map does help, and it wouldn’t be out of the question to make room for an Evolving Wilds package, maybe like so:

4 Interplanar Beacon

4 Evolving Wilds

2 Glacial Fortress

1 Drowned Catacomb

4 Godless Shrine

4 Isolated Chapel

3 Swamp

3 Plains

1 Island

In fact, if we wanted to, we could actually splash even more colors’ worth of ‘walkers, depending on what gets printed in this set. Interplanar Beacon is particularly good at splashing multicolored ‘walkers, so Vraska, Relic Seeker and Angrath, the Flame-Chained could be easy adds.

One thing to keep in mind, however: Interplanar Beacon must make two different colors of mana. This means it’s still just a single colored mana towards monocolored walkers, like Jace, Wielder of Mysteries.

With a full month to go before War of the Spark drops, we’ve already seen an impressive opening salvo of previews, leaving one wondering what all could they possibly have planned for the next few weeks. Given how intense of a Top Level Podcast preview Michael Flores and I are dropping this week, I’ve got a feeling we’re only barely getting started…