Dear Azami – Vicious Carnage With Vish Kal

Sean McKeown helps a reader out by giving him some advice on what to do about that tricky Commander, Vish Kal from the new Commander decks. Check out this W/B beast!

Hi Sean,

I’ve been playing EDH since Alara block. My first deck was with Rafiq of the Many, which had evolved from a Highlander-ish attempt to recapture the nostalgia of playing giant decks made from whatever cool stuff I opened from back when I first started playing about 10 years ago. Since then, I’ve gone through over a dozen different decks, and my current roster clocks in at 6, including the one I’m emailing you about now: Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter.

I’ve been trying to build a good Vish Kal deck since the Commander decks released, but it’s been difficult to get right. Most of my decks are more competitive, so for this deck I wanted a theme that’s a bit more casual, while still being able to stand up to a table full of strong decks. My meta doesn’t involve much combo, since we find that games that don’t end in infinite loops to be more satisfying and fun. However, there are many powerful decks, and I want to have some hope of staying in the game when I play this.

I decided that life drain would be a fitting theme for a deck built around a lifelinking vampire, and I’ve come up with a reasonable build. However, it’s still a bit too clunky to hold its own at the table, and I’m hoping you can help me make it work. As it stands, the deck can certainly run rampant if given time to build up enough mana, but it’s slow and that rarely happens. The deck looks good on paper, but in practice it just can’t quite do enough to keep up. Here’s the list:

Commander (1)
Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter

Creatures (22)
Mother of Runes
Serra Ascendant (This shows up all too often in my group, but lifelink creatures are on theme in my deck and this is easily one of the best.)
Bloodghast (Repeatable sacrifices for Vish Kal, also broken with Skullclamp.)
Pilgrim’s Eye
Preacher (Repeatable theft is fun with Vish Kal.)
Vampire Nighthawk
Academy Rector
Graveborn Muse
Solemn Simulacrum
Archon of Justice
Divinity of Pride (Even better than Baneslayer Angel, although this deck could use one of those too.)
Glory (Easy to get into my ‘yard with Vish Kal, and gives my lifelinkers evasion so they can drain my opponents and not get chumped.)
Puppeteer Clique (A bit more repeatable theft.)
Duplicant (For those few things that Vish Kal can’t easily answer, like Blightsteel Colossus and Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre.)
Grave Titan (Generates fodder for Vish Kal like a pro.)
Massacre Wurm (Semi-wrath that ties into the life loss/life drain theme.)
Sun Titan
Wurmcoil Engine
Butcher of Malakir (Abuses Vish Kal’s sacrificing.)
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite (Less on-theme than Massacre Wurm as a wrath, but the pump makes my things bigger for sacrificing to Vish Kal and increasing the lifelinking drainage, and also it’s a really sweet foil.)
Sheoldred, Whispering One

Planeswalkers (2)
Elspeth Tirel
Liliana Vess

Enchantments (11)
Bloodchief Ascension
Phyrexian Reclamation
Phyrexian Arena
Leyline of the Void (Many of the best decks in my meta heavily abuse the graveyard, so this is just a general purpose hoser.)
Polluted Bonds
Martyr’s Bond (More abuse for Vish Kal’s sacrificing, also diverts people from killing my things.)
True Conviction (The lifelink is largely irrelevant, but I think double strike is still worth the 6 mana.)
Wound Reflection
Baneful Omen (Really needs a Top, but that’s practically impossible to find for trade around here.)
Debtors’ Knell

Artifacts (11)
Expedition Map
Sol Ring
Lightning Greaves
Nim Deathmantle (Mana-intensive, but awesome with Vish Kal.)
Orzhov Signet
Coalition Relic
Darksteel Ingot
Mimic Vat
Well of Lost Dreams (Very easy to get value from in this deck.)
Gilded Lotus

Instants (7)
Swords to Plowshares
Oblation (My favorite removal spell besides Chaos Warp. It’s just so versatile.)
Return to Dust
Treacherous Urge (Ripping a Primeval Titan out of someone’s hand, attacking with it, then sacrificing it to pump Vish Kal before damage is so much fun.)
Suffer the Past (Surprise grave hate Fireball never fails to catch someone off-guard.)

Sorceries (10)
Demonic Tutor
Shahrazad (One of my favorite cards in the game, since how can more magic ever be a bad thing? The life loss actually makes this on-theme, so I don’t feel bad about running it.)
Yawgmoth’s Will (I can’t really take full advantage of this, but there’s very little spell-recursion in B/W, so this just gives me a way to rebuy whatever spell I happen to need.)
Ambition’s Cost
Ancient Craving
Promise of Power
Austere Command
Blood Tribute (Draining someone for 20 seems good for 6 mana. Even just doing it for 10 makes this a better Sorin’s Vengeance.)
Decree of Pain

Lands (37)
Bojuka Bog
Boseiju, Who Shelters All (I can easily afford the life loss, so the ability to make spells uncounterable is great to have when I’m trying to fire off a huge Exsanguinate or Suffer the Past)
Cabal Coffers (Really needs Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth to be good, but someone else usually has it out if I don’t.)
Caves of Koilos
Command Tower
Emeria, the Sky Ruin (I’ve never gotten this online, but I’d imagine that if the game goes long enough this could be really good)
Evolving Wilds
Fetid Heath
High Market
Leechridden Swamp
Miren, the Moaning Well
Reflecting Pool
Reliquary Tower
Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
Terramorphic Expanse
Thawing Glaciers
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Volrath’s Stronghold
9 Plains
9 Swamp

I had figured that Vish Kal could keep the board in check, so I went easy on the wrath effects, but as it turns out I rarely have enough fuel for his ability to answer anything more than just the absolute scariest threats. I also have some trouble dealing with non-creatures, since my artifact/enchantment removal is rather light. I would like to maybe get a Vindicate for the deck, but those are expensive and I don’t want to steal the one I have from the deck it’s in.

Overall, I’m very excited about the concept, but I’m kind of unsure as to how to max out its potential. I don’t want to spend too much money on any one card, but if something pricey makes a dramatic difference, I’d probably be willing to make an exception. Can you help me?

Thanks in advance,

Oh, Vish Kal, how I have longed to play with you. If any Commander from this summer’s five decks made me long to play with them, it was Animar, but if there was a second Commander I pined after it would be Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter. Repeating sacrifice for fun and profit—I’m interested! Not only is Vish Kal a massive life gain machine, he’s also able to swing for 21 Commander damage on the first attack, but he does it all with a little help from his friends. The better you build his friends, the harder he hits… it’s love at first attack.

I worry, however, that your deck is underutilizing creatures, and overvaluing life-gain spells and enchantments. I follow that you are ‘taxing’ everyone—a little life for you, a little pain for them, sometimes a lot of life for you—but it’s more likely you will be trying to win through the attack phase than with a bonus trigger on an enchantment. Vish Kal works better with more bodies, so I say the first step will be to cut some of the non-creature cards and find some more creatures to add, and upon further reflection it seems to me as well that your deck is a little mana-heavy and might benefit from cutting some of the more expensive mana artifacts. Gilded Lotus is great when it powers you through a game, but less great when you need to rely on it for mana and then somebody plays Oblivion Stone, and there is also a problem when later in the game you draw Gilded Lotus instead of an action card.

What I like about Vish Kal is that you have the ability to build around “sacrifice for profit” as a theme, but in a way that directly impacts your killing people, unlike our last example with Savra. Savra, Queen of the Golgari suppresses the board and that board suppression leads to wins; Vish Kal murders people, and that leads to wins faster and in a far more direct fashion. Creatures that work with this sacrifice theme will make the recursion that fuels it more powerful, and I see an opportunity for us to work with that up and down the mana curve while we bulk out your creature base and give the deck a little more board control and some scrimmage power. I love me a Black control deck, after all, so I knew going into this that Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter would be near and dear to my heart. Some of the cards you are only allowed to play in a deck of exactly those two colors are among my favorite to play in Commander: Necrotic Sliver recursion is awesome, and Debtor’s Knell is my favorite thing to have in play in any Commander game ever.

I’m going to answer one question up front though: Necropotence. Give me a sixty-card deck and I am absolutely the Necropotence kind of guy. Give me ninety-nine and you will never see me play it, because it makes the entire game about it. Yes, this is a life gain commander, in heavy black no less, easily able to afford the triple colored cost and the ‘downside’ of trading life for a rush of cards. But with 99 in my hand, I’m much more of a Phyrexian Arena kind of guy, because I have noticed two things: the games in which somebody plays Necropotence are no fun, and the games in which you are immediately playing Archenemy instead are basically the only proper response to playing the card.

So since we’re playing Commander, not Archenemy, you will see the card is quietly banned: I won’t cut it from a deck if someone sends it in, but I won’t add it anytime soon either, with the possible exception that maybe I should have added it to Andy’s Savra deck because that was all below-the-belt punches. And even there, I stood my ground and didn’t add it, so I expect that will just be the line in the sand for me on that card. If you love Necropotence, by all means feel free to add it; by having not done so already, I am going to assume Alex finds Necropotence to be no fun, and if that statement is not true, Alex, by all means go ahead. Cut any card selected at random and add Necropotence and you will find the deck is more powerful because of it.

Looking at your mana base, I will note first of all the lack of a Godless Shrine, and will consider that a price consideration first and foremost. Gone are the days when shocklands rotated out of Extended and could be found for a few bucks, even the blue ones… that price has quickly corrected itself, and if you don’t have one I will presume that a conscious decision. The most expensive land I would suggest is a Marsh Flats, because even if it has a non-small price it is at least relatively recently in-print, so you shouldn’t have a problem trading for one if you want to try to.


Kor Haven — A solid utility land, and a good way to gain a little extra leverage at the table by being able to absorb the occasional blow or two.

Winding Canyons — I’ve said a lot about this card already, and I think it’s quite good to add to your deck, with its blend of combat potency and controlling cards.

Homeward Path — Excellent at fending off creature theft, all the more important for non-blue decks that can’t fight fire with fire.

Esper Panorama, Orzhov Basilica, Marsh Flats — Additional color fixing.

Kjeldoran Outpost — My nomination for your replacement of Emeria, the Sky Ruin. Emeria is so difficult to trigger it’s unlikely to ever happen for you, while the Outpost can generate a small but significant flow of creatures for attacking, blocking, and sacrificing purposes.


High Market — You’re looking to sacrifice for profit, but not in the same way that Savra might be. The sacrifice outlet is built in; the benefit on this card is far too low to take up a precious colorless land slot.

Emeria, the Sky Ruin — Nearly impossible for you to complete in the first place, to the point where it sounds like you’ve never triggered it once.

3x Swamp, 2x Plains

For your creatures, I mostly just want to make new additions, and only see one cut. Moving onto the spells, we look at the other portion of your manabase first, the artifact mana. I worry here that you simply have too much artifact mana ready to count against you for the first time a board wipe comes around, and that just land-based mana would be more reliable. Orzhov Signet, Coalition Relic and Gilded Lotus all suggest themselves to me as things too fragile to really be wanting when you have other options, but I don’t think you really need them to begin with… with 37 lands and a bunch of artifact mana, it looks very easy to just have games where you flood out, or worse yet be relying on that artifact mana only to have it evaporate.

There is also the strong ability to bulk up your recursion elements, and take advantage of the creatures you draw by working them harder for each piece of cardboard. Card drawing is a wonderful thing to have, but doesn’t really match what you can do if instead you play the same awesome creature card over and over again, and I want to work with that a little bit more and shuffle your creatures around to take advantage of it more fully. You have a lot of enchantments and spells that gain you life or do damage to the opponent and gain you life, but I think your most enduring victory conditions are going to be your creature spells, and building to the point where they will reliably stay strong through multiple mass removal spells is the building blocks for victory. That said, you also noted that there is a lot of graveyard-based decks in your area, so I want to strengthen that element of your deck while I go about building these other elements in.


Mother of Runes – I follow that she is very efficient, but other than the games where you play her on the first turn I tend to subscribe to another card entirely and will suggest it instead.

Gilded Lotus, Coalition Relic — Acceleration, but at a risk of their loss, and after only significant investment. I like Coalition Relic a lot, but I like Darksteel Ingot much more for your deck, and worry you have too much artifact acceleration and ramping.

Orzhov Signet — To be swapped sideways for a more durable fixer.

Lightning Greaves — Not the right piece of equipment for your deck; losing haste is perfectly acceptable, and you have a better option for gaining shroud so long as you are willing to pay mana for it.

Elspeth Tirel — The wrong Elspeth for this deck.

Bloodchief Ascension — A giant bullseye that you aren’t even really able to capitalize on. I see the ‘life taxing’ enchantments and do not consider them reliable as victory conditions, and so want to build back on them considerably.

Polluted Bonds, Wound Reflection, True Conviction, Baneful Omen, Blood Tribute, Exsanguinate — More lifegain / life-loss / table manipulation, of them Exsanguinate is the most powerful and I still don’t want to keep it around, when your concerns cause me to believe that Suffer the Past is much more in keeping with why you have these cards in your deck.

Unmake — Your third-best instant-speed removal spell, I don’t think you really need it, trading one-for-one is not as good for you as trading one-for-many.

Shahrazad — Is this actually enhancing your gameplay? It doesn’t sound like it to me, it just sounds like an inconstant life-loss card that can just frustrate people who would rather finish this game and play another game of Commander than to play another game of Commander in order to have permission to finish this one. I don’t see it as ‘fun’ the same way some people do, and think it is just disruptive to what you are trying to accomplish.

First we have the artifacts and other noncreature spells to add to the deck:

Tombstone Stairwell — Welcome to the wonderful world of asymmetrical warfare. What benefit do you gain most for being well-prepared to attack the opponent’s graveyard? A powerful advantage in the creature department when Tombstone Stairwell starts spitting out creatures. Note that you don’t even have to have an advantage that way to benefit: because of the multiplayer nature of Commander, the Tombstone Stairwell spits out an army of temporary 2/2 creatures a whole bunch of times between your untaps, and each Zombie token can be sacrificed for two +1/+1 counters on your flying, lifelinked Commander. It rewards you for playing more creatures than you are, however, and the one thing I knew for certain about Vish Kal is that this was the deck I wanted to see Tombstone Stairwell thrive.

Elspeth, Knight-Errant — The right Elspeth for the job, making tokens and improving the benefits gained when you make individual sacrifices, thanks to her +3/+3 ability. That she is also all upsides is just, well, upside.

Storm Herd — Another card that makes me giggle with glee in a Vish Kal deck, as it should both be a whole lot of token creatures and can turn Vish Kal into a suddenly lethal swing in one hit. This sounds far more effective to me than mere double strike.

Grim Harvest — So hard for the opponent to stop and so easy to build in additional recursion with this on top of the cards you already have. Quietly one of my favorite cards in the format, because I love grindy, recursive black-based control decks.

Whispersilk Cloak — Now, this is a card I hate to play. But if it’s the right card for your deck, it’s the right card for your deck, and Whispersilk Cloak trades off Haste for shroud plus unblockability. I am more concerned with being subdued by flying token generation than I would be with needing to have haste, yours is a deck that tends to benefit by being patient and thus should be aiming to control the opposing permanents to gain the extra turn rather than hoping a piece of Equipment bails you out of a problem.

Oblivion Stone — Awesome mass removal spell that can be made to miss your side of the board. Excellent for your deck’s intended purposes, and more likely to be good now that you aren’t relying on long-term enchantment use to gain traction forward in a game.

Wayfarer’s Bauble — Such a simple mana-fixer and acceleration spell, but I like Wayfarer’s Bauble better than your color’s Signet for how more resilient a basic land is than a cheap artifact.

Next we have the creatures to add:

Baneslayer Angel — If you’re going with a creature-based theme for life gaining, let us respect the prettiest lady in the room, shall we not? My long-standing love affair of this card comes from sixty-card formats where Demons and Dragons never came up except for the once in a while a Chameleon Colossus attacked and looked a little silly, and here in Commander where Dragons (sometimes even of the Elder variety!) are often heading up the deck she’s just as good as I remember her being. Vish Kal has to like having her on the team, and she’s not even expensive anymore now that she’s been printed twice and overshadowed by the five Titans for her second year in Standard.

Sunblast Angel — Creature control that you’re able to recur with your creature-recursion elements, and which also happens to be a highly preferential Wrath that tends to miss creatures on your side of the battlefield.

Angel of DespairVindicate on a 5/5 flier, and continuing with my apparent Angel theme. One of the high-quality cards you get to play with for picking your color combination, and worth the addition.

Nezumi Graverobber — Now that we’ve finished mentioning your extra fat monsters, it’s time to talk about Commander two-drops. You noted graveyard recursion is something worth taking the time to counteract, and creature recursion is already in your plan of action. This both provides extra pinpoint graveyard hate at a fairly reasonable cost and rewards you for having other graveyard-affecting cards in the first place, since flipping Graverobber in the later stages of the game can be difficult without something like Bojuka Bog accessible. Good at a lot of things you’re trying to do, and a nice low-cost card to add to the deck since it’s a threatening two-drop that can flip on turn three and provide considerable value if left unchecked.

Eight-and-a-Half-Tails — My suggested replacement for Mother of Runes. 8.5 is regularly underrated and all too often forgotten, which is very sad for a creature that is capable of some high-quality shenanigans. Start with many of the same capabilities you’re asking Mother of Runes to provide, but replace “tap” with “some mana” and you can unchain yourself from the limitation of one use per turn cycle. Add to that the ability to affect an opponent’s creatures, and the color-shift ability to let it work on colorless things as well, and suddenly you’re countering Ulamog triggers and shutting off Equipment and countering Maze of Ith effects on your creatures… 8.5 works a lot harder than Mother of Runes, is a little bit bigger as well, and is the card I think you’re looking for in this particular role.

Necrotic Sliver — So long as you’re going to be good at reusing creatures, why not turn this aptitude into an ability to affect the board for tricky permanents? Necrotic Sliver is even better at the role of Vindicate than getting an actual Vindicate would be; Vindicate trades one-for-one once at sorcery speed, while Necrotic Sliver can be used at instant speed and is the most easily recurred card type there is.

Ronom Unicorn, Kami of Ancient Law — When realizing Necrotic Sliver would be good for you, I wanted to pursue that line of thought further, and realized that you were reasonably good with handling creature permanents, and had artifacts handled well within your normal purview in rough comparison with their general level of threat. In Commander, though, it’s enchantments that are hardest to destroy, and so readily capable of running away with a game. These two turn enchantment removal into an easy component of your deck thanks to your existing recursion abilities, for those problematic things that so often gum up the works.

Before moving onto the final decklist, however, I wanted to bring up a second avenue of approach I considered pursuing, and one which you might wish to consider further. In thinking of ways to gain repeating card advantage and continue to take advantage of the recursion cards available to these two colors, I struck upon an interesting idea that I don’t know if you might want to use or not, but I am going to present it for further consideration. It started by trying to think of another way to mesh in well with the Tombstone Stairwell ‘plan,’ and that got me wanting a Nihil Spellbomb to play the role of a Tormod’s Crypt you can actually play since it is at least card-neutral. Noting your Yawgmoth’s Will is a little weak for the typical game-ender that it usually is, I went back in my mental time machine to 1998 or thereabouts when the “to-do” thing was Necropotence with Baubles and Yawgmoth’s Will, so that at least if you didn’t draw Necro you had a good chance of having a comparably powerful card drawing engine running.

Taking the same thought to Commander, I grabbed hold of Auriok Salvagers and held on with both hands, trying to find a suite of cards that would follow through that line of thought and still make sense in your deck. I don’t often see people trying to use Salvagers fairly, so given the chance I was curious to see where it went. All the things that cohesively followed from that line of thought was as follows, and may be worthy of your consideration either as a total package or as individual items:

Auriok Salvagers — The central card to that potential ‘engine,’ focusing on Nihil Spellbomb recursion and similar ideas.

Nihil Spellbomb — Recursion-accessible card advantage and graveyard hate. Fills your needs, fills other roles too, and can turn into a card drawing engine too!

Urza’s Bauble, Mishra’s Bauble — More fodder for the Trinket recursion, as these become 1W: Draw a card (some layaway required). Remember also Wayfarer’s Bauble, which would allow you to mana-ramp at an expensive price that after the first few times would have started to pay for itself.

Executioner’s Capsule — Solid removal on its own right, but not good enough to really want without some benefit to be gained from being an artifact. Salvagers makes that benefit considerable, however.

Hex Parasite — Planeswalker control, plus a catchall for odd things that sometimes come up. Also able to generate a large power on a creature before being sacrificed to Vish Kal, then recurred with Salvagers or your regular creature recursion elements.

Second Sunrise — Another way to potentially profit from sacrifice such as Vish Kal provides, as well as getting a little extra mileage out of Baubles… and yet more benefit from your graveyard hate, as you can bring back your permanents after a board-wipe but strand theirs in exile. Quite possibly good enough for the deck regardless of any other cutesy tricks, but I want to explore that more in my head and think it might need more going with it to really be worthwhile.

Cauldron Haze — Less symmetrical, but possibly also less effective, than Second Sunrise. It’s one of those cards I keep thinking I want and really like but keep finding myself restricted away from it because of color combinations, and I think it might be a good way to get Vish Kal real big real fast at a comparatively low price to your board position otherwise.

Twilight Shepherd — Another ‘Second Sunrise’-like trick, and like Second Sunrise would consider it very strongly for the deck, but worry that it might be too cutesy or give the deck more of a combo element than I really would find enjoyable. The whole game being fun and then suddenly Vish Kal jumps to 30/30 and people die out of nowhere tends to not be the most fun of experiences. A good card that may be worth utilizing regardless just for its good-card status.

That gives us the following finished decklist:

Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter
Sean McKeown
Test deck on 09-18-2011
Magic Card Back

As always, for your participation in this week’s Dear Azami, you will find in your email box a $20 coupon to the Star City Games online store, to potentially help pay for any replacements and substitutions you might want to make. The cards I suggested for addition to the deck have the following prices, for your consideration:

In two weeks, we’ll have been through the Innistrad Prerelease, and I for one am quite excited by a lot of the things this set has to offer for Commander. Thus, the next edition of Dear Azami will be a set review for Commander-relevant cards from the expansion, of which I am already noting quite a few gems and more than a few new Commanders to consider chasing.

Sean McKeown

Want to submit a deck for consideration to Dear Azami? We’re always accepting deck submission to consider for use in a future article, like Andy from CommanderCast’s Savra, Queen of the Golgari deck or Josh’s Elephant-themed Phelddagrif deck. Only one deck submission will be chosen per article, but being selected for the next edition of Dear Azami includes not just deck advice but also a $20 coupon to the StarCityGames.com Store!

Email Sean a deck submission using this link here!

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