Eldritch Moon Set Review: Black

There’s a black cloud hanging over Innistrad in Eldritch Moon, so what better place for Patrick Chapin to start brewing? Get his latest Standard lists for the color of Swamps, Vampires, and Zombies!

This week, I’d like to take a look at the new cards of Eldritch Moon and get into brewing and building with them. As always, the focus will be on ways to think about and use the new cards rather than trying to dismiss everything out the gate. We can be “right” most of the time if we just bet everything fails. However, if we understand how to use all of the new cards, then we have the maximum number of tools to draw upon for whatever strategy we might devise.

Today, I’d like to focus on black, but given that most decks aren’t mono-black, we’ll end up touching cards from all over the spectrum. I’ll be back Wednesday and Friday with part 2 and part 3, so make sure to let me know what cards and strategies you want covered.

Let’s cut straight to the chase:

Liliana, the Last Hope is the latest in a proud line of powerful three-cost planeswalkers. The bar shouldn’t be Liliana of the Veil, as that version is in the running for second-best planeswalker ever and very overpowered. It’s also not Standard-legal.

Liliana is very effective at protecting herself for a three-cost planeswalker. She comes down with three loyalty, immediately goes up to four, and her -2/-1 ability effectively means it’ll take six damage to kill her, at least with creatures. That’s hard to pull off by turn 3, and almost all of the ways to do it involve losing a card to the -2/-1 ability anyway.

Liliana’s +1 is great at defending her, but its main strength is ripping apart one-toughness creatures. In particular, she decimates 2/1s for W and tokens. With G/W Tokens and White Humans two of the most popular decks in the old format, this ability represents a potentially large shift in the metagame, all by itself.

The -2 ability may seem unassuming, but it’s actually a very important part of her gameplan. See, the +1 ability is hit or miss, depending on the matchup, but the -2 ability is typically good against people where the first ability wasn’t at its best. You might value the self-mill, but the primary component is the Raise Dead. It’s a form of drawing an extra card that requires a little setup, but also has some selection involved.

If you drop Liliana against an empty battlefield and “draw” a card with her -2 ability, you’ve effectively converted her into a two-for-one. You got the creature back from your graveyard and you have a planeswalker sitting on the battlefield with one loyalty. In general, a Liliana already on the battlefield with one loyalty is worth more than a random card. You don’t even have to spend mana on her! It’s like she’s a zero-cost planeswalker, fragile but powerful.

Finally, we come to Liliana’s -7 ability. While many planeswalkers have historically not had much of their practical power tied up in their ultimate, there has been a recent shift in design philosophy toward planeswalkers with more loyalty and three relevant abilities. Liliana is no exception.

That she comes down on turn 3 and immediately goes up to four loyalty puts a lot of pressure on people to deal with her. If they don’t, she can ultimate in just four turns, all the while neutralizing a threat each turn even more effectively than Jace, Telepath Unbound.

Her ultimate doesn’t take long to fire off, but it’s also not an instant win. You start building a never-ending torrent of Zombies, but it does take a couple of turns to win with them. If you start with zero other Zombies on the battlefield, your progress looks like this:

● Make two 2/2 Zombies the turn you ultimate her.

● Make four 2/2 Zombies the following turn, assuming none died.

● Make eight 2/2 Zombies the following turn.

● Make sixteen 2/2 Zombies, assuming the 28 power worth of Zombies you’ve already got aren’t enough.

Even if you have to fight with some of your Zombies, you are effectively drawing at least two extra cards a turn (zero-mana 2/2s). Any that live will spiral things out of control. Starting with even a single Zombie already on your team, when you ult, and you’ll have produced eighteen power worth of Zombies by the end of the following turn!

There’s a lot of competition at the three-spot, but Oath of Liliana is a very worthy candidate for any planeswalker-heavy strategy. Making your opponent sacrifice a creature is often playable for two mana. If you make even a single 2/2 Zombie off of the Oath, you’ve already paid off your investment.

Here’s a first attempt at incorporating both Liliana and her Oath:

Liliana protects herself well, but she also does a great job of protecting Gideon. Her +1 ability helps Gideon tokens trade up, not to mention combining with Grasp of Darkness to take down even creatures traditionally too large to Grasp out, such as Mindwrack Demon or Sylvan Advocate with six land.

The use of a couple of copies of Kalitas and a couple of copies of Avacyn might not look strange, but the Hangarback Walkers will probably raise a few eyebrows. I would guess that having the option to get back a creature with Liliana is an important enough part of the card that we’ll have to play at least six to eight creatures in most decks with her. Hangarback Walker isn’t the most exciting card (particularly against Spell Queller), but it is on-message, and we do need some cheap cards.

Alternatively, we could go in a more Eldrazi Displacer + Wasteland Strangler direction, possibly with Thought-Knot Seer; however, we are just so unbelievably overloaded on threes that we’d have to make some tough choices. I do appreciate that Wasteland Strangler’s stat mod is assisted by Liliana’s -2/-1 and that Eldrazi Displacer is the sort of three-drop that can totally take over a game later, outclassing many four- and five-drops.

Normally, I would want to max out on Ruinous Path before playing any copies of Anguished Unmaking. However, there are a ton of flash creatures in Eldritch Moon, including this potential format-defining superstar:

What the hell?!

Elder Deep-Fiend is sort of like a Mistbind Clique, except it’s bigger, works with everything, can’t be fizzled, and can wreck some attackers or blockers, too. The creature doesn’t come back, but when the game goes long, sometimes you don’t even need a creature!

I expect Elder Deep-Fiend to be a popular (and successful) card. It’s too big to Grasp of Darkness, can’t be hit by Ultimate Price, is extremely difficult to burn, and naturally set up well against sorcery-speed removal. Playing a slow deck without a plan against Elder Deep-Fiend is just asking for trouble. Getting Time Walked is bad enough, but if you’re not careful, the Deep-Fiend will eat a planeswalker for free. This is to say nothing of the possibility of an opponent chaining Deep-Fiends, thanks to Sanctum of Ugin.

Murder is an interesting card to add to the mix, since we value instant speed so highly, but we also value killing planeswalkers just as highly. In general, Murder is a slightly weaker card than Ruinous Path, but if you are willing to pay a small premium for instant speed, it’s a fine card.

Geier Reach Sanitarium is a quality card, but W/B decks with pronounced token elements usually make better use of Westvale Abbey. Obviously, Geier Reach Sanitarium has applications in madness and graveyard-based decks, but it can just be used “for value.” For instance:

Two-color allied pair strategies frequently have a shortage of good ways to put their lands to use. Geier Reach Sanitarium is a natural fit in a removal-heavy midrange/control strategy, as you can pitch your extra lands later to find more removal, or pitch extra removal looking for more threats (against creature-light decks).

Incendiary Flow is helps mark a shift back towards burn spells that can hit creatures and go to the face (unlike Fiery Impulse, Roast, and Atarka’s Command). While we don’t need the face damage, it is a nice way to turn what would be extra removal into something useful. In fact, we could also consider Collective Defiance, though, as always, we’re glutted at the three-spot.

Collective Defiance is sort of a thinking mage’s Exquisite Firecraft, with the most exciting option typically being the four-mana “deal four to a creature and three to a player” mode. That it can also help make up for a grip full of removal is just icing on the cake.

Succumb to Temptation is an appealing-looking card, but I don’t think its power level is actually that high. It’s not just that it’s harder to cast than Read the Bones; it’s also missing the scry 2. That’s a big deal!

In order to really justify Succumb to Temptation, I think we’re really going to need to be playing it in some kind of instant-speed control deck. For instance:

Even when building a list like this, are we really getting enough out of Succumb to want it over Fortune’s Favor, Epiphany at the Drownyard, Dragonlord’s Prerogative, Scour the Laboratory, or Read the Bones?

It’s interesting to note that cards like Epiphany at the Drownyard get better when you’ve got a bunch of copies of Liliana, the Last Hope in your deck. You can Epiphany as hard as you want, and even if you don’t get a pile with a threat you were looking for, you can use the Liliana in your hand to get it out of your graveyard.

Speaking of getting cards out of your graveyard…

This list almost surely has too many one-ofs, as we’re not really going to Traverse for all these things. This is a common deckbuilding strategy for early in testing, though, in order to try the most new cards and interactions. Besides, Gather the Pack also helps dig to our one-ofs, and Grapple with the Past means all the self-mill is giving us selection. Even just using Liliana’s -2 ability contributes to the self-mill plan, making it easier to find the perfect one-of at the perfect time.

Delirium Aggro never got there last season. If it’s going to suddenly burst onto the scene, it’s probably because of these two. Both are totally reasonable game pieces to start with (1/1 deathtouch and 2/2 trample that provides great selection when it hits and usually rockets you towards delirium). However, once you hit delirium, they are both absurd on a mana-efficiency basis.

Gnarlwood Dryad becoming a 3/3 is already some Wild Nacatl type of action, but with deathtouch to boot? Deathtouch is particularly nice in this world of Elder Deep-Fiends.

Grim Flayer is a little more nuanced, but also even more devastating. Get hit once by a Grim Flayer and things start spiraling out of control. Grim Flayer ensures its controller gets delirium quickly and easily while also providing an amount of selection comparable to Prognostic Sphinx. That it has trample is obviously a big deal when it grows to 4/4, but it’s also just nice with toughness-shrinking effects like Dead Weight and Liliana, the Last Hope. Perhaps we should value Grasp of Darkness even higher as a result.

This upcoming format looks like one where tempo is at a premium. Being able to kill or neutralize one- and two-mana plays for just one mana is already appealing, but counting as an enchantment will help us get delirium more reliably. The risk of it being dead weight in our list is mitigated by the ability of Liliana to push it into useful territory.

Grapple with the Past, along with Gather the Pack, helps ensure we get our delirium on time while also giving us the ability to reuse key cards. It also makes us value creature-based solutions more, rather than sorceries and instants like Ruinous Path or Grasp of Darkness. It’s important to keep in mind that Grapple with the Past being an instant means we’re going to be able to pump our Gnarlwood Dryads and Grim Flayers at instant speed, making combat much harder for our opponents even when we don’t have it.

I could imagine an even more aggressive version that wants to play four Mournwillows, but I think the card having just two toughness means we’re opening ourselves up to more losses of tempo (such as when our opponent plays Fiery Impulse). As a one-of, it can be tutored up to break through token battles, so I don’t hate the first one. That said, this sure is a lot of cards that aren’t Autumnal Gloom or Inexorable Blob. Is that a giant mistake?

We don’t really make the best use of the acceleration, and we’re not short on deathtouch, nor do we really need the fixing, so I’m not overly excited about Deathcap Cultivator.

We’d have to shift the focus a bit, but I could definitely see a build that seeks to exploit Distended Mindbender (alongside Mindwrack Demon). We’d probably want more stuff like Nissa, Vastwood Seer and Foul Emissary, if we went that route. Minister of Pain is an underrated option to keep in mind, whether in the main or the sideboard. Creatures with spell-like abilities are particularly nice to get back with stuff like Grapple with the Past and Liliana, the Last Hope, since those cards are usually limited by only hitting “creatures,” so the more diverse a mix of options, the better.

Strange Augmentation is a lot of potential damage for a small amount of mana while also being a hard-to-get card type for delirium. That said, it’s still just an Aura. I’m not sure we are this desperate for tempo, particularly with how much bounce people play. If we were going to go this route, it would probably start with a playset of Autumnal Glooms to give us a reliable target that won’t get two-for-oned so much.

I’m guessing this is a worse Pick the Brain, but it is usually better against control, so I guess that’s something. On a meta level, this is exactly the kind of card Wizards is very unlikely to let be good, so I wouldn’t put too much stock into it.

Emrakul, the Promised End is a very potent finisher that I’m tempted to play as a one-of and would likely consider as a one-of out of the sideboard if nothing else. If we were going to play her, we’d probably want to look to see if we could sneak a couple of Hangarback Walkers or Hedron Crawlers into our list. Terrarion is a new option too, but we’re already going to be wasting so much time and mana durdling, I’d prefer not to start there.

Instead of Emrakul, the big finisher I went with is Ishkanah, Grafwidow, which is a lot faster while still being quite dangerous and resilient. By turn 5, we’re going to have delirium the large majority of the time, and seven power across four bodies is a big game (although it is a little tilting that it doesn’t add up to eight).

Ishkanah’s seven-mana activated ability may seem redundant, but it speeds the clock up so much. It also can really come into play in a big way when people kill her and you get her back with Liliana or Grapple with the Past. Seven spiders or more and we’re talking about some really big chunks out of people’s life total.

I appreciate that they put one of the meld pairs at common so it’d be a part of Limited. The rate on these two is just atrocious compared to stuff like Gisela, the Broken Blade and Bruna, the Fading Light, however. That Midnight Scavengers puts the card into your hand instead of on the battlefield is just too big of a tempo hit, even when things are going well. It’s not out of the question, but I would be really surprised if Graf Rats and Midnight Scavenger Top 8ed any premier events this season.

More likely, I think, is that we’ll see some finishes by Zombies, thanks to this crucial new addition:

Dark Salvation has an incredibly ugly template that I find hard to believe needed to be this awkward. Nevertheless, here are some great modes:

● Three mana to get a 2/2 Zombie and kill a small creature.

● Five mana to get two 2/2 Zombies and kill a small or medium creature.

● Finally, and most importantly, one mana to kill a creature, assuming we’ve got some Zombies.

Building a one-mana removal spell is a very real payoff, and we’ve even got the option to buy some token-making that’s on tribe. Here’s a starting point:

We’re a bit short on one-drops, but I guess that’s less of a big deal when you’ve got to play Evolving Wilds (or Submerged Boneyard). At least Cryptbreaker is sweet!

Cryptbreaker is that rare “must-kill” one-drop that starts out by ensuring we’ve always got access to a Zombie while also netting us cards whenever it discards something like Prized Amalgam or Haunting Dead.

Where things get crazy is when you start tapping your Zombies, even when they were going to be summoning sick or tapped down by Elder Deep-Fiend. Remember, Cryptbreaker can actually use the tap ability the turn you cast it, which is particularly nice when you are also playing another cheap Zombie so that you’re only missing one creature worth of attacking.

We might need to play more madness cards to really take advantage of Haunted Dead, but I particularly like the ability to flood the battlefield without losing card advantage. Flying is a much-needed addition to the deck anyway. I also like the prospect of opening:

● Turn 1: Cryptbreaker.

● Turn 2: Use Cryptbreaker, discarding Haunted Dead.

● Turn 3: Get Haunted Dead back.

● Turn 4: Sacrifice Haunted Dead to cast Distended Mindbender.

Of course, we could also just play Gisa and Geralf, but I’m a little concerned that might need to be more battlefield-control-oriented and that Gisa and Geralf might be a little slow. That said, they are surely at least awesome out of the sideboard against slow decks (and that’s assuming they don’t make the maindeck, which is still possible).

A worse, slower Gisa and Geralf.

I could imagine a version using Gather the Pack and Grapple with the Past that might self-mill enough to justify Liliana’s Elite. The problem, as always, is just how three-drop rich we are…and everyone else is.

Not an embarrassing card, but we’ve got so many better options for grinding.

I could easily imagine more of these, as it does a passable job of covering as both a Transgress the Mind and as a removal spell for deadly threats like Duskwatch Recruiter or Thalia, Heretic Cathar. The card is versatile, but inefficient at its baseline; however, that we can discard cards to get a bonus without spending extra mana is very on-plan.

There are so many of these types, so it’s hard to know which is the best (and if we even want these), besides Haunted Dead (which I think is the best). The thing I like about Advanced Stitchwing is that it can outclass the air better than Stitchwing Skaab while still coming down on turn 3. The amount that it helps cast Distended Mindbender is a big part of the draw, but I could imagine decks that try to abuse this kind of thing even harder. For instance, imagine:

● Turn 1: Insolent Neonate.

● Turn 2: Discard and return Haunted Dead (or Stitchwing Skaab).

● Turn 3: Sacrifice Haunted Dead to play Distended Mindbender (or Elder Deep-Fiend).

What about something like:

There are so many ways the Vampires overlap with madness and Zombies and emerge that there is no one clear way to go. For instance, we could just move closer to some kind of a red aggro deck:

Getting to use Bloodhall Priest is attractive, but if we’re gonna go this way, we probably want to pick a color to be our primary. Either we play Drana or we play Collective Defiance, but not both. Our mana isn’t terrible, but it’s just a little worse than we’d like.

Of course, we could just play mono-color and have “perfect” land…

Okay, I’ll admit, this one is kind of looking fun.

If you can cast them, Stromkirk Condemned and Voldaren Pariah are great cards. Stromkirk Condemned works with basically everything, and Voldaren Pariah can be a devastating play that totally dominates the battlefield. The Pariah is also a great way to play the Distended Mindbender early. More on this archetype can be found here.

If you’re desperate for discard outlets, you could do worse. The flying theme is also nice to push.

For a one-mana 1/1, you could do a lot worse. Still, it would be surprising if this was enough.

Okay, I’m out for today, but I’ll be back Wednesday…

…and spoiler, Tree of Perdition makes an appearance…