Liliana, Waker Of The Dead Is A Unique Puzzle Worth Solving

Ari Lax explores the potential of Liliana, Waker of the Dead in Standard. Just don’t expect to be waking the dead…

Liliana, Waker of the Dead, illustrated by Anna Steinbauer

The Core Set 2021 planeswalkers feel oddly hard to evaluate, despite showcasing mostly tried-and-true patterns of planeswalker designs. Coming off the absurd highs of War of the Spark and, ugh, Oko, Thief of Crowns, it’s weird to look at a card like Liliana, Waker of the Dead.

She’s not Nissa, Who Shakes the World, but Liliana, Waker of the Dead is a promising planeswalker with potential to play some key roles in Standard for the next year and change.

Liliana, Waker of the Dead Liliana of the Veil

The natural comparison for Liliana, Waker of the Dead is Liliana of the Veil. The plus and minus abilities on both have similar end results. But as weird as it sounds, since Liliana has such a dominant pedigree in Modern and Legacy, the card was sidelined for a shocking amount of the Standard formats featuring it.

What will make Liliana, Waker of the Dead different, and what unique concerns does it have as its own card?

Liliana as Removal

If Liliana, Waker of the Dead’s -3 merely forced an opponent to sacrifice a creature like Liliana of the Veil’s -2, the card would be horrendous. So much of Liliana of the Veil’s power is wrapped up in landing early and forcing a sacrifice of your opponent’s lone creature. This is also why the card was so unsuccessful in Standard: too many Doomed Travelers, Restoration Angels, and Thragtusks facing off against it.

But Liliana, Waker of the Dead’s ability is a bit different. While she won’t be killing a Tarmogoyf, Standard doesn’t have that many cards of that scale that land before Turn 3. If your opponent has a random Cauldron Familiar, you can still pick off their Priest of Forgotten Gods or Mayhem Devil.

Rankle, Master of Pranks

You see a similar issue with Rankle, Master of Pranks, who might be Liliana’s closest competition in the format. Choosing what you kill is great, and not being a removal-vulnerable creature is too.

But unlike Liliana of the Veil, the Waker doesn’t immediately tick back to another removal activation. Liliana, Waker of the Dead is less a removal spell that floats a game-crushing upside and more a removal spell that plays fine versus controlling strategies if you don’t need the removal spell. That’s a little disappointing, since the times Liliana of the Veil crushes games with the -2 are when it acts as “Diabolic Edict, suspend another Diabolic Edict” against creature-light but creature-centric decks like Infect, but we don’t need that crushing gameplay in Standard if she is just a good removal spell.

Mire Triton Tymaret Calls the Dead Fabled Passage

Of course, you do need cards in your graveyard to make Liliana, Waker of the Dead kill things. I would rather not play Mire Triton if I don’t have to, but Tymaret Calls the Dead has been impressive in the past in terms of how many raw resources it provides. Both of these cards are also built to block and protect Liliana against random nonsense if her removal ability is better used on something in the future while she sits around and ticks up attrition value.

Fabled Passage is yet another must-play graveyard-filler, and hey, look, we just rebuilt Rakdos Sacrifice. Liliana is doing a bit of what Claim the Firstborn is doing there, but without being completely dead in some spots.

Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger

These self-mill cards almost demand you play Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger, and honestly the escape there isn’t that big an anti-synergy concern with Liliana. If you control a Kroxa, do you really care about killing things with your planeswalker? Or are you assuming your opponent is grinding closer and closer to empty handed where Liliana’s +1 and Kroxa’s trigger will close everything out?

This was the layup of deckbuilding this week. You could go through the same exercise with Jund Sacrifice, where Liliana might be better than the Vraska, Golgari Queen that shows up on occasion.

I think there’s an argument that any metagame where you want Liliana in Rakdos Sacrifice is one where you shouldn’t play Rakdos Sacrifice, since it implies Claim the Firstborn isn’t carrying weight and your biggest blowout potential isn’t good, but that’s for the future to figure out.

Let’s get into the deeper stuff.

Liliana as Bottomless Pit

Bottomless Pit

Liliana of the Veil’s other best use is just ticking up and running your opponent out of resources, and Liliana, Waker of the Dead’s +1 does the same thing plus a little. Or rather more than a little, since a Lava Spike on each hellbent +1 adds up reasonably fast.

Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger Thoughtseize The Rack

About that plus a little on the +1: do you want to combine it with a lot of discard, a little discard, or none at all to maximize the damage aspect? I think the answer is the middling “a little discard as a treat” option.

If you overload on discard with Liliana, you run into The Rack’s issue where you aren’t getting additional gameplan value with her +1. You’re going to run your opponent out of cards anyway with your Raven’s Crime or whatever; is a four-mana version of running them out of cards really the best you can do, or would you rather just play more one-mana versions and assure you cast all the things that run them out of cards?

It’s also worth noting that a Lava Spike a turn is fast, but it’s not that fast. If you’re just winning via Liliana, Waker of the Dead damage, your opponent has a lot of turns to find a way out of that situation.

If you don’t have any other discard but are just aiming for the damage part of Liliana, your opponent can just float dead cards in hand to mitigate that. This can also happen in the discard-heavy plans if your opponent gets out under you and just stops playing lands, but Liliana’s -3 can help fight back against that.

So you want a little more discard to threaten the attrition end-game where Liliana’s +1 starts clocking an empty hand, but also other threats so the three damage per tick is threatening. Plus, it’s not like they can’t spend cards on your other attackers and ignore them. If you really think about it, any creature is like a discard spell if they use removal on it.

Yet again, this all sounds like Rakdos Sacrifice with Kroxa.

Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath Growth Spiral Teferi, Time Raveler

Or maybe it sounds like a bit of needing to wait another set to try it elsewhere.

There’s a bit of an issue with attrition strategies right now. Every setup card draws a card, so it’s hard to strand an opponent trying to commit cards to the battlefield. There’s no Rampant Growth or Llanowar Elves, there’s Growth Spiral and Gilded Goose whose Food token eventually becomes a card via Trail of Crumbs.

Then these all setup cantrips to bridge to absurd resource engines. Liliana, Waker of the Dead only nets you cards as removal or if you set up and spew your hand away before ticking up and discarding their last cards. A bunch of similarly scaled cards to Liliana in Ikoria Standard just net you cards whenever you perform a basic game action. Each player discarding a card is only symmetrical if your opponent doesn’t have four more cards than you, and it’s only super-relevant if they don’t have five cards and a filler land to chuck away.

Nissa, Who Shakes the World Teferi, Time Raveler

This won’t all go away with rotation, but another big part of it does disappear. There’s a ton of planeswalkers in the format performing these cantrip setups and value engine roles, and Liliana does nothing in planeswalker fights. She doesn’t net resources against them. She doesn’t attack them. At best she kills a blocker so something else can battle them down, but by herself she doesn’t gain traction.

I doubt Zendikar Rising Standard looks like that, or at least it won’t be drastically skewed without War of the Spark looming over the format.

Elspeth Conquers Death

I was originally concerned about Elspeth Conquers Death still crushing Liliana in the heads-up after rotation, but after thinking a bit more about it, Liliana is probably a better fit alongside that card than any opposing interactions.

A big part of why Elspeth Conquers Death is so good right now is that it has all the good value planeswalkers I just mentioned to recur. You won’t have the easy value of Teferi, Time Raveler next year, or the loop potential of Tamiyo, Collector of Tales.

But Liliana will be there as a great option to return, especially since the bonus loyalty counter puts her right into that -3, +1, -3 double-kill sweet spot I mentioned earlier.

Here’s a loose shell of what these cards might look like paired together, which admittedly is comically out of place in Ikoria Standard with the bonus threat of Ugin, the Spirit Dragon looming over the format.

Archon of Sun's Grace Aphemia, the Cacophony

My first couple of spins of this deck just failed to have any humming engine behind the scenes. There isn’t a Read the Bones or Night’s Whisper effect that is good enough to carry a raw Orzhov control deck in this format. Treacherous Blessing, I guess, but then you need to be a Doom Foretold deck and planeswalkers aren’t cutting it in that one.

But I still really like Aphemia, the Cacophony, and Archon of Sun’s Grace might put Baneslayer Angel out of business as a cheaper and better-spread version of the same effect. If you don’t have the ability to necessarily keep ahead on card churn in a long game, why not get a bit more proactive? As weird as it looks to play attackers and The Birth of Meletis, the cards do kinda go together here, and flying attackers definitely benefit from Liliana’s +1 closing the last few points of damage.

Runed Halo and Faith’s Fetters are both strong reprinted removal to play into this plan. I wouldn’t want large numbers of either of them since Runed Halo’s color requirement is restrictive and the actual mana cost of Faith’s Fetters is clunky, but they give you a kind of coverage Orzhov decks can sometimes lack while also triggering constellation.

Cling to Dust

Assuming people are still allowed to play Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath for any reasonable amount of time post-rotation, I expect Cling to Dust to show up in decks trying to compete with it. Even if you end up down a fair amount on the first exchange where their Uro cantrips and your Cling doesn’t, you make it up by them not having a freaking Uro on the battlefield and eventually escaping your cantrip.

There’s a Third Ability?

God-Pharaoh's Gift

You may be wondering how you got to the end of this article with zero mention of Liliana’s ultimate. It’s just not relevant.

Titanoth Rex

It isn’t a reliable way to reanimate anything. Planeswalker ultimates don’t just happen all the time unless the planeswalker is designed specifically to enable that, and three turns of +1-ing unopposed without making tokens isn’t something that falls under that umbrella.

Shrieking Affliction Seal of Doom

And honestly, is that ultimate even that much better than just controlling a Liliana? She ticks up and deals damage, eventually killing them, and threatens to -3 and kill the things they cast to pressure her.

Just stick to the first two parts of the card. Despite her name, Liliana won’t be waking up many dead creatures. It’s just discard and killing stuff for her.

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