All of the cards for Adventures in the Forgotten Realms have now been officially previewed and as a long-time Dungeons & Dragons fan, I could not be more stoked about a new set! I’ve been playing Magic since 1994, and when it came out, I was squarely in its target audience since Magic was conceived as a quick game D&D fans could play at conventions in between campaign sessions. For nearly the entire time I’ve played Magic, I was also regularly playing D&D, so this mash-up is like dropping chocolate into my peanut butter. If you haven’t read my column last week which goes deeper into my “origin story” regarding D&D and Magic, be sure to check it out!
As a Commander fan, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for cool new legends to build Commander decks around, and there’s been quite a few of them. But imagine my surprise when one of the most infamous D&D villains of all time was previewed this weekend: Acererak the Archlich!
Acererak was the end-boss of the most famously lethal dungeon of all-time — the Tomb of Horrors. Acererak, an undead lich of immense power, built his tomb to be a sanctum protected from all intruders and to host his body while his mind projected into other worlds to discover more and more arcane secrets.
One of the creators of D&D, Gary Gygax, created the module for use at the 1975 Origins convention, and it was built explicitly to challenge expert players who had built up nearly invincible characters. Mistakes, or wrong choices in the dungeon, didn’t just punish characters, but would often simply kill them. In one instance, there was a magic item called a Sphere of Annihilation (now a Magic card) that would utterly snuff out a character, body and soul, with no hope for resurrection.
The Tomb of Horrors and its creator, Acererak, have been a constant presence through nearly all the various editions of the game, including the original D&D, Advanced D&D, 2nd Edition D&D, D&D 3.5 Edition, and eventually reprinted for the current 5th Edition D&D, so seeing him realized on a card really hit me with some serious nostalgia! Let’s dig into his abilities.
First off, he’s a 5/5 Zombie Wizard for just three mana, which is an incredible bargain so there must be a drawback. And there is, of sorts. When he enters the battlefield, if you have not completed the dungeon Tomb of Annihilation, return Acererak the Archlich to its owner’s hand and venture into the dungeon. So, in order to keep Acererak the Archlich on the battlefield and take advantage of his attack ability (outside of Sundial of the Infinite-style shenanigans), you’ve got to complete that specific dungeon through various venture into the dungeon cards, or Acererak’s own trigger. Lucky for this plan, that dungeon can be completed in 3-4 painful steps.
However, what if we use Acererak’s drawback as an advantage and build a deck that instead uses it as a way to constantly venture into the other dungeons for benefits, over and over and over, while also taking advantage of anything else that triggers from Acererak entering and leaving the battlefield over and over? Black usually cares about dying, but if we dig a little deeper, we can find plenty of cards that can leverage that.
Before we dig into that, let’s first analyze the dungeons and see what sort of benefits they can give us.
DUNGEON: Lost Mine of Phandelver
Scry 1, 1/1 Goblin token, +1/+1 counter, draw a card OR
Scry 1, 1/1 Goblin token, life drain 1, draw a card OR
Scry 1, create a Treasure, life drain 1, draw a card OR
Scry 1, create a Treasure, target gets -4/-0, draw a card.
Lost Mine of Phandelver’s biggest benefit is that it’s the quickest to go through, outside of Tomb of Annihilation, and if you’ve got a way to “go infinite” on venturing into the dungeon, the life drain is a way to kill all of your opponents so long as you don’t deck yourself from drawing a card each time through. Each step along the way is a relatively minor boon, with scry 1 and drawing a card being universal benefits, and the middle paths presenting minor benefits. In the early game, I imagine the paths that create a Treasure will be helpful for some mana ramp, and later on making a Goblin token as a chump blocker and adding a +1/+1 counter to one of your larger creatures will be the right choice.
DUNGEON: Dungeon of the Mad Mage
Gain 1 life.
Create a Treasure OR creature can’t attack.
Exile 2 cards from library & can play them OR two 1/1 Skeleton tokens.
Draw three cards, cast one without paying mana cost.
Dungeon of the Mad Mage is a whopping seven steps to get through, but each step along the way gets bigger and better benefits – culminating in drawing three cards and being able to cast one of them for no mana. Wow! To my mind, this is the dungeon to venture through over and over if you’re just grinding for value, even though it will take nearly twice as long as Lost Mine of Phandelver. If you’ve set up a way to venture all seven steps in a given turn (say, with a ton of black mana from Cabal Coffers), all that scrying can really set up a potent payoff once you get to the Mad Wizard’s Lair.
DUNGEON: Tomb of Annihilation
Each player loses 1 life
Each player loses 2 life/discards a card; each player loses 2 life/sacrifice OR
Discard a card, sacrifice artifact, creature, and land
Create 4/4 legendary creature with Deathtouch
Lastly, we have Tomb of Annihilation, which can potentially be completed in just three steps if you’re willing to brave the pain of the Oubliette room. You can certainly tailor your deck to take advantage of the sacrifices or discard, such as reanimation strategies, and at the end you get The Atropal for your troubles and unlock Acererak, the Archlich to stay on the battlefield. If you want to just build a Mono-black Zombie tribal deck with Acererak as your commander, it’s fine to get through Tomb of Annihilation as fast as you can and commence your Zombie beatdown.
But for me personally, I find it much more interesting to use Acererak as an engine for running dungeons as fast as possible. Let’s light our torches, get our rope and provisions ready, and explore the darkness!
While Acererak is cheap at just three mana, we can really speed up the process by shaving off mana. Since only one of that mana is black, it’s pretty easy to discount the generic mana with cards like Jet Medallion or Heartless Summoning. Bontu’s Monument even attaches life drain to the mix, which can come in handy if you’ve cast K’rrik, Son of Yawgmoth and want to use its ability to pay that black mana with two points of life instead.
Even if you can’t get your engine online, black has a lot of ways to generate a ton of mana to let you have a big turn. Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth will juice up cards like Cabal Coffers, Nirkana Revenant, Magus of the Coffers and Crypt Ghast.
Outside of venturing through dungeons, we can take advantage of Acererak entering and leaving the battlefield over and over with nifty effects that care about such things. Genesis Chamber will create a 1/1 Myr tokens, Orc Sureshot can potentially shrink creatures by -1/-1 enough to kill them, and Shadow Alley Denizen can give creatures intimidate. Nikara, Lair Scavenger is a weird one, you’d need to have some way to stack the triggers so that Acererak gets a +1/+1 counter from something before returning it to your hand which would let you draw a card and lose a life.
Onyx Talisman can help you generate “infinite” mana if one source of black mana taps for more mana that three plus the mana cost of Acererak.
You can even put Acererak’s trigger to return to your hand on the stack, and then tap it to activate Embalmer’s Tools to mill a player one card which could potentially unlock victory that way.
Cast Black/Creature Spell
We can also take advantage of cards that care about us casting Acererak over and over. Cards like Prism Ring, Diamond Mare and Staff of the Death Magus can net us a bunch of life. Cards like Pontiff of Blight and Basilica Screecher unlocks the extort ability to drain our opponents. Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder and Mishra’s Self-Replicator can churn out a bunch of tokens. Plus, Merrow Bonegnawer untapping and tapping over and over can really clear out your local necromancer’s graveyard.
Also, don’t forget your Winding Canyons could let you unleash Acererak’s dungeon engine at instant speed if needed.
Playing a lot of recurring spells – even if they’re the same spell, Acererak – means that storm spells are on the table. If we’re in monoblack, there are only two choices currently. Tendrils of Agony is a time-honored win condition for storm decks and is certainly a flavor win for an Acererak deck, but I also like Reaping the Graves for value, assuming you’ve got a fair number of creatures that end up getting killed along the way.
Venture Into the Dungeon/Payoffs
There are a ton of cards that have you venture into the dungeon or provide a payoff once you complete a dungeon, but if we’re in monoblack, our choices are much more limited. To be honest, we don’t really need all that much if Acererak is our commander, but it could be worth playing a fair number of these. I especially like Dungeon Map, since it can be used as mana if you need it, but if you’re flush with mana, you can venture forth instead.
Dungeon Crawler is quite mediocre as a dungeon completion “payoff”, but if you’re working the Acererak engine into other colors, a few cards like Nadaar, Selfless Paladin and Varis, Silverymoon Ranger can generate some extra value.
Acererak being a Zombie means there are some nice synergies you can take advantage of, especially ones like Diregraf Colossus and Noxious Ghoul that will trigger each time you cast Acererak. If you stack Acererak’s trigger ability, you can respond by tapping it to activate cards like Cryptbreaker, Cryptic Gateway or Zombie Trailblazer. Or, if you’re in need of some blockers, you can sacrifice Acererak to Ghoulcaller Gisa to make five 2/2 Zombies.
There are fewer and less interesting things to do with Acererak’s other tribe, Wizards, in a monoblack shell. In a pinch you could equip Diviner’s Wand and draw a card before Acererak bounces back to your hand.
A really weird approach you could take with Acererak, is to load up with lots of mass removal spells and use Acererak to crew a bunch of Vehicles when the battlefield has been decluttered. He can easily meet nearly all of the more expensive crew costs like Conqueror’s Galleon, Demolition Stomper and Aradara Express. Perhaps in Acererak’s exploration of other worlds he brought back technology and enjoys driving engines of destruction!
So, what do you think of Acererak as a Magic card? Does it evoke any fond D&D memories? What other sorts of cards do you think would play great in its Commander deck?
Do me a solid and follow me on Twitter! I run polls and get conversations started about Commander all the time, so get in on the fun! I’d also love it if you followed my Twitch channel TheCompleteCommander, where I do Commander, Brawl and sometimes other Magic-related streams when I can. If you can’t join me live, the videos are available on demand for a few weeks on Twitch, but I also upload them to my YouTube channel. You can also find the lists for my decks over on Archidekt if you want to dig into how I put together my own decks and brews.
And lastly, I just want to say: let us love each other and stay healthy and happy.
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