The deeper I dive into the world that is Commander, the more I understand how I want to play. I find myself drawn to black decks, and not only because it lets me play with the graveyard. Rather, when I have Swamps under my feet, I feel that I can fully realize myself as a mage who draws upon black mana. The reason is time.
legwork, I have created a game state that is hard to disrupt. Being a black mage plays right into this style in Commander, as I have more time and more life at my disposal. When one wields necromantic power, these items are resources to be spent. Black may not be the best at drawing cards, but it can often trade a few points of health for increased knowledge. When you start with twice as much life, these payments only hurt half as much. Playing for the long game, in my mind, plays right into the strength of the third point on the Magic star—the addition of fuel just means there is more to be spent later.
It is no shock that a full sixty percent of my Commanders have black as part of their identities. I want to plot my victory, and I am willing to do just about whatever it takes. Many times, this involves running some pet cards.
Grim Feast and Deathreap Ritual both appear in my Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord deck. These two enchantments both rely on enemies to be fully realized, but they do a wonderful job showcasing the long-term plans for the black mage. These cards want creatures to die (something at which the color of death excels). In a short game, these effects are nice, netting a few resources (perhaps), but a game often can end before the deaths pile up. In a longer game, one in which suffering is drawn out over multiple turns, Grim Feast and Deathreap Ritual can truly shine. As the turns drone on, these two castings of Golgari will slowly feed their controller. They work well in tandem, like the best two-person bicycle. The Feast keeps you alive long enough for the Ritual to let you take over a game with raw card advantage.
Dark Prophecy, Grim Haruspex, and Harvester of Souls are similar to Deathreap Ritual. While they are fine in a shorter battle, their ability to generate an avalanche of abundance is exaggerated the longer a game goes. Protecting these engines is not without risk, but as with the aforementioned enchantments, the rewards are great. In all these instances, keeping any of these on the board will result in the ability to enact plans.
Dark Confidant but exemplifies what it means to tap Swamps. These cards do not care that it may very well be their comrades that have to die; all that matters is the potential for an increase in power. I will gladly trade one hamburger today for two tomorrow.
Skirsdag High Priest is a card that my adversaries will always pick up, examine, and summarily disregard. Then, I start making Demons, and it garners a second reading. The High Priest is sneaky—as with many of my favorite black utility cards, it is an excellent cockroach, capable of generating a huge, repeatable effect. As implied above, things are going to be dying all over the place. As long as the Priest has two friends, it can start churning out flying wings of doom . . . and then, one of the friends can die since it has been replaced by a bigger, stronger, faster, deadlier friend. Again, the longer the game goes, the better the High Priest can put its ability to use.
One of my longtime favorite Commander cards is Phyrexian Plaguelord. Unlike the other cards in this list, it does not grow better as the day goes long. Rather, it requires other creatures to operate in an optimal mode. However, with creatures that just don’t stay down (like Bloodghast or Gravecrawler), or with tokens, and with an abundance of minutes, the Plaguelord can completely dominate other units of assault.
Blood Artist and Falkenrath Noble. These two cards represent the ultimate in long-range wins. These Vampires have relatively small effects, but they stack up so well. Creatures are constantly going to be dying, and these two denizens of Innistrad make it so their pain is absolutely your gain. When played early, they will slowly build a buffer of life, which can then be used to conveniently pay for things like Phyrexian Arena or other methods of drawing cards.
The real potency resides in the self-destructive Vampire. The game has gone late, and the board is full. Armies clash, and the time has come to reset the table. This carefully-crafted position is perfect for a Blood Artist. Stick the Vampire, cast Damnation, and then reap the rewards. The Artist and the Noble are also potent political tools, turning opponents into easy targets or directing pings in a way to forge alliances.
The Commander (2014 Edition) black deck offers many tools that work well in the long con. Overseer of the Damned might be my favorite card from the release (as evidenced by the fact I ordered quite a few on top of the decks). The Overseer is perfect for the long-game cockroach deck. It comes down later, perhaps after the board has been wiped and players are starting to rebuild the forces. Instead, this Demon immediately creates a situation in which you are up a token while your opponent is down an actual investment. When combined with some of the card-draw engines from the start of this article, the Overseer can be downright oppressive.
Flesh Carver is an interesting member of the cabal of plotters. Like the Phyrexian Plaguelord, it goes best with tokens (did someone say Pawn of Ulamog?). It can come down early and simply be big. But what is worse, you know the growing carver or the horror it leaves behind? This represents the best kind of long-term plan: the no-win scenario (as a figure of speech).
Ghoulcaller Gisa is the ultimate in long-game dominance. Feed her a creature with more than 1 power, and suddenly, the ball begins to roll. Every 2 power means an additional Zombie. Combined with Endless Ranks of the Dead, eventually, your opponents will be facing off against more walkers than Rick Grimes. I have a feeling she will find a home in my Sek'Kuar, Deathkeeper Zombie deck.
At last, we come to Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath. A perfect example of a card designed for turns ten and beyond, Ob’s plus ability keeps you alive while just barely scratching your enemies. The Demons are hardly scary, as they come with a greater cost than that of the Skirsdag High Priest. Rather, the emblem—that is where the late game can be dominated. Black is fantastic at making creatures and bringing them back. As always, black needs time to enact its goal, and Ob’s emblem allows for this. Turning earlier investments into life and cards, well, there are few things more in line with the color’s philosophy than those actions.
So, how does the black mage survive to the points at which its cockroaches come out to play? The answer is making everyone else seem like a better threat. No Mercy and Dread do great jobs of deterring attacks while sending clear warning signals. Keeping creatures off the battlefield is almost as good as sending them at other players, so Bone Shredder, Shriekmaw, and others can keep you alive and then die for the cause, like a good minion. The key word here is fodder: Your troops must die so you can live to dominate battle. And besides, there’s a good chance they’re going to come back for more—we are using Swamps after all.
When I sit down to play Commander, I want to have fun, but I also want to win. I want to maneuver the game to a point at which everyone has to play by my rules, and those rules usually involve creatures dying—whatever keeps me alive long enough for my plans to come to fruition. Victory is all that matters, and time is a tool to achieve success.