It’s Valentine’s Day as I write this, which started me thinking about how I, as a Black mage, can give back to my playgroup. After all, Black is the color of generosity. My buddy Chris always says that his favorite card of mine is Slum Reaper, and I think that’s because Slum Reaper exemplifies the bighearted spirit of the Black mage. By giving your friends the greatest gift of all, the gift of choice, you are really empowering them and giving them a sense of ownership of the game. Whereas the Blue mage selfishly monopolizes the decisions (“What spells should I counter?”“How many cards will I draw?”), and the White mage takes the decisions out of everyone’s hands with their silly rules, the benevolent Black mage wants you to be free to make your own choices. Here are some great ways that you can give the gift of empowerment to your playgroup.
Rather than using my awesome powers to kill any of my opponents’ creatures that displease me, I prefer a more magnanimous approach: let them decide which of their creatures they want to sacrifice. The necromantic toolbox has a huge range of options, and you need to be familiar with all of the following cards:
Consuming Vapors, Dead Drop, Devour Flesh, Exile into Darkness, Foul-Tongue Invocation, Gatekeeper of Malakir, Geth's Verdict, Grave Exchange, Tribute to Hunger, Twisted Justice, and anything with “Edict” in the name.
Each of these cards lets you give a small one-time gift of choice to a single opponent. Maybe someone at the table looks bored, and you can brighten up their day. Maybe someone signals that they want to play a game by attacking you with their puny creatures. Whatever the case, a Black deck should always be ready to give an opponent an intriguing decision to make.
Abyssal Gatekeeper and Urborg Justice are even more interesting; your opponents get to decide first whether to attack you, and then which creatures they love the most. Gatekeeper is a classic example of a rattlesnake card that warns your opponents off, while Urborg Justice is a spider, springing a trap on the unwary. It’s sometimes nice to remind your opponents that their choices are even more consequential than they realize, and Urborg Justice is perfect for that. They thought they were just attacking into your tiny blockers with their huge creatures, but actually, they were choosing which one of their huge creatures will survive. You’re welcome!
Infernal Offering is so good that it even stands out among all of the other awesome cards in the Commander 2014 decks. One opponent gets to Altars Reap a creature; one opponent gets to Zombify a corpse; you get to do both. You don’t even have to pick the same opponent for both effects if you want to spread the love around.
Fatal Lore is an old school card that doesn’t get enough respect. You get to choose the opponent who will choose whether good things happen to you, or less good things happen to them. There will be some times where the options don’t work out so well for you, but the same thing is true for any number of specialized removal cards. When it works, the payoff is worth the wait.
Finally, there are cards that let opponents choose effects from their graveyards. The simplest choice is a little gem that I have never seen anyone else play: Scrounge. Usually the worst case scenario is a Wayfarer's Bauble, and the best case is limited only by your opponents’ imaginations. If one of your opponents has a weak board state and an Oblivion Stone in their graveyard, they might leap at the chance to give you a board wipe, making this a real feel-good card in the right circumstances. There are also a few ways of . . . shall we say . . . guiding your opponents towards the right choice that I’ll talk about later.
What’s better than giving an opponent the power to make meaningful choices? Giving everyone the power to choose. Play these cards and bask in the warm adoration of the whole table. Or entrails. Sometimes you bask in their steaming entrails, but either way it’s warm and basky.
Fleshbag Marauder, Merciless Executioner, and Slum Reaper are the first cards I put in any Black deck. It’s not just that they clear the board like few other cards and are still somehow worth less than the sleeves I put them in; it’s not even the way they synergize with all my reanimation; it’s the way they involve everyone else in the game. Custodi Lich only targets a single player now, but over time can be used to benefit everyone at the table.
Similar effects that don’t work as well with Corpse Dance are Innocent Blood, Batter in Blood,Strong Leader’s Choice, and the new Capital Punishment. The latter is extra enjoyable for your opponents, because they get to make choices for each other. The ones with good cards in hand will choose sacrifice and the ones with strong boards will choose discard. If capitalism has proven anything, it’s that when everyone chooses what’s best for themselves, we all win!
Gifts that Keep on Giving
The obvious examples here are Grave Pact. Dictate of Erebos, Butcher of Malakir. I don’t usually recommend staples, but if you don’t have at least one of these in any Black deck you should give them a second look. Sometimes they're staples for a reason, and any one of these three can be tremendously frustrating — I mean, “liberating” — for the rest of your table.
The less obvious example is The Abyss, a curiously worded Legends bomb. It doesn’t get around protection from Black or hexproof, but The Abyss can entertain the whole table for hours, and it costs just a fraction of what a new Cadillac will set you back. Magus of the Abyss gives you a very similar effect for the cost of a small cup of coffee, and is therefore criminally underplayed; if you ever wanted to play with two copies of Sheoldred, Whispering One in the same deck, now you can! Even better, Kuon, Ogre Ascendant has all of the fun of The Abyss for the price of a gumball, with the added advantage that nobody knows what it does, because flip cards. You do have to ensure that three creatures go to the graveyard in a single turn, but that’s why the good lord (Yawgmoth) gave us Fleshbag Marauder. The last time I played Kuon, I flipped him twice without any difficulty at all.
If you feel like adding Red, a color that doesn’t normally jibe with rational decision-making, you can try Mogis, God of Laughter.
Archfiend of Depravity is a new addition to this list but the beefy airborne beater has already earned its stripes. Sometimes your opponents have a board that is cluttered with elves, humans, and other unwanted pests, and they will welcome the opportunity to clear away the detritus. Being allowed to focus on the two creatures that matter most to their game plan at the end of every turn will really help them to play more efficiently, for which they will certainly be grateful to you. On top of that, having only two creatures in play will streamline their decision-making process if someone plays, say, an Innocent Blood. This card makes games go so smoothly it should be called Executive Assistant of Depravity.
Indulgent Tormentor offers a single opponent a simple choice every turn. This is win-win, because they get their favorite outcome, and all three options are good for you. Also, adding five points of flying beatdown to three points of life loss in a single turn can have quite an impact. It’s probably coincidence, but I’ve noticed that my opponents choose to let me draw a card every turn after the third time I pick them; I assume it’s because they're grateful that I am so interested in their opinion.
Editor extraordinaire Alex Ullman pointed out what a great fit Endless Whispers is in an Athreos deck, and I plan to talk about it more in a later article, but just take a moment to appreciate how much this empowers the rest of your playgroup. Every time a creature dies, they get to make a choice about who can best nurture and develop their creature. Also, Endless Whispers is a wonderful opportunity to teach your opponents how to make the right choice. For example, with Withered Wretch as my T.A., I can demonstrate to everyone that when they give their creature to me, they can get it back later, but if they try to give those creatures to someone else, they may never see them again. The group that learns together, returns together!
Speaking of teachable moments, Undercity Plague is an underrated answer to the question, “How do Black mages get rid of non-creature permanents?” If I keep using Undercity Plague to target a player who controls an irksome enchantment, I am confident that they will make the right decision eventually and sac the card I don’t like. Then I can move on to empowering their other opponents.
Finally, Herald of Anguish is a new and worthy addition to the ranks of Black’s discarding army. While there are definite advantages to a random discard effect such as Hymn to Tourach, I prefer a card that lets everyone make their own choices about what to discard, especially if I can empower them every turn. Rather than go into detail now, I’ll just mention that the first two versions of Liliana offer a similar repeatable discard effect, and you can see more examples of discard-related choices in Bruce Richard’s Liliana, Heretical Healer article and my decklist.
Hard Choices Build Character
Most of the choices I've talked about so far are pretty straightforward, but if your playgroup is more advanced, then you might like to challenge them with some expert-level decision-making. It might sting a little bit, but it will make them better at Magic, which they are sure to appreciate.
What is the most powerful Curse in Magic? It’s a trick question; the answer is not an enchantment. Curse of the Cabal was one of the best multiplayer cards in Time Spiral, and I immediately built a 60-card deck to share the fun of multiple upkeeps and complex decisions with my group in Tokyo. That deck was tremendously powerful, and I’m surprised that nobody seems to play this Curse in Commander. In the early game, people get to choose whether and which permanents to sac, which can be an amusing sub-game on its own. In the late game, you get to reward your strongest opponent for their smart play by giving them the opportunity to show that they can beat the rest of you with one hand tied behind their back (or in fact, sawed off at the shoulder).
Temporal Extortion offers a simple decision with profound consequences for the rest of the game. In my playgroup, Earl first rescued this from bargain-bin obscurity, and then Chris put it to work in his Xiahou Dun deck. In one game of Kingdom I was playing the assassin, and I paid half my life twice1 in order to save the king from Chris and his creative time management. At the end of the game, the king was totally convinced that I was on his side because of this sacrifice, and so he killed the knight for me . . . good times! This shows how players can benefit from making tough choices.
Finally, Choice of Damnations is not, as some critics have charged, a sadistic and soul-crushing sorcery. Rather, it takes one lucky player through a journey of self-discovery that will allow them to find what they really care about. Do they value life or cards? Which cards? Help your opponents to grow spiritually with this exciting and benevolent card.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick tour of the softer side of Black. There are so many options available that I might have to write a follow-up article, perhaps for Christmas. Remember that necromancy isn't all about animating the rotting flesh of your foes or sucking their souls out through their eyeballs; sometimes it’s nice to engage with your opponents by asking what they think. Empower the rest of your playgroup with the gift of choice, and revel in their shrieks and moans of gratitude.
1No offense to Jason Alt, but that is real 75% Magic!