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Ironroot Chef: Battle Liliana, Heretical Healer


The competitors have submitted their decks. The judges have issued their scores. Today, you decide who wins Battle Liliana, Heretical Healer.

This week, in the enigmatic Ironroot Chef, leader of the last Magic Online Community Cup Erin Campbell stepped forward to challenge chef Ant Tessitore fresh off his victory last week.

The secret to this week’s ingredient lay in that there are two sides to Liliana’s story, and sharing both in one deck was a flavorful mouthful:

This is how the chefs handled it.

Challenger Erin Campbell

This was tricky!

When I was at the Community Cup last year, I was given Athreos, God of Passage to build a deck around. This meant I really only had to peruse through three sets of cards to find the rest of the ingredients to build a deck. Liliana Vess is a character who has been around since Lorwyn, so I had a much larger pool of cards to try to narrow down.

Liliana Vess
With that said, I chose to focus on the “Defiant Necromancer” side of Liliana rather than the “Heretic Healer” side. We don't spend too much time with “good Liliana,” and in the time that we do, it's clear that those necromantic roots were ever-present.

I chose to go with a tribal Zombie theme—that also gives you the ability to set up the board in such a way that you can transform Liliana, Heretical Healer rather easily. Having a sac outlet in Gnawing Zombie provides even more value when paired up with Gravecrawler or Undead Servant. Cards like Disturbing Plot and Endless Obedience also add to the recursion theme of the deck. You don't mind sacrificing creatures or having your opponent kill them, as you have several ways to bring them back, including Liliana, Defiant Necromancer.

I would like to explain certain card choices in case it's not entirely obvious why I included them or why I have a certain number of them.

Raven's Crime is a shout out to the Raven Man, whom we were introduced to early in Liliana's Magic Origins story. He was a near-constant presence in her life until she stabbed him—hence the single copy of Stab Wound.

I added Disturbing Plot, particularly because of events that happened in Ravnica, where Liliana seduced Jace and set him up to fight Tezzeret. Although one could argue that most of the plots that Liliana has ongoing are “disturbing.”

Demonic Tutor
There are four copies of Demonic Tutor because she is bound to four different demons and because the deck contains a lot of one-of's, and being able to tutor them up is incredibly helpful. I chose not to use Demonic Pact because I didn't feel I had any way to really cheat the lose-the-game effect, which Liliana would certainly try to do. I also don't feel that we're in danger of losing Liliana, lore-wise, any time soon.

Endless Obedience was included for two reasons: because she expects that from undead minions and because, ultimately, the only thing Liliana is obedient to is herself.

Moonlight Bargain is a nod to the deal Liliana made with Nicol Bolas to try to free herself from her demonic pact.

The sideboard is full of cards that I felt had ties to Liliana but that didn't really fit in with what the deck was trying to do.

Mikaeus, the Unhallowed was included because, while Geralf killed him, it was Liliana who made him a zombie so she could gain information about Griselbrand.

Corrupted Roots was added due to Liliana studying necromancy behind her healing instructor's back and because Liliana found the root she was looking for to make a remedy for her brother by killing the witches in her Magic Origins story.

Ironroot Chef Ant Tessitore

Liliana, Heretical Healer // Liliana, Defiant Necromancer is a special ingredient because the card focuses on one theme in particular: Liliana’s origin story. For my deck, I wanted to accomplish a single major goal: I wanted the player piloting the deck to feel as though he or she were Liliana herself, going on some part of her epic origin story journey. I looked to James Wyatt’s incredible article “Liliana’s Origin: The Fourth Pact” for inspiration and thought it would be interesting to focus on one aspect of Liliana’s origin in particular that I find extremely interesting: her pack with four powerful demons. So, Vorthoses, what I have for you all is a Liliana, Heretical Healer Commander deck meant to make you feel as though you are Liliana herself, going on an epic journey to make diabolic pacts with four powerful demons.

  • 8 Innistrad Swamps #258 (Jung Park)
  • 6 Limited Edition Alpha Swamps #291 (Dan Frazier)
  • 9 Mirage Swamps #312 (Bob Eggleton)
  • 9 Shards of Alara Swamps #240 (Mark Tedin)

We know from James Wyatt’s article that Liliana was introduced to her four different demons by Nicol Bolas. Of the four demons, we know two of them by name: the powerful Innistrad demon Griselbrand and the ancient demon known as Kothophed. I didn’t know the names of the other two demons, so I decided to take some creative license with this deck, and I am going to pretend that the other two demons Liliana made pacts with were Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis and the Spirit of the Night from Dominaria. The deck can be split into four equal parts, each one meant to showcase the demon Liliana made her pact with, the pact itself, and the spells and creatures she may have learned to summon along the way.

Oh, and did I mention I decided to limit each of these parts by the planes that they were based on? Yeah . . . I’m insane.


Endless Ranks of the Dead

We have known for a while that Liliana made a pact with Griselbrand, and with Magic Origins, we saw a card version of that pact with the rare tutor Dark Petition. While on Innistrad, I assumed that Liliana would have learned how to summon an Army of the Damned, how to perform the Ghoulcaller's Chant, and how to trigger a Zombie Apocalypse. For my first swamp art, I chose the Innistrad Swamp #258 (Jung Park).

Griselbrand Demon
Dark Petition Pact
Army of the Damned
Black Cat
Dread Slaver
Endless Ranks of the Dead
Ghoulcaller's Chant
Moan of the Unhallowed
Polluted Dead
Unbreathing Horde
Undying Evil
Walking Corpse
Zombie Apocalypse
Ghost Quarter
Haunted Fengraf
Innistrad Swamp #258 (Jung Park)

Spirit of the Night

Spirit of the Night
Infernal Contract
Tombstone Stairwell

For the second part of my Liliana “fan fic,” I thought it would be interesting if one of her four demons were from her home plane of Dominaria. I chose Spirit of the Night as the legendary Demon because I have fond memories of the card from my childhood. As a kid, I was captivated by the idea of three evil spirits coming together to form a legendary entity of unparalleled power. For this demon’s pact with Liliana, I chose the Mirage card Infernal Contract. While Liliana was looking for the Urborg Panther, Breathstealer, and Feral Shadow required to summon her second demon, I assumed she would have learned some Necromancy along the way (all from the Mirage and Visions expansions of course). For my second Swamp art, I chose Mirage Swamp #312 (Bob Eggleton).

Spirit of the Night Demon
Infernal Contract Pact
Urborg Panther
Cadaverous Knight
Shallow Grave
Tombstone Stairwell
Wall of Corpses
Death Watch
Restless Dead
Feral Shadow
Gravebane Zombie
Mirage Swamp #312 (Bob Eggleton)

Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis

Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis
Diabolic Revelation
Corpse Connoisseur

For my third demon, I wanted to pick one from a plane that was visually unique so it would better stand out among the other cards in the deck. We met the demonic overlord Nefarox in Magic 2013, and I thought Grixis would be the perfect place for Liliana to not only meet her next demon, but to learn some potent necromancy. Nefarox’s pact is represented by the card Diabolic Revelation (to which he contributed the flavor text). While visiting Grixis, I assumed Liliana would have enjoyed learning how to master the unearth mechanic. For my third Swamp art, I chose Shards of Alara Swamp #240 (Mark Tedin).

Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis Demon
Diabolic Revelation Pact
Corpse Connoisseur
Death Baron
Dreg Reaver
Dregscape Zombie
Duty-Bound Dead
Fleshbag Marauder
Grixis Slavedriver
Infectious Horror
Rise from the Grave
Rotting Rats
Skeletal Kathari
Viscera Dragger
Wretched Banquet
Grixis Panorama
Shards of Alara Swamp #240 (Mark Tedin)


Endless Obedience

Finally, we come to Kothophed. The cards selected to represent this infernal demon and his pact are meant to showcase Liliana in her full power. With her demonic journey complete, Liliana’s Demonic Pact restored her youth, allowing her to corrupt minds and raise armies of the undead for centuries to come. For extra flavor, I included The Chain Veil (which Kothophed sent Liliana to retrieve for him). For my final Swamp art, I chose Limited Edition Alpha Swamp #291 (Dan Frazier) because what could be more ancient and powerful than that?

Kothophed, Soul Hoarder Demon
Demonic Pact Pact
Liliana's Caress
Liliana's Reaver
Endless Obedience
Liliana's Specter
Undead Servant
Brink of Disaster
Unholy Hunger
Mind Rot
Rise of the Dark Realms
Veilborn Ghoul
The Chain Veil
Barren Moor
Blasted Landscape
Lake of the Dead
Unholy Grotto
Limited Edition Alpha Swamp #291 (Dan Frazier)

Bonus Planeswalker Gem

Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

If you noticed, this deck has one hundred one cards in it, and one of them is completely uncastable because this deck can only generate black mana (as per Commander rules). So why is it there? Nicol Bolas is the evil genius behind Liliana’s four demonic pacts. I thought it only made sense that the diabolic dragon would constantly be looming in the back of Liliana’s mind. I wanted to capture that. When you play this deck, you will always know that there is a single dead card in there waiting to ruin you. When you draw Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, he will sit in your hand, useless—constantly mocking you. These feelings are meant to put you in the mindset of Liliana, as I am sure she is continuously wondering if Nicol Bolas will ever rear his ugly head and demand her to do something for him . . . 

The Vote

Below, you can read the judges’ scoring to see how Nate and Stybs cast their ballots. However, this is your chance to score the winner of Battle Liliana, Heretical Healer.

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The Judging

Nathan Holt @walktheplanes

Nate’s the host of Walking the Planes, a documentary series about Magic: The Gathering with a healthy dose of sketch comedy (for value).

Ironroot Chefs! Let me start by saying what an honor it is to watch you do battle. Your decks may be themed on death, but the flavor is full of life! As expected, zombie themes are strong in this week's brews. So what did you do to set your recipes apart?

Challenger Erin Campbell

You were wise to venture outside your comfort zone on this one. Your Athreos deck at the Community Cup, while delicious, was all-Theros. For this battle, it would've been easy to slap together a pile of core-set classics with the name Liliana on them and call it a day. You seemed tempted to do just that, but you wisely pushed further, back into Magic's history.

My favorite aspect of your deck is with the card names and their ability to tell Liliana's story—Stab Wound, Corrupted Roots, Disturbing Plot, Hideous End, and so on. The images of Josu's tragic fate flicker through my mind. And why stop the story with sixty cards? The sideboard continues your excellent theme of narrative card names. Each of those selections comes with the care of being hand-picked, rather than, say, from a gatherer search for anything that says zombie.

I am disappointed you gave up on "the good Liliana," as you call her. There is a reason the double-faced Liliana was chosen and not any of her other incarnations. Including the "good" theme presented you with an opportunity for boldness—to flesh out her "good side" with something unusual. Instead, your deck has a bland stockpile of familiar Zombies. That's safe. Not bold.

Creativity: 2

Boldness: 1

Adherence to the Theme: 2

Ironroot Chef Ant Tessitore

A Commander deck! What a bold choice! Such a thing was explicitly forbidden at the Community Cup, but I read Gathering Magic's IRC bylaws, and no such restriction could be found. And thus the meta-game grows. Well played.

Speaking of breaking the mold . . . a Grixis Planeswalker in a mono-black Commander deck? A deck with one hundred one cards, one of which is dead? And that card is Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, whose ominous presence casts a dragon-sized shadow over Liliana? Okay, the boldness of this deck is through the roof. I'd give you a 4 if I could. Good job on bending the rules but not outright smashing them. It's cool to be iconoclastic, but not while trying too hard.

As for the overall creativity of your deck, I'm a little unimpressed. Having four demons to represent Liliana's pact is a great starting point. I just wish the execution were more creative than what appears to be a Gatherer search for Zombie and a given expansion. We get it. She makes Zombies. I'm giving you a point for your clever inclusion of the Dominarian Spirit of the Night and its Urborg Panther. Other than that, your list is somewhat uninspired.

Creativity: 1

Boldness: 3

Adherence to the Theme: 2

Adam’s Judgment

Adam Styborski @the_stybs

Adam is the Content Manager for Gathering Magic. He's a casual player at heart and weekly columnist for MagicTheGathering.com. He also travels the country for Pro Tour and Grand Prix coverage, and he shares his Pauper Cube everywhere.


Your reverence and story knowledge of Liliana is deep. Using singleton copies of cards—useful cards at that—to tie together the threads of her tale was wonderful. The use of a sideboard as a way to season the deck to taste was clever.

What I don’t understand is the Zombie-tribal thrust. Yes, Liliana raises hordes of zombies as a necromancer, but she starts as a humble healer trying to save lives—like her brother’s. I would have loved to see more nods to her work as a healer being affected by death. Loyal Cathar, Intrepid Hero, or something else that isn’t a zombie affair to tie her healer side in would have been appreciated, particularly when so much room is available in the block of four-of Zombies.

My score awards you points for finding great ways to explore her planeswalking history while acknowledging that more could have been done with her healer beginnings:

Creativity: 3

Boldness: 2

Adherence to Theme: 2


Creating a Commander deck was a surprise. Again, as in your last challenge, applying more rules to an already healthy dose of difficulty is testament to your approach as an Ironroot Chef. And like your competitor, you focused on the Planeswalker side of Liliana. Using the space afforded by Commander, you delved into the depths to explore the four demons she made pacts with.

But we only knew two.

Like last week, you added details that weren’t part of the original challenge. Not only that, just like your competitor, you also missed highlighting her healer beginnings. There are no nods to her originally noble efforts that turned more desperate and depraved over time—there are just demons and what their pacts might entail.

My scoring for you reflects your willingness to challenge and explore how far a theme can go, though it also notes how you again extended into invented themes that could have been served with a tighter focus on her beginnings—though the invented demons are indeed more on-theme than your last effort, and the Nicol Bolas garnish was a sweet sight to behold.

Creativity: 2

Boldness: 3

Adherence to Theme: 2

Voting closes midnight Thursday, and the first winner will be announced Friday (7/3/2015). Follow @IronrootChef on Twitter for the final score and victory announcement and to share your ideas for secret ingredients. Our chairman Nate will continue to use your suggestions to challenge our chefs to the core.

And if you think you have what it takes to challenge the chefs, send an email to IronrootChef AT gmail DOT com with all of your flavorful qualifications. We’re looking for new Ironroot Chefs soon.

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