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(Don't) Get a Life



2020, the longest decade of my life, is nearly over and with only two more chances to come up with new ideas this year, I wanted to give you something I've been working on for some time. Instead of a deck this week, I wanted to give you a package that can work in any number of decks and talk about the cards unique to each commander (or pair of them) that would work to integrate the package into the deck. You can build something to your own specifications and playstyle while still achieving the same end goal as any other deck built around this package. But what is this mysterious "package" anyway? Before I talk about that, I'd like to talk about how I came up with it.

In a game on webcam, my podcast cohost Douglas Johnson, whose decks have appeared in this series before, was playing his Selenia, Dark Angel deck and someone else played Rampaging Ferocidon. That's it. That's the story.

I mean, that's not ALL that happened, but I can probably cut it off there because that interaction was simple enough to germinate in my brain and after tumbling around in the back of my mind for a few weeks, it occurred to me that it might be a lot of fun if that interaction weren't an accident. I fully intended to try and put a unique spin on Liesa, Shroud of Dusk for you this week. The plan was to cast her as much as possible, lowering your life total so you could use cards like Axis of Mortality, Repay in Kind, and Reverse the Sands. Those cards cost a ton of mana, but you could generate tokens and sac them to the altar twins, Phyrexian and Ashnod's, to mitigate some of that and give you a way to recursively cast Liesa. It was... it was honestly a pretty bad version of Selenia. You have a tough time carving your life total down trying to recast your commander. Even if you sac to altars, you still have to cough up 3 colored mana per activation. Liesa is a fun card that shuts down spellslinger decks and cascade decks, both strategies that are popping up a lot and which deals with aggro by tanking hits then swapping life totals. Liesa will feature in the deck I want to build, but won't be the commander.

Frustrated that I couldn't use a card as cool and powerful as Liesa to improve on a deck built around a bulk rare from 1996, I thought about DJ's Selenia deck, which inspired my attempt and how much fun it was with Ferocidon out. DJ could lower his own life total to 1 but if he tried to swap life totals with anyone, he would stay at 1 life because of Ferocidon. It made him more of a kingmaker and it made the game interesting. However, using a card like Axis of Mortality or Reverse the Sands to make two opponents both have the life total of whoever had the least life could be fun, and playing Reverse the Sands with a card that said "opponents can't gain life" rather than "players can't gain life" seemed like a lot of fun. If you can still gain life, you can keep your life total out of reach. While it's true a White and Black deck would have access to two such cards - Archfiend of Despair and Erebos, God of the Dead, I wanted to get those effects more reliably. Having access to Red doesn't just give us more Ferocidons that hose every player, it gives us access to Roiling Vortex and Tibalt, Rakish Instigator which just hose them. All told, we had access to a ton of effects that prevented anyone from gaining life, making effects that deal chip damage very deadly.

Liesa isn't just a big, brutal angel with Lifelink that I wanted to use to hurt myself, she is also a source of chip damage, punishing opponents for playing spells. A few of those effects in a game where players can't gain life quickly sends life totals plummeting. Painful Quandary becomes all the more painful, Ankh of Mishra becomes "bonk" of Mishra, bonking them for (this is stupid, I'm sorry I made this joke), look, chip damage hurts more when there is no way they can recover and you have quite a few cards in your deck that can let you gain life to recover. Having access to Mardu rather than just Orzhov lets me build the deck of my dreams and their nightmares.

We're going to borrow heavily from Liesa and Selenia but also include a lot of nasty cards. A lot of them will be Enchantments because this is my series and that's what I like. However, there are several angles to a pile like this, all of which can be expanded upon to fit them into a given commander. Mardu gives us an embarrassment of great options, all of which play very differently but which work well with the package. What's the package? Let's take a look.

This is... a pile, frankly. It's a lot of expensive spells, Enchantments, not much business and it doesn't look cohesive. There are some cards that rely on you gaining life and a lot that make it so you can't gain life. How do we make a deck from this? Well, as I said before, we're not going to. We're going to make several decks. Let's look at our options.

The first place my mind went was Ghen. Even though I made a Ghen deck this month, I have been playing the one I built and it has been a lot of fun. Cards like Painful Quandary and Captive Audience can shut opponents down and we can bring our enchantments back if they get blown up. Ghen is especially good for this package if we have ways to gain life because Ghen can sac a Sulfuric Vortex or Forsaken Wastes long enough for us to gain the life and then we can cast another such effect to shut the door behind us. This kind of build would be a lot of fun. I would add Painful Quandary, all three Courts (Ambition, Ire, Grace), Mogis, God of Slaughter and Trespasser's Curse. You can really lean into how good the pile of Enchantments you build can be and squeeze them out of the game.

I keep mentioning "Chip damage" because I love the concept of their life total, which can only going down, running out like sand out of an hour glass. Every life point is a resource they need to budget and every action they take isn't prevented, but will cost them. This is the epitome of our 75% approach that states it's better to punish them for doing something than prevent them from doing anything. We won't prevent them from playing lands, we'll tax them by making them pay 2 life apiece. They can sling spells but they're going to pay more than mana. Pairing chip damage to them with an aggressive deck can close the game out quickly. We have a couple of options for aggressive builds.

Silvar, Devourer of the Free paired with Trynn, Champion of Freedom is a deadly combination when your opponents can't muster a lot of blockers. Silvar grows very quickly and can easily deal someone 21 damage in two swings. This combination is usually somewhat weak and overlooked, but we have an ace up our sleeve - we will make it very painful for them to play spells. Liesa and Kambal, Consul of Allocation and a few new cards like Aether Sting and Kaervek, the Merciless make it painful for them to play a blocker or remove your attacker. You can get a lot of passive value out of your enchantments in this build - using Assemble the Legion and Outlaws' Merriment to give you a board to swing with or feed to Silvar and they'll need to take damage to play enough cards to keep up, further chipping away at their life total. Soon, you'll form a prison of cards from which there is no escape as they can't afford to play anything and you gain life to stay out of your own cards' grasp.

If you prefer attacking with your commander, Licia, Sanguine Tribute is an excellent choice because you can easily pivot your strategy based on what you draw. If you get cards that prevent them from gaining life but not you, go on the offensive, stacking her power with Unspeakable Symbol to hit even harder. If you draw ways to swap life totals, you can pay 5 life per turn to shrink your total to pass it on to someone else, or continue to sacrifice and replay her to chip away faster. If no one is gaining life, a well-timed Reverse the Sands can bring everyone down to your level, allowing you to sac your Ferocidon or Sulfuric Vortex to Claws of Gix and let you gain a ton of life with a swing from your commander, leaving you the only one with life points.

If you want to get deeper with your enchantments but still have a lot of creatures to do battle with, as a sort of hybrid of the Ghen and Licia decks, both Mathas, Fiend Seeker and Queen Marchesa are good options. Mathas plus a card like Erebos, God of the Dead means you can gain life but opponents can't, turning a potential group hug build into group... high five deck. They get cards but you chip away at their life and you can still pit opponents against each other. Queen Marchesa makes use of the Monarch mechanic to encourage players to attack which can make the game go much faster, especially if they can't gain any life with their Shadowspears. There are a lot of new Monarch cards from Commander Legends and I have been itching to try them all out in a Queen Marchesa deck. Being the Monarch means they'll try and attack you to gain the crown for themselves, a deadly mistake when you use Magus of the Mirror to make your dwindling life total their own instead.

You can shave a few cards out of the package we built to really target certain aspects of it. If you lean heavily into lifelink, you can add every card that says "Whenever you gain life, an opponent loses that much life" such as Sanguine Bond, Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose, and Defiant Bloodlord. A deck with Bruse Tarl, Boorish Herder and Tymna, the Weaver in the command zone would give you plenty of chances to gain life, having two commanders each with lifelink, ready to give them life loss triggers. Wound Reflection would further widen the life gap until you had too much and they had too little and you were able to finish the job with Exquisite Blood, Pyrohemia, or Exsanguinate.

Finally, something like this is an interesting twist on Edgar Markov, a deck that is powerful but also a bit obvious. Cards that rarely make the cut in that deck such as Indulging Patrician, Cliffhaven Vampire, and Epicure of Blood. Campaign of Vengeance and cards with Extort can make your cheap, small vampires that much more impactful and the amount of damage you can deal quickly can overwhelm opponents and prevent them from recovering.

With cards like Tunnel Ignus and Ankh of Mishra to punish ramp decks, cards like Kambal, Consul of Allocations and Liesa, Shroud of Dusk to punish spellslinger decks, and cards like Erebos, God of the Dead and Tibalt, Rakish Instigator to cheat and let you gain life while your opponents cannot, there are lots of ways to attack the game. Find your favorite angle, find one of the dozen excellent Mardu commanders (or an interesting combination like Vial Smasher the Fierce and Ravos, Soultender) and build. Mardu can keep the fastest player from getting too far ahead by punishing their greed all while letting you opt out of playing by the rules established by your cards. If that doesn't win you the game, I don't know what will.

That does it for me this week. Join me next week for the grand 2020 year in review where I'll talk about everything we learned from each other this year and what I want to explore in 2021 and beyond. This has been a long and grueling year but this column has been a bright spot for me and I hope it has been for you, too. Until next time!

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