“The Cutting Room Floor: Return of the Living Dead: Part II”
It’s amazing how much can change in the span of a single week!
Welcome back, everyone. In this article, we’re picking up exactly where we left off working on our aggro-lock deck revolving around a core of Contamination, Gravecrawler and Bitterblossom. We’re going to go a little deeper into quantity/quality consideration and alternative card choices that might be beneficial or harmful to the skeleton of the deck. By the end of this second part, we should have a solid list to work with that is both fun and competitive.
Let’s recap for a minute where we are at so far. Last week, we came up with a core group of cards that allowed us to begin strengthening the outline of an eventual working product. The fundamental concept of the deck revolves around recurring creatures in an attempt to abuse cards like Contamination that strictly benefit us while punishing or limiting opponents by crippling their resources.
That or simply attacking them to death.
To review, here is the initial list of cards we looked at as a possible starting point:
- Crucible of Worlds
- Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
- Undead Gladiator
- Dark Confidant
- Liliana of the Veil
- Cabal Therapy
- Ancient Tomb
- Mox Diamond
The theme here is quite evident when assessing what choices we’ve decided on thus far. Cards like Crucible of Worlds teaming up with Mutavault and Gravecrawler, in conjunction with Liliana of the Veil and Contamination allow us to manipulate the graveyard as a source of virtual card advantage. Most of the cards in this initial list are obviously up for debate, but I feel as though they are the best at what they do. Ultimately these cards lift the weight off solely building the deck around Contamination, which is really not what we’re trying to do here.
What we’re really doing is trying to squeeze all the advantage out of each card in the deck by layering them with additional synergies which create a dangerous set of circumstances opponents will have to deal with or risk losing the game. After a week’s worth of thinking and discussing the deck with other players within the community, I feel the deck is going in the right direction as far as an initial setup is concerned.
Right now we’re going to concern ourselves with alternative options that can be incredibly useful on their own or in combination with other cards in the deck. Be aware that some of these cards are not necessarily optimal inclusions but rather ideas generated over the last week with dozens of other folks after careful deliberation.
True power comes at a cost, and that cost could very well be consistency in a deck like this. Dark Ritual enables us some very powerful starting hands, but risks becoming a dead draw in the mid-game where many of our spells can be cast without trouble or the necessitation of large quantities of mana. For instance, Contamination is a card with a converted mana cost of three. Let’s look at this sequence of play to determine if it’s worth including:
I start the game off with a (relatively) decent hand that looks like this:
If we’re on the play, we’re looking at starting the game off with a Swamp. The next big question we have to ask ourselves is, “What are we going to cast first?” Being on the play gives us some advantage against tempo decks because we don’t have to worry about Daze or Spell Pierce stopping us from casting Ritual, which is exactly where we want to be.
Taking this into consideration, I would advocate a start of:
Swamp, Dark Ritual, Gravecrawler and Bitterblossom.
As you can see, Dark Ritual’s effectiveness has immediately put us in a dominating board position before an opponent even has a chance to play a land. That’s nothing to scoff at, and in the event an opponent has nothing to stop an Ancient Tomb into Contamination on our turn two, the game could be conceivably over before it began.
But let’s imagine for a second that an opponent does have Daze in hand. Would it really make much of a difference? Sure, it would allow the player casting it to stop a potentially game-ending enchantment, but it does nothing to quell the impending doom of a Gravecrawler dealing some damage with an assortment of faerie tokens swarming in above turn after turn. An opponent being forced to bounce a land back into his or her hand can set them back turns. Turns they need to try and get out of the mess. This is exactly what we’re going for and speaks to the strengths of what Dark Ritual can really accomplish.
Force of Will is a different beast. If an opponent sees you playing a Dark Ritual on your first turn, it can mean a few different things. As Ritual will typically resolve, a card like Bitterblossom will be countered on sight, while something like Gravecrawler should resolve. In this instance, our follow up play of turn-two Contamination off Ancient Tomb merits an immediate response as well. If unanswered, it can be a serious problem.
This is also where we have to rely on the strength of our build to allow us to recur Gravecrawler in the event Contamination sticks. We can draw a good number of spells off the top of our deck to keep the lock going, but Dark Ritual isn’t really a good one in this case. Mutavault merits notice here as tapping other mana or itself to make itself a creature (notably a zombie) allows us to recast Gravecrawler from the graveyard, thus keeping the lock in full motion. Sure, a well-timed Wasteland does something to stunt that from happening, but in a deck that contains multiple recursive elements it’s safe to assume our ability to cripple an opponent while handling our own business shouldn’t be all that difficult if we can maximize the outs in our deck.
In summation: Dark Ritual is really the opposite of general card advantage but can still enable a potentially staggering board advantage early in the game. The tradeoff is too gray of an area to work with in my opinion. This is why I think it doesn’t necessitate inclusion in what we’re trying to build, which can be described as a more controlling style of deck.
You know, I thought a lot about this card last week. This card brings back so many memories that due to sentimentality nearly hooked me on playing one or two as a “pseudo-bomb” to lay on anyone not expecting it. At worst if it’s a dead draw, you can feed it to Liliana and Undead Gladiator, which is kind of nifty. Still, I think the card is a bit too narrow overall to involve itself in a deck that should already be winning or in a dominating board state before it gets to four mana to cast this spell. So Ritual, for all intents and purposes, isn’t needed here.
That’s right, Reassembling Skeleton.
When I first considered this idea, I thought about how good it would be with Contamination by itself. It doesn’t necessitate other creatures to be in play to cast it from the graveyard and can be activated at instant speed with the enchantment’s triggered ability on the stack. Being able to bring the card back at the end of an opponent’s turn is quite interesting and its utility seems legit in a deck of this kind.
The real issue here is just how good the card is by itself, which is to say, not overly enticing. I like how it is incredibly innocuous, which could trap an opponent into letting it stick, which it should because it comes back anyhow. That being said, the card is overly dependent on resolving a Contamination, which I don’t really like. I think we’re going for cards that are just as effective on their own, instead of becoming isolated combo pieces that really don’t do much else except waste a turn. Umezawa’s Jitte can turn the Skeleton into a nasty problem, but for that price and power I’m sure we can spend our mana on better spells or creatures.
I think the ability to Demonic Tutor for any card in your deck at the cost of losing a creature is a reasonable thing to consider, especially if those creatures are coming back anyhow. Being able to find a key card at a key point in the game is a relatively powerful thing, so I can see how Diabolic Intent in conjunction with cards like Bloodghast and Gravecrawler is really good.
It’s also neat with Liliana, as you and your opponent both discard a card, for you preferably a Bloodghast, you play a land, and then ‘Intent to find something nasty like Jitte or Contamination to finish the game off. Ideal situation obviously, but I think something like this would happen far greater than one might think. I am not going to underestimate the value we’re getting out of our creatures which is why I feel using cards like Diabolic Intent is insanely good here.
There are probably hundreds of other cards we could examine for a deck like this, but for now we’ll stick to our guns and see if the initial group of cards is strong enough to run with on a competitive level. We can look at alternative lists with some of the aforementioned choices, but again let’s see how these work in an initial list.
Switching to quantities, it would be hard to pass up a full set of the core cards in the deck. We want to draw these cards to start the game off and maxing out allows us to do just that.
We also might want to include a full set of Dark Confidants and Cabal Therapies as they also give us some amazing card advantage at any point in the game, notably early on which is when we want to capitalize most. Cabal Therapy’s ability to strip an opponent’s hand of key spells is crucial and becomes even more valid with our variety of undead threats.
It’s also pseudo-acceleration with multiple Bloodghasts in your own hand and a land waiting to be dropped.
Dark Confidant’s utility goes without saying as it’s arguably the best permanent draw engine in Legacy – or Magic, for that matter.
Bloodghast is a nice recursive element and works wonders with a variety of other cards in the deck. It’s also volatile because it doesn’t really want to stay in play often with cards like Cabal Therapy and Contamination, which is generally odd for a creature. However, we want to weave the volatility of this card’s potential advantages into the fabric of this deck which is why I feel as though a full set compliments not only the power of Jitte, but the engine of Contamination that requires fuel. It’s just too multilateral to pass up four (I think) here.
Liliana of the Veil is a card that (as previously mentioned in the last article) wins games outright on its own. As a permanent-based control machine, we can use her discard ability as an obvious advantage while being able to knock out opposing threats, too. Liliana is a card that is incredibly good when it comes down early due its ability to alter the course of the game and that’s something that’s sorely needed in a mono-black deck that doesn’t need to throw its hand on the table to win games.
She has incredible synergy with many of the other cards in this deck, but she is still a planeswalker and can be obnoxious when drawn in multiples. I think three is the right number here as we want to draw her but not to the point our hands and draws are flooded with multiples.
With that said, here’s where we currently stand with our list:
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 4 Bitterblossom
- 4 Contamination
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 4 Cabal Therapy
- 4 Bloodghast
- 3 Liliana of the Veil
The oft-forgotten Undead Gladiator is a card that I feel can be incredibly potent in a deck of this kind. With Dark Confidant in the starting lineup taking the bulk of the workload drawing cards, Undead Gladiator’s discard outlet, ability to filter our hand, its inability to die, being a zombie to fulfill Gravecrawler’s recursion and attacking for a solid three damage enables this to be either a solid two or three-of.
I’m going to go with three, as I feel the card is incredibly useful in a variety of circumstances and beating for three is just fine when the situation calls for it.
Crucible of Worlds is next on our list, and we all know what this card is capable of. Enabling the deck to recur Wastelands against control variants and Mutavaults to allow for an “infinite” attacker/blocker is ideal in many situations. But the one use that really stands out is its ability to recur Mutavault(s) under the blanket of darkness that is Contamination, permanently fulfilling the upkeep cost for the rest of the game while locking an opponent out for good.
Crucible’s versatility in a variety of match ups makes for an interesting multilateral inclusion. I’m quite certain two in the main is the right call, with potentially one more in the board to shore up additional control match ups that just can’t beat a resolved one.
Umezawa’s Jitte is a card that wins games when a creature picks it up and connects with it, as most of us are aware of by this point. Slapping this on an innocuous attacker can create a variety of problems for an opponent, in addition to the advantage of acting as “removal” in match ups that also use the legendary artifact.
I like what Jitte does in the late game for a deck like this and when used in a classic combination with Bitterblossom, you don’t even need to worry about the rest of your draws, but your opponents certainly will. Its ability to kill creatures is highly relevant, as well. Three is the right number here as the card is still legendary but we want to draw it at any point in the game.
We talked a bit about Diabolic Intent, which seems like it would be really good here. It will make the sideboard even stronger as we’ll be able to search for critical board cards and it will also allow the deck to continue to run smoothly. It’s a tad situational, but I feel like running a singleton adds some positive variance in the mid-to-late game that can win games when drawn and functions as a means to increase consistency in finding what we need to win at a certain point in a given match.
Mox Diamond is a nice accelerator that powers out some nasty starts while having excellent synergy with Crucible of Worlds. We’ll consider running two to enable some potentially powerful starts while not relying solely on Mox as opening with a single land at times can be awkward when holding one or even multiples Moxes.
While not perfect, we’re making some good headway in the deck so far!
Here’s where we stand:
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 4 Bitterblossom
- 4 Contamination
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 4 Cabal Therapy
- 4 Bloodghast
- 3 Liliana of the Veil
- 3 Undead Gladiator
- 3 Umezawa’s Jitte
- 2 Crucible of Worlds
- 2 Mox Diamond
- 1 Diabolic Intent
That’s a total of thirty-eight (38) cards we have so far. Don’t forget: we’re running Crucible and Mox Diamond, so we want to make sure we have enough available land resources to enable these cards and make them plausible.
While we’re on the topic of Mox Diamond, we should consider our land count at this point. We’re only running a pair of Diamonds so we can comfortably fit twenty-two (22) lands into the deck without a problem. Generally, a set will necessitate a few more than that but we’re playing it a little safer here using the card as a ‘joker’ of sorts to compliment some potentially nasty starts.
Taking lands into consideration, here’s where I think the deck should go from here:
So we finally have a list we can work with; a sixty-card foundation. However, noticeably absent is a working sideboard that goes along with it. As most of you know, sideboards are completely open to interpretation, as are some of the card choices present in the main deck. We don’t have to run something like Diabolic Intent or Mox Diamond, but the important thing, and the real lesson behind these last two articles, is understanding why we chose the cards that we did to fill each slot in the deck. Critical thinking and being cognizant to a deck’s strengths and weaknesses is paramount in constructing a winning formula, whether or not a list is considered “optimal” right-off the bat (which most aren’t).
Optimizing any deck requires loads and loads of testing, but building a deck from the ground up is the true test of any deck builder looking to create something worthwhile. Our deck we’ve worked on here is setup to have a competitive “backbone” while still allowing the pilot to have fun when playing it. This something lost in the void of every autonomous list and can plague a format as diverse as Legacy is and should be.
Magic is like basic architecture: you visualize and conceptualize what you ultimately intend to be built. Whether or not it works is a completely different story, but that’s where initial failure can lead to eventual success, when you try your best and have fun doing it.
I hope you enjoyed this two-part series. Next week, we’re going to take a look at another card I’ve been tinkering with in a nasty but fun conceptualization; a long-forgotten rare from Urza’s Saga…