Hello and welcome. Now, if you will, consider the lich. Lurking in the seediest alleyways of Magic's spellscape, this subset of cards reek of raw power, but it's often saddled with an abrasive tendency to hurt you. The original enchantments (Lich and its Odyssey descendant, Nefarious Lich) affected the board much as steaming globs of black mana ought to, offering a twisted wormhole between gaining life and drawing cards. Common side-effects, however, include your opponent bouncing it back to your hand and subsequently killing you. (Donating and bouncing a Lich was always a fun game plan.)
In later years, liches would expand to other card types. The two lich artifacts seem like they would be well-worn objects in any lich's utility belt. Lich's Tomb captures that old "I'm undead and miserable" vibe, while Lich's Mirror pulls an otherwise impossible trick: actually dodging a loss. Even a seemingly narrow function like that can be bent to an advantage, though. For instance, you can cause your opponent to lose an infinite number of times! (Click this link for that deck if that logline entices you.)
More recently, liches have finally crept into living matter. Cards like Phylactery Lich and Dralnu, Lich Lord embody the infernal trade of bloated power for future sacrifice. The former is mostly a huge beater, but Dralnu enables an array of fun decks. For example, trade him to an opponent and then roast him with a giant Harvest Pyre. Goodbye, opponent's permanents.
Okay, so that's the Lab's spin on the history and capable insanity of liches in three paragraphs. They've always been intriguing and potent cards. I thought it'd be nice to write the prologue to lichdom, right before my preview card breaks your mind and shoots to the top of the "Best Lich Ever" list. For once, this lich doesn't need to exchange controllers to set up a ridiculous Johnny-approved situation. Havengul Lich does that right away. The very last thing I want to do is give it away. Even as a preview. It's that nuts. Ready yourself. Click here.
Back on Earth? Ready to keep assimilating my text? I wouldn't be surprised if you need some more time to gasp, or kneel, or any other type of celebratory behavior.
Havengul Lich unleashes the following devastating ability into the channel of possible Magic play: "Cast a target creature card from any graveyard." For a mere one colorless mana, this lich opens up all graveyards and dumps them on my spellcasting palette for a turn. Creatures you've axed from the other side of the board can become your unwilling slaves. Creatures within your original ranks can return after they've fallen.
Havengul Lich | Art by James Ryman
The amount of potential versatility here is stunning, and I haven't even mentioned that last delectable line of text. I have a mild obsession with cards that engage in splicing activated abilities between my creatures. It's another mini-club that Havengul Lich gets to be a part of. I can just see it entering the exclusive room, eating crackers and bumping fists with Skill Borrower and nodding intently at the quivering gulf of goo in the corner. (That's what happens when Experiment Kraj, Quicksilver Elemental, and Necrotic Ooze—a former Lab preview card!—have refreshments in a little room together.)
As a collective whole, when I first digested Havengul Lich in preparation for this article, the card's two sentences of rules text slammed me like a pair of dual-wielded grin-hammers to the face. (When grin-hammers hit you, you grin. Just clarifying.) Casting creatures from graveyards seems rife with absurd possibilities, and the channeling of activated abilities is the perfect cherry on top. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I feel like Havengul Lich exists specifically to blow people away. I like these kinds of cards. (Hey, another preferred sub-group!)
So let's dive into all the subtle strategies that Havengul Lich opens up. Fair warning: I traditionally take a scattered approach to cards that bend my mind. (It's not a choice.)
- Lich Ligaments
Let's examine this card one crazy ability at a time. With Havengul Lich on the battlefield, all creatures in graveyards basically can jump into your hand for one colorless mana. This fuels many strategies. Cards like Mulldrifter and Shriekmaw can get into the graveyard by themselves, and be cast later through the Lich. You can even evoke them from your graveyard, creating various engines (: draw two cards, anyone? to repeatedly destroy a nonblack creature seems good too). These thoughts led me to consider any creature that can sacrifice itself for a profit of some kind. Havengul Lich turns those creatures into engines. Death Cultist, for example, becomes : drain 1 life from target player. Hapless Researcher becomes : draw and discard a card, which could be handy for loading my graveyard with Lich fodder.
Then there's that activated-ability leeching. Maneuvering the battlefield to take proper advantage of this ability is actually kind of tricky. Having Havengul Lich cast something like Dimir Guildmage seems sort of pointless when you think about it. Why not just activate the Guildmage itself? No, in order to truly grasp the Lich's final ability, you need to mess around with tap abilities. It's perfect. Havengul Lich effectively acts as a Thousand-Year Elixir. Cast a Merfolk Looter for and immediately tap the Lich to loot. If you fill your graveyard early, you could cast an Avatar of Woe for and kill a creature in a snap.
An aggressive take on a Havengul Lich deck would see the Lich returning many huge beaters, ensuring an endless mob of attackers. Land an efficient creature on each turn and by the time the Lich is up and running, you can return all your fallen dudes to demoralize your opponent. Kick off your game with quick beaters like Oona's Prowler (who can subconsciously tell your opponent to discard creatures for the Lich to resurrect later). The three-drop slot can be covered by cards like Vexing Sphinx or Dusk Urchins, who both attack for suitable chunks of damage and dabble in drawing and discarding. The four-drop slot is stacked with fat behemoths. Cards like Abyssal Persecutor, Phyrexian Obliterator, and Phantasmal Dragon might lie on the Modern end of things, but I would be shirking my responsibilities if I didn't mention the quirkier choices. Waning Wurm is a cheap 7/6 that gets back into the graveyard easily. And Desecration Elemental, a reject rare from back in the day, stands tall as an 8/8 with fear (or intimidate). Sure, it often sacrifices itself, but Havengul Lich turns that drawback around. Finally, I've always been a fan of Clones, and last year generated three delightful Clone variants. Evil Twin and Phyrexian Metamorph seem even better with Havengul Lich offering a life of undeath. Phantasmal Image more so, due to its Illusion-ary fragility.
I feel the deck-building juices stirring. This aggressively charged angle needs one more spark, though. I took inspiration from one of my Innistrad preview cards, Heartless Summoning. This enchantment reduces the cost of your creatures, whether cast from your hand or the graveyard. In that article I expounded upon the importance of five drops. Havengul Lich is one of the better ones to enter this current environment. With other pieces floating around in recent years, I decided to go ahead and build a casual Standard deck based around this idea. But it's not just a mindless attacking deck. Hidden within is a moment of maximum potential.
There's a lot of swirling parts. The deck's creatures all like to be reduced by Heartless Summoning (okay, not in power). Phantasmal Dragon becomes a 4/4 (although delicate) flier for and Murder of Crows shows up on turn three as a 3/3 flying Fecundity.
But the real key is Jace's Archivist. I've spoken this card's praises before, and this deck allows this Windfall machine to really shine. The Archivist allows for mass draw and discard, hopefully loading the graveyard with swaths of creatures. Plus, Liching it back is like the cure to its summoning sickness (in a sense). And it doesn't die to Heartless Summoning!
Let me explain the artifacts. Culling Dais is a recent pet card of mine, as it ices any extra creatures and turns them into a stockpile of charge counters, which then can become a decently sized scoop of cards. Solemn Simulacrum provides much-needed mana acceleration, chump blocking, and card drawing. In a pinch, returning the Solemn Simulacrum with Havengul Lich isn't a bad plan. Perilous Myr, meanwhile, is bonkers in this list. As a 1/1 for two colorless mana, Heartless Summoning turns it into a free Shock. But with Havengul Lich calling the shots, that becomes a nigh-forbidden engine. : 2 damage to anything?!
Finally, here's that infinite combo that I hinted at pre-list. Be warned, it requires at least seven mana to occur. You need Heartless Summoning and Havengul Lich on the battlefield, and Grimgrin, Corpse-Born and Bloodline Keeper in your graveyard. For , cast them both from your graveyard. Then, go nuts. Use the Lich's newfound Vampire-birthing ability to spawn a 2/2 token and promptly eat it with its newfound creature-eating ability. This allows the Lich to get infinite +1/+1 counters through continuous tapping and untapping.
If you had two more mana, you could then cast Trespassing Souleater and pay 2 life to make your gigantic Lich unblockable. The best part of the combo is that those creatures are deadly useful on their own. Grimgrin is totally stupid, and the Keeper can distract your opponent by being a one-Vampire army. Getting those three creatures into your graveyard won't be too difficult with Jace's Archivist being his crazy self.
Well, that's a wrap for this preview article. I hope I at least encouraged you all to ruminate on this insane creature. Stay tuned for more amazing Dark Ascension previews in the coming weeks (including one in this very column a week from now!).