Soul Survivor

Posted in From the Lab on January 15, 2014

By Mike Cannon

Mike Cannon started writing From the Lab at the end of 2012 after two years with GatheringMagic. He is an ardent casual player and loves finding uses for bad cards.

Hello laboratorians! Today, I get to help preview Born of the Gods, and I've got an exciting treat to share with you all.

A Deal with the Devil

Exchanging a creature on the battlefield for one in the graveyard is something we haven't seen very much of lately. Deathpact Angel's token does this to some extent, but can only bring back the Angel itself, and Rescue from the Underworld brings back the sacrificed creature as well. In Magic's earlier days this effect was more common, appearing on cards like Victimize, Soul Exchange, Loyal Retainers, and Hell's Caretaker. Even Doomed Necromancer, one of the more recent additions, last saw print five years ago. If you haven't guessed it already, my preview card for today is bringing this effect back. Meet Champion of Stray Souls.

The danger of many of the previous cards allowing you to sacrifice creatures to reanimate others was that this was used as a drawback, making the card cost less mana. As it turns out, having an inexpensive spell like this can set the scene for powerful reanimator decks, despite any drawbacks the card may have. Champion of Stray Souls dodges this issue by simply going bigger. It costs more mana than its predecessors, but also has a significantly larger effect. This makes it less appealing for Standard and Modern, but significantly more appealing for Commander and other casual formats.

In casual play, having more than two players at the table is quite common. With multiple opponents to take down, games last longer, thereby reducing the effectiveness of traditional aggressive strategies. Huge creatures and big spells become the focus as players engage in a never-ending arms race. This is where Champion of Stray Souls really shines.

As the game drags on, many of your large threats will undoubtedly be killed by your opponents in an effort to prevent you from taking over. Champion of Stray Souls allow you to sacrifice a few tokens or smaller utility creatures in order to bring back all of your heavy hitters. This effect can suddenly flood the battlefield with titanic threats, putting you far ahead of your opponents. In addition, the ability can be activated at instant speed, greatly reducing the window of opportunity in which your opponents can react before they get their faces smashed in.

The second ability on Champion of Stray Souls can be quite valuable as well, ensuring you don't run out of threats even if your opponent has killed all of your large creatures. You can even use cards that put creatures from your library into your graveyard to effectively tutor for the Champion, since it can then be put on top of your library. These cards also give you targets for the Champion's reanimation ability.


After marveling at the potential value Champion of Stray Souls can give you when used correctly, my next thought, of course, was that there must be a way to go infinite with it. To do this would require a way to repeatedly untap the Champion, a way to produce the requisite five mana each time, and a way to take advantage of repeatedly sacrificing and reanimating creatures.

The first part was the easiest. Thornbite Staff is a card I am quite familiar with, and when equipped to Champion of Stray Souls, it will untap it at least once per activation, usually even more. Since the Champion isn't a Shaman, you'll have to pay the fairly pricey equip cost, but then again the Champion itself costs six mana, so you'll need to have that much anyway.

Thornbite Staff

Next, I had to figure out how to make five mana upon each activation of the Champion. Initially I gravitated toward Priest of Gix. This idea worked, but pulling it off required a Priest of Gix and a Cathodion in the graveyard, as well as one of each on the battlefield. Without other good options for producing the black part of the cost, my mind turned elsewhere.

It occurred to me early on that creatures that produce tokens when they enter the battlefield would produce a lot of value when combined with Champion of Stray Souls. Taking this idea further, I reasoned that I could get the mana I required through this avenue. Carnival of Souls was one option, but would require a way to counteract the life loss, and Mana Echoes requires red and only produces colorless mana.

In the end, I settled on the old combo staples, Ashnod's Altar and Phyrexian Altar. Phyrexian Altar alone will work, but adding in Ashnod's Altar reduces the number of creatures required to net one mana from six to four, making the combo easier to pull off.

Ashnod's Altar
Phyrexian Altar

Now, for the token-makers. I initially experimented with cards like Marsh Flitter before discovering that I needed to use the creatures that made the highest number of tokens, regardless of other factors. Sengir Autocrat provides a very high number of tokens for its mana cost, with the drawback that they don't stick around when the Autocrat dies. This may occasionally cause problems, but most of the time you'll be sacrificing those tokens to Altars anyway.

Abhorrent Overlord can make a huge number of tokens in a dedicated devotion deck. Here, however, you can expect between four and six on average. Since you'll need the Overlord itself as well as Champion of Stray Souls, you'll always get at least four tokens, and any Sengir Autocrats you have on the battlefield will provide an extra boost.

Sengir Autocrat
Abhorrent Overlord

Finally, Myr Battlesphere also produces four tokens for seven mana. Not the greatest efficiency, perhaps, but the raw number of tokens is what matters most, and keeping the deck mono-black provides other benefits I'll talk about later.

So, here's what you'll need to pull off the combo: one Champion of Stray Souls equipped with Thornbite Staff, Phyrexian Altar (with or without Ashnod's Altar in addition), and any combination of creatures able to produce six or more tokens. (Four or more if you have Ashnod's Altar.)

Here's how it works: Sacrifice the real creatures for mana, then any additional tokens required to make 3 ManaBlack ManaBlack Mana. Then activate the first ability on Champion of Stray Souls, sacrificing the requisite number of tokens to bring back the real creatures. After you've activated the ability, Thornbite Staff's triggers will go on the stack and untap the Champion, probably twice. Don't worry about the extra triggers, you don't need them.

At this point, you should have either one or more extra tokens or one colorless mana floating from Ashnod's Altar. Repeating this process an arbitrarily large number of times will give you an enormous token army. If you instead produced colorless mana, go through the process again using that mana each time instead of sacrificing creatures to Ashnod's Altar. This will also leave you with an arbitrarily large number of tokens. Note that all of this can be done at instant speed, so if you like, you can wait until your opponent's end step to make your infinite army.

This combo requires a lot of pieces, so I've included a few tutors to help you out. Diabolic Tutor is relatively inexpensive at four mana, and Increasing Ambition allows you to search up two more cards if you have the mana to pay the flashback cost. I've also included one Karn Liberated as a super removal spell you can tutor up if needed.

Increasing Ambition
Karn Liberated

You'll also need quite a bit of mana to pull this off. Fortunately, staying mono-black makes that much easier. Cabal Coffers is notorious for its extreme mana production. Essentially, every Swamp after your third will count as two, jumping you from four mana to six, then eight, and so on. With Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, Cabal Coffers is also a Swamp and therefore counts itself. This makes drawing multiples early in the game much more palatable.

Altar of Souls

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Sweet, Sweet Soul

For the second deck, I decided to do something a bit different. Rather than another infinite combo, this deck is largely based on flavor. Initially, I was anxious about finding enough cards to fit into a souls theme. As it turns out, however, Magic has focused on souls far more than I realized.

After Champion of Stray Souls, the first card I added was Lost Soul. Not the most powerful card perhaps, but the flavor connection is far too good to pass up. The deck really kicked off when I added Wall of Souls and Souls of the Faultless. Not only do they fit the soul theme quite well, they are also pretty good cards in their own right, defending your life total while threatening your opponent's.

Wall of Souls
Souls of the Faultless

Oftentimes, souls are represented as 1/1 Spirit tokens. The best-known example of this is Lingering Souls. Spirit tokens are also quite good for sacrificing to the first ability on Champion of Stray Souls. Although Lingering Souls is a more popular example, using tokens to represent souls is not a new thing. Field of Souls did this back in Tempest , and it also happens to work quite well with Champion of Stray Souls, making a token for each normal creature you sacrifice.

March of Souls can be used to clear the board of creatures, giving you some time to stabilize. It also fits with the flavor theme. You can even bring back your own creatures using Cauldron of Souls. Giving your creatures persist also allows them to come back after being sacrificed to the Champion.

Skeletal Grimace can be used to protect Champion of Stray Souls, and the card name meshes quite nicely with the Champion's art. I've also included Seize the Soul as a flavorful removal spell that can be used a second time when you sacrifice the haunted creature.

March of Souls
Seize the Soul

Entomb and Buried Alive explain how the souls became separated from their bodies in the first place, and both work well to set up the Champion's ability. Fitting with the reanimation theme and the soul flavor, Soul Exchange allows you to exile one of your Spirit tokens to get back a creature from your graveyard.

Using this reanimation theme effectively requires some big creatures to bring back, so I've selected two that fit with the flavor of the deck. Demon of Death's Gate and Lord of the Void both represent guardians of realms that might be inhabited by stray souls. They also both happen to be enormous flying creatures great for killing opponents quickly. Demon of Death's Gate can even be cast from your hand if you're willing to sacrifice some life and a few Spirit tokens.

Demon of Death's Gate
Lord of the Void

The Cavern of Souls is another place where souls are likely to be found, for obvious reasons. It also makes Champion of Lost Souls uncounterable, making sure your opponent can't Cancel your plans. Finally, wherever you can find souls in abundance, you might find a Phyrexian Soulgorger chowing down. It can munch on Spirit tokens while attacking for 8 until you decide to stop feeding it.

Soul Flavor

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A Bittersweet Ending

If you liked this kind of flavor-based deck, let me know through email or Twitter by clicking the links below. Do you want to see more? If so, how often? If you hated it, drop me line as well. All constructive feedback is welcome here at the Lab. After all, you can't make a proper experiment without data.

Additionally, check back here next week for another awesome preview card. Whereas Champion of Lost Souls is fairly straightforward, this one is a bit tougher to figure out how to use. I'm never one to back down from a challenge, however, and I've come up with a couple interesting ways to take advantage of this odd little gem. See you next time!

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