Friends in Dark Places

Posted in Serious Fun on July 28, 2015

By Bruce Richard

Bruce's games invariably involve several friends, crazy plays, and many laughs. Bruce believes that if anyone at your table isn't having fun, then you are doing it wrong.

This article was co-written with help from Daryl Bockett.

Have you met a player with a strong preference for a particular color? I personally try to play every color. I may lean slightly towards white cards, but I play a little bit of everything. I like green cards, red cards, and black cards. I like colorless and gold cards. I like creatures, sorceries, and artifacts. I play pretty much everything.

One of my fellow writers, GatheringMagic's Daryl Bockett, is as black a mage as I've ever met. His decks are almost all either mono-black, or include black cards. His focus always has been that way. If you're willing to pay the price, black cards can do pretty much anything, and there is no price Daryl isn't willing to pay.

Erebos, God of the Dead | Art by Peter Mohrbacher

With this being Liliana Week, it seemed natural to get Daryl's opinion on Liliana and ask how he intends to use her in his decks. Here's how our conversation went down:

Bruce Richard: Daryl, I know you're excited about Liliana, Heretical Healer/Defiant Necromancer. Let's focus on Liliana the creature for a bit. My first impression was that a 2/3 with lifelink for three mana seems like a good deal.

Daryl Bockett: For the other planeswalkers in Magic Origins, it makes sense to give a careful look to their creature side. Many times they will likely die before they get a chance to flip. That will almost never be an issue with Liliana, since she flips so easily. Creatures die in black decks. All the time. It is just part of the service they owe to their dark lord. If you can't manipulate your opponents into killing your creatures, then you can do it yourself with ease. Attrition is an excellent example here.

The real benefit of the creature side is that it replaces the Heretical Healer that you lose with a 2/2 Zombie. Between tribal benefits and just having another body to block with, that benefit is tangible.

BR: It seems the planeswalker side of the card is far more interesting. While we can look at it as a whole in a bit, let's focus on each ability. The first one, the +2 ability, seems like a bit of a non-starter for me. Forcing everyone to discard a card just doesn't seem like much of anything.

DB: To see the real benefit of this ability, you need to understand how necromancers approach the game. Discarding a card is simply changing the source; rather than casting the card from your hand, you cast it from your graveyard. Black does that better than any other color, so discarding a card doesn't make much difference to a black mage.

A second benefit lies in everyone becoming hellbent. Black players can play off the top of their libraries better than anyone, particularly with a Liliana planeswalker on the battlefield. Past Lilianas have let you find Swamps or tutor for any card in your deck. This Liliana forces the discard. Blue players can't counter spells or respond to anything you're doing without cards in hand! Forcing everyone to discard is a strategy, not a drawback.

BR: The second ability is where I see Liliana starring. Getting creatures back from your graveyard directly into the battlefield for no mana cost that turn seems outrageously good.

DB: This is truly solid, although it doesn't reach her full potential. Cards that can provide repeated graveyard recursion can be all-stars. Liliana does it slowly enough that it won't likely cause any degenerative loops, but there are plenty of smaller creatures I'd love to see come back every turn to give me a solid advantage.

When you start looking at cards like Spread the Sickness, Grim Affliction, Contagion Clasp, and Contagion Engine, you see that her second ability offers you a lot more than just recycling your three-drops before Liliana dies, and after plusing her up just once, she can bring back some serious power. Imagine second turn Rotting Rats, discarding Liliana's Reaver, third turn Liliana, fourth turn Merciless Executioner, flipping Liliana and activating her discard ability. On the fifth turn you may well be able to reanimate Liliana's Reaver, leaving Lili herself on one loyalty, and you still haven't tapped any mana.

BR: You seem to suggest that her third ability is where her true power lies. While I have no doubt it is a game-changer, I don't tend to value third abilities that cost so much, since it seems like I can't rely on it happening at all. Without help, Liliana won't hit the third ability for four turns.

DB: I see her third ability as where she really stars. You petty mortals are so bound by rules and conformity that you can't dare to dream big. You focus on the limits and difficulty, then decide her second ability is better than the third. I focus on her ultimate ability, and will do whatever is required to reach that goal. If Liliana teaches us anything, it's that you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it . . . and are willing to barter your soul (or someone else's) in the right corners of the Dark Realms.

If Liliana is your commander, there's no excuse for not getting to her ultimate every game. There are numerous proliferate engines, including Throne of Geth and Spine of Ish Sah (which has some tasty dark flavor), along with Geth's Grimoire and perhaps Geth himself. Your opponents will try to stop you, but they'll struggle if they don't have any cards in hand. You might even benefit from their reluctance to attack you if you already have Liliana, Heretical Healer and another untapped creature. Most discard creatures (Ravenous Rats, Liliana's Specter, etc.) are only too happy to die once they've taken a bite out of an opponent's hand, and Fleshbag Marauder, Slum Reaper and Merciless Executioner should be the first cards you put in this deck after Lili herself. In fact, I've put together a little something to get you started.

Defiant Heresy

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Liliana, Heretical Healer

BR: I like the proliferate options, particularly with several planeswalkers and Black Sun's Zenith in the deck. I would have thought you'd want more mass removal, a la Damnation or Languish, to get all the creatures on the battlefield, but instead you seem to have focused on forcing your opponents to sacrifice their creatures. Was there a reason for that?

DB: I particularly like the Core Prowler as a proliferate option. You can sacrifice the Prowler, which causes Liliana to flip, then proliferate her Loyalty counters! I opted for the planeswalkers and -1/-1 counter tech to take advantage of all the proliferation. I find that sacrifice effects on creatures cost less mana for a similar sweeping effect in many cases, and their synergy with Liliana is superb, flipping her immediately. With enough reanimation, they will be able to keep the board clear and protect Liliana from most threats—and when she goes ultimate, a single Slum Reaper will ensure that you control every creature on the board for the rest of the game. Languish is a great new addition to the necromantic arsenal, joining old favorites like Innocent Blood, Barter in Blood and Life's Finale.

Black Sun's Zenith | Art by Daniel Ljunggren

BR: How do you hope the deck will play out? I assume you want to flip Liliana as quickly as possible, then protect her with creatures until you are ready to get the emblem? I would think the trick would be to try not to kill off your opponents' best creatures until you have the emblem, but ensuring they are not killing you or Liliana before that can happen?

DB: Playing black is all about killing everything all the time. I wouldn't hesitate to extinguish any creature on the board, because the only goal that matters is helping Liliana to reach her ultimate. When that happens, most opponents will be forced to play their best creatures to try and stop you, so I don't imagine there will ever be a lack of tasty treats for Liliana to savor. If someone tries to hold back the creatures in their hand, you can reanimate the creatures in their graveyard, or simply recur your own. The biggest concern are those who win without creatures, or rely primarily on their commander, whom Liliana will usually not be able to seduce to her side of the table.

The biggest difficulty for the neophyte necromancer is the constant discard. There is perhaps only one card in here—Corpse Dance—that I would even hesitate to discard if it meant helping Liliana to ascend. Remember, black isn't good with moderation, so kill everything that comes at you and discard with wild abandon, and the dark powers that be will reward you!

BR: Considering the entire Liliana creature/planeswalker package, I can see this being a feature of a deck similar to the Commander list we just talked about, or a utility card in another deck that focuses on the recursion aspect. This Liliana is also multicolor-friendly. While the casting cost does include two black mana, the abilities don't demand an all-black deck to make it work. I can see this helping in any color pair or even three-color deck. Bringing your Siege Rhino back from the dead offers all sorts of good times!

DB: Necromancers work best on their own. Your common mind mages, fire "wizards" and assorted quasi-mystic hippies lack the imagination to harness the power that Liliana offers, and would only get in her way. After all, would you prefer to hold off on transforming Liliana until one of your hapless elves gets crushed squeakily under the boots of an attacker, or trips over a dandelion and hurts itself? Or do you want to take control of the situation yourself and sacrifice a marauding bag of necrotic flesh that wipes away all of your opponents' forces at a stroke? The discerning mage knows that true power emanates from the shadows, and doesn't waste time dabbling in lesser forces.[1]

I want to thank Daryl for his help this week. For those of you with questions about the decklist or general questions for Daryl, you can find him on Twitter as @the_casual_guy. It is always nice to get a different perspective, and talking to someone who has spent as much time with the dark arts as Daryl has makes things much easier. In return for his help, he said he needed a hand with something. I just hope it isn't the right one.

Bruce Richard



[1] A more Dr. Jekyll answer to whether Liliana plays well with other colors would probably say something like "Liliana is probably the most color-neutral of this cycle of cards." Certainly Chandra is most at home in a mono-red burn deck, and Gideon, Dyslexic Hero would prefer a mono-white, or at best two-color strategy. The other two are more generic. Liliana goes in any deck that has other creatures, and none of her abilities favor black over other colors. I’ll definitely be slotting her into my three-color planeswalker deck, even though it is very light on creatures. The main thing I would say is that any deck she goes in has to be comfortable discarding, but even that doesn’t force you to play a particular color so much as it forces you to push the tempo and empty your hand as soon as possible.

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