Necropotence. One of the all-timers. From laughably misunderstood to restricted in Vintage and banned in Legacy, it has one of the most fascinating arcs of any card in the game.

I'm not going to get into all that here. Well, maybe some of it … especially the parts that intertwine my life and career at Wizards with that of Erik Lauer, the lead vision designer of Modern Horizons 3.

The scene: late 1995, University of Pittsburgh student union food court. Some Magic players from nearby Carnegie Mellon University, including Lauer and Andrew Cuneo, were holding court about Necropotence, a card that a gaming magazine had recently blasted as the worst rare in Ice Age. "This card is actually insane," they were saying. I didn't catch all the details, but the conversation itself led me and a few other Pitt players to reevaluate Necro.

We came up with the combo of Necro and Zur's Weirding—another new card at the time—and built a Vintage deck that tried to set up a lock with those two cards and Ivory Tower. The goal was to get all three cards in play, fill your hand up to seven, and sit there doing nothing other than denying your opponent every draw with Zur's Weirding. You'd gain 3 life per turn from the Tower, spend two of it on the Weirding payment, and deck your opponent slowly, as you were no longer drawing cards yourself.

I borrowed the Power Nine cards I didn't own and took the deck to a tournament at a nearby library that weekend. And that's where I met Mike Turian, future teammate and coworker. I was paired up with (a then very young) Mike in Round 1 and proceeded to deck him twice. In typical stubborn manner, he made us play the whole thing out, twice. "Can I have Savannah?" "No." "Done." "Gain 3, your turn." "Can I have Erhnam Djinn?" "No." Etcetera.

The funniest part of the story is, thanks to an odd number of players and manual pairings, I had to play Mike again in Round 2, and the same scene played out! I'll never get those hours of my life back. I ended up finishing second in that event, winning a Firestorm Phoenix from Legends (which I still own).

Eventually we'd find out exactly what the CMU crown meant when they said Necro was insane, and it had nothing to do with Zur's Weirding. Randy Buehler went on to win Pro Tour Chicago 1997 with a deck that would go down in history as Lauerpotence. It featured the then controversial Demonic Consultation to find Necro early and consistently, then it would bury the opponent in card advantage, wiping the board with Firestorm, refueling life, and eventually winning with Lake of the Dead–powered Drain Lifes. It was a masterpiece of understanding Magic's resource system and how to exploit cards that circumvented it.

2 Bad River 4 Badlands 3 Gemstone Mine 3 Lake of the Dead 4 Scrubland 8 Swamp 1 Ihsan's Shade 4 Knight of Stromgald 4 Order of the Ebon Hand 4 Demonic Consultation 3 Disenchant 4 Drain Life 2 Firestorm 4 Hymn to Tourach 2 Incinerate 4 Lightning Bolt 4 Necropotence 2 Circle of Protection: Black 1 Disenchant 1 Firestorm 3 Honorable Passage 2 Mind Warp 3 Pyroblast 3 Terror

There's a path you can follow from that deck to where I sit now, fortunate to be previewing cards for Modern Horizons 3. Buehler's Pro Tour win inspired me to try to play on the Pro Tour, which I managed to achieve exactly one year later in Chicago 1998. Randy went on to be hired by Wizards R&D a little while later (ostensibly to help them stop printing cards as absurd as Necropotence), which planted the seed in my brain that working for Wizards on Magic was a path available to people like me. And in 2001, that became a reality when I was hired to be the first editor and content manager for this very website. Eventually I moved into R&D, we hired Lauer (and Turian), Buehler moved into a digital games position, and I took over running the game design department. Years later, still here, I tapped Lauer to lead the design of Modern Horizons 3, and within it, he put in an homage to Necropotence. Life is one big circle.

The homage:

0102_MTGMH3_Main: Necrodominance 0411_MTGMH3_RetroMH3: Necrodominance


As a designer, there's always a temptation to try to repair something that didn't quite work out right the first time, be it an entire setting, a mechanic, or an individual card. Necropotence is a card that folks have tried "repairing" in the past, most notably Mark Rosewater's Yawgmoth's Bargain from Urza's Destiny. It was actually better than Necro in multiple ways, offset by a much heftier mana cost, but it turned out to be correct to sell out with as many fast mana (Dark Ritual, Grim Monolith) and other cheats (most famously Academy Rector) to get that card into play, regardless of how much of your hand it cost you, because you'd almost always be able to win once it resolved. Not exactly a fix.

Phyrexian Arena from Apocalypse was the much, much safer fix a couple of years later. And while that card has a bit of a tournament pedigree, it's legal in Standard right now and doesn't really get played there or in Pioneer, and certainly not in top-tier Modern.

Trying to design a "fixed" Necropotence for Modern was a tricky problem because effects like Necro scale in power as the formats they're played in scale. (As I said, banned in Legacy, but you may have tried drafting it in Wilds of Eldraine as part of the Enchanting Tales bonus sheet, where it didn't always work out well.) Therefore, several power checks had to be put in place.

  1. Legendary

This probably seems like oddest change, as this isn't a "famous enchantment from lore," nor does it seem like something that you'd benefit from having multiple of out at the same time. It is here as a power knob, however, because there is a benefit to having multiples in play, most notably when you pair it with cheap instants that can gain you life, Soul Spike from Coldsnap being the biggest potential offender. You could let one Necrodominance trigger resolve, pay a bunch to draw a bunch, pitch several cards to a Soul Spike or two, then refill again with the second one. You'll have to settle for one reload per turn, and being legendary has the side effect of increasing the counterplay of enchantment removal and is a slight check against devotion cards like Gray Merchant of Asphodel.

  1. Your maximum hand size is five.

This one is straightforward. Given you can refill your hand at will, how big your hand is allowed to be is a fine knob to turn to adjust the power level of the card. So Necrodominance gives you five-sevenths of the hand-size power of the original. Want to cleverly get around that drawback? Play a card like Reliquary Tower after you play Necrodominance. New timestamp wins!

  1. If a card or token would be put into your graveyard from anywhere, exile it instead.

The original Necro has the ability "Whenever you discard a card, exile that card from your graveyard." This was put there mainly to stop you from using Necro to fill your graveyard via discarding to hand size. Efficient Reanimate spells have been around since day one of Magic (see Animate Dead) and could easily be the goal of a black deck able to draw scads of cards. The existence of cards like Grief in today's Modern made us tighten the screws on that text even further. You can still evoke Grief with Necrodominance in play, but now when it's sacrificed, it doesn't actually "die" per se, instead going straight into exile where it can't be revived with a timely Not Dead After All or similar effect. This effect also makes cards like Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger and Underworld Breach not particularly effective with Necrodominance either.

One thing Necrodominance does better than its older Potent brother is literally draw cards. So, if we're finally looking for a way to make mythic rare Sheoldred, the Apocalypse do something impressive, I think we have it. See, the new card isn't strictly worse!

So there you have it, our attempt at making a fair version of Necropotence for play in today's Modern. Michael Majors, Carmen Klomparens, and many other folks playtested the card, tweaking and tuning the various abilities, landing here, which honestly is not that far from where Erik started. Time will tell how we all did—did we hit the sweet spot? Is it still problematically good to be able to convert life into cards this effectively? Time—and you—will tell!


Thanks for reading my little tale about a card that some of you—ahem—may have seen already … Damn you, Oko! As a reward, here's another card from the set that just happens to work great when you're drawing a bunch of extra cards each turn:

0101_MTGMH3_Main: Mindless Conscription

We got to amass Orcs for a bit with The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth™, but we're back to making proper Zombies here, War of the Spark style. You start out with a 3/3 most of the time, then when you Necro for 2, it'll become a 6/6! A fun card to mess around with in both Limited and Constructed.

And if you're wondering how this works with Orcish Bowmasters and its Orc Army. Amass Zombies just checks for any kind of Army, and then makes it into a Zombie in addition to its other types. So, by playing both cards together, you're likely to end up with a sizeable Orc Zombie Army! Happy amassing!

Preorder Modern Horizons 3 !