Only the good die young.
In the EDH world one of the things that has been getting a lot of consideration in the community is how to take effects that are seemingly innocuous in the minds of Wizard's designers and exploit them as a win condition in a deck build. In the history of Magic, nothing has said "a waste of a car slot" than life gain. If you look all the way back to Alpha this has always been the mechanic that generated a yawn in the most serious of players. All that has changed. Black and White EDH decks now have all the tools they need to burn out your competition while padding your life total. Welcome to a world where even Healing Salve is a six point swing. It's the "weaponization of life".
Who do you pick?
You know how folks say "hindsight is 20/20"? It really applies to this deck archetype. Wizards has been surreptitiously putting in place the building blocks for this deck for a fairly long time. I don't know if it was always on purpose, but it seems like with the release of Battle for Zendikar it turned the corner. When Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim was released this deck became "a thing". It went from a "filthy casual" kitchen table concept to something competitive and potentially game breaking. Folks like Jimmy and Josh at The Command Zone started talking about it and I couldn't get the deck out of my head. Ayli was an "engine-on-a-stick" and I started building.
Funny thing though, the deck turned out to be radically different - in fact Ayli wasn't even the General when i completed it. Which is totally fine with me because she's a little cray-cray. That's not to say you can't build a solid deck around her, I just found the shenanigans of Obzedat, Ghost Council to be more fun. My only regret is that I can't run Kaya, Ghost Assassin as my Commander. She is the perfect fit. I've decided though that she's the "spiritual" leader of the deck. Heck, if you ask your playgroup nicely, they may even let you run her in a casual game or two. In the end, none of these folks are a bad choice, and the deck is surprisingly tolerant of interchanging any one of the three. Let's take a look.
"It's all about reaching the saturation point. If it doesn't manipulate life, it's not in the deck". That was my mantra as I began to brew. There are three kinds of cards in this deck. Those that gain you life, Those that hurt the opponent when you gain life and those that use life as a cost or a trigger. It sounds pretty specific doesn't it? It's not - life gain is such a fundamental mechanic to the game that there are probably a thousand cards (or more) to choose from. Even after you narrow it to just black and white cards its still overwhelming to pick your favorite sixty or so. Now there are a few that combo into a "shut down the game win" - and we will talk about those; but there are a lot of casual EDH players that fundamentally run that kind of combo. What you really need to focus on in this deck design is synergy - how the rest of the cards outside that combo work together. when you do that, it almost becomes more fun to let it play out than to tutor up a hard lock - and a win.
Zulaport Cutthroat, Campaign of Vengeance, Blind Obedience and Exsanguinate all trigger differently but the result is very similar. the player gains life and the user loses that much life. This is, of course, pretty powerful by itself - it is a two point swing in the game each time it triggers. More importantly, however, is the act of you gaining and the opponent losing life. Later we will touch on the cards that trigger off these effects... and that is where things get really nasty. I include Well of Lost Dreams and Phyrexian Arena here because of the importance of card draw in EDH. Both of these cards are a perfect fit for this build and solve the problem quite nicely. I also include Underworld Connections in the deck for the same reason - even if its weaker than the other two.
So this is where things get really crazy - and where you are going to need to use your own judgement when deciding just how competitive you want the deck to be. Tutors like Demonic Tutor and Diabolic Tutor (which I include in this deck list) are becoming increasingly frowned upon in casual EDH because it is so easy to tutor out the specific combo you need to lock down the game and win. Black decks have the potential to abuse this even more than others because of the sheer number of tutors it has at its disposal. My advice is if you are playing 1v1 in a tournament or Friday Night Magic where you are being timed and there are actual standings and prize support - go all out. If you are playing casual multi-player I might either just hold my tutors until late game, or tutor up a less objectionable card. In any case its your call.
So why all the tutor talk? Sanguine Bond and Exquisite Blood. Get one of these out and things get ugly.... get both of these out and it is a feedback engine from Hell that insta-wins. You may win that game tutoring up these two, but if its your first game of many, the table may turn against you hard.
On the other extreme of competitive comes two alternate win conditions that I have tailored to just be fun. Felidar Sovereign and Test of Endurance have text on them that says "you win the game". Pretty cool. Unfortunately both these cards were designed before Wizards took Commander into consideration - so I have altered both cards by doubling their required life totals - the Sovereign requiring 80 and the Test 100. I actually put little stickers over the numbers. It looks so goofy. I love it. To make them even crazier, each time I win with one I add a mark at the bottom of the card. For each mark I have to double the life total requirement. It's like unlocking an achievement every time it goes off. Yes I am writing on Magic cards. Don't judge me.
Not Convinced it's a thing?
Still not sold on a life deck being playable in EDH? Well Kaledesh is bringing more toys to the game. It is just more proof that this is an actual direction Wizards is pushing this color pair and not just happenstance. My favorite of the group is Aetherflux Reservoir, but you can bet I'll be trying to fit most of these in my build. 50 life as a cost? I'm in.
So that my Weaponization of life gain. It is a fun deck even if its not one that is going to be ridiculously competitive. I enjoy just trying to see how much life I can gain in a single game, so even if I don't come close to winning I still have a blast. As with the other Commander articles I write I have posted my decklist on TappedOut. Feel free to use it as a template or copy outright.
Until next time.... Enjoy the deck!