Heh… The meaning of life. You want to know the meaning of life? Life is suffering. Give a man everything he wants, give him nothing to ever worry about again, nothing to fret over… what do you think he does? He finds a way to be miserable. He can’t help it – give him paradise, and he rejects it every time. Not at first, obviously, but eventually he realizes that perfection somehow isn’t perfect. There’s something missing… if he’s got everything he wants, he has nothing to strive for. He will never be better – this is the best he will ever be. And it’s just not good enough. He cannot live without his pain. It’s really very sad, when you think about it… Man spends his life trying to rid himself of something he just can’t live without.
But, what if? What if, instead of running away from suffering… one were to embrace it? What could one do with his life if he gave up this futile, self-defeating crusade? What could one do… with that kind of enlightenment?
This deck I assembled for $25 is the exact opposite of a Group Hug deck, though strangely it plays in the same manner. Instead of giving presents to everyone at the table so they’ll “save you for last” and fight each other, this deck hurts the entire table (including yourself) equally. When playing against a group hug deck, the question your opponents must constantly ask themselves is, “how much power can I afford to accept while my opponents’ power grows as well?” When playing against this deck, the question your opponents must ask themselves is, “how much pain am I willing to accept to watch my opponents hurt too?”
HOW DOES THE DECK WORK?
At it’s core, this is a soft-control deck, seeking to bleed the table to death through constant damage, slow down board progress through discard and sacrifice effects, and deter your opponents from taking certain actions due to no-win scenarios. A few key components of the deck include:
Constant Damage: Enchantments like Havoc Festival and Sulfuric Vortex, and creatures like Plague Spitter keep the table bleeding, until eventually life totals get close to zero. Additionally, several creatures in the deck do damage to all players (and sometimes creatures) when they either come into play (like Howling Banshee) or leave play (like Soulcage Fiend).
Timed Damage: The deck carries many spells that hurt the entire table whenever you feel pain need be brought. Earthquake and Fault Line deal X damage to all creatures and players. Acidic Soil does 1 damage to each player for every land that player has in play – so it can either be used in the early game to punish ramp, or in the late game for massive damage. Evincar’s Justice does a flat 2 damage to everything, and you can buy it back to cast again.
Brake Fluid: You want to slow the game down some, so that everyone can bleed out properly. Polluted Bonds and Ankh of Mishra damage players for playing lands. Manabarbs hurts players whenever they tap lands for mana. Citadel of Pain hurts players whenever they DON’T tap all their lands during their turn. Discard effects like those from Sire of Insanity, Mind Swords, and Scythe Specter limit your opponents’ spell options. If one player is running away with the board state, reset it with Warp World or Thieves’ Auction.
Sacrifice Control: Spells like Innocent Blood and Barter in Blood simply force all players to sacrifice creatures. Keldon Twilight keeps the board clean, and when you lose control, it’s time to break out Descent Into Madness.
Rattlesnakes: You want to keep players from attacking you, because you’re hurting yourself at the same time you’re hurting them. This is accomplished by giving players good reasons not to attack you. For example, the table might get annoyed that you cast Akki Blizzard-Herder, but they’re not going to forgive the player who causes it to die. Same deal with Abyssal Gatekeeper. This is also the greatest role our general, Kaervek the Merciless serves in this deck. He is there to announce that the player who attacks the wielder of the deck will be the target of all Kaervek’s triggered abilities. Punish your opponents for daring to challenge you.
HOW DOES THE DECK WIN?
Simply put, by taking less damage than your opponents. This isn’t easy, and will require intelligent spell casting on your part, and no small amount of above-the-table competence.
The first thing you can do is reduce the amount of damage you’re taking. Urza’s Armor is one of the best spells in the deck, reducing all damage you take by one. This negates the effects of Manabarbs, Spiteful Visions, and similar spells. Pariah’s Shield lets you redirect damage to the creature that has it equipped… and it really, really wants to be equipped to Stuffy Doll. Finally, Fortune Thief saves your bacon if you’re getting low on life – for as long as you can keep him alive.
Next, you can ensure that your opponents are taking more damage than you. Anthem of Rakdos doubles all damage taken by your opponents if you can get your hand empty. Wound Reflection makes an each opponent lose life every turn equal to the amount they already lost. Coupled with Havoc Festival or Heartless Hidetsugu, this is probably game-ending.
Finally, you have to play the game above the table – you’ve got to be political. Make your opponents aware, in no uncertain terms, that there will be consequences for opposing you. As previously noted, Kaervek the Merciless is excellent for making your opponents essentially damage each other by casting spells. Player A should know better than to cast an 8-cost spell while you have Kaervek out, because that’s 8 damage to the face of the person highest on your target list. Soul Conduit is another good way of rewarding players that have not opposed you while punishing those who have.
Of course, sometimes the entire table just turns against you – and you probably can’t defeat those odds. Probably.
WHERE DOES THE DECK GO FROM HERE?
From where I’m sitting, there’s two ways this deck could go – improve the punishing aspects of the deck with higher-power cards, or go a different direction with it.
While building this black-red deck, I couldn’t help but notice it had a heavy Rakdos flavor. You’re conducting illicit auctions, descending into madness, and embracing pain. This deck could serve as a nice shell for a Rakdos deck, if you took out a bunch of the ‘constant damage’ cards and substituted them with Rakdos cult members, and relegated Kaervek the Merciless into the deck, to be replaced as general by Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch, or maybe even Rakdos, Lord of Riots himself.
Or, if you want to stick with the “anti-hug” aspect of the deck, then there are definitely cards that can improve it. The card this deck wants most is Platinum Emperion – it makes all the constant damage one-sided. Ali from Cairo is another creature that can stop you from taking lethal damage. Defiler of Souls would have made it into the deck above, had it fit within the $25 budget. You may also want more one-sided effects like Stranglehold, and maybe more land-destruction rattlesnakes like Hurloon Shaman.
Regardless, this is not a deck that should be considered your go-to, “regular” Commander deck. Other players at the table will quickly grow sick of playing against it (and you will probably grow sick of playing with it) if played constantly. It is, however, a fun deck to play every once in a while.