This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Compulsive Research

By Adam

I’ve been thinking this week about three cards: Mulldrifter, Nekrataal, and Phage, the Untouchable.  Even if you aren’t playing blue or black, you are playing all three of these cards in your decks.  Sure, you might not be playing a card named Nekrataal, but are you running Acidic Slime?  And to those of you that don’t run Mulldrifter: do you run Karmic Guide?  The Scion of the Ur-Dragon players run Phage as their general.  Anyone who doesn’t believe that has never had to pick up a Dragon Tyrant and ask, “What does that do?”

I’ve been thinking about these three cards because they are every good creature in Magic.  Think about the creatures you play with and against all the time.  Each of them has a brother in either Mulldrifter, Nekrataal, or Phage, or perhaps more than one.  Most cards are easy to classify; the challenge is in  balancing your decks with each role.

I’m going to list some popular creatures that exemplify the three roles.

Sample Mulldrifters:
Sun Titan
Mnemonic Wall
Puppeteer Clique
Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
Oracle of Mul Daya
Solemn Simulacrum

These cards give you more options, typically by drawing cards or generating mana, but occasionally via subtler means.  A Puppeteer Clique in hand usually means dozens of potential plays this turn.  Oracle of Mul Daya’s acceleration grants you greater freedom for the rest of the game.  Kiki-Jiki unlocks as many options as you have creatures.  Any card that makes it easier for you to make plays is a Mulldrifter.

Sample Nekrataals:
Gaddock Teeg
Glen Elendra Archmage
Fleshbag Marauder
Flametongue Kavu
Viridian Zealot
Duplicant

These cards take options away from your opponent, usually by killing things, but sometimes less directly.  When Viridian Zealot destroys your opponent’s Gilded Lotus, it takes away more than just the card: it takes away all of the plays that your opponent could have made with an extra three mana.  Gaddock Teeg takes away all your opponent’s plays that hinge on expensive noncreature spells.   Any card that attacks an opponent’s options is a Nekrataal.

Sample Phages:
Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
Lord of Extinction
Heartless Hidestugu
Avenger of Zendikar
Felidar Sovereign
Tidespout Tyrant

The odds are against creatures in EDH.  They can be countered, exiled, stolen, bounced, blocked, destroyed, and even Humbled.  Getting an important one to live for even a turn is a challenge.  That’s why, if you’re going to run a creature and it isn’t a Mulldrifter or a Nekrataal, it better be able to kill in one hit.   Not all Phages use the red zone; the key to being a Phage is having the potential to take out a player within a turn or two of being cast (perhaps by comboing off, which is why I listed Tidespout Tyrant here—if played fairly, it’s a Nekrataal).  Playing Phages is a risky business, since your opponent may be able to use them against you.  They also tend to be expensive and slow.  But when your opponents don’t have an answer… they lose.

Recently, I built a Savra, Queen of the Golgari deck.  She seemed to me to have strong potential that was untapped in my group.  I packed the deck to the gills with sacrifice effects, creatures that lived to die, and repeatable recursion.  The deck was a sacrificing, reanimating, value-generating machine, and it was terrible.  I tried running better cards, more recursion, more sac outlets, fewer sac outlets…  I just couldn’t make my opponents afraid of me.

At first, I wondered if Savra was the problem.  A lot of things have to go right for her ability to work: you need to stick a sac outlet, a source of expendable creatures, and Savra herself, and none of that even matters unless an opponent has important creatures.  It was while helping someone else with a different deck that I heard myself advise, “You don’t have enough threats.”  I silently realized, “I don’t have enough threats.”  When building my deck, I had forgotten that every black creature, no matter what it looked like, doubled as Nekrataal in a Savra deck.  All the Reassembling Skeletons, Nether Traitors, and Golgari Thugs look like great two-for-ones, but the only card they’ll ever “draw” is Innocent Blood.  Making someone sacrifice their creatures over and over might keep them from going anywhere, but it doesn’t make them lose.  For my Savra deck to work, I was going to have to find a way to apply pressure.  That meant finding Phages.

I added some beef that I had previously avoided out of a desire to build around my commander.  Vulturous Zombie, Pestilence Demon, Rampaging Baloths, and Xathrid Demon joined the team.  I also gave up my goal of avoiding certain staples that I felt were becoming hackneyed in my playgroup.  In Avenger of Zendikar and Terastodon went.  (It was silly to have omitted them, I know.)  The difference was unmistakable.  My Savra deck became a respectable opponent.  I brushed early drops aside with Savra, dropped a giant creature, and brushed aside opposing fatties in the same way.  Whenever one of my Phages died, I could recur it.

Many cards—often, the best cards—satisfy more than one need.  Primeval Titan draws lands and puts an opponent on a meaningful clock.  Woodfall Primus kills what needs killin’, including the opponent.  Necrotic Ooze does everything and anything you build your deck for: just add Withered Wretch for a Nekrataal, Yavimaya Elder for a Mulldrifter, or Eater of the Dead, Magus of the Coffers, and Geth, Lord of the Vault for one hell of a Phage.

Investigate your decks.  Do you have lots of cards of each role?  Does your commander cause you to need more or less of one role?  Are there cards in your colors that can fill multiple roles?  By asking these questions, I was able to rescue a fun deck from the dustbin.  Before you give up on that sweet idea that just isn’t working out, make sure you have all three of Nekrataal, Mulldrifter, and Phage doing their parts.  My full Savra list (as of this writing) is below.

Commander:
Savra, Queen of the Golgari

Creatures –
Nekrataals:
Phyrexian Plaguelord
Viridian Zealot
Necroplasm
Woodfall Primus
Withered Wretch
Acidic Slime
Sadistic Hypnotist
Kuon, Ogre Ascendant
Eater of the Dead

Mulldrifters:
Eternal Witness
Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder
Dimir House Guard
Viscera Seer
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Golgari Thug
Fierce Empath
Reassembling Skeleton
Yavimaya Elder
Deadwood Treefolk
Masked Admirers
Primeval Titan
Oracle of Mul Daya
Genesis
Sengir Autocrat
Magus of the Coffers

Phages:
Gigantomancer
Kamahl, Fist of Krosa
Geth, Lord of the Vault
Rampaging Baloths
Xathrid Demon
Pestilence Demon
Terastodon
Vulturous Zombie
Avenger of Zendikar
Necrotic Ooze

Artifacts:    
Culling Dais
Helm of Possession
Nim Deathmantle
Skullclamp
Mimic Vat
Crucible of Worlds
Nihil Spellbomb

Enchanments:   
Pernicious Deed
Phyrexian Arena
Call to the Grave
Bloodchief Ascension
Night Soil
Attrition
Golgari Germination
Necropotence
Bitterblossom
Necrogenesis

Sorceries:
Cultivate
Promise of Power
Life from the Loam
Diabolic Intent
Worm Harvest
Explore
Nature’s Lore
Dread Return
Night’s Whisper
Living Death

Instants:
Corpse Dance
Suffer the Past

Lands:    
Miren, the Moaning Well
High Market
Svogthos, the Restless Tomb
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Barren Moor
Tranquil Thicket
Khalni Garden
Bojuka Bog
Verdant Catacombs
Overgrown Tomb
Gilt-Leaf Palace
Forests
Swamps