February 8, 2012
By Imshan AKA Sinis
Players examining Magic through a particular lens, usually involving a competitive environment, often see the game as a series of threats and answers, with intervening details like card advantage and tempo that fills out the rest of the game. Commander players frequently follow this philosophy of deck design by including answers for perceived threats, such as Krosan Grip for troublesome artifacts, cards like Bojuka Bog that exile graveyards to counter recursion strategies, and efficient creature removal for threatening creatures, especially generals. Board wipes are favoured because they often answer many opponents at once. Players often talk about “win-cons”, which are none other than the threats we expect our opponent to answer or lose to, and card advantage, which allows us to find more answers and threats, and pretty much keeps some players from playing mono-red.
Today, we’re going to throw some of that deck building philosophy out the window. Instead of guessing at what our opponents will play and then playing specific answers, we’re just going to throw a can of gas and a match at the whole thing, and then figure out how we can win from the ashes. To be more specific, we’re going to create a toxic game state where every player’s threats, answers, and card advantage are gobbled up by a series of symmetrical discard and sacrifice effects, and then seek answers that only mitigates the symmetrical effects to the very deck we plan to pilot while leaving everyone else spiraling out of control.
This is the game plan for the fifth and final instalment of the Ascendant article series. The final creature in the cycle is Kuon, Ogre Ascendant, who is a 2/4 Legendary Ogre Monk that costs BBB and reads “At the beginning of the end step, if three or more creatures were put into the graveyard from play this turn, flip Kuon, Ogre Ascendant”. The flip side is Kuon’s Essence, a Legendary Enchantment which reads “At the beginning of each player’s upkeep, that player sacrifices a creature.” Kuon is already pretty cool; he’s a legendary ogre monk, who, with enough deaths in a short period, turns into an entropic enchantment that causes even more deaths. This is somewhat similar to Sasaya, whom we looked at last time; Sasaya magnified mana in a flood of land, while Kuon magnifies removal in a bounty of removal. The difference is that you can almost always use more removal in a regular game, where Sasaya needed to have very warped card choices to always be able to use the ocean of mana that was made available.
Before I lay out exactly how this is going to work, I want to say that this kind of deck comes with a caveat. Not all tables are going to appreciate this kind of game because, not unlike Erayo, it seeks to continually disempower every player while winning at a relatively slow pace. This is the prison deck archetype. While I personally know people who enjoy this kind of challenge, and will have an immense amount of fun trying to wriggle out of the continual loss of resources, not all players will have fun trying to eke out an advantage in a game where resources become artificially scarce. Most players like doing stuff and this deck, like all decks in the prison archetype, will make your opponent’s choices irrelevant. Further, this deck is usually doomed to fail at larger tables; there will simply be enough resources to kill someone, and that someone will certainly be this deck’s pilot. So, caveat lector.
The first feature of a toxic game state is to handle the most common form of interaction — dealing with creatures, which also happens to be the core of what Kuon does. Spells that dispatch creatures serve double duty for creating and maintaining a game state we want, and flipping Kuon who will reinforce that game state. To this end, symmetrical creature kill while avoiding killing Kuon is the way to go. Fleshbag Marauder is one of the best candidates for this kind of card; Fleshbag Marauder causes a sacrifice for each player, and adds itself to the body count. Similarly Innocent Blood, Barter in Blood, Abyssal Gatekeeper, Smallpox, Pox and Syphon Flesh will also get the job done. Other cards that could flip Kuon are Crypt Rats, Infest or a cycled Decree of Pain. Finally, Plague Wind or Reiver Demon are a perfect cards for flipping Kuon because he will survive and almost certainly flip, while opponents are left in a weak position to manage Kuon’s appetite. The value of these spells is not to be overestimated; Kuon will be the target of removal before he flips, when he is about to flip, and after he flips. Kuon may be removed many times each game, and being able to reflip him with as few cards as possible may be crucial.
To make the hungering presence of Kuon’s Essence more difficult to weather, this deck is also going to run symmetrical discard effects. The best kind are like Kuon’s Essence: they persist on the table continually reinforcing an environment of card famine. The cards best suited to this are Bottomless Pit, Necrogen Mists, Gibbering Descent, Oppression, and Painful Quandary. Even though Cunning Lethemancer and Stronghold Rats are vulnerable to Kuon and all the symmetrical kill spells, but they still warrant inclusion; it’s important to remember that a solution to this game state will be needed, and our creatures need not all die. In any case, some of creatures in this deck will inevitably perish from the various sacrifice effects, and it may as well be ones that move our deck forward, like Cunning Lethemancer. Outside of the persistent effects, one-shot effects like the aforementioned Smallpox and Pox will help the game state along toward rock bottom. Syphon Mind, Unnerve, Delirium Skeins and Mind Swords will remove options to dealing with Kuon. Mind Swords in particular allows for a sacrifice as an alternative to the mana cost, which can contribute to Kuon’s flip condition.
Now that there’s a toxic game state where neither creatures on the table nor cards in hand will last very long, the answers game begins. We will assume that most of the dangerous things our opponents could do have been swallowed up by the continual sacrifice and discard effects. Instead, we’ll focus on finding answers to the problems we’ve created for everyone without actually solving them for anyone but ourselves. One of them has already cropped up in the card selection for the toxic game state: Gibbering Descent. While it’s no one’s particular desire to have a hand empty of cards, it will be a product of the game state we’re in and Gibbering Descent allows us to skip the upkeep step and Kuon’s sacrifice trigger with it. Skipping the upkeep step will have some anti-synergies within the deck but Gibbering Descent will be one answer of a few.
The chief way to maintain a board presence with Kuon’s Essence out is to use Reassembling Skeleton. Each turn, the skeleton can eat two mana and provide a creature for Kuon’s Essence to consume. To find Reassembling Skeleton, Buried Alive and Entomb (now available cheaplike in the Graveborn Premium deck!) are clutch. Grave Titan also churns out enough tokens to satisfy Kuon’s Essence as long as it attacks each turn, while providing being a substantial win condition. Finally, Nether Traitor and Bloodghast extend the resources of creatures that get sacrificed, and lands drawn.
Reanimation effects can double as threats once another card that sates Kuon’s Essence is drawn. Coffin Queen and Sheoldred, Whispering One all can supply food for Kuon’s Essence or provide an advantage once a way to consistently feed Kuon is found.
To make managing Kuon’s Essence more likely, more tutors than the usual Demonic Tutor and Vampiric Tutor will be required. Since we’ll always be looking for the same cards, we’ll take advantage of the transmute mechanic from Ravnica so we’ll have other effects to lean on if answers present themselves. A broad variety of answers across all converted mana costs will allow for more transmute cards to be included. Dimir Machinations can find Buried Alive, and Shred Memory will find Reassembling Skeleton directly. Netherborn Phalanx can find Grave Titan and Gibbering Descent. Most of these also provide a useful feature to the deck; Shred Memory serves as instant graveyard hate and handily deals with a Reassembling Skeleton from your opponents, and Netherborn Phalanx is a damaging hit against players who can feed Kuon indefinitely by having multitudes of tokens.
Now that the board is set, all that remains are a few more pieces. The usual mana rocks, card draw and other suspects apply as normal in the usual deckbuilding philosophy. Many of the creature selections will lean toward helping Kuon flip and creating or maintaining a toxic board state, like Augur of Skulls, Shriekmaw, and Brain Weevil. Lastly, a small contingent of planeswalkers manage to thrive in a creature and card starved environment. Sorin Markov may be capable of killing players entirely on his own, Karn Liberated can deal with any problematic cards your opponents might field as well as providing a substantial way to win on his own, and Liliana Vess can keep hand sizes in check, tutor for answers, or win on her own. Liliana of the Veil would also shine in this deck, though she lacks the capability to win that her previous incarnation has, and is otherwise another global discard effect, and I’m a cheap bastard, so the $30 price tag at the time of this writing for what is an unclear upgrade is simply not worth it.
Readers with more experience playing with decks of this kind will note that this whole process of finding answers for Kuon can be bypassed by playing a relatively creature-less deck, and including fewer symmetric hand destruction features. I avoided this route for two reasons; firstly, I wanted a deck that would run symmetrical discard effects to make managing Kuon’s meal times more difficult, and to lessen the chance he’ll be kicked off the table, and creatureless decks often cannot afford that luxury. Basically, I wanted to really burn the game state this deck creates to rock bottom. Secondly, creatureless decks in a format like Commander and a reduced board presence may frustrate your opponents more; the only thing worse than having no resources is having no resources against a draw-go opponent. The creature-lite version of this deck is basically a more intense prison deck, and these rarely go over well with other people looking for fun games. If prison does float your boat (and your friends’), there are plenty of ways to win. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Can your group stomach Kuon, Ogre Ascendant? I’ll let you, the reader, decide.
This rounds out the Ascendant cycle and the article series on Legendary flip creatures from Kamigawa. If you’ve read the rest of the five part series, you’ll notice I like the Ascendants because they beg to be built around and pay significant advantages when you meet their demands, even if those demands range between ‘trivial’ and ‘onerous’. There is literally nothing else to them; when they become something other than vanilla chumps, they are necessarily incapable of interacting with an opponent’s life total. I find this really interesting; EDH essentially stipulates that you can have one card at the start of the game, with conditions. It makes some amount of sense to me to find creatures with the broadest or most powerful possible effects, effects that define the deck construction process. If the Ascendants have a failing, it is that they are all monocoloured, and adopt the wide swath of weaknesses and narrow set of advantages that a restriction to one colour entails. There is still plenty of design space left for each of these as generals or as maindeck cards; there is the possibility for a creature-less or creature-lite Kuon prison deck, maindecking Kuon in an attrition-style deck, maindecking Sasaya in Captain Sisay with a multitude of legendary lands, or playing Rune-Tail as a fortress-style life gain deck with Test of Endurance and Felidar Sovereign as the winners, though that last one is not my cup of tea.
Kuon, Ogre Ascendant
Sheoldred, Whispering One
Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon
Demon of Death’s Gate
Avatar of Woe
Dimir House Guard
Augur of Skulls
Big Game Hunter
Bane of the Living
Decree of Pain
Barter in Blood
Call of the Netherworld
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