July 18, 2012
By Imshan AKA Sinis
Back when I was creating a deck for each creature in the cycle of ascendants – Legendary flip creatures from Saviours of Kamigawa – I became enamoured with Neverending Torment. Specifically when I was making the Kuon deck, I began to think of Neverending Torment as a spectacular win condition for a deck in the prison archetype. The particular Kuon deck that ended up in the article was not supportive of Neverending Torment because it played a large amount of symmetrical discard effects, which would result in poor copies of Neverending Torment during my upkeep. Even so, the black epic spell remained on my mind.
Why was Neverending Torment so compelling? To me, it’s a very elegant win condition for prison style decks. First, it will inevitably cause other players to lose. Second, it continually reinforces the prison deck’s position. Once you understand why these things are the case, it’s easy to see how this would be appealing in any prison deck: you exile all answers in each opponent’s library until they lose the game.
First is the idea that Neverending Torment is a real win condition. This part is simple; if you exile between two and seven cards from another player’s library each turn, any given opponent will (very likely) have to draw a card from an empty library at some point before you do.
The second part of Neverending Torment’s appeal comes from the idea that for every turn that passes, the game will become more difficult to win for your opponents. Ultimately, prison decks lose when someone finds a hole in the wall, escapes, and then comes back to kill the warden. Neverending Torment reinforces the prison deck’s position by exiling the ‘holes in the wall’. So, for a deck based around Kuon, Ogre Ascendant which imprisons its opponents by continually denying them creatures, every iteration of Neverending Torment would exile enchantment or generic permanent destruction, cards that circumvent Kuon’s sacrifice trigger (like man-lands), cards that prevent the player from losing (Necropotence and cards like Platinum Angel) and then proceed to exile creatures to make Kuon’s upkeep trigger untenable until all the cards in the other player’s library are gone, and they simply lose the game during their draw step. Even combo decks would fail; the badly needed combo pieces would be swept away with their answers.
Pure elegance. Neverending Torment will win the game, and every turn the prison is maintained, opponents are less and less capable of breaking free. A beautiful narrowing of probabilities toward an inevitable conclusion, an emptying of possibilities into a single statuesque state, the essence of entropy, distilled. The analyst and rules system nerd in me was (and still is) deeply moved.
Initially, I wanted my Kuon deck to play Neverending Torment as a way to win. It seemed perfect: once Kuon was in play and flipped, it would only be a matter of time for it won, by the exact priority of exile that I listed above. Also, it was a Kamigawa block prison and win condition, which would fly in the face of everyone who hated Kamigawa block for being what it is. Sadly, this deck would not be one to display the inherent divinity in Neverending Torment.
Problems with the adequacy of Kuon’s prison began to crop up. Neverending Torment needs a long time to win. What if an opponent held an answer in their hand when I cast Neverending Torment? What if there was an answer already on the table that was difficult to deal with? The deck would probably lose long before the offending opponent’s deck was exiled: even exiling cards from a library at seven cards per turn, it might take ten or more turns before a Commander deck would face an empty library during a draw step. I reasoned that it was not the fault of Neverending Torment; it could handle anything per the logic I cited earlier. Rather, it was Kuon who failed: a prison that simply required a player to sacrifice a creature each turn was flimsy. There are dozens of answers; a simple Kher Keep in the player’s hand or on the table would foil Kuon. Waiting for a card to deal with Kher Keep would stall the start of Neverending Torment, increasing the likelihood of more players having similar answers.
So, I set off to create a better prison. The design of the new prison would be a fortress: players would be allowed to do what they wanted, except damage me or otherwise cause me to lose the game. This deck design logic inherently invites fewer answers; keeping creatures from damaging you is much easier than trying to stop them all from existing. Kuon allowed other players to sandbag him with token generators, or cards like Reassembling Skeleton. Even a stray man-land like Creeping Tar Pit, which avoids Kuon’s upkeep sacrifice trigger but is still capable of dealing damage would be a ‘hole in the wall’. The criteria for the new prison were simple: it had to have narrow answers, and it needed to not be as heavy handed as other prisons, like the infamous Mycosynth Lattice/Darksteel Forge/Nevinyrral’s Disk prison, which are often considered unfun (and would fail to showcase Neverending Torment’s near-transcendental magnificence).
The new prison was of black/blue design. Black was obviously needed for Neverending Torment, while blue would offer the new basis for the prison: Energy Field. Energy Field would foil man-lands, nearly any creature in the game (exceptions include Malignus and Excruciator, but they are incredibly narrow, and are not likely to be on the field, making them so much grist for the Neverending Torment mill), and direct damage. Combos would continue to be ruined by Neverending Torment itself. In this new prison, there would be exactly two holes: Enchantment hate (which would destroy Energy Field), and some sort of generic ‘other hate’ in which energy field would be sacrificed by a card entering my graveyard. Blue also brought other numerous advantages: Mystical Tutor and Personal Tutor could be used to find Neverending Torment, along with the plethora of black tutors, and Paradox Haze, Lighthouse Chronologist, Twincast and Echo Mage would allow Neverending Torment to exile cards much faster, which would allow it to win faster and accelerate the self-reinforcement mechanism.
For difficulties with enchantment hate, I would continue to lean on Neverending Torment to preemptively exile problematic cards. I would also run Ertai, Wizard Adept, Ghost-Lit Warder (who could be channeled or activated as a counterspell), and Decree of Silence, which could be cycled to counter a spell, or even cast onto the table prior to casting Neverending Torment. In retrospect, the mana required to cast Neverending Torment while backing it up with any of these cards would be crazy. Other answers, like Willbender were also available. I also toyed with using Telepathy, to see when and if casting Neverending Torment would produce a victory.
The other hole, built right into Energy Field was much more difficult to account for. A single Strip Mine, a mere Mind Rot, a simple discard step with eight cards in hand would cause everything to crumble. Initially, I figured that I could avoid the inevitable eight-card-discard-step problem with a few other cards, like Reliquary Tower, but it became apparent that the simple destruction of any of my permanents would constitute a bigger ‘hole in the wall’ than any of Kuon’s defects.
In black/blue, there are exactly two ways (of which I’m aware) of preventing Energy Field’s sacrifice trigger, and both involve using replacement effects to cause cards that are entering the graveyard to be exiled instead. The first is a Leyline of the Void, coupled with a Donate to the player least likely to be able to sacrifice it. This initially pleased me; since Leyline of the Void was an enchantment, anything that could answer it would also answer Energy Field. The number of answers in any opponent’s deck would not increase except for Leyline of the Void’s recipient, who would increase the number of ‘holes in the wall’ marginally: Claws of Gix, or perhaps Descent into Madness would foil this tactic.
The second way of dodging Energy Field’s sacrifice trigger is another enchantment, the oft-derided Yawgmoth’s Agenda. The advantage this card had over Leyline/Donate is that it’s a single card. The disadvantage is that it’s still Yawgmoth’s Agenda, and that the derision it receives is justly deserved. Still, this card appealed to me for a number of reasons: By casting Yawgmoth’s Agenda in the mid to late game, I could use looting effects more effectively, and I could reuse previously spent counterspells again.
The problem with the black/blue Energy Field-based prison was no longer that it had too many ‘holes’ for escape. Rather, it was that the prison was convoluted. Donate? Yawgmoth’s Agenda? While I take a certain amount of joy in a good bit of prison-craft, especially if it involves terrible cards and/or counterintuitive interactions, this was becoming beyond ridiculous. And, the whole jailhouse of cards could still be laid low by a simple Disenchant.
It was about this time that I began to look for other options, particularly ones that were less bad than Yawgmoth’s Agenda. Previously, I had read that some Scion of the Ur-Dragon and Enduring Ideal-based decks used Wheel of Sun and Moon to recycle cards they used. I hit upon this as the next iteration of the prison deck: Wheel of Sun and Moon would prevent Energy Field’s sacrifice trigger while not being as awful as Yawgmoth’s Agenda. Additionally, there were tutors and additional layers of defense for the enchantments: I could use Sterling Grove, Idyllic Tutor, and possibly Privileged Position to search for and protect my enchantments, and that would patch all the ‘holes in the wall’ while obviating any real need for activated, cycling or channeled counterspells.
When I added green and white, I realized I had basically expanded to five colours from the original one, and that my prison had moved from my general alone (when it was Kuon) to at least three cards, if not more. Things had gotten too complex. I briefly thought of creating a Green/White/Black prison, where Energy Field would be replaced by Solitary Confinement in an attempt to find more parsimony in fewer colours. Yet, this created even more problems with the maintenance of Solitary Confinement, while excising the advantages of blue’s ability to copy spells, or make additional upkeep steps. It was around here that I really abandoned the project.
Perhaps the least pleasing thing about the patchwork and sloppy construction of each iteration of the prison was that this was all a mere house in which Neverending Torment would live. If Neverending Torment was pure elegance and near-divine in its iterative consequences, the prison I was building to house it was gauche and nauseating. Pairing Neverending Torment with these coarse and clumsy barriers simply felt disconnected, like a pitted and notched knife miraculously capable of consistent and clean cuts.
The lesson for me was that sometimes, things are simply not meant to be, even though I had become weirdly emotionally invested in the idea. In EDH, Neverending Torment is a perfect way to win with no comparably perfect circumstance to win in.
Thanks for reading,
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