This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series The Power of the Dark Side

By Phil, AKA BeltFedWeapon

True power is achieved through blood and sweat. But mostly blood. -Vampiric Tutor

Part X: Paying Life


One of the best indicators to separate out novice magic players from those that have more experience is to gauge a player’s reaction when a Black card requires its caster to pay life.  Newer players tend to value their life as sacrosanct – something that should not be lost and is a measure of if you are winning or not.  More experienced players have realized that your life total is a resource to be used, just like the cards in your hand, graveyard, and in play.  True connoisseurs of Black think: “I’m at 3 life?  No problem, I can still cast my Sign in Blood to draw two cards.”


While Black’s strength in having the best tutors is obvious, its strength in being the best color at exploiting your life as a resource is far less so.  With the recent printing of so many very good Black cards that revolve around paying life, it behooves me to give the topic the full treatment.



At its core, Magic: the Gathering is a game of resource management.  You are trying to build up your resources while denying your opponents theirs.  Whomever does this most efficiently is likely to be the winner.  Taken from this perspective, your life total should be seen as just another resource of yours to manage.  The great thing in Commander is that you start with twice as much as most formats.  40 life is a lot and gives Black some spare life to play with, especially when attacking is hard due to your constant board wipes and/or the tendency for generally more competitive metas to not rely as much on the attack step.  Yes, while you do not lose the game from having zero cards in hand, the emotional detachment of losing life should quickly be lost by those aspiring to play Black well.   You pay life to accelerate other resources in four defined categories…



Black’s most common “pay life” effect revolves around efficient card draw.  Sign in Blood, Night’s Whisper, Read the Bones are all excellent and powerful examples.  We call them the “lady fingers suite” around here if you have ever heard Mark or Adam talk about them.  The mana costs of these types of cards generally tends to be cheaper and/or with more effect than the same Blue cards that draw unconditionally.  The subtle difference is that on top of the cheaper mana costs, Black ramps better than Blue.  The combination of cheaper draw at the cost of some life on top of better ramp means that you can make impactful plays sooner; which is really the name of the game.  Commander has moved towards lower average deck-wide converted mana costs (CMC) and the ability to do more spells per turn sooner is what you should be aiming for.  


Staples (in addition to the lady fingers suite):


Cards you should look at:




My firm stance on the “avoids” is that they are either too expensive for the effect for your card return or you have better options along the mana curve to give you better draw power/effect than these cards.  For example, there are other draw effects at 4 CMC like Syphon Mind and Twilight Prophet that are far better than the Ambition’s Cost or Ancient Craving.  You want to be impacting the board in some way with a 4 CMC spell.  My two suggestions not only do not cost you life, but are a creature and a form of disruption respectively.


Reduce + Lifegain

A second aspect of paying life for gain is Black’s prominence in being able to pay life to reduce the casting cost of cards.  K’rrik, Son of Yawgmoth is an excellent example of this with his heavy Phyrexian mana cost.  His printing is what inspired this article and I will specifically get to him in a moment.  Black is best situated to pay life for prematurely advancing your board state for two important reasons despite Phyrexian mana generally not being as good in Commander.


  1. Ramp.  As already stated, Black ramps really well.  Paying life instead of mana when you have Phyrexian mana pips on your cardboard is really another form of ramp.  Combining this with traditional ramp through Crypt Ghast, Cabal Coffers, and all the other usual players make it so you can really put the screws to your opponents sooner than they can to you, and Black has the goods to do it.


  1. This leads to the second point – incidental lifegain.  Unless you are comboing off with a Doomsday combo (I don’t play cEDH) all this usual Black-based life loss plus the Phyrexian mana has to be offset for you to survive to the end game.  Trust me, even with a starting life total of 40, you can burn through that amount quickly when the cards you play plus opponents incidentally attacking you wears your life total down.  


White and Black are the two best lifegain colors with Green not that far behind.  The thing is, White is the weakest stand-alone color in Magic, and unless you are wasting a slot on Stream of Life or similar cards, Green generally wants you to have a bunch of creatures or a big creature for you to gain life.  In both scenarios, the lifegain card you play generally has little impact on the board state or other players.  


Black however, has many good cards that gain you life with no setup or board presence and almost always hurt your opponents while you gain the life doing so.  Exsanguinate and Kokusho, the Evening Star are perfect examples of this kind of card.


When the lifegain cards do require setup, often they are a natural extension of how you build your deck with little cost to you as you construct your deck.  Gray Merchant of Asphodel Prophet of Twilight, Whip of Erebos, Crypt Ghast, and Blood Artist are great examples of these types of lifegain cards.  They are all providing value to you with their primary ability with the lifegain being a significant yet incidental benefit.


AND THAT is the difference.  The life loss to your opponent or other primary ability that moves your deck forward is the reason the card is in the deck.  The lifegain should almost always be incidental.  When it fuels your strategy, like in a Kokusho or K’rrik deck where you are weaponizing your life loss yet offsetting it with significant incidental lifegain, you are on your way to having a winning synergistic strategy.  By hurting your opponents while also moving your board state forward and patching up the life loss, a well-tuned Black deck can feed on itself and really get the engine of the deck going with this reduction strategy.


K’rrik Mini-Primer

This is where K’rrik comes in.  All Black mana costs are now Phyrexian mana?  Whoa boy, is he going to be lightning rod to the wise and discerning opponent if he is heading your deck.  Be sure to pack your Lightning Greaves!  He is sooo dangerous. Since you start with 40 life, the card almost says pay 32 life, generate 16 black mana once K’rrik is safely on the battlefield.  And this is possibly on turn 3 because you should be packing some kind of ramp turn 2.


 You essentially supercharge a life for mana reduction strategy with K’rrik as your commander to great effect as Black has been “penalized” in the past for hard black mana costs on cards that have BBB or BBBB in their casting costs.  This liability in the past is now a benefit.  It naturally pushed cards with these heavy Black casting costs towards mono-Black and now they are quite attractive in K’rrik.  You can shed life like a champ cheating their mana costs, but with all the incidental lifegain cards mentioned above that vampirically take it from your opponents, you have the power with many of your cards to still gain it faster than all three (or more) of your opponents are losing it.  You can NET life and continue to cheat mana costs; essentially using their life to advance your board state.  It is disgusting.  The only limitation is getting enough card draw and piloting skill.  The former is not much of a problem in Black and the later simply comes from practice.  You will get burned as a Black mage from time to time with this life loss and that is part of the variance and the fun.  


The best way to combat variance is adept play; you must know what the state of play is.  This means you must not only keep up with the board state in front of you, but also be aware of the likely hidden threats in your opponents’ hands.  You must compare this imperfect information and probabilities with your past experience and potential knowledge of other player’s styles and decks against what you have at the moment and evaluate where you are in the game.  This will make the difference between an early elimination where you were too aggressive and burned off too much life rather than stopping short of where you could and biding your time to an eventual bone-crushing win two turns later.  That discretion only comes with experience and it is REQUIRED with heavy life loss strategies.  Be prepared to lose in the beginning because there is more art than science to walking this narrow edge and it takes experience.  With practice, you almost get a sixth sense about it.  


K’rrik All Stars:


I am especially excited about being able to run the Sangromancer and Pontiff.  They have been in the final 110 cards for years in many of my decks but never make the cut.  In my build, they finally will.  Pontiff of Blight is one of the best cards in the deck and there are plenty of other extort cards in Black that you may like to run.


There is such power and synergy with Phyrexian mana and cards with heavy black devotion that builds could be very different.  As an example,  Alhammaret’s Archive appears to be really strong, but I could see how not everyone would want it with it having a pure colorless 5 CMC and being an artifact rather than Black.  To each their own, but be aware that the deck possibilities range from pure cEDH combo to goodstuff aggro.  My anticipated build is somewhere in between.  I am putting in a strong vampire subtheme that I anticipate to be excellent  in what is going to be a very synergistic and aggressive but non-combo/non-cEDH version of K’rrik.  That fits my playstyle and play group. 


To this end, I advise that Commander players will need to successfully communicate pre-game what kind of K’rrik deck they are running.  Competitive decks should be announced and expect to fight through hate to get your game plan online.  This differentiation hopefully will allow the non-combo versions  of K’rrik to keep him in play longer.  Blue-based decks suffer from this bias all the time and K’rrik deserves the same scrutiny.



Some of the best (and priciest $$ tutors) demand that you pay life as an additional cost, so this article would be incomplete without mentioning them.  These are Vampiric Tutor, Imperial Seal, and Grim TutorCruel Tutor is technically one as well, but I don’t like the card when it’s CMC is three times that of Vampiric Tutor for the same effect.  Maybe in a Yawgmoth deck where you know you will likely have the draw on demand?


Across the board, I consider these tutors to separate out the more casual Black EDH decks from the more competitive ones.  They are great cards, but not needed – so there is no reason to sweat not having them unless you want to spend the $$ for a copy.



The last category is a catch-all.  These are cards where you pay life instead of the mana cost and you just “flop” them into play.  Sometimes there are other payments like sacrificing creatures or discarding, but the lifeloss is part of the equation.  There are a variety of effects included in these cards that do not involve tutors or card draw, but this first one is really why this category exists.


Bolas’s Citadel – If paying life to draw cards is great, isn’t paying life to cast cards right from the top of your deck even better?  This is another recent printing that deserves all the praise it can get.  Combine it with Aetherflux Reservoir and Sensei’s Divining Top and that is the game.  Even if you are missing one of the cards to the combo all three stand on their own.  




A related strategy one can also play is a suicide strategy.  You bring yourself to a low life total and then bring your opponents with you or swap out life totals for the double whammy.  Cards that enable this are:


  • Soul Conduit – my favorite and such a crazy play if you can pull it off.  12 mana at sorcery speed is doable in Commander.  I’m not saying it’s good, but I am saying that it is fun and epic.
  • Repay in Kind – nothing like dragging the table down with you and then icing them with a card that causes them all to lose life
  • Mirror Universe – expensive $$ and slow.  Don’t!
  • Magus of the Mirror – slow, but not expensive.  Still don’t.  Remember, this wouldn’t be Commander Cast without an encyclopedia of cards that you maybe shouldn’t play as well!


In Summation

The bottom line is that Black has cornered the market in using life as a resource.  Do not be afraid to use this ability to your advantage.  At the head of your deck, Kokusho, Yawgmoth, and now K’rrik are all fine commanders to really explore this strategy if you want to explore the concept in depth in a mono-Black deck.  Regardless of the commander, many of the spells listed out are just fantastic and often cheap cards under $5 that I encourage you to try yourself; especially if you are relatively new to magic but are comfortable with the rules.  Paying life may go against the grain, but with some natural lifegain that comes alongside some quality cards, you should be off to the races with this strategy.



Series Navigation<< The Power of the Dark Side: Library HateThe Power of the Dark Side, Part XI: Early 2021 Update – Mono Black Developments >>