Liliana, Heretical Healer

Published March 10th, 2020

In a multiplayer format like Commander, provided you aren’t playing in a high powered metagame or a pod of veteran enthusiasts, you can evaluate certain cards or strategies based on how others may react to them. Simply put, sometimes it can be beneficial to run a suboptimal commander for your colour combination if the sight of it will draw less hate overall. You’re then free to play strong cards in the 99 and bolster your ability to assemble a game-ending board state. This belief is why Liliana is my mono-black commander of choice. At least that’s what I tell myself, but mostly I run flip Liliana because she makes for a cool card and it was the first commander deck I ever built. (Though it doesn’t look much like it did back then)

Together, let’s take a look at my favourite deck to play and go over some of the cards I choose to run.

The Commander

Liliana, Heretical Healer is a 2/3 creature with lifelink for 1BB and is part of the cycle mostly known as “flipwalkers” from Magic Origins. Making clever use of the transform mechanic to show someone’s planeswalker spark igniting, the cycle is one of the best examples of explaining game lore via gameplay. When Liliana is on the battlefield and a non-token creature you control dies, she will transform into Liliana, Defiant Necromancer and bring along a 2/2 zombie token to boot. From there, we have 2 regular loyalty abilities in addition to a very powerful ultimate. 

“+2: Each player discards a card”. This can be used to stock our graveyard full of giant monsters to Reanimate and slowly grind away at our opponents’ resources. Be wary of other graveyard based decks at the table, however, and think carefully before accidentally helping out your opponents!

“−X: Return target nonlegendary creature card with converted mana cost X from your graveyard to the battlefield.” Note a very important additional line of text stipulating that you cannot target a legendary creature in your graveyard. This ability will vary in usefulness depending on your build, but it’s nice to have the option. 

At -8, we have an ultimate ability that grants you a very powerful emblem. The emblem reads: “Whenever a creature dies, return it to the battlefield under your control at the beginning of the next end step.” This emblem will create a delayed trigger to return any creature that dies anywhere on the battlefield to play under your control. While not game-ending on its own, with the right setup you’ll find yourself with near-total mastery over the life and death of every creature in play.

The Plan

Rather than having a direct, single combo focus, this deck is very much a pile of good stuff. A combination of creature wipes, total board wipes, targeted removal, and one very sneaky mass discard effect is going to bring us towards one of two common end goals. Either we A: Ultimate powerful planeswalkers like our commander and Liliana, Dreadhorde General or B: Stock our graveyard with enough giant monsters to end the game via mass reanimation.

Option A: Now, we can either naturally hit the ultimate abilities of our planeswalkers using board wipes to keep the coast clear or we can speed up the process with the help of the best black legendary creature ever printed, Yawgmoth, Thran Physician. Providing card draw, removal, a sacrifice outlet, a discard outlet and a proliferate ability to abuse, it’s safe to say that this card is going to be the backbone of almost any black focused edh deck going forward. Once you have enough mana to go off, we can use his proliferate ability to dump our hand and seal our opponent’s fate with our planeswalkers. 

Option B: Next, we have our many mass reanimation spells. Rise of the Dark Realms or Finale of Eternity are one-sided with the added benefit of taking all of our opponent’s creatures or killing a few of them on the way to value town. Meanwhile, Living Death or Balthor the Defiled may give your opponents back a few things, but ideally, the combination of creatures we return should end the game on the spot. Gray Merchant of Asphodel, Kokusho, the Evening Star and Ayara, First of Locthwain along with whatever else comes back should hopefully cause enough life loss that it won’t matter what your opponents have in the graveyard. 

Both Living Death and Balthor the Defiled have the added benefit of being extremely flexible as well. Early game, Living Death can function similarly to a Damnation when your opponents have nothing in the graveyard and Balthor’s ability can be activated at instant speed. Be sure to read Balthor carefully first though! He will reanimate all black and red creatures so you will want to be wary of certain common red threats like Inferno Titan, Molten Primordial and the Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker / Zealous Conscripts combo. 

We also have one more mass reanimation spell to go over. Thrilling Encore from Battlebond is one of the most unexpected and versatile spells to have gone mostly unnoticed in recent years. For 5 mana, it is valuable board protection against your own or opponent’s board wipes with the added benefit of stealing any other creatures that died that turn. With a sac outlet on board, it can be used as a play extender to reuse powerful enter the battlefield abilities. We can even help pay for the spell with Ashnod’s Altar or Phyrexian Altar, leaving us free to continue making the most of available mana. 

If all of the above fails, dropping a huge Torment of Hailfire onto the table can get the job done. I’d recommend being careful with this one though! Repeated use to end the game is sure to cause some grumbling in your playgroup, and it isn’t a very fun way to try and win.

Synergies

As far as synergies go, black has some great cards that naturally pair well. Recently printed Ayara, First of Locthwain serves the dual purpose of being a method of draining out our opponents and providing some added card draw. Cards like Gravecrawler, Bloodghast, Bitterblossom and Grave Titan will provide her with plenty of fodder to turn into card advantage. This is especially true with Yawgmoth, Thran Physician. Stick a Skullclamp on a few of those little creatures and we’re cooking with gas!

If drawing cards isn’t your style and you feel like being more selective, Razaketh, the Foulblooded will turn any of those fodder creatures into whatever you need. Removal or draw power, combos and reanimation, Razzaketh’s got you covered. Even without anything to search for, Razzaketh is a powerhouse on the offensive and defensive with strong 8/8 stats, flying and trample. The only real downside with Razzaketh is some mind-numbingly awful flavour text.

Now, our commander isn’t our only option for whittling down our opponent’s hands. Though the card seems largely forgotten today, there was a time when Mindslicer was considered a mono-black staple. I can assure you that the card has only gotten better over the years. As more and more efficient sacrifice outlets have seen print, Mindslicer effectively turns the table into a hostage situation. With the amount of card draw your deck packs and how efficient the card is at moving cards from your hand into the graveyard for future living deaths, the downside of losing your hand is often negligible or actively beneficial. Feel free to send this guy to the graveyard whenever you see fit and start refueling with Skullclamp while your opponents play some good old fashioned Topdeck: The Gathering. We can also leave him on the battlefield and deter opponents from attacking us. After all, who would want to hurt such a pretty face?

Moving on, we come to Doom Whisperer. If Mindslicer turns your hand into your graveyard, this guy does the same to your deck and turns your graveyard into a jamboree. For the low, low price of 2 life a spin, just start tossing your deck into the graveyard. If you feel like it, you can look at the cards that are flying everywhere and make use of Surveil to rearrange them to your liking. It goes without saying that this ability works wonders with our mass reanimation effects, and can restock the graveyard if your opponents expend some grave hate on you. Doom Whisperer also goes nuts with Vilis, Broker of Blood

Speaking of Vilis, if Yawgmoth was the best black edh card printed in 2019 then Vilis, Broker of Blood takes an easy second-place spot. After getting my hands on a copy as soon as they were available, I can safely say that there has not been any other card I have used single target reanimation on more than Vilis. Turning any life loss into card advantage, this is mono-black’s go-to giant monster to slam onto the table. His activated ability is the most obvious outlet for abuse, turning spare mana into card draw while shooting down mana dorks and utility creatures. If it’s in the graveyard, you can use Reanimate to put an 8/8 flying body on board and draw a ridiculous 8 cards. This becomes even more consistent with Final Parting. For just 5 mana, you can Entomb Vilis and grab a Reanimate. Outside of that little combo, it doubles the draw produced by Sign in Blood or turns a tapped Mana Vault into a Phyrexian Arena. The amount of card draw produced by this card is just staggering. Just be extremely wary of Nekusar, the Mindrazer!

Cards that will earn you funny looks

(Also known as sweet, sweet tech)

Blood Pet exists in this deck for a few reasons. First, I am irrationally fond of the card and want to put my 7th Edition foil to use. Most importantly, the little guy actually has some notable interactions with our commander. For Liliana to flip, we need to have a non-token creature we control die. Not only can Blood Pet help us set up for a Liliana flip extremely early, but the floating mana he creates can help us get a few more cards down into play. He also only costs 1 loyalty to bring back from the graveyard with Liliana, Defiant Necromancer. Add on some undying thanks to Mikaeus the Unhallowed and suddenly we have a play extender, especially while looping Living Death

Speaking of looping Living Death, let’s look at another underutilized black card. While Mindslicer seems forgotten, I suspect Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed is less played due to lack of supply. For 2BB we have a 3/2 with horsemanship and some semi-complicated rules text. At any time, during your turn only, before you declare attackers, you can trade him in for any target black card in your graveyard. The usefulness of Regrowth effects probably isn’t in need of explanation, but being attached to a creature that we can play in a mono-black deck is a huge upside. Most notably, we can sacrifice him or pitch him into the graveyard before bringing everyone back with a Living Death. Once he’s back on board, go ahead and trade him in to grab your Living Death back. Repeat this process until you run out of mana or opponents, whichever comes first. At absolute worst, a near-unblockable 3/2 for 4 isn’t bad for sneaking in chip damage or attacking enemy planeswalkers. 

Force of Despair from Modern Horizons is yet another card I’m surprised not to see more of. For the cost of either 1BB or exiling a black card from your hand during someone else’s turn, we get to destroy all creatures that have entered the battlefield this turn. It’s an excellent card for dealing with some common problems like Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker or Avenger of Zendikar. It’s also easy to grab whenever you might need it thanks to Razaketh, the Foulblooded. Unfortunately, it does come with the major downside of being entirely reactive as it does nothing to threats that have been on the board for more than a single turn. Still, destroying everything that came in that turn is a powerful effect with all sorts of creative applications. For example, combined with a Living Death you can build your own 2 card, 8 mana, and utter-jank board wipe. 

Now, since this deck is reliant on bringing back huge monsters from our graveyard, we need to be prepared for our opponents to use this against us. Homeward Path is an easy answer card that allows us to take advantage of our opponent’s effort to reanimate our creatures and gives them back to us for free. It’s also great protection against common theft cards likeTreachery, Gilded Drake and Molten Primordial

Answers

It’s unreasonable to expect our opponents to just let us do whatever we please, so alongside its many tutors we ought to run a suite of answers for almost any problem. 

First, we have Damnation and Toxic Deluge as creature wipes, with the occasional help from Living Death. To deal with everything there’s Oblivion Stone and All is Dust, which are especially good at removing enchantments, a permanent type mono-black struggles with. 

Meteor Golem can destroy any nonland permanent upon entering the battlefield, and Vilis, Broker of Blood, Yawgmoth, Thran Physician and Liliana, the Last Hope can easily deal with small creatures. Liliana of the Dark Realms can shoot down something big or pump up one of our creatures while Liliana, Dreadhorde General has a powerful Barter in Blood ability. Ugin, the Ineffable and Karn Liberated round out the single target removal package and can deal with almost anything. 

A great way to answer non-black decks is by denying them access to mana. Luckily we have just the thing! Contamination, especially alongside a token generator like Bitterblossom or Grave Titan, will make a soft lock. This is especially good against greedy ramp decks that rely on lands instead of mana rocks to produce the colours they need to play. 

Infinite Combos

Gravecrawler will go infinite with a Phyrexian Altar, any zombie and either Syr Konrad, the Grim or Ayara, First of Locthwain

With any sacrifice outlet in play, Puppeteer Clique will go infinite with Mikaeus, the Unhallowed and either grab every creature in every opponent’s graveyard or can be combined with Ayara or Syr Konrad to drain out your opponents. 

Nim Deathmantle can go infinite using multiple combinations of cards. Most commonly, Grave Titan or Wurmcoil Engine alongside an Ashnod’s Altar. With a Mikaeus, the Unhallowed in play, Phyrexian Altar can also allow for the combo to produce infinite mana, enter the battlefield and death triggers. Once again, Ayara or Syr Konrad here will drain out your opponents. Otherwise, you can dump the mana into a huge Torment of Hailfire

Continuing on with Nim Deathmantle, you can also use a combination of Ashnod’s Altar with either Kokusho, the Evening Star or Gray Merchant of Asphodel so long as you have a Mikaeus, the Unhallowed or mana too spare. 

Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed and Living Death will go occasionally go infinite if you have the perfect mix of creatures in the graveyard and altars but is a rare occurrence unless you build around this combo a little more. Check the “Optional tech” for some of the cards you can use to do this. 

Optional Tech

Among the mono colour options, black has access to a particularly rich vein of tech and can be retooled to fit your local meta. While it isn’t at CEDH levels, provided you have access to a sufficient budget, you can build a very competent deck to fit in nicely within a 75% power level group. As a huge plus, the amount of generic tutors black has access to make grabbing certain silver bullets or tech incredibly easy! 

For example, if you worry about a lot of artifacts, consider Gate to Phyrexia. Nevinyrral’s Disk is a great option if you want to go all-in on planeswalkers as it can destroy the board but leaves your walkers alone. To cause some real suffering, pump up the power of Contamination by adding a Karn, the Great Creator and shut off mana producing artifacts. He can also help you remove artifacts by turning them into creatures temporarily or bring an exiled altar or Skullclamp back to your hand.

You can also tweak the combo win cons to require fewer pieces by swapping some cards for either a Triskelion or Walking Ballista. To go all-in on Living Death loops with Xiahou Dun, the One-eyed you’ll want to look at cards such as Priest of Gix, Basal Thrull, and Basal Sliver. If you need effective, reusable removal, consider Ravenous Chupacabra or Noxious Gearhulk, or cards like Snuff Out and Slaughter Pact for instant speed options. 

A card I’m personally looking into as my local meta shifts are Bitter Ordeal. Certain decks that are heavily reliant on a combo finish will completely fold to Bitter Ordeal exiling all of their combo pieces. Use a board wipe to pump up the grave-storm count and you can rip threats out of each and every opponent’s deck. It can even be used as a win condition in combination with an infinite death loop, like the Phyrexian Altar and Gravecrawler combo. 

Conclusion

Mono black continues to evolve as WotC prints new and powerful cards. With the banning of Iona, Shield of Emeria, one of the biggest problems for this deck type is gone. To top it off, while better and more accessible graveyard hate cards have seen print over the years, the number of players who bother to run any has seemed to decrease. Until a new flavour of the month graveyard commander is printed, graveyard based decks get to slide under the radar in regular edh. These shifts aside, variations of mono-black reanimator are just plain fun to pilot. If you’ve never run one, there’s no better time to give a mono-black commander a try!

Have you got any black tech you think is great right now? Or is there something you feel I missed? Reach out in the comments and let us know what you’ve got to say!  

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Article by Dr. Peace

Before starting Magic, Dr. Peace has been an active player of various card games as long as he can remember. He began playing Magic towards the end of Tarkir block where he was introduced to the Commander format by Aaron. With the Origins core set, he built his first commander and has since been brewing and building constantly.

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