Adventures in the Forgotten Realms Set Review — Black

(The Book of Vile Darkness | Art by Daniel Ljunggren)

Descent Into Darkness

Welcome to the Underdark, where all manner of ghastly, ghoulish, and gelatinous terrors lurk in the deep! Grab your Delver's Torch and pray for your high rolls — you're going to need them if you want to escape this dungeon.


Lolth, Spider Queen

What better way to start than with the Queen of Spiders herself. I want to start by commending the design team, as Lolth is obvious not a planeswalker in the canonical Magic: The Gathering lore sense, but being a sort of semi-god from an adjacent fantasy, I think making her a planeswalker mechanically was a fantastic decision.

Continuing the recent design of planeswalkers with extra non-loyalty abilities, the triggered ability of Lolth, Spider Queen is a house, essentially letting you Proliferate herself whenever our own creatures die, which, in black, is about as easy as it gets. Note: it doesn't specify 'nontoken', so that -3 ability gets us well on our way to getting her loyalty back up, not to mention the ease at which we can generate expendable tokens in black-inclusive decks. She'll likely pull weight in the 99 of Yawgmoth, Thran Physician or Teysa Karlov decks!

Her 0 ability is just fine to spam over and over as a sort of Phyrexian Arena while we manage to bump her loyalty up with creature fodder. Her -3 may seem like a bit of a risk, especially out the gate putting her to only 1 loyalty, but if we have a means to sacrifice those creatures or even just use them as chump blockers for incoming creatures headed her way, she essentially only loses 1 loyalty counter.

Finally, her ultimate ability is probably one of the weirdest ones out there, but surprisingly neat. The way its worded means we are incentivized to hit an — or preferably, each — opponent for a minor amount of damage, and the emblem will take care of the rest, up to a maximum of 8. If we manage to hit one player with a 1/1, they'll lose an additional 7, and that can occur for each opponent.

The trick then is to get in with small, evasive creatures, something kind of at odds with a lot of the aristocrats-y nature of the rest of her design. Most creatures we want to sacrifice might not ever even enter the combat step, so it's a tricky balance, and we might be incentivized to just go wide enough to get creatures through (after all, any that die in combat will pump her loyalty again!), or use small evasive tokens like Bats (e.g. Skeletal Vampire), Harpies (e.g. Abhorrent Overlord), Inklings (e.g. Felisa, Fang of Silverquill), or all manner of other ghastly critters. Also, notice how those Spider tokens she makes with her -3 have menace!

Considering how easy I think it will be to achieve her ultimate/emblem, I'm glad it was a bit more restrictive and isn't conducive to just spamming her ultimate over and over, since repeated emblems won't do much of anything.

Acererak the Archlich

Son of a lich, this guy is cool. This restriction - needing to complete Tomb of Annihilation - is not truly a restriction, and this effect on an enters-the-battlefield trigger (as opposed to say, a cast trigger) is both a boon and a curse. If you really want him to stick on the battlefield and generating Zombie tokens, then yes, you will want to complete that dungeon either through Acererak's first ETB trigger, or by other means. However, you may also want to just abuse the fact that he has a pseudo-Whitemane Lion trigger built in, to repeatedly venture into other dungeons for value. Populate the deck with cost-reducers like Heartless Summoning, Urza's Incubator, Bontu's Monument, big black mana packages (e.g. Cabal Coffers, Nirkana Revenant, Crypt Ghast), and my personal favorite, Tome of Legends, and you actually have a nice mono-black value deck that can spam dungeon runs.

In the 99, we'll likely see this guy crop up in Wizard-centric strategies like Inalla, Archmage Ritualist decks, weird Golgari combo decks that want to abuse his trigger with Aluren, and of course, dungeon-themed decks. Overall, a wonky ability with both value and combo potential, and a Staff of the Death Magus in hand to boot!

Asmodeus the Archfiend

Starting of with a 6/6 for six mana already evokes some very devilish vibes, as does that red outfit. His Binding Contract is a replacement effect, meaning all cards you draw get exiled, which is a serious risk if he gets removed. Paying a mere three black mana for seven cards is bonkers, especially considering black's potential to swell mana with Bubbling Muck, Cabal Coffers, or Crypt Ghast variants. The catch is those cards get exiled, and you can't add them to hand unless you activate his last ability, which puts them into your hand, but you lose that much life.

He's sort of reminiscent of Griselbrand and Vilis, Broker of Blood, or even Necropotence, which are extremely powerful cards. As a commander, the trick will be to load the deck with sacrifice outlets, so you can repeatedly spam his first activated ability to put multiple triggers of "Draw seven cards" onto the stack, then sacrifice him before they resolve, effectively letting you draw the cards without them ever going to exile, since he will no longer be on the battlefield and his Binding Contract will have been, well, unbound.

Like Vilis, Broker of Blood, he has the potential to be a fun commander, but opponents will do well to make sure you simply have little chance to get there, because the advantages he can reward are just too good. Speaking of which, with Vilis, Broker of Blood out, his second ability effectively becomes "B: Draw X where X is the amount of cards in exile", since every batch of cards that come into your hand will make you lose that much life, which triggers Vilis, which gets replaced by Asmodeus to go into exile, and you can rinse and repeat.

I see him more conducive to the 99 with other graveyard strategies. He's absolutely nuts with Necrotic Ooze (but hey, what isn't?). If we get Asmodeus the Archfiend into our graveyard, the Ooze just picks up his activated abilities, not his replacement effect (Binding Contract), which means we have a way to just repeatedly spam the delicious BBB: Draw seven cards. Underrealm Lich is also neat, as it also has a replacement effect, meaning if we control both, we get to chose which one takes effect. If we choose the Lich, then his ability effectively becomes "BBB: Look at the top 21 cards of your library, put seven into your hand, and the rest (14) in your graveyard." That's nuts. I'm sure K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth decks will want him too.

Overall, a fantastic and splashy card I'm excited to see people do insane plays with.

The Book of Vile Darkness

What a flavorful card! Not only are we adding another book to The Biblioplex and making 'book tribal' that much cooler and more feasible, but this card is just 200 pages of neat, hard-bound flavor. The end-step trigger is a nice way to incidentally populate your board, and it ain't exactly hard for us to lose life in black. Even a Night's Whisper gets you a Zombie. I think all three pieces (The Book of Vile Darkness, Hand of Vecna, Eye of Vecna) may not always end up in the same deck, but likely go together in a sort of suicide black deck.

If you do manage to pull off the activated ability, with Hand of Vecna and Eye of Vecna, Kaldra style (Sword of Kaldra, Shield of Kaldra, Helm of Kaldra), you get:

Legendary Creature - Zombie God
At the beginning of your upkeep, you may pay 2. If you do, draw a card and lose 2 life.
At the beginning of combat on y our turn, Vecna gets +X/+X until end of turn, where X is the number of card in your hand.
At the beginning of your end step, if you lost 2 or more life this turn, create a 2/2 black Zombie creature token.

It may still lose in a duel to Kaldra's first strike + exile mash-up, but a fun 'achievement unlocked' nonetheless.

Ebondeath, Dracolich

Okay, I'll start by saying I have a serious bone to pick. Every time I see a creature with a clear and present skeletal system with the ability to recur itself, and it's not a Skeleton, I get a bit bummed. I tend to side with the idea that skeletal structures = Skeletons, and soft tissue = Zombies, but I digress.

A sort of Boneyard Scourge variant, Ebondeath, Dracolich has both recursive and combo potential in the command zone, as well as the 99. For the combo-oriented, you can find ways to reduce that casting cost, either with more bodies you can convert to mana (e.g. Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder and Phyrexian Altar) or through direct cost reduction (e.g. Heartless Summoning, Bontu's Monument, Urza's Incubator, Gravebreaker Lamia, etc.). I like Heartless Summoning especially, since it puts him in Skullclamp range, and makes the BB cost much more manageable. You can finish everyone off with your standard aristocrat drainers (e.g. Zulaport Cutthroat), or toss in a Bitter Ordeal if you're feeling more thematic.

As a general recursion piece, the field cemetery is quite crowded, especially as many tend towards the mana efficient options of Reassembling Skeleton (14,881 decks), Gravecrawler (8,601 decks), Bloodghast (6,333 decks), etc. That said, the power value (five) of Ebondeath may be something you want, similar to Phytotitan, where you want to be triggering effects like Elemental Bond, Garruk's Uprising, Greater Good, Flayer of the Hatebound, or even Anax, Hardened in the Forge.

Outside of that, I really love that it adds another Dragon to black, helping out resident Silumgar, the Drifting Death decks, Bladewing the Risen, or heck, even someone just wanting to play mono-black Dragons without having to put either it's not that kind of Skittles deck! or it's not that kind of Kokusho deck! at the helm. Plus, Ebondeath, Dracolich just seems sweet with things like Dragon's Hoard and Tome of Legends.


Forsworn Paladin

Toss it in your Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale, Aryel, Knight of Windgrace, or even your beloved Haakon, Stromgald Scourge deck. It's a cheap body with evasion, and potential for mana generation if you've got nothing else going on.

Gelatinous Cube

Whether it's from the Zantar racket from Noah's Arcade or the Underdark's Glabbagool, I guess you could say that gelatinous cubes eating villagers has been in the hearts of Wayne's World and D&D fans alike. Plus, unlike your great aunt's Jell-O, this thing actually has flavor.

The Engulf mechanic is spot-on in terms of design, though tame, because it can't be abused through flicker effects (without bringing the engulfed creature back). Since it's also limited to opponents' creatures, that also means that no, you can't use it to flicker your Gray Merchant of Asphodel or Gonti, Lord of Luxury over and over.

The Dissolve portion is neat tech, as the downside of being an easily-removable creature (which could bring back your opponent's engulfed ones) means you can get rid of the creature by binning it to their yard. At the end of the day, toss it in your Ooze tribal deck — we're getting more Oozes each and every year!

Sphere of Annihilation

Here we have a sort of mix between Gaze of Granite and Shadow's Verdict. The flexibility of mana value means you can really tailor the Sphere to your needs, and the fact it exiles helps get around indestructible. Hitting graveyards is fantastic too!

The drawback is that, like Nevinyrral's Disk, you have to wait a whole turn before this takes effect, which is going to illicit panic and likely removal on behalf of your opponents, who don't want to have a portion of their board and graveyard exiled. I think I like it most in an artifact deck, where you can protect it with things like Leonin Abunas, Rebbec, Architect of Ascension, or Darksteel Forge, as well as play it at instant speed right before your turn with Shimmer Myr. But I also think I prefer the synergy of Nevinyrral's Disk + Darksteel Forge in an artifact deck even more.

Vorpal Sword

An aggressively-costed Equipment that helps early game, with additional upsides late game? Sign me up! Or wait... is it really just a trap?

I don't see too many games where someone is able to resolve this all at once, as 5BBB is a steep price, even with that recent Cabal Coffers reprint. As an admirer of Phage, the Untouchable, people just get spooked when they see the phrase "lose the game" tied to a piece of cardboard, no matter the conditions or hoops, so it's likely this gets removed before the activated ability ever gets off the ground. Without that ability, it just becomes a small Equipment granting deathtouch, and I think that's fine, but worry that you may be able to play something else that won't draw so much heat. I'd love to see this card end games, though. You might need to take advantage of the deathtouch first and foremost to really get the best use out of this card, so pinger decks like Kelsien, the Plague will be able to use every part of this buffalo.

Westgate Regent

While a bit slow, this this has the potential to really get off the ground, Necropolis Regent- or Szadek, Lord of Secrets-style. I'd love to see it in a black-red Vampire deck where haste and double strike are more accessible, but it's just hard to compete in Vampire tribal these days, since Edgar Markov decks really just want low-drop Vampires.

Uncommons and Commons

  • Skullport Merchant comes with its own Treasure, effectively making it only cost 1B. If you're willing to pay the cost on Vampiric Rites to convert creatures to cards, wouldn't you do the same in a Treasure deck?
  • Power Word Kill: Not being able to target just 5 of the top 25 commanders may make this card seem okay at first glance, but Angels, Demons, and Dragons can wreck a lot of havoc and require removal, fast, before they snowball out of control. Sure, Devils still don't have the support to make them all that prevalent (101 decks), but they're also not as threatening. I don't think we play this in our format compared to the options we've already got.
  • Warlock Class: The cost on this card is so low that any aristocrat strategy may well want to just try this out and see how it works. You get some incidental life loss in the early game, the ability to dig a bit deeper and fill your yard in the mid game, and a Wound Reflection if you transition into the late game once your Black Market is bumpin' or big black mana package is online. This is a sleeper hit.
  • Baleful Beholder: More enchantment removal for black, but this time in the form of an ETB? That's neat! Reanimation means you may well be able to slowly grind out opponent's enchantments, and use the terror-inspiring Fear Ray as an evasion enabler late game. It's probably a little too much mana to make a real impact, though.

Dungeon complete

Congratulations! You successfully made it through the darkest dungeon of them all. Which of the critters and spells scared you the most? Which ones were you unimpressed by? Did you decide to loot the Vorpal Sword you found, or just say 'meh' and leave it? Sound off in the comments below, and may your dice roll high!

Trent has been playing Magic since the early 2000s, when instead of exercising in a summer sports camp, he was trying to resolve a Krosan Skyscraper on the sidewalk (it always ate a removal). He saved up his allowance to buy an Akroma Angel of Wrath on eBay, only to find out it was a fraudulent post, forever dashing his hopes of ever getting a big creature to stick. He’s since “grown up” and, when he’s not working on his dissertation in Archaeology, spends too much time thinking how to put Cipher in every one of his decks and digging for obscure cards (see photo).

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