Conditions Allow - Dralnu, Lich Lord
(Dralnu, Lich Lord | Art by Greg Staples)
Dralnu, Don't Hurt Me
Hello everyone, and welcome to this week's installment of Conditions Allow. This series is focused around legendary creatures with a drawback and building decks to turn that drawback into a strength. Today I get to talk about one of my favorite Dimir commanders, Dralnu, Lich Lord.
Dralnu, Lich Lord is a five-mana Zombie Lord which you can tap to give one instant or sorcery in your graveyard Flashback until end of turn. Also, whenever damage would be dealt to Dralnu, prevent that damage and you sacrifice that many permanents. This is a great example of a powerful effect paired with an equally powerful drawback. One Blasphemous Act can force you to sacrifice every permanent you control, and even Lightning Bolt can be a major setback. But having the ability to recast any instant or sorcery from your graveyard is very powerful, as any Kess, Dissident Mage player will tell you. As long as you have the lands to play them.
Don't Hurt Me, No More
So how does EDHREC suggest we get around Dralnu, Lich Lord’s dangerous drawback? In general, the strategy seems to be “win before it becomes a problem”. Thassa’s Oracle is an infamous new win condition in the vein of Jace, Wielder of Mysteries and Laboratory Maniac, all of which rely on chewing through your deck as quickly as possible. Dralnu enables this in a powerful way by letting you re-cast wheel effects like Windfall and Whispering Madness. Frantic Search and Fact or Fiction also help propel you forward by pulling cards out of the library and refill your graveyard to keep the spells casting.
The problem then becomes continuing to cast spells out of the graveyard. Dralnu’s ability requires him to tap, so untapping him is key for Storm decks. Paradox Engine still appears on Dralnu’s page and would have been a key piece in the Spike-ier builds were it not for the fact that it's banned. Right now, Isochron Scepter and Dramatic Reversal also generate infinite mana while also untapping Dralnu as many times as you need.
Putting cards into your graveyard also opens up the possibility to reanimate big threats. Creatures like Vilis, Broker of Blood and Sheoldred, Whispering One can close out the game quickly with powerful attacks, but also serve as removal and creature deterrents to ensure Dralnu, Lich Lord stays as far away from combat as possible.
This sounds like an alluring strategy, and Dralnu, Lich Lord certainly has the potential to be a very powerful commander. Casting spells twice is really strong, and Dralnu has the potential to use the graveyard as a resource better than Kess, Dissident Mage, who is much more popular (2696 decks vs 168 decks). Building Dralnu, Lich Lord like this, however, feels like avoiding his downside rather than trying to turn it to a strength. Let's take another look at his EDHREC page and see if we can find anything with a little more jank.
Dralnu, Jank Lord
Embracing Dralnu's downside means embracing sacrifices. Murmuring Mystic and Talrand, Sky Summoner both create tokens as you cast spells to help absorb the extra cost of any damage that Dralnu takes. You could also try to prevent that damage from happening at all. Most direct damage spells come from red sources, so Akroma’s Memorial could be an interesting option, along with Lightning Greaves and Swiftfoot Boots to prevent targeted spells. Darkness is a black Fog, and Bubble Matrix prevents all damage for as long as it remains on the field. Just watch out for Questing Beasts.
Playing a slower game lets us include a couple of cards that don’t fit into the more streamlined version suggested by Dralnu, Lich Lord’s base page, but do show up under the Mill theme. River Kelpie is a second Secrets of the Dead, and Mesmeric Orb helps you get cards in our graveyard while disrupting your opponents' plans. Graveyard decks are growing in popularity, however, so be careful before allowing the Muldrotha, the Gravetide or Nethroi, Apex of Death deck at the table to fill their graveyard too quickly.
You could also start considering more planeswalkers. In more streamlined Dralnu decks, Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy is fast enough, but probably not much else. A more relaxed approach opens the door for Jace, Memory Adept to put cards into your graveyard and Liliana, Death’s Majesty to get any creatures out of it. Planeswalkers also serve as a great distraction, soaking up damage that could otherwise be pointed at Dralnu, Lich Lord. Plus, if that damage is still direct towards your commander, your planeswalkers can keep you in the game while you rebuild.
It's Not Me, It's You
When I started to research cards for this article, I also thought about if there was any way to use Dralnu, Lich Lord’s sacrifice clause for advantage. Would it be possible to build around that effect if I could control the damage being dealt to Dralnu? It didn’t seem like it, until I realized that I didn’t have to be the one controlling Dralnu. Blue gives you access to a myriad of Donate effects, many of which we can use twice thanks to the flashback provided by Dralnu, Lich Lord. By far the best of these bits of Legerdemain is Assault Suit. This little Equipment lets us give Dralnu away and also prevents Dralnu from being sacrificed to his own effect.
Assault Suit lets us use Pestilence to whittle away at an opponent’s resources while also controlling their ability to retaliate. Sometimes, though, you just want to blow everything up all at once. For that, you’re going to need a Fireball, or some other big damage spell. In black, however, you have to call it a Soul Burn. Drain Life is very similar to Soul Burn, while Swallowing Plague doesn’t require black mana for X.
As it turns out, though, the best big mana effect in Dimir makes black mana. Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth and Cabal Coffers are the go-to big mana tools in any deck with black, and Bubbling Muck makes all that mana go even further. There’s plenty of space for Islands as well, so High Tide also makes sense. Just watch out for any unexpected removal, since Bubbling Muck and High Tide both double your opponents' mana at the same time. Any risk is worth it, though, when you could wipe every permanent you don’t control off the board.
Rule #2: The Double Tap
The last thing to consider is how the deck will actually win. This must be considered a Mass Land Destruction deck, and the core rule of playing Mass Land Destruction is to have a way to win. No one wants to sit around with no lands, watching you desperately try to close the game out with nothing but a 3/3 and a Counterspell in hand. You could play Aetherflux Reservoir, or follow our fun shenanigans with a large Torment of Hailfire, but I don’t think either of those cards really fit in this strategy. If we could win with Aetherflux or Torment, why bother with Donate and Drain Life?
Especially when you can truly crush everyone’s hopes and dreams by forcing them to sacrifice all of their permanents and then reanimating Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur. I’ve been pulling more and more from the Mill theme for this Dralnu, Lich Lord list, which features plenty of beefy creatures that present a clear path to victory. Sheoldred, Whispering One, Vilis, Broker of Blood, and Nezahal, Primal Tide all provide a lot of value while being late-game threats. Chainer, Dementia Master is a little more niche, but easily gets our commander out of the graveyard so we don’t have to pay commander tax. Necrotic Ooze doesn’t have the raw power of the other creatures in this section, but it does act as a second copy of Dralnu, Lich Lord when he does get sacrificed.
The rest of the deck is ramp, and should probably include a higher percentage of counterspells. Dralnu, Lich Lord lets us replay counterspells and removal, and finding them consistently will have a major impact on your ability to do what this deck wants to do. You'll want to tweak the exact numbers to fit your playgroup, however. Sometimes it is best to look non-threatening and quietly amass the components of your eventual victory.
Dralnu, Lich LordView on Archidekt
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Dralnu, Lich Lord is a powerful commander who enables some nutty strategies and interactions. The first time people see this card on the table, they will probably underestimate the potential. You will also probably underestimate the number of lands you'll end up sacrificing to his effect. Be prepared to get hated out of some games, especially if your playgroup favors aggressive creature decks.
Let me know in the comments what your experiences with Dralnu have been. Is he worth it, or just too risky? Which cards are your favorite, and what did I leave out of my list?