Conditions Allow - Morinfen
(Morinfen | Art by Carl Critchlow)
The Only Lifepoint that Matters
Hello, and welcome back to Conditions Allow, the article series where I take a legendary creature with a drawback and build a deck to make it a strength. This week I am diving into the depths of mono-black to explore two sibling cards that each have potential as a Voltron-style commander. It's Morinfen and Gallowbraid. These two creatures are nearly identical. Each costs five mana, has five power, and comes with some form of evasion. They also have the same cumulative upkeep cost: one age counter for each turn that Morinfen has been in play, then one life for each age counter every upkeep (I'm going to use Morinfen as the commander for this deck because I think flying is better than trample, but you could use Gallowbraid without having to change anything).
Morinfen may not seem like much, but it is a strong choice for mono-black Voltron strategies. EDHREC has data for 47 decks that fall into this category, spread across only two commanders, Yargle, Glutton of Urborg and Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon. Morinfen costs the same as each, and has flying, which Yargle lacks, and higher power than ol’ Skittles. To balance out this raw power, it seems only fair that Morinfen have a downside that will probably deal more damage to you than Morinfen will to your opponents.
Cumulative upkeep is an old mechanic that we don’t see much of anymore. During each of your upkeeps, you put an age counter on Morinfen, then you may pay the cost for each age counter. If you don’t, Morinfen is sacrificed. Notably, this doesn’t mean you pay one life during each upkeep. First it's one, then two, then three, and so on. This means it only takes three turns for Morinfen to start dealing more damage to you than it can to an opponent, without any buffs.
There isn't a lot of data for Morinfen or Gallowbraid on EDHREC. There are only ten decks in the database between them, but Magus of the Mirror and Hex Parasite suggest a clear strategy. We can quickly lower our own life total and then forcibly trade it for an opponent's much healthier life pool. We can take hints from more-popular commanders, like Selenia, Dark Angel, K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth, and Liesa, Shroud of Dusk. Selenia, in particular, takes advantage of having a low life total, so her page will be a good place to find cards that don't show up for our much-less-popular Horror.
Winning From Behind
While Selenia, Dark Angel gets access to powerful white cards like Axis of Mortality and Children of Korlis, Morinfen still has plenty of great payoffs for losing life. Vilis, Broker of Blood rewards us with cards every time we lose life, similar to Necropotence or Ad Nauseam. Of course, we'll run out of life before we'll run out of cards; there’s no avoiding the fact that 100 is greater than 40. Unless we borrow some of the life points that our opponents are playing with; it’s not like they’re using it for anything important.
Soul Conduit and Magus of the Mirror force our low life total onto an opponent, putting them in easy striking distance of our commander. Profane Transfusion does the same, but also rewards us with a creature token, in case Morinfen is stuck in the command zone. And don’t forget that if any of these spells causes our life total to increase, it will count as gaining life. This lets Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose or Sanguine Bond finish off our target or set a second opponent down to a precarious position as well.
Commander is a multiplayer format, so being able to impact multiple opponents at the same time is vital. If we focus on just one player, it will leave a window for our other two opponents to whittle down our life total all over again. This is where Repay in Kind comes in. Our deck will be focused on lowering our own life total quickly, and then Repay in Kind makes sure that everyone is on an even playing field. This can end the game in conjunction with Wound Reflection if we have twenty or fewer life points left. Just like having our life total set higher counts as life gain, setting an opponent's life lower counts as life loss.
Throwing Your Life Away
With all these payoffs for having a low life total, we’re going to want more ways throw our life away. Morinfen can eat away at our life with alarming speed, but it's still no match for some other heavy hitters. Bolas’s Citadel and K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth both let us convert our life into mana, so we can cast more spells and get below twenty life quickly. The only problem is that we can run out of cards to cast. Doom Whisperer, much like Selenia, Dark Angel herself, has an activated ability that we can activate at any time, dropping our life total as low as we want.
We don't want to be stuck at that low life total forever, though. Being able to recover if we have to is vital as well, and Tree of Perdition lets us do that in two easy steps. First, we activate the Tree's ability to swap its toughness with another player's life total. Then on our next turn, we swap Tree of Perdition's toughness with our life total, ready to repeat the process again when we're ready. We can also use old cards that don't fit into any other decks. Murderous Betrayal lets us drop half our life total at any time for just two black mana. It also destroys a creature, but we really want it for that life payment. Slaughter is a more expensive Doom Blade that we can buy back for four life.
Finally, this deck wouldn't be complete without Erebos, God of the Dead. Just like Ad Nauseam and Peer into the Abyss, Erebos lets us trade life for cards. It is a powerful engine with K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth, and it lets us clear lands from the top of our library to enable Bolas's Citadel. Erebos's static ability to prevent opponents from gaining life is great as well. We won't always be able to immediately knock a player out of the game, so ensuring they can't recover means thsat our hard work won't be undone.
Doing It Ourselves
Sometimes, though, we will have to go for the win the hard way. Morinfen is still a decent attacker, flying over Yargle, Glutton of Urborg and with more power than Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon, the two most popular mono-black Voltron commanders on EDHREC. If we're winning through combat, though, we're going to need to work around that cumulative upkeep cost. One way to do that is by removing the age counters that track the cumulative cost. Hex Parasite removes those counters so that we never have to pay more than one life during that upkeep. Thrull Parasite isn't as life-efficient, requiring a total of three life each upkeep, but that is still much more sustainable than a cumulative cost left unchecked.
We can also offset those life payments with life gain of our own. Whip of Erebos grants lifelink, but also lets us revive our commander from the grave if we sacrifice it rather than pay the upkeep cost. The whip even grants haste, so our attacks don’t have to slow down either. The one-turn limit on those creatures isn't as much of a downside for us, either, since we can win almost out of nowhere if our life is low enough. Bringing back a Doom Whisperer or K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth can give us that second attempt at the combo kill if our first is interrupted.
If we really have to go to combat, we'll need to get Morinfen above five power. The best way to do this is probably Blackblade Reforged, but I also really like Demonic Embrace. Being able to cast it from the graveyard pushes it over the top, and it makes our commander a one-hit kill with Grafted Exoskeleton. Giving Morinfen Infect lets it kill a player in two hits, a significantly faster clock than any other method. Let's also add Phyresis for redundancy with Grafted Exoskeleton, along with some more draw and ramp and check out the final list.
Buy this decklist from TCGplayer
Playing fast and loose with your life total can be a lot of fun and is something you don't see often. Morinfen doesn't have access to the white cards that lend some safety to this strategy, but it is a less threatening option than using K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth as your commander. Leaning into the risk vs reward nature of the strategy will make every game memorable and ensure that you have interesting decisions to make on every turn.
Have you ever played a deck that wants to lose life? Have you played with Morinfen? Let me know what cards worked best for you in the comments, and thanks for reading!