Fresh Meat — Neheb, the Eternal
Welcome to the first edition of Fresh Meat! You may read my bi-weekly series Dig Through Time where I review old sets of Magic and pull out underplayed gems. This series is going to be more infrequent. Whenever a new set comes out I'll select an interesting new legend and walk you through some of the best options available for building it. We'll look at different build paths, meta options, and at least one piece of jank tech. From Hour of Devastation I've selected Neheb, the Eternal, and, now that full spoilers for the set are available, I'm very pleased to unveil our first slab of beef. (Get it? He's a minotaur?)
Lands? We Don't Need No Stinking Lands!
Let's start with the obvious — Neheb hates lands. There are a couple of ways we can go with this: we can destroy all lands, we can destroy specific lands, we can destroy some lands, or we can build a stax package. From the Ashes, Wildfire, Bend or Break, and Ruination will set our opponents back a little, but not to the stone age. Devastating Dreams is almost fair to our opponents, if we choose to go all-in and discard our hand, but unless we have Wheel of Fate suspended, or an overwhelming board presence, that's probably not a good idea, as it can make the game grind to a halt while our opponents wait for us to slowly beat them to death with Neheb. Blood Moon and Magus of the Moon will also hate out our opponents' nonbasic lands, but keep them intact. Of course, our opponents can still get mana out of their lands, and if the Magus or the Moon are removed their lands will revert to their original forms, but this gets around a very strict "no mass-land destruction" clause in a given meta's social contract.
If we're playing in a meta that is more okay with aggressive land hate we could consider running cards like Keldon Firebombers, Tectonic Break, or Boom // Bust. Once we clear the board of lands, Strip Mine, Wasteland, Tectonic Edge, and Dust Bowl can help prevent our opponents from sticking any more on the board. They can also help out in the early game by dealing with problems like Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth+Cabal Coffers, or Gaea's Cradle. Of course, Strip Mine and friends work very well with Smokestack, Winter Orb, Tangle Wire, Static Orb, and Trinisphere, the classic stax package. Definitely know your meta before you build in an aggressive stax or land destruction package. If people aren't keen on having their lands hated, you may want to build in another direction.
Don't Think, Just Do
Red has a well-known lack of card draw. We can get around this a bit by ramping with mana rocks that cycle from play like Mind Stone, Hedron Archive, Dreamstone Hedron, and Commander's Sphere. These cards have the added bonus of getting our commander out earlier, so we can start relying on mana he produced to fuel our spells. Sea Gate Wreckage is another great option for us that was just printed in Battle for Zendikar, and draws us a card as long as we're hellbent.
Classics like Wheel of Fortune, Wheel of Fate and Reforge the Soul will quickly refill our spent hand, and hopefully disrupt our opponents' plans at the same time. They're classics for a reason. We definitely want to run at least some of these. Dragon Mage and Knollspine Dragon are also great for the late game. Knollspine Dragon, in particular, can draw us a huge amount of cards for very little investment, since the damage we deal earlier in the turn will increase the amount of cards we draw, while simultaneously paying for his mana cost as long as Neheb is on the battlefield. Outpost Siege is a new classic that "draws" us a card each turn, or fuels Neheb when we lose creatures in combat or to board wipes. I think the Khans option is generally better, but Dragons may be appropriate if your deck has other sources of gas, and you build more towards combat than burn.
Neheb also has some more unconventional card draw options available. Commune with Lava allows us exile to a significant portion of cards from our library and then play them until our next turn. It doesn't even change the timing restrictions on cards, so we can play any instants we exile this way during our opponents' turns. Grenzo, Havoc Raiser can exile a bunch of cards from the tops of our opponents' libraries, and cast all of those cards with the mana we make from the damage dealt this turn. We'll probably want to be running a more aggro strategy if we choose to run Grenzo, since he only triggers off of combat damage, but that's certainly a viable build. Farsight Mask only gets played in 344 decks right now, but I think it's possibly as good as Mind Stone in a deck that paints a big target on its head like this one does. Our opponents are most likely going to team up and try to take us out first; why not draw a card each time they hit us? Lastly, Aggressive Mining is something most decks would never play, but in Neheb, as long as we're planning on keeping our opponents' lands dead, too, we can get away with a card like this and draw two cards a turn until we run out of lands. Red has virtually no options for dealing with enchantments, so keep in mind that if our opponents manage to remove Neheb while Aggressive Mining is out, we will be locked out, and it's very likely that we'll lose that game. No one is going to be inclined to help out the guy blowing up everyone else's lands. If we do decide to include Aggressive Mining, we should probably include Liquimetal Coating so we can turn it into something red can smash in addition to the typical Chaos Warp. Harmless Offering is another, nastier contingency plan that can lock our opponents out of lands instead of us.
Bring the Pain!
My Neheb build is predicated more on burn spells than combat damage. So what are the best ways to deal loads of damage to opponents for very little mana investment? Shivan Gorge and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle seem like natural places to start, since they don't cost a slot in the deck and both deal damage; however, I don't think Shivan Gorge is ultimately worth it, unless you frequently play in large pods. If you have three opponents, you'll pay three mana, and tap the Gorge to activate it, dealing three damage. You've essentially paid four mana to get three from Neheb. That's not a good engine.
Speaking of mana-producing permanents that don't cost a slot, Cryptolith Fragment is a great mana rock in this deck. It comes into play tapped, but turns into a better Gilded Lotus that comes down two turns earlier. If it happens to transform into Aurora of Emrakul, that's even better, since Neheb can now produce three mana from each opponent.
Let's look at some one-shot effects with the potential for a big payoff. Flame Rift produces four mana per opponent. For the same mana cost, Price of Progress hits each player with damage equal to the number of nonbasic lands he or she controls. Often, it hits mono-colored decks (Neheb) for less damage than a player running two or more colors, since mono-colored decks typically rely more on basic lands. Moving on to cards that double as soft board wipes, Breath of Darigaaz gives us some flexibility, either hitting all creatures for two or four points of damage; but leaving Neheb, who has a toughness of six, alive. Slagstorm will hit either all creatures or all players for three damage, in case we have a large token presence and would benefit more from the direct damage to our opponents. Flamebreak is very similar, except it does both things instead of one or the other. Sulfurous Blast was just reprinted in Commander Anthology, and gives us the ability to hit all creatures and players for two damage at instant speed, or for three damage during our main phase. For the same mana cost, Fiery Confluence is an incredibly valuable sorcery. This card can hit each opponent for up to six damage. If we're playing a four man game, that's 18 mana during our post combat main phase. For four mana. If we really need to, it also has the ability to blow up small creatures or remove problem artifacts. Every Neheb deck should be running Fiery Confluence. Topping the curve for fixed-CMC instants and sorceries, Chandra's Ignition is a great board wipe for Neheb. It will deal damage equal to his power to everything except for him and us, and, in a pinch, we can target something bigger like our Knollspine Dragon to blow up larger targets.
Feel the Mana Burn
X-burn spells double as mana resources, and as finishers. Cards like Earthquake, Rolling Earthquake, Magmaquake, Fault Line, Molten Disaster. In the early and mid-game, we can keep them small enough that Neheb will survive, but big enough to generate wads or red mana. In the late game, so long as our opponents are at lower life totals than us, we can just take out their last remaining points of life. Comet Storm and Fall of the Titans can do more localized damage, taking out one or two players, and some high value target creatures; while Bonfire of the Damned can make sure a single opponent has a very bad time.
Permanents can offer us a more reliable source of repeated damage. Repercussion works wonders with any of our soft board wipes. Let's pretend each of our three opponent have three creatures. We have Neheb on board. We cast Repercussion and follow it up with Flamebreak. We take six damage. Each opponent takes take 12 damage. We attack into an undefended opponent for four and go to second main. Neheb adds 40 red mana to our mana pool. This kind of scenario may sound like magical christmasland thinking, but big plays like this really aren't that uncommon when piloting a Neheb deck.
Pyrohemia is an Earthquake on a stick that we can consistently use to keep anything with toughness five or less off the board. Couple it with Vicious Shadows to get added damage and mana off of those creatures dying. Speaking of damage on a stick, Flameblast Dragon lets us cast a Red Sun's Zenith every time it attacks. And let's not forget about Heartless Hidetsugu. With Neheb on the battlefield, Heartless Hidetsugu becomes the biggest, baddest mana dork in the history of Magic.
So, we're dealing lots of damage. We have our fixed-cost mana spells dealing enough damage to keep the board clear of small stuff, and our X-cost board wipes are flexible, but we don't want to go above five, since that will kill Neheb. But what if we want to cast a really big X-cost board wipe to get rid of some very big creatures our opponents managed to land? What can we do to keep Neheb on the board? Darksteel Plate has and gives indestructible, allowing Neheb to survive damage and most other boardwipes, while simultaneously being very difficult to remove itself. Sword of Fire and Ice and Sword of War and Peace both give Neheb protection from red, preventing all damage that would be dealt to him by red sources. Both swords also deal some additional damage, and Sword of Fire and Ice draws us extra cards. We probably want to run all three in any Neheb build.
There are tons of great equipment cards we could put in this deck, and a voltron build for Neheb is absolutely viable. For added protection and haste, both Swiftfoot Boots and Lightning Greaves are a given. Apart from protecting Neheb, we have Quietus Spike and Scytheclaw, which can cause our opponents to lose massive amounts of life, gaining us massive amounts of mana. If you do decide to build voltron, never underestimate the benefit of giving your commander vigilance. One of my favorite voltron pieces that made the final cut in this deck is Avarice Amulet. It gives our commander +2/+0, vigilance, and it draws us an extra card each turn. We also have to give it to an opponent if the equipped creature dies, but if we always choose to send our commander to the command zone (a replacement effect), then we never have to donate it to anyone.
Let's Do This The Old-Fashioned Way
Maybe dealing direct damage isn't really our style. Maybe we'd prefer for our creatures to do the talking for us. With their fists. Red is pretty good at that, and that means Neheb is pretty good at it, too. Eldritch Moon gave us Hanweir Battlements, which takes up just a land slot in the deck, and pairs up with the pretty-good-on-its-own Hanweir Garrison to make Hanweir, the Writhing Township. These cards are worth running in any aggro deck that includes red, but they're extra great here, when they can make loads of mana the turn they meld. Grenzo's Ruffians and Warchief Giant are both great, because they'll hit all of our opponents at the same time. Myr Battlesphere is a classic that gets the damage in. Magma Phoenix has a Flamebreak effect stapled on to it, and it recurs itself, which is especially valuable in a color where card advantage doesn't come easy. Purphoros, God of the Forge has become ubiquitous with the terms "creatures" and "damage." Not only does he hit each opponent whenever a creature comes in to play, he can also buff our whole team of attacking (or blocking) creatures. Lastly, Tempt with Vengeance can overload the board with hasty tokens. If our opponents are naive enough to be tempted, we'll be able to double (or more) the amount of mana we sink into this spell. Nevermind what happens if we cast this with a Purphoros on board.
We've Had One, Yes, But What About Second Combats?
Something notable about Neheb—his ability to add mana to our mana pool triggers at the beginning of each of our post-combat main phases. That means that cards that give us an additional combat phase, followed by an additional main phase, will give us a snowballing amount of red mana. Cards like World at War, Fury of the Horde and Aggravated Assault are amazing in a Neheb build. Even one that doesn't plan on attacking very much. Aggravated Assault even goes infinite with Neheb, which sounds really cool in theory, but I don't really like it. I've been sitting on a copy of this card since Prossh, Skyraider of Kher came out, but I still haven't found a way to make it fun. Combat Celebrant and Breath of Fury are both good cards to get extra combat damage in, but they don't give us the added benefit of extra main phases.
Double Double Whammy Whammy
Neheb likes to double things. Specifically, in this case, damage. Furnace of Rath and Dictate of the Twin Gods double everyone's damage, which, if we're in a damage race, is fine, because we're going to go faster than anyone else. Quest for Pure Flame and Insult // Injury will double just our damage, but they're also temporary effects. Fire Servant, Gratuitous Violence and Curse of Bloodletting will double damage for certain things only. The cards you pick from this category will depend on your build.
Outside of cards that double combat phases and damage, there's one other doubling card we need to talk mention. Doubling Cube. This car is insane in Neheb. If we can get this to stick, and have an X-damage spell in hand, we will probably win the game.
I Want a Good, Clean Fight
Blue mages will try to counter our stuff. Token players will try to swarm us. Lifegain players will try to undo all that damage we've been dealing. What's a mono-red player to do? Plenty, actually. Red has a couple of tricks up its sleeve to shut down those pesky counterspells. Wild Ricochet, Increasing Vengeance, and Reverberate are some of red's better-known answers, but what else do we have?
Boseiju, Who Shelters All also prevents our instants and sorceries from being countered, and it barely takes up a slot in the deck. Conquorer's Flail and Defense Grid can make it difficult or impossible for our opponents to do much on our turn. Red Elemental Blast and Pyroblast are two counters to blue, and Mages' Contest is one of the most fun counterspells ever printed. Sometimes, all we need is one more turn. Glorious End exiles all spells and abilities from the stack, effectively countering them. We'd better be prepared to win on our next turn, though.
As far as controlling the board goes, Silent Arbiter and Crawlspace can slow down combat-oriented decks. Ward of Bones prevents our opponents from getting many creatures out, if we're playing a build with a low creature count, and it can make it impossible for them to recover from a land destruction effect.
If we're in a meta that's rife with fog effects, cards like Wild Slash, Skullcrack, and Leyline of Punishment can stop the damage prevention, and shut down lifegain in some cases. Leyline even comes down on turn 0. Take that, Oloro, Ageless Ascetic!
Benefits with Friends
Just to quickly touch on planeswalkers. Most mono-red planeswalkers can do some form of direct damage. My original build of this deck featured the terrible Chandra, Pyrogenius, and she was actually pretty good! I got her all the way up to her ultimate without much of a problem. When the board is nothing but a smoldering crater, and there are no creatures to attack, red planeswalkers can stick around and do stuff. Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Chandra Ablaze, and Chandra, Flamecaller can all draw us new cards, in addition to slinging damage at our opponents and their creatures. Koth of the Hammer can ramp us into Neheb, and gives us a sweet emblem. Definitely consider planeswalkers for your Neheb build.
In the 99
Not only is he a great commander, Neheb is also a great support card for plenty of other legendary creatures. I'll be picking up a copy for my own Grenzo, Havoc Raiser deck, so I can cast my opponents' spells with their own life. I know Nate Burgess is planning to add Neheb to his Rakdos, Lord of Riots deck, for obvious reasons. If you play any big damage commanders like Heartless Hidetsugu, Gisela, Blade of Goldnight, or you play Mizzix of the Izmagnus with burn spells as a win condition, Neheb is probably a good card to add to your 99.
We've talked about a lot of different potential build paths and strategies. Here's the list that I've been playtesting recently. It runs a low creature count and doesn't do much with combat. It's got some land destruction and control cards, and wants to win the game off of a giant Comet Storm or other big burn spell. Let me know if you went in a different direction with your Neheb build, and how it plays out. I'll be back with another plate of Fresh Meat in September when we have full spoiler for Ixalan.