Mechanical Memories - How to Become a Lich

(Lich's Mastery | Illustrated by Daarken)

Who Wants To Live Forever?

Welcome back! This is Mechanical Memories, the series where I take you through the history of Magic design to learn more about the cards we love and their effect on the format we love. With Magic recently turning thirty, this game has plenty of history for us to explore. Today’s subject takes us back to the very first set. You may be surprised that a niche card like this has been able to live on for this long. I think it's all too fitting for the Lich.

We first saw Lich effects in Alpha. Lich is a flavor first, playability second card. It wants to replicate the feeling of a Lich through damage prevention at the cost of outside resources. In addition, it turns the very concept of life into knowledge. Gaining life becomes card draw with the Lich’s life being tied to their knowledge of the arcane. 

Richard Garfield was inspired by Dungeons & Dragons in creating Alpha. In fact, Magic was originally designed as something to play while you waited for your D&D group to arrive. This inspiration can be seen in early Magic sets. The legends of Legends were all designers’ D&D characters. Kobolds were 0-drop creatures because a swarm of puny Kobolds is a D&D trope. Even things as iconic as Counterspell are ripped from the Player’s Handbook. 

Liches are no different. The earliest usage of the term “Lich” is in 1845’s Penny Magazine in reference to a corpse. D&D used the term differently: an undead wizard who has bound their soul to a phylactery. The process of becoming a lich is left purposefully vague. The implication is that it is so horrid, cruel, and vile that only the most wretched mages would undertake it. Its result is a kind of immortality. A lich, upon being killed, will reconstitute itself at its phylactery in 1d10 days.

The Many Faces Of The Lich

Lich effects appear sparsely in Magic. This is due to their essential drawback that causes you to lose the game. Mark Rosewater, the man who I am legally obligated to quote in each of my articles, discussed how these effects lead to feels-bad moments. If you’re playing a card in your deck, you want it to help your gameplan in some way. When it turns your opponent’s Disenchant into a “you lose the game” effect, that doesn’t feel wonderful. Looking at the Scryfall tag for Lich effects (thanks for the guidance, Doug), we didn’t see as many drastic effects like Lich. Phyrexian Negator was a Type II powerhouse back in the day. Sacrificing all your lands doesn’t matter if the opponent is dead. Oath of Lim-Dûl is a personal favorite of mine. Turbo card draw combined with a conditional discard outlet? Meren of Clan Nel Toth players, get on this!

Nefarious Lich in Odyssey was another swing at this effect. However, it misses the mark for me for various reasons. First, it has the same drawback that made players unlikely to run the original Lich. Second, it only allows you to prevent damage via graveyard exile. A true lich would be willing to use anything to their advantage. Finally, it doesn’t even keep you from losing the game! Congrats, you can prevent combat damage. Now the Shrines player is just gonna Sanctum of Stone Fangs you to death.

Looking at the most played commanders for these effects, we can see a pattern emerge. Lich effects work great in gift decks like Blim, Comedic Genius. By placing the burden of lichdom on your unprepared opponents, you’ll be able to kill them quickly and painlessly. Lich's Tomb from Darksteel appears in both Blim and Zedruu the Greathearted decks. Acting as an artifact version of Lich, it lacks the same power as its black counterparts. However, it stings all the same when sending it into the hands of an enemy.

Lich effects sat in this strange middle-ground for several years. They can give you large swings in card draw via lifegain, but the inherent drawback to them meant you were unlikely to encapsulate the feeling of a lich. Liches in D&D are endgame bosses capable of TPK-ing unprepared parties. They’re the kind of thing that games build up to for dozens of sessions. Doesn’t that lose some punch if a Reclamation Sage can kill it? Luckily, we saw the return of the ultimate Lich card in Dominaria. In a set filled with callbacks to old-school Magic, Lich's Mastery was designed by Richard Garfield himself. The original Lich creator returned for the sequel!

Look, I won’t pretend Lich's Mastery is some Fury/The One Ring/White Plume Adventurer-level constructed powerhouse. But it captures the idea of a lich in ways other cards failed to do. The hexproof on the enchantment represents the multiple wards a Lich puts on their defenses. It isn’t invincible by any means, but you’ll have to work to destroy it. Design also got smarter with how they word effects like this. The game loss prevention means Lich’s Mastery will protect you from Thassa's Oracle, Overrun, and infect. The drawback also counts life loss, so Go-Shintai players rejoice! The cherry on top is being able to exile cards from your hand to pay for the damage taken. Lich effects have let you draw heapings of cards from lifegain, but this one lets you use that card draw to stay alive. At a certain point, twenty cards in hand doesn’t feel different than thirty cards, so having ways to dump those excess lands feels nice.

There’s only one problem. At least, for me there is. Lich's Mastery’s most infamous use case is in Queza, Augur of Agonies. The two cards go infinite, drawing your library and draining out opponents. While it's a powerful effect, it doesn’t feel like how a lich would win the game. A lich is an untouchable mastermind, able to shake off hordes of adventurers. They use eons of knowledge to reduce their enemies to rubble. Can you tell I like making liches my BBEGs?

If you want to build Queza + Lichs’ Mastery combo, I say go for it! It’s a solid way to win the game. There's 3,264 decks that use the combo, with 88% of those running Queza as the commander. Compare that to the 11,411 decks that run Lich's Mastery in the first place. Nearly a quarter of all decks with the Mastery are using it to run the combo. Folks clearly love combining Cephalids and the Undead. But what if you wanted to make a deck that felt like those all-powerful liches from the Forgotten Realms? Well, I did just that!

Charmed, I'm Sure

Eriette of the Charmed Apple is from Wilds of Eldraine. She’s a witch, which is a slight mispronunciation away from lich and another one from a word I can’t say here. Her synergy with enchantments alongside lifegain potential makes her a solid fit for this deck. We want to maximize the life loss negation and lifegain draw from Lich’s Mastery here, so I’ve included plenty of ways to tutor for it. The usual favorites like Enlightened Tutor and Idyllic Tutor do solid work here, but I’ve also included Search for Glory. Since Lich's Mastery is legendary, our friend Niko can search it up!

There’s a minor self-mill package in the deck to help us with Lich’s Mastery. Enchantments like Tymaret Calls the Dead and Out of the Tombs keep our graveyard stocked and powered up. It's also an important teachable moment. You don’t want to play out the Mastery as fast as possible. Instead, save it for a time when it’s relevant, then stampede into your opponents with card advantage.

Despite our best efforts, there’s still a chance that a pesky adventurer is going to destroy our Lich’s Mastery with cards like Cleansing Meditation. That’s why we have backups! When Lich’s Mastery leaves the battlefield, the trigger causing us to lose the game goes on the stack. Before that resolves, cast Faith's Reward to bring it back and prevent Lich’s Mastery’s own game loss. You can also use Mirage Mirror to clone the Mastery before the removal resolves.

Finally, we can win the game through the combination of Lich's Mastery and several other heavy hitters. Aetherflux Reservoir can let us chain spells with Bolas's Citadel and Lich’s Mastery’s card draw. Those pieces can even be found with our Lich tutors! Enlightened Tutor finds Aetherflux and Search for Glory can find the Citadel. My personal favorite way to win the game is Command the Dreadhorde. Reanimate everything from everyone’s graveyard, take a bunch of damage, then shrug it all off because you’re a lich! Rise my undead army! Riseeee!

I hope that this article inspired you to become a megalomaniacal undead wizard hellbent on the destruction of mortals brew your own lich deck. I love cards like this that develop niche communities. If there are any other groups of cards similar to Lich and its offspring, let me know in the comments. I can’t wait to see the crazy things I can include in my future decks. If you’ll excuse me, apparently there are some murders going on, so I’ll see you next time!

Mechanical Memories - How to Become a Lich

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Commander (1)
Artifacts (9)
Enchantments (25)
Creatures (15)
Lands (37)
Instants (7)
Sorceries (6)

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Jubilee Finnegan (they/them) is English literature student and writer based out of Southern California. They got hooked in Magic with Throne of Eldraine and haven't stopped since. When not deckbuilding, they're working on poetry, gardening, or trying some new artistic endeavor. They can be found on Twitter at @finneyflame or on Instagram @jwfinnegan.

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