Mind Bend - Non-Black Life Payments

(Moltensteel Dragon | Art by James Ryman)

One Life to Live

Greatness, at any cost.

Dark Confidant flavor text

I want you to read the above quote again. Those four words encompass everything that the color black represents in Magic: the Gathering. Nothing is off-limits as a resource: the cards in your hand, the creatures on your battlefield, the creatures in your graveyard, and even your life total. Actually, especially your life total. Black is THE color for abusing your life total to get ahead.

Welcome back to Mind Bend, the article series that breaks down the conventional notions of the color pie to forge new ground outside the confines of the already established. This time, we're going to spend our life total in a non-black deck.

A Life Well Spent

One idea, albeit somewhat jokingly, that Magic players talk about is that finishing the game with anything more than one life is a waste. That life could have been spent to draw cards or play lands untapped. Need more proof? Let's look at the most popular mono-black commander on EDHREC: K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth.

If there was ever a card to perfectly fit the "at any cost" and "no wasted resources" ethos of the color black, it's a commander who can turn any mana payment into a life payment. Think about it this way: with K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth on your side of the board, you effectively have an additional X mana at your disposal, where X is roughly half your life total. I say roughly, because you have to keep at least one life at the end. Still, that can be upwards of fifteen to twenty mana. It's quite the deal, you just need to make use of it well.

So what does K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth do with all that power? Well, step one is to draw lots and lots of cards. Hanging out in a staggering 88% of K'rrik decks on EDHREC, Vilis, Broker of Blood turns your life payments into straight card advantage, even offering an outlet for where to spend that life. Pay four, draw four. There's a reason both Griselbrand and Yawgmoth's Bargain are banned in Commander - that kind of raw draw power can be downright oppressive at times.

Of course, Necropotence, the most iconic "more cards for more life" option shows up heavily in K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth decks, too, seeing play in more than half on EDHREC. Not too far behind is Greed, which, combined with K'rrik, turns into "pay 3, draw 1" - still a reasonable ask for a deck where your life total is as important a resource as mana.

Drawing cards isn't going to directly win you the game, however. Mono-black doesn't have a Laboratory Maniac of its own to scoop up victory. Instead, K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth is all about storm - in one turn casting the plethora of cards you've already drawn to end the game. K'rrik has no time for your nonsense, he's here to pay life and win games.

Phyrexian Mana & You

Porting this philosophy outside of black is no small task, and when I first started research for this deck, I had a hard time finding cards that allowed me to pay tons of life. You see, when you do a search on your Magic: the Gathering search engine of choice, searching for "pay" and "life" yields a few cards that we will get to in a moment, but it leaves off the most important ones. The ones most connected to K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth: those with Phyrexian mana costs.

Soul Eater

Yep, we're talking about the Souleaters, not to be confused with the mid 2000s anime and manga of the same name. New Phyrexia introduced Phyrexian mana, which K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth is the first card to feature use of since the set came out. Any Phyrexian mana symbol can be paid with either mana of that color or two life, meaning that creatures with Phyrexian mana in their activated abilities can be activated for as much life as we're willing and able to pay.

The most direct path to victory among these is Immolating Souleater, offering us as much power on a creature as we so desire and can afford. Immolating Souleater also has a big brother in the name of Moltensteel Dragon that tacks on evasion and a larger body. We can dump our life total into one of these and hit someone hard. As for the other two Souleaters that we're planning to play, Trespassing Souleater and Insatiable Souleater, their evasion will prove useful later on in this article.

Soul Eater Not (But Still Kinda Is)

We don't just have Souleaters who want a piece of our life total, there are a few more creatures that we can feed. Adanto Vanguard is a stalwart defense mechanism, giving us a hard-to-kill blocker for when we strike first. Spellskite can deflect removal headed towards our key targets, and in a pinch can drain most of our life. Treasonous Ogre is like a mini-K'rrik, offering us red mana for life, making explosive turns all the more easy.

And if we just want to pay a whole lot of life in one go, Phyrexian Processor is here to make us giant tokens that we can send out to smash some faces.

Return on Investment

So we've found a way to pay large chunks of life outside of black, but putting our life total into single digits is a good way to get us killed instead of standing victorious, unless we have a gameplan. We can certainly ruin one person's day with a big Moltensteel Dragon or a Phyrexian Processor token, but there will still be a player or two hanging around that will be ready to deliver that final blow. Or will there?

Taking a page from Selenia, Dark Angel, a deck whose goal is to drain its own life for profit, we can use all the life payment cards we've discussed above with Axis of Mortality, Mirror Universe, Soul Conduit, and/or Reverse the Sands to send our miniscule life total over to someone else and let them deal with the consequences. We'll be back at a nice comfy life total, ready to do it again.

We can threaten this line of play early, as many of our Souleaters cost four mana or less, and two of our life total exchange cards only cost six. We do have to wait until our upkeep, but we don't need to make the life payment until then, leading to some interesting talk amongst the table about who gets to end up in single digits. But these cards also allow us to get into the game late, should we have taken a few blows.

The interaction with Treasonous Ogre is especially hilarious, as we can use the mana we paid life for to cast an early and unexpected Soul Conduit or Reverse the Sands and place someone in a very precarious position.

Can I Get a Refill?

Sometimes our plan may backfire, so let's add a contingency card or two. Both Children of Korlis and Resolute Archangel work on two axes: we can be extra aggressive, paying upwards of twice the life we have, or defensively, getting us back to square one and negating all the damage we've done to ourselves.

One Shot

Remember when I mentioned that Trespassing Souleater and Insatiable Souleater's evasion would matter in this deck outside of being a life payment engine? Let's talk about that. Since our goal is to bring life totals down fast and quick, why not include a few Equipment that will accelerate that process?

Quietus Spike and Scytheclaw can turn those small evasive creatures into 20 or more life when going into the red zone. These cards work well with Immolating Souleater, too. We can use one swing to halve their life total, and another to finish the job.

Lust for Power

The color black cares about power above all else, so let's add some straight-up hefty beaters that make life totals melt. Malignus might start out as a 20/20, which makes other includes like Xenagos, God of Revels and Mage Slayer death for a hapless opponent. Both Xenagos and Mage Slayer do extra work when paired with Moltensteel Dragon, making our life payments that much more lethal.

We can also just straight dome someone with a giant Terror of the Peaks trigger. And we'd be remiss to not include some sacrifice effects, so Brion Stoutarm gets to fling some big monsters post-combat.

Once in a Lifetime

The one card to watch out for is Mindslaver, as that might spell the end of our game, but otherwise you're looking to pay life and send that life total elsewhere or fall back on the "hit you with something big" plan.

Look first to eliminate players who seem the most equipped to last the longest if they stay in. No matter the lay of the land, protecting your one or two key pieces is super important, and timing when to play them can make or break the game. Your life total exchange cards should not be shown until the absolute last moment; you don't want to give anyone a chance to react.

Non-Black Life Payments

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Commander (2)
Creatures (20)
Instants (7)
Sorceries (18)
Artifacts (12)
Enchantments (3)
Lands (38)

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It's Your Life

We might not have been able to storm off the way that K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth can, but we can end someone's game just as quickly. If you bring this deck to a table unfamiliar with the build, the life total exchange will come out of nowhere and catch your opponents off guard, almost as much as a massive K'rrik turn. But even if you play against those familiar with the deck, you'll always leave them guessing as to when it can all go downhill. You'll end up seeing people play tighter, which means your other threats will may stick around longer than usual.

Who knew that life can be just as powerful a resource outside of black, as it is in? It's only when you ask these types of questions, and start doing a little digging, can you find such mind bending builds!

Until next time for more color-twisted shenanigans!

Jeremy is a data analyst in his hometown of Chicago. He is the commissioner of a Commander league at a local LGS, Near Mint Games. He is also a board member for AnimeChicago, an non-profit anime club for adults, and an avid craft beer fan.

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