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The Knowledge Pool - Karlov of the Ghost Council
Who Ya Gonna Call?
Hi everyone! Welcome back to The Knowledge Pool, where we take a deep dive on deep commanders!
Recently I've gotten swept up by the allure of Magic Arena. I had been apprehensive to make an account for fear of the monetary requirements of playing Magic digitally, but I quickly discovered that I was able to throw together a fairly proficient deck with minimal investment. I've spent the last few weeks traveling for work, and Arena has been the perfect Magic outlet for me. I've gotten to jam some games, play against some sick brews, and get the creative juices flowing for new Commander decks. I've been playing a spellslinging Saheeli, Sublime Artificer deck, but a few other builds have caught my attention.
Let's talk BW lifegain. Anybody who has played Arena for more than a dozen games has probably run into this deck, sporting cards like Ajani's Pridemate, Ajani's Welcome, Bloodthirsty Aerialist, and Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord. While the burn package in my spellslinger deck does a good job of keeping creatures off the board, I've seen BW lifegain go off on several occasions. Once your opponent establishes a few consistent methods by which to gain life, winning becomes a tremendous challenge. Trigger. Trigger. Trigger. Each point of life your opponent gains puts counters on their creatures, or creates massive Angels, or makes combat seem pointless. Watching this deck in action got me to thinking: if BW lifegain can be so formidable in a casual Standard environment, what about in Commander?
We've talked about a lifegain deck before in this series when we looked at my Trostani, Selesnya's Voice deck. You can find my article for Trostani here. Today, I want to talk about a different style of lifegain that focuses on individual triggers instead of gaining massive bursts of life. The perfect commander for this strategy? Karlov of the Ghost Council.
Karlov has several attractive attributes as a commander. First, Karlov has a low starting CMC, so we can cast him cheaply and still do other things in the same turn. This also means that it's not crippling for our strategy if Karlov dies a few times, as even on the fourth cast we'll only be paying eight mana. Second, Karlov grows big, and he grows big quickly. At our disposal are tons of potent lifegain options, and each instance of lifegain will add two +1/+1 counters to Karlov. With a handful of triggers, Karlov will suddenly be looking to deal lethal amounts of commander damage. Lastly, Karlov represents reusable, exiling removal. For two mana and six counters, we can eliminate a pesky Avacyn, Angel of Hope or a persistent Eldrazi that's preventing us from swinging in.
Karlov's suite of abilities gives us several directions for brewing our deck. We want to gain a lot of life, and we want to gain life through a ton of small triggers so that we can grow Karlov. We'll need ways to protect Karlov so that he can grow without opposition, and we'll want ways to help him attack through enemy lines. And if all goes wrong, and our opponents manage to sideline our commander, we'll also want some additional payoffs that reward us for our lifegain strategy and help us close a game.
Karlov of the Ghost Council
With any non-green deck in Commander, I aim for lower curves, and this deck is no exception with an average CMC of 3.19. Luckily, many of the best enablers for a trigger-based lifegain deck cost between 1-3 mana, allowing us to work towards the payoff spells at 4-6 mana. Lifegain payoffs were one of my biggest considerations while brewing this deck: when Karlov is taxed out of range, we need other options for ending games, and I've included eight cards that should provide us some extra muscle.
As I worked on this decklist, I quickly realized that there are a lot of potential options for consistent lifegain triggers. Since we can't include them all, I focused on the cards with the most flexibility. For instance, Ajani's Welcome is a cheap way to reliably gain life when we cast creatures, but Soul Warden is similarly costed and will trigger even when our opponents play creatures. Another example is Blood Artist which will let us drain our opponents whenever any creature dies, while similar spells like Zulaport Cutthroat only drain them when our creatures die. We might not be a sacrifice-focused deck, but creatures will be dying, and Blood Artist will reward us when they do.
A bonus of having cheap lifegain is that our opponents will not want to waste their spot removal on our Soul Warden effects. More than likely, we're going to lose our dudes when a Wrath hits the board. For these situations, we want to have reliable and reusable recursion options to make our engine resilient. Luckily, cheap creatures are easy to revive, and I've included a handful of ways to do so.
Outside of our lifegain engine, I've skewed my card selections towards cards that will passively gain us life while helping us to stabilize. There are a couple of lands like Radiant Fountain and Scoured Barrens that will let us sneak in a few additional points of life, while Pristine Talisman will let us work towards early ramp, growing Karlov in the process.
Given how large Karlov can get without much effort, having ways to protect him and make him evasive are critical. We can accomplish both of these objectives by including a mini Equipment package. When playing this deck, switching to a Voltron-style strategy is often quite easy, and Equipment will let him cut through a gummed up board. Even without Karlov, we can play our Equipment and slap them on small dudes to bring some additional beats.
Before we move on, I want to make a note about my building philosophy for this deck. At first glance, many of you have probably noticed that I have omitted the traditional black tutors from my list. We have options for finding Equipment and creatures, but I wanted to avoid the temptation to simply tutor up a combo like Sanguine Bond and Exquisite Blood. I want this deck to perform at a 75% level, and I want to maintain variance to keep games fresh. If we can naturally assemble a combo, awesome! Otherwise we'll rely on Sanguine Bond and Exquisite Blood for their synergistic applications.
Now that we have an idea of how this deck came together, let's take a look at some of the cards in more detail.
A Healthy Engine
I think it's only appropriate that we start our deep dive with our lifegain engine. These are the cards that will dictate our success in a game, and establishing one or two of them should be our primary objective before dropping Karlov.
One thing I love about many of these cards is how innocuous they appear. A card like Bloodchief Ascension requires a small investment, is hard to remove, and will almost surely be activate after a handful of turns. Seasoned players will know how quickly Bloodchief Ascension can shred your life total, but players who are unfamiliar will likely underestimate the impact of this card until it's too late.
As expected, we're running the Soul Sister package of Soul Warden, Soul's Attendant, and Auriok Champion, with Suture Priest taking an honorary position. These are some of our best options for quickly and consistently gaining life early, and these will be some of our primary reanimation targets if we need to reassemble our engine. It's worth noting that these cards thrive off of "go wide" strategies, and a card like Suture Priest will be swiftly killing our opponents with each body they make.
Authority of the Consuls and Blind Obedience are here to slow our opponents down, clear a path for Karlov, and gain us life in the process. Authority of the Consuls is a super small investment, and most opponents won't want to waste removal on it. What's more, Authority of the Consuls plays similarly to our Soul Sisters, bringing extra punishment for token strategies. Blind Obedience sports our first instance of Extort. Extort is nuts in this deck, tacking on a lifegain/drain kicker to each spell we play.
Sunscorch Regent and Kambal, Consul of Allocation will tax our opponents for playing their spells. Regent is particularly deadly, as it also grows with each spell cast, representing a giant beater after one turn around the table.
Exsanguinate and Debt to the Deathless aren't triggered lifegain, but they will help us close out a game. If we're somehow low on life, we can play these two early on to deal some damage and stabilize, but we're intending to play these later in the game for X = 8 or more, when they have the potential to completely wipe out our opponents. If you also happen to have Sanguine Bond on the table at the same time, these two sorceries will deal a lot more damage, potentially taking down a relatively healthy player.
The last card I want to look at in our lifegain section could be considered a payoff as well. Pontiff of Blight is a bit clunky at six mana, but I like him as a potential alternate win condition. Even with only 3-4 creatures on board, the Extort that Pontiff grants them will give us the ability to drain our opponents for a lot of life with each spell we cast.
With our lifegain engine in mind, let's move on to the utility pieces that will help keep us moving smoothly.
Shields & Shovels
Equipment and Recursion
Each of our four pieces of Equipment offer Karlov some amount of protection, while the Swords and the Cloak will also give him evasion. Whispersilk Cloak is an obvious choice here, as it will protect Karlov from targeted removal while making a Voltron kill all the easier after a couple of lifegain triggers. The other clear inclusion is Sword of Light and Shadow. Protection from black and white will make Karlov immune to most spot removal, and each time he makes contact we'll be gaining life and recurring pieces of our engine. Sword of War and Peace is a card I hadn't considered until looking at Ripwater's primer, but I like it a lot here. Protection from red is not nearly as useful as protection from black, but it will protect Karlov from burn-style removal while offering another instance of lifegain. I ultimately chose the two Swords over other potential options like Loxodon Warhammer because of the power they offer our weaker creatures. Offering evasion, protection, and a triggered ability means that even one of our Soul Sisters can deal some real damage while carrying a Sword.
Moving on to Recursion, Phyrexian Reclamation will let us trade some of the life we've gained to bring back creatures efficiently. Reveillark and Sun Titan take advantage of the small size of our dudes, giving us the ability to recur engine pieces. Sun Titan also lets us return any permanent with CMC 3 or less, so the Swords, Bloodchief Ascension, or even an Evolving Wilds are options in a pinch. The flexibility Sun Titan provides is the reason why I've also included Obzedat's Aid. Obzedat's Aid trades efficiency and reusability for the potential to recur any permanent. Did an opponent blow up your Sanguine Bond? Bring it back, force them to deal with it again!
The last recursion spell is Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord. Sorin might seem underpowered at first glance, but after having played against him many times on Arena, I can say that he's much more potent than he first appears. Admittedly, we won't often be attacking to make use of his static lifelink ability, but it does mean that Sorin can +2 to gain us a life and grow Karlov. The fact that Sorin's ability is a +2 also means that he suddenly becomes very challenging to kill at six loyalty, and because he's somewhat benign our opponents might not even bother. However, what puts Sorin over the top is the fact we can use his ability to recur creatures. Because our dudes are so small, Sorin won't have to expend much loyalty to bring back our engine pieces, and after a single activation of his plus ability, any creature in our graveyard will be a target.
We've crafted a resilient engine for our deck, so now it's time to outline our payoffs.
My Gain is your Loss
Killing with Life
I've talked about Sanguine Bond several times already, and it's one of the most powerful spells in our deck. Most opponents will know better than to let this survive a trip around the table for fear of the combo with Exquisite Blood, but if we can get it to stick, our opponents will be drained in no time. The best part? We have a second version of Sanguine Bond that's easier to recur and that hits all players with each point of life we gain: Vizkopa Guildmage. Guildmage offers a more powerful version of the Sanguine Bond ability for the small investment of three mana, and, better still, we can stack the ability by activating multiple times in a single turn.
I was confused to see Ajani, Caller of the Pride in Ripwater's deck, but their rationale is hard to ignore: once Karlov hits at least 9 counters (five instances of lifegain), we can minus Ajani to send a lethal attack at an opponent. We can do this the same turn we play him, so we can catch our opponents unprepared.
We also have another Ajani, Ajani, Strength of the Pride. This version of Ajani can come down and start making token copies of Ajani's Pridemate, or act as another source of lifegain, but I'm mostly excited about his 0 ability. We should almost always have at least 15 more life than our starting total, so Ajani can come down and exile all opposing creatures and artifacts. This is oppressive removal for four mana, but it will also clear a path for Karlov to start killing our opponents.
In a lot of games, Aetherflux Reservoir will come down and threaten to laser an opponent off the table. And after we've killed an opponent? Reservoir turns every spell we cast into another instance of lifegain. Win-win.
Finally, I want to try out Bolas's Citadel as a way of taking advantage of all the life we're going to gain. We can play Citadel, and then begin powering through our deck until we find the cards that win us the game. Worst case scenario, Citadel seems like insane card advantage for this build.
The Cut List
This is one of those times where the decklist I'm presenting stays true to the recommendations on EDHREC. The following are cards I would consider testing out once I get a better feel for how the deck works in practice.
Felidar Sovereign is a potential payoff spell for our lifegain strategy, but I feel like he won't survive long enough to trigger his ability, he'll likely make us a primary target, and in my opinion, winning with Sovereign sounds kind of boring.
There are a couple of spells that double life gained like Rhox Faithmender and Alhammarret's Archive. If I were to try one of these it would be Archive since it doubles up our draw spells too, but I think both are a little clunky. Instead, I'm currently testing out Angel of Vitality. Angel is not the flashiest play, but since we're focused on individual instances of lifegain, it will usually double the amount of life gained. Better still, Angel will usually be a three-mana 4/4 flyer, making it an excellent candidate to carry a Sword.
Effects like Angelic Accord and Resplendent Angel are potential lifegain payoffs, but I think actually triggering these cards might be challenging since we won't usually be gaining giant chunks of life. I do, however, like Luminarch Ascension in a deck like this one. Our consistent lifegain will likely dissuade our opponents from sending smaller attackers in our direction, so we shouldn't have trouble activating Ascension to make an angelic force.
Lastly, Command the Dreadhorde seems like a great place to invest the life we've stored up. It can let us completely revitalize our engine after a Wrath, and we can steal the best creatures in opposing graves at the same time.
Thank you all for taking the time to read my article! It feels good to be writing again, and I'm excited about this new deck!
Until next time, I wish you all the best and happy brewing!