July 28, 2015

Still Alive

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Death has been a part of gaming since before I was born. Gygax and Arneson used death as a mechanic in the very first iteration of Dungeons & Dragons, and video game characters have been kicking the bucket a quarter at a time since the early days of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.

My wife and I play a lot of games. Between us, we "die' several hundred times a week. I rarely think about that, because death means very little in modern gaming. If I run Mario off a cliff or I lose a game of Magic, I get to play again without any real-world consequences. "She attacked me for fifteen and I died," is such a natural thing for me to say now that I rarely consider the meaning behind the word.

Do games use death as a metaphor out of convenience, or is something deeper going on? After all, death is a fearsome topic that most of us have trouble even beginning to imagine. Could experiencing "death" over and over again while playing games allow us to face our fears in miniature? Might we be developing better attitudes about our own mortality every time we lose a game of Magic?

Of course, not all brushes with death are good for our mental health. Liliana Vess's death nearly came for her in the form of her undead brother, Josu. As he nearly wrung the life out of Liliana, Josu promised that an eternity of pain in the Void was awaiting both of them upon her death. Liliana was saved by the ignition of her spark, but that encounter would go on to define her entire life as a Planeswalker. Liliana has proven time and again that she will do anything—anything at all—to spare herself from death.

We explored Liliana's obsession with life a little bit in my preview article for Tainted Remedy, so I'd like to do something a little bit different today. It's Liliana Week here on DailyMTG, and that got me thinking: What would a format based around Liliana's personal philosophies look like?

Life Total Matters

Playing Magic with three players can be awkward. There's almost always one person who gets off to a significantly slower start than the other two players, and he or she dies quickly and without recourse. Other times, the player off to the second-best start convinces the player with the slowest start to help pick off the leader. After that, the slow start player is easily dispatched. Then the game ends.

I don't know where the idea first originated, but my playgroup soon came up with a fix for this problem: Once the first player in a three-player game dies, the game is over. Whoever has the highest life total at that point wins.

I thought that this rule would prove fairly meaningless at first. After all, aren't life totals usually just a measure of who's winning the game anyway? In the unlikely event where life totals did end up different from relative power level, wouldn't this rule just give an unfair advantage to the aggressive decks that don't have to play defense during the first few turns of a game?

It only took two games before I realized just how wrong I was. I found myself making previously unimaginable blocks in order to keep my life total high, prioritizing it over the survival of many of my best creatures. All alliances were temporary, and I found myself willing to go back on my word as long as it meant that I could stay ahead in the life total race. I made crazy plays, brokered terrible deals, and even kept some of my enemies alive in order to stay healthy, young, and at 20 life. In other words, I played the game like Liliana Vess would.

Demonic Pact | Art by Aleksi Briclot

Life Total Matters works very well as a Limited format, either with a Cube or with packs of the latest Magic set. Draft and Sealed both work equally well, and it's a great format to try out the next time you have either three or six players at your game night.

Black and white tend to be very strong in Life Total Matters. Those two colors have the most creatures with lifelink, which are at their best in this format. Red is also quite powerful because instant-speed burn is a good way to turn a presumed loss into a surprise win. If you play green, try to look for high toughness creatures with reach—small flyers can be a real threat to your life total. Blue is best used as a support color, where you can counter problematic spells and fly over your opponents' defenses with your birds and drakes.

As fun as Life Total Matters is, I don't recommend it as a Constructed format. Once you start building decks with your life total in mind, things become warped around a couple of powerful but narrow cards and strategies. I don't want to leave you without a deck this week, though, so here's a little something I built to showcase some of Liliana's best story moments:

 Rise of the Necromancer

This deck can win via discard, reanimation, or raw planeswalker power. It would be a little more consistent if it focused exclusively on just one of these things—feel free to modify it for your purposes—but I wanted the first draft to showcase all of the different things that Liliana does well.

You should try to get Magic 2013 copies of both Duress and Mind Rot, because they both feature Liliana Vess flavor text. The Duel Decks versions of Demonic Tutor and Snuff Out have incredible Liliana artwork, so those should be priorities as well. Both the M13 and Duel Decks: Garruk vs. Liliana version of Mutilate feature Liliana quotes, so it depends which piece of art you prefer. I like the Zoltan Boros and Gabor Zsikszai piece on the Garruk vs. Liliana version, myself.

One of the minor themes running through this deck is the tension between immediate power and long-term ruin. The Chain Veil, Kothophed, Soul Hoarder, and Demonic Pact will help you . . . for a price. I've also included Grave Pact, Curse of Shallow Graves, and Promise of Power, because they fit the Liliana ethos and allow you to make the same kind of dark deals that Liliana does. And while Raven's Crime helps out our discard plan, it's mostly here to honor the creepy and mysterious Raven Man.

What basic lands are best here? Well, Liliana is from Dominaria, so any lands from Magic's early years are fair game. Personally, I'm going to use Innistrad Swamp #258. Liliana spent a lot of time there, and the swamp depicted seems to have enveloped an old graveyard. What better way to showcases Liliana's bond with—and fear of—death?

The grave may await us all eventually, but right now I'm pretty happy to be healthy and alive. I'm going to take a walk around the neighborhood, grab a glass of cold-brew iced coffee, and settle in for another wonderful evening of Magic. After all, it's the little things that make life worth living.

Until next time

-Chas Andres



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