Sheoldred, Whispering One is one of the most awesome monoblack legends ever printed, and as such is a great choice for a Commander—it almost doesn’t matter what the deck is designed to do. However, I so was inspired by an article by the Magic creative team that I decided to base my first Sheoldred deck on the flavor of the black faction of Phyrexia, rather than the more common (and powerful) option of building around her mechanics. I intend to do a series of articles on theme decks like this (for both 60s and 100s) in the future, so let me know when you want to take a walk on the Vorthos side.
I only have three decks that are absolutely slaves to a theme, but flavor is something that often plays some role in my deckbuilding. I feel that it’s especially important in EDH, where the Commander usually sets the tone for the deck. For example, I will usually lose the games where Kresh gets killed every time I play him—I have a backup plan, but apparently it isn’t quite good enough without the big man. I know that Whispersilk Cloak would solve a lot of problems for that deck, but the flavor just rubs me the wrong way. The words ‘Whisper’ and ‘Silk’ just don’t match the whole ‘blood-braided-barbarian warrior from the predatory, dragon-scorched wildlands’ vibe. I’m not even sure a cloak is appropriate—perhaps if it carved from the hide of some badass mystical dragon it would be different, but Kresh is not silky and does not whisper.
I know that rejecting good cards for flavor reasons is going to be controversial, but look at it this way. Batterskull is so awesomely powerful that it is even starting to overwhelm the Swords of Wreck and Face in Standard, and those of us who live in the red zone would love to be able to get our hands on them. But what if it was called something a little bit less macho, like Barbie’s Dream-House™, or Gwendolyn’s Urborgian Thong? I’m all for battering skulls, but do you still want to equip a warrior or elder dragon with a Thong? I reckon the question for most casual players is where to draw the line, not whether the line should be drawn at all.
A Delicate Blend of Style and Genocide
The flavor of New Phyrexia is actually pretty horrifying; as someone who has been summoning demons, zombies and icky scaly things that will tear your soul out through your throat for the better part of two decades, I defy you to read that flavor article without cringing. I’m now convinced that, somewhere in a basement in Renton, WA, is a drooling strait-jacketed fiend that WotC wheels out once a year, just to concept the black portion of the new set. I pray that this sick bastard never breaks loose, but my hat is off to him for the twisted masterpiece that is the Steel Thanes.
The phrases from Sheoldred’s description that leapt out at me and directed my early ideas for the deck were:
- “For Sheoldred, information is power”
- “Using her knowledge to aid and hinder foes”
- “a vast network of spies, scouts, blackmailers, and informers”
- “corruption, observation, distortion, extortion” (especially extortion!)
That meant that I was going to focus on cards that allow me to manipulate my opponents and play a much more political, backroom-deal-making kind of game than I normally do. I’m on the record as saying that I don’t think it’s particularly useful to describe cards as inherently political, but in strategic terms this means I want cards that deter attacks against me, and give me the option of interacting/interfering with other players outside of my turn. It also means that I need to find ways to mirror information-gathering and spying mechanically without any access to blue.
And of course, to make sure that the deck focused on my seven-mana dream girl, I needed a ton of acceleration. I decided to run 40 land and ten other accelerants. Don’t worry, gentle Timmies, there’s no way to abuse that acceleration to get 21 points of damage out of her in the first few turns; it just means that I should be able to keep playing her until my opponents run out of answers. On the downside, all of that accel meant I’d be limited to just 50 business spells, and in order to get the most out of milady’s reanimation ability (and also satisfy my need to smash face, if we’re being honest), at least half of those would need to be creatures.
To make the process easy to write about, I put all of the cards I was considering on a spreadsheet. As you can see from the following page, there was a lot of competition for those few slots!
The hardest part of building any deck for me is making the cuts. There are two essentials that I try to use to make those first decisions: curve and theme. For the curve, I try to divide my cards evenly between different mana costs: 0-2, 3, 4, 5, and 6+. With 40 lands, that usually means 12 cards in each spot (which is what I plan to do with Jor Kadeen in a couple of weeks—have you got your card suggestions in yet? If not, leave a comment below), but with only 50 cards, that’s down to ten each, and only five creatures in each spot. This is going to hurt, especially on the three- and four-drops!
Theme means something different for each deck, but here my first choice was how heavily to go into poison. I’ve never liked poison in EDH, because it can end games so quickly that it often feels unfair, so I wanted to avoid going too heavily down that road, but at the same time I had to showcase some of Phyrexia’s favorite weapons and include a little bit of the corrupting flavor of infect, so I knew I needed to strike some kind of balance there (although as it happens I almost certainly struck the wrong balance). I also had to decide how much to let Vorthos off his leash. I originally didn’t want to include any cards with Mirran watermarks, until I realized that the whole point of conquering Mirrodin was to control their toys—why deny Sheoldred the spoils of evil?
I also wanted to avoid extending flavor choices to names. I’m sure there are more than 60 cards with “Phyrexian” in their names by now, and there are some great-sounding cards out there that could lobby for a place in the deck, such as Corrupt and Oppression, but it was enough to capture Sheoldred’s flavor through the mechanics of the cards. On top of that, I wanted a deck that felt unique in order to emphasize Sheoldred and her particular play style, which meant avoiding a lot of the “staple” choices, even if that meant playing a deck with Cabal Coffers but no Exsanguinate.
In the end, I went with a decent range of 25 creatures (including a couple of Living Weapons) that gave me a mix of early plays, late-game beaters, sac outlets and reanimation targets. I couldn’t figure out my spells though, and eventually decided to ignore the curve altogether—that’s usually risky, but in this case I have an extra 10 non-land cards to cast in the early game, so the damage is probably minimal. I tried to spread my 25 spells between the knowledge is power theme, card draw, sweepers, spot removal and the more manipulative board control elements.
I interpreted Sheoldred’s manipulation of information as discard and capping, although I’m sure there are other ways you could do it, and added a handful of draw spells just to solidify the theme. I even included Infiltration Lens, which may or may not be worth it in a non-poison deck, but which seems perfect theme-wise. I traded my usual spot removal favorites for a range of tap effects that should give me a lot of chances to manipulate other people’s combat steps, as well as the awesome deterrent power of No Mercy. I kept some answers to troublesome critters, but eschewed cheap instant-speed removal for more flavorful answers with more power in the long game, given that Sheoldred herself will usually be better than a handful of Doom Blades.
I’m a little concerned that some of my other card choices may seem generic, and I’d welcome any suggestions you might have, but I think most of the non-core cards serve to bolster one or more elements of the theme, such as corruption, control and political intrigue. The first version (in Excel form again, sorry for those without an encyclopedic knowledge of the cards) is given below, with the cards that made the final cut highlighted in green.
The Proof of the Pudding is in the Slaughter of Lesser Life-Forms
I only had time for one game this week (stupid day-job!), but I was able to put Sheoldred through her paces a little bit against a bunch of decks, all but one of which were much more established and refined than Sheoldred 1.0, and she did a fine job of handling the normal bump and grind of FFA, even if she didn’t walk away with the whole game.
We started a five-player with Brent playing aggro Karn, Brian playing his veteran Bosh build, new-guy Mike with his new Ulasht, the Hate Seed deck, Nick foregoing Geth for his token-abusing Rhys, the Redeemed monstrosity, and of course the ravishing and ravaging Sheoldred, Whispering One.
Brent was getting his mana rocks off in the early game, and responded to Mike’s fourth-turn O-Stone with a fourth-turn Darksteel Forge, and we were moving close to Archenemy territory. On turn five, Brent cast Karn and sent the Forge trundling towards me (because I’d hit him for two with a Slith…some people have no sense of proportion!). He also had an Arcbound Crusher that was up to 5/5, and he sent that at Mike. Yes, that’s Arcbound Crusher, not the other one – it’s a hell of a lot cheaper, but a great card to play in the typical artifact-heavy EDH metagame, even if you aren’t playing a dedicated artifact deck.
Don’t feel sorry for Mike though; he had a Priest of Titania while Nick was vomiting Elf Warrior tokens onto the board. Did you know that Priest of Titania counts all elves in play? I learned that when he tapped her for six mana with only two elves of his own to cast Primeval Titan, apparently in a noble attempt to draw Brent’s attention away from me.
In the meantime, I was struggling to pay the echo on my Ring of Gix and was forced to spend a tutor to find a land (giving me Urborg, Coffers and Lake of the Dead, but only two basic swamps), while Mike cast Lurking Predators, Brent continued the rain of steel and Nick dropped a Seedborn Muse to partner with Rhys and his six mana. Wish I’d tutored for a sweeper!
When my seventh turn rolled around and I was still on 30 life, I breathed a sigh of relief; I was able to drop Sheoldred and still keep one mana open to tap Brent’s biggest creature unless he agreed not to attack me with them, which is not a bad place to be. Unfortunately, Brent was able to use Karn to animate and sac his lesser artifacts (including an Ichor Wellspring!), Brian was creatureless and Mike and Nick were both rocking the tokens, so she didn’t dominate the table immediately, but she had an impact on other people’s boards, and allowed me to chump-block with impunity, in addition to being unblockable as long as Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth was on the table. I also had a Crypt Rats on the table, which allowed me to spend a couple of turns swampwalking on Brent, killing all of the tokens and then recurring the rats, and holding down the fort with three other blockers. I was inching my way towards the driver’s seat, but as we all know, a lot can change in a single turn!
On Brent’s turn I asked him again if he was going to attack me with the Crusher, now 19/19 and wielding a Sword, and he said “I can neither confirm nor deny that,” so I tapped it, but the sneaky bastard had played a Clock of Omens and simply untapped and swung at me. I double-blocked with a Reaper of Sheoldred and a Chancellor of the Dross, and by the time the dust had settled on his trample and my lifelink, I’d lost two creatures but only two life. Then on Mike’s turn he created a bunch of tokens and cast Warp World—with him at 22 permanents to my ten, Brent’s 12-15 and Brian and Nick’s forlorn expressions.
I did pretty well out of it, as there were only two of my top ten cards that I couldn’t use, and the judges confirmed that my Ob Nixilis saw my five swamps come into play. I had an awkward moment of what Bruce accurately described as Analysis Paralysis in deciding where to send the damage, and eventually split it between Brent and Brian because they both had Myr Battlesphere that could chump-block an 18/18 Ob the Slob, while no one else seemed to have a defense against it. When Mike passed his turn I was thinking “No power in the ‘verse can stop me now,” but Nick had apparently been sandbagging his removal and somehow had the mana to cast both Austere Command and Creeping Corrosion, leaving me with just the lands.
After all of that sweeping, and with Sheoldred stuck somewhere in my library thanks to the Warp World, I slipped into irrelevance over the next few turns. I was able to make a bunch of land-drops and cast an entwined Price of Power to fill up my hand, which shows that the deck is doing a lot of the things that I wanted it to, but I couldn’t use all of that mana to recast her, or otherwise establish a board presence.
The game ended for me when Nick cast Elesh Norn, followed on the next turn by Storm Herd for 27. Brian had Karn Liberated with ten counters and cast Caged Sun, then said to Nick “I won’t exile Elesh if you let me untap next turn.” Apparently he thought that his chances of winning the long game were pretty low, so decided to make a deal with the devil and take his chances on winning a duel. Nick agreed, and then proceeded to kill Brent and me, eliminate Karn and knock Brian down to two life. Crucially, during that exchange Brian had seemed unusually concerned about keeping Elesh Norn alive, so Nick, suspecting tricksiness, killed his own legend at the end of combat and passed the turn to Brian.
Apparently, Brian had been holding onto a Conquering Manticore. Pro Tip: stealing someone else’s Elesh Norn gives you a FOUR-point swing in your creatures’ power and toughness. I said “that’s a terrible plan,” thinking that Nick would still have his air force left for the counterattack, but of course when Brian gained control of the Praetor, that threat would have disappeared. Without the Manticore plan to stabilize the board, Brian was forced to rely on his top-deck, which was…Warp World number two! Brian floated his Caged Sun mana, whispered a prayer, and cast it, pitting his 10 permanents against Nick’s 40+. Obviously the last-ditch effort of a doomed fool…which is why it was so epic when he flipped over Valakut and seven mountains, doing 21 damage to Nick. He then had enough mana to cast Bosh, who threw himself at Nick for the last couple of points and the win! You can keep your buzzer-beating three-pointers; I’d rather see a game of Magic ending in that kind of jammy brilliance.
All in all, it was a fantastic ending to a long game and a long night. I met a new friend, got a reasonable proof of concept for Sheoldred and participated in a legendary game, which is more than I have a right to ask for. Sheoldred will be back, twisting the fates of lesser beings to ensure her own inevitable ascension, but before then I’ll be running through my deck construction process for Urabrask, the Hidden, which will be lean, mean and free of theme; a Spikier deck that will squeeze as much strategic advantage out of Urabrask’s incredibly powerful mechanics as I possibly can. Next week though, I’ll be looking at some of the trickier aspects of threat assessment, and also joining the other Muses in analyzing our exclusive MTG: Commander preview card! That’s right, next week we will be bringing the secretest of secret tech with a casual BOMB!!
 It’s a little bit time-consuming, but I have to say that it made it a lot easier to keep track of things. If you’re one of those people for whom building decks is like pulling teeth, or if your room tends to look like the aftermath of a tornado when you’re building, I might recommend using Excel or similar to keep track of things.
 This was made easier by the fact that I couldn’t even find many of the cards I was looking for, including a Gate to Phyrexia, which I know I have somewhere and which would have been perfect. The cards highlighted in yellow were either in untouchable decks or lost somewhere in the vast reaches of my collection.
 As always the first rule of Magic is RTFC; despite covering it in my review article, I somehow assumed that the Reaper would give a poison counter for each damage dealt to it, making it a fantastic solution to a non-trampling Darksteel Forge. Only after I’d blocked the trampling Crusher did I realize that it only gave one poison counter, making it depressingly weak in a deck that has removed almost every other infect creature.