Decks from the Past: Necro and Arena
History never looks like history when you are living through it.
- John W. Gardner
No card has dominated Constructed tournaments for as long as Necropotence, the awesome card-drawing engine that was introduced in Ice Age. For three black mana, Necropotence allows a player to convert life into cards, getting them during their discard step. As a drawback, the controller has to give up his or her usual draw step, but that hardly stopped people from playing and winning with the card. People found that when they drew ten or twelve more cards than their opponent over the course of two turns, they tended to win.
Once feared in Standard, Extended, and Ice Age Block Constructed, Necropotence is now relegated to Classic (Type 1) decks and even those can only use one. So what could we possibly learn from Necropotence for the new Constructed environments?
A number of cards have been introduced in the recent sets that produce similar effects, not only to Necropotence but almost to every other card that can be found in the classic Necro deck. Phyrexian Arena, for instance, is a black enchantment that costs and causes its controller to lose a life and draw a card during his or her upkeep. A black enchantment which converts life into extra cards? That sounds familiar...
Sample Necro Deck
4 Strip Mine
4 Dark Ritual
4 Demonic Consultation
4 Nevinyrral's Disk
4 Drain Life
4 Hymn to Tourach
1 Zuran Orb
4 Knight of Stromgald
4 Hypnotic Specter
2 Ihsan's Shade
3 Serrated Arrows
Card for Card
Necropotence - Phyrexian Arena
While the awesome card-drawing power of Necropotence is difficult to replicate, Wizards of the Coast R&D has tried to again and again, with cards such as Necrologia, Yawgmoth's Bargain, and most recently, Phyrexian Arena. There are important differences between all of these cards and it certainly applies to Necropotence and Phyrexian Arena. Necropotence's power is almost instantaneous, coming in short and powerful bursts; a player can go from having no cards in hand to a full hand of seven during his next discard step. Phyrexian Arena, on the other hand, is a slower card-drawing engine, providing an additional card each turn much like a Howling Mine, except it only affects the controller and not the opponent. On the other hand, while Phyrexian Arena is slower, it does have its advantages. It requires less black mana to cast, costing only two black mana and one generic mana. It doesn't stop the player's normal draw step and the effects of multiple Phyrexian Arenas are cumulative. Despite these notable differences, both cards provide powerful card-drawing engines that use a player's life as a resource and can serve as the foundation for a solid deck.
Hymn to Tourach - Gerard's Verdict
Hymn to Tourach is one of the most notorious discard spells in the game (next to Mind Twist), forcing the opponent to discard two cards at random for the mere price of . Gerard's Verdict, while much less powerful, offers a similar effect in that it forces an opponent to discard two cards for two mana (, in this case). It is true that giving the opponent the option of which cards to discard makes the effect much less desirable. The upside, however, is that if the opponent chooses to discard a land to Gerard's Verdict, the caster gains 3 life for each land discarded in this way, which can help fuel the Phyrexian Arena engine.
Drain Life - Death Grasp
Most traditional Necro decks, aside from Necropotence based-combo decks, used Drain Life as a means of killing creatures, attacking the opponent, and gaining life to feed the Necropotence in the process. Aside from the additional constraint of using a white mana and a black mana in the casting cost and having the benefit of being able to spend colorless mana in the X portion, Death Grasp is stunningly similar to Drain Life. It provides life for Phyrexian Arena, is a relatively efficient way to remove opposing creatures, and serves as a powerful finisher. In addition, while Drain Life would only provide as much life as the creature's toughness that it was killing, Death Grasp will give you it all, even if you use it to deal ten points of damage to a one toughness creature.
Nevinyrral's Disk - Pernicious Deed
Black has always had difficulty dealing with enchantments and the Disk provided classic Necro decks with a means of dealing with them, along with everything else on the board (besides land). The disadvantage of Pernicious Deed is that it requires green mana, a third color for our modern Necro deck. Part of the beauty of the old Necro decks was that they required no dual lands; only basic Swamps were needed to make the deck run. This made it less vulnerable to certain cards like Wasteland and Price of Progress and also made it generally less likely to have mana problems. On the plus side, Pernicious Deed costs one less mana overall and can be used the turn that it comes into play, unlike the old Nevinyrral's Disk, which was a four casting cost artifact that came into play tapped.
Zuran Orb - Overgrown Estate
Zuran Orb, the 0 casting cost artifact from Ice Age that allowed a person to sacrifice land to gain life, was quickly found to be powerful, especially in combination with Necropotence. While dramatically more expensive, Overgrown Estate provides the same effect and is in the correct colors for this deck, costing one black, one green, and one white mana.
Efficient Black and Artifact Creatures - Spectral Lynx, Voice of All, Spiritmonger, and Necravolver
Aside from Drain Life, classic Necro decks used efficient creatures to kill the opponent. These creatures often had protection from white, an important ability since the primary means of creature removal in the environment was the white spell, Swords to Plowshares. Spectral Lynx and Spiritmonger are easily as efficient as the old-school creatures, with protection from green and the ability to change color, respectively, the ability to regenerate, and having high power and toughness for their casting cost, one being a 2/1 for and the other being a 6/6 (with a Sengir Vampire-like ability on top of that) for . Voice of All and Necravolver, while less efficient, provide useful functions for the deck. Voice of All is a flexible, hard-to-kill evasion creature while Necravolver can be a 5/5 trampling Spirit Linked creature for one black, one green, one white, and three generic mana, another card which gains life to feed the Phyrexian Arena
Vindicate is an awesomely flexible and powerful spell that can destroy a target permanent for . There is no comparable card in the classic Necro deck, but it helps round out the deck, providing the means to destroy almost any troublesome permanent, including one's own Phyrexian Arena if it ever becomes a problem.
Unfortunately, we have no good replacement for the explosive mana acceleration of Dark Ritual and the uncompromising power of the tutor, Demonic Consultation. On the plus side, at one time or another, Necropotence decks have thrived without Dark Ritual (in Extended, no less) and have succeeded without the benefit of Demonic Consultation, in Standard. We will certainly miss these cards, but the lack of these cards shouldn't cripple our new Necro deck.
B/G/W Arena Deck
Invasion Block Constructed
4 Caves of Koilos
4 Llanowar Wastes
4 Elfhame Palace
4 Spectral Lynx
4 Voice of All
4 Gerard's Verdict
4 Phyrexian Arena
4 Pernicious Deed
1 Overgrown Estate
4 Death Grasp
So what's the verdict on this deck based on the new cross between Necropotence and a personal Howling Mine, Phyrexian Arena? The deck has efficient creatures that are good in the Block Constructed environment, powerful spells that work well together, and a powerful card drawing engine at its core. We may find that it doesn't match up well against the other top dogs, but any deck this powerful and reminiscent of the glory days of Necropotence deserves a long hard look. Even if you decide not to play it, you need to be prepared to beat it.