About a year ago was the release of Commander 2015. In that set were two cards that seemed custom-made for my Phage deck: Command Beacon, which can be sacrificed to place a Commander directly from the Command Zone into its owner’s hand; and Thief of Blood, which has an ETB replacement effect that removes all counters from all permanents. Command Beacon, of course, is great for Phage herself, since if she’s cast from hand that gets around her ETB lose the game; and Thief of Blood combos well with Dark Depths, immediately removing all counters and causing it to meet its trigger condition.
Phage appeals to me as a commander, because on the surface she looks absolutely terrible. I can’t even cast her without losing the game. Of course, there are ways to get around that—Torpor Orb, Platinum Angel, Sundial of the Infinite—but they don’t immediately come to mind for an inexperienced player. She’s kind of the embodiment of the format: Take something that seems on the surface to be unsalvageably bad, and turn it into a win condition.
Because I need one of a few specific cards in order to make Phage playable, I run a lot of tutors in the deck—something I try to avoid in most of my Commander decks. But with Phage, I excuse it under the philosophy that I’m only running the tutors to allow me to play my commander, to whom I should have access regardless. And not every game with Phage is necessarily going to play the same way. Yes, my wincon is my Commander, but she costs seven mana. The game might well be over by then. And of course, black is the color for tutors; I have so many to choose from, eventually I’ll have to start making choices about which to include.
Thus, while the deck is mostly built around getting Phage and giving her some sort of evasion—shadow, trample, fear—it can do other things as well. Torpor Orb keeps Phage’s ETB from killing me, but it can also give me a Turn 3 Phyrexian Dreadnought. I’m already running a lot of tutors, so it’s possible for me to search out the parts necessary to get me Marit Lage. The deck is designed to be mean, so why not an Endless Whispers so that if someone manages to kill Phage, I can make target opponent lose the game?
Anyway, the decklist is as follows:
Sundial of the Infinite
Gauntlets of Chaos
Most of these are pretty obvious. Torpor Orb keeps Phage from triggering, Sundial exiles the trigger while it’s still on the stack, Platinum Angel negates the trigger upon resolution, and of course Command Beacon gets around the trigger by putting Phage directly into my hand. Abyssal Persecutor seems at first to be counterintuitive, but with Gauntlets of Chaos or Endless Whispers I can give it away to an opponent, thus keeping myself from losing the game.
Chariot of Victory
Sword of Vengeance
Archetype of Finality
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Shadow Alley Denizen
Sewers of Estark
Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
Dirge of Dread
Of course once I get Phage on the field I want to be able to get through my opponents’ defenses. Trample, fear, landwalk, and shadow—along with straight-up unblockable—lets me get in their and touch my opponents. Deathtouch added to the trample means that even if my opponent blocks with a creature larger than Phage (not hard, since she’s only a 4/4), some of the damage is still going through. Unfortunately things like Shadow Alley Denizen are kind of a nonbo with Torpor Orb; but that’s why I have multiple options, both for evasion and for negating Phage’s detrimental effect.
Ring of Three Wishes
Beseech the Queen
Naturally, with so fragile a deck, I have to be able to tutor up the pieces necessary to make it work. Due to budget constraints, I don’t run every tutor ever printed—Imperial Seal is a bit out of my price range—but I do come close. Of my decks, Phage has probably the highest concentration of tutors with the exception of my Judgebreaker deck, which has the advantage of being all five colors.
Thief of Blood
The Dreadnought combo I already described; the rest of these are designed to combo with Dark Depths. This particular combo could go in any deck that runs black (or, with the Thespian’s Stage version, any deck at all), but I chose to put it in this deck for two reasons. First, I’m already running a lot of tutors, so it’s possible to make the combo work; second, the deck is designed to be mean anyway, so if I’ve already decided to sit down with it, I’m not going to feel guilty over a Turn 3 Marit Lage. Basically how the combo works is, either I use one of the counter-draining effects to take all the counters off the Dark Depths, thus causing it to trigger; or I turn the Thespian’s Stage into a Dark Depths, at which point I have to sacrifice the original, and I’m left with a Thespian’s Depths with no counters on it, triggering its effect.
Snow-Covered Swamp (x27)
Magus of the Coffers
Crypt of Agadeem
Liliana of the Dark Realms
With my commander being so costly—and likely to be killed as many times as my opponents can manage—it makes sense for me to make sure I’m going to have enough mana to cast her. I shelled out the money for Snow-Covered Swamps for this deck specifically because of Extraplanar Lens; usually I’d be fine with my opponents benefiting from my ramp, but as mentioned before, this deck is supposed to be mean. If I’m playing it, I’m trying to win—admittedly in a fun and unusual way, but I’m not going to give my opponents any advantage if I can avoid it.
Once I get Phage out, I want to be able to protect her, because you better believe she’s going to be a target. Greaves and Boots are pretty much my go-to cards for any Commander deck, and of course Darksteel Plate protects her from non-targeted removal.
Ashling, the Extinguisher
Butcher of Malakir
Sheoldred, Whispering One
Go for the Throat
In Garruk’s Wake
One of the keys to any successful deck is removal. If I can give Phage fear, but my opponent has a black or artifact creature, what good does that do me? Also, being able to get rid of threats early on can keep me in the game while I’m working my way up to casting my commander.
Chainer, Dementia Master
Erebos, God of the Dead
Gray Merchant of Asphodel
The remaining cards are a conglomeration of things that help out the deck, or do well in this particular deck. For example, with the amount of ramp the deck can provide, Exsanguinate can be lethal on its own. Erebos and Phyrexian Arena both get me extra card draw. Chainer and Cabal Surgeon can get me creatures back from my graveyard, if for instance Platinum Angel has died. And Gray Merchant of Asphodel is just good, especially in a mono-black deck whose commander has four devotion.
The first time the deck actually saw play was Grand Prix Atlanta 2015, shortly after I finished its first iteration. I played it a couple times, it didn’t work very well, then I switched to Pirates and later to Judgebreaker, which went so well I wasn’t even tempted to switch back. At that point the decklist was still in a bit of flux, and the deck works much better now that it’s stabilized, although it can still be rather hit-or-miss.
In one game a few months back, I was playing against a couple fellow judges. I had down Sundial of the Infinite and Dauthi Trapper. A boardwipe got rid of my Dauthi Trapper, but I had Dauthi Embrace in hand. The game ended rather shortly after that. For some reason not a lot of people run cards with shadow. This was the second game of the night; the first one, Phage refused to give me the mana I needed to cast anything, and I was left rather frustrated.
Recently, when playing against a friend over lunch, I opened with a god hand. Now, the ideal starting hand would be Urborg, Dark Depths, Vampire Hexmage, Sol Ring (not currently in the deck, but an easy insert if I decided to do so), Lightning Greaves (or Swiftfoot Boots), and perhaps a Torpor Orb and a Phyrexian Dreadnaught. That would lead to Turn 1 Urborg, Sol Ring, Lightning Greaves, and Turn 2 Dark Depths, Hexmage, sac the Hexmage to remove the counters from Dark Depths, get Marit Lage, equip, and swing for 20 in the air. The Sol Ring could then be tapped to drop Torpor Orb, and the next turn I could get the Dreadnaught, equip it, and be swinging for both 20 and 12.
The hand I had wasn’t quite that good, and not only because I didn’t have a Sol Ring; it was two Snow-Covered Swamps, Dark Depths, and Demonic Tutor. So Turn 1 was just a Swamp, and Turn 2 was the tutor to grab my Hexmage. Turn 3 I played the Hexmage and Dark Depths, sac’ing the Hexmage to remove all counters from Dark Depths in order to get Marit Lage. Turn 4 I was swinging with a 20/20 flying indestructible on a board with no other flyers. Needless to say that game was over rather quickly.
I played the deck again a few days ago. Opening hand was 2 Swamps, Vampiric Tutor, and Thespian’s Stage. Once again, I was on track for a very early Marit Lage, this time Turn 4. Turn 1 Swamp, Tutor for Dark Depths. Turn 2 Swamp. Turn 3 Thespian’s Stage. On my opponent’s turn, he cast Awakening Zone, which wasn’t relevant yet but would become relevant shortly. Turn 4 was Dark Depths, to get Marit Lage at the end of my opponent’s turn. Turn 5 I was swinging with Dark Depths—and also Mogis’s Marauders, which I cast that turn. On his turn, due to the two Eldrazi Spawn tokens from Awakening Zone, my opponent had just enough mana to cast All Is Dust, getting rid of my Marit Lage and saving himself from slaughter the next turn.
By this point I’d drawn Rune-Scarred Demon and Rogue’s Passage, so when I cast Diabolic Tutor I decided to grab my Phyrexian Obliterator. Getting one of my ramp spells was a consideration, but I figured the opportunity to make my opponent sacrifice permanents was more advantageous at that time. Of course he never did sacrifice permanents to the Obliterator, electing instead to let the damage go through, which was also fine. By the time I had the mana to cast the Rune-Scarred demon, tutor out my Torpor Orb, cast it the next turn, and finally cast Phage the turn following, I had lethal on board.
These examples show much greater use of Marit Lage than I’d intended when I built the deck. Then again, that’s a two-card combo that only costs me two mana to activate, which means I can make it happen much faster than I can do anything else with the deck. At some point I’d like to get my Phyrexian Dreadnought down on Turn 3, but that’s a goal for another day. Mostly I’m just happy that I took an unworkable deck idea and made it brutally good at what it does.