Please note: The card images as they appear here are not as they will appear in Vintage Masters, which will use the modern card frames, Power Nine art from the Magic Online Cube, and new art for a number of cards. Actual card images will be posted soon.
n the history of Magic, there have been few cards so defining, that have taught us so much, as Necropotence.
Over the last couple of weeks, we have talked about the relationship between cards and life total or life into card advantage. Necropotence makes such relationships explicit.
Vintage Masters Necropotence | Art by Udon
With Necropotence on the battlefield, 1 life point equals one card.
Necropotence was not, though, the first card to overtly relate life points and card drawing...
...but it did so at a shocking level of efficiency.
Not only was Necropotence's relationship between life points and cards more favorable than Sylvan Library's (one-to-one being much more amenable than four-to-one), but was so without demanding any additional mana. To wit, Greed forced players to invest mana as well as life in order to get their extra cards... Necropotence didn't.
Initially, Necropotence was underrated, because it cost players their draw steps. It's not just that you get extra cards by paying life... you only get cards AT ALL by paying life! This was an unattractive prospect for many and most.
The costs to playing this card were heavy, and certainly not the kinds of things that less-experienced players could easily look past. The card itself was color-intensive; it cost you a card before doing anything; it cost you your draw every turn—yuck, Yuck, and YUCK!
...and it didn't even let you use reanimation effects.
The intuitive thing, of course, was to play this card with big, expensive, threats; to over-draw with Necropotence, discard something generally prohibitive, and bring it back with Animate Dead or Dance of the Dead... but, of course, the Ice Age R&D teams figured all of that out ahead of time.
There are only three lines on Necropotence and the first two suck. How did this card end up such a doozy?
You didn't even "DRAW" cards, really.
Get a card on the battlefield; a color-intensive card that had no immediate impact on the game. Give up your draws. Pay life for any cards you wanted for the rest of the game. Tough and super tough gatekeepers to be sure, but once you had Necropotence down, you were playing a different game than everyone else.
The idea of playing a different game than everyone else starkly differentiated games where you had free reign with Necropotence and every other kind of game.
Randy Buehler's Lauerpotence
Pro Tour-Chicago 1997 - Extended
The Mad Genius of Magic, Erik Lauer (currently of R&D), was the first deck designer to explicitly understand that the correct numbers of cards to be played were four Necropotence and four Demonic Consultation. Previous to the deck that Lauer designed—that dropped the first domino in the amazing career of Pro Tour Champion, Rookie of the Year, and eventual Grand Poobah of Magic: The Gathering (among other titles at Wizards of the Coast) Randy Buehler—folks did foolish... rather ignorant... things like play two copies of Necropotence or some non-four number of Demonic Consultations. I, personally, won my first-ever PTQ with three copies of Necropotence and played my first Pro Tour with three copies of Necropotence and only one Demonic Consultation.
We all learned, though.
Because when you had Necropotence on the battlefield, you basically played by different rules than everyone else. We have, for example, spent many episodes of Level One talking about card advantage. Players with Necropotence on the battlefield took card advantage as a given. They could draw as many cards as they liked! These players were differently bounded.
When you have, effectively, all the cards you want... what do you worry about?
Play a land every turn.
When you have effectively many more cards than the opponent, the way you maximize your resources is by tapping the most mana. You tap the most mana by having the most mana. Players who realized this made better individual plays than others.
If you had six cards in your hand at the end of your main phase, how many cards would you set aside with Necropotence? The default answer might be "one." If you only set aside one card you are just worse than a regular deck (one "draw" per turn, but you're paying life for it), and you aren't giving yourself a very good chance at drawing into your next turn's land drop.
Tap all your lands every turn.
Necropotence, as a general strategy, was one of the most mana-hungry ever. Most other cards that got you ahead in cards utilized engines like Jayemdae Tome, Browse, or Whispers of the Muse—i.e., all cards that demand you spend a ton of mana to get the extra cards. Because Necropotence didn't ask for that, you could spend all your mana doing other active stuff.
Incremental investments in cards were irrelevant as long as they got you ahead.
Dark Ritual—An explosive card that generally gives up card advantage—was great because it could get Necropotence in play on the first turn. Then, midgame, it could fuel your Drain Life, moving a card out of your hand while giving you essentially more (virtual) land drops/taps.
Lake of the Dead—Much like Dark Ritual... all about explosive mana and playing by different rules than everyone else.
Contagion—Killing creatures and getting creatures out of the way for no mana at all? You could spend your mana more proactively.
Firestorm—Randy Buehler's play was differentiated in 1997 by drawing one more extra card just so he could Firestorm his opponent. With Necropotence on the battlefield, one more card was just 1 life point.
Lifegain became a dual-edged sword... but both edges were good.
Cards like Corrupt and Drain Life killed the opponent, kept you alive, and fueled your next turn's cards, all at once.
PT Chicago '99 - Brian Davis
One of the great things about Necropotence was that with so many resources, it gave you tons and tons of rope to either make great plays... or hang yourself.
Consider a spot like this:
Dark Ritual, Drain Life, Corrupt
Battlefield: Swamp, Swamp, Swamp, Swamp, Necropotence
You are probably going to play your Dark Ritual and one of your big sorceries. But which one?
Dark Ritual and four Swamps gives you .
You can either Drain Life for four or Corrupt for four. Is there a difference?
It turns out, there is a HUGE difference!
Both cards get the opponent for 4 and give you 4 life. But if you use your Drain Life, you will have no guarantee of being able to play the Corrupt next turn at all. The better play that you can replicate time and time again is to Corrupt for four with the expectation of playing a land and playing Drain Life for three the next turn.
All About Black Mana
Cards like Dark Ritual and Corrupt probably give you some serious clues on this end. Necropotence was all about intensive chunks of black mana. Players therefore built their mana bases around lots of Swamps for Lake of the Dead and Corrupt, and utilized the "tap all my mana every turn" principles to push the pump on Order of the Ebon Hand.
Here's the thing about playing a different game than everyone else: It's not just that you got to play this other game where life made cards cheap... after a very short time, everyone else knew what was going on, too.
Necropotence was so powerful and pervasive that it, itself, gave rise to a wide variety of strategies that limited mana optimization or pressured life totals.
The Prison archetype (the above implementation being Jon Finkel's favorite deck ever, as well as the Weapon of Choice that got him his first Pro Tour Top 8) was in part designed to combat mana-hungry Necropotence. Necropotence might have had all the cards in the world, but its ability to exploit those cards was contingent on consuming large amounts of mana. Winter Orb could punish players for tapping out every turn; players who dropped every land every turn (whether forced to by Winter Orb in order to operate at all or by design) would walk right into Armageddon.
Matt Place's Turbo Stasis
U.S. Nationals 1996
Another "lock" deck, Turbo Stasis was an even more specialized look at anti-Necropotence.
Arcane Denial and Howling Mine banked on the fact that the opponent would have an excess in cards; in-context, they didn't really give up that much card advantage. Stasis did the same work as Winter Orb in Finkel's deck (limiting the opponent's ability to tap out every turn)... with Howling Mine keeping the Stasis alive by guaranteeing land drops.
Paul Sligh's Orcish Librarian Deck
The Sligh deck—innovator of the mana curve—arose during the height of Necropotence.
Because, if the opponent isn't going to value his or her life points (cards being so attractive)... you can punish that opponent by focusing on direct damage and offense.
To paraphrase Randy Buehler, "If Necropotence is the best card, then the deck that most breaks Necropotence is the best deck."
The unique position that Necropotence put players in gave rise to more and more inventive ways of utilizing its ability to obtain cards in explosive bursts. The most famous of those being Trix.
"Swamp, Dark Ritual, Necropotence."
"Force of Will your Necropotence."
"Force of Will your Force of Will."
"Nice turn one. Nice deck."
Scott McCord, 3rd place Grand Prix--Philadelphia 2000
This implementation of Necropotence was long considered the greatest strategy of all time.
It was an assortment of all the most powerful cards in the (then-Extended) format: nothing but cheap mana acceleration and card selection/card drawing.
The kill was Illusions of Grandeur (gain 20) + Donate (the opponent would eventually fail to pay cumulative upkeep and lose 20).
So, part of this two-card combo kill was gaining 20 life in the middle. Gaining 20 life is awesome, and particularly awesome in a deck that translates life into card advantage.
Necropotence was both central to the deck and an add-on to the strategy. If your opponent wanted to try to push against your Necropotence... you could just use Demonic Consultation, Vampiric Tutor, and the mana acceleration to get out Illusions of Grandeur, maybe pay a turn, and then Donate it to the opponent.
Or, you could set aside a big chunk of cards—maybe considering how much damage your opponent could do the next turn, leaving yourself 1 more life than that—to ensure a perfect hand that would get you all your necessary combo pieces and the mana necessary to get everything going.
In sum, this was a card that forced players to play their best and gave players arguably the most active playing field, ever, for inventive deck design.
Necropotence in Vintage Masters
...which brings us to Necropotence in Vintage Masters.
Necropotence is on the restricted list in Vintage.
Ergo, it cannot be played as a centerpiece the way it was in Standard. Vintage games featuring Necropotence won't be about "playing a different game" and building everything around Swamps and lifegain.
Rather, they will most likely be around getting explosive chunks of card advantage to set up a combo kill... more like Trix.
The upside in Vintage is that you will get to play Necropotence alongside not just Dark Ritual or Lake of the Dead, but mana acceleration cards that don't cost you cards.
2008 Vintage Championship Top 8
In a deck like this one, you could potentially use Necropotence to buy you a lot of Moxes, play them all in one turn to set up storm count, and point a Tendrils of Agony at the opponent.
Doubtless, such a deck would, over time, reward precise play and resource maximization, and give you the feeling of playing a completely different game than lesser Magicians.
Because hey, Necropotence.
Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."