rom the moment I first saw him, I knew.
He strode forth from the chaos around him, completely reassured of his place.
Master of Cruelties was destined to be a star in my casual deck.
Master of Cruelties is a 1/4 creature with first strike and deathtouch and just that alone makes him a star. Any amount of power with first strike and deathtouch means that he kills anything he blocks without any chance of his opponent taking him down too.1 Every creature with first/double strike and deathtouch holds a special place in my heart.2 This combination makes the Master into an amazing blocker. When he stands, glorious on the battlefield, your opponents' creatures lower their gaze and look elsewhere. If this was the entirety of his abilities, he would be a useful creature that would hold a solid support position in your deck's plan.
But he does more; so much more!
The Master makes your opponents' lifegain abilities irrelevant. When he attacks, your opponents are left alive at the whim of every other opponent still in the game. Anyone who has played Magic more than once understands just how precarious 1 life is. When a single creature is capable of putting you in that position with a single attack, everyone sits up and takes notice.
As an old-school player, I remembered a card from way back that was tailor made to work with the Master of Cruelties. If ever two cards were meant to be together, the Master of Cruelties and Dwarven Warriors were those two cards. With just those two cards, any opponent has to fear being reduced to only 1 life. With those two creatures on the battlefield, life totals become irrelevant—40 life, 20 life, even 300 life are all the same. Every life total is one combat away from being 1 life.
However, 1 life is still alive. That opponent's creatures are still available to attack. The possibility for retaliation is still there. It seems pretty likely that, given the chance, an opponent will attack in response to being reduced to 1 life. There are all sorts of reasons for that opponent not to attack back, but I'm really not interested in giving the option. If only a deck running red and black had a way to do a single point of damage...
Since I've already gone old school, I thought I would do it again. Prodigal Pyromancer does that point of damage and, unlike a direct-damage spell, is available on the next turn to do it again. It also offers a little versatility, as it can tack on a point of damage to various creatures on the board. These three cards will be the core of the deck.
Phase One: Early Testing
Actually, it is better to say that they "were" the core of the deck. I already built it. Before I give you the decklist, let me describe the initial results for the deck. The deck's maiden voyage found my friend Jesse at the helm. I was engaged in a four-player Commander game, and Jesse was without a deck. Normally a man of many decks, Jesse's cards were packed during a recent move and, that night, the cards were all in storage. I laid out the deck for him and away he went.
Turn one, play a land
Turn two, play a land
Turn three, no land
Turn four, no land...
The third land just never showed up. Jesse played what he could, but this deck is not going to do anything with only two lands and Jesse was soon on the sidelines.
The deck was then passed on to John. A thorough shuffling and he was off. John had slightly better luck, getting three land. He ended up using the Prodigal Pyromancer and Dwarven Warriors as chump blockers while the Master of Cruelties sat in his hand, mocking him.
This was not going the way I had drawn it up.
That same night I shuffled it up and played it myself. Again, mana was not my friend. I only ever found two lands and was unable to do anything. I managed to play one creature and avoid getting attacked for most of the game. Josh, Tyler, and Bryan duked it out and none of them were able or willing to send resources over to take me out, knowing it would leave them open to the others, so I continued to hang around, praying for more land.
Josh's Goblins exploded and soon there were Goblins all over the battlefield. Bryan was overrun by the horde and it looked like Tyler and I would both die in the next attack. At this point I played a Rakdos Charm on Josh's turn after his declared attacks would have killed me. It dealt a point of damage to each of my opponents for the number of creatures they controlled. Josh's Goblins all took a poke at him and it was too much for him to handle. Tyler had three creatures out and only 5 life before the Charm, so he moved to 2 life. On my turn, I played the second Rakdos Charm in my hand, doing 3 more damage to Tyler and winning the game!
While it makes for an interesting story, the whole point of the deck was the Master of Cruelties. He needs to be part of the game, but he was not a threat at any point, never even getting out of my hand.
Phase Two: Changes
With the results from the early testing in, the most obvious problem was the mana base. If I want to get to four mana with some consistency, I need to run more lands.
At least that's what you might think. I was already running twenty-four.
Twenty-four lands are plenty for a deck that is looking to get to five mana by turn five or six. I'm not really looking to get the Master of Cruelties out earlier than that. The deck is perfectly capable of laying low until then. I did decide to add some mana rocks,3 but that is for another reason that will become apparent shortly.
Another change was the Dwarven Warriors. Being a grizzled veteran means that I often remember many of the much older cards and forget some of the newer options. Goblin Tunneler does the same thing as the Warriors, with the same power and toughness, for one mana less. Since the creature type is irrelevant in this deck, the stalwart Warriors were returned to the bench to rest, and the Tunnelers stepped in to lower the deck's mana curve.
A third change was made at Jesse's and John's request. The first iteration of the deck included the Festering Newt/Bogbrew Witch/Bubbling Cauldron combination. While the hope was that this would provide removal and some extra damage to my opponents, the reality was that it was just more than this deck could handle. Those cards came out, and four Terminate were added.
There were still several slots available at this point so I opted to try something a little different. For all the power and reassurance the Master of Cruelties shows, Vraska the Unseen shows just as much subtlety and confidence.
Rix Maadi Guildmage is elegance and I would have used four of them in the deck instead of the four Pyromancers, but I only own one. When I get more, this will be corrected.
The Mimic Vats are there as something of a stopgap. I know there are not many creatures in this deck. The Mimic Vat will add to that total and, more importantly to me, give the deck some much-needed variety. My game plan is to hit with the Master of Cruelties, then follow up with one way or another to do the extra point of damage. With random Mimic Vat creatures, things could change depending upon what dies. It promises to be a variable with all upside.
The big change is the addition of green. Back to Nature, Krosan Grip, and Vraska the Unseen all join the party. I adjusted the lands to fit the addition and added three Chromatic Lanterns to ensure I'll have access to every color I will need. It may not be perfect, but it was what was available. Vraska is unlikely to use her ultimate, but if my opponents think it might happen, it could divert their attention away from me and to Vraska. A few extra turns are a good thing for the Master to get his work done. The enchantment removal is there to deal with all the extra enchantments I am seeing with Theros starting to become a factor in my group. Wiping the enchantments off the board is a delightful thing for a deck not running any.
Phase Three: Back to Testing4
This was a four-player Planechase game. We opted to take Jesse's stack of Planes (he owns every one of them) and stack them in the middle, flipping to the next one when it is time to planeswalk. The game saw several cards end up in the graveyard due to Nephalia, but everything seemed to be going according to plan. The Prodigal Pyromancer and Goblin Tunneler were both on the battlefield by turn four, and Master of Cruelties made his first appearance on turn six. Jesse's deck wasn't cooperating and he had land issues, so I attacked him first and took him out of the game. I took a few points of damage from Josh and Harry but still managed to take Josh out on the next turn. At this point I was at only 3 life myself and could do nothing about a Hurricane from Harry for three. So close!
The deck will see more tinkering in the future, but it does bring up a concern: early eliminations.
My mantra for Serious Fun has been that you should be trying to ensure that everyone is having fun. A deck that is designed to take out one player at a time holds the risk of leaving one player out of the game early, while the others continue to play on. This can lead to a miserable time for the player who is eliminated early.
There are going to be games where Master of Cruelties eliminates one opponent but is then knocked out of the game. In the last game, I was able to eliminate opponents on successive turns until I was killed. The game ended quickly for everyone. That won't be the case in games in the future. This is a serious concern for me, and should be for you, if that is the style of deck you are running.
Thankfully, there are things you can do before scrapping the deck and finding something new. If you are hosting your group, be sure there is something for the early eliminations to do. Video games, prepping the next round of snacks, or describing the certain doom all the players will face if the person who eliminated him or her is not eliminated next are all options. Most players are also happy to spend some time shuffling decks, working on minor deck alterations, posting their latest piece of brilliance on Facebook or spreading filthy lies to everyone on Twitter how @manaburned is a miserable person for attacking a poor innocent player.
If these options aren't working for your group, I'd love to hear other suggestions, or perhaps ways to make Master of Cruelties more likely to be able to kill off several opponents quickly. A man of distinction should receive the finest treatment!
1: Yes, yes, I know the opponent could have first strike or double strike or another more exotic way to survive combat and kill the Master. Most of the time, though... (return)
2: Glissa, the Traitor and Voracious Cobra are two creatures that are constantly in decks that can run them, just because of their deathtouch + first strike combination. (return)
3: A "mana rock" is a term for an artifact that taps to give you mana. Mana rocks are usually two or three mana and often produce one mana of two or three different colors. Obelisk of Esper and Simic Cluestone are examples of mana rocks. (return)
4: I call it testing, but in reality, I'm just playing the deck. Every deck I own is always subject to changes, so technically, no deck gets beyond testing. (return)
Bruce's games invariably involve a kitchen table, several opponents, crazy plays, and many laughs. Bruce believes that if anyone at your table isn't having fun playing Magic, then you are doing it wrong.