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Turning opponents' misfortune into your victory

Injuries And Insults

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The letter M!ost multiplayer veterans know what to expect from the average free-for-all game. On top of the strange combinations, theme decks, and horrific creatures, there is one constant.

Lots of creatures are going to spend time in graveyards.

They may die in combat. They may get singled out by Terminates. They might fall in waves to Wrath of God. They might even get stripped out of hands or flipped right out of the library by discard and milling strategies.

But they're going to be there – count on an average of at least one per player by the fifth turn. By the sixth, someone's starting a little tombstone collection. By the seventh, at least one high-quality creature has bitten the dust. Count on it.

Which must be why my favorite card from Guildpact – the one most likely to impact group games over and over – costs seven mana:

Now, this isn't an official card preview week, so I'm not going to spend too much time on the specifics of how to play this card. But when I first read about this card a few weeks ago, I knew immediately I had found the group powerhouse of the set.

It's not hard to spot, of course. Anyone's who's played Magic for more than a few months knows how powerful constant recursion is, no matter what format you're playing. This card is expensive, to be sure, but the more players you have sitting around the table, the better this enchantment will be. Each additional opponent (or teammate) adds another library of potential recruits. In addition, a larger game almost always means more time to get to seven mana. So maybe seven mana is too much for tournament play – yes or no, I don't care. Either way, Debtors' Knell is a multiplayer card.

Taking advantage of dead creatures is smart play, especially in groups where you feel you can exploit the following:

  • Lots of creatures die
  • Someone likes to counter every single early creature in the game
  • Too few players play graveyard-hosing cards like Samurai of the Pale Curtain and/or
  • Lots of quick, powerful early permanents come into play, provoking battles and early removal.

In Ravnica block, is there another card that exploits the same kind of openings? Yes there is, though it may not be the one you'd expect. Debtors' Knell reminds me a great deal of Dimir Doppelganger.

Yes, there are obvious differences. We don't need to go through them. The Doppelganger acts like the Knell in three important ways:

  1. It depends on creature cards in anyone's graveyard to be effective.
  2. It repeats its ability, if left unchecked.
  3. It comes out most effectively on the sixth or seventh turn, when plenty of fodder already lies ready for (re-)use.

There are plenty of other recent cards (and dozens of "older-school" examples) that work off of some or all of the same principle. Not all of them work in the same deck; but also consider:

All of these cards can do what they do, over and over again. Left unchecked, any one of them can win you the game, but they also depend on enough creatures left in graveyards to deal twenty damage to all existing opponents.

Which means you've got to get the creatures into graveyards. Before you add insult, you must injure.

Investing In Your Army's Future

There are at least four places where you can get a creature card to take a direct path to the graveyard:

  1. The stack, through countering
  2. The hand, through discard
  3. The library, through milling, and
  4. In play, through destruction.

The fourth path is the most common for Black, and for good reason. In a multiplayer game, threats are going to hit the board, no matter how strong your denial or trickery. The only sure way to get those creatures in the graveyard is to let them come for a little bit, and then wipe them out in waves. The most promising ideas come in the form of creatures themselves, since you can recur them later with the Debtors' Knell (or whatever your device happens to be): Havoc Demon, Bane of the Living, even Death's-Head Buzzard.

That said, I'm curious to see if Wizards has given multiplayer discard decks yet another powerful tool. Consider the four (admittedly expensive) champions you can put together with this card: Mindslicer, Myojin of Night's Reach, Dragon Mage, and/or Nicol Bolas.

Which brings us to another method for stocking graveyards – use your own, with something like Sneak Attack. (Dare I suggest Through the Breach? Fine, if you're brave enough.) If your Sneak Attack deck has problems with staying power, and if it can toss a bit of Black or White in, consider the Knell for a finisher.

The advantage to stocking your own graveyard (e.g., Buried Alive) is you can set up "recursion chains" – such as Bladewing the Risen, to the dragon of your choice (I'm rather fond of Shivan Dragon), to Bladewing's Thrall.

Comings And Goings

Another strategic consideration when deckbuilding or playing with something like Debtor's Knell is choosing creatures that will do something in transition – while dying to your destruction, or arriving through your recursion. Here's where the Orzhov guild really kicks it up a notch – both White and Black (and the combination of the two) get stellar additions to their "comes-into-play" arsenal, not least because of what "haunt" does.

Let's start with the most amazing one (which Zvi Moshowitz just previewed) – Ghost Council of Orzhova. This thing with Debtor's Knell, and the sackable creature of your choice (preferably something with a leaves play effect, but without Haunt)? Ridiculous.

Going older school, you can imagine quality interactions between the Knell and stuff like Angel of Mercy, Noxious Ghoul, Grave Robbers, Nekrataal, Defender en-Vec, Chittering Rats, Crypt Angel, Monk Idealist, Thief of Hope, Faceless Butcher, Hunted Horror

Hmm. Well, maybe not Hunted Horror, unless you're feeling especially creative.

The Rising Value Of Deflation

Perhaps what I enjoy most about recurring recursion is the psychological impact it has on the opposition. If you're a decent player, killing your stuff can get pretty hard. You build decks well, you're smart enough to play stuff out slowly, you've got a spell in hand that might thwart the enemy's Plan A, and you last long enough to make it to the second or third "stage" of most multiplayer games.

By that time, many opposing players can find themselves almost out of resources, depending on one final card to carry them through the endgame. They're relieved that your most powerful creature(s) are sitting in the graveyard, and they're looking forward to closing this game out before anything horrific can happen.

Debtor's Knell. Haunted Crossroads. Recurring Nightmare. Bone Harvest. Cards like these come out, and it's like a punch to the kidney for your last opponent or two. It's all coming back. All of it. Their removal is spent, their army is tired, their life totals are dwindling, and you just came up with a whole new zone to pull creatures out of. Are you kidding?!

Changing the psychology of the game can push even marginal advantages in your favor. Even if you just top-decked that Knell and have nothing else to work with, you just deflated your opponents' spirits. They'll probably assume the game is lost, and they'll miss subtle plays that could turn things back around again. They'll give up on removing the first couple of creatures the Knell brings out – because "what's the point?" (What's the point? Someone might still draw a Naturalize and end your party. But don't tell them that.)

You may even find that over multiple games, opponents don't try as hard to remove your creatures in the early game – because they're expecting the Knell to show up and don't want to "waste" their removal. (This is, of course, flawed logic. But again, you don't have to educate them!)

Against stronger opponents, you will have to do better than this, of course. You will need to tune your deck every few weeks, and come up with countermeasures like Razor Barrier or Tragic Poet (egads, I can't believe I just suggested Tragic Poet!) to make sure your Knell continues to dominate the game. You'll have to think up earlier and more devious swarms of creatures, from Putrid Warrior to Plague Spitter to Icatian Javelineers. (Just play along, folks. We're almost done here.) And you'll have to hold back your most devastating mass removal for those situations that absolutely require it, because you'll have more opponents ganging up on you more often.

Debtors' Knell – and all of the similar cards before it, and those yet to come – do not guarantee victory. What do they guarantee? Attention and power. How very Black-White! And how thrilling for you and your opponents when you play.


Anthony has been playing multiple Magic formats for over seven years, and has been writing far longer than that. His new fantasy young adult novel, Jennifer Scales and the Ancient Furnace, was co-written with his wife MaryJanice Davidson, and comes out August 2005 from Berkley Books.

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