Magic Memories: Necropotence

Discussion in 'Single Card Strategies' started by Oversoul, Mar 26, 2018.

  1. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    For the uninitiated, and I gather that most players don't have much experience with Vintage Storm decks, the application of Necropotence in Vintage combo decks is different from its historical use in most of the decks I've talked about here. While there's no exact rule, old Necro decks tended to be built so that the right move was to overpay on Necropotence activations such that you'd have 8 or 9 cards in hand, but it might be more when facing decks that couldn't put pressure on your life total. You'll have to discard down to 7, but even setting up a hand of 10 or 11 cards could work, ditching extra lands and the cards that are least suitable for the matchup, building a strong hand for the next turn. Going too much higher just meant you were throwing a lot of cards (and life) away to dig for specific tools, and those decks tended to be sufficiently consistent that such digging wasn't usually necessary.

    Vintage Storm decks use lots of restricted cards, so they cannot be as consistent. In these decks, the idea is to balance the threat the opponent presents to your life total against your own deck's potential to get enough mana and card-drawing to lead to a probable next-turn kill. Similar to Type 1 Necro-Donate before the restriction of Necropotence, you're probably expecting to only have one or two turns of activating the card before the game is over. Several restricted cards can have a high impact after being acquired by Necropotence in a game. But the possible outcomes are numerous. The most powerful tool is probably Yawgmoth's Will, which can reuse Rituals and other cheap cards to ensure a lethal storm count for Tendrils of Agony. The right number of times to activate Necropotence could vary from deck to deck, especially as the archetype evolved over the years. But in general, it'd been advisable to go for bigger hands, often setting up a hand of 12 cards or more. I've had games where I was shooting for 15 cards after a first-turn Necropotence (that's not paying 15 life, because a first-turn land, Ritual, Necro play leaves 4 cards in hand already, so it's paying 11 life, and most opponents are going to need a couple of turns to do 9 more damage to me).

    With so many single-slot cards making such a big difference in gameplay, I find using Necropotence in a Storm deck to be kind of annoying, even though the card is a favorite of mine and the archetype is also a favorite of mine. Kills that rely on Necropotence are some of my least favorite lines to take in Vintage Storm decks, but there are simply too many other cards restricted for a Storm deck to have the consistency to do without Necropotence. It's a deck slot I take with grudging acceptance. The card is simply too powerful not to use.
  2. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    While one-off Necropotence has been a consistent staple in Vintage Storm decks, its role in deck construction over the years has been a bit murky. I think some builds just threw it in as a play to set up a potential third-turn kill if nothing else better was available, while other builds leaned into the card more. Necropotence favors multiple maindeck copies of Tendrils of Agony (instead of just one) for "mini-Tendrils" because Necropotence might not be able to sculpt a lethal spell chain when setting up a blind seven-card hand, but hitting the opponent for 12 and gaining 12 life to reload with Necropotence for another shot can work. Necropotence also emphasizes Yawgmoth's Will as a kill setup, and favors Rituals and other cards that go to the graveyard after use, as discarded cards don't go to the graveyard and can't be reused. This makes Timetwister a bit worse, but usually Timetwister wasn't deployed in Necropotence-using games. Even that could work in a pinch, though.

    My own experience with Necropotence in this kind of deck reached a kind of dilemma. On the one hand, as a filthy casual, I didn't like the awkward aesthetic of blindly digging through a deck full of restricted cards, trying to guess the right amount of cards, and trying to build a lethal ten-spell storm count out of a seven-card hand. Yawgmoth's Bargain, in contrast, seemed to be born for this role. It eliminated guesswork, played nicely with Timetwister (or any card-drawing spells, really), and especially boosted the power of Windfall. On the other hand, as a (purportedly) rational analyst, it has become clear that the difference between the initial costs of BBB and 4BB outweighs the difference in performance. First-turn Necropotence is easy and second-turn Necropotence is trivial in Vintage. But six mana is a bit much. The card may be called "Bargain" but it comes at a steep cost. Against most opponents in Vintage, giving them more time to do stuff is a bad idea, and even though Yawgmoth's Bargain can lead to a kill the turn it comes out, it's just so much easier to get Necropotence out earlier in the game.
  3. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    Although other components of Storm decks have varied, the role of Necropotence remained generally the same. But it did see one big change with the advent of Dark Petition...

    Players quickly found that Dark Petition was better for fetching Yawgmoth's Will than other cards used for the job in the past, such as Burning Wish and Grim Tutor. This revolutionized Ritual-based Storm combo. After perhaps clearing the way with Duress or Thoughtseize, it wasn't too tough to drop a couple of mana-producing artifacts, cast Dark Ritual into Dark Petition, fetch Yawgmoth's Will, replay everything from the graveyard (excepting a couple of instants or sorceries), and recast Dark Petition to find the game-winning Tendrils of Agony. Ideally, you'd have multiple copies of Dark Ritual or Lotus/LED, but it could all be accomplished quickly with an unrestricted wannabe Demonic Tutor.

    But if one could bring Dark Petition online and didn't have enough support to go for a Yawgmoth's Will spell chain, Necropotence served as the next-best Dark Petition target. With spell mastery active, the mana reimbursement from Dark Petition pays for Necropotence. In practice, this mean a lot more Necropotence-based games for Storm decks in Vintage. Achieve five mana and spell mastery, fetch Necro, play Necro, go for broke. Dark Petition Storm aka "DPS" brought Necropotence back to the limelight in a way, and the card was showing up more often in Vintage games than it had any time before its restriction.
  4. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    Dark Petition also made Necropotence stronger once it was on the battlefield, because it gave the deck an unrestricted tool similar to Demonic Tutor, which could then be used to fetch Yawgmoth's Will. This made a 7-card hand with lethal spell-chaining for Tendrils more easily achievable. Play an early spell or two, Ritual into Dark Petition, fetch Necropotence, activate Necropotence a bunch of times, discard down to a 7-card hand, and then on the next turn you could deploy the contents of that hand, cast a second Dark Petition, fetch Yawgmoth's Will, cast Yawgmoth's Will, replay your Ritual and other spells from your graveyard including Dark Petition, fetch Tendrils of Agony, win.

    In 2015, Dark Petition Storm decks rose to prominence, breathing new life into the vanishing tradition of Ritual-based combo in Vintage. But this Storm revival was short-lived. It's not that DPS was bad or became bad. Nothing so dramatic. The deck was fine and probably still is. Players lost interest. The fall of Dark Petition Storm shouldn't be attributed to a single event or circumstance. Multiple factors were involved and I couldn't say which ones mattered most...
    1. Around the same time that DPS was on the rise, Workshop decks got powerful new tools. Storm decks can beat Workshop decks, but it's usually a bad matchup because Workshop decks have multiple cards that cripple attempts at spell chains (Chalice of the Void, Sphere of Resistance, Thorn of Amethyst, Lodestone Golem, Trinisphere). While the gameplay is nuanced, it's usually the case that more Workshop decks is bad news for Storm players.
    2. Mental Misstep was also on the rise. Mental Misstep is a free hard counter that can stop important components of Storm decks. Decks running Mental Misstep had a means to stop Dark Ritual from resolving.
    3. Monastery Mentor was also on the rise. While Mentor itself isn't particularly bad or particularly good against DPS, it gave efficient, disruptive blue-heavy decks a potent kill condition with properties reminiscent of Storm, but better. A spell chain that ends abruptly does nothing for a deck like DPS, but for a Mentor deck it means free creatures.
    4. Because the gameplan of Dark Petition into Yawgmoth's Will wasn't reliable, DPS was often compelled to go for Necropotence, and it may have taken players some time to grasp the nuances of the strengths and weaknesses of Necropotence in that scenario.
    DPS decks still crop up on occasion. But these days, it's something of a rogue deck. Another factor, coming into play later but perhaps sealing the fate of Necropotence in Vintage, was the arrival of Paradoxical Outcome in 2016.
    It quickly became the dominant engine for combo decks, usually with Monastery Mentor as a kill condition but many versions ran Tendrils of Agony.
  5. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    That about wraps it up for Necropotence in Vintage. The format continues to evolve, but most of that doesn't involve Necropotence. The types of decks that run Necropotence don't really command a sufficient share of the metagame to influence the shifts that Vintage has been experiencing. The biggest change for the card has probably been the unrestriction of Yawgmoth's Bargain, as the new "Bargain Storm" decks always run a copy of Necropotence. But they're using it in the same way that previous Storm decks used it, so there's not much to say on the matter.

    Necropotence as a four-of seems to be essentially extinct. There are no official formats that allow it and no popular unofficial formats other than generic casual constructed no-holds-barred stuff akin to the sort of stuff that I used to play the card in. But the people playing casual constructed in that way tend to either be newer players or to be experienced players deliberately building decks to focus on themes or to accommodate some style or goal. And after so much time has passed, the members of the former group are unlikely to own a playset of Necropotence and the members of the latter group are likely to either not own a playset or to have some experience with the card's history/controversy and to view it as generally taboo, as one of those old broken cards that should be avoided for power-level reasons to keep gameplay fair. I think I mentioned earlier that I haven't actually seen a physical deck running a playset of the card since my own deck was taken apart.

    But singleton Necropotence does sometimes crop up. Most notably, Commander is a hugely popular format and Necropotence is legal there. For some reason, I thought that it had initially been banned in the early years, back when everyone still called the format "EDH." But a cursory search shows no record of that. Anyway, it's legal now and has been for many years, if not the entire time. EDHREC indicates that Necropotence is a pretty popular card (more popular than Survival of the Fittest, according to the sources from which it's able to collect data). I imagine that the triple-black color requirement is at least a bit daunting for budget and multicolor deckbuilders, but the power to keep refilling your hand every turn is sort of good to have. On the upside, you start with 40 life in that format, so Necropotence gets a boost from that. On the downside, you only get a single copy in a 99-card deck, so the card takes on the role of a random bonus value engine and it can't really be a build-around. Anyway, I don't want to read too much into the data on this one, because at first glance it's interesting but closer scrutiny suggests that a lot of people are making odd choices or something. EDH might not be my favorite format, but I think I have a solid understanding of what's good. Dark Ritual in only 27% of decks with Necropotence? Phyrexian Arena in a whopping 59% of them but Liliana of the Veil not showing up enough to get displayed in synergies? Probably most of these decks are just bad. Necropotence is quite popular in decks with Zur the Enchanter as commander, though. And that part makes perfect sense.

    I've also used Necropotence in Canadian Highlander, where it doesn't require any deckbuilding points. The "I only have one copy in my oversized deck" problem remains, but yeah, it's something of a powerhouse.
  6. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    When it comes to cards that have been banned or restricted from environments where they were once used extensively, and the game has changed so much since then, I often find the hypotheticals, the prospects for these cards to be what I'd call "interesting." We never really know what might have been, although sometimes a card is "freed" after many years, like Time Spiral in Legacy, like Yawgmoth's Bargain in Vintage, and even, to an extent, like Jace, the Mind Sculptor in Modern. And if the topic is something like Survival of the Fittest for Legacy or Fastbond for Vintage, then yes, I'd call it an interesting topic. Necropotence, though? I don't know that I'd use "interesting." More like "baffling." Frustrating? Puzzling? Utterly incomprehensible? Perhaps that's a bit strong. The point is, I do not know.

    The banworthiness question has come up already, with Psarketos and I both pondering it in this thread. Is Necropotence overpowered, and under what circumstances is it a problem? I think what makes it so tricky to pin down is that the card is so unique in how it works that understanding its role in the game, its potential, its strengths and weaknesses, takes some effort to work out, but it's been "gone" from Magic for so long that the points for comparison are tenuous. When I analyzed Yawgmoth's Bargain as an unrestriction consideration for Vintage, I compared it to Dark Petition for restricted Necropotence, cheating Griselbrand out by various means, and to casting Ad Nauseam. But Necropotence, and by extension a deck built around Necropotence as a four-of card, isn't really very much like anything else. It seems like I don't have a framework for this. I must admit to a lack of understanding here.

    Would Necropotence be best employed to power a combo deck? A control deck? An aggro deck? That depends on the rest of the card pool, of course. Would it look closer to historical Necro decks, which used a lot of now-relegated cards, or to contemporary decks with Necropotence added in? What would the effect be on existing archetypes? On sideboarding? Other old, disused cards might have similar questions, but I contend that I'd have some idea how to answer those questions for most cards. For Necropotence, it's a conundrum even getting to a starting point. As I showed with those historical decklists, in its relatively distant and brief tournament lifetime (1996 to 2001), the card was used in disparate, mutually exclusive ways. I'll try to give Necropotence a fair analysis when it comes to its potential impact if it were "reinvited" to the game, but I see two major pitfalls already...
    1. The folly of devising a theoretical Necro deck in a contemporary format, judging the card in terms of that deck, and failing to account for some other usage.
    2. The folly of conflating different potential uses for Necropotence into a single unstoppable bogeyman that could not really ever manifest.
    To illustrate, I'll take the example of Survival of the Fittest, a card that is now banned in Legacy but was legal for several years. When the card comes up as a potential unban or as as card that is too scary to unban...
    1. Some players come up with an updated version of the Vengevival archetype or with a new toolbox-style deck and, comparing this deck to first-tier competitors of today, estimate Survival of the Fittest to be a safe card. And while some players would inevitably try both of those, it's much more likely that the card would be strongest in some other archetype.
    2. Some players theorize different approaches that a Survival deck could take and compare today's decks to a nebulous SotF deck by concocting scenarios in which the SotF deck would always be using the best possible tools to compete with its respective opponent. But no one Survival deck could ever consistently pull off all of those different things. This "theory" version of SotF is far, far stronger than any real version of the deck could ever be. Opponent playing graveyard hate? It's a Survival deck tuned to play around graveyard hate! Opponent playing enchantment removal? It's a Survival deck tuned to work with minimal reliance on SotF itself! Opponent playing fast combo? It's a really disruptive Survival deck! Opponent playing fast, creature-based beatdown? It's a Survival deck with the strongest possible combo finish! It slices, it dices, it does everything.
    I suspect that Necropotence is in the same spot, but that the waters are even murkier. So we've got to take everything with a very big grain of salt, I guess?
  7. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    I'm going to look at some cards that weren't printed until after Necropotence was banned/restricted pretty much everywhere. I want to consider a balanced mixture of cards that would play well with Necropotence and cards that might matter for opponents trying to beat a hypothetical updated Necro deck. This is all kinda wildly speculative. The option to use a playset of Necropotence in a 60-card deck has essentially been extinct from competitive Magic for over 17 years. So much has changed in that time. Anyway...

    For a brief historical note, the "block system" of set design wasn't really formalized until Rath Block (or "Tempest Block" as it seems to have been renamed). Before that, Mirage and Visions were designed based on a single early unfinished set (Menagerie) and then Weatherlight was kind of its own thing but was added on as the third set in the "block" retroactively. In the spirit of designating pre-block expansion sets into blocks, WotC took Homelands, very much its own thing, and retroactively made it the "second" set in "Ice Age Block" (Alliances was already officially a sequel to Ice Age). Prior to 2006, "Ice Age Block" was ostensibly finished and Homelands cards were legal in the corresponding Block Constructed format. Coldsnap was deliberately designed to act as a "third" set, getting the incongruous Homelands out of the block. Many of the cards use mechanics that are clearly meant to interact with cards from those older sets. And Soul Snap simply must have been designed with Necropotence in mind. The card is perfect for boosting the "digging" power of Necropotence. Exiling two black cards from your hand would ordinarily be a steep cost, but Necropotence can overfill a hand easily. Other cards like Spinning Darkness and Contagion have been used successfully in Necro decks in the past, and Soul Spike hits harder and gains more life. Since it could also be used to weaken or even finish off an opponent, I'd imagine that virtually any new Necro deck would run a full playset of Soul Spike.

    By now, this is a pretty old card, but it didn't exist until well after Necropotence was banned! I don't think it's likely to matter, but one interesting application with the Madness mechanic is that after it was reworked for Shadows over Innistrad, it gained a bizzare function: "If you discard a card with madness and wish to cast it, Necropotence’s ability won’t exile that card. If you don’t wish to cast it, you choose whether it ends up exiled or in your graveyard." That part probably doesn't matter for competitive archetypes, but Fiery Temper is a decent card anyway, and any of the cheap Madness cards might go well with Necropotence in a newfangled "Lauerpotence" sort of deck.

    Since Necropotence is already used to fuel Storm deck in Vintage, doing so with a full playset instead of a single copy, therefore being able to do so more consistently, is an obvious approach. How easily can a Necropotence deck convert a seven-card hand into a lethal Tendrils? Well, that depends on what's available in the format. Two turns in a row of "mini-Tendrils" might also be viable. Casting ToA when the Storm count is already at 4 would usually mean you'd be gaining 10 life, which should be enough to reload, survive another turn, and go for the kill again with a second Tendrils. But in a format like Vintage or Legacy with so many tools, most opponents had better be able to have options of their own. In both "The Comboist Manifesto" and "Magic Memories" one of my recurring points has been the misrepresentation of the Storm mechanic as a dominant tournament powerhouse that was impossible to rein in. Look, I'll admit to being a combo apologist. I've accepted that role. And if some combo deck or particular combo-enabling card is broken, I won't hesitate to admit that. The "Combo Winter" really happened. The "Broken Jar" affair was real. Same goes for "Angry Hermit in Extended, "Flash Hulk" in Legacy, Vintage Vault-Key (prior to the restriction of Thirst for Knowledge), and probably something in Modern too, I guess. But the Storm mechanic itself hasn't historically been a significant problem for tournaments, and its track record is far more tame than Dredge or Affinity for artifacts. The assumption that most analysts seem to make is that a fast Storm combo deck akin to "Pitch Long" in Vintage would be something Necropotence would necessarily break wide open. While I would be inclined to look at such an application for Necropotence, I don't know that it's even the best use, nor how strong it really would be.

    I mentioned Bloodghast before. The card has repeatedly proven its worth in aggressive black decks, and Necropotence virtually guarantees a land drop every turn. This is far from the only creature a more aggressive Necro deck might employ, and might not even be the best one. But it's the first one that comes to mind. At least initially, I strongly suspect that an aggressive deck like "Suicide Black" would get less attention than a Storm combo approach for Necropotence. It might be that the days of Necropotence as an aggro card are so last millennium. If so, Bloodghast and other offensive creatures might not matter. But I don't want to dismiss them prematurely. Other attackers might include Gravecrawler (in a format where a zombies deck would be viable), Death's Shadow, Phyrexian Obliterator, Tidehollow Sculler, and Bloodsoaked Champion.

    Necropotence has been "gone" since long before the advent of planeswalker cards. Liliana of the Veil is the one that looks strongest alongside Necropotence in a control deck. At first, I balked at this idea because this Liliana in Legacy is associated with Pox decks and Loam decks, which aren't really doing what a Necro deck would do. On further reflection, I believe that Necro and Lili would play very nicely together. In fact, it's possible that Legacy Pox decks would be replaced entirely with a Necropotence-powered black control deck. I might be wrong on that point. The archetypes do very different things. But the potential is definitely there. Liliana of the Veil ties up aggro decks by killing at least one creature and absorbing attacks, pressures combo decks by acting like Disrupting Scepter, and threatens to ruin control decks by ticking up toward an ultimate. All that being said, and while I'm inordinately fond of Monoblack Control, the competition has probably gotten more tools and this approach might not cut it. Black decks struggle against artifacts and enchantments. Also, Liliana's -2 is less potent in a field of token-generators, which are now better than ever.

    More later...
  8. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    What would opponents use against Necropotence? As usual, it depends on how things develop...

    Bearing in mind that Necropotence was initially held in check by Black Vise, it's noteworthy that there's a "new" one-mana artifact that potentially hurts Necropotence even more. Pithing Needle shuts down the useful part of Necropotence while leaving all of the bad parts conveniently intact. "No more cards for you ever" is pretty strong and usually the player stuck with no more new cards loses the game. Pithing Needle not only cripples Necropotence, it's a highly popular tournament card for other reasons anyway. It didn't exist when Necro decks were in tournaments and it's easy to consider the usage of the card and conclude that it would be employed extensively as an anti-Necro weapon, were such a thing necessary. There are three different mitigating factors, though. Firstly, Needle is primarily a sideboard card and is bad to have maindeck against some opponents, which means either opponents of Necro players use maindeck slots for a situational sideboard card or they give up on having their countermeasure in one-third of games against Necro. Secondly, if Necropotence is on the battlefield and Pithing Needle is on the stack, the Necro player is presumably going to dig for some source of removal. Killing Pithing Needle would work. Killing Necropotence itself would also work and would kinda turn it into a cheaper Necrologia, which isn't winning the game, but it is getting around Pithing Needle. Thirdly, if Pithing Needle names Necropotence before the card shows up, the Necro player presumably has some alternate strategy. Most Necro decks are built to be able to do something without a resolved Necropotence. So it's not perfect, but it is good against Necropotence. If mana cost is taken into account, it might be the strongest answer of all.

    A successful Mindslaver against a Necro player is generally game-winning. At a total of 10 mana overall, it could take some time. The presence of Necropotence probably wouldn't give Slaver decks enough of a boost that they'd make a triumphant return to tournament play in Vintage or Legacy, but it is a thing.

    I mention this one because some decks would likely run it anyway and because a lot of Necro deck are reliant on some form of lifegain to compensate for the life lost to Necropotence activations. Sulfuric Vortex puts a Necro player on a strict clock and completely blocks lifegain. Probably not as relevant if we're talking about some kind of Storm combo approach, but it could wreck controlling Necro decks.

    The extra mana over Pithing Needle matters, but Spyglass has been popular and it's entirely possible that it's going to be a permanent staple of tournament play. It's more maindeckable than Needle.

    Not specifically a problem for Necropotence in principle, but outcompeting a Necro deck in some situations, this can reuse some countermagic card and provide a 2/1 body to pressure the Necro player all in one fell swoop. A lot of the popular tournament blue stuff and cards used with blue stuff can pack more of punch than the stuff Necropotence used to be matched up against.
  9. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    It seems like whenever I do these Memories threads for a card that is banned/restricted in most places, I wind up saying I'm not really sure one way or the other about the potential brokenness of the card. Necropotence, Fastbond, Yawgmoth's Bargain (now unrestricted in Vintage, at least). Really, I guess those three just stand out in my memory. Looking at the actual threads, I never suggested that Lion's Eye Diamond or Wheel of Fortune should be unrestricted in Vintage. And I've been completely consistent for the last 7+ years that banning Survival of the Fittest in Legacy was a mistake. So I guess it's not that bad. I'm not unwilling to commit to a stance on things in general. But yeah, I really feel like I just don't know when it comes to Necropotence...

    The card's performance has been a mass of paradoxes. Bargain was banned/restricted before it as a combo engine, got tools that seemed to synergizes with it in the meantime, and always seemed far more compatible with dedicated combo decks, and yet Necropotence has demonstrated that it is the stronger combo card in Vintage. It seems too reliant on Dark Ritual in two-color decks because of the need to rush it out and the triple-black mana cost, and yet the one time Dark Ritual was banned, it seemingly chugged along unimpeded. It is feared as a combo enabler with most discussion of its brokenness stemming from the perception that it would consistently lead to fast combo kills, and yet the vast majority of its actual unrestricted track record was in control and aggro decks. The combo that did eventually get it banned/restricted, Donate + Illusions, continued to put up results at a very high level well after the ban/restriction (suggesting that Necropotence wasn't really the problem), and yet that combo is no longer considered remotely threatening in any format. The majority of arguments I've seen in writing standing in opposition to an unban/unrestriction of Necropotence are ill-informed and display demonstrable faults in comprehending how the card functions, and yet some of the most intelligent and experienced analysts seem to regard Necropotence as one of the most dangerous cards of all. So yeah, I'm stumped.

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