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.
  10. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    I should note that unrestricted Necropotence has been played in the relatively obscure "Old School '95" format. While the '94 variant seems to be by far the most prominent of the "Old School" throwbacks, there is some interest in brewing decks with cards going up to Ice Age. As this is not an officially sanctioned format and exact rules vary depending on the whims of tournament organizers, the decision to restrict Necropotence or not to is one of the defining features of the '95 format. Even before I started this thread, the thought occurred to me that I might mention Necropotence in Old School formats, whether restricted or not, as it at least sees play there, unlike most other formats. While Old School formats fall out of the scope of the real "history" of the card or of my own interest in its potential applications, this is still of some significant interest.

    Although I've not played the '95 format, I gather that it and other, similar variants sort of emulate historical Magic. While that's a far cry from Psarketos' hypothetical "Necropotence in Modern" scenario (which I find more interesting), and it's also not really an insight into "Necropotence back in the day" is a kind of strange fusion of the two. It's "Necropotence with only old cards allowed, but with a Modern level of knowledge and experience." I don't think that Old School '95 has been nearly popular enough for robust data collection on this subject, and the same (but moreso) would apply to the '96 and '97 iterations. Notably Necropotence was not historically restricted in 90's, but is often restricted in Old School formats. Perhaps today's players better understand how to exploit the card. Or perhaps the biased perception of Necropotence as a broken card has skewed their perception. I can't rule either out, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it's a bit of both.

    Recently, Stephen Menendian published an article with his recommendations for restricted lists in Vintage and in four different Old School variants. His lists restricted Necropotence across the board. While he didn't offer an explanation for Necropotence in Vintage, the card is already restricted anyway (so his suggestion isn't a change) and he has been consistent over the years in labeling Necropotence as a card that isn't safe unrestricted in Vintage. Same old story on that front. But seeing that Necropotence has actually been left unrestricted in some '95 events, he does go into detail there. He doesn't argue that Necropotence is dominant or dominating in Old School formats (he has made that claim in the past for Vintage, but Vintage is a format with a far more powerful card pool). Instead he cites it under his category of "Imbalance." This is similar to what I used to always see referred to as "distortion." But perhaps it's not exactly the same. Criteria here are subjective and I won't try to convince everyone that "Distortion" is better than "Imbalance." But I'll try to break down the difference because I think it's subtle...

    The poster child for "Distortion" is probably Strip Mine. The card is banned and/or restricted in almost every format and has been for a long time. In at least some of those formats, it hasn't been likely, or at least it hasn't been obvious, that the card would, if unbanned/unrestricted, enable a dominant archetype. There might not be a "Strip Mine deck." But the impact on deck construction and gameplay would be profound. It's easy to imagine that almost any format is better off without the influence of unrestricted Strip Mine, even if it doesn't produce a single dominant archetype. Some cards obviously become better, such as Crucible of Worlds, Crop Rotation, Gush, Sol Ring, Ankh of Mishra, etc. Other cards obviously become worse, such as Gaea's Cradle, Flooded Strand, Counterspell, Dryad Arbor, and Lightning Helix. Some cards have their functionality changed in ways that don't necessarily make them better or worse, but impacted in some bizarre way, such as Blood Moon. On its own, Strip Mine would be unlikely to make a particular card or engine dominant, but huge swaths of archetypes that are weak to it would be diminished and other swaths that could exploit it would be enhanced. Decks that could ignore it would benefit, and by extension decks that are strong against decks that ignore it might find their own niche, if they're not also too weak against Strip Mine, and so on. This does not necessarily imply an imbalanced format. It might happen or it might not. In one environment, letting Strip Mine in might lead to an overbearing "Strip Mine deck" that uses Strip Mine better than anything else could and only one or two decks could stand against it. In another environment, there might be an intricate cycle of checks and balances, with decks varying in their composition, their strategies, and their strengths/weaknesses. The defining feature isn't how many decks are good, it's that otherwise respectable cards and strategies are rendered irrelevant as the whole format is warped around a single card, either directly (decks that are good with or against it) or indirectly (decks that happen to be able to ignore it). Another card with distorting influence is Dark Ritual, but I'd argue that between color dependency and strategic alternatives, Dark Ritual is not, in most formats, sufficiently distorting to warrant action. It warps gameplay around itself, but not to the same degree as Strip Mine.

    "Imbalance" is similar on the surface. It doesn't require a single card or strategy to dominate, but looks at the possibility that the influence of the card is undesirable for other reasons. But whereas with "Distortion" I'd look at what a card does to the game around it, which things it makes better and which things it makes worse, how much gameplay seems to revolve around it, the idea behind "Imbalance" is to look at overall diversity of decks setting aside the card in question, to look for "oligopoly power" as Stephen Menendian puts it...

    So "Distortion" and "Imbalance" are both "power-level" approaches to looking at cards that do not necessarily yield a single, dominant deck. They are not mutually exclusive, but also not always in alignment. I'd say that historically in the Legacy format, Brainstorm has been extremely distorting without creating an oligopoly. And I'd say that historically, some Standard environments have been oligopolies in terms of metagame percentages without any single distorting card serving as the culprit for this. But I'd also stipulate that usually the two seem to go together.

    Of Necropotence in the Old School '95 format, Stephen Menendian writes (having stated that he'd restrict it in contrast to a prominent event organizer's decision to leave it unrestricted)...

  11. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    This mention of oligopolies and the implied triopoly of "Necro decks, anti-Necro decks, and decks that beat the anti-Necro decks" is interesting...

    My first notion is that this implied triopoly concept rings true. Historically, during the reign of Necro control decks, there was usually an anti-Necro deck and a deck that was particularly strong against the anti-Necro deck. A beats B, B beats C, and C beats A. And it seems like it happened again during the heydey of Trix decks. When I pondered this, I had the bizarre thought, "Does Necropotence tend to produce triopolies in competitive Magic?" But then when I thought back some more to the competitive metagames I've generally understood, I hit upon the realization that "triopolies" are actually rather common. This doesn't rule out the possibility that Necropotence makes them more likely or enhances them in some way, but looking back through history, the condition of a kind of first-tier triangle in an environment is really pretty mundane and typical. Even the old classic theoretical model of "aggro beats control beats combo beats aggro" implies a triopoly. From the perspective of Magic theory, the question of whether certain cards, by their very nature, tend to produce competitive triopolies, is interesting. But setting aside what is, ultimately, an academic question that might inform game design, there's a more pertinent question for tournament play: are triopolies bad?

    In discussions of Magic tournaments, a competitive monopoly is just "dominance." But a duopoly, ah, that's something else. And it hasn't been very long since the days when Vintage was stuck in a rut with a duopoly. Oh, there was no hard and fast rule about what one could play. Certain broad archetypes had their die-hard fans. Oath, Dredge, Storm, Fish, Landstill, and so on. Still around and sometimes there'd be strong performances here and there. But it had become apparent that even if Gush/Mentor/Xerox decks weren't dominant and even if Workshop decks weren't dominant, the two of them combined constituted a duopoly. You could prepare for one, but then you'd be weak against the other, and no one found a lasting solution to this problem. Players tried, but the duopoly held against everything thrown at it. Not the only duopoly in history, but it's been the most prominent one lately. I'd go as far as to say that a duopoly can be worse than a monopoly. If just one deck is dominant, it's simple enough to ban/restrict a card that breaks the deck's hold on the environment. But if there's a true duopoly, there might not be a clean, elegant solution. In the case of Mentor/Workshop in Vintage, it took several restrictions and new printings to break the duopoly. Vintage is in a better spot now. But I wouldn't bat an eye at any analysts criticizing duopolies or looking to prevent them. Experience has taught me that duopolies make for dull gameplay. Duopolies are bad.

    If duopolies are bad, can that be extended to oligopolies? And if so, how few strong decks in a format is too few strong decks in that format? If three is still bad, why not four? What about five? Is five too few? Six? Seven? To put those numbers into perspective, it's worth noting that looking at numbers, most competitive environments seem to have something in that neighborhood. Well, the question "how diverse is diverse enough" is kinda loaded and definitely subjective. But I'll put it another way...

    I do not regularly play in tournaments. I'm a filthy casual. But trying to put myself into the mindset of a tournament player, here's how I'd look at it. I know a monopoly is bad because there's only one top deck to play. If I am playing something else, I'm not playing to win. A duopoly has the same problem, really, except now I get two choices instead of one. If I play a rogue deck, I might have a good matchup against one half of the duopoly, but I lose to the other half. If I'm playing to win, I don't want to have a bad matchup against a deck that constitutes so much of the field. It would be bad. Conversely, if I have a deck that isn't bad against either half of the duopoly, then it's not really a duopoly after all (or it was, but I brought a metagame-breaker because I am so super-smart). But how far can we extend this concept? I'm tentatively convinced that it stops at two! Like the cliche in anthropology about counting systems in different cultures, our math here might as well be "one, two, and many." Let's take, for instance, the next-smallest number. If there's a "triopoly" in a Magic format, and I'm playing to win, what deck do I bring? Well, all three of those top decks are necessarily constructed to be able to play against each other. Is there really no rogue deck with good matchups against two of those three? Can I modify one of the three to tweak its matchup against the other two? In the "mirror match"? With 60 cards and a 15 card sideboard? I mean, just stating it on paper, we can stipulate that possibility. That part is easy. Here: "This metagame I made up right now consists entirely of exactly one-third Deck A, one-third Deck B, and one-third Deck C, with no other decks ever placing in tournaments." But in practice? I'm not the expert to seek out for tournament stats, let alone across multiple formats over a long span of time, but it sure seems like in any "triopoly" things don't stay so strictly balanced. There's a tendency for some rogue deck to eventually become more of a "dark horse" deck, and a tendency for something in "tier 1.5" to rise into "tier 1." With three decks fine-tuning to beat each other, they don't stay balance, and the one that gets sidelined becomes the one that rogue decks can potentially deemphasize, focusing instead on beating the other two. With any card pool, there are some cards so strong that they enable competitive archetypes, so you can't just walk into a tournament with any haphazard deck and succeed. But every historical triopoly I can think of didn't really last very long as a balanced triangle. At some point, something has got to give. Even in a format with broken cards, players are bound to try to hybridize two of those three competitors in the triangle, or to find some approach that is strong against two of the three decks.

    Just looking at competitive formats in the present, I see numbers that match my intuitive perception of this. Vintage, Legacy, Modern, Standard. They all have two or three decks that cluster highest on their bar charts for top 8 appearances, but after only a short dropoff there are another two, three, four, or five more decks, and then another dropoff, but even then there are "tier 2" decks that are still clearly putting up enough numbers to be strong contenders. The historical "duopolies" don't hold constant by that metric, but they do tend to persist over time. I can think of instances when monopolies or duopolies created environments that were oppressive to anyone trying to bring in "rogue" decks and I can see the problem there and agree that it's bad. But I can't seem to find a true, robust example of a triopoly that I'd view as a problem. Oh, I can cite examples where there was probably a triopoly at the time and where WotC took action. Just as an example from this thread, they banned Dark Ritual and Demonic Consultation to weaken Necro-Donate decks back when there was probably a kind of triopoly. But like I said, that environment had only existed for a matter of weeks. Far too little time for a real equilibrium to be established. Although I am critical of hasty bans in general, this specific point is not a criticism of them. Rather, I'm saying that regardless of hypothetical long-term outcomes, the triopoly in that case (if I could, by the numbers, have been called a triopoly) didn't last very long.

    I don't want to be left in the awkward position of trying to prove a negative. "Triopolies don't exist" is probably too extreme. So I'll try it this way instead. Triopolies are dynamic intermediate phases in tournament environments.
  12. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    Perhaps I am wrong about triopolies. Perhaps, more generally, I am wrong about "oligopolies" in Magic. When I think of specific examples, and especially in cases where action was taken, the problem seems to have been, or seems to have been perceived to have been, either a monopoly or duopoly. There have been times when WotC took action and the game seemed to be in a triopoly-like state. I talked about that in my "The Season" article with Mirrodin Block Constructed following the Skullclamp ban. The top decks were Ravager Affinity, Big Red, and Tooth and Nail. Those decks at least mostly constituted a triopoly, but there were several other viable decks, which I cited. Typically, they'd have a bad matchup against one of those three (in particular, I know that my friend's Death Cloud deck had the problem of being able to beat Big Red and Tooth and Nail, but being too soft against Affinity). But at any point, if one of the three became too marginalized against the other two, whatever "tier 2" deck was being held back by that marginalized deck might come in, destabilizing the triopoly. And if the three were balanced against each other too neatly, some rogue deck might take advantage of that. WotC took action anyway, specifically because of a short-lived interest in kickstarting a MTGO Block Party format and because of how much they were wary of Affinity. And although I don't remember the decklists and wouldn't know where to dig them up, there was some discussion in the late 1990's of the Type 1 format reaching a point of there being Academy decks, anti-Academy decks, and decks that were good against anti-Academy decks. But yeah, that's not very helpful.

    Setting theory aside and looking at this pragmatically, I'm wary of "stopping oligopolies" as a consideration in the structure of banned/restricted lists. Was there ever a time when a card was really banned/restricted to prevent/combat an oligopoly? Monopolies and duopolies, sure. But I can't think of a card that has really fit the profile of being banned as part of a campaign to break an oligopoly. That feels more like a criticism of Stephen Menendian's use of "Imbalance" as a category in his article than it does of anything specific to Necropotence or any other specific choice of a card to ban/restrict. And like I said, I might be wrong about oligopolies. Stephen Menendian certainly has more relevant experience on this topic than I do.

    This statement appears in the same article...

    While it's not an outright, definitive contradiction, it sure seems like the value of "stopping oligopolies" is at odds with the value of "narrow tailoring." At some point, you come up against cards that are powerful and that need to be answered in some way. If you keep removing enough of them, the field becomes more wide-open, because no on is being punished for not being able to deal with the powerful stuff. You can make the format less and less oligopolic, or you can narrowly tailor your list. I'm not convinced that it's possible to serve both interests.
  13. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    While I can continue to plead ignorance on the subject of unrestricted Necropotence in the format Vintage has become (and I think most people should, too), I can at least see a clear case for why it might be over the top. In a format where Necropotence might just randomly find Time Walk and gain an extra turn to set up, among other things, the card could be far more explosive than other formats would indicate. This is strange to me. For years, I kinda thought that the restriction of Necropotence might have just been a kind of relic. As we can see from Oscar Tan's "Requiem" the decision was somewhat controversial at the time. But the consistency with which Necropotence enabled Dark Petition Storm is a testament to the power of the enchantment in the Vintage card pool. So, like I said, I don't know.

    I have a better grasp on Legacy. In Legacy we get four copies of Lion's Eye Diamond. And while I can't be sure, it seems quite possible that Yawgmoth's Bargain remains the stronger banned card-drawing engine in the format. Following one of the main themes of this thread, no one could really be sure what Necropotence would do if unbanned in Legacy. One person who has given it serious consideration is Carsten Kotter. He looked at potential unbans and devised this decklist in 2013...

    1 Island
    1 Swamp
    1 Badlands
    3 Bloodstained Mire
    4 Polluted Delta
    3 Scalding Tarn
    3 Underground Sea
    1 Volcanic Island
    4 Lotus Petal
    4 Necropotence
    4 Brainstorm
    4 Cabal Ritual
    4 Dark Ritual
    4 Force of Will
    2 Misdirection
    4 Duress
    2 Past in Flames
    4 Ponder
    4 Preordain
    3 Tendrils of Agony

    It's a possible starting point. Notably, he didn't bother to run Soul Spike. I'd definitely be running Soul Spike. I suspect that if Necropotence were ever allowed unrestricted in a format, Soul Spike would become a staple of whatever decks emerged. Some of the people in the comments pointed out that Necropotence (and other banned cards) had previously been legal in the defunct MTGO "Classic" format. I know almost nothing about the format, although I do remember seeing it in DCI announcements and such. One helpful individual provided a decklist (supposedly from 2009).

    3 Bloodstained Mire
    1 Flooded Strand
    4 Polluted Delta
    2 Swamp
    4 Underground Sea
    4 Brainstorm
    4 Cabal Ritual
    4 Chrome Mox
    4 Dark Ritual
    4 Demonic Consultation
    4 Duress
    1 Echoing Truth
    4 Force of Will.
    1 Mana Crypt
    4 Necropotence
    4 Ponder
    4 Soul Spike
    3 Tendrils of Agony.
    1 Vampiric Tutor

    Out of context, I don't know how strong this deck was, what its competition looked like, how long it persisted over time, etc. But it's helpful anyway because Necropotence was banned/restricted everywhere long before the Storm mechanic was created, and this obscure case actually gives us a benchmark of a real decklist in a sanctioned format with conditions that didn't exist in "paper" Magic. Of course, Demonic Consultation, Vampiric Tutor, and Mana Crypt are all banned in Legacy anyway.

    Later, Carsten Kotter also wrote an article discussing possible Legacy unbans. He included Necropotence (along with Earthcraft, Survival of the Fittest, Goblin Recruiter, Imperial Seal, and Mana Drain) as a tentative possibility, saying...

    I'm inclined to agree. Necropotence might be poweful, but so are lots of other cards in Legacy. And with the state Legacy is in these days, it seems like this is an experiment that is worth doing.
  14. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    Well, I've probably rambled on about Necropotence enough for now. So I'll move on to some other topic unless some relevant Memories surface on this one. Some of my fondest memories in my history of playing Magic are of playing Necro control decks in the late 1990's. But as much as "The Skull" was a big deal for myself and for others, control Necro became overshadowed by the idea of Necropotence as a combo enabler. As a combo enthusiast, this transition is bittersweet for me. I'm possibly the most vocal advocate for combo decks that I know of, but it is frustrating that my favorite card for control decks, one of the most iconic cards in the game, is almost universally eschewed and derided as a broken combo card.

    The days of Necropotence as a 4-of in 60-card constructed decks are probably (mostly) gone forever, with us only as memories. And if it's true that later printings irrevocably "broke" this wonderful card, then that's fine. Oh well. It happens. I'll take a world with combo decks and without Necropotence over a world with Necropotence and without combo decks. If that's how it has to be. If.

    Like I said, I can't really be sure. I have my own bias, but trying to shelve that and look at this as fairly as possible...

    On one hand, I think Carsten Kotter makes a good point here. Take away the tutors that, along with Dark Ritual, make first-turn or second-turn Necropotence so consistently achievable, and you're left with a deck that either falls apart or has to be built to function without Necropotence, which means tradeoffs. This goes back to what I said about Survival of the Fittest and a "theory version" of a deck. Necropotence could power a blindingly fast combo deck. Necropotence could be used as setup in a combo deck that doesn't rely on Necropotence specifically. Necropotence could be used in a deck that protects its own life total with ease. Necropotence could be used in a deck with answers to the most dangerous pieces of anti-Necropotence tools. But it can't do everything at once! It can't even do most of those things at once. Taking stock of what's practical, rather than going down a theoretical checklist and declaring the card to be broken because it does a bunch of mutually impossible things in our imaginations, well, it's a difficult assessment. I can't help but think that this hopelessly broken Necropotence is Audrey Wood's "Big, Hungry Bear." We're all gullible little mice being tricked into giving away half of our strawberries to avoid a fictional threat. Hell yes, I will totally use a metaphor I pulled from a children's picture book. Whatcha gonna do about it?

    But on the other hand, Necropotence reveals its potential even in places where it can't be used to the fullest. It's probably more dangerous in Commander than Yawgmoth's Bargain (despite Yawgmoth's Bargain being banned), and frequently appears in "competitive" Commander decks. It's banned in the MTGO Duel Commander format. It's restricted in Vintage, but packs a demonstrable punch when it shows up. The downfall of Dark Petition Storm probably had more to due with the deck's vulnerability during setup than the weaknesses of Necropotence. In my limited experience, if a Vintage Storm deck opens with and resolves first-turn or second-turn Necropotence, it tends to win. It should be said: we can theorize and raise caveats, point out the limitations of Necropotence or speculate about Pithing Needle as a tool to stop it, but ultimately we shouldn't bluster. Necropotence is a three-mana enchantment that can dig for cards more easily than just about anything else in the game. So even without knowing what the best Necro deck in a format might look like or what it might be up against, it's fair to say the card is extremely powerful.

    How do we weigh those two? Depends on the format, on what we know, on what we're comfortable with, and so on. But in conclusion, as a casual player who loves to see decks that approach the game in unusual ways, I want to say this for Necropotence and really, for any card...

    In any format, there are going to be grey areas due to cards that skirt the fuzzy boundary of what's too powerful or due to conflicting visions in shaping the format. In such cases, I contend that special consideration should be given to cards that have historical track records of enabling novel decks, decks that do things differently from the rest of the format. Sometimes too much is too much, but if there's a chance that a card might not be too much, and especially if it does something interesting, I say give it a chance. Looking at cards that have historically been banned in different formats, I'd cite as examples...

    Land Tax
    Zuran Orb
    Mishra's Workshop
    Recurring Nightmare
    Bazaar of Baghdad
    Mana Drain
    Fact or Fiction
    Birthing Pod
    Gifts Ungiven
    Aether Vial
    Dread Return
    Survival of the Fittest

    Just to name a few. I'm not saying that any of them in particular should be unbanned anywhere particular (except Survival of the Fittest should totally be unbanned in Legacy), and in fact I deliberately chose some that aren't banned anymore or aren't banned anymore in formats that are still played. This isn't a call to unban a bunch of stuff. What I'm saying is that some special cards, when they have been legal and played in tournaments, have defined entire archetypes and have had unique lines of play. These are cards that get people talking. These are cards that lend the game a kind if intrigue. They do things that go beyond "normal" Magic and add their own flavor to it, so if they can possibly be worked in, if it's realistic within the context of a format that they might not dominate or cause other severe problems, I say it's at least worth thinking about. And I'd very much count Necropotence among those cards.

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