Most of the time when I talk about decks, especially when making new ones or updating old ones, I talk about the cards and what the cards do both alone and in concert with each other, but I focus less on the whole package, the overarching strategy. I thought it'd be interesting to write Player's Guides to my decks, delving into a more holistic view of not just how they came to be but what they do and don't do, how to win with them, and how they lose. Throughout the series, we'll work on templating the Guides to give them all a consistency of feel and utility. I thought of no better place to start than one of my favorites, Karador. The list in the database is current with one change: Ghostway is out and Faith's Reward is in.
Why Play It?
Karador is a quintessential build-around commander. Playing it gives you the opportunity to explore a focused strategy path and see what you can make of it. It's not one that you'd want to play just for the colors because it doesn't do much of anything on its own.
You'll Like This Deck If…
You enjoy toolbox decks with potential answers to anything.
You like using your graveyard as a repeatable resource.
You want to play the occasional board sweeper.
You prefer winning through a sustained campaign of attrition.
You think it's really cool to play your commander a bunch of times while not paying a bunch of mana for him.
You like the occasional abject blowout.
You love trying to squeeze extra mileage out of a few well-known card combos.
You Won't Like This Deck If…
You like straight combo.
Dredge is your thing.
Your favorite play style is hyper-aggressive.
You frequently want to kill people in single, epic turns.
You prefer to kill people with commander damage.
You don't like to take your time to think about how what you play this turn might impact the game down the road.
What Does the Deck Do?
Ideally, the deck works on a three-phase game plan: Resource Development, Board Control, and The Long War, adhering strongly to the philosophy of Being Second Best. This deck will rarely jump out to an early lead or threatening position, so you can rely on help from other players to temper someone else's strong start. Staying under the radar while assembling your engines (I hate to say combos there because it's not like there are any "I just win" elements here) will put you in a position to step forward later.
Resource Development means both building up a land and mana base and getting some creature cards into the graveyard for later use, both to make Karador cheaper to cast and have the tools you want at your command. There are some of the usual suspects for land ramp, like Sakura-Tribe Elder, Wood Elves, and Skyshroud Claim. Cheap card draw in Elvish Visionary and Wall of Omens digs you deeper into the deck while eventually beefing up the graveyard.
Mulch ideally puts lands into your hand while getting a creature or two into the graveyard. More lands in your hand means drawing more gas later. The Keyser Soze of this phase is Hermit Druid. Unlike in Druid combo decks, where he's there just to dump the whole deck into the yard and then combo out, his job here is to be a repeatable quasi-Mulch, getting a land into hand while putting a few creatures into the graveyard without overcommitting and exposing yourself to a big blowout via Tormod's Crypt or Relic of Progenitus.
A Birthing Pod chain is an excellent Resource Development tool. You can Pod away a Hermit Druid that's done a little bit of work or Wall of Omens / Elvish Visionary into Wood Elves and then turn that Wood Elves into Solemn Simulacrum. From there, your decision tree will be determined by the developing board state. In a vacuum, I'll go from Solemn to Divinity of Pride just to start beating down and gaining life. Again, I want to be a little careful about dumping too much into the graveyard too early.
During the Board Control phase, you'll find yourself using the toolbox elements to keep other folks from doing scary things. There are a number of engines that you can run here, most of which rely on enters-the-battlefield abilities. Without yet considering Karador, a few highlights include:
Sun Titan + Bone Shredder: The reason Bone Shredder is here instead of Shriekmaw is the echo. You want it to kill a creature, potentially block a flier, and if it doesn't, go away, so that when you battle with Sun Titan you can bring it back to kill something else.
Reveillark + Karmic Guide + dealer's choice: I actually rarely evoke Reveillark, saving that particular trick for when it's absolutely necessary mostly due to the fact that there are a sufficient number of sacrifice outlets like Birthing Pod, Devouring Swarm, Ghost Council of Orzhova, and Greater Good. What you bring back with Karmic Guide is of course situation dependent. The aforementioned Bone Shredder will also likely come back alongside the Karmic Guide, leaving you the opportunity to get something larger like Angel of Despair or the always-popular Duplicant. Using Archon of Justice in this engine will keep you from having to repeatedly deal with the same threats.
Saffi Eriksdotter + Karmic Guide: Like Bone Shredder, Karmic Guide has echo so you can conveniently and without a sacrifice outlet get it into the graveyard. With the echo trigger on the stack, you can target Karmic Guide with Saffi and when you don't pay have Karmic Guide come back anyway. Worst case is that you just bring back Saffi. Even cooler is to bring back Sun Titan, which then brings back Saffi.
Deathbringer Liege + cards: Creatures get tapped all the time, so you can kill them for no cost by casting any black spell. Tapping creatures with white spells has paid some late-game dividends by getting irritating blockers out of the way. Obviously, the strength of the card is in casting something that's both colors. I'm a big fan of abilities that do stuff you want but don't cost anything.
Once we add Karador to the mix, we can do even more, effectively Tutoring a card out of our graveyard every turn. To be cost effective, there have to be creatures in the graveyard, but you don't have to wait until he costs only BGW. Don't be afraid to pay five or six for him the first time around. He'll just get cheaper later anyway.
The second element of Board Control involves the reset buttons. In addition to traditional creature killers like Black Sun's Zenith and Decree of Pain, Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite and Massacre Wurm will kill bunches of dudes as well. Sudden Spoiling plus Massacre Wurm will usually kill all of one player's stuff dead. Adding Restoration Angel to the Massacre Wurm mix is also quite helpful. The Punishment half of Crime / Punishment (how many decks can manage to play that card?) frequently gets cast with an X of 0 just to take out token swarms.
The third pillar of Board Control is the ability to simply stay alive, which has two faces: life gain and Fog effects. I think that players consistently undervalue life gain in the format. I'm not talking about Trostani-like absurd life totals, just gaining a little here and a little there. An early Divinity of Pride can get you going in the right direction. Fracturing Gust, in addition to being a control element, only fails to add double digits to your life total when it has to be used in an emergency.
Players will frequently let Wall of Reverence stay around far too long for two reasons. First, they don't see your five or six points of life gain each turn as so significant since they think they're going to do a big pile to you anyway. Second, there are usually bigger threats to kill. Vish Kal is a lifelink creature that can run up your life total pretty quickly, although I find that he is seen as one of those threats that need to be killed quickly. Kokusho provides life gain, but we'll talk about her more in the next phase. Doomgape is a cute life gainer that provides another sacrifice outlet for recursion elements.
In a world where Craterhoof Behemoth is crashing around, you need Fog effects. Seht's Tiger is one of my favorites since it can do double duty with targeted spells. Sudden Spoiling is for the most part a Fog effect, but be warned that it won't help against Craterhoof Behemoth or Avenger of Zendikar tokens because the power/toughness change comes first and then plusses and counters are added afterward.
The Long War
Once some kind of stabilization has occurred, it's time to start eating away at life totals while continuing to use the toolbox to keep opponents' scarier stuff in check. Folks often forget that Sheoldred, Whispering One has Swampwalk, so it will do double duty as a controller and a beater. Ghost Council of Orzhova is particularly good at nipping away the last few points of life. It's been the answer to more than a few otherwise jammed board states. Obviously, flying over with big guys like Kokusho, Vish Kal, and Angel of Despair takes away life in good-sized chunks. The idea is to achieve a kind of inevitability without taking away the opponents' ability to play the game, like with a STAX deck or some Armageddon effects.
Puppeteer Clique is a significant element in The Long War. Recasting it with Karador or resetting it with Restoration Angel after it's already done double duty means keeping opponents' threats reduced while beating them in the face with their own stuff. Riftsweeper is also part of the protracted campaign. It's likely that some of your stuff will get exiled, often with others' versions of your own weapons. Riftsweeper will get them back into the mix for you.
The deck isn't focused on giant, swingy plays, but there are a few arrows in that particular quiver. The recent addition of Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord along with the recursion elements can drain away loads of life pretty quickly. Jarad plus Kokusho is a drain of ten life to everyone. Everyone has seen the damage Avenger of Zendikar plus Elesh Norn can do.
Although it's not part of the designed win condition since I can't guarantee that opponents will have big piles of creatures on the battlefield, Netherborn Phalanx has been a part of many of the deck's most epic plays. Being able to transmute for Kokusho, Duplicant, Wurmcoil Engine, Harvester of Souls, or Massacre Wurm is also a great part of its appeal.
What Doesn't the Deck Do?
Combo: While the deck is awash with synergies, there aren't any infinite loops. It can establish a good bit of control through those synergies, but it's pretty mana hungry in doing it.
Dredge: I feel like dredge requires an overcommitment to numbers of cards in the graveyard. Played as is, it has shown itself remarkably resistant to graveyard hate, at least the large-scale stuff (Relic, Crypt), by not having the yard get too large.
Continually push reset buttons: While there are a few, the deck's reliance is on recursion, not density.
Tutor in the traditional sense: I'm moving more and more toward low-Tutor EDH. Part of the fun of the format is the random element. While the deck stylistically plays the same most of the time, I don't want to always play with the same exact elements.
Kill with commander damage: I believe Karador has killed someone with commander damage exactly once, and Elesh Norn wasn't even involved. It was in a game where the last opponent had a reasonably high life total but was out of blockers and living off the top of his deck. I used recursion elements to kill his lone blocker and got in there with Karador.
How Does It Lose?
The deck is obviously most vulnerable to graveyard hate, especially repeatable and targeted things like Withered Wretch. It survives Crypt and Bojuka Bog by not overcommitting and with the protection of Leyline of Sanctity. Nonetheless, be prepared for games where you aren't going to be able to run your recursion shenanigans. Obviously, Leyline of the Void will cut you off at the knees pretty quickly. My biggest criticism of the deck is that there are times when it's just a non-factor in games. You kind of have to be emotionally prepared for that to happen every now and again.
The deck is a little mana hungry when running its engines, so resource denial will hurt it badly. That's one of the reasons that I went to Faith's Reward over Ghostway. Remember that Armageddon effects are only rarely played in my local environment, so it's one thing the deck simply isn't well prepared for. There aren't too many STAX decks either, but I think there are enough removal elements in the deck to deal with them anyway.
Without some help, the deck won't do much against dedicated combo decks. It doesn't have the hand stripping and/or counterspell elements required to deal with them. If it survives to the mid to late game with them, perhaps it has a chance via the control elements like Return to Dust and Silverchase Fox, but for the most part I'd still consider it an underdog.
You can also be occasionally overrun without having a Fog in your hand. I'll probably move Tangle and/or Spore Cloud back into the deck to provide some redundancy. Picking what to take out will be the tricky part, although that Demonic Tutor might be on the chopping block.
Cards That Aren't There
There are 10,000 cards that didn't make the cut. We obviously won't talk about all of them, but I'll try to hit the ones you're probably wondering about. We've already discussed dredge as a mechanic (the big hitters likely being Life from the Loam and Golgari Grave-Troll), so I won't delve into it (see what I did there?).
Survival of the Fittest: Putting it in would make the deck significantly more powerful. It seems a natural fit for making the deck do exactly what you want it to do every time. What keeps it out (although I'll confess to it really nagging at me to come back in) is my dedication to fewer Tutors, plain and simple. Does that put me at a disadvantage against players who have no problem playing lots of Tutors? Only if my definition of "winning" involves "killing everyone all the time" as opposed to "making a great game." For now, I'm sticking with the latter. The secret of this format isn't breaking it. It's already way far gone if you want to play it that way. The secret is in finding the balance so that games are playable and interesting for everyone. Your mileage is welcome to vary.
Lord of Extinction: Boom Tube seems like a must include for a deck like this, especially one with Jarad in it. I'm playing the card in a number of other decks (including one with Jarad as the commander), so I'm going a different direction here.
Deathrite Shaman: The real reason he's not in the deck is because I haven't bothered to put him in. I'm not running fetches (which I need to reconsider), so his ramp ability isn't worth anything, but his other abilities are definitely worth it. I've found Dauntless Escort to actually be counterproductive in the deck, so that's what I'd swap out for the Shaman. In fact, I've just written a note reminding myself to do that.
Volrath's Stronghold: I don't want to put cards from the graveyard on top of my library; I want them there so I can reuse them. That said, Stronghold would be a nice protector against graveyard removal. With Grim Backwoods and Vault of the Archangel already in, I just don't want too many colorless utility lands.
Mirari's Wake: There just isn't room for it.
Withered Wretch: In too many other decks.
Lurking Predators: Ditto.
Living Death: This isn't a deck that just piles guys into the graveyard then spits them out. I do that in Kresh, and despite the fact that it's my favorite card ever, I don't want to do the same thing in every deck with black in it.
Debtors' Knell: Here's another one that I might want to try to wrench back in, but I often find that it's just a seven-mana waste of a turn since everyone inevitably gets really scared of it—justifiably so.
Maelstrom Pulse: It's either a one-for-one or a token killer. I think I have enough for the token swarms already.
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed: Officially named "Mikaeus, Not Bros" at Armada Games, this is a tough one to justify not playing. Synergistically sound, it may deserve a place above something janky like Loyal Retainers or Wurmcoil Engine.
Seedborn Muse: The deck doesn't do enough on other folks' turns to justify it.
Scavenging Ooze: I only have so many copies, and this deck feels like it needs it less than others (like Kresh or anything with Living Death in it) do. If I were to move this deck to a mass graveyard recursion strategy, I'd consider putting in the Ooze.
Trostani, Selesnya's Voice: With creatures coming and going, a little Trostani life gain might not be bad. I think I already gain enough life with the deck, so it seems unnecessary.
Karador and the Future
I'm certain that with the Orzhov guild coming up in Gatecrash, there will be a few juicy choices for this deck. We'll talk about them specifically in either my Gatecrash review or my post-Prerelease deck update article, when we have a full view of everything that's available.
Playing this version of Karador is challenging. There are a number of roads to go down, often determined by what's happening from the other players at the table. Let's hope that this Player's Guide has given you some insight into both how to play it and maybe how to build your own version of our favorite Centaur Spirit.