Sometimes an old player takes an old idea and makes it new again. That's the case here, as fellow Commander Rules Committee member Scott Larabee creates a new Skeleton Ship deck.
Scott took the idea from my fellow Magic Judge Hall of Famer Gis Hoogendijk, who back in the earliest days of the format terrorized Dragon and Phelddagrif alike with his undead high seas privateers, distributing -1/-1 counters like so many cursed gold pieces. Just like Gis's original, Scott's version is creatureless, making the build that much more challenging.
Strangely enough, even with the strong "-1/-1 counters matter" cards in Amonkhet, Scott chose to go without any of them in this deck. One of the primary reasons is that most of the good cards, like Archfiend of Ifnir, involve creatures. He and I talked a bit about it, which we'll get to later. There's an argument for him to play Nest of Scarabs, Liliana's Influence, and Liliana, Death Wielder. He even had the latter two out on the table during the last cuts, but felt in the end that going the older-school route is more consistent with his thematic vision.
The commander itself is pretty simple: a 0/3 for 3UB, which has the activated ability of tapping to put a –1/-1 counter on a target creature. If Skeleton Ship were made today, I suspect that, without a cooler name, it wouldn't be legendary, perhaps not even rare, and a cost more like 2UB or pushing the envelope at 1UB. But it wasn't made today, so we are where we are. Let's take look at the 99.
- 1 Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
- 1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
- 1 Jace, Unraveler of Secrets
- 1 Liliana of the Dark Realms
- 1 Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath
- 1 Ob Nixilis Reignited
- 1 Sorin Markov
- 1 Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
- 1 Teferi, Temporal Archmage
- 1 Tezzeret the Seeker
- 1 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
- 7 Island
- 4 Swamp
- 1 Barren Moor
- 1 Blighted Fen
- 1 Bojuka Bog
- 1 Cabal Coffers
- 1 Command Tower
- 1 Drowned Catacomb
- 1 Evolving Wilds
- 1 Inkmoth Nexus
- 1 Leechridden Swamp
- 1 Lonely Sandbar
- 1 Maze of Ith
- 1 Polluted Delta
- 1 Reliquary Tower
- 1 Sunken Hollow
- 1 Sunken Ruins
- 1 Tainted Isle
- 1 Temple of Deceit
- 1 Temple of the False God
- 1 Terramorphic Expanse
- 1 Thespian's Stage
- 1 Underground Sea
- 1 Vesuva
- 1 Wasteland
- 1 Watery Grave
- 1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
- 1 The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale
- 1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
- 1 Contagion Engine
- 1 Crystal Chimes
- 1 Decimator Web
- 1 Expedition Map
- 1 Meekstone
- 1 Planar Portal
- 1 Portcullis
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Tormod's Crypt
- 1 Breathstealer's Crypt
- 1 Copy Enchantment
- 1 Inexorable Tide
- 1 Mind's Dilation
- 1 No Mercy
- 1 Painful Quandary
- 1 Pendrell Mists
- 1 Phyrexian Arena
- 1 Propaganda
- 1 Retreat to Hagra
- 1 Spreading Plague
- 1 Subversion
- 1 Tainted Aether
- 1 Triskaidekaphobia
- 1 Vile Consumption
- 1 Blue Sun's Zenith
- 1 Capsize
- 1 Counterspell
- 1 Cryptic Command
- 1 Cyclonic Rift
- 1 Disallow
- 1 Dissolve
- 1 Evacuation
- 1 Exclude
- 1 Mana Drain
- 1 Memory Plunder
- 1 Mystic Confluence
- 1 Reins of Power
- 1 Meishin, the Mind Cage
- 1 Night of Souls' Betrayal
- 1 Barter in Blood
- 1 Black Sun's Zenith
- 1 Damnation
- 1 Deadly Tempest
- 1 Decree of Pain
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Diabolic Tutor
- 1 Innocent Blood
- 1 Twisted Justice
- 1 Ugin's Insight
- 1 The Abyss
Skeleton Ship clearly leads a control deck, meant to wear you down and eventually kill you in one of a very few ways. One could almost call it a prison deck. It doesn't tie up your resources like traditional prison decks might, but it makes the environment overtly hostile to creatures—and uses some cards you might never heard of in order to do it. It also makes use of some cards out of necessity which you might not play or want to play in other kinds of decks. Let's break down the individual cards:
Contagion Engine: Contragion Engine helps by making creatures smaller and proliferating the ones which have already been hit.
Crystal Chimes: The enchantments are key to the deck functioning well, so getting them back if they get blown up is a great idea.
Decimator Web: One of the win conditions, as the deck can then proliferate the poison counter.
Expedition Map: Cabal Coffers; Nykthos, Shrine of Nyx; Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth; and Maze of Ith are all great things to go fetch, depending on the battlefield situation. Even Inkmoth Nexus might be a choice.
Portcullis: The deck's absolute superstar, and one of the most fun cards to play with. Remember that the creature still enters the battlefield, so it will trigger any abilities, but then it'll go on the other side of the gate. Problematically, if you have a bunch of stuff looking through the bars when the owner gets killed, you don't get it back. That player's permanents leave the battlefield, but then any of their triggers leave the stack—so be careful if you're on the "stuff as many things on the other side as I can" plan.
Tormod's Crypt: Zero-mana-cost graveyard control is very cool beans.
Breathstealer's Crypt: In addition to making people choose to pay life for each creature—which they generally do early in the game—Breathstealer's Crypt makes you reveal everything. This means the Skeleton Ship player has lots more info than they otherwise might—so it makes deciding when to cast Damnation more valuable. This card definitely qualifies as a hidden gem.
Copy Enchantment: There are so many remarkable enchantments in Magic that I find this a criminally underplayed card at the low cost of 2U. Obviously, Scott won't copy your Lurking Predators, but your Rhystic Study or several of his own things (like the Subversion he copied in the game we played) make things very saucy.
Inexorable Tide: One of the paths to victory with the poison counter(s) as well as buffing the -1/-1 counters running around.
Mind's Dilation: Scott assembled the deck on the big table in the game room, which doubles at the third guest room where additional fellow member of the Commander Rules Committee, Toby Elliott, stayed. Toby arrived for the weekend and barely had put down his bags when he exclaimed that Mind's Dilation absolutely had to go into the deck.
Night of Souls' Betrayal: Making creatures easier to kill since Champions of Kamigawa.
Painful Quandary: One of the things this deck does is slowly bleed away your life total. Since you're not worried that Scott is going to do too much damage to you, you might be tempted to take the pain. In this instance, I agree. Life's too short to not draw cards.
Phyrexian Arena: Card draw is card draw.
Propaganda: Scott has already noted that Propaganda doesn't protect his planeswalkers. Keeping your normal life total intact is also pretty good, but I think this slot is better with something like Crawlspace.
Retreat to Hagra: Landfall for the mini-drain is reasonable, especially since the deck seems to draw enough cards to hit a land drop every turn.
Spreading Plague: One of my favorite janky cards in Commander history, Spreading Plague keeps the creature count low, forcing you to decide if you like what's in your hand better than what's on the battlefield.
Subversion: More slow life drain for the long game.
The Abyss: It's "targeted and destroyed," not sacrificed, which I suspect it would be if the card were made today. Still, when you only have one or two creatures due to Portcullis, The Abyss can be a beating.
Triskaidekaphobia: Jankaidekaphobia maybe. Not sold on it other than for laughs, so I suspect it's a cut in the first update.
Blue Sun's Zenith: Oddly enough, BSZ is also a victory condition.
Capsize: It's a classic control deck card which I think is less good than it used to be, given we have way more sacrifice outlets these days.
Cryptic Command: So flexible, so good.
Disallow: As mentioned, flexibility in our counterspells is extra nice.
Evacuation: Hey creatures—get out of here.
Exclude: Speaking of classics. Even though it's a challenge to play against, I really love this deck.
Mana Drain: Also a classic.
Memory Plunder: Another underplayed card. What I especially like is that it neither exiles itself nor the card you cast with it. And it's an instant.
Reins of Power: "Hey, I'll trade my zero creatures for your team, thanks."
Ugin's Insight: This is one of my few disagreements with card choices. There aren't enough truly large permanents in the deck to render this one really great, so I'd go with something surer like Tidings or Dragonlord's Prerogative.
Barter in Blood: Gets around indestructible, which is one of the deck's anxieties. And, of course, when there are only two creatures on the battlefield due to Portcullis, it's effectively a Wrath of God.
Black Sun's Zenith: Obviously, one of the first cards you think of when you go with the -1/-1 theme—it also helps you keep from getting decked.
Damnation: Simple. Black. Classic.
Decree of Pain: Wipe the battlefield, fill your hand.
Demonic Tutor: You know how I generally feel about tutors, but since this deck is a little janky and can't simply can't tutor into an auto-win, they're fine here.
Diabolic Tutor: Ditto.
Innocent Blood: Barter in Blood's tiny sibiling.
Twisted Justice: A card which is only going to be situational, but it will lead to some blowout plays, especially if the total number of creatures on the battlefield is kept low. A player will do some gyrations around Portcullis to get their fattie onto the battlefield, and then boom.
Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver: Having played with this card myself once or twice, I can say that it's not as good it seems. Its low mana cost might make it tempting, but the large cost for the second ability renders it kind of useless. In this particular deck, it's a race to the ultimate for a level of control.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor: What else can be said about this Jace?
Jace, Unraveler of Secrets: Again, the whole idea is to get to the ultimate ability, which seems really difficult unless you can establish complete battlefield control. If that's the case, then you just completely shut the door on the game.
Liliana of the Dark Realms: We continue the theme of wanting the first and the ultimate abilities on a planeswalker.
Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath: Here's one in which the deck doesn't care about the ultimate, but the first two abilities are somewhat useful. The good news for the deck is that since it doesn't make use of the last ability, opponents might be inclined to leave the card alone.
Ob Nixilis Reignited: A win condition and a little card draw along the way.
Sorin Markov: A card which draws a number of complaints, but especially in this deck, in which a commander damage kill is simply not a viable option, it's a way to combat excessive lifegain.
Tamiyo, the Moon Sage: Probably goes on the next version of the list of cards you can't get angry about when someone blows up.
Teferi, Temporal Archmage: Again, first and last abilities are relevant.
Tezzeret the Seeker: With only nine artifacts in the deck, the usefulness of this Tezzeret seems a little limited. I suppose it tutors right away for Portcullis, which is awesomeness, or Decimator Web, which is a win condition.
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon: Like with Tezzeret, I worry that there might not be enough colorless things in the deck to make full use of this.
In the aftermath of playing the first game with the deck, I asked Scott a few questions.
What inspired you to make the deck in the first place?
About six months ago, Gis emailed and said he was getting back into playing Magic. He remembered I liked the deck and asked if I wanted him to send me a list. I had never thought about a creatureless deck before, and -1/-1 counters are more important today than they were back in the day because of indestructible. The old version obviously had no planeswalkers, so I asked Gis what he thought about the idea; he liked it. I still used his basic template when it came to the number of Wraths and counterspells and whatnot. I had put the deck together on Magic Online. When I knew I was coming to visit you, I figured it was time to finally put it together on paper.
Other cards you're considering?
Energy Flux to sort of round out the theme of making you pay for things in your upkeep, and Nevinyrral's Disk, which I'm not sure why I didn't include initially. Maybe Toxic Deluge, Mutilate, and creature-lands, like Creeping Tar Pit, Mishra's Factory, or Faerie Conclave. I might need some more bounce and a few more -1/-1 counters. Crawlspace might be an interesting way to go since I can't play Dueling Grounds.
What about those Amonkhet cards I mention above?
I have all three pulled to think about for the first update, after I get a few games under my belt. Liliana's Mastery gets strong consideration. I really need to add Liliana Vess, but I just didn't have one handy. Unfortunately, since Liliana, Death Wielder's ultimate is blank for me, I doubt I play it.
What's your early-game plan?
I have enough creature removal to deal with any early onslaughts. Hopefully someone else is more threatening. Portcullis is the real big superstar in the deck at keeping creatures off my back. Meishin, the Mind Cage is the other one.
What do you see as the primary win conditions?
It's a slow drain. Draining a little faster is one of the reasons I want to run the other creature-lands (which aren't affected by Portcullis) to go along with Inkmoth Nexus. There's generally someone who doesn't have a creature due to Portcullis. Little draining effects in the deck like Subversion and Retreat to Hagra will get me there. Obviously, Sorin Markov will get someone low. I wanted to run big finishers like Exsanguinate, but decided not to because sometimes that's just not a fun way to end a game.
You've played it once already. What did you like and/or dislike?
It played really well. I loved Portcullis and the tricks I can do by animating a land. Breathstealer's Crypt seemed really cool, especially when someone gets low on life, since they have to make hard choices. Sorin's a controversial card, but in this deck, it's almost essential. I wouldn't follow up with Wound Reflection, because who does that? I might exchange the two cards, though. It's possible to get even more life loss off of Wound Reflection in the long run, since it doubles up when one opponent attacks another.
I've had the conversation with you and Toby about the fact that people don't play enough artifact or enchantment removal; problematically, the two of you do (as did our fourth player, @mtgradio's Tom Delia), so I had to work around getting more of my things blown up in that game than I normally might in my local environment.
Tell us a little about your process in building the deck.
I didn't have to worry about the 30 or so slots for creatures, which was kind of liberating, since I could dig deeper into the noncreatures. I got to the usual 110 cards and then struggled to cut the last ten or so. As I mention, I have to come up with a plan for what happens when my enchantments and artifacts get blown up—Academy Ruins seems like it'd do some work. Otherwise, I'm really happy with it so far. I'm going to make some tweaks, and we'll go from there.
This Week's Idiotic Combo
This one comes from the deranged mind of Tremayne on the official forums. It involves Thousand-Year Elixir, Intruder Alarm, Gemstone Array, Soldevi Machinist, Apprentice Wizard, Sea Scryer, and Ovinomancer—so idiotic enough already.
Here's how it goes:
Remove the counter for a single blue mana.
Use that blue mana to make three colorless with Apprentice Wizard.
Spend one colorless to make one blue with Sea Scryer.
Spend two colorless, one blue to cast Ovinomancer.
Choose not to sacrifice three basic lands.
Untap all creatures (most importantly, your Wizards).
Repeat, and turn all opponents' (targetable, non-indestructible) creatures into Sheep.
Deck Without Comment
This week's Deck Without Comment is Lazav, Shapeshifting Mastermind.
- 1 Clone Shell
- 1 Duplicant
- 1 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Body Double
- 1 Cemetery Puca
- 1 Clever Impersonator
- 1 Clone
- 1 Crypt Ghast
- 1 Cryptoplasm
- 1 Dimir Cutpurse
- 1 Dimir Doppelganger
- 1 Elite Arcanist
- 1 Evil Twin
- 1 Kederekt Leviathan
- 1 Mindleech Mass
- 1 Renegade Doppelganger
- 1 Sakashima's Student
- 1 Shapesharer
- 1 Sire of Stagnation
- 1 Vesuvan Shapeshifter
- 1 Agent of Erebos
- 1 Arcanis the Omnipotent
- 1 Geth, Lord of the Vault
- 1 Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
- 1 Sakashima the Impostor
- 1 Phenax, God of Deception
- 1 Armillary Sphere
- 1 Commander's Sphere
- 1 Dimir Cluestone
- 1 Dimir Signet
- 1 Elixir of Immortality
- 1 Isochron Scepter
- 1 Wayfarer's Bauble
- 1 Rhystic Study
- 1 Aetherize
- 1 Anticipate
- 1 Cyclonic Rift
- 1 Dark Dabbling
- 1 Darkness
- 1 Evacuation
- 1 Go for the Throat
- 1 Jace's Ingenuity
- 1 Pongify
- 1 Rapid Hybridization
- 1 Shadow of Doubt
- 1 Shriveling Rot
- 1 Supplant Form
- 1 Trickbind
- 1 Tsabo's Decree
- 1 Turn to Frog
- 1 Twincast
- 1 Black Sun's Zenith
- 1 Consult the Necrosages
- 1 Pilfered Plans
- 1 Psychic Intrusion
- 1 Syphon Mind
- 1 Time Warp
Check out our comprehensive Deck List Database for lists of all my decks:
Lavinia Blinks; Obzedat, Ghost Killer; Aurelia Goes to War; Trostani and Her Angels; Lazav, Shapeshifting Mastermind; Zegana and a Dice Bag; Rakdos Reimagined; Glissa, Glissa; Ruric Thar and His Beastly Fight Club; Gisa and Geralf Together Forever;
Shards and Wedges
Adun's Toolbox; Animar's Swarm; Karrthus, Who Rains Fire From The Sky; Demons of Kaalia; Merieke's Esper Dragons; Nath of the Value Leaf; Rith's Tokens; The Mill-Meoplasm; The Altar of Thraximundar; The Threat of Yasova; You Take the Crown, I'll Take Leovold; Zombies of Tresserhorn
If you'd like to follow the adventures of my Monday Night RPG group (in a campaign that's been alive since 1987) which is just beginning the saga The Lost Cities of Nevinor, ask for an invitation to the Facebook group "Sheldon Menery's Monday Night Gamers."