As promised, I plan on covering a range of budget decks as the year goes on. While there isn’t a hard limit on dollar values, the decks I feature on Black Sheep will usually end up costing about $50 each. This is part of my effort this year to have Magic net $0 out of my pocket; the cheaper the decks I try to build, the easier it will be to trade for them or buylist cards to get what I need.
This week, I will be going over Drana, Liberator of Malakir EDH. As part of my plan here, I really wanted to do something not just cheap, but also unique; at the crossroads of unique and cheap are a group of cards from Mirrodin that use the modular mechanic and all have names beginning with word ‘Arcbound’. The central idea behind the deck is simple – just play the Arcbound creatures beside other artifact creatures and utilize the modular keyword ability to move counters around.
At the time of design, one of my friends bought the deck online and it indeed came in just under $50.
If you are planning to build this at home, it is a very flexible deck design. There really aren’t many critical pieces, and you can have some fun swapping things in and out. A deck like this is primarily theme-based, and works best in very casual environments.
The basic construction of this kind of deck works out as follows.
- Category Breakdown
- Commander 
- Ramp [10-16]
- Card Advantage [6-10]
- Recursion [6-10]
- Primary Theme Cards [8-14]
- Secondary Theme Cards [6-10]
- Lands [36-40]
It might look something like this.
[Deck Title=Drana Arcbound]
Drana, Liberator of Malakir[/Commander]
Sword of the Animist
Disciple of Bolas[/Card Advantage]
Spread the Sickness
Spine of Ish Sah
Hythonia the Cruel
Cauldron of Souls
Throne of Geth
Blade of the Bloodchief
Pontiff of Blight[/Theme Cards]
Vault of Whispers
Theme and Mechanics
The primary theme behind the deck is +1/+1 counters. Drana puts them on creatures, and the deck includes creatures that use those counters in a variety of ways. Drana makes some things a possibility that normally wouldn’t fit in a mono-black deck – [card]Etched Oracle is the best example of this. Thanks to the elimination of Rule 4, there is a chance you can get more value out of the Oracle when Drana isn’t on board, but with her on the table it turns into a little bit of slow grinding card advantage. For fans of synergy, incidental advantage from other creatures that use counters such as Triskelion and Festercreep are the most appealing aspect of playing this deck.
To go with the theme of +1/+1 counters, creatures with the modular mechanic can help the deck take greater advantage of Drana’s ability. Think of them like storage batteries for those counters – the deck needs a creature like Suncrusher to have as many counters as possible to be effective. However, since Suncrusher rarely swings, it is harder for it to take advantage of Drana’s ability. By building up counters through attacking on an arcbound creature such as Arcbound Hybrid, you can then sacrifice the creature whenever you need more counters on your ‘Crusher.
To make modular work best, the deck will need to run a lot of artifact creatures. After all, without artifact creatures on the table, the counters from the modular gang just go away. By embracing the artifact creatures we can run the theme further and get some niche support from cards like Crystal Shard and Semblance Anvil.
By stacking synergies the hope is to overcome a budget by having a deck that is more than the sum of its parts.
In the same way embracing artifact creatures lets us build in more themed advantage, going all in on using counters means we can add cards with proliferate and get maximum value out of them. The cards won’t just make your team bigger – with Everflowing Chalice and Astral Cornucopia, they will build up your mana base as well.
While the deck doesn’t actually have any absolutely critical pieces, it does have a few cards that I highly recommend having before giving it a shot.
[Deck Title=Highly Valued Components]
Cauldron of Souls[/Deck]
Contagion Engine is the best proliferation card available in a black deck. There is a reasonable argument that it is even better than Inexorable Tide. In a deck where every creature could potentially have a counter on it, this card is like playing two Elvish Champion a turn. When combined with the collection of utility cards that rely on counters, it become a card the deck is always happy to see.
Arcbound Overseer is the only lord specifically for Arcbound creatures. If you have the budget for Steel Overseer, I highly recommend him as a second one, and Arcbound Ravager as a primary beater in the deck. Overseer is so spot-on theme that I can’t imagine playing the deck without him
Nim Deathmantle is a card I have been shouting the name of from on top my tiny soap box for years. It’s great in most decks; in this deck, it’s nearly mandatory. Modular is so much better when you don’t actually lose your creatures. It can turn any sacrifice outlet into a value engine, while providing amazing board wipe protection at the same time.
Cauldron of Souls‘ synergy with creatures that gain +1/+1 counters is simply too good to pass up. I would say that in any Drana deck, this card should be an auto-include. With Drana active and Cauldron out, your opponents will need two Wrath effects in a turn to be able to clear your board. Even without Drana, all the creatures that enter with counters on them never get the -1/-1 persist counter, and can cause the same headaches to remove.
Detailed Strategy Guide
As with any budget or casual-themed deck, my biggest suggestion is to not hold back when you play. You start off a step behind on individual card strength and speed; the way to make up for this is to stay aggressive and be willing to play for the win. In my Shirei, Shizo’s Caretaker deck, this means not being ashamed to play Winter Orb. In Karametra, God of Harvests, I embrace fast ramp and Overrun effects. In Drana, we need to be ok with playing – and even searching – for the combos that come as a result of all the synergies.
Nim Deathmantle is one of the best cards in the deck. It is also one of the easiest cards to accidentally combo with. If you combine any sacrifice outlet with Nim Deathmantle and Workhorse (Workhorse is awesome), you have as many triggers with that outlet as you can handle. Krark-Clan Ironworks and Ashnod’s Altar are the only cards that pair with that combo in a truly infinite fashion, but any other sacrifice outlets are still great value. The Altars and Deathmantle always seem to provide a way to combo off even with the most innocent-appearing of cards. Triskelavus, Thopter Squadron and Pentavus will create infinite triggers to exploit with Arcbound Crusher, Blade of the Bloodchief, or even the benign-looking Salvaging Station[/card.
[card]Salvaging Station may not be as innocent as it looks, however. It turns out when you combine it with Executioner’s Capsule, you get all the removal your heart could desire.
Blade of the Bloodchief is an incredibly powerful card in this deck. Aside from the Gorgon’s Head+Triskelion combo with the blade, it also allows you to use Triskelavus[card], [card]Thopter Squadron and Pentavus as much as you want. If you have out Mephidross Vampire, you end up making those cards bigger and bigger as you use their abilities. Much like the Deathmantle above, the Blade will also end up taking these card combinations into infinite loops when combined with either of the Altars. Suncrusher also loves the Blade for keeping himself up and running.
Aside from being a vampire who puts counters on creatures (which is why he’s in here) and making Blade of the Bloodchief even better for all creatures involved, Mephidross Vampire and Triskelion also amount to infinite damage to creatures.
Without delving even further down this rabbit hole of combos, it’s important to note I don’t specifically recommend any particular card because of the ability to go infinite. They are all perfectly on theme and in budget. I mention them as an example of plays you should look for when playing a deck with this much synergy. Pay attention to the combinations that form and exploit them whenever you can. From basic control and advantage (like sacrificing Spine of Ish Sah to Trading Post) to game ending combos like the ones listed above, this deck style relies on understanding and practicing the various interactions to be able to keep up with non-budget decks. If you avoid those synergies because they may be too powerful, the deck falls apart.
Break-Even Year Update
My goal of a break-even year started really well, and then took a pretty sharp turn for the worst in January. I went to GP Oakland; when I tallied up what I made selling cards, selling what I drafted, and my winnings from events, and I was able to walk out breaking even and having enough packs of prize support to run a chaos draft (48 packs from various sets, between my friend and I). So far, so good!
Then, Oath of the Gatewatch came out. I had a moment of weakness at the local Target, and I picked up three Fat Packs. This put me -$130 behind my cash goal. I wanted to keep all the basics, so I got no monetary help from the land packs. I opened some decent stuff, but when someone showed me a foil Polluted Delta for trade, I jumped on getting the Delta instead of converting the rest to cash. The trades and what I opened this month have left me with an Expedition Overgrown Tomb, foil Polluted Delta, Expedition Kor Haven, about 1,000 BFZ basics (but only 50 Wastes), and a handful of foil BFZ basics. This month was great for collecting, but terrible for recovering my money.
I’ve yet to run the chaos draft, which will have my friend and I each recover $36 further. That will still leave me nearly $100 behind my goal; luckily, friends have stepped up to test and build the budget decks I create for this column. You can thank my friend Sean (different Sean – not me referring to myself in the 3rd person…) for building and testing this week’s deck. Hopefully, February will bring some opportunities to get back to even money.