As it has been stated innumerable times here and elsewhere, no Magic card is created in a vacuum. Each and every card is meticulously designed, developed, curated, and tested for its inclusion in any given set release, from the most epic planeswalker to the most generic of generic common. Every single card is added with a specific purpose. Sometimes that purpose is obfuscated, such as cards that ask you to build around a strange concept or are subtly added ahead of time to be part of the meta game several sets later. Others are much more blatant in their appearance, denoting its purpose in a rather glaring and unceremonial way.
An aggressively costed creature like Thragtusk or Snapcaster Mage debuted with the clear intent of it being used in the Standard / Modern tournament scene, whereas something such as Battle of Wits (for the most part) was a fun build-around card for the casual Magic community. The vast majority of commons are there to smooth out a set for Limited or to flesh out a set’s core mechanics and themes overall. In recent years we have seen a precipitous rise in cards explicitly aimed at the multiplayer side of the game, and Commander more specifically, be it in the supplemental Commander precons or even sprinkled among the standard sets themselves.
Essentially, yes, while there is obvious overlap of the cards between different venues, the simple matter is that not every card is aimed at the same audience. Wizards does the best it can at trying to appease to as many different formats as possible while still wanting to put out a cohesive, coherent set every few months.
Sometimes, though, you get a card, usually of the “build around” variety, that either defies all understanding of why it was put out in the form it was (looking at you
Shaman’s Trance), or has an objectively decent idea but whose execution is often exceedingly lacking. And to that, I always think of Phyrexian Unlife.
On the surface, Phyrexian Unlife is a flavorful and interesting card from the Scars block, which essentially states that once your life total reaches zero, you have another 10 hit points to burn through of Infect damage before you actually die. In duels, that extra 10 damage could be the very thing needed to eek out a win. It’s effectively another iteration of the classic Lich cards, which toy with the notion of not being able to die from going to zero so long as the artifact or enchantment granting it remains on the board. Which can certainly be entertaining. But in multiplayer that notion is far too dangerous of an option to toy with, as anything but a monored or monoblack deck has the easy capability of simply removing the enchantment and ending your withering existence instantly.
Moreover, in Black it sort of makes sense that you’d still consider taking that gamble. In White…it’s far safer to, say, just gain 10 life the old fashioned way.
It’s not like it isn’t the color of lifegain.
So, yeah, Phyrexian Unlife made sense in the block it came from, but it’s always seemed like a card that’s just a tad too risky for too little payout in casual play for my taste.
However, as was stated before, the concept of utilizing a card to extend one’s lifespan is an appealing one to experiment with. In an EDH setting, though, I would much prefer to go with this week’s card pick instead.
Today we have: Crumbling Sanctuary
Name: Crumbling Sanctuary
Edition: Mercadian Masques
Focus: Damage Prevention / Card Exile
Highlights: Unlike cards that revolve around Infect and poison damage – something that can be fraught and even contentious in some game groups – Crumbling Sanctuary posits the same idea of an alternative damage pool to pull from using your library instead.
Crumbling Sanctuary was never given much attention during the Mercadian block, largely because of the uneven distribution of useful cards in the set and it belonging to a very disjointed trio of sets overall. Yet, cards such as this are part of a mild trend with quite a few cards from that time that have seen a second life in the Commander era for a variety of reasons. In this case it’s the ability to soak up damage by pushing your library in the way.
Crumbling Sanctuary states that whenever any player takes damage, they exile that many cards from their library instead. In a game where decks are rather large and milling out an opponent is fairly uncommon without some fancy ‘pinwheel’ style card effects, a properly timed casting of this five mana artifact can open up a whole new damage reserve to keep you alive. If your life total is getting fairly low, dropping this onto the battlefield provides some much needed time and breathing room. Chances are you’d be much more willing to trade a chunk of your library to stay in the game. This card gives you that option.
Some may have reservations about exiling cards from their deck simply to mitigate damage on the fear of losing out of potentially powerful card draws, and while that is a larger topic for another day, the simple fact is that you can’t guarantee which cards you’ll see at any given point anyhow. That negative visceral reaction is emotional in nature, not logical. In fact, it’s possible that exiling cards via the Sanctuary could help you get through a pocket of useless cards and get to better responses sooner!
The other hesitation some may have is that Crumbling Sanctuary is not a one-sided effect; it applies its replacement effect to all players. Which means everyone is in the same boat. This does allow you the possibility of exiling useful cards from your opponent’s libraries (albeit with the same caveat), but so long as you time its casting to be the most advantageous to you – i.e. when you need the lifeline – the fact that it shakes up the table state has the potential to actually work in your favor. For instance, you could gain some cachet if another player is also low on life and you’re bailing them out too. It can also be used to deal with an opponent who has an absurdly high life total that would be tricky to whittle down under normal means (e.g. 70 damage suddenly becomes much more manageable than 2,000.)
Finally, its artifact nature is admittedly double-edged. On the one hand, if it starts becoming prohibitive, most Commander decks have a means of removing an artifact so you’re not ‘stuck’ with it necessarily forever. On the other, the fact that it is so easily destroyed means you can’t lean too heavily on it as your only defense. If nothing else, consider it as a means of buying yourself time rather than a panacea for your situation.
Plus, unlike Unlife, if it does get destroyed, at least you won’t suddenly become, well, dead.
Unless someone did manage to mill you out by the point, but in that case you were probably going to lose anyway…
Keep an eye out for us to be regularly featuring other more accessible-but-worth-it Commander cards going forward. In the meantime, we’ll keep the light on for you.
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