The first Commander deck I built without the aid of a precon to scaffold my strategy was Marchesa, the Black Rose. The deck embodies my personal favorite way to play the game, which centers around assembling an unstoppable engine through my own gameplay and deckbuilding ingenuity in order to drown my opponents in value. It aims to sacrifice its own creatures repeatedly using the recursion engine enabled by its Commander in order to advance its game plan, while simultaneously hindering its opponents. Once the value engine is online, the deck aims to close out the game by landing a few powerful sacrifice payoffs or permanently stealing the best creatures our opponents have managed to resolve.
I have had this deck for almost 10 years and it has gone through many iterations since its inception, but the list below is what I have arrived at:
The deck typically initiates its game plan by playing a number of small creatures with enter the battlefield effects to generate recurring value.
Baleful Strix is a cheap, early blocker which serves to draw us more gas to fuel our value engine as well as deter early aggression from our opponents.
Plaguecrafter, on the other hand, attacks our opponents’ resources by forcing them to sacrifice a creature, planeswalker or even discard a card if they have neither in play.
Reef Worm creates multiple bodies to sacrifice as well as an increasingly large body that can throw some fairly large chunks of damage around in a pinch.
After playing the small value creatures, you’ll typically want to play one or more of the many sacrifice outlets in the deck. These are cards which allow you to sacrifice your creatures for little to no cost and generate some sort of beneficial effect. In combination with Marchesa’s recursion ability you get the enter-the-battlefield abilities of your creatures multiple times in concert with the effect generated by the sacrifice outlet.
Viscera Seer, for example, lets you sacrifice a creature to scry 1, ensuring that you get the right card that you need at the right time.
Ashnod’s Altar is an infamously powerful sacrifice outlet that generates two colorless mana every time you sacrifice a creature which can allow you to cast even more spells to get ahead of your opponent.
Finally, Yahenni, Undying Partisan is an extremely removal resistant threat that can develop into an increasingly large beater as the game develops.
The deck plays multiple sacrifice payoffs which aim to make each creature you sacrifice even more impactful and in some cases, it can be absolutely game breaking.
Grim Haruspex can draw more cards in order to keep our resources plentiful.
Black Market can generate absolutely absurd amounts of mana with which we can cast all the cards that we are drawing.
Finally, Vicious Shadows can be an absolute game ender, making each creature on the board represent an amount of damage equal to the number of cards in our opponents’ hands.
Oftentimes, this can be used to eliminate a player outright, but personally, I like to use it as a means of holding a player hostage in order to further solidify my position at the table. Given most of our sacrifice outlets function at instant speed, waiting until the last possible moment is a powerful way to tighten my stranglehold on the game.
Given that Dethrone is a mechanic enabled by attacking the player with the highest or tied for the highest life total at the table, you rarely want to have the most life in the pod. In order to ensure that this occurs more often, the deck plays a number of cards that utilize life as a resource while also effectively contributing to the deck’s strategy.
Unspeakable Symbol is what I would define as the quintessential card of the deck, it allows us to pay life to put +1/+1 counters on our creatures in order to keep our life total lower than our opponents to enable Marchesa’s recursion ability. Furthermore, it can also function as an instant speed way to protect our creatures from removal.
Treasonous Ogre allows us to exchange life for mana in order to build upon our value engine or turbo out threats much earlier than our opponents are prepared to deal with them. The synergy between cards in the deck means that adding even one more piece to most board states can represent much more value than just the printed text of the individual card.
Fire Covenant is a powerful, instant speed, removal spell that can pretty easily function as a board wipe depending on how much life we are willing to pay. This can be a massive tempo swing, especially in a Grixis deck seeking to leverage its resources against its opponents.
Marchesa giving all your creatures Dethrone means that many of them end up with +1/+1 counters, and the deck plays a number of creatures that take full advantage of counter synergies.
Archmage sacrifices itself to counter non-creature spells, which allows us to respond to most things our opponents might do to interfere with our strategy. Additionally, putting a +1/+1 counter on it with dethrone allows us to use the ability with impunity.
Sage of Fables is a way to protect Marchesa, as she is a wizard and will be brought back with her own ability at the end step if she is put into the graveyard. Sage’s second ability turns +1/+1 counters into cards in the event we are running low on resources.
Finally, Flayer of the Hatebound is a sacrifice payoff that can deal damage to our opponents to close out games or to their creatures to slow down their gameplan.
Traditionally, “Threaten effects” that take control of an opponent’s creature until the end of the turn, are not very good in Commander. The temporary tempo gain from stealing a threat for a turn is not worth the card due to the slow, multiplayer nature of the format.
However, Marchesa has a particularly interesting interaction with Threaten effects because she says whenever a creature you control with a +1/+1 counter on it is put into the graveyard, return that card to the battlefield under your control at the beginning of the next end step. The word control is especially relevant here because it allows you to temporarily take control of an opponent’s creature, then sacrifice it to many of the on board sacrifice outlets and then return it to the battlefield under your control…. Permanently.
At one point this deck was much more geared toward theft of my opponents’ permanents but I have since shifted more towards a mid-range value strategy that only uses what I view to be the best Threatening effects.
Mark of Mutiny is in the deck because it accomplishes the Threaten interaction, while also placing a +1/+1 counter on the creature in case attacks aren’t available. Mass Mutiny is in the deck because it is an easy 3-for-1 that can turn the tide of games in a cinch.
Act of Aggression serves a similar purpose as the other Threaten effects, but is an instant, which allows us to wait until the most opportune moment to steal one of our opponent’s creatures. Additionally, the phyrexian mana cost feeds into the “life as a resource” subtheme.
Zealous Conscripts is especially good because it is a creature, allowing its ETB Threaten effect to be triggered multiple times. Another interesting aspect to Zealous Conscripts is that it will often prevent opponents from playing their best creatures because they know they are likely to get stolen.
If I had to pick one word to describe this deck, it would be synergy.
Nearly every card is contributing to the game plan of the deck along multiple axes and consequently the deck has a seemingly endless amount of potential lines to victory. From my perspective, the fun of this deck isn’t necessarily in the victory, but in assembling the Rube-Goldberg machine that gets you there. Over the years, this deck has become a bit of a passion project for me and I hope that is evident within this article.