The year is 1998. Living in England and having been a player for about a year, a young Chris Lansdell is in love with a card. He has been in love with it since it came out in Tempest, and he has been playing it in decks ever since. That card is Living Death. Chris has played it in a blue-black deck with Altar of Dementia, as a one-of in Recurring Nightmare-Survival of the Fittest, and once Recurring Nightmare got banned he played it in a Sneak Attack deck. Bringing back every creature card in the graveyard at once, then swinging with any haste creatures you might have, is a strong pull for him. But Chris still has delusions of being a pro someday, so that pull is ignored for the most part. Chris plays a Living Death deck at UK Nationals, and Chris falls just short of making top 8. Experience and a gap in play skill combined to defeat him at his first attempt at the big time.
As his dream of being a pro faded in the burning light of the time investment and skill level required, Chris started brewing. Living Death is on its way out of Type 2 (as Standard was called at the time), but there are lots of other fun cards to build around. And build he did, deck after deck, each one slightly less terrible than the last.
Fast forward fifteen years to 2013. Gatecrash is out, and in it is a card called Immortal Servitude. Once again, Chris is in love. It’s nowhere near as powerful as Living Death of course, but it has a similar effect. The challenge for Chris then is to find out what casting cost to use in order to make the best of it. While he’s trying to do just that, Chris hears from Sam Black that sacrificing creatures is one of the most powerful things you can do in Magic. A lightbulb goes off in Chris’s head, and the brewing continues in earnest…
As soon as I saw Immortal Servitude, I started thinking about the optimal value for X in both Standard and Modern. In Standard I looked at both 2 and 3. Although 3 offered us some very powerful choices (Vampire Nighthawk, Boros Reckoner, Silverblade Paladin, Hellraiser Goblin, Frontline Medic, Champion of Lambholt…) , it does require us to get to 6 mana and has some pretty funky mana requirements. Two drops are definitely lower on the power scale and less likely to win us the game without a Servitude, but they have to things that three-drops don’t: ramp (Dawntreader Elk) and a way to fill the graveyard (Lotleth Troll). I’ll probably build the three-drop version at some point, but for this week we’re going with the comborrific two-drop version.
Sam Black’s assertion about sacrificing creatures really resonated with me. I’ve been a member of Team Blood Artist since Smitty’s Kamikaze days, and he really likes it when you sacrifice things. Fortunately there’s no shortage of sacrifice effects in Standard, and a couple of them are at the same converted mana cost as Blood Artist. That’s important for Immortal Servitude, and also gives us a framework. Since we need sac outlets, we definitely want Bloodthrone Vampire in there. To fill our graveyard I started with Lotleth Troll, Mulch and Grisly Salvage. Dawntreader Elk and Bloodthrone Vampire can sacrifice themselves (and of course the Vampire can sacrifice everything else too) to further stock the yard in advance of a Servitude.
Early testing though proved that Mulch and Grisly Salvage, while doing an excellent job of filling up the graveyard, also did an excellent job of putting my Immortal Servitudes in there as well. I was ready to shelve the deck until my friend Chris “Extra Balls” Stoyles (whose Legacy gateway article you can read here) suggested a blue splash for Forbidden Alchemy. It digs as deeply as Mulch, will never cost me a Servitude and in a pinch can be flashed big to dig even deeper. With a basic Island (for Dawntreader Elk to find) and a couple of shocks, the splash is relatively easy too. I gave it a try and…yes, it worked a lot better. Being an instant was an added bonus, letting me effectively untap and win. We also have Visionary to help us dig a little. If only Urborg Elf were legal!
The only other concern was the fact that I only had 4 sacrifice outlets. My choices were to play a three- or four-drop or to go to a fourth colour with Cartel Aristocrat. Neither of those seemed particularly appealing, but I decided to go with the Aristocrat and not add any white mana. Possibly not the best idea, but I wasn’t planning to ever cast the thing anyway. Here’s the list I ended up playing:
Immortal Artistry by Chris Lansdell
The sideboard was a bit of a hedge. I planned to sub in the Manglers and High Priests against decks that would bring in graveyard hate. Abrupt Decay was mainly against aggro, but could also get rid of a Rest in Peace in case it became an issue. Mutilate was a low-risk sweeper for me, as I didn’t reallt care what died. Crypt Creeper was something I found by accident while sorting some foils, and seemed like the best answer to Angel of Serenity being reanimated which would otherwise wreck my day.
Although going deeper into blue would have given me access to Snapcaster Mage and possibly Alchemist’s Apprentice, but cutting green would lose me Elvish Visionary, Lotleth Troll, Dawntreader Elk…not really an option I wanted to consider. I played the deck a little against the decks my friends were planning to play at GP Quebec City, and it held its own. The highlight of this testing was surviving a 36-point attack from Mark’s Junk Reanimator deck and winning on the next turn. I lost a fair bit too, but I did well enough against tier 1 strategies that I thought I could handle an FNM.
I have a confession to make here: I didn’t come up with any achievements for this deck. I just really, really wanted to play Immortal Servitude. Along with Assemble the Legion I have gone deeper on Servitude than any other card in the set, with a playset of foils and more besides. As I said in the story above, I love this sort of effect and needed to see if it was worth further thought in Standard. So, no Battle Plan this week as we shall move right into how the deck actually performed.
To make a pleasant change, I wasn’t scrambling to build my deck at the last minute before FNM. I have a habit of doing that and recently realised what a bad idea it was. No time to play practice games with the deck, no time to figure out lines of play or non-obvious tricks or even figure out what hands I should be keeping and whether the manabase was built properly. This deck was something different. I had been working on it since Gatecrash came out and I knew it well. Whether or not that would make a difference remained to be seen.
Round 1 – Dylan Mason with “Mono” Black Control
Dylan was playing a deck similar to Conley Woods’ Pro Tour deck, only with blue added for Nicol Bolas and a couple of other cards. He had shown me the deck before we got started and asked for some tips, which I was happy to provide. He had a lot of powerful cards in the deck but they were all far too high on the curve. Naturally having given him this advice, I would face him round 1. My deck would really have preferred playing against the slower version, but hey…helping people get better is the more important thing here.
One of the things I have been doing recently is analysing the types of hand I keep. Game 1 was a case of keeping a “lands and spells” hand that was actually not good. Three lands is normally good, but none of them were Swamps and I didn’t have 3 Elks to fix my mana. I think I kept out of arrogance as much out of not properly looking at the hand, and lost to a turn 8 Nicol Bolas that went to work on my black sources.
When I had to mulligan to 5 in game 2, I was pretty sure I was going to start 0-1 on the day. I completely ignored the fact that Dylan had mulliganed too, since I thought my deck mulled poorly. I needed a critical mass of two-drops in the yard, and starting with only 5 cards in hand did not augur well for me to get to that point. My first draw was a Servitude, which still didn’t do much to encourage me. When we got to turn 6 though I had a 6/5 Lotleth Troll in play and 8 creatures in my graveyard, 2 of which were Blood Artists and one of which was Bloodthrone Vampire. That was enough to wrap the game up nicely.
Game 3 was scarier still. I had to mulligan again, to 6 this time, and was facing down an early Liliana of the Dark Realms and a turn 7 Nicol Bolas. He started going to work on my black sources, leaving me with two in play. I kept the third Swamp in hand and hoped I would get to critical mass before he could take me down to no black sources, as I had a Dawntreader Elk in hand. He did take out another one next turn, attacking with a Lily-powered Nighthawk and leaving me facing down lethal and in need of a top-decked Servitude. I cracked my Elk, untapped, drew…BAM! Servitude.
Round 2 – Michael Bisaillon with GB Undying/Counter Shenanigans
Michael was playing his first FNM at Midgard, which was great to see. Having new players show up expands the community, brings in new cards and new ideas and keeps the environment fresh and interesting. Michael’s deck looked fun: stuff like Champion of Lambholt with Undying creatures, Corpsejack Menace and even Primordial Hydra. Game 1 he got a fast start and had Champion out before any of his undying guys went to the yard. I managed to sacrifice enough guys to Bloodthrone Vampire to trade off with his Champion but I still had work to do. I managed to build up to 7 mana and flashed back Forbidden Alchemy…still no Servitude. My graveyard was chock full at this point, but I kept another Alchemy and untapped. Main phase Alchemy finally got me the Servitude I needed, and we were off to game 2.
Turn 3 Corpsejack Menace with the help of Arbor Elf put me in a sticky situation. He had Young Wolf AND Strangleroot Geist, but I couldn’t afford to block them in case I needed to attack. I had the Servitude in hand and was filling my yard up quickly, but I kept drawing 2-drops and needed to be sure I had him. A 16/16 Primordial Hydra went down to Abrupt Decay, and I decided I couldn’t afford to wait any more. Servitude ended up being for exactsies, so it’s a good thing I waited.
Round 3 – Nick Crocker with Aristocrats
A good player with a Pro Tour-winning deck would be quite the challenge for my brew, but being at 2-0 and playing well I was confident I could get there.
Game 1 revealed a weakness in my deck that hadn’t been evident in my testing – flying creatures. A torrent of Lingering Souls and a couple of Falkenrath Aristocrats would spell a quick end for me, as II literally had no defense. I wasn’t sure if Crocker would be running Rest in Peace in the board or not, especially with things like Souls and spells that required morbid to be good. I left in the Servitudes and brought in the Skirsdag High Priests to try and mitigate the flying beats somewhat. I kept my opening 7 for the first time all night as it had Abrupt Decay AND High Priest, which would be vital as I was able to play my High Priest the turn before he played his, then untap and Abrupt Decay his and make a Demon as a result. That game ended pretty quickly, as you can imagine.
Game 3 was tight. I again mulled to 6, and was under the Silverblade Paladin gun pretty early. Abrupt Decay kept me in the game but he drew more and eventually overwhelmed me with a double striking Aristocrat the turn before I would have gone off for lethal. I got the feeling that this matchup was very even, and Crocker is definitely good enough to play the deck well, so even with the loss I felt good about the deck.
Round 4 – Josh Blanchard with Jund
This, on the other hand, was a terrible matchup and due to a colossal misread on my part left me in a very sour mood. I lost game one in short order to an Olivia on turn 3 that got out of hand before I could establish anything, which sent me to the board. I did not expect graveyard hate that would be effective, since Ground Seal does nothing and locally Tormod’s Crypt sees very little play. As a result I didn’t bother siding into the anti-hate plan…and promptly got wrecked by turn 3 Slaughter Games on Immortal Servitude. Right, that’s a card. That I forgot existed. Oh, and I had two in hand. Josh would then demolish me in short order, and felt so bad about it that he went and bought me a coffee unbidden. Took the sting off somewhat…
Round 5 – Tiffany Ballard with Saito Aggro
Tiffany is a lot of fun, and she also traded me my second foil Geist of Saint Traft so she is automatically an awesome person. However, I planned to crush her and finish the right side of the .500 bracket.
The aggro matchup for this deck is surprisingly not terrible. Game 1 can be a little rough if they get their Rancors, but otherwise I can just chump all day until I get Servitude. Sideboarded I have Decays to take them off Rancors, and Crypt Creepers to prevent them going back to hand if necessary. Lotleth Troll and Bloodthrone Vampire also do a lot of work in this matchup.
My notes for this round sadly got lost in an unfortunate caffeine-related accident, but I know I won in 3. I also winning without Servitude in one of the games, which needs to happen more often if this deck is going to be a real thing.
Despite my enormous punt against Jund (which is likely a bad matchup anyway) I feel like Servitude Combo is strong enough to be a player with some tweaking. The sideboard felt mostly good, the main deck needs a couple of small changes and I really wish I could get white into the deck. One suggestion I got was to cut blue, go back to Grisly Salvage and play Treasured Find to retrieve Servitude if needed. That would allow me to play white and actually cast the Aristocrat. Another suggestion was to try Alchemist’s Apprentice for more card draw. Tragic Slip seems like a natural fit if I want some removal, and those High Priests could move to the main if I went heavier on the blue since I would have more ways to enable Morbid.
I also wonder if this deck could port over to Modern, where we also have Sakura-Tribe Elder to ramp us. There’s still a dearth of good sac outlets but we do gain a couple of things: Darkheart Sliver, Augur of Skulls, Dross Hopper, even Vampire Hexmage. Definitely worth a look.
I am lucky enough to have a game store that is open on Good Friday, so I will be able to play FNM this week after all. I’m either playing RUG or Esper, not sure which yet, but there will be some fun achievements in store. Until then, thanks for stopping by!