Hello, everyone! Back with a new decklist. Things took a bit of an unexpected turn, since I was pretty sure I was on the Ayli plan for W/B but I just happened to come across a list posted by Nick Wolf on the PucaTrade website - LINK! – and for whatever reason Nick’s article just got me hyped about building a Karlov deck. Plus I have just run into a bit of a financial snag and while a foil Ayli is not particularly expensive, I just haven’t been able to swing it (and I refuse to settle for a non-foil, when the foil is actually quite reasonable. I’m being picky, I know).
Anyway, I looked at the list and read Nick’s write-up and just got inspired. I figured I’d give Uncle Ghosty a trial run until I could get my hands on an Ayli. Turns out Karlov is a lot more legit than I gave him credit for. Now, to be fair, I always did think he was very playable, I just didn’t find him INTERESTING – however, what I didn’t realize was that, built properly, this deck is a synergy machine. One of my biggest complaints about my own previous attempts at building Orzhov decks has been that they tend toward rando goodstuff and lack greatly in synergy and clear thematic lines of play.
This deck solves that problem SO HARD. Almost everything in the deck is a piece of a larger puzzle. There are still a handful of good stuff cards that just need to be there, but the key cards almost all work together. Everything either gains life, triggers off of gaining life, or lets us use our life total as a resource. Before we go any further, let’s just get that list up:
Karlov of the Ghost Council
Mother of Runes
Wall of Reverence
Archangel of Thune
Gray Merchant of Asphodel
Pontiff of Blight
Kokusho, the Evening Star
Blood Baron of Vizkopa
Obzedat, Ghost Council
Divinity of Pride
Swords to Plowshares
Path to Exile
Ajani, Caller of the Pride
Cradle of Vitality
Return to Dust
Elspeth, Sun's Champion
Whip of Erebos
Ob Nixilis Reignited
Gift of Orzhova
Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
Chalice of Life
Sword of Fire and Ice
Sword of War and Peace
Sword of Light and Shadow
Well of Lost Dreams
Vault of the Archangel
Shizo, Death's Storehouse
Caves of Koilos
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
It’s kinda tough to compare Ayli and Karlov, despite multiple similarities. Each has different strengths and lend toward different deckbuilding approaches.
Karlov’s advantages are:
• He hits harder and grows to ridiculous sizes quickly and effortlessly
• Doesn’t require sac fodder to use his removal ability
• Doesn’t require a minimum life total to use his removal ability
So, unlike Ayli he can still exile things even if you are at one life, and have no other creatures in play. However, Ayli has some of her own advantages:
• Deathtouch makes her a good rattlesnake despite small stats
• Can exile anything (except lands) making her removal more versatile
• Less stringent mana requirements to activate
• Is a sac outlet
It’s still hard to objectively call one better than the other, because they lend themselves toward differing archetypes. Both play in the same domain, but Karlov is a much more aggressive strategy, where your primary plan is to beat face quickly and relentlessly, using the lifegain and removal angles simply as a means to keep the path clear for your assault. Meanwhile, Ayli wants to play a longer, grindier control game. With Karlov, you don’t really care much about making tokens, or having lots of creatures, except insofar as you want to be triggering those Soul Wardens often, but with Ayli going wide is a MUST, because she’s usesless without plenty of sacrificial fodder to exploit.
But beyond these fairly obvious insights, I don’t have enough real experience with Ayli to go much more in-depth on her. So I’ll just stick to the actual deck we’re discussing – Karlov. One thing I like about this deck is that, while it is very much a “life gain” deck, it’s not the durdly kind where you just gain a huge amount of life and make everyone work extra hard to kill you. No, the life gain aspect is a critical component, but it’s a means to an end, not and end in itself. The end is, you get Karlov huge, murder everything that stands in his way, and relentlessly pummel your opponents. At least that’s what you hope will happen…
And so far it seems to be pretty effective at auctioning its stated goals. It can’t beat Titania in a head to head match up, and it can’t beat Ayli with a Sword of Light and Shadow plus Eight and a Half Tails backing her up. Against heavy control decks, it’s a toss-up. If they have a lot of cheap, fast removal, you’re probably in some real trouble, but if they have little early interaction and are hoping for a few turns to “set up” you stand a reasonable chance of racing them.
One thing I dislike about this deck is that, despite my efforts to bolster the card draw, it goes hellbent really, really easy due to the aggressive, low curve. This means it’s very easy to overextend into a Wrath and then be left with nothing. But, there are a couple of mitigating factors that make this less of a blowout than usual. First, Karlov is super-duper cheap and takes a few deaths before recasting him becomes problematic. Second, this deck does tend to have better topdecks, on average, due to the crazy high amount of synergy. Many decks would consider drawing a Soul’s Attendant past turn eight a dead draw, but that’s not necessarily the case here.
And while we can’t be assured of drawing into it every game, this is a great Necropotence vehicle, and having that in play pretty much means you never have to worry about draw again, so long as you have life to spend (which should basically never be an issue). But mostly we just have to rely on the heavy synergy of the deck to ensure that most of our topdecks are live draws. They might not be what you need – for instance when you’re staring down something holding a Sword of Light and Shadow, anything that isn’t an answer to that problem is probably not what you want – but it’s unlikely to be a total blank, either.
As for the list itself, I stayed very true to the formula of Nick’s list, but changed a few things up based on personal preference, and/or fixing a few of his (seeming) oversights.
Here are a few cuts:
Erebos, God of the Dead – since I’m not shying away from playing Necropotence, this felt like an inferior choice. But more importanty, I’m very skeptical that running a card that hoses lifegain in a lifegain deck. If Erebos were to be copied or stolen, it basically shuts off our entire deck. Seemed wise NOT to give our opponents an easy out to our own strategy.
Debt to the Deathless and Sanguine Bond – I dislike winning with X-spells, just because they tend to feel like they invalidate almost everything that happened up to that point – you can be having a nice, back-and-forth match that is quite fun, then suddenly, oops, I just top-decked Exsanguinate and now we have to stop playing because I win. I’m not trying to judge those who do play them, it’s just that in my experience winning off a big X-spell is really no more fun than losing to a big X-spell. Similarly, I don’t like the combo win of just casting two five-mana enchantments. Sure it’s a “fair” combo, and can be interacted with, but still boring to me.
Felidar Sovereign – I once put Win Cat in my Rafiq deck. The very first game I played with it in my deck, I won on Turn 5. Took it out after a few more games, and haven’t missed it once. More like Boring Cat.
Zuran Orb – Might be fine in strictly 1v1 play, but a terribly-risky all-in strategy for multiplayer. And if you just wanted to slow-roll it, sac’ing a land only every once in a while, why wouldn’t you just play something like Ajani’s Mantra? At any rate, just seems to be begging for the blow-out.
Batterskull – Too expensive. Never been a fan.
Whispersilk Cloak and Darksteel Plate – Both of these have their uses, but here they just kinda feel like noob cards. They don’t really directly serve our strategy, just help keep Karlov alive, is all. I think Greaves and Swords of Protection and Value do much, much better jobs.
Black Market – With no X-spell wins, what are we spending all that black mana on? Nothing much. Even with a single Debt to the Deathless in Nick’s list, I really don’t see what this card is supposed to do? Our curve is very, very low. The only other mana dump I see is if you have Pontiff of Blight and a bunch of creatures out.
Drana’s Emissary – Was really just a toss-up between this an Tithe Drinker. I went with the Drinker because I like the art slightly better, it’s one mana cheaper and can potentially provide more than one trigger per turn. Ultimately I’d happily run both, but couldn’t fit both.
Sorin, Solemn Visitor – I kept the Lord of Innistrad version because it’s generally better, but I can definitely see why you might run both. I’ve already considered swapping LOI out for this one, just to see which one is better more often.
Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath – Again, I kinda just picked the version that was more generically good, but I get why this version made sense. Like with Sorins, I could definitely see the argument for running both, or running this one over the Reignited incarnation.
Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim – The whole reason I built Karlov was because I don’t have an Ayli yet, so obviously this was a cut.
Coalition Relic and Orzhov Keyrune – This doesn’t strike me as a deck that really needs relic, and the Keyrune is just too expensive despite its synergy. Sol Ring and Orzhov Signet are both just better, IMO.
So, what did I add to replace these cuts? I already mentioned Necropotence, which is easily one of the best cards in the deck. I also already told you about Tithe Drinker, Orzhov Signet and Sol Ring.
Beyond that, I supplemented the mana and draw packages with some old favorites. I put in the lovely Scroll Rack + Land Tax engine. Both cards are pretty good on their own, but fantastic together. Threw in a Solemn Simulacrum too, because, well, he’s pretty good.
Added and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, because her +1 is great with Karlov and any soul warden variant, while her -3 is a great conditional sweeper. A lot of the times it’ll be far more devastating to your oppoents than to you.
Any white deck with 2 or 3 important echantments should have an Academy Rector, so she’s in.
Running Swords, but not Path makes no sense to me, so it’s in.
Recumbent Bliss is, possibly, a too-cute bit of tech, but I like it enough to give it a try. We’ll see. But it’s basically an Ajani’s Mantra attached to a Pacifism.
Threw in Vampiric Rites, reasoning that it is a lifegain card and draws cards, and both are things we want to be doing. Similarly, Well of Lost Dreams is a “gimme” for any lifegain deck that seeks to improve its card-drawing capabilities.
Was very surprised not to see Auriok Champion and Rhox Faithmender in the original list, so I clearly had to add them in, but so far I’m not actually sure I need Faithmender. Having lifelink has only be a tiny bit relevant, and Karlov doesn’t actually care about how much life you gain, but rather how often you can gain it. So I’m pretty iffy on this guy, despite thinking he was a must-run. Auriok Champion, though, is definitely essential – almost any variant on Soul Warden can do some real work here.
The most egregious of all was the exclusion of Cradle of Vitality. It’s often been an underperformer in other lifegain-focused decks, but when our commander very specifically wants lots of counters placed on him, this just makes too much sense. Every time you gain life, Karlov puts counters on himself, but if you have some mana to spare he just gets even more counters. Combine with Serra Ascendant for maximum efficacy.
I think that’s about it for the changes. I might have overlooked one or two minor ones, as I am going partially off memory, but I definitely covered anything significant.
There are a few additional cards I’d really love to squeeze in somehow. Retreat to Hagra was actually supposed to remain from Nick’s list, but I couldn’t find my one copy and I wasn’t so in love with the card to begin with that I wanted to spend a lot of time digging for it. But it’s not terrible – I think the deathtouch trigger is likely to be nearly as relevant as the life gain option, but I don’t think this card is a critical component – just a “nice to have” if you have the room for it.
More important is Toxic Deluge. This is definitely a card I am positive I want, but all my copies are in decks. I’m pretty sure I have at least one deck that is running it “just because” and can live without it. As soon as I have time to examine my other decks and find out which one(s) have a superfluous Deluge, I’m yanking it out for Karlov. It can easily pay the life cost, and it should be fairly easy to time it so I can kill what needs killin’ but at the very least keep Karlov alive.
Some lists play more “Spirit Link” cards, such as Spirit Loop, etc. I can see the value in that – giving Karlov himself lifelink is sweet, but I prefer to rely mostly on Sword of Light and Shadow, Jitte and Gift of Orzhova for this. However I can support the idea of adding in a few more ways to lifelink him up. But black and white enchantments tend not to play well with Sword of Light and Shadow, so that’s something to be aware of.
Sadly, I haven’t played the deck quite enough to have any further insights. If I uncover anything drastic in the future, I’ll be sure to share it, but the deck seems extremely solid already, so I expect the future will more likely hold minor, incremental tweaks to shore up weak spots or address specific metagame concerns.