One of the things that drew me to Commander was the opportunity to try out cards that never got their chance in other formats. Whether it was because they were too expensive, too narrow or simply too janky, they just never caught on. Commander provided an outlet for a collection built from draft and sealed deck play over the years and when I started building decks I looked out for different oddball effects that I could try to make work. Phyrexian Arena is not one of these cards.
It’s a card that sees regular play in Commander and had tournament applications in its day. One could argue that the enchantment is better in one-on-one Magic where you’re getting an additional card on your opponent, whereas in Commander, Arena still puts you behind two cards to the remainder of the table each turn cycle. The more effects like Esper Sentinel enter the format, the worse Phyrexian Arena looks by comparison since its card draw is bounded (and in this house we ignore Paradox Haze shenanigans). That being said, the card is still perfectly reasonable and will draw you extra cards.
Yet there are plenty of cards that are similar to Phyrexian Arena but aren’t quite as stable. The black enchantment that can draw you a card every turn is an effect that is regularly revisited. Today, I want to look at a number of these potential supplements or replacements for Phyrexian Arena and examine Commanders that could optimize for their quirks. However, we’re going to set a few ground rules before diving in:
- It must be an enchantment that costs three mana or less – sorry Erebos, God of the Dead.
- It has to be able to draw cards on multiple turns, so you’re out of luck Treacherous Blessing.
- These have to put cards from your library into your hand. As much as I love Oversold Cemetery and its ilk, that’s just a different suite of cards.
And while it isn’t a ground rule I’m just going to state this here: a lot of these cards are great in Vilis, Broker of Blood decks. Who knew that paying life for cards would be good with a Commander that lets you draw cards when you lose life?
Let’s get Necropotence out of the way first. Necropotence is a card that has a tournament pedigree a mile long and an entire season named after its dominance. The card can work in any deck that can support its mana cost. That being said, there are times when I would avoid running The Skull personally. If you’re running a deck that wants to utilize the graveyard on every turn of the game as opposed to a key turn, the exile clause on Necro might be a hindrance. Plenty of decks in more social Commander games use the graveyard as a storehouse for different engines and while Necropotence doesn’t turn that off entirely, it can cause some trouble. Still, it’s Necro-freakin-potence. It’s broken and if you run it, you probably won’t be disappointed.
Arguel’s Blood Fast comes first alphabetically so it’s a good place to start. At 1B it can come down a turn faster than Phyrexian Arena and can draw more cards per turn thanks to its activated ability. Ideally, you want to put this in a deck that cares about losing life and gaining life thanks to the Temple of Aclazotz. Greven, Predator Captain fits the bill, as he gets stronger the more you suffer and then later in the game you can convert a large creature into a boost of life, if you’ve managed to transform the enchantment. Willowdusk, Essence Seer loves both halves of the Blood Fast as she can boost a creature after you have drawn some cards or sacrificed that creature for a massive life boost.
Dark Prophecy might be the most explosive option out of our Phyrexian Arena impersonators. It requires the least amount of work to draw multiple cards per turn, albeit it can come at a fairly steep price. Dark Prophecy is best in token decks, since it gives you the most fodder to keep the cards coming. If you aren’t able to get several cards per turn cycle with Prophecy, then it probably is not the right card for your deck. Teysa, Orzhov Scion works just fine, as do the partner pairs of Regna, the Redeemer and Krav, the Unredeemed or Trynn, Champion of Freedom and Silvar, Devourer of the Free. Torgaar, Famine Incarnate takes Dark Prophecy in a different direction, refilling your hand every time you cast Torgaar while the Commander can also let you reset your life total to 20 if it ever gets too low.
Vampiric Rites also fits into this realm and pairs nicely with Dark Prophecy by helping to offset some of the life loss. Savra, Queen of the Golgari loves the sacrifice but Shirei, Shizo’s Caretaker can make sure the creatures keep coming back for more (if they’re small enough).
Enchantments can be tough to handle and might have advantages over creatures. Dark Tutelage, despite being a Dark Confidant on a stick, is not significantly better. The ideal deck for this card is one that also wants to run Lurrus of the Dream-Den as a companion and, well, you can’t do that with Dark Tutelage in the deck. Out of all these cards, Dark Tutelage is the one that rarely has upside when compared to Phyrexian Arena. It requires an incredibly low mana curve – one that’s closer to zero than one. That means a dedicated lands deck or one focused on cheap permanents. The aforementioned Shirei might be a fit, as could a Lord Windgrace lands deck where you’re more likely to to reveal a land than anything else. Aminatou, the Fateshifter can also be used to ensure a land sits on top, but at that point you’re in blue and likely have better options.
You can never run enough graveyard removal in Commander but Gravestorm might be a bridge too far. Like Phyrexian Arena, it’s capped at one card per turn, however any card in an opponent’s graveyard can deny you such a boon. The key here, then, is to ensure there are no cards available to exile. Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet or Anafenza, the Foremost might be decent choices to helm a deck where Gravestorm can shine. Tymaret, Chosen from Death can also keep bins empty and benefits from the devotion provided by Gravestorm’s mana cost. While all of these cards can be retrieved with Zur the Enchanter, this one is a nice follow-up play to fetching a Rest in Peace, if that’s your sort of thing.
Infernal Tribute is a weird one, but might be my favorite of the bunch. Its rules text is a throwback to another era and, unlike a lot of the sacrifice outlets we see today, this one will not allow you to feed it tokens. Infernal Tribute has the advantage of, despite having three black mana in its casting cost, a generic activation. The ability to put noncreature cards into the graveyard can do some work with various black Commanders. You can use this to put Treacherous Blessing in the graveyard, only to bring it back with Ghen, Arcanum Weaver or you can use it to make sure other enchantments are in the yard for Aphemia, the Cacophony. It’s also a way to get artifacts into the bin for Glissa, the Traitor if you’re looking for some redundancy in that build.
Next up is Phyrexian Etchings and, well, this card is awkward. The enchantment takes two turns to get going and when you can’t pay the upkeep, you don’t even get the benefit of any cards. This is card draw on hard mode. Greven, Predator Captain might benefit from this one and Aminatou, the Fateshifter can reset its age counters and buy you some more time to get this one going. I’m not sure this card will ever have a chance to do its thing but if you play it against me I am going to give you the highest of fives.
The last card I want to talk about today is Underworld Connections. Personally, this might be my favorite of the bunch. I love being able to dictate when I want to pay the life for the draw – a late Phyrexian Arena might be dead if a life total is too low, but Underworld Connections gives you more agency over the draws. Ideally, you run this in decks that can untap laps – Beledros Witherbloom anyone? – but I run it in a Mardu Auras deck where I can bring it back regularly thanks to Tiana, Ship’s Caretaker.
Commander is a wonderful way to play Magic. Finding homes for misfit cards can be a fun experiment. What’s your favorite forgotten or obsoleted card that fits perfectly in one of your Commander decks?