Grave Pact is one of my favorite inclusions in Commander decks, and it just so happens to be incredibly divisive. While it doesn’t make much sense at a competitive table, some social tables frown on the card. Grave Pact scores very high on several multiplayer metrics as established by Anthony Alongi over two decades ago and despite doing nothing on its own can be incredibly oppressive in the right deck. Let’s dive deeper.
Grave Pact is, at its core, a board control element. At surface glance, it appears to be a rattlesnake card – one that should deter people from attacking into your defenses lest they lose a creature of their own. If this were the only use case, Grave Pact would add an interesting political wrinkle to a game of Commander. Players could opt to attack into the wielder of the Pact in order to handle problematic creatures on other players’ boards. Of course, anyone who has played against Grave Pact knows this is not the case.
Instead of being a deterrent, Grave Pact is a gorilla – that is, a card that hits the table and has an impact that immediately changes the nature of the game. This is due in no small part to the proliferation of cheap sacrifice outlets and decks that want to offer up their own creatures for value. Grave Pact as a card is more than 23 years old and the game has changed quite a bit since it was released. Now it’s pitifully easy to pair Grave Pact (and similar effects) with several sacrifice outlets and permanents that regularly produce tokens. Bitterblossom and Ophiomancer are way better than Breeding Pit, for example. The result is that Grave Pact is an offensive weapon rather than a deterrent.
But that’s not all! Grave Pact also scales with the game – something Alongi called a pigeon. These cards get better the more players there are in a given game. In a typical four-person game, your one dead creature will yield three other deaths. Now multiply that for each creature and the card advantage just snowballs. So not only is Grave Pact a deterrent that changes the entire texture of battle, it also generates a persistent advantage over the course of the game that can put its controller far ahead on resources.
There’s something else compounding the issue. Grave Pact is an enchantment, a card type that tends to stick around. The Pact, and its flashier cousin Dictate of Erebos, can inflict a ton of damage to well-laid plans, even if they’re removed shortly after they resolve. If players aren’t expecting to play against this style of board control then it can make for a miserable experience. What is the point of committing a creature to the battlefield if I can sacrifice a 1/1 token and wipe it out?
A common counterpoint to the argument of problematic cards is the suggestion to run more interaction. While I agree that most decks need to find more ways to handle enchantments, advocating this stance can only get the conversation so far. A Commander deck can only run so many control elements since it also needs to be concerned with winning the game. In a heads up game of Magic, it can be far easier to build a deck that can both win and stop your opponent from doing the same. In Commander, your interaction needs to handle three times as many opponents, beat three times as many and defend yourself from three times as many. I’m not great at math, but that makes it at least three times as hard.
Grave Pact, like so many other divisive cards, should be mentioned in pregame conversations. If you want to bring a Grave Pact deck to the table, it should be something the participants agree on before the decks are shuffled. I also think it’s important to distinguish between a deck that runs Grave Pact and a Grave Pact deck. For example, if someone runs Grave Pact in their Tergrid, God of Fright deck that leans into the more stax-like elements of the card where it can delay board development. While it might be interesting in a Glissa, the Traitor deck, a Dictate of Erebos is likely to just become a font of card advantage.
I think an interesting case study for Grave Pact might be Kardur, Doomscourge. The Rakdos legend wants you to get involved in combat and if you build a deck around that phase, you can leverage your creatures dying in a more natural way to advance the game as opposed to simply taking it over. A potential Kardur deck could lean into forced attack effects like Angel’s Trumpet and Keldon Twilight, encouraging bloodshed while you reap the rewards.
But what if you wanted to run Grave Pact but it has fallen out of favor in your local metagame? I see two main options, both of which are creatures. The first is Grave Pact on a stick – Butcher of Malakir. Reprinted several times, the creature screams Commander. It’s a seven-mana flyer that’s tailor made for multiplayer. At nearly twice the mana cost of the original enchantment, it takes much longer to come online. Couple that with being a more fragile permanent and you have a recipe for a kindler, gentler implementation of the effect.
There is another similar creature that could fit the bill. Ruthless Deathfang only triggers when you sacrifice a creature and then forces only one opponent to do the same. Out of all iterations of this effect, Ruthless Deathfang is the most toothless. But that could be just what the deck doctor ordered. If you’re dead set on running a Grave Pact style effect but don’t want to draw ire, run Ruthless Deathfang. While you’re not going to incidentally generate value from creatures dying, you gain a chance to play your opponents against each other. By being targeted, Deathfang allows you to make deals, and while your card slots are limited in Commander, your capacity to politic has no such limits.
Grave Pact is a card that is nearly as powerful as it is divisive. For folks (like me) who like the effect but like fun games more, there are ways to run its ilk without ruining the experience for everyone else. Don’t run a dedicated Grave Pact deck or find a less powerful version. And then maybe at the end of the night you can break out the Phyrexian Altar – Gravecrawler combo.