For whatever reason, mono-black Commander decks rarely interest me. This week, Modern Horizons changed all that by playing on both my love of classic Magic story elements and commanders that generate tons of value. That’s right, it’s Yawgmoth.

Yawgmoth, Thran Physician

The themes Yawgmoth pushes are pretty clear: -1/-1 counters and sacrificing creatures. Hilariously, Yawgmoth has protection from himself, but there are plenty of other places to put those. The plan to utilize Yawgmoth to the fullest occurs, like many wonderful pieces of narrative fiction, in three acts:

  1. Generate tokens to sacrifice to Yawgmoth, giving counters and cards.
  2. Generate additional counters, both -1/-1 and others, to proliferate.
  3. Gain additional value from the deaths of creatures.

Act 1: The Setup (of All of Our Tokens)

So, where to get the creatures to sacrifice and keep Yawgmoth’s engine running?

Abhorrent OverlordBitterblossomBloodline Keeper // Lord of LineageDreadhorde InvasionEndrek Sahr, Master BreederGhoulcaller GisaGrave TitanLiliana, Death's MajestyLiliana, Dreadhorde GeneralOphiomancer

There are plenty of black cards you can use to make tokens turn after turn. Dreadhorde Invasion has the added bonus of giving you something positive to proliferate if you leave the Zombie Army alive to grow, but the best use will often be to sacrifice them each turn for more value.

The Lilianas are both great generators of value in terms of Zombie tokens, but when proliferated they can ramp up to their ultimate abilities fairly quickly.

If you need more token generators, Breeding Pit, Retrofitter Foundry, and Whirlermaker are all options, but I don’t think they’re quite up to snuff. You could also try one-shot generators like Dread Drone or Army of the Damned.

Butcher GhoulEndlingGeralf's MessengerMikaeus, the Unhallowed

Creatures with undying are ridiculous with Yawgmoth. First, you sacrifice them and they come back with a +1/+1 counter. Then you add a -1/-1 counter to them with Yawgmoth’s ability, causing state-based actions to remove both that and the +1/+1 counter, allowing you to sacrifice them again and again. Mikaeus gets pretty silly with Yawgmoth. If you have two creatures in play with undying, you can effectively turn life into cards (I feel like I’ve heard that from Yawgmoth before… some sort of trade or agreement…), which I’m fine with given that we can’t win the game by spending all our life drawing cards.

There are more undying creatures—Demonlord of Ashmouth, Evernight Shade, Triskelavus, Treacherous Pit-Dweller, and Vengeful Vampire. Demonlord requires a sacrifice, and the Pit-Dweller is flawed in that it literally gives itself away so I don’t recommend those, but the rest are worth a shot.

Reassembling Skeleton

I don’t know how to make that sound the ReDead in Ocarina of Time make, but a) it’s horrible and b) it’s what I imagine whenever someone makes good use of Reassembling Skeleton.

I just watched that video to confirm how horrible that noise is. Why did I do that? Okay, moving on.

Act 2: The Confrontation (Between Opponents and Many, Many Counters)

So what to proliferate? Well, the first, most obvious thing is the -1/-1 counters Yawgmoth gives, but he probably needs some help. You could put poison counters on your opponents, but for me, that’s not the most fun idea. I’d rather generate on-board advantage by working opponents’ creatures down via -1/-1 counters and generating value with counters of your own.

Archfiend of IfnirContagion EngineRuthless Sniper

Both the Archfiend and the Sniper add a lot of value to Yawgmoth’s already strong discard ability, allowing you to get more out of your proliferates. Contagion Engine can spread lots of counters across your opponents’ creatures, and the double proliferate provides the counters we want and our opponents the counters they’re more and more tired of.

Drana, Liberator of MalakirHangarback WalkerPentavusTriskelavus

There’s a lot to do with +1/+1 counters, including, but not limited to making lots more creatures and then attacking for a lot of damage. Proliferating the counters on these can pay off in the form of an army—an army that can either attack or generate more value.

If your group is fine with a two-card infinite combo, Triskelion is an obvious choice, as is Walking Ballista. Both go off pretty hard with Mikaeus. Triskelavus requires mana to make Triskelavites, so without a Phyrexian Altar or Ashnod’s Altar, it’s non-infinite. (Hey, there’s another idea for the more combo-happy players out there!)

Blowfly InfestationCrumbling AshesLiliana, Death Wielder - Foil - Planeswalker Deck ExclusiveNecroskitterNest of Scarabs

There are a lot of fun ways for us to take advantage of the -1/-1 counters on opponents’ creatures. Liliana, Death Wielder doesn’t see a lot of play, especially due to her status as a Planeswalker Deck exclusive, but she does exactly what this deck wants us to do: she adds counters, she keys off counters, and she has a flashy ultimate.

Necroskitter is an amazing source of value. Opponents’ creatures that die will very frequently trigger Necroskitter and come back to play under your control. Blowfly Infestation, Crumbling Ashes, and Nest of Scarabs all give a little more value out of counters, and as this deck is all about snowballing an advantage, these selections are both powerful and on-theme.

Black MarketDeadly DesignsFont of AgoniesOrochi Hatchery

There are places to go beyond +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters. Black Market is one of my favorites, as it keys off the existing strategy of letting creatures die a lot and then using mana (and cards) to proliferate. Font of Agonies turns the life paid to Yawgmoth into more creature destruction, which is frankly ridiculous. Orochi Hatchery turns all this mana and these proliferates into more Snakes, and nobody expects Orochi Hatchery so you get a ton of weird card equity. Speaking of weird card equity, that’s Deadly Designs’s wheelhouse. Instead of paying 12 mana to destroy two creatures, you can pay 4 (less if you can convince other players to pay in) and proliferate your way up to four counters, then leave it there as a terrifying double Seal of Doom (except it doesn’t have the non-black restriction).

Crystalline CrawlerCoalition RelicAstral Cornucopia

This deck needs a decent amount of black mana to power Cornucopia, and these three cards do a decent job of generating it. The Crawler and Cornucopia both power up over time with some proliferating—the Cornucopia more so—and proliferating Coalition Relic can put you in the unusual but exciting situation of having more than one counter to remove in your first main phase!

You could consider including Workhorse and Everflowing Chalice if you find more room for colorless sources in this deck than I did.

Act 3: The Resolution (of How to Get More Value Out of Creatures Dying)

If creatures are all dying all the time, how do you get value outside what Yawgmoth gives? Yawgmoth is a good deal, sure, but it’s not enough! We need more power! (I guess this is how characters like Yawgmoth get started, huh?)

Blood ArtistFalkenrath NobleVindictive VampireZulaport CutthroatDeathgreeter

Your standard drain package? Sure, these first four cards are in basically every mono-black deck that sacrifices anything, but when was the last time you thought about Deathgreeter? I’m not saying it’s some amazing card you should cut tons of stuff for, but it offsets the life loss from Yawgmoth. That’s right, the life gain is even more important in this deck than basically any of the others. Get two in play and you’ll be ahead on life!

Black MarketLiliana, Dreadhorde GeneralGrave PactDictate of ErebosSmothering Abomination

Black Market and Liliana, Dreadhorde General are back! I know I talked about them earlier, but they both generate lots of value from creatures dying, so they’re worth mentioning again. Grave Pact and Dictate of Erebos both deplete opponents’ boards, and Smothering Abomination gives us more cards to keep things moving, as does God-Eternal Bontu, which is a good sacrifice outlet when Yawgmoth isn’t around.

If you find yourself sacrificing a lot of nontoken creatures, Grim Haruspex and Harvester of Souls could be good additions. Dark Prophecy is probably worth a try as well, but I’m concerned about the life loss. Yawgmoth is already taking life from us, so without significant help it’s likely too much.

Here’s my first draft of a deck list:

Commander: Yawgmoth, Thran Physician

23 Swamp
1 Bojuka Bog
1 Cabal Coffers
1 Cabal Stronghold
1 Deserted Temple
1 Karn's Bastion
1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
1 Petrified Field
1 Reliquary Tower
1 Strip Mine
1 Tectonic Edge
1 Thespian's Stage
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
1 Vesuvan Doppelganger
1 Volrath's Stronghold
1 Abhorrent Overlord
1 Archfiend of Ifnir
1 Blood Artist
1 Bloodline Keeper/Lord of Lineage
1 Butcher Ghoul
1 Crypt Ghast
1 Crystalline Crawler
1 Deathgreeter
1 Drana, Liberator of Malakir
1 Endling
1 Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder
1 Falkenrath Noble
1 Geralf's Messenger
1 Ghoulcaller Gisa
1 Grave Titan
1 Hangarback Walker
1 Krav, the Unredeemed
1 Magus of the Coffers
1 Mikaeus the Unhallowed
1 Necroskitter
1 Nirkana Revenant
1 Ophiomancer
1 Pentavus
1 Reassembling Skeleton
1 Ruthless Sniper
1 Smothering Abomination
1 Triskelavus
1 Vindictive Vampire
1 Zulaport Cutthroat
1 Astral Cornucopia
1 Caged Sun
1 Coalition Relic
1 Contagion Engine
1 Expedition Map
1 Jet Medallion
1 Lightning Greaves
1 Orochi Hatchery
1 Skullclamp
1 Sol Ring
1 Swiftfoot Boots
1 Whip of Erebos
1 Bitterblossom
1 Black Market
1 Blowfly Infestation
1 Crumbling Ashes
1 Dark Prophecy
1 Deadly Designs
1 Dictate of Erebos
1 Dreadhorde Invasion
1 Font of Agonies
1 Grave Pact
1 Nest of Scarabs
1 Phyrexian Arena
1 Phyrexian Reclamation
1 Liliana, Death Wielder - Foil - Planeswalker Deck Exclusive
1 Liliana, Death's Majesty
1 Liliana, Dreadhorde General
1 Damnation
1 Decree of Pain
1 Mutilate
1 Night's Whisper
1 Toxic Deluge

If you’re hoping to play Yawgmoth in a more competitive setting, you could try including cards like Ichor Rats and Caress of Phyrexia along with some infect creatures to really put a clock on the whole table. For me, that felt like a much less exciting way to win than grinding everyone’s boards into dust, but everyone likes different things. Plus, it’s plenty thematic—Yawgmoth spent a lot of time inflicting various plagues on various people. It’s actually pretty horrible. On a less Engineered Plague-y note, a tutor package (Demonic Tutor, Diabolic Tutor, Increasing Ambition, etc.) could make the infect kill much more consistent.

I love how Modern Horizons has brought characters like Urza and Yawgmoth back into Magic as cards, even if Urza is a little bit of a blunt instrument for my tastes. (Very flavorful, though!) I’m hopeful that future sets in the series (the set’s code is MH1, which strongly implies the potential existence of at least MH2…) will continue to give us cards for formats like Commander!