Every once in a while, we get build-arounds that completely change your pick order and create distinct archetypes beyond simple color pairs. In Hour of Devastation, it’s all thanks to the following card:
The trick behind the Torment mechanic is that the first time it happens it’s unimpressive but the 6th time it happens it’s usually quite good. Torment of Scarabs ramps up all on its own, but is still somewhat of a “collect me”-type card because you want as many Torment effects as you can get. After all, it’s better to hit the critical mass of Torment effects earlier rather than later (or even at all). The first Torment of Venom is a good card, but the third one is great. The more you have, the greater chance you’ll actually draw multiples, too! The “Torment deck” is pretty vague, because it revolves around these two cards and really can be any color combination. Surprisingly I’ve seen mono-black (or nearly) most often, and that makes sense, because you can go all-in on these effects only when black is wide open.
I’m not going to talk much today about Torment of Hailfire. It is certainly good in these decks because it stacks up on top of all the other Torment cards you play, but you can have a perfectly good deck without it. It also doesn’t make you a Torment deck all by itself since it’s often used as a finisher on its own.
Aggressive Midrange Is the Best Torment Deck
When I first looked at Torment of Scarabs I figured it would be a good control card because it gets better the longer the game goes. The problem with this logic is that the card is still a punisher card and your opponent always gets to choose the best option for them. If Torment of Scarabs is your only win condition, it would effectively do nothing the first 6 turns because your opponent can freely take 18 damage. This is an extreme example and even control decks have other ways of dealing damage, but you can see that the 3 life loss needs to matter or the Torment cards get substantially worse.
Okay, so if too slow is bad, then do you want a really fast aggro deck that uses these Torment spells as finishers? Close but not quite. If your deck is entirely focused on aggression then you’re aiming to end the game as fast as possible. You probably have weak creatures and spells for the late game and are banking on winning before your opponent’s superior card quality takes over. Torment of Scarabs pushes the exact opposite direction of this. It wants you to slow down so you can cast a 4-mana enchantment. More aggressive cards like Pursue Glory or simple removal spells are better in these spots (and why Torment of Venom is still good even in these aggro decks even if they aren’t Torment decks).
What you have then is a need for a midrange deck that slants aggressive. You want to have good 2- and 3-mana threats but don’t mind playing some 5+ mana spells to help push through in prolonged games, since that’s your plan. This style of deck naturally comes together in the black decks of this format. If you look at Grisly Survivor, you’ll see a card that is perfectly in the aggressive midrange camp. It can hit for a few damage early on, but then presents a potential fireball as the game progresses.
Let’s say you get the choice to include Ruin Rat or Khenra Eternal in your deck. Which do you choose based on the outline of the deck so far? Hopefully you answered Khenra Eternal. It provides early chip damage and still provides relevant reach later in conjunction with your Torment spells. What if you get the same option again? Here I’d rather take a Rat over the second Eternal. This may sound strange, but remember that you don’t want a purely aggressive or purely controlling deck. Attacking is good but having the option to go long is as well. This pick is actually a good illustration of aggro, midrange, and control. Aggro decks want all Khenra Eternals, control decks want all Ruin Rats, and midrange wants a mix.
Forcing Bad Choices on Your Opponent
The idea behind the Torment effect is that eventually your opponent will run out of good options. It’s a classic prison effect in a modern template. The more time you have, the more Torments you’ll rack up along the way, but it’s important to find additional ways to speed up the process. I already discussed aggressive cards that can help make the 3 damage more relevant, but don’t forget the other two aspects.
First, discard is great because it takes away the option to discard for life or board position. But I don’t love cards like Unburden because they just allow your opponent to take 3 damage more often. Board impact is still important. What I do like are cards like Wretched Camel. It’s a premier 2-drop in the deck because it can pressure early and still nab a card in hand later. Once you have a Torment of Scarabs in play remember that discarding a card in hand is eventually worth 3 life or a nonland permanent. That makes Camel hitting otherwise excess lands in hand a big deal when it usually wouldn’t be.
Additionally, the Camel can sometimes trade with another creature, limiting your opponent’s options of what to sacrifice later. Instead of sacrificing the Defiant Khenra they traded away, they’ll have to sacrifice their Manticore Eternal instead. Thus, trading and removal help the plan of additional Torments nicely.
Likewise, Torment of Venom forces a Torment effect and kills something in the process, in a way that almost counts for two Torments. This is another reason lining up your removal properly is so important. If you have to Torment of Venom an opposing 4/4 it becomes a 1/1 that can be sacrificed to a future Torment effect. If instead you can Electrify that same 4/4 and Torment of Venom a 3/3 you’ll be very far ahead in the Torment game (remember you still need creatures to deal damage!). This point is lessened when you have fewer of these effects, though.
How to Draft the Deck
The first way to get into the “Torment deck” is pretty obvious. Draft Torment cards! Torment of Scarabs is the best because it provides the biggest incentive to pick up more Torment cards. But picking up a couple of early Torment of Venoms is often a good enough reason. On a recent Allied Strategies, we discussed how to figure out what colors you’re in. One point I made was that you want to take cards of the color(s) you’ve already drafted when the power discrepancy between a weaker on-color card and more powerful off color card isn’t too great. This is actually a core concept in drafting in general but also is the path through which I’ve drafted my mono-black Torment decks.
Torments also get more powerful in multiples, which means the third Torment of Venom you can draft has much more value to you than to the other drafters at the table. You might be inclined to take it over a late Desert’s Hold, for example, because while that Desert’s Hold is better in a vacuum, it isn’t enough to justify the snowballing value of more and more Torment cards. Incidentally this principle causes you to cut black very hard, which in turn makes it even easier to pick up more Torment cards in pack 2.
That’s all I have for you today—essentially a two card breakdown, but as you can see, single cards can have huge ramifications on drafting and deck construction, especially in multiples. The Torment cycle does a good job of being playable as 1-ofs, but incredible when you get 4+ of them. The best I’ve done is 2 Torment of Scarabs and 4 Torment of Venoms. Have you had more? What experiences have you had with the Torments?