So Living End put up big numbers at the Magic World Championship which was a surprise and a delight. I have some opinions on this deck and the merits of the different configurations.
I have a lot of respect for all the Living End pilots, and I take Reid Duke’s recent analysis of the deck seriously. However, I want to paint a broader picture of the relative pros and cons of different card choices.
Faerie Macabre vs. Leyline of the Void
Faerie Macabre is generally more popular because it is more synergistic with the deck (and available at a lower rarity). This is an important consideration in effect and also sweetness factor.
After all, Leyline of the Void is best in your opening hand, and Living End cycles so much that it’s likely to draw into it later. It turns out that Leyline of the Void is good on turn 4. Living End is a control deck, mostly. It’s certainly not fast for Modern. It can sweep on turn 3, drop Leyline on turn 4, and play in great position from there. So a topdecked midgame Leyline is not a problem.
The second comparison is that of raw power. Leyline has way more raw power than Faerie Macabre. I once played a Living End mirror where I drew 1 midgame Leyline of the Void and my opponent drew ALL FOUR Faerie Macabres. Obviously, it was the lone Leyline that went on to win that fight. If Living End is at all part of the metagame, Leyline wins the mirror on turn 1 or turn 7.
Consider how Leyline matches up against Pyromancer Ascension—not necessarily a popular card anymore, but an otherwise unwinnable matchup that can be stolen with Leylines, where Faerie Macabre doesn’t help.
Finally, if we consider the Arcbound Ravager problem from Affinity, Leyline of the Void again offers more raw power than Faerie Macabre. The Faerie is certainly helpful here since providing a flyer is great too. But Affinity may have way more than 2 creatures and Leyline can take care of them all. This is also a situation where turn-4 Leyline is a reasonable play, provided we have reach Spiders.
So basically the preference comes down to synergy versus raw power, and Spiders are linked to the decision.
There’s not enough room to play all of the 1-mana cyclers and all of the 2-mana Spiders at the same time. So something has got to get cut. Let’s consider the advantages of each:
Architects of Will at 1 mana is great, and the deck selection ability can be great targeting either player. However, the body is weak and it is the only creature to die to Lightning Bolt, which you can otherwise avoid. Pros and cons.
On the other hand, the Spiders are a bit slow, but Pale Recluse guarantees land drops and Jungle Weaver is JUST HUGE. When we consider Living End as a control deck, raw power and blocking are important factors. Pale Recluse and Jungle Weaver can hold off Tarmogoyfs, Gurmag Anglers, Siege Rhinos, and Tasigurs which would otherwise be problematically large. Furthermore, the reach ability of the Spiders is super important for blocking Insectile Aberrations, Vault Skirges, Inkmoth Nexuses, and so on.
So it’s really a matter of speed versus control. If you want to go more aggro with Living End, maxing out on Architects makes sense. If you want to embrace the blocking and late-game control elements, Spiders offer both. If you want the best of both, cut the chaff and max on cyclers!
An alternative recommendation is to go in one of either two directions: the first is the aforementioned 4 Leyline of the Void supported by Spiders to block in the air on the fourth turn. The second is to move away from Living End into white sideboard cards.
If you have the Simian Spirit Guides, this is fast enough and it works. I have a match on video, but if you don’t believe it, try it yourself. All it takes is two cards to drastically swing the Affinity matchup back into your favor. Most importantly it is an insanely sweet juke.
If you don’t want to dedicate cards to just one matchup that are useless in all other matchups, don’t play these white cards. If you think Affinity will be popular and want a focused plan against them, try the white cards. It’s a metagame call.
Fighting Land Decks
Fulminator Mage is perhaps the best card in the deck. If Living End is a control deck, and the game goes long, depriving the opponent of 2-4 lands is backbreaking. It gives us game against otherwise difficult decks like Scapeshift and mostly “solves” the counterspell/Twin problem by allowing us to generate an imbalanced mana advantage.
However, I realize that Fulminator Mage is an expensive rare and Living End is an otherwise budget deck. Similarly, Blood Moon is not cheap, but if you have it as an alternative, it works great with Avalanche Riders. Riders works better than Fulminator Mage as Moon support because it can pick off basic lands, which is important in a lot of matchups.
Beast Within is another reasonable substitute that also works as instant-speed creature removal. It’s a really versatile spell, but giving the opponent extra 3/3s is no joke, especially if they’re trading with an Architects of Will. Overall this card is most useful in Spider versions without Aquitects.
The Mana Base
Grove of the Burnwillows or Copperline Gorge? Well, it really depends on whether you see your build as control or aggro. Grove of the Burnwillows ALWAYS comes into play untapped which can be crucial in letting you hit that 6th untapped land to drop a bomb Spider or try to overload the opponent’s counter mana.
On the other hand, Copperline Gorge doesn’t give the opponent extra life, and so can shorten the game. It’s also much more budget-friendly.
Alternatively, there are options like Rootbound Crag that come into play untapped later, but risk coming into play tapped to begin with. I think these are reasonable budget options, but the drawback of not being able to cycle turn 1 can be significant.
How Many Living Ends?
Another important discussion is how many Living Ends to run. Should we play 3 or 4, or sideboard the 4th? There is some tension here as Living End is generally a bad draw in hand, but having too few in the deck is game losing.
The solution is to pack all 4 Living Ends against decks that Living End is actually a good draw against. Traditionally those are blue-based counterspell decks that aren’t Splinter Twin. A good game plan to overload countermagic is to suspend Living End turn 4 and wait until turn 6 when the opponent will need three counterspells to keep pace.
Another consideration is to play all 4 Living Ends in matchups where having the maximum number in the deck is necessary. This can come up against those same counterspell decks—we may need all 4. But it also comes up against decks that pack cards like Rest in Peace. Those games go long and access to more sweepers is handy.
Alternate Win Conditions
Should we play pure Living End or pack an alternative win condition? The more graveyard hate and specific target Living End has, the more we may want to pack an alternate win condition.
Which win condition to pack is up to preference. The Pestermite/Splinter Twin package has proven itself, but I think any of the other ones work pretty well. Restoration Angel and Kiki-Jiki are good cards that keep to the Pale Recluse colors, while Scapeshift and Goblin Charbelcher can easily circumvent both the graveyard and the battlefield.
For this one, I say go with whatever is more fun for you.
Number of Cards
The advantage is drawing fewer Living Ends. Drawing Living End really sucks. Not only is it bad, but it feels really bad. Playing more cards minimizes the odds and minimizes this feeling. Playing more cards also plays well with Scapeshift if you want to go that route.
So the card number count is perhaps the emotional choice. There are plenty of arguments toward staying at 60, but if you want to avoid those “ugh” moments of topdecking Living End, playing extra cards can be competitive.
Living End Variants
I hope this brings some clarity to the relative disadvantages of differing card choices in Living End. As you can see, everything is linked together, and having preference to one card over another leads you to preference of another card over another and so on. So unique builds develop.
I don’t mean to say there is a best version of Living End. I understand preference, varying strengths, and varying budgets. But you should have a general idea of all the options and how those options connect.
If you have any other questions about card selections on this archetype, fire away. I am happy to answer and will try my best give an unbiased perspective.