Strategy & Sideboard Guide: U/W Control

The feeling of hopelessness.

The fear of endless possibilities represented by open mana.

Knowing that, while technically you are still alive, you’ve all but lost the battle.

It’s one of Magic’s most accomplished color pairs, with variations in every format since its inception and cares very little about winning so long as you lose. It may even take pleasure in continuing your torment for as long as you’re willing to suffer under its thumb and refuse to scoop.

The deck of course, is Blue-White Control.

uw

Few decks can trace their lineage all the way back to Alpha, but U/W Control is certainly one of those decks. Serra Angel, Counterspell, Swords to Plowshares, Control Magic, Balance, Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Wrath of God, and many more composed the early iterations of the deck that were terrifyingly formidable. For some people, this deck is more than just a good meta call, it’s nostalgic.

Of course this archetype has come a long way since Counterspell and Serra Angel were printed but the core goal of the deck has not changed. The mission: to stop their opponents from doing anything relevant, allow only what will amount to nothing, and to exhaust their resources before ultimately deciding it’s time to win.

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“Teferi, Hero of Dominaria” by Chris Rallis

In Vintage, the win conditions revolve around Monastery Mentor, Tinker, or Standstill while getting to play all the blue Power 9 cards like Ancestral Recall and Time Walk. The remnants of Legacy’s once dominating Counterbalance/Sensei’s Divining Top Miracles deck still exists and has Entreat the Angels as its finisher. Both Vintage and Legacy variations get to play powerful card manipulation spells like Ponder and Brainstorm, can interact for free with Force of Will, and can handle any resolved threat with Swords to Plowshares.

In Modern, it’s a bit of a different story. There is no Ponder or Force of Will and the options for permission and card manipulation are much worse. Opt and Search for Azcanta act as card selection while Cryptic Command is the main piece of permission with a sprinkling of Mana Leak, Logic Knot, and Negate. While it may not have access to Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile does an excellent job of dealing with any threat at a very efficient cost. Modern is much more focused on creature combat and very few decks win outside of it. This means control decks have to dedicate multiple slots to sweepers to help catch up when one-for-one removal isn’t enough. This can come in many forms to include Wrath of God, Supreme Verdict, Settle the Wreckage, and Terminus. Its main finishers are its planeswalkers like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion or creatures like Snapcaster Mage and Celestial Colonnade.

Of course the card that gets to be played in every U/W control deck whether you’re playing Vintage, Legacy, or Modern, is Jace, the Mind Sculpter. Card advantage, removal, and finisher. He’s the most powerful planeswalker ever printed and we have the pleasure of trying to beat him.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Our worst interaction is our creature removal. Most of these control list only run two to three Snapcasters, MAYBE a Vendilion Clique, with a suite of Celestial Colonnades. Many of our losses can involve flooding out on Fatal Push‘s and Path to Exile while starring down a Teferi. Any removal that can hit non-creature permanents are more welcome here to include discard. Assassin’s Trophy does an excellent job of being so incredibly flexible that it takes care of any threat U/W control can play: planeswalkers, creature lands, and even Search for Azcanta (flipped or not). Maelstrom Pulse also does a decent job of clearing away the planeswalkers and a Secure the Waste efficiently but is a sorcery for three mana, which makes it more susceptible to countermagic. Our strongest creatures are the ones that generate card advantage. Cards like Bloodbraid Elf and Dark Confidant  are extremely important in this match along with any other creature that can produce multiple bodies or draw cards.

There are some specific things that I want to address for this matchup to help you navigate it more prosperously.

  •  An important skill to have in this match is knowing how to utilize your discard spells. Generally you should always pick the most powerful card when playing against Snapcaster type decks.

U/W relies on some very strong engines that will allow them to run away with the game. The deck also plays only a handful of these engine pieces, so getting rid of them can often leave your opponent without a win condition for many turns. You can one-for-one your opponent’s Mana Leaks and Paths all day, your deck is designed to do that. What you cannot beat is an online Teferi, Jace, or Azcanta. Those should be your first priority. After that, cards like Snapcaster, sweepers, and Cryptic tend to be the most powerful takes.

As the game continues, and you’ve traded resources back and forth, your discard spells can still be excellent pieces of interaction, whereas in many other matches they can be dead draws. I go into more examples and details in this article but I want to reiterate the main point here as well. DO NOT simply fire off discard spells late in the game without giving them purpose. Your discard spells can do more heavy lifting than simply trading one-for-one. Hold onto them until you draw a threat, so that they can ensure the threat will resolve and not simply be removed upon resolution. It’s safe to say that at this point in the game, if your opponent has a Teferi, they’d play it, which means what they do have is most likely interaction that you’ll need to force your way through if they’re ahead on cards.

  • Don’t over extend. You may have heard of this phrase before, and it’s very applicable in this match. If you already have threats on the battlefield and have more threats in hand, try to sequence them in a way that follows one after another as they are removed. If you continuously replace the threats you have on board over and over and over, then you will sooner or later exhaust your opponent’s interaction.

The sweepers in U/W control are meant to do most of the heavy lifting since there isn’t much one-for-one removal past Path to Exile. Eventually, they will be forced to use sweepers on only one or two creatures instead of three, four, or five. Make them answer what you have before adding anything else. Even though you may want to be aggressive and add more beaters to the board, you also don’t want to allow your opponent to get too much value off a sweeper and leave you with no follow up.

  • When your opponent is looking to attack with Colonnade for the turn, make sure you use your removal before they declare attackers. If their plan for protecting it involves tapping it for mana to use for a countermagic, you can ensure that it isn’t getting in for damage that turn. As soon as it attacks, and you choose to interact with it, you are putting yourself at risk of getting your spell countered and still taking four damage. Even if it is tapped for mana after attacking, the Colonnade will connect.

 

  • Scavenging Ooze is a great piece of interaction that can turn off Snapcaster’s ability to flashback spells. There are many scenarios where sometimes simply untapping is so much better than tapping out on your opponents end step. Against an opponent that primarily operates at instant speed, this can certainly be the case. I almost always leave at least one green mana open at all times. The moment you go shields down is the moment they play their Snapcaster for value.

 

  • Cryptic Command is a very good piece of disruption and tempo that enables U/W players to gain all sorts of small advantages outside of countering our spells. When ticking up your Liliana, be sure you always have something to discard. If you don’t, they can punish you by bouncing Liliana with the discard trigger on the stack, forcing you to discard her to her own ability.

People also have a tendency to ultimate Liliana as soon as they can. While this can be detrimental and game winning in other matches, against control, it’s often reduced to a triple Stone Rain and not much else. It’s much more powerful to keep her around and ensure the U/W player can’t keep any cards in hand.

  • Cryptic can also “Fog” for a turn by tapping down your team and either bouncing another permanent or drawing a card. If you have creature lands, it can be beneficial to play around this by holding them back. When you go to combat, and they tap your team, you can still fire up the creature land before declaring attackers to get in damage that turn.

This Cryptic combat trick is a great reason to make sure you are only adding to your board post combat. Casting a spell before combat means they get to use their Cryptic to counter your play for the turn as well as Fog your attack. By waiting to cast your spells in the second main-phase, you’ll make them choose between countering your play for the turn or tapping your team. The only time I’ve deviated from this was when I knew my spell would be countered by a Mana Leak or Logic Knot and played into it pre-combat to grow my Goyf  for that turn’s attack.

Celestial-Colonnade-mtg
“Celestial Colonnade” by Eric Deschamps

Ultimately, this match is about resource denial. U/W is spell heavy and mana hungry. If you can keep them off their engine pieces and strain their mana, you can often come out on top. We’re not aggressive enough to go under them or overwhelm their interaction early, so we have to pummel our way through the early game and then make sure they don’t make it to the late-late game where they can turn the corner.

Let’s look at some ways we can sideboard against U/W, starting with this Jund list that got first place at an IQ in Findlay in the hands of David Shawn.

junduw

Out:

jund out

In:

jund in

Coming out we have our narrow removal for more non-creature interaction with Maelstrom Pulse. The Lightning Bolts can help you close out the game faster, but they are also fairly restricted as their most common mode will simply be to go face and not interact with the opponent much. Because this list has no Fulminator Mages, I think it’s a fine hedge to keep in one Fatal Push to deal with Celestial Colonnade. This way, Assassin’s Trophy (the only other removal spell that can deal with Colonnades after sideboarding) can be utilized on the bigger planeswalker threats.

Thrun and Choke are specifically here for this matchup. Being an uncounterable threat with hexproof and the ability to survive a Supreme Verdict makes Thrun well positioned to run away with the game outside of a Terminus or Settle the Wreckage. Of course, if you can help it, this can sometimes mean that Thrun is closer to a six-drop than he is a four-drop if you wish to be able to save him from a sweeper and untap with him.

While the U/W list does have numerous lands that are not islands, such as Glacial Fortress, Field of Ruin, Fetches, non-island basics, and creature lands, Choke will still do an excellent job of slowing the opponent down. Not only will their islands not untap, but their Fetches and Field of Ruins become much worse when they are searching for islands that will only serve as a one-time-use blue source. This can often make it so that you have enough time to defeat your opponent before they can find a way to get rid of it or get around it. Of course all of this won’t matter as much if the opponent is able to resolve a Teferi and untap their lands through the Choke.

You can make arguments that Kalitas is a worthy threat to bring in or that Surgical Extraction can be a card to make Snapcaster worse, but I personally like Scavenging Ooze more. They will rarely become anything more than 2/2’s or 3/3’s but the ability to ensure the opponent cannot two-for-one with Snapcaster (more than once unlike Surgical) can really take the wind out of their sails. It’s not a beater (like Kalitas) so much as it is a disruptive element (which Kalitas is not in this match).

Note that Collective Brutality fills the duel role of being able to kill most of the creatures presented in the U/W lists while also acting as additional discard if you’re in search of more cards to bring in; that goes for any G/Bx deck that has Brutality in the sideboard. What it doesn’t hit, which we’ve mentioned is extremely important, are the draw engines that will bury you in card advantage. So even though discard is very important in this match, Brutality is actually much more narrow than you may think.

Next, let’s look at an Abzan list that 5-0’d a league by user YawgmothPT.

abzanuw

OUT:

abzan out

IN:

abzan in

Coming out of the Abzan deck we have a lot of excess removal to make room for more threats.

Knight of Autumn has the versitiliy of either being a 4/3 beater or sometimes having the opportunity to blow up a Detention Sphere or Search for Azcanta. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Liliana, the Last Hope help the threat diversity; Gideon floods the board and beats down hard while Liliana can buy back threats, kill most of the creatures presented in U/W, and tick up to the (almost always) game winning emblem. Fulminator Mage can poke in for damage while having an uncounterable Stone Rain ability that can deal with Colonnades and set the U/W player back early in the game.

This list is also playing Noble Hierarchs, a card that can get some of the most important cards in the match, like Fulminator Mage and Liliana of the Veil, down as early as turn two. It’s a very mediocre top-deck in the late game that has the potential to pull the Abzan player very far ahead early in the game. Turn two Liliana of the Veil and turn three Siege Rhino is very strong.

Lastly, let’s look at this G/B lists that went 8-1 in an online PTQ by user Iziter.

gbuw

OUT:

gb out

IN:

gb in

I like Duress a lot more than Brutality in this match since it can actually grab the important engine pieces like Search for Azcanta, Teferi, and Jace. I would either cut both the Brutalities and leave in all the Oozes or do a split as previewed above. We’re also going to cut most of our Fatal Pushes for more threats.

This list also omits Fulminator Mage but seeing as G/B has access to Field of Ruin, it shouldn’t be a problem most of the time. Regardless, we’re still going to keep in one Fatal Push to deal with their small creatures and Colonnades if we have to.

Kitchen Finks isn’t terribly impressive in the face of Path to Exile but is certainly better than excess copies of Fatal Push. Kalitas could play a similar role if you wanted to play it over Finks or the fourth Push but seeing as the exile clause is not very relevant, I’d rather go with the cheaper three power creature that has an ETB.

Nissa is excellent in this match. She can emblem very quickly to make sure you never run out of gas, re-buy threats (even planeswalkers), and hit hard with 5/5 animated lands. Every mode is relevant and powerful.

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“Cryptic Command” by Wayne England

Before closing, I’d like to demonstrate some of the points made in this article by recreating snapshots from a recent experience I had playing Jund on MtGO against U/W control.

My opponent won game one after I ran out of gas and ultimated my Liliana of the Veil in a last ditch effort to return the game to parody. I split their permanents into two piles: one, a flipped and unflipped Search for Azcanta and other containing the rest of their lands. They kept the Azcantas and went on to win the game. Remember, I was out of gas and not pressuring them after this moment. They scry’d lands to the top when I didn’t add to the board and kept removal when I presented threats. Eventually they made enough land drops to start activating the Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin and buried me. This alone should illustrate the importance and power of these cards. My opponent knew it, I knew it, and they made the correct decision in choosing the Azcanta pile knowing full well that that was their way back into the game.

I went on to win game two by keeping my opponent’s hand empty with a Liliana of the Veil and beating in with a Raging Ravine. Game three, I’m on a mull to six and start out with an Inquisition of Kozilek on my turn one.

t1t

I’m forced to take the Serum Visions and am a little nervous about my hand’s ability to compete with a Jace and Teferi. I have to hope they stumble on mana a little bit before I can get ahead.

On my turn three, after playing Tarmogoyf on turn two, I draw a very timely Thoughtseize. Now I have to make a decision between playing a three mana threat or playing the discard spell before my opponent can play Jace, assuming they have a fourth land.

If I play the Liliana, they will simply play Jace and bounce the Tarmogoyf, leaving Jace uncontested on an empty board with Teferi to follow up. If I play Kitchen Finks, they will probably play Supreme Verdict which will allow me to untap, play Liliana and Thoughtseize in the same turn. The other option available to my opponent though would be to take an attack from the Goyf and Finks to Cryptic my next play. This would mean I would have to bait the Cryptic with my Liliana to Thoughtseize the Jace. At the end of this exchange after a Supreme Verdict on their turn, I’d have a 2/1 Finks and no follow up while they would still have a Teferi in hand.

t3t

I decide too much could go wrong by not simply playing the discard spell immediately, respecting the potential down hill decline the game could take for me if Jace resolves. I can’t risk something going wrong or a potential draw that doesn’t allow me to deal with the Jace. My hand is currently weak to their planeswalkers with no Trophy or Pulse to help.

On my turn four I draw yet another Thoughtseize but my opponent has drawn the fourth land and has left up Cryptic Command. I attack and then bait the counterspell (Cryptic-counter/draw) with the Kitchen Finks to resolve my Thoughtseize and take the Teferi.

t4t

My opponent is left with two Supreme Verdicts and a land against my Tarmogoyf and Liliana in hand. At this point my Tarmogoyf has already gotten in for a decent amount of damage and is currently a 5/6. My opponent is forced to fire off one of the Verdicts to quell the pressure. I follow up with a Liliana, the Last Hope, tick up, and then tick down on the subsequent turn to re-buy and replay the Tarmogoyf. My opponent again is forced to fire off a Supreme Verdict to trade with the Tarmogoyf.

My opponent continues to one-for-one the best they can and by the time my opponent draws another threat/card advantage engine, the board looks like this.

t6t

My opponent is forced to minus the Teferi to deal with the annoyance of Liliana of the Veil taking their cards every turn with the impending ultimate. On my turn I draw Fulminator Mage to deal with the Colonnade poised to eliminate the Liliana, the Last Hope and attack Teferi down with the Tarmogoyf. Eventually I redraw Liliana of the Veil and the resource denial plan continues as I beat down with Tarmogoyf, re-buy Fulminators with Liliana, the Last Hope, and keep their hand empty with Liliana of the Veil.

My opponent scoops and as I survey the graveyard I see that I had bested two Teferis, a Jace, a Cryptic, two Supreme Verdicts, and a Colonnade. I accomplished this by accurately utilizing my discard to keep them off their most dangerous threats, not over extending into the sweepers, and attacking their resources with Liliana and Fulminator Mage.

Snapcaster-Mage-MM3
“Snapcaster Mage” by Ryan Alexander Lee

Jace and Teferi are fierce opponents and this match can be very difficult to navigate. This is especially true if you don’t have the information provided to you by discard, as their open mana on your turn could represent so many possibilities. Don’t be afraid to go head to head with their one-for-one trades early in the game, remember that your deck is built to overcome that. Instead, focus more on stopping your opponent from sticking any of their late-game draw engines and finishers. If you can keep them from crawling back into the game and re-accumulating resources, your two-for-ones like Bloodbraid Elf, Lingering Souls, and planeswalker threats can begin to take over.

Jace may be the most feared planeswalker in the multiverse, but even he can fold under Duress.

Liliana of the Veil (Part 3)

History & Lore: Liliana of the Veil (Part 1)

History & Lore: Liliana of the Veil (Part 2)

 

Three months had come and gone since Emrakul’s defeat on Innistrad. The Gatewatch had since made Ravnica their home of operations. Gideon trained with Nissa and Chandra, Jace had Guildpact responsibilities, and Liliana….well, she simply did as she pleased.

Jace had put the word out to the multiverse, if there was trouble, they would come, and they would fight. It wouldn’t be long before the Gatewatch would pique the interest of those on other planes. One of those interested parties was Dovin Baan of Kaladesh. He was looking for help to stop the renegades who were disrupting his plane’s government.

The job didn’t really excite the Gatewatch until they had heard that Tezzeret was operating on the plane. Liliana and Jace were the last to see him before his memory was ruined and body left for dead. To hear that he was alive and well was unsettling.

The Gatewatch went to Kaladesh to try to uncover Tezzeret’s intentions and the events that transpired ultimately led to a confrontation between Liliana and Tezzeret. She uncovered his efforts to confiscate the Planar Bridge, an experimental portal that reminded Liliana of the old artifacts that were built early on in Dominaria’s history. The technology could bridge two planes together, a terrifying tool for invasions and interplanar travels. The two fought back and forth and soon Tezzeret revealed that he was working for Bolas. It seemed that Bolas was responsible for restoring Tezzeret’s mind and body as well as putting him to work on Kaladesh.

Liliana defeated Tezzeret and pried for information on the whereabouts of Bolas. With her heel on his throat, he struggled to mutter,

“R— Ra—”

“Razaketh,” he gasped.

Fear jolted through her at the name of her demon master.

“Amonkhet,” she said aloud. “He’s on Amonkhet.”

Before she could deliver the killing blow, an explosion interrupts her execution and Tezzeret takes the opportunity to escape.

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Art by Daarken

The Gatewatch regrouped with their new member, the powerful leonin planeswalker Ajani. They debated whether they should go straight to Amonkhet to try to take Bolas by surprise, or if they should try and gather more allies and information before their assault. Most favored going to Amonkhet immediately before Tezzeret could alert Bolas.

Ajani left to try to recruit more allies while the rest left for Amonkhet. What they found was a desert plane with a secluded paradise within a protective barrier. Past the barrier was a lush, vibrant, organized civilization. The Gatewatch immediately took notice of a huge monument built in the likeness of Bolas’s horns that could be seen from anywhere. In the beautiful city they found the undead working on new buildings, gods like those on Theros, but no sign of Bolas or Razaketh. It was hard to believe that such a beautiful place was the product of such a devious enemy. Liliana had only been here once before, when she was signing her contracts with her demon masters, but it wasn’t anything like she remembered.

Bounty of the Luxa

The undead servants were strange here, Liliana couldn’t control them and there seemed to be some kind of ambient necromancy keeping them in order. Perhaps this was the product of Razaketh? She sent two shades to try to find his whereabouts and while they were successful in finding evidence of his presence, her prodding also alerted him to her.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Gatewatch was trying to uncover the reason for Bolas’s interest in the plane. What they could find was that Amonkhet had a history and culture older than Bolas, but they had been corrupted by him. The gods couldn’t seem to remember what had happened before his intervention and the population seemed to look forward to his “glorious” return. The prophecy was stated that when the second sun would rest between the horned monument, the God-Pharaoh Bolas would return and the Gate to the Afterlife would open, revealing a paradise to those who earned it. It seemed that he had supplanted himself in their culture and mythology as a God to be worshiped.

The Gatewatch’s timing was impeccable as the second sun was forecasted to set within the horns shortly after their arrival. As it did, the Gate opened not to a paradise, but a harsh desert to the disappointment of those promised a heaven beyond its border. Not only was there no paradise, but Bolas also remained absent and a demon emerged in his stead. A heavy dark mist trailed its wings as it flew from the Gate and turned the lush river to blood. His curses would set in motion a series of plagues that would end with Bolas’s return to the plane. The prophecies had got it all wrong.

“Liliana,” it rumbled.

“I know you are here, Liliana Vess. You cannot hide from me.”

c4rd4r7_BZ3snEOak3
Art by Jaime Jones

Razaketh forced Liliana to make her way to the Gate where he stood. He had complete control of her. She tried to convince herself that her involuntary movements were just a scare tactic, but fear became an inevitable emotion as she was forced to make herself known in the crowd.

“There you are.”

“Come to me.”

How was she supposed to defeat Razaketh when she couldn’t even control her own hands, couldn’t even reach for the Chain Veil. It was always her intention to use the Gatewatch to help defeat her demons, but she had hoped she would have had more time to earn their trust. She had no choice though, Razaketh could easily defeat her if he wanted. She spoke out to Jace in her mind, informing him of her location and to bring the Gatewatch.

Liliana continued in her involuntary trance towards the demon, through the river of blood, to the Gate. She nearly drowned walking across the bottom of the river to the other side and now the demon had her in his claws. Liliana continued to talk to Jace in her mind, trying to get him to hold off the Gatewatch until the right time when they could ambush the demon. The demon took great pleasure in toying with his disobedient servant.

Razaketh, the Foulblooded

“I apologize for the forcefulness, Liliana, but I love a dog who comes when she is called. And you’re a good dog, aren’t you?”

He held out a lazy finger and tapped it.

Liliana felt her head nod. Her muscles strained and cramped as she tried to resist the urge, but her head tipped forward . . . then back . . . forward . . . then back.

Razaketh smiled, putting his hand down. “Good.”

He went quiet and considered her for a moment. A smug look pulled at the scales of his face as he thought over his next command.

“Bark.”

“Woof,” Liliana replied in a tone that could ice over the sun.

After he was satisfied with her torment, he finally gave her an opportunity to speak, and she didn’t waste it,

“You have five more minutes to live,” Liliana said, voice dripping with resolution. “You will watch me as I kill you.”

The demon laughed her threat off and ridiculed Kothophed and Griselbrand for being stupid enough to fall at her hands. Liliana had stalled long enough and the Gatewatch was in the perfect position to attack. Chandra blasted the demon with fire and he released Liliana. Immediate relief came over her as she regained control of her body. She attempted to siphon mana for a spell before Razaketh could take notice and stop her.

“I don’t think so,” the demon roared, and Liliana felt her shoulder dislocate itself.

The rest of the Gatewatch joined in as Nissa summoned an elemental, Chandra continued to blast him with flames, Jace was trying to break his control on Liliana, and Gideon was extending his invulnerability magic to her while she shoved her shoulder back into place. Razaketh struggled to control Liliana while simultaneously fighting the other planeswalkers and soon found himself half charred and pinned to the banks of the river by the elemental. His control over Liliana was broken and she took her chance.

“Razaketh,” Liliana called.

“Watch me as I kill you.”

She awakened the massive amounts of death that lay at the bottom of the river; people, crocodiles, hippopotamus, snakes. She controlled all of them and commanded them to eat Razaketh alive. Nothing pissed Liliana off more than someone trying to control her and Razaketh would soon learn that lesson. The zombies shredded the demon apart while he screamed in pain. The carnage was brutal as the rest of the Gatewatch watched in awe and disgust. When the zombies were full she left what scraps remained drift down the banks of the river.

She had done it! And without having to use the Veil! Razaketh was dead and now there was only one more! One more demon and she could reclaim herself!

The Gatewatch had proven itself quite useful and she was giddy at the thought of using them again to kill Belzenlok. That would have to wait though, Bolas was coming, and while that fight may prove easier with Razaketh gone, it would still be a tough battle. To make matters worse, Liliana was completely exhausted and barely able to stand let alone fight such a formidable foe.

cardart_HOU_Hour-of-Devastation
“Hour of Devastation” by Simon Dominic

Bolas was huge, towering over the small band of planeswalkers. The fight wasn’t even close. One by one he dealt with each member of the Gatewatch with ease.

He penetrated Jace’s mind and began to take every ounce of his mind and consciousness; he had to planewalk away, or die. Jace’s screams rang in Liliana’s ears and it became apparent to her that the battle was lost before it had started. Chandra’s fire did nothing to the elder dragon, Nissa had no control over the ground that was loyal to Bolas, and Gideon didn’t have the strength to even make a dent in him. He mocked their pathetic attempts.

“That was your mind expert, I believe? Do you have a spare? I can wait, or I promise not to listen if you shout at each other.” 

The Veil called out to her begging her to use it against him, but she knew she shouldn’t. It had gotten to the point where every use meant possibly dying to its powerful surges. As if Bolas could hear the voices in her head, he combated them with his own promises.

“Do you know, Liliana, how to use the Chain Veil so that it doesn’t rupture your skin or drain you of life? Do you know how to make the spirits of the Onakke serve you as their master instead of seeking the destruction of your soul and body? I do, Liliana. I do. […] Yes, it’s a nasty weapon in the hands of the untutored. A testament to your power and skill that it hasn’t killed you already. But I can help you unlock its power, Liliana. Its true power. […] I promise you this: whether you use the Chain Veil or not, if you fight me today, you will die. I am a better telepath than your mind mage, more destructive than your fire mage, more powerful than your elementalist, a better general than your so-called tactician. That each of you has lived so long is merely a function of how useful you can be to me. […] Liliana. Go. Leave if you want to live. The safest place in the Multiverse is the place where I have use of you.”

She was disappointed in herself for letting his words unravel her malice towards him, but he was right. They weren’t going to win, and there was nothing to be gained by staying. She turned to the others, pleaded with them to leave, regroup, live to fight another day. They stared back angrily with disappointment, the battle had just began and she was giving up.

She turned back to Bolas, “Where  . . . where do you want me to go?”

“Away,” Bolas said. “Away. I will find you, and then we will talk. There are so many useful matters to discuss. Go now, Liliana Vess.”

Here she was again, betraying the few people she cared about for self gain, self preservation. She supposed in was inevitable, it’s the way it’s always gone. Their hurt was tangible and the wave of different emotions was not something she typically allowed herself to feel.

She surrounded herself in a glowing nimbus of dark energy and vanished into the void, her tears finally free to fall in the empty spaces between worlds.

Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh

Three remained. Bolas pulverized Chandra’s ribs and crushed her to the point where she was coughing up blood and on the verge of unconsciousness. She had no choice but to planeswalk away.

Two to go. He forced dark energy through the leylines Nissa wished to harness and they began to suffocate her. Without access to the leylines of the plane, she had no power. If it were not for a timely interjection from Gideon, giving her an opportunity to planeswalk away, she would have died.

One left. Bolas had perhaps the least respect for Gideon than anyone else in the group. He was a reckless leader and a horrible strategist, continuing to fight even after the battle was lost. Gideon carried himself so confidently that his arrogance was palpable.

One of Bolas’s talons began to glow as it pressed into the invulnerable shield protecting Gideon. The talon pushed, and pushed, and the shield parted like melted butter, the talon’s sharp point puncturing shield and armor and flesh alike.

Though he may have been content in dying in that moment, Bolas’s mockery gave him reason to live on, to prove him wrong, so he planeswalked away instead.

Now, none remained and Bolas was left to revel in his victory and destruction of the once beautiful paradise on Amonkhet.

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“Damnation” by Zack Stella

Gideon arrived in front of the others at the rendezvous point, Dominaria. Ajani had picked it but Liliana was quite happy with the choice. It lined up perfectly so that they could defeat Razaketh and then go straight to the plane where Belzenlok resided. First the Gatewatch would have to lick their wounds and regroup. Also, where was Jace?

They worried where he had gone, was he dead? Did he abandon them? Their frustration from defeat and Jaces absence turned to anger. Liliana tried to calm Nissa down, she needed the group to stay together and remain cohesive.

“It wasn’t a disaster; we killed Razaketh. The rest . . . We couldn’t have anticipated—”

Nissa snapped back at her; perhaps now was not the best time to mention her victory over her demon master.

Nissa’s anger snowballed into accusations,

“You got what you wanted and ran. You don’t care about defeating Bolas, you’re just using us to free yourself from your pact.”

Nissa persisted, “And why here?” She flung an arm out, gesturing to the dead marsh. “How do you want us to risk our lives for you here?”

Chandra and Nissa were putting the pieces together, “Your last demon is here, isn’t it, Liliana?”

She couldn’t defend herself, it was going to come up eventually if she wanted their help.

“Belzenlok is here.”

She tried to convince them that defeating the demon would unlock her ability to defeat Bolas, that it was a necessary step, but her words only hurt them further. Outraged, Nissa ended her watch, revoked her oath, and abandoned them. Chandra, hurt by Nissa’s actions, also left shortly thereafter.

Only Gideon remained, who believed that Liliana could help defeat Bolas without her demon’s shackles. He was injured though, and he needed rest.

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“Broken Bond” by Ryan Yee

They found a small inn at a nearly deserted town that looked to be in ruins. She found out that the Cabal, followers of Belzenlok, had taken this territory and with it all of the beauty she had remembered about the Caligo Forest and Benalia. She went out to find some herbs that could help Gideon heal and couldn’t help but visit the grounds of Vess Manor where she had grown up. To her surprise is was still in tact, run down, but still standing. It shouldn’t be though, it had been too long since being deserted to still stand. She wondered who was watching over it enough to keep it from crumbling, the Raven Man?

Returning to the inn she had a run in with some of the undead Cabal knights patrolling the area. The undead were easy to dispatch as she simply took control of them from their Cabal cleric. As she was about to destroy the last one, a voice whispered in her mind, different from that of the Raven Man and Onakke.

The Void awaits.

Josu?

An image of a lich passed before her mind and the lich’s face was that of Josu’s.

The Cabal cleric was mortally injured but Liliana interrogated nonetheless.

“Where is Josu? What has Belzenlok done to him?”

“He knew, our Demonlord, the Scion of Darkness, he knew you were coming! He has made your precious brother into his servant, the commander of his unholy forces!”

Belzenlok is using my own brother against me, Liliana thought.

“He serves our lord, he . . .” The cleric gurgled as blood filled his throat. He gasped, “The Void awaits,” and slumped lifeless on the pavement.

She still feared it, the Void, the damnation that Josu had cursed her to. The guilt and fear from that day, the day her spark ignited, still followed her. She had to unmake Josu and lay him to rest. That would undo his curse and would weaken Belzenlok’s army without a general. She would have to lure Josu to the manor, where the curse was born.

Gideon and Liliana convinced the general of Benalia’s forces to come together and meet at the manor to lure the Cabal. Liliana spoke to Josu in her mind to catch his attention and bring him to the front of the ranks. He was unrecognizable as a lich, but he recognized her instantly.

Josu Vess, Lich Knight

This was her chance, she had to act now while he was vulnerable. She called upon the Veil and sent a blast towards Josu. His lich-like appearance retreated and he suddenly became the brother she had remembered with pale skin and dark hair. His peace was short lived though as he began to crumble to dust. The curse was broken and the ruins of the manor began to crumble as well. She could barely stand, weak from the Veil’s use.

“Josu, it’s all right. It’s over. The curse of the House of Vess is ended.”

“It cannot end, Liliana. Not while you still live.”

“What do you mean?”

What was left of his lips formed a sneer. “You destroyed the House of Vess, Liliana”

 “Josu, I wasn’t here—”

“Of course you weren’t.” Josu’s voice strengthened, even as his body failed. “What do you think happened after you left? They died. All of them. Father tried to lay me to rest. I killed him myself. Mother took our sisters away, searching for a cure for me. And searching for you. She thought you lived, thought you’d been stolen away. She followed a rumor of magic that could save me and the journey killed her. Others took up the burden, our sisters, our cousins, trying to stop me, to destroy me. All of them died.” He was fading now, fragments of his body disappearing into windblown dust. “You killed me. You killed them. It is you, Liliana. It will always be you. You are the curse of the House of Vess.”

And he was gone.

The words shook her, they were hard to digest, hard to swallow. What made it worse was that Gideon was there to hear it all as well, to see her in such a vulnerable state. Sadness and disbelief turned to anger and rage. Belzenlok would pay for using her brother the way he had, “If I must be a curse, then let me be Belzenlok’s!”

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“Final Parting” by Eric Deschamps

The rest of the battle was easily handled as the Cabal forces quickly scattered without their general. Afterward, Gideon and Liliana made their way to the city, where the Gatewatch was set to meet with Ajani after their fight with Bolas. It wouldn’t be long before a massive sky ship descended from the heavens upon them, the Weatherlight.

Ajani was disappointed, but not surprised to hear about their defeat on Amonkhet. Ajani was one of the firm opposers to the plan, and blamed Liliana and her distracting demons. Regardless of how things unfolded, they were down three planeswalkers and so he left in an effort to find more. Gideon and Liliana were left in the hands of the Weatherlight crew and its mission to overthrow the Cabal and save Dominaria from Belzenlok.

The Weatherlight had picked up some worthy inclusions to their crew as they made preparations: the time mage Teferi, Urza’s creation Karn, the legendary pyromancer Jaya Ballard, and even Chandra, who had returned to Dominaria looking for Jaya. The plan was to use Teferi’s time magic to help Gideon and Chandra infiltrate the Cabal Stronghold and find the Blackblade in their treasury. The blade was a soul siphoner that consumed the souls of those it slayed. The more it siphoned, the more powerful it was to wield, and it had already absorbed the soul of an elder dragon. Once the Blackblade was found, the rest of the Weatherlight would attack from the outside while Gideon and Chandra wreaked havoc from within. After the Cabal forces were distracted and weakened, Gideon would confront Belzenlok with the Blackblade and destroy him with it.

Blackblade Reforged

Before they could reach the Cabal, Jace planeswalked aboard the Weatherlight. He seemed hurried but even more importantly, he was alive. He explained that Bolas was preparing a trap for planeswalkers and tried to recruit as many as he could. They decided to stay and help Liliana instead, proclaiming that it would be more beneficial if she could help at her full power. Jace, disappointed and untrusting of Liliana, leaves to find and help Ajani.

Cabal Stronghold

The plan was executed well as Gideon and Chandra had found the weapon thanks to Teferi’s time magic. The Weatherlight crew, along with Liliana, overpowered the Cabal with thousands of undead that had laid just beneath the surface of the battle worn soil.

Gideon drew the Blackblade and met Belzenlok in the courtyard and caught his attention.

“I smell Planeswalker. Who are you?”

Gideon didn’t hesitate. “I’m Gideon Jura. I came here with Liliana Vess to kill you.”

Belzenlok bared his fangs again in a grin. “You. The Gatewatch. I know what’s planned for you. It almost seems a shame to kill you now. Almost.” Belzenlok lunged forward.

The two fought but Gideon was unable to pierce the demon with the powerful weapon. Liliana would soon catch up to them and their duel, but she was far too weak to engage while she still held control over the undead army that was fighting the Cabal. The best she could do was distract him. She ridiculed, belittled, and tempted him to try to break his focus. Gideon lunged at every opportunity he could find but Belzenlok was fast and strong.

Demonlord Belzenlok

He swatted Gideon like a fly and Gideon released the Blackblade from his grip. The weapon caught in Belzenlok’s hide but it wouldn’t siphon his soul without a wielder. As Belzenlok went to finish Gideon off, Liliana went for the hilt, grabbed it, and the dark energy soared through her. The incredible power of the weapon rendered Belzenlok paralyzed as Liliana drained him of his life and trapped it within the blade. Belzenlok’s body withered and collapsed onto itself until the blade released what was left of him; a pile of flesh, ash, and horns.

“You should have left Josu alone.”

She was exhausted but she felt incredible at the same time. She was victorious and she was finally free. Excitement quickly led to confusion at the sight of her still remaining scars, but perhaps they would always be a reminder of what had been done, regardless of whether the demons that had inscribed them were dead.

Belzenlok was defeated, the Cabal had been overthrown, Dominaria was safe, and Liliana was free. The Weatherlight crew celebrated their victory but there was still much work that needed to be done. The crew became the guardians of Dominaria and not just its saviors, while the Gatewatch left to help Jace. Teferi took his oath and joined the Gatewatch against Bolas. Karn decided to help against Bolas, but would not take the oath, as he had other priorities that he would need to attend to afterward.

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Art by Tyler Jacobson

It was time to part ways, to go help Jace, Ajani, and the others.

Carrying the Blackblade, Gideon glanced around at them all and said, “Are we ready?”

Everyone nodded and began to planeswalk away, following Gideon’s lead.

Liliana watched the others leave but remained behind. Confusion and panic followed. She had meant to follow him. Why couldn’t she? Had she lost her spark? Perhaps the power of the Blackblade or the Chain Veil had damaged her ability to planeswalk.

Then she saw the dust in the court rise and swirl into a whirlwind. A dark form grew at the center of the maelstrom. “No,” she breathed, as sick realization settled on her like iron chains. “Oh, no.”

Nicol Bolas materialized out of the darkness, his huge scaled dragon form looming over her, the sheer weight of his presence drawing all the light and air out of her world.

“You really should have read the details of your pact more closely, Liliana. You seem unaware that with your demons dead, your contract defaults to its broker. Me.”

Everything.

All of her victories over her demons, her betrayals, manipulations, triumphs and trials were all leading her here, to be Bolas’s slave. She was furious, disappointed in herself, and filled with sorrow. Perhaps she would simply disobey, abstain. He replied to her thoughts as if she had said them out loud.

“No. If you disobey my orders in any way, the pact will kill you. You will age hundreds of years in a moment, a desiccated husk to be blown away on the wind.”

Maybe that was okay. Maybe that was better than facing the Gatewatch on Bolas’s side. Maybe that was better than being under Bolas’s thumb. Perhaps death would free her from her prison once and for all.

No.

She couldn’t. Not while she had the will to fight. There had to be a way out. There had to be a way to be free. One day, she would be free, but that day was not today.

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“In Bolas’s Clutches” by Zack Stella

If you’re interested in reading any of Liliana’s stories mentioned in this article feel free to visit her home page here.