(Isareth the Awakener | Art by Jason Rainville)
It’s Time to Wake Up
Mono-black is a color identity known for playing around in graveyards. Whether it’s Yawgmoth, Thran Physician putting creatures into the graveyard or Chainer, Dementia Master is pulling them back out, the graveyard is often essential for a mono-black deck. Graveyard hate like Rest in Peace or Leyline of the Void are such powerful cards because exile is the only reliable way to handle a deck that’s good at bringing back its most powerful threats over and over again. But what can you do if your own commander is exiling your best creatures one by one? Let’s talk about Isareth the Awakener.
Isareth the Awakener seems, at first glance, to be very similar to Alesha, Who Smiles at Death. They both sport strong combat stats for their costs, and both bring back a creature from your graveyard when they attack. Isareth isn’t able to cheat on expensive mana costs since you’ll have to pay the full cost of that creature. Most important, though, is the fact that Isareth will exile every creature she revives if they would ever leave the battlefield. This is more evocative of Gyrus, Waker of Corpses: you’ll get one extra use out of each creature instead of looping them repeatedly for value.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that Isareth the Awakener‘s EDHREC page has significant overlap with Gyrus, Waker of Corpses. It’s full of creatures that will have an immediate, powerful impact. Panharmonicon shows up in nearly a third of all decks, doubling the value of cards like Massacre Wurm and Noxious Gearhulk. Another popular tactic seems to be running creatures that revive other creatures when they hit the field, like Phyrexian Delver or Puppeteer Clique. This saves the really important creatures from being exiled while still giving you the opportunity to play them multiple times. One card I wasn’t expecting to see on Isareth’s page was Conjurer’s Closet. Safe Haven and Endless Sands also appear in around 10% of decks, even though at first glance they don’t seem to work with Isareth the Awakener at all. As it turns out, though, Isareth is the perfect mono-black flicker commander.
If You Can’t Avoid It, Enjoy It
I would have assumed that the exile from Isareth’s ability would override any flicker or blink effect. However, Isareth the Awakener‘s replacement effect is worded specifically so that it does not: because Isareth says, “If that creature would leave the battlefield, exile it instead of putting it anywhere else,” if the creature would be exiled, because of Conjurer’s Closet, for instance, the replacement effect has nothing to replace. Then, when the creature re-enters, it will be a new game object and free of Isareth’s effect. This also works with Whip of Erebos‘s activated ability.
Focusing on big creatures that do powerful things when they hit the battlefield makes even more sense now. Rune-Scarred Demon is so good in flicker-style decks, alongside the continuous removal provided by Noxious Gearhulk. We can also include cards like Bloodtracker that let us draw whenever it leaves the battlefield.
These are all pretty expensive cards though. It’ll take some time to build up the resources necessary to pull Rune-Scarred Demon out of the graveyard with Isareth’s ability. Focusing too much on setting up Conjurer’s Closet or Safe Haven with multiple big, splashy creatures will leave you vulnerable in the early and mid game. This is where more traditional black aristocrat cards come in. Isareth the Awakener can bring back staple black creatures like Fleshbag Marauder and Plaguecrafter, or help Archfiend of Depravity soak up multiple pieces of removal. It’s inevitable that some of your creatures will get exiled by Isareth, and these are perfect early game fodder. Even just the threat of a second Plaguecrafter trigger can be enough to keep creatures off the field. Plus, every piece of removal your opponents use early increases the chances of your real threats surviving in the later turns of the game.
Flickering, Just Upside Down
None of the traditional aristocrat fodder shows up on Isareth the Awakener‘s pages. This didn’t surprise me, but I don’t think that these should be ignored. For one, they’re a persistent source of Devotion for Gray Merchant of Asphodel and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. Second, they enable powerful draw engines with Grim Haruspex, Smothering Abomination, and Harvester of Souls. While Isareth does want to avoid traditional aristocrats strategies, these creatures will also feed Ayara, First of Locthwain and Desecrated Tomb, strengthening the deck’s early game.
There also isn’t much support for a flicker deck in mono-black. You’re only going to get one blink a turn with Conjurer’s Closet, where an Azorius or Bant deck can flicker nearly all of their permanents at once. Black can approximate this, however, by having multiple creatures enter the battlefield from other places. Keeping with a flicker theme instead of an aristocrats theme, I’m opting for Ayara, First of Locthwain over Blood Artist and Orc Sureshot instead of Falkenrath Noble. Both of these effects interact nicely with Panharmonicon, while Desecrated Tomb and Genesis Chamber create even more triggers as our little creatures leave the graveyard and enter the battlefield.
Having Bloodghast, Nether Traitor and Bloodsoaked Champion in your graveyard at once is ideal, but it won’t happen all the time. The tokens from Genesis Chamber and Desecrated Tomb create a nice stream of bodies to die for Nether Traitor, while Crypt Ghast and Nirkana Revenant help produce plenty of mana to activate Bloodsoaked Champion several times a turn. Finally, Walking Atlas is a way to ramp additional lands into play and get Bloodghast into play twice a turn.
Of course, you’ll need sacrifice outlets to make use of all this reanimation. Razaketh, the Foulblooded is incredibly powerful; it’s hard to lose the game if you can tutor for any card in your deck two or three times in a turn. Woe Strider and Viscera Seer also help smooth out draws, and Ashnod’s Altar is a mainstay of sacrifice decks everywhere, even if they’re really flicker decks.
You love him, or you love to hate him: this deck does rely on Gray Merchant of Asphodel to win. It isn’t difficult to have more than enough Devotion to wipe out a table in a single round, especially if you’ve been dealing some damage with Ayara, First of Locthwain already. Dire Fleet Ravager will have a harder time reducing life points to zero, but this is where Safe Haven and Endless Sands really shine. These lands can exile multiple creatures and then bring them all back at once. This is useful for saving a creature that was reanimated by Isareth the Awakener, but it also allows you to build to an explosive turn where multiple big creatures come back into play. Having Gray Merchant of Asphodel and Dire Fleet Ravager enter the battlefield together feels pretty good, even without Panharmonicon in play.
This should usually win the game right away, but you can also play it early to recover against aggressive opponents. Crucible of Worlds is a great way to get Safe Haven back and keep the chain going. Most of the deck is creatures so Isareth the Awakener has as much utility as possible, but I’ve got most of the usual suspects for ramp and draw, as well.
This deck ended up being a lot more fun to build than I expected. The interaction between Isareth the Awakener and Conjurer’s Closet is unique, and entirely dodges the fact that Isareth is an effective counter to her own strategy. I certainly haven’t built a traditional flicker deck before, but leaning into sacrifice feels plenty flavorful for mono-black. Plus, relying on effects that trigger when creatures enter the field, rather than when they die, keeps it feeling like a flicker deck, which can be just as important as actually being a flicker deck.
But what do you think? Is mono-black flicker viable? Did you know about the trick with Conjurer’s Closet? If not, does it change your opinion of Isareth at all? Let me know, and as always thanks for reading.