A Team is More Than the Sum of its Parts – The Idea of Sacrifice Decks

Introduction

Hello there! I’ve been playing with Sacrifice decks for a long time and was able to win one of the Gladiator Weekly Tournaments and score a 4-1 in The Gladiator Games: Innistrad Double-Up with my Mardu version. I want to share with you some thoughts about those kinds of decks, their components, strategies, strengths, weaknesses, and finally present a puzzle to solve. This article isn’t a specific deck tech, though I might write one in the future, but I think that understanding the general idea is the first thing to do before focusing on particular card choices.

Sacrifice or Aristocrats (“Crats” in short) decks aim to obtain value by sacrificing their own creatures. They usually win by combining attacking and draining the opponent’s life with effects like Bastion of Remembrance. Crats is a highly synergistic archetype that involves a few components working together: fodder, sacrifice outlets, amplifiers and recursion. Let’s look closer at each of them.

Fodder

These are the creatures we want to sacrifice or cards that generate them. They either deploy creature tokens, like Tithe Taker, Chandra, Acolyte of Flame, and Jadar, Ghoulcaller of Nephalia, or are able to return to the battlefield or your hand, like Scrapheap Scrounger or Gutterbones.

Most fodder creatures are cheap and have small stats. In greater numbers they are able to pressure your opponent in the early game or chump block effectively. Fodder creatures alone usually can’t block fliers (though some can in their Afterlife), get trampled over by big green beasts, and won’t provide much value when the opponent wraths the board (aside from some effects that leave a body after death). They require the next components to squeeze more value out of them.

Sacrifice Outlets

As the name suggests, they allow you to sacrifice creatures for some value, for example: drawing cards — Village Rites, draining the opponent — Lampad of Death’s Vigil, or removing their cards, like Rankle, Master of Pranks’s edict or Rite of Oblivion. Many of these effects work at instant speed, meaning that we can sacrifice our creatures in response to removal, or after blocking.

Priest of Forgotten Gods is a staple Crats card and the person in the art really looks like a DJ, don’t you think? And what does a DJ need? A hall full of people and a good amplifier! Our sacrifice outlets look really sad when we don’t have any fodder creatures. Together, they can provide a good value, but it’s the amplifiers that take the synergy to the next level.

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Priest of Forgotten Gods or DJ of Forgotten Beats?

Payoffs, or Amplifiers

They don’t allow you to sacrifice creatures, but provide additional value when doing so, or when your fodder dies from other causes, hence I named them “amplifiers” — they reinforce other effects. This category includes cards like Mayhem Devil, Spiteful Prankster, Midnight Reaper or even The Meathook Massacre.

Amplifiers aren’t the best on their own. Having only amplifiers and fodder creatures usually means we could make some value of our creatures dying, but we can’t do so unless they die in combat or are removed by the opponent. In another scenario, having amplifiers and sacrifice outlets without fodder means that we would love to sacrifice some creatures, but those we have right now are too precious to get rid of. We might also have a little fodder but need more and this is where recursion comes in.

Recursion

These are cards that either revive our fallen creatures, e.g. Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord and Venerable Warsinger, or give them an “extra life” right after dying, like Hofri Ghostforge and Luminous Broodmoth. The latter group is like a cherry on top of a cake; it almost doubles the amount of sacrifice fodder available to us! This way you can sacrifice a creature that plays the role of a sacrifice outlet or an amplifier, have it returned to the battlefield, and still have access to its abilities.

Recursion elements usually work well with other parts of the deck as long as we have some other creatures. Even if we don’t have sacrifice outlets at the moment, recursion cards provide some sort of insurance for the future or allow us to take more trades in combat.

Merging the Parts

These are the four ingredients of Crats “soup,” and combining them all gives the best results. One card can belong to a few categories at once, like Woe Strider that has a free sacrifice outlet, creates a fodder token, and can recur from graveyard due to Escape ability. When building a Crats deck, you need to care about proportions to avoid having one of the problems I mentioned in the paragraphs above. Unfortunately, I don’t have any golden proportions, but looking at my lists, fodder is the most populated category, then I play a roughly similar amount of sacrifice outlets and recursion, and finally amplifiers are the smallest group.

Crats is a highly synergistic deck and playing too many cards that don’t belong to any of these four groups above dilutes the synergy, but on the other hand, the deck needs a few good removal pieces and can make good use of powerful universal cards in its colors like Demonic Tutor. Speaking of colors, usually the main Crats color is black and the secondary colors are white and/or red. In my opinion green has only a few good synergistic adds to the archetype right now and while blue gained a sacrifice theme based around Exploit and Decayed tokens in the two recent Innistrad expansions, that’s still not that many cards overall.

My List

This the list I’ve been playing before the release of Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty.

Mardu Artistocrats

Creatures (43)
Instants (7)
Sorceries (8)
Enchantments (3)
Planeswalkers (3)
Lands (36)

Winning by Pinging – Puzzle

By “pinging” I mean dealing small amounts of damage (usually one) to the opponent or any target, in the case of Crats usually by one of the amplifiers like Mayhem Devil. Crats decks aim to zero the opponent’s life total by a mix of attacking and pinging. In some board states, you can deal a tremendous amount of damage to the opponent without attacking. Here is a puzzle that illustrates it. 

The board state actually comes from Historic Brawl, not Gladiator, but it was interesting and a similar situation could have happened in Gladiator, assuming that Extus was in your hand. Your quest is to kill the opponent this turn. Assumptions:

My opponent had only 11 life originally, but hey, it’s time to push the limits of your aristocratic mind! You’ll often find yourself in a scenario when you can sacrifice your whole board but you’re not sure if it’s lethal and then all those calculations are really important. You’ll find the puzzle solution at the end of this article.

The Overlap of Aggro and Aristocrats Themes

After looking at different cards used by Crats, you’ll notice that some of them are also played by Aggro. There’s a group of creatures I named by combining words “Aggro” and “recursive” —“The Aggrecursive Four” — Gutterbones, Dread Wanderer, Skyclave Shade, and Scrapheap Scrounger. They share three important traits: low casting cost, ability to return to your hand or the battlefield from the graveyard, and power higher than their mana cost. This makes them playable by both archetypes. There are also others, like Dreadhorde Butcher or Judith, the Scourge Diva.

The only problem is that mixing some typical Aggro creatures with sacrifice outlets or amplifiers doesn’t work well. Imagine you have three creatures on board: Rotting Regisaur, Kargan Intimidator and Priest of Forgotten Gods. You don’t really want to sacrifice those two to Priest, you want to attack with them. Now swap it for a Mayhem Devil and in this scenario it acts just as a vanilla 3/3.

While Crats and Aggro themes overlap to some degree, trying to mix those two will really lower the power of some typical Crats cards. I advise you to prioritise: either go full Aggro or full Crats, but of course you can still build more aggressive or more Midrange variants of Crats.

The Weak Points

Exile-based removal

Some cards can exile a creature straight away, like Baleful Mastery, or have a replacement ability like “if a creature would die, exile it instead”, e.g. Valentin, Dean of the Vein or Liesa, Forgotten Archangel. This means that all our triggers saying: “when this creature dies”, like Midnight Reaper or Blood Artist, stop working. Combine that line of text with mass removal like Anger of the Gods and our little aristocratic friends are in a world of hurt. If we have a sacrifice outlet available, then we want to sacrifice our creatures in response to avoid them being exiled. There’s also one good card that allows our creatures to return instead of being exiled — Kaya the Inexorable.

Countermagic

Many of our creatures do something upon dying, entering the battlefield or have an ability we can use at instant speed. This means that even if the opponent removes our creatures after they enter the battlefield, we can still accrue some value out of them. But if they counter our threats, then we’re left with nothing. Graveyard recursion cards can help us to get back countered creatures, but the tricky part is that they also need to resolve. Creatures that can repeatedly return from the graveyard on their own are the best against countermagic, like the Aggrecursive Four I mentioned earlier.

Big green creatures

Crats aren’t bad vs Aggro, as they have some tools to pick off little creatures such as Shambling Ghast or Judith, the Scourge Diva, but ones with high toughness are harder to remove. Crats also have a lot of fodder creatures capable of chump-blocking attackers to buy some time and stabilize, but that doesn’t work against creatures with trample. Effects that force the opponent to sacrifice creatures are better here.

Tainted Pact and Thassa’s Oracle combo

Removing the Oracle doesn’t prevent the opponent from winning, so Crats have very little interaction to deal with the combo and aren’t as fast as mono-colored Aggro to kill the opponent before they play it. Hand attack spells help a bit here, but Crats can’t afford to play too many of them without weakening the synergies. There’s also Baleful Mastery, which can force the opponent to draw a card after they emptied their deck with Pact, resulting in their loss.

The Strong Points

Extreme Resilience

With all our recursion and some sources of card draw, we rarely run out of steam and are able to win really long games vs Control players. Look at this board state, literally unboardwipeable.

Ability to win despite opponent’s overwhelming board state

In this example they tried to kill me with an army of Sharks, but I had Corpse Knight in graveyard to return via Lurrus of the Dream-Den, drew a Lampad of Death’s Vigil and won during my turn. You might also think of the right lines here as an exercise.

That’s all I have for you. Crats are an interesting archetype that offers a lot of choices and I hope you’ll have fun playing it!

Puzzle solution

The solution starts at one point and then branches into two alternative lines:

Play Hofri and Mountain, activate Priest, sacrifice two nontoken creatures, target opponent and yourself(!), because the ability says: “any number of target players”, you sacrifice Priest this way, it comes back with haste due to Hofri’s ability, you activate it once again, sacrifice two left nontoken creatures, so all nontoken creatures you sacrificed so far are back as Spirit tokens. From now on, there are two possibilities:

First option: Priest’s activation and one remaining land give you five mana for Woe Strider’s Escape cost. Now you have a free sacrifice outlet to create pings with the Devil. After that, you attack with Zurzoth, create a token and sacrifice Zurzoth, because otherwise it would get blocked and die. Then just sacrifice the rest of your board and the last two creatures to sacrifice are (in this order): Hofri and Mayhem Devil’s token (created previously by Hofri’s ability).

Second option: Cast Baleful Mastery for the alternative cost (1B), having the opponent draw a card and Zurzoth creates a Devil token. Cast Awaken the Blood Avatar, sacrifice all your remaining creatures, attack for additional 3 damage.

Both solutions deal exactly 23 damage. Remember to count the damage from Priest’s activation – the life loss and Mayhem Devil’s pings from both your and your opponent’s sacrificed creatures and pings from both Zurzoth tokens.