Happy Halloween everyone! Today, I’d like to share one of my favourite Commander decks that captures the flavour of this most spooky of seasons. I give you the Lovecraftian Theme Deck.
The work of H.P Lovecraft is far from perfect. The man was a racist shut-in and those qualities come across all too clearly in his work. But, as the progenitor of cosmic horror sci-fi, there’s so much to enjoy in the Lovecraftian Mythos. It has inspired countless books, games and TV shows for years, and even a Magic set.
Lovecraftian horror isn’t scary.
Cosmic horror is all about challenging mankind’s self-importance. The Elder Gods aren’t scary because they’re about to smash down our doors and pull off our skin, they’re scary because they don’t give a shit about us. No matter how hard you strive, you are just a mite, a speck in a vast uncaring world. Nothing you do will ever matter. You are of no consequence.
Meanwhile, in the modern world, where one glance at the internet not only makes it abundantly obvious that our efforts are fleeting, but probably not worth preserving either, the central conceit of Lovecraftian horror has become tragically usual. We don’t matter. Our deepest thoughts and feelings are hurled into the vast emptiness of the internet and have the lasting impact of a fart in a hurricane.
The horror of a shattered perception.
Still, there’s something present in the quiet revelation of Lovecraftian horror that fundamentally breaks our view of the world, and helps keep it effective for modern tastes. After all, we can all relate to situations when our world is turned upside down. The unexpected call from a family member; the discovery of two wine glasses in the sink; a sudden, violent accident.
A knock at the door.
The tentacles and sticky monstrosities in Lovecraftian horror are essentially placeholders for personal tragedy, unhappy revelations, and the uncanny.
The uncanny brings me along nicely to the deck I have created for #mtghalloween. This is a budget version of my paper deck that explores the horror themes of Lovecraft’s work. Over the years, it has evolved as my view of the literature has changed. It started as a mishmash of Lovecraftian tropes – tentacles, fish-men, artifacts and horrors of the sea. Today, it’s a bit more oblique (pretentious).
Most of Lovecraft’s stories draw on several themes, which I used as a starting point to build this deck. Those themes are:
Characters in Lovecraft’s stories rarely if ever fully understand what is happening to them, and often go insane if they try to do so. The drive to understand the horrors that affect the characters in a Lovecraft story start with the unexplained.
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”
– The Call of Cthulhu
2. Mental fragility
Characters in many of Lovecraft’s stories are unable to cope mentally with the truths they discover. The strain of trying to cope is impossible to bear and insanity takes hold in almost every case.
“If I am mad, it is mercy! May the gods pity the man who in his callousness can remain sane to the hideous end!”
– The Temple
3. The ikky-sticky factor
The horror features of Lovecraft’s stories tend to involve protean semi-gelatinous substances, such as slime, as opposed to standard horror elements such as blood, bones, or corpses. So, no zombies, skeletons or ghosts in this deck.
“It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway into the tainted outside air of that poison city of madness…”
– At the Mountains of Madness
4. Helplessness and hopelessness
Any victories in a Lovecraft story are transient. You can’t win in a universe that you can’t influence. Characters are driven by forces they can’t control to desperate ends and inescapable fates.
“It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to show by this statement that I am not his murderer.”
– The Thing on the Doorstep
Lovecraft’s stories are full of unnamed narrators and human characters with little to no actual characterisation. This is in line with his view of humanity’s insignificant place in the universe.
“I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more.”
6. Detachment (author insert)
Like the man himself, Lovecraftian heroes tend to be socially isolated, reclusive individuals. Usually with an academic or scholarly bent to compensate for social shortcomings.
“Daily life had for him come to be a phantasmagoria of macabre shadow-studies; now glittering and leering with concealed rottenness as in Beardsley’s best manner, now hinting terrors behind the commonest shapes and objects as in the subtler and less obvious work of Gustave Dore.”
– The Horror at Red Hook
Those are our building blocks. It’s surprising how different a deck can be if it focuses on one over another. Most decks I’ve seen focus on the big two: spaghetti monsters and insanity. The deck I’ve built today is a little more focused on the human element.
The idea of this deck is that of humans who do terrible and unthinking things to reveal horrible monsters. Boiled down to its core themes, these elements form the framework of the deck. As you will see, the cosmic horror themes of Eldritch Moon have helped hugely in the deck’s design.
“Whatever the cost, I must discover the source of these strange happenings.”
– Daring Sleuth
One of the things I like about this deck is the Icarusian nature of the humans. They all share the same lust for knowledge – a lust that will yield terrible fruit. One of the common readings of Lovecraftian horror is that knowledge is a terrible burden. When you know the terrible secrets of the universe, you either go mad, or turn evil. Then go mad.
Unearthing the unknown
“Every answer seems to lead to a more terrifying question” – Jace Beleren
– Trail of Evidence
Clues are a flavourful mechanic that plays well in any UB deck. Since we’re spending so much time with Eldritch Moon, it makes sense to learn into them. Plus, they help us skew the symmetry on one of our win conditions.
In searching for the truth, characters in Lovecraft stories travel to the darkest places on Earth. From the swampy Bayous of the Deep South to ancient ruins and even the South Pole.
Horror of horrors
“We didn’t know where it came from or where it was going. All we knew was that we did not matter.” – Akiri, kor line-slinger
– Kozilek’s Pathfinder
Over the years, Wizards has graced us with some spectacularly stupid monsters. And most of them are… bad. Is Cosmic Horror a perfectly thematic creature for a deck like this? Yes. But is it unplayable garbage? Also, yes.
Is there a flavourful, playable alternative? Also… yes!
Eldrazi are the cosmic horrors of the Magic universe. They are unfeeling, naturally unnatural beings. They don’t care what the people of Zendikar thought of them; mortals were of no consequence.
Elder Deep-Fiend and Distended Mindbender’s Emerge mechanics help turn our foolish humans into ramp when they’ve outlived their usefulness. Mindleech Mass is a last-minute budget inclusion. Ideally, we’d have big mama Emrakul.
Paying the price
“The stairs lead down in both directions”
– Descent into Madness
Glimpsing the unknowable is more than the human mind can bear. As the mind warps, people perform depraved acts, suffer terrible dreams and descend into madness.
So that’s the plan of the deck. Draw cards with your humans, slam a cosmic horror and control the board with hand disruption and removal.
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”
– H.P Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
This deck is full of familiar references to the Lovecraftian mythos. We have our Cthulhu, Wrexial, the Risen Deep. This creature from the stygian depths comes complete with a tentacled face, making it an ideal Commander.
Dreamscape Artist represents the dream-like quality of The Doom that Came to Sarnath. See Beyond and Behold the Beyond are references to From Beyond. The Graf Rats/Midnight Scavengers combo is a cute nod to both Rats in the Walls and Herbert West – Reanimator, respectively one of the best and worst Lovecraftian tales. (Seriously, Herbert West – Reanimator is shit. It lacks all the things that makes Lovecraft’s work Lovecraftian.)
Many of Lovecraft’s stories involve people piecing together facts from books and lore. So, we fill out the deck with things like Fatal Lore, Shrouded Lore, and Quest for Ancient Secrets. Finally, we create a general atmosphere of dread and doom with the likes of Extinguish All Hope, Whispering Madness, Brink of Madness and Human Frailty.
And that’s the deck! Let me know what you think on Twitter @WhiteRobbit and hit me up with your Lovecraftian lists.