Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths puts is a deep emphasis on powerful creatures that can impact the battlefield immediately. Despite community concern about the companion mechanic, the set looks exciting and reintroduces a well-loved mechanic: cycling.
Cycling is my favorite mechanic in Magic: The Gathering; it promotes insurance through card draw that creates a fun Limited environment. Little has changed in Modern in the last week; the format remains diverse and with Ikoria cards entering the fold, players are testing new cards out for Modern application. A handful of cards look to make a substantial impact with Lurrus of the Dream-Den being the compelling one. However, with the return of cycling, it's time to delve back into one of Modern's oldest strategies: Living End.
It's uncommon to some, but Living End is one of my favorite Modern archetypes and has been playing the strategy on and off for years. There is something tremendously fun and old school about playing a strategy that uses a weird mechanic that has been around for nearly a decade. Despite its unpopularity at present, I believe Living End to be a fun strategy that can encourage various lines.
Living End has been a feature of the Modern landscape since before the format's inception, seeing play in Extended. Living End is a graveyard strategy that utilizes cascade to cast Living End for free. The ideal way Living End achieves this is through cycling, amassing the bin with threats so that when Living End resolves, they all enter the battlefield and threaten a lethal attack next turn.
Living End's first success was a Top 4 finish at Grand Prix Oakland in 2010. During this time, the format was dominated by Hypergenesis and Dark Depths, and even then, Living End maintained success. At one point, Living End incorporated Splinter Twin to keep up with the pure Izzet Splinter Twin-style strategies that distorted Modern for some time. Splinter Twin's addition to Living End offered a dual purpose, where it offered a different line to victory that gave the benefit of confusing your opponents. Although Living End has fallen from grace in recent years, the strategy remains viable and can be built on a budget despite utilizing various colors.
Since Teferi, Time Raveler was printed, Living End has become less popular—Teferi, Time Raveler's static ability means you can no longer cast Living End with a cascade card on the stack—but Living End remains competitive. Historically, Living End falls into Jund colors, with an emphasis on red and black. However, there are recent versions that employ blue for As Foretold.
Let's begin by looking at an optimal variant of classic Jund Living End.
An optimized list of Jund Living End comes to ~$500, and most of the value comes from the manabase. This may feel disheartening, but there are approaches we can take to create Living End on a budget. One benefit of Living End is the core is affordable outside of the namesake card, and we can remove the fetches from the budget list to drop the value of the strategy. Eventually, you will want to save up for the fetches, as Living End is traditionally a land-light strategy. However, our core theme is cycling so we will see plenty of cards across the game that can mitigate this issue in the short-term. If you are looking to pick up the fetches, I recommend picking up Bloodstained Mire and Wooded Foothills as these are substantially cheaper compared to Verdant Catacombs. You will have to be smarter on which lands to fetch for but achieves filtering at a more modest price tag. You can play the strategy comfortably without Verdant Catacombs.
With these considerations in mind, we can create a budget alternative for roughly $250, or 57 tix on Magic Online.
Because Blackcleave Cliffs are so expensive, given its singular printing in Scars of Mirrodin, I'm replacing them with Sulfurous Springs, which will serve as a fine placeholder until you can pick up Blackcleave Cliffs. Rounding out the land base, we have City of Brass and a basic Swamp in replacement of Verdant Catacombs and Bloodstained Mire. The only changes we have made to the core are omitting Fulminator Mages for Avalanche Riders, although I would highly picking up Fulminator Mages as soon as possible. Fulminator Mage really improves your match-ups against Tron, Amulet Titan, and other multi-colored strategies. Also, their activation cost is free which is important when you are preparing to recur your creatures with a Living End.
With Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths incoming, there is a swath of new, exciting cycling creatures we can accommodate within a Living End shell.
As someone who enjoys playing Living End, I will be playing a myriad of lists to see which cyclers operate best within the strategy. At present, the above list is where I am at from a budget perspective. Titanoth Rex feels powerful, not only for its statistics, but trading cycling for a potential trampling threat is too good to pass up. In Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths, we are witnessing cycling costs reduced to one generic mana which means we can play off-color creatures if they are powerful enough—enter Imposing Vantasaur. Although it may look relatively generic, its statistics are good enough for soaking up damage that we can play into a defensive Living End if need be. Rounding out the list, the sideboard introduces two new enchantments in Unpredictable Cyclone and Reptilian Reflection. These are to be brought in game two for when our opponent sides in graveyard hate, and we can become a value cycling strategy that can use Living End if appropriate.
If you intend to adopt a proactive approach to playing Living End, As Foretold Living End may be for you.
With the unique costing of suspend spells and the templating on As Foretold, it unlocked a new pathway to playing powerful spells at a discounted rate. Although at sorcery speed, Ancestral Visions becomes a zero-mana draw-three, and even Crashing Footfalls creates 8 power for the same cost. If you want to opt for something more reactive, then Electrodominance achieves a similar feat with the bonus of outputting damage. Once again, due to the templating on our suspend spells, we can cast our Crashing Footfalls and Ancestral Visions at instant speed—sounds great, right?
With the flexibility that both As Foretold and Electrodominace provide, there are various ways to build your Living End list, however, I would wait until you are comfortable with the strategy before switching cards out. For instance, there is an option to add the Restore Balance and Greater Gargadon combo if you dislike making friends. It's simply a powerful combination that you can play at instant speed thanks to Electrodominance.
However, an optimal As Foretold Living End list comes to roughly $700 (or 400 Tix), as Scalding Tarn, Force of Negation and Blood Moon make up two-thirds of the overall value. With Izzet-colored lands traditionally being more expensive than other color pairings, a budget alternative on As Foretold Living End is expensive compared to its Jund counterpart. Plus, As Foretold is pricy on its own due to the card's rarity and Commander application. However, we can make a decent foundation for a budget iteration of this take on Living End.
Coming to $200 overall, As Foretold Living End feels akin to Splinter Twin or a Blue Moon strategy, in that you are interacting until you can pull off your combo to win the game. Again, similar to Jund Living End, the core is largely budget outside of the namesake cards. Due to the nature of the strategy, it's key to run a playset of Living End as we do not have cascade to tutor for these. In terms of upgrades, I would begin with the land base such as Fiery Islet for Sulfur Falls and Spirebluff Canal for Shivan Reef. If you want a placeholder for Scalding Tarn, either Polluted Delta or Flooded Strand is reasonable. Similar to before, be mindful of what to fetch for as your choices are limited, but these cards should offer enough targets to not be dead draws.
Lastly, I would look at replacing Archmage's Charm with Force of Negation, and bringing in Cryptic Command over the singular Negate and Tormod's Crypt. Although, if you anticipate a metagame which is graveyard-orientated, then keeping in the Tormod's Crypt may be worthwhile as it can be found via a transmuted Tolaria West. Tolaria West is an underrated card in As Foretold Living End, as it tutors for your suspend spells. You may eventually settle on two or three copies, which is completely reasonable.
There a couple of tricks and tips to keep in mind while playing Living End strategies, and in particular one I have learned from playing the strategy since last year—don't get greedy with your Living Ends. It's easy to go all-in and recur an absurd amount of power onto the board, but most of the time, you don't need that much power to win the game. Incremental Living Ends are a great approach to offer a soft loop, and swinging in with a 5/5 independently is enough to win the game at times.
Aggressively Beast Within-ing your own permanents comes up more commonly than you expect, and in some cases, provides the last few points of damage you need to close out the game. It's decent insurance to have, and you can cast it in reactively to one of your permanents being removed. You can only cast Demonic Dread if there is a valid target, and the target can be an opponent's creature if you are desperate to go off with Living End. Also, be mindful of interaction, especially countermagic from your opponent. Although it may be unlikely your opponent will counter your Demonic Dread or Violent Outburst, what they can do is counter the Living End once you find it off the cascade. Countering the Demonic Dread or Violent Outburst does not stop the cascade trigger from happening, nor the Living End.
Don't be afraid to use Violent Outburst as a combat trick, and you are not obligated to cast the Living End off the cascade if it isn't necessary. Lastly, Grafdigger's Cage does nothing against Living End due to how the sorcery is worded. Although the artifact is a decent answer to graveyard strategies in general, as Living End resolves, it places the creatures into exile and then onto the battlefield. Grafdigger's Cage prevents cards from entering the battlefield from the graveyard. So, if you are sitting across a Grafdigger's Cage thinking you can't combo off with Living End, don't fret, you can cast Living End through it and as a result, your opponent will put sadness on the stack.
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Although it feels like a ghost from Modern's past, Living End is a fun and unique way to play a graveyard strategy that does not completely fold to hate. With the introduction of Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths, Living End could rise again with fresh takes on the cycling mechanic and new enchantments that offer a different axis of attack. Like with any set that reintroduces cycling, it's worth checking in to see whether any past the "Living End Test," and I genuinely believe there's a few that will feature in competitive Modern lists to come. As someone who loves playing Living End, I'm excited to see where the strategy goes thanks to Ikoria's influence. In the meantime, it's time to go for a ride and see where the journey takes you!