Lessons From the Fringe: Ending Phase Madness

A common sentiment expressed by strong Magic players is that a thorough understanding of the game rules tends to correlate with better quality of play.  Supporting rationale for this abounds, but often takes the shape of things like “having a better knowledge of how and when certain actions can and can’t take place leads to better use of resources, fewer misplays, lower chance of unnecessarily revealing information, and so on.”  Competitive games are often decided by resource economy and line efficiency as each player postures for the fastest route to victory with protection and interaction.  

Many times, the kind of hyper efficient lines of play we’re talking about are founded on exploitation of loopholes or subtle rules interactions to sidestep the intended use of certain effects and abilities.  Outworking from that, there are a number of prominent decks that can’t be piloted effectively without a strong grasp of minutiae around specific rules interactions.

One particular such list I’ve been enjoying recently is a quirky implementation of Anje Falkenrath that you can find over here.       


Besides the typical Worldgorger combo support, this list leans heavily into an Ad Naus-style of play where you expect to draw an enormous grip of cards and combo off, typically during an end step, but potentially in response to someone else attempting to go off as well.  The list can’t actually run Ad Nauseam profitably because of the high average cmc inflicted by all the Madness cards in the deck.  However, Shadow of the Grave and Bag of Holding both submit very good impersonations of the effect as long as you have an active Anje Falkenrath online.  The insight here is that Anje, on her own, provides only a filtering engine, whereas combined with Shadow of the Grave effects she becomes straight card advantage.  

For example, if you have six cards in hand and Anje cycles thirteen cards deep on a given turn, you’re still only sitting at six cards in hand.  Now, if you can then return all thirteen of the cycled cards back to your hand and continue the process, you wind up with a nineteen card grip and an additional thirteen digging dives to set up whatever combo you’re wanting to sculpt. 

That’s probably all we need to say about the deck and its premise for now.  From here, we’ve got motivation to get into the game rules that really need to be mastered in order to pilot the list well.  Before we go there though, we’ve got one more card to talk about.

Necropotence: The Reason We're Here in the First Place

The archetype we’re working under has been around for a very long time.  Before Vilis and Griselbrand and Ad Nauseam and Yawgmoth’s Bargain, way back in Ice Age, Necropotence got printed.

Regarded by many as one of, if not the most powerful black card ever printed, Necropotence was Magic’s first foray into the core black feature of life-to-card conversion.  The designers’ concerns with the power level of the effect is clearly visible in the layers of stipulation intended to limit our ability to exploit it.  Let’s examine each one.

Skip your draw step.

This is the weakest of the restrictions.  We’re playing this card because we want to win this turn.  If things go to plan, we won’t need another draw step anyway. 

Pay 1 life: Exile the top card of your library face down. Put that card into your hand at the beginning of your end step.

The main hurdle to naive exploitation, the designers likely intended that deferring access to the gained cards until end of turn would result in controllers having to pass turn and discard down to hand size before making use of the new grip.  That way, people wouldn’t be able to just draw thirty cards and win.  Best intentions I suppose.

Whenever you discard a card, exile that card from your graveyard.

This supports the premise above that designers wanted people to discard down to hand size before getting to make use of their new gas.  The idea here is to stymie the impulse to use Necropotence as a means to fill the graveyard and follow up with Animate Dead or Dance of the Dead.  At this point in history, there were no effects in print that could reanimate as an instant.  Again, best intentions I suppose.

It should be no surprise that the use of Necropotence that the designers likely intended is not at all what we do in practice. The card winds up being so incredibly powerful because we can get around all the limiting restrictions with a bit of knowledge and preparation. To start, lets break down the Ending Phase as defined in the comprehensive rules:

Ending Phase Structure

End Step

513.1. The end step has no turn-based actions. Once it begins, the active player gets priority. (See rule 117, “Timing and Priority.”)

513.1a Previously, abilities that triggered at the beginning of the end step were printed with the trigger condition “at end of turn.” Cards that were printed with that text have received errata in the Oracle card reference to say “at the beginning of the end step” or “at the beginning of the next end step.”

513.2. If a permanent with an ability that triggers “at the beginning of the end step” enters the battlefield during this step, that ability won’t trigger until the next turn’s end step. Likewise, if a delayed triggered ability that triggers “at the beginning of the next end step” is created during this step, that ability won’t trigger until the next turn’s end step. In other words, the step doesn’t “back up” so those abilities can go on the stack. This rule applies only to triggered abilities; it doesn’t apply to continuous effects whose durations say “until end of turn” or “this turn.” (See rule 514, “Cleanup Step.”)

Cleanup Step

514.1. First, if the active player’s hand contains more cards than their maximum hand size (normally seven), they discard enough cards to reduce their hand size to that number. This turn-based action doesn’t use the stack.

514.2. Second, the following actions happen simultaneously: all damage marked on permanents (including phased-out permanents) is removed and all “until end of turn” and “this turn” effects end. This turn-based action doesn’t use the stack.

514.3. Normally, no player receives priority during the cleanup step, so no spells can be cast and no abilities can be activated. However, this rule is subject to the following exception:

514.3a. At this point, the game checks to see if any state-based actions would be performed and/or any triggered abilities are waiting to be put onto the stack (including those that trigger “at the beginning of the next cleanup step”). If so, those state-based actions are performed, then those triggered abilities are put on the stack, then the active player gets priority. Players may cast spells and activate abilities. Once the stack is empty and all players pass in succession, another cleanup step begins.

So when the End Step begins, any triggers waiting for the beginning of the next end step (like cards exiled to Necropotence waiting to go to our hand) get placed on the stack and the active player gets priority.  From here, any actions that could be taken when instants could be cast are valid.  This is an huge surface area of potential action and we’ve got plenty of choices.

A familiar approach for widening the field of options at this point is to leverage Shimmer Myr.  This grants instant speed mana flexibility via rocks and Phyrexian Altar and also opens up Aetherflux Reservoir, which is an excellent wincon for situations where we don’t have Anje online or if we’re trying to win through a Rest in Peace or Grafdigger’s Cage.  

Electrodominance also plays a role in diversifying the list of options we have at instant speed.  This most often takes the shape of ritualizing Dockside Extortionist, but freeing up a tutor or shimmer-less Aetherflux Reservoir on an end step is totally defensible as well.  It can always kill a creature or player, so there’s that too.

Our reanimation package is completely instant speed viable as well.  The instant mode of Necromancy enables the flagship Worldgorger combo to take place essentially whenever we’d like.  Since Anje doesn’t have flash, we want to ensure she’s in play before going this route on an End Step so she can arbitrarily rummage into Avacyn’s Judgment or Bloodhall Priest for the win.  If that’s not the case and we don’t have an active Anje, our reanimation chops are still very strong.

Beyond the obvious Necromancy, we’re running Shallow Grave and Corpse Dance to allow a fair degree of assurance that we can engage the services of something like Razaketh or Bone Miser to initiate a wild Ending Phase line to close out the game.  We have a number of ways to interact with the Cleanup Step to string the turn along, sculpting our hand until we converge on a wincon.  We’ll look at some of those in a bit, but it’s worth noting another part of the End Step rules text:

513.2. If a permanent with an ability that triggers “at the beginning of the end step” enters the battlefield during this step, that ability won’t trigger until the next turn’s end step. Likewise, if a delayed triggered ability that triggers “at the beginning of the next end step” is created during this step, that ability won’t trigger until the next turn’s end step. In other words, the step doesn’t “back up” so those abilities can go on the stack. This rule applies only to triggered abilities; it doesn’t apply to continuous effects whose durations say “until end of turn” or “this turn.” (See rule 514, “Cleanup Step.”)

The main take away from this is that anything we reanimate during the End Step will survive through to the next End Step presumably during the next turn.  That means we can count on creatures reanimated this way to still be around during our Cleanup Step for use in sculpting lines, which we’ll get to in a bit.

It’s obvious that most of our lines of play are designed to work under the instant speed constraint.  For one, this lets us conduct business as usual whether we’re in a main phase, end step, or responding to an opponent’s bid to combo out.  However, another dimension of this is that we can get around the Necropotence exile-on-discard clause.  Unlike Rest in Peace or Leyline of the Void, this exile clause is a triggered ability.  Thus, we have a window of priority while the trigger is on the stack in which we can interact with cards that have been discarded, saving them from exile.  This in mind, the facility of cards that may have seemed narrow before (like Shadow of the Grave and Bag of Holding) become much more evident.  The usefulness of the instant reanimation suite discussed above should also become a little more clear through that lens.

A Quick Reminder on Madness

It’s no secret that Madness cards form the backbone of any Anje deck.  As free rummage fodder, they effectively reduce your deck size, making your combos more consistent.  It’s also no secret that, on the whole, Madness cards aren’t particularly great.  While it can be justifiable to treat them as a necessary evil, don’t discount them altogether.  There are a number of clever things they can do to support the rest of our game plan.

Just in case you forgot, the Madness ability consists of a replacement ability and a triggered ability.  Each part can be leveraged tangibly in its own way. 

“If a player would discard this card, that player discards it, but exiles it instead of putting it into their graveyard”

This is the replacement ability.  Regardless of whether you plan to cast the card for its Madness cost or not, it will always get exiled as part of being discarded.  The implication here is that even with Rest in Peace effects in play, you’ll be able to cast via Madness without interference.  The interaction with Necropotence and Bag of Holding actually winds up being profitable as well:

11/17/2017 If you discard a card with madness and wish to cast it, Necropotence’s ability won’t exile that card. If you don’t wish to cast it, you choose whether it ends up exiled or in your graveyard.

This is some great flexibility.  Even if we choose not to cast the Madness card, we can let it harmlessly fall into the graveyard without needing to do anything special to save it from Necropotence.  The same goes for Bag of Holding in the opposite direction.  We can choose to let the Bag exile our uncast Madness discards so we can recycle them later at an opportune moment.  

“When this card is exiled this way, its owner may cast it by paying [cost] rather than paying its mana cost. If that player doesn’t, they put this card into their graveyard.”

This is the triggered ability.  In case it isn’t obvious, it creates a one-shot effect allowing us to cast creatures, sorceries, enchantments, etc for their Madness cost whenever any effect causes them to be discarded.  This has straightforward consequences when playing our ‘everything as an instant’ reactive game, but the fact that this ability puts a trigger on the stack at all is most interesting for enabling some things we can do in the Cleanup Step.

Cleanup Sculpting (not just for Gitrog anymore!)

The most important bit to understand from the Cleanup Step rules text is 541.3a:

514.3a. At this point, the game checks to see if any state-based actions would be performed and/or any triggered abilities are waiting to be put onto the stack (including those that trigger “at the beginning of the next cleanup step”). If so, those state-based actions are performed, then those triggered abilities are put on the stack, then the active player gets priority. Players may cast spells and activate abilities. Once the stack is empty and all players pass in succession, another cleanup step begins.

All the Gitrog players in the house are sure to have studied this rule in detail because it enables a well known, degenerate edge case win condition.  If you control an ability that creates triggers upon discarding cards, but don’t have a discard outlet, the game itself is glad to provide one so long as you have more than seven cards at the start of your Cleanup Step.  Presuming those discarded cards result in more cards drawn, we keep cycling through Cleanup Steps until we have what we need to win.  Rakdos colors obviously don’t have access to The Gitrog Monster, but we do have the next best thing in Bone Miser.

An inverse Waste Not in essence, this guy has been largely dismissed by the cEDH community on account of ostensibly just being a worse version of a card that already doesn’t see much play.  As it turns out, having control over the specific cards that get discarded can lead to much more reliable sequences of play (as opposed to the die roll that a Waste Not wheel tends to be).  To line up a certain play, you discard whatever combination of cards are needed to make it happen instead of just leaving things to chance.  In this regard, Bone Miser can actually be better than Gitrog since it grants access to mana and token generation in addition to raw card draw.

Now, with all that out of the way, we can finally get to some concrete use case examination.

Putting it Into Practice

To set the stage, we’ll presume that it’s our turn 4.  We’ve just cast Necropotence without any counterspell resistance and paid 30 life in a bid to shoot for the win.  Here’s what our board looks like:

Proceeding to our Ending Phase, we begin the End Step and all the Necropotence triggers go onto the stack.  They resolve uncontested and we retain priority with an empty stack and a hand of 35 cards:

So … what are the options?

To begin answering that, let’s break down the resources we have access to (other than the three mana on board).  

That’s a lot to sift through.  At the end of the day, we are going to finish the game by either generating infinite mana or flashing in Aetherflux Reservoir and casting a lot of spells.  Because of the rummage ability playing a prominent role in this engine, there’s a degree of uncertainty around how much we need to do before we get there.  Therefore, if we don’t have a guaranteed line to assemble a win with what we have in hand, we instead want to posture ourselves to see as much of our deck as possible while holding onto some means of generating the mana to play it out.

Going Infinite

Sometimes it’s easier to negotiate a complex line by taking your timeline from right to left, i.e., starting at the end and working backwards.  Supposing we want to get to infinite mana, what do we need to achieve that?
The usual suspects in this list for generating infinite mana include:

Worldgorger plus Necromancy

We don’t have either in hand and we only have one tutor.  If want to assemble this one, we want to go with the seeing as much of our deck as possible plan.

Dockside Extortionist + Cloudstone Curio + Anje Falkenrath

We’ve got all the pieces we need for this one, but it only works during a main phase.  We can hold off and wait for another main to put it together, but we’ve gotten this far uncontested so chances are we can probably go the rest of the way if we do so right now.  Waiting another turn cycle is very unlikely to be as generous.  Moving on…

Razaketh + Dockside Extortionist + Corpse Dance

This is feasible with what we know we have.  Electrodominance can get Dockside into play with net five mana.  From there we can Vampiric Tutor for Razaketh and then rummage one of our Madness cards to draw him and then rummage again to put him in the yard.  With that, Shallow Grave puts Razaketh onto the battlefield and he can then be activated, sacrificing Dockside to find Corpse Dance which can then be cast with Buyback to recur Dockside and return itself to our hand.  Sacking Dockside again to find Aetherflux Reservoir will protect our life total and seal the deal.  If we need additional mana as we go, Cabal Ritual, Shimmer Myr, and Burnt Offering are ready to help.

The "Seeing as Much of Our Deck as Possible" Plan

In the example above, we had the tools to put together a deterministic win con, but supposing that wasn’t the case, it’s worth understanding the mechanics of rummaging to the fullest extent possible.  The core tenet to keep in mind is that as soon as you rummage a non-Madness card, you’re generally done.  The more we reuse our Madness cards and the more value we extract from our non-Madness cards, the better we’re going to do.

We noted before that our thirty five card grip has eight Madness cards.  Each one represents a rummaging dive.  Each card we draw has a chance of being another Madness card that then continues the current dive.  If the drawn card does not have Madness, we start another dive and keep going.  We can separate the non-Madness cards into a couple categories.  One group includes useless chaff like lands, sorceries, and removal.  A second group consists of rituals or cards that behave like rituals (even Worldgorger can be a one-shot ritual in a pinch as long as you’ve got a sac outlet like Culling the Weak to get all your permanents back).  A third group involves live combo pieces which, once assembled allow us to finish the game.  Finally, the last category can be described as continuation pieces.

Continuation pieces are what allow us to either reuse Madness cards or get some kind of value from the useless chaff that otherwise rots in our hand.  We’re bound to hit a couple continuation pieces naturally during our rummaging dives, but it doesn’t hurt to stack the deck (literally!) and Vampiric Tutor one to the top of our library so we’re sure to have a long run.  The use cases are pretty simple, but a little exploration can be helpful.

  • Shadow of the Grave – This is the easiest to conceptualize and the most mana efficient at .  If all eight of our rummaging dives fail to reveal another Madness card, we’ve got a floor of another eight dives.  That outcome is very unlikely, with a more typical outcome being something on the order of twelve to sixteen additional dives post continuation.
  • Bag of Holding –  Essentially identical to Shadow of the Grave, but it requires we that we engage our Shimmer Myr apparatus and then it costs to cast and then activate.
  • Scroll Rack – This lets us convert our chaff into new cards that we haven’t yet seen.  Like Bag, we’ll need to have Shimmer Myr online and then have to make it happen.  Looking at our starting thirty-five, this will effectively let us ‘draw’ sixteen.  If any of those are shuffle effects like Entomb, Mausoleum Secrets, etc, we can then randomize our library and hopefully see something more useful in our top sixteen.
  • Bone Miser – This is where things start to get interesting.  On the one hand, this guy will amplify our rummaging dives by making most of our Madness cards draw two instead of one.  In addition to that, if we strike out with the rummaging, he also pulls value from the chaff during cleanup when we discard to hand size.  When we discard twenty-five or so cards, we’ll be looking at a floor of 22 generated and at least ten more cards drawn.  From there we can take more actions such as casting newly drawn cards, paying the Madness cost of pertinent cards that hit the yard, and then repeating the process when we discard to hand size again with additional downstream Cleanup Steps.  Of course if any other continuation pieces (like Shadow of the Grave) are among the cards drawn, the cards discarded during previous Cleanup Steps still count as being discarded this turn.
  • Razaketh – It shouldn’t be a surprise that this guy can be a continuation engine as well.  In the deterministic line earlier in the article, we used Anje to dump Razaketh into the yard.  If, for some reason, we didn’t want to do that and preferred that she stay online, we could always go to Cleanup and discard to hand size.  As long as any of the discarded cards have Madness, we’ll get a trigger and a new Cleanup Step.  Once there, we can use Electrodominance to flash in Dockside, then Shallow Grave our Razaketh and go from there.

The More You Know

It’s hopefully clear that this particular Anje implementation offers flexibility by exploiting unorthodox angles of play.  A nuanced understanding of the game rules carries with it a better chance that you’ll be able to leverage that dynamic effectively.   The greater your flexibility in mounting various angles of attack, the greater the uncertainty your opponents will experience in planning against it.  If your play follows the lines your opponents expect, they’ll most likely be prepared to stop you.  However, if your plan attacks on avenues they don’t see as coming, that gives you an edge.  Often times those subtle advantages are the difference between winning and losing.  

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