First printed in Magic the Gathering’s 2011 Core Set, Phylactery Lich is an interesting mono-black zombie. The Lich was later reprinted in the Magic 2013 and Magic 2019 Core Sets. It’s a 5/5 Zombie for only three Black mana and it’s indestructible.
Of course, with that power and toughness for a low cost, there’s a downside, but it’s an interesting drawback. When the Lich enters the battlefield, you put a phylactery counter on an artifact you control. The counter itself doesn’t do anything, but if you control no permanents with phylactery counters on them, you sacrifice Phylactery Lich.
There are, of course, cases in which you could easily have four Phylactery Lich on the board at a time and spread out the counters among four artifacts. You only need one of those counters no matter how many copies of the Lich you have on the board. The question is, what artifacts would you play in mono-Black?
In 2022, there are plenty of artifacts which see play in mono-Black strategies, especially big artifact equipment such as Kaldra Compleat. But, even when this card was first in Standard, Scars of Mirrodin block was still available. So, there were several good options. First, you had Nihil Spellbomb, a card that still sees play in Modern and other non-rotating competitive formats today, which not only can exile an opponent’s graveyard, but also draw you a card when you pay an extra Black mana as you sacrifice it. Unfortunately, that’s not really the best target for a phylactery counter.
However, you also had living weapon artifacts, Mortarpod and Lashwrithe, both often played in Mono-Black control decks of the day. This way you had an equipment on a free Germ token creature, and even if that creature was killed, the equipment itself, an artifact, would remain with the ability to hold a phylactery counter. There were other powerful artifacts that were playable, too, such as the long feared Batterskull, as well. Imagine equipping a Phylactery Lich with an equipment giving it +4/+4, vigilance, and lifelink.
With the potential to have living weapons as its primary win condition, this appeared to be an extremely good card. It could be especially good in mono-black Zombies, thanks to being a Zombie itself, and some of the best Zombie support was yet to come. Unfortunately, as strong as the card looks on paper, no competitive decks ended up playing it.
The one deck that MTGTop8 lists playing Phylactery Lich is this Standard Mono Black Artifact Control deck. Interestingly, the only artifact in the main deck is Darksteel Axe, but it’s particularly good because not only is it an equipment that gives the equipped creature +2/+0, but the Axe is indestructible itself. The sideboard also has two copies of Ratchet Bomb, but it’s a bad target for a phylactery counter since it will often be sacrificed to destroy permanents equal to the number of charge counters on it. Notably, a Ratchet Bomb with 3 charge counters will not destroy Phylactery Lich thanks to its own indestructibility. This deck did make top 4 in a 24 player event, but it didn’t pop up again at any major tournaments.
In 2019, Phylactery Lich did once again appear in top tournaments, but not as a part of Constructed decks. It would be a sideboard option in sealed deck tournaments, thanks to many of these decks commonly running artifacts that would stick around, such as Manalith and Chaos Wand being in the set. But, besides that one Standard deck in 2011, and decks that may have copied its strategy with much less success, Phylactery Lich never became a key part of any competitive strategy.
You might think, however, that Phylactery Lich found a home in EDH. After all, many cards on the fringes of competitive play end up being quite powerful in the Commander format. Also, the Lich being a Zombie seemed to make it destined to find a home somewhere. But, in fact, Phylactery Lich is rarely played in EDH.
There is one Zombie Commander, however, that makes good use of Phylactery Lich’s indestructible ability, but only indirectly. Rayami, First of the Fallen takes on the abilities of any exiled creature with a blood counter on it. The problem is, that for said creature to gain a blood counter, it would have to die. Thankfully, dying includes sacrificing a creature. So, with Rayami in play, you would sacrifice Phylactery Lich with another ability, such as Evolutionary Leap or Deadly Dispute. Then, you would exile the Lich with a blood counter with Rayami’s ability to give Rayami indestructiblity. It’s a very niche example, but it does indeed work well in the deck.
Kathril, Aspect Warper is another interesting Commander, not a Zombie, but does gain certain abilities of creatures you control when it enters play, indestructibility included. So, Phylactery Lich can work in the deck, although, it’s not played often in the deck, as other options for indestructibility exist.
Two other Commander decks that can make use of Phylactery Lich include Horobi, Death’s Wail and Ghoulcaller Gisa. Horobi is an odd choice, but it makes sense for Phylactery Lich, as Horobi’s ability makes it so whenever a creature is targeted by a spell or ability, you destroy that creature. Because Phylactery Lich can’t be destroyed, Horobi’s ability is irrelevant. In Ghoulcaller Gisa decks, Phylactery Lich is useful thanks to having five power, so Gisa’s ability can sacrifice the Lich to get five 2/2 black Zombie creature tokens. Neither deck needs Phylactery Lich to succeed, but it’s not a bad choice for the deck if you need to replace a more expensive card that doesn’t fit into your budget.
In any case, Phylactery Lich had a lot of promise, but it needing a counter to stay in play made many players shy away from it in competitive play. In EDH, the Lich has found a few homes, although in none of them is it considered a staple. Perhaps Phylactery Lich has been overlooked, and eventually, some deck may indeed find a need for it, much as Rayami in Commander has.