The cat is out of the bag - Mono Black Devotion is the next big thing in Standard. Last weekend, Todd Anderson, Brian Braun-Duin and I all took the same decklist into battle. [Editor's Note: 74 out of 75 ain't bad.] Expectations were high, but I never once imagined that all three of us would make Top Eight. It never even crossed my mind until we all drew into the Top Eight in the last round. All three of us making the Top Eight playing the same deck will go down as one of my favorite Magic accomplishments of all time.
Instead of going over the tournament, I think it will be much more relevant to talk about the nuts and bolts that make Mono Black Devotion such a good deck. Even though I was surprised to see all three of us in the Top Eight, I knew we had the best deck in the room before the first round. Before we get into the matchups, I just want to share with you guys why I chose to play this deck and why I still think it's extremely well-positioned in the format.
Thoughtseize is the format. There is no real way around it. It is the most powerful card in the format because of how good it is at dismantling synergistic decks. Synergy is the lifeblood of all things Magic. Good-stuff decks can exist from time to time, but the core strategies of Magic revolve around creating synergies with the cards in your deck. Hell, the keyword Devotion is itself almost the most aggressive way I have ever seen Wizards showcase synergy to newer players.
Every deck I have built in the last year has been based purely around synergy. From Craterhoof Behemoth to Grand Architect, every deck has had a high density of role-players trying to get to a point in the game where I can go “boom.” My style of deckbuilding is extremely vulnerable to disruption, but I always look for a time and place were specific disruption is low or nonexistent.
For example, I knew Devotion was going to be a big role-player at Pro Tour Theros, so I decided to play Flesh // Blood. Players who played Devotion-style decks would have less instant speed removal so they can tap out to put their much-needed mana symbols on the board. This allowed me to “combo” them out with Ghor-Clan Rampager and Flesh // Blood. It was extremely successful in those matchups.
The only card I was scared of going into the Pro Tour was Thoughtseize.
Even though synergistic decks have an inherent problem against Thoughtseize, it doesn't mean they're unplayable. It just means that they have to execute their plan quickly and consistently. They need to stay on curve and never stumble so they don't fall behind against a deck with Thoughtseize and removal. The easiest ways for these decks to lose is to end up in the late game without a good board position. Not only will they end up drawing more lands then they need, but the top of their deck will have less high-impact cards the longer the game goes (nice Cloudfin Raptor/Elvish Mystic!).
There are ways to fight Thoughtseize. You can either try to go under the card or over it. Hyper-aggression or card advantage were the two ways decks combated Thoughtseize in the past, but it's easier said than done now.
Since Mono Blue Devotion is also one of the more popular decks, Mono Red has a tough time getting any foundation in the format. Sure, you can design the deck to beat Esper and Mono Black, but there really isn't any way around losing to Mono Blue.
The same goes for card advantage. The playable cards are limited in this department, making Divination one of the more effective ways to get raw cards. Sure, people play it, but they aren't that happy about it. It's just one of the only ways to make sure you make those land drops and find a way to start playing the more important cards, like Sphinx's Revelation and Aetherling.
It's crucial not to fall behind on land drops in decks like this, so they need to play a high density of card advantage. These turns that get invested for pure card draw results in falling behind on board to some of the more powerful permanents that Mono Black Devotion have.
Over time, people will find the right mix of spells to make both of these decks work, but it will be an uphill battle and will give Mono Black Devotion enough time to dominate the format for the near future.
Mono Black Devotion isn't impacted by these issues. The deck is allowed to miss a couple of land drops since it doesn't have expensive cards like Elspeth, Sun's Champion, Aetherling, or Sphinx's Revelation to get back into games. It has a high density of removal that make it easy to keep things under control on the battlefield while it patiently waits for the extra lands. Underworld Connections draws as many cards as Sphinx's Revelation over time, but only costs a few life to get online. It also isn't easily killed, since unlike Jace it doesn't have the issue of being hit by Hero's Downfall. Pithing Needle and Detention Sphere are really the only ways to get it off the table. If people bring in more specific ways to deal with it, they open themselves up to getting killed by the other powerful draw of removal spells into multiple Desecration Demons.
Thoughtseize is still a fine card to play against Mono Black, but the deck has nine ways in the maindeck to generate card advantage to build back up against hand disruption. The density the deck has of removal, card advantage, and threats makes it very difficult to disrupt one of its key elements.
Here's the decklist, for handy-dandy reference:
- 4 Desecration Demon
- 4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
- 4 Nightveil Specter
- 2 Pack Rat
- 1 Erebos, God of the Dead
Before I go any further, I'm going confess my sins to you guys. Even though I think Mono Black Devotion is the best deck to be playing right now, I will not be playing it at the Invitational. I have this extreme case of “too-cute syndrome.” Doctors have been searching for a cure for some time now, but it won't be a reality until we can get a bit more liberal with medical testing. Until then, I will just have to play something new each week and hope it's good. I have a theory, and I found a deck that can execute it. It has been good in testing so far, but I even said no to Todd when he asked if he should just play it. I just wanted to let you guys know since the last thing I want to do is make you guys think that I am lying to you when I say Mono Black is the best deck. Who knows, maybe the deck I play is really good, but odds are it won't be a better than playing Mono Black.
There is only one reason why I won't be playing Mono Black at the Invitational. The mirror match is the worst form of Magic that is out there. At Grand Prix Louisville, Todd beat BBD, I beat Todd, and BBD beat me. Every game was a blowout, and every game revolved around Pack Rat. I don't have a good enough answer for the mirror since Pack Rat is an extremely fast clock (i.e., if you untap with one, you win). So even though this deck is resilient to Thoughtseize in general, it is still extremely powerful in the mirror match because of Pack Rat.
I just don't want to be a part of that.
The most important thing I can arm you guys with is the knowledge I have of all the matchups. The spells can be difficult to sequence if you have never played the deck before.
Mono Blue Devotion
The easiest way to view this matchup is to know what you want the endgame to look like. My goal in every game is to get to a point where my opponent only has a Thassa, God of the Sea in play and it's staring down my Underworld Connections. Scry 1 is a powerful ability to have every turn, but it doesn't beat Draw 1.
This means that it is important to kill everything on sight. Don't leave yourself stranded without removal when it is time for Master of Waves to hit the table. This just means that you need to use every resource you have available to keep creatures off of their side of the board. I've blocked a Tidebinder Mage with a Mutavault as early as turn two before because my hand was filled with two- and three-drop removal, and I wanted to make sure to have the correct ones when it is time for my opponent to play their most important spells.
Plays like this help you to always have a removal spell for their Nightveil Specter. Even though blocking on turn two sounds insane, it opens you up to being able to Devour Flesh the Specter the next turn. This lets you save your targeted removal for other threats. Like I said earlier, the amount of lands you have in play is irrelevant as long as you can cast all of your spells. The difference between four lands and five is small, since Gray Merchant of Asphodel is not the most high impact card in this matchup.
There's an easy path to victory in this matchup, but it's oftentimes less reliable than getting an early Underworld Connections online. A couple removal spells followed by Desecration Demon can allow you to get aggressive against Mono Blue Devotion, and the moment they have to start sacrificing creatures to Desecration Demon to prevent lethal damage (and those creatures aren't elemental tokens) you have already won.
I don't mind bringing in Dark Betrayal in this matchup. Nightveil Specter is the closest thing to Master of Waves in the sense that you have to kill it. It is an easy way for them to gain card advantage, strengthen their Devotion, and block your own Nightveil Specters. You have to get it off the table.
Playing against Sphinx's Revelation decks with Mono Black Devotion is fun. The only issue is learning how to sequence your spells. Sometimes it is correct to just jam everything in the hopes of running them out of countermagic, and sometimes it is correct to play conservatively and try to protect your most important cards.
Obviously, Magic is a game based around cards being situational, but I want to list the order of importance for your spells just to help you out with basic sequencing.
One of the more interesting plays that I made at the Grand Prix against Esper was not playing Nightveil Specter on turn three. I knew my opponent didn't have a counterspell in hand unless he just drew one, but I still didn't want to scare him away from playing Jace, Architect of Thought. Instead of trying to prevent Jace from hitting play, I encouraged it. That way, if he played Jace I could Hero's Downfall it and then resolve my own Underworld Connections. If he didn't draw a Detention Sphere, the game would be almost over.
That is just how powerful Underworld Connections is in the matchup. It allows you to not work as hard to make land drops, which is important in the matchup. If you don't miss any land drops, you can time your spells to mess with their big turns, which lets you get ahead even if they are casting Sphinx's Revelation.
Lifebane Zombie and Devour Flesh are hedges in the fight to beat opposing copies of Blood Baron of Vizkopa. This creature can sometimes be a big issue, and other times not be relevant at all. Thank you Thoughtseize!
The matchup gets much better after sideboarding, since you now have access to ten ways to disrupt their hand. This helps in the information war to make it much easier to connect with an Underworld Connections.
Erebos, God of the Dead also carries a ton of weight in the matchup since there is very few ways to get it off the board; most Esper players board out Azorius Charm since it is so low impact in the matchup.
This matchup is extremely volatile. Sometimes they come out of the gates with a fast Garruk, Caller of Beasts... and sometimes you Thoughtseize said card and their deck does nothing but present an army of useless elves. The most important thing in this matchup is to make sure you get something on the board early so that can pressure their life total.
I have found Pack Rat to be just that on the play. If you invest the first couple of turns into making Pack Rats, you will have an army that is much larger than most of their creatures. This helps put pressure on their planeswalkers as long as you can keep every Arbor Colossus and Polukranos, Eater of Worlds off the table. Thankfully this shouldn't be too difficult since you no longer need to use Hero's Downfall on planeswalkers. Just remember to not try this plan when you are on the draw as it will rarely work.
On the draw, you will have to rely on Thoughtseize and early removal to disrupt them long enough to take over the game. One Garruk activation can be dealt with, but any more than that will almost certainly end up in a loss.
On the Play
On the Draw
With the extra removal, this matchup should get a bit better. They still play pretty much the same game, except now you have a more streamlined deck.
Mono Black Devotion
I already covered this matchup earlier, so I won't get into much detail. The games are fast and almost always come down to who can find a Pack Rat. There will also probably be more Pack Rats in the maindeck since many players will gravitate towards this deck, and there just aren't enough good decks in the metagame to not justify pre-gaming against the mirror. When both players don't have Pack Rat, they will both have Underworld Connections and removal spells. This makes Whip of Erebos and Gray Merchant of Asphodel the next best thing someone can be doing.
Erebos, God of the Dead is the trump to that strategy, but both players only have access to one or two copies so those games rarely come up. When they do, the player with Erebos, God of the Dead tends to be able to win it since the other player gains no life off of their Gray Merchants.
I am not a fan of Desecration Demon in any black-based midrange matchup. The card always dies to a piece of removal that is cheaper than it, and it doesn't trump any other strategy in the deck. If your opponent is literally doing nothing, it can win a game, but that just isn't a good enough justification to keep it in your deck.
I think the results from Louisville have proven that Mono Black is just the superior black-based midrange deck, but players will still play this deck to show their love for Patrick Chapin. I don't think this deck is good anymore because of how the format changed since the Pro Tour, but it is important to know how it plays out.
Pack Rat is just as good in this matchup as it is against Mono Black. Your goal is to Thoughtseize away a key removal spell to get a chance to untap with it in play and ride it to victory. If this isn't the case, the games play out very similar to Mono Black mirrors, but they have more situational cards. Obzedat, Ghost Council and Blood Baron of Vizkopa are good, but they do not trump Whip of Erebos in any racing situation. This enchantment is almost as important as Underworld Connections, but both are absolutely backbreaking unless they have a huge board presence. They're the aggressor and you should treat them as such.
Devour Flesh can sometimes be an awkward removal spell since they have cards like Sin Collector, Soldier of Pantheon, and Precinct Captain. These creatures tend to be extremely low impact, but all do a great job at protecting Blood Baron of Vizkopa from being eaten alive. Lifebane Zombie comes in to save the day in these situations to be able to deal with their five-mana finishers.
That pretty much wraps up all the important matchups. I hope you guys enjoy playing with this deck, and I can't wait to see all of you at the StarCityGames.com Open Series featuring the Invitational this weekend. Come say hi, but at the very least... check out the sweet Standard deck that I'm playing.
Before I go, I just want to say how much I'm going to miss Gerry Thompson. If you haven't heard, Gerry is moving to Seattle to work for Wizards. I think this is going to be a great fit for him, and I wish all the best for him.
For me, however, it is really tough for me to say goodbye. I moved to Roanoke eighteen months ago to work side-by-side with him producing video content for StarCityGames. I never would have imagined what actually happened. Gerry quickly became one of my best friends and someone I deeply respect not only for his abilities at this game but for the person he is.
You may all know me as a deckbuilder now, but that was not a forte of mine before I moved here. I quickly became a student of his during our initial months working together, and I absorbed as much information as possible. I couldn't believe how good he was at designing and developing decks, so I decided to learn as much as I could. His wisdom has helped me blossom into a deck designer myself. He directly and indirectly has had a huge impact on my career in the last year, and I have him to thank for all of it. I found my footing in this game once again, and I have him alone to thank for bringing me back from the brink.
So Gerry, thank you for everything and I hope this isn't our final chapter. You just talk Wizards into producing GBTV, and I will buy the first one-way ticket to Washington!