The Invitational weekend has passed and I'm very confident in Standard going forward. My last few articles looked at Esper and U/W/R Control as the two front-runners for control mages to choose from, and for this last weekend I landed on U/W/R. Standard has solidified now into a healthy metagame containing a variety of Devotion decks, aggressive decks and control decks, as predicted. The one surprising aspect of Standard is the amount of Devotion and the success that it has achieved. My good pal BBD just took down Grand Prix Louisville with Mono Black Devotion and I couldn't be happier for him. He was joined by Todd Anderson and Brad Nelsoin in a wave of Mono Black Devotion sweeping over GP Louisville, and the deck also enjoyed prior success at Pro Tour Theros though it was overshadowed by Mono Blue Devotion initially. With continued success on its part, it's clear that we need a solid game-plan against this powerhouse.
The aggro decks are very similar in the way they operate, and this even includes Mono Blue Devotion, so the stock control builds of Esper and U/W/R already have the advantage. Cards like Supreme Verdict and the spot removal that supplements it gives us the power to dispatch any aggressive deck with decent draws and a little control ingenuity. Today, I'm going to address why Mono Black Devotion is so good against control decks, how we can beat it playing either Esper or U/W/R, and provide an updated decklist for U/W/R.
Fade to Black
After Pro Tour Theros, we all thought blue was going to run the show. This made me giddy in my articles, on air while commentating, and even at my local shop. The projected metagame gave control a window to shine without the need to change our strategy in the slightest. The removal, speed, card draw and win conditions were all very powerful against Mono Blue Devotion, and it seemed like it would be smooth sailing from here on out. Not so fast. Mono Black Devotion may be on the same theme somewhat, but is completely different as far as gameplay and execution are concerned. The blue deck is fast and needs critical mass to take down their opponent, but the black deck can just sit back, tear you hand apart and gradually nickel-and-dime an opponent to death. The black cards are inherently more effective against control, and it is time to examine that matchup and identify the problem cards we will be facing for many more tournaments to come.
The New Phyrexian Arena
Public enemy number one. This card is a nightmare for control players everywhere. We all took a sigh of relief when this card came out and was only a one- or two-of in Jund decks. Even after rotation, it appeared to not have a home and again we would dodge a bullet by avoiding the Phyrexian Arena remake.
Well, it's back and it's angry.
It's not a one- or two-of but a solid four-of in the maindeck. What kind of world is this?!? I didn't think I'd see the day where people are jamming four Phyrexian Arenas that take away a land in the maindeck! The card provides a constant source of card advantage at a minimal price. The loss of life may seem harsh when facing down Ash Zealot but not against Big Daddy Aetherling. The cards given to our opponent off of Underworld Connections provide them with tons of ammunition against us including haymaker gods and lifelinking whips to make things even more miserable. I've always said that an aggro deck without card advantage and/or planeswalkers is a cakewalk for a generic control deck, and that means this is no cakewalk. Underworld Connections is now the reality, and we control mages must adapt. For every problem there is a solution in the world of control, so let's look for it.
This is one of the harder cards to answer. Since it is only a three-mana spell it's easily snuck underneath countermagic and is a great topdeck after an early Thoughtseize. It's also not a card like Blood Baron of Vizkopa or a Whip of Erebos that you can easily ignore for a couple turns while looking for an answer. If an opponent draws a couple of cards off of Underworld Connections, it doesn't merely deal damage like a creature would if left in play, it does irreversible damage to your chances of victory. So what cards answer it with extreme prejudice?
The maindeck answer is Detention Sphere. Detention Sphere is that catch-all card that has to be played as a four-of in both Esper and U/W/R. It started out as one of those two-of's, then became a three-of and now it is a mandatory four-of if you want to succeed. It has been so effective against Mono Black Devotion that some brave magicians have added green to their Devotion deck to access both Abrupt Decay and Vraska the Unseen as answers to the enchantment hate that also line up well against those same opposing threats for the mirror match. Although the new Oblivion Ring is a great answer, we still need more.
In comes Pithing Needle from the sideboard to fight the enchantment menace! Pithing Needle is a card that I haven't really cared for historically, because I prefer to permanently remove things from the battlefield rather than keep them at bay. Leaving Underworld Connections out doesn't seem too painful... until they drop Gray Merchant of Asphodel and drain you for millions. This doesn't mean Pithing Needle isn't good against Underworld Connections or shouldn't be brought in, but it is easily worse than Detention Sphere. These are the emergency Spheres number five and six that can also randomly stop a Whip of Erebos or Erebos itself. The beauty of Detention Sphere and Pithing Needle is that Mono Black Devotion on its own can't deal with either of our answers, so the world becomes a safe place once again.
These black creatures pose quite a threat to the life total starting in the middle of the game and threatening until the end. Desecration Demon and Nightveil Specter were both bulk rares for the majority of old Standard, but both are now staple four-of's to arguably the most powerful deck in the format. Nightveil Specter provides a small card-drawing engine for your opponent and has the evasion factor that makes it that much more irritating. The real threat of the Specter is the use of our cards against us. It may seem insignificant when they are constantly hitting lands and playing them on their side of the battlefield, but all of that card advantage does add up. The less-obvious threat of leaving the creature out there doing its minor damage is the triple black mana cost. This is the same as the dangers of using Pithing Needle on an Underworld Connections and may come back to haunt you when they land a certain merchant on the battlefield.
Erebos, God of the Dead provides a different kind of threat to the board than most creatures. First off, it's not a creature at the beginning but can provides a source of cards if Underworld Connections isn't pulling enough weight or hasn't showed up yet. This takes a few more mana and life points, but those cards can be devastating to the overall control plan. The biggest threat of the black God is the clause that prevents life gain... don't be fooled!
Gray Merchant of Asphodel is a card I never thought I'd ever see in constructed play. The card is pretty good in Limited, and after being drained for billions by an opponent a few times I realized the power it had in constructed as well. The black devotion just keeps adding up against most decks, and sooner a later a pair of those fellas will take out any mage swiftly. The reason for adding this to one of the problems that must be addressed is because we have to treat the matchup like a red deck. You may stabilize at six life and be in full command of the game, but because of the drain threat you have to stay on your toes and try to raise that life total up in a hurry. Against a green devotion deck, you can get to one or two life and call it a day, but not here.
I played against Mono Black Devotion once during the Invitational and three times in the Standard Open the next day. After implementing a few different cards and strategies to maintain a high life total and deal with Underworld Connections, I escaped with a 4-0 record against it.
Luckily the inherent activity of a control deck is to remove things from the battlefield, so most of the time we aren't seeing one of those epic merchant drains that the devotion player tells all of his or her friends about. Constantly dealing with the threats out of Mono Black Devotion will lead you to victory, especially if you keep Underworld Connections and Erebos, God of the Dead under control. The creatures are easily the least-threatening cards from Devotion when compared to the spells that back them up. Using cards like Warleader's Helix on Mutavaults or Nightveil Specters regains tons of lost life and makes it that much harder to drain you to death. Esper has similar tools in the form of cheap removal but suffers from the lack of reach that Warleader's Helix gives U/W/R. Doom Blade is great for dealing with Mutavaults, and Ultimate Price is necessary for Desecration Demon. The reason I didn't mention Pack Rat, Mutavault or Desecration Demon in the problems category is because these are just run-of-the-mill threats that we have seen charging at the control camp for years. The demon is just a big doofus, Pack Rat can only get out of control if we have exhausted all other resources, and Mutavault is dangerous but by now manlands are not a surprise problem in the slightest.
The use of Supreme Verdict is one of the better tips I can offer you guys. In this matchup, don't expect to get three- or four-for-ones with a wrath of your choice. In this matchup, unless you are just down to zero resources you should use a Supreme Verdict for a lone Demon, Specter or Rat the turn you are able to. There's nothing worse than waiting and taking unnecessary damage and then falling to a Gray Merchant's drain that could have been planned for and avoided. U/W/R has so much lifegain due to Trading Post, Sphinx's Revelation and Warleader's Helix that you really just need a turn or two of no giant monsters in play to firmly take back the game.
Since lifegain is such an important aspect of the matchup, be sure save a Dissolve, Turn // Burn or Detention Sphere for Erebos, God of the Dead. It's one of the few creatures that can't be dealt via traditional measures, so we have to use one of our special answers in order to rid the board of it. This is one of the situations that I wouldn't trust a Pithing Needle to handle it because the inability to gain life while it's on the battlefield is the primary problem we face with the card.
When control was conceived (at least when I started playing) hand disruption was the heaviest weapon against it. There is nothing worse than having your hand torn apart by cheap disruption, and although I blame Wizards for a year of Rakdos's Return it could have been worse...
They could have reprinted Thoughtseize.
With virtually no drawback, the early hand disruption makes the matchup much more difficult than anyone could have anticipated. Having great cards against them is wonderful and all, but they do no good when put into the graveyard on turns one through three. Thoughtsieze gives Mono Black Devotion the ability to run a bunch of four-ofs and never have to alter their gameplan to address problems of their own, they just depend on sending those problems to the bin right off the bat. No use complaining about cards that are going to remain here for an extended time, so let's hit the tank and develop solutions.
There are very few outright solutions to Thoughtseize and Duress except for changing the way we play. I was all about three Jace, Architect of Thought until I actually played against a lot of Thoughtseizes, and now I officially mandate the use of the full set. You can't run just one- or two-of's completely against these decks and expect consistent results unless you happen to dodge the bullets and draw what you need at the right times. Many Esper decks have upped their Sphinx's Revelation count to four, and I think that is totally acceptable. For this reason I think you also have to run 27 lands to accommodate the expensive end-of-turn Instant. These modifications are for a world of hand disruption that probably should have never been brought back. I don't recommend boarding anything in or changing the maindeck to beat Thoughtseize. I think the best way to defeat an avalanche of hand disruption is simply building for consistency up front, and so far it has been working. To really put the pressure on Mono Black Devotion, each color needs a haymaker and U/W/R stands as king of the hill on that front.
The Best Card Against Mono-Black Devotion
There is simply nothing better than Assemble the Legion against the deck. In my first article before the set came out, when I brewed this U/W/R control deck I mentioned that the answers for this card were far and few between and that still holds true. Not only did The Legion devastate all four of my Mono Black Devotion opponents, it also dispatched all control and midrange enemies easily. It is the future card of Standard while Mono Black Devotion is popular, and you may have noticed the Invitational champion Brad Nelson rocking some in his Naya Control deck as well. Before the tournament Brad was joking around about a card he just destroys black devotion with, and after he finished I mentioned that Assemble the Legion is my weapon of choice. He laughed and wondered how I knew the card in his seventy-five that he has had success with and it seems that this card is not just for the blue mages to abuse anymore.
The reason why Assemble the Legion is so good is due to being an enchantment. Black cannot remove it, and if they are unable to peel it out of your hand prior to the turn it comes down it becomes very difficult for them to win. The endless supply of tokens completely stops their Erebos, Mutavaults, Desecration Demons and Gray Merchants with ease. While you start by being on the defensive, it is only a matter of time until the legion grows and you turn the table on them, sending the team into the red zone with a critical mass of soldiers. The card is just an all-around fantastic card that I have praised since the beginning of new Standard. The reason why the Esper haymaker against black devotion is weaker is because it's simply a creature.
Blood Baron of Vizkopa is a great card against Mono Black Devotion that used the same curve slot as the U/W/R equivalent in Assemble the Legion. Because Blood Baron is a creature with protection from black, they have a few answers to this haymaker. That being said, I have resolved Blood Baron against Mono Black Devotion and lost because of being outraced, out-drained, Erebos preventing critical lifegain or just a Devour Flesh dropping that they have been holding since their opening hand lacking any other targets. For these reasons, I believe Assemble the Legion will be more of a match breaker than Blood Baron of Vizkopa.
I hope that this helps you develop a strategy against Mono Black Devotion using Esper, U/W/R or even your own control brew. Mono Black Devotion is a beatable deck for control, and even though we live in a world where it is OK to run four Thoughtseize and four Underworld Connections main, we can still develop a plan and decklist to take down the menace. For additional insight on U/W/R, you can view my deck tech from the Invitational below. The decklist from that video is incorrect because the mana base was set up for Anger of the Gods and I happened to cut the card prior to the tournament without changing the mana. That mistake led me to fumble on mana throughout the main event, but once that was fixed it was a near Top Eight for me the next day. The other notable changes are the dropping of Ratchet Bomb and a bunch of one-of's in order to build consistency and fight the Thoughtseize menace. Good luck friends and I'll see you in a couple weeks!